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How do local businesses stay connected with their customers online? Some have their own websites, but how functional are they? How are they able to drive traffic? How do they compete with larger stores with greater capacities?
There really is no substitute for my local corner store, sandwich place, pizza shop, or nail salon! They know me by name, ask me how my day is (they know what I actually do!), and genuinely seem to care.
It's a great first step to have a website, but how do local businesses optimize the Internet's potential to reach out to the community, expand their clientele and stay competitive against giants such as Wal-Mart? Now, I'm not opposed to big business (I like a bargain as much as the next person), but I also LOVE my local spots and want them to be up-to-date with technology so I can get the convenience as well.
One company that is assisting our locals is MerchantCircle. They are the fastest growing and largest online network of local business owners in the country. Founded less than 3 years ago, MerchantCircle is also in the top 10 out of the 150 fastest growing US websites.
MerchantCircle's goal is to help local businesses get more customers quickly, easily, and cost-effectively. They currently have more than 900,000 businesses using their services. MerchantCircle has "developed local business social network where business owners can promote their business by uploading pictures, writing blogs, publicizing events, creating coupons and newsletters, and connecting with other merchants, all for free."
Other online companies serving small businesses include:
Redbeacon - this top winner at this year's TechCrunch50 is a service that allows your local customers to "Compare prices and book an appointment" at their local establishments.
Workstir - This service will help your customers find you based on the services you provide and the reviews you receive.
Geolocal - Helps your local business to generate local leads.
So with all that in mind, here are my 5 Tips for small local businesses to gain an online presence:
- When setting up a website, try to utilize search engine tools - nothing is worse than wanting to find basic info (hours of operation, phone number, etc) and not being able to find the information on Google!! Some great tips can be found at these blogs: Small Business SEO: How To Launch That Web site By Lisa Barone and Before You Launch that Local Small Business Website, by Rae Hoffman.
- Depending on the service - allow people to buy products/set up appointments online for those of us who don't always have time to make calls or stop buy during the work day.
- Try to build a community - add a fan page on Facebook, get people to review you on Yelp, write a blog about your services/products.
- Increase your revenue potential by selling ad space on your web site - to keep you rolling in dough to stay competitive against bigger chains.
- Use sites such as MerchantCircle to enhance and supplement your services. This will keep you up-to-date and stay in the online spotlight for your local customers.
If you're interested in being a part of these companies making an impact in local communities, check out our current opportunities.
Last night (September 15, 2009) the MIT/Stanford VLAB hosted another sold out event, AI: Rise of the Machines, at Stanford.
The focus of the event was how businesses are adopting AI-based applications to...der der der....replace us humans!!! Sounds like the prelude to the Matrix (or Terminator for us who are more old school)!
The panel was moderated by Sven Strohband (Partner, MDV), and the panelists included:
- Dag Kittlaus (Co-founder & COE, Siri)
- Paul Rhodes (CEO, Evolved Machines)
- Steve Cousins (President & CEO, Willow Garage)
- George John (CEO, Rocket Fuel, Inc)
- Rob Haitani, (CPO, Vitamin D)
One of the coolest products on the panel, for me, was Siri. Siri's application is the equivalent to having a virtual assistant. Siri is available as an iPhone app and you just tell it what to do and it gets it done. Siri believes that "Virtual Personal Assistants (VPAs) represent the next generation interaction paradigm for the Internet." As opposed to just old fashioned scheduling and manual planning you are interacting and conversing with your devices. The technology behind VPAs "corresponds to the essential qualities of an assistant: conversational interface, brokering to multiple services, and personal context awareness," according to Siri website.
The core of this idea sprouted from the SRI's CALO (Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes) project, who claim to be "leading the development of new software that could revolutionize how computers support decision-makers." CALO's sole goal is to create a VPA. Attendees of this event got a cool demo from Siri's CEO, Dag Kittlaus, who gave great insight to the product and his take on the future of AI and stated how "the definition of AI means different thing to different people."
The entire panel was very involved in what and how AI will shape technological advance for the present and the future, and this is defiantly a space to pay close attention to!
I discovered a recent publication outlining the demographic and sociological make-up of the average Entrepreneur and how it may differ from what most of us identify as the "typical" stereotype. The publication is The Anatomy of an Entrepreneur: Family Background and Motivation (July 2009, Vivek Wadhwa, et al.). They interviewed 549 company founders and asked probing question to try and discover why and how people end up starting their own businesses, in hopes of discovering how to harness and cultivate this trait to create new businesses.
The stereotype seems to be the young, single, very intelligent, fresh out of college workaholic, who came up with something in the computer science sector (which I believe holds true for the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs). However, despite computer hardware and software still being the largest industry in this report, the dynamic make of the average entrepreneur was a bit skewed to what you may otherwise have perceived.
Top 10 Factors that give you a better shot at being a successful Entrepreneur:
- You are married with 3 kids ... wow maybe some people can do it all!
- You were in the top percentiles in high school .. smarty pants!
- You pursued higher education ... that's why they tell you to stay in school kids!
- You are from a middle-class family ... even the average Joe can get in on the action.
- You are better educated than your parents ... that's unfortunate for your kids!!
- You have likely worked for an employer for about 6 years before launching your own start-up ... working for the man.
- You are the middle child ... see its not all bad being that kid.
- You are the first in your family to start a business ... expect to employ your siblings.
- You were born in the USA ... lets get populating people!
- You began the start-up to build wealth, own your own company, and to capitalize on a business idea you came up with ... all good reasons in my book.
So I guess the point of it all is that if you have a great idea, with the determination and drive to see it through (it probably also helps to live in the valley) then you can make it happen. I mean if a 'mature', parent of 3, regular geek, with a bunch of student loans can do it - so can you J
Last week I attended the MIT/Stanford Venture Lab (VLAB) 2009/2010 season kick off party. For those of you who were unaware of this group up to now, such as myself, VLAB is the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the MIT Enterprise Forum. As a non-profit organization, VLAB's mission is "to promoting the growth and success of high-tech entrepreneurial ventures by connecting ideas, technology and people."
VLAB hosts monthly events at Stanford Business School and brings together an abundance of entrepreneurs, industry experts, venture capitalists, private investors and technologists who get to "network and learn about pivotal business issues, emerging industries and the latest technologies."
VLAB solely relies on volunteers to run all aspects of its operations and logistics. In return for volunteering, you get access to the VLAB Google group, which provides a great forum for information sharing and networking along with access to many other affiliate and sister organizations in technology and private equity investments. Our CEO; Fadi Bishara has been involved with VLAB for several years and currently an executive board member and a vice chair for volunteers.
At the kick off event, I clearly see how the VLAB folks were very passionate about what they were doing. It was also very encouraging to see how willing the executive committee members and current volunteers were in wanting the events attendees to get the most out of the experience.
As a volunteer for this coming year, I'm very excited to be involved and to gain insider knowledge on the latest goings for the next big thing.
The first event for this season is, Rise of the Machines: The Business of AI on Tuesday, September 15th at 6:00pm. Go to vlab.org to see how you can become a volunteer and get your ticket to the September event.