A Takeaway from Ferguson – Protection for Small Business Owners

By Brittany Robinett

FergusonUnless you’ve been living under a rock, you have undoubtedly heard about the racial tension and civil unrest surrounding recent events in Ferguson, MO. On August 9th, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot fatally shot by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. Protests emerged amidst numerous controverted facts and unanswered questions, sparking cries of racism in the American justice system. Since the shooting, local entrepreneurs began to experience a decline in business. As tensions escalated, many were forced to board up windows and shut down.

On November 24th, the St. Louis County prosecutor announced the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson, triggering a local and national uproar. Riots ensued, leaving many small businesses looted, vandalized, or destroyed. Many business owners were by themselves, because they lacked the financial resources necessary to recover from such a catastrophic loss. In a few short minutes, many livelihoods were sacrificed in a community that had already lost so much.

The events of Ferguson, MO illustrate just how easily small businesses can bear the costs of civil unrest. Ferguson businesses find themselves asking, “How much does it cost to recover? Who bears the costs?” The tumultuous events have left many business owners wondering how they would cope in the same situation. Protests and riots are not as easily insured against as natural disasters and fires, because there’s no way to assess the risk and potential loss stemming from human emotion or civil discord. However, while those risks are unforeseeable and incalculable, they are not completely uninsurable.

The smaller your business, the more challenging and costly it is to prepare for extreme situations. As a business owner, it is crucial to consider all contingencies affecting your business – no matter how unlikely they might be. It is important to consider those protections available to you. Hopefully, some of the following steps will provide some guidance on how to combat the risks of a civil uproar.

Investigate your insurance coverage.

First and foremost, it is important that you know what exactly your insurance covers and what coverage options are actually available to you. Many small businesses are eligible for a “Business Owner’s Policy” (BOP), which resembles a bundled policy of property insurance and general liability insurance. Under a BOP, there might be a way to recover lost income and expenses incurred when business comes to a halt as a result of some covered event. BOPs can include “business interruption insurance,” which reimburses a business for some of those losses. This business income coverage is not automatically triggered with the mere passing of a covered event. Certain requirements must be met, such as severe physical damage to the property that either prevents the business from operating or prevents customers/employees access, or a government-imposed curfew or restriction that keeps people from accessing the business.

As a business owner, you want ask your agent what events and harms are specifically covered under your current policy. Ask whether coverage includes business interruption insurance, and if it does, find out whether your business is eligible. Even where you are eligible, it is important to determine whether your policy covers only specific, named events or it covers all events that might result in harm to your business. If your insurance does not offer such coverage, it might be worth shopping around to determine whether another policy might better protect you and your business.

Backup your data.

Particularly where so much business data is stored electronically, it is crucial to back your data to an offsite location. Even absent a risk of rioters stealing or destroying your business, it is incredibly unwise to have all of your business’s electronic data stored to one physical location. There are a number of online backup services for small businesses. If you do not already have a system in place, you would be very wise to research which option suits your business and your budget best. (Click here to review some of the top-ranking systems.)

Budget for emergencies.

It never hurts to budget for emergencies. Depending on your financial situation, “budgeting” might mean investing at the outset or storing funds in case necessity arises. Should you invest beforehand, you might be wise to install roll-up doors or security grills. Doing so will provide you a quick-and-easy mechanism to board up your business, should the situation arise. Should you elect to put off “boarding up” unless necessary, make sure you have funds stored away to purchase plywood and other necessary materials to secure your place of business.

Invest in a security system.

In the context of emotion-driven people, do security systems serve a significant deterrence function? Maybe not. However, being able to identify a culprit might enable you to pursue civil damages from harms caused. If alarms enough are not to dissuade someone from intruding, video surveillance might provide you a remedy for that intrusion. Additionally, given that social media drives today’s news outlet, surveillance might provide some disincentive.

Ultimately, no state, no city, and no business are immune to the risk of a civil uproar. Like any storm, once you are in the path of destruction, you are bound to get hit. All you can do is have faith in the safeguards you have in place and hope for the best.

Bexley Law Firm, LLC
http://www.bexleylawfirm.com

About the Author:  Brittany Robinett is a rising third year law student at the Georgia State University College of Law.

Advertisements

Thin Mints and Business Hints

The Simple Brilliance Behind Girl Scout Marketing Practices

By Brittany Robinett

The year of 2014 has ushered in several stories about successful Girl Scouts members who have rightfully earned their “cookie business” badge, as several made headlines for selling an abundance of America’s favorite cookies.

Most of us are familiar with the hilarious story that came out this February about a young scout from California who ingeniously set up shop in front of a medical marijuana clinic. Within a mere two hours, she managed to sell over 100 boxes of cookies. (This, of course, was not well-received by many chapters, who found it inappropriate for its members to sell in front of adult establishments.) Then, this March, we heard about an Oklahoma City scout who broke the all-time cookie sells record, selling up to 18,107 boxes within a seven-week period. How did she reach this record? According to her, she simply asked every person that she met to buy a box.

Thin MintIt’s interesting to contemplate how much media attention the organization’s cookie sales receive. What enables these young girls, ranging from ages of 5 to 17, to influence their communities enough to create and maintain what has grown into a $700 million empire? (Given, our taste buds have all been captured by the spiritual experience that is a Do-si-do.) There must be some common sense principles at work that businesses of all sizes can take note of and employ.

Along with leadership skills and community involvement, the organization aims to instill entrepreneurial skills into its members. What seems to impress the media the most, however, is the outgoing marketing strategy that the girls learn to employ. At the end of the day, the Girl Scouts is not a business – it’s a youth organization that operates at a national level. However, although a national organization, cookies must be sold and bought locally from a Girl Scout. Perhaps this focus on a national brand at a local level shows just how important it is for customers to attach people to a brand.

The Girl Scout’s online marketing materials cite the number of facts that the girls are advised to consider during the selling season. Summed up, each of these points encourages the girls to sell their cookies with four customer-based principles in mind:

  • Customer outreach
  • Customer loyalty
  • Customer interest

Why do you see local scouts selling outside of Kroger or in front of your neighborhood park? It’s because they recognize the importance of coming to the customer. The Girl Scouts do not have shops or stores; rather, cookies are sold seasonally, and quite frankly, nobody keeps track of when Thin Mints are “in season.” Scouts understand that it is not the customer’s job to keep informed about their product; rather, they realize a duty as young entrepreneurs to keep their customer base abreast about what they can “bring to the table.” They bring the cookies to the customer; they are encouraged to offer samples. Whatever it takes to earn and secure a customer, that’s what they aim to do. Ultimately, they operate with the ideal intention of keeping no person in the dark about their product – something all businesses should strive towards. Whether it’s keeping clients up-to-date through the mail, phone calls, or a gentle reminder through a discounted service, businesses are responsible for reminding clients why they are worth it.

Girl Scout customers tend to be a loyal base, buying annually when the chance arises. Of course, repeat purchase practices cannot develop if past customers are not given chances to buy in subsequent years. One frequently undervalued way to thank a customer for their support is to follow-up and ask that they subscribe to your services again. Offer loyalty points and discounts to returning customers, and extend those offers to individuals who have not come back yet. Keep record of services or products needed by individual customers so that you can tailor those benefits accordingly. At the end of the day, every customer is a person, and every person wants to feel remembered.

A contributing factor to the Girl Scouts repeat customers is not just a love for Thin Mints, but a co-existing love for supporting a cause. The Girl Scout organization has transparent goals and principles that it has formed a business model upon, and most community members are willing to support a cause they can understand. Make clear to your customers what your business stands for, be it in the way your employees interact with them or the advertising materials that you send their way. People might not always care about what someone stands for; however, they generally care that they stand for something. Make sure you know what that is, whether it is providing a subliminal sandwich or saving the world.

At the end of the day, children can teach us a lot. Let them!

Bexley Law Firm, LLC
http://www.bexleylawfirm.com

About the Author:  Brittany Robinett is a rising third year law student at the Georgia State University College of Law.

 

Is your business follower friendly?  Consider Google Plus.

By Brittany Robinett

With so many online mediums being used by today’s consumer, establishing a footprint in this digital landscape has become more important than ever.  For a largely tech-savvy generation, social media networks dominate in an Internet-focused society where users have begun demanding easy ways to look up and connect with products and companies that they enjoy.  Simply put, having a website doesn’t cut it anymore when it comes to making a business well-known and well-reputed throughout the online community.  For this reason, it is becoming imperative that small businesses establish an online presence through social media, and that those businesses familiarize themselves with those media outlets in a way that maximizes their presence.

GoogleplusFor a business trying to make a name for itself online, social media provides a way to not only advertise to your customers, but it also provides an opportunity to start a conversation with them.  Online networking provides an avenue to interact with customers by posting information about the company and updating the community and followers on its services and products.  Rather than simply “putting yourself out there” and hoping that people like what they see, networks like Facebook and Twitter permit you to gauge whether customers actually like what they see by giving you access to feedback, such as “comments” and “likes.”  Both of these forums allow user interaction, as users can voice opinions through polls, apps, and even be invited to “events.”

Many small businesses have realized the growing importance of not only building up a business physically, but building up a business digitally.  Those same businesses have recognized this trend and created Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram accounts as a means to interact with a consumer-base.  Many businesses flock to Facebook, as it holds title as the dominant social networking platform.  (In fact, Pew Research Center recently released a study showing that Facebook is used by roughly 57% of American adults and 73% of Americans between the ages of 12 and 17.)  Twitter, although lagging behind Facebook, has received growing attention from businesses who appreciate its short-and-sweet communication style.

Unfortunately, many businesses overlook an undervalued social media provider – Google Plus.  Sure, several of us remember all of the hype surrounding Google Plus before it went public in 2011, only to see that excitement quickly fade.  However, Google Plus has the second largest membership numbers for any social networking site.  (Given, it is used less, although by a more industry-focused user base.)  Although Google Plus might not be the preferred forum for personal networking, it certainly provides advantages that other media outlets do not.

First and foremost, it improves your business’s chance of coming up in search results.  Each time you create a new post, a brand new webpage is created.  With each post, there is a greater chance that your page might appear in a Google search.  Having a highly-trafficked or highly-followed page on Facebook or Twitter does not make your page more “searchable” on search engines like Google.  As explained by Google Webmasters, Google does not have any signals in its web search ranking algorithms that allow it to return “popularity-based” information (such as number of likes or followers) in its search results.

Further, it attaches a “person” to your business.  Unlike other sites, Google Plus allows business pages to be attached to creator profiles.  Particularly with smaller businesses, customers want to see the “man behind the curtain.”  The ability to link your business profile to your personal profile provides that avenue and can give an additional dimension personality to your brand.

Does this mean that services such as Facebook and Twitter should not be used to build up your personal business?  Certainly not.  There is undoubted value in each of these networks, as each is unique and can be tailored to advertise your business.  It is important to consider who your audience and customer base are and decide the best way to target that cohort.  These considerations may drive your business to focus on more “popular” media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, or more “focused” media sites, such as Google Plus.  Do not, however, discount your options based off of the idea that “one should be enough.”  The Internet’s bounds are endless, as should be the possibilities for your company’s growth.  When in doubt, you can never go wrong with being present in more than one place, so long as an earnest effort is made to maintain that presence well.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Google_Plus_logo.png

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/04/Google_Plus_logo.png

Bexley Law Firm, LLC
http://www.bexleylawfirm.com

About the Author:  Brittany Robinett is a rising third year law student at the Georgia State University College of Law.

 

BYOD – Making Mobile Devices Work for Your Business

By Brittany Robinett

Today, many businesses are implementing “bring-your-own-device” policies, which permit employees to conduct company business on their own mobile devices.  Encouraging the use of employee-owned devices can save employers the costs of purchasing and maintaining technology, while motivating employees to work harder through increased flexibility and mobile access to the workplace.android-199225_640

Decreased overhead expenses?  Increased workplace productivity?  Sounds like a win-win.

However, allowing employees to conduct company business on their own devices can prove less than cost-effective, as it subjects businesses to multiple security and liability risks.  The greatest of these risks are caused by the removability of devices from the workplace, and the accessibility of confidential company data outside of the workplace.  Employers can mitigate these risks by creating protocols to decrease dangers posed by using personally-owned devices.

Allowing employees to conduct business on their personal devices puts stored data at risk, because that data leaves the workplace.  This non-stationary data may fall prey to wandering eyes, as employees may connect to public access points or private access points that are not properly configured.  Plus, mobile devices are frequent targets of theft.  Passcodes and other security features are not foolproof, and they do not necessarily protect the contents of memory cards or hard drives.  Some of these dangers may be eliminated by requiring employees to use a VPN (or a “virtual private network”).  A VPN allows employees to access their employer’s intranet securely when working remotely.  These networks require authentication prior to access, which helps protect against data breaches.

Employers should always have breach response plan in place.  These plans should focus on complying with regulation requirements, assessing risks of potential breaches, and preventing future breaches.  When it becomes clear that data has been compromised, immediate action should be taken to determine whether federal and state regulations require the data to be reported.  Once a determination is made, necessary parties must be immediately notified.  Even if no regulations demand notification, it is important to determine what data has been compromised, what risk the compromise poses, and what steps could have prevented the compromise of such data.  Encourage employees to report any breaches; it should be remembered that they, too, are exposing themselves to greater legal liability, and should be punished for blatant wrongdoing, not necessarily accidents.  Employers can encourage reporting by providing employee training to recognize at-risk situations data apprehension.  (Note: As the use of mobile technology within the workplace is a growing trend, it is important to keep abreast of new regulations, as the government has given the topic a great deal of attention.  Attorney consult can ensure that nothing goes unnoticed and save employers the hassle of conducting their own research.  They can also provide oversight in drafting company protocol and employee consent agreements.)

Companies should lay out clear frameworks for data preservation and destruction on personal devices.  Personal devices present a unique problem when it comes to preserving data for legal discovery.  Legal counsel can help businesses determine whether a preservation duty exists and what that duty requires.  Employers may demand that employees sign consent agreements, recognizing that their devices may be subject to search and seizure should litigation require it.  Signing a consent agreement puts employees on notice that their devices could be subject to future search and seizure processes.  (This is especially important, as personal and professional information often become intermingled with the dual-use of mobile devices.)  Also, business owners are advised to maintain duplicates of all company-related information from employee devices.  That way, data can still be produced, if not from the original device.

Once a duty to preserve disappears and data is no longer needed, employers should make sure that company data is properly destroyed from device storage.  Simply “deleting” data, such as documents, emails, and contacts from a memory card is not always enough, as the device’s internal storage may retain information.  For this reason, employers should require that devices be restored to factory settings prior to an employee parting with a device.

Bexley Law Firm, LLC
http://www.bexleylawfirm.com

About the Author:  Brittany Robinett is a rising third year law student at the Georgia State University College of Law.

Ambition on a Budget: Maximizing Your Nonprofit’s Resources

By Brittany Robinett

We’re all familiar with the adage, “Money isn’t everything.”  What life experience more often affirms, however, is its caveat, “Money isn’t everything, but it’s certainly something.”  For nonprofit organizations, that “something” is the chance to survive and impact the communities that rely on them.  While this impact seems immeasurable, the operating costs certainly come with a number attached.

The majority of nonprofits in the United States classify as “small” nonprofits.  Financial stress is almost a given for small nonprofits, who are often forced to operate on limited budgets.  Because most revenue is immediately used rather than invested in long-term resources, structural shortcomings arise out of these budget constraints.  One of these shortcomings is the inability to afford financial expertise at the executive level.  Basically, nonprofits often suffer from the top down, because their executive directors cannot provide the necessary financial support.Money and Growth

What are some characteristics of a successful executive director?  Google lists of traits, and they will all boil down to enthusiasm for organizational goals, good communications skills, motivational skills, the ability to strategize, and financial acumen.  The absence of any one of these traits could cripple an organization; yet, financial savviness seems to hold a greater slice of the pie.  Simply put, you can’t compensate for what you can’t afford.  Too often, nonprofit executives stretch themselves thin “handling” finances without the knowledge or experience to effectively do so.  Because they can neither afford training nor outside expertise, they find themselves misinterpreting data and making decisions that negatively affect the organization’s purse.

Of course, it isn’t necessary for an executive to have any financial expertise.  (In fact, executives who lack understanding and conviction for the goals at hand are less than desirable to organizations that aim to have a local – even global – impact.)  However, it is important that the executive have a plan to make such expertise easily accessible and to rely upon it.  When orchestrating a game plan, executives should keep three tips in mind:

First, give your passion and your pocketbook equal attention.  (After all, an organization cannot further goals that it cannot afford to promote.)  Focus your energy on selecting staff members who can actually further the organization’s vision.  Nonprofits naturally attract passionate people, and while it’s important to pack your organization with goal-driven individuals, it is more important for those individuals to understand and develop strategies necessary to achieve those goals.  It’s not always affordable to bring in financial experts to bookkeep or interpret audit data.  However, it is possible to model the qualities of an organization that can afford such experts.  Hire staff with backgrounds in finance management.  Rather than stretching yourself thin by struggling to complete tasks you’re not qualified to do, distribute the responsibility among employees who can see your blind spots.

Second, your board should consist of individuals who actively serve.  While it is tempting to surround yourself with fundraising aficionados or folks with strong community influence, it is important to surround yourself with individuals who offer more than the appearance of power.  Your board is a reflection of your organization, so you want to build a well-rounded group of individuals who can effectuate its goals.  Build a board with strong financially-geared minds, enthusiastic individuals, and people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and take on the not-so-lovely “staff” tasks that come their way.  Although board members hold a higher rank, a servant’s heart holds a value all its own.

Third, “know when to hold em’ and know when to fold ‘em.”  Executives could circumvent a number of financial challenges by not jumping at every deal that pops up.  Cheap (or free) isn’t always better, and it’s important to know when to accept a bargain and when to reject it.  Consult with more financially savvy staff or board members before investing in resources – particularly cheap ones.  While the price tag looks attractive in the beginning, there may be long-term costs that make them prohibitively expensive in the long run.   Sometimes, donations and volunteers are best left declined, particularly when there is no plan to replace them once they’ve diminished.

There’s no room for excuses in leadership, only responsibility.  Don’t make your budget your excuse.

Bexley Law Firm, LLC
http://www.bexleylawfirm.com

About the Author:  Brittany Robinett is a rising third-year law student at the Georgia State University College of Law.

Goodwill Hunting

It could be argued that a business’s most valuable asset is its goodwill. Most business owners would likely agree that although goodwill can take years to establish, it takes only minutes to destroy.

Goodwill” is a qualitative measure of a company’s reputation, market presence, and customer loyalty. This aspect of a business is very difficult to attach a price, but any competent business will zealously guard their company’s goodwill at any cost.

While any natural disaster can destroy inventory and real estate, a store’s good reputation can withstand almost any storm. So too can the most solid of foundations be shattered by poor decisions and lousy consumer outreach.

reputation

Right now, one of my favorite shows on television is “Bar Rescue.” Bar Rescue is a reality show featuring host, Jon Taffer, a long-time food & beverage industry consultant specializing in nightclubs and pubs, who “rescues” failing bars, pubs, taverns, and grills from the brink of failure. Each episode focuses on a single failing establishment and it is up to Taffer to figure out what is the cause of the problems. Often, the root issue is a combination of poor service, management, and décor. Most of these issues can be solved with training the management and staff, retooling the drink and food menus, and renovating the interior of the restaurant or bar. In essence, the establishment gets a healthy new coat of paint and everyone is happy. Every now and then, however, Taffer has to completely overhaul everything, including the image and reputation of the establishment. Essentially, the business has so completely ruined their goodwill in its community and market that it must start from scratch.

No business should allow this to happen to itself. Reputation is more than just the sum of employee’s personalities, but a reflection of how a company conducts business. It is not just the price of goods and services, but the value offered to customers and clients. A business must always ask itself: Why should someone give me money instead of my competition? What is it that sets this business apart from any other business in that market place?

Poor goodwill is not a symptom, but the product of a diseased company culture. Whether fueled by apathy, poor management, greed, or some other cause, the result is almost always the same: failure. While some companies can survive controversy by tapping an almost limitless reserve of goodwill stored up over decades (i.e., Toyota, with its seemingly endless chain of recalls), others can falter and crumble under much less scrutiny (i.e., Kmart, which was once a titan in the superstore market, but is notorious for very low quality products and selection).

Goodwill can be cultivated and preserved by establishing sound business strategies, competitive prices, and excellent customer service.  In addition, a business must possess strong internal processes to ensure productivity and efficiency and to minimize exposure to unnecessary litigation.

A small business legal consultant can assist owners and managers in making sound business decisions to protect the company’s goodwill by providing expert advice and consultation on a host of issues, including hiring practices, employee management and compensation, vendor relationships, inventory and financial planning, and other day-to-day business decisions.

Robert S. Bexley, Attorney
Bexley Law Firm, LLC
http://www.bexleylawfirm.com

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Reasons) for Termination in Georgia

Pop quiz!  You are an employee for Walmart and as you arrive at work, you see a man leave his dog locked in a car with the windows rolled up.  It’s 90 degrees out and you are worried about the life of the dog.  What do you do to avoid being fired?

(A) Do nothing

(B) Call the police

(C) Find the owner and convince them to do something

(D) Grab a brick and rescue the dog yourself

(E) Tell your manager and go back to work

(See poll at end of blog)

If you live in Georgia (and five other states, including Alabama, Louisiana, Maine, Nebraska, New York, and Rhode Island), this is a trick question.  In these dirty half-dozen states, there is no public policy exception to terminating an employee in an at-will employment arrangement.

Now, most of you reading that sentence just had your eyes glaze over and may have fallen asleep in some law-jargon-induced, narcoleptic seizure. That’s understandable. But luckily, there are people specially trained to decipher such gibberish.

So let break this down : 1) At will employment is an employment law doctrine that defines an employment relationship in which either the employer or employee can immediately terminate the relationship at any time with or without any advance warning.  2) A public policy exception to at will employment allows an employee to recover if they are wrongfully terminated for a reason that typically benefits the public or society at large.  Such public policy exception could include whistleblowing on an employer who knowingly produces a defective product, reporting illegal actions by the employer, or a filing workers’ compensation claim.  In states with public policy exceptions, employees are protected from the retaliatory actions of their employer when the employee engages in conduct that benefits society, even at the expense of the employer.  The reasoning for such exceptions is that employees are naturally discouraged from certain lawful activities if they know that they could be terminated for engaging in those activities.

The quiz at the beginning of this article is based upon a Walmart employee in Ontario, Canada who was fired for taking action when she saw a dangerous (and possibly illegal) activity in the parking lot where she worked.  While Walmart will claim insubordination as the reason for termination (arguing with her boss and declaring she won’t abide by store policy won’t win an employee any favors), a strong case could be made that the employee’s sin was in acting independently of consulting with her manager.  This sort of punitive action will likely discourage other employees at that Walmart from acting when they bear witness to any dangerous or illegal activity on the store premises.  See a dog or baby locked in a car in the summer?  Get the manager if he isn’t busy and get back to work.  See a person being attacked?  It’s none of your business, you have bills to pay.

As mentioned earlier, Georgia does not have a public policy exception for wrongful termination.  Any employee of a private employer can be fired for any good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all.  The employer cannot fire an employee due to race, gender (sometimes), national origin, religion, or disability, but beyond that, there’s not much else that can be done.  You cannot be fired for voting, jury duty, or military service, but that’s pretty much it.

Employers, however, should use their ability to fire employees with relative abandon and impunity sparingly, but not for any real legal reason.  Training good employees can be costly and time consuming.  High turnover will deplete morale.  And having employees afraid to bring management’s attention to activities that open up the company to potential litigation is a recipe for disaster.  Instead, employers should reward employees for their diligence, honesty, and willingness to act.  Management should be receptive to criticism, understanding of grievances, and willing to act when there is a moral imperative to do so.

Robert S. Bexley, Attorney
Bexley Law Firm, LLC
http://www.bexleylawfirm.com