Microsoft's Small Business Summit got underway Tuesday. From the sounds of things, many people are attending the Summit in person. I am not one of them. Instead, I am participating via the Summit webcasts.
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Before I discuss the specific webcasts I attended, I would like to mention the software used to present them. The format was a three-paned display, with the webcast playing in the single pane on the left side of the screen. The two right hand panes were for submitting questions and reviewing questions that the speakers answered. I tried submitting a few questions, however, none were among those the mediator chose to answer, so I can't say for sure whether this feature worked or not. No answered questions ever appeared in the Answers & Comments pane. The video quality was good but small, especially on a laptop screen, and the sound sporadically had feedback and echoes. Nonetheless, this seems like a decent solution for offering participants unable to physically attend a conference, or even a meeting, a means of accessing the information and sharing at least some of the experience.
The first session I attended was the Take Your Business to the Next Level session with Kevin Turner, COO of Microsoft. Not surprisingly, the session talked a lot about the products and services Microsoft has developed and is marketing to small businesses. The focus seemed to be on Small Business Server, Office Live and various security options. Small Business Accounting was also mentioned. It was a good overview of what would be available during the rest of the Summit, but light on any real details and there were no major announcements of new, or even planned products or services despite implying there would be some.
"We have an exciting year ahead of us, with major new products and services that we think will delight and surprise our small business customers," was as close as Turner got.
The next session I attended was Putting the Heart Back Into Business with Maxine Clark, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop, and it was great, even if I initially had my doubts about how applicable it would be to someone in the news and information business. This webcast focused on treating people, including your customers, staff and yourself, well. The specific examples were drawn from the retail industry, but she made the effort to explain that while this is what her company did, the key was to find out what was important to the people of each firm. For instance, health care was more important to her staff than retirement savings because many retail employees are single mothers. In other industries, benefits that are more suited for students, professionals or other groups may be more appropriate. She also stressed the importance of having a business plan and keeping it updated so that it grows with your business.
Things began getting odd during the Skills and Techniques for Building and Maintaining Your Network of Contacts with Keith Ferrazzi, CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, Inc., which was unfortunate because it was the most fascinating and energetic session yet. One of the most interesting things he says is to match your goals with the constituencies and the names of individuals within those constituencies that are central or instrumental to achieving those goals. He also reminds the audience that telling customers they are admired is one of the most important things they can do everyday because that will encourage those people to help you and will assist you in building relationships. Be warned, he does push his website and book heavily throughout the session. This does not, however, diminish the value what he has to say.
Like most people who have attended other Microsoft conferences or Microsoft presentations at other conferences, I should know better than to expect everything to go off without a technical glitch. Still, I had high hopes for the Summit, especially since the majority of the content is being presented exclusively as webcasts (Tuesday's sessions being the only ones that will have a live audience, as well an online audience). Unfortunately, this Small Business + session was plagued by technical problems and not all of them could be laid at the feet of my connection speed, the size of my laptop screen or the fact that I am using a wireless network. Those may account for the frequent pauses to create a new buffer and the fact that every once in a while the video turns bright green and upside down. The speaker also had difficulty getting his presentation up and running, so there were people working âbehind the scenesâ to get them to display. The result was not as smooth as it could have been, but they got the job done. More interesting was the fact that at for about 5 minutes before the session started and intermittently during the session, I could hear the âbehind the scenesâ guys talking about what was going on. I don't know if everyone attending online could hear them, but I found it amusing anyway. Probably because I've been in their situation. It was also an effective reminder about being careful what you say around a microphone, because you never know who might be listening.
From what I could tell, it sounds like Small Business + is a new membership community, providing training and support services. Some are free, some are not, but even those have a free trial period. The topics run the gamut of small business needs, and are not just focused on the technology issues available through other Microsoft resources. In fact, it is being promoted as an alternative to having an in-house training program or department for small business employees.
The final session was the cheerleading session with Michael Park. Essentially, this was the âyou should feel good about being a small businessâ and here is how Microsoft can help you be a better small business. The underlying story seems to be that Microsoft has not recognized or addressed the needs of small businesses well, in the past, and consequently have not captured a large segment of that market. Cindy Bates wrapped the sessions up describing some of the webcasts scheduled over the next three days.
Over the next three days, I've signed up for the keynote webcasts, the Microsoft Small business Accounting Demo, Have You Outgrown QuickBooks?, Take Your Office With You Using Windows Mobile, Trends in Small Business, Online Resources for Your Small Business and several others. Stay tuned for daily updates, where, hopefully, I will be able to share more practical how to tips and insights than were provided in today's sessions. One great question that followed this session was about expanding Small Business Accounting to include more services-business friendly features, especially, time and billing or project functionality.
If you would like to attend the webcasts for yourself, visit www.microsoft.com/smallbusiness/hub.mspx to register for the upcoming webcasts. Tuesday's webcasts are supposed to be available for review within 24 hours as well.