Proving your business is critical to staying afloat and growing. Here are some resources out there that will sharpen your skills, improve your offerings and allow you to grow your business.
(This article was written in collaboration with Glen Stansberry, who writes about personal development at LifeDev.net and tweets as @glenstansberry.)
1. Great Business Minds
There are some incredible business minds out on the 'Net, and some of them already write on OPENForum.
AllBusinessBlogger Lynette DeNike shares her take on why personal business blogs are such an important resource for her, and shares a few of her favorites.
"Because I read continually, looking for fresh small business ideas, I find they turn up on many sites. I often prefer to search for thinking from an overflowing handful of specific people: Meredith Whitney, Guy Kawasaki, Seth Godin, Liz Pulliam Weston, Paul Krugman, Tim Berry, John Doerr. That's my stable of ongoing favorites because they cut through blathering clutter to mental clarity; they lead into uncharted territories; and they have the guts to defend what's right in the face of naysayers."
Michael McLaughlin adds his favorite marketing thinker: OPENForum writer John Jantsch.
"One of my favorite small business resources is the Duct Tape Marketing Blog by John Jantsch. The no-BS content is comprehensive and imminently practical, and Jantsch has a knack for bringing just the right information to his readers at exactly the right time. Definitely a go-to resource.
Twitter has taken the entire online world by storm. News outlets quote people from their Twitter accounts, business track other business, you can even get scoops on stocks with the microblogging service. And be sure to check out ExecTweets, where the tweets of top CEOs are aggregated and discussed.
It's no surprise that Twitter is a major resource for small business leaders. Liz Strauss shares how Twitter and Google can combine to make a powerful source of information.
"Though it may not sound inspired to folks already on the Internet, the truth is that the combined power of Twitter and Google have had an incredible impact on my success. I can get any question answered quickly with confidence. Twitter takes me to new ideas and new people I could never reach otherwise. Google takes me to more information about both. For a small business person, it's nice to have both to check my instincts and fill in the gaps of what I don't know."
Andrea Learned has also been blown away by the potential power Twitter can have on a small business.
"I learn about the very latest thanks to Twitter. I went in kicking and screaming (like so many others), but have been blown away by its power in exploring new topics and connecting with a much broader network on any specific issue."
Steve Brooks knows that Twitter's search functionality is quite powerful as well.
"As a research company, information discovery is key to our success. Twitter search allows us to locate relevant information and contact and establish relationships with knowledgeable people in most any field."
3. Web Alerts
Instead of searching for news, why not let the news come to you? You can set up Google Alerts to notify you when new Google results in news and the web are updated. TweetBeep does the same thing, except for Twitter.
With the help of these services you can monitor things like your brand and competitors, without having to continually search for news. Here's how Tom Marquardt uses these services to find new clients.
"Using Social Marketing Tools to bring in new prospects like TweetBeeps and Google Reader and Alerts. These three tools bring tweets and feeds of items of interest of the web and Twitter. By using these tools you can target clients that have a want and/or a need for your product/service line and in turn, you can then contact them and introduce them to you and your business. I have also found that by using TweetDeck to organize my Twitter account, my time of using all of the capabilities that Twitter has available to me, has been streamlined."
OPENForum blogger Guy Kawasaki has build a hand-picked news aggregator called Alltop. Alltop keeps you updated on any topic in an easy-to-scan format, and even allows you to create your own channel to quickly return to find and track the sites you love.
Here are a few pre-made channels to whet your appetite:
What's the biggest reason 99% of us own or run a small business? For most of us, the answer is money.
While we may cringe at the thought of learning about taxes and other trending topics in the financial world, knowledge in these areas is critical to the success of our businesses. Tipd is a social news site centered around finance and money news, showing the latest blog posts and news around the web that other financially-savvy readers find interesting and helpful.
Needing some fresh marketing ideas, or just wanting to keep up on the latest marketing trends? Sphinn can help.
Sphinn is an Internet marketing news aggregator. Like other social news sites, Sphinn shows the most popular marketing articles as voted by the Sphinn community.
7. The Business Section of the Library
It turns out the public library hasn't gone anywhere. in fact, it's something that many of us are quick to dismiss. But the library can be a gold mine of information.
Most public libraries have good-sized business sections, but more importantly many participate in an inter-library loan system, allowing you to request nearly any book known to man. For free. And for those on a tight budget, that can be just the ticket.
8. Stock Photo Sites
Professional design is essential to any business, as design gives trust to your business. Stock photo site allow you to purchase stock photography to improve the design of your site at a nominal cost.
Marketing expert Andy Wibbels weighs in on his favorite stock photo site, iStockphoto.
"iStockphoto has a massive catalog of royalty-free images that will make any small business look professional. plus, if you can't find what you need they have forums for special requests where photographers and illustrators are more than happy to help you out."
9. Online Business Resources
Here are a few handy resources that can save your business time and money.
SCORE-SCORE is a free small business mentoring service. There are over 12,000 volunteers nationwide to serve small businesses in online mentoring, face-to-face counseling and online workshops.
Nolo-Nolo is a legal resource for small businesses. Buy legal resources, find lawyers, and use their legal encyclopedia. The legal encyclopedia is full of helpful how-to articles on virtually any legal topic that small businesses might run in to.
EchoSign-If you send and receive lots of contracts and other things that need signatures on a daily basis, then EchoSign can help you. instead of following the painstaking process of printing a contract, signing and faxing back, EchoSign allows you to sign the contract digitally, without having to print or fax anything.
Delicious is a social bookmarking site that shows the Internet's most bookmarked sites. not only is it a great way to keep up on business topics and resources, it's sometimes a much more accurate search engine than Google. Because the search relies on human votes to determine ranking instead of an algorithm, the results tend to be more relevant and of a higher quality than a typical Google search.
Here are some of the business channels you can stay on top of in Delicious:
An excellent use of Delicious is to find the best-in-class software or service. For example, I was recently looking for flowcharting software, and searching for "flowchart" on Delicious led me to Gliffy, a fantastic online flowcharting tool. Rather than evaluating several products, spending hours (or days) on trial and error, I was quickly able to find what the web thought was the best software available.
11. Print Magazines
While there are signs that the traditional magazine may become the way of the dodo, there are still some amazing small business magazines out there. Steve Brooks of Flyte Blog weighs in on his favorite print magazines.
"Although there are countless blogs, videos, and web sites out there, may go-to small business resources are the print versions of Inc, and Entrepreneur magazine. Inc. continues to be one of the best written magazines out there, especially the columns by Norm Brodsky, and Entrepreneur gets stronger with every issue."
12. Socially Responsible Business Sites
With 17 million readers tuning in to Blog Action Day last Thursday, it's apparent that the online world is starting to become more socially aware. Socially responsible business practices are a great thing to keep up on, and fortunately there are some great sites out there like:
Andrea Learned has this to say about the importance of online resources dealing with socially responsible business practices.
"Small businesses are no doubt aware of the consumer trend toward higher expectations of corporate social responsibility and sustainable business practices. This is incredibly important from my gender in marketing perspective, as well, so I look for comprehensive online publications/resources to keep me current."
13. Pew internet & American Life Project
Needing some hard data on the impact of the Internet? Look no further than the Pew Internet & American Life Project. David Meerman Scott informed us that pew is one of his most-used resources online.
"The Pew Internet & American Life Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 'fact tank' that provides tons of great free information on the impact of the internet on families, communities, work and home. The data in the free reports made available by The Pew Internet & American Life Project provides business owners with background on how your potential customers us the Web to find information. This is a site I turn to again and again."
14. Productivity and Lifehack Blogs
Efficiency is key to running a business, and there are lots of blogs that can help improve your personal or business productivity. Dominic Basulto credits lifehacking blogs for his success:
"My favorite small business resources re the productivity and 'life hack' blogs like Web Worker Daily and Lifehacker.
For any small business owner, these productivity blogs provide daily, relevant updates on how to make their personal and professional lives easier and more productive. The tips and suggestions are delivered in digestible, bite-sized clips, making it easy-and even fun- to browse and find new solutions for everyday tasks. They help small business owners cut through the clutter and information overload of the Web."
LifeRemix is a productivity and lifehack blog network that aggregates many of the top blogs in that niche for easier reading.
Intranets are a great way to share and store information without using social networks or email attachments. Anita Campbell utilizes a private intranet to organize her team's documents.
"My favorite small business resource is my team intranet that we set up through Google Apps for business. My team is spread out all over (we work virtually). Communicating and sharing files is challenging. With our private team space we have central files for our operating manual, logos, business requirements, customer information, calendars, etc. Without it, we'd be 'blind' and spend a lot more time hunting for information."
You can also create an internal Twitter-like microblogging system for your company using services like Yammer or Present.ly.
How often are you working on building connections? Jeff Cornwall believes that connections are some of the most important resources you can have to help your small business.
"An often overlooked resource for small business owners - and particularly aspiring small business owners- is entrepreneurs in the same industry whose businesses are further along in their development. Entrepreneurs are surprisingly willing to 'pay it forward' and help other entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs are usually very willing to offer information, advice and even mentoring because someone probably did the same for them when they were first starting up. And more often than not, all you have to do is ask."
Create an account on LinkedIn, the professional businessperson's social networking site (think "Facebook for business"), to help you find and develop new connections.
While the resources listed above are all fantastic, how often do we try to find outside solutions when we have the resources to do it ourselves? Jonathan Salem Baskin thinks that we are the most important resources our businesses have.
"My best small business resource is myself, because I'm available and willing to solve any problem without having to worry about whether I'm best able or even qualified to do so. This means i'm empowered to take action, which is the hardest, most inhibiting quality for larger organizations (and one that small businesses need to preserve at all costs). Think small and act huge!"