How Can You tell If Your Bank Is Small Business Friendly?

I find it funny that some business owners may spend more time shopping for a $300 laser printer than they would shopping for a bank. Choosing a bank for your small business should involve more than just opening a new account at your personal bank or picking the nearest branch. You need to understand what services you require, how much they are going to cost you, and how open the bank is to working with small businesses.

Small Business Friendly Banks Actively Make Small Business Loans

handshakeOne sign that a branch is committed to small businesses is its history of lending money to business owners in the community. If you want to know how your local bank stacks up in the small business lending department, you should definitely check out this handy bank lending grader tool. The tool rates 6,800 banks in the United States based on quarterly FDIC call reports, as well as the total small-business loan balance for each bank divided by its total domestic deposits, and then assigns each bank a grade A through F. To get a good rating (A or B), the bank would need to use at least 10% or more of their deposits to make small business loans. The only thing to keep in mind is that this tool does not offer any insight into how much a bank gives back to a particular local community.

Other Ways to Rate Your Local Bank

What is the bank’s lending authority? What’s the largest loan he or she can approve without checking with higher ups? Relationship managers at community-based banks often have more discretion than those at a unit of a big institution. But, the distinctions between “large” and “small” banks have blurred with the industry’s consolidation. Many community banks have undergone mergers that now allow them to offer a wider range of services.

What is the bank’s underwriting criteria? Smaller, regionally focused banks tend to understand local market conditions more than big national banking institutions. Small, local banks often provide more one-on-one access to a loan officer and put more emphasis on a borrower’s character rather than just applying a credit-score model.

Does the bank make SBA loans or is it a non-SBA lender? Does the bank work with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) loan system? Federally subsidized loans help protect the bank against default, which makes it easier for banks to lend money- that is, once they get through all the paperwork! SBA loans are available to businesses whose credit histories, cash flows or collateral would be inadequate for them to obtain traditional bank loans, and the SBA typically offers more flexible repayment terms. For a list of SBA preferred lenders near you, you can search their online directory.

What business services does the bank offer? Here is where larger banks may have a leg up on smaller institutions. Ideally, you need to think about the long-term relationship. Consider not just what you need today, but services you may require in 18 to 24 months out. See if your local branch offers added benefits such as online services that help save time and money. These may include sending invoices, collecting payments, payroll and loan applications. Some banks may have requirements in place in order to access these services, such as requiring employees to use direct deposit.

In short, the search for the right business banking services should not be approached in the same way you would a typical supply or product purchase. This is all about finding the institution that is willing to build a relationship with you and your business. That’s a real value that can be leveraged in good times and in bad.

Small Business Dress Code – The Whats, Whys and Hows

Summer-time tends to bring many things, among them: new office dress codes.  What’s the connection?  When employees start wearing flip flops and tank tops into the office, many employers decide that it is time to clarify just what is meant by “casual” attire.  The reasons to clarify a dress code are many, including: legal accountability, aesthetics for customers, distractions for employees, and simply maintaining a positive workplace environment.  A positive workplace environment is best maintained if you make a dress code and publicize it, so that no one employee feels singled out.

Many businesses have different dress codes for different types of employees.  There will be different expectations  for client/customer facing employees vs those that customers don’t interface with face-to-face.  Also, those working in “blue collar” hands on work will need to wear clothes appropriate for their work, including any safety requirements.

Shoes and Legal Issues.   Remember, even a receptionist who has a ream of paper fall on her toes can sue you for not telling her to wear closed toed shoes.  All the more so, those involved with heavier and more regular lifting (warehouse workers) should be required to wear steel toed shoes/boots.

Race Sensitivity.  Many business include in their dress code rules regarding small braids in the hair, such as “cornrows”.  Be aware that African-American employees may find this rule offensive and racist.  Professionally braided hair is neat and attractive.  On the other hand, people who do not use a professional to braid their hair, or who have thinner hair, can look much less professional in braids.  These employees might cry “foul” if others are allowed braids and they are not.  I recommend thinking carefully, and perhaps consulting a lawyer, before saying “no” to braids in your dress code.

Aesthetics/Business Image/Positive Working Environment.  Legal issues aside, most small business owners who institute a dress code do it for reasons of aesthetics, creating the proper business image, or as an attempt to create a more positive and productive work environment.

DRESS CODE CATEGORIES

  • The bare bones dress code usually requires closed-toed shoes and bans cut offs, shorts and skirts shorter than mid-thigh, tank tops and halter tops.  Sleeveless shirts which are not tank tops are usually accepted.  T-shirts are OK, but only if they don’t have anything offensive written on them.
  • The business casual dress code generally does without shorts all together, and bans T-shirts all together.  Polo-shirts and button down shirts are acceptable for men, and blouses or polo-shirts are acceptable for women.  Many companies will specify “no facial jewelry”, and no visible tattoos.  This is the most popular dress code for most businesses today.
  • Business Professional is another step up.  It requires slacks and ties for men, often a jacket as well.  For women, it is more vague, but professional attire includes pantsuits, blouses with tailored skirts or something of a similar caliber.  This dress code is usually referred for client facing professional, or others who are representing the business to the outside world.
  • Uniforms are another option for dealing with the dress code issue.  Many businesses as varied as restaurants, medical offices, retail stores and machine shops, use uniform to help make staff readily identifiable, professional and fit in with the company image.  Many uniforms are simply a polo shirt with the company logo, or a vest or jacket which can be put over regular clothes.  With this option, many businesses will request that employees wear a particular style/color of pants as well.

HOW TO CREATE, IMPLEMENT AND ENFORCE A DRESS CODE

  1. Think for a while about your goals in creating the dress code, and your vision for what your work force will look like.  Weigh in how they will feel about various points and how it might effect their morale.  Think about what image you want to present to your customers and what role your employees’ dress plays  in that image.  These musings should lead you to a general category of dress code (see above for categories).
  2. Research the legal issues.  I just touched on a few issues here – more are discussed in this great article on the legalities of various dress code requirements.  However, legislation does change, and it is best to check with a lawyer who specializes in human resources before finalizing your dress code.  The information here is a great guide for getting started.
  3. The next step is to publicize the dress code through internal memos, an employee handbook and email.  It is best to have a signed dress code on file, in case an issue arises.  Also, make sure that you mention the dress code when interviewing new candidates.
  4. Enforcing the dress code is even more important than having one.  This is because an unevenly enforced dress code can cause resentment amongst employees, and can even be cause for a legal complaint.  Make sure that it is written in the dress code itself the consequences of not meeting the dress code (warnings, sent home as a non-paid day, etc).  However, remember that some individuals require special accommodations due to religious, medical or other reasons.  Be fair and reasonable, but don’t ignore those who are not complying and have no excuse.  Point out why they don’t comply, what they need to do to fix it, and what will happen if it happens again.

Brighten Your Cubicle with Funny Office Toys

Another boring day at the office? Is tension at work running high? Are you tired of staring at the same four walls of your cubicle? If so, check out these wacky gadgets to lighten and brighten your office.

“Basically Nabaztag/tag is a desktop companion that utilises Wi-Fi technology to fetch information from the Internet and convey it in various charming ways. Confused? You won’t be, because you’ll soon be relying on this cute little critter to tell you the time, wake you up, read the news, read you messages from friends, check the stock market and give you tomorrow’s weather forecast today. Nabaztag/tag can even communicate with fellow bunnies and get married.”

  • Funky Key Caps. Lighten up your keybaord by adding a panic button and other amusing keys.

“Tickle your funny bone with Computer Keys Set — hilarious novelty computer keys stuck to your computer or anywhere else you need a byte of humor! Each has a double-sided tape base so it sticks to any surface. Sold as a colorful set of 8 — assorted sentiments: Panic Key, Any Key, Beer Key, duh Key, $ Key, Oops Key, Eject and Smiley emoticon face Key.”

“Soft, pliable foam shaped like a baguette cushions your wrist and makes working at your computer more comfortable—and fun. Lunch, anyone?”

No need for a boring desk set. Here you have a Gumby-style Elvis holding your tape, Dimitri the weightlifter holding your CDs, and Dionis, your scissors. These fun characters make your desk a far more interesting place to pass the hours at work.

“Holds Business Cards & Tells Time! Desk-top conversation starter is a scaled down replica of an office filing cabinet! Complete with LCD clock/calendar and A-Z index cards (included) to organize over 800 business cards in two drawers.”

  • The Lock Cup. Prevent your co-workers from using your coffee mug. The cup comes with an open hole that can only be closed with the owner’s key. This neat invention hasn’t actually been manufactured yet, but it is a great concept!

“A cup that is designed for people who share workplace facilities such as a kitchen. The cup has a hole which prevents people from using it. Only the owner of the cup can use his shaped key to close the hole, our the coffee and enjoy the drink.”

“…we brought forth this three stage system to help protect everything in your cubicle – and beyond. Each unit has an ever-watchful motion sensor. The first line of defense is lovingly referred to as Alarm 1. When Alarm 1 is tripped two very important things happen. First, it flashes and klaxons to signal an intrusion. But (and this is the kicker) it also arms Alarms 2 and 3 using invisible wireless signals. Alarm 2 also has an audible alarm, but it is louder than Alarm 1. It also will spot the varmint with a red light beam. Alarm 3 is the coolest; when it is tripped two safe (but surprising) missiles will be launched at the now-fleeing interloper. You valuables will be safe, your cubicle will be secure, and your foe will be embarrassed enough to leave your stapler alone for good.”

“The victim will pick up the pen, and, without even a nub of conscious motion, their thumb will immediately migrate to depress the top of the pen in hopes of discovering a fine new writing instrument. Instead, as they depress, they will complete a circuit that creates a small magnetic field, which then simulates an alternating current and provides relatively high voltage to the depression point on the thumb. It all happens in a split second, as will the screech and instant profanity, but the office memories will last a lifetime…”

  • Dilbert Cubicle Periscope. Let Dilbert keep an eye on your co-workers for you, while you sit in the comfort of your own cubicle.

“…Dilbert Cubicle Periscope will allow you to spy on coworkers from the safety of your cubicle walls. Comes as a simple tape assembly easy to construct. Even Dilbert’s co-workers could accomplish it–after three meetings.”

“Why would anyone possibly want a doorbell on their cubicle? Typically, visitors knock loudly on the cubicle partion, shuffle/stamp their feet, or clear their throat repeatedly to get your attention. The Cubicle Doorbell provides a fun way for visitors to announce their arrival…. The unique 3-position volume selector lets you set the loudness for your particular environment. Normal (for environments with average background noises); Soft (for less active environments); Personal (extra soft for very quiet environments).”

Have any of these? Let me know if you like them. Have some other cool toy you want to tell me about? Send me a link.

Beat Your Debt Stress – Keep Your Health

Americans today are shouldering an enormous economic burden, and it might not just be having effects on our pocketbooks.  Research shows it could be effecting our health as well.

A slowing economy, rising energy and food prices, and a slump in the housing market combined with a flurry of home foreclosures and the ever-present pressure to “keep up with the Jones” are all contributing to the increase in the number of Americans falling further and further into debt. To make matters worse, according to a recent Associated Press-AOL Health poll, those who are struggling with debt are likely to report a wide range of health problems from migraine headaches to severe depression.

Of the survey respondents who experienced high levels of debt stress:

  • 27 percent had ulcers or digestive tract problems
  • 44 percent had migraines or other headaches
  • 29 percent suffered severe anxiety
  • 23 percent had severe depression
  • 6 percent reported heart attacks, double the rate for those with low debt stress.
  • 51 percent, had muscle tension, including pain in the lower back.

Knowing how to effectively cope with debt stress will not only help you to regain a sense of balance and well being, but can give you the emotional boost you need to get back on your feet again.

Here are four key parts to managing your debt stress:

1. Watch Your Attitude.

In every place where stress management is discussed you will hear about the benefits of having a positive attitude. After all, a person who lacks self-acceptance and positivity will not be so motivated to seek help. But for some people, or for those in particularly difficult life situations, it may be very hard to “just be positive.” If you are having difficulty maintaining a healthy attitude about yourself or your situation, look for outside sources of inspiration.  It can help a lot to surround yourself with positive people; reading inspirational stories can also be helpful.

2. Seek Out a Support System.

Even with the best attitude, it is important to have people around you such as friends, family, church members, and/or support groups.  A support system offers encouragement and assistance. Depending on how badly you are struggling, counseling may also be appropriate.  Unfortunately, it is also expensive – making it a potentially stressful option for someone who is in a financial struggle.  On the other hand, nothing is more valuable than your health.

3. Live Healthy.

It goes without saying that your psychological/emotional health is directly connected to your physical health (that’s the point of the survey). Remember, though, that the connection works both ways: by taking care of your body you can affect how you feel.

  • Exercise. Focus on activities that will get you out of the house, such as walking or riding a bike. The fresh air and sun can do wonders.
  • Eat well.  Even if you are not in the habit of eating healthy or don’t have much of an appetite (which is normal if you are stressed), at least make sure to eat two to three times a day (especially in the morning).
  • Go to all your check-ups.  A basic part of living healthy is going to “health visits” to the doctor.  These are the checkups you go to when you are perfectly healthy.  When you see your doctor on a “health visit” they can check your general health much more effectively than if you see them only when you have the flu.  They can order any appropriate tests and give you preventative care to prevent you from developing serious disease.
  • Look into alternatives.  Finally, you can research natural or holistic remedies that help with relaxation and help with creating calm and balance.

4. Make a Plan of Action.

The above tips are all important, but they are mostly symptom-focused.  The “cut it at the root” essential aspect to managing your debt stress is to improve your financial situation.  Meeting with an experienced debt counselor, consolidating your debts, and creating a budget will give you peace of mind and help to restore a sense of control.  Eventually, these steps can lead to a life absent of debt stress, due to a lack of debt.

By actively dealing with any stress that your debts are causing, you can keep your health and increase your chances of being on top of your finances once again.

Businesswoman of the Month: Ellen Rohr

Yes, I know, we have never had a “Business Woman of the Month”, but i was so impressed by Ellen’s work (and personality) that I decided that maybe we should start one.

Ellen RohrI recently ran across Ellen Rohr’s “Bare Bones” Business site. As I was looking around, I was really impressed by the number of top quality of resources she puts out for small business owners. Plus, it’s fun! Once you see her videos, you’ll quickly get a sense of her high energy, quirky personality, her sharp mind, and her sincere desire to help other small business owners.  Ellen also runs a great blog and brings great guests to her site to share their thoughts as well.

Who is this lady? The short story is that she was able to turn her family business around after almost sinking it! After she sold it for a pretty penny, she ‘retired’ to a country farm and decided to share what she had learned with others. For 13 years she has been doing just that through Bare Bones Biz, a training and consulting company.

Whether training for a marathon, training other small business owners, or just setting the pace for them to succeed, Ellen puts her heart in everything she does.

What does she do? Here is what she says about it:

“I teach the basics, the simple disciplines that can take your company from flab to fit. I’ve written three books on business basics, Where Did the Money Go? – Accounting Basics for the Business Owner Who Hates Numbers, and How Much Should I Charge? – Pricing Basics for Making Money Doing What You Love and The Bare Bones Biz Plan – a simple Plan for creating a winning business.”

In addition to her books, her training program and her business plan software, Ellen offers a bunch of free resources to help out with your business.  Webinars, podcasts, blog posts: you name it, she’s got it.

Recent Webinars include:

  • Crafting a Winning Business – How to Create a Bare Bones Biz Plan
  • How to Sell to SELLfish pPeople.
  • How to Seek and Eliminate NEGATIVITY in your Company!

Recent Podcasts series include useful topics such as:

  • Setting Sight
  • Building the Team
  • Making Money
  • Getting it Sold

I’m so glad I got to find out about this awesome woman, and share some of the great stuff that she’s doing with my readers..

Top Freeware and Software for Salons

Because so many small businesses out there are salons (hair salons, nail salons, massage parlors, tanning salons, etc) I decided to compile a list of software for salons. Prices range from free, to $1600. Check out the options. If there is a program you like to use that I missed, please let me know under comments and I’ll check it out. Keep in mind that this list is geared towards small businesses, other larger businesses might benefit more from enterprise scheduling software solutions.

30-day free trial, $39.95 to buy.

“Salon Calendar is a modern and easy to use software tool for schedule management in companies or for individual use. It offers a number of features for organizing efficient and handy working schedule for masters in hair salons, beauty, manicure or aesthetic shops, tanning salons, fitness studios, wedding salons, fashion shops, beauty centers, plastic, and cosmetic surgery clinics.”

30 day free trial 99.95 one time fee to buy

“This salon software management program includes an appointment book with drag and drop capability, overwrite protection and a free text feature. There are also inventory, services, and SMS text messaging so you can send an email to a customers cell phone from within the program, payroll, POS with split tendered and split tickets, reports, Gift log, Gift cards, Credit cards, Debit card , Automated Reminders.”

Free trial is for unlimited time, but only lets you input 10 clients. It also includes 30 days of free online appointment booking. They also offer an assortment of hardware solutions and other services such as credit card processing. The “standard” package runs $699 and there are other options including a LAN package at $1599.

“This salon and spa software is a complete salon and spa software package for your salon or spa that is powerful, yet simple-to-use or your money back. Salon Iris salon and spa software tracks clients, inventory, employees, appointments, payroll, networking, and much more. Salon Iris salon and spa software works with cash drawers, bar code scanners, receipt printers, and other hardware, including touch screens.

Free. This is just a fun tool, it is not scheduling/POS.

“With this entertaining and creative software, you can design your own fashion look for Men. This make-over tool for men is loaded with features designed to assist in the creation of a handsome new look. You can experiment with hair styles like Blunt Bob, Casual, Soft Dimensional, Razor cut, Short Topper, Traditional, Twisted Quiff, Wavy Layer and more.”

Free.

“NailSoft v1.5 is a Nail and Hair Salon management system. It is used to do daily customers in and out activities. It is user friendly by windows graphical conduction. A password is used to access important information like employee’s data and your own salon pricing list. Also, you can tell exactly when was the last time the client came in for service, and what he/she had and who served him/her.”

Who Finances the Financier?

We all know that it is hard for small businesses to get financing these days from banks – it was never a piece of cake, and now that the credit crunch is on for so long we see it has gotten ridiculous.  But… did you ever wonder what a bank does when it needs financing?  Yes, banks need money too!  In fact, banks don’t just give you a hard time when you want a loan because they are unsure if you’ll default — they sometimes just don’t have the money.

Lenders, especially small ones, struggle regularly to find investors.  This is in part because of federal regulations placing restrictions and rules on investors who invest in a lending institution.  Basically, if a private equity fund (or other investment entity) owns 9.9% or more of a bank, then they are required to do special reporting and subject itself to regulatory scrutiny.  Beyond that annoyance, in order to own more than 24.9% of a bank, an entity has to register as a “bank holding company” and must be a “source of strength” for the lending institution.

To say the least, these can be big deterrents to investors considering investing heavily in a bank — when combined with the uncertainty about the future of lending, this makes for a shaky proposition for a bank in search of cash.  If the bank doesn’t have cash, it can’t lend you or your business any either!

It was recently reported in the Wall Street Journal that officials from the Fed have been meeting with various buyout firms to brainstorm issues and solutions which they face when considering investing in a bank.  If they succeed in finding a way to reinterpret /re-legislate the current laws, then more private equity firms may be able to invest in banks.  The real question is: given the current lending crisis, will any one will want to invest, even if the red tape is cut?

If you don’t want to wait to find out and you need cash for your business today, then check out alternative financing options like credit card factoring and business cash advance.

How to Define Your Personal Values, Vision and Goals

Every successful company has a list of values, vision and goals — although some “mean” them more than others. What I mean, is that sometimes they are empty phrases so that they have an answer if someone asks, “What are your company values?” Other companies, really try to integrate their values, make decisions with their vision in mind, and set goals which will help them in their vision. If these 3 definitions are important for a company, then they are crucial for an individual. Without values, vision and goals, individuals float around life with out anything _real_ to base their decisions on, and without working towards anything in particular.

1) Discover Your Values

A good first step in uncovering values, is the “eulogy” exercise. Sleep on it, and then don’t spend more than three minutes jotting down a eulogy that you hope is said one day (many years from now) at your funeral. Who would say it? What do you hope they would say about you? Now, go back and read it and see what the central themes are. It is likely that these are your values.

2) Pare them Down to Core Values

Most people can come up with a ton of things that they value, but it is impossible to focus on all of them at once. Pick about three core values which are most important to you and non-negotiable.

3) Integrate your Values into your Vision

There are two elements of a vision: envisioned future and core ideology. The latter outlines your core value and what you see as the primary purpose of your existence. The envisioned future has a 10-30 year goal with a vivid description which describes what achieving that goal will be like.

Your vision should deal with your place in the world and the effects from your actions. It should take your values and place them into context of what you want to do with them, where you want to be in life, and how you want to effect those around you.

4) Defining your Goals

Goals should be attainable and in line with your vision and values. It is good to have staggered goals — some which are easier to attain in a short amount of time, and other bigger, more challenging ones which are in the distance.

5) Checking-In

As you progress through life, you may find that your values change – as you attain goals, you will have new ones. Sometimes you will lose track of your values, vision and goals. In any of these cases, a regular “check-in” will be helpful. Ask yourself questions such as: Have I been living according to these values and this vision? and Am I making progress towards my goals. If the answer is no, then either you have been lazy, or else you might need to reexamine the values, vision and goals that you have set.