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Tips and trends: Advice for small businesses in Florida

Social Media
Generate Sales

Julie Garrett
[Photo: Aaron Daye]

"You want to use social media to build relationships, build loyalty, communicate to your customers that you care about them."

— Julie Garrett

If you think using Twitter, Facebook and the like to promote your small business is a waste of time, consider this story from Julie Garrett, who heads up social media at Santa Fe College in Gainesville: A local woman tweeted that she was dreading spending the day car shopping. A Gainesville dealer who monitors tweets relating to car shopping caught her remark. The two had never met, and he was not her Twitter follower. But he was able to send her a message via Twitter. The two communicated several times as she shopped. By the end of the day, she felt she owed him a stop. And that's where she bought her car. "True story," says Garrett. "The dealer must have been monitoring the key words ‘car shopping,' which was really savvy of him."

The value of social media, says Garrett, is the ability to engage in a two-way conversation with your customers or potential customers. "It's not the place solely to push out information about your new products or discounts," she says. "You want to use social media to build relationships, build loyalty, communicate to your customers that you care about them. In return, you can find out what your customers want. You do your own market research."

Garrett recommends that small businesses consider HootSuite.com as a social media dashboard to avoid spending too much time managing a Facebook page or Twitter account. HootSuite allows users to manage all social media profiles at once, making it easy to track conversations and brand mentions, as the car dealer did. A scheduling feature lets you write messages when it's convenient and schedule them to pop up at
specific times. An analytics feature generates reports so you can evaluate the effectiveness of your campaigns.

Garrett suggests reading "The Thank You Economy" by social-media guru Gary Vaynerchuk to learn what social media can do for your small business. Finally, she recommends checking out your local community college's continuing education department for inexpensive classes and seminars on social media.

Filing Patents
Act Fast

Bob White
New legislation is "the most fundamental change to the United States patent system in many years."

— Bob White

Last fall, President Obama signed sweeping patent legislation known as the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act. Bob White, a shareholder practicing in technology, corporate and securities law at Gunster in Fort Lauderdale, calls it "the most fundamental change to the United States patent system in many years."

One of the most significant changes, says White, revises the U.S. patent system from a "first to invent" standard to a "first to file" standard, effective March 2013. Some fear this will put small businesses and individual inventors at a disadvantage in the patent process, which is time-consuming and expensive, especially for highly technical inventions in fields such as biotech and pharmaceuticals.

White says while those concerns are valid, he believes small companies and individual inventors may be able to gain an advantage under the new law because they are more flexible and have less bureaucracy. Small firms and inventors "may be able to move more quickly with patent filings and thus get patents filed before larger companies can act," White says, "but speed and focus will be essential."

Code of Ethics
Protect Your Business


A code of business ethics and conduct can enhance your company's reputation and stature, help you avoid ethical and legal pitfalls and "protect you from disaster if an employee's transgression causes your company to face criminal charges, suspension and debarment from federal contracting," says John Horan, a Seminole County commissioner and Foley & Lardner partner who focuses on business and administrative litigation and public affairs counseling in Orlando.

Businesses with federal contracts worth more than $5 million and with a performance period longer than 120 days are usually required to have an ethics code. But Horan says it's good business regardless of a company's size and contracts. He recommends an ethics code address:

» The company's vision, mission and core values

» Its commitment to shareholders, customers, suppliers, lenders, investors, employees and the community

» Business conduct that is required, prohibited or permitted

» Discrimination, harassment, safety, alcohol, drugs and the like

» Use of company assets, intellectual property, procedures for keeping accurate records

» Bribery, kickbacks, Truth in Negotiations Act, political contributions, lobbying costs, hiring government employees, export and import compliance, etc.

John Horan
Each employee should sign a certificate indicating that he or she has received the ethics code and will comply, says John Horan.

Expand Overseas

Enterprise Florida has a new grant program to help small and medium-sized businesses tap into export markets. The SBA-funded STEP grant — State Trade and Export Promotion — is awarding nearly $800,000 to help Florida companies begin or expand trade in three ways: Funding company executives to go along on trade missions; funding their participation in overseas tradeshows; and partnering with Florida Small Business Development Centers to offer customized global marketing plans. The three participating SBDCs, at the universities of North Florida, Central Florida and South Florida, will help companies perform an in-depth market analysis for the country they want to target. The company pays $500 toward the market plan, and Enterprise Florida covers the remaining $2,500.

The Cloud
Approach with Care

The Cloud
An estimated 70% of companies now store information on the internet — called cloud computing. But questions remain about whether it's wise to move small-business work to the cloud — through services such as Google for calendars and documents, Skype for video-conferencing, and various other products for file storage, virus protection, synchronization, backup, even sales organization via companies such as Salesforce.com.

The benefits of the cloud are many: It can be thousands of dollars a year cheaper than traditional applications. It also can help lower power bills and IT support costs. But companies working in the cloud lose control over the software application and become dependent on the provider to maintain it — or fix it if something goes wrong. Cloud computing also has implications for privacy and confidentiality. Where will your company's sensitive data be stored? What's the security like? The safest bet may be to start with a few of the non-risky applications, such as video-conferencing.

Credit Unions vs. Banks
Lending Limits

James Wilcox
Professor James Wilcox found credit unions stepped up their small-business lending during the recession.
Credit union loans to small companies — defined as business loans of less than $1 million — rose substantially over the past decade, providing extra lending in response to tightening by banks, even during the financial crisis. James Wilcox, professor of financial institutions at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, found that small-business loans rose relative to total loans and assets at credit unions, relative to small-business loans at community banks, and relative to small-business loans at all banks.

Wilcox says credit unions have still greater capacity to speed up the nation's economic recovery and that their operations would strengthen if they could expand small-business lending. Credit unions can lend only 12.25% of total assets to businesses. Small-business and credit union advocates are pushing Congress this year to pass the Small Business Lending Enhancement Act, which would increase that to 27.5%.

The American Bankers Association is fighting the legislation on grounds that credit unions already have an unfair tax advantage over banks. ABA Chairman-elect Albert C. Kelly Jr. testified in October that the result would not be an overall increase in lending, but a shift in business loans from taxable financial institutions to credit unions.

The bills to watch are Senate Bill 509 and House Bill 1418.

Government Work
Bid Protests

Kevin Fowler
Kevin Fowler, a partner at Foley & Lardner in Orlando who practices construction law and business-dispute resolution, says the economic downturn has led more small businesses to seek government work. One consequence: More protests after bids are awarded.

With or without an attorney, Fowler says, firms considering a protest must analyze their position and prepare documents quickly: Often, bid protests must be filed within a few days of the notice of the award, and firms must follow the agency's protest procedures strictly.

Fowler's list of the documents needed:

» Solicitation documents issued by the agency

» Responses to the solicitation submitted by you and the other bidders

» The bid tabulation

» Minutes or transcripts of any prebid meetings

» Minutes or transcripts of any evaluators' meetings

» Any letters, e-mails and other communications to or from the agency

» Bid protest procedures and deadlines

» An outline of your own analysis of why your protest has merit

Benefits of an Intern

Major corporations such as Disney are well known for their internship programs that offer on-the-job learning for college students who want to earn professional experience and beef up a resume. Small-business owners may feel that without an HR department, they don't have time to manage a college student.

Hiring the right intern, however, could bring energy to a small company and new skills such as blogging or social media marketing. In return, inviting your intern to staff meetings and client visits doesn't take much work on your part but can be enormously valuable to a student who hasn't experienced the business world.

Internships can be unpaid, but businesses should take care to follow the School-to-Work guidelines under the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act. Internships should be professional in nature rather than grunt work and offer a range of training at progressively higher levels. Contact your local university or community college's career resource center to see if your business might be able to arrange college credit for an internship.

small business development centers
Accelerating Growth

Florida Small Business Development Center's growth acceleration program provides free, in-depth professional consulting services to companies that have been in business at least three years, have five or more full-time employees and have $500,000 to $10 million in annual revenue. The center helps companies develop growth strategies, assess capital needs, determine possible sources of capital, target new market opportunities and shore up financial practices.

SBA 504 Loans

Loan Modifications
The SBA recently announced temporary changes that allow small businesses to refinance debt originally used to fund eligible fixed assets in its 504 program without the previous requirement that allowed debt refinancing only in conjunction with a business expansion project. Business debt that would have been eligible for the 504 program may now be refinanced using the SBA 504 loan program's attractive 20-year fixed-interest rate. In addition, the SBA will now allow businesses that have equity in their commercial real estate properties to include working capital to pay for other eligible business expenses. The changes are authorized until Sept. 27.