Friday, January 22, 2010

Talking Business at CES

This blog entry first appeared on, American Express OPEN's award-winning site providing insights, advice and connections for small business owners. You can find more articles and updates from CES at

You can also follow me on Twitter at @jasonrudman and follow OPEN Forum @openforum. The article was also written in collaboration with Courtney Colwell of Federated Media
Last week, I was fortunate to attend my first CES and be amongst the newest innovations and product launches. The latest in 3-D technology, touch screens, tablets wowed me....the list is endless. It was truly a great experience.

Many of you who, attending for the first time, felt the same. Others have been attending for many years, as you’ve discovered that CES offer entrepreneurs not only great opportunity to buy or sell their products, but also to connect with each other. When business owners get together, “magic” happens – and, that “magic” was continuously on display in the American Express OPEN booth.

This was OPEN’s third year in attendance but our first in integrating our consultative product experience with an OPEN Forum Speaker Series. Attendees were not only able to learn more about how our products and services can help them manage and grow their businesses, they also had the chance to interact with business experts like
Tony Hsieh of Zappos, Guy Kawasaki of Alltop, Anita Campbell of Small Business Trends, John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing, and Barb Dybwad and Ben Parr of Mashable. Their presentations on a broad array of business topics, combined with Q&A from the audience, sparked lively discussion.

From those and our conversations with other business owners in the booth, the following five themes seemed to be most prevalent.

1. Focus on Your Vision

While it remains a challenging economic environment, there was a general sense of resilience and optimism among the business owners I met. The key to maintaining that, according to at least two of our speakers, was to pursue meaning over money, or, as Tony said, “don’t chase the paper, chase the dream.” It was a great primer to start of 2010 – a reminder to focus on creating a vision and adding value, rather than on just increasing the return.

2. Jump to the Next Curve

Now is the time to innovate, so that when the recession ends, you can come roaring back. Guy explained how companies need to “jump to the next curve” in order to truly be successful. This means not being content with 10% improvement but shooting for 10 times improvement. You can find more in his Art of Innovation presentation from CES.

3. Build a Great Culture

Building a great company culture was a key theme in Tony’s presentation, as he credited their culture as being a key contributor to Zappo’s success. He talked about the positive impact culture has had on their legendary customer service, and providing great service is their focus. As Tony said, Zappos is “a service company that happens to sell clothing, shoes, handbags, eyewear, watches (and eventually a bunch of other stuff).” This makes hiring the right employees is critical to Zappos, and they even go so far as offering employees who aren’t a cultural fit $2,000 to quit.

(I invite you to read Rohit Bhargava’s article “
10 Small Business Lessons from Zappos” to learn more about this innovative company.)

4. Create Efficiencies

There probably is no better place than CES to find the technologies that can help a business become more efficient, and this was true at the OPEN booth, as well. In our booth attendees could learn about OPEN products and services that can help their businesses, as well as hear from Anita on how to build a more resilient and efficient business. Among her recommendations were to find and focus on your best, most profitable customers. As she said “all customers are not created equal,” so you should create watch lists and take immediate action if you see a customer is falling behind on payment.

She also talked about tools and processes for invoicing and collection that can help you get paid faster by your customers. As she cited, 42% of small businesses say “getting paid quickly by customers” keeps them up at night, and among her tips on getting paid faster were to accept more payment options, like e-check and credit cards, and using an automated invoicing and payment solution. As an example of one such solution, I encourage you to learn more about OPEN’s

5. Use Social Media

John discussed how social media can create marketing efficiencies, but, as with any marketing plan, you need to be strategic in your approach. The low-cost appeal of social media can lead many business owners to try to do everything – and end up doing nothing. Using social media requires resources (like time), so you should first determine the most effective use of those resources. Determine where your audience is, and then plan on how to reach them.

John also talked about how to build your local business through social media, a very helpful topic in light of some of the trends also discussed by Ben and Barb. They talked about how the proliferation of mobile devices and applications, Twitter, GPS and other location-based services are making it more important to build your localized presence, and how social media in general is driving businesses to become more personal. People want to build a relationship with your brand; using social media enables you to engage with them and build those relationships.

Guy spoke specifically on Twitter, providing "push-the-envelope" tips on how to use it, not only for communicating with customers and prospects, but for listening to what they have to say. (You can read this great
summary of Guy’s tips by Anita.) All of our speakers advised businesses to use social media as a tool for listening rather than simply broadcasting. Twitter, in particular, is a great tool for finding what people are saying about your brand (and your competitors’) – as well as what’s being said in your industry. Indeed, OPEN Forum Pulse is one place where you can see what business owners are talking about on Twitter.

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