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C'mon, Man!

Allen Jezouit, @BerkshireCountyBusiness

I have to go on a little rant here. I'm feeling a little like Keyshawn Johnson talking about Matt Leinart here.

In case you haven't heard, the newspaper industry is facing some tough times. This past week, we placed some newspaper ads for a client in 5 newspapers in the midwest ... cities like Wichita, KC, and St. Louis to name a few. As this is not an area we have done ads for before, we needed to fill out credit apps with all of the papers. Do you know that of the 5 newspaper credit app forms I filled out, 4 of them didn't provide me with a fax number?

Can you imagine the sheer stupidity? It is almost a joke. Here it is, they are making me fill out this form like I'm buying a house with personal guarantees and all other kinds of crap that makes me stop and think already. Then, to make me have to make a phone call or surf your website to find your fax number because you weren't considerate enough to put it on the form for me? Why don't you try to make it a little harder to do business with you? I'm already steering many clients away from you because the data shows you're not as effective as online marketing or television for many demographics and product types. Your readership is in the toilet, the ad dollars are voting with their feet, and you're on the outside looking in. And, yet, I have a client who loves newspapers, so there I am placing ads ... and you're making it hard for me. Brilliant!

Where's the tiniest little investment in IT to make the credit stuff a self-serve deal for your clients? We provide a few pieces of information, and you get all of the rest of the information you need from my credit report and my company's credit report? Why make me manually fill out a form? If I have to provide any info, why not let me type the info into a form instead of trying to write neatly on the tiny lines of a form that should be 3 pages long but is crammed onto a single page? And, how about a little investment in your office supplies? You're a multi-million dollar business and you are faxing me a credit app that literally looks like it has been photocopied about 100 times and you're still faxing it out - more gray than white, a coffee stain at the bottom, the old logo from before the merger, etc.

As they say on ESPN's football pre-game, "C'mon, man!"

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Employee #5

Allen Jezouit, @BerkshireCountyBusiness

Jeff and I hired employee #5 this week - a full-time web developer. A huge step to say the least. Our first full-time hire since we purchased the business in April. We simply needed the capacity he provides, not to mention the rock-solid PHP skills and all kinds of knowledge about WHM, cPanel, SQL databases, phpMyAdmin, etc. We're really thrilled to have him here - his skill sets and demeanor are a perfect fit for our small team.

It is a frightening thing, hiring these days, given the economic news locally and nationally. Yet, we can't grow without the additional capacity ... and we want to grow. There's really no trade-off. To grow you must invest, whether it be in capital equipment, facilities, training, people, marketing, whatever. Downturns like the one we are currently in are opportunities for growth. You can seize market share from your competitors by releasing a new product or service. You can also seize market share by advertising when others have stopped or cut back. Downturns are good times to acquire a weaker competitor, too.

Businesses started during recessions have gone on to some pretty big successes. A blog by Darren Dahl on AOL Small Business (Top Companies Started During a Recession, 5/10/2010) provides some interesting historical perspective. GE (1890), IBM (1896), GM (1908), Disney (1923), Burger King (1953), Microsoft (1975), CNN (1980), and Apple (2001 - the year of Apple's rebirth with the launch of the iPod) all started during tough economies.

I told #5 when we hired him that there are some phenomenally wealthy people out there who had single-digit employee ID#'s at the right company. How much do you think employee #5 from Google is worth today? Is our little company ever going to be that big? Who knows? That's the great thing about this country ... it could be. With the right combination of ideas, guts, and luck, the sky is truly the limit. It just takes the confidence to make that first step. So, we hired #5 this week ...

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Is anyone else feeling this way?

Allen Jezouit, @BerkshireCountyBusiness

There was an article in the Times-Union yesterday entitled, "Economy looking up in the Berkshires" (Eric Anderson, Business Editor). Mr. Anderson cites "blockbuster events, warm, dry weather, and a recovering economy" as being the reasons for the boost in tourist activity here this summer which has helped the local economy. He specifically cited the Wilco event at Mass MoCA, Tanglewood's strong summer season, and a "40% rise in ticket sales" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival as being some of the reasons behind the stronger than expected season.

Yet, for those of us who live here full-time who aren't involved in the tourist industry or cultural venues, the economy in the Berkshires isn't all roses.

  • I recently spoke to a realtor who told me that over 105 homes were on the market just in Williamstown. That was MLS listings alone and didn't include FSBO and Assist2Sell homes. A more typical number of homes on the market for Williamstown would be in the 40-60 units range.

  • A recent article in the Berkshire Eagle ("Vacancies, dearth of visitors plague mall", Tony Dobrowolski, 8/29/2010) spoke to the struggles of the Berkshire Mall in Lanesboro. Mr. Dobrowolski cited 17 dark storefronts out of 74 in the mall, which is a 23% vacancy rate.

  • The hospitals in North Adams and Pittsfield are both in deep fiscal distress.

My feeling is that it is incumbent upon those of us who live and work here to take a deep look at how we got to where we are in terms of our local economy. There is all kinds of data available that speaks to the fragility of economies who rely solely on consumptive industries like tourism, retail, and culture. We need our elected leadership and appointed personnel to work with local businesses and institutions on formulating a strategy that will bring real jobs here over the next 10 years.

Sustainability isn't just about the environment. Continuing down the same path we are on is not the answer.

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Websites That Work

Jeff Stripp, @BerkshireCountyBusiness

What Makes a Website Work?

When I engage in a website project I like to get a good understanding of the objective of the business and try to translate that into a website. Often times there is a disconnect between business objectives, functionality and design. In other words, most business owners want their websites to look good first and then they think about the objective of the website and the functionality needed to achieve their business goals. I believe there are three essential elements a business owner must consider when pondering a redesign or building a new website:

  1. affordable – most independent business owners have budgets and contrary to some beliefs a successful website does not need to break the bank.
  2. attractive – most business owners love the idea of and engage in the” design” of the site, this is the fun part where ideas and inspirations are shared. Your website should be your number one marketing tool and developing an attractive site that you can be proud of should be a priority. Your website should give visitors confidence in you and your business.
  3. effective – Through the years, I have seen some beautifully designed websites but were not very effective. In my book, effectiveness comes first – you're wasting your time and money if you focus too much on the “eye candy”. Instead make sure your website does something for your business. Fancy graphics, special fonts and other nice to haves are useless if your visitors can’t find what they are looking for and accomplish what they want to do.

Having designed many websites we know there is a happy medium between these three key elements. Business owners should strive to achieve a balance between these three elements when thinking about a redesign or new website.

To get folks started here is a short list of the Top Ten Things that Make Websites Work:.

  1. Use a platform that “you” can modify, update and control yourself
  2. Make sure your site plays nice with Google, Bing and Yahoo
  3. Incorporate a blog into your site – and commit to posting
  4. Make it easy for potential and existing clients/customers to contact or communicate with you
  5. Integrate social media – be social and have conversations with your customer and prospects
  6. Develop a loyal following – fans, friends, subscribers…
  7. Write content that helps your visitors – make it about them (NOT you)
  8. Define a step by step marketing funnel – make it clear on front end and easy to use on the back end
  9. Inspire your visitors to take action – what do you want them to do once they reach your website?
  10. Install the tools to consistently measure, and evaluate your site
  11. BONUS: Constantly review and refine your site – your site is a living tool that should be leveraged and not left to die on the vine
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Keep a Line in the Water

Allen Jezouit, @BerkshireCountyBusiness

My dad and I spend a lot of time fishing on the beach in Rhode Island. Surf fishing can be hard work. The equipment is much larger and heavier than freshwater gear and after a full day of hiking on the beach and rocks in the fresh salt air, sleep comes easy. One simple rule we always try to follow whenever we are on the beach is this: someone is always casting. No matter how tired we are, you've always got to have a line in the water. When we get to the point that neither of us can cast anymore, then it is time to head back to the ranch for some sack time. The fish move in and out all the time, following schools of bait, and they aren't always showing on the surface. If everyone in your group is sitting on the beach shooting the bull and no one is casting, who knows what you're missing?

A friend of mine does canoe trips up to the Boundary Waters on the Minnesota border with Canada every year. While they are paddling from one spot to another, they always troll their lines behind their canoe and occasionally pickup some fish that way. By always having a line in the water, they maximize their fish catching potential on their trip - and since they can only pack so much food in with them, how much they catch has a direct correlation to whether or not they eat well on the trip.

A business' website can be that line in the water, always ready in case any customers swim past. Even if your store or office is closed and your phone lines are going to voice mail, your website can hook'em and land'em for you. If your website is going to be effective there are a couple of simple rules to follow:

1) Your site needs to be found when people are searching. For the most part, this means you need to figure out how to climb to the top of the Google rankings. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a rapidly evolving science. It requires an investment in time and effort to be successful. If you don't know how to do it yourself, you need to invest in having someone do it for you.

2) Your site needs to convert visitors into sales, leads, Facebook friends, whatever you are after. If you are after email addresses for follow up marketing, then when people click to your site from Google search results, the email collection "widget" better be visible on the page they land on. If you are after Facebook friends, then visitors better land on a page that has a Facebook icon on it.  Don' t make people click around your site to find the place where they can convert - because they won't. The conversion opportunity MUST be on the page they land on.

So, do you have a line in the water now? Potential customers are always swimming past.

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