10 Powerful Business Lessons from Alexa von Tobel of LearnVest
Alexa von Tobel took a huge gamble when she took a leave of absence from business school and invested all of her money into LearnVest, a site that provides financial management tools and advice, at the start of the recession. But it was a chance that paid off: LearnVest has since raised $72 million in funding.
So what were some of the lessons she’s learned in the five years since her company has launched?
1. Consider Whether It’s the Right Time to Take the Plunge
Starting a company requires time, money and expertise. Do you know enough about the field you’re interested in? Is there a course you should take or a skill you might need to learn first to ensure that your business is a success?
2. Be Willing to Put Your Own Money on the Line
Investing your own money will make you even more focused. In December 2008, when people were hiding cash under their mattresses, I took a leap and invested most of what I had saved since college into starting LearnVest.
Of course, it’s important to first save up an emergency fund for at least nine months so that you’ll have your basic expenses under control should you get off to a rocky start. But putting your money on the line makes starting your own business personal.
"[That’s] long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention," TED curator Chris Anderson said in an interview with Carmine Gallo, author of Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. “By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to communicate? It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline.”
This Company Flew Single New Yorkers to San Francisco for a Love Connection
“There’s a running joke that there are more single men in San Francisco and more single women in New York City,” says Lauren Kay, a co-founder and CEO of matchmaking startup Dating Ring. ”So we thought it would be fun if some of them met each other.”
The stunt—their business model doesn’t actually fly out singles on the regular—attracted a ton of attention and investment. Kay spoke to OPEN Forum about the Dating Ring and what it’s really like to be a woman entrepreneur raising funds.
What was it like to fundraise with Y Combinator and afterward?
It was really hard! Demo day with YC is insane—there are hundreds of investors on the floor. It felt like this weird speed dating event where you ask people for money. I was super uncomfortable.
After demo day, I was determined to land additional investment to grow Dating Ring, so I’d go on up to seven meetings per day with angel investors and VCs. Some of them were awesome. After 15 minutes, one investor offered us money because he believed in our vision right off the bat. But other investors would ask me out on dates or openly ask when men would be brought into the company. I had no idea the sexism in Silicon Valley was so bad.
What advice can you offer other female founders to get through it?
Look for investors who aren’t known to be sexist. Talk to other founders that you trust and only take meetings with VCs who have a track record of respecting women. Don’t put up with anything, and leave meetings if you’re uncomfortable.
Mozilla Just Changed the Way We Think About Resumes
Adults are getting their own form of merit badges, thanks to a relatively new digital credential formed by the company that brought us the Firefox browser:
Mozilla’s vision is that Open Badges will provide a permanent record of a person’s capabilities and achievements to be shown to teachers, peers, colleges or employers. Megan Cole-Karagory, director of marketing at Mozilla’s Badge Alliance, estimates that Open Badges are now carried by 4 million people and says Mozilla has made a commitment to reach 10 million users by the end of 2016.
More and more businesses are using video to stand out in an era where consumers need more than just snappy copy to engage with companies. Video done right can lead to viral successes like HelloFlo. And video done wrong… well, that will never happen if you hire the right production company!
Some advice when you’re trying to find the right team to bring your video dreams into a reality:
Cheap video comes at a premium.Be wary when a production company offers its services at a rate that seems too good to be true—the production team may just shoot from the back of the room on a tripod and call it a day. But it’s more expensive to do it wrong the first time and have to redo it. So find out what’s included in the total package: Are edits included? What about music licensing? Or travel expenses? Watch out for those additional costs that can be thrown in at the end and bust your budget.
Small businesses need to cultivate a strong customer base: one that includes returning and new business. Luckily enough, there’s a seven-step process that makes the task of attracting new customers seem more manageable:
1. Identify your ideal client. It’s easier to look for customers if you know the type of consumers you seek. Without a composite of your ideal customer, you probably wouldn’t know where to start looking.
2. Discover where your customer lives. Determine where your ideal customer is most likely to be found and then create messaging that targets them there.
3. Know your business inside and out. The people who would be interested in your offerings can see how knowledgeable you are and will seek your assistance.
What School Fundraisers Can Teach You About Business
Fun fact: School fundraisers are a $1.4 billion industry. (We know, we’re as surprised as you are.)
So it stands to reason that school fundraisers—a business model in its own way—can be a good resource for business owners who have sales goals they want to hit, writes OPEN Forum contributor Geoff Williams. There are indeed a few lessons you can pick up from studying school fundraisers’ success:
1. Set a goal. “School fundraisers don’t usually last long,” Williams writes. “While you can’t restrict your sales period to several weeks, you can set short-term goals, which are likely to get you where you want to be faster than an open-ended mission.”
Always a game changer, Apple’s latest announcement was an opportunity for the brand to not only unveil the newest iteration of the iPhone, but to officially throw its hat in the smartwatch ring. Apple Watch, expected to drop in 2015, will have a major impact on fitness tracking, the watch industry and small-business marketing:
…If you’re doing any sort of email marketing, email subject lines are going to be more important than ever. With room for about four to five words on the screen, you need to make sure you use those first words the best way you know how—or risk losing users, quick.
Olive Garden Takes Customer Loyalty Programs to the Next Level
Buffets and all-you-can-eat specials have been a promotional standby for restaurants since time immemorial. But Italian food restaurant chain Olive Garden managed to bring a new spin to the business strategy:
Olive Garden introduced a new Never Ending Pasta Pass that, for $100 a pop, allows customers to eat all of the pasta, salad, bread and soft drinks that they can for the next seven weeks. … the chain will sell 1,000 of these passes on its web site. The special promotion is tied to Olive Garden’s annual “Never Ending Pasta Bowl” promo, which lets folks eat all the pasta they want in one sitting for $9.99 and runs from September 22 to November 9.
Social media may be the buzzier marketing option, but you shouldn’t discount the power of email.
"When it comes to ROI, email is still king,” says Jon Clark, owner of Fuze SEO. “Email is used more than Facebook and Twitter combined, with 188 billion messages sent per day, and its use is growing with the continued spike in mobile usage. Growing your email list should still be one of your top goals.”
When confronting an employee about an issue, make sure you have documentation to back up your concerns. For example, if you’re worried about their performance, point out exact instances where a lapse has affected the company. “Whatever issue it is that you want to bring up, it’s never enough to tell someone that you ‘think’ or ‘feel’ that they’re argumentative or sloppy or not getting their work done on time,” writes OPEN Forum contributor Vivian Giang. “Doing so can come off as vague and unfair.”
There are so many avenues for customers to post praise and complaints about your business. Though the first reaction to a negative review may be to go on the defensive, it’s important for the health of your business to make amends as quickly as possible to salvage that relationship, and foster good word of mouth. “Good companies try and make it right,” writes Gentlemint founder and OPEN Forum contributor Glen Stansberry. “Great companies go above and beyond to ensure satisfaction—a gift card for future purchases, a free meal, whatever it takes.
It’s a fact of our modern age: People are no longer experiencing the Internet the same way, sitting in front of a desktop. There are laptops, phones and tablet devices that connect people online, and your website should be designed to look great and be functional on every one of these options to encourage sales and click throughs.
Read OPEN Forum’s “How to Tell If It’s Time for a Website Redesign”
9 Keys to Dealing With Depression in the Workplace
An estimated one in 10 adults in the United States suffer from depression. It’s time to do something about this. Here are nine tips to help your company and your most precious asset, your employees, deal with depression:
1. Make your business a great place to work.
2. Understand subthreshold depression.
3. Know how to offer help to a depressed employee.
"Text messaging can lead to serious employment issues, including lost productivity, discrimination, harassment and retaliation claims," says lawyer David Reischer, COO and founder of LegalAdvice.com. “A small business should have an employee-texting policy and make efforts to enforce such a policy.”
Hiring too quickly is one of the biggest mistakes business owners make when trying to build their companies. Deepti Sharma Kapur, who started online food ordering service FoodtoEat in 2012, explains how her rush to build her team hurt her business:
"[I made the mistake of] hiring people who didn’t understand the company or the vision but were just looking for jobs. Now I’m mostly relying on references and talking to people in the industry. And the first question I ask is, ‘What do you know about the industry and our company?’"
The Email From 'Oprah' That Changed This Designer's Life
A D.C. lobbyist who was “obsessed” with fixing the infamous buttoned-shirt gap, Rochelle Behrens’ solution “The Shirt” became one of Oprah Winfrey’s favorite things. Behrens explains to OPEN Forum how she did it without a stitch of fashion or design experience.
I didn’t have a company. I only had an idea and a few shirts to sell. And I was doing this on the side. It was so early, but I wanted to see how the market would react. I’ve learned that a product is never going to be absolutely perfect, so you may as well test it out and see how it goes. A lot of products never go to market because they are always in the prototype phase.
I had this trunk show and—I have no idea how—it attracted the attention of NPR and they did a story on me. It was around the time that Hillary Clinton appeared on the Senate floor wearing a low-cut blouse and it caused a stir. I think my story line read something like, “Lobbyist-turned-designer livens up office looks.” It was good timing.
"Research done at the USC Center for Effective Organizations found that 82 percent of business leaders aren’t working at their ideal energy levels,” writes small-business consultant Rieva Lesonsky. “Sixty-one percent felt they were working below their best energy level, while 21 percent felt they were working above their ideal energy level.”
This may seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to manage your energy levels so you’re most effective is to leave well enough alone, Lesonsky writes:
Once you know your natural energy rhythms, try to honor them. If you experience a 3 p.m. slump every day, for example, trying to power through it will do more harm than good. You won’t be working efficiently, your results will be poor, and you’ll drain even more energy from your mind and body. Instead, during a slump time, try taking a quick walk, doing stretches in your office or even taking a power nap for 10 to 20 minutes.
1.Accepting. Self-actualized leaders accept themselves, as well as their employees, colleagues, vendors and customers, as they are rather than hoping for something different.
2.Humble. Great leaders don’t need to announce their many attributes: it shows in their work, and the amount of respect they receive from everyone around them.
3. Willing to seek assistance. Self-aware leaders have no problem reaching out to their customers and clients or membership bases and asking questions that reveal their lack of knowledge or skills in certain areas.
Everything You Need to Know About Online Copyright
Internet content isn’t all free, and not everything is yours for the taking just because you found it online. Get the legal facts about some common copyright myths:
Myth No. 1: It’s on the Internet, so anyone can use it.
Actually… ”This one is unwaveringly and unequivocally false,” writes OPEN Forum contributor Erika Napoletano. “Just because you find an image or blog post or article or video and you like it, you may not have permission to share it.”
Myth No. 2: There wasn’t a copyright notice on it, so it’s not copyrighted.
Actually… “By U.S. copyright law, copyright is granted to a content creator the moment an idea is fixed into any tangible form,” says Kandis Koustenis, an intellectual property attorney with Cloudigy Law.
Read on for three more commonly heard copyright myths and the truth behind them.
Why Time Awareness Is Important to Company Culture
Being “on time” can mean something different for every person you meet, based on where they’re from to their own personal preference. If you’re not careful, that difference can hurt your business and client relations, writes Alexandra Levit:
… It’s important to be conscious of … the “scheduling style” of your business and the partner businesses with which you work. The first step here is attention, then assimilation: Watch how people operate, learn what scheduling styles make them most productive, then adapt your operations and expectations accordingly.
Why This College Course May Be More Valuable Than MBAs
If you’re only focusing on the numbers, it may be time to expand your thinking. Understanding psychology’s role in your business can give you a definite edge.
“Industrial and organizational psychology, or I-O psychology, applies psychological theories to an organization,” says Sandra Powers, a human resources manager at LawyerReviews.com. By studying I-O psychology, you may be able to help improve employee behavior and attitudes through training programs, management systems and employee feedback.
This Is the Future of Marketing, According to Twitter's Co-Founder
Biz Stone, Twitter co-founder and haver of one of tech’s coolest names, noted last month at the small-business conference Sage Summit that the future of marketing is philanthropy, and that people are attracted to meaning these days. Small business consultant Barry Moltz wrote:
Stone suggests that when customers have a choice, they will more likely buy from companies that are philanthropic; and that successful companies are giving money to charitable organizations and then using their marketing funds to tell customers about their association with that cause. Companies find that their giving can go a long way by attracting free mentions on blogs and social media posts.
7 Unexpected Ways to Boost Your Powers of Persuasion
1. Wear a pink shirt. "Our associations and expectations when we see the color pink have a tranquilizing effect," writes OPEN Forum’s Bruna Martinuzzi, pointing out the wonders its had on door-to-door charity donations (their donations rose threefold) and students (schools with pink walls saw calmer students). It may be worth it to put on a pink shirt the next time you need to be especially persuasive.