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Guest post by Jonathon Morgan, CEO at Yonder The Information Age has ushered in a golden era of interconnectivity. Astute observers of this phenomenon are aware that the new reality is both a blessing and a curse. The most creative and innovative brands have been strategic about using the internet as a platform to create community and meaningfully connect with their audience. At the same time, this interconnectivity means that all types of information — true, false, helpful, and harmful — can spread in the blink of an eye. According to a 2021 report by Visual Objects, 67 percent of consumers try to understand a company’s online presence before even considering the brand, further proving the importance of ensuring the most accurate information is being shared across the web. For communications teams, this challenge presents a tremendous opportunity to step up and lead their businesses as the first responders in mitigating brand risk. Communications professionals are on the front lines of protecting brand integrity Communications professionals are typically the first to see when a viral narrative is emerging. Perhaps your brand is suddenly trending, a spokesperson for your company is being targeted online, or your brand is being boycotted, as seen when Coca-Cola held a stance against the Georgia Voter Law earlier this year. The first step is to identify the origin of these online conversations. Because strategic communications teams typically serve horizontally across organizations, they are uniquely positioned to work cross-functionally and coordinate a response in the event of a crisis. However, “crisis” is the keyword here: It may not be worth your time and your company resources to overreact when something about your brand goes viral online. Social intelligence tools can play an unprecedented role here. First and foremost, effective social intelligence tools can determine whether these online conversations are authentic or inauthentic. Modern marketing and communications teams are adopting social intelligence tools in order to know what’s coming day-to-day, make strategic daily decisions that mitigate risk, and stay in control of their brand’s image. Why do viral incidents still catch brands off-guard? Unfortunately, it’s still very common to see these incidents catch communications teams off guard. This is because most teams only have traditional social monitoring and listening tools in place. While these systems tune into keywords, trends, and hashtags on mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter, they have a huge blindspot: they can’t monitor fringe channels online. Remember when QAnon conspiracy theorists targeted Wayfair, claiming that the company was trafficking children through their website? Although this claim was blatantly false, this faction knew that using a well-known brand as a vehicle to spread disinformation would garner more attention for their conspiracy. And it worked: What started out as a single Tweet quickly turned into mass media headlines and primetime coverage. Online chatter that appears to come out of nowhere can shape a brand’s reputation and bottom line in a matter of days or even hours. Another way that brands get caught off guard is when factions troll their company executives, employees, and other spokespeople. Factions are often able to get an off-the-cuff reaction out of them, further spreading their agenda through this opportunistic publicity. Most brands have executives, board members, and spokespeople that have established some political affiliations, either through communicating their stance on hotbed issues online, through charitable giving, or through their informal relationships with organizations. And who could forget how the “WallStreetBets” subreddit boosted GameStop’s shares in defiance of all market norms, eventually costing hedge funds billions of dollars? The most influential internet factions are experts at tapping into the infrastructure of private forums and chat rooms to rapidly spread their message. How to make your brand less vulnerable to viral stories online With a social intelligence tool, your brand can determine where a viral event was initiated, who started it, and who is amplifying it. Traditional social analytics tools are not capable of answering these critical questions. Once your brand’s marketing or communications team understands the motivations of the online faction responsible for starting a petition, spreading a hashtag, or otherwise sharing some kind of viral message, they can determine what sort of impact their actions online could have on the narrative and your brand’s integrity Based on the faction’s historical track record, your team can assess the likely trajectory of the narrative: Will it spread to channels or audiences that matter to your brand? If the viral narrative is authentic, it’s imperative that you take action. Inauthentic conversations are spread via bots, low-quality accounts, and other methods for making a few voices sound much louder online. But even an inauthentic narrative that’s being manipulated to appear authentic can be a threat to your brand’s reputation and valuation. At times, addressing the narrative can further incite it. Social intelligence platforms can provide your brand with insights that can help decide whether or not to take action by activating your leadership and communication team. For example, Yonder can monitor the source of the information and other non-mainstream channels (think: 4chan, Gab, and Parler) in case the narrative takes a turn that would represent a crisis for your brand. Social intelligence can empower your strategic communications team to completely avoid these incidents. If an incident has already occurred, using these same social intelligence tools can provide data-backed answers and a plan. With these tools, communications teams can provide insights and data that are relevant across many different company functions, including public relations and analytics. Incorporating social intelligence tools into your communications strategy can also monitor emerging narratives around high-level issues that impact your industry, making sure you don’t get caught in the crosshairs of advocacy groups that are instigating petitions and boycotts. It has been clear for some time that managing these communications crises is a high-level process, not a one-time effort. Brands that are doing the work now to preemptively prepare for viral online stories will be less vulnerable than those that try to default to their gut instinct.Jonathon Morgan is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer at Yonder. Prior to Yonder, he published research about extremist groups manipulating social media with the Brookings Institution, The Atlantic, and the Washington Post, presented at NATO’s Center of Excellence for Defense Against Terrorism, the United States Institute for Peace, and the African Union. Mogan also served as an adviser to the US State Department, developing strategies for digital counter-terrorism. He regularly provides commentary about online disinformation for publications such as New York Times, NBC, NPR, and Wired.1.
Guest Post by Sheryl Pflaum, President, Americas at Collinson One year from the WHO’s confirmation of COVID-19 as a global pandemic, the world has shifted and responded to unforeseen challenges in ways we never could have predicted. Like many organizations, when the virus first started to spread across the world, our traveler experiences company immediately adapted to the changing travel ecosystem. We used our global expertise in medical assistance, including epidemic and pandemic management, as well as our knowledge of traveler experience to support getting the world traveling safely again. Now, after a year of living with the pandemic, we’re thinking back on what we’ve learned — and asking important questions about what’s coming next for the travel industry. There will continue to be implications for businesses across the travel industry and within the finance sector as well, including small to large businesses within transportation and hospitality, as well as financial services like credit card companies with travel rewards. Lesson #1: Collaboration beats competition As it became clear that COVID-19 would not be contained within borders, we saw challenges arise as organizations and governments around the world attempted to collaborate in unprecedented ways to protect public health, and address how to restart travel with health and hygiene as the priority. While efforts at collaboration did not always succeed, the partnerships that did have led the way in responding to the pandemic. Collinson's efforts included launching the first COVID-19 testing centers in the UK’s biggest airports and partnering with Singapore Airlines for its pre-departure testing offer. These would not have been possible without collaboration. We continue to work closely with governments across the globe, airlines, and other key industry players in order to make these initiatives a reality and to constantly adjust our service to meet the swiftly changing needs of destination governing authorities to comply with their latest requirements for travel. Closer to home, we’ve been encouraged by many of the steps taken by the U.S. government in recent months to help travelers, including President Biden’s Executive Order in February 2021 requiring individuals to wear a mask at TSA airport screening checkpoints and throughout the commercial and public transportation systems. We look forward to continuing conversations with U.S. officials, U.S.-based airlines, and U.S. airports to offer testing and other solutions to help travelers feel safer on their journey. Looking ahead, collaboration will only be more important for the travel industry: across teams, across sectors, and across the world. Tackling the challenges of a safe return to travel necessitates a global approach. We will need standards around requirements for vaccines and testing and a feasible way to certify travelers’ status. Each country around the world will need to help develop these standards around vaccines and testing, but the private sector has a role to play too and is currently leading the way in terms of innovation aimed at recovery through its various collaborations. Digital health passports, for example, are likely to become an important tool in helping the industry to rebuild. The key to introducing these passports will be to remove obstacles to a passenger’s right to travel, ensuring travel is boosted rather than restricted. This is why Collinson is already collaborating with leading providers, including CommonPass. However, global coordination and bilateral agreements between worldwide governments and travel companies are paramount to ensure these can prove successful in the long run. Key Takeaway: Government agencies can’t facilitate travel recovery on their own. Travel companies need to work together — and with global governments to create solutions that help travelers feel safe. Global standards and procedures that are agreed to by travel industry leaders and governments — such as digital health passports — may be key to the post COVID-19 recovery. Lesson #2: Recovery starts with testing In 2020, testing emerged as indispensable to keep people and borders safe while restarting trade and travel; enabling travelers to comply with various country-by-country requirements and in some cases bypass or reduce quarantine restrictions that may have otherwise prevented the trip. With no clear end in sight for the pandemic, the move into testing on a global scale can now be seen in departure and arrival testing facilities in airports around the world, "rest and test" offers from hotels, and test-to-release centers outside the airport. While we’re all hopeful for widespread vaccine rollouts and verification protocols, it won’t happen overnight or in equal pace across the world. Even then, vaccination and testing will no doubt co-exist for some time, as healthcare and policy situations continue to shift. We already know from a Priority Pass survey that 74 percent of frequent flyers identify quarantines and border controls as their top concern about returning to travel and half are willing to pay for a COVID-19 test to help ease travel restrictions; indicating the important role that testing will continue to play in restoring traveler confidence and re-opening travel routes. Moreover, testing itself is quickly evolving for the better. First, there has been a considerable shift in attitude from government authorities across the globe as they better understand the varied roles played by different testing technologies and how these can be used to ensure public safety while supporting the aviation sector and all those sectors and livelihoods that rely on it. Second, testing technology itself is evolving. Six months ago, approved tests were largely limited to RT-PCR — still a great option and the gold standard test — but today, test services can be further bolstered with rapid testing. RT-LAMP tests, for example, can deliver sensitivity and specificity rates very close to RT-PCR, but with results available in as little as 90 minutes, compared to the several hours an RT-PCR test requires. Rapid testing is therefore playing a key role in airport environments. Access to these rapid tests in both airports and other locations will only become more essential as travelers make the gradual return to air travel amidst an ongoing pandemic and shifting country requirements. In the same way you can buy a toothbrush at the airport should you forget it, very soon, travelers who aren’t test-ready will expect to be able to get a test at departure. For travelers coming to the United States, having this type of easy access to rapid testing is a high priority, since the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requires all air passengers entering the U.S. to present a negative COVID-19 test, taken within three calendar days of departure or proof of recovery from the virus within the last 90 days. Key takeaway: Even with the global rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, COVID-19 testing will be a component of travel for the long-term. Travelers will expect easy access to testing facilities and it is incumbent upon the travel industry to ensure that tests continue to be made available to travelers throughout their journey. Lesson #3: Confidence comes from the customer journey Last year we saw the importance of traveler confidence for the industry. If travelers don’t feel safe to travel, no special discount or exclusive reward will change their minds. This led to considerable action from brands across the travel ecosystem: introducing health and hygiene standards, contactless solutions, and other initiatives aimed at helping travelers feel safe, comfortable, and reassured. For example, in the United States, these initiatives have included everything from the installation of face mask vending machines to the use of Gita follow-along robots that are being used for contactless delivery of meals and retail items. However, there’s still great opportunity for brands to reduce stress and friction and create even more confidence at multiple touchpoints in the traveler’s customer journey. Health and the customer experience must work hand in hand because while heightened health protocols are here to stay and travel must consequently evolve to take this into account, the overall quality of the customer experience must also be taken into consideration. Airlines can seamlessly connect passengers to a COVID-19 test-booking platform as soon as they purchase a plane ticket, as in the pilot service launched by Singapore Airlines and Collinson. Further information surrounding testing can also be introduced into the ‘ready to fly’ pre-flight checklist, FAQ, and check-in process, as demonstrated by Collinson’s airline partners in Europe, including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. Airport lounges, key locations for alleviating customer stress, can pivot to digitally-driven services that deliver the little luxuries travelers expect but with less contact, such as the ‘Ready 2 Order’ Food and Beverage solution that is currently piloting in select Priority Pass lounges, including The Club JAX at Jacksonville International Airport. Through this program, lounge visitors can scan a QR code or tap an NFC-enabled device on signage at each seat/table within the lounge to select their food and beverage order from the lounge-specific menu. Once the order has been assembled, it is then either delivered directly to the visitor’s table or to an assigned pick-up point. Ultimately, it’s about placing travelers at the heart of the journey to ensure that industry recovery is built with them in mind, thereby avoiding a situation in which the hassle of traveling outweighs the benefits. Enabling traveler confidence is also imperative for the financial services sector. Pre-pandemic, the evidence was clear that premium-card holders placed substantial value on travel-related benefits. Over the past year, card rewards pivoted to bring new points-based shopping options to grounded travelers. Yet surveys show that consumers miss travel and intend to resume traveling as soon as possible. Banks and credit card companies are therefore united in their goal of helping their customers return to the travel they love: so in the year ahead, we should expect to see an expansion of card rewards that directly tie back to traveler confidence, such as access and discounts for testing when traveling. More medical travel benefits from cards will create a halo effect for all, as more testing means more confidence, which means more travel and spending. Key takeaway: To get back on the road, travelers need to know that the travel companies they work with are committed to safety. It’s incumbent upon the travel industry to help travelers feel safe and secure throughout their journey. As a baseline, the travel industry can help travelers feel safer by adopting health and hygiene standards and by employing contactless solutions for ticketing and food and beverage service. Final thoughts: Working towards the new normal As we look to the future of travel, we know that the road to recovery for travel-related businesses will be less of a bounce back and more of an uphill climb to reach a new normal. It will take consumer education, particularly surrounding testing — most of which is an entirely new concept for customers — as well as trust and renewed customer loyalty to get there. For brands, flexibility, resilience, innovation, and collaboration will all continue to be critical in adapting to ever-changing situations and ensuring the travel experience is as smooth as possible. We all know the pandemic was unprecedented and the travel industry has already changed in response to it. But as we focus on the lessons of the past year, we are confident that travel will recover. Sheryl Pflaum is the President of Collinson, Americas, and has been with the company since 2005. Collinson is a global leader in the provision of traveler experiences including airport lounge access, medical and security assistance, and travel medical services. Collinson’s traveler experiences include the world’s leading airport lounge and experiences program, Priority Pass, as well as travel insurance, identity assistance, flight delay, international health, and travel risk management solutions.
Guest Post by Jo Barnes If you're one of the many millions of people finding yourself throwing on a shirt over your PJs at three in the afternoon for a Zoom meeting with your boss, you're not alone! The work from home/remote working trend has only just started and will undoubtedly grow over the coming years as companies realize the economies of scale this "new normal" brings. But don't despair! While adapting to this new style of work may, at first, feel isolating, it also brings with it a host of opportunities, and not just for the big corporations anymore. If you've ever thought about starting a side hustle, now is the time. The current situation has given rise to dramatic increases in online shopping, socializing, working, and everything in between. As long as you have a computer and a decent internet connection, the online world is waiting for you! You may be able to manage your workload easier from home, giving you extra time to focus on generating an additional income. If that's where you find yourself, here are five online side hustles you can start today from the comfort of your kitchen table: Blogging Social media management Freelancing eCommerce Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) In time, you can reap the rewards of sufficient, consistent income to sustain a more flexible lifestyle conducive to your travel, family, and personal goals. 1. Blogging In my experience, there is no better business model online today than the world of blogging. By purchasing your own little space on the web by way of a domain and creating a branded website, you can talk about, write about, make videos about, and publish pretty much anything you want to! Your goal is to build an engaged audience around a specific interest or niche via your content. It’s your site; the choice is yours. Here's how I recommend you start your blog: Choose your topic or niche. Pick a name and register a domain. Browse web hosting platforms and sign up with your favorite. Install a website builder and design your site. Start publishing amazing content. Promote your content via search engine optimization (SEO) and social media. As your audience grows, you can monetize your blog via ads, affiliate offers, sponsorship, or even your own products. 2. Freelancing Are you a whiz at graphic design? Perhaps you love building websites, have a talent for digital marketing, or are an organizational wizard? No matter your skill set, the gig economy is alive and well, and more businesses than ever are choosing contract workers over full-time staff. Here are the steps to finding work as a freelancer: Create a portfolio of your work including examples, testimonials, and anything you feel might be relevant to any potential client. Sign up and create a profile on a freelance website. Search or bid for job requests which suit your skillset. Focus on getting five-star reviews to increase your chances of getting gigs. As your contracts grow, create a website showcasing your success stories and promoting your services. 3. Social media management Do you love scrolling Instagram, documenting your days, creating stories and TikTok videos, or chatting on Facebook? If so, social media management could be right up your alley. Imagine managing the Facebook and Pinterest accounts of a local business, spending your days coming up with creative images, posts, and videos to amuse and entertain. What fun! Here are the steps to becoming a social media manager: List out your top skills and platform knowledge. Create a compelling profile on a few freelance websites. Search for job posts from companies looking for social media specialists. Stand out from the crowd by researching each company, creating a personalized response, and showcasing your skills pertinent to the job post. (Tip: The more personalized your response to a job request, the greater the chance of getting the gig.) Focus heavily on getting great reviews as soon as possible. 4. eCommerce Did you know you can upload a design to a website and sell t-shirts, caps, journals, pillows, towels, mugs, and much more with your design on it, without ever touching or paying for products upfront? It’s called "print on demand" and is one of the fastest ways to start an eCommerce business, selling physical products online. An alternative eCommerce business model is dropshipping, which involves sourcing products designed and manufactured by other companies and advertising those products on your website at a higher price. When a customer makes a purchase, the product is sent directly from the manufacturer to the customer, and you keep the profits. Like print on demand, dropshipping is a super-fast route to setting up an eCommerce store. Follow these steps to start an eCommerce store: Choose your eCommerce business model: print on demand, dropshipping, selling your own products, etc. Register for an account on an eCommerce platform of your choice. Add images, logo, and store information. (Tip: Create a logo on Canva for free and use free images from a stock photo site for beautiful headers and graphics for your store.) Add your product descriptions and images. Promote your products on social media or using influencer marketing. 5. Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) If you have a bit of cash, you can have specific products manufactured and branded to sell on Amazon, who will do all the fulfillment side for you. (If you're imagining boxes of products in your garage, don't worry: this is not that.) Your products are sent directly to the Amazon warehouses and packed, picked, and distributed by the folks at Amazon. Your job is to let the world know your products exist and let Amazon handle the rest. My partner and I built a seven-figure FBA business in twelve months. Here's how you can do it, too: Choose your niche and product line: analyze Amazon itself to see what's selling well. Choose your first product. Aim of something that is light, small, easy to ship, unbreakable, and can sell for $20–$40. Source a supplier. Alibaba is the quickest and easiest place to start. Order a small amount of stock (500–1000 units) to test the market. Create an Amazon seller account and a product listing. Utilize eye-catching product images, a keyword-rich headline, and bullet points. Ship products to Amazon. Promote your products using Amazon PPC and influencer marketing. The sky's the limit These are just five ideas from the hundreds of options available online. Open your mind, get creative, and start following people online who've done what you'd like to do. In no time at all, your side hustle could be generating more than your day job! Now wouldn't that be grand? Jo Barnes is the founder of Your Lifestyle Business, a blog dedicated to empowering solopreneurs to build a business they can run from anywhere in the world. As a globe-trotting lifestyle entrepreneur, Jo has explored more than 30 countries in the last 10 years while building six- and seven-figure online businesses. She is currently locked down in Thailand.
Guest Post by Nick Hill What exactly is an online brand community and why do you need one? First, let's start with some definitions. To begin, what's an online community? Put simply, it's a site where a group of people who have a common purpose interact with each other online to share knowledge, build solutions, and get help. There are countless familiar examples: Reddit, Yelp, Facebook Groups, or even threads on a company's Twitter. While many of these forums host vibrant communities, they can also be fragmented experiences, rife with information accuracy issues, data privacy challenges, toxicity, and abuse. And many rely on volunteer moderation. For a company, investing in its own online community — or an online community that is owned and managed as a brand’s own digital property — solves these issues for their customers and grants them unparalleled access to customer experience data that can unlock phenomenal growth. Outstanding examples include the Spotify Community, lululemon’s Sweat Collective, and Sephora’s Beauty INSIDER Community. By creating a brand-owned community, you bring together people from all walks of life (customers, partners, experts), who share a set of common goals but don’t know each other. Here, they can safely interact and build relationships around a shared hobby, profession, cause, or brand — like yours. Now you have a place where customers are more than just likes or followers, they are contributing members to your community and part of your brand. Starting an online branded community can sound like a daunting task. It certainly requires participation from many areas of a business — from the development work and strategy to employing the community moderators who will monitor it. However, when you take a deeper look into some of the many benefits of a branded community, the goal becomes obvious. Benefits of online branded communities Valuable customer insight Communities can be an excellent source of data for your company. Let’s say you have a huge product update, but on the day it rolls out, it comes to light that a certain aspect of it is causing extreme confusion for customers. This was the case for one of our customers who released a mobile device software update to tens of millions of customers globally. In East Asia's morning hours, several early users found a major bug in the update and posted it in the brand’s community. With engineers engaging in the community, they could quickly pause the rollout of the update before the rest of the world woke up. This resulted in only a few thousand people encountering a negative experience, instead of millions. You can also set up your community to help you avoid this altogether. If you have an established community, chances are you have a few users who are already active brand advocates. Use those people as a test group before you officially roll out your update, new product, or service. They are some of the best resources to understanding where the snags might be and what is important within the community. Not only do these interactions provide valuable insights, but they make sure your customers know how much you value them and their opinions. When your customers feel appreciated and heard they are more likely to stay loyal to your brand. Better customer service Another major benefit to having an active brand-owned community is that it can better your overall customer experience, including the ability to foster customer self-service and peer-to-peer connections. The demand for self-service is increasing among all audiences. When people ask and answer questions in a community, those conversations are recorded for everyone to find in the future. Furthermore, peer-led conversations offer a more positive experience than being on hold with a customer service agent, and it also helps people feel more connected. It's not just the people who ask questions that improve the experience. Answering questions also fulfills people's intrinsic motivation to help fellow humans. By fostering peer-to-peer collaboration, a branded community allows your customers to feel like they're more than a digital transaction. These interactions strengthen the connection within your community and allow you to build more human relationships with customers, leading to a positive customer experience. Financial benefits Communities can actually save you money. The more questions that get resolved in your community, the less time your customer service agents have to spend answering the same questions. This is usually called “call deflection” or “prevention,” and there is a helpful model to help you calculate the value easily. The self-service customer care model offered by a brand-owned community allows you to strike the balance between being helpful and not spending valuable human resources answering repetitive questions. In other words, when the answers to simple problems and questions are housed in your online community, customer service agents can focus on more complex queries. Not to mention, your employees will likely thank you for reducing the stress that comes with these types of redundant interactions. As an added benefit, the knowledge shared in an online brand community supports other customer service platforms, providing a resource for customers reaching out via social or a brand's contact center. The reusable, living knowledge base of the community improves other customer care initiatives to expand on its direct financial benefits. For example, SAS, a leader in business analytics software and services, utilizes its branded community for global customer care as well as engagement. In a 12-month period, 74 percent of customers using the SAS Community were able to find the answers they needed, powering an estimated $7 million in cost savings to their tech support team. In addition, the average brand community sees about 70 percent to 85 percent of traffic coming from public search queries. This means these people are coming to your site organically and getting questions answered there instead of submitting support tickets, sending emails, or getting frustrated with long response times or lack of information and going to a competitor’s site. How to establish a successful branded community Now that we’ve covered the major benefits of having an online branded community, let’s talk about what makes one successful. Measurement and value — Establish a shared value statement between your community members and the brand. Focus on the metrics that effectively tell that story, like traffic, content, members, liveliness, interaction, and responsiveness. Promotion — Communities require awareness on the part of your potential customers. Ultimately, SEO will drive a significant amount of traffic to the community but embedding community on your .com and promotion via email and social sets you off on the right foot. Structure — Your community needs to be structured in a way that invites participation. This extends to an architectural structure, like making sure your community is mobile-friendly, as well as to topical structure. You want people to discuss the topics that matter. Motivation — All successful communities bring into alignment their members' reasons for participation with a rewards and recognition program that highlights and amplifies their contribution. In fact, if you encourage and showcase your ‘superusers’ (significantly active community members), they can become one of your greatest assets — from testing opportunities to resourceful community content that helps other members and customer service reps be more successful. Take Microsoft, as an example, which has one of the world’s largest superuser programs. Because of their engaged MVPs (Most Valuable Professionals), 65 percent of forum questions are resolved through peer responses. What’s more, Microsoft’s community has also resulted in over $1 million in support costs savings each month. Many of these MVPs also leverage the community to grow their own businesses and networks, which helps further Microsoft's impact around the world. Moderation — Communities do require care and feeding. Part of that is ensuring all members have a safe and respectful environment to talk to one another in. While there are plenty of other important community features to consider, I highly recommend considering these five areas when strategizing how to build your community properly. Creating your community It might seem like a heavy lift at first, but ultimately, an online branded community brings a lot of benefits to a business. From creating peer-to-peer collaboration and valuable relationships to cost savings, a community improves customer experience on all fronts. If you are excited to get started on creating your online community, the first thing you should do is find an appropriate partner to help build it out. Then, I suggest perusing some well-established company communities for inspiration, so you can host your own successful community to help create customers for life. Nick Hill is General Manager of Khoros Communities where he focuses on helping companies leverage their community to grow their business. Nick started his career in Communities when he joined Jive Software as a Software Engineer. He developed the first version of the Jive Platform with a few engineers and helped grow the company from a startup to a publicly-traded company. Nick’s passion for creating quality products comes from working in leadership across Engineering, Design, and Product Management.
Do you dream about crafting a sustainable, flexible full-time or part-time job fueled by your true personal or professional interests? You're not alone. Many of us are continually seeking a change from the 9 to 5 grind. If only we had the extra time, ample resources, and a brilliant idea, we would get started, right? Caila Zappala is living proof that even with the constraints of a busy schedule, it's not unrealistic to hope, plan, and work for a new and fulfilling career. And hers started from a side hustle. Zappala was working full-time as an IT project manager in New York City when she started teaching neighborhood group fitness classes in the mornings and evenings. She followed this routine for several years until she realized her love for fitness and helping people trumped what she was doing in the office, and her budding interest and expertise in prenatal and postnatal health could dramatically improve lives. "Getting up and going into the office started to feel torturous because my heart and focus were truly somewhere else all day," she explains. "I was mentally creating my new day to day well before I made that jump." Now a PregnancySāf Elite Coach with additional corrective exercise certifications, Zappala is a trusted resource for new and expectant mothers, sharing her knowledge through one-on-one training, group classes, social media, and a podcast. She left her IT job just a few months before the pandemic, so like most business owners at the time, she had to quickly pivot to become an online virtual training business. Thankfully, her skills as an IT professional helped her to transition quickly. Her advice to readers is the perfect prelude for the other stories that will follow: You've got to give it a try! "Otherwise, you'll just always wonder," Zappala says. "I feel like we wait until things feel 'that bad' to make a change. This side gig to full-time adventure has been one of the most difficult yet most rewarding experiences of my life. I wouldn’t change a thing about it because I’ve learned so much about myself, my business, and dreams for the future!" Benefits of a side hustle Also called a side gig, side job, or microbusiness, a successful side hustle has the potential to create space in your life for one or more of the following: A passion-guided project dictated by you alone A new hobby or area of expertise — or income for the hobbies you’re already pursuing Additional income to supplement what you’re already earning Replacement income for your current job The flexibility to pursue interests or to rest from over-busy-ness A fulfilling business partnership with a friend or family member A novel trajectory for your day job or other new career opportunities Basically, if you want to earn more money outside of the 9 to 5 or if your day job just isn’t fulfilling your need for creative expression or autonomy, you could benefit from starting a side hustle. If you’ve considered starting a side hustle of your own, this guide — full of real-life examples from people in the trenches of supplemental entrepreneurship — will excite, educate, and empower you to do so. Download and print our companion worksheet to jot down your own ideas as you follow along. Key Takeaways Create the resource or service you wish you had Improve upon a product or service you already use Test your concept before investing a lot of time and money Look for existing opportunities within your network of family and friends Join a community of like-minded entrepreneurs for ideas and support Utilize in-person and phone communication to maximize your impact Use a stepping stone side hustle to finance a bigger goal Be willing to “time hustle” to upgrade your clientele Be patient as you build (and rebuild) a foundation for growth Start small, but be willing to take a risk when it’s time to go “all in” Pick a lane: Identify side hustle opportunities 1. Create the resource or service you wish you had What would make your life easier? When marketing manager Giuseppe Frustaci wanted to learn how to drive stick shift (a manual transmission car), he struggled to find a teacher. "Driving schools don't offer it, and it was really hard to find a friend or family member who had a stick shift car and was willing to teach,” he recalls. So about a year after he learned how to drive stick shift, he took advantage of the lack of resources available by creating one himself. His stick shift driving lesson business began as a side hustle in 2017. He partnered with someone who had a stick shift car and wanted to make some side money teaching, put up a website, and ran some ads on Google. Frustaci established his business as an LLC for legal protection reasons but didn’t file as a corporation because he doesn’t expect to raise money or grow the business much more. “Although it has now become my full-time job," he explains, "I just don't see investors wanting to invest in what could be considered a dying art.” But that doesn’t mean the customer demand isn’t still there. Since the summer of 2018, Frustaci’s business has grown to be in 48 cities nationwide with 170 instructors and has sold about 2,000 lessons. And Stick Shift Driving Academy continued to thrive during the pandemic since there was a surge of new instructors looking for side gigs of their own. 2. Improve upon a product or service you already use What improvements could you make, big or small? Scott Penick had always wanted to start a business but never knew what it should be. And as an attorney, he didn’t have a lot of extra time to devote to a side project, so he put it off. But when his dad passed away from cancer in 2019, Penick realized that he needed to stop waiting for the “right time” and take action, even if it meant the risk of failure. As meal replacement shake fans, Penick and his wife decided to create some of their own. “As we learned more about nutrition and read labels more closely, we started to realize that a lot of the meal replacement shakes were not all that healthy and that even the healthiest ones could be better, he explains." They started researching and making a chart of potential ingredients and their macronutrient profiles to determine the perfect nutrition shake formula. At the same time, they shopped out potential manufacturers for what would become Soul ShāXe — name idea number 94. The Penicks formed Soul ShāXe as an LLC, which would provide some insulation from personal liability without adding a lot of complexity to their finances with taxes. And they decided to begin by selling their product direct-to-consumer online to allow for enough margin to be profitable without needing to sell tens of thousands of units per month through a wholesaler. The moment of truth was placing their first order for production. “It was a five-figure bill, and we did not have that kind of money just laying around, but we did have equity in our home,” Penick recounts. “If you are married, you absolutely have to have your spouse's buy-in on this; but we took out a home equity line of credit to fund the first production run. It was nerve-wracking and exhilarating at the same time.” But just as they were getting ready to place the order for the first production run, the pandemic hit, prompting fears about the home equity, stay-at-home orders, and job security. They decided to look at the situation this way: “Some people are going to hide and push pause for the duration of this pandemic. If those people are lucky, they will come out of hiding at the status quo, wipe their brows, and be thankful they survived. Others are going to decide that this is a time to be bold, forge ahead, and grow through the adversity. We decided to grow.” They have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from customers so far, and the goal is to continue to get the word out to prospective customers. Soul ShāXe’s biggest challenge is standing out in a crowded online market. Based on what he’s experienced, Penick would have made one decision differently when starting out: order less inventory upfront, invest more in marketing, then find a way to finance inventory to meet order demand. 3. Test your concept before investing a lot of time and money You may not need to come up with a new idea at all. What successful business models do you see that you might want to replicate? Nick Loper side hustle Expert Expert Tip Don’t get too deep into a project before you have any real validation that this is something the world wants. Are people already paying for something similar? On the surface, that looks like competition, but it's also proof of concept. Don't spend a ton of time or money on your idea before you're reasonably certain the demand is there. Nick Loper is not only an experienced side hustler but also an entrepreneurship expert. He is the founder of Side Hustle Nation and has been helping a community of people earn more money and build businesses they love since 2013. As a former zone manager for Ford Motor Company, his original corporate getaway vehicle was a comparison shopping site for footwear. It was three years of nights and weekends before Loper felt comfortable leaving his full-time job to focus on his side gig. Years later, he started Side Hustle Nation to showcase this “lower-risk brand of entrepreneurship” and the stories of others getting it done. Loper has directly interviewed and interacted with thousands of other side hustlers over the years, so he's identified countless tips and guiding principles that can aid aspiring side hustlers. Along the lines of starting small with your business concept, it makes the most sense for most side hustles to start as sole proprietorships. "Unless there are specific licenses and registrations required in your local area, sole proprietor status is automatic when you start to make income outside of your job," Loper explains. "An LLC may afford you some personal liability protection, but probably won't save you money on taxes since it's a 'pass-through' entity." As your business grows, consider incorporating as an S-corp or an LLC with an S-corp election, which should allow you to save on some self-employment taxes.* Loper aims to teach business concepts through others' experiences via his podcast and blog but also through sharing his own struggles in various ventures. "A classic failure of mine in this space was rushing to sell my condo in Atlanta when I moved across the country," Loper laments. It could have been a cash-flowing rental, but he was afraid of the prospects of trying to manage it remotely. Loper continues, "Turns out, there's this thing called property management built to solve that exact problem! Odds are, someone somewhere has already overcome what you're struggling with, and so your job as the entrepreneur is to seek out those solutions." *Not intended as legal or tax advice. Consult a CPA or other tax or legal professional as you consider business registration. 4. Look for existing opportunities within your network of family and friends Could any of your connections use some assistance with their own projects? Think about the personal and professional conversations you’ve had recently. “I had always wanted my own business but struggled to find the right combination of product or service with high demand, accessible market entry, steady supply line, and the ability to bring a value-added component into the mix," explains Jay Jermo. "Honey was the perfect find and, in truth, it found me.” Ten years ago, Jermo was just making ends meet while working for a bank, and in search of an opportunity. He found it when he stopped at a cousin’s house on a tour around the state to connect with friends. Jermo’s cousin, who is a commercial beekeeper, had created some flavored kinds of honey he was selling at a local market and suggested Jermo sell them in the Detroit area. One farmer’s market gig turned into eight, and eventually, four flavored honeys turned into 70. He created a webstore for the honey products, memorable branding, and has since expanded to selling different floral types of honey from around the world. He says, “Now this is all I do, and the idea of going back to a day job is a distant memory.” Jermo operates as a sole proprietor of his eCommerce store because there is a tax advantage at this stage. Sales are direct to consumers, so he can capture more margin without involving third parties. For marketing, he includes customers on a mailing list to engage future and repeat sales. Suit up for the race: Start your side hustle 5. Join a community of like-minded entrepreneurs for ideas and support Who do you know who does what you might want to do? Enter keywords on a search engine or social media to pinpoint relevant groups. Content creator Jessica Ashcroft knows the value of strategic pivoting, a diversified skill set, and, above all, community. Ashcroft started her own blog as a way to document her life as a newlywed. When fashion blogging started gaining traction, she switched up her blog focus to include fashion content. And after having her first baby, she transitioned her blog one last time to a pregnancy and motherhood blog. Through the years, Ashcroft has found ways to keep up with the ever-changing rules, best practices, and strategies of succeeding in the blogosphere. "Blogging has a steep learning curve," she explains. "You have to know SEO, website design, HTML coding, marketing, photography, and social media — on top of the actual writing." Aside from trial and error, one thing that has helped her expand her knowledge of these topics and others has been joining online blogging groups. That's her top piece of advice for individuals pursuing a side hustle: "Try to find a community of like-minded entrepreneurs. I've learned so much from the Facebook groups I'm in with other bloggers that I would not have known if I was going about this on my own." While she tried to spend as little money as possible initially, Ashcroft realized that to make money you have to spend money. So she used some of the income she was making from her work-from-home job in the finance sector to pay for monthly costs to improve her blog and expand its reach. It took some time to get there, but Ashcroft eventually started making a full-time income from her blog via sponsored blog posts as well as monetizing blog traffic through an ad network. At that point, she felt it was time to leave her other job so she could use her time to be doing what she really loved: blogging. And things are only looking up from here: Ashcroft has started a second blog, this time featuring favorite family recipes, with hopes to get it qualified for her ad network as an additional source of income. As a full-time teacher, Shaun Morgan wanted a side hustle to earn some supplemental income, but most things he looked into required too much time or capital upfront. He listened to Nick Loper's Side Hustle Nation podcast as a place to learn about new opportunities. One day, he heard a notary public loan signing agent, Mark Willis, talking on the podcast about his work. "The job is flexible, pays well, and it takes very little start-up capital," Morgan explains. "I was sold.” It wasn't long before he had a notary business of his own. Notaries get paid for walking people through documentation, including mortgage documents, and making sure everything is completed and signed correctly. To get started, he needed to take just a few steps: Become a registered notary Establish a sole proprietorship Acquire a printer and other basic office supplies It cost Morgan just shy of $2,000 in startup capital, which he put onto a 0% interest promotional credit card. Since it is a business that hinges on perfection, Morgan relies on the Loan Signing System, a community the aforementioned Mark Willis created for notaries seeking help when starting out: “I recommend that anyone just starting out in business find a group of people they can turn to for support and advice because of how invaluable that is.” And now? “Having this side hustle has given me more flexibility to pursue other goals, such as starting a blog." Need a loan for your small business? If a lack of financing is preventing you from pursuing your side gig or another business goal, know that you have options. Learn more about business loans by looking at the top-rated companies, seeing what they have to offer, and reading reviews from other borrowers. View Top Lenders 6. Utilize in-person and phone communication to maximize your impact What are your networking connections, skills, and assets? Jot down the individuals and organizations that come to mind. As a cocktail enthusiast, brand strategy leader Jessica Miller saw the explosion of ready-to-drink cocktails hitting the market and felt there was an opportunity for a wine-based cocktail that paid greater attention to flavors and had higher alcohol content like a true cocktail. Miller and her husband founded their wine wholesale business as partners. They had always wanted to run a business together and were able to launch their side hustle with the financial assistance of a very close friend. Miller says the most difficult aspect of starting a business, if you’re not taking on outside investors, is asking friends and family for help. Aside from the one loan from a friend, Miller tapped into savings, credit cards, and even cash advances on cards with a low-interest rate. Of the financial sacrifices involved, Miller says, “All of it can be a bit daunting when you are pulling all of your resources and are leveraged to the hilt, but we wouldn’t have done it any differently! There is a different kind of pressure when you bring on outside investment, and you may lose control or need to compromise your vision.” Colony Cocktails is a wine wholesaler, so they sell their products to distributors who sell to retailers, who then sell to consumers. Miller structured her business as an LLC because it offered the best structure as a two-member partnership and with enough legal protections in place. It was also easier for her to apply for federal alcohol permits with an LLC, avoiding the complexities of a corporation structure. Like Soul ShāXe, Colony Cocktail’s first production run was scheduled right when COVID-19 hit. In Miller’s case, this forced Northern California, where her copacker is located, into lockdown. Thankfully, they were still able to manufacture the cocktails, but they also encountered challenges shipping and sourcing ingredients due to the pandemic. According to Miller, pushing through and launching a product during a pandemic was nothing short of a miracle. “It required us to stay nimble, solve problems rapidly and, honestly, inspire our vendors to push harder for solutions as deadlines approached,” she explains. “Picking up the phone and having a conversation with someone helped some of these big companies make an effort to help our little craft cocktail business. There is a humanity that is removed from email communications; speaking over the phone helped us build those relationships and ultimately achieve what we thought was impossible.” While the business is still challenged by COVID limitations, Miller is finding interesting ways of engaging new consumers on a smaller scale than their preferred cocktail tasting events, such as working with realtors to be featured at open houses. 7. Use a stepping stone side hustle to finance a bigger goal What resources do you have to start your side hustle, and what else do you need? How could you come up with the finances you need? When engineer Anders Helgeson started working from home in March 2020, he found he could get his work done in a couple of hours and have the rest of the day to work on other projects. With that time and with plenty of motivation, he seized the opportunity to flip couches with his buddy to earn some extra cash. The end result? “My business partner and I fully financed our startup junk removal business last year after spending about 14 weeks flipping couches off of Craigslist and OfferUp,” he explains. Their process involved the following: Scour the free sofa ads on Craigslist and OfferUp. Pick up sofas that were still in pretty good condition (Both friends already owned small trucks and Helgeson had a spare room for storage in his house). Vacuum the couches. Take much better pictures (just with an iPhone). Repost for sale, priced to include free delivery to discourage people wanting to haggle. But just how much can you make by selling free couches? In just over three months, they acquired and sold 43 couches at a total profit of $15,870 — enough to pay for the following startup expenses: LLC formation Business and commercial auto insurance Truck and trailer Polo shirts and hats Website Business cards And they had a cushion of money left over for emergencies, which came in handy. “I haven't quit my full time job yet, and currently junk removal still sits as a bit of a side hustle for us. However, we are starting to gain traction in San Diego, and I fully expect that within the next year, this will be a full-time job for the both of us!” Sprint or marathon: Grow your side hustle 8. Be willing to “time hustle” to upgrade your clientele What are some to-do items that have the potential to help you grow? Jot them down and work them into your schedule. It’s impressive that Rebecca Lake’s six-figure personal finance writing business — involving writing, ad revenue, and affiliate sales — started as a side hustle. She started freelance writing when she decided it made more sense financially to become a stay-at-home mom rather than pay for daycare for two kids and drive a two-hour commute to work each day. Other than some writing she’d done in college, Lake started with no real experience but was able to quickly make a part-time income ghostwriting from home. After her divorce in 2014, she decided to try to grow the side hustle into a full-time business so she could continue to stay home with her kids. After about a year and a half after deciding to take her side hustle full-time, she had her first $10,000 month as a freelance writer. "That was the point at which my investment of time hustling and networking started to really pay off," Lake says. "I continued to focus on upgrading my clientele and becoming a sought-after writer. Now my business brings in $20,000 to $30,000 a month, and I still run it with just a laptop and internet.” Lake continues, “I didn't invest in any training or special equipment; the biggest investment I made was time. I spent time every day pitching new clients, replying to job postings from job boards, and growing my network on LinkedIn. I was taking care of my two kids full-time, homeschooling them, and running the business solo while living on a single-parent budget.” Time management has been the biggest challenge to growing Lake’s business. While she works about 25 to 30 hours per week now, it used to be much more than that, and limited childcare options made it imperative that she create routines to get all of the work, mom, and homeschooling tasks done each day. Even with older kids now, routines continue to be imperative to her successful work and home operations. 9. Be patient as you build (or rebuild) a foundation for growth What obstacles have you faced or could you face? What is your plan for pushing through? When Kristin Mastoras moved to New York in 2011, she had a great job, but money was still pretty tight, so she used an Etsy design shop she started during college to earn some extra money. She explains, "I was working in pharmaceutical advertising which was not the most creative, so my side hustle was also a way that I could do more work that excited me.” It took about four years to grow Miss Design Berry into something Mastoras was able to take full-time, but it was worth the wait. She incorporated her business as an S-corp so she could pay herself as an employee of the business. Through the years, she’s encountered obstacles shared by many eCommerce businesses: trademark infringement from competing businesses, online client harassment, and a failed business partnership. These challenges make it all the more impressive how far the design business that started as a small Etsy shop has come over the past decade: 2014 — Hired her first part-time employee to help while still working full-time. 2015 — Left her advertising job to make her side gig her new full-time gig once she could pay off student loans and earn as much with the side hustle as her former job. “I also really wanted to get a dog, but could not do so unless I was working from home, so this was a big motivator for me!” 2016 — Built a team of more than 10 employees. 2017 — Brought a partner into the business, which ended up not working out. 2020 — COVID-19 dealt a hard blow to the business, dropping revenue by over 50 percent. But the story didn’t end there. Regarding the impact of COVID-19, Mastoras had to pivot and make her design products work for virtual weddings and events as well as rely on help from the PPP and other government assistance. “It will be a long road back to solid ground, but we made it through 2020, and now I know we can make it through anything,” she says. 10. Start small, but be willing to take a risk when it’s time to go “all in” At what point, if any, would you want to quit your day job? Note the financial gains you hope to consistently achieve with your side hustle and imagine what steps you might take personally and professionally when you reach that point. While they both had other full-time jobs, Jamie King and her cousin and co-founder worked on building a yoga and fitness community at nights, on weekends, and whenever else they could spare some time. They started what is now Flex & Flow after an "inspiring and wine-filled evening" about 10 years ago. “I have especially fond memories of the many late evenings and weekends we spent tagging thousands of pink shoelaces and handwriting cards, which is how we initially grew our community,” she reminisces. "While we both bootstrapped from our own savings, we definitely know how lucky we are to have supportive partners who encouraged us and helped us continue to make our dreams a reality.” After more than a year of working full-time, investing their own money back into the business, and hustling every spare moment, King knew it was time to quit her job and face the music. “It felt like it was time to commit or fail,” she explains. However, she stayed on as a consultant for an additional year to make ends meet and keep floating the business. Last year, Flex & Flow’s flagship studio in northeast Portland was forced to close, halting in-person yoga and other fitness classes. However, the business has been providing virtual classes globally with its pay-per-month digital studio membership model. “Ten years and one pandemic later, we're still standing!” says King. Ready to work on your own side hustle? If you missed the link at the beginning, here's our brainstorming worksheet to help you take your first steps.
Guest Post by Lauren Wiseman Technology is the future of humankind, and in the years to come, it will become an even bigger part of our everyday lives. Aside from its obvious benefits in our daily routines, it's important to note that technological advancement is revolutionizing the modern business sector, as well. Currently, there is no industry in the world that doesn’t stand to benefit from the implementation of some form of software or hardware. From cybersecurity to manufacturing, from marketing to sales and HR, all the way to your digital presence, there are countless ways investing in technology can help your business reach new heights of success. Let’s talk more in-depth about these opportunities and uncover the most interesting ways that technology is transforming the way we do business on a global scale. Be sure to implement the following yourself to ensure growth and success in 2021. Unifying business communications with VoIP Let’s talk about the importance of communication in business. Internal and external communication are the two basic pillars of efficiency and productivity on one hand, and marketing, PR, and sales on the other. Remote work has become the norm, and companies are becoming more and more decentralized. Unfortunately, the first thing that starts to deteriorate is communication. Deterioration doesn’t just occur because of the physical distance between employees or the distance between you and your customers — it also happens because you’re using too many communication tools at once. If you don’t unify your communication system in a centralized solution like VoIP (voice over internet protocol), your expenses can skyrocket and internal and external communication may be impossible without sizable financial investments. With a system like VoIP, though, you get low-cost national and international calls, a mobile app, video and audio conferencing, auto-attendants, and a myriad of other centralized tools to make global communication efficient and effective. Automating some crucial and some menial processes Automation is a word you’re probably hearing a lot, and for a number of important reasons. Rather than looking at it as just another buzzword, you should look at it as an opportunity to make all of your departments more efficient and productive in the months and years to come. Automation has revolutionized many industries, and innovators are now coupling it with AI and machine learning to create automated solutions for everything. If you’re in manufacturing, you have robots as well as cloud-based supply chain management. If you need to make marketing processes more efficient, you have everything from email automation to social media, analytics and reporting. There is an automation tool for every need, so sit down with your department leads, and talk about the kind of tools they need to deliver better results and make the lives of your employees easier, and their work more rewarding. Personalizing the user experience on business websites Whether you’re a solopreneur or you’re a part of a big corporation, you can’t deny that having a website is one of the most important elements of digital success. Your website is your storefront, your portfolio, and your brand’s image — so it’s important to make it as impactful and memorable as possible for a global audience. If you’re running a solo business venture bearing your name, then creating a unique personal website is paramount to long-term success and growth. Building a personal website is also the only way to really personalize the user experience. If you’re managing a corporate website, then you still need to personalize the user experience as much as possible. You can start by personalizing the domain name with a .me top-level domain that will improve domain name stickiness, and then move on to creating personalized website copy to engage the right customer demographics. All in all, your digital presence relies on having an amazing website, so make sure to leverage the right tech tools to build and manage a site that Google and the online audiences will love. Ensuring cybersecurity in a dangerous digital environment Speaking of managing a website the right way, don’t forget that the online world is becoming a more dangerous place by the day, which is why investing in the right cybersecurity tech is paramount. Cybersecurity is becoming a more pressing issue every year, because you have to make sure that you’re able to protect sensitive consumer and business data, and prevent data breaches that could ruin your brand’s reputation. Now that hackers and scammers are becoming more tech-savvy than ever before, you need to respond with your own tech countermeasures. You can invest in automated early warning systems, a secure web gateway, as well as hardware and software firewalls to keep your network safe at all times. Leveraging big data analytics along with artificial intelligence The online world has become an overly saturated place teeming with useful information about your customers, the industry, your competitors, and more. If you are to make data-driven decisions, you can no longer manually collect and analyze data, simply because there is so much of it right now in the digital space. Well, you might not be able to do it on your own anymore, but AI certainly can. Bringing artificial intelligence and big data analytics together allows you to collate vast amounts of industry data and create detailed reports and forecasts. In turn, this allows you to capitalize on the emerging trends and opportunities that your competitors know nothing about. Technology is transforming the global business landscape in a myriad of ways, but that doesn’t mean that you need to jump on every tech innovation that hits the market. Instead, invest in these tech solutions and implement the tips we talked about today to secure your position in the industry and ensure success in the years to come. Lauren Wiseman is a marketing specialist, contributor to bizzmarkblog.com, and entrepreneur. She helps clients grow their personal and professional brands in fast-changing and demanding markets, strongly believing in a holistic approach to business.
Guest post by Parag Patel Doing business in the digital age comes with many benefits, including technological advances that simplify complex or tedious tasks. One of the best examples of this is automated financial technology. This includes AI-driven automation advancements in bookkeeping, accounts receivable, accounts payable, payroll administration, financial planning and analysis, and more. Intelligent financial platforms like these have risen in availability and popularity over the last several years, but many companies are still behind in implementing financial automation as it can be difficult to make big changes to core operations. However, it doesn’t have to be. The following paragraphs will outline five key ways in which financial automation can improve your business, making it a worthwhile investment to consider. Benefits of financial automation technology 1. Improve productivity The number one benefit of implementing financial automation is an immediate improvement in productivity. Automating high volume, repetitive business tasks that involve processing data, like bookkeeping, accounts receivable, payroll administration and more will save your business both time and money. Simply put, with the implementation of automated software and services your finance department will be able to process more work, but in less time and with less overhead. 2. Refocus skilled staff on strategic work With the time freed up by the productivity improvements mentioned above, businesses can refocus their skilled staff on work that adds more value to the company, rather than tedious, repetitive tasks. For example, instead of having your talented finance team spending time chasing down late bill payments or processing payroll, you can automate these tasks and shift their focus to responsibilities that require more critical and creative thinking and will propel your company forward. 3. Reduce human error Another key benefit of financial automation is the reduction of human error. It’s a simple fact that the more manual a process is, the more prone it is to mistakes. In the case of a business’ finances, a human error can result in delayed cash flow, time wasted, and distortions to the financial health of the company. Leveraging financial automation technology is guaranteed to improve accuracy throughout your finance department. 4. Improve cash flow In short, financial automation helps businesses get paid and pay their own bills faster, which means having a more accurate understanding of cash flow each month. Technological advances in the accounts receivable and accounts payable fields are primary drivers for this benefit. Utilizing automated accounts receivable platforms results in a streamlined invoicing process that reduces compliance and administrative issues that commonly delay payments. On the flip side, accounts payable automation allows companies to process and pay their own invoices seamlessly and in a timely manner. 5. Build better customer relationships Financial automation inevitably means moving processes online. That translates into customers having access to important information, such as invoices and transaction histories, and the ability to execute important actions, like bill payment, at the touch of a button. This results in a convenient and straightforward user experience which can lead to higher customer satisfaction and, ultimately, better customer retention. Additionally, as outlined above, automation improves productivity and efficiency. The time and overhead savings you find in your finance department can mean more resources going towards nurturing current customer relationships and taking a proactive approach to new client acquisition. Taking the first step towards financial automation If your curiosity into financial automation is piqued but you’re unsure of the next steps, my best piece of advice is to select one area of focus and conduct a cost analysis to uphold your status quo. Having a smaller target for improvement will be less overwhelming than trying to overhaul an entire finance department and the cost analysis will be crucial as you price out different automation solutions. Oftentimes, businesses start their automation journey with more repetitive processes such as invoice processing and bill payment, rather than more complicated tasks like financial planning and analysis, because they result in a quick return on investment. In fact, an Invoiced study found automated accounts receivable and automated accounts payable technology have the highest adoption rates among financial automation at 49 percent and 47 percent respectively, and also earned the highest satisfaction levels among those using them. Overall, investing in financial automation technology will save your business time and money, give you a competitive edge and help you create a better customer experience. So the question is not whether you should implement it, but rather when will you take the leap? Parag Patel is Co-Founder & COO of Invoiced, a leading Accounts Receivable Automation platform. Parag teamed with co-founder Jared King in 2014 to help the popular platform make the transition from breakthrough product to category-leading company. With thousands of clients around the world now relying on Invoiced for billing, collections, and payment acceptance, Parag leads Invoiced’s customer care organization including professional services, customer success, and support.
With nearly 100,000 small businesses permanently closed in the United States this year after rising COVID-19 cases, temporary closures, and sustained local restrictions, it's not an exaggeration to call 2020 a small business nightmare. The individual and cumulative losses for small business owners as a whole couldn't possibly be overstated. Without minimizing those losses, we also want to shed light on both the little and big wins nurtured by business owners pushing through the struggles of this year with hope for the future. Because there is hope for many businesses. According to recent survey results from LendingTree, the majority of small business owners are optimistic that they'll be able to get back to business as usual with time: Nearly one-third of businesses feel like they'll be back to normal before the end of the year. An additional 25 percent think they'll get there by the end of Q1 2021. Only 4 percent of business owners surveyed said they never expect operations to return to normal. Read on for a snapshot of hopeful small business in America: 10 stories of perseverance through difficulty. Mural and street art advertising company creates new programming to benefit communities Muros is an art activation agency that partners with artists and organizations to create advertising campaigns and other visual experiences. This already-creative business has had to get even more creative in operational protocols and solutions to shifting client needs. Co-founder Tricia Binder says the downwind impact of COVID-19 has impacted literally everything, from the way contracts are structured to operating hours to the company's suite of offerings, which now includes digital solutions. In some cases, the company lost business altogether, including its sports clientele, but for other clients like retailers and real estate companies, they pivoted to become more flexible with what type of services they could offer. "It's been a constant learning curve that has stretched us and provided valuable experiences that will continue to shape our business," Binder explains. The company's biggest win was in how downtime was utilized during shutdowns. Rather than pull back and downsize, Muros has hired additional employees this year and developed new programming to maximize its reach to clients and communities this year, including the following: #MakeWithMuros: A partnership with artists from around the world to create inspiring, artistic messages to fill people's social media feeds in March, which was at the height of the fear and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19. Murals for Medical Relief: A program designed to raise money for Chicago-based hospitals' COVID-19 relief funds through murals painted within the Illinois Medical District, a special artist-designed beer (MFMR), artist print sales of the mural designs, and a GoFundMe campaign. This allowed Muros to donate almost $20,000 to local hospitals. A new Sculpture Series: This collaborative product offering was spawned from client demand and artists' interest in taking their works to 3D. Binder admits that it's difficult to plan for the new year because it's impossible to predict the impact of future obstacles, which are a safe bet. But she's cautiously optimistic: "We're hopeful that with 2020 behind us, everyone will feel more confident in their ability to navigate uncertainty. Given this, we are planning to stay focused on what we can control and influence, stay nimble and flexible, and continue to do our best to operate without fear." Marketing agency employees band closer together while physically apart According to founder and president John Sickmeyer, the biggest challenge this year for Postali, a marketing agency for law firms, has been navigating finances after a huge hit to revenue. "Many of our clients experienced revenue losses over 50 percent and were not able to pay for their services with us on time," he explained. In response, the company tore up its predetermined budget plan and worked closely with clients to find a way for them both to survive, even if that meant loosening up on the exact letter and dollar of what clients had agreed to pay. "We are meeting clients where they need to be so they can navigate the financial storm," explained Sickmeyer. Postali has very tight relationships with its clientele, with an awareness of how many new clients their clients bring on and, in some cases, even monthly profit and loss awareness. "This relationship depth has allowed us to work closely with each client to get through this together." The company also applied for both the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) and the EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan). While the application process required an immense amount of planning, reporting, and learning the ins and outs of the requirements, the company's lender, Huntington National Bank in Columbus, Ohio, was able to meet their needs after waiting for the then-limited funding to come through the SBA (Small Business Administration). The frequent changing of the PPP's rules and policies was a challenge, but ultimately the PPP funding helped ensure the continuity of payroll for Postali's team until clients could return to a normal status. Through it all, Sickmeyer says the improved morale of Postali's team has been the biggest win. "Strangely enough," he reflects, "the coronavirus pandemic has brought us closer together, even though we are physically apart. The business couldn't have made it through the spring and summer without everyone banding together to make sure our clients and the business could get through these times." And what of the future? Sickmeyer is hopeful about Postali's outlook alongside eventual global recovery. "Even with the winter projections looking grim, we will certainly rise out of this dark time, and, as a people, be much stronger and much more appreciative for our health than ever before," he predicts. Like it was for nearly everyone else, 2020 was a major shock for the company, but the organization has settled into a new way of working remotely. That doesn't mean team members aren't eager to reunite when it's safe, though: "On our team, it’s already been expressed that we'll be happier when we can get back together." Events industry in crisis innovates and repurposes skills Events company T3 Expo has been hit as hard as anyone, as almost every significant trade show and conference scheduled for the rest of 2020 was canceled, resulting in 90 percent of revenue lost. Prior to the pandemic, the company was providing custom exhibit design and production for companies like ebay, Amazon, and Salesforce and worked with big associations like Toy Fair in New York City. CEO Chris Valentine laments how this particular downturn, for his company and for others, was not because of anything they did wrong in their respective industries. "I think that is what hurts the most," he says, "because we have had a successful business for 11 years that was thriving and growing." Valentine explains that while other industries, such as hospitality, are at least functioning on a limited capacity and with various rules, the events industry has been completely shut down: "Our industry is not working at all and thousands of people are out of work, with lost wages, jobs, and revenue — from the union works to the companies that service the industry, like ours." A high percentage of workers servicing the industry are blue-collar workers and have been especially vulnerable this year, including truckers, carpenters, and painters. T3 Expo has responded to the crisis by completely reinventing its business to drive revenue. The company has become a manufacturing business, meeting various COVID-related needs. Valentine explains, "Because we make events and create shows, we had the materials to build things like beds for the Javits Center during the spring for the makeshift hospital, desks for Boston public schools as there is a desk shortage, and PPE such as double-hooped bed tents and desk shields for schools." For long-term survival, T3 Expo and other events-based companies need more federal help or the go-ahead to start working again. Continued waves of COVID-19 will continue to delay the opening of live events until the physical effects of the virus are able to be combatted. And while the PPP has been a vital lifeline for the many small businesses in events, they still need a targeted, longer-term assistance program to help preserve millions of jobs to prevent a complete collapse by next year. But Valentine is proud of his company for being resilient and figuring out a way to keep people employed and keep the company alive this year. "We are hopeful that we have learned to put our skills to work and continue to be innovative — to pivot our business in ways we didn’t know we could." Physical therapist makes strides in telehealth and coaching services Karen Litzy, PT, DPT, is a New York City-based physical therapy entrepreneur. So, in her words, "To say that I needed to make some very fast pivots when COVID hit is an understatement." As a physical therapist, Litzy is used to providing hands-on care, but because of the restrictions in place in New York City, in-person care was not a possibility from mid-March until June. As a result, Litzy invested her time and money into a quality telehealth platform so she could serve clients virtually. And it wasn't just for existing client evaluations — she says she gained new clients as well. And Litzy explains there was an unexpected positive side effect to adding a telehealth option: "I was also able to gain physical therapist licenses in several other states, allowing me to expand my telehealth capabilities outside of New York state." Aside from patient care, Litzy is also a business coach for other physical therapists, another venture she was able to expand this year: during the downtime of the pandemic, she launched a new online course to coach physical therapists through opening their own physical therapy business. She reflects, "If not for the time I had away from full-time patient care due to the lockdown restrictions, I am not sure if I would have been able to dedicate the time and resources to this online course." She hopes her business will continue to evolve and push her out of her comfort zone with the result of innovation and new partnerships. That being said, concern for the future co-exists with hope. As a health professional, it's not just the economic threats of COVID-19, but the physical ones, that worry Litzy with the approaching new year. "The disruption to daily life, the inability to visit loved ones, and the fear of acquiring the disease and passing it along to someone else are the things that keep me awake at night." Brand new business looks forward to building a stronger customer base Kyle Husband had just opened a branch of the payroll tax and HR company Payroll Vault in Buffalo, New York, when COVID-19 hit, so adding new customers has been the primary challenge of this year. Businesses were shutting down and the ones that started back up or stayed consistent approached changes cautiously. "We realized very quickly that not many potential customers were eager to make a payroll switch during the pandemic," Husband explains. "So we shifted our approach from direct sales to a referral route, working to ensure that relationships were being developed." The idea is that this approach will generate greater client onboards in the future, even if potential clients have been hesitant this year. In a word, Husband describes 2020 as "brutal" for the family business. And he's definitely in good company. But he's banking on light at the end of the tunnel. Many contacts have talked about taking up business with Payroll Vault come January 1. "I'm concerned for the future, but also excited," Husband says. "The hope is for a little bit of normalization — that things might balance a little bit and the economy starts to flow a little bit more smoothly. We’ve learned a lot during 2020, and the goal for 2021 is growth." Hair salon embraces retail avenues, sanitation upgrades, and enhanced client communication Denise Mackey-Natz, who owns Urban Style hair salon in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, has always sold hair products in the salon, but started offering curbside pickup during the salon closure in the spring. Additionally, when customers placed an order on AVEDA's website and noted they were her client, her salon received a percentage of the sale. "While retail didn’t become too big of a part of my business during this time, we did have some days that profited particularly well," explains Mackey-Natz. "Of course, part of this situation has been redefining what I consider to be a successful day of sales. It’s important to stay positive with how business is doing." Her positive outlook plus some financial assistance has helped carry the business through other various adjustments. Mackey-Natz was grateful to receive a PPP loan, which allowed her to put herself and her staff back on payroll, pay rent and utility bills, and help cover the cost of supplies needed for extra sanitation measures. In the first five days of reopening, Urban Style had 39 appointments. Following local health guidelines limiting each stylist to 10 clients per day, the salon is taking every precaution it can, with stylists working in shifts so that no one works an entire day and taking only one appointment at a time for maximum physical distancing. The business uses business management software Salon Iris to ensure enough time is marked out for each appointment, including time for cleaning, as well as to keep track of customer needs and contact information. "Having that customer information available was very helpful for communicating reopening details and setting up appointments based on customers’ needs," Mackey-Natz explains. "We were able to text, call, and really talk with them, which was important because these customers miss us and want to hear our voices. Understandably, some clients aren't ready to come into a hair salon, but we hope to see them soon." Medical device company stays proactive despite manufacturing delays Psi Health Solutions, Inc. sells Psi Bands (pronounced "sigh bands"), a medical device for nausea relief due to morning sickness, motion sickness, anesthesia, and chemotherapy. Psi Bands are sold by online retailers like Amazon and brick and mortar retailers like Target. As founder and CEO Romy Taormina recounts, the impact of COVID-19 on her business could not have been more direct: "When COVID hit, it did so first in China. We manufacture in China." As a result, there were significant delays in manufacturing employees returning to work, and when they did, they did so at half capacity. And there were glaring delays and cost increases to ship product. "You couple that with lost sales due to U.S. retailers closing their brick and mortar locations, and now you have cash flow issues," Taormina explains, "which is why the timelines of the PPP and EIDL was a critical success factor for us." Psi Health Solutions has been especially proactive in seeking out the resources needed to continue operations as well as other necessary budgeting and marketing steps. In addition to the PPP and EIDL, the company applied for and received numerous grants, including the State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP) Grant and the FedEx #SupportSmall Grant. Some of the free services they have received are through the Trade U.S. Commercial Service which provided them with introductions to several international distributors. Psi Health Solutions is now in the process of vetting those distributors. "One finalized outcome is being established as a vendor on Tmall Alibaba in China and receiving our first PO [Purchase Order]," Taormina says. The business consolidated and paid off debt to reduce interest payments and moved a key area of the business, fulfillment, to a different state to reduce overhead costs. Psi Health Solutions also shifted its marketing focus to reflect current events and trends, such as doing more online marketing versus in-store marketing and focusing more on morning sickness relief than motion sickness relief due to less travel. Taormina says being quick to adapt is key for entrepreneurs and has been especially crucial this year amidst the obstacles. Of 2021, she says, "I am hopeful. There is much we do not have control over. However, where we do, we exert it." The company plans to continue to stay aware of risks and opportunities, ask for help when needed, and plan for the long-term while making adaptations where needed. Photo and video digitization company fosters connection amongst families EverPresent specializes in preserving family photos and videos, a cause that encourages positivity and connection with family members amidst the bleakness of the pandemic, according to owner Eric Niloff. "Our feedback has been amazing. We feel like our work has never been more important." But while the service is all about reliving good times, nothing about this year has been easy. EverPresent has physical store locations where customers can drop off slides, VHS tapes, scrapbooks, and the like in eight states in the Northeast, all of which needed to close temporarily. The company changed the layout of the corporate office, the shared equipment protocols, and the work schedules of employees to maintain social distancing. And it shifted to 100 percent mail-in, curbside, or home pickups. "Our clients give us their irreplaceable photos and videos to digitize, and they don't want them out of sight for too long," Niloff explains. "Between the lockdown and slower operations, turnaround times have been frustrating. We're getting out of it now, but for months that was the biggest challenge." But the struggle was worth it. Though operations became more laborious and, in some cases, expensive, sales combined with the PPP helped EverPresent to rebound enough financially to employ more people than there were before the pandemic, all while continuing do right by clients. By finding a way to stay open in the pandemic, clients could get a huge project off their to-do list and have a meaningful way to reconnect with loved ones. Of this year as a whole, Niloff says he's more proud of his company's performance this year than any other. "I'm optimistic. We've learned a lot and we're a smarter company now," he says. "We know how to handle disruptions, and if Congress ever passes the second PPP, we may be able to actually invest in growth again and create 10–20 new jobs in Q1 2021." Handmade clothing company increases sales and donations amidst fabric shortages Wandering Child Co, a handmade clothing company for girls sizes newborn to 5T, donates meals to children in Kenya with every purchase made. So far this year, the pandemic hasn't stopped sales or the company's subsequent donations: they've already surpassed the number of meals donated in 2019. According to owner Katyna Knapton, the company lost access to an array of fabrics previously used to make its products. "We had to work with what we could find available at the store, which wasn't much," she explains. "We've had to postpone multiple new releases because of the pandemic." Wandering Child Co's biggest win was being selected as one of the 20 Black-owned businesses for the Small Business Spotlight on television networks QVC and HSN. This press was just one of the positives of an otherwise-difficult year. "I feel very blessed and grateful that we were able to stay open during a time like this," Knapton says. And despite an unknown future, she's dreaming big. "I'm excited about new possibilities," she explains. "I'm looking forward to taking my business to the next level and crushing goals, especially with our meals program." Business strategy firm prepares clients for a future of thriving, not just surviving Elevate Diamond Strategy is a growth strategy development and execution firm specializing in new market entry, competitive intelligence, business expansion, and operational improvement. CEO and founder Michelle Diamond has worked with more than 50 companies in more than 25 industries in all stages from startup to Fortune 50 over the 15 years in business. But 2020 overall has been a challenging year for Diamond's firm. Right before COVID hit, she was on the cusp of getting one of her largest and most lucrative interim executive contracts, only to have it disappear before it began. Since then, Diamond has continued to remain open to filling immediate-need interim executive roles but understands that some companies are hesitant to hire someone full-time (even on an interim basis) in this uncertain financial climate. "To remain flexible, I've focused on shifting my practice more to advisory work, since CEOs, business owners, and other executives still have a lot of growth and operational questions they need answered," she says. But things may be starting to turn around for the better. "Companies and business owners have gotten over the initial shock and are beginning to figure out how to operate in this 'new normal,'" Diamond explains. "The wise ones are focused on shoring up their fundamentals within their companies.This is essential to not only surviving but also being in a position to thrive when things do finally turnaround and the world is COVID-free." Does Your Business Need a Loan? Browse the top-ranked companies for business loans, including SBA loans, term loans, lines of credit, commercial mortgage, and equipment financing. Learn More
2020 was a wild ride for small and mid-sized businesses nationwide, and the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has been a key part of that ride for the more than 5.1 million businesses that received PPP funds before lending ended August 8. Since then, a second round of PPP loans has been rolled out and applications are open until the program's extension date of June 30, 2021. Connecting business owners with lenders that could help them with application, approval, and funding was anything but straightforward. And the hurdles aren't over, with many business owners still left hanging with loan forgiveness technicalities. But certain lending companies have emerged as leaders in this unprecedented process, as evidenced by Best Company's 2020–2021 consumer reviews that explicitly mention experiences with PPP funding. And repeated themes across reviews reveal the most important elements that defined an experience as positive or negative. Read on to explore Best Company reviews statistics, themes, and analyses. With this knowledge, business owners can identify lenders to consider working with in the future, and lending companies can improve their processes for future large-scale business loan facilitation (of SBA loans and other loan types alike). Further PPP analysis Top praises in positive reviews Top complaints in negative reviews Which company performed best? Top praises in positive reviews Good customer service — 31 percent Specific comments within this theme include the following: Patient and helpful company reps Had their questions answered Had the process personally explained to them Received return calls and emails Was assigned a dedicated funding specialist for the entire process Received follow-up even after documentation was submitted The company stayed in touch even through obstacles like errors and delays Kabbage review: Customer Review: Karen from California "Ryan W. was a tremendous support for the stressful and sometimes confusing PPP loan application process. It was so great to connect with a live person who understood the challenges we were facing and guided us through the process." United Capital Source Review: Customer Review: Frederick from California "I worked with Jon B to secure a loan underneath the PPP program. Jon went out of his way to be helpful, and guided me through the process in an efficient and complete manner. Have nothing but positive things to say about my experience with United Capital Source." Speed and efficiency — 24 percent Specific comments within this theme include the following: Company identified a funding source quickly Received funding quickly (under 48 hours, within one week, etc.) Biz2Credit reviews: Customer Review: Jeff from Illinois “Wow. 2 days from application to funding of my PPP loan...I accidentally found Biz2Credit, and I'm so thankful I did. My loan specialist walked me thru everything, and answered whenever I called.” Customer Review: Ed from Oregon “My loan officer, (Joseph S) made everything run very smooth and was instrumental in helping me complete the required documents in a timely, professional manner. I had never applied for a business loan prior to this (so I have nothing to compare with), and I was very pleased to have someone willing to help me complete the application process for a PPP loan. From start to funding took less than 4 days. Impressed!!” Fundera review: Customer Review: John from Virginia “Matched me to a company that could handle my PPP Loan in a fast and efficient manner. Very impressed!!! Thank you for all of your help!!!!!!!!” Seamless application process — 18 percent Specific comments within this theme include the following: Utilized good technology Equipped to assist independent contractor/gig worker Well-explained interface for application Everything was accessible online Easy to navigate, submit, and sign Biz2Credit review: Customer Review: Vee from Louisiana “The PPP loan process was simple and straightforward, particularly for someone in my category. That is, an independent contractor/gig worker. The Biz2Credit system is set up in a way to help "micro" business owners. Staff was very communicative, not relying on just one mode of outreach.” United Capital Source review: Customer Review: Shabnam from New York “United Capital Source was able to apply for a PPP loan for me and it was approved! Their forms were all online and very easy to use and they emailed me for any additional files needed. The loan documents were also easy to sign and the money was in my accounts a few days later. All in all it was an excellent experience that could not have been easier. Thank you!” Improvement over another lender — 14 percent Specific comments within this theme include the following: Deemed ineligible by another bank or lender Another bank, lender, or local agency was not equipped to serve them Another bank or lender stopped taking applications Bank wouldn't help a non-customer "Ghosted" by another bank or lender Applied with multiple lenders and this was the quickest to respond Lendio review: Customer Review: Devon from California “I applied for PPP with 3 other companies and Lendio was a quick turnaround, within 24 hours.” Biz2Credit reviews: Customer Review: Michael from Nevada “My company's bank stopped taking PPP applications before I had my documents ready. My personal bank would not help me since my company accounts were not with them. Several other lenders also declined taking applications for non-customers. I tried another internet firm that submitted my package to a lender but I never was approved. With time running out I tried Biz2Credit who had an approval in 2 days.” Customer Review: Kalena from Florida “Biz2Credit helped my small business get a PPP loan. Three other lenders had simply given me the run around including Wells Fargo, my primary business bank for over 20 years.” Overall gratitude — 13 percent Specific comments within this theme include the following: Made the PPP funding possible Gratitude expressed to specific company reps Gratitude for help with loan forgiveness Initially rejected but the lender found a way to get it for them Relieved to be able to keep employees on the payroll or rehire them Kabbage review: Customer Review: Lee from Tennessee "Stephenie W. was terrific -- she really helped me out quite a bit and she was very patient and helpful...it wasn't until I reached Stephenie that I was able to find someone to assist. She basically made my PPP loan possible and I'm very grateful to her." Upwise Capital review: Customer Review: Robert from New York "Working with Upwise was a breath of fresh air during this crazy time. I tried applying for relief financing with my bank and in 6 weeks, got one email from them saying that they received my application for the PPP loan. At my wits end and not knowing what else to do, I found Upwise in a quick search and was so glad that I did. I was able to get Frank on the line who was very nice, personable and knowledgeable. He had me apply through an easy link, and I was approved and funded in just a few days! I'll be sure to be calling Frank again with any other financing needs I might have in the future. Thank you Frank and Upwise Capital, you guys ROCK!" Top complaints in negative reviews Poor communication — 44 percent Specific comments within this theme include the following: Handed from one company rep to another Calls or emails were ignored Hung up on by loan representative A scheduled call was canceled No communication after document submission 1-star review: Customer Review: David from California “Their customer service is ZERO. They were 100% nonresponsive, they failed to reply to an overnight letter, and email requesting a simple phone call. Their phones auto answers then times out and hang up. Because of their horrible service I was not able to apply for a PPP loan.” 3-star review: Customer Review: Christina from California “Our advisor was knowledgeable and helpful on our initial 2 phone calls. While not particularly timely, our advisor did follow up with us after our initial application attempts failed and instructed us to resubmit our loan application with an online vendor. While the subsequent online application was submitted successfully, that is where the contact completely stopped - I was not able to get a response from our advisor even one time after that application was successfully submitted but not processed due to lack of funds (1st round PPP funding ran out). The 3-star rating is only because our loan was ultimately approved during the 2nd round of funding, but we never received any more communication from our advisor while our application was suspended and we were waiting for additional funding.” Slow-moving process — 27% Specific comments within this theme include the following: Took a long time to process the application Took a long time to receive funding Lender was "sitting on" the approved money 2-star review: Customer Review: Louie from Florida “Application for our 3 corporations were submitted on 4/9/20 for PPP. It was handed from one representative to another. This happened 4 times. Documents were requested over and over again. I realized that only 1 corporation was processed and funded the last week of May. The other 2 PPP applications fell into the cracks. I have to diligently follow up every day and resent all documents again...Finally, after non-stop of emails, the two accounts were finally approved and funded the first week of June. I understand that this is a very busy time for [company] but customers need to be informed on what's going on with their applications. The portal is useless. It doesn't give you any updated information on applications. I was lost in the dark in this whole application process.” 1-star review: Customer Review: Amy from Texas “My credit union gave over our PPP loan to [company], as the 3rd party processor. I applied 6 weeks ago. Approved with [company] 4 weeks ago, and SBA 3 weeks ago. Still have not received my PPP. When asked if [company] was sitting on our approved money from SBA, earning interest, they would not answer. Small businesses are going under waiting to be funded and [company] is not releasing the approved money!!!!" Issues submitting documentation — 11% Specific comments within this theme include the following: Complicated or unclear process Asked repeatedly to send in documents Documentation was lost Lender didn’t include all information provided by customer for submission to SBA File mistakes were made Difficult to submit documents in different folders (rather than one) 1-star review: Customer Review: Jafar from California “The left-hand does not know what the right hand is doing. I had to resubmit the same document over and over again. The person who was working on my file did not even look at the emails and kept asking for the same documents. We had two companies and filed for both. For one mysterious reason, only one company was processed and I did not get a reasonable answer to why the other company was lost.“ 2-star review: Customer Review: Thomas from Georgia “Communication for my PPP loan was very difficult. All published phone and cell phones #'s either non-working or voice mail that does not get returned. Schedule a call form receives a response that parties are too busy and schedule call will be canceled. At the very last minute on my file mistakes were made and I was told it was too late to correct before the deadline, costing me several thousand in loan amount.” Failure to be approved — 10% Specific comments within this theme include the following: Denied because of claimed lack of documentation which actually was submitted No explanation for the rejection Approved for a smaller amount than expected Ran credit even when rejected for funding 1-star reviews: Customer Review: Cari-Anne from New Mexico “Wow! Received three different approval amounts for ppp Loan. The last amount was hysterical.. a few hundred dollars. This took about a month. Even though My client had an approval for 30,000.00 - it must be illegal. Called SBA and they said they must fund the letter of approval that they gave my client. They wouldn't respond to phone calls or emails. Finally received a response stating you are welcome to apply elsewhere even though they knew that most places had used up their funds." Customer Review: Alison from California “When I submitted my application, they wrote my application is under review and they will let me know if they need any additional information/documents. 48 hours later, I get an email that they have denied my request because my application was lacking information they requested. And very conveniently, there is no number to call to see what was missing and on their site, they write their decision is final. Yet, they still ran my credit!!!!” Website portal issues — 8% Specific comments within this theme include the following: Trouble logging in System errors Data was repeatedly lost System not user friendly 1-star review: Customer Review: Ivy from California “[Company] always has problems in logging into their website, lots of system errors and hiccups. Also it's really crappy when it's never on the same page as keeping the documents that as uploaded. I applied for my PPP here and had to reset password, security question countless times in order to login. Their system will automatically wash off all your data and report: No viewable loan after the next day. Helpless and careless employees when you call. I only got two answers from them: "reset your passwords" and " I don't know, reapply!" Which lending company performed best? Regarding the PPP reviews specifically, the average review rating for the top five companies reviewed is above 4 out of 5 stars. Due to their averages within the context of larger sample sizes, we can most confidently recommend Biz2Credit and Lendio. Click the company name to browse the reviews section for each company individually. Biz2Credit's average PPP review rating: 4.27 (75 reviews) Lendio's average PPP review rating: 4.11 (36 reviews)Upwise Capital's average PPP review rating: 5 (8 reviews) United Capital Source's average PPP review rating: 4.7 (7 reviews) Fundera's average PPP review rating: 5 (2 reviews) Who offers the best business loans? Overall rankings for all lending companies reviewed here (plus hundreds more) can be found on the best business loans landing page. Learn More
You've toyed with the idea of running a business. You have a strong management background and believe that you could succeed as an entrepreneur if you had the right business model. However, you don't want to — or can't — buy an existing business or start one from scratch. If the above description resonates with you, you might be a future franchisee. Franchise or startup? Both paths involve potential risk and reward. Franchises are popular for good reason. A franchise investment can feel less risky than a startup in that you’re working with a proven business concept, operational model, and in many cases, regional or even national brand recognition. You’re given a playbook to guide your every action. But financing and running a franchise can still be financially risky, with hefty start-up and royalty costs (as high as 8 percent) along the way. Plus, franchisees are limited in what they can do creatively within their budgeting, marketing, and even employee training efforts. If you’re seriously considering the franchise route, there is much research to be done before you make an investment. You’re in the right place because we’re here to help you with two important components of your decision: 1. How to choose a franchise2. How to pay for a franchise We’ll incorporate lender insights, franchise consultant advice, and first-hand franchisee stories along the way. 1. How to choose a franchise Selecting a franchise investment involves a number of considerations, several of which we'll discuss here: Investment amount What industries are doing well What industries are struggling Local market research Company reputations Franchise consultations First, let’s define some key terms. Sometimes “franchise owner” is used to describe a person operating a franchise location, but they don't actually own the franchise. Here are the proper definitions according to Investopedia: Franchisor: The original or existing business that sells the right to use its name and idea; the franchise owner. Franchisee (pronounced fran-chai-zee): The individual who buys into the original company by purchasing the right to sell the franchisor’s goods or services under the existing business model and trademark; a small business owner who operates a franchise; a franchise partner. Franchise: A joint venture between a franchisor and franchisee. Investment amount It’s important to know what your financial limits are so you can be realistic about your options. Not everyone has $1 million to spend to become a McDonald's or Taco Bell franchisee. Startup costs will include the following — and this doesn’t include additional ongoing costs you’ll want set aside beforehand: Franchise fee (basically an entry fee compensating the franchisor for their hard work in building the brand) Territory fee Real estate costs (leasehold improvements, construction costs, etc.) Insurance Taxes Licensing, accounting, and legal fees Equipment (industry-specific and general office) Inventory Work vehicle(s) While you can find some rare opportunities in the $10,000 range, most franchises run from about $50,000 to $200,000 in startup costs. And, of course, there are plenty of franchise investments that will cost you in the millions. search Highlight: Plenty of lower-cost franchise opportunities require an initial investment of around $50,000 or less. Here are some examples that all rank in Entrepreneur's Franchise 500 list: Destination Athlete ($28,300–$93,610) JAN-PRO Cleaning & Disinfecting ($4,170–$56,020) Kinderdance International ($18,100–$46,750) Leadership Management International ($20,000–$27,500) TSS Photography ($20,415–$74,725) What industries are doing well The landscape of franchise success and failure can change frequently even in a stable economy. But in the wake of COVID-19, certain industries and brands are clearly performing better than others. Keep in mind that there’s no guaranteed pandemic-proof or recession-proof investment. Home improvement — With many businesses having employees work remotely, people have more time at home when they don’t need to commute. Businesses retailing construction materials, gardening tools, supplies, and plants, and other DIY products may be especially promising. Case in point: home improvement franchise Ace Hardware’s 2020 second-quarter revenue was $2.28 billion, an increase of 35 percent from last year. Home services — No matter how the economy is doing, there will always be homeowners. Home services like painting, flooring, yard maintenance, and plumbing services are considered essential. These types of franchises include Neighborly brand franchises like Molly Maid®, Mr. Appliance®, and Mr. Electric®. Telehealth — In the current pandemic, people are seeking assistance for non-urgent healthcare needs remotely in order to avoid contact with COVID-19. But telehealth services like video consultation and remote medical billing services are also convenient at any time and this way of receiving non-urgent care could soon become the new norm. While there aren't a lot of franchise opportunities in this industry yet, GoTelecare has a franchise business model operating in the United States and Canada. It's been around since 2012 and requires an initial investment of only $60,000. Senior care — This year, many families have relocated their loved ones from nursing facilities to be cared for in their homes. Thus, the demand for in-home care providers has increased and that trend is predicted to continue. Senior care franchises like Nurse Next Door and Griswold Home Care (which discounts the initial franchise fee 20 percent for veterans) are worth considering. Delivery and courier services — With retail sales decreasing and eCommerce sales increasing, there has never been a greater demand for these types of services. So what's the difference between delivery and courier? Standard delivery by well-known franchises like The UPS Store and Amazon Delivery partners typically are done by a driver with a full truck making their way through a route. Courier services like Central Courier provide more specialized, on-demand delivery and can be trained for special purposes (like HIPPA certification for medical transport). Food delivery — Be discerning with this because overall, the restaurant industry is struggling. Forty percent of U.S. restaurants were closed two months into the pandemic, a hit causing three times the job losses of any other industry. But delivery companies have fared better than sit-downs or drive-thrus. Both Papa Johns and Domino's pizza have had sales surge during the pandemic. And if the recent success of GrubHub and DoorDash are any indication of food delivery as a whole, a food delivery franchise like Time To Eat may be a good investment. Junk removal and hauling — In the early months of the pandemic, social media was filled with conversations about decluttering and other long-neglected household tasks. Junk removal and hauling franchises like 1-800-GOT-JUNK help homeowners and renters alike achieve goals and create needed space in their homes. Plus, running this type of business includes the benefit of team-building and community involvement. Moving franchises like Two Men and a Truck are also worth checking out. The coronavirus has slowed real estate purchasing approval and home moving in some ways but hasn't stopped it. Commercial cleaning services — It’s uncertain what the demand will be for commercial cleaning services if businesses stick with a remote model permanently, but for any public or private space getting foot traffic right now, sanitation is a priority and will be going forward. Franchises like Vanguard Cleaning Systems and Chem-Dry are a good bet. This is the type of franchise you can launch right in the middle of a pandemic. We reached out to Bactronix to hear about the new franchise location they launched recently in Suncoast, Florida. Devin Conner, director of franchise sales, said, “The growth rate of Bactronix has been incredible,” regarding this new franchise location and others. “This marks the company’s 25th operating location in less than four months.” Other industries — There are a handful of other franchise success stories and potential pockets for growth. 7-Eleven is doing so well it bought the Speedway chain of gas stations. Fastsigns, a signage franchise has done well with increased PSAs regarding social distancing and hygiene protocols. And with an increase in online learning, virtual educational technology companies and tutoring franchises may take off. What industries are struggling Unfortunately, it seems that for every franchise doing well, there’s one that’s failing. Restaurants — As mentioned, some exceptions to this are delivery-based restaurants and some drive-thrus. But recently a franchisee operating 49 IHOPS had to file for bankruptcy. Golden Corral suspended 35 of its company-owned restaurants indicating the franchised restaurants may not fare well either. Fast-casual food chains overall are not doing great. Hospitality and travel — Hotels, car rentals, travel agencies, entertainment venues, and event centers have all been hit hard. Hertz laid off nearly one-third of its employees in April. Marriott temporarily closed 25 percent of its hotels in the spring and while occupancy has increased since then, it remains to be seen to what extent the hospitality industry can bounce back. Local market research Franchisors usually have a pulse on promising cities for their brands. And franchise consultants can also be a good resource. But it doesn’t hurt to do your own preliminary research. Think about the following: What are your community’s needs? Is there a storefront you and your friends travel great distances to frequent? Is there a franchise you’ve ever thought, I wish we had this? Keep in mind that not all companies with multiple locations are franchises. Shop out locations. You may be able to land cheap commercial rent right now due to decreased demand with COVID-19 restrictions. There may also be available real estate for purchase. Read reviews If you've pinpointed some brands you're interested in, get a feel for each company's overall reputation online. Visit their social media pages and read comments from customers. And read reviews! We recommend our verified reviews here on Best Company. You can research companies by industry or use the search bar to type in a specific company. Within a company's profile, you can sort through the reviews by searching for key terms such as your state's name. Try it out on the Planet Fitness profile. Consult with a franchise expert Franchise consultants share their knowledge with prospective franchisees. Their job is to advise and support franchisees in their goals. Tom Scarda, CFE, CEO and Founder of The Franchise Academy and The Franchise Academy podcast shares his hard-earned knowledge with prospective franchisees. We asked him to share some of his experiences with franchise success and failure. BC: What is your background in franchise management? Scarda: I owned two separate franchises. One was a huge success. I sold it within five years of starting it and semi-retired at 41 years old. I purchased a second concept and failed miserably and lost almost my entire life savings. But that’s what made me an expert! Since then, I’ve written several books including the number one bestseller, Franchise Savvy, and have been coaching people on how to avoid the mistakes I made with my second try. I also host the Franchise Academy Podcast. BC: What factors did you prioritize in your research? Scarda: The main factors I considered when buying a franchise was essentially the cost of entry and whether I thought it had legs to grow. I didn’t know what else to consider at the time. BC: What was your process like in determining which franchise to pursue? Scarda: To find my first franchise, Maui Wowi Smoothies, I used a franchise consultant. She educated me on items I would not have known since I had never owned a franchise before. For my second franchise, Super Suppers (make and take dinner concept), I went it alone and that’s why I made mistakes. I did not do market research, and I didn’t think through the day in the life for me as the owner. BC: How did you finance your franchise? Scarda: I did home equity lines of credit for my businesses. BC: What is the most challenging aspect of running a franchise? Scarda: I think the most challenging thing about running a franchise is wearing 17 management hats at the beginning. We are taught to go to school, get a skill and apply it to a job. We are not taught to run a business. Even though a franchise could be considered a “business with training wheels,” it’s really difficult to run. I think new franchise owners are seldom prepared for what it takes to run a business. BC: What is the most rewarding aspect of running a franchise? Scarda: The most rewarding aspect of being a franchise owner is taking control of my destiny. To me, a bad day in business still beats a good day in a cubicle. 2. How to pay for a franchise If you're asking this question, you probably don't have the extra cash to pay the costs upfront. Of course, if you already have the capital, you can skip this section. But if you're in the camp of franchisees that need to borrow, you're in good company. And you've got options, so shop around. Learn about the different types of funding that may be available to you and decide which is the best route. Alternative business loans These types of loans are accessible through funding companies online. They have a leg up on traditional banks in that they can approve very quickly — a matter of hours — and fund very quickly — a matter of days. This is because alternative business loans generally involve simple applications, lenient requirements, and a variety of products that give you a good chance of finding a funding source that will work with you. Banks generally require more stringent conditions, a favorable credit history, and high capital and collateral. The tradeoff is that they may have higher rates and less favorable terms than loans from a bank. There are hundreds of alternative business lenders and several loan types. So what should you look for? National Funding works with franchise owners across all business verticals and has multiple solutions for prospective franchisees to consider including equipment financing, working capital, and short-term bridge loans. National Funding is ranked #4 out of the top-ranked business lenders based on more than 50 verified borrower reviews like the following: Customer Review: Patrick from Liberty, Missouri "I felt like they were customizing what they had with what I needed. It was effortless. Everybody that I talked to was super friendly and made sure that I had all my questions answered. The process was pretty easy. I did an online application. It didn't take very long. Very simple. I would recommend them to anyone. They are awesome folks to work with." According to Justin Thompson, Chief Revenue Officer of National Funding, “Franchisees are typically looking for a lending partner that understands time is of the essence, with the use of technology over the traditional route of heavy paperwork and long wait time” and key lenders are able to meet these demands. Thompson also says a business loan should have flexible options, such as terms, rates, and payment schedules, in order to fit the needs of the franchisee. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Thompson has noticed that franchisees are looking for short-term, flexible products. “The long term 7–10-year bank loan isn’t suitable as they can’t be tied up for that long at the mercy of the bank,” he explains. Our lender reviews include other companies that have high praise for franchise financing specifically. Seek Capital: Customer Review: Tommy from Canyon Country, California "I had a great experience working with Seek! The process was handled smoothly and I was able to get the money I needed to order my equipment for opening my restaurant. It was hard because no lenders would help me since I don’t have any deposits since I just started my franchise. Go Seek!" Balboa Capital: Customer Review: Giuseppe Filippelli from Albion, New York "They were recommended by our franchiser. Getting the loan was a fairly easy process. Everyone involved was just really nice, kind, and very helpful. They were very concerned about making sure all the information was accurate." How can you qualify? In regards to determining a franchisee’s eligibility for a business loan, Thompson says, “Technology makes determining eligibility quite simple. We base eligibility on attributes such as cash flow, time in business, Standard Industrial Classification (SIC), and Annual Gross Sales.” To learn more about National Funding's business loans, The Bottom Line blog is a great resource. Franchisor financing Many franchise opportunities include an internal franchise financing option so you're not starting from scratch in your search for a funding source. This guided option has generally been tried and true by other franchisees for that specific franchise and may even include a discount over other funding sources. Your chosen company's Franchise Disclosure Document (FDD) will contain the financing information, including terms and conditions, through the franchisor or partner lender. Commercial bank loans As mentioned, bank loans generally have more favorable terms, most notably, lower interest rates, than alternative business loans. But they are more difficult to obtain. Bank loans often require collateral, in which you pledge equity in your home or business assets. And you may need to contribute 20 to 25 percent of the upfront costs out of pocket. Banks favor businesses with recognizable brand names and long track records of consistent cash flow. So if you're investing in a bigger-name franchise or you need a loan to expand an already-successful franchise, a bank loan might be for you. SBA loans Small Business Administration (SBA) loans are financed through banks but backed by the federal government. The advantage to these loans is that the SBA sets maximum rates, typically between 7 and 9.5 percent for SBA 7(a) loans. To qualify for an SBA loan, you need good credit and your franchise must be listed in their Franchise Directory. If your franchise is not in the directory, the franchisor must submit their FDD for the SBA to review for consideration within the Directory. Crowdfunding Depending on your financing needs, crowdfunding could be a feasible solution for financing a franchise. But there are important considerations surrounding crowdfunding, including limits on the amount you can raise within a 12-month time period, costs and risks of preparing a compliant disclosure document, and the need to hire an attorney with experience in franchise law and crowdfunding. There are pros and cons of both equity crowdfunding and rewards crowdfunding. Make sure you understand this method from all angles before you pursue it. Other methods While they have their own set of advantages and disadvantages, there are additional financing methods to consider include the following: Family and friends loan Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) Credit cards Take out retirement funds (Rollover for Small Business (ROBS) or by withdrawing funds from a ROTH IRA) Final thoughts from an employee-turned-franchise partner If you're still considering franchise management as your next investment and career, learning from franchisees will be invaluable. We asked Keith Novotny, a Cousins Subs employee-turned-franchisee to share some thoughts on his journey. Novotny joined the company at age 16 and has been a franchise partner for more than 17 years. BC: How did you decide to become a franchisee? Novotny: Because I was an employee at Cousins Subs before purchasing my first franchise, my determination came from first-hand experience working for the brand. The family-like atmosphere, encouraging leadership team, and commitment to the community struck me and guided me to my path to being a business owner. At Cousins Subs everyone is family and that philosophy encouraged and motivated me to take the leap of faith to purchase my own location and hire my talented team who have come to feel more like family. BC: How did you finance your franchise? Novotny: Candidly, I was fortunate to receive emotional and financial support from my parents. I essentially took a loan from them that I am paying back. I also worked with Commerce State Bank, a local bank in my community, to take out a loan. BC: What is the most challenging aspect of running a franchise? Novotny: Staffing is the most challenging part. It’s critical to my restaurant's success to have the right people in the right seats. More and more, it’s challenging to find young talent that wants to work and gives it their all around the clock. So, when I find the best candidates, I hire based on referrals. Word of mouth advertising has been really successful for me. When I hire from my teams’ networks, I’ve found a lot of success and fun! I mean who doesn’t want to work with their friends? BC: What is the most rewarding aspect of running a franchise? Novotny: Simply put, giving back to my community. I’m proud to own and operate two Cousins Subs franchises in my hometown. I’m even more proud to run successful stores that permit me to give back as much as I do. When asked by a community member to give back, I have a philosophy to not say "no." Even if I can’t help in the exact way requested, I always find a way to provide support. People like to support businesses that support them and their community they’re proud to call home. BC: Anything else you'd like to share with our readers? Novotny: Life is too short and it’s so important to go to work every day and enjoy what you’re doing with 100 percent satisfaction. As a franchise owner, it’s my goal to ensure each of my employees feels the same way. I also encourage future franchise owners to get outside of your four walls and network with other business owners. Not only is it fun, but you can also learn so much about how you can enhance your workplace. Ready to apply for your loan? Choose from the top-ranked business lenders to finance your franchise. Get approved today and obtain funds as soon as tomorrow. Learn More