Construction college can upgrade small contractors
April 12, 2015


Q: I've been able to start up my construction business, but to really get going I could use some advice on how to win bids, effectively deal with general contractors and, in general, operate my small business. Where can I get help?

A:  I recommend the Construction Contractors' College, a program of the Entrepreneurs' Learning Center at the Kingdom Builders' Center. This program launches on June 9 with a curriculum shaped by representatives from certifying agencies, experienced contractors and successful small businesses. The program's major sponsor is Capital One Bank, and it's free to participants. Qualified graduates have access to more than $750,000 in funding to assist in expanding their businesses.

The overall goal of the Construction Contractors' College is to help small and minority business owners in construction and construction services who have been in business at least one year. It's designed to prepare owners to bid on contracts in the public and private sectors. The curriculum has been developed and will be taught by experienced business leaders to achieve the following objectives:

  1. Develop sound business practices.
  2. Improve the credit-worthiness of the individual owner and the business.
  3. Position businesses for bidding opportunities.
  4. Take the owner's business to its next level, particularly in the area of economic development, enabling these businesses to become employers increasing the financial stability for themselves and their employees.
  5. Give business owners face-to-face time with general contractors.
The comprehensive curriculum is designed to provide relevant and useful information that can be practiced immediately. Course topics include credit awareness, specialized business plan development, certification, bidding, project management and access to capital.

Participants will learn to develop a business structure around their skill or trade, improve their likelihood of securing financing, have direct access to the Metropolitan Transit Authority's express certification process and receive coaching and counseling from experienced professionals, including SCORE and other seasoned consultants.

The six-month program is for small construction contractors who have been in business at least a year and have filed tax returns in their business names. Classes will meet two evenings each month at the Kingdom Builders' Center, 6011 W. Orem Drive. Application for the next term closes on May 1, and only 20 slots are available to the best-qualified candidates.



Click here to learn more and apply online or call 713-726-2519.

Customers expect good service online or in person
March 1, 2015

Q: As more business is conducted online, how does this influence customer service?

A: A: If anything, customer service has never been more important, according to John McClymonds, a veteran of the retail clothing industry.

"Customers are much more demanding than they were just 10 years ago," says McClymonds, who now serves as a SCORE Houston mentor. "They're more sensitive to what they feel they deserve and what they feel they've earned by shopping at a particular retailer."

Studies have found that customers are willing to pay a premium to ensure quality service. Many are also more likely to recommend a company for providing outstanding service than for attributes such as product or price, McClymonds says.

Meeting these customer expectations is easier than you may think, and it begins with a well-designed, easy-to-navigate, and fast-loading e-commerce website. Make sure all the basic information about your business and what it offers is clear and easy to find. A comprehensive "frequently asked questions" page helps guide customers, and explain product aspects they may not be fully aware of.

Also, make sure product descriptions are timely and complete, including any items that may be out of stock, and that they detail any additional charges and fees (such as shipping and handling). Few things are more frustrating to an e-customer than unwelcome price surprises that appear during check-out.

Encourage your e-customer's feedback via a comments section on the website, or a follow-up email after the sale. Easy-to-create online surveys using such services as Survey Monkey, Client Heartbeat or Survey Gizmo are a good way to collect information as long as they are brief and questions are focused on the customer's experience.

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media sites are also good forums for interacting with customers, as are online rating sites such as Yelp, Google Local and City Search. Even without direct contact, you may still spot trends or issues that need improvement. Also, thank customers who provide positive feedback and encourage them to visit your site again, giving them an incentive to recommend your site to others.

Respond quickly to complaints or negative comments. If the complaint appears in a public online setting, move the conversation offline as quickly as possible.

Be sure to post a follow-up note about the complaint on the forum, even if the outcome is not what you wanted. Regular visitors will see that you're an e-business they can trust, because you take customer feedback seriously.

Initiative aims to take owners to the next level

 

Q: My small business has gotten off to a good start. I've proved my concept, and there is ample unfilled demand for my service. Now I need to get prepared to grow my business substantially. How can I make that happen?
A: You need the expert training and mentoring that is required to make that leap forward to compete at a higher level. Fortunately, there's a successful program just getting started in Houston that can prepare you for the challenges you face.
The Small Business Administration's Emerging Leaders Initiative is a federal training program conducted in 48 communities since 2008. It specifically focuses on executives of businesses poised for growth, providing them with the organizational framework, resource network, and motivation required to build sustainable businesses and promote the economic development within urban communities.
Over the course of seven months, participants are given the opportunity to work with experienced mentors, attend specialized workshops and develop connections with their peers, city leaders, and the financial community. The initiative incorporates a research-based curriculum specifically designed to stimulate and support the expansion of your business. It enables participating businesses to engage in focused development and expansion strategies, including options for accessing new capital and securing government contracts.
The Emerging Leaders Initiative is for established business owners, not start-ups. The series is open to owners and executives of small businesses that have annual revenue of at least $400,000; have been in business for at least three years; and have at least one employee other than the owner or executive. There are no restrictions on the types of businesses that can participate.
At the conclusion of the training, entrepreneurs produce a three-year strategic growth action plan with benchmarks and performance targets that will help them access the necessary support and resources to move forward. The executive education prepares and encourages small businesses to move to the next level on their growth trajectory and helps them emerge as self-sustaining businesses that create jobs and build communities.
Participation is free. The only cost is your time and commitment to complete the curriculum over the course of seven months. All other costs are covered by the Small Business Administration and cosponsors SCORE and the Women's Business Center.
Business executives interested in participating should register before March 1 at www.interise.org/sbaemergingleaders. Classes begin in April. For information, contact Steve Curry at Stephen.Curry@sba.gov or 713-773-6542.

 

A comfort level of trust, confidence with an accountant is a must



A comfort level of trust, confidence with an accountant is a must


December 21, 2014



Q: How can I find accounting help I can count on for my small business?

A: Many responsibilities come with being a small business owner, and every one is critical to maintaining profitability and promoting growth. You can't risk letting a deadline slip or overlook an administrative requirement, yet there are only so many hours in the day to get things done.

To ensure you stay focused on the most important things, it may be a good idea to transfer some routine chores. Even though accounting software programs have simplified the process of bookkeeping and tax preparation, someone well-versed in this area can spot trends or problems you might miss. And the more complex your needs - preparing financial reports, invoicing, payroll - the more time-consuming accounting becomes.

If you decide you need the skills of an accounting professional, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants can help. The "For the Public" section of the AICPA website, www.aicpa.org,offers guidance in selecting the right CPA for your small business, including a searchable directory of AICPA member firms.

Fees vary greatly among accountants, depending on location, expertise, and services provided. Some firms will provide bundled services for a flat monthly fee, but may charge less for bookkeeping and other tasks that don't require CPA-level training. If you are considering a larger accounting firm, make sure you meet and get to know the people with whom you will be working. As with any business relationship, a comfort level of trust, confidence, and communication with an accountant is a must.

If you're not sure you need a CPA, a professional bookkeeper may be the right choice. The free online "Bookkeepers Hiring Test" from the American Institute of Professional Bookkeepers (www.aipb.org) can help you assess candidates' qualifications.

Other good sources are the membership directories of your local chambers of commerce, particularly if you need an accountant or bookkeeper within your geographic area. Most chambers have searchable directories on their websites showing their members by business category, including accounting.

Make sure customers know you value their business



Make sure customers know you value their business

November 23, 2014

Q: Not as many of our customers are returning for service as we expected. What can we do to encourage more to come back?

A: Every successful sports team has a "go-to" player, someone who can be counted on to deliver whatever is needed in specific situations.

As a small business owner, you want your firm to be a "go-to" resource for your customers, the place they'll turn to whenever they need a certain product or service, regardless of other options that may be available.
To achieve that distinction, you have to develop loyalty among your customers. At first glance, that might seem easy to do; give them what they want, and they'll come back, right?

Not necessarily. Customers have always wanted to feel valued, and to know that their specific needs will receive special attention. But building customer loyalty has become more challenging with the convergence of trends including easy access to data about competing companies; more price- or location-driven purchasing decisions due to economic factors; and greater expectations of value from those purchases.

Fortunately, there are many tactics to foster customer loyalty that can be integrated easily into your daily routine. A simple "thank-you for your business" goes a long way, but so does a personalized thank-you note, especially in the digital age. Don't cut and paste sentiments or use a form letter. Let customers know in a personal way that you appreciate their business.

Creating value will also help boost loyalty. Ask customers if there is anything else you could be doing for them. Then do it. If you blog or send an online newsletter, include stories or links to topics they may find interesting or that relate to your product or service. Consider offering incentives, such as discounts or freebies for frequent customers.

Review each customer touch point - your phone, website and store - to determine the kind of reception customers get, and how helpful each one is from the customer's view. And make sure your employees feel valued. When they feel good about working for you, they'll help customers have a better experience.

Even if your best efforts fall short and a customer goes elsewhere, you can still gain from the experience. Ask why the customer made the switch. If you can change or improve on something, do it.

You may not regain that customer, but you can use the input to better serve the ones you have.
Tackling Small Business Taxes
November 9, 2014

Q: What’s a good way to get a handle on small business taxes?



A: While you should have a good CPA on your team, every business owner needs to have a good understanding of the fundamental business tax rules to plan and operate their business.

Though the IRS may be the agency everyone loves to hate, they only manage the tax laws and policies that Congress passes. To its credit, the agency provides owners and the self-employed much-needed guidance to tax procedures and requirements without those confusing “Gov-speak” terms. Their special Web site, www.irs.gov/Businesses/Small-Businesses-&-Self-Employed/ is an authoritative place to give you a tax smarts tune-up.

A section called “A-Z Index for Business,” for example, covers a tremendous amount of tax territory and includes much of the site’s most useful information. This is where you’ll find information on online learning and educational products, recordkeeping, employer ID numbers and selecting a business structure.

The advice and information under “Starting, Operating, and Closing a Business” is helpful for most types of small businesses. If you have employees, you’ll find resources on hiring, employment taxes and wage reporting requirements. Learn about business tax credits and estimated taxes. The all-important “Business Expenses” section defines the types of costs you can and cannot deduct from your taxes.

For the self-employed and independent contractors, there’s a full section that covers filing requirements, when a tax identification number is necessary, a listing of special publications and forms, and other valuable information.

For information on business taxes in the state of Texas, a good place to start is the web site of the Texas State Comptroller, www.window.state.tx.us/. Here you can find out if your business is subject to the Texas franchise or sales and use tax, calculate what your franchise tax might be, apply for your sales tax permit online, file and pay sales tax electronically, and where to call for help.

For employer information on who must pay, how to file and how to pay Texas state unemployment insurance taxes visit the Texas Workforce Commission web site, www.texasworkforce.org.

To learn more, attend SCORE’s Small Business Tax Workshop on November 19 at the Kingdom Builders’ Center. Presented by Gregory E. Vernon, CPA, you will receive up to date information on taxes and can meet one-on-one with a mentor to discuss your unique situation.
Mentors available to help women win in business
October 17, 2014

Women-owned businesses are an increasingly important part of our economy. Over the last 15 years, companies owned by women have grown by one and a half times the rate of other small enterprises and now account for almost 30 per-cent of all businesses. Also, one in five firms with revenue of $1 million or more is woman-owned.

"Over the past few years, about 40 percent to 50 percent of our clients and workshop participants have been women," said Beth Shapiro, education director of SCORE Houston. "We're definitely seeing a trend of more local women becoming entrepreneurs and also SCORE clients, which we think is great."

Women do face their own set of challenges. They sometimes lack opportunity, access to role models and financing, and they often face different personal situations than men. Through targeted support, they can overcome these obstacles and grow their companies.

Women entrepreneurs should take advantage of the free mentoring and free or low-cost education available through SCORE Houston and the Houston Galveston Women's Business Center (WBC). Both organizations are non-profits and are associated with the U.S. Small Business Administration; WBC is part of the Women's Business Enterprise Alliance (WBEA).

SCORE, WBC and WBEA are sponsoring the "For the Win: Women Entrepreneurs Symposium" on Nov. 4. The symposium will focus on life in the business world, but also on how to maintain a balance between business and personal lives. Motivational speakers and interactive workshops will provide information, connections, tools and techniques for women in the Houston small-business community. Click here for details.