Despite all the exciting online companies out there, we’ve got a problem with online business: currently, it’s hard for companies to be confident they know who their online customers are.
When you sign up for a credit agreement in a shop, you can show a proof of identity like your passport. This is called the primary identity check. But online, that’s impossible. The best most online businesses can do is to consult another database, like the electoral roll or a credit reference agency.
Although great for validating information about you, these do not prove you are who you say you are in the same way that photo ID does.
For online businesses to perform to their full potential, we need better primary identity checks online. My company, miiCard, is finding ways to do this. And I believe better ID checks can benefit smaller online businesses in several ways:
By building trust through better online identity management, businesses can benefit from increased conversion rates, reduced costs, higher-value sales, and additional fraud protection. Only then will the full potential and convenience of online trade be fully realised.
James Varga is CEO of miiCard.
Surrounded by the brightest and best of the UK’s entrepreneurs, business minister Mark Prisk MP launched rather a useful tool for the UK’s small businesses at BIS HQ this week – a definitive calendar of events to help small business throughout Britain for every month in 2012.
Targeted at pre start ups as well as established and new businesses, the calendar marks the first time all Britain’s best business events feature on the same site in a searchable format. There are 600-plus events listed already – and Mark Prisk is aiming to get 1,000 online in the near future. He said:
“We want 2012 to be the year of enterprise, where entrepreneurs can unlock their business potential. Enterprise events don’t just take place on one day, or during one week, but they appear throughout the year and across the country.
“We need to make sure people know that there is support and advice available, that it is easy to get, and it is often on their doorstep.”
With shows, talks, workshops, schemes and local networking events listed, the calendar does just that. And the country’s diverse business support organisations – ranging from teachers who inspire primary school children to mentors of hi-tech start ups - are showcasing their event offers on the site too. Rajeeb Dey, one of the founders of the Government’s StartUp Britain campaign, said:
“The Enterprise Calendar is about helping businesses go for it. It will shine a spotlight on the broad range of plentiful resources that exist for people wanting to start or grow a business in 2012.”
The most up-to-date version of the calendar is online to search or download – and even upload your own event. Many events are free, so the calendar could well become an invaluable tool for you – and at the very least should benefit you with a couple of days of advice, inspiration and a range of handy new contacts.
iPads might not quite breed like rabbits, but it’s close
A couple of weeks ago I received a stream of emails from a client. They wanted to know about iPads. The questions grew increasingly detailed but the thrust of the query was whether an iPad could both replace their laptop at home and link back to their main computer at work.
We’d previously set up a remote access service for the client. This allows them to access the desktop on their main PC from other computers, so they can run their usual software and access all their files. And yes, this makes it possible for them to bring up their desktop on an iPad too.
They were pretty much sold on the idea of getting an iPad (it is, after all, one of those gadgets that people ‘just have to have’ once they’ve seen it for real) and just wanted to make sure they picked the right model.
But it reminded me of the increasingly common phenomenon of iPad breeding. If you haven’t experienced it yourself, it’s an easy concept to understand. It starts simply, when a member of staff brings an iPad into your office one day.
Like a mother with a new born baby, a small crowd of people gathers to coo and pet the new shiny-faced device, while steadfastly trying to hide their envy.
Next thing you know, that original iPad has a brother. A co-worker buys one, having been seduced by the seemingly endless opportunities offered by its glossy screen.
After that, the trend has started. You see the number of iPads in your office grow and grow.
There’s nothing wrong with that – iPads are a dream to use and can do lots of things. But they can't do everything.
Let’s go back to that person who was asking me about iPads. In their case, there was an issue: although they could use the iPad to access their main computer, they found that without a proper keyboard, it didn’t work well.
Additionally, they spend a lot of time working on complex spreadsheets – and with half the iPad’s screen taken up by its ‘virtual keyboard’, there wasn’t enough space left for them to view the spreadsheets properly.
The aim of this post isn’t to criticise the iPad. I have one and I love it. However, before you spend over £500 on one, think about what you actually want to use it for – and work out whether it can meet those needs.
If you’re not sure, it’s certainly worth seeking advice from an independent IT supplier who can understand your needs and help you decide whether an iPad is best, or if you should be looking elsewhere.
In this case I was able to demonstrate the experience on an iPad. The client saw clearly that it would not work for them. They plumped for a replacement laptop instead, which is much better suited to their needs.
According to research, 2.8 million emails per second were sent in 2010. Given that incredible figure (I wonder who counted them all), it’s no surprise that email overload is an ever-growing problem.
You probably know the feeling. You start work in the morning by opening your email. It takes an hour – or more – to deal with all the queries in your inbox. And then you seem to spend most of the rest of the day replying to replies to the email you sent first thing. Confusing, isn’t it?
My own data indicates that almost half of us in the UK receive 50 – 70 emails a day. Some people receive 180 or even more! For all the noise about social media becoming the communications channel of choice, the numbers show that business email isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Yet most of us need less than half of the email we receive. Just think of all the pointless one-line replies, the emails you were copied in on out of politeness and, of course, the newsletters, the special offers, the junk, the spam you have no intention of reading but which still takes time and effort to sort through and delete.
Email overload takes up people’s time and causes stress. But there’s another reason businesses need to address this problem: money.
On average, we each lose an hour a day because of ineffective email use. At an hourly cost of £20, that’s about £4,200 of lost productivity for every single person a year. Does your business really need that in the current economic climate?
Many companies are waking up to this. Volkswagen has taken an extreme route, deciding that the best way to give its people some respite is to block out-of-hours email altogether. Fine, but doesn’t that just move the problem to the next morning rather than solving it completely?
You can do a lot with better planning. Cut down on the number of unnecessary emails you send and be realistic about replying. Take a stand against the culture of replying instantly to everything and instead develop a system to help you identify which emails are important, which can wait, and which should go straight in the bin.
Together, we can put an end to email overload. And the work starts right there, in the folder marked ‘inbox’. If you’re willing to give it a go, I can help: my company, Mesmo, is running Clean Out Your Inbox Week – and it starts today!
Together with fellow email expert Marsha Egan I’ll be offering hints, tips and online tools to help you get on top of your email. We’ll explain how to get rid of email noise, what to do to prioritise emails and why email etiquette matters.
It’s completely free and you might even get the chance to win a prize! To get more information and take part, head over to my blog.
The beauty of ecommerce is that it’s suited to just about anyone and achieving success is not just about how much money you throw at it.
The costs of starting an online shop are much lower than most alternatives, particularly if you are prepared to invest your own time and effort in getting things up and running. Here are ten practical tips to help you get going for less than £100:
Read more about running an online shop:
Wikipedia's blacked out page
News corporations, newspapers and social media sites have been aflutter with news of the temporary blackout across the English pages of Wikipedia. As of 5am today, if you visit Wikipedia you’ll see a black screen explaining that the site is inaccessible for 24 hours in protest of the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) bills currently being debated in the US.
The only English pages of Wikipedia that you can view are those explaining the reasons for the blackout. These argue that the enforcement of these bills ‘actually infringes free expression while harming the internet’, rather than preventing copyright infringement as intended.
This high-profile protest is a big step for a site generally considered neutral, but a move that they feel necessary if the Internet is to remain ‘free and open, everywhere, for everyone’.
However, the blackout isn’t quite as all encompassing as it seems. If you read Wikipedia’s statement of intent in full, you will discover that is still possible to access the site on ‘mobile devices and smart phones’. In a society where an ever-increasing number of people own mobile devices, this exception somewhat undermines Wikipedia’s bold stance.
If the blackout was implemented by Google, Twitter or Facebook, it would really make people sit up and listen. As it is, who will really be affected by the Wikipedia blackout? A few students trying to do a bit of last minute revision?
Perhaps I’m being a little unfair. I commend Wikipedia for taking a stance. Whilst Google and Facebook have offered their support, neither is likely to take similar action as they have too many shareholders and advertisers to keep content.
I just feel Wikipedia could have been a bit more assertive – perhaps through a worldwide blackout or one spanning a greater period of time. It remains to be seen how many other sites will follow suit and what effect the protest will have on the progress of the bills, but as blackouts go, I wonder if this has too many holes in to be truly effective.
Work attitudes and practices are evolving rapidly, fuelled by advances in technology and widespread broadband connectivity.
Indeed, perhaps it’s the availability of fast internet connections which is enabling information, ideas and knowledge to flow freely.
Our world of work is being redefined. With it, the expectations of workers and managers in businesses of all sizes are being challenged.
To understand how working habits are changing and the impact this will have on companies across the globe, Dell and Intel commissioned a piece of research: The Evolving Workforce. We wanted to learn how the way businesses work is changing.
Part of the research involved polling the workforce itself – approximately 8,000 workers in 11 countries, 1,000 of whom were based in the UK. The results contain some interesting findings for smaller businesses:
Small and medium-sized businesses are blazing a trail in terms of employee-led innovation, but results from our survey suggest the UK lags behind. More than half (53%) of employees say they don’t have the freedom to choose how to work.
By giving workers increased freedom, offering flexible working and a choice of devices, small and medium-sized businesses will increase motivation and, in turn, boost productivity and creativity to stimulate further innovation and growth.
Kevin Peesker is General manager Dell UK and Ireland small and medium business
Photo credit: Camdiluv
Cassette tapes. Floppy disks. CD-ROMs. Is your hard drive heading the same way? Not yet... But you don't have to wait for your hard drive to die to imagine it in storage heaven. Businesses are already looking to the skies to store critical data and run applications, using what's called the cloud.
cloud com·put·ing: working with files and software on the Internet, rather than on your hard drive
Not only does working in the cloud keep your files and apps backed up and on the internet, it allows you to work anywhere. You don't have to be at your desk or even be at a desk at all.
Here are 10 cloud-based apps that can help you work wherever you like:
In summary, it could do to the USB stick what the MP3 did to the MiniDisc.
Because it looks like any other folder on your computer, it can also turn regular apps into cloud apps by hosting files and settings. For example, I use typing shortcut utility TextExpander. I put its settings file in my Dropbox so that my shortcuts sync across my desktop computer at home and my laptop when I'm on the move.
Dropbox Basic is free and includes 2GB of storage; other account types are available.
Evernote is available through your web browser, Windows and Mac desktop apps and mobile apps for iPhone, Android, Windows Phone 7, BlackBerry and Web OS.
You can upload files from your desktop to get started, access documents from connected computers and smart phones and collaborate in real-time with colleagues.
Google Docs is free.
Google's solution is a good one, and it'll sync with your Android phone, of course, and with your BlackBerry, iPhone, Windows and Nokia phone using Google Sync.
HootSuite, on the other hand, runs in your browser, on your smart phone and tablet device, does everything TweetDeck does and more, and it's better looking. Oh, and The White House (@whitehouse) uses it too.
Delicious is a bookmarking service that keeps all of your important links in the cloud, so you can get to them from any computer.
Delicious is free.
And then it syncs up so the article is ready to read on its website or offline on your iPhone, iPad or Kindle - perfect for when you do have time to read, like when you're travelling.
Instapaper is free.
Salesforce starts at $2 per month and can cost up to $250 per month, depending on what you need.
There's a free version of Basecamp; other plans can cost up to $149 per month, depending what you need.
All prices shown are in US dollars - you'll pay the equivalent in pounds charged by your credit card issuer.
Mobile loyalty card app Loyalli
I have six different loyalty cards in my wallet at the moment. Cafes, restaurants, bars, shops ... they all delight in letting you collect stamps towards a free gift. But the cards are a pain to carry and it can be a struggle to find the right one when you need it.
As problems go you’re not going to lose any sleep over it. But for independent retailers looking to build repeat business, loyalty cards can be hit and miss. I’ve often wondered how many of the cards they give out ever get redeemed.
One of the strange things about technology is that while it gives businesses new channels through which to reach customers (email, social media, smart phone apps, etc), it simultaneously places a whole world of options in front of those customers. For instance, comparing prices from different retailers on the internet is a piece of cake.
So technology doesn’t always make it easy to build customer loyalty. I’d argue that in many cases it has the opposite effect, by encouraging people to shop around for everything.
Back in the physical world, independent outlets of all kinds are struggling to weather the ongoing economic storm. In this environment it’s interesting to see the launch of a new service designed to boost customer loyalty.
In true internet company fashion, it’s called Loyalli (I guess the domain name loyally.com was unavailable) and it’s a smart phone app which lets customers collect loyalty stamps without having to carry around physical cards. Loyalli is free for customers and retailers.
The idea is that when customers buy something from your restaurant, cafe or whatever, you give them a QR code to scan using their smart phone. (QR codes are like barcodes: you photograph them with your phone, then an app decodes them. Learn more about QR codes here.)
The QR code is unique to your business, so the app knows the customer has bought something from you. When a customer scans the code, the app uses the phone’s location features to check they’re actually in your shop (apparently this is just one of several anti-fraud measures) and then puts a virtual stamp on their virtual loyalty card.
When the customer has collected enough stamps, they just scan the QR code again to claim their free coffee, drink, meal or other reward. That also resets their virtual stamp card so they can carry on collecting.
With around 120 UK businesses signed up to Loyalli so far, it’s still early days for the service. And a quick search online reveals a number of competitors, like OneGratis (which doesn’t appear to have as many UK businesses signed up).
However, the limited number of companies using Loyalli may not matter. After all, if you simply want to use it to give your customers another way to collect loyalty stamps, perhaps it’s irrelevant how many other companies are using the service.
Having said that, Loyalli isn’t going to replace traditional loyalty cards any time soon. For one thing, not everyone has a smart phone. And even if all your customers do, you can bet they don’t all know how QR codes work – in a recent blog post on Marketing Donut, one expert revealed only 34% of people know what QR codes are used for.
That’s not to say that Loyalli won’t be a useful tool for your business. You just have to see it as another weapon in the fight for repeat business, rather than a miracle cure that’ll keep your customers coming back over and over again.
You can learn more about Loyalli at Loyalli.com.
Over the years, new types of computer have come and gone. Remember the ultra-mobile PC? Or the Amstrad E-m@iler? I wonder why Alan Sugar never mentions that on The Apprentice. And whatever happened to tablet computers with rotatable screens, built-in keyboards and a stylus for writing on the screen?
But every now and then, something comes along that does change things. And at the end of last year, a piece of news suggested that one new kind of computer is having a real impact – both at home and in the workplace.
Apple’s iPad reigns supreme in the UK tablet computer market. It accounts for almost three-quarters of all tablet sales. And perhaps most impressively, it turns out that Apple is selling more iPads than Dell is selling laptop computers.
Given that Dell is one of the world’s biggest computer manufacturers (the company claims it ships over 10,000 systems a day), that’s astonishing. And it strongly suggests that long-term, the iPad – plus other tablet computers, should anyone start buying them – could have a huge impact on what sort of computers we use and how we use them.
People are embracing the iPad enthusiastically, swapping full-spec laptops for the thin, light, super-easy-to-use Apple gadget. Who can blame them? No long waits while it starts up, no fiddly keys or buttons ... just a touchscreen anyone can use, plus thousands of apps.
It’s not a stretch to say that 2012 could see tablet computers establish themselves as the mobile computing tool of choice. Unless you need a full-size keyboard, it’s becoming more difficult to see what benefits are offered by traditional laptops for typical on-the-move tasks like checking email or reviewing documents.
Just ask the companies which sell netbooks, the small, cheap, low-powered laptops that just a few years ago were poised to reshape the PC industry. Things don’t look great for them: sales have slumped 40%. Blame is being laid at the door of the iPad.
The argument stands up: to many people, netbooks are just compromised laptops. If you can’t type comfortably on the keyboard and you have to squint to see the screen, a tablet computer might well be a better option.
What’s more, machines like the iPad are developing fast. Will the combination of impressive hardware and versatile apps persuade more people to swap their netbook or laptop for a tablet?
Laptop makers certainly are worried. You can tell, because the big players are rushing to release ultrabooks, another type of computer which is like a netbook but thinner, more powerful and much more expensive.
These sleek machines have enough punch to replace your desktop computer, but are designed to start instantly and be small enough to take anywhere. They look great, they perform well and – although they can be expensive – they’re finding a spot in the market.
But hold on – guess who makes the most successful ultrabook. Yep, that’s right: it’s Apple again, this time with the MacBook Air. This is the computer which pretty much defined what an ultrabook should be – and it certainly represents what other ultrabook manufacturers aspire to.
Put aside the ultrabook vs. netbooks vs. laptops vs. tablets debate. The real story might be Apple itself, and whether it can take a much bigger slice of the business IT market in 2012.
Will 2012 be the year of Google+ for business?
Guessing what’s in store is traditional at the start of a New Year. And so I’ve been looking ahead to consider what 2012 might have hold for businesses and the way they use technology. Here are my predictions.
With almost half the UK population using smart phones and tablet computers becoming increasingly popular, demand to access business content on a range of devices will grow exponentially. The line between consumer and business use of technology will become increasingly blurred as workers expect to be able to access work email on their personal devices - and vice-versa.
We’ll see an increased adoption of Google+ as a new way for businesses to reach key customer groups. Facebook is not always the right marketing channel for a business but Google+ has the potential to bridge the gap between social and professional.
Small businesses have the flexibility to be amongst the early adopters of new tools like Google+ and so should capitalise on the opportunities they can bring.
If 2011 was all about the growing popularity of discount sites like Groupon and LivingSocial, 2012 will see more and more companies looking to services like Huddlebuy - the small business equivalent of Groupon.
These services enable small businesses to boost their presence, acquire new customers and ultimately increase sales. The offers are widely promoted and generally very well received - so they can provide a great opportunity for small businesses.
Finally, the use of QR codes will continue to grow. We’re already seeing these pop up everywhere: in magazines, on groceries, adverts and so on. They provide yet another avenue for customers to interact with a business, giving smaller companies a voice in crowded markets.
More articles looking ahead: