Thursday, December 19, 2013

Client Recognition: Reluctant Business Owner Grows with SBDC Assistance

The Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) has a collaborative network of nearly 30 advisors throughout the state to serve small businesses of all shapes and sizes.  Following is a wonderful example of how a colleague assisted his client in Lynnwood, WA, who helped his client realize his value was worth more than he was charging.  
LAKE STEVENS, Wash. – You get what you negotiate, not what you deserve, and Abe Martinez was not a good negotiator. After Workforce Development of Snohomish County heard what he planned to charge for doing a short video to highlight one of their programs, they withdrew the offer.
That’s not sustainable, they told him. Go do some market analysis, figure out what other people are charging and come back with a higher number.
It was good advice, but the next piece of advice was even better: Talk to Peter Quist at the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) located at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood.
The Washington SBDC Network ( includes more than two dozen certified business advisors working in community-based offices across the state. Washington State University and the U.S. Small Business Administration are the primary sponsors of the network, with additional support from other economic development agencies and institutions of higher education.

From job seeker to business owner

Martinez’s last full-time job in broadcast journalism had ended in 2006 and – despite his drive and resourcefulness – he’d been underemployed for the past four years, a casualty of the recession and upheavals in media markets.
He was offered the video project by Workforce because he’d already done one video for them pro bono. As a participant in WorkSource Snohomish County, he did volunteer projects as a way to network and get his work in front of potential employers.
When he first met with Quist, he said, his goal was still to get a job, not own a business.
Abe and Susan Martinez
At least he thought that was his goal. But in conversations with Quist, he realized that his real goal was to do meaningful work that used his skills and talents as a storyteller and that allowed him to work in Snohomish County rather than commute to Seattle.
With those goals in mind, the scope of work Quist and Martinez agreed on expanded from figuring out how much to charge for video production to setting up a small business offering media production services including script writing, video production, audio production and voice-over.

Considering value to client

Owning a small business is fundamentally different from working in small business, Quist said, and not everyone has the drive, resources and grit to make the transition.
“Abe was great to work with because he accepted that he was no longer an employee,” Quist said. “Many others in the same situation remain tied to their previous job frame of mind. Abe was ready to take charge of his new situation and build a business instead of a job.”
North Sound Productions ( was created as a partnership between Martinez and his wife, Susan, with Martinez handling most day-to-day production but Susan providing creative input as well.
There was more to it than Martinez imagined, from figuring out his brand to bookkeeping systems to liability insurance to sales taxes.
As expected, setting up a pricing system was difficult. Quist advised him to think about his value to the client, not about what his time was worth.

Help to move ahead

As a veteran and journalist, Martinez was more comfortable advocating for others. Learning how to market his business and sell his own brand is an ongoing process, he said.
Martinez, who calls himself a “reluctant entrepreneur,” said he believes more and more people who do creative work are going to have to become business owners as well “more or less out of necessity.”
He likes both the freedom and the responsibility of being his own boss. His business will succeed or fail based on his own efforts and that’s a strong motivator, he said.
“I’ve learned more creative skills in the last year than I have in the last 20,” he said, “and that’s a good thing.”
When it comes to developing business skills, Quist and the SBDC have been key resources, Martinez said. SBDC advising “was exactly the kind of thing that encouraged me to move forward, not pull back.”

Affirming skills and talent

North Sound Productions officially opened for business in April 2013 and earned about $25,000 in contracts in the first six months.
“The point is that I’ve gone from nothing to that,” Martinez said, and he is back to doing the work he enjoys and is good at. “This has been a really good way to affirm my skills and talents.”
Moreover, many of his clients have been nonprofit agencies or organizations, which means he’s been able to use his talents to help worthwhile organizations tell their stories.
“Up until about six months ago I wanted someone to hire me,” he said. “But then I realized, no, actually I like this.”
Martinez was looking for a job, but with the help of the SBDC he has created a business, one he and his wife look forward to growing for the future.
Abe Martinez, North Sound Productions,, 501-772-5626
Peter Quist, Washington SBDC,, 425-640-1435

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

One Way Companies Leave Money on the Table: Tax Incentives

New and existing manufacturers, research and development firms, and certain high technology companies can benefit from several tax incentive programs offered by the state of Washington.  Incentives may come in the form of tax deferrals, reduced rates, tax credits or incentives.  Tax incentive programs have dwindled down over the years; however there are still a few tax credit programs that can benefit certain types of companies.  

In Washington State, tax credit programs are usually available to companies in particular regions, rural or high unemployment areas, and are for job creation or retention.  In a few cases, there are industry-specific tax deferrals or credits such as in the food processing, aerospace or biofuel industries.  

On a Federal level, there are numerous programs for converting to solar or green energy.  It is a good idea to inquire before any purchases are made, building permits applied for or employees are hired.  

Surrounding counties may have added rural tax incentives available.
The city of Spokane is home to a Community Empowerment Zone (CEZ) that includes most of the West Central, East Central and HIllyard areas and some surrounding areas.  

To qualify for the sales tax deferral program:

  • businesses must be located in the CEZ zone; 
  • complete the application with the State prior to breaking ground or hiring; 
  • hire a certain amount of residents living in the CEZ; 
  • and be engaged in manufacturing, research and development or software development.  

Every bit counts to a small business!
A recent article pointed out that business leaders should take some initiative and learn about relevant tax credit programs that are offered (  Companies could be missing out on substantial tax savings by not participating or being aware of applicable programs.  

Like any government agency, there can be a bit of red-tape and reporting to claim credits or incentives.  On a state level, certain tax credits require an application and annual report.  Others can be more involved yet still worth the effort.

How do tax credits work?

For instance, to use the Rural County B&O Tax Credit for New Employees allows the company to take a credit against the Business and Occupation (B&O) taxes for each new employment position filled and maintained by qualified business.  Specific to this, the business must be creating new employment positions or increasing its workforce by 15%.  

Sample Tax Credit Savings for hiring new employees
The Credit amount is $2,000 per employee with annual wages of less than $40,000 or $4,000 per employee for over $40,000 annually.  For a new manufacturer expecting to hire 20 employees, this could easily add up to $50,000 in tax savings.  This program has a cap on the total amount and reporting (and tracking) requirements, but well worth it to a small business.

There are many resources available to learn about different incentives and tax credits.  Contact your local business advisor, economic development agency or visit the Washington State Incentive page.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Selling to State and Local Government. Where do you start?

Are you trying to navigate the maze of government contracting?  Do you think you are ready to sell to the government?  First be honest.  Here are some questions to think about before you start submitting bids.
Signing up can be a maze!
Image:  WikiMedia

  • Are you ready?  
  • Could you realistically fulfill a big order or job?  
  • Do you have the cash flow to order supplies and/or merchandise to fill that order?  
  • And get paid 90 days after completion (and often after the General gets paid)?  
  • Are you proficient in filling out forms and doing business online?
  • Are you familiar with prevailing wage and other reporting requirements?
  • Do you think the Federal Government wants to be your first customer?

If you do not have any past experience or cannot figure out how to get your foot in the door, you might consider trying to get some traction by doing business with your state and local government agencies.  Local governments generally have a purchasing department, advertise in the legal section or post bids online. Purchasing officers are great connections to make.  The dollar amounts may differ from state to state on public bid notices, but the process is similar.  

Here is a very short rundown on finding out how to do business with Washington State, and Spokane area agencies.  Your Spokane Business Advisors can help lead you through these processes if you need help, please call to set up an appointment. 

Washington State

There are two portals that agencies throughout Washington post bid opportunities.  Both sites require a simple registration.  Some agencies use one or both.  In my experience, WEBS is easier to sign up, navigate and review bid announcements.  

Washington's Electronic Business Solution (WEBS)

The WEBS site lists many bids from community colleges, some county agencies and others that you might not think about like the University of Washington and Washington State Patrol.  

Many of these bids list the contracting officer, and you can also sign up for any alerts or to be notified of any changes or addendums.  I recommend checking weekly or every other week.  I have noticed a lot of the RFP/RFQ's have a short turnaround time, unlike the Federal government notices.There are a few tricks to WEBS.  

First, when you register, you indicate your business commodity codes and location codes.  The default searches only those codes.  I recommend that when you log in, you search 'All Commodities" and "All Locations" so you don't miss something that may be coded differently than your selections.

The other tip is to use the "back" button, rather than the arrows.  On occasion, using the back button will take you all the way out and you have to sign in again.

Here is a sampling of open bids (as of 11/01/13), ranging from services, public works projects, supplies, consulting and more:

  • Armored car services
  • Banking Services
  • Classroom A/V
  • Nutrition Consultants
  • First Aid Training
  • Landscaping, Janitoral Services
  • OB-GYN Services
  • Remodel baseball dugout
  • Used golf cars
  • TI Calculators

Public Purchase:,wa/buyer/public/home

This website is a larger portal that some Washington agencies, like the Spokane School District, use.  It has a limited free edition.  It is very apparent that they encourage paid subscriptions.  In some cases, you can locate the bids on the agency website.  The nice feature of Public Purchase is that it does have a search feature to review past awards. 

Small Works Rosters (Also called Vendor Lists)

Some cities and government agencies encourage contractors and firms to register on a Small Works Roster or Vendor List.  The benefit to registering is that many times, a public agency can refer to the list if the estimated dollar amount of the project is under the state bid law.  For example, if you register your electrical contracting firm and they need an electrician for an emergency repair job, they can call someone off the list rather than having to bid out the work. 

Last year, Municipal Research Service Center (MRSC), a non-profit organization that has been serving Washington local governments for more than 75 years, has helped agencies streamline this process. As recognized local government experts, MRSC has developed a statute-based roster service that maintains public agency individual small public works rosters (RCW 39.04.155) and consultant rosters (Chapter 39.80) within a shared database and assists businesses with the roster application process.

319 Washington cities, counties, and special purpose districts use MRSC Rosters, including 143 Cities, 11 County Governments, 46 Fire Districts, 25 School Districts, 14 Ports, and 30 water/sewer districts. A full list of participating public agencies can be found at  Not all agencies participate; in those cases, a business owner would need to register with each entity.  

Sample Legal Ad
Call for Small Works Roster


For certain fields like Architects and Engineering, some agencies will have a separate roster.  For example Spokane Public Schools has a Small Works Roster and an Architects and Engineers Roster that is advertised annually (2013 RFP was on their website on 10.29.31). Typically these are required to follow Washington State Public Notice laws and are advertised in the Legal Section of the local newspaper.  One way to find out when the notices are usually advertised is to review current or past notices.

Get to know the General Contractors
A lot of federal contracts are awarded to general contractors.  It can be helpful to join the Association of General Contractors (Spokane region) or other type association.  These types of associations usually offer an affiliate membership for certain types of businesses, and also often are a designated location for plan reviews.

Federal Contracts  

Start the SAM registration process!  If you are not familiar with SAM, it is the main registration portal for the Federal Government.  It was previously known as Central Contractor Registration (CCR).  It is not an easy registration process and can be time consuming.  I would recommend signing up sooner than later if you intend to pursue federal work.  

I recommend clients print out the step-by-step instructions first, then you can get everything you need together before you sit down and tackle the registration.  You’ll need detailed information on banking, NAICS codes, company owners, etc.  If you were in CCR, your CCR username will not work anymore.

You first need to get a DUNS number.  This is available FREE and you can call or go online.  Do not pay (sometimes you get routed to a business that tries to sell you something…do not pay).  Use the links on SAM to get to the correct agency that issues DUNS numbers. 

Download the SAM Full User Guide, print it out and make notes.  It will help as you are filling in the information online and actually make things go faster. 

I would also recommend taking the “Introduction to Government Contracting” class offered through our local Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC).  


State of Idaho purchasing.  According to the website, 
"We manage all aspects of contracting with vendors to provide products and services to state agencies. We also provide purchasing training for state purchasing personnel. Most large purchases, formal, sealed bids, and proposals over $100,000, are processed by our office. Generally, smaller purchases (quotes under $100,000) are handled by the individual state agencies."
Idaho lists current statewide contracts and in some cases you could review your competitor's award pricing. Washington awards are not as easy to locate.To view bid opportunities, first register online

Think ahead

If you are just starting out, continue to build your business so you:

  • are adequately capitalized;
  • work any kinks in your bidding and pricing out; and 
  • make connections.

One of the most important things is to plan now if you want to start bidding on government jobs. The registration process can be cumbersome and there can be hold ups that could cost you a contract.  You do not want to risk future jobs by being unprepared if you cannot deliver.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Five Business Trends that are not Fads

Continually learning and keeping up with industry trends is essential for any small business owner. As business advisors, it is vital to our job to be aware of the latest trends and keep an eye out for up-and-coming issues that might impact our clients.

A group of business advisors from Washington State were fortunate to join our colleagues throughout the country for the Association of Small Business Development Centers National Conference in Orlando.  There were over 150 different training opportunities and over 1000 attendees nationally and internationally.

These are not new topics by any means, but here are five current trends for small business owners to put on your radar:

1.  Mobile is in. (Top issue in 2012 also)

Have you
Claimed your Place?
More people than ever have smart phones and use them.  Websites need to be optimized and responsive for mobile and other devices.  One of the best ways to have potential customers find your location is to claim your Google Place page.  It's easy, it's free and can not only help people find your physical location, but drive traffic to your website.  Read my previous blog on how to set up your Google Place Page.

2.  Search Engine Optimization is critical...and constantly changing.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is positioning your website and web content so it ranks higher in Google searches.  The same still holds true as it did five years ago - if a web company offers you 'top rank in Google' searches, shop around.  Read my previous post, "SEO Tips".  There are a few basic tips that can help your website rank higher in search, and there are also some things to avoid, such as duplicate content. Top tip:  Claim your Place page if you have not.  Bonus Tip:  If you do not have a website, you could be losing business.

Two key takeaways:
  • Google is still the King of Search Engines.  
  • Meta tags and 'hiding' key words in your website do not work anymore.

3.  Social Media is NOT just for selling.  Customer Relationships Still Matter.

Social Media is NOT about
getting sales!
Social media is not going away.  I have been repeating this for years, yet heard it over and over - social media is about developing relationships, NOT about making sales.

Customer relationship management should not be ignored. Chances are, if you aren't fostering relationships with your customers, your competitors are waiting for the opportunity.

Two other noteworthy items to watch: Facebook Business pages and Reviews (more on these in a future blog).

4.  The status of health care may be uncertain, but it should concern small business owners.

Important things to consider as employers and individually:
  • Employers are required to send out notices effective October 1, 2013.  Read more...
  • Just dropping your employees to part-time does not solve the problem; employees are counted as 'full-time equivalents, and according to the ACA, full-time is 30 hours a week.
  • People are just starting to find out now that their current physician's office will no longer take their insurance.  Why should you care?  This could impact you personally, your immediate family (aging parents) and your employees.  
  • Employers that do offer insurance have some additional notification requirements.  You also need to evaluate options - will you provide insurance for the full family?  Or just what is mandated?  How much will the employer/employee be responsible for?  Some employees may be better off if their spouse qualifies for the subsidy and can purchase from the Exchange.

5.  The New Normal.  The Recession officially over, yet it is anything but back to normal.

Two concerning trends that linger, perhaps permanently, are lending and spending.

Small business lending is still a challenge.  One of the biggest issues is lack of capital, in the form of cash and collateral.  Lack of capital is one of the most common reasons that small business loans are turned down. Small business owners should expect to contribute 20-30% CASH towards a loan.

Government-backed SBA loans guarantee 75-85% to a bank, yet the banks will still want to see a significant down payment, in addition to a collateral.  Some good news on the horizon if you will be seeking an SBA 7a loan:  the SBA has announced that as of October 1, 2013 it is waiving loan origination fees for 7a loans under $150,000.  However, this does not relax the requirements for the owner cash contribution; if you will be looking for a loan and do not have any cash to put in, start saving now.

We heart deals!
As you are well aware, spending habits have changed in most parts of the country for the average household.  Whether it is fewer meals out, shopping at consignment stores, or 'staycationing', retail and restaurant spending has not completely bounced back based on my client's input and economic trends.

Retailers:    Customers expect more now than in the past.  It is not enough for a retail store to have Good Customer Service.  Shopping is an 'experience'.

Customers are wise to sales and discounts.  Marc Willson, retail expert of The Willson Company, mentioned that, "It is not good enough to offer a percentage off, such as 25% off; the customer thinks they can get a better deal or wait until it is 50% off" .   He went on to say that instead of $50 as an average sale, $24.95 is the new normal.  Willson suggests tactics like bundling or Buy-one-get-one half off (BOGO), instead of trying to use discounts to attract buyers.

This is impacting restaurant trends as well.  You may have seen this recent article about declining profits at Olive Garden and Red Lobster and how they are struggling to adjust to spending habits.

You will be seeing more blog posts to expand on these timely issues.  I would encourage all business owners to follow your industry trends, regularly meet with your peers or professional associations and remain informed. Staying ahead of the curve can not only help your sales and direct business focus, but protect you from monetary fines for non-compliance, drive creativity and ultimately lower your stress levels by scrambling to keep up.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

ACA Employer Update: Health care notices to employees due October 1st.

There has been a lot in the news about the Affordable Care Act (ACA), employer responsibilities, the Health Exchange and even more information that is confusing or not available yet.  Generally, employers with fewer than 50 full-time equivalent employees are not required to offer employee health coverage under the ACA.  However, small businesses that have even one employee and over $500,000 annual sales are required to notify your employees of exchange programs and provide notices to all employees.

By October 1, 2013, every employer (with at least one employee and over $500,000 annual sales) must provide each employee* with a "Notice of Exchange", or a notice of the availability of health insurance exchanges. *See explanation of employee in next section.

Notices must be emailed or mailed.
One is for those employers that DO provide their employees a group medical plan.

The other is for those that DO NOT provide a group medical plan.

Visit the Department of Labor website for the full ruling and downloadable Word documents of the above letters if you prefer.

Who do employers have to send it to?  

All employers have to provide this to each employee* on their payroll, regardless of hours, regardless of whether they are even eligible for the group plan.  This includes part-time, temporary or seasonal employees.  Again, anyone on payroll, with the exception of COBRA members or retirees.  New hires should be provided the notice within 14 days of hire.

How are employers required to provide the ACA notice to employees?  

Letters due by October 1st!
Employers will have to either mail it or e-mail it.  If mailing, it can be sent via First Class mail.  If e-mailing, you can only e-mail it to employees who have a work e-mail address and who are expected to use the computer at work as part of their normal work duties (for all others, you'll have to use snail-mail). 

Note: Per the requirement, handing the notices out does NOT meet the requirement. 

What does the notice need to say?

According to FindLaw's Betty Wang, notices should include:

  • notification that the exchange exists;
  • a description of the services provided by the exchange;
  • information on how to contact the exchange to request assistance;
  • the employee’s potential eligibility for subsidized coverage on the exchange if your company’s group health plan doesn’t provide “minimum value,”; and
  • the fact that the employee may lose the employer contribution (if any) toward health insurance coverage if he or she chooses to purchase individual coverage on the exchange. FindLaw Blog (September 10, 2013)

Are there more requirements?

If you offer an employer-sponsored health plan, you are probably already familiar with the Summary and Benefits Coverage (SBC) requirements, which state health plans must:
  • Provide a short, easy-to-understand summary of the key features of every plan — including the coverage options available, the benefits provided, cost-sharing rules, and coverage limitations and exceptions.  Click here for a  blank sample and a completed sample.
  • Attach a glossary of terms commonly associated with health insurance, such as “deductible” and “co-pay.”  Here is a sample SBC Glossary.

In Washington State, the Exchange is located online at the Washington Health Plan Finder. Beware of look-alike websites that are operated by insurance companies; start with the Washington Insurance Commissioner's office or make sure the site states that it is the official ACA-compliant health benefit exchange for the state of Washington. 

Navigating the ACA and DOL websites can be tricky.  The SBA is offering a series of free webinars for employers to learn more and if you need assistance, please do not hesitate to call your insurance agent or SBDC advisor.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Methow Valley Local Store Finds its Place in Community

The Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) has a collaborative network of nearly 30 advisors throughout the state to serve small businesses of all shapes and sizes.  Following is a nice write up about a colleague's client in rural Twisp, WA, who has found a niche serving the small communities of the Methow Valley.  Yoga and fish bait in the same store, who would have known?

Carlton General Store
Photo courtesy of WSU News
CARLTON, Wash.--The Carlton General Store on two-lane Highway 153 heading toward Twisp and Winthrop looks like a throwback to an earlier time, with a false front on the weathered, wood-plank building and hand-painted signs advertising bait, ice and gas.

But how to explain the wintertime yoga classes held alongside the ice cream display case, or the Kombucha in the coolers alongside Pabst Blue Ribbon, the quinoa a short distance from the Spam?
It’s all part of owner Jeff Lyman’s plan to create a 21st century general store for the diverse residents of his rural community who share a love of the outdoors and the Methow Valley.

In mid-June the store’s Facebook page had 365 “likes,” which is about the population of Carlton, Lyman said, maybe more. Recent posts included shout-outs to local organic eggs, fresh-picked morels, and hot dogs for $1.50.  
“This is a local’s place,” Lyman said. “There are very few out-of-towner’s here.”

Until buying the General Store in December 2011, Lyman was an out-of-towner himself, albeit one with long ties to the area.  
An avid outdoorsman with a history of working hard to support his fishing habit, Lyman had first visited the Methow Valley with his family when he was a teen and had returned many times since then.
In April 2011 he returned again, this time with the goal of finding a way to support himself as a full-time resident.

The prospect of breathing new life into the store was daunting, Lyman said, and several friends cautioned him against trying. But then he took a second glance and a third good long look.

He made an offer to buy, but no deal was in sight when he packed up his belongings to move back to Wenatchee. Suddenly a deal was on the horizon and Lyman thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”
That’s the point that a friend of Lyman’s told him, “You’ve got to talk with Lew.” Lew Blakeney, is a certified business advisor with the Washington (SBDC).

Before joining the SBDC in 2000, Blakeney had owned his own manufacturing business for 13 years in addition to many years in corporate leadership positions.  Read the full article.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Soccer Referee Punts Game to Market with Help from SBDC Advisor

The Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) has a collaborative network of nearly 30 advisors throughout the state.  Here is a great article on how my colleague in Pullman helped an entrepreneur take a business from the idea stage to reality.  A lesson not only in soccer, but perseverance and patience.

PULLMAN, Wash.--Motivated young soccer players can improve their skills by kicking the ball around, but how do they improve their understanding of the rules of the game. At a higher level, how do they use those rules to their advantage?

It’s a question Aziz Makhani, a youth and adult league soccer referee, has been pondering for years.  Too often, he said, young players seem confused by the technical aspects of the game, or a penalty call, and confusion leads to frustration. During a game he tries to educate as well as officiate, he said, but he knew there had to be a better way.
Image courtesy of WSU News

Then, in 2011 he had a middle-of-the-night epiphany and soon after he started his own business, Sports Cards and Games, as a platform to launch a soccer board game that emphasizes the technical components such as throw-ins, slide tackles and headers—as well as scoring goals. 

That game, KickShot, is now available online at and perhaps at a soccer fundraiser near you.

Makhani said dozens of people have helped him move KickShot from idea to market in little more than a year, but Terry Cornelison, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC), has been his go-to resource from the very beginning.  
Click here to continue reading the full article.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Vancouver Web Company Grows at Manageable Pace

The Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) has a collaborative network of nearly 30 advisors throughout the state to serve small businesses of all shapes and sizes.  Following is an excellent example of how we work with our small business clients to manage and maintain growth and expansion. 

VANCOUVER, Wash.--Webfor, a website design and marketing company had been in business for three years and was showing steady growth.  Then, in early 2012, owner Kevin Getch started meeting with Buck Heidrick, a certified business advisor with the SBDC in Vancouver.

Kevin Getch, Webfor
Over the next 12 months, that steady growth took a momentous leap forward. Rapid growth can be the beginning of the end for a small business, Getch said, but in this case it really is just the beginning. With Heidrick’s help, Getch said, he believes Webfor is well positioned for sustainable growth that will benefit both clients and employees.  

Webfor’s revenues increased 144 percent in 2012 and is on track to grow 100 percent this year.  

Getch said meeting with Heidrick has helped him be proactive rather than reactive. For instance, rather than waiting until the company has more work than it can handle, Getch anticipates growth so that he has time to hire employees with exceptional skills and then has time to train them in Webfor’s brand promise: We treat every company as if it’s our own.

The company started 2012 with two employees and ended the year with seven. Even with the additional hires, Webfor realized a 31 percent profit margin in 2012. Two additional employees joined the team this year and more hires are planned in 2013.

Webfor started out focusing on website design and search engine optimization, but has since expanded to include a broad range of internet marketing services, including branding, logo design, paid search campaign management, copywriting, social media and email marketing.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Four things to consider before jumping into the crowdfunding pool

It seems like Crowdfunding is the latest source for raising start-up capital (if its successful).  Zach Braff has made headlines with his Kickstarter Campaign, raising over $2 million for his new project.

Crowdfunding is not new but lately there has been an increase in also donation-type platforms such as GiveForward to help people with medical bills.  Other popular online fundraising sites are Indiegogo, GoFundMe, and Kiva (micro, micro loans).  These are great ways for alternative funding sources to get your project or business off the ground.

Four things to keep in mind before you put your idea on display to generate funds.
  Ready to jump in?
Microsoft Images
  1. Delivering on your promises.
  2. Protecting your idea/product/service.
  3. Tax consequences.
  4. Plan B...What if you don't reach your goal?

Delivering on your promises.

One thing to consider going into a funding campaign with awards (prizes, perquisites, swag, stuff) is to make sure you can deliver on said promises.  There was an article last year about a company that was successful in their effort but did not deliver on the product and they ended up getting sued.  Also, keep in mind that many of these programs have some expectations of delivering progress updates, for example with a blog, video update or reporting milestones.  

Protecting your idea/product/service.

This is always one of those areas that is commonly of concern for inventors.  What happens if you put your idea online to ask for money and someone else 'steals it'?  Patents and copyrights can be expensive.  If you have a product or service that needs protection, it is advisable to see an IP attorney.  If it is still in the idea stage, you will need to learn how to describe the idea/product/service without giving away the details.  Focus on the benefits and what it does in a short sentence.   

Tax consequences.

This is often overlooked.  Donations may count as revenue in the eyes of the IRS.  In my personal experience, a client that won a cash prize in a business plan competition was really surprised that 25% of their prize went to taxes.  Just be aware...

Plan B...What if you don't reach your goal?

What happens if your campaign is up and you have not met your goal?  What if it wasn't even close?  Every marketing or fundraising campaign should have an evaluation phase.  Look at what worked, re-evaluate your priorities and adjustments.  One common observation is that entrepreneurs can get so focused and passionate about their idea that they forget about how it appears to others.  You may need to go back to the proverbial drawing board with your business plan to look at other funding options, projections or target market.

Read the fine print.
Microsoft Images
Three important tips that can help a campaign be successful:
  • Be sure to read the fine print before you sign up.  Especially how the money comes to you and the expectations are fulfilled.
  • Look at what successful campaigns have done to announce their project. Maybe they did a cool video or offer really unique awards.  Likewise check out others that were not successful and learn from their efforts.
  • Ensure the platform you choose is a good fit.  Some sources are project-driven, others are focused on artistic venues.  Again, looking at what has been funded is important in your due diligence.

Finally, a funding campaign should be part of your overall business plan.  Depending on the success, your campaign may model your marketing or production plans, open new markets and gain a loyal crowd.  

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Want to Start a Blog? 6 Basic Steps

Setting up a blog can be a fairly simple process, depending on your level of tech-savvy.  For starters, it is a good idea to review your favorite blogs or keep a list of features you like on the blogs you frequent.  Equally important is to determine WHY you want to start a blog.  For small business owners, blogging can be an excellent tool to establish yourself as an industry expert, reach out to new and existing customers, drive people to your website and showcase your products.

Part of blogging is not only writing, but reading and researching the topic you are writing about, and hopefully passionate about.  I try to learn as much as I can about Search Engine Optimization (SEO), blogging tips and best practices.  Blogging and websites are a changing landscape.  Once you think you have it figured out, the equation changes. 

What is a blog?  The version of Web Log has evolved into Blog.  It used to be like having an online journal or written thoughts/comments/advice, but that has evolved as well.  It can be whatever you determine - keep friends and family up to date, share pictures, sell product, save costs of developing a website, or just use it as a place to put thoughts in writing.  

I recently attended a free workshop at Tincan (great local resource!) and picked up a few new tips, in addition to reinforcing what I already use.  Ready or not, here are five steps to get you blogging.

1.  Determine your audience.

Who is your target audience?  What is the purpose of the blog - drive customers to the website?  Education?  Sales?

What are your key message points?  How does a blog integrate with your overall marketing strategy?

Developing a strategy of why you want to blog will help you plan your resources to optimize your time and money.  Who will be responsible for writing content and updating regularly?

2.  Choose a platform, name and template.

In this case, platform is not referring to shoes, but the type of blogging program you intend to use.  I have been blogging for over six years and have used both WordPress and Blogger.  They are both free and each has some nice features and are equally user friendly.  Personally, I would give a slight advantage to Blogger regarding uploading pictures and copying and pasting content and links.

In choosing your platform, consider your choice of name and check availability on each.  If you are setting up a new website or domain, it's a good idea to Another thing to consider is what you want your site to look like (#4) and scope out templates in advance.

3.  Create content.

This goes back to who your audience is, what the purpose of the blog is and what your key messages are.  I recommend using an editorial calendar to track your 'time budget' and message points.  For example, if you are going to post one article a week, I would suggest lining out a year. You do not have to have exact ideas, but it will help in guiding your writing.  The whole point is to establish yourself as THE expert in your field.  You want to provide content that provides value, not just advertise your latest special.

For example, you are a massage therapist.  Your key message points (your brand) are  1) Improving overall personal health 2) Relaxation and 3) Insurance Approved. You can incorporate articles about those three topics in your blog posts.

4.  Go live!

Before your blog is 'live', it is a good idea to populate it with more than just one 'welcome to my blog' post.  Your blogging platform should give you the capability to keep things in draft format and then you can save some 'in the can' so they are ready to go when you have a few written.

5.  Keep it fresh, relevant and informative.

Blogs can help drive traffic to your website.  Keep your blogs relevant, informative and post regularly. Some web visitors will evaluate your website (i.e., business) on how current your blog is.  If you visit a "Company Blog" page and see that there are three posts from 2011, it can give the unfavorable impression that the company is not staying with the times.  Blogging is a great way to let your customers know about industry trends, upcoming special events and of course, your products and services.  

Three blog content tips:

  1. Include pictures.  See the picture on reading patterns, people skim!
  2. Use small paragraphs, two to three sentences.
  3. SEO likes bulleted and numbered lists.  

6.  Most important tip to successful blogging:

You have to stick with it.  A blog or website is a work in progress - it is never done.  See my post for more tips to use your blog to drive traffic to your website.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Checklist for Starting a Business in Spokane

Now that the beginning of the new year has come and gone, I have had a flurry of calls about starting a business in Spokane, surrounding areas and/or Washington State, many with the same questions:  Do I need a business license? How do I set up an LLC? How do I get a trade name? I thought it would be helpful to run through a few of the state, city and federal registration requirements for business owners to be aware of before they open.

Here are some steps to get started.
1.  Do a business plan.
2.  Do a business plan.
3.  Do a business plan.

We cannot emphasize enough how important preparing a business plan is to the success of your business venture!  But seriously, following are seven items to consider regarding licensing and other requirements.  

A business plan does not have to be a formal, lengthy document, but addressing some key issues before you dive in will pay off in the long run.  If you will be seeking any sort of financing, you will need to write a solid business plan with realistic financial projections.

Once you have a business plan, and have gotten input from an SBDC Advisor, SCORE Counselor or other business mentor, here are the next steps to formalize your business in Washington State.

1.  Determine business structure. 

Will you set up as a sole proprietor?  LLC?  Corporation?  What are the differences?  I recommend checking with your CPA or accountant to determine the best structure for you and your family or company.  Once you determine how your entity will be formed, you should check the zoning (#2), select a business name (#3), read the requirements carefully for each entity and consider how you will operate your business.  For example, do you have to file Articles of Incorporation with the state?  Do you have an operating agreement?  Will you be governed by a corporate board of directors?  How will owners or officers be compensated?  What else should you consider?  

2.  Verify zoning.

Do you have a business location?  Will you set up a home office?  Is the type of business allowed in the location you have selected?  These are all questions you should answer before filing your business structure papers with the Secretary of State.  In some cities, certain types of businesses are not allowed in residential areas.  Typically if you will not be seeing clients or customers at your home, you do not need a special Home Occupation License or Conditional Use Permit, state and city business licenses are sufficient.  In some cases, there may be additional permits or requirements (i.e. , retail in residential, daycare, health care, etc.).  It's a good idea to check with your local municipality before you get started.  

3.  Determine and research a business name.

Does the sign match the 
message for this car lot?
One of the first things you can do is check to make sure the name you want is available.  You can conduct a Trade Name Search through Washington State to ensure that no other entity has the business name you wish to use.  Registering a Trade Name is different than registering a Trademark.  It is also a good idea to conduct a Google Search and domain name search. Another entity could have the name protected, own the web domain or have a poor reputation.

Finally, in determining a business name, consider your key message points and how your name will appeal (or deter) potential customers.  If you use initials, look at the acronym.  Is it a family or some other emotionally significant name? Will people be able to find, pronounce or remember it?  If it is a made up name, will you use a tagline to explain what you do?

Once you've settled on a name, you can register the Trade Name or add a separate DBA (Doing Business As) name at the same time you acquire your state business license (next step).

4.  Apply for a Washington State Business License (UBI Number).

Getting your Washington State Business License is easy to do and you can apply online.  It is helpful to have your pertinent business information handy and more important to apply once you have your ducks in a row (entity formation, name, trade name), rather than trying to change it after the fact.  Taking the time to do it right can save you time and money in the long run.  
Example of what not to do: You may apply for a business license and get a UBI number.  Then you apply online to register your LLC with the State.  Then the Secretary of State issues a new UBI number.  Now you've got to try and straighten matters out with the state and possibly the IRS.  I talked with the Secretary of State's office and the representative said that this can be a huge mess.  If you DO get a UBI number first, contact the SOS office before filing incorporation papers.   The same goes for changing business structure.  It can be a costly lesson to change from a Corporation to an LLC.  
The State has recently partnered with a number of cities to streamline the registration process.   Locally you can obtain a license for the cities of Spokane, Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake in conjunction with your State registration.  Fees and regulations vary by city.

5.  Obtain any specialty licenses or permits.

It is a good idea before you apply for a business license to check the Department of Licensing's page to verify if you need an additional permit and also know the regulations for the industry.

If you are opening a restaurant, bakery or coffee shop, contact the Regional Health District at the very beginning of the process.  The health department has very strict regulations with any sort of food industry and has to approve design plans.

Other industries require specialty licenses as well through Labor and Industries (L&I), Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and others.  General Contractors, Electricians, Hair Stylists, and day cares are just some examples.  The last thing you want to have happen is to invest any amount of money into a business to later learn that the location is not eligible or you do not qualify for the additional license.

6.  Set up an account with Department of Revenue and Labor & Industries (if needed).

Once the business license application is approved, it will prompt the Department of Revenue to contact you to establish a vendor account for reporting sales tax and to pay any business and/or sales taxes.  If you checked the box on the business license application that you will be hiring employees, L&I will contact you to set up an account for reporting worker's compensation insurance.  Not sure how to report?  Both agencies offer free workshops for business owners.  

7.  Contact the Internal Revenue Service for your Federal Tax ID Number.

The IRS will issue you an EIN, Employer Identification Number or TIN, Tax Identification Number (social Security Number in some cases).  Generally, businesses need an EIN.

8.  Get your business checking account.

Banks will typically require some sort of proof that you have started a business, i.e., articles of incorporation, state business license, EIN.  It is strongly advised that you keep your business and personal funds separate.

There are numerous other things a business owner should take into account before starting a business, but these are just a few of the steps to take in order to get a business established in Washington State.