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Biggest business trends in 2013 - part two

By Steven Strauss

Last week, I began my annual look at the Top Trends in Small Business. This week we get to the Top 5 and what is interesting about the overall list is that it is dominated by changes to the way we work, mostly due to technology, but additionally, because of shifting attitudes and values.

Which brings us to No. 5:

5. The rise of the solopreneur: I thought I was probably onto something last year when I launched my new venture TheSelfEmployed, but little did I realize that the rise of the self-employed army would turn out to be a trend that is actually altering work itself. Whether it is Fortune Magazine stating “Welcome to the age of the freelancer,” small business expert Barry Moltz stating that “Micro startups are everywhere,” or columnist Jan Norman noting that “almost 17 million Americans are now solopreneurs, 900,000 more than in 2011” there is no mistaking that there is a new class of independent, creative, take-charge small business solo entrepreneurs on the rise.

4. You are headed to the clouds: The next three trends can all be lumped together under the title “The changing nature of work.” Here, what we see is that cloud computing is no longer a stranger to small business. Indeed, a Dell survey not long ago found that 69% of small businesses preferred to purchase software and applications as an Internet service – in the cloud – rather than as an off the shelf product. That same poll stated that those surveyed planned on adding three additional cloud-based services as the year progressed.

Cloud computing, Software as a Service, call it what you will, is proving to be a cheaper and easier way to do business and as such, is the new way that business will continue to get done.

3. Say hello to my little friend: That we are living in the time of mobile work is no surprise, but beyond that, we are quickly leaving even the laptop in the dust. Forrester Research states that 55% of businesses consider smartphone support a “high or critical priority.” And more than half of those same companies indicated they also now need to support tablets.

The challenge for the small business is that we normally rely on what is known as BYOD – Bring your Own Devise. While a smart choice and certainly a less expensive option than buying everyone a smartphone or tablet, it comes with security risks. When people are tapping into your system from anywhere on any devise, security breaches are far more possible.

This in turn means that your security systems and software must be top-notch. As one online security expert put it, it is not a matter of if you will be hacked, but when and how bad.

2. Virtual is the new physical: According to a piece in Entrepreneur Magazine, if you are looking for the workplace of the future, you are not going to find it. “”Who says there’ll be an office at all?” asks Tom Austin, vice president at Gartner, a Stamford, Conn.-based technology research firm. “Already we work from Starbucks, in the car and at our kids' softball games.””

The article then goes on to profile a company called Floor64. “The media and consulting company maintains a brick-and-mortar space in Sunnyvale, Calif., but also runs a bunch of Skype-powered chat rooms for remote workers--many of which are buzzing for most of the day. “These [chat rooms], more than anything else, represent our 'office,'” says CEO Mike Masnick, “and they don't exist in physical space.””

And what is fueling this radical shift from the physical to the virtual are all of the trends that make up this column: Cloud computing, powerful mobile devices, technology, new places to work, etc.

1. Happy days are here again: For the past few years, the dour economic news permeated my annual trends column. In 2013, happily, the opposite is true. Not only is there scant bad news to be found above, but

Benefits Law Update

Michigan Enacts Health Care Claims Tax
Article provided by Clark Hill PLC

On September 20, 2011, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed into law the Health Insurance Claims Assessment (HICA) Act, which establishes a 1% tax on certain paid health care claims beginning January 1, 2012.  The HICA Act replaces the current 6% Use Tax on Medicaid managed care organizations.  The Michigan Legislature enacted the HICA Act based on anticipated action by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid offices prohibiting the Use Tax as a means of generating State revenue to be used as a match for federal Medicaid funds.

Who Pays the Tax?

Insurers and third-party claims administrators for self-funded plans will be directly responsible for payment of the tax.  Employers/plan sponsors, however, should be aware that the HICA Act will likely cause an increase in the cost of coverage as it is anticipated that insurers and third party administrators will pass the cost onto the plan sponsor.

What "Paid Claims" Does the Tax Cover?

The HICA Act defines "paid claims" as actual payments made to a health and medical services provider or reimbursed to an individual by a carrier (including an insurer, HMO or group health plan sponsor), third party administrator, or excess loss or stop loss carrier.  Paid claims include the following:

  • Payments under a service contract for administrative services;
  • Cost-plus or noninsured benefit plan arrangements;
  • Payments for health and medical services provided under a group health plan;
  • Claims for services in Michigan by a pharmacy benefits manager;
  • Individual, nongroup, and group insurance coverage for Michigan residents in Michigan that affect the rights of an insured in Michigan and bear a reasonable relation to Michigan, regardless of whether the coverage is delivered, renewed, or issued for delivery in Michigan.

Certain categories of payme

Lansing’s Old Town Commercial Association: Working with SBAM to Focus the Power of Small Business

In November of 2008, the Small Business Association of Michigan launched a new initiative to actively seek out regional and statewide business organizations who shared our vision in moving toward an entrepreneurial economy. Lansing’s Old Town Commercial Association was one of the first to see value in partnering with SBAM. We sat down with OTCA’s Executive Director, Brittney Hoszkiw, to talk about our partnership.

Old Town Commercial Association

Businesses that join the Old Town Commercial Association have a passion for and are committed to preserving Lansing’s only historical commercial district and influencing economic development. With a mutual goal of developing a more vibrant community, the actions of Old Town Commercial Association’s 100+ members are bringing real results.
“Members of the Old Town Commercial Association are automatically members of the Small Business Association of Michigan,” shared Hoszkiw. “Together, we work for the betterment of the Old Town neighborhood – and that’s made possible by these types of partnerships.” Focus had the opportunity to talk with Hoszkiw about Old Town’s partnership with SBAM:

Focus: What is the value of SBAM to Old Town?

Hoszkiw: For us, the different benefits that SBAM offers are often times thought to be available only through larger organizations. When our members, 50 percent of whom have one to three employees, realize what they have access to through their Old Town membership and consequently a membership in SBAM, they are thrilled. This partnership is a good example of a value-add situation where you’re providing extremely small businesses the tools to be successful. When working with a staff of one to two people, that value is exponential.

Focus: Why are partnerships important?

Hoszkiw: To improve Old Town and the Lansing region as whole, we need to look at partnering with other organizations and find ways to achieve the mutual goal of a more vibrant entrepreneurial community. Our partnership with SBAM, for example, has allowed us to work toward that goal by giving a small organization like ours the tools needed to strengthen our member businesses.

Learn more about the Old Town Commercial Association at www.iloveoldtown.org. For more information on SBAM’s strategic partnerships, contact Pierre LaVoie at pierre.lavoie@sbam.org.

Balancing Life and Social Media Usage

By Nipa Shah, president of Online Marketing Simplified. From SBAM’s member-only Focus on Small Business magazine.

As if it wasn’t difficult enough to balance work-life and family, now we have to balance work-life, family, and social networking. We are constantly “twitching” to share where we are, what we are doing, what we plan to do, etc. to our network.

But all this sharing is creating havoc in many lives. People are getting fired for posting inappropriate information. We hear of robberies stemming from status updates announcing vacation plans. And although reports about Facebook causing divorces and death announcements made online through Twitter may be laughable to some of us, the reality is that this is the world we live in today.

As business owners, we find ourselves in even more of a quandary. Do we focus on growing the business or do we spend time online, building larger networks to grow our visibility and branding?

Well, ideally, businesses should rely on marketing professionals to manage their social properties so that it can be done right and done in a comprehensive manner to generate the desired results. However, as a business owner, if you are in a chicken or an egg situation of whether to invest the money or the time doing it yourself, here are some baby steps to help you get started:

  • Create your personalized profile on no more than two or three social networks. I recommend two. You can choose from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Youtube.
  • Download Twitter and Facebook on your smart-phone (I assume you have a smart-phone. If not, get one pronto).
  • Until you get into the habit of it, put down a recurring event on your calendar to post at least once or twice a day on Twitter and Facebook.
  • Make your posts count. It’s okay to announce, “I’m at Starbucks” of course. But what’s the value of it? Why not post “Going to Starbucks to meet a prospective client” or “Getting coffee to wake me up before I get to work, anyone else feel like I do” is so much more interactive and enables engagement from others.
  • Create Google alerts for news items that are interesting and relevant to your business. Post those with a comment and you benefit by sharing ready-to-use content with others.
  • If sharing photos and videos, use the many tools that are available to do this sharing across multiple platforms through one single post.
  • Stay connected regularly through smartphones to maintain the momentum.
Out of sight is out of mind when it comes to online marketing. Social networking is here to stay. Sooner or later, you’ll have to get familiar and engaged online. But it doesn’t have to be at the expense of family and business. Leverage smart-phones, apps, and other tools to remain connected without sacrificing too much of your family or business time.

Innovation – Better is Always New; New Isn’t Always Better

New? You bet! Who (except marketing gurus and analytical chemists) would think changing Coke’s hundred-year formula for success would be sound strategy? And then give the new product the flagship brand name? New Coke? Was old Coke bad?

Was New Coke better? The market passed a harsh verdict on that.

Why did this “innovation” happen? Did the Coke brand people forget their product had a very loyal following -- more than caramel colored water with fizz? Certainly they thought Pepsi was just fizz water. Did they never eat in a restaurant that only served Pepsi products?

(Next time you’re in a Pepsi-only restaurant, ask for Coke and check the response: “Is Pepsi OK?” It immediately says we’re second best. Is it OK? IS IT OK?!?)

Any brand with an “is this OK?“ competitor should be working on so many other things than copying that competitor’s formula.

OK, we learn from mistakes and Coke has done a lot of things right – other flavors (cherry, vanilla, diet versions of each), juices and bottled water (natural and with additives). They defined themselves not as a cola company, but a beverage company – a broader mission that encourages product innovation.

Speaking of bottled water (which some call “dead” water because it has no trace nutrients like tap water), how did it become so successful? My grandmother would hoot at the idea of paying $8 a gallon for water ($1 for 16 oz.) when it’s free at any drinking fountain. (Gasoline’s “only” around $4 a gallon.) This IS innovative thinking.

It’s not the product; it’s the convenience. It meets a customer’s needs. Buy a bottle and take it with you. Sip it in class, on a bus, while you drive, in a meeting. Hydration is important to health, right? Bottled water makes hydration convenient.

As a small business person you have a need to define your business in the broadest benefit terms possible, and make sure you look at the non-tangible aspects of your product (package, delivery, timing, everything you can’t touch).

You may not have a separate marketing team and an engineering staff devoted to new product development – and that may be a plus as well as a minus. But you do have customers more than happy to tell you what they’d like to see added to (or subtracted from) your product. The good customers will tell you directly if you ask.

I once presented a pretty solid marketing plan (I thought) to a very honest client and then expectantly asked his reaction. “It’s a pretty good plan, but you didn’t put a bow on it,” took a lot of air out of my balloon. Then I realized he wanted my plan to look like I was proud of the work, that I cared enough to polish the format. The hurt changed to appreciation and a change in the way we presented future plans.

A word of caution in researching customers; don’t just say, “What do you want?” Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Ask them what problems they face in your area of their operation. What takes too much time or materials? What’s unused? What would they like the product to do that it doesn’t? What does it do now that it shouldn’t?

Look especially closely at the intangibles you provide that may not be appreciated – particularly the “everybody does that” feature. If none of your competitors offers or is highlighting it, then promoting that feature first makes you “the inventor.”

Back when beer first began to be delivered in bottles, Schlitz had the foresight to claim their bottles were cleaned with “live steam.” (Is there “dead steam”? Hot water?) The brewers said “everybody does that,” but the marketers recognized it as a “secret” and one that would overcome the public’s fear of getting beer in a dirty bottle. “Live steam” earned Schlitz a market share second only to Budweiser for years, because other brand
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