On this week’s episode of the Small Biz Ahead Podcast, Elizabeth and Gene talk to writer Johnna Kaplan who recently researched the topic: what do small business owners really need in their offices to run a successful business?

In the second segment, we talk about the best ways to manage your vendors.

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Elizabeth: Welcome back to the Small Biz Ahead podcast. I’m Elizabeth Larkin and I’m here with Gene Marks. Gene, how are you doing?

Gene: Doing okay today. Starting to enjoy the weather. We’re hoping that the spring is going to stay springy.

Elizabeth: I doubt that. I think we’re about to get a huge snowstorm.

Gene: Don’t say that, man. I travel a lot and I hate bad weather, so I’m a big, big proponent of global warming, Elizabeth. Keep it warm.

Elizabeth: You’re a fan.

Gene: Yeah. Yeah. Keep the runways dry.

Elizabeth: Great. Great. Today we have a special guest that I want to introduce. Her name is Johnna Kaplan and she’s a writer. She’s been working on some articles for Small Biz Ahead, so we thought we’d have her on to talk about office organization. Johnna, how are you today?

Johnna: I’m good, thank you. It’s nice to be with you guys.

Gene: How do we spell Johnna. Johnna, how do you spell your name?

Johnna: J-O-H-N-N-A. Like John.

Gene: G-O-H-N-N-A?

Elizabeth: J.

Johnna: J.

Gene: Oh, J-O-H, so not Johanna but Johnna.

Johnna: Right.

Gene: Got it.

Johnna: Just like John but the extra na.

Gene: Okay.

Elizabeth: Actually, I’m going to link this in the show notes. Didn’t you write an article for-

Johnna: Newsweek, a long time ago-

Elizabeth: Newsweek.

Johnna: -about my name, yeah.

Elizabeth: About how it’s like the simplest name ever, but people-

Gene: Get it wrong all the time?

Elizabeth: Get it wrong.

Gene: You must get questions about it all the time. My first name is Gene and last name is Marks and I’d say 10% of the time when people email me or they talk to me on the phone or face to face, they call me Mark and I don’t know why. These are people that I know and they’ll just be like, “Yeah. Okay. Good speaking with you, Mark.” I’m like, “Good speaking with you, Smith.” There’s something in the brain so that’s why Johnna was just a unusual name.

Elizabeth: Alright, we’re going to hear from our sponsor and then we’re going to be right back with our question for Johnna about setting up a virtual office.

QUESTION #1: Minimum Amount of Stuff in Order to be Successful

Elizabeth: Okay. We’re back. Our first question is from Evelyn in Los Angeles. I think that’s the first time we’ve had someone from a big city write in.

Gene: Yeah. Most of the time by the time people in the West Coast are waking up, they’ve fallen asleep listening to us.

Elizabeth: Okay. Here’s Evelyn’s question. Evelyn writes:

“I run a small tech service business in Los Angeles. We help people move to the cloud. Given the price of rent, I’ve decided to shutter my office so my entire company, which is me plus two employees, will be working from home. My employees are mostly on the road but they do work at home from time to time. What’s the minimum amount of stuff we need in our offices to be successful?”

Johnna, I know this is right up your alley because you do a lot of writing about getting rid of stuff, so what would you say is the minimum that Evelyn needs in an office?

Johnna: Well, I assume that she means her employees will be working from their own home, not that they’ll be on the road and sometimes with her in her home office-

Elizabeth: Oh, that would be awkward. Yeah. I think that’s safe to assume.

Johnna: I think it varies depending on you as a person or depending on what kind of work you do, so obviously if you have certain tech requirements that you need and maybe Gene can talk more about that later because that’s more in line with what he does but as far as furniture and accessories and equipment that you might have at home, I would just say you can start really small.

It’s tempting to go in from day one with the perfectly outfitted office and you buy half the stuff at Staples and you have everything that you could ever possible need, but in reality most people don’t need all that stuff. Once they have it, they don’t get rid of it. They just let it sit around and clutter. Then it’s distracting and it can really hurt your productivity.

You can really probably start with a nice chair, a desk or a table to work at, a good laptop and phone or whatever it is that you use. Then, anything that you find that you need, if you discover that you are often printing out documents, you can get a printer. It’s not hard to get one probably that same day or delivered the next day. Really take the time and have your everyday work experience and form what you really need to purchase.

Gene: Johnna, you work a lot from home, correct?

Johnna: I do. Yeah.

Gene: Are you working from home right now? Were you in your home office?

Johnna: Um-hum.

Gene: Okay. Take us into your office now, Johnna.

Elizabeth: I like this.

Gene: I want you to describe to us exactly what you’re seeing. What is all around you? This is your home office, right, where you spend all the time during the day? What do you see?

Johnna: My desk is actually an IKEA countertop because I like desks and the desktops they sell were pretty short. It’s a wooden countertop.

Gene: Do you have any memory what you paid for that desk out of curiosity?

Johnna: No. I actually have a picture of my office on the Instagram, if anyone wants to go digging through-

Elizabeth: I will link to that in the show notes.

Johnna: Okay. I think I have the name of the component, so you can look it up. It’s not crazy expensive by any means. It’s a countertop on top of two of those metal legs that they sell separately for desks. I have a little trash can. I have a calendar on the wall.

Gene: A calendar? Who has calendars in 2017?

Elizabeth: I love a wall calendar.

Gene: Do you? Okay.

Johnna: I have a lot of calendars. I use a paper planner, which is always on my desk and I have a calendar. Then, I look at the one on my phone and my laptop as well because I really need to see visually to plan out when things are due and the month and when things are happening that my might be a freelance writer saying that I might need more calendars but other people just to conceptualize that.

Elizabeth: If you’re a visual person, I highly recommend having a wall calendar. I am the same way and I use my Google calendar. I use the calendar on my phone but I love … because I’m always planning out content and when we’re going to be recording this episode. I love to just be able to glance up at a wall calendar, so I’m a big fan of that. If you feel like you’re constantly having to look at your calendar, consider getting a wall calendar.

Gene: Now, Johnna, do you use your home phone for communication? What are you talking to us on right now? Is this your cell phone?

Johnna: It’s my cell phone and this is the only phone that I have. I don’t do too much interviewing or anything like that over the phone. I primarily use email, so the cell phone works fine for me. Obviously, if someone had a much more phone heavy business, they would need a more reliable phone system but this works great for me.

Gene: What about your computer? Do you have a Mac? Do you have a PC?

Johnna: I have a PC, yeah.

Gene: Just one computer? Is that the only computer in your home?

Johnna: Yep. Just one and I use it to travel also. It’s just a little Dell Inspiron.

Gene: It’s a Dell Inspiron, so you undock it, you’re saying and then you take it with you on the road?

Johnna: Yeah.

Gene: Got it. Now, I have three laptops. I have one laptop on my desk, which never moves and it’s a big one, like a gaming kind of whatever. It’s great. Then I have a travel laptop as well that I carry around with me everywhere.

Elizabeth: What’s that?

Gene: The laptop on my desk is a Lenovo laptop. It’s a ThinkPad. Then, I carry around a Dell. Same thing as you. It’s an Inspiron as well that I carry around as my travel laptop, which is really good. Then, I have a third laptop in our living room because I sit and watch … Johnna, I watch a lot of TV, okay? Orphan Black, I can recommend it. Fantastic, but as I’m watching it, I like to do a little work as well. I can multitask, so I keep a laptop in my-

Elizabeth: That’s not good for your brain.

Gene: Well, it depends. Different people work different way. My brain seems fine right now, but I’ll let my neurologist pine on that. I have three different lap … but it’s good that you only have one. Now, what about in your office? Do you have any pets?

Johnna: No. I don’t.

Gene: Oh, okay. That takes a lot of complications out of a home because a home worker sometimes has pets. What about personal items in your office? Do you have photos of family and friends or whatever or do you consider that to be a distraction?

Johnna: No. Yeah, I don’t have that. I have one poster on that wall that’s kind of a cute inspirational little poster. I have a few also IKEA cardboard boxes that are file boxes. Those are kind of on the other side of the room because I do need to access some old stuff I’ve written and things like that. I don’t use them too often, so I no longer have a big, heavy file cabinet. I used to have one of those. I got rid of that because again it’s not essential. Why clutter up your space with stuff you don’t really need?

Gene: If I gave you the opportunity to say an unlimited budget, you could completely scrap your entire office, just gut it and start from the ground up, is there anything in it that you would change or want to see better?

Johnna: No. There’s other parts of my house that I would happily take.

Gene: Join the crowd.

Elizabeth: Gene, how does it work having three laptops for you because, like for me personally, I have a full-time job at an office. I’m not a small business owner but at home I have an iMac on my desk, and then I also have a laptop that I travel with and I do everything in Google Docs but for you, how do you keep all your files organized?

Gene: Well, first of all, this is for any small business owner. They’re working from home or their mobile or whatever, it’s the cloud, baby. It’s a cloud-based world. Those laptops that I have … and by the way, and Johnna, you’re going to get jealous, I bought my Dell Inspiron off of … It’s $1,000 laptop. I got it for $400 from some sketchy looking guy off of Craigslist and I met him in a shopping center in Jersey back in December. I gave him $400 in cash and the thing works great.

To me, a laptops in 2017, they’re just devices. They’re dumb machines. I don’t save anything locally. We use, in our company, we have Microsoft Office, so everything is Onedrive, so everything I do is saved on Onedrive. Everybody’s saving it there.

Elizabeth: Do you have to specifically save it somewhere?

Gene: Yeah. Absolutely.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Gene: It’s automatic. It syncs, so when you have it set up the right way, you open it up and you’re working on a document. It’s automatically saving online.

Elizabeth: There’s nothing worse than traveling-

Gene: You cannot get a document.

Elizabeth: -and then you think, “Oh, I got to go get that document.”

Gene: It never happens to me. Never happens to me. We have cloud-based CRM system, a cloud-based accounting system, cloud-based file sharing system. I never, never been anywhere where I’m like, “I cannot get access to a file or whatever.” I don’t care what device I have.

What’s really great is, if one of my laptops goes on the fritz … Say my travel laptop breaks or whatever, it’s got to happen, then I’ll just take my living room laptop with me when I travel while I buy another one. In other words, I’m not like down and whatever.

It used to be when you bought laptops, it was a huge headache to configure it and install all the applications and whatever. That’s kind of gone away now because everything’s on the cloud. I get a laptop and I’m up and running on pretty quick because I don’t have to go through the whole migration of data stuff.

Elizabeth: What do you think about Chromebooks?

Gene: You know, Chromebooks are fine as long as you are online all the time. Sometimes if I’m on a plane, I will download some files just to be local so I can work on them and then when they’re done, they get uploaded.

Elizabeth: Yeah because the Wi-Fi never works on planes.

Gene: Don’t even get me started about the Wi-Fi on planes. It’s just, you know.

Elizabeth: Yeah. I’ve seen you angry tweeting at American Airlines.

Gene: Oh. It’s not American Airlines. It’s Gogo.

Elizabeth: Oh, Gogo Wi-Fi.

Gene: Evil, evil people. Very, very slow internet. It’s improving but using a Chromebook itself is not necessarily the best thing. Hey, so Johnna, in your office do you have any specific rules what you can and cannot do in your office? Do you eat in your office?

Johnna: No, I don’t but I have in the past when I lived in smaller apartments and my office was also my table and everything else. I don’t have that as a hard and fast rule. It’s just the layout of my house now doesn’t really lend itself towards bringing food up there.

Gene: Got it.

Johnna: I think it’s okay unless, I don’t know. It all depends on what’s going to distract you. If somebody finds that eating or watching TV or anything else in their office is distracting them, then don’t do it, but if they’re okay with it, I think it’s fine.

Gene: Fair enough. Do you have any distractions in your office? Do you have a TV in your office or anything like that? I’m thinking, no.

Johnna: No. I don’t have a TV at all actually. I do multitask. Sometimes if I’m doing something that doesn’t require so much brain power, I’ll be watching also, a video on phone at the same time. Nothing too intellectual because that would distract me but something like a YouTube video of someone applying make-up, I can watch that.

Elizabeth: Yeah. You cannot write and watch a video at the same time but you can do those routine tasks that we all … Probably the stuff you do when you’re watching TV. Johnna, what do you think about a business phone if you’re working out of your house? If you have an actual business, would you be comfortable when you have clients calling you just using your cell phone?

Johnna: I think it probably depends on the scale of your business, honestly, because for me, I think I would rather stick to my own phone. It just makes it easier to be portable, you can work … because I like to be able to work from anywhere, anytime, so if I know that someone’s calling me on my cell phone, that’s always with me that works better for me. Obviously, if you have tens or hundreds of clients that are calling you all the time, you’re probably going to want to expand your phone service so that you’re not getting completely, your personal and work life are not getting completely entangled so that you can manage it better.

Elizabeth: Gene, what do you use?

Gene: We have a cloud-based phone service. We use a company called-

Elizabeth: Of course, you do.

Gene: Of course. It’s called Virtual PBX. It competes against Grasshopper, another one that’s very good, and Ring Central. We pay $10 a month a mailbox for our employees and contractors.

Elizabeth: Why do you do that instead of using your personal cell phone?

Gene: We have an 800 number so when people call our office, they get they dial by name directory and then if they choose my number, they think it’s bounced to my cell phone.

Elizabeth: Oh, okay.

Gene: It’s all corporate. A lot of times people are calling because they want to talk to somebody else in my company and it goes to there. It’s all managed. They can leave voicemails and then we get it sent to us transcribed as well.

Elizabeth: Nice. I love that.

Gene: It’s all essentially managed. Yeah. It’s very, very good. Inexpensive. Those services are very, very good. Again, all of them. It’s Virtual PBX, I use. Ring Central’s another one. Grasshopper. They sell hardware as well, so some companies, they don’t want to go into a mobile device so they want it to go into an actual company, like, “Oh, you know. Elizabeth, let me transfer this number over to Elizabeth.” They actually have a receptionist and then they want it to go to a hard drive, a hard device not an actual mobile phone.

Johnna, what do you … This is going to come out wrong but I’m going to ask the question anyway-

Elizabeth: Oh, great.

Gene: How do you dress for the day? A lot of people when they work from home, they’re like … Listen, I cannot work if I’m in bathrobe and slippers, you know what I mean. I got to get formal. Do you get formal or you comfortable just being chilled out sitting in your office?

Johnna: I do get dressed. I don’t dress as nicely as I would if I was working in an office with other people but I definitely look presentable. I might be wearing lounge pants but they’re nice enough. I can run out to the grocery store if I had to. I could answer the door and probably have some make-up and my hair done. I don’t feel good working in literally roll out of bed and start working. I find that not a productive way to start the day.

Gene: Right. Different people have different feelings. Do you have a specific routine when you’re working from your office? Do you have lunch at the same time of day? Do you take a break at a certain time? How do you-

Johnna: Not intentionally but it probably worked out like just because of habit. No. I don’t try to box myself into a schedule. I actually worked in offices for many, many years, so when I did start working from home, that’s one of the huge perks of it for me is not having to take lunch between 12 and 12:45 every day. Yeah. That doesn’t help me but I think it does help some people. They really need that discipline and routine in order to work or else they just get all over the place.

Gene: Got it. That’s good. Another question for you because you’re working from home, when was the last time you actually sent a fax?

Johnna: Oh gosh. I couldn’t even tell you but it probably-

Gene: I believe Bill Clinton was President at the time and it was the dotcom boom.

Johnna: The last time I sent a fax, it probably was not even a work thing. It probably related to some sort of government office or some sort of personal thing-

Gene: Right.

Elizabeth: Not in your house.

Johnna: -where they were still using. Yeah. It’s pretty much all scanning and emailing.

Gene: You don’t have a fax machine in your office but you do have a unit that you can scan. Do you have a copy machine in your office?

Johnna: Mine is actually broken and I have to buy a new one. I go over to my mom’s house and use hers for now, but yeah. Essentially, yeah. I having a copier, scanner, printer.

Gene: You think that’s important.

Johnna: Useful, yeah, for me. Yeah.

Gene: Right. Right.

Johnna: I think there might be people who work even more in cloud-based worlds where they don’t need to print out documents at all, you know.

Gene: We don’t. We use eFax, is our service. We’ve been using that since the 1940s. It’s been around that long. I didn’t even have a scanner in my office, but if I ever need something scanned, I fax it to eFax and it turns into a PDF and emails it back to me immediately.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Gene: Now, there’s a little bit of a cost to that, so it’s not completely free. Then, I get it and … I haven’t sent a fax in a while but, I know this sounds weird faxes to eFax only in place of a scanner. We haven’t copied stuff. I haven’t had much need to do copying either.

Elizabeth: You have a printer, right?

Gene: I do. Johnna, do you print, right? Do you still print stuff out?

Johnna: I do. Not because I really need to but because my brain works … Sometimes I need to take notes-

Gene: Agreed.

Johnna: -off of a document or something. I just have an old school brain that works better when I can physically look at the page. I also read paper books still.

Gene: Right.

Johnna: That’s, again, another individual decision.

Elizabeth: I wouldn’t be able to write without being able to print stuff out. I cannot proofread my own writing on a computer screen.

Gene: Right.

Elizabeth: I have to print things out.

Gene: Well, look Johnna though. She’s got the paper calendar. She’s got the paper book. She’s printing stuff out.

Elizabeth: She’s old school.

Gene: Yeah. This is fantastic. Johnna, when you were done, we’re going to watch a couple episodes of The Brady Bunch together just to, you know. If we’re in the 70s, you might as well live it, right?

Elizabeth: Gene, can you talk a little bit … I think Johnna’s advice, just to summarize it here is start small. Then, it is so easy to just run out to Staples if you decide like, “You know what, I do need a filing cabinet.” It’s so easy to do that.

We will link to Johnna’s article in the show notes because-

Gene: And her Instagram account.

Elizabeth: And her Instagram account.

Gene: See pictures of you.

Elizabeth: Yep. Johnna just bought a beautiful colonial home in New London, Connecticut so she’s been documenting it on her Instagram account, so we will put up the picture of her office.

We will also link to the article she wrote because it’s pretty extensive. It’s kind of what you need for an office, what you don’t need for an office, and how to get all the clutter out of your office because I’m assuming … I know that happens for me a little bit, just the paperwork piles up and mail piles up and just how to get rid of all that stuff. I’m wondering, for you Gene, I’m now going to ask you some of the questions you were asking Johnna.

Gene: Yes.

Elizabeth: What is your routine for the day? How do you make sure that you’re not just walking into your office like, “Oh. I don’t know where to start.” You, I’m sure, have a set routine you follow.

Gene: I really do. Yeah, I really do. It’s funny. Everybody has their own way of doing work. I get up at 5:00 every day.

Elizabeth: Oh my God.

Gene: I know and I go straight into the office. I don’t shower. I actually haven’t showered in months.

Elizabeth: You don’t walk the dog?

Gene: No. The dog will have none of it. Dog’s fast asleep. That dog does not want to go out at 5 in the morning. You kidding me?

Elizabeth: Oh really? Okay. Smart dog.

Gene: It’s a very lazy dog. I will work through until my wife goes out to her job, which she usually leaves around 7:15. At that point, that’s when I’ll take the dog out. Say I’m working from home the entire day, so I’ll take the dog out at that point and walk her out. Then, the dog does the business. Come back and then I swear to God, I come back into my office, both of you guys and Johnna, maybe you can relate to this. Then, I look up and it’s 6:00. You know what I mean?

I cannot even tell you what goes on in that office during the day. That is the Marks Group International Worldwide Headquarters inside of that … The deals and the transactions that are done during the day. I work off my CRM system so I have a to-do list of what I need to get done today and I block out time.

I’m like, “Okay. Between now and lunch time, I’m working on my actions for today.” The emails I got to send back. The pro-active stuff. Do you know what I mean?

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: I know in advance. Sometimes I have calls scheduled during the day and sometimes after that call, I got to take an hour or two out and I need to work on these three quotes that need to get out. I know all of that in advance.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Gene: Very blocked off day.

Elizabeth: What advice would you give Evelyn as a fellow small business owner with employees on transitioning from, let’s say a brick and mortar office to a virtual office?

Gene: Well, we did that like 10 years ago. We had a brick and mortar office and our employees were coming into the … Well, not that much, that’s why, they were out. It’s a cultural change and I think it’s a good change to make but at the same time you have to be very, very cognizant of the employees that might not be adapting well to that change.

It’s kind of like the 20/80 rule. It’s like 20% of the people take up 80% of your time. It’s likely there might be one or two people in your company, depending on the size of your organization that just aren’t going to adapt as well. You just need to have your radar up, your antenna up to make sure that you know who those people are. You got to sort of coach them through it.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: If they don’t fit into the culture, I got to tell you, I mean, if you close your offices and you’re making everybody work from home and somebody cannot work from home, it does not bode well for a long-term relationship with that employee.

Elizabeth: Well, it sounds like, in your business and in Evelyn’s business, the employees are mostly out on the road. It’s just a little-

Gene: Well, she does cloud services.

Elizabeth: -bit of time … Yeah, but she’s going into people’s businesses to help them transition. That’s a lot of-

Gene: A lot of independence.

Elizabeth: For some of these old school business owners, that takes a lot of hands on help to be like, “Are you sure it’s going to be there? Are you sure it’s going to be there?”

Gene: Yep.

Elizabeth: It sounds like here employees are on the road most of the time and they’re in their home for a short amount of time.

Gene: The hope is that … They’re kind of like my company, where they’re already used to being mobile and independent and unsupervised and they’re out around doing their stuff. Just working from home rather than working from a desk in the office doesn’t really make a difference.

The one other advice I would give Evelyn, and I am not taking this advice, is to try and have more times to get the other face to face with your people as a group, you know. I’m terrible at that. We only do it once or twice a year because you’re busy and whatever. If I was a better manager, I’d be having monthly meetings, even at a Starbucks or somewhere where everybody can see each other and trade some ideas and go over. It’s nice.

Elizabeth: Buy everyone some lattes.

Gene: Yeah. Really. It’s nice. Humans need to interact. It’s very important.

Elizabeth: Yeah. We are also going to link to … Gene has written extensively about work from home programs, so we’re going to link to all of his articles. Some of them are Seven Best Practices From a Work From Home Program, The Nine Tech Tools That You Need To Have A Work From Home Program/Virtual Office, so we will link to all of that in the show notes.

Gene: Hey, Johnna, don’t you get lonely working from home all day? Don’t you want to get a doggy to be in there with you or a cat?

Johnna: I would. I would love to get a cat someday. Right now, I travel a bit too much to … I wouldn’t want to leave the cat home alone but someday, yeah. There’s definitely a cat in my future.

Gene: Okay. Well, I’m more of a dog fan than a cat and we have both dogs and cats but cats can be left alone for … I mean, they’re ways you leave them alone at home than-

Elizabeth: How long can you leave a cat alone?

Gene: Oh my God. Well, we have somebody come in if we’re away, like once a day to feed the cat and change the litter and all of that.

Elizabeth: Play with them.

Gene: Yeah. The cat’s sleeping all the-

Johnna: You have to get a reliable person to come in and you know.

Gene: Yeah. You do. Elizabeth is looking for extra work, so you can call on her and she’ll be able to check in.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Definitely. Johnna, tell us about the other stuff you’re working on. I know you’re just started a new travel blog.

Johnna: Yeah. I just started a new thing. It’s a little travel writing project for which I’m visiting every state in the USA in 2017. I’m trying to document what it feels like to be a domestic traveler now in these crazy times that we’re living in.

Elizabeth: She has beautiful photography. We’ll link to that in the show notes too. What states have you been to so far?

Johnna: So far, just DC and Pennsylvania because I just started at the end of January but obviously lots more coming up.

Elizabeth: Definitely.

Gene: Okay.

Elizabeth: You’ve been to Pennsylvania. Did you go to Gene’s neighborhood in Philadelphia?

Gene: Were you in Philadelphia? Did you go Banshee, Pennsylvania? Does anybody know Banshee?

Johnna: I did not but I love Philadelphia, by the way. Great city.

Gene: Yeah. Philly is a great town. My recommendation is you should go to an Outback Steakhouse in every state in the country. It’s the best restaurant. My favorite restaurant.

Elizabeth: There is a photographer that I follow on Twitter who goes to McDonald’s in every state and he interviews people and it’s so interesting. He takes their picture and there are people that go to McDonald’s every single day.

Gene: Yeah. That’s a great idea, actually.

Elizabeth: They have a group of people that they meet at McDonald’s and play cards with and have coffee. McDonald’s actually has really good coffee.

Gene: McDonald’s is awesome, alright. I’d love to eat there more but. I would have a Big Mac over a fancy meal any … I love McDonald’s. It’s all in moderation.

Elizabeth: It’s so gross.

Gene: Oh, stop. I think McDonald’s is great.

Elizabeth: I will give you, the french fries are awesome.

Gene: Yeah. They are.

Elizabeth: The hash browns-

Johnna: The thing about McDonald’s is the clean bathrooms on every highway anywhere in America.

Elizabeth: Yes. Yes.

Gene: True. Says something.

Elizabeth: That is a good travel tip. We will link to that and we will link to Johnna’s article that she wrote about office organization in the show notes. Johnna, thanks for joining us.

Gene: Thanks Johanna.

Johnna: Thank you so much.

Gene: Take care.

Elizabeth: Okay. We’ll be right back with question number two and this is going to be about managing vendors.

QUESTION #2: Dealing with Vendors

Elizabeth: Alright. Okay. We’re back with question number two. This is Kirsten from Washington and she has a problem with vendors. Kirsten writes:

“My business has zero employees but 22 vendors.”

Gene: You know what? I’ve got a problem with vendors. They charge me too much. Of course she has a problem with vendors.

Elizabeth: She says:

“Yes. All of them are necessary,” because of course that was my next thought. “What tech do you recommend for managing this many vendors? Also, lots of them need to interact. What are the limits to how much I should require vendors to interact with each other? Sometimes they get competitive and every now and then, they point fingers. How should I manage?”


Gene: First of all, let me just make sure we have the facts right. She has no employees.

Elizabeth: Zero employees.

Gene: She’s got 22 vendors.

Elizabeth: Yes.

Gene: We don’t really know what she does.

Elizabeth: No. She didn’t give us that information. By the way, when you write in, you can give us your business name. I’m happy to link to it in the show notes. You don’t need to give us your location if you want to. I feel like everyone just started saying like, “I’m Gene from Philadelphia. I’m Elizabeth from Hartford,” but you don’t have to do that. If you want to promote your business a little bit, you’re free to do that.

Anyway. Yes. We know nothing about her business.

Gene: Okay, but she’s got 22 vendors and they interact with each other, it sounds like so Vendor A might talk to Vendor D about whatever projects they’re … whatever they’re doing and whatever. How can we manage them.

Actually, there are some good ways, some good technologies out there to help them manage that they might want to consider. If you’re doing a lot of projects, then one application you might want to think about getting is a cloud-based project manager.

Elizabeth: What would you recommend there?

Gene: There are two good ones. Basecamp is excellent.

Elizabeth: I use Basecamp.

Gene: Excellent. Another one is Asana, is also very, very good.

Elizabeth: I’ve heard good things about that.

Gene: There’s plenty of other good ones but those are two very well-known ones.

Elizabeth: As always, we’ll link to these in the show notes so don’t worry about taking notes.

Gene: Right. Those are very, very, very good ways to … so you can set up projects, you can link in the appropriate vendors. It then gives them the ability to add tasks, communicate with each other, take notes. Then, you can have work flows and guide lines and all that good stuff, so that’s one way of doing it this one main place.

If you want to go the free roots, there is Google Docs, so you do it just straight spreadsheet way and you manage it that way but not a lot of controls over that. Not a lot of automation related to it.

Elizabeth: I feel like that might get a little unwieldy.

Gene: It really depends on how it’s being managed.

Elizabeth: 22 vendors.

Gene: Yeah. It’s a lot. The other way to do it, and again when you’re talking about 22 vendors, you don’t have any employees and you’re looking for a system, again you’re going to have to pay a little bit, right? Two great collaboration systems to consider. Slack is one of them.

Elizabeth: Oh, you love Slack.

Gene: Love Slack and I’m equally starting to love Microsoft Teams, which is new. Topic for another day, Elizabeth, but it’s a new part of Office 365 and that is Microsoft Slack killer. That’s their competitor to Slack, which now exists within Office 365 Business Edition. If you set up Microsoft Teams or Slack, you can set up folders for jobs, projects, ideas, whatever. Again, you can give your vendors access to those projects and then have them communicate, collaborate, update documents, take notes to it, sort of that way she keep them all track in one place.

It’s a job to keep all that going and to keep it organized and your vendors of course, the biggest issue you’re going to have is do they want to actually participate in all of this. They’ve got other customers that they’re working with, so you’re definitely going to have those challenges.

Elizabeth: If you make it … It sounds like, if you’re managing 22 vendors, your business is managing those vendors.

Gene: Yeah. Sounds like you’re a project manager and this is what you’re doing, so that’s why a good project management application is really good. Now, in my company, because we are so invested into CRM, I would probably be doing this through our own CRM system. We use Zoho internally, but there are a lot of other great ones. At Microsoft has their dynamics and Sage is … Sugar. Nimble is a good one that’s out there. Insightly is excellent.

Those ones that I just named, you can set up projects within those systems. Then, just within your CRM system have it do what a project manager would do. None of the CRMs do it as well as a project managers but if you’re already using a CRM system like the ones that I mentioned, then the first thing I’d probably recommend is to expand your use of it that way you’re not adding on your software and complicating your life anymore.

Elizabeth: Now, what about her issue with the vendors getting competitive and pointing fingers?

Gene: Right.

Elizabeth: I feel like you would just shut that down immediately.

Gene: Yeah, so her vendors are 8-year-old children, is that what you’re saying? Is that what’s going…? She’s actually a school teacher. She’s not a business owner and she’s just trying to figure out how to manage her third grade class.

Elizabeth: Yeah. That’s what it sounds like.

Gene: What do you want me to say? Your vendors are getting competitive and they’re pointing fingers at each other. To me, your vendors are your partners and over the years … We implement CRM systems in our business and other technology systems. We work with IT firms that manage networks and man, I’m telling you the cardinal sin, Elizabeth and Johnna if you’re still there, one of the cardinal sins is if a IT partner we’re working with points a finger at us, to the client, I’m like, “Well, I guess we’re just not going to be working together anymore because we’re partners here.

If you’re managing your vendors right-

Johnna: I’m sorry.

Gene: Go ahead.

Johnna: I am still here.

Gene: I know. I’m just kidding.

Johnna: I’m wondering, Gene, how you know when it’s a tech problem and when it’s a human relations kind of problem because I want to say she should hire an assistant to just manage these vendors because every company that I’ve worked for, which were much bigger companies that dealt with a lot of vendors, they had employees whose job was essentially handling them and I wonder how do you even know when you’ve gone beyond what a technology can handle?

Elizabeth: Yeah. Is a full-time job.

Gene: True. You know what it is. I think what you have to do is … and I do this with the sub-contractors that I hire. I do lay down some sort of rules of the road, you know, Johnna, like some laws saying, “Listen. If we’re going to work together, here’s three things you cannot do. I’m just saying these three things.” Maybe one of those three things is I don’t want to hear about you bickering with our other vendors. We’re all one family. We’re all one team. We’re all trying to do what’s the best interest of our mutual customers here, so if there’s an issue, bring it to me and we’ll get it resolved like adults. That’s one of them.

When I say, when I hire a sub-contractor, I’m always like, “Listen. If you’re working at a client or you bump into another … and do work on the side for that client that I don’t know about, that’s a bad thing. I’m not going to work with you ever again if you’re basically stealing work from my company’s clients. Oftentimes clients will ask them to do … say like, “Hey. You know what, instead, forget Gene’s company. Why don’t you and I just work on whatever?” Just bring it to my attention because sometimes I might say, “Yeah. Go ahead and do it. It’s fine. It’s not that big a deal,” but please don’t show me the disrespect of just not and doing something on your own.

Elizabeth: Do you sign contracts with them?

Gene: I have independent contracting agreements with my contractors but they’re worthless. What am I going to do? I’m going to go and chase somebody down and sue them and whatever. Some guy worked out of his home. Come on. I’m going to repossess his 1994 Honda Civic, you know what I mean. It’s not worth it.

We do just say, “Listen, we want to have a relationship together and I want to keep giving you work,” and Evelyn should be saying to this her vendors, “I want to continue to give you work. I want to still work but to have a relationship, this is just two or three things that you just can’t do. I cannot abide you sniping or bickering with another one or competing against another and undercutting them. We have to have a few foundational rules here.” That might work.

Elizabeth: Alright, we’ll be right back with Gene’s Word of Brilliance.


Elizabeth: Okay. Alright. We’re back with Gene’s Word of Brilliance.

Gene: Two words. We actually just kind of talked about it earlier this episode but I’m going to have to bring it up again. The two words are, Elizabeth, is Microsoft Teams. The reason why I bring up Microsoft Teams is because it’s new. It was just introduced just a few months ago, in late 2016. I like it so much because we have so many clients that have Microsoft Office already and they are horrible with it, right? They use 10% of what Office does. It’s so typical of any business owner because we’re busy and we own this product, we’re paying for it and we’re using as a word processor and that’s it.

We talked about it earlier, about Microsoft Teams, but I just wanted to just bring it back up again. It was released in the end of 2016. It is part of Office Business Edition, a premium edition, which costs like $12.50 a month a user.

What’s awesome about Microsoft Teams, everybody, if you’re going to use it for your business is that you can create folders for any ideas, projects, things that you have going on and then you link inside of it any communications. You’re going to get rid of your instant messenger. You’re going to get your text messages will go in there, your emails from Outlook, for example, will go in there as well. All related to that project or that idea. You can bring in document. You can bring in spreadsheets. If you have a Skype call, me and Elizabeth have a call on Skype about this project or this idea, boom, it gets saved inside of that folder as well. It’s like a one stop place where all communication and collaborations done.

Elizabeth: And it happens automatically?

Gene: It happens automatically. Then, it’s got powerful searching. If I be like, “Hey. We’re going to search for Elizabeth Larkin podcast,” whatever, boom. It pulls up wherever there’s documents or communications were found within the system.

If you’ve got an organization with, I don’t know, three people, five people and beyond, and you’re looking for one place where everybody can keep all of their communication, collaborations together, this is great. It’s like Slack, which I’ve talked about before, which is an excellent product. It’s just that Microsoft Teams, it’s now part of Office, so if you’ve got Office, you can be using it. It’s part of the deal. Again, it’s a new product and I think it’s a really good product for small businesses.

Elizabeth: How would someone like Johnna, let’s call her a solopreneur or a micropreneur. Johnna, which one do you prefer?

Johnna: I don’t know. Solopreneur, I guess if I’m going to be a ‘preneur.

Elizabeth: Solopreneur. Would she find benefit in this?

Gene: She would. Let’s use Johnna as an example. By the way, it’s more beneficial when there’s a work group, okay? Let me just say it but if you’re a solopreneur … Johnna, you work on projects-

Elizabeth: With clients.

Gene: With clients, but with The Hartford is a client but then you have sub-projects because you’re writing five different things for The Hartford, right? With each of those five things that you’re writing, you create a folder because you’re talking to two or three different people or maybe you’re saving documents, you’re bookmarking documents related to the research that you’re doing, or maybe you have an interview with somebody on Skype, then you start working on the project itself in a Word document, everything related to that project is under its own folder. That’s a sub-project of The Hartford because that’s your company.

Elizabeth: That’s really cool.

Gene: Very cool.

Elizabeth: Do you have to be using Microsoft Outlook?

Gene: Yes. That’s the beauty of it I think, is because most of our clients and individuals that have Microsoft Office, were using such a small percentage of it, Teams forces you to then use all these different things. Then you save it.

Elizabeth: Kind of brilliant on their part because it keeps you from-

Gene: It’s a great idea.

Elizabeth: Now, what if you are not a Microsoft person? What about something like Zapier?

Gene: Right. Zapier itself is more of a connector application, more of a data integration application. If you’re looking to do the same thing and you’re not a Microsoft person, you can do the same thing I mentioned before. Slack is another similar application because Teams’ going after Slack, right? Then, even Google is got some collaboration applications that you can use that. Amazon, believe it or not are starting to get into that space as well.

Elizabeth: The thing that I love about it for a solopreneur, micropreneur, whatever you’re referring to yourself as, is you have projects and all the information is in one folder.

Gene: Not just the information that you’re … but communications.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: Conversations that you’ve had. Text messages, emails, Skype calls, and then, Johnna, like two years from now, some other client hires you to do something similar. You’re like, “Oh, you know, I did something similar for The Hartford back in 2017.” You search. You just do the keyword search and boom, it’ll pull up whatever you did, wherever it is within Teams.

Elizabeth: Great.

Gene: I’m very optimistic about this application. I think it’s very cool.

Elizabeth: Alright. Well, Johnna, Gene, thanks for joining me today.

Gene: Thanks, Johnna.

Johnna: Thank you.

Elizabeth: We will be back next week with another episode of the Small Biz Ahead podcast.