By: Casey Shaeffer | VP of Operations | Earth Class Mail
Published April 27, 2020
As VP of Operations at Earth Class Mail, my last 8 weeks have been heavily focused on our response to COVID-19. I meet daily with my leadership team to monitor the situation, discuss any relevant developments, and make necessary adjustments to operations.
We’re a technology company, but we’re human-driven, with teams working every day to deliver, open, scan, ship and deposit mail. Our offices remain open as an essential service, ensuring our customers across the country are able to continue doing business.
Our COVID-19 response focuses on four major pillars: preserving the health of our staff, ensuring continuous service for our customers, maintaining consistency in our operation, and anticipating additional impacts.
The health of our team
The health of our employees is our guiding priority. In accordance with social distancing protocols, any Earth Class Mail employee that is able to work from home is doing so.
We are paying close attention to CDC guidelines. For those essential locations that require on-site work, we have created split shifts and increased sanitization protocols to minimize contact. We are providing assistance with ride-sharing alternatives for those employees dependent on public transportation.
In recognition of the essential service they are providing, we have increased wages for all our hourly employees.
Business continuity for our customers
Every day, we process over $1 million in check deposits and thousands of mail documents, services our customers depend on to keep their businesses running smoothly.
To continue meeting their needs, we have increased our operations staff and capacity so that we ensure continuity of service. We remain in constant contact with our vital business partners to understand their responses to COVID-19, and we communicate frequently with our customers to keep them informed of relevant developments. Through these efforts, we have been able to provide consistent service throughout the month.
Consistency in mail processing operations
Our business is built on a refined process to get mail from the USPS, UPS, and FedEx; deliver it to a customer account; and get it opened, scanned, shipped, and deposited.
As we work to keep our employees healthy and maintain service for our customers, we are modifying operations and making necessary spending cuts. Like every business responding to this crisis, we are finding inefficiencies that can be corrected without impacting our customers’ experience.
Planning for the possible
None of us knows how the COVID-19 crisis may continue to impact our personal and business lives. The Earth Class Mail team is dealing with this uncertainty by preparing for the possibility of future business interruption.
We are creating backup locations in Oregon and Texas and monitoring changes with the USPS, UPS, and FedEx daily to understand how their actions may impact our customers. We are also reviewing and testing all facets of our business continuity and disaster recovery plans, focusing on providing uninterrupted service for our customers.
COVID-19 presents a challenge for us all. No matter what the future brings, we remain committed to our values, our customers, and our employees.
Creating a business continuity plan is a bit like creating an estate plan — we all know we should do it, but we put it off because it doesn’t feel particularly urgent. Until it does.
Startups in particular may avoid (or not even think about) business continuity planning. They’re used to pivoting and adapting to new situations, and they’re moving too fast to take the time for a hypothetical planning exercise.
The problem with this type of thinking is that startups, often running on shoestring budgets or venture capital funding that could dry up, are particularly susceptible to sudden disruptions and changes in the marketplace. They need the forethought that a business continuity plan provides.
What is a business continuity plan?
A business continuity plan is an operational plan that guides an organization’s actions during any situation that causes an interruption in their business. Most business interruptions are caused by natural disasters, such as floods, fires, earthquakes, or tornadoes. In fact, according to FEMA, the biggest risk to businesses is fire.
But, as businesses around the world are seeing right now, business interruptions can come from things most of us never expected, like a world-wide pandemic.
What is the difference between a business continuity plan and a disaster recovery plan?
Most business continuity plans include a disaster recovery plan, but a business continuity plan is broader in scope. The disaster recovery portion of a plan is focused specifically on restoring critical systems after a disaster — things like IT assets, hardware, or communications systems.
Certain types of businesses, like financial institutions, are required by federal and state regulations to maintain a disaster recovery plan.
In contrast, a business continuity plan isn’t just about recovering the necessities. Its purpose is to create processes and procedures that allow a business to continue their regular operations during and after a disaster.
Steps to creating a business continuity plan
Before you begin creating a business continuity plan, you want to make sure that you engage as much of your team as possible — both so that you have buy-in and so that you get a thorough understanding of all the processes that run your business.
Step 1: Understand your business
Before you can develop any kind of plan, you need to be very clear about how your business works. Some startups have a lot of clarity about their internal processes, but others have a large enough team or are so fast-moving that some digging will be necessary.
Here are some key questions to get you started:
What are the products or services that bring in the largest percentage of our profits (our profit leaders)?
Which clients or customers receive those profit leaders?
Which employees have the largest roles in creating, selling, and distributing those profit leaders?
What business systems and processes do those employees rely on to create, sell, and distribute those profit leaders?
Step 2: Assess your risk
This step can be scary, but it’s absolutely necessary if you want to develop a business continuity plan that works.
You start with this question: What would happen if…
What would happen if our offices caught fire or flooded? What would happen if we were robbed? What would happen if a pandemic meant our entire staff had to work from home?
The purpose of the exercise is not to catastrophize. It’s to walk through each question methodically and, starting with your profit leaders, identify how each of your business processes would be affected by the hypothetical event.
For instance, if you were a small trusts and estates law firm, and your profit leader was estate planning services that occurred almost entirely in your office, where you provided the necessary notaries and witnesses for legal documents, closure of your physical office would have massive consequences.
You would not be able to see clients in your offices. You may not have access to paper case files. You may not be able to witness or notarize documents. You may not be able to receive mail.
You’ve identified these worst case scenarios. Now what?
Step 3: Determine alternatives
It’s time to figure out how to solve them — before they become actual worst case scenarios.
Identify what you need to put in place now, like redundancies, backup vendors or suppliers, a technology recovery plan.
If you were that trusts and estates firm, you might consider uploading all documents to a cloud-based file sharing system. You may research case law on the validity of un-notarized estate planning documents and create an up-to-date file — maybe even begin lobbying your state legislators to write legislation that addresses the issue in the event of an emergency.
You’ll need to determine what steps ensure that your startup will be able to continue operating even if the unthinkable occurs.
Step 4: Designate a team
Of course you want everyone on your team fully invested in and knowledgeable about the business continuity plan, but you also need a single individual to own it.
Designate one person as the business continuity lead, and depending on the size of your organization, create a team of people to support them in the event the plan must be put into place.
Make sure that everyone within the organization has clarity about their role and the tasks and systems they are responsible for.
Step 5: Memorialize the plan
A documented business continuity plan should include a detailed description of the processes and systems involved in the creation, sale, and distribution of the profit leaders so that if someone else has to step in and manage that part of the business, they will be able to do so.
The plan should include a method for accessing relevant passwords or codes as well as contact information for suppliers, backup suppliers, and major clients.
The plan should also answer the questions:
What exactly needs to be done in the 24-48 hours after a disaster occurs? By whom?
Where will those individuals be, and what resources will they need?
How will they access those resources?
What needs to be done in the week or months after the disaster occurs?
How will key customers, clients, or vendors be contacted? By whom?
Finally, make sure your plan includes an emergency contact list of employees that manage tasks relevant to the business continuity plan (these might not all be executive-level employees).
Step 6: Test the plan
Testing your business continuity plan can feel like an awkward step, but without it, you will miss the opportunity to correct errors in your assumptions or to identify potential pitfalls.
Bring all the key players together and use imagined scenarios to work through the plan. With the plan in front of them, each person should explain how they would respond according to the plan. This process will reveal inconsistencies and false assumptions, guaranteed.
Re-test and revise the plan periodically — especially after significant changes in the business.
Right now, businesses of all sizes are putting “create business continuity plan” at the top of their priority lists. Those that complete the task will be in a significantly better position the next time the unexpected occurs.
If virtual mail is a part of your business continuity plan (and it should be), sign up here.
The rapid pace at which both business and technology are developing means that there are a variety of tools for doing away with mundane tasks in order to focus on more integral work. Oftentimes, and especially for small companies, your business can lean on this kind of technology to keep operating costs low.
Not only do automation tools eliminate repetitive work and enable you to keep a lean team, but incorporating such technology can also help you take care of your existing staff. For those team members who crave opportunities to engage in more challenging or soul-satisfying tasks, automation frees time from their schedules to do just that. There are few better methods with which to improve employee morale and job satisfaction, which will always circle back around to help your business thrive and evolve.
Here’s a quick list of six free or low-cost automation technologies that can help automate workflows for a range of your business operations.
One Stop Shop
Zapier is workflow automation king. Amongst a variety of uses, it can help you automate the receiving of data, file management, and all sorts of notifications by integrating with your preferred apps. For example, if an email hits your work inbox, Zapier can send a backup to your Google Drive, or Dropbox and can alert you on Trello, Slack, or another project management app. Or if you’re in the e-commerce business and use an email service like MailChimp, you can set up a “Zap” to automatically add new customers as contacts in an email list. Browse these 222 Zap ideas and you’ll quickly see how Zapier can optimize some of your existing workflows.
Calendly removes all the back-and-forth of setting up meetings by automating the scheduling process. Calendly makes invitees aware of your availability and lets them choose their desired time slot. Calendly also syncs with apps such as Slack, MailChimp, and Stripe, so be sure to check out uses that would be beneficial to your specific business. Whether its scheduling prospect calls or one-on-one meetings with your team members, including a link to your Calendly in your emails or email footer will save you many unnecessary exchanges.
Online HR Services
Onboarding new employees and fulfilling payroll can be tedious are time-consuming processes, to say the least. Social security numbers, addresses, direct deposit accounts, taxes—there is the ever-present danger of human error that comes with manual entry. But with Gusto, simply invite employees to sign up after setting up your company’s policies. More than helping you fulfill payroll, Gusto is a low-cost solution for centralizing and managing HR function such as approving time off, enrolling in company benefits, sending monthly check-in surveys to your team, and even generating reports that can give you an overview of your business.
It’s called SaneBox for a reason: this automation tool organizes your email stream to preserve a little more of your sanity. SaneBox analyzes your mailbox and email history to identify unimportant emails, which are then filtered into a single folder for later review, keeping your inbox focused on the urgent and important. You also receive a daily SaneBox Digest to bulk-process unimportant emails in less time.
Support service requests can be mind-numbingly repetitive. Luckily for your support staff, there is Workfusion Chatbots. Through artificial intelligence, Chatbots takes over repeat inquiries from your support personnel and engages with the customer in human-sounding conversation. Workfusion guarantees a 50% reduction in manual service effort, making Chatbot a powerful complement to customer service staff.
Social Media Marketing
Let’s say you also want to share curated content that would add real value to your followers’ lives. DrumUp has you covered with the latest in social media optimization. Rather than spend your time scouring the web, Facebook, or Twitter feeds for articles to keep your audience engaged, DrumUp’s algorithm automates it for you across a wealth of social media platforms. You cut down the time it takes to manage your presence by up to 90% while barely making a dent in your budget.
The benefits of office automation software for your business are manifold. For starters, the use of automation increases your staff’s dexterity with tech tools, potentially reducing the onboarding time with software and applications you adopt as you grow your business. If you can get your employees plugged into new software sooner, they’ll be more receptive and more adept the next time.
If you’re ready to take the next step, read these tips for successfully pinpointing what areas of your business are ripe for automation and how to get your team to play along.
Email, chats, video conferences, document sharing, CRMs, phone bridges—we have no shortage of tools to power our businesses. We have unlimited options for tracking work, collaborating on documents, and managing our workload. The difficulty starts when all these items are kept in disparate places, usually the place most convenient for the person who started the communications, document, or activity. The risk is people giving up on broken systems, starting yet another system for tracking or collaborating, and the time-sucking cycle repeating all over.
Our management and technology consulting firm is engaged regularly to implement software that solves productivity problems. It’s our bread and butter. However, we prefer to come in before you implement the next great productivity tool. We work to understand operational pain points and the humans around the table before we move into the cloud.
Below are some key steps you can take to figure out what productivity tools you actually need and how to maximize the ones you keep.
1. Inventory all the tools you’re using now, including anything used for document creation and storage, workflow and project management, scheduling and invoicing, etc.Then, get real…
Organizations large and small are lured in by tools that look fun, shiny and new. They promise to increase our productivity, make us more effective, do our laundry, and cook us dinner. And they rarely deliver. You need to examine the tools you are using and ask yourself if they’re solving the problem that drove you to adoption.
I once had a client ask me to implement a productivity tool that had a Google Drive connector, a calendar (separate from their Outlook or Google calendar), and a task assignment feature. It could be branded to their company, shared easily with their teams, and adopted at a low cost. They were beaming at the possibility of having more time for strategic work.
They wanted to tackle the fact that projects weren’t getting done on time and they didn’t have visibility into what work people were doing. It turns out they didn’t have standard expectations for project delivery and relatively few consequences when deadlines came and went with no results. The cloud-based solution had rave reviews, but it didn’t solve their root problem: accountability. In the end, I helped them create a better system of accountability rather than throwing new software at the problem. This included agreements on deadlines, progress updates, and what happens when people don’t get their work done. The executives were happy with the increased insight and their teams were more willing to communicate progress with the new, clearer expectations.
2. Agree as a team what you will use for project management, internal and client-facing communications, and document creation and storage, then get rid of everything else.
And stick to it! No going rogue. Agree that you won’t suggest a new or replacement tool until you all have had a chance to talk about these key things: who will use it, what the benefits are, and what problem you are trying to solve.
We recently did this with our project management tools. We had 3 different ways to track projects and what we used differed by the client. At a strategy session (in the mountains, because, hey, it’s Colorado) we committed to using Trello to track progress on our implementation projects. We can assign tasks and provide access to internal and external users. Clients can see exactly what work is happening in real-time, as well as where we need their input. Now, when we have questions about status and progress, we have one source of truth. It’s been a game-changer.
3. When you figure out which tools to keep, make sure they talk to each other.
Just like you encourage your team to collaborate, ensure your productivity tools are talking to each other! Our team has recently implemented an email connector that works with our Salesforce instance. We can set up meetings easily by sending suggested appointment times from our Google calendar, and the recipient can choose what works for them. We have also connected our project management tool to Google Drive, Slack, and our billing and project time-tracking software. When needed, our productivity tools enter information automatically into Salesforce. No more searching and wondering—it’s all in one place.
The above suggestions take time to work through. You have to get the team together, ask tough questions, and find out what people are really using and how it’s working, including what’s most effective for your clients. But rest assured, the amount of time you will get back when you finish these steps is worth it. And if you do decide to try something new, we can help you implement what you truly need with style!
Tara Witterholt is Chief of Staff with Elevation Solutions, a rapidly growing management and IT consulting firm with clients and employees in every time zone. With over 15 years of project management experience, Tara works tirelessly to streamline processes and help people focus and be productive. She lives in Denver, Colorado, has a college-aged daughter, a cyclist husband and a very lazy but adorable cat.
Check out their Business Impact Story to learn how Elevation Solutions leverages Earth Class Mail to streamline their back office.
Previously, we’ve shared specific tools that accountants and small businesses can use to automate their workflows. By automating core accounting tasks, scheduling, and more, businesses across all industries can redirect staff time away from manually-intensive projects while simultaneously saving money. This is especially true for small- to mid-sized companies that are often strapped for resources at the same time they’re striving for growth.
By making employees’ jobs faster and easier, a practice can accelerate growth through increased efficiency and strengthen its overall service. But how do you go about implementing automated processes? Don’t throw your staff into the deep end and expect them to swim. Below are some tips on how to ease into the practice of automation to make it stick.
Establish a plan and contingencies
Before anything else, practices need a plan that spells out their end goals. For example, automating the backup of email attachments into Dropbox with a program like Zapier may be convenient, but a business must also ask related questions, such as how their team’s ability to easily retrieve the attachments will be affected? Will everyone have access or only a single point person? Will this make collaboration between teams smoother? And so on. Failure to establish a roadmap will likely result in miscommunication and crossed wires.
Identify areas of biggest need
One of the easiest ways to begin automating a practice is by identifying the exact areas within the company that need it the most. Quite simply, pay attention to constant frustrations. By first plugging the biggest holes in workflow, firms can alleviate their employees’ collective stress, increasing the chances of getting everyone on the automation train. And you’ll help your business run more efficiently, too.
Automate easier processes first
On the flip side, if a business is fortunate enough to not have gaping operational holes that demand immediate attention, they can start their automation journey by attacking easier processes first. Returning to the example above, backing up email attachments is one of the simplest activities to automate. Following this route will make the task of introducing further automation into the practice less cumbersome and easier for everyone to incrementally grasp.
Start with a small test team
At the end of the day, you know your team best. If you anticipate that your automation roll-out might be complex or come with a steep learning curve, there’s no need to bog down the entire company all at once. Instead, form a small team who can test the software in advance.
Project management automation software like Basecamp, for instance, is ideal for experimenting with smaller teams. By test driving it with only a few people, you can determine whether it would be a good fit for a particular department or the rest of your company. If this small subset feels like the software is clunky, unintuitive, or not user-friendly enough, then you’ve just saved time and effort that would go into rolling the program out to the rest of the company. Plus, if the test users prefer the software, they’re better able to provide support to their coworkers as software is adopted.
Evaluate process efficiency
Owners do themselves and their firms a big favor by evaluating the individual processes they wish to automate before they set forth in that direction. This involves raking over the process(es) with a fine-toothed comb to pinpoint flaws. Multi-directional feedback is key. Seek input from your employees, then, devise a process map to help every worker visualize the various processes in your company and highlights which areas need attention. If you skip this step and blindly press on, all the automated software in the world won’t fix your processes’ underlying inefficiencies. By taking stock of your business’s inefficiencies and initiating steps to correct them before committing to new software, you can reduce the risk of flushing money down the drain when you try and switch over to a new tool.
At its core, automation is about enabling and optimizing professionals’ work. However, automation tools can do harm as readily as they can help. The fault is not in the programs but in how they are used or if they “fit”. Companies that don’t take the time to understand which of their processes to automate, or who use software as a bandage for underlying dysfunctions in their processes, will likely decrease their efficiency. But by following the above tips on how to wisely use automation to optimize existing practices, owners can pave the way for fewer speed bumps and more growth.
If it all sounds a bit cliche, well…it is. It’s a story as old as the idea of free enterprise itself except that today entrepreneurs can do it without building a skyscraper, laying down a transcontinental railway, or putting a million cars on the road.
The majority of entrepreneurs build their businesses to, one day, sell them. You dream of the big exit, that payday that will line your pockets with enough cash to validate all your work.
Since selling a business is a complex process, there are many obvious pitfalls and mistakes that you can make.
Some of these mistakes can cost you a lot, as you’ll read below, but the good news is that the majority of them are pretty easy to avoid with a little advance planning.
What Are the Top Mistakes?
While this list is by no means exhaustive, below are some of the most common mistakes we see at Empire Flippers when people list their businesses for sale.
#1 Don’t take your foot off the gas
Many entrepreneurs seem to check out once they list their business for sale. They put up the “For Sale” sign and wait around for a big paycheck.
This is one of the worse things you can do.
Unless your business is truly passive, this attitude will result in a revenue slump. You take your foot off the gas and the business starts tanking.
The next month, when you need to update earnings with depressed revenues, be ready for a wakeup call – the value of your business has fallen.
When a potential buyer finds sees the downward revenue trend, they’ll be much less open to paying the asking price. You’ve provided leverage for them to negotiate the price down, or simply deterred them from considering your business in the first place.
The lesson here is simple: Work on your business as if you are not selling it.
It’s common sense, but many entrepreneurs often forget this piece of advice while daydreaming about their big exit.
#2 Don’t wait until the last minute to implement analytics
Every digital, online business should have tracking installed to validate how much and what kind of traffic they are getting.
The two most trusted forms of analytics are Google Analytics (Free) and the third party analytics company Clicky. These are what we use.
The more analytics history you have, the better.
You’ll also want to be diligent about annotating your traffic and accounting for any huge spikes or dips in traffic.
For example, write clear notes if a spike in traffic from three months ago came from a Facebook ad experiment. That way, a potential buyer can understand the history of the business.
You need at least six months’ of analytics history, and the longer your track record the better off you will be.
#3 Don’t skimp on proof of income
Screenshots are great. They are also very easy to photoshop.
Depending on the business, there will be different ways to verify income. A seller should have a way to allow the buyer to see the business’ cash-flow, as well as the expenses tied to the business.
If you have an AdSense or Amazon affiliate site, for example, you could give a potential buyer view-only access permissions to your account.
This is an excellent way to help a potential buyer verify your earnings and build trust between you and the buyer.
Of course, how you show proof of income will vary depending on the monetization strategies you are using. An Amazon FBA business, for instance, would need a detailed P&L (Profit & Loss report).
Whichever monetization strategy you are using, make sure you have some sort of verifiable proof of income.
#4 Don’t list too soon
If your business has only been around for three months, it is unlikely anyone is going to purchase it.
Does it happen? Sure, but not often and the task of selling a business that young is very difficult.
Similarly, asking price and track record have a strong correlation. A business valued at seven figures is going to need a lot more history to attract a buyer than a business priced in the four or five figure range.
At the end of the day, the more history your business has, the better. Not only will it create more buyer confidence, but it can help improve your multiple as well resulting in a higher valuation — which is what we all want.
#5 Don’t overprice
With new sellers especially, selling a business on potential is a super common issue.
There is a lot of emotional investment in the business that doesn’t translate into actual value. It’s easy to overprice your business because of this, and could have an adverse effect on potential buyers.
It is best to sell your business based on what it is doing right now. You can feel free to highlight growth channels that a new buyer can use, but it shouldn’t be the main selling point.
Instead, frame your business so that the right buyer can imagine the potential growth channels themselves.
If you’re hung up on the potential, then don’t sell it yet!
#6 Don’t ignore your business’ shortcomings
One of the best ways to help a buyer realize the growth opportunities for a business is to highlight the flaws.
Many entrepreneurs shy away from this, but a lot of buyers find businesses with flaws extremely attractive – they see opportunity in the untapped potential.
You should be totally transparent with everything about your business, especially the parts where you feel the business is failing.
If you have a SaaS business that has a healthy cash-flow but no marketing whatsoever, then that is a huge opportunity for the right marketer.
If you have a giant content site where the majority of the articles have no internal links pointing towards them, then that is a huge win for an advanced SEO.
More often than not, your business’ flaws can become one of the greatest selling points.
#7 Don’t forget documentation
Running your business, any business really, requires some proprietary knowledge. The clearer the path is for a buyer to take over and get ramped up quickly, the easier it will be for you to sell.
One of the best techniques is to have detailed standard-operating-procedures (SOP) for every position and role in your company — the more detailed, the better.
If you have a team in place that you will be taking to your next project, this is even more important.
#8 Don’t dig your heels in during negotiations
Nothing kills a deal faster than a seller unwilling to work with a buyer.
Selling your business is all about how willing you are to make a deal. Think outside the box, with your end goal in mind. The higher your asking price, the more flexible you need to be with deal terms.
There are other forms of negotiations outside of price. It will come down to what you can get in exchange for the cash you’re asking for upfront. Here’s a short list of considerations in exchange for cash:
Equity – you can keep some equity or shares in the business in exchange for less cash.
Royalties – you can collect a percentage of every sale in return for a lower upfront price.
Monthly payment plan – you can spread out a chunk, or all, of the selling price over a set term.
Include less – you can adjust what’s included in the sale price to meet a buyer in the middle.
#9 Don’t neglect qualifying Buyers
You should have some kind of system to minimize “tire-kickers” who aren’t really qualified to buy your business.
You could have a deposit process like we do at Empire Flippers, where every buyer needs to put down a refundable deposit before they’re allowed to look at the intimate details of the business.
This will help get rid of the “lookie-loos,” and leave you with just the more serious potential buyers.
You can qualify buyers in other ways, of course, such as by having extensive Letters of Intent (LOIs) in place.
The majority of business brokers will take care of the qualification process for you, but if you are selling on your own, you definitely want to make sure you have some kind of process to weed out unqualified buyers.
#10 Don’t ignore professional brokers
Obviously, I’m a bit biased when it comes to using a professional broker. The broker industry can be a shady place, with a lot of fly-by-night brokerage businesses.
Despite this, a good, legitimate broker can make the entire process of selling your business far easier.
Here are just a few benefits worth considering:
Buyer reach – most private sellers will not have an email list of tens of thousands of hungry buyers looking for good deals.
Negotiation & deal structuring – brokers literally live and breathe the deal making process, which can take a lot of pressure off the seller.
Qualifying buyers – remember mistake #9? Pretty much all good brokers have processes in place to make sure only quality prospects are looking at your business.
Market valuation – not sure what your business is actually worth? Brokers are some of the few people around that have their pulse on the market and how much a digital business is going to be worth.
Migrations – this is something we’re about to talk about below, so keep reading.
Every case is unique and this should be a decision you think critically on before selling a business — or buying one, for that matter.
#11 Don’t neglect the transition details
One of the most tedious aspects of selling a business is migrating everything over to the new buyer.
Before you sell your business, you should really consider HOW you are going to transfer the business over.
Create a checklist of everything a new buyer is going to need or want to know when it comes to taking over the business.
Outline everything — content, domain, hosting, product inventory, the various services you are currently paying for that will need to be switched over, etc.
You will also want a way to mitigate fraud here, especially in smaller deals where fraudulent activity is likely to be more common.
The last thing you want to do is to push your business’s website domain to the new owner and have him or her fail to pay for the business, while reaping the rewards of owning the domain.
One way you can mitigate this is by using an escrow service. Even then you want to be careful, because many escrow services will not be overly familiar with the online business space and could make some very bad mistakes.
To come back to our previous mistake about sellers not using brokers, most professional business brokerages have a migrations process already in place.
This takes a ton of weight off your shoulders and is definitely worth considering, depending on what kind of business you will be transferring.
Preparation Is Key
As you can see, these 11 mistakes can really make or break the business sale process.
That is one reason we created a totally free valuation tool, which can give you a rough estimate of what your business would be worth.
Have you sold a business before? Are there any mistakes you see other sellers potentially making?
Leave a comment below and share your wisdom with other entrepreneurs looking to make their big exit to a successful payday.
In our last post we learned that people will potentially pay to file their health care claim forms online, enough to support a business at least. Wahoo!
Now we build everything, right? Absolutely not. Hold your horses, buckaroo, and put that hammer down.
The data told us that a good number of people want this problem solved, and will pay enough to make it worthwhile for us. Now we need to make sure a real product can be built to support this business.
In other words, I want to know: Is our core idea technically possible?
WARNING – PLEASE don’t skip validating if a product and service can actually be built to solve the core problem. I made this mistake a few times in the past, and wasted months and years of time and money as a result.
ClaimSender.com requires a few things to work, some business related, some technical
Business items to confirm:
We need to make sure that insurance companies will accept our claim forms when we fax them in.
Since we’ll be storing health information, we need to make sure our hosting is compliant and affordable.
Our app will fax in claim forms, and that process needs to be HIPAA compliant and affordable.
Technical items to confirm:
The main value proposition of the product is speed and convenience, so we need to collect information from user, and write it onto an existing claim form – then deliver it as a complete PDF.
We will also need to collect a digital signature from the end user, then write it onto an existing claim form PDF.
Let’s walk through these issues one by one, and answer them with the least amount of time and cost.
Issue: Will insurance companies accept faxed in claim forms with a digitally-created signature?
So I called up my healthcare company and asked if I could fax my claim form in. They said yes, and gave me their fax number.
With that in hand, I headed over to HelloFax.com. I uploaded the claim form PDF, filled in the claim info, and signed electronically.
I faxed the form in and held my breath. Ok, I didn’t hold my breath, because claims can take 7 days to make it through the insurance companies’ claims department.
A few days after faxing my claim in I logged into my email and saw a “New claim processed” email from my insurance company. Boom! Success. Total cost? $0. Time spent? 20 minutes.
To make sure the digital signature would count as a legal signature, I pinged Earth Class Mail’s Chairman, Jonathan Siegel. He founded RightSignature, an electronic signature company, so he knows the space well. He gave a big thumbs up.
If you don’t know any experts in the space, UpCounsel.com can serve as a good resource. VALIDATE.
On to the next issue…
Issue: Do cost effective HIPAA web hosting solutions exist?
Storing people’s health information requires the utmost security and care. This requires ClaimSender be HIPAA compliant. I won’t bore you with the details of HIPAA compliance.
In general it means you follow a bunch of strict guideliness on storing and transmitting health information.
A few hours of web searching turned up a few options, including HealthCareBlocks.com, which isn’t too expensive. That works, on to the next issue.
Issue: Can we find a HIPAA compliant fax API?
ClaimSender will fax in healthcare claim forms. Healthcare claim forms contain a lot of of sensitive personal information. We need to make sure our fax provider sends this information securely.
A few more hours of web searching revealed a few candidates, including Phaxio.com. After some back and forth with their excellent support crew, they confirmed their service can pass HIPAA muster when set up correctly.
Their pricing pleases too, so consider this answer a “yes”.
Issue: Can we collect information from users, and write it onto an existing claim form PDF?
I wrote code in a former life, and still fancy myself a developer. A “pretend” coder if you will. Real developers won’t call my code pretty, but I can code enough to test a concept.
To answer this question, I wrote a simple ruby script (I love rails) to see if I could write fields onto a PDF. I tried a few different ruby gems, and landed on the prawn and combine_pdf gem.
I kept the script as simple as possible, just coding enough to confirm I could place text onto an existing PDF. After an hour or so, my script gave me the “yes” I hoped for.
Before we move on, notice what I didn’t do…. I skipped creating a new rails project. I left data design for a later day. I bypassed everything except validating my core question.
My natural tendency is to start building the end app at this stage. After years of learning the hard way, I finally learned to focus on just answering the core question.
Issue: Can we collect a digital signature from the end user and write it onto an existing claim form PDF?
This question proved beyond my meager coding skills. To answer it, I created a small project on Upwork. Upwork runs a freelancer marketplace, and provides a great tool for one off tasks.
They have a ton of developers, which made getting this question answered quick and cheap (< $50).
Do research before posting your project so you can specify as much detail as possible. For our project, I made sure I captured our key requirements before posting the job on upwork:
I knew the solution should use prawn and/or combine_pdf for the PDF manipulation.
A little research led me to this github project to accept the end user’s signature – https://github.com/szimek/signature_pad.
Using what I learned above, I wrote a specific job description with as much detail as possible.
I prefer to post my small projects as a set fee, instead of hourly. That gives me confidence on how much I will pay.
After posting our project, I read the reviews and explored the work history of any applicants.
I can’t stress this enough – READ THE REVIEWS.
If someone doesn’t have reviews yet, proceed with caution. I like working with individual developers instead of companies. I find I pay less and get stuff done faster.
I often ask applicants to write a tiny bit of code using the language & tools asked for in the job to make sure they know what they’re doing.
This also shows you how responsive they are, and how they communicate. Make this something tiny, so you don’t waste their time. I posted my project, chose a freelancer a day later, and within a few hours he delivered validation that things would work.
Boom! That makes us five for five on our questions.
Now what? How can we find out if people will really buy this? Great question. Let’s dive into that with our next post.
In many ways managing a social media presence has become just another thing all companies do, a mindless daily task to cross off your to-do list.
Partly that’s because doing it well requires a lot of time and effort. The activities that tend to take up a bunch of time don’t always result in value for the business.
Earth Class Mail is no different, so we took a lean and focused approach to managing our social channels.
There are a few basic fundamentals you want to build your social media presence on:
Listening – tracking what others are saying about you, your industry, and your competitors.
Engaging – communicating directly with others.
Sharing – building an audience that can relate to and appreciate content that you broadcast.
To execute them effectively we had to make some compromises, be clever, and maintain control while allowing for applications to take over some of the tedious work.
Key 1: Admit your limitations, and focus on one or two channels
Yes, many will scoff at this compromise, but it’s completely necessary unless you have a full-time resource dedicated to engaging across a lot of networks.
If you don’t, then you’re just turning in a half-hearted effort on many channels instead of a world-class effort on one.
That’s the triage decision we made, to focus exclusively on Twitter where our largest and most engaged audience has been.
Frankly, it was an easy decision. We have more followers on Twitter than any other network, we have been using it as a customer service channel for years, and Twitter is just easier to build an audience on than most other networks.
You may have a similarly obvious decision to make, or it may be more difficult. If you’re not sure, ask yourself a few questions:
Where do I hear from customers most? i.e. customers reaching out to you, or mentioning your company by name.
Where are my competitors most active?
Which network am I the most comfortable with? i.e. if you’re already a Facebook power user, follow many brands etc. and get the ecosystem then that could be for you.
Which network is most suitable for my skill set? i.e. each network has a basic premise that is hard to ignore. Twitter is all about short headlines and news. Facebook is extremely image and video heavy. Instagram is all about creating visual stories etc.
In the end, we decided to focus our efforts where we felt they could be most impactful – you should do the same.
Key 2: Automate as much as you can
Anything that you do on a set schedule or with a repeatable process can be automated. We decided on a basic toolset for our needs, here it is:
HootSuite – we use the Free version. There are more features in the paid versions, but we just need this to listen for certain keywords and occasionally reply to mentions or DMs. There are lots of alternatives: Sprout Social, TweetDeck, and Buffer to name a few.
SocialOomph – this is the foundation that everything rests on. It’s the only tool we’ve found that allows you to recycle posts and inject spun content, so that the network doesn’t bounce it back as duplicate. There are no great alternatives that we’re aware of.
Flutter – a great tool, still early in development, but it really helps automate posting content that you can’t easily get from something structured like an RSS feed.
Buffer – you can do a lot with this tool, but we use it primarily as a medium to post content that is being pulled from a structured data source like RSS feeds.
IFTTT – a great, free, conditional logic tool that lets you automagically post stuff to your social profiles via a tool like Buffer. (there’s a lot more you can do with IFTTT)
It’s critical that you take some version of this step to automate your workflow so that you can free up time for the activities that really need a human touch. Auto-replies to mentions and DMs always come off as robotic, so spend your manual time there and let the machines take care of the rest.
HootSuite, Buffer, and IFTTT are all incredibly well documented. We won’t spend time detailing how we use them here, but there’s lots of content already available with a quick search.
Get the most out of your existing content
Queuing up a bunch of content is day one of intermediate social media management, but we took it a step further by putting the content to work for us into perpetuity, or close to it.
That means if we have a slow content month, we don’t need to scramble to fill up our queue again or risk that deadly black hole of silence on Twitter.
SocialOomph actually makes it really easy. They use standard spun content schema, so if you’ve done something similar on the SEO side of digital marketing then you should be really familiar.
Basically, we load up the content of our post and format a bunch of alternate text variations that the program then randomly chooses to Tweet out.
We then set a recurring schedule for posting the content and voila! Suddenly our entire content library is on permanent repeat with multiple unique variations of the post. If you’ve been managing social media for a while, this tool is a game changer.
Use third-party content to improve your profile
Automating re-posts of content from RSS feeds is really easy. That’s how we use IFTTT and Buffer, it’s actually a standard integration you can just plug and play.
Getting content from a non-RSS source posted to Twitter automatically was a totally different challenge. We struggled for a while before accidentally stumbling on Flutter.
Flutter is a pretty basic tool, still being worked on so it’s rough around the edges, but extremely powerful for this use case.
It works by allowing you to choose a CSS selector (the id of an “element” on a page) that it will scrape on some recurring schedule and post to Twitter, or push to Buffer if you choose that option.
This is honestly amazing! You can scrape content from the web version of a newsletter, a subreddit, a blog without an RSS feed, and basically anything else.
Imagine how much more content you have access to that you won’t have to pull and share manually anymore.
Key 3: Communicate with others in a real, human voice
Since you aren’t wasting time with all those tedious tasks anymore, thanks to automation, you can start to have real conversations with others.
As a customer service channel, Twitter has been a great network for us. It’s really easy to react to negative feedback quickly and correct issues, or find those customers that are primed to become brand ambassadors.
We also take the opportunity to just engage with others in a conversational tone. It’s great for prospecting new customers, or simply developing a brand personality that’s relatable to your target audience.
The best part about this approach is the freedom it provides to focus on growing your audience instead of constantly keeping up with maintaining the content. That by itself was worth the initial effort to set it all up.