Friday, March 25, 2011

5 Excellent Small Business Blogs To Learn From

A company blog is a useful tool for small businesses hoping to give others a glimpse into the company while also promoting the company's products and services.

While it's never a good idea to spam readers with irrelevant promotional messages, there are plenty of ways to provide valuable information and resources to existing and potential customers.

Here are five small businesses that are using a blog to reach local communities and showcase the company's experience and expertise. We've outlined exactly what they're doing right as a guide for other small businesses to improve their own blogging activities.

1. Cure Thrift Shop: Showcase products with visual creativity

Cure Thrift Shop is a non-profit organization in New York City that donates 100 percent of proceeds to the Diabetes Research Institute. While the company focuses completely on philanthropic endeavors, it sets up a great example for other retailers hoping to create successful blogs.

Multiple times daily, Cure staffers update the company blog with creative pictures of new furniture arrivals, standout antiques, fashion inspirations and sale alerts.

Cure hosts its blog on Tumblr, which is known for fostering a community that appreciates beautiful photography. The thrift shop's quirky photos of one-of-a-kind objects fit right into the Tumblr mix while also letting followers know what's new at the shop.

2. The Brooklyn Kitchen: Say it with a video

Small business owners usually have a fair amount of expertise to share with the world. A blog can be a wonderful place to flaunt all of that pent-up knowledge—incorporating videos, though, can take your advice to the next level.

The folks over at The Brooklyn Kitchen understand the virtue of nicely-produced videos. The team creates how-to videos for its cooking-crazed fans. Whether they're showing viewers how to shuck oysters or clean a blade grinder, The Brooklyn Kitchen crew focuses on providing useful and targeted information in a high-quality format.

One of my favorite videos they've produced is a gem on how to saber a champagne bottle, as demonstrated by co-owner Harry Rosenblum. This is the type of how-to you'd only expect to get from a group of passionate foodies. Readers value that type of expertise, especially when they feel they can't find it elsewhere.

3. Sweetgreen: Think big

With seven locations in the D.C. area and one outside Philadelphia, Sweetgreen is a restaurant that offers all-natural salads and frozen yogurts—it's a healthy, sustainable business that immerses itself into local culture. The company's website explains, "We don't believe that you can have a successful business in an unsuccessful community."

Based on that idea, Sweetgreen's founders aim to make a positive difference in their community. The Sweetgreen blog captures all of the community activities that the company is sponsoring and taking part in, along with the usual day-to-day activities of running a restaurant. You can find the team throwing music festivalshosting nutrition classes at local schools, or just concocting mouth-watering seasonal salads.

The blog acts as a central place where all company activities can be followed. The team maintains a great balance between community-focused posts and product-driven updates.

4. Birchbox: Invite guest writers

Birchbox, a startup subscription service that enables customers to sample beauty products before buying them, updates its blog multiple times per day, focusing on beauty and health tips. To keep content fresh, Birchbox editors bring in guest bloggers from top beauty and health companies and blogs to share their recommendations.

So far, the guest blogging program has included the likes of Dorothy McGivney, founder of travel newsletter Jauntsetter; Grace Atwood of beauty blog Stripes and Sequins; and Elizabeth Dehn, founder of beauty and wellness blog Beauty Bets.

Creating a guest blogger program is a great way to diversify content and bring in writers with experience and perspective in areas that the company's core bloggers may not be specialized in. Consider inviting guest writers to blog on your site if you're looking to expand into content areas that your company isn't as familiar with. For example, if your company hosts a blog about cooking, but would like to pair those dishes with tasty cocktails, consider inviting a mixologist to help kick off that venture.

5. Emerson Salon: Get social and personal

There are plenty of blogs out there that are good at integrating social media, and there is another subset of blogs that excel at identifying the people behind the cog. But there aren't too many sites that manage to blend those two successfully. Emerson Salon, a tech-savvy hair salon in Seattle, is one small business that has tackled that formula and come out on top.

Salon owners Matt Buchan and Alex Garcia run their business with the goal of building a community, both online and offline. On the salon's website, users see a thorough overview of the company's digital footprint, including links to its FacebookTwitter and Yelp pages.

Social pages for the company are to be expected, but Emerson Salon also highlights each of its employees with bio pages for each of its stylists. A typical page includes information on a stylist's professional experience, favorite local spots and interests, along with links to social profiles and a feed of his or her latest blog posts on the site. Each stylist blogs about the latest hair trends and tips, showcasing his unique thoughts on particular topics.

Personal touches on a blog, like adding profile pages and social contact information for individual specialists, make a business seem more approachable.

Your favorite small business blogs

Because small business blogs usually service local communities, finding their blogs on the wider Internet can be difficult. We know we've missed a slew of wonderful, locally-run blogs, so let us know which are your favorites in the comments below.

By Erica Swallow
Erica Swallow is an Associate Editor, Partner Content at Mashable, working primarily on writing, editing and managing supported feature content, with a particular focus on business and marketing. Erica is an international speaker, having most recently spoken at WOMMA Summit in Las Vegas, Social Marketers Summit in Prague and Social Media Brasil in São Paulo.

Image courtesy of FlickrRobert S. Donovan 

Monday, March 21, 2011

10 Essential Online Resources for Preparing Your Small Business Taxes

With record-keeping and quarterly payments, tax planning is a year-round event for the small business owner.

Tax-related activities, though, inevitably take on a new sense of urgency as April 15 looms near. While tax time can seem overwhelming for the time-pressed small business owner, there are many online tools and forums available to make the process a little easier and stress-free. Here are 10 of our favorites.

Preparing and Filing Your Taxes Online

Sitting down with a professional who specializes in small businesses is always a smart idea, particularly during the first year or two of operations. However, not every business owner wants to shoulder the costs of hiring an expert to help fill out relatively routine fields on their Schedule C.

If you opt to use an online or software-based tax preparation tool, be aware that not all solutions (particularly the free tools) accommodate business tax filers. Before you sign up for any service, download software, or invest time filling out your information, make sure that the service supports the common business forms.

The following is a selection of tools available for small businesses:

  • IRS e-file: The IRS offers electronic filing options for Employment Tax Returns, Information Returns, Partnerships, Corporations, Estates & Trusts, plus Exempt Organizations.
  • TurboTax: A popular tool for personal income filers, TurboTax from Intuit also offers software to guide small businesses through the filing process. The software helps you make sure you're taking advantage of every business deduction and write-off. A sole proprietor, consultant, 1099 contractor, or single-owner LLC should use the Home & Business version; S Corps, partnerships, C Corps, or multiple-owner LLCs should use the Business version. Free e-filing is included in both versions.
  • H&R Block Tax Software: Two versions are available for businesses: Premium & Business (LLCs, S-Corps, C-Corps) and Premium (sole proprietors). Even if you decide not to pay for the tax filing software, check out H&R Block's small business tax preparation checklist as a great starting point to get organized and make sure you're thinking about every possible expense and income source.
  • Tax Act Business: Tax Act has separate federal and state editions for business tax forms 1065, 1120S, and 1120.
Managing Your Paper Receipts

Whether you're a road warrior or work strictly from the home office, you'll probably find yourself overwhelmed with the amount of receipts accumulated throughout the year. All too often, receipts are stuffed into pockets, end up on the car floor, are run through the washing machine -- every lost or illegible receipt represents a missed opportunity to deduct a well-deserved expense for your business.

If manually managing paper receipts in a file system and spreadsheet isn't working out for you, here are two alternative ideas:

  • Shoeboxed: This service takes the paper receipts off your hands. You can scan your receipts and upload them to your Shoeboxed account. Or, you can mail in the paper receipts and they'll handle the scanning and data entry for you. There's also an iPhone app (as pictured above), or you can take images of receipts with a digital camera. Online, you can sort your receipts, create charts and graphs, and export data to Quicken, Excel, or PDF. There are different monthly and annual plans, as well as a free trial. There are a number ofexpense report and receipt tracking apps out there, so definitely shop around to find the one that fits your needs.
  • NeatReceipts: You can purchase your own portable scanner from NeatReceipts which lets you scan receipts (up to a full-sized document) to your PC or Mac. You're able to export data to PDF, Excel, Quicken, QuickBooks, and TurboTax.
Getting Help Online

Whether it's your first or fifteenth year as a business owner, you're bound to run into tax-related questions from time to time. Does deducting my home office really increase my chance of an audit? How can I deduct my health insurance? When traveling for business, are there limits on the amount I can deduct for my meals? Can I deduct the parking ticket I got while visiting a client?

If you haven't hired a CPA or tax preparer, don't despair -- you can still find answers to your specific questions online. Browse through community forums and post your own questions online. You'll get answers from business owners just like you. Of course, as with any online community, the quality and accuracy of answers may vary. But hopefully, the "wisdom of the crowd" will filter out the incorrect or less than helpful information. Here's a short list of various online forums catering to the small business owner and self-employed individual.

  • Small business and self-employed tax center at the IRS: The IRS has been beefing up its online resources -- the small business tax center offers FAQs, tax tips, help videos, and more. Most importantly, it offers highlights of the year's tax law changes -- for example, a new deduction for health insurance costs in computing self-employment taxes for 2010 (part of the Small Business Jobs Act), is outlined. It also includes helpful information on home office deductions.
  • Business Taxes: While not a community forum, this site compiles some useful information, definitions, and articles for small businesses.
Of course, trying to get your head around all the deductions and forms is not easy, particularly when you're just starting out. The IRS estimates that filing your own business taxes will take approximately 52 hours. Keeping your finances in order throughout the whole year can help immensely come tax time. If this is your first year filing business taxes, be sure to learn from the experience. For example, if gathering the details and documentation for a section (like your mileage deductions) is particularly time-consuming, take some time to think about what you could do throughout the year to improve the situation when it's tax time next year. And then, of course, you can turn to the Web for guidance when the time has come.


Image credit: Pgiam 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Shortcuts On How To Increase Increase Your Bottom Line With Government Contracts

By Lourdes Martin-Rosa

When a slow economy forces most businesses to reduce spending, one enormous customer continues to spend: the federal government. Just in 2009, the U.S. government spent $96.8 billion on products and services supplied by small businesses, including $33.5 billion with small, disadvantaged firms and $16.4 billion with women-owned small businesses.

Given the government's procurement goals of awarding 23% of their spending to small businesses and 5% to women-owned businesses, federal contracting is an important avenue of growth for many small businesses--and now more than ever women-owned small businesses--to consider.

The Small Business Administration's (SBA) long-awaited Women's Procurement Program to expand federal contracting opportunities for women-owned small businesses takes effect Friday, making federal contracting a more viable revenue booster for women business owners.

According to American Express OPEN's government contracting survey of small business owners, two-thirds of women whose firms do business with the federal government generate more than $1 million in sales, despite taking nearly two years, on average, to land their first contract.

There are, however, important steps you must take to pursue federal contracts. Following are key steps, plus useful tips that can improve your chances of landing your first government contract.

Introduce yourself
As with any client, the first step in seeking a federal contract is to make your business known. That means registering your company's information to the Central Contractor Registration (CCR)--the primary vendor database for the federal government. Registration is free. (Currently, there are close to 80,000 women-owned small businesses registered to do business with the government.)

When registering, there are a few important tips to keep in mind. First, make sure that the small-business owner is registered as the primary point of contact. Second, be sure to identify your company's industry categories or NAICS (North American Industry Classification Codes). Third, explore if your business qualifies as a small business on the SBA websites.

If your business is owned by a minority, woman, service-disabled veteran, or located in a particular area, for example, you may have an edge in government contracting.

Also seek any possible benefits offered by the 8(a) Business Development or HUB-Zone programs from the SBA. The 8(a) program was created to help small disadvantaged businesses compete in the American economy and access the federal procurement market. The HUB-Zone program provides federal contracting opportunities for qualified small businesses located in Historically Underutilized Business Zones areas.

If your business qualifies for either of these programs, you may be eligible for sole source, "no bid" contracts up to $4 million in products and services and/or $6 million in manufacturing.

Know your customer

Once you're properly registered in the CCR database, the next step is to learn about the government as a customer. Successful government contractors routinely peruse Fed Biz Opps, an online listing of government contracts that detail all contracts with a value exceeding $25,000. Small business owners can search for contracts that are designated as small-business set-asides and peruse all contracts to better understand what the government is looking for.
When you find a good match for your company, you can bid on contracts directly.

Another valuable resource is, where you can research contracts by state, industry and several other categories to obtain information on where the money is going. Create a summary search and you can find out who are the largest government contractors within your geographical area, how much the contracts were awarded for and how long the contract will last.

Narrow down your search

The federal government has over 60 federal agencies and thousands of sub-agencies underneath it. From Acquisition Central, you can view upcoming future contracts and learn key insights on creating a strategic marketing plan. The site also provides contracting officer contact information.

An additional resource is the General Services Administration (GSA) Schedule Program. The GSA acts as the "purchasing store" for nearly $66 billion in federal spending, accounting for more than one-fourth of the government's total procurement dollars.

The Amex survey of small business owners found that getting on the GSA Schedule could be an important strategy for winning government business. Under the GSA Multiple Award Schedule Program, GSA establishes long-term, 20-year government-wide acquisition contracts with commercial companies, providing government buyers with direct access to more than 10 million products and services. This program accounts for more than $40 billion in sales every year.

Want to know how much the federal government is purchasing your products and services for? Explore the GSA eLibrary where thousands of GSA Advantage Pricing Catalogs are posted to help federal buyers with their procurement orders. Viewing these prices and services can be a valuable tool to determine your pricing strategy.

Seek out potential partners

An effective way many first-timers gain entry into the world of government contracting is to work as a subcontractor for a company that has been awarded a federal contract. To learn of opportunities with larger firms who have already won contracts, keep an eye out when perusing Fed Biz Opps. Any contract for more than $550,000 in products and services and $1 million in construction should have a small-business subcontracting plan.

Business owners can also search for potential teaming partners based on industry, geography and other specific attributes by registering on Once your company profile is complete and you are logged in, you will be able to search for potential teaming partners anywhere in the U.S.

Business owners that team or subcontract to procure federal contracts are far more likely to win those dollars. Compared with active small contractors overall, the survey found that small-business owners who employ teaming or subcontracting strategies win 50% more contracts.

Do your homework

Gaining entry into the world of government contracts can be complicated and time consuming, but by following the steps above and continuing to research and pursue opportunities, you'll be well on your way to landing your first federal contract.

Lourdes Martin-Rosa has over two decades of experience in helping small businesses navigate the procurement landscape. In addition to being an American Express OPEN advisor on government contracting, she is also the president of Government Business Solutions.