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What Is Solid Cactus and How Can It Help Your Business?

March 8th, 2012 ::

By Scott Sanfilippo
Solid Cactus is a “total solutions provider” which in a nutshell means we do everything for an ecommerce store owner except pack and ship their orders.

Entrepreneurs looking to start an online business come to us to develop not only a great looking and converting eCommerce store, but also a plan to help them grow and become successful in their online venture.

We start out by discussing the client’s goals and long term vision. We then provide them with a solution on a platform they can grow with and a store with the features they need to get started. As their business grows, we continue to work with them on tweaking their store, adding new features, and proposing a marketing plan.

Our team of Internet marketing pros works with the client to create and manage pay-per-click advertising campaigns, search engine optimization plans, social media management and other ways to drive traffic to the store.

Once the traffic is there, we offer the business owner assistance with customer service and administrative tasks by introducing them to our call center team. The call center offers affordable outsourced customer service solutions that include answering phones, replying to email, taking orders, live chat and more.

I’m very proud of the fact that we have built the complete package of services for our customers that makes us a true one-shop-stop for ecommerce store owners.  No other developer offers the complete suite of services that we offer giving our clients a single point of contact for all their needs as their businesses grow.

Solid Cactus: An Entrepreneurial Success

Way back in 1994, my partner and I started one of the first ecommerce stores selling ferret supplies!  Back then the Internet was very new and the concept of shopping online wasn’t taken very seriously.  But we had the foresight to see that ordering from a computer was going to be the new way of doing business, so we embraced it and moved forward with launching an online store.

We built that business up by grass-roots marketing, educating people on the Internet and how easy it was to shop from home, and it stuck.

As our sales grew year over year, we expanded into other product lines and other ecommerce stores – 39 in total. We because one of the Internet’s true success stories and garnered a lot of press in major publications like the Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur Magazine and USA Today, and our story was told in college classes all over the country.

As word of TheFerretStore.com began to spread, we were getting a lot of calls from people wanting advice on how to start their own online store and calls from people looking for help growing their existing stores.

Realizing there was a need for a service like this, we launched what we called Solid Cactus.  It started out as a company that built eCommerce websites for other entrepreneurs. Word of our services quickly began to spread and we started adding people to our original group of three employees.

In 2006, we ended up selling TheFerretStore.com and our other ecommerce stores in order to concentrate on growing Solid Cactus.  In the ensuing years we added Internet marketing and call center services to our suite of products and were named one of the “Best Places to Work” in Pennsylvania for three consecutive years.

We were acquired by Web.com in April 2009 and since then we have continued to grow, expand our product offerings and make me proud of the little company we started 11 years ago.

What Small Business Need Does Solid Cactus Serve?

Solid Cactus was founded based on the principle of helping other small businesses become successful online.  I am proud to look back at some true success stories – businesses that came to us in the beginning with an idea of selling X product online and today are in the Internet Retailer Top 500.

We serve a unique niche of ecommerce store owners.  Store owners who are passionate, driven and in this for the long haul. They know that by coming to Solid Cactus with their business plan, we will provide them with a solution – and a path for success – that they can afford.

Someone signing on with us knows that we will be there for them every step of the way as their business grows and the marketplace changes. A lot of companies say they do that, but we have a team of 150 people here who take our customers’ success very seriously and take great pride in knowing that what they are doing today will make that customer a big success tomorrow.

3 Marketing Tips for Small Businesses

1.           Be patient.  As much as we like instant gratification, the Internet isn’t the Field of Dreams. Just because your launch an ecommerce website today doesn’t mean you’ll get 50 orders tomorrow. It takes time to build up good organic search engine rankings and tweak pay-per-click advertising so it brings traffic that converts.  Just because the orders aren’t coming in fast and furious right after launch doesn’t mean you give up hope.  Marketing is a series of experiments and it takes some testing to determine what works and what doesn’t.  Give it time, and good marketing will pay off!

2.           Embrace social media.  I hear a lot of store owners say they don’t have the time to be on Facebook and Twitter.  Social media is a great place to get free advertising for your business by building a community of fans who love your products and services and will share their opinions on them with other users within their circles.  Social Media is the new form of word of mouth advertising and every store owner should be engaging with their customers and fans on a daily basis.

3.           Watch your ROI. You’re going to spend a good deal of money on pay-per-click advertising to attract customers to your store.  Don’t get caught spending more money than you’re bringing in. Advertising should have a positive ROI (return on investment) and there are plenty of tools out there to determine if you’re getting the best bang for your buck with your advertising.  I’ve seen many people burn through money on PPC ads and have little to no ROI.  If you’re one of those people or if you don’t know if your marketing is generating a positive ROI – get professional help!  Hire a company like Solid Cactus to manage your PPC campaigns – they’re trained on getting you the positive ROI you need to make your bottom line look as good as it can be.

Scott Sanfilippo is regarded as an ecommerce pioneer, having launched one of the first online stores in 1994.  In 2001 he co-founded Solid Cactus – a total ecommerce solutions provider – and led the company until its acquisition by Web.com in 2009.  Scott currently provides strategy and advice to Solid Cactus’ high GMV clients.  When he’s not hanging out on Facebook, he’s writing about ecommerce and life as a curmudgeon in his blog at http://www.scottsanfilippo.com.


Luxury Travel Trends for 2012

March 8th, 2012 ::

By Karen Axelton

Do you own a travel-related business? Then Unity Marketing has some good news for you: Affluent travelers are finally ready to spend again, according to the report Luxury Consumers and Their Luxury Travel Plans. Some 40 percent of luxury travelers say they will spend more money on travel this year than in 2011, the study found.

Pam Danziger, author of the report, told Travel Market Report that the 40 percent figure is twice the usual 20 percent. “That’s really significant,” Danzinger said.

Danziger believes the trend is fueled by two factors. First, affluent customers are releasing their pent-up desires to travel after several years of cutting back in the recession. Second, affluents are placing more value on experiences, rather than possessions, as they decide how to spend their money. “The majority of luxury consumers say their greatest pleasure and satisfaction from their wealth comes from their experiences,” she told Travel Market Report.

Here are some findings from the study:

Who are they? Specific groups within the affluent market are key to the growth in luxury travel. Specifically, “ultra-affluents” (consumers earning $200,000 or more) and “young affluents” (consumers under 45) are planning the most travel. In fact, Danziger says, whatever income sector they’re in, the younger affluent consumers are the most interested in spending on luxury travel.

What do they want? Relaxation and stress relief are travelers’ primary goals when planning luxury travel. Other top motivators include spending time with their families and traveling as a “transformative experience.” Luxury travelers are seeking to create lasting memories.

How do they like to plan? More than ever, luxury travelers are open to planning trips at the last minute. Danziger says while many do still plan major trips a year in advance, others are more willing to grab good opportunities as they arise. Unfortunately for travel agents, however, fewer affluent travelers are consulting travel agents when making plans.

Where do they want to go? There are two extremes here. There’s plenty of interest in staying close to home. In fact, U.S. cities are the most popular destination, followed by Alaska, Hawaii and the Caribbean. However, for those who want to travel beyond these regions, the attitude is “the farther away, the better.” When it comes to far-flung destinations, Australia and New Zealand are most popular, with Japan and China not far behind.

What do these trends mean to you? Whether you’re promoting travel far afield or close to home, your marketing message should emphasize the issues that matter to luxury travelers. That can include rest and relaxation, time with family, or life-changing experiences. Above all, focus on how travel can create lifetime memories and that, even if you’re promoting a familiar destination, there’s always something new to discover in even the best-known place.

Image by Flickr user BBM Explorer (Creative Commons)

Will the Change in SBA Size Standards Affect Your Small Business?

March 1st, 2012 ::

By Karen Axelton

Is your business involved in federal contracting or subcontracting? Are you trying to get an SBA loan or obtain a grant? If so, you’ll want to know about new changes to the SBA’s small business size standards.

Size standards are set by the SBA to classify for-profit businesses as described by the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) Identifying Industry Codes. One reason for size standards is to ensure that big businesses don’t unfairly compete for contracts, funding or other assistance from the federal government. Size standards help ensure that only businesses deemed small enough—whether based on receipts or number of employees—are eligible for these types of benefits.

The most recent change to the size standards has increased 37 small business size standards for 34 industries and three sub-industries (“exceptions” in SBA’s table of small business size standards) in North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) Sector 54, “Professional, Technical, and Scientific Services.” The SBA also increased the one size standard in NAICS Sector 81, “Other Services,” which it did not review in 2010. These size standards are all receipts based. SBA is retaining the current standards for the remaining industries in NAICS Sector 54.

As part of an ongoing review of all size standards, the SBA evaluated all of the revenue-based size standards in these sectors to determine whether to revise the existing size standards.  The SBA took into account characteristics in each industry, including average firm size, the degree of competition and federal government contracting trends, to ensure that size definitions reflect the current economic conditions within those industries. After reviewing public comments, the SBA determined that changing the size standards would allow more small businesses to retain their small business status, while giving government agencies more small businesses to choose from when awarding contracting opportunities.

The review of size standards is part of the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, and under this law, the SBA’s comprehensive review of all size standards will continue for the next several years. According to the SBA, as many as 8,350 additional companies will become eligible for SBA programs as a result of these revisions.

You can find a table of SBA size standards, as well as other information about size standards, at the SBA website.

Image by Flickr user Randen Pederson (Creative Commons)

Small Biz Resource Tip: Meltwater Press

February 27th, 2012 ::

Meltwater Press

If you run a PR, marketing or ad agency, or simply want to target your own business’s press releases and media outreach more effectively, Meltwater Press can help. Meltwater Press’s dashboard interface lets you create and manage media lists with ease. Search journalists by name, outlet, location and more. Then Meltwater refines your results using Natural Language Processing (NLP), which scans some 1.5 million articles per day, using keywords to search and return only those journalists writing currently and most often about a particular topic. Once you’ve created your contact lists, you get a continual live feed of everything those journalists write about so you’re always current on whom to target. Pricing starts at $5,175 annually for unlimited pitches, distributions and seats (you can even give clients access to the lists if you want).

Hot Trend for 2012: Online Hiring

February 21st, 2012 ::

By Karen Axelton

Hiring independent contractors online was one of the hottest management trends for 2011, according to Elance, an online employment platform. The 2011 Employment Review from Elance reports the number of businesses seeking to hire online workers doubled in 2011. Even though the traditional employment market was stagnant last year, online hiring grew at a record pace, increasing more than 100 percent compared to 2010. Online work thrived this year with 650,000 new jobs posted on Elance and earnings of Elance contractors reaching $156 million.

For 2012, this trend isn’t slowing down—in fact, Elance’s data shows online hiring will grow even more this year. In the next 12 months, 83 percent of small businesses Elance surveyed expect to hire as many as 50 percent of their workers as online contractors.

For 2011, the skills that were most in demand among online workers were software development (with rising demand for HTML5, mobile, WordPress, Facebook and Twitter), creative and marketing (with rising demand for graphic design, Internet marketing, content writing, marketing communications and telemarketing), administration (with rising demand for transcription, admin support, data entry, research and customer service) and consulting (with rising demand for product manufacturing, architectural design, financial analysis, legal and business strategy).

Technical skills will be hot commodities this year as well. For 2012, Elance says the 10 most promising online careers are:

1.      Software Developer
2.      Visual Designer
3.      User Experience Designer
4.      Digital Marketer
5.      Technical Writer
6.      Web Researcher
7.      Data Analyst
8.      Content Moderator
9.      Accountant
10.  Distributed Workforce Manager

Elance also predicts that 2012 will see an even greater move toward globalization, as companies hire professionals from all over the world thanks to technological advancements that make it easier and more secure to collaborate online and communicate 24/7.

One thing to be aware of if you’re using online “virtual” workers: It’s more important than ever to be in compliance with IRS laws regarding independent contractors. Be sure you know what rules apply to your workers, wherever in the world they are.

Image by Flickr user photologue_np (Creative Commons)


Where Are VCs Investing Now?

February 14th, 2012 ::

By Karen Axelton

Facebook’s recent IPO may be getting all the attention, but social media isn’t the only area where investors are putting their money. When it comes to venture capitalists, Information Week reports, VCs’ favorite place to invest in 2011 was the health IT sector. Specifically, medical software and information services attracted $633 million in VC investment in 2011–the most this sector has attracted since 2001, according to data from Dow Jones VentureSource.

DowJones data shows VC investment in health IT rose from $394 million in 2009 to $520 million in 2010. 2011 saw a 22 percent increase in dollars invested, along with a 26 percent increase in the total number of deals–from 68 in 2010 to 86 in 2011.

What’s behind the surge of interest in healthcare IT? The last three years have seen wider adoption of electronic health records, accelerated by President Obama’s federan incentives. And consumers’ and healthcare practitioners’ growing comfort with using the Internet, software and mobile devices to store, access and manage health-related data has attracted VCs’ attention.

And their interest in the health IT sector shows no sign of slowing, according to the most recent Venture View survey by Dow Jones VentureSource and the National Venture Capital Association. The poll of more than 500 venture capitalists in late 2011 found 61 percent predict investment in healthcare IT will rise in 2012.

While health IT is a rising star of healthcare VC investments, biopharmaceuticals was still the healthcare industry that got the most VC investment in 2011, with 302 deals at a total of $3.9 billion. However, compared to 2010, that figure represents a 6 percent decline in deals and flat dollar investment.

Medical devices came in second, with 290 deals in 2011 for a total of $3.3 billion. Although the number of deals declined slightly, investment dollars rose by more than 25 percent.

Where are VCs not investing? Perhaps due to uncertainty as to how healthcare reform will actually shake out, investment in healthcare services plummeted from $1.2 billion in 2010 to $541 million in 2011.

Overall, the Dow Jones VentureSource quarterly survey of VC investments in energy, consumer Web and IT, health, and electronics and computer hardware companies showed that total VC investments slowed in the last quarter of 2011, the year overall saw 3,209 deals for a total of $32.6 billion. That’s a 10 percent increase in capital raised and a 6 percent increase in the number of deals compared to 2010.

Image by Flickr user takomabibelot (Creative Commons)

Small Businesses Still Struggle to Obtain Access to Credit

February 7th, 2012 ::

By Karen Axelton

Nearly four years after the nation’s financial meltdown, small business owners seeking financing find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Some 90 percent of small business owners say availability of credit is still a problem for small business, reports a new poll by the American Sustainable Business Council, Main Street Alliance and Small Business Majority. The survey of more than 500 small business owners found that 60 percent of small employers have personally faced difficulties trying to obtain loans to grow their businesses.

Getting capital wasn’t always such an issue for entrepreneurs. A 61 percent majority of respondents say it’s harder for them get loans now than it was four years ago, with 29 percent saying it’s much harder. Only 9 percent of respondents say it’s gotten easier to get a loan.

What do small business owners think would help ease the credit crunch? Some 90 percent of business owners support regulatory changes that would make it simpler for community banks and credit unions to lend to small businesses. Another 77 percent support providing incentives for community banks to lend more to entrepreneurs. Specifically, by more than a 2:1 ratio, small business owners support encouraging credit unions to lend more to entrepreneurs by increasing their member lending cap from 12.25 percent of their assets to 27.5 percent of their assets.

A large majority—82 percent of respondents—also supports tighter credit card regulations, such as clearer disclosure of terms and caps on interest rates. In addition, nearly half, or 47 percent, strongly support these kinds of regulations. The survey also found that 52 percent of small business owners have used credit cards to finance their own business.

Another way small business owners think loans could be made more accessible is by reducing collateral requirements. One-fourth of those surveyed have used their homes as a source of capital for their business through a home equity line of credit. With home equity values dropping in many parts of the country, this type of collateral is no longer available to many entrepreneurs.

Finally, the majority of small business owners, or 57 percent, think that reducing the principal on underwater mortgages to the homes’ current market value would boost consumer spending, which would help small businesses regain market share. Nearly three-fourths (73 percent) said the fallout from the mortgage crisis has hurt their businesses by reducing consumer spending and demand.

The poll also asked respondents about some specific proposals put forth in President Obama’s American Jobs Act. The vast majority (69 percent) supports committing $50 billion to new and existing infrastructure projects—such as making improvements to road, bridge and water systems—that would generate new jobs and help increase consumer spending. Another 59 percent favor creating a nationwide wireless network and improving the accessibility of high-speed wireless services, which would benefit both businesses and consumers.

Read the full report here.

Image by Flickr user Rojer (Creative Commons)


Government Contracting: How Are Small Businesses Doing?

February 2nd, 2012 ::

By Karen Axelton

Small businesses who obtain government contracts know that the U.S. government is a desirable client. But how are small companies doing when it comes to landing federal contracts or subcontracts? American Express OPEN’s second annual government contracting survey of more than 700 active small government contractors found they are facing some challenges, partly because federal government contracting spending was down 14 percent in 2011 compared to 2010. Here’s what else the study found:

Small businesses are spending more trying to obtain federal contracts. In 2011, active small business contractors invested an average of $103,827 in both time and money in seeking federal contracting opportunities—up 21 percent from the previous year ($86,000).

Businesses owned by minorities invested more than the average—an average of $139,709, fully 56 percent more than small businesses owned by Caucasian men and women.

Women, overall, were spending less time and money pursuing federal contracts. The average investment by women-owned firms was 30 percent less than that made by men-owned firms.

Small businesses are bidding less often. Even as they spend more on their average bid, small firms are bidding far less. Both in prime contracting and subcontracting, bidding activity has declined by nearly half.

So what does it take to succeed in federal contracting? Here are three tips:

Be persistent. The small business contractors in the survey reported that they had to submit an average of 4.4 bids before earning their first prime federal contract. Once they did land that first procurement opportunity, however, things got easier. Two-thirds of active small business contractors reported they have performed more than one federal contract. On average, it took these firms just under a year after their first procurement to win their second contract.

Be selective. The study found that when it comes to bidding on contracting opportunities, there is
a law of
diminishing returns. Businesses that bid on six or more contracts in a three-year period saw their success rate fall below the overall .379 “batting average.” American Express OPEN suggests the best strategy is to concentrate on just a few procurement opportunities annually; don’t submit more than two or three bids per year.

Be patient. The average success rate in obtaining prime contracts was 38 percent. However, success rates were significantly higher among small businesses that had been seeking federal contracts for 10 or more years (53 percent success rate) compared to those who had been seeking federal contracts for three years or less (20 percent success rate).

Has your business bid on government contracting opportunities? Have you found it growing easier or more difficult?

Image by Flickr user Donkey Hotey (Creative Commons)


President Obama Proposes Consolidating Business Agencies

January 19th, 2012 ::

By Karen Axelton

President Obama has requested authority to streamline U.S. executive agencies and announced plans to begin with trade-related agencies including the Small Business Administration, Bloomberg reports. Dubbed the Consolidation Authority Act, the proposed legislation would give the President executive authority to streamline the executive branch. This power last held by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

The president has said the goal is to shrink government and save money, and asked Congress to “fast track” the proposal for a vote within 90 days. If the plan is authorized, the president would start by replacing the Commerce Department with a new agency that will consist of four units: trade and investment, including enforcement, financing and promotion; small business and economic development; technology and innovation, including the patent office; and statistics. The new agency would include the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corp., the Trade and Development Agency and the SBA.

“Small businesses often face a maze of agencies when looking for even the most basic answers to the most basic questions,” says the White House website. “There is a whole host of websites, toll-free numbers and customer service centers that at times offer them differing advice. The result is a system that is not working for our small businesses. The President is proposing to consolidate those six departments and agencies into one department with one website, one phone number and one mission—helping American businesses succeed [and creating] one department where entrepreneurs can go.”

As to what that might mean for the SBA, one piece of good news for that agency is that the president has elevated SBA Administrator Karen Mills to a Cabinet-level position (he can do this without Congress’s approval).

A study by the Government Accountability Office in March 2011 found that the federal government’s economic development programs are “fragmented” and was unable to measure their efficiency and effectiveness. It’s estimated that consolidating agencies would eventually eliminate 1,000 to 2,000 federal government jobs through attrition and would save $3 billion over 10 years.

The proposal would have to be approved by Congress, and both Democrats and Republicans have expressed guarded feelings about the idea. In particular, both Republican and Democratic chairs of the committees that oversee trade policy objected to the proposal to move the U.S. Trade Representative’s office to a new department.

Small business advocates aren’t gung-ho for the idea, either. Todd McCracken, President and CEO of the National Small Business Association expressed the views of many when he told the Huffington Post Small Business, “There simply aren’t enough details available yet to know if this will be a net win or loss for small business. On the one hand, reorganizing federal agencies to create a ‘one-stop-shop’ for America’s small businesses could streamline processes and make accessing information and assistance much easier. On the other hand, such a reorganization could minimize the emphasis placed on small business by the federal government and lead to an even greater imbalance toward promoting the interests of large businesses over those of small business.”

Image by Flickr user Tom Lohdan (Creative Commons)

If You’ve Misclassified Workers, IRS Program Can Help

January 17th, 2012 ::

By Karen Axelton

Has your business classified workers as independent contractors who should really be classified as employees? This sensitive issue is a big concern for small business owners. More and more entrepreneurs are relying on independent contractors to handle their workloads, but the definition of “independent contractor” can be hazy. The Department of Labor is taking new aim at this problem for 2012, according to Compensation Café, and is joining with the IRS to share information, help reduce misclassification of employees and improve employer compliance.

The Labor Department will be focusing on enforcing laws and auditing employers, but the IRS is being a bit more forgiving. The agency’s Voluntary Classification Settlement Program, part of its “Fresh Start” initiative, allows business owners to come forward voluntarily and settle their misclassification issues instead of trembling in fear of an audit.

VCSP has several advantages:

  • Businesses can reclassify workers as employees for future tax periods and pay just 10 percent of the employment tax liability that results from this reclassification for the most recent tax year.
  • There are no penalties or interest on the employment tax liability.
  • The IRS will not audit your business on these workers’ classifications for prior years.

However, it’s not all peaches and cream. In order to get these terms, you must agree that the standard three-year “look-back” window for the IRS to review your employment taxes (and see if you owe more money) is extended to six years.

To apply for VCSP, complete Form 8952, Application for Voluntary Classification Settlement Program, at least 60 days before you want to begin treating the workers as employees. Your business must also meet these eligibility criteria:

  • Workers to be reclassified must have been consistently treated as non-employees;
  • Employer must have filed the appropriate 1099 forms for the prior three years;
  • Employer cannot currently be undergoing a classification audit by the IRS, Department of Labor or any state agency;
  • If the employer was previously audited by the IRS, DOL or any state agency, it must have complied with the results.

Being accepted into the VCSP program is not automatic; however, even if the IRS rejects your application, the agency has said that this rejection doesn’t automatically trigger an audit of your business. You are also allowed to reapply for the program in the future.

Compensation Café notes, however, that although the IRS and the DOL are collaborating on this issue, the DOL isn’t offering amnesty. That means participating in the VCSP program could lead to your business being assessed back taxes, penalties and fines by the DOL and/or state agencies. So before plunging into VCSP headfirst, talk to your accountant to determine how this could affect your payroll, benefits programs, unemployment and workers compensation insurance, and the possible additional penalties you might face.

Image by Flickr user MoneyBlogNewz (Creative Commons)