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Despite spending most of my time working on my own startups, I find myself drawn to reading about what other people are up to, or making use of - whether it is new ideas, new marketing strategies & tools, or even inspiring stories. I can't help it. I have to keep tabs on who's doing what and what the latest trends, gadgets & tools are.
And while browsing sites aimlessly can be a great way to do nothing, every now and then you come across something that makes an impact, or changes the way you think or behave. These moments are super valuable because they can genuinely improve your approach to work (or play).
We've put together a collection of all the sites that have had an impact on us (SME Pals, and our community of readers) that should give you plenty of juicy entrepreneurial goodness to take back and try out in your own startups.
Help a Reporter Out
Without a doubt, this has been a fantastic find. HARO is useful for two main reasons:
Connect with, and establish relationships with writers & bloggers
Access real-world expertise and stories from entrepreneurs and business owners
We have produced a number of articles that would have been quite dull without the fantastic input we received in response to our story requests. And, conversely, we have also made some great friends who have ended up talking about us and referring other people to us as a result of our responses to their requests.
Definitely something small businesses and startups should be making use of to grow their network, and gain some decent exposure.
Steven Johnson, or more accurately, his book entitled, 'Where good ideas come from', was nothing short of a game changer for me.
He talks about how good ideas are a patchwork, a jigsaw puzzle, that get played with, changed, scrapped, revived, mangled, fixed, shared, lost, and found before finally coming to fruition. In other words, they're not a single blinding flash of inspiration, they're a culmination of all sorts of small pieces.
Here's a great visual overview of the ideas contained in his book:
Thinking about ideas as things that are partly evolved and partly constructed is really helpful. It means that instead of wasting time straining for inspiration, you can search for 'new pieces of the puzzle'. This is a far better strategy than failing to come up with great ideasm feeling stupid and giving up.
Twitter, as it turns out, is actually an extremely useful networking tool - much more so than other social networks in my opinion.
I think that people are active on Twitter because the interactions are quick and easy, making the barrier to entry for new interactions very low. This in turn makes it possible to connect with top influencers far more easily than any other medium.
Influencers are genuinely monitoring their account for commenting and retweeting activity. This means you can (provided you're smart) take far less time to get on someone's radar and build a relationship with them.
I tend to hate business and networking functions. It's not that I'm particularly anti-social, it's just that I hate "phony" interactions. I don't like people introducing themselves with the sole purpose of finding out what I can offer them, or worse, what they can offer me.
Google's startup grind is perfect for me because while there is plenty of time for mingling and networking, the bulk of the evening is taken up with a Q & A session with someone of note in your local business world.
It is something you can dip in and out of, which I like immensely. Just because you attend one grind function, doesn't mean you're obliged to go to every one. Pick and choose the events covering topics (and influencers) who interest you, and leave the rest.
All in all, pretty great value with the opportunity to meet interesting locals also involved in startups and business.
We tend to keep close tabs on the state of play when it comes to important things like building online stores for startups. However, it feels to me like Shopify is starting to run away with things.
They are growing much quicker than the competition, and offering more and more industry leading features (like Buy now buttons directly in tweets). Yes, others like Bigcommerce aren't far behind, but Shopify seems to have put a bit of daylight between them and the rest of the pack.
That and the fact that two people asked me what I recommended to build a store with. I sent both to Shopify, and both were extremely happy with what they got out of it. So, for me at least, there is direct tangible proof that Shopify is working well for entrepreneurs.
Rocco Tuccio, the founder of Zippy Robotics, recommended Canva as tool that allows companies to easily make their own professional designs.
I jumped on this one because I am not a designer (I'm essentially design impaired), and I know first hand how frustrating it can be to try and create professional looking content online. I'll be using Canva to create any infographics we need in the future.
As Rocco says:
They have templates for making social media images, infographics, posters, presentations, etc. In a few minutes you can have a custom image that looks as though it was designed by a professional. We use it mostly for Twitter and presentations, and you can upload your own images to insert and modify, or select from their database.
I work for several different startups and companies, and have to spend quite a bit of time working with people in Europe, the States, and Asia, while I am based in Cape Town, South Africa.
It would simply not be possibly to communicate with everyone I need to by traditional methods, yet Skype makes it quick, easy and completely free to talk to any number of people, anywhere, at any time.
I today's modern era of virtual offices, where businesses employ people all over the globe, Skype is an absolute necessity. And, what's more, it can help drastically cut communications costs - so you don't need to pay for anything more than an Internet connection and bandwidth.
DropBox is a cloud based file sharing service that makes sharing documents with teams of people, or colleagues and clients easy - no matter where in the world they are.
Save a file to a local folder on your device and DropBox automatically synchs it to the cloud, where anyone with permission to access that folder can immediately see and access it.
Travelling for a meeting? No problem, Dropbox files are accessible from anywhere at any time.
What's nice about DropBox is that it is pretty generous with its free storage space (5GB), meaning that small businesses can get a huge amount of free use from it to begin with.
I generally tend to avoid 'content curation platforms' because, in my humble opinion, information overload is all too real and people waste far too much time reading rehashed low quality articles, instead of actually doing stuff.
Inbound is different because they are one of the few communities that actually surface genuinely great content. This means you spend far less time filtering out fluff pieces, and far more time actually getting value.
I pop in each day to glance over the latest offerings and almost always learn something new and useful in the twenty minutes or so I spend there. Highly recommended if you are looking to establish an online footprint and grow via online marketing, SEO, and social media.
Google Analytics has become such an every day part of my work that I very nearly left it out of this article - it's like part of the furniture, not a great new tool to be discovered.
If you aren't using analytics to track and analyze your Web traffic, then life is going to get very hard, very quickly. Without understanding where traffic comes from and what it is doing (when it is on your site), there's evey chance you'll miss out on opportunities or potential problems.
Be careful though, Google Analtyics is plagued by referral spam (bot generated traffic designed to fool webmasters into visiting the referring domains) and in some cases, more of the data is spam than genuine traffic. There are ways to filter it out, but I must admit I am disappointed by how rife it has become.
Evernote is an incredibly useful tool for me since I like to gather information about a whole lot of different things. By collecting it within Evernote, it's possible to organize and access it far more efficiently than more traditional ways - i.e. Outlook, or handwritten notes.
But I only make use of a fraction of the functionality available. You might well find that they have a host of features, from research, discussion and presentations, that help keep a handle on running your business - especially in the hectic startup period.
And, like all good, modern services, everything you do can be synched to the cloud and accessible any time, from any connected device.
Brett Bastello over at Inseev Interactive recommended UpWork because it has allowed him to make use of cost-effective virtual assistants on a project by project basis.
This has been extremely beneficial to our company's growth, by allowing us to outsource repetitive and time consuming tasks at a relatively low cost, so that I and the other stakeholders can focus on larger and more complex projects, which adds substantially more value to our company and clients.
A service like Upwork has great potential to help startups get otherwise time consuming and distracting chores out of the way in order to focus on more important things.
RT500 Enterprise's primary function is allow people to monitor the sales performance of their competitors and be alerted in real-time whenever they experience a surge in sales.
It then provides tools and resources (like the hugely popular, free Amazon best sellers page) to quickly find out what marketing or advertising they used to generate those sales. The idea being that you can build up your own list of great marketing strategies by seeing what works for others in your niche.
But, there are other uses for their data, like market research and product sourcing.
I was working with a design based startup who needed to work out what products they were going to use in their launch phase - basically they wanted to know which type of products (specifically incorporating customized artwork) were more popular. Using RT500 Enterprise they were able to get a good idea of which products they needed to lead with.
There are stacks of other great tools, books, services and resources out there that we haven't included on this list. Drop us a line and tell us what you use, and why it helps. Or, let us know if you decided to try out any of these resources and what the result was.
As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
Among their top 3 challenges, according to most business leaders, is the ability to keep pace with new technology - like the cloud.
Being able to understand what new technology offers and how to use it to increase productivity and maintain competitiveness is not easy, because technology moves moves faster than our ability to keep up.
Small businesses, in this regard, have a distinct advantage over larger ones, and we might well be entering an age where small companies start out-competing big ones because of technology.
Small retail businesses and eCommerce sites need to consistently choose the best products to sell in order to maximize their profits.
But trying to find this information is not always easy, and there are plenty of "silver bullet" sites (and con men) that will try to make a profit by advising you to stock products that give them commission.
It's far better to be able to do your own research into which products offer the best value for money for your own customers and clients. After all, you know your business best.
Recently I was fortunate enough to attend a meeting between my startup and one of the largest logistics companies in the country - so that we could pitch our new service.
The size of this client would almost be sufficient to reach sustainability and profitability in one go. Obviously landing a whale in your first pitch as a new startup is the ultimate dream come true, but it can be hard to turn it into reality.
The meeting went ok, but there were some hard lessons learned about how to pitch big corporate clients that my partners and I took away from the experience.
There's nothing worse than finding out your business website has been hacked and is being used to send out bulk emails, spam visitors, or spread malicious software.
If it hasn't happened to you, don't fall into the trap of thinking that this scenario is something that happens to other people. Spam hacks are absolutely rampant.
Fortunately, the business model of spammers requires them, more often than not, to automate their hacks to seek out vulnerable Web servers and sites, because they have to do things on a huge scale to turn a profit.
An SME (Small & Medium Enterprise), sometimes called an SMB (Small & Medium Business), is any business under a certain size. With so many differing definitions, we focus on the people responsible. Smart Modern Entrepreneurs.