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Practical Solutions: Survival Zone

In a city where 85% of chamber of commerce members have fewer than 50 employees, there are a host of businesses whose sole focus is to increase your profits, save you time and make your life better. But taking the time to find these businesses, interview them and hire them can keep to-do’s like “upgrade to Vista” or “become a better public speaker” on your list for weeks. We’ve identified four key challenges that keep entrepreneurs up at night and found solutions that will soothe you back to sleep.

Problem
You’ve outgrown your home office, but you’re not ready for a lease on an office building. 

Solution
Check your personal network or do a Craigslist search
Working at home is great, but if your files are spilling into every other room of the house, it can be difficult to do anything BUT work at home. Before you move into the storage shed out back, consider your network of small business owners. Chances are, there’s a mortgage company or other small business that has an unused office they’re anxious to rent. Office spaces can also be found on Craigslist under the listing of office/commercial housing. Because really, who wants to share an office with a lawnmower?

What it’ll cost you:
On a recent Craigslist search, we found a 180-square-foot office off McIntosh with a bathroom and “plenty of parking” for $500 a month. An ad for Gasparilla Professional Center in Englewood offered cubicles for $195 a month and private offices for $395, with local phone and Internet service an extra $55 a month. An unassuming cubicle may be a low-frills solution, but it could be just the thing you need to reclaim your life at home. sarasota.craigslist.org

Lease a virtual office
Malin Parker started a home-based web design business a year ago after stepping away from a frantic career as a chef. After ten months, he outgrew his home office and moved into Regus, a 3,000-square-foot office suite occupied by individual businesses. “I get more done by noon than I used to get done in an entire day working at home,” says Parker. Working from the Courthouse Centre in an office outfitted with sleek European-style furnishings against a backdrop of muted turquoise and chocolate brown walls adds a prestige factor typically reserved for large, global companies.  Additional perks include a business lounge stocked with Flavia coffee, a flat screen TV, stainless appliances and a business center which acts as an in-house Staples for last minute supplies or copy jobs. Parker says working from an office at Regus has given him a completely different mindset about work. “My day is more structured,” he says. “I can leave the office behind and spend time with my family at home.” Networking with fellow office mates has led to an unexpected benefit—Parker has landed business from fellow tenants. “And I’ve only been here two months,” he says.

What it’ll cost you:
Virtual, temporary and full-time offices are available locally from Regus and ComCenters. Entry level plans range from $175-250 for mail collecting and forwarding, telephone answering by a receptionist (who will answer and forward your calls exactly to your specifications) and limited use of the office facility (ComCenter only). Upgraded plans include use of a fully furnished office for a pre-determined number of hours per month (from $400) or renting a full-time office suitable for one person (starting at $700-800 a month). Regus, located in the Courthouse Centre, 1990 Main St., Ste. 750, Sarasota, 941-309-5200, regus.com; ComCenter 70, 6150 S.R. 70 E., Bradenton, 941-755-0700; ComCenter @ Lakewood Ranch, 9040 Town Center Pkwy., Lakewood Ranch, 941-782-1200; ComCenter Bradenton, 100 3rd Ave. W., Bradenton, 941-782-1234; comcenters.net

Problem
Your partner’s new hire thought you were the IT guy. But you’re not. You’re the President. 

Solution
Hire a virtual IT department
If your business has fewer than 50 employees, chances are you don’t have an IT department. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have weekly server shutdowns, employees complaining about outdated software and the ever-looming threat of losing everything in a hurricane or virus attack. 

Managed services providers, or MSTs, is the new buzzword for small business IT solutions. It’s essentially your virtual IT guy—only they don’t leave a trail of Starbucks across the office or sneak out the door when the server crashes at 4:59pm. Most MSTs offer 24-hour computer monitoring and can detect problems long before they lead to computer downtime.

Locally, Private Client Technologies provides a large range of IT services to small and medium-sized businesses, emphasizing prevention of losses through what they call their Essential Services Program. “What we’re trying to do is take that kind of corporate level IT management and bring it down to a level small businesses can afford,” says Eric Livingston, president and CEO of Private Client Technologies.

Nicholas Ladikos, director of sales and marketing/managed services for CSI Networks, says managed services makes financial sense for companies with fewer than 100 computers. “An in-house IT department will be one to three people making $60-80,000 a year, but they only see one system every day,” he says. “You get the collective experience of our engineers, and you don’t have to pay for benefits or sick time.”

What it’ll cost you:
The Essential Services Program from Private Client Technologies starts at $29.95 a month per computer. CSI pricing varies based on a client’s IT environment, but for a company with fewer than 100 computers, Ladikos says it’s significantly less than hiring one full-time highly-competent IT professional.  Private Client Technologies, 866-PCT-2323. CSI Networks, 359 Interstate Blvd., Sarasota, 941-379-4747

Problem
Handling your own accounting is keeping you from running your business.

Solution
Have someone set up your QuickBooks and train you to do it properly.
Sandy Thirion of Miles & Thirion CPAs staffs certified QuickBooks Pro advisors who will come to your office, install QuickBooks on your computer, set it up based on your business’ needs and teach you how to perform reconciliations and print balance sheets. Not only will you sleep better at night, filing next year’s tax return will be a breeze. For best results, plan to meet with your accountant quarterly to review statements.
 
What it’ll cost you:
$100-120/hour (plus the cost of QuickBooks). Most clients average two to three hours for a one-time setup. A full range of accounting, tax and consulting services is also available. Miles & Thirion, CPA, P.A., 941-929-7725

Get a virtual bookkeeper
Pearl Dahmen, owner of Pearl Prosperity Group, says unless accounting is your expertise, your time is better spent doing what you know best. Dahmen, who is also the host of Comcast Channel 21’s Beyond the Bottom Line and a graduate of McCurdy’s Humor Institute, has spent the last 15 years working with small and home-based businesses. “I love the flexibility and energy that’s around small business owners,” she says. She also understands that small businesses may only need a few hours of bookkeeping help a month, which is why, in addition to offering a full spectrum of tax and accounting services, her company offers virtual bookkeeping. Using a combination of email, remote desktop connections, the Internet, fax and mail, Dahmen’s staff can keep your QuickBooks up- to-date and generate reports from their offices. They can also establish on-line accounting, allowing you to access your data from any location. 

What it’ll cost you:
Virtual bookkeeping services are $35/hour. A full range of financial and advisory services is also available. Pearl Prosperity Group, 941-923-9325

Hire an accountant and business consultant
If you’ve got a big change on the horizon, like opening, selling or buying a business, you may need more hands-on attention than traditional CPAs provide. Joey Brannon is the owner of Axiom Professional Group, an accounting and consulting firm specializing in closely-held businesses of all sizes. While his internal staff can easily handle your shoebox of receipts, Brannon works with business owners to set direction, measure results and maintain momentum. “To achieve your goals, you need someone who will hold you accountable,” he says. To this end, he almost acts as a board of directors for small businesses. “It’s a lonely place at the top,” says Brannon. “Sometimes you need someone to hold your feet to the fire.”

One of Brannon’s clients recently purchased a liquor store. When the profit wasn’t meeting projections, Brannon analyzed statements and discovered the new owner wasn’t getting the same discounts from liquor distributors as the store’s previous owner. The store was also carrying too much stock of low-end product. Brannon coached the owner on negotiating better prices with distributors and liquidating product overflow. Because they caught the problem early, the owner was able to secure better pricing with distributors and recover quickly from his losses. Had they not caught the discrepancy in time, the owner could have had an unprofitable business on his hands.

What it’ll cost you:
Axiom offers three packages, with set-up fees ranging from $500-1,000 and monthly fees of $250-1,500. Axiom Professional Group, 1401 Manatee Ave. W., Suite 510, Bradenton

Problem
You keep avoiding opportunities to promote your business publicly because you are terrified of public speaking.

Solution
Join Toastmasters
On almost every day of the week around town, a group of strangers, young and old, gather and take turns forcing themselves to speak in front of each other. No, it’s not AA—it’s Toastmasters, an international organization dedicated to helping people become better speakers. With 11 clubs in Sarasota, three in Bradenton and one in Venice, you’re sure to find a weekly meeting that fits your schedule. The hour-long meetings are conducted with striking efficiency as members work through a self-paced program of speeches and leadership roles outlined in the Toastmasters manual. Angela Sauro is a full-time Party Lite consultant and uses Toastmasters as a forum to practice her real-life business presentations. Feedback from the group is what keeps her coming back. “It helps you evaluate yourself better,” she says. “It helps you know what to work on, but also what you did well, so you can do more of what worked.” Toastmaster Fredrik Sandstrom says his communication skills have improved considerably throughout his ten months in the group. “The confidence you gain in public speaking in a group can lead to increased confidence in other areas of your life,” he says.

What it’ll cost you:
To join Toastmasters, there is a $20 new member fee (which includes a new member kit), and dues average $4.50 per month. Potential members are welcome to attend meetings at no charge. To find a meeting near you, visit toastmasters.org

Take an acting class
True, if you’re terrified of public speaking, the last thing you want to do is stand on a stage, alone, with a microphone attempting to channel your inner Chris Rock. But just think—if you can perform a three- to five-minute stand-up comedy routine in front of a live audience, explaining the merits of your business to your networking group will be nothing. If comedy isn’t your thing, Florida Studio Theatre (FST) offers acting classes, ranging from Monologue 101 to Improvisation for Seniors.

What it’ll cost you:
McCurdy’s workshops are $175 for a six-week session. FST workshops range from $175-205 for an eight-week session. McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre, 941-925-3869 FST, Pam Smith, Education Administrator, 941-366-1350

Hire a Professional Speaking Coach
Whether you’ve just received an invitation to deliver a keynote speech, or a recent promotion has launched you into the public eye, one-on-one coaching might be your best solution, especially if you aren’t afraid to drop a little cash. Marilyn Schott offers four- to six-month coaching programs for individuals and groups (she’ll work with you on last-minute projects, too, as long as your speech isn’t tomorrow). Schott’s program addresses image and the effect color has on how people relate to you, self-exploration exercises and how to build a talk and create rapport with an audience. “The more you know yourself, the better you can present,” says Schott. “You can’t do a fake routine. People want genuine information, no matter how serious the topic is.”

Kathy Lehner, a Broker/Manager at Waterford Communities, says working with Schott gave her more confidence and taught her how to communicate her points more effectively. “When I first met her, I was intimidated because I thought she was so awesome, and I didn’t see myself in that league,” says Lehner. “But working with her, she teaches that you are in anyone’s league when you’re communicating effectively.”

Last year, Lehner served as chairman of the board for the Venice Area Chamber of Commerce. That role meant an increase in speaking engagements, both planned and unplanned. “Because of my confidence, I can speak on a dime. You learn to always know the mission, what projects are being worked on and what events are coming up.” Lehner says Schott has a talent for recognizing qualities in people they don’t recognize themselves. “She brings the best out in you.” Would Lehner be ready to speak to, say, Rudy Giuliani on a dime? “Absolutely.”

What it’ll cost you:
For private coaching, Schott encourages a six-month commitment, with three months paid in advance. The individual monthly rate is $1,500, which includes training materials.

Group sessions are available for five to ten participants. A group session meets once a month for four hours over a period of four months. The cost for the four-month program is $1,000 per person. Marilyn Schott Associates, 941-412-3100.

Sidebar
Take it From a Pro
Marilyn Schott’s Public Speaking Tips

1.Don’t start talking before you reach the podium, and once you’re up there, be sure to give the audience enough time to look at you and make determinations about your credibility. When you do speak, start with a headline—something really attention getting.

2.Before you tell a story you think is funny, try it on at least four people. If even one of those four people doesn’t think your story is funny, don’t use it.

3.Wearing small pearl, diamond or gold stud earrings makes the whites of your eyes appear brighter. Studies show people would rather do business with people who have bright eyes. But don’t overdo it—stick to the size of a one-carat diamond or smaller.

4.Practice your speech a minimum of ten times as far in advance of the talk as possible. Remember any key phrases, and say your talk out loud the morning or afternoon before your engagement. It’s okay if you don’t deliver the same talk you rehearsed as long as you remember your key points.

5.Never put your hands in your pockets or behind your back. People want to see your hands—just be sure they are clean and neat.

For even more public speaking tips, contact Marilyn Schott Communications
at 941-412-3100.

Sidebar:
Take it From a Pro
Joey Brannon’s Top 3 Business Book Recommendations

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen (Penguin)
Veteran coach and management consultant David Allen shares the breakthrough methods for stress-free performance he has introduced to tens of thousands of people across the country. Allen's premise is simple: Our productivity is directly proportional to our ability to relax. Only when our minds are clear and our thoughts are organized can we achieve effective productivity and unleash our creative potential.

The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It by Michael E. Gerber (Collins)
Dispelling the myths surrounding starting your own business and showing how commonplace assumptions can get in the way of running a business, Gerber walks entrepreneurs through the steps in the life of a business from infancy, adolescence and maturity. He shows how to apply the lessons of franchising to any business—whether or not it is a franchise—and draws the vital, often overlooked distinction between working on your business and working in your business.


Love Is the Killer App: How to Win Business and Influence Friends  by Tim Sanders (Three Rivers Press)
With the message that “nice guys don’t finish last, they rule” as its overarching premise, Sanders emphasizes being a “lovecat”—a nice, smart person who succeeds in business and in life. Sanders says that by sharing your intangibles (knowledge, network and compassion), you will become a person who leads rather than follows, who everyone turns to and who never runs out of ideas, contacts or friendship.

—By Britta Alexander, Photography by Carlton Grooms / Big Bamboo Creative, Styled by Landon McMahon

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