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How to Protect Your Small Business (as Much as You Can) Against a Tornado

Small Biz Ahead

Every small business owner faces risks, but some may face a few more simply due to geography. Businesses located in “Tornado Alley” fit that bill. This geographical region—which includes parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska—sees and average of more than 1,000 tornadoes a year. Small business owners can’t ignore this risk—being unprepared can be costly. No one can stop a tornado, but owners can take steps, like obtaining business insurance, to ensure that if the worst happens, their business is protected from long-term impact.

Have the Right Insurance Coverage

Anyone who lives where tornadoes are common needs insurance. But small business owners need to make sure they have enough. Tornadoes require more than just damage coverage. There are unseen costs you might not consider, like the cost of removing debris, the fee for an engineer to assess structural damage or the loss of profits due to business interruption. The latter has a major impact on businesses after a tornado.

What if you’re a retail business with local suppliers or customers who were affected by the storm? What if tragedy strikes and a key employee (or even you) is hurt and unable to work? It’s important to have an honest, in-depth conversation with your insurance representative about what you’ll need to protect your business in the days—even weeks—after a tornado.

Proactive Measures to Ensure the Safety of Employees and Customers

The first thing to address in your tornado preparation plan should be protecting what’s most valuable: the safety of the people around you. Small business owners need to sit down in advance and account for everyone who is their under their responsibility.

Long before a tornado ever touches down, small business owners should know:

  • Where employees, customers or visiting clients will seek shelter if a twister strikes
  • If their in-building shelter will fit everyone, and if not, the closest alternative location
  • If your business has drivers, how can they protect themselves
  • Who will be in charge of an evacuation if you are out of the office

Create a Post-Tornado Continuity Plan

Your plan should cover not only what must happen before and during a tornado but also what to do in the aftermath. This is especially important if your place of business was destroyed or severely damaged, and suddenly you and your employees must temporarily relocate to continue operations. A few things you should incorporate in your continuity plan:

  • An accessible off-site location for your employees to work
  • Employee access to computers, software, VPNs and backups if they’ll work remotely
  • A call tree so everyone can check in on the well being and safety of colleagues
  • Employee understanding of their responsibilities, both in terms of continuing work and checking in with others, if communication has been compromised

Having a continuity plan in place will ensure that work can continue as seamlessly as possible

with a minimum of disruption.

Keep Your Business Data Backed Up and Secure

If you want to protect your business, protect your data. Records of invoices, accounts, receivables, payable and more need to be safe. A few things to keep in mind are:

  • Save everything to a cloud server. “Backing it up off-site is a very important thing,” says Michael Aumack, a spokesman for with the U.S. Small Business Administration.
  • Considering external hard drives for file back-ups you can take with you for extra security.
  • Make sure you have important information handy, especially your insurance policy and cloud provider’s contact information, so you can quickly get your business on the path to recovery.

“When you live in a high-disaster area, it becomes a way of life,” Rose says. “The more you do, the further it increases your ability to be able to take the impact and recover from the storm.” Being prepared for a tornado should be just another part of conducting your business when living in “Tornado Alley.”

5 Mistakes to Avoid When Responding to Negative Reviews of Your Business

Small Biz Ahead

It’s hard not to take it personally when a customer leaves an unfavorable review of your business on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter or user-review sites such as Yelp. Yet experts say these reviews allow small business owners the opportunity to hear valuable feedback and make improvements that can actually enhance their customers’ overall experience.

While it may be tempting to respond to a scathing online review in defense mode, Yanovitch recommends taking a deep breath before proceeding to craft a thoughtful response to the customer.

“Ninety-six percent of the time if a business owner does an excellent job at service recovery (the action that a business takes to respond to a perceived customer service failure), the customer will patronize the business again, and will remain a loyal customer,” Yanovitch says.

To protect your online reputation, avoid making these five common mistakes:

1. Not Monitoring Social Media

In order to effectively respond to customer feedback, you need to know what’s being said about your business. The easiest way to do this is to set up a Google alert for your business name. Other options include Social Mention, a free service that monitors over 100 social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.

2. Responding Before Determining the Review is Legitimate

If the review is spam, malicious or contains profanity, it’s not worth a response. Instead, report the review to Yelp, Facebook, etc., and ask it to be removed. If a customer has a legitimate complaint about your business, then take the time to respond to the negative review.

3. Ignoring Positive Reviews

“Customers want to be heard and are a big part of a business’ marketing arm,” Yanovitch says. “It’s important to respond to all reviews, even if that means thanking a customer for taking the time to post a compliment.”

And don’t discount the power of online reviews. A 2014 survey found that almost 9 out of 10 consumers looked at online reviews over the past year to help them make a decision on a local business. In addition, 72% of consumers say that positive reviews make them trust a local business more.

4. Not Responding in a Timely Manner

By tracking online customer feedback, you should be able to respond to reviews within two business days. It doesn’t look good for your business if you respond several months later to a customer’s complaint.

Although you have the option to respond publicly or privately, Yanovitch says a public response will demonstrate to other customers that you take feedback seriously, and that you’re committed to providing the best experience possible.

5. Making Excuses

Yanovitch recommends first acknowledging the customer’s disappointment and thanking them for bringing the problem to your attention. Then proceed to let the customer know you are addressing the issue.

“If something can’t be fixed right away, give the customer an explanation, and let them know that you are working to put better systems in place,” Yanovitch says. “Don’t make excuses. Be honest in your response about how you are going to address the issue and invite the customer back to give you a second chance after the issue has been resolved.”

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The 5 Best Cities to Hire Recent Graduates

Small Biz Ahead

If you want your small business to succeed these days, you can’t just hire top talent when the time comes. You have to hire young talent – ideally fresh out of school. But how do you find yourself recent grads? Or maybe the better question is, where do you find them? The answer: “Well-educated young adults are disproportionately found in a few metropolitan areas.”

Which cities in particular? Well, we’ve selected five of the top cities where you will find the kind of young talent that will boost your small business.

San Francisco, California

No surprise here. Any place that tech giants like Google, Apple, and Facebook call home will attract young talent eager to make their mark in the world of technology. 34% of new residents in 2013 were recent college grads, an impressively highly number given how expensive the city is. This means there’s more young talent looking for a salary, which means that if your small business is tech-oriented, this is where you want to be.

Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota

This Midwest metropolis has become a hotspot thanks to its ability to “attract young job seekers by offering a … stable economy, high wages and affordable rental properties.” And those young job seekers are here in big numbers. 40% of new residents are recent grads, with 22.8% of the city’s population  comprised of people between 20-29. Most of them are drawn by the fact that “the Greater Minneapolis-St. Paul region has 19 Fortune 500 companies, the highest per capita mark of all metropolitan areas in the country.” Companies include Target, 3M, General Mills and Wells Fargo and ensure that the city is particularly a draw for recent grads looking to work in retail or banking. If that’s your small business’s industry too, Minneapolis is the place for you.

Austin, Texas

The famously small-business friendly Austin is also a friendly place for young talent. The city offers cheap living and a low unemployment rate that draws huge numbers of 25- to 34-year-olds (170,00 to be precise) from afar and from the city’s 27 public and private colleges. Most funnel right into Austin’s powerful economy and thriving tech industries. The city is also a draw for engineering and research and development grads  who would benefit any small business that wants to make its mark in those fields with great talent.

Washington, D.C.
A lot of young talent value stability when it comes to their career options. That’s why so many are headed to Washington. “The high number of government opportunities also ensures that the job market in Washington, D.C. is relatively more immune to economic recessions.” The result is that 21.3% of the population is 20- to 29-year-olds who are drawn to stable government jobs and healthy salaries (averaging $60, 104 a year). That’s also why 40% of new residents in the city are recent college grads. That’s a whole lot of talent your business could snap up.

Cambridge/Boston, Massachusetts

With Harvard and MIT here, you can imagine the quality of talent that awaits. Especially since a lot of young people come to study here and then, well, never leave thanks to the strong representation of health care, biotechnology, and R&D industries nearby. That’s why this area has the greatest proportion of young professionals of all large cities: 25.5% of its population is between 20-29. In other words, there are few better places to find amazing talent coming right out of school, even if you may have to fight off some competition to get them.


Next Steps:  Imagine a world where your employees show up on time, work smart and deliver results for your small business day in and day out. Not there yet? Sign up for the weekly Small Biz Ahead Newsletter and we’ll send you the best science-backed strategies on managing productive, happy employees—including tips on how to get them to show up on time!

What You Can Learn From Big Brand Marketing Fails

Small Biz Ahead

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. That’s especially true on social media where even huge companies trip up and get themselves into hot water. While we don’t take pleasure in others’ mistakes, there’s still a lot of small businesses like yours that can learn from Fortune 500 slip-ups.

So, here are a few social media flubs that provide valuable lessons you can apply to your own small business social media strategy.

JP Morgan

The Situation: When JPMorgan, the multinational financial services company, announced a Twitter Q&A with its vice chairman and asked people to submit questions, the responses were not pretty. The company proved unaware of its public image and the anger it can inspire. It didn’t take long for JPMorgan to realize its error and call the whole thing off.

Lesson: Twitter Q&As are a great way to engage with your followers, but you should be very self-aware about what your public image is before doing more. If your business, or your industry, can inspire disgruntlement, you might want to skip the Q&A and spare yourself the abuse.


The Situation: The day of the tragic Boston Marathon bombings, food website Epicurious inexplicably used the occasion to promote their recipes. Bad idea. After a wave of outrage, the company deleted the offending tweets and apologized.

Lesson: Never, ever use a tragedy in any way to promote your business or product. That might sound like common sense, but it’s a mistake companies–bizarrely–constantly make. Don’t follow in their footsteps. The only thing you should (maybe) ever tweet about a tragedy is your sympathies to those who are affected.

London Luton Airport

The Situation: Luton Airport used an image of a plane crash to make a joke promoting its services. The problem? The plane crash shown in the image resulted in the death of a child. Not surprisingly, people were upset.

Lesson: Yes, it’s good social media practice to attach images to your posts. But don’t just blindly go with whatever picture you find on Google Images without first looking into its full history and context.

US Airways

The Situation: When US Airways’s Twitter account was responding to a frustrated customer, they wound up attaching an extremely graphic image of … well, just take our word for it. It was inappropriate. The error occurred because US Airways had received the image earlier in a tweet and was reporting it as inappropriate. In doing so, the image URL got copied, and found its way into an innocuous tweet.

The Lesson: It’s a good reminder to always make sure you know what you’re copy and pasting, and to triple check every tweet you send out to make sure nothing gets out there that shouldn’t be tweeted.

DiGiorno Pizza

The Situation: After football player Ray Rice was suspended for assaulting his fiancée, hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft were used by those sharing their heartbreaking experiences with domestic abuse. Without checking what the trending hashtag was associated with, DiGiorno leaped into the fray with an extremely ill-advised promotion that thought #WhyIStayed simply meant why someone would not leave a friend’s place (pizza being the reason in this case).

The Lesson: Using hashtags is essential for a small business, but always check to make sure you know what the hashtag actually is. Just because you see one trending and see an opportunity, doesn’t mean you should assume it’s self-explanatory and use it.


The Situation: A Kitchenaid’s team member wound up forgetting to log out of the company’s account and tweeted a personal, not so nice, opinion about President Obama and his grandmother to Kitchenaid’s tens of thousands of followers.

The Lesson: If you have a personal and a small business Twitter account, always make sure you’re logged into the right one for whatever you’re about to tweet. Believe me, this is one of the easiest mistakes to make on this list.


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Crossbows, Facials and Toga Parties: 5 Outrageously Excessive Employee Expenses

Small Biz Ahead

What did your boss do last night?

If he or she is anything like the execs on this list, you may want to check your company’s checking account.

A disturbing number of corporate spendthrifts have racked up astronomical bills for outrageous expenses on their firm’s dime — including multi-million-dollar toga parties in the Mediterranean and weekend retreats that probably cost more than what your entire mail-room staff made last year.

Finance departments beware – Here are some of the most recklessly extravagant corporate spenders:

1.  Roman-Style Excess

In 2005, Dennis Kozlowski, chief executive of Tyco International, a security systems company, was jailed for stealing $600 million from the firm and its shareholders. However, in the years leading up to his conviction, he had a whole lot of fun.

The most glaring example of Kozlowski’s fraudulently funded extravagance was a $2 million weeklong birthday party for his wife on a Mediterranean island featuring Roman-themed dancers dressed in togas and a performance by Jimmy Buffett.

“Guests arrive at the club starting at 7:15pm,” a memo sent to the party’s planners read. “We have a lion or horse with a chariot for shock value…Big ice sculpture of David, lots of shellfish and caviar at his feet.”

2. Strip-Club Spending Spree

One evening during Oracle’s OpenWorld tech conference last year, when many Oracle employees were prepping presentation slides and exhibition stands for the next day, one Oracle staffer named Jose Manual Gomez Sanchez allegedly used his company-issued American Express card to charge a whopping $16,490 worth of “entertainment” at a local strip joint.

Perhaps the most shocking part of the fiasco was the fact that two nights later, Sanchez had the gall to return to the strip club and use the same card to ring up another $17,050 in charges.

Fittingly, the strip club offers discounts to OpenWorld convention-goers.

3. The Post-Bailout Bash

This one might sting a bit. In September 2008, less than a week after AIG received an $85 billion bailout from the federal government, a group of the insurance giant’s top brass enjoyed a week-long retreat at the St. Regis Resort in Monarch Beach, Calif., replete with banquets, golf outings and, of course, lavish spa treatments.

After all was said and done, the tab totaled $440,000 including $23,000 for the spa. “They were getting their manicures, their pedicures, massages, their facials while the American people were paying their bills,” one House committee member famously said at a hearing condemning AIG’s ill-timed jaunt.

4.  Adultery, Christmas Tree, and a Shopping Spree

In 2003, an investigation into the over-the-top spending habits of Kmart’s CEO, Charles “Chuck” Conaway, found that Conaway had used company funds to cover personal trips to Vegas, nannies to watch his kids and home improvements, including an $82,000 fence, snow removal and dismantling Christmas trees.

Conaway’s improper use of company money even revealed a history of adultery as records showed that he charged Kmart for $15,000 worth of dental work for his wife, while also letting a vendor pay for a trip to Asia for him and his girlfriend. Talk about two-timing.

5) The Medieval Misappropriation

A crossbow. Yes, a seemingly intelligent former Executive Director of a local Habitat for Humanity used his organization’s credit card to finance, among other things, a crossbow. In total, the employee cost Habitat more than a $100,000 in charges related to his Gulf Shores condominium, his personal vehicle and his, um…medieval hunting habits?


Next Steps:  Imagine a world where your employees show up on time, work smart and deliver results for your small business day in and day out. Not there yet? Sign up for the weekly Small Biz Ahead Newsletter and we’ll send you the best science-backed strategies on managing productive, happy employees—including tips on how to get them to show up on time!

Back to Basics Business Checklist

Small Biz Ahead

This achievable small business checklist will help you cross your Ts and dot your Is so you can reach your annual goals.

Get Your Finances in Order

  • Review your revenue goals. Where do you stand now in relation to the goals you set for the year? What action do you need to reach the end line by December 31?For Gail Hill Williams, a business development consulting executive with ACI Consulting Group in Danbury, CT, it’s imperative to start now to reach her company’s financial goal.“We know that the lion share of our business revenue comes in the last quarter, so I evaluate our business by looking at where we are in billables year to date and what billables are outstanding,” she said. “I also look at what we need to bill to grow our business at least 20-30% over the previous year.”
  • Do a tax check. Get your records in order and review your plans to take advantage of tax deductions and credits. Meet with your tax professional to ensure you’re up to date on the IRS’s ever-changing programs that may help lower your tax liability.
  • Plan to maximize your tax deductions. Make any big equipment purchases before the end of the year in order to take advantage of tax write-offs for 2013. Also budget contributions to tax-deductible retirement plans for you and your employees.

Ramp Up (or Streamline) Your Operations

  • Follow through on operational goals that you’ve set for the year but haven’t accomplished yet. For instance, would a new order processing system or workflow improvements yield new efficiencies? What training opportunities might help your staff be more effective in their jobs? Identify and implement practical measures that would improve your day-to-day business operation.
  • Take an inventory of materials you’ll need through year end. Office supplies are typically on sale during the back-to-school season. It’s a good time to stock up on essentials.
  • Prepare for the possibility of extreme weather ahead. September and October are at the heart of hurricane season with winter not far behind. Shore up your business for weather ahead.
  • Plan for the holidays. Holiday time is a busy time of year for many small businesses. If it’s your peak time, begin preparations for holiday promotions and sales now and get started on your efforts to hire seasonal staff. No matter what the nature of your business, you may want to budget for gifts for clients and employees, make arrangements for your staff party, and plan for all the other perks that make the season bright.

Step Up Your Marketing Efforts

  • Check in with your best customers just to say hello and let them know you’re thinking of them. Make it a point to fulfill a daily contact quota, such as five calls per day.
  • Develop two or three “big picture” campaigns to reach prospective customers and generate leads. Try something new. For instance, if your business typically does direct mailings, see what kind of results an email campaign delivers. Offer product and service demos or incentives.

Remember, the early bird gets the worm. By staying ahead of the game now, you’ll be better able to meet whatever changes (and challenges) come your way.

What recommendations do you have for a business needs checklist? Share your ideas in the Comments section below!

These materials provide general information, and should not be construed as specific financial, insurance, tax, legal, or accounting advice. You should consult a qualified advisor for individual guidance in these matters. The Hartford shall not be liable for any direct, indirect, special, consequential, incidental, punitive, or exemplary damages in connection with the use by you or anyone of the information provided here or for link to or use of any website referenced herein.

5 Key Questions to Ask Yourself Before Hiring Someone

Small Biz Ahead

For most small business owners, the decision to hire their first employee is not a small or easy one. Many small business owners are hesitant about adding a new hire to their team,and that is understandable. It’s a big decision and there are a lot of things to consider. We thought we’d help with the process by offering up five key questions to ask yourself before deciding to add a new member to your small business family.

1. “Can I take on this extra work myself?”

When your business starts taking off and your nine-hour day is getting stretched, the thought of hiring an employee can easily pop up. But before you start posting job descriptions, ask yourself: “Can you handle the work yourself?” The reality is that starting and running a small business always comes with a few sacrifices. Having to work a little harder, and above-and-beyond early on, is one of them. If you’re only working a few extra hours, with a few additional tasks, a new hire is maybe not the best idea.

Are you starting to burn out on 16-hour days? Then yes. Hire someone.

2. “Can this extra work be covered by a part-timer or freelancer?”

Often, as your business starts to take off the extra work you face, doesn’t really require a full-time employee. Additional tasks—especially administrative—can be easily outsourced to a freelancer or contract worker. Make sure you consider this more affordable option—as long as it covers your business needs—before spending money on your first 9-5er.

3. “Is there enough work to justify a full-time employee?”

You don’t want to spend a full-time salary on an employee who doesn’t actually have enough work to be busy full-time. As a small business owner, it’s important to make sure every cent you pay is worth it. Take a moment to think about what and how much work this hire would be doing. Is it enough to keep them busy Monday to Friday, 9-5? Then it’s a good idea to add an employee to your team. If not, you may want to step back and consider Question No. 2 above.

4. “How much will an employee cost me in total?”

An employee costs more than just their salary. There are expenses like computers and office supplies to factor in. There’s also employment insurance, social security and Medicare tax, to consider. That all adds up. To understand the real cost, a good rule of thumb is to add anywhere from 18% to 26% to an employee’s potential base salary. At that point, you need to ask yourself, “Can I afford this?” before hiring someone.

5. “What do you want a new hire to bring to your business?”

When deciding to hire an employee, don’t do it based on a vague sense of need or a feeling of “Wouldn’t it be nice?” Make very clear to yourself why you need an employee and what you expect them to do for your business. Write it down. This will help confirm (or not) that you really do need an employee. It also has the added perk of outlining the job description that you might have to eventually write. Spelling out very specifically what your expectations are for your new employee, will then help you find your dream candidate.


Small Biz Ahead

Small Biz Ahead

Small Biz Ahead, brought to you by The Hartford, is a digital destination where you can discover insights and advice to help you manage and grow your small business. We scour the web to bring you current, relevant content from well-known publishers and combine it with our own original content on topics such as talent management, technology & innovation, and risk management. It’s all designed to help you and your small business succeed. Play on.

The Hartford: Protecting Livelihoods

The Hartford applauds small business owners. You are the visionaries of this country. You are the backbone of our economy. You are the creators of jobs. Fueled by a vision for the future and a passion for hard work, you have borne the risks to forge your own path – to define success on your own terms. You take pride in the service you provide to your customers – it’s part of how you distinguish yourself – and you expect the same from those who serve you. You are an integral part of your community. Employees are like family. You’ve built a business to the point where it merits protection – an accomplishment that deserves our respect and recognition.

At The Hartford, we admire the men and women who start and operate small businesses —and we seek ways to promote their growth and prosperity. We know that owning and operating a small business is inherently risky – and we are committed to doing our part to mitigate and minimize the financial and emotional impact of unexpected loss. We understand that every business is unique, and we develop insurance solutions tailor-made for the businesses we protect. But most importantly, we understand that when we protect small businesses we are protecting livelihoods and legacies.

When you choose The Hartford, you choose a company that seeks to earn your trust and confidence with every interaction – a company that will be at its best when you need us the most – a company that has been making and keeping its promises for more than 200 years.

How to Leverage LinkedIn to Grow Your Business

Small Biz Ahead

Whenever I find a tool within a social media platform that works for me, I make the most of it. That’s how I feel about LinkedIn groups. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in; I’m willing to bet there’s a group for it. Groups bring together people with a common business interest. Find the groups that your target audience spends time in, and establish your presence there.

Who Do You Want to Reach?

A common mistake entrepreneurs make with LinkedIn groups is joining groups that cater to people like themselves. Now, there is value in connecting with others in your industry, but if your goal is to increase visibility with your customer base, you’ll want to look at other groups.

If you sell business software, you wouldn’t benefit as much from joining groups that cater to software companies and professionals as much as you would groups for business owners. There, you can participate in conversations, get to know your demographic, and contribute to discussions.

How Many Groups Should You Join?

Another common mistake I see is business owners joining too many groups. It’s better to focus on a handful you actually have time to participate in than to be inactive in 50 groups.

You’ll see the most traction when you regularly contribute content and participate in discussions in your groups, so consider how much time you have to dedicate to these tasks. You can join up to 50 groups with a regular LinkedIn account, but I suggest you start with 7-10 active groups.

What Should You Do There?

Once you join a few groups, first be an observer to get the hang of how members participate. You may see a few key players really driving the discussion. Take note of them; we’ll come back to them in a second.

Some groups are not much more than a place where people post their latest blog articles. While there may be some value in getting your content out to more people, you’re better off really engaging in groups that have more ongoing discussions among members. Here’s a great example: I’m a member of the Writing on LinkedIn group, which simply consists of people who help one another succeed on LinkedIn. People post questions and others respond. It’s fabulous dialogue.

How Can You Benefit?

Now let’s get back to those key players. One absolute must with LinkedIn groups is connecting with other members, especially those who are really active. Click their profiles and connect to them. You can even personalize the message you send to let them know you like what they’re sharing on the group, and that you’d like to connect on a deeper level.

If you become one of those thought leaders, others will look to you for great content and advice. You’ll be the one they want to link to, and that’s a good thing. Your posts might even get selected for Manager’s Choice, which puts it up front and center at the top of the group page, right next to your smiling face.

Go One Step Further

If you have the time and inclination, start your own LinkedIn group. Find a theme that doesn’t seem to be addressed in any other group, and build your new group around it. You’ll have to promote it initially to attract members, but over time, if your group is active and valuable, people will find it and join it.

Remember to focus on delivering valuable content and contribution, not selling. This is personal networking at its best, and the way to succeed is to build relationships over time.

About the author

Melinda F. Emerson, “SmallBizLady” is America’s #1 Small Business Expert. She is an expert on small business start up, business development, and social media marketing. Forbes magazine named her the #1 woman for entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter. She publishes a resource blog www.succeedasyourownboss.com Melinda is also the bestselling author of Become Your Own Boss in 12 Months and the ebook How To Become a Social Media Ninja.