Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mary Jo's Cloth Store offers free sewing classes

For the first time in 62 years, Mary Joe's Cloth Store in Gastonia is offering sewing classes. For the remainder of June, the classes -- including ones on quilting, skirt-making and the sewing machine -- will be free. They vary in size and difficulty. The last free class is June 30. 

Starting in July, there will be a $20 fee for beginner classes, and participants will get a Mary Jo's voucher to help with class supplies and other materials. 

The 32,000-square-foot cloth store, one of the region's largest, offers a large selection of drapery, buttons, trims, upholstery, quilting, and patterns for using bridal, formal and fashion fabrics. 

The goal of the new classes is to make sewing and quilting accessible to everyone.  

"We really want to be able to cross the age gap and excite new individuals with the love of sewing, and to have them experience the feeling of fulfillment you get after you create your very own masterpiece,” said sewing director Aimee Griffin in a press release sent Tuesday. 

Classes will be held at the store, 401 Cox Road in Gastonia, and schedules are posted on the Mary Jo's website

Monday, June 24, 2013

Local small business touted in New Balance marketing campaign

Harrisburg-based 2nd Story Wood Co.'s own story is making an appearance in New Balance's new "America is for the Makers" marketing campaign touting domestic manufacturing. 

Started by father-son duo Carl and Scott Miller, the small business sells handmade furniture from reclaimed wood. The Millers designed New Balance's in-store wood fixtures and is currently featured on the athletic wear retailer's website. 

"We deliver...a high-quality product we believe in," Scott Miller says in the video. 

One-fourth of New Balance's footwear is produced at five New England facilities, according to a company press release. 

New Balance reported sales of $2.4 billion in 2012. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Shopping bus tour to depart Saturday

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of National Small Business Week, Charlotte-area clothing boutiques are joining forces for a shopping bus tour, Observer's news partner WCNC-TV reports

This Saturday, a bus will pick up shoppers in the Lake Norman and Dilworth areas and take them to Fifi’s Fine Resale in Cornelius, The Cheeky Bean in Ballantyne, The Junior League Wearhouse in Plaza Midwood, JT Posh in Dilworth and Summerbird in Dilworth.

“I’ve been on several of these across the country," Fifi’s Fine Resale owner Julia Austin told WCNC. "We wanted to bring this to Charlotte.” 

Jennifer Malone and Jessica Horton of J.Leigh Events who helped plan the tour say the goal is to introduce Charlotte-area residents to great shopping around the region.  

“In this day and age, especially in Charlotte, there are so many chains," Horton says. "I live in Davidson, and I would never know about the Cheeky Bean, there down in Ballantyne."

Tickets are $45 each and include transportation, lunch from locally owned Sunflour Bakery and CafĂ©, drinks, a gift bag of treats from other local retailers and a percentage off your purchases. 

Buy tickets here.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

65-year-old and wife nix retirement, open fitness center

Several weeks ago, I wrote about several local "encore entrepreneurs," people over age 50 who start their own businesses. Whether they were laid off, tired of a corporate setting or just in search of something new, these entrepreneurs are parlaying their extensive work experience into a new venture. 

Teri and Pete Nash
Pete Nash, 65, and his wife, Teri, are some of these encore entrepreneurs. While many of their peers are retiring, they're opening an Exercise Coach franchise on June 24 at 4717 Sharon Road, in the Terraces at SouthPark. The business promises results with only two 20-minute exercise routines per week. 

A press release says their Exercise Coach franchise is the state's first. Pete and Teri hope to open another studio in the Ballantyne area in the next year and a half, the press release says.

Nationwide, 7.4 million people over the age of 50 own their own businesses, a figure that's expected to double in the next decade, says Suzanne LaFollette Black, associate state director of AARP-North Carolina. 

The couple aren't strangers to entrepreneurship or franchising

After working in corporate medical-device manufacturing, Pete moved to Charlotte in 1996 and opened his first franchise, Accountants Inc. He sold his franchise in 2001 and bought a different franchise, 1000 Points of Knowledge, which offered tutoring for children K-12 by working with Charlotte nonprofits. One year later, he bought a third one, The Entrepreneur's Source, which helps clients explore their own franchise opportunities. And in 2005, he bought a Sports Clips franchise. 

Teri started Carolina Hair Clinic, a salon offering surgical and nonsurgical hair replacement, hair extensions, laser light therapy, skin care, waxing, color, cuts and styling. She sold the business in 2010 and married Pete in 2011. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Local startup aiming to prevent academic fraud gets $40,000 grant

A Charlotte-based startup created to combat academic fraud recently got a $40,000 from NC Idea, a not-for-profit organization that helps high-growth startup companies in North Carolina.

The startup, MyLearningID, is a tool designed to deter cheating in online courses with facial and voice recognition technology, monitored browser use, keystroke analysis. The founders argue it will help colleges and universities maintain academic integrity with their distance-education programs.

MyLearningID, the only Charlotte startup to get an NC Idea grant this round, was one of five recipients, selected from a pool of 159 applicants from 24 counties.

Co-founders Velvet Nelson, 30, and Mike Murphy, 28, connected while working with a different startup three years ago. They founded MyLearningID in December 2012 and were part of the second class of Rev Tech Labs. They hope to release a beta product soon.

"Online learning is growing rapidly, and schools want to grow their online portfolio (because of) lower overhead costs and expanded customer base," says Nelson.

But online courses raise a number of issues, she adds. If professors don't take the right precautions, it would be simple for a student in an online class to look up answers during the test or have someone else take the exam for them.

Until now, many colleges and universities have required students to take an exam in a pre-approved location, to download expensive software or to be monitored by someone via webcam.

MyLearningID will cost $10 to $20 per test, Murphy says.

Nelson's background is in higher education; Murphy's is in military intelligence.

They plan to put the $40,000 in grant money toward developing their product and increasing their sales and marketing efforts.

And in the next few weeks, they'll be changing the company name from MyLearningID to "ProctorFree."

For more information on the founders of MyLearningID, click here.

For details on the other startups to get money from NC Idea, click here.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

What's your secret for keeping good employees?

For an upcoming story, we would like to hear from small business owners who go out of their way to keep good people.

ShopTalk reporter Caroline McMillan has written about creative strategies some businesses use so that good people stay on. 

To make sure employees at Lake Norman Motel and Landing Restaurant stay on during the off season, owners hire staff to help with maintenance and renovations.

That also happened at  Fourth Ward restaurant Alexander Michael’s, which hired staffers during the restaurant’s closure several years ago to help renovate the space. Employees there have worked an average of six to seven years.

Do you have employees who have been with you a while? What do you do to make them happy? 

Share your strategies. Email Celeste Smith at cesmith@charlotteobserver.com.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

10 annoying social media habits that could hurt your business

Nearly every small business has a social media presence, but they don't all know how to use it well. And that, my friends, means missed opportunities and the potential for driving customers away.

Don't know what you're doing wrong? Here are some warning signs Business Insider published, courtesy of Simply Zesty, a European marketing agency that specializes in online PR and social media.

1. Asking for shares or retweetsIt's needy, it offers no engagement and doesn't do anything for your cause -- the online equivalent, Simply Zesty says, "of going up to a bunch of strangers, screaming 'be my friend!' and expecting them to enthusiastically oblige." 

The people most likely to reply are your friends, and everyone else will ignore it and be annoyed by the begging. They might even unfollow you or hide your updates. You don't want that. 

2. Overcompensating for inactivity: If your small business doesn't have someone dedicated to managing your social media presence, it's easy to drop off the radar for a few days. While inactivity isn't good, many small business owners respond by overcompensating...potentially worse. 

Here's why: Fewer people than you think will unfollow you because you're inactive. In fact, you're more likely to get unfollowed if you clog up followers' feeds with triple the normal amount of tweets and updates, just to make up for your missed opportunities over the last few days. That faux pas is more noticeable. 

3. Ignoring requests: If someone asks for help or makes a query, respond as soon as possible. If it's too taxing to answer them as they come, allocate a window of time to respond to these inquiries. The longer you leave them untouched, the less likely you'll be to respond. 

4. Using distorted images: Sites need to be more visually appealing than ever, and cover photos and images are critical for solidifying your brand and audience. Learn what the different dimensions are for cover photos on social sites, such as Google+ and Facebook. (For some Simply Zesty tips, go here.)

Also, Facebook has grown more lenient on the rules about cover photos and promotional material, so if you're running a campaign, you may be able to fit some in, Simply Zesty says. More on those rules here

5. Like and share competitions: If you haven't heard, like and share competitions are against Facebook rules. So if you run them, you won't win fans among many agencies or other businesses.

This also ties in with asking for shares or retweets. These competitions aren't engaging with followers or getting people hooked on your content. "You're just asking people to hit a button...and expecting them to continue following you after that," Simply Zesty says. 

Also worth noting, a high follower count and disproportionate engagement actually means your content will be pushed further down the pecking order. So it's worth doing it right in the first place. 

6. Hastag overload: Though they're a great way to curate information, give context and categorize content to reach a particular audience, hashtags also can be easily abused. 

When using hashtags, a good rule of thumb is two to four per post -- two for Twitter and up to four for Instagram, where an image might appeal to a wider demographic. 

Add This Share Buttons
From Simply Zesty for Business Insider 
7. Too many widgets: This depends on your business and your audience, but the key is to look tidy. You want people to share content on your site (who doesn't?) but too many sharing buttons can be overwhelming for the reader and thus, counterproductive. 

Determine where you get your most shares and where they're most beneficial to you; focus your efforts there. If you're getting better interactions on Facebook and Twitter, maybe ditch the widgets for MySpace, Foursquare, Stumbleupon, Add This, etc. 

8. Syncing cross-posts: There are times you'll want to post content on more than one platform. When the occasion arises, do it manually. "Using a service like Tweetdeck to cross post tweets onto Facebook not only looks lazy, but it stands out like a sore thumb since it's so visually unappealing," Simply Zesty says.

9. Indiscriminate links within posts: When posting an article or video on your page, most sites will include a thumbnail with more details. Along with the thumbnail, Facebook includes the headline of the article and a link to it. So delete the link you initially pasted in the text.

There is an exception. Images have a greater chance of being interacted with, Simply Zesty says, so posting an image to catch attention could be effective. Images, however, aren't clickable, so providing an unobtrusive link is a good idea. (Use bitly.com or a similar service.) Just make sure you've got only one link in the text of the post.

10. Auto direct-messaging: It's tempting but try to avoid creating auto direct-messaging on Twitter to greet new followers or highlight something you're trying to plug. It's impersonal and it misses the point of what Twitter and social media, in general, are about: connecting on a personal level with people who wouldn't meet under normal circumstances. "Automating messages and sending them straight after someone hits the follow button is just spammy no matter how you slice it," says Simply Zesty.