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my window on the world: small business, communications, social media, and beyond

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11 Houston Bloggers to Follow

November 13th, 2010 · blogging

I gave a class recently for University of Houstons Small Business Development Center on Social Media for Small Business. In it, I encountered an audience far more interested in the “big three” of  Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter than they were in blogging.

They’re wrong about that. Blogs are a simple and affordable way to stake out a place that’s all your own on the Web. Take a look at how 12 companies, non-profits and solopreneurs are using blogs to expand their customer/client base and solidify their brand.

Professional Services

Click “Read More,” below, to find blogs pertaining to

  • Retail and Commercial
  • Non-Profits
  • Arts, Music, FOOD

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Optimize Your Small Business: Part 5, Putting All the Email Pieces Together

September 25th, 2010 · small business


photo by oreoKoockee on

I must be crazy! Anyone who’s ever worked with me will find this post at least mildly amusing if not ironic. My emails tend to be strongly worded and free with unsolicited opinion. I’ve occasionally hurt people’s feelings and certainly talked down to them.

I also tend to know when I’ve done so. And, like any repentant sinner, I’m working to remedy my shortcomings. Who better, then, to suggest ways to make email simpler, more effective, and more humane? And so, without further ado, my best research and business wisdom on how to use email more productively and how to know when to walk away . . . or pick up the phone.

Set Up an Account (Address) That’s Strictly Business

Don’t use your employer’s email address, or your personal one. If you blog, and have your own domain, you can set up an extra e-mail and give it unique name (dissimilar from other ones in use at this same URL). In lieu of your own domain, ISP providers such as GoDaddy or 1&1 also offer email-only plans. Even cheaper, and just as effective, is Gmail. The point of this exercise is to set up an address that handles, separately, any new business you generate via social media or your own email marketing campaigns. Your email address is an important part of your brand.

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Optimize Your Small Business: Part 4, Build a List and Check It Twice

September 13th, 2010 · small business

Today’s Optimize Your Small Business post is about compiling a quality email list you can build a business around. Last week, we addressed basic email applications.

All the apps we discussed (Google Gmail, Microsoft Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird) have the capacity to build a fairly robust master mailing list as well as sub-lists for specific targeted audiences. If you anticipate doing a lot of email messaging campaigns, a database program like Microsoft Access might work well for you. A popular and easy to use alternative is Batchbook by BatchBlue Software. Batchbook comes with a one-month free trial, followed by pricing plans from $120 a year up. You can also build a list in a plain old spreadsheet (Excel or Google) and import that list into your email program of choice. Be sure to leave a comment here, if you have other programs or systems to recommend.

The point of the exercise is to think beyond customers, beyond sales. Ideally a good number of people you add to your list are or will be customers. You’ll assign them an appropriate category, below. But part of what social media has taught us is that we’re all connected in one way or another — and connecting in new ways all the time. Any good business is built on relationships. But we also build relationships to enhance our own and others’ quality of life. We’re starting from a “pay it forward” viewpoint — NOT what each of the people on your list can do for you.

Two cautions. This will take awhile, but the time you spend will pay rich dividends. Second, look for opportunities along the way to drop a line to some of the people you haven’t heard from in awhile. This helps you validate the entries, and nurtures the friendship. A simple note will do, no need to put together an elaborate business message. [Read more →]

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Optimize Your Small Business: Part 3, Rethink Your Email System

September 6th, 2010 · small business, technology

cartoon by stressmaster 5000 on

This post is aimed at small business practitioners who are looking to become more effective in their daily practice. For today, we’ll talk about basic email applications, and how to handle your Inbox. The next post in our Optimize Your Small Business Series will be about how to build a quality list and the third on tips for using email more effectively.

If you’ve been in business for awhile, you’re muddling through with something already. Here’s a way to make a new start and work smarter in future.

Best Day-to-Day Email Applications

Despite all the reported threats over the years, I used Microsoft Outlook for a good long while, because it came with Office 2007 and I’d paid for it. I liked that it had a calendar and task list I could keep open all the time. I liked that my data resided on my own system and not the Internet. But, under Microsoft’s new pricing scheme, I can’t affordably update Office 2007. So, over the last few months, I’ve been experimenting. The solution I landed on is Mozilla Thunderbird, by the great developers who brought us Firefox. Two new add-ons sealed the deal for me: Lightning, is Mozilla’s new calendar add-on for Thunderbird, and appears to have all or most of the same capability as Outlook. ThunderBrowse, the second add-on, allows you to view links within an e-mail without opening another browser.

Most everyone else in the world is using Google’s Gmail, and for good reason — it gets the job done, with power and options to spare. A lot of colleagues and bloggers I look up to recommend Gmail, and it’s consistently well reviewed on any number of business and technology websites. Gmail, when paired with Google Docs, is particularly well-suited for calendar and document sharing and will surely be a good bet for many of you. For people, like me, who want the capability of downloading to their own computer or laptop. Gmail offers an offline option. It also comes with some new bells and whistles, such as Forgotten Attachment Detector and Wrong Recipient Detector. Oh man, those two features alone are almost reason enough to change!

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Optimize Your Small Business: Part 2, Best Basic Apps

August 30th, 2010 · small business, technology

cloud computing, Web-20, small business apps

image by Adrienne Mierzwa on

Is the “cloud,” like Bali Hai in South Pacific, calling to all of us? I wanted to make this post mostly about Internet-based applications — freeware and some “freemium.” As it turns out, I’m not sure cloud computing works for every small business scenario. Mainly the choices are between software you access online or software you buy and install on your own computer. Think about it: think about the times you’ve lost Internet access versus the times you’ve been on the road and away from your office network. What are the biggest issues for you right now? Where are your capability gaps?

The main thing to ask about any free software is: what’s the catch? Are they just offering it to us free for awhile and, when we’re all hooked, they’ll decide to up the ante? Or, for the “free,” we have to put up with a lot of ads from companies who underwrite the free part? For these apps we do embrace, I recommend we all have a Plan B — because sometimes “free” turns out to be “too good to be true.” At a minimum, if you visit a prospect app’s Web site and you see a big flag that says “free 30-day trial,” you need to investigate what the rest of the year will cost you and analyze the return on investment (ROI).

Let’s take a look at some specific tools for small business and my personal favorites in each category — some are free, some aren’t. The ones that aren’t free, however, are well worth the price.

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Optimize Your Small Business: Part 1, a Backup System That Works

August 23rd, 2010 · small business, technology

photo courtesy of NightRPStar, Roman Pinzon_Soto from Creative Commons

photo courtesy of NightRPStar, Roman Pinzon_Soto, from Flickr Creative Commons

Recently I decided, for my small business to thrive, I needed to get a lot smarter. Specifically, I needed to quit avoiding new technologies and embrace them. Or at least figure out which ones fit my lifestyle and business model. I also needed to focus on sound work practices and some old-fashioned technologies like a manageable file system. Here’s the best of what works for me, some things that didn’t work at all, and some links to take you further. This series will cover:

  • Backup systems — on- and off-site tools
  • Best Basic Apps — for a smooth running office
  • Email — rethink your email system
  • Email — build a list and check it twice
  • Email — making email work for you.

Best Backup System

Let’s begin with your company’s most valuable asset: your data. I just discovered my office backup system had holes in it — big ones. At some point I transferred some large document files onto CDs to keep with my clients’ other paper files. Last week I needed one of those documents and discovered the CD-RW disc had lost it’s mojo. Everything gone. Turns out all magnetic media have a finite shelf life — the better ones longer than others but none as long as you hope.

After surveying the literature and biz practices of people I admire, I’ve come up with is a combo system for on- and off-site file storage. The critical premise is that until your data is physically stored in at least two different places, it won’t really be secure.

More and more people are turning to off-site and Internet-based storage solutions. The arguments for such a system are these: in the event of theft, fire or flood, your documents are safe with someone else. The arguments against are that the company you trust with your data may get hit by the same storm, suddenly go out of business (without getting in touch), or have a fatal system crash. Still, most experts agree a second file storage site provides the optimum safety net.

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7 Blogging Lessons Learned the Hard Way

August 6th, 2010 · blogging

Like many people before me, I began blogging with a lot of vim and vigor . . .  and no earthly clue how much I still didn’t know. The blog went dormant and I’ve spent the last year studying, interviewing, watching some of the giants at the craft. I’m even “accredited” now — having just attended the first-ever WordCamp Houston. I hope these lessons, painfully learned, will help my blog [and yours] have more of an impact.

1) Your blog [or web site] IS your brand.

If you’ve followed any of the flukey or capricious changes in Facebook over the past year, it’s clear someone other than us is calling the shots. Facebook is an important branding channel for many small businesses and individuals. But we can’t be sure it (or LinkedIn or Twitter) will always be there, or be what we need them to be. You need your own place, where clients, family, friends can always find you. It needn’t be elaborate, or “glitzy.” But you DO need to stake out your own turf, your own introduction to Brand You.

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How to Work a Very LARGE Room

May 4th, 2009 · networking

This week I’m attending the Houston Offshore Technology Conference (OTC). And a few readers yesterday queried: why was I going there? As a tech writer, I want to hear the conversations. I want to pick up a feel for what emerging technologies or topics my clients may soon expect me to know about. In a perfect world, I’ll meet a few new prospects, run into a few clients and maybe even have a good time.

So let’s cut to the chase. We’re there to meet them and they’re there to meet us. How hard can it be? With these seven tips, I hope not hard at all.

  1. Optimize for the venue you’re walking into. Dress comfy, but with a sense of the dress code. Bring plenty of business cards AND a Sharpie to customize your pre-fab nametag with something personal to set you apart. In my case, for OTC, I might write something like “contract tech writer.” If you’re on Twitter and have a TwitPin, wear both. [Read more →]

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Getting Ready to Work a Room

May 4th, 2009 · networking

I’ve always dreaded networking events for the same reason I was a lousy blind dater in college. Polite chit chat with strangers comes hard for me. Most of my best dates were with people I already knew. I married my best friend . . .if we’d met at a conference, we might both still be single.

In getting ready for the Houston Offshore Technology Conference (OTC), I began to think about my last big event, South by Southwest (SXSW) and the tremendous logistical challenges such gatherings present. Here’s what I’ve learned about working rooms of various sizes and the particular challenges of BIG ones.

My starting point for OTC was to dig out an old XPLANATION diagram by XPLANE, The Visual Thinking Company.  Their 2002 flow-chart, How to Work a Room, was designed to illustrate — emphasis on illustrate — the thoughts and research of Diane Darling, owner of Effective Networking Inc, and author of The Networking Survival Guide.

Diane’s 14-point game plan can work, even in 500,000 sq ft space, surrounded by 20,000 people. Begin with the premise you’ll invest as much time in preparation and planning as you’ll likely spend in registration or travel fees. Here’s how to make the most of the time you have to cover a lot of ground.

  1. Do your research in advance. Be sure to visit the event’s Web site, also sponsoring companies’ or trade associations’ Web sites. Look for a list of exhibitors (and a map) and think through where you’re mostlikely to run into people you know. Look also for emerging technologies and new areas to explore. Choose a mix of topics: some you know something about already (and might contribute to), some to further your professional development.  [Read more →]

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Chapel Bridge — Lucerne, Switzerland

April 17th, 2009 · travel

Many thanks to Chris McCroskey, one of the prodigious developers who brought us TweetCongress, for stopping by to identify my latest “mystery” portal view. It feels a little as if Elvis passed through the old blog site this afternoon!

But back to the bridge. There’s a story here, about one of Switzerland’s most picturesque landmarks and an hour that changed everything.

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