How do you know when you have a brilliant new business idea? Should you let your employees use smartphones while they’re on the job? Elizabeth Larkin and Gene Marks tackle these questions on today’s Small Biz Ahead podcast.

Show Notes

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Elizabeth: Welcome back to another edition of The Small Biz Ahead Podcast.

Gene, how are you today?

Gene: I am doing well and excited to be talking to you.

Elizabeth: I’m so excited to announce today that the podcast is finally on iTunes.

Gene: Thank goodness.

Elizabeth: You can go and subscribe to it there.

Gene: Yep, I agree, so stop listening to the Beatles and move on and listen to this podcast, because it’s way more entertaining and fun.

Elizabeth: Exactly. Definitely. Because it’s now on iTunes, we’ve been getting some reviews. Reviews really help us, because the more reviews we get, the higher up in iTunes we go, the more people start listening. The more listeners we have, the more questions we get. We’re already getting a lot of questions now.

I wanted to take a moment to read one of the reviews that we got, which is going to be very awkward for us, but …

Gene: Bring it on.

Elizabeth: We have to do it anyway.

Gene: This review is from Simon Cowell of America’s Got Talent. Go ahead.

Elizabeth: Our first review, we got a four-star review, and it’s, quote: “Okay, so I don’t normally review anything on iTunes like apps or games or whatever.” I like this person’s style. “This podcast is great because it’s really just information about running a business. It’s not boring stuff where the host just talks about their lives or go off in a million different directions. I guess it’s the organization of the whole thing that I like. They choose two questions from owners or listeners and answer them, so it functions like a casual guide in audio form, more than some egomaniacal maniac rambling about his thoughts on a subject.”

Well, thank you very much for that review.

Gene: Thank you very much, Mom. That was really nice of you to submit that. I’ve got a bunch more reviews for you to write as well, so I’ll be in touch. You’re the best.

Elizabeth: Thanks, Mom.

We’re going to be right back with our first question, which is about if you have a brilliant idea, how do you know if it’s going to make a good business, after we hear from our sponsor.

That review was crazy.

Gene: That’s good.

QUESTION #1: Testing Out My Brilliant Idea 

All right. We’re back with our first question. This is from Rebecca from New London, Connecticut, and Rebecca has a great idea for a business, but she’s not sure if it’s going to work.

She writes, “I’m a freelancer in an industry that has undergone massive changes since I first started about ten years ago. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to do the type of work I want to do and get paid for it under the current model of freelancing in this field. I came up with a brilliant idea that probably everyone else on the planet has already had.”

“My idea is to start my own website, sell ads on it, and magically get paid while doing what I love, in my case providing information about a particular niche topic. I know that many people seek out and are interested in this particular type of information. At least that’s what I gather from general knowledge of the industry, Google searches and responses on social media when this type of content is shared. I also know that many other websites also cover this topic from various indirect angles. However, none of them, to my knowledge, package it in the simple and seemingly obvious way that I’m thinking of. It seems like if my website existed, people would love it, and yet it doesn’t, so how do I know if I’m onto something or if everyone else knows something that I don’t.”

Elizabeth: This is a really good question. I think a lot of people probably face this when they’re starting a business. This is such a simple idea, why hasn’t anyone done it before?

Gene: Right. Most likely, somebody has.

Elizabeth: Maybe somebody has. My answer to this is this seems like if you’re just going to start a website and you’re going to do a particular niche type of topic on it, just do that, because starting a website is so cheap. It’s one of the cheapest things you can do. What is that? It’s a hosting fee and buying either a WordPress template or a blogger template. It’s doing minimal design. You could probably get a website up and running in a couple hours for less than a hundred dollars.

Gene: That’s true.

Elizabeth: Then all you have to put into it, obviously what costs a lot of money, is your time and your skills, but you could do it on a small scale, put it out there and see what happens.

I will say that selling ads on a website is not a good business model at this point. If you’re going to do a website, what you need to look into is doing sponsored content. What sponsored content is you build up a big audience. You become a, quote, unquote, “influencer.” You’ll see these people on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter. They have huge followings, so big brands will go to them and say, “Can you use my product and write about it or tweet about it or photograph it?” Then they’ll pay you

I know some bloggers get upwards of $20,000 to do one sponsored post. That’s where the industry is going. It’s really going away from just selling ads on a website, because people don’t click on ads on websites.

Gene: That’s true.

Elizabeth: Also, Google really cornered that market with AdSense. You would have to come up with a couple different revenue streams. You couldn’t just sell ads, but the startup cost of doing this are so cheap, I think you should just dive in.

Gene, what do you think?

Gene: I think that you should not start your business. That’s what I think. I’m actually dead serious about that. I do get a lot of people that have brilliant ideas and want to start up their own companies. They don’t have any experience in what they’re doing. It’s the first time they’re trying to do this as they’re just whatever. Yeah, your chance of success, it’s one in a million.

Elizabeth: I think she does have experience, because she already works in this industry.

Gene: That’s good, and that’s the point that I wanted to make about this, is that I had a kid that came to me, a friend of my family that has graduated college five years ago, and he had an idea as well. He wanted to do user design on a website. He wanted to start up his own company doing it, but he hasn’t been out there actually doing that in practice. My advice to him was to say, “Listen, there’s plenty of consulting firms out there in web forms that do user design experience for websites. Go and work for them for a few years and get your experience, cut your teeth with somebody else. See what they’re doing right and see what they’re doing wrong. Steal some of their ideas if you can. Learn from their mistakes. Then when you learn, then go ahead and go out and start up your own site.”

In this case, for this reader or for this listener, if she has some experience in the industry, that’s great. She does sound pretty tentative to me. My feeling is is that, for the business people that have really succeeded, particularly in technology, and this is a technology play, they always work for another company for a while beforehand, sometimes a bigger. You always hear about engineers from Google spin off and start their own such-and-such companies or a group of designers from Uber have done this over there. They all come from backgrounds of experience in technology where they’ve worked at some great place. They’ve learned from that great place, and then they grab some of what they’ve learned, and then they’ve used it to start up their own business.

By the way, not only does that experience help you with your next business venture, it can attract some investors and financials as well. Who are you if you’re just trying to raise some money, but if you’ve had some experience at some well-known firm or have done, been in the industry for a while, you’ll attract more people that might want to put some money behind you.

Again, if you’ve got the experience, great, but my advice to anybody who wants to start up a business on just basically an idea, is to work for somebody that has a similar idea, because, trust me, the idea I’m sure is somewhere out there, and get your experience first before starting up your own company. Then do it better.

Elizabeth: All right. There’s your answer. We will be right back with question number two, which is about letting your employees use their cell phones, yay or nay. We’ll be right back after we hear from our sponsor.

QUESTION #2: Should I let My Employees Use Their Smartphones at Work?

Okay. We’re back with question two. This is from Matt from Illinois.

Matt writes, “I run a busy diner and have a conundrum. We have busy times in the mornings from 7 am until about 9:30 am. Then it tapers off until about 11 am. I have a strict no-phones policy for my employees. Should I let them use their phones during the downtime?

Gene: Yes. I think so. I really do. Here’s where we are in 2016, 2017, 2018. Cell phones, Smartphones are a part of our lives. Employees, particularly millennials, who now make up more than 50% of the working population, they want mobility. They want independence. They don’t want to feel like they’re in jail when they’re at work. Many millennials would prefer more independence over higher salary in some cases.

If I was running a diner and I’m trying to attract really good, talented people to work at my diner, and that’s easier said than done, particularly in that industry. People that come to work there, if the time is down and they do want to use their cell phones, as an employer I would give them the opportunity to say, “Sure, as long as you’re not ignoring customers. If any customers are being ignored, then we’re not going to let you do it.” Why not? You’re big boys and girls right now, and I just, to put somebody under lock and key and say you can’t do that, to me, I think is not something that good employers are going to be doing over the next few years.

Elizabeth: How do you feel about having the no-phones policy during busy times? Do you think that makes sense?

Gene: Yeah, I do. You know what? It’s funny that you say that, because it just blows my mind as a business owner that you actually have to have a policy like that.

Elizabeth: I know.

Gene: Isn’t that just common sense? Everybody, we’re busy. Please don’t be on your phones right now. It’s breakfast time. The fact that you have to have a policy is frustrating to me as a business owner. Yeah, I guess you’ve got to have it, because there’s going to be that one person out of your 25 employees who are going to blow it and use their cell phone when they shouldn’t be doing it, so you have to have a policy for that. Yeah, I think you should have a policy like that when times are busy, but it’s only just common sense.

Elizabeth: It is common sense. I’m going to blow this question out a little bit. What if you’re in an office, and then you see … I mean, I see this where I work. People pull out their phones. They’re checking their email or their text messages. To me that’s just, again, part of modern life, but a lot of managers don’t like to see people on their phones. They see that as that’s time they’re not working.

Gene: Amazing to me, isn’t it? As a manager … It’s so generational. Anybody that’s under the age of 35 can’t imagine really that they would be working in an environment where, they get a call on their cell phone or a text from a friend, they can’t respond to that. You see the photos of workplaces at the turn of the 20th century with rows of women on typewriters. You know what I mean? These horrible, these sweatshops of offices. It’s just not the way it is nowadays.

Yes, of course, my feeling is, and I’m with this with my own people, whatever you want to do, do it. Obviously, don’t be anything unprofessional, but you’ve got a life to live. You’ve got a family. You’ve got a personal life. Just get your work done. That’s all.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: If I see you on your phone, I’m not going to question, because I’m going to give you the respect of assuming that you’ve got it together, you’re doing what you’re doing, but you’re still getting your responsibilities done. To me, that’s what managers today, good managers today, they have that point of view.

Elizabeth: I think a lot of times or oftentimes people fail to set really good goals for their employees, so then they’re constantly looking over their shoulder, like, “What are you doing? Are you working? Are you working? Are you working?” If you’re setting your employees up with a project and giving them the tools they need to complete it and then you’re going to hold them to goals that you two set together or you set as a group, then I think you can be a little more, “You know what? If you want to take a 20-minute break,” as we talked about in another podcast, or, “You want to look at your phone and check your Facebook feed, that doesn’t bother me as long as you’re going to get your work done by the date we set and you’re going to meet these specific goals.”

Gene: The other thing that’s driving that is that there’s a huge push of course for remote employees and work at home and being more mobile, so I’m seeing a lot of clients and a lot of my readers that run small businesses, they’re opening themselves up to allowing their employees to do that. How else do you attract good employees by providing those kinds of benefits to people? If you’re not able to give your employees the ability to be as remote as you’d like them or they’d like to be, then at the very least, when they’re in the office, for goodness sake, they should feel comfortable texting a friend or having at least the freedom to have their Smartphone around, and you give them the respect of saying, “Go ahead and do that as long as you get your job done.”

Elizabeth: Yeah. I definitely agree. I think in a service industry customers just don’t like to see people on their phone, but, again, I don’t know if that needs to be a policy. I think that just needs to be more of an environment, like the culture at your business.

Gene: Correct.

Elizabeth: If customers are around, you’re focusing on the customer. You’re not answering or looking at your phone. Maybe you answer a call if it’s an emergency …

Gene: Actually, it’s a very, very good point. If I am sitting there at a table and I’m waiting to be served and I see my waiter or waitress is on their cell phone over there, that’s not a good impression to give to a customer. Again, I think it’s common sense again, but I guess some people, there is a small percentage of people that just don’t have that common sense, and they ruin it for everybody else. Yeah, if you’re going to take your call and you’re customer facing, you need to be advising your people, “You got to take the call behind the door here or out of sight of customers. I don’t want to stop you from doing that or using your phone, but you can’t be doing that in front of customers.”

When you go to a diner, what’s your favorite thing to order? Mine is the hot turkey sandwich with gravy on top of white bread. It’s delicious.

Elizabeth: I usually get tuna on rye.

Gene: Tuna on rye is also very good, yeah.

Elizabeth: I think that’s what my grandmother always got, so it’s like a reflex for me. I have to get that.

Gene: I also love the specials you get, like a corned beef special is always delicious. The only problem is they always put too much corned beef on the sandwich. You feel like, my God, this is enough for three sandwiches here.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Beef-to-bread ratio needs to be correct.

Gene: I don’t order that as much.

Elizabeth: Especially I feel like in cities in the northeast they get really into …

Gene: Piling on these sandwiches. It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous.

Elizabeth: … making those huge sandwiches that you can barely even eat that … God, I love a good diner. So good.

Gene: Oh, my God, it’s my favorite.

Elizabeth: Or just a good grilled cheese once in a while.

Gene: It’s funny that you say that. I cannot bring myself to pay $7.50 for a grilled cheese sandwich, because it’s delicious. Usually I’ll make a grilled cheese at home, because it kills me to think, this is two slices of bread and two pieces of cheese. It’s like, I can’t believe I’m paying this amount of money for this. That’s just the cheapskate in me.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Someone else is making it for you and cleaning up, though.

Gene: I know. I know, but I’m still a cheapskate.

Elizabeth: Yep. I hear you. I definitely hear you on that.

We’ll be right back with a word of brilliance from Gene.

WORD OF BRILLIANCE: Bereavement

fudge.jpg

Gene’s dog, Fudge RIP

Elizabeth: We’re back. Gene, what is your word of brilliance for us this week?

Gene: Elizabeth, my word of brilliance to you as an employer is this, bereavement. That is my word. I recently wrote, within the past few months … I write every day for The Washington Post, and I wrote a column about the rise in bereavement policies that employers are giving to their employees, except it’s a special type of policy here. Let me explain to you what it is.

My dog, Elizabeth, his name is Fudge or was, 14 years old, greatest dog in the universe. We absolutely love this dog, this little Cavalier King Charles, passed away back in February. We had to put him down. He was very sick.

Elizabeth: Oh, no. Do you have pictures?

Gene: I have pictures. Oh, he’s the greatest dog ever.

Elizabeth: Could we put a picture up in the show notes?

Gene: Please. Yeah, I would love to do that. I’ll send you a picture of Fudge. Greatest dog in the world.

I know you, as a listener, I know you’re thinking your dog is the greatest dog in the world. It’s not. My dog, this dog, Fudge, greatest dog in the world, an angel on earth. Anyway, we had to put him down back in February. It was on a Sunday. Pretty devastating. Pretty upsetting.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: Monday I went to work because I had a job. I’m running a business and I had to … I went to work on my … Apparently, that’s not the norm so much anymore. There are more and more companies around the country that are now offering their employees pet bereavement time off.

Elizabeth: Oh, my gosh.

Gene: If you lose a pet, you can take one or two extra in addition to your paid time off, your sick days, your vacation days. You can get an extra day or two off for pet bereavement, because studies have shown it takes a typical person six months to get over the grief of losing your pet.

To me, that sounds absolutely insane. Even as much as I love my dog, it’s still a dog, and you’ve got to go to work. The reason why I bring up bereavement, and this is the words of brilliance today, is that we’re trying to compete for good people, and we’re trying to offer interesting and innovative benefits and policies to our employees. This might be something that will help you stand out when you’re recruiting that employee.

Elizabeth: I think in the economy right now, people keep thinking, “There’s not a lot of jobs out there, so people …” If you put an ad out for a job, you get thousands of resumes back.

Gene: Right. Right.

Elizabeth: You’re not always getting the best people.

Gene: No, you’re not.

Elizabeth: You really need to have those kinds of …

Gene: They’re all coming, at least for me, from India and Pakistan and China. Maybe it’s the way I’m writing my ads, but you’re right. You get all these resumes back, but then when you really filter them down, you’re right. A lot of them …

Elizabeth: It’s hard to get really good people.

Gene: That’s right. That’s right.

Elizabeth: Having pet bereavement. The last time I had a dog that passed away, also on a Sunday, and I went to … I was working in an investment bank, and I went and sat on the trading floor the next day, and my boss and one of my coworkers gave me “Sorry for Your Loss” cards. I lost it. I was sitting there crying, and I was thinking, “God, if I could have just worked from home today.”

Gene: You still put in a full day of work there.

Elizabeth: I did.

Gene: What does The Hartford do? Is there a pet bereavement policy?

Elizabeth: I don’t believe so. Actually, what The Hartford does, and we should talk about this in a podcast, is you have paid time off. You can use that for whatever you want.

Gene: Right. Okay.

Elizabeth: You can use that for sick days. I think we also have additional bereavement, but you can use it for vacation. I think if my dog died, I would probably take a day off just because I’d be embarrassed to come into work with puffy eyes and …

Gene: Right. Understood.

Elizabeth: Maybe that’s a female thing.

Gene: It is, because I’d go right back to work. You’ve got to get back to …

Elizabeth: You don’t want to go into work looking like a maniac.

Gene: Understood.

Elizabeth: Like, streaked mascara down my face and everything.

Gene: Understood. Understood.

Elizabeth: Whereas men are like, “Ah, it’s allergies.”

Gene: Whatever. Move on.

Pet bereavement policy. Those are my words of brilliance for today.

Elizabeth: What other weird … I’m not going to say that’s weird. Also, I will say pet owners are probably, “I would totally take advantage of that,” and non-pet owners are …

Gene: Would be like, “Are you nuts?”

Elizabeth: “That’s crazy,” yeah.

Gene: Right.

Elizabeth: Have you seen or heard about any other benefits like that recently that you found interesting that people should look into?

Gene: What’s very, very popular among a lot of employers nowadays is providing extra services for their employees so that they don’t have to do stuff for them. For example, one benefit, I have one client that pays all dry cleaning for their senior managers, so that’s a pretty good …

Elizabeth: Wow.

Gene: They have a dry cleaning service come and pick up the clothes and then drop it off, and the company pays for it.

Elizabeth: Super convenient.

Gene: Isn’t that cool? You think to yourself, “Oh, my God.” For the employer, believe me, these people aren’t so altruistic. They’re like, “Listen, for what we’re paying in the dry cleaning, we’re still saving money on productivity, because our employees don’t have to be running around or leaving during lunchtime and whatever.”

Elizabeth: Honestly, dry cleaning causes me stress.

Gene: It does.

Elizabeth: Which sounds crazy, but the problem with most dry cleaners is they’re open 9 to 5.

Gene: I know.

Elizabeth: How am I supposed to get there?

Gene: Another topic for another day, which I can never even understood where you have dry cleaners, and there are other service companies, that don’t seem to realize that their base of their customers, and I know, because I have a client that makes some technology for the, like dry cleaning systems. The number of dry cleaners in this company has gone down significantly over the past 20 years.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: Look at the way we’re dressed; right?

Elizabeth: Yeah, super casual, yeah.

Gene: Things have changed.

Elizabeth: Wrinkle-resistant shirts. Yeah.

Gene: I still get stuff dry cleaned. Some people, and people still do. The other one is daycare and childcare, very, very important.

Elizabeth: On premises or just giving a stipend for that?

Gene: On premise and also by stipend.

Elizabeth: What about doggy daycare?

Gene: Doggy daycare I have not seen that, but it’s a great idea. That’s something you would like.

Elizabeth: I would love that, yeah.

Gene: I am sure, to bring your dog and leave it off at work would save …

Elizabeth: Yep. Yep.

Gene: All the things as an employer, if you can think of anything that would save your employees time and reduce their stress, that brings to work somebody more productive and happier and therefore more profitable for you.

Elizabeth: I know that a bunch of my friends work at hedge funds, and they all get free …

Gene: Jerks. Just kidding.

Elizabeth: They’re very nice people.

Gene: I’m sure they are.

Elizabeth: They all get free breakfast and free lunch, which is huge, because, A, they don’t have to think about what am I packing for lunch and breakfast. Plus, they get in so early because of the markets. B, they don’t leave the office. They’re at their desk all day long.

Gene: Those guys are sharks at those hedge funds. I bet you they’re eating each other’s lunches. That’s what’s going on there; right?

Elizabeth: A lot of lunch eating, yep.

All right. Thanks for joining us. We’ll be back next week with another edition of the Small Biz Ahead Podcast.