Networking For Beginners

Every time we attend a business function such as a training course, a trade show or an annual conference we have the opportunity to network. In fact, most of us network frequently, although we may not think of it exactly that way. Networking is the social part of doing business, and it can really help both you and your business if you do it right.

One of the most important things to remember is that networking is social in nature. It’s the difference between a speech and a conversation, or between an advertising poster and a work of art. It’s something shared between two or more people and good manners are important.

These are some of the ‘little rules’ that can make your networking really pay off. This doesn’t always mean a payoff in the financial sense, although that’s likely to happen from successful networking, but also will ensure that you get more enjoyment from the networking events you attend:

1. Don’t make the mistake of being pushy or forcing yourself on others. This is bad networking behavior. Keep it informal and think of it as a way of meeting people and making friends. Networking is still at its core an unstructured person-to-person activity.

2. Be memorable. Although the tone is informal it doesn’t mean that you can’t be remembered for what you say and do during networking. This takes preparation and some strategic planning, and if you do it well both you and those you network with will get more from the event. Be a source of knowledge or even just have a couple of short jokes ready to contribute.

3. Be yourself professionally! Anything to do with business is always about image, even in informal surroundings like a networking cocktail party or golfing event. Dress well, look good, and remember that you’re not just there as yourself but you’re also representing your business. The impressions you give others will carry over into their mental picture of your organization.

4. Do some preparation. There’s always a period of introduction in every networking event, so have a brief statement ready for who you are and what you do. If you say “I publish books,” be prepared to answer a question about what kind of books you publish.

5. Remember their names. People’s names are extremely important, especially to their owners. Whenever you’re introduced to someone be sure to get their name right; listen closely and repeat the name so you won’t forget it. Use their name in your conversation and they’ll be more likely to remember your name too.

6. Be a cheerful person whenever you’re networking. Even if you find yourself talking with somebody who’s got a sad story to relate, do everything you can to cheer them up and make their day a bit brighter. People remember others that make them feel good and tend to not bother remembering those who depress them.

7. Be helpful to others. While you’re talking with somebody try to think of a way you can help them. It can be a business-related matter or even just something personal, such as recommending a book to read or movie to see. The more you help others the greater your value in their eyes.

8. Be receptive to others. Networking’s a two-way street and while you’re thinking of ways to help somebody else they might well be thinking of ways to help you. If you’re offered something, perhaps advice or a business contact, be appreciative and thank the other person for their help.

9. Keep track of the contacts you make. This can be done with a business card file or even a notebook you carry with you to networking events. Record names, companies, contact information and details of where you’ve met and what was discussed. Especially note down any commitments you’ve made so you can follow up with them later.

10. Follow-up every contact. This is one of the most important parts of networking and the key to making it successful. After the event be sure to drop the people you’ve met a brief note, sending something if that’s what you’ve promised to do, or suggesting a social meeting in a week or two.

If there is a ‘golden rule’ to successful networking it’s simply to be yourself. The rest of the rules outlined above are really just a few techniques that will be helpful in making the most out of networking opportunities. Follow them and without any extra effort you’ll suddenly find that networking adds a new dimension to the events you attend.

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How Many Hours In Your Day?

A professional services day is theoretically the same as any other – 24 hours long. But when it comes to how many of those hours can be dedicated by managers to earning fees you’d probably be surprised just how small the number actually is.

If the working week were really 40 hours long it might be thought that there were about that many billable hours in each week. But how many hours can actually be charged out?

Most managers overestimate the billable hours in their weeks. They forget or don’t realize how much time is spent sitting in meetings, doing administrative paperwork, attending training courses and industry seminars, and on other things like vacations and other holidays.

This non-billable time adds up. It’s typically about 25% to 30% of the total hours available, and can even get to a point near 50% at which time it’s pretty hard to earn enough to make a contribution to profits.

If you don’t believe it, deduct the following days from one year: 15 days for vacation, 9 days for holidays, 5 days for illness, 12 days for training, 44 days for marketing (one day each week), 104 days for weekends, and 28 days for administrative activities (one hour each day).

In a non-leap year this leaves 148 billable days, or a total of 1184 hours annually for working a typical eight-hour day.

For comparative purposes, business coach and author C. J. Hayden estimates that the national average for consultants is even less – just 22 billable hours per week. This is the reason so many professional services managers usually have to work exceptionally long hours including giving up their weekends.

Team members’ time is similarly affected. If you can charge out between 50% and 80% of their available hours you’re typical of most professional services firms.

Another time-related factor critical to the firm is the average length of engagements. This can have an impact on both your profitability and client relationships.

It might be thought that long engagements are best because they generate the highest fees. Unfortunately this is often not the case. Clients want an engagement to produce results in the fastest possible time and the longer it takes to get results the greater the chance for dissatisfaction, regardless of the cause.

It is sometimes the case that billable hours have to be reduced at the end of a long engagement to avoid overextending the client’s budget or the business relationship.

What all this means is easy to summarize but requires a lot of time (not billable, unfortunately) and some financial investment to implement.

First, billable hours need to be meticulously captured and recorded. There are many software products now available that are specifically developed to do this for professional services firms.

Next, managers need to do all they can to control the amount of time they and their team members spend on administration, training and other internally directed activities. The goal here is to reduce the need for working excessive overtime and on weekends as much as possible.

Work on your marketing so that it achieves the greatest possible ROI. Fine-tune every aspect and watch the time invested as closely as you do the money spent.

Finally, if an engagement is becoming overlong it’s up to you to raise the issue with your client and ensure that there is no perception of ‘dragging your feet’ developing. Keep things moving along and wrap it up as quickly as you can.

Time is always short, but it’s never shorter than when you try to charge for it or have to pay for it.

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Even Negative Feedback Can Be Valuable

We often wonder what others really think about something we’ve said or done. The only way to find out is to get feedback from them, and it’s not always going to be positive. However, this doesn’t mean it isn’t all valuable. In fact, when someone disagrees with us and tells us why it can be the most valuable feedback we receive.

When someone criticizes us the first thing we usually want to do is to reject the criticism and respond with a justification of whatever it is we’ve said that they’re disagreeing with. This can make for a lively discussion at parties but if both sides just state their piece and don’t really listen to what the other side is saying the value of the feedback will be lost.

There are a couple of very good reasons to listen carefully to feedback, even if it’s critical of your position or saying something you completely oppose. The first reason is that you may learn something you didn’t know before – you might even have got a fact or two wrong.

The second good reason to listen to feedback is that if one person disagrees with you there could easily be others that feel the same way. This gives you a chance to either change your position or get additional information that will support your assertions next time around.

There’s a simple but very effective way to receive feedback, whether positive or negative, and to make sure you obtain the maximum possible value from it.

Listen actively

When someone is giving you feedback you’re probably only half-listening to what they have to say. The other half of your consciousness is formulating responses to what they’re saying, and when this happens you’re missing at least half the value of the feedback you’re getting.

Listening is an art – an active art. You have to work just as hard to listen to someone else as you do to speak to them. Focus on every word and if there’s any doubt about what they’re telling you ask them to clarify what they’ve said. Ask them for examples if it’s helpful to do so. Be sure that you fully understand what they’re saying.

Manage the feedback session

If the other person is angry or hostile do what you can to calm them down first, before probing for their thoughts or feelings. It’s up to you to manage the conversation in such a way that both of you are rational and aiming to discover the truth rather than just repeat what’s already been said.

One way of controlling a negative person who’s also a bit angry is to give them feedback on their position. Even if you just say “Yes, I can understand how you would feel that way” or “I hadn’t thought about that side of it” you’ll be showing respect for their feelings and calming down their hostility.

Another management technique that’s useful in feedback sessions is to repeat every point made by the other person. This helps ensure you fully understand what it is they’re trying to say as well as forcing the discussion into a point-by-point structure instead of just letting it all flow unchecked.

Ask questions to draw them out. One of the best is to ask: “If you were in my position what would you have done?” or something similar to this. It gives them a chance to make a contribution by creating an option to whatever it is that they see as unsatisfactory.

Apologize in the right way

Unless something is raised by the other person that completely changes your mind on the subject chances are you’ll still have some level of disagreement when the feedback session’s over. One good way to end it is with an apology that’s not necessarily an admission that you’ve been wrong.

Some examples of this type of apology are: “I’m sorry if I’ve upset you” and “If only we could have had this conversation before I said that”. It doesn’t mean you’ve accepted that you’re wrong; it does tell the other person that you would prefer not to have upset them with what you said or did.

Be thankful and say it

At the end of the feedback session (or to end the feedback session!) thank the other person for taking the trouble to tell you their feelings. Remember the two reasons for paying close attention to feedback – you might learn something new and you’ll be better prepared for next time.

In the final analysis you may not change anything despite the feedback you’ve received. At least you’ve learned some of the reactions others will have to your position and you’ll be better prepared next time you want to make the same points, and that’s how you can extract the value from negative feedback.

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Backing Up Business Data – It’s Crucial

There’s no particular peculiar virtue in religiously backing up business data. It’s just that the consequences of not doing so are potentially catastrophic.

Many businesses feel secure that their data are reasonably safe. They have good anti-virus software or a firewall that will stop viruses getting into their intranet.

But there are other ways to lose information. Fire, for example, or flood, earthquake or hurricane. To protect against these risks, it’s necessary to not only back up data but to store the data offsite.

Anti-virus software offers no protection against outright vandalism. It’s not unknown for disgruntled employees to carry out subtle or not-so-subtle sabotage. And data can be deleted accidentally. Files, folders and even whole databases can be mistakenly emptied out with the trash.

Theft is another problem. Laptops are easily stolen and with them can be lost many megabytes of precious information. Power surges pose another threat. Lightning bolts or just engineering problems can fry a whole network, unless it is surge-protected.

Finally, as a computer hard drive gets older, there is an increasing risk that one day it will simply crash.

Some of these risks may seem small. But the size of the risk needs to be balanced against the size of the consequences. Imagine, for example, that all a company’s tax records went missing. What level of sympathy would the tax authorities be likely to show? Even if a single mailing list went missing, what is the potential lost income as sales and marketing opportunities are not taken?

Of course, when important data are lost and they cannot be retrieved, they are often recreated. But recreating data may take longer than creating them in the first place. It’s one thing to note down information after a phone call, for example. It’s another to have to remember that phone call a fortnight later and backtrack over all the issues and details.

Some businesses back up on a daily basis. Others may back up weekly. It really depends on how much information an organization can afford to lose and how time they can afford to spend redoing work.

Backing up does not need to be laborious. Software can do it automatically, storing files in another part of your office Intranet. It’s possible to backup through the Internet if you have a broadband connection. Backups can run overnight. The cost of backing up this way is likely to be less than a firm will pay in insurance. And backup is a kind of insurance as data loss has been known to close down businesses.

Small businesses with only a few computers can back up onto a CD-ROM. A single CD-ROM can store 600 MB and can be added to incrementally. This only takes a few minutes.

The general rule is that most computer users do not start backing up until something bad happens. It may be only something minor. Perhaps someone has spent an afternoon working on a document and forgotten to save, and the power goes off unexpectedly. Then, amongst the general fuming and recriminations, the importance of backing up data becomes obvious.

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Problem Solving – How To Do It

Problem solving is a part of life, especially in our businesses. How you go about it is often the most important determinant of the outcome you get. Here’s a step-by-step management process for problem solving that you can use the next time something goes wrong and you have to fix it.

1. Be sure you know what the problem is

Write down all the details you can about the problem. What it is. What caused it. What it’s doing or has done to your business. Define it as clearly as possible and state everything you know about it.

2. Assign a priority to it

Some problems are urgent and others have a more flexible timeline. Write down everything you can about the time factors relating to the problem. Determine whether the problem needs to be solved today, this week, or this month. Also define what will happen if you don’t solve the problem.

3. Check the measurements

Quantify any aspects of the problem that can be represented numerically. If it has a financial impact on your business make an estimate of how much it will cost. Also estimate what those numbers will be if the problem is solved.

If not solving the problem for a period of time will make the measurements worse, project these over the anticipated time before you will have solved the problem.

4. Share the problem

When you have completed the first three steps you have a clear picture of the problem and are ready to enlist the help of others. Business problems are best treated as a team issue, so assemble a team to help you find the solution.

Choose people that can bring their own problem-solving skills to the project. Make them the owners of the problem and challenge them to solve it. (Even if the problem-causer is among this group avoid recriminations and just focus on the solution.)

Review the first three steps to make sure you haven’t missed something or made a miscalculation. Everyone must agree on the dimensions of the problem before proceeding.

5. Agree on what will identify a solution

How will you know that the problem has been solved? Everyone working on finding a solution has to have a clear goal in mind that represents that solution. Define this as carefully as you’ve defined the problem itself.

6. Manage the solution process

You’re now there to manage the team in their efforts to find a solution to the problem. Become the focal point for information gathering and communication and manage all aspects of the project including scheduling and meeting deadlines.

7. Don’t just fix the symptoms

Many business problems manifest themselves with symptoms that can be wrongly perceived as the problems themselves. As project manager it’s your responsibility to ensure that the real problem is pursued to the point of solution and not just the symptoms; fixing the symptoms often helps to mask the real problem.

8. Honesty is the best policy

You may find that the resources at your immediate command are inadequate to solve the problem. If this is the case, be wise enough to admit it and call in help from outside the organization.

Refocus the team’s efforts on finding a source of the solution somewhere else. Keep the team together so they can evaluate the proposed solutions received from elsewhere.

9. Choose the best solution

Assuming that your team has agreed on a solution for the problem you need to make sure it’s not only going to work but is also the best solution. Check and double-check before you implement any solution to be certain it will be the most effective answer to the problem.

10. Thank and disband the team

Make a final report to the team that has solved the problem and tell them how you appreciate their contributions. You can now officially disband the team and remove this particular problem-solving task from their list of responsibilities.

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Play To Your Strengths

Every person is a combination of strengths and weaknesses. We’re only human and so we usually spend far too much time worrying about our shortcomings and too little time leveraging our strengths.

That’s hardly a positive approach. Owning a business is stressful at the best of times, and we should do all we can to reduce our quantum of worries so we can better cope with the demands and responsibilities of management.

If you start leveraging your strengths you’ll find you have a lot more time and energy to deal with issues in your life. You’ll be doing the opposite of worrying and just like the song says: “Accentuate the positives, eliminate the negatives”.

Start by working out what your strengths really are. Make your own appraisal of your talents. What sort of thing do you do best? Look back on all your successes and remember what made you successful in each case.

What do you really love doing? What kind of projects gives you a lot of pleasure? This is the type of work you should be doing because you’ll do it well and it will make you a happier person.

What do others ask you to do for them? You could be really good with computers, or at fixing broken appliances. You might not even think much about what you do to help other people but chances are pretty good you’re seen as an ‘expert’ at something.

Ask your friends and family what they think you’re good at. After the usual banter you may be surprised to find they think you’re good at a lot more than you ever knew.

Now use your imagination to come up with things you know you could do if you just took the time or had the opportunity to do them. Whether it’s something in sport like the perfect ‘300’ game of bowling or perhaps playing championship chess, there are always options we just haven’t tried – yet.

Think about the jobs others have that you feel sure you could do equally well. It could be the head of your local chamber of commerce, or perhaps the CEO of a large manufacturing company. If you can imagine yourself in those roles it’s another guide to what you enjoy doing.

And on the flip side!

There’s another side to this process that’s not as much fun but just as essential, and that’s finding out what you don’t do well. Those same friends and family who told you what you’re good at doing can also tell you what don’t do very well. No matter how distasteful this may be, it’s the kind of information you have to know.

Ask yourself what are the areas where you’ve performed consistently poorly. Identify where your best efforts have achieved the least and where your frustrations led to failure.

If you persist at trying to do something that you can’t do well you’re wasting your time and energy in a fruitless cause. It’s far more practical to base your activities on your strengths and not your weaknesses.

Now it’s time to apply what you’ve learned. Remember that nobody’s good at everything. Get rid of the responsibility for doing something you don’t do well by either having somebody else do it or letting technology handle it instead of you.

Most business owners wear many hats – too many, usually. It could be time to consider handing over a hat or two to an outside contractor or even adding a part-time team member to take over functions you’re not handling well.

You might even be able to find somebody whose strengths and weaknesses complement yours – they do well what you don’t, and vice versa. What a team you’d make!

From this point onwards make a decision to focus on your positives and base what you do in business on what you are best at doing. You’ll have a higher success rate in everything you do and won’t be dragged down by failure because you’ve minimized your chance of meeting it again.

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Easy Time Management

Every person in every organization is well aware that by adopting even the most basic time management techniques they can become more effective, and hence more productive. Even if they don’t actually do it.

For accountants it is especially important. They have to be able to bill accurately and profitably, and missing an important external deadline (such as a tax return lodgment) through being disorganized can obviously be very damaging to the business. There is nothing quite like the end-of-financial-year rush to make one swear to be more organized next year.

The vast time management industry is predicated upon the fact that the pressures to perform are becoming more and more intense each year, and that there are only 24 hours in a day and 168 hours in a week.

Nightmare statistics abound, such as the horrifying news that executives on average spend a total of three years of their working life in meetings, and two years playing telephone tag.

The mystery then is why only a few people are able to manage this rarest and most precious of business resources effectively.

Even more so, when the benefits arising from effective time management include giving a structure to the business day, and peace of mind through knowing that goals benefiting the business are being met.

It also increases productivity, ensures that nothing slips through the gaps, and engenders a feeling of accomplishment and well-being in the organization. In addition, stress levels are reduced by avoiding crises.

Ohio State University in the US has classified the major time wasters into external and internal categories. By looking at these it is possible to establish the cause of an individual’s lack of efficient time management and pinpoint the old habits that need to be broken.

The external ones are: telephone interruptions; meetings; visitors; socializing; lack of information; excessive paperwork; communication breakdown; lack of policies and procedures; lack of competent personnel and red tape.

The internal ones are: procrastination; failure to delegate; unclear objectives; failure to set priorities; crisis management; failure to plan; poor scheduling; lack of self-discipline; attempting to do too much at once and lack of relevant skills.

To overcome these time wasters, employees must not only change their behavior, but also maintain and persist with it.

Self-discipline and control is needed to ensure that behavioral changes will become habitual.

However, a sense of balance is also needed – there is no need to be too rigid, as the classic time management rules don’t work for everyone. There may also be some elements of an individual’s work that cannot be controlled, or don’t need to be controlled.

The basic techniques are actually very easy and, once the systems are set up, don’t take much time.

The first step is to keep a log that will identify the applicable causes of time wasting and those tasks which are unimportant. Delegation is one of the key principles of time management, and this log will also identify what can be delegated.

The next, and most important, step is to set the goals that need to be achieved, and then prioritize them. By doing this, time can be allocated to the most important objectives.

Once the goals have been set and prioritized, daily “to do lists” can be drawn up – ensuring that sufficient time is allocated to the major projects. It is also worth remembering the 80/20 rule, i.e. that 20 percent of projects normally account for 80 percent of a firm’s revenue.

Additional ways to manage time include: using technology as much as possible; utilizing shortcuts wherever possible; investing in education and skills training, and buying planning tools – but only if they will be used.

For accountants dealing with clients, it can also help to clarify all details at the outset; identify the decision-makers and stakeholders; analyze their culture; effectively manage meetings; and regularly request feedback.

The basic elements of time management are therefore relatively simple. There is no need to spend huge amounts of money on fancy systems or programs. The hard part, as ever, is actually putting the elements into practice. The only solution to that is to start immediately, and to remember that no one has ever successfully managed their time without at least writing down a “to do list”.

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Brainstorming And How To Use It

Every organization will benefit from an input of fresh ideas. These can be about products, services, promotions, packaging, human resources – any aspect of an enterprise.

Even if you don’t have any pressing problems to solve at the moment, it’s always healthy to give others a chance to have their say about your business.

One of the best ways to come up with new ideas is through the use of brainstorming. It may sound like an intellectual free-for-all but that’s not the case. Properly used, regular brainstorming sessions will tap into a wealth of great ideas that may otherwise have gone undiscovered.

Step 1

First you need to assemble a group of people to brainstorm with you. Everybody has a creative side so there’s no need to rigorously structure the group. Your friends, other business owners, your suppliers and even your next door neighbors all qualify as ‘people’ when you’re putting a brainstorming session together.

Another really important point is that everybody in a brainstorming session is an equal. Each participant should be encouraged to speak up and not be concerned with such things as age, titles or experience in a particular field.

Keep the size of your group fairly small. Try for people who are reasonably outspoken and can get along well together. The intention is to form a group that will meet on a regular basis for short periods and throw out ideas on something to do with your business.

Brainstorming works well as a four-step process with you as the facilitator or leader of the group. Step one is to generate a quantity of ideas for consideration. These can be as sensible or wild as may be; we’re after quantity in step one and the quality comes later.

Begin by stating a goal for the meeting. It might be ‘to find a better way to deliver pizzas’ or ‘to get some ideas about new items to stock for Christmas’. It can even be as vague as ‘to make customers happy’ or ‘to make more money’. In brainstorming any topic can be given the treatment.

Go around the room and get ideas from members of the group. It might start slowly and if suggestions aren’t readily forthcoming ask a particular individual for their thoughts. Once the group’s dynamic is activated things really start to happen.

Record every suggestion on a white board so none get overlooked. If you don’t have a large whiteboard just tape pieces of paper all over the wall. Neatness doesn’t count when the creative ideas are flowing. The ideas and notes have to remain visible to everybody in the group.

Step 2

Step two is to evaluate the ideas from step one as quickly as possible and narrow them down to a manageable number that the group generally agrees has some potential for application. This isn’t as hard as it sounds since you’ve already begun to tap into the collective mind of the group and everyone’s started to look at the list and form their own thoughts on those topics.

Step 3

Step three is a discussion of each of the remaining ideas one by one. These ideas have now become the property of the group and every member is encouraged to take part. Here are some rules that will make your brainstorming session deliver better results.

• Suspend judgement and stay with the positives. The ‘bad’ ideas have already been ruled out so look for the good in each of the ideas you’re discussing.
• Give each idea a quick makeover. What can be done to make it bigger, better, stronger? This is where you add value to an already good idea. Write everything down as before.
• Don’t let costs or what you might think of as practicality get in the way. You’re only concerned with the quality of the ideas themselves.
• Put a time limit on each idea. Every idea is equal until it’s ruled out, so give it three or four minutes and keep an eye on the clock.
• Two or more ideas can be combined if that’s the way to make them work best. It’s also acceptable for a new idea to be based on an earlier one. No individual has ownership of any idea at this stage.

When every idea has been covered and the group’s suggestions noted, ask them to agree on the best five or six ideas that have survived the process. It might require an exercise in democracy (take a vote!) but this is the final responsibility for the group to undertake.

Now it’s time to thank them and break out the coffee and doughnuts or whatever else is appropriate to reward them for their contributions. Make it a good social occasion and you’ll have a better chance of getting them back again.

Think of the value of what you now have in your possession. You’ve managed to identify five or six really good ideas about your business that are the product of several minds working together. That’s brainstorming in a nutshell.

Step 4

Now it’s time for step four. You have some independent work to do after everyone’s gone. Take the five or six winning ideas and put them through your own process of analysis.

Think of the negatives for each idea. Now you can give consideration to such things as costs and whether or not the ideas are practical for you to implement. Look for faults and flaws and be as harsh as you can.

Next, see if you can overcome these negatives. Some ideas will literally scrap themselves because the negatives far outweigh the positives. Eventually you’ll wind up with a few really good ideas that are both affordable and practical. These are the gems you’re looking for.

Conduct some research on each of these ideas and see if you can find out what others have done with similar ones. The internet is very helpful here – put the keywords into Google and see what comes out. You may find that somewhere in the world others have taken the same ideas and done some really great things with them.

At the end of all this you’ll come out ahead, but only if you actually implement the ideas you’ve generated through brainstorming. If you’re doing something that you’ve never tried before, give the group a chance in future sessions to help with monitoring the idea’s progress and helping you overcome any teething troubles.

Incidentally, brainstorming also works well for problems. The process is about the same as looking for good ideas, but in this case you propose a problem or problems to the group and the target becomes one of finding solutions.

Hold regular brainstorming sessions with the same group and you’ll find things run even more smoothly once everyone gets used to working together. Just be sure to show your gratitude for their efforts and keep them informed of your progress with their best ideas.

Brainstorming is really just a structured approach to the generation of ideas that works because it doesn’t allow preconceptions and negatives to overcome creativity.

Give it a try and see what comes out of it. You never know what’s going to happen but you can be sure it’s going to be interesting.

This article was originally published in the April 2004 edition of ONEderings ezine.

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How Your Small Business Can Survive When A Giant Moves To Town

The arrival of a big conglomerate often serves as a kiss of death to small businesses. For how can you compete with these giants in the face of the vast technological resources, deep pockets, seasoned management, and the powerful brands of, say, a Wal-Mart, Kmart, Tesco or Home Depot? But as a small business you […]