7 Unique CrowdFunding Sites You Don’t Know About

Ever since the concept of crowdfunding began to gain momentum three years ago, there has been no shortage of crowdfunding platforms matching individual investors with those looking to raise money for their projects and causes. But, a few of these solutions have got some pretty creative and promising angles, and they pose a serious threat to the traditional, institutional methods of raising money. Here are a few unique crowd funding platforms you may not know about, but should definitely keep your eye on:

hands-587214-m1. SoFi

SoFi (short for Social Financing) is a platform that helps students refinance their loans in order to save them money. According to their website, they can help students achieve an average savings of $9,400 over the lifetime of the typical loan. But, that’s not all that SoFi offers. Student borrowers can access other benefits, such as entrepreneurship support, career coaching and unemployment protection. This platform is only designed for accredited investors, but all borrowers can apply.

2. Crowd Settlements 

Crowd Settlements is a nontraditional, asset-based marketplace that allows holders of legal settlements, such as lottery winnings, tax liens, and annuities, to access their money in a lump sum instead of waiting for the future payments. Like SoFi above, the platform is targeted to accredited investors who then bid on these assets.

3. Experiment.com 

Experiment.com seeks to change the way that scientific research is funded. Researchers post projects and ask for public donations. In exchange, backers are provided with experiment “insights” as well as project notes and updates. Not only do scientists have a new, untapped source of funding to further their research, but backers can better understand and appreciate what they are funding.

4. Pave

Pave’s uniqueness is that it allows people to invest in the person behind a project. It connects motivated young people with investors willing to bet on their future success. The money raised could be used to launch a new business idea, cover time off to learn new skills, or pursue a community-development project. Borrowers then repay their loans based on their income over a 5 to 10 year period.

5. Unbound

Unbound’s claim to fame is that it gives readers a say in which books get published. On Unbound, authors can publish anything they raise funding for. They start writing after reaching their funding goals, and their supporters get the opportunity to interact with the author as the book is being written.

6. Donorschoose.org

DonorsChoose is taking the problem of underfunded classrooms to the Internet. Though the organization has been around since 2000, it exponentially increased its reach and buying power with its own crowdfunding platform. There, public school teachers post classroom project requests that can include, writing utensils, books, money to cover a field trip or buy a microscope. Since its founding, DonorsChoose has raised $225 million for more than 400,000 classroom projects.

7. Patreon.com

Patreon allows artists to sell their work directly to their fans. Subscribers pay a set amount every time the artist they support releases a new piece of content. That way, artists can keep doing what they are doing, while earning money on it, and thus do even more.

8. Fundrise.com

Fundrise aims to change the rules of investing in commercial real estate. The platform allows anyone to buy shares in a piece of property. Shareholders then make money on tenants’ rental payments as well as appreciation of the real estate.

Did I miss any unique crowdfunding sites? Let us know in the comment section below.

How to Use the Internet to Promote Your Business Without Getting Distracted

Remember a few years ago when social media marketing was being touted as a cheap promotional strategy that would level the playing field for small business? How times have changed! Today, using the Internet and social media to promote your business has become a necessity that typically turns into a costly draw on your time, energy, and money. Countless businesses are involved in Internet marketing in some way, and the sheer amount of competing noise can be overwhelming.

targetThough there is nothing cheap or easy about online marketing if you want to be effective, you can still get some real results without draining your budget and without compromising too much of your time. The key is going in with the right approach, recognizing what online marketing allows you to do (as well as what it can’t do), and knowing how to keep yourself from getting distracted.

These days, the majority of small businesses that conduct successful online marketing campaigns typically share a few common qualities:

They have a plan with measurable goals. Before you create even one online profile, send out one tweet or status update, or write a blog post, you need to be very clear about what you are trying to accomplish with your online marketing as well as if your goals are realistic. Are you trying to build relationships, sell products, or generate leads? All of the above? Once you’ve answered that question, you then need to create a detailed plan of action that describes how you will use Internet marketing to go about accomplishing those goals.

They are clear about their available resources. As mentioned above, successful online marketing takes a significant amount of resources. So, you need to be very clear at the beginning about what you can afford to dedicate to your online marketing efforts. What is your available time? What is your budget? What skills or qualities do you and your employees have that can be used in your online marketing? Do you have any good writers? Is anyone good at making connections? Creating engaging images? Conducting a webinar or hangout? Take stock of these resources and give some thought about how you can best use them.

They know where their target market hangs out. Stop spending your time on platforms that don’t convert! You need to find out where your target audience hangs out online and determine the best ways to reach them there. What kind of content will attract their attention and get them interested in your business?

They maintain an online marketing schedule. Another great way to help you stay focused on the things that matter is to create and maintain an Internet marketing schedule. This schedule will include any content marketing initiatives as well as social media marketing tasks, such as posting content, commenting, and connecting with other users. Make an effort to keep to the allotted times, and look for ways to automate the activities that don’t necessarily need direct input, such as scheduling status updates.

They keep their online marketing efforts fresh, yet focused. The online world changes very quickly. Techniques that were once working can suddenly stop being effective, while new openings and opportunities are being created. That’s why you need to be making the effort to monitor the effectiveness of each strategy and create some space to try out different techniques and platforms. Your goal with this is to be keeping and tweaking the strategies that are working, while putting a stop to the ones that aren’t. But, keep in mind that these efforts should be in moderation. If you remember the overall online marketing goals that you set for your business mentioned above, then you’ll keep yourself from taking on much more than you can chew and chasing every new and shiny strategy under the sun.

In short, successful online marketing is a process that is unique to your business and your target audience. There is no magic bullet; there’s no one guaranteed successful technique or platform. You need to just roll up your sleeves and figure it out. Don’t let this put you off, though. If you get it right, you can significantly improve your brand awareness, boost your sales, and create loyal customers, and these results will be exponentially greater than the resources you put in.

How to Use Google Helpouts to Grow Your Small Business

Earlier this month, Google officially opened the doors on a Helpouts page specifically for Small Businesses. Though Google launched the service in November 2013, it is still a relatively unknown platform, and that means there’s a lot of opportunity. The possibilities that this new service offers for small businesses owners is something that shouldn’t be ignored. Those small businesses that get in there now, stand the best chance maximizing the benefits when the platform becomes more popular later on.

HelpoutsHelpouts are private, face-to-face video sessions with professionals and experts in a variety of fields and topics, such as WordPress, YouTube strategies, website reviews, computer repair advice, QuickBooks and bookkeeping . The platform works much the same way as joining a video conference using Google Hangouts. Google allows users to get in touch with these experts to ask them questions and get guidance. Some Helpouts are free; others you have to pay for and at the moment, rates vary significantly between one expert and another. Helpouts are integrated with Google Checkout, so users can simply tap into their Google Wallet account in order to purchase a live video session.

While the benefits to users are pretty self-explanatory, those who are experts in a given area now have a further means to establish their credibility and monetize their knowledge. Moreover, all of this also helps them to build up their brand.

Why Now is the Time to Get Involved with Google Helpouts

As I mentioned above, Helpouts is still in the beginning stages, and it has yet to create real momentum, and that fact opens the door for professionals looking to capitalize on the potential exposure and income stream. The earlier you join and start offering Helpouts, the more exposure and clients you will likely receive even if you do it for free right now. Not only will you be able teach on certain topics before anyone else, but once you start receiving customer reviews, you’ll rank higher than those who enter the game later.

There are other reasons to jump on the bandwagon as soon as possible. For example, you’ll have instant global reach without the need for a website or a ton of online promotion. You’ll also have the flexibility to schedule Helpouts during the most suitable and convenient times. Finally, the platform itself is extremely easy to use and feature-rich. For example, you can share information with viewers from Google Drive, there is also screen sharing, screen control access, remote computer access, and you can even opt to have a recording of the Helpout stored in the participant’s Google Drive account.

If you want to get started offering a Helpout of your own, you’ll will have to request an invitation. You can do that here.

In the meantime, you should take a look at what is already being offered in your area of expertise and take notes on what seems to be working, and what isn’t. Look for ways to position yourself and your services as different from the rest. And, put some real thought into what you can offer.

Currently, Google Helpouts is for business-to-consumer services only. But, according to Google, there are plans to add business-to-business Helpouts in the future. So, Helpouts is something small businesses owners should definitely keep their eyes on. Even if the platform has yet to take off, the potential to help small businesses in the future is huge.

5 Signs That The US Recession Isn’t Over Just Yet

For the past few years, there have been plenty of signals from Washington supported by an assortment of economic experts, that the economic recovery within the U.S. is moving along. But completely detached from the optimistic headlines the media keeps feeding us, the story on the street is totally different.

graphOn the surface, the contradiction seems puzzling. Several recent reports seem to give us a lot to feel optimistic about. The unemployment rate is now below 7%, its lowest level in five years. The housing sector seemed to be rebounding. Home sales and prices in December 2013 were their highest since 2006. Auto sales are up, gas prices have gone down, and Wall Street is roaring with stocks up more than 26%.

But, there are several, pretty poignant signs that our recovery is not all it’s cracked up to be:

1. Many people just don’t feel it. According to a recent CNN poll, only 24% of respondents believe economic conditions are improving, while almost 40% believe that the economy is actually getting worse. Meanwhile, the Consumer Confidence Index has been on the decline.

2. The number of people on food stamps is on the rise. As of March of this year, 47.7 million Americans are now on some form of food stamps. From the year 2000 till 2012, this number has increased more than 171%.

3. The housing market is starting to crumble. While the media is already drawing attention to a recent slow down in the housing sector, many industry experts point out that home prices are actually being driven upward by institutional investors. Big financial institutions like The Blackstone Group have become major home buyers. So far, Blackstone has spent more than $4.0 billion for 24,000 homes in the U.S. that it plans to rent out. But, the same rising home prices that seem to have created a rebound last year, are now accounting for a decline among individual buyers who can no longer afford to buy.

4. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, the bottom 93% of households in the U.S. economy saw their net worth drop by 4% between 2009 and 2011, the richest 7% of U.S. saw their wealth increase by 28% in that time.

5. The recovery is a whole lot of hot air. Many people point to the fact that the rosy numbers Washington keeps promoting are nothing more than smoke and mirrors once you consider things like: how much money the U.S. government borrowed versus produced, the Fed’s obsession with printing money, as well as how key indicators, such as the unemployment rate, are calculated.

In short, though the economy does show some signs of rejuvenation, much of it is due to a thick layer of makeup. Wash it all away, and the picture we are left with ain’t so pretty.

Big Banks Are Lending More: Is It a Real Sign of Economic Recovery?

According to the most recent results of the Biz2Credit Small Business Lending Index, small business loan approval rates at the nation’s biggest banks rose to 19.4% in April 2014. This is up from 18.8% in March, and it represents a record high since the start of the recession.

ID-10015674While this is certainly good news, is it a telltale sign that the economy is steadily improving? If more established businesses are starting to seek out loans which presumably would be used for hiring, expansion, and capital purchases, it would seem so. The truth is that banks generally look at three years worth of sales history. This year marks three years after the recession officially “ended” in 2011. To qualify for bank financing, these businesses had to have performed well post recession.

But, a closer look at the results of the survey may reveal that the recovery may not be so great after all. Small business loan approval rates at small banks actually decreased to 51.1% in April 2014, down from 51.6% last month, and the same pattern was seen with credit unions (43.5% down from 43.6%). Perhaps most telling is that lending approval rates at alternative lenders dropped for the fourth consecutive month to 63.5% in April from 63.6% in March 2014.

What does this all mean? It may mean that there is a growing schism among America’s small businesses. Big banks tend to attract and approve only the most credit-worthy businesses. These businesses usually have more assets and are more established and… they tend to be bigger as well. The definition of a “small business” among the nation’s biggest banks is a company with less than $20 million dollars in sales!

On the other hand, small banks, credit unions, and alternative lenders, in particular, get more requests from newer, less asset-rich businesses as well as those struggling with bad credit. If these institutions are approving fewer loans, chances are good that the pool of applicants are more risky and worse off than they were even a few months ago.

Changes the whole picture, doesn’t it?

What do you think? Do you feel there has been some real recovery since the recession or is it mostly smoke and mirrors?

(Image Credit)

Senate Rejects Minimum Wage Increase: A Good Move or Political Posturing?

Last week, a bill that would have raised the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 failed to pass in the Senate. While many small business groups were quick to applaud the move, the question remains: does this really help the economy or are we once again witnesses to the greatest political show on earth?

SenateMany small business leaders were vocal about their disapproval of the proposed wage increase. In an official statement published shortly before the vote, NFIB Manager of Legislative Affairs Ashley Fingarson claimed that “…lawmakers are targeting the nation’s economic engine – small business owners – with an anti-employer agenda. With increases to health care costs, higher taxes, more costly regulations, and now a dramatic minimum wage increase, small business owners simply can’t afford another excessive government mandate.”

Shortly after the bill was defeated in the Senate, International Franchise Association President and CEO, Steve Caldeira, had this to say:

“We commend the Senate’s decision to reject legislation to drastically raise the minimum wage, and thank the Senators who took a stand to protect our nation’s small business franchise owners. Congress’ own economists at the Congressional Budget Office have said that an increase in the minimum wage would reduce employment, and thankfully enough Senators heeded this dire warning in a sluggish and still fragile economy.”

They make it sound like a catastrophe was averted. But, the reality is that the minimum wage has failed to keep up with inflation for the last four decades. Instead of completely shutting the initiative down, why not make a counter proposal for a more digestible increase to the minimum wage? The Democrats’ proposal may have just been too large in too short a period of time. On the other hand, the Democrats gained massive brownie points by showing Republicans as greedy and out of touch with the people. So, maybe real change wasn’t the goal here. At the end of the day, we’re left with nothing but a few good headlines.

How to Prepare for Your Next Business Conference

As the summer approaches, major conference events will start cropping up everywhere. Conferences can be as productive and fun as they can be overwhelming and draining. The investment of time, energy, and money required to go to a conference, makes it all the more vital that the experience be rewarding.

conferenceOne of the best ways to help ensure that you get the most out of attending a conference is to go into the event prepared. Here are five tips to help you get there:

1. Make a list of all the key people you would like to meet. Do some research before event and find out who is going and which of these people you would like to connect with. Even if you don’t have such a list, you should spend some time thinking about the kinds of people you would like to meet and why.

2. Create a plan for exchanging contact information. Don’t just quickly print out some business cards and assume that the other people will do the same. Think through how you plan on exchanging contact information. This is even more important if you have a hard time remembering people’s names and details. Aside from business cards, you could connect via LinkedIn or exchange email. You could have Evernote ready to jot down a few notes about who this person is, what he/she does, and other interesting facts or information.

3. Plan to attend formal and informal social events. Most conferences have some social events and mixers baked into their schedules. See which ones speak to you and decide which ones you would like to attend. Additionally, keep your eyes and ears open for informal get-togethers among conference attendees. You could try to create one yourself, by say, sending out a Tweet with a hashtag branded for the conference asking if anyone is interested in joining you for coffee or beers.

4. Plan some down time for after the conference. This is particularly important if you are introverted. You will need anywhere from 1 to 3 days to process the experience. But, even if you are extroverted, simply attending a conference is going to throw you off-schedule

5. Create a follow-up plan. Many conference attendees make the mistake of following up with new connections right away after the event has ended. Likely, they are motivated either by the fear that they or their new connection will forget about their interaction, or they believe that it shows an extra willingness to move the relationship along. The truth is, however, it’s probably best to wait anywhere from 1 to 2 weeks after the conference before trying to reach out. This gives both you and the other person some time to settle back into a schedule and normal routine, thus giving you a better mindset to take things to the next level.

Now over to you… What things do you do to get ready for your business conferences?

New Legislation Makes Getting an SBA Loan Easier

Aside from the opportunities that they offer, SBA backed loans are known for their challenging approval process which includes long waits, lots of paper work, and strict requirements. But, recent legislation has made that application process a bit easier for small business borrowers while giving banks more flexibility in the way they structure their loans.

sbaThe new legislation will primarily affect the SBA’s flagship 7(a) and 504 loan programs. The 7(a) loan is typically used to establish a new business or to assist in the acquisition, operation, or expansion of an existing business. In this case a bank provides all of the financing, while the SBA guarantees to pay a portion of the loan should the borrower default. The 504 loans are intended for the purchase of land, including existing buildings, renovations and improvements to the property, the construction of new facilities, and the purchase of long-term machinery and equipment. They typically involve financing split between a bank and a Certified Development Company (CDC).

So what exactly got changed? Here is a brief rundown:

Good bye wealth test. Up until now, the SBA required loan applicants to report their personal wealth and assets, so that lenders could avoid financing those who have plenty of financial resources at their disposal. But since many technically wealthy business owners still have difficulty securing financing, it’s being pushed aside. In short, it means a little less paper work for small business applicants.

The removal of collateral limits. Under the 504 program, lending banks could only use the financed equipment or property as collateral on the loan. Now, business owners can tap into other forms of collateral, such as physical assets or future revenues, to secure a 504 loan. This change could help business borrowers secure better terms and lower interest rates.

More leeway with project expenses. With the 504 program, borrowers could only include project expenses that were incurred no more than nine months before they sent their loan application to the SBA. So, for example, if you purchased permits to build or renovate a new property a year before securing a 504 loan, the money could not be used to cover that expense. Now, if an expense is tied to the project for which a company secured the 504 loan, the funds can be used to cover it, regardless of when it was incurred.

In short, the SBA loan approval process will continue to be lengthy and cumbersome, but these changes will at least lighten the load a bit.

Small Business Owners Still Struggling with New Technologies and Platforms

A new survey released last month from Brother International Corporation and SCORE shows that when it comes to new technologies, small business owners are still ambivalent.

tablet-pcAccording to the Brother Small Business Survey 2014, 72% of small business respondents claimed that new technologies will offer a bigger return on investment than taking on new employees in 2014. But, while the survey seems to indicate that small business owners believe that the use of new technologies will help to both increase efficiency and keep them competitive, they are still having difficulty keeping up with the latest and greatest technological innovations. A total of 63% of small business owners say they feel overwhelmed by business technology choices.

Moreover, about 50% responded that they are concerned that investing in technology too quickly will negatively affect their return on investment, while the other half worry that they will lose their competitive edge if they don’t adopt new technology early enough.

All that being said, technology-tool related investments are still the top priority for many small business owners in 2014. Based on the survey, about 40% listed smartphones and tablets the most important tools for running their businesses. Many also consider customer relationship management programs (32%), social technologies (21%), and cloud services (15%) to be essential.

According to John Wandishin, Brother Vice President of Marketing, “Our survey shows that while small business owners understand the value of new technologies, they are still a bit overwhelmed and struggle with choosing the right time to adopt them to have the greatest impact on their business.”

A bit of a post script…

From what I’ve seen, the results of this survey are a pretty accurate reflection of where the majority of small business owners are finding themselves regarding technology. What’s interesting, however, is that among those who do adapt new technology and platforms into their operations, the vast majority are still not seeing an adequate return on investment. Some of this may be due to unwarranted hype, while a part of it may be due to the incorrect application of these new technologies within the business.

Whatever the case, technology is a tool, not a magical sales pill. How helpful or effective new technologies really are in helping small businesses stay relevant, competitive, and productive depends primarily in how it is used within the business. So take the results of the above survey with a grain of salt and make the effort to get a grip on the real needs of your business in terms of technology and beyond.

How to Increase The Lifetime Value of Your Customers

Do you know what the lifetime value of your customers is? If you haven’t heard of it, then it’s time to start learning. Knowing how to manipulate and increase this value can make all the difference between the ultimate success or failure of your business.

dollar-signAccording to a recent Marketing Metrics study, the probability of successfully selling a product to your existing customers is around 60 to 70%, while the probability of selling to a new customer is only 5% to 20%.  It is thus more likely that you’ll be successful re-marketing your products to existing customers than it is trying to gain new ones. Existing customers have already demonstrated their interest in your products or services and are already engaged with your brand. Moreover, you probably already have crucial customer data to work with, such as contact information and buyer history, that you can pair up with your product/service life cycle and industry trends.

If you know how to actualize this potential source of sales, you can uncover a very lucrative goldmine. This process begins and ends with your customer’s lifetime value, or the prediction of the net profit attributed to the entire future relationship you will have with a customer. Knowing how to calculate your customer’s lifetime value (LTV) is thus a vital measurement of your business’ health and a predictor of long term success. But, it doesn’t stop there. You also need to know how to act on this information

To see the LTV equation in action, check out this great infographic over at Kissmetrics that attempts to break down the lifetime value of a Starbucks customer and how this may affect their business decisions.

So, how can you improve the LTV within your own business? Here are three areas to consider:

1. What is the current level of customer satisfaction? In order to increase your LTV, you need to be focused on customer retention, and this means your customer satisfaction has to be strong. So, make an effort to get feedback from customers about their experiences doing business with your company. You can conduct surveys, look at user-generated customer reviews, and pay attention to who mentions your company online and in what context.

2. How many paths of communication are open? Do you create opportunities for current and future communication with your customers? Do you have their email addresses, social media profiles, or mobile phone numbers? When previous and current customers land on your website, do they see personalized content or offers? All of these channels can be used to bring customers back into the sales funnel.

3. Where can you create additional value? Look for ways to add complimentary products or services, upgrades, or any elements that add perceived value to your basic products and services. If your brand is very clearly defined, even just providing customers the opportunity to further identify with its ideals can part of the perceived value as well.

In short, the LTV of your customer is one of the fundamental elements of your business. But, unlike many assets or sales figures, this number is not static. If you go in with a focus on customer retention, keep the lines of communication open, and constantly seek to provide value that “grows” with the customer, then this amount can be maximized to the fullest and significantly help your bottom line- now and over the long term