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Food is not just a daily necessity, but a passion for many, especially for the people involved in the What’s Cooking Concept Plan Competition! Tonight, the passion for food will ignite as small food business entrepreneurs compete for $15,000 in zero interest loans in the What’s Cooking Competition held at Court Square Theater at 6:00 p.m. Admission to the competition is free of charge and includes the opportunity to vote for the “People’s Choice Award”!

Ask any out-of-towner about Harrisonburg’s buzzing food culture and “surprising” would be the most likely response. To the locals however, it’s no secret that this small town’s food industry is booming and with culinary trends toward local and approachable food, it’s easy to see why. Simply take a stroll through downtown Main Street and you can’t pass by without noticing eager feet rushing into the newest restaurants.

kev_muan__869x576This kind of vigor and excitement is exactly what the Shenandoah Valley Small Business Development Center (SV SBDC) and Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance (HDR) are trying to inspire. Partnering with Rockingham County and the City of Harrisonburg, these organizations have created “What’s Cooking (WC),” a five-month pilot program that encourages growth and development in the local food industry by helping entrepreneurs fine-tune concepts for viable businesses.

Last fall, the program kicked off with an event called “Pitch Night,” where 14 food entrepreneurs received feedback from the community on their culinary business concepts. Since October, 22 participants in the program have attended a series of workshops and seminars conducted through the Shenandoah Valley Small Business Development Center at the Ice House in downtown Harrisonburg.

Each Monday Meeting (held about every three weeks) touched on various aspects of the food industry, from marketing to competition analysis to food pricing and lease negotiation. Local and industry professionals, including representatives from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer ServicesVirginia Tourism Corporation and the National Restaurant Association, attended the sessions to offer assistance to the participants.

Chef and Owner of the Shenandoah Meadows Grains Company Marsha Hyatt said, “This program has helped not only me but so many others develop plans, brainstorm and connect with others in the food community. I came to the program with the basic idea of what I wanted to do and with the help of the program, I have been able to expand and get from the ‘idea stages’ to the ‘concrete planning stages’.”

Hotiman Ridwan, an aspiring restaurant owner, said that “Involvement in the program has increased our confidence and allowed us to become better equipped to address the many decisions we will encounter as we start a new business”. A restaurant manager and 18 year veteran of the hospitality industry, Ridwan and his partner Mark Mitchell are utilizing the benefits of “What’s Cooking” to achieve their dream – the BoBoKo Fusion Café. Unlike other international restaurants, his cozy tropical cafe will offer alternatives to full meals, serving smaller portions of Southeast Asian fusion style dishes inspired by street food from his home country of Indonesia.

Jason Hendricks is developing and testing recipes for producing uniquely handcrafted Root Beer. His focus is on perfecting three non-alcoholic flavored soda products and distributing to local bottle shops, restaurants and craft breweries. His main challenge is gathering start-up funds and access to a commercial kitchen in order to perfect the carbonation process and build up quantity for distribution.

Tonight, contestants will be judged by a panel of three industry professionals on the quality and appeal of their verbal and written concept plans. Respective to their winning title, four contestants will be awarded with interest-free loans in the amounts of $5,000, $4,000, $3,000 and $2,000, time in a commercial kitchen, and an assortment of professional service packages provided by sponsors Brown, Edwards & Co.Estland Design, BotkinRose, the local Chamber of Commerce and others.

“What’s Cooking” has been a great success, which means there is a distinct possibility of future competitions. Come to the “Concept Plan Competition” and watch as culinary dreams come true!

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By: Kevin Hickman

As search engines and smartphones continue to make researching businesses even easier, it should come as no surprise that what other people write about your business online is extremely important. Whenever anyone is going to try a new restaurant or store, for example, chances are they’re going to look up reviews before ever entering the establishment. With that in mind, we cannot stress enough how much more weight customers are going to put on online comments (particular negative ones!) compared to your business’ messages.

That is why it is so important to handle any online comments in a professional manner. Even if you believe negative comments are completely unfounded, that does not mean you should simply ignore them, or worse try to call out the customer as irrational. Rather, you want to respond to complaints in a public manner that both maintains your reputation and increases customer loyalty.

The following 3 techniques come from Gina Watkins of the American SBDC’ Biz Blog’s steps on ‘How to Handle Negative Online Comments’ –

1. Don’t Remove Negative Comments

Photo Credit: RonPloof

Photo Credit: RonPloof

More often than not, removing a negative comment from a review site or social media is even worse than ignoring it. The thing about the internet is that there never truly is a delete button; people who have seen the comment will recognize that it’s gone. In the end, this technique will only raise suspicions and ill-will towards your business.

Rather than delete it, respond to it! A recent Harris Interactive survey actually found that around 1/3 of the people who received a response from a company after leaving a negative comment ended up both deleting the original complaint and writing a positive review. It is also okay to ask an individual to simply update their original comment after an issue has been resolved.

2. Acknowledge the Complaint

Even if you don’t like or agree with what people are saying, let them vent and acknowledge their side before presenting your own. For example, you can start your response with “I understand why you may feel that way,” before apologizing, giving your side, or asking how to improve. Remember, most customers will do business with you again if you reach a solution with them quickly!

3. Focus on the facts and be grateful

Even if you feel a person is being rude or harsh in their delivery of a comment, look past HOW they are writing the message and focus on WHAT they are saying. If you separate the delivery from the facts, you will be left with just the problem that you can hopefully fix. Without complaints, how will you ever know why that customer and possibly others choose not to return?

As Watkins put it “while it’s impossible to please everybody, you can learn to appreciate complaints as warning signs and opportunities to build even stronger ties to your customers.”

 

Among the top social networking platforms used by businesses, one of the more valuable yet strangely underutilized remains to be Reddit. For those who are not aware of this platform, Reddit is a social forum site that fairly accurately describes itself as “the front page of the internet.” With a slogan like that, it’s a wonder why more business don’t want to be there on the “front page.” Reddit, however, does not operate like other social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and getting the most out of this platform requires understanding the community and their etiquette (also known as Reddiquette).

These tips and strategies are based on Ben Beck of Social Media Examiner’s 6 Ways to Use Reddit to Grow Your Business.

What is Reddit? 

Credit - NASA's James Webb Space Telescope

Dr. John Mather before his “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) post on Reddit. Photo Credit – NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope

As a forum-based website, Reddit works by allowing it’s users, or “Redditors”, to share content like posts, links, or photos onto one of it’s many categorized boards, or “subreddits.” Each subreddit has a specific topic that members will talk about, such as news, religion, video games, or even juggling. Each subreddit essentially acts as a kind of subcommunity within the overall Reddit community. When users subscribe to a Subreddit, popular posts from that thread will end up on their home page, like a news feed on Facebook.

When users like the content you’ve posted, or at least find it interesting, they will “upvote it,” similar to “likes” on Facebook or Twitter. The difference, however, is that when people do not like what you have posted, they will downvote your post into oblivion. With this description in mind, we will discuss how to use Reddit for your business

Encourage Interaction

One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a company on Reddit is trying to use it as place to sell your stuff through spam advertising. These self-promoting posts break the rules, or Reddiquette, and will be immediately downvoted and ignored. Rather, use Reddit as a place to interact with people. Go to subreddits relevant to your Small Business and ask questions, answer other user’s question, post neat photos or non-advertising news, and so on. As Beck put it, “this gives followers a sense of ownership in the community,” which helps build brand advocates.

As an example, the website our office assistant Daniel and his classmates created and promoted for their public relations writing course greatly benefited by simply asking Redditors on the Harrisonburg and Business subreddits if they had any suggestions for improving the site. They immediately got great feedback and ideas, all while raising awareness of the brand without “selling” it. They even got the opportunity to make a video interview with the booking agent for the local restaurant Blue Nile. Now that’s public relations!

Another way to take advantage of the interactive nature of Reddit is to take part in an “Ask Me Anything,” or AMA post. This is where you post about yourself and invite people to ask you questions in an informal manner. For example, you could say “I am a small business owner who financed my company completely through crowdfunding. Ask me anything.” Then other business owners and interested individuals will ask you about how you were successful. People are interested in people, so put a human face with your brand.

Customer Service

Photo Credit: Eva Blue

Photo Credit: Eva Blue

For companies popular enough to host their own subreddits, such as popular TV Show Top Gear or Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Reddit provides a great opportunity for people to talk about products and the business itself to answer questions. By better helping customers, you better keep customers.

For example, the Xbox 360 page funnels Microsoft customers with product questions into different channels to help answer them. Their forum is also a place for customers to share videos, photos, or experiences they have had with the product. It’s almost like people promoting you for you.

Reddit also provides a great place to input a calendar of events, as well as post about interesting upcoming company news. Clients who are invested in a brand want to keep up with the latest news and events.

Reddit and Your Business

As the “front page of the internet,” taking the time to experiment with Reddit can certainly be a worthwhile move for your small business. In a sense, Reddit is like the public relations of social media. It’s not about advertising yourself as much as it’s about making connections and learning from your customers.  Take these suggestions and get the most out of this dynamic social media website!

According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, Intellectual property refers to “creations of the mind, such as inventions, literary and artistic works, designs and symbols, or names and images used in commerce.” Whether your company creates or uses what others have created, intellectual property rights should be a major concern, regardless of your business’ size.

World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)

For up-and-coming small businesses in particular, even common intellectual property mistakes can be detrimental. To help safeguard your business from fines and or other legal costs, understanding intellectual property rights is paramount. A great first step towards protecting your business is recognizing the myths surrounding intellectual property.

The following are David G. Oberdick of Entrepreneur.com’s 7 Persistent Myths About Intellectual Property‘:

Myth 1: Businesses Automatically Own Intellectual Property Created by Employees or Contractors.

While it makes sense to think you have rights over the work created by your employees or vendors, this is only the case if their contract explicitly states this. Without such a contract, entrepreneurs actually have limited or no rights at all to employee’s creative work.

Myth 2: Patents Grant Worldwide Protection.

If you are a company that conducts business abroad, you must file for a patent in each country that you operate in. Obtaining a patent from the U.S. Patent Office will only protect your intellectual property in the U.S.

Myth 3: If it Sounds “Official” it is.

Don’t be tricked by scammers asking for money to protect your intellectual property. Even if an email or invoice looks legitimate, there is a good chance it is simply not real. Some common examples of fraud include emails asking businesses to pay a fee to protect trademarks or domain names, or invoices for “protection services.”

Photo Credit - JordanHill

Photo Credit – JordanHill

Myth 4: If it Doesn’t Have a Copyright Symbol, Anyone Can Use it.

While that may have been the case decades ago, the laws have changed. Just because a photo doesn’t have the copyright notice or (c) symbol on it, that does not mean it is free for public use. This rule is especially important for you and your employees to recognize when using images from the internet, such as from Google. It is good practice to assume any material found on the internet is copyrighted and that you should ask permission from the owner before using it.

Some great ways for your business to safely use images without risking the fines is to start an account on a stock photo database such as iStock, or simply use the Creative Commons search for high quality and royalty-free images.

Myth 5: Trade Secrets Provide Easy Catch-all Protection.

Another common mistake young business owners make is assuming information not covered by a copyright or patent can be protected as a trade secret. A trade secret, as Entrepreneur.com defines it, is “information used by a business, which can be legally protected, that is secret to the general public and is critical to the livelihood and success of a business.”

The problem with trade secrets is that they are difficult to enforce in court. To be successful, a company must prove 1. the information gives the company a competitive advantage because it is not known by the public, 2. the company took reasonable measure to protect that information, and 3. the information is not generally known to the public or competitors.

Myth 6. The Markings Don’t Matter.

Many business people misuse the intellectual property markings on a regular basis, either by overusing them or not using them when they should be. A few examples include marking a patent number on items that don’t actually have patents or don’t bear the exact patented design. This simple mistake can result in fines as high as $500 per mislabeled item. However, if you do not use trademark markings like TM or (R) when you should, you also run the risk of letting your brand name become generic, as was the case for aspirin, zipper and thermos.

Myth 7. I Can Wait to Figure out my Intellectual Property Strategy. 

Just last year, the laws about who own intellectual property changed from the “first to invent” system to a “first to file” system. This means that 1. just because you thought it first does not give you the automatic right to the patent, and 2. that your company has no time to waste in acquiring the rights to your intellectual property.

What Should I Do?

While intellectual property mistakes are all too common for small businesses, they don’t have to be for yours. There are a number of practical steps your business needs to be doing to protect itself:

1, Create an intellectual property strategy for your business.
2, Find a trusted intellectual property consultant for your business to help you create this strategy.
3, Be careful when using images you find online. Use Creative Commons search or a database like iStock whenever possible.
4, When it doubt ask the property’s owner.
5, Make sure your employees are aware of your company’s strategy and rules.

Following good intellectual property practices is the business smarts thing to do, saving you time and money in the long run. Make intellectual property rights a top priority for you and your business!

According to a recent article on GrowThink.com, the popular crowdfunding platform Kickstarter has officially surpassed an incredible $1 billion (with a B!) in pledges. With over 5.7 million individuals investing in thousands of different projects and campaigns, it’s no wonder crowdfunding has caused quite a bit of buzz in the business community.

GrowThink.com
Kickstarter

What is Crowdfunding?

Crowdfunding really is what it sounds like – a crowd of people funding projects, campaigns, etc.. It is a technique, usually online, that allows the consumers or supporters of a product or company to back them up financially. The possibilities of crowdfunding are only growing, as it has already been used by nonprofit campaigns, political campaigns, charitable organizations, and now startups and other commercial ventures.

Through crowdfunding campaigns, your average Joe or Jane can now become a true investor for whatever they would like, whether it be new technology like the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift, a video game like Broken Age, or a business like the data-monitoring company Bitvore Corp. According to the SBA’s helpful article, the fact that crowdfunding spreads the risk among many individuals allows your business to create a strong network of early investors and, hopefully, ambassadors for your brand.

What is a Platform?

Crowdfunding CycleEach crowdfunding campaign involves three distinct entities: the business or project initiator (that’s you), the audience or “crowd” (your customer), and the platform. This “platform” is the organization that brings the project initiator and the “crowd” together. The platform is your middleman that will help you reach your audience. You should remember, however, that these third party sites will ask for a fee for their services, and it is important to have an accountant and a lawyer there to protect your interests.

As we said above, Kickstarter is one of the most popular crowdfunding platforms. However, there are several online crowdfunding platforms that can help you reach your investors and keep track of your progress. Each platform has a different focus, and it is important to pay attention to which would be the best fit for you. For instance, smaller platforms like Wefunder and Rock the Post are dedicated solely to helping business startups, while Crowdfunder focuses on connecting international entrepreneurs.

The different platforms also have varying rules about how their funds are gathered, which you must pay attention to. For example, Kickstarter requires you to raise your entire financial goal before receiving any funds, while others do not. It is important to read all of the information carefully before choosing the platform that meets your needs and the type of project or venture you are embarking on.

The JOBS Act, 2012

While the process of collecting loans and early investors is the traditional and tried and true method of starting a business or commercial campaign, crowdfunding offers an alternative that has become popular, particularly with the recent economic decline. For small businesses especially, crowdfunding is only going to become more viable with the JOBS Act law that was signed by President Obama in 2012.

According to the SBA article, the JOBS Act now allows anyone, regardless of whether they are SEC-accredited, to help finance a small business. The rules are still being worked out with the SEC, however, and are subject to change. For example, some companies can raise as much as $1 million in a year without having to do a public offering, though there are still regulations that must be carefully watched. The bottom line is that you must consult a CPA and attorney before launching your crowdfunding effort.

So is Crowdfunding Right for my Business?

Crowdfunding-2It is up to each small business to determine whether incorporating a crowdfunding plan is right for them. There are a few things to consider before starting a campaign. Do I have a clear idea and strategy for what it is I want to accomplish through this campaign? Do I have the network in place to create buzz for my product or company? Will my idea connect with target investors? And do I have the commitment it takes?

It is also a good idea to study other successful campaigns and take note of their strategies, what they were funding, how they created buzz, and so on. Find local businesses that have used crowdfunding for part or all of their startup finances, and talk to them directly for helpful suggestions. You can also talk with your local SBDC office to help sort out the nuts and bolts of your crowdfunding campaign.

Please check out the SBA article for more information about how to prepare your small business for a crowdfunding campaign and tips for how to make your campaign successful!

You can also learn more about how your business can incorporate crowdfunding at the BIG Small Business Event during the ‘Where’s the Money?’ panel discussion. Thanks again Valarie Smith of Larkin Arts!