Three Ways Technology Is Changing Small Business Finance

New technology helps entrepreneurs get their products and services to customers more efficiently.

New technology helps entrepreneurs get their products and services to customers more efficiently.

Technology is an entrepreneur’s best friend. With the right tools, entrepreneurs are finding that it is easier than ever before to bring in customers, design new products and manage day-to-day operations. Here are a few of the latest ways that technology is changing the world of small business finance.

Mobile Payments
Before the era of mobile devices, if you didn’t want to alienate customers by only accepting cash, you needed a traditional register (point of sale) system. This left many entrepreneurs, such as those working booths at craft fairs or providing services outside of a brick-and-mortar setting, out in the cold.

Now, it’s possible to use a mobile device to accept plastic from customers anywhere you have reception, opening up a range of possibilities. Square is a device that allows you to swipe cards and process payments right on your smartphone or tablet. Its monthly subscription service is best for those who “do five-six digits in sales every month,” and “have very few transactions over $400,” and “key in very few transactions,” according to Forbes contributor My Say.

For those who make many monthly transactions, or those who have many transactions over $400, or those who don’t make sales in the five or six-figure range, Say recommends Breadcrumb by Groupon. Another excellent and flexible option to consider is PayPal.

3D Printing
When 3D printers arrived on the scene, they seemed like something out of a science fiction novel, but they quickly proved to be a tremendous asset in many fields. Businesses currently using 3D printers are quickly discovering just how many ways this tool can revolutionize the way they work.

“For some, it creates an opportunity to differentiate from the competition. For others, it’s a chance to improve internal processes, like design and development, and streamline production,” states Fox News Business contributor Elizabeth Palermo. “But in some industries, especially those that create highly customized products, such production methods are essential.”

Entrepreneurs who want to make a model of a product no longer have to find a factory able to produce it before they can show potential investors and clients. With the invention of 3D printing, the process is faster than ever, making it easier for would-be entrepreneurs to take the leap into the business world.

Fox News Business profiled the development of an ergonomic baby spoon called Spuni, which “owes its existence in large part to 3D technology,” according to Palermo. “The company was able to print the first versions of Spuni using medical grade, BPA-free plastics that could be tested safely by parents on their babies. The ability to test their prototypes helped Botha and his colleagues churn out a final version of the product much faster than if they had used traditional manufacturing methods for prototyping.”

Predictive Analytics
Predictive analysis uses technology to maximize sales opportunities by attempting to accurately predict the future behavior of customers. Entrepreneur.com contributor Mikal E. Belicove describes how he would use predictive analysis to make more money at a hypothetical pizza shop.

“If I knew exactly how many cheese, pepperoni or veggie pizzas I was going to sell on a given shift, I could have those ingredients on hand, and maybe even make them ahead of time, so the customers get their pies fast,” describes Belicove. “And if I knew that half my customers order a large soda with their pizza, I could offer them a pizza/soda special to keep them coming back.”

A Business Intelligence tool is necessary software to run these types of analytics. Entrepreneurs who know how to program can make use of free tools like R from Revolution Analytics. You don’t have to know how to program to use this technology, however.

“If you just want a way to visualize your data to make it easier to understand and follow, there are inexpensive dashboard tools like Geckoboard and Leftronic that you can try out for less than $100 a month,” states Belicove.

With technology like 3D printing, predictive analysis and mobile payments, more people than ever are realizing that they truly can start a business.

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Six Ways Your Business Can Save More Money

A cost-saving plan to uphold your business budget.

A cost-saving plan to uphold your business budget.

If you own a small business and are on a budget, you’re not alone. Running a company is no inexpensive task. That’s why it’s important to put saving money on the top of your priority list. Cutting costs in every way possible is essential to ensuring that you’re gaining profits.

The good news: saving may be easier than you think. There are tons of ways you can tighten your belt on the job. Try these penny-pinching tips:

Utilize the web - You already know to use social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, but also take a look at discussion groups and message boards, too. These groups are a convenient way to get your business’ name out there quickly and easily—all you have to do is sign your name with your web URL. And best of all, it’s free!

“I didn’t start [participating in online discussion groups] to generate business, but as a way to find information for myself on various subjects,” said Shel Horowitz, owner of Accurate Writing & More, Northampton, MA, and author of several marketing books, including Grassroots Marketing. “But it turned out to be the single best marketing tool I use. It costs only my time. [One] list alone has gotten me around 60 clients in the past five years.”

Form relationships with vendors – Being a loyal customer can take you far. When you frequently use a vendor, they’re more likely to let you in on certain deals as they occur or even offer you a reduced price on a regularly bought item.

“In order to approach this, make sure you have the same employee work with the vendor each time you contact them, always contact them in advance, and benefit them whenever you can by referring business to them,” advises Emily Swartz, marketing communications specialist at Broadview Networks. “Even if they don’t cut you deals, having a vendor that’s dependable and consistent is more money-saving than you might think.”

Go paperless – Chances are, the amount spent on paper, ink and postage can add up. If you get rid of it all, over time, you’ll see your savings grow steadily.

“Businesses should shift towards paperless payments for many reasons,” said Mitch Rose, vice president of BillTrust. “Businesses should not be reliant on the USPS for receiving payments. There is already too much going on with the USPS from rising rates, closing of postal locations, lost mail, delays due to disasters or vandalism, etc. Just as important, the cost to a business to apply a paper check payment is significant. They struggle with keying it in, getting the payment deposited in a timely manner and applying the payment to a specific invoice.”

Pay attention to how much you spend on the little things – There are certain small items that may be bought when you’re running a company that are easily overlooked — things like office supplies, cleaning tools, coffee, etc. And although small and not necessarily the most pricy, these items can add up without you ever really noticing. Spending a little extra time searching for good deals on these items can keep these costs from accumulating. Compare prices and also check for free shipping, which many companies offer on bulk items. You may also opt for cleaning the office yourself or save on package-related costs by delivering something to a close-by client. Also, get creative: buy recycled printer cartridges, buy used equipment on craigslist.com, etc.

Don’t overspend on taxes - Sometimes if businesses are new to a location, they’re subject to a higher tax rate. In order to avoid spending too much on taxes, take action.

“Go to city hall to determine what your neighbors are paying, and use this to negotiate a better rate,” suggests Pete Collins of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP in NYC. “Expanding businesses can often negotiate with community authorities, who want them to stay in town rather than move and take jobs elsewhere.”

Go green - A double whammy: save money and help the planet. Things like recycling, for one, can help you scrimp and save at the office. “More and more businesses are recognizing the benefits of reducing their waste,” said Carrie Hamblen, executive director of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce. “Not only can it save businesses money by reducing their overhead (but) recycling (is) good for business and benefits us all.”

Other ways to “go green” include using reusable items like mugs instead of cups for coffee, buying products locally and investing in energy-saving utilities, such as lighting.

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Shining in the Spot Light

BusSpotlightSugarLoafENTaking pictures with customers, being a friendly employee, and creating a wonderful atmosphere at Sugar Loaf Ford. These are just a few of the many things part owner of Sugar Load Ford, Mike Puetz does that keeps Sugar Loaf Ford in Winona at the top of the market.

Sugarloaf Ford is the oldest dealership in Winona and was founded in 1977 by retired owner Bill Hutmacher, who grew up in Park Ridge Illinois and graduated with a Business degree from Michigan University in 1965.

Winona was a great fit for Sugar Loaf Ford, “We’ve had a strong, long run in Winona,” owner Mike Puetz says.

Puetz was hired at Sugar Loaf Ford in 2001 and became part owner in 2005. “I am lucky to get to work with a good business partner like Bill,” Puetz said, “the automobile business is without a doubt the most rewarding business one could ask for.”

It isn’t just about selling cars for Puetz, and the staff at Sugar Loaf Ford, it’s about creating a great experience for their customers. It’s not unusual to see customers stop in for a cup of coffee and lounge around in the lobby area. “Customers love to come here and we love to have them here,” says Puetz.

Sugar Loaf Ford also gives back to the community. With donations to several foundations including the Morrie Miller Foundation, Hutmacher and Puetz find it very important to give back to the Winona Community. “That’s why Merchants Bank is a great fit for us. It was an easy choice for us to bank there because of the wonderful customer and community service Merchants Bank gives,” said Puetz 

Puetz would highly recommend Merchants Bank.

“Merchants Bank is an easy choice, everyone takes care of us. They have personal service, pick up the phone when I call, and I have confidence in their ability to handle whatever comes their way. They have so far.”

Business Banker Randy Domeyer works with Sugar Loaf Ford. They have a good working relationship and have fun with each other. “Randy has helped me with many banking transactions; he takes care of business and is very professional,” says Puetz. Randy has been with Merchants Bank since 2008. You can reach him by phone at (507) 457-9310 or rjdomeyer@merchantsbank.com.

Good for the Community…

When Pete Woodworth’s grandfather’s plane landed in Winona on a Sunday in 1943 at the then municipal airport, Walker Woodworth was met by three people, including Winona’s mayor, and the President of Merchants National Bank, J.R. Chappel.

By the time Woodworth left Winona the next day, Winona had a new business, the Winona Knitting Mills, and Merchants Bank had started a long-term relationship with the Woodworth family.

The relationship has grown. Walker’s son and Pete’s father, Les, was on the Merchants Bank Board of Directors for more than 20 years, and Pete has been a member of the Merchants Bank Board of Directors and the Merchants Financial Group Board of Directors since 1988.

By the Fall of 1943, the Winona Knitting Mills was up and running, and it ran for 57 years in the same location at 902 E. 2nd Street, expanding along the way. The building went from three stories and 8,000 square feet to more than six buildings and 175,000 square feet. By 1995 the company had grown to be the third largest men’s sweater manufacturer in the United States.

By late 1995, the Winona Knitting Mills merged with Hampshire Group Limited, the largest woman’s sweater manufacturer in the USA, and by 2002, Pete and his wife Joyce, had sold their interests, but there still was the issue of what to do with the property. Pete and Joyce converted the property into a professional business campus.

“We took the chance and developed it into a community resource,” Pete said.

The campus, which includes the main building that Walker first purchased, a warehouse, and four satellite buildings on eight acres, now has more than 40 tenants. The tenants are varied. The terms given the businesses are as varied as the types of businesses themselves, including graduated rates over time and phased in rental payments.

“We’re trying to make it easier for them to get up and running so the businesses are viable for the long-term,” Pete said. “It’s pragmatic. It’s good for them. It’s good for our family. It’s good for the community, and it’s good for Merchants Bank because many of these businesses are borrowing from the bank, and we’re borrowing from the bank.”

In 2004, Pete and Joyce gave WKM Properties to their children Nathan, Jacob and Lindsay. In 2009 Nathan took over running the business, which also includes a 7000 square foot building in downtown Winona, a 10,000 square foot building in Goodview and a 40,000 square foot building in Rochester.

“I’ve always liked tweaking and strengthening things, and this has been very satisfying,” Pete said. “We thought of it as planting something that would grow, something we could pass on to benefit Merchants Bank, the community and our family.”

WoodworthsForEN

Brian’s Toys Continues to Build

Passion for Toys Leads to Success

BusSpotlightBriansToysENBrian Semling has been all about starting early and following his bliss.

Brian has been a life-long Merchants Bank customer. “I was just four or five days old when my parents opened my first Merchants Bank account,” Semling said. Semling has been with Merchants since then.

As a child, Brian played with “Star Wars” toys. In 1987, that memorabilia was sold at a garage sale. By 1992, Brian started collecting again, and by 1994, Brian opened his own business, “Brian’s Toys,” at the tender age of 16.

The business has grown from selling vintage “Star Wars” toys and collectibles, although it still does that, to selling contemporary “Star Wars” toys, “Transformers,” “Masters of the Universe,” “GI Joe,” “LEGO” construction sets, “Indiana Jones,” “Star Trek” and much, much more. They claim to offer the “world’s largest collection of Star Wars toys and Star Wars collectibles.”

The business has grown from its start in the basement and garage of his parents’ home in Fountain City, Wis., to a more than 8,000 square foot warehouse. The staff has grown to about 20 people, including family members. All sales are done online.

Merchants Bank has helped Brian’s Toys in a number of ways. In addition to providing business loans and lines of credit, Merchants has provided Merchant Processing for credit cards and Deposit on Demand where checks can be remotely scanned and deposited. Recently, Brian added ACH Block and Filters, which can block certain debits and credits from posting to an account, and can allow certain debits and credits from posting to an account while excluding others. Brian also added Positive Pay, which helps to make sure no fraudulent checks are issued on the business account.

“I feel there’s a real understanding of our history,” Semling said of the relationship with Merchants. “We’ve been very happy. If we need to discuss things, we definitely feel that there are real people that we can connect with and be treated fairly.”

Tammy Johnson, a Cash Management expert at Merchants, said that Brian is good to work with because he has an idea of what works best for him and is open to hearing about new products. The ACH Blocks and Filters and Positive Pay are relatively new products, Johnson said.

“He has a wonderful, thriving business,” Johnson said.

Semling said that he also likes the size and feel of a community bank like Merchants.

“There’s value in being able to meet with people face-to-face,” Semling said.

If you have some old “Star Wars” or other discontinued toys from the 1990’s or 2000’s, Brian’s Toys may be interested. “It could be an entire collection, or it may be just a toy or two,” Semling said. More information can be found at the website or email with any toys for sale to buying@brianstoys.com.

For Semling, he still has a number of favorite toys, and it is hard for him to choose just one favorite. He did say one of the most collectible was an Anakin Skywalker from the “Power of the Force” series in its original packaging from 1984.

“I’ll say that Darth Vader is my favorite character, and that the first Darth Vader from 1978 in its original packaging is a favorite toy as well,” Semling said.