Monthly Archives: November 2015

Meet Markets V: A Toast to Networking!

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and as you gathered at the table with family and friends, it’s likely that someone made a toast of thanks. Giving a toast is a form of public speaking, and when we think of public speaking, many of us think about Toastmasters. But Toastmasters can also offer excellent networking opportunities.

Toastmasters International is an educational organization dedicated to helping its members develop and improve their communication and leadership skills. Toastmasters clubs help members get over the fear of public speaking (the number one reason people join Toastmasters) and helps them become better speakers and all-around communicators. Toastmasters has a lot to offer its members, especially small or independent businesspeople. Club meetings, regional contests and conferences, and other events provide ample networking opportunities, and very often Toastmasters looking for products or services will seek out other Toastmasters. (Richard has been a member of his local Toastmasters club for 15 years.)

Meetings are great venues in which to rehearse professional presentations and get valuable feedback, as well as give speeches that promote your business—and hone your elevator speech (about which in an upcoming post). Find the nearest Toastmasters club here.

Meet Markets IV: The AMA

The topic this month has been networking, and we have been looking at organizations that offer business networking opportunities, from Chambers of Commerce, to trade associations and events in your own industry.

One organization you may want to familiarize yourself with is the American Marketing Association (AMA). The AMA (not to be confused with the American Medical Association) is a national organization that keeps marketing professionals up to date on the latest trends in marketing communications. The AMA has local chapters around the country which offer guest speakers, networking events, and a variety of print and online publications. Since he relocated to North Carolina, Dr. Joe has been a regular attendee at Triangle AMA luncheon meetings. This is the Raleigh-Durham/“Research Triangle” branch of the AMA. The lunches are very well-attended events, drawing at least 150 attendees. When there is a compelling guest speaker—such as the CMO of Target—they can draw upwards of 350.

Given the name of the association, it’s obvious the focus of the meetings is marketing, but that’s what networking is, after all: a form of marketing. And as you’re marketing yourself, you are also learning valuable tips about how else to market your business.

Find a chapter at http://www.marketingpower.com.

Meet Markets III: Trade Events

This month, we have been talking about networking, and the networking opportunities available to home office workers. On Tuesday, we looked at the local Chamber of Commerce and its events, which are good for interacting with others in your community. But what about others who are in the same industry or line of work as you?

Depending on the industry in which you work, chances are there is some big trade event where vendors and customers meet and network with each other. These are great opportunities to meet new faces, collect business cards, and get your name and face out among potential clients.

How do you find trade events? There are likely one or more trade publications (in print or online) that serve your industry, and these publications include calendars of events. Depending on your industry, there may be a wide variety of events, and they may be far-flung. Choosing which industry event(s) to attend will be a function of your travel budget, the time available, and the perceived return on investment. Maybe your industry’s big annual conference is being held in Dubai this year. Are you likely to get enough new business to justify the expense of traveling there? A smaller, closer-to-home event may be more practical, especially if you have not attended a trade event before.

You may even achieve a certain level of renown in your business so that you are invited to speak or take part in panel discussions at industry trade events, and your own presentations can be excellent promotional opportunities. However, unless you have a great desire to be a professional speaker, you may have to pick and choose these events. After all, travel is disruptive and can take time away from your primary business. And getting on a plane every other week is worse than commuting to an office every day!

You can often find out what trade events are coming to your town by visiting the website of your local (or nearest) convention center. There may be a big expo in your line of business coming to town.

A trade association serving your line of work can also provide good guides to industry events, and probably sponsors its own—both at the local and national (or international) level.

A trade association—and most professions have at least one—is a professional organization that serves a variety of functions, from offering training and educational materials for member companies and individuals, to running trade shows, to serving as “experts” for the media, to promoting a particular industry, to lobbying local, state, and federal governments, and more. Some of the most visible associations are entities such as the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Bar Association (ABA), the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and the National Association of Realtors (NAR). Lesser known trade associations include the American Mushroom Institute, the American Pie Council, the National Association of Convenience Stores, the Hosiery Association, the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, and Printing Industries of America. In other words, if you are in a particular industry or business, there is quite probably a corresponding association. Also note that there are many state-specific trade associations (the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, for example). A thorough but nowhere near complete list can be found here.

Trade associations can serve as useful resources, not just in the preparatory stages of setting up your business (they can sometimes help answer industry-specific questions and provide news and information about pertinent law and regulatory changes), but also as promotional outlets. Many associations have meetings—from large national or international conferences and conventions to smaller state and regional events—which can provide educational, networking, and even public speaking opportunities. Association publications, either online or in print, can also offer potential venues for you to communicate your expertise to others in your industry.

You can find organizations or associations in your line of work by Googling, say, “management consulting association” and finding, at the top of the hits, the Association of Management Consulting Firms (AMCF). Add your state or even city to your Google search to find any local chapters or local events. Also check your local newspaper, especially if your region has a business publication, for upcoming events.

Meet Markets II: The Chamber of Commerce

Last week, we introduced the idea of networking, and why it is important to the work-at-home experience, from picking up new clients, to just basic socializing.

One of first actions you may want to consider when starting your home-based business is to join your local Chamber of Commerce. Chambers of Commerce differ in what they offer members, but the best of them provide a variety of resources for local businesses including:

  • special educational seminars and events, such as how to use social media for business marketing
  • saving money on health insurance (kind of a moot point since the Affordable Care Act, but they can help navigate the process), electricity, and other products and services
  • referrals from other Chamber members
  • member news in Chamber print and online publications
  • networking events

Many Chambers of Commerce also serve as local district chapters of the Small Business Association (SBA).

Although there are many advantages to joining the local Chamber, one primary advantage is networking. Many have regular (i.e., monthly) networking events. There are also occasional breakfasts and lunches, all of which provide ample networking opportunities.

In upcoming posts (and of course in the book) we offer strategies for how to work these kinds of events and get the most out of them, but for now, it’s important to know that they exist and that they can be of great value to the home-based business owner.

Meet Markets I: Introduction to Networking

(Optional musical accompaniment to this post.)

The last series of posts concerned itself with the various options for conference calling and video- and web conferencing—necessary interactions with others that are often essential parts of working from home (or, really, working at all).

There is another class of interaction that is just as essential, even if some (or most) of us are uncomfortable with it: networking. Networking is essential for a variety of reasons. It is a key way to get new clients or keep in touch and thus stay on the radar of old or current clients. It’s a good way to help stay up to date on new technologies, trends in your particular industry or area of expertise, and trends in the market. Getting out and pressing the flesh also helps stave off the loneliness that can be a large part of the working at home life.

Networking can take many forms, and the next batch of blogposts will look at some of them in detail. And although we often associate  “social networking” with Facebook and LinkedIn—which is not to be discounted—we will be here concerned with actual, physical networking with other humans. (When we say “physical,” we don’t mean…well, you know…)

Depending on where you live and work, there may be ample opportunities to connect with others out in the “real world” or “meetspace” (or perhaps “meatspace”) as some call it. (Actually, there is a new restaurant in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., called Three Vines Bistro that specializes in all sorts of meatballs—very good meatballs, it should be stressed—as well as happy hour gatherings in what it calls its “Meetball Room.”)

Anyway, networking events are excellent opportunities to meet potential clients or customers or just meet others in the community. Not everyone likes networking, and not everyone is especially good at it. If you are running your own business, however, it’s a vital skill to develop.

Any party or gathering is essentially a networking event, but in the next series of posts we’ll identify some specific business-oriented events, and after that, offer some ideas for how to get the most out of networking events—especially if you are given to “introvert” tendencies.

Phoning It In Via the Web

Last week, we looked at tele- and videoconferencing. Today, we’ll go one step further and delve into web conferencing—although if you recall last week’s posts, you know that the lines are blurring between all these forms of conferencing. 

Traditional phone-based conference calls can be convenient, relatively low-tech ways of collaborating and meeting with colleagues or clients, and videoconferencing is good for being “almost there.” But often, we need to have virtual meetings in which we share information, usually in presentation form. We can do this through either of the other two channels, of course: e-mail everyone a PowerPoint or a PDF file and, on a traditional conference call, walk participants through the presentation by saying, “Turn to Slide 3.” In many ways, that solves many of the technical problems that can arise with web conferencing systems and, in fact, we have had several occasions where the system wasn’t working properly, and a manually-flipped PDF slide deck was a perfectly viable Plan B.

For those who do need to host or participate in web conferences, there are many ways of accomplishing it.

At the simplest level, Skype has a “share this screen” feature, which works remarkably well. For simple web conferencing, this may be all you need. You conference in Skype users (naturally, this won’t work if you are conferencing in anyone on a telephone), and as long as one of the people you are conferencing with has Skype Premium, you—or anyone on the call—can share your screen.

Many large companies have their own web conferencing solutions, and if you are merely a participant, you simply use your computer to login using the access information your host will provide. As with videoconferencing, there may be some technical glitches, depending on the computer you are using and the extent to which it is compatible with the hosting system. Always log on a few minutes beforehand for any troubleshooting.

If you need to host a web conference, and Skype won’t work for you, there are a variety of options, including (but not limited to):

  • Anymeeting. A popular web conferencing service for small businesses, and although they have a free version that can support up to 200 participants, it includes ads, which may not convey the kind of professionalism you need. They do have various ad-free, for-pay options that support more participants. Compare their plans here.
  • WebEx. Cisco’s web conferencing utility. They have a variety of plans, ranging from free (up to three participants, standard-definition video only) to $89 per month (one hundred people per meeting, up to nine hosts, high-definition video). See their plans compared here.
  • GoToMeeting. One of the most popular web conferencing solutions available, although it does not offer a free version. (They do offer a one-month free trial though.) They have plans starting at $49 a month (up to twenty-five participants), and higher-level plans offer the ability to add participants, use various “audience management” tools, and take advantage of other features. Compare their plans here.
  • Zoom. A service that enables up to 25 HD video feeds. An upgrade from the basic version is available for conducting professional meetings, seminars, and other events that need to be managed well. It supports any device, and costs $9.99 a month or $99.00 a year. Users have told us they even prefer it to Skype. Check it out here.

The drawback to these is that most require a subscription, which is good if you host a lot of web conferences, but can be a waste of money if you only need to host one occasionally. One solution may be to go in on a subscription plan with other colleagues or businesses you know. As long as you don’t all schedule a meeting for the same time, it could be an effective solution. Many of these tele-, video-, and web conferencing options also have a free trial period. Take advantage of these to compare and contrast how the different systems work and which you think would be a good fit for your business needs. If the free trial isn’t missing any essential features or has other severe limits, save the trial for an actual conference. That’s the best way to test the extent to which it meets your needs.

These “virtual meeting” applications can also integrate with Twitter and other social media, which can be useful if the content of the meeting is designed for public consumption, like a Webinar.

Phoning It In Via Video

On Tuesday, we looked at basic conference calling, but with today’s webcams, video conferencing has become popular. Videoconferencing is pretty much synonymous with Skype and FaceTime, but there are a number of different videoconferencing applications on the market.

Now, we say “videoconferencing,” but Skype can be used just like any other audio-only conference calling service. Indeed, you can turn the video off, if you are not in a presentable enough state to be seen by other professionals (it can happen). Skype can be used in a traditional conference-calling manner: the host manually conferences in other Skype users or even participants with outside phone numbers.

Larger companies may also have their own videoconferencing systems, which can be accessed via computer.

If you have a Google account, Google Hangouts is a good videoconferencing option, as well. It does take some setting up and troubleshooting, so if you have a
“Hangout” scheduled and you’ve not used it before, be sure to log on 10 or 15 minutes in advance to make sure everything is working.

Whether you use Skype or some other videoconferencing tool, you will need a computer equipped with a microphone and a webcam. Many computers these days come with webcams (Apple MacBook notebook computers have long come with built-in webcams standard), but if not they can be purchased at Best Buy and elsewhere for as low as $25, more for HD webcams. Most external webcams also include built-in microphones. Tablet computers like iPads and other mobile devices now come with cameras and microphones, allowing you to use these devices for video conferencing as well.

The trick with Skype and/or other video conferencing can be getting your A/V hardware—camera and microphone—working with the system so that you can be both seen and heard. It’s advisable to log on up to fifteen minutes before the start of your video conference to troubleshoot any A/V issues. Although everyone is aware of the occasional flakiness of modern technology, it still gives you a more professional appearance if you are ready to go right at the appointed start of a videoconference.

There is one great advantage to videoconferencing: attendees tend to be on their best behavior. Because they know others can see them, they are less likely to be answering e-mail or surfing the Internet while on the call. There is a noticeable increase in engagement with videoconferences.

Also, pay attention to what is visible to the webcam. Our home offices can be our private domains, but think about the impression you are conveying to others if you have a messy desk or inappropriate wall décor. Look around your office location and make sure your webcam “studio” space is presentable. (Skype, for example, shows you what your webcam is broadcasting, making it easy to see if there is anything behind you that should be hidden.) Also check lighting; sometimes our general office lighting is not enough for a webcam to broadcast a bright image, and sometimes directional desk lamps can create strange, often macabre, effects.

Also, if you think you have video turned off, ensure that the light next to the webcam is in fact off before you do something you don’t want to broadcast—you can use your imagination, but we were thinking primarily of uncomplimentary non-verbalized reactions to other participants’ comments.

Phoning It In By Phone

In last month’s posts, we looked at communication options for the home office worker, and on Thursday we began looking at the home office equivalent of meetings. Yes, meetings are often the bane of office life, and while we may think that working from home allows us to escape them, the truth is that they are still often a necessity.

There are many ways to have conferences, and this next series of posts will look at them in turn. We’ll start with the traditional definition of a conference call: you pick up your telephone, dial into a conference call hosting service, enter a conference number, and you are joined with other people who have called in.

The simplest way of hosting a conference call is by using the “conferencing” or “three- (or more) way calling” feature of many telephones or telephone plans. A host conferences in (yes, apparently the word “conference” is now a verb) participants from their phone. The drawbacks include only being able to conference in a small number of people (three is usually the maximum), extra phone company charges for its use, and, perhaps most importantly, the rise of cellular communications. Although some cell plans and phones offer conferencing or three-way calling, it’s an imperfect solution for larger conferencing needs.

Many large companies have their own conference call hosting systems that allow both in-house and remote workers to call into a central number. One person sets up the conference call and arranges to have the dial-in information sent to participants. At call time, everyone dials in to the central number, enters a numerical code for the conference and, once the host has arrived, is placed into conference. There are sound cues that indicate when a participant has joined or left the conference.

The easiest way to participate in a conference call is to simply dial into someone else’s conference call system. But what if you have to be the host of a conference call without having access to a conference calling system? Wouldn’t installing one cost a lot of money? As it happens, just about everyone has access to free conference calling via a service named, cleverly enough, FreeConferenceCall.com.

With FreeConferenceCall, you sign up for a free account online simply by entering a user name and password. Once you have an account, you can reserve a date and time for a conference call, and you’ll be given a dial-in number and an access code. You can invite up to 96 participants, and calls can last as long as six hours. It’s available 24/7, and there is no limit to the number of free conference calls you can schedule. The service also includes free call recording and other features. The call quality is generally very good and the service is reliable. We have used FreeConferenceCall for a number of our own projects and have never had a problem with it.

FreeConferenceCall also has for-pay plans that offer toll-free calling (if some of your participants are far-flung and long-distance charges are likely to be high) and some that offer screen sharing for online meetings, if you need to include a visual presentation. FreeConferenceCall has been offering more in the way of web conferencing services lately.

Skype also has conference call capabilities, and one of its benefits is the “show screen” feature that allows others on Skype to see a presenter’s computer desktop, such as a Word, Excel, or PowerPoint file or other files (more about this later).

There is also a service called Speek that takes conference calling to the next level, integrating teleconferencing with a browser or a mobile app to let you see who has joined or left a call, chat, share files, and record the call.

Some basic advice and caveats about conference calling:

  • If you’re using a cellphone as your primary business phone, make sure you have decent reception. It can be frustrating, and irritating for others on the call, when a conference participant is constantly getting disconnected and has to re-dial-in.
  • Be sure to reduce the ambient or background noise—TV, music, children, pets, construction noises, etc.—as much as possible in order to a) not distract the meeting and b) convey professionalism.
  • Leave a note on the door for mail carriers, UPS and FedEx, and other potential unannounced visitors.
  • Don’t overlook using the “Mute” button when you’re not speaking. Just remember to “unmute” when it’s your turn to talk.
  • And then there was Richard’s experience on a conference call, in which one of the participants announced, “I have to leave this conference call. A large dog just mauled the plumber.”

A couple of years ago, a viral video hilariously demonstrated a “real life conference call.”