Archive for December, 2008

Celebrating Smart Choices in 2008

December 29, 2008

Inspired by a talk by Julie Hellwich, the owner of Smart Women Company, our Women in Networking group has made it an annual tradition to share our smart choices with each other at our December breakfast meeting.

Smart choices can come in many shapes and sizes. For some business owners, a smart choice was repositioning themselves in the marketplace to better reach their target audiences. For others, it was joining a networking group and meeting new people. Many professionals cited a career change or an attitude change as their smart choice.

This exercise inspired me to come up with my list of TOP 5 SMART CHOICES I made for my business this past year. Here they are:

1) I attended the Creative Freelancers conference in August. This made the list for many reasons. First, it’s smart to invest in your company, especially for education. Second, it left me with a concrete list of goals to achieve and strategies to implement. Third, it provided a rich opportunity to network with others in my field.

2) I became an active networker. I chose regular events to attend and showed up early and often with a fist full of cards. By attending regularly, I was able to get to know the members better and was able to pass on meaningful connections to others. I’ve learned to make time to follow up on new connections and have benefitted from using the services of people I’ve met. By participating actively in the networking process, I’ve been able to make valuable business connections that bring new clients, skill sets, and knowledge to my work.

3) I took advantage of online resources to promote my business. Blogging has given my business so much more exposure than my website alone and has provided me with a source of content for my monthly e-newsletters (also a smart choice). Adding links to e-mails to my email signatures, keeping updated profiles on Plaxo, Merchant Circle, Women in Networking, and the St. Paul Chamber site have all helped to keep my business visible on the web as well. This year I vow to learn more about the power of online social networking programs like Twitter, Linked In, My Space and more as they pertain to promoting my business.

4) I started a Google Calendar. While not perfect, the Google Calendar has done much for helping me to keep track of and remind me of appointments for Mix. I appreciate that it sends me emails before meetings and is available from any internet connection on the planet. I still have some work to do as far as tracking my commitments and deadlines, but Google Calendar has helped me to make a huge step forward.

5) I got a Blackberry. Some days I’m in studio working all day and others I’m running from one meeting to another. With my Blackberry phone and email function, now my clients are able to reach me and have their questions answered no matter where I am. The customer service value and the piece of mind it provides makes the Blackberry a very smart choice from this year!

A year from now, I look forward to writing about new smart choices I made for my business. Now it’s your turn. What smart choices did you make this year?

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The Dangers of Placeholder Text

December 18, 2008

I saw this in this morning’s Star Tribune, on the cover of the Taste section. Often times, when creating a design before the copy is ready, a designer will use placeholder text to show how many words will fit within a space.

When the copy is written, the idea is to replace the placeholder text with the real text.

In this example, the headline is real, but the subhead still has the placeholder text. Every designer’s nightmare! Let’s hope the poor chap has learned his lesson and gets to keep his job!

subheadgoof

Faxing Solutions for Small Businesses

December 17, 2008

fax

It’s a modern day dilemma for a small business: with 99% of all visual communication coming to your business through email or online, how can you justify the expense of having a fax machine and a separate phone line for that one customer a year who prefers this mode of communication?

The good news is, there are alternate options to traditional fax lines. The bad news? Well, choosing the right option for your business can be a little tricky. Here are some faxing suggestions with their associated pros and cons:

Efax.com | This is the online service I use to receive faxes. I signed up for the free account. Pros: you can immediately receive a fax number and successfully receive faxes after downloading their easy-to-use software. Cons: With the free account, the area code for your fax number will likely be a long distance number, and you won’t be able to send faxes or receive faxes greater than 20 pages in length. Fine print: you can get a custom number and send/receive faxes with larger page lengths if you upgrade. Their lowest-grade plan starts at $16.95/month, with a $10 start-up fee.

SimplifyFax.com | This is an online subscription service starting at $7.95 per month for a local number and $10.95 for a toll-free number. Pros: you can receive an unlimited number of fax pages and send up to 250 outbound pages for no additional fee. Cons: After your 250 pages, you pay five cents per page to send.

Faxaway.com | This is also an online subscription service. They have an initial $10 set-up fee and after that, it’s $1/month. They bill by transmission time to send, versus per page. Pros: receive an unlimited number of faxes for the monthly fee. Cons: Unless you’re living in Seattle, you’re likely to have a long-distance number. Also, transmission rates can be confusing to determine: they’re based on distance more like traditional phone lines. In this modern world, this seems antiquated to me!

Land lines | If you can get your hands on an old fax machine through ebay, Craigslist, garage sales, or TwinCitiesFreeMarket.org, you may have some telephone options that could be less expensive than online faxing. For example, one home-based freelance designer I spoke to simply tells the sender to let her know when to they’re ready to fax, then plugs in her machine to her main line to receive a fax. Prefer to keep your fax plugged in? Another colleague has a $3/month separate incoming fax line in addition to her land-based business line. These options can get tricky if you don’t use your land-based phone company for long-distance service (who does these days, when long distance is included in your cell phone plan??).

Buck the system. I think the reason I’ve opted to go with the crummy free fax number is that I’d like to think that ineffective technology should go gracefully to the sidelines when its day is up. I mean, when is the last time you received a fax that looked as crisp as an email? That had the color of a jpeg or a pdf? Or the interactivity of an e-newsletter or web page? With Adobe Acrobat and Microsoft Word, you can create comments right on a document and track changes by reader/editor. And desktop scanners, starting under $100, can convert documents to digital files which you can quickly email anywhere for free.

So, the best solution? Education about the benefits of non-fax communication. And for must-fax situations? Well, make friends with the fossil who has a fax machine next door.

Thank you to Creatives Group members for your ideas for this article.

This book by. . .your company!

December 10, 2008

Think your company writes the book on its specialty area? Well, now you can show it—literally—by creating custom, hard cover books and have them printed in quantities from one to hundreds.

Folksy books.
I first discovered the “self-publishing” trend when I met Karen Bradley, who creates and sells books for clients through the company Heritage Makers. Karen makes some really touching and compelling books for her clients, documenting family histories, sharing stories and pictures that children create, and capturing wedding memories. When I visited the Heritage Makers website, I learned that their business is built on network marketing, which can be a turn off to many. That said, there’s the option of purchasing directly from the site or through vendors like Karen, which makes the company more attractive to people who simply want to have a book made. I was impressed with the quality of the books, which come in nearly a dozen different sizes, are available with slipcovers or self-cover hard books, and have hundreds of design templates from which you may select (Note: most of the designs seemed pretty folksy and scrapbook-y, making them better suited for family stories, in my opinion).

My investigation into Heritage Makers started my brain churning about how books could be used as a marketing tool for businesses. It seemed like a great way to showcase a portfolio, for example. I mentioned it to Rod Wilson, a photographer I work with.

Photographer’s Books and Albums.
“Oh yeah—books are great!” He told me. “I make books for my wedding clients.” He pointed me to another online resource, ZookBinders. Their products, the ZookBook and the PhotoBook, are beautiful, professional-quality albums that are bound as books. The PhotoBook is more similar to what I saw at Heritage Makers, featuring a hardcover book with bound pages and a printed, wraparound cover. They come in square, vertical, and horizontal formats and have templates to assist you with the design. Frustratingly, I wasn’t able to view the prices online without making a call to their sales department. Overall, the books seemed great for photographers, but limited in their use for other applications.

Finally, Business Books!
And then I stumbled upon Blurb books. I actually found the site while checking out the latest Webby Award winners (their site received an award for 2008). Like the others, they offer a variety of sizes/formats, templates for ease of design, and several cover options. But unlike the other sites, the prices are listed up front (with no pressure to become a distributor), and they offer both hard and soft cover options. Best of all, they’re affordable! A 7″ square, hardcover book runs just $22.95, depending on the number of pages (page numbers can range from 20 to 440).

Publishing Your Work=Good For Business.

books

I visited Blurb’s “Book Ideas” link on their site and finally found what I was seeking:  examples of commercial applications for this super-cool self-publishing tool. Architects, contractors and interior designers show off their work with images and text! Ad agencies trumpet their work! Retail companies explain the philosophy behind their product choices!

Imagine making that next presentation to a potential client and handing them a book—a bound, hardcover book—with their name and logo on the cover. It’s possible now! How cool is this?

My mind is still spinning around the potential uses for self-published hardcover books, and I get excited each time I think of another application. But I think there are some general criteria you may consider when thinking about whether a printed book is a good idea for your company:

  1. Is there a visual presentation you give over and over? Maybe it would be better demonstrated with an oversized book that you can walk through with your prospects. I’m thinking it’s great for home or commercial contractors (window installers, remodelers, interior designers, floor and window treatment companies, architects, etc). I can see the potential for artists as well: photographers and photography brokers, fine artists, gallery owners, graphic artists, ad agencies, and more. For large clients with big budgets, consider printing a personalized copy to leave behind.
  2. Have you achieved a business milestone? A book may be a good way to commemorate a business milestone, or to thank a long-term employee or retiree for their work with the company. If it’s the former, you could print the book and share it with your key clients as a thank you and a self-promotion.
  3. Do you want an edge in presenting a business proposal? A book may be just the thing to give you an edge over your competition.
  4. Education. Does your company have a strong philosophical or educational perspective that would be beneficial to share? Publishing a book would be a great way to gain visibility and define your business as an authority in its market. You already know so much about what you do—put it down for others to see!
  5. Thank you books. What better way to reward customers than to publish photos of their completed project for them? Think about it. They’re happy because you took the time and expense to create the book for them, they share the book with others, and you get more referrals!
  6. Fun! Show off your company culture with a book. Create illustrations, fun stories, word finds, crossword puzzles, find-the-mistakes pictures, and any number of activities in a book with your company as the theme.

Books are a cultural icon. They don’t get tossed out. They’re substantial. They’re pleasant to touch and hold!

As always, don’t let the lure of a new graphic tool let you slip from your branding! No matter the subject of your book, make sure the fonts, layout, colors, and graphic elements mesh with your company’s existing brand. Let your designer tinker with the book publisher’s templates—that’s their job!

Want more ideas for how books can be used to promote your company? Mix Creative can help you think it through, from conception to design and production. Give us a call at 612 226-5717 or email us to request a quote.

Other resources for self-publishing: Lulu.com, iphoto books, snapfish, and myPublisher. Know other self-publishing resources? We’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below!

A cool online project management tool

December 1, 2008

Here’s a cool site for small business owners who work work in teams with outside vendors to complete projects. It’s called Basecamp, and it’s an online project management tool.

I first encountered Basecamp when working with another design firm on a web project. The firm set up a user name and password to their Basecamp account, then asked that all communication, files, and landmarks go through the site. When I logged on to the site, I could see a record of all our emails, a to-do list—sortable by team member, a calendar set with meeting dates and milestones, and all of our uploaded files (project documents, design files, raw files and more).

Since then, I’ve used Basecamp for Mix Creative’s own projects. We customized the environment with our client’s colors and logo, which made it look very professional. The team, initially slow to respond, later embraced the site and used to it track milestones on a project with a lot of players.

We’re not the only ones who’ve been impressed by the program: I’ve since learned that many of my peers in the creative business are using the tool to communicate with project teams for their clients as well. At $24/month, it’s worth checking out.

In effort to be fair, there are some other options out there that do the same thing. Even though I haven’t had experience working in other environments, I’d encourage you to do some research before selecting a system. Here are some direct competitors: Goplan, Lighthouse, activeCollab, or wiki sites like PBWiki and Wetpaint. You can also do quite a bit with free programs like Yahoo! or Google Groups. There’s also: Intervals, Wrike, and Microsoft Project.