Tag Archives: business financing

Technology is a Finance Issue – Ask Any Small Business Client

By Charles H. Green

Technology advancements over the past 20 years have had a significant impact on busines and industry, which has led to major changes in output, costs, productivity, employment, marketing and connectivity among other business metrics. Small companies have often been on the leading edge of these changes because they are more nimble and will often realize faster improvements (and profits) by adapting sooner.

The National Small Business Association (NSBA) recently conducted their second survey of technology adoption and dependency among their members and posted some interesting results. Among their key findings was a marked increase in usage of laptops also, from 67 percent in 2010 to 84 percent in 2013.

An interesting tangential finding was the drop in the number of small-business owners who pay an outside firm to handle their information technology (IT), which they asserted was likely driven by two factors: the economic challenges small businesses have faced in the past few years; and improved IT platforms and the growing reliance on–and therefore need to understand—these technology tools and platforms.

Other results from the small companies surveyed:

41% use tablet devices (which were not available during the 2010 survey);

60% allow some employees to telecommute (an increase of over one-third);

50% don’t have broadband or fast-speed internet because it’s still not available;

27% still don’t use social media to promote themselves.

Why is technology a ‘finance issue’ that should concern business lenders? Because it represents a harbinger of the future horizon for the success of that business.

1. Adaptation of new technology signals better productivity is ahead at a cheaper price;

2. Smaller firms can compete more effectively when visable through the web and recognized in social media. Without breaking into these frontiers, that business will be lost to anyone trying to find it.

3. Mobility will be the most heavily-travelled portal through which future consumers conduct business.

Read more at NSBA.

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Gallup Finds American Economic Confidence Improving

By. Charles H. Green

Gallup’s weekly survey of Americans’ confidence in the U.S. economy improved slightly over the past two weeks. Their U.S. Economic Confidence Index was -15 last week, similar to the -16 from the previous week, but up from -18 in the week ending Sept. 1. However, Americans continue to be less positive about the economy than they were in May and June.

Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index is based on Americans’ ratings of current economic conditions in the U.S. and their assessments of whether the economy is getting better or worse. The three-point increase in the overall index over the past two weeks is solely due to Americans’ rosier economic outlook.

Last week, 42% of Americans said the economy is getting better and 53% said it is getting worse, for a net economic outlook score of -11, six points higher than the -17 in the week ending Sept. 1.

Seventeen percent of Americans rate current economic conditions as “excellent” or “good,” while 35% rate them as “poor.” That results in a -18 net current conditions score, identical to what Gallup found for the week ending Sept. 1.

Economic confidence among consumers and businesses bode a directly relationship to short terms and long term economic activities such as household spending, large purchases and even marriage among consumers, and capital acquisitions, borrowing and investment among businesses.

Read More at Gallup Economy

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Skipping Over Financial Start-Up Maze in College

By Lyle Johnson

College is a time for education, inspiration and maybe a bit of partying. It’s also one of the prime times of your life to consider starting a business, as many students don’t have a great deal of financial responsibilities, either from parents footing the bill, or taking out loans. Sure, you’ll have to pay those loans back after you’re out of school.

At the same time, you don’t have the pressure and burden of finding a part-time job that can work around school hours to pay your bills. You’ll simply have time to create a business that might make you independently wealthy while you’re still studying. According to Small Biz Trends, the average amount of business financing given to new upstarts was $325,000. Avoid these financial pitfalls to set you on the right path to hitting it big, and make the best use of your financing.

Why Make a College Startup

Outside of the lessened responsibilities that typically come with being a college student, the real world experience you gain by starting a business is invaluable. If you’re worried about getting stuck in the need-experience-to-get-a-job, need-a-job-to-get-experience trap after graduating, running your own business can fill that gap. Even if you don’t make the next big company, you can at least get some supplemental income to start paying your student loans back early, or eat something other than ramen.

Financing Your Business With Personal Assets

While you might not have many personal assets as a college student, you will probably have to leverage your savings and any property to finance a new startup. It takes time to secure small business financing, especially as a student with few assets. Crowdsourced financing may help tap into your network to back a great idea. Small Business Administration loans and sites such as annuity.org may provide financing options that leverage other resources that may be available to you, which are some of the easier routes, as opposed to seeking out individual investors.

Create a Budget

You have to spend a lot of cash to get your business off the ground, especially if you’re dealing with physical inventory and locations. Create a strict business budget, and don’t be tempted to spend money on non-business expenses. Once you’re making a profit, you can indulge a bit, but not before you reach that point.

Pay Yourself

Once you have reached that magical point of getting out of the red with your business, the SBA recommends you pay yourself some sort of salary. That makes your business feel like a real, proper job, and it also gives you money separate from your business, so you don’t feel bad about spending it. It might take some time, even years, to get your business profitable, but every step of the way is valuable experience.

About the author: Lyle Johnson runs a small roofing business and studies marketing at his local community college. He writes about small business, marketing and how to leverage social media.

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Got the Next Great Small Business Idea? Launch a Startup

by Sara Miller

Many of us have that sure-fire business idea mulling in the back of our minds. That doesn’t make us entrepreneurs, however. Entrepreneurship demands action—one step after another, until your business is launched and thriving. Whether you’re just setting out on the journey toward entrepreneurship or well down the path, take the next step to make your dream a reality.

Stage 1 – You Have an Idea

Every good business starts with an idea. Maybe you want to launch a vegetarian taco truck or start a virtual personal assistant firm. Your next step is to develop a business plan that outlines your first three to five years of business. SBA.gov suggests the following outline for business plans:

• Executive summary – A quick snapshot of your business
• Company description – Who you are, who you serve and what you do
• Market analysis – Who your competitors are and what separates you from them
• Organization and management – What organizational structure best suits you
• Service or product – What you sell and what your product lifestyle is
• Marketing and sales – How will you market your business
• Funding request – Who will fund your business and how will you ask for money
• Projected finances – What do you hope to make per year
• Appendix – Additional information relevant to your business, such as licenses and permits

Stage 2 – You’ve Completed Your Business Plan, Now What?

Your next step is to work toward the achievable goals outlined in your business plan. Many young businesses need capital to invest in equipment and infrastructure. A business credit card can help you make these initial purchases at a time when your cash flow may be limited. According to the Better Business Bureau, a new business credit card can actually help you establish good credit and may even have a reward or loyalty component.

Stage 3 – You’re Hiring Your First Employee

That credit card and business plan helped fuel initial growth, and now you need to hire an employee to work toward launch. As DailyMuse.com notes, having an employee dedicated to reaching your goal can help you get there that much faster. The site suggests hiring as soon as you can afford to do so and investing in the potential of a passionate employee rather than choosing someone with demonstrated experience who may not be passionate about your business. If you have multiple stakeholders, have everyone on the team interview that person to ensure a strong cultural fit before hiring.

Stage 4 – You’re Ready to Launch

All your initial goals have been accomplished, and you’re ready to launch your business. Your next step is getting the word out about your products and services.

As a small business, you probably don’t have a marketing maven on hand. Take advantage of social media to connect with other local businesses in your field of expertise, find potential clients or customers and expand brand awareness. Marketing Land suggests that you pick a metric you’re interested in measuring—for example, customer service or brand awareness—and find ways to measure your marketing and social media outreach to see if you’re increasing your target metric. Track how quickly you gain Twitter followers or Facebook fans to see what tactics help expand your reach.

Stage 5 – Steps Toward Stability

After the initial buzz of a grand opening dies down, your business’ success will depend on regular patronage and stability. If you can’t imagine your business failing, taste this grain of salt: half of small business will fail within the first year, according to Smallbiztrends.com, and a staggering 95 percent will close shop within five years.
Ups and downs are inevitable. The businesses that survive struggles usual have a stable base of clients, customers and partners who help keep the lights on. As you embark on small business ownership, build relationships that result in continual business.

A tip: The little things make a difference. Remember your customers’ names, ask about their families and do the other things larger competitors can’t.

Sara Miller
From first grade through graduate school, “B” was never in Sara’s vocabulary. In addition to being a perfectionist, she has always been fascinated by the anatomy of successful start ups.

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When It’s Time to Go Plastic

A clean, accessible accounting system that accounts for every transaction is a requirement for every small business, especially when the company begins to realize increased daily sales.

Trying to keep track of every transaction manually with a paper system can be a nightmare, often leading to missed items and a backlog in processing the postings. Since you also need to know current cash flow and prepare for critical tax reporting and payments, how do you handle all of this efficiently and comprehensively? One way to simplify and make things easier could be going plastic as soon as your doors open.

With electronic payment so widespread, accepting “plastic” payment allows a company to process both credit and debit cards on most of the major networks. Doing so creates easy-to-manage records and paperwork for accounting purposes. Accepting credit/debit card payment also allows a business to be paid immediately rather than waiting for a large personal check to clear.

For small businesses, cash flow is critical. Receiving sales funds as quickly as possible helps a business owner manage his or her company finances on a more predictable basis, paying off vendors in a timely manner. With credit card payments, bounced checks and cash flow hiccups are eliminated. The business knows exactly when and what payment has arrived and can use those funds immediately.

Going plastic also allows a small business to integrate better with e-commerce. Most customers buying goods or services online use a credit card. Small businesses that accept such payments access wider markets, regardless of distance or even country, because the credit card processing companies manage the risk and movement of payments electronically. The customer enjoys risk-free purchasing and the small business enjoys a wider portfolio of customers not possible with cash or check payments.

For tax reporting purposes, most card processing services provide easy-to-download activity records that break out incoming and outgoing funds, the payer and payee, amounts, dates, and what the transaction covered. These activity logs are actual transaction records that are very useful as supporting documentation for tax reporting. So instead of chasing various receipts all over the place, a small business has all it needs on one clean report that can’t be easily disputed in an audit. This reporting format works well for both reporting sales tax as well as business income taxes. Further, the reporting is easily imported into major financial off-the-shelf software programs, producing even easier financial management benefits.

Finally, customers tend to spend more via a credit/debit card payment versus cash. Because the money isn’t due right away, customers find it easier to purchase higher cost items. That in turn means larger sales per transaction for small businesses, which is a good thing when every revenue dollar counts. Up-selling becomes easier too because customers are not concerned about cash in hand.

Using credit cards for your business is a valuable transaction tool and produces greater revenue as well as easier on-the-go financing and important tax records. Smart businesses take advantage of all opportunities, including available payment tools. Go plastic today!

About the author

Kristen Gramigna is Chief Marketing Officer for BluePay, a merchant services provider and also serves on its Board of Directors. She has more than 15 years experience in the bankcard industry in direct sales, sales management and marketing.

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Cost-Saving Tips for Small Business Travel

According to a survey conducted by American Airlines in 2011, nearly half of the small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) that responded indicated that 10 to 24 percent of their annual budget is allocated for travel expenses — and nearly all indicated that they are actively controlling airline costs. If your small business falls into those categories, we have some cost-saving travel tips for you (courtesy of the U.S. Small Business Administration)!

Use technology wisely to save on airfare. This includes online tools like Skype, Webex and Face Time that can connect you with partners, customers and satellite offices at little to no cost. Consider equipping your field reps or employees working remotely with tablets, smartphones or laptops to make it easy to interact with them. As an added plus, you can use a camera-equipped device to inspect property, equipment or products at a supplier’s or customer’s location. For more on how tech tools can make virtual meetings a part of your business, read this.

Reap the benefits of the sharing economy. If you’re looking to save $$$ on expenses like car rentals and hotel rooms — and don’t mind trying some non-traditional options — check out group sharing websites like ZipCar and ZimRide for the former and Airbnb and CouchSharing for the latter.

Use loyalty programs and business credit cards to save money. According to the same American Airlines survey cited earlier, SMBs say that enrolling their company in a B2B loyalty program is one of the top three methods of maximizing the value of their travel. If business travel often takes you to the same locations and hotels, consider establishing a corporate account that offers discounted rates with a hotel chain. Additionally, the SBA offers some tips for finding the right business credit cards that offer rewards and points programs here.

Shop bargain travel sites (with care). It’s possible to find deals on travel discount sites, especially if you’re combining a hotel, car and air ticket. Shop around, then cross check prices against the hotel or airline’s website or by phone to ensure that you’re getting the best deal available. Providers may match any online specials offered by discount sites, and their cancellation policies may be friendlier.

Manage your costs on the road. There’s an app for that! One to try is Wi-Fi Finder, a free app that lets you search over 500,000 Wi-Fi hot spots (free or paid) around the world to save you hotel Wi-Fi charges and keep you connected. For tracking and organizing your travel budget, the Travel Pocket app (available for a small fee) gives you parameters for time, location and category and lets you convert your reports into a spreadsheet.

Be smart about business expense tax deductions. You probably already know that you can deduct the cost of mileage, airfares and lodging on your tax return, but did you know you can also deduct 50 percent of meal costs, tips, and even dry cleaning or laundry you need doing on the road? The SBA offers more information on deducting your small business travel expenses on its http://www.sba.gov/community/blogs/community-blogs/small-business-cents/going-road-how-deduct-your-small-business-trave.

Bon voyage and happy savings!

About the Author:
Beth Longware Duff is a professional editor and award-winning writer whose work on a wide variety of topics has been published in print and electronic media. She currently writes on a wide range of topics dealing with electronic payment processing and small business merchant services for Merchant Express.

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Is Your Small Business Prepared Should You Die?

Planning for the future is just good business. You sign a long-term office lease, you borrow to buy a car or truck, and you ask your vendors to take payment next month for products delivered today. You honestly expect to make good on these obligations. Likewise, your spouse, family, business partners, bankers, employees, customers, and shareholders are all counting on you to honor all kinds of future obligations.

But what happens if a business owner runs out of future? When a business owner dies, the company can collapse into a giant mess, leaving loved ones struggling to hold up a house of cards.

If you’re thinking, “No problem, I’m insured,” think again. Life insurance is great, but the problem is not just the money. The real problem is one of control and transition. If you die, and your spouse (or other heirs) inherits your ownership, can they run the company? Do they even want to? Do your partners, employees, and customers want to work with them? Like it or not, your death would force together people who may be complete strangers with no particular interest or skill to make things better for each other.

After your (always untimely) death, your family and your business would both be better off if there is a way for them to each continue, separately. To make sure this happens, you need more than just a life insurance policy. You need a clear written agreement between all stakeholders: partners, key employees, stockholders, and, yes, your spouse or heir.

Every stakeholder should understand and sign what is called a buy-sell agreement. With that in place, the business continuity is more certain. Yes, your spouse still inherits your stock or ownership. But the buy-sell policy ensures that the remaining partners or owners use the proceeds from your life insurance policy to buy that ownership from your spouse.

Your family gets cash while your partners or employees get the company. It can be just that simple.

Now let’s look at life insurance again. A good buy-sell agreement relies on two separate life policies, both of which pay the company a substantial amount upon your death:

  • A “key man” policy pays the company enough to get through your sudden departure and hire a qualified replacement. Consider this to be at least equal to one year’s salary. If your company has substantial debt, raise the death benefit to cover it.
  • A “buy-sell” policy that pays the company enough to purchase your ownership back from your heirs should at least match the actual value of your business.

The key man policy keeps your business running. The buy-sell policy can get your family the money they need to be set for life, or at least get paid for all your hard work to date.

To get a proper buy-sell agreement (and insurance policies) in place, follow these four steps:

  1. First, speak with your accountant. Calculate how much the company would need to keep going (or, in the worst case, to wind down smoothly and pay all debts).
  2. Next, speak with your banker. If you have personally guaranteed any loans, or if your other corporate debt relies on your personal participation in the business, discuss how the business would pay this back upon your death. It is likely that these terms are already part and parcel of your loan documents; take a close look.
  3. Now look inside the company. Who would want to own and operate the company when you are gone? Is it a current stockholder or a key employee? Get those people involved in the discussion.
  4. When you have a workable plan, speak with an attorney to draw up the agreement. At this stage it’s important to have an insurance agent and all your key stakeholders involved. A buy-sell agreement should be signed by everyone involved, including your spouse and the spouse of any other key player, in some cases. Follow the attorney’s advice carefully; you won’t be able to renegotiate this when you are gone.
  5. Finally, once everyone who will survive you agrees on what happens next, make several copies of the document and keep them safe.

Remember: It’s your duty to make sure that your current business obligations don’t hamper those you leave behind. To protect your family and friends, don’t put off these important preparations.


David Worrell is founder and chief executive at AmeriStart, and he also writes a blog here on AllBusiness.com about small business money issues.

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Who Knew? You Can Buy Laptops at Midnight in Fergus Falls

One good thing about being an entrepreneur today is modern technology. It is portable, comparatively cheap, and enables many business owners to stay connected. For owners of virtual businesses (like mine) technology allows us to do our jobs from anywhere, at any time.

One bad thing about being an entrepreneur today is †¦ modern technology! Since we’re always plugged in, letting go is nearly impossible. Being tethered to your businesses 24/7 is both a blessing and a curse. Sure, I can take off at a moment’s notice and work from a plane, a car, or in any number of hotels — even the bargain chains offer free wireless these days. But there’s a downside to all that freedom. When you’re wired to the max, there’s a good chance you won’t get much RR. And then there’s the potential nightmare: When you’re that dependent on technology, what happens when it breaks?

I’m not speaking theoretically. This is a true story of taking my business on the road. And you’ll be surprised (at least, I think you will) as to what “saved” me.

My company is virtual and completely dependent upon said modern technology. I own a desktop, two laptops, one tablet, and three cell phones (don’t ask), which you think would be sufficient. Right before leaving for Minnesota (to visit my significant other’s family) the “B” key popped off my HP laptop, which is a major issue when you type the word “business” a gazillion times a day.

I wasn’t that concerned. My HP had been acting sluggish, and I had a new Dell Vostro I was waiting to switch to when I had the time. Trying to be efficient I transferred my Carbonite account (my backup system) to the Vostro. I hadn’t planned on it taking more than 36 hours to transfer my data, perhaps explaining the HP’s sluggish behavior. I had to pause and restart the “restore” process several times before heading west to Fergus Falls, Minnesota, Skip the significant other’s hometown.

Fergie (as it’s affectionately called) has slightly more than 13,000 residents, which is approximately the population of my California neighborhood. The hotel we checked in to had a slow Internet connection, though I was told it was “lightning fast.” This is when the troubles started. I couldn’t find the Carbonite restore link, and must have accidentally clicked install updates. That process was so painfully slow, and I needed to work, so I stopped the installation. BIG mistake. My computer would not restart. I Googled the error message (using my tablet) and quickly discovered to my horror that I had done something that was beyond my meager capabilities and the computer’s own attempts to fix.

So I did what many of you would have done (but maybe not admit to) — I had a mini breakdown. I had assignments due the next day, and lots more to write this week. It would be impossible to write articles on my Xoom or Droid 2. There wasn’t a Staples or Geek Squad within miles to provide solutions. It was 10 p.m. I told my partners they’d have to write some of my blogs. And then I sobbed copiously.

That might seem like an overreaction, but I need a computer to earn a living. The voice of reason came from Skip who said, “Just go buy a new computer.” Sure, I thought, that’ll be easy at 10 p.m. in the middle of nowhere. But it turns out being in a tiny town has its advantages. The Walmart is open 24 hours. So I did what any resourceful (or desperate) entrepreneur would do — I went to Walmart to buy a new laptop.

Since I’m not a Walmart shopper, I was surprised at the array of laptops available. I started to panic again since I’d had no time to do research, but a helpful Walmart employee named Jodi came to my rescue. She narrowed it down to two choices: a Dell and an HP Pavilion. While I was trying to choose, the decision was made for me when Jodi discovered they were out of the Dell model. So I bought a 15.6 inch laptop for less than $500. At 11 p.m. in the middle of nowhere. At Walmart. White knights come in strange forms.

Sometimes the solutions we need are right in front of us, but we’re too short-sighted to see them. I’m a big city girl. It never would have occurred to me to go to Walmart, especially at that time of night, but the small town guy knew better. As much as we like to think we live in a new universe, operating at warp speed through the ether, we’re still tied to the “ancient” brick-and-mortar world. My 21st century tech needs were solved by a store founded nearly 50 years ago.

Do you have a business technology horror story to share? Or better yet, one with a happy ending? I’d love to hear about it in the comment section below.

Follow Rieva on Twitter @Rieva and read more of her insights on SmallBizDaily.com.

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Big storm is big business for small companies

Hurricane Irene could be big business for small firms

AdvantaClean crews get ready for the arrival of Hurricane Irene. If the storm hits hard, the business could see a couple million dollars worth of business.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — While some business owners are fretting over the damage Hurricane Irene could cause, others are gearing up for business opportunities.

Depending on the severity of the storm, AdvantaClean, a North Carolina disaster cleanup company, could see a couple million dollars worth of business in the storm’s aftermath.

hurricane-cake2.jpgA gourmet bakery in Massachusetts is giving away free Hurri-cakes, in hopes of attracting more customers.

“Certainly, our industry does see an increase in demand during these times,” said Jeff Dudan, CEO and founder of AdvantaClean, headquartered in Huntersville, N.C. “Typically our volume will go up both at home, and we can get some incremental volume and revenues in those areas if we are called in to respond.”

In addition to being AdvantaClean’s founder, Dudan owns one of the franchises and has 13 full-time employees and 26 contractors. The company provides cleanup services including air duct cleaning, mold removal, and emergency services from water or fire damages, which means responding to disasters.

10 great franchise bets

The 17-year-old company’s bottom line got a big boost after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Dudan’s team responded in Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., and in the French Quarter of New Orleans. In the immediate emergency response period, Dudan said his company did a couple million dollars worth of work after the storm. And AdvantaClean made more money working large projects in the region for another four years.

The company has been preparing for Hurricane Irene. “We have checked all of our vehicles and made sure that they are fueled,” said Dudan. “We ended up pulling the trigger on several sets of new tires.” In addition, the team has reviewed its emergency response plan.

Still, they are not rushing in. “Personally, we just don’t go running off immediately if it looks like a hurricane may or may not hit,” said Dudan. “It is really difficult to predict whether there will be any real damage.”

Let them eat cake: Whether Irene lands with a whomp or a whimper, at least one company is prepared to make a buck.

Cakes for Occasions, a gourmet bakery in Danvers, Mass., is running a competition on its Facebook page, asking fans to predict what category the National Weather Department will call the storm on Monday. One person who guesses correctly will be randomly selected and get a coupon for 20 percent off.

Also Cakes for Occasions is giving away free “Hurri-cakes”: two-inch chocolate mousse cakes, glazed with chocolate and decorated with the national hurricane symbol and the name of the storm, Irene.

The idea behind the promotion is that customers can’t come into a bakery without being tempted by the smells, said owner Kelly Delaney. In addition to its single storefront, the bakery has a website, Cakes4Occasions.com.

“It always generates some additional sales,” said Delaney, who has run freebie promotions on Facebook before. “You will have a handful of people that will come in for just one, but that is just life.” Delaney has made 210 Hurri-cakes and estimates she will give away 40. Then she hopes to sell the rest, which retail for $1.95 each.

A banner year: It has already been a good year financially for Howard Altschule, who owns Forensic Weather Consultants, a company that provides weather damage reports. Altschule saw more business after last year’s blizzards. And if Irene lives up to expectations, 2011 could turn out to be a banner year for his company.

“I have already seen a 50% increase in revenues this year, without the hurricane,” said Altschule. “It could end up being a 100% revenue jump this year. It all depends on what exactly happens and to what extent.”

Altschule, a certified meteorologist who analyzes weather conditions, provides expertise to insurance companies, law firms, engineers and other companies.

Altschule said he would not be surprised to see a billion dollars worth of damage from Hurricane Irene, between the damage and the loss of revenue. He expects to be “immensely busy.”

Hiring: Yes. No. Maybe so.

Surf’s up: There won’t be throngs of beachgoers this weekend, but some diehard surfers are expected to catch the waves.

“This is something that surfers wait for, the waves that hurricanes bring,” said Johannah Sena, the manager of the family-operated Rockaway Beach Surf Shop in New York. “You have to have a board that is a more high-performing board.”

Still, most expert surfers — the ones most likely to try surfing during a hurricane — already have the gear necessary to ride those enormous waves.

So she doesn’t expect to be selling out of boards.

But, “we will be selling a lot of wax, that is for sure,” said Sena, explaining that surfers use wax to add traction to their boards. Otherwise, the storm won’t be good business for the Rockaway Beach Surf Shop. “Nobody is going to the beach to buy a bathing suit, towels, that kind of stuff,” she said.  To top of page

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A Guide to Finding the Perfect Small’Business Smartphone

New smartphones hit the market every day, and it seems like most of them are packed with hot new features. So if you’re shopping for the very latest in cutting-edge smartphone technology, you probably won’t have to worry about getting all the features you need. They’ll be there, along with plenty of surprising new features.

Many of us, however, are buying on a budget. Maybe you want a budget-priced, unlocked smartphone that doesn’t tie you to a long-term carrier contract. Or maybe you’re OK with a contract, but you’d rather go with a carrier-subsidized smartphone that costs you little or nothing upfront.

If that’s the case, then you’ll need to pay attention to which key features you want in a smartphone and, perhaps, make some trade-offs when you review your available options.

With that in mind, here are some features that you’ll find on many — but not all — of the smartphones available today. This list will change over time, because today’s cutting-edge tech will be tomorrow’s basic feature, but for now it’s a great way to help you get the most smartphone functionality for your money.

A big display. The size of a display isn’t always related to cost; the iPhone 4, with a relatively modest 3.5-inch display, is nobody’s idea of a bargain. But many of today’s hottest new phones now sport 4-inch or bigger displays. Just keep in mind that a bigger display often means carrying around a bigger phone.

Also remember that a bigger display isn’t the same thing as a higher-resolution display. The new Motorola Droid 3, with its 4-inch display, has a 960-by-540 resolution, while the iPhone 4 has a slightly higher 960-by-640 resolution.

Of course, the “best” display is always the one that looks best to you. Just think of these numbers as a starting point for narrowing down your choices before you go shopping.

A fast and responsive touch screen. Touch screen technology has improved dramatically over the past couple of years, but it can still be inconsistent. When you try out a phone, work with the desktop; slide, zoom, open, and close items, and note whether the display picks up on your gestures. It’s even more important to try out the touch screen keypad to ensure that it’s as quick and responsive as you expect it to be.

The operating system.  I won’t wade into the religious wars raging between Apple (iOS) and Google (Android) partisans. But I’d be remiss not to point out that there are more than enough differences between the two leading mobile OSes to make it worth your time to learn about both before you make a decision. It’s more debatable whether you should spend time learning about niche players such as the BlackBerry or Windows Mobile, although fans of those platforms will probably take issue with this opinion.

A physical keyboard. It’s getting harder to find a smartphone these days with a physical keyboard, but they’re still out there. If you absolutely can’t stand using a touch screen keyboard, be prepared to focus your smartphone search on models aimed more at hardcore business users, especially those running on the BlackBerry platform.

The app selection. Honestly, it’s hard to go wrong with the app selection for either the iPhone (iOS) or Android platforms. You won’t just find an app for every occasion — you’ll find dozens of them. If anything, it’s almost a surplus, and you’ll have to do your homework to pick the perfect app from so many choices.

Here, too, you’ll find a much smaller supply of apps for platforms such as Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, and especially HP’s now-defunct WebOS. (If you’re considering a WebOS phone, by the way, I suggest you look elsewhere. HP recently announced that it is giving up on its mobile-device offerings.)

Front-facing camera. Want a smartphone that lets you do on-the-go videoconferencing? Be sure to pick a model with a high-quality, front-facing camera. Fans of the iPhone swear by Apple’s FaceTime app for videoconferencing support, although it won’t let you conduct more than a two-way conversation. (For that, you’ll want to consider a third-party app such as Skype.)

Also keep in mind that the quality of smartphone cameras continues to advance rapidly; some now take both video and still footage that rivals what you can get from a dedicated digital camera. If photo and video quality is important — and it is for many business users — then look for a phone that includes at least an 8-megapixel camera and 1080p video capture.

Battery life. Here’s the first thing you need to know about smartphone battery life: It pays to take manufacturer claims with a big grain of salt. Obviously, you can’t sit around with a stopwatch and test the battery life on every phone you consider. Instead, look for quality third-party reviews, and pay particular attention to their battery-life tests.

Expandable storage. Many smartphones now include slots for microSD add-on memory cards. These are a great way to move files quickly between devices without connecting a cable. Better yet, they allow you to back up important data and save it in a safe place.

Standard, nonproprietary chargers and data connectors. Some smartphone manufacturers still insist upon selling phones that use proprietary connectors to charge the battery and transfer data. It’s ridiculous, and it needs to stop — there’s no reason why every phone made today shouldn’t use a standard USB-based cable for charging and file transfers.

A final word of advice: It’s easy to find plenty of professional and user reviews for even the latest smartphone models. Don’t make a snap decision based on just one or two reviews. Instead, look at a cross-section of reviews, preferably from more than one major review website or online retailer. In return, you’ll get some great insights into what people like and dislike about a particular phone.

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