Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Happy New Year

I give some hiring tips (hiring - remember that activity!?) from a couple of labor and employment attorneys in this week's Smart Answers.

This week and next are short work weeks, with just one column each. I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday!

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Woman in Boxer Shorts?

It's hard to believe this kind of thing still happens.

Without anything more than his/her word to go on, we don't really know if it happened or not. But this blogger claims to have finally succeeded as a writer only after she took on a male byline and a persona as a guy.

Salon takes a look at the larger issues, including the cautionary tales of women who published/posted under their own names and got viciously attacked - worse, they say, than their male counterparts.

Have we really come so far only to be falling so short?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Medicare For All

I am not an expert, but I have tried to follow the ongoing health care debate through all its twists and turns this year. Reform is crucial for small business owners, who consistently say that providing health care benefits for their employees is the most costly problem they face.

So while I'm not sure exactly what's in this newest Senate compromise plan (no one is sure because the details haven't been released, pending a cost analysis), I am intrigued by the idea of extending Medicare coverage to individuals 55 and older.

For years, as a retirement columnist, I wrote about efforts aimed at keeping middle-aged and older people in the job market. They could semi-retire and continue on a part-time basis at their jobs. Or they could retire outright but work as consultants, perhaps training employees for their previous employers. Many were encouraged to freelance a few days or weeks a month as a way to supplement their income and retain their expertise.

Why the focus on stopping or slowing retirement? Believe it or not, just a few years ago the worry was about too many seasoned employees leaving the workforce early. It's hard to believe in our current jobs crisis, but back then (early to mid-2000s) the experts were panicked about a potential lack of U.S. workers.

Baby boomers, the first of whom are now in their early 60s, are such a huge demographic that economists worried when they retired there would not be enough younger workers to replace them. And the numbers bear that fear out - Gen. X and Y'ers can never match the 78 million Boomers for sheer size and clout.

Of course, life is strange and now we have the exact opposite problem. Boomers who saw their retirement funds evaporate last year have stayed on at their jobs longer than anticipated and canceled plans for early retirement. In fact, while we have record youth unemployment, Boomers are the only demographic actually seeing job growth in this recession.

So where, you ask, does expanding Medicare come into this equation? I think that Boomers may revisit their ideas about retirement over the next couple of years as they see the economy begin to right itself. Already, stock portfolios are recouping losses. If reasonable medical coverage were available through buying into Medicare before 62 or 65, some of those Boomers might feel comfortable at least exchanging full-time jobs for part-time, or consulting.

And as the behemoth generation begins to back away from the workforce, that will open up slots for the younger employees who right now are in holding patterns, either in grad school or living in mom and dad's basement.

A perfect solution? Probably not, because they simply don't exist. But it's an idea that may have found its time.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Driving Your Business

One of the most common questions I get from readers is about company cars. To lease or buy? How do I take a tax deduction for my company car? What about insurance?

I answer one of these kinds of questions in this week's Smart Answers column.

Last week, I did some in-depth research to find stats on startups. They're often requested, but not easy to find without some digging. This time, I picked up the shovel so you didn't have to!

Let's not forget the podcast, which features an interview with a government contracting expert. Inside info: We actually did this interview twice, after a glitch in the first taping. Turned out that the second time around returned a much better result, so it wasn't all bad.

Next week the final podcast of 2009 will be posted. Remember to let me know, or comment on iTunes, if you hope the podcast returns next year.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Future Thoughts

The BusinessWeek to Bloomberg transition is underway. Unfortunately, more than 100 editorial staffers were downsized last month as part of the integration of the two companies. I was very distressed to hear that many of my colleagues were laid off.

The good news is that my editor and the staff of the SmallBiz website, where Smart Answers appears, have been spared. Its counterpart, the SmallBiz magazine, does not look so fortunate. The new BusinessWeek editor-in-chief is likely to make content decisions over the next several months.

One immediate repercussion for me is that the award-winning Smart Answers podcast will go on hiatus after the middle of this month.

I've enjoyed doing the weekly podcast for the past several years and I hope it has been useful for my listeners. If you're one of those listeners and you want to see the podcast return, don't hesitate to let me know or leave a comment on the podcast at iTunes. Search "BusinessWeek Smart Answers" podcast; there's a space for listener comments near the bottom of the page.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Shopping At Work

Are you doing some of your holiday shopping from work this year? If so, you're certainly not alone.

Studies show that online shopping will run rampant this season, costing employers in lost productivity and exposing office computer networks to nasty viruses and malware. (My husband inadvertently downloaded a particularly virulent one last weekend while shopping for me, in fact, and his computer has been in the shop all week.)

My Smart Answers column this week discusses what small business owners can do to set a reasonable Internet use policy.

On the podcast, I talk to Rachel Kruse, founder of an organic foods company called Organicville. Starting a food company is high on the list of entrepreneurial pursuits and yet it is far more difficult and costly than most people imagine. Rachel really did it right and she offers some great tips.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Give It Away

Great story from a fiction writer about how he used Web 2.0 tools to get his book published*.

Where there's a will ... right!?

*Hat tip to the IWOSC newsletter, which reprinted the article from earlier this year.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Adventures in Entertaining

After we dropped our youngest son off at college this fall, my husband and I looked at each other - both teary-eyed - and wondered: What were we going to do with ourselves?

For 20 years, our free time revolved around our kids. School, athletics, family gatherings. With both boys out of the nest, where would our focus shift?

Over dinner at our favorite pizza joint, a plan emerged.

We would entertain, something we enjoyed doing back in those primeval days before the children came along. So, we filled our fall agenda with dinners, parties, lunches and brunches with old friends.

Are you hosting a few - or a bunch - at your house this holiday season? Here are a couple of few things we've learned along the way:

Do drape your couches or keep strategic doors shut if you've had the upholstery cleaned in anticipation of a big bash - and you have furry critters in your house.

Don't turn the burner on and then leave the kitchen for some deep conversation with your fascinating guests.

Do pace yourself: Cleaning, shopping, cooking, decorating and entertaining are fun, but exhausting. Once or twice a month is better than every weekend, unless you have a lot more energy than we do.

Don't experiment with a whole new menu when you have guests. This is a hard one for me, adventurous cook that I am, but it really is better to test them on family first.

Do make this fantastic, easy, one-pot macaroni and cheese, which I clipped in 2002 from Dorothy Reinhold's Tried and True food column. One guest last weekend loved this so much, he went back for thirds! Or maybe it was fourths. I lost count.

1/2 stick unsalted butter
1/2 onion, chopped
2 T. all-purpose flour
1 t. salt
3 c. whole milk (don't skimp and use non-fat, really)
8 oz. elbow macaroni
1 1/2 c. grated sharp cheddar cheese

Melt butter over medium-low heat. Saute onion five minutes until transparent (do not brown). Stir in flour, salt and cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Pour in milk and stir to blend. Bring to a slow, steady simmer and add uncooked macaroni, stirring to combine. Cover and simmer until macaroni is al dente. Remove pan from heat and stir in cheese until it melts. Cover and let sit for five minutes before serving. Makes three to four servings.

I doubled this for my dinner party and had plenty for seven, even with the extra helpings. If you want, you can use regular cheddar or Gruyere cheese, but the sharp cheddar is really good.

Happy Thanksgiving, and may your guests be enveloped by the generosity and kindness in your home this year!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sunny Side Down

I went to hear journalist, author and all-around rabble-rouser Barbara Ehrenreich speak recently about her new book, "Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Undermined America."

Ehrenreich is probably best known for her 2001 book, "Nickel and Dimed," which recounts her undercover experiment trying to get by on the low-wage jobs that typically are done by this country's working poor.

The new book grew out of her diagnosis of breast cancer shortly after "Nickel and Dimed" was published. Immediately, Ehrenreich says, she was bombarded with "think positive" messages - something that grated on her as a natural pessimist.

"Bright-Sided" debunks the notion that positive thinking contributes to recovery from cancer or any other disease (studies show that cranky people recover just as often as perky people do) and also examines how the wave of positive thinking has affected the business world.

Ehrenreich shows how the banishing of bad news from the corporate board room contributed to last year's horrific financial meltdown. Top CEOs (who have no excuse for not knowing better) fell for the "we can do anything we try!" motivational mentality and kicked naysayers out of their ranks.

Risk managers - those "just say no" guys and gals who have usefully put the brakes on stupid risks and harebrained plans for years - were fired or shut down. They weren't positive enough, you see.

The same thing happens in all kinds of firms, when CEOs become so isolated or intimidating that no one on the staff dares to cross them, or warn that their new ideas aren't so great. In fact, it's the number one reason companies fail, according to Billion Dollar Lessons, by Paul B. Carroll and Chunka Mui (highly recommended).

This month's Atlantic cover story takes a similar theme, laying some of the meltdown at the feet of the evangelical "prosperity gospel" preachers and televangelists.

I'm such a natural optimist that I doubt I could think negative thoughts very long even if I tried. But I sympathize with those glass-half-empty folks who are made to believe that if their disease returns or they don't get that raise, it's their own fault. That's not positive at all - it's just plain cruel.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tough Luck

Employees have had it awfully rough this year.

Productivity rates shot through the roof for U.S. workers in the third quarter. That's proof positive that workers are being asked to do more with less.

Most employees are likely doing the tasks of two or three of their laid-off colleagues. Many of them have witnessed those layoffs (always a traumatic event - I've been there) and worry they'll be next.

Well, add to all that injury a new insult: Most employees of small firms also aren't getting raises, bonuses, gifts or holiday parties this year.

My Smart Answers column this week summarizes an American Express OPEN small business survey. It showed that entrepreneurial firms are going to give gifts to their customers this year - as they did last year - but fewer of them will reward employees.

As I said in the interview, I understand that customer gifts are a marketing expense that business owners need to make, but it just seems sad to think that employees will end the year with more bad news.

I applaud the employers who mail nice cards to their customers this year and save a little money for employee bonuses (they don't have to be huge) or a nice holiday party. If your workers have stuck with you through this awful year, don't they deserve some special thanks?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Popping Your Elevator Intro

My Smart Answers podcast this week features Sam Horn.

She's the marketing guru I blogged about earlier this month.

In the interview, Sam lays out some terrific advice on a marketing opportunity that all of us get daily - and most of us squander just as often.

I won't give it all away, but it has to do with your response to that common question, "So, what kind of work do you do?"

I'm just as guilty as anyone of mumbling a half-baked response, but Sam inspired me to do better. In fact, I came up with a pretty good question (Sam advises that you answer the question with a question of your own) and tried it out over the weekend.

Just as Sam predicted, I got one of those "ah-ha!" moments in reply. Very nice technique - check it out!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Catching Up

The weather is cooling off, my holiday decorations are starting to emerge from the garage and last weekend we spotted our first Christmas commercial on TV.

All this evidence, of course, leads to the inevitable conclusion that it's almost ... year-end tax planning time! Woo-hoo!

Yes, this is the kind of thing that gets the tingles going when you live and breathe small business. In my Smart Answers column last week, I also wrote about public relations versus social media marketing.

Today's column might be a tad more controversial - truly.

My editor asked me to take a look at the business of medical marijuana now that the Obama Administration has announced it will cease raids on dispensaries operating legally. It was quite an experience interviewing many of the "legendary" cannabis activists of the past couple of decades.

And they say that business writing is dull. Tsk, tsk.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Exciting News

I'm incredibly proud and excited to announce that my BusinessWeek "Smart Answers" podcast won a gold medal today at the 2009 Digital Azbee Awards in San Francisco.

The awards are given out by the American Society of Business Publication Editors. My show won for best podcast in the "podcast how-to" category. The BusinessWeek SmallBiz page, where my column appears twice weekly, also took gold for best microsite/special section.

Very cool and a nice way to start the weekend!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

We're All in This ...

Togetherness is the hot marketing concept of 2009, according to a new survey.

My long-time source Eric Swartz, president of Tagline Guru, surveyed 150 corporate taglines that debuted in 2009.

He lists the top 10 words from those taglines.

Here's the takeaway:

Although the impact of “innovation” has been diminished from overuse, and words like “new” and “more” are typical of jaunty sales jargon, concepts such as “together,” “you,” “imagine,” and “future” paint a picture that is decidedly more intimate, inclusive, and optimistic.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


I waited a few minutes to introduce myself to Sam Horn at a conference last week.

The man in front of me kept apologizing, but he couldn't tear himself away from Sam. When their conversation was over, he hugged her and gave her a kiss.

Well! What was it about this prolific author and marketing/branding guru that inspired such devotion?

I said hi and told Sam I'd like to have her guest on my podcast sometime soon. She graciously agreed and then she did something I've rarely seen. Instead of telling me all about herself and her books and her work and her speaking business - like most people do - she started asking about ... ME.

"You're a writer, you must have a book in mind," she said, smiling. Well ... I had to admit that like most writers I did have some dormant aspirations in that direction.

Sam smiled again, flipped over the notebook she was holding, and started scribbling in it. "What do think you'd write a book about?" "What's been your most popular column?" "What's another column that got a lot of feedback and attention?"

Before I knew it, Sam showed me what she had been writing as we talked. Not only did she have a book cover sketched out (with my name on it!) she also had a catchy title and an idea for turning the book into a series.

All this in less than five minutes. Wow!

Both of us were on a five-minute pitch panel later that day, an event where would-be entrepreneurs had one minute to present their business ideas and four of us four judges had one minute to comment, question and give advice. Sam was similarly helpful and expansive in that arena.

Needless to say, I was thoroughly impressed. For many years, I've been telling entrepreneurs to give, not sell. Make their business all about listening and meeting clients needs.

But I've only rarely seen people truly embody that advice so thoroughly and charmingly. Sam is the genuine article.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Happy Entrepreneurs

The times are tough.
Consumer confidence keeps falling.
Our retirement accounts are hollow shells of their old selves.

And yet, people who work for themselves don't seem to regret it for a moment.

At least, not according to a survey released this week by business networking site Biznik.com and a professor from the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business.

The survey asked nearly 1,000 small business owners a variety of questions about their companies and the challenges they face. They found:

Passion and values continue to be the leading motivations for starting a business. Nearly one-third of respondents said the most important reason for starting their business was that they wanted to do something they enjoy. Another 25% cited the fact that they did not want to work for someone else. And, while only 60% of the respondents said they were satisfied with the performance of their business, 91% claim they are satisfied with their decision to work for themselves.

I know a lot of entrepreneurs and I'd say that sounds pretty familiar. And you can count me on in on that, too.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Free Shipping Day

There are plenty of shopping days left until Christmas.

Of course, that's not a license to procrastinate, but who wants to shop for the holidays when we're working on our Halloween costumes?

Knowing how often I shop for gifts late in the season (I actually like holiday shopping during the holidays - crazy, huh?), I've already marked my calendar for Dec. 17, this year's Free Shipping Day.

This revolutionary idea is the brainchild of an entrepreneur I interviewed, Maisie Knowles, for my podcast this summer.

She and her husband Luke founded FreeShipping.org in 2007. Last year, they had a last-minute brainstorm and created Free Shipping Day in time for the 2008 holiday shopping season. They were surprised to get participation from 250 retailers and 250,000 visitors in a 10-day period, including over 100,000 visitors on the actual day itself.

This year, the Knowles' expect to attract more than 500 retailers. If you're a small business owner selling online, it's an idea that worth considering.

How does it work? Free Shipping Day occurs on the last possible 24-hour period when retailers can guarantee on-time delivery by Christmas Eve. Retailers who participate promise to provide free shipping for online orders placed on that day. So far, merchants like Toys R Us, Babies R Us, FAO Schwartz, eToys, Baby Universe and Crate & Barrel have confirmed they will participate this year.

My calendar is marked; how about yours?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Reinvent Yourself

In many respects, small businesses get the short end of the stick. When companies cut back, small suppliers are usually among the first to get jettisoned.

When consumers cut back, it's the local businesses they tend to stop frequenting. And meanwhile, they're always striving to deliver more quality at lower prices than their larger competitors!

Back in 2007, I started to hear about small companies really suffering. Looking back, I think they were the "canary in the coal mine" of the Great Recession, which didn't hit in full until last fall.

And with credit still tight and consumer spending way below what it was a few years ago, there's no doubt that many small business (the ones who've survived) are still hurting.

It's good to know, however, that many entrepreneurs have powered through the downturn doing exactly what they're best at: Being creative, innovative and flexible. In my Smart Answers column today, I interview several small business owners who've been successful this year because they've changed their business models.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the risks of cashing out retirement funds to start a small business.

And on my podcast, management guru Michael McGrath discusses smart startups and how they can make good decisions.

Pissed Off?

There are a lot of unfortunate people who live by P.T. Barnum's* old adage, "There's a sucker born every minute."

Even more unfortunate: A lot of them are determined to make suckers out of startup entrepreneurs. Nothing more tempting to a con artist than an optimistic, enthusiastic individual with a little money saved up or borrowed, apparently.

One of the first tests of a successful entrepreneur, in my book, is whether s/he gets through the startup phase without being victimized by someone selling worthless "information," "motivation" or "consulting." I have a hunch that a lot of would-be business owners get ripped off - but don't report it because they are too embarrassed.

Sometimes we have to learn lessons the hard way, I guess.

But here's some good news: The Internet has empowered all of us who may be lured by scammers. And if we're not sharp enough to research first - and resist - we can always report later, and save someone else from ruin.

I take some comfort in knowing that the bad guys' true motives are being exposed all the time. Here's the latest site to focus on ripoff reports.

Before you do business with a new company, take a gander and see if they've recently pissed someone off. And if you're a small business owner, it would be smart to monitor the site and take steps immediately to resolve any complaints posted about your company there.

*Turns out that Barnum denied coining that phrase, but if he didn't say it, it's never been determined exactly who did.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Future of Journalism

I woke up to good news this morning: My Smart Answers podcast has been named a finalist in a digital media competition.

The American Society of Business Publications Editors (how's that for a mouthful!) also named six other BusinessWeek.com finalists in categories including web news, commentary, video and podcasting. The SmallBiz channel, which is the site that I specifically write for, was named a finalist in the Web Microsite category. The awards will be handed out in early November.

Whether we win or not, it's quite an honor to be a finalist for a national award. And the timing couldn't be better: Bloomberg is currently deciding how much of BusinessWeek.com it will keep alive in the new year. My colleagues and I are hoping that getting the nod today will help push that decision in the proper direction!

What else is going on in journalism?

The Washington Post reports on one journalist turned entrepreneur who could be a role model for many of us.

And a new report assessing the future of community journalism - and how it might use new, innovative funding models - is being released tomorrow.

Look for some interesting conversations on the possibilities raised, including government grants to journalistic outlets that do investigative and innovative reporting. That should stir up some controversy!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Beyond Stereotypes

I noticed it immediately - indeed it was unmistakable: The charged-up energy of entrepreneurship. It hit me like a wave as soon as I arrived at Perfect Pitch 2009, the entrepreneur/investor conference I attended this week.

The level of excitement, stress and pure self-promotion at the conference seemed almost testosterone-fueled. Perhaps that's because the audience - and presenters - were mostly male. Or perhaps it's because there's a mythos that surrounds entrepreneurs, who are usually portrayed as hard-charging, risk-taking extroverts.

But that popular perception, however ubiquitous, may be off the mark. Dr. Candida Brush, an professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College, writes that being a successful entrepreneur is more about what you do than who you are.

Perfect Pitch 2009

I'm happily looking forward to attending Perfect Pitch 2009, a conference that allows entrepreneurs to pitch their business ideas to investors.

I've been asked to appear as part of a panel that listens to entrepreneurs discuss their business ideas and get feedback on them. It should be interesting: Sir Richard Branson is the keynote speaker.

If you can join us on Monday, Oct. 26 at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina Del Rey, please do!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Championing Experience

Last time, I wrote about Choire Sicha's New York Times op-ed from last week.

That piece was published just below another column that caught my eye. This one was about the downfall of Gourmet magazine.

The author, Christopher Kimball, is the editor of Cook's Illustrated. But he takes no delight in the closing of his competitor.

In fact, he laments the fading of the "old-media" tradition of writers gaining experience, spending years covering an industry or topic and learning to write and report with excellence:

The shuttering of Gourmet reminds us that in a click-or-die advertising marketplace, one ruled by a million instant pundits, where an anonymous Twitter comment might be seen to pack more resonance and useful content than an article that reflects a lifetime of experience, experts are not created from the top down but from the bottom up.

While I've seen many people - bloggers, mostly - celebrating this coronation of the ordinary, Kimball's not so complimentary:

The world needs fewer opinions and more thoughtful expertise - the kind that comes from real experience, the hard won blood-on-the-floor kind.

I happen to agree with him, probably unsurprisingly, since I've got a few years' experience in journalism myself. But how do those of us who do have professional credentials and expertise make sure we can still make a living at it? Here's Kimball's prescription:

To survive, those of us who believe that inexperience rarely leads to wisdom need to swim against the tide, better define our brands, prove our worth, ask to be paid for what we do, and refuse to climb aboard this ship of fools, the one where everyone has an equal voice.

It may not be popular, but I agree with Kimball. And I especially like the part about asking to be paid for what we do.

Too many people think that work done online doesn't really "count" as work. Those of us who are professionals really cannot afford to accept that idea.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

We're All Entrepreneurs

This morning I got the news that McGraw-Hill had sold BusinessWeek to Bloomberg. It's unclear at this point what the sale will mean for small business coverage at BusinessWeek, or for my contract there.

While I obviously hope that my contract gets renewed at Bloomberg BusinessWeek and that I'm able to continue doing what I love - providing advice and insights to entrepreneurs - the news is a good wake up call. And not only for me, but for all of us.

Increasingly, technology and the changing economy are forcing individuals to become more pro-active about their careers. It used to be fairly common for someone to take a job at a large, powerful corporation out of college, move up through the ranks and eventually retire - from that very same company - 30 or 40 years later.

Now? Not so much. I know a few people who've followed that model, but not many. As Choire Sicha wrote in the New York Times last week:

Now that we are all on Facebook, we are each a sole proprietor. We are all perpetrators and victims of promotion (for the most part that promotion is tediously of the "self" variety). That every consumer is now a retailer is capitalism's ultimate and most logical evolution.

I don't know about the logical evolution of capitalism (not being a macro-economist myself) but I have to agree with her sentiment, and others', about all of us being more akin to sole proprietors than we ever expected to be.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dreaming the American Dream

Lots of wanna-be entrepreneurs looking for advice on going into business for themselves these days. Take this future interior designer.

I've also answered questions recently from an aspiring sports merchandiser and a someday ex-pat jeweler.

Wait, don't let me forget the soon-to-be luggage designer looking for a domestic manufacturer!

It's funny, but I never get tired of investigating these folks' dilemmas and finding good advice for them. The questions are endlessly interesting to me and the information is so readily - and satisfyingly - accessible online.

I hope it is helpful to my readers as well.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Make Them Pay!

One of the most troublesome - and easiest to fix - areas for small business owners is their accounts receivable department.

They may ask for 30- or 60-day payment terms, but they don't always get them. Certain clients may be chronically late payers, and others simply may not pay at all. Ever.

Some entrepreneurs are tempted to fold and chalk the missed payment up to "experience." Not me. I once loaded my babies up in their car seats late on a Friday evening and drove 30 miles to a delinquent editor's home a week before Christmas to demand a check that was three months overdue.

We were in "austerity budget" mode as a family, I had done the work as requested and turned it in on time, and darned if I wasn't going to get that payment! The man answered the door in his bathrobe and handed me a check. And it didn't even bounce.

Needless to say, I didn't do work for that publication again. And yes, they did call me a couple of months later for another project.

The point is, you'll never collect funds owed you if you don't try. Sometimes you'll be spinning your wheels but other times, if you're persistent, you will get paid eventually.

Start by finding out why your client isn't paying. Call to remind them politely but firmly that your bill is outstanding. If they are not responsive, or do not follow through on promises to pay, send a strong letter informing them of your intent to sue. These easy steps may scare your client straight.

If not, and the amount owed you is reasonably small, you can probably file a small claim online in your jurisdiction. You may have to pay another fee for process service and show up in small claims court for a hearing.

If the amount is larger, it may be worthwhile filing a lawsuit. Talk to an attorney about the cost-benefit ratio in those cases.

You can chalk late- or non-payer situations up to experience as well. They demonstrate how important it is to get an upfront retainer from new clients. You can also get their credit card number in advance and let them know you'll bill it directly when the balance is due.

Most importantly, know your customers before you get into business with them. Have them fill out a basic credit application that includes their business information, banking information and client references.

You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Social Media Tips

I attended a brown-bag lunch meeting today of a local LinkedIn group. Its aim is to share information and advice about social media and how it enhances business online.

Thought I would share a few of the tips I got out of the very informative session:

1) It's hard to know whether your marketing efforts are having any effect unless you measure things like traffic to your website or blog. The good news is that you can measure those things, quite precisely and inexpensively, with free tools such as Google Analytics.

2) Even if you know about Google Analytics and have it installed for your website, you may not really know what all the terms mean and which are most important. "Unique visitors" is what you want to notice. "Hits" apparently just describes how many unique pieces of code are downloaded each time someone calls up your site. Unless you're a programmer, the number of "hits" you get is not important.

3) To measure visitors' engagement with your company website or blog, look at the categories called "Page Views" and "Bounce Rate." You want to increase your page views (how many pages visitors to your site are looking at) and decrease your bounce rate (the number of people who click on your site but navigate away from it almost immediately). In order to keep people on your site, give them something to do (like "order now" or "click here") right up front.

4) You also want to encourage people to stay on your site longer and increase your subscribers. In order to do this, you need to build an interactive community - rather than think of your customers and potential customers as an audience you will be selling to.

The last point I think is very important, but it's not easy to grasp. As business has moved online, there's an interactive component to customer relations that is really quite revolutionary.

I've written a little about it here and here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I Want My Web TV

I thought podcasting was scary when I was first asked to record a weekly podcast a few years ago, but it's gotten easier over time.

But what about writing, recording, editing and starring in your own Web TV show?

That's what increasing numbers of small business owners are doing, thanks to new technology and inexpensive equipment. I chronicle the trend toward online shows in today's Smart Answers column.

It's pretty darned interesting, if I do say so. Check it out.

Speaking of the podcast, this week I interview a long-time source of mine who's also an author and speaker on small business topics. She's just written a new book that compiles best practices from more than 50 successful entrepreneurs. She shares a few of the tips she gleaned here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Where's the Money?

The most common question I get from entrepreneurs involves funding. The second-most-common is about marketing.

Let's talk funding. Start up entrepreneurs often fund their own ventures through existing assets or obtaining bank loans. In this economic climate, bank loans have become more difficult than ever to get. Plan on having to put up your home or other large asset as collateral if you're a brand-new business owner.

Another option is to raise money by asking people you know – friends and family members – to loan you the money. Make sure you have written agreements with these people.

Outsiders, such as venture capitalists or “angel” investors, do not typically fund early-stage business concepts unless their backers have strong, successful track records in the industry.

There are certain angels who specialize in contributing “seed” money to promising start ups. If you can demonstrate that your new company has excellent potential, you might consider sending your business plan to those kinds of investors.

The TechCoast Angels, an investor group based in Orange County, CA has recently started a new SeedTrack program to provide financial and planning help to early start up firms with "game-changing ideas for big and meaningful problems."

To find an angel investor group near you, visit the Angel Capital Network.

You should also ask your accountant or attorney for referrals, since business advisers often help match entrepreneurs with investors.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

This Week in SmallBiz

I write about the pros and cons of drop-shipping this week in my Smart Answers column.

Turns out that manufacturers who want to succeed have to master this technique, which involves taking orders from retailers and shipping product directly to customers.

The alternative is outsourcing the "picking, packing and shipping" to an order fulfillment company, many of which also do specialized invoices and labeling to reflect the retailer's brand.

I also wrote recently about a seminar coming up at the end of this month. It aims to connect U.S. business owners and investors with entrepreneurs and customers on the African continent. Doing business in Africa is not easy, says the expert I interviewed, but many countries are developing rapidly and represent a wide open marketplace for goods and services.

There's also good information in The Turnaround Ace column this time, which contains a rather shocking anecdote you won't want to miss.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Advice from Bob

My long-time source (and friend) Bob Zeitlinger had some terrific thoughts in his comment on my last post.

In case you missed it, Bob writes:

In addition to the editing, a PR person can give you tips and advice for all your news releases, and even provide some advice in terms of follow-up with editors.

As important as the news release is the note that is sent to editors with the news release. Through this note, show editors or reporters that you are familiar with their work. Emphasize the local angle if there is one. Editors get lots of news releases and story ideas, so you need to be very clear.

Backtracking one step: make sure the subject line of the email sells the story. Don't just write: "news release by xyz company" or "story idea." Editors - much like you and me - read subject lines when deciding which of the 15 unopened emails will get our attention first.

One last note: when following up with editors, please do not open with "did you get my news release?" It's a dead-end question. Instead, start with your story idea or news item. You can always mention that you sent the news release in a moment or two.

Every word is absolutely true! Thanks, Bob.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Getting Ink, Part 2

Last time, we talked about how small business owners can write their own press releases to attract some media coverage of their product or service.

But what should they do once they have them?

Writers all know that they need editors. Ask someone in the field of public relations to look over your first draft press release. If you don't know a PR person, hire one.

Revisions and rewriting are all part of the process, so expect to do three or four drafts before you settle on a final product. Then put a catchy but clear title on your press release.

The title (and subject line of your email) should communicate the essence of what you want to say, but also draw in the editor or opinion leader you’ve targeted. Don’t use hyperbole or syrupy language (“unique” or “fantastic”) to describe your business. Your audience of media professionals is a sophisticated and often cynical one. They will consider your release self-serving or patently false and jettison it.

Send your press release electronically. No one uses fancy paper press kits anymore. Put your efforts into targeting the proper recipient for your press release.

How? Closely follow your local media for a few months and identify reporters and editors who seem to be covering small business and, more specifically, your industry. These people are the ones who should be getting your press releases.

Don’t be surprised if it takes two months or more to hear back. Magazines and journals often have two- or three-month lead times, so if your release refers to an event, make sure you send it well in advance. If you’re targeting daily media, don’t send releases out too far in advance or they could get put aside and forgotten.

What does a press release look - and sound - like? Check out some releases at BusinessWire.com. They will give you a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

After you’ve sent your release, follow up with an email and a telephone call. Make sure you are available to talk to a reporter on deadline, if necessary. If you are lucky enough to get an interview, be honest but positive about your company and your product.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Getting Some Ink

One of the most common questions I get from small business owners is how to get publicity for their product or company. Assuming that most of them do not have the funds to put a large public relations firm on retainer, I usually advise them to do their own publicity or hire a freelancer.

Publicity consulting has become a popular freelance job in recent years, particularly for work-at-home mothers who previously worked at high-powered PR agencies and still have media contacts and savvy. Freelancers charge hourly rates in the $50 to $100 range, depending on what region of the country you're in.

Going it alone requires some research. Here are some places to start: Guerrilla Marketing, a book and website by Jay Conrad Levinson; The Publicity Hound and How to be Your Own Publicist by Jessica Hatchigan.

Once you've got an idea of how publicity works, write a press release about your company. Make it timely and newsworthy - not just an announcement saying that you have opened for business or hired a new vice president. Another way to structure your press release is to create some buzz, maybe over an event you are holding or a breakthrough in your industry you can tout.

Keep press releases short, usually one to one-and-a-half pages. Use the “inverted pyramid” news style, in which the most important information is up front, followed by the next most important piece and ending with the least important information, typically background on your company. Include the five W’s and an H: who, what, when, where, why and how.

Most important, include a contact name and phone number (usually two phone numbers, a work number and a cell phone number), Web site address and e-mail address. Your contact person – you or a key employee - must be accessible to speak to the media about your firm.

What do you do with your press release once you've got it written? I'll address that all-important information in an upcoming post.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

New Content Alert

We didn't post a new Smart Answers column this week because I decided to take a little break for the long weekend.

But there is some great content at the BusinessWeek site that I'll point out to make sure you don't miss it.

A long-time source of mine, consultant George Cloutier, has begun writing a new column called The Turnaround Ace. This week, he tackles a family business run amok.

Uncharacteristically, our resident curmudgeon, consultant Gene Marks, writes about the up-side of the recession for small businesses that are well-managed and quick to jump on opportunities. Go Gene!

I do have a new podcast up, this one an interview with an expert who advises that entrepreneurs should start planning now to beat their competition out of the post-recession, early-recovery gate.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Greeting Card Emergency

David Ellis Dickerson has done several classic segments on This American Life and often appears live at storytelling venues in New York City. I'm a big fan of storytelling and Dickerson is one of my favorites.

I've never had the pleasure of seeing him in person, but I now know what he looks like thanks to his hilarious "Greeting Card Emergency" series.

You see, Dickerson used to work for Hallmark and has a book coming out this fall about his experiences there. So he's doing a YouTube video series to promo the book.

In each segment, he takes a thorny personal situation (apology for a broken toilet? ex-fiance marrying someone else?) and brainstorms a greeting card specifically for that occasion.

Not only is it funny, it's actually interesting and informative to watch the creative process he uses to tackle each dilemma. Check it out.

Friday, September 4, 2009

It Works! It Really, Really Works!

Thanks to blogging and social networking for the better part of this year, I no longer have time to blog or do much networking!

But it's for a good cause: I've picked up four new assignments in the past month and a half, all of them from contacts made or strengthened through this blog and my Facebook page. Two are likely to be ongoing assignments and two are one-offs for now - with the potential for more work in future.

This is great news. After losing one of my regular freelance gigs (as a retirement columnist for Newsday) in January, I worried about being dependent on just two media outlets for all my income. (And with the state of media outlets these days, it was especially worrisome.)

One thing self-employed folks often learn the hard way is not to have all our revenue come from one or even two large clients. Life is uncertain, and business especially, so it's a big mistake to get too cozy and reliant on even the most "stable" client.

Things change, budgets are trimmed, priorities are shifted elsewhere. Sometimes it's easier for corporations to cut the low-hanging fruit (the self-employed subcontractor) than it is to lay off a full-time employee who has to be confronted in person with the bad news.

So widening my horizons has been a great thing for me, though I feel like I've been neglecting this space lately. Well, better late than never: Here's what I've been writing about recently.

The interview I did with Backcountry CEO John Bresee was especially interesting, as it on focused third-generation Internet interactions and specifically on user-generated content. How can small companies turn over their websites to users - and not police them?! I don't know, but Bresee has done it.

Have a wonderful long weekend and keep diversifying your options!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Crunch Those Numbers

It's hard to believe, but many small business owners don't really know where the numbers are at in their business.

For starters, few companies have regular professional business valuations, so they don't have a realistic idea what their firms would fetch on the open market.

But, even worse, a lot of entrepreneurs don't even have a handle on their income, expenses and asset value - let alone the more complicated quarterly reports that larger corporations have prepared by their financial teams.

At the very least, it’s crucial for entrepreneurs to know how much money is coming into and going out of their companies each month. It’s not okay to guess, wish or fudge on the numbers! If you don’t know where your company is financially at any given moment, it’s likely that your business will slip further and further into arrears – until it may be too late to turn things around.

Each month, with the help of your bookkeeper or accountant if you have one, sit down and calculate income and expenses. Be specific! For example, include fixed costs such as rent, insurance and payroll, as well as variable costs like advertising and marketing. On the income side, don’t include unpaid receivables until they are actually collected.

Don't forget to include calculations for taxes, overhead and consulting fees, if you have them.

You can purchase software for both cash flow statements and business plans from many commercial vendors, or get free templates from nonprofit agencies such as the U.S. Small Business Development Centers.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Failure Lessons

I interviewed a high-profile, high-powered entrepreneur and business book author recently for my podcast.

The topic of his book was leadership lessons from top CEOs. As we were chatting before the podcast taping began, he mentioned that he'd always wanted to tackle the opposite topic - lessons from failed companies and CEOs - but his publishers would never let him pursue the idea.

Apparently these geniuses are taking a cue from Hollywood producers in figuring that the public can't handle a downer.

But I told him about a book whose author I interviewed a year or so ago called "Billion-Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years."Authors Paul Carroll and Chunka Mui believed that you really can learn a lot if you study not just what to do, but also what not to do.

Well, it turns out that the book is just coming out in paperback. From the new preface, Paul and Chunka write:

"When the economy fell off a cliff as our book was coming out in 2008, any number of friends, colleagues and reviewers suggested we should quickly update it and incorporate the lessons from the mistakes that caused this crisis.

So what are those new lessons?

The short answer is: there aren’t any.

It turns out that the strategy mistakes that caused 423 major publicly held companies to file for bankruptcy since the beginning of the 1980s are the very same strategy mistakes that are bringing down huge companies now.

Many of these companies followed precisely the same strategies that others had already shown to be wrong-headed. The authors also found that the No. 1 cause of failure was not sloppy execution, poor leadership, or bad luck - it was misguided strategy.

These lessons apply equally to small firms as well as to larger ones. I really think this is a terrific read and highly recommend it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Winning Presentations

When I was asked to speak to a business group recently, my friend and personal branding expert Lilli Cloud helped me prepare my talk.

The most helpful thing she did was videotape and critique my presentation.

It was invaluable to compare my energy level and connection with the audience when I was looking down, with my glasses on, and reading my talk - versus when I took the glasses off, looked up and simply told the stories I had prepared from memory.

The connection I was making while reading was close to nil. It was a completely different situation when I just used the notes occasionally to stay on track. And it really helped when Lilli told me to print out my notes in large, bold type and ditch the reading glasses (duh ....).

The other really useful thing to come out of the videotape exercise was realizing that when I spoke extemporaneously, complete with stumbles and "uhhhh ..."'s, it sounded conversational - in other words, just fine.

In the past when I've given speeches and strayed from the prepared text, I did connect better with the audience, but I would feel myself start to panic when I was at a momentary loss for words. That panic made me speed up (always bad) and lose my rapport because I was so focused on getting finished without another gaffe.

Realizing that momentary pauses and stumbling over a word doesn't sound terrible really freed me up to glance at my notes, while most of the time looking at my listeners, smiling and relating to how they were receiving my words.

In the end, it was a fun experience and I had terrific feedback.

If you have to do some public speaking, please do not take the advice of my fellow BusinessWeek.com columnist Carmine Gallo, who writes today about how to give a catastrophic presentation.

The sad thing is, I think I've seen every one of his 15 no-no's in person at some point. The worst lecture I ever attended, however, started out with technical difficulties (don't they all?) and played out with the speaker reading her entire talk off her BlackBerry.

At first, I thought she was checking her email!

The effect was just dreadful, and made worse because she was representing a well-respected organization, which dropped several notches in my mind after that day, sadly enough.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Weekend Watermelon

Vacations are great, but the best part is always getting home. Don't you agree?

When we rolled into the organic garden last week a special surprise awaited us:

This is the largest of about six melons on our vine. Anyone know how to tell when a watermelon gets ripe enough to pick?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Doomed Love Affair

This post originally appeared in the STOX Scribe dated Aug. 18, 2009

I often hear from readers who have a Great Idea. They are persuaded their ideas can't be beat. If only they could get some money from somewhere (the government, maybe?) they know will make a million dollars and, more importantly of course, save humankind with their brilliant ideas.

Herein lies the danger: It's great to like your idea, but you must not fall in love with your idea.

You know how lovers in that googly-eyed romantic stage are adoringly blind to each others' faults? It's the same thing when you have an affair with your idea.

Liking your idea means you can look at it objectively, evaluate it, improve it, modify it, discard what doesn't work and jettison it entirely if it's not viable.

But if you love your idea, you risk blind loyalty. You'll refuse to see its flaws. You'll move forward with your idea stubbornly, despite evidence against it, because those people criticizing your idea are just ... wrong! They simply don't understand your idea like you do.

If you can't get enough distance from your idea to accept critiques and see its limitations, you're head over heels and likely heading for disaster. And, just like in romance, an idea affair that ends badly can be tragic.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

That Elusive Paid Vacation

It was 20 years ago next month that I took off on maternity leave from my last full-time job.

After my son was born, I confided to another mom-journalist that I was thinking about becoming a freelance writer and not returning to my job at a Los Angeles newspaper.

Her mouth dropped open in surprise. "But you ... you won't get paid vacation!" she exclaimed.

Well, two decades later I can say she was right. I still don't have paid vacation.

What I gained working from home, spending as much time as possible with my children, learning about entrepreneurship and eventually becoming a sought-after expert on small business, has more than made up for the lack of two paid weeks' leave per year. (I suppose I might have gotten up to three weeks - or maybe four by now!)

But it's true that taking time off when you're self-employed isn't easy. Unless you really want to take unpaid vacation time (which none of us can afford), you have to work extra hard planning and setting up work in advance while you're gone.

At the same time (if you're the mom), you also have to work extra hard planning and setting up your vacation reservations, itinerary and making sure everyone will be happy away from home.

The stress of all the extra work can mean that you're so wound up by the time you leave, that you wonder if it's really worth it.

But thankfully, the answer is always "yes." Just getting out of your routine, away from that ever-present home office and being with your family for a whole week is wonderful.

Here's to happy trails, low stress and August vacations! See you later this month.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Diamonds in the Rough

[Note: I'm pleased to announce that I am writing regularly for the STOX Scribe, a weekly newsletter affiliated with IDEASTOX, a groundbreaking web community that provides a place for individuals to save, share, develop, value and attract people and funding to their ideas. This post originally appeared in the STOX Scribe, dated Aug. 3, 2009.]

Many people seem surprised that Susan Boyle, the YouTube "Britain's Got Talent" phenomenon, got to middle-age without being discovered for her singing talent.

I'm not surprised at all. Both my parents sang and I grew up around talented amateurs who - for one reason or another - never made it big. Many of my friends today are unpublished authors, poets and screenwriters. For years, I took dance classes from a tall, beautiful woman who could have taken a place in the Broadway chorus line, but never quite got there.

The point is, raw talent is all around us. It's not unlike raw ideas, which - as we've all heard - are valued at around a dime a dozen.
What matters isn't the talent - or the idea The point is, raw talent is all around us. It's not unlike raw ideas, which - as we've all heard - are valued at around a dime a dozen.
What matters isn't the talent - or the idea - so much. What matters is what you do with it.

Developing an idea takes strategy, research, commitment and money. Likewise, someone with raw talent must invest in training, preparation, industry savvy and networking before she is likely to get noticed.

Part of it is also luck and timing. A terrific singer born in London, or Los Angeles, has got it easier than one who's lived her entire life in an obscure Scottish village. A great idea conceived in Silicon Valley has a better chance than one cooked up in Pakistan.

Most of all, developing talent and ideas takes courage. Boyle showed a lion's share of it when she stepped out in front of a hostile audience.

People with great ideas must screw up that kind of courage if they want their ideas to go beyond the raw stage and succeed on the world stage.

Garden Update

We're getting quite a show from our organic garden these days.

We started harvesting veggies on July 1 and we're still going strong. So far, we've had pumpkins, green beans, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, eggplant, onions and radishes.

Here's a monster heirloom tomato I picked yesterday and plan to put into Tuscan Pappa al Pomodoro tonight:

If you look closely, you can see the praying mantis, Torquemada (my son named him after another "praying predator" - we call him Torquie for short) that has taken up residence in our pepper plants:

I'm normally not an insect lover, but these guys are really beneficial in the garden (they eat pests) so I'm glad he's (she's?) moved in.

The only big disappointment so far has been our cantaloupe vines. They were lush and lovely, but young fruit never seemed to set. A couple of weeks ago they suddenly turned sickly and never recovered. I pulled them out and took a sample to my local nursery, where they pronounced nematode infestation. Turns out there's not much you can do to stop these bacterial worms that turn your plants' roots knotty and stop water and nutrients from getting up the stem.

Too bad, because we had a lot of hopes pinned on those melons. We do have watermelons growing in another part of the yard, though. Just hope that's out of range of the nematodes.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Fight the Fear

Ever get those chain-letter emails making some inflammatory, wild-eye claim about government, politics or pop culture?

Wait - why am I bothering to ask? Of course you have!

So, do you roll your eyes and click "delete"? I hope not.

There will always be some segment of the populace predisposed to believe in conspiracy theories and ridiculous rumors. I suspect it has something to do with genes or personality types, honestly.

But I think it is our responsibility not to just shrug and shake our heads when we get misinformation - particularly not during this time when fear-mongering seems to be reaching a peak (perhaps I should say "a nadir") in this country.

For example: I opened an email recently from a neighbor I've always liked. Our kids have grown up together and are good friends. She's a tireless community volunteer and her husband is a good guy involved in local politics.

So I was truly shocked to see that she'd forwarded me a wildly inaccurate chain email clearly designed to elicit panic in religious individuals. Worse, she'd included me in a long list of people who got the email, many of whom I recognize as active in our schools and community.

What to Do: There's a terrific web resource you should know about called Snopes.com. It investigates and debunks urban legends and email rumors.

It took me less than two minutes to find Snopes' take on the email my friend had sent - which was actually a compilation of two urban legends. Both were exhaustively and ruthlessly dismantled and ruled "FALSE" by Snopes.

Be Honest: I wrote back to my friend, hitting "reply all," and told the group about Snopes, including links to the pages that showed the material in the chain email was false. I was honest when I said I was disappointed that she'd pass on any chain letter (I hate the things) - let alone one so inflammatory - without checking on its accuracy.

I hope everyone makes it a point to be responsible, fair and accurate online. And don't just roll your eyes when you get bad information.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Social Media

Everyone knows a business that wants to stay successful needs to participate in social networking.

But exactly how are these multiple platforms best used? I answer that question from a small bakery owner in today's Smart Answers column.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Entrepreneur Profile

It's the small business owner who's been pegged to lead the country out of recession.


Conventional wisdom says that our salvation lies at the hands of the small-time inventor, the garage tinkerer who finds a way to make a new product cheaper, more efficiently and with better quality than his competitors.

I interview one of those small-time (and small-town) inventors in this week's Smart Answers column. Find out what really motivates him and how he plans to help save energy - and humanity.

This week's podcast features an interview with Steve Strauss, who says small business owners can do wonders with their companies if they will just get organized.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

How-Tos and Whys of Business Plans

We talked this week about the importance of writing a business plan. But how is it done?

Writing a plan typically takes two weeks to several months. An average business plan runs about 40 pages, including financial statements.

If you're writing a business plan for internal use only, you can write a shorter, less comprehensive plan that runs 12 to 20 pages. Just don't skimp on the financials! That's the most important part when it comes to making your business plan use-able.

And you do want to make it use-able, and useful. It's crucial to not just write a business plan but to also use it!

Don’t write it and file it away. Write it and refer to it.

Do a quarterly budget analysis that compares projections with what has actually happened with your sales and expenses. You can then adjust your projections so they are more aligned with reality.

With this kind of “active plan” you will always be ready to go to a lender or an investor without feeling unsure of yourself or your future business. You’ll have the goods to back up your optimistic outlook for your firm.

Monday, August 3, 2009

You Need a Plan

Entrepreneurs often write me desperate to find out what's gone wrong with their companies. Many times the wrong turn was early on, when they blundered into business without making a plan.

Some companies hit on just the right product or service and find success, business plan or not. But generally, operating a business without a business plan is a mistake. A business plan gives you a blueprint to follow during the life of your business. If you update it frequently, it will tell you when, where and how to implement changes that will make your business more profitable.

Most successful businesses have a business plan, and one is imperative if you plan to raise capital or borrow money from an institutional lender. Investors require a business plan before they will even consider investing in your business. No plan, no capital.

A business plan should contain three basic sections: Administrative, marketing and financial. You should write a business plan when you first consider starting a business.

If you have done things backwards, as many small business owners do, don’t fret. It is never too late to write a business plan. Don’t let someone else do it; write it yourself. Only you truly know your business. Also, by sitting down and writing the plan you will gain more insight into your own business and become a more effective leader.

If your company is already up and running, solicit input on the plan from your key managers and employees. Make sure that you integrate their thoughts into a comprehensive plan with continuity and coordination.

Still feeling inadequate? Take a business plan writing class through your local university or community college's entrepreneurial center. You’ll find additional resources at the library, bookstore or online, including step-by-step books on how to plan a business and sample business plans for various industries.

For $200 (cheaper if you download the eBook), you can purchase Thomson Gale’s “Business Plans Handbook,” which includes 24 sample plans taken from businesses in the manufacturing, retail and service industries.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Business Advice

My most recent Smart Answers columns touch on a couple of salient issues:

How small business owners are faring in the competition for federal stimulus money and how to market a new stuffed animal.

I got some good advice from my experts on both topics, if I do say so myself. Check them out!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Letting Go

You may recall my determination to raise "freerange kids."

Of course, even the most successful freerangers grow up and leave home - something I face this fall when both my young men will head off to college.

Here's a beautifully written, and bittersweet, story of one father's coming to grips with the inevitable, by Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson.

Warning: May cause misty eyes and runny noses.

(h/t Steve Scauzillo)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Business Boot Camp

I defy you to find a better bargain than the one being offered through the Women In Business program this year at the Women's City Club of Pasadena.

They're putting together a "Dream Business Program" that takes entrepreneurs through all the building blocks of starting, growing and operating a business. It's a 26-week course that will help you write a business plan, come up with an elevator pitch for your business and go through a "fast-pitch" program with a group of your peers.

The cost? $50 to cover materials and the purchase of a textbook. You also have to do your homework and get the best out of the time and work you put into the course.

Can you imagine? You can't afford to miss out on this, if you want to start a business or even if you already have a business and you need to go back and do some foundational work that you may have glossed over during start up.

Donna Chaney is organizing the course, so contact her for more information. She's Donna at ChaneyFinancialServicesInc dot com.

Blog With Integrity

A few weeks ago I did a story on Mommy Bloggers and how entrepreneurs can market through them. The piece mentioned the uncomfortable problem of sometimes-squishy ethics among bloggers.

For instance, if you are providing product samples or freebies to bloggers, do they have an obligation to their readers to disclose that? If they're reviewing your products, will they be influenced by your gifts?

A group of bloggers has come up with a way to provide bloggers with a "tangible and collective way to express our commitment to a simple code of blogging conduct," blogger Susan Getgood wrote me recently.

The four women bloggers involved call their project, launched this month, Blog With Integrity. They aim to "frame the discussion in a positive fashion, focusing on simple things like respect, responsibility and disclosure. No commercial sponsors, no companies, no agencies. Just the community," Getgood said via email.

Their idea is for bloggers to take their integrity pledge and display their badge on site. You can read more background about the pledge on the group's website.

Here's the pledge:

By displaying the Blog with Integrity badge or signing the pledge, I assert that the trust of my readers and the blogging community is important to me.

I treat others respectfully, attacking ideas and not people. I also welcome respectful disagreement with my own ideas.

I believe in intellectual property rights, providing links, citing sources, and crediting inspiration where appropriate.

I disclose my material relationships, policies and business practices. My readers will know the difference between editorial, advertorial, and advertising, should I choose to have it. If I do sponsored or paid posts, they are clearly marked.

When collaborating with marketers and PR professionals, I handle myself professionally and abide by basic journalistic standards.

I always present my honest opinions to the best of my ability.

I own my words. Even if I occasionally have to eat them.

I've taken the pledge. Will you!?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sunday Garden Blogging

Our organic garden is chugging right along, producing tomatoes, green beans, eggplant and a plethora of crunchy, delicious cucumbers.

As you can see above, however, these cukes don't look like the ones you see in the store. They have been really long, thin and they come in crazy shapes, like the corkscrew variety I'm holding here:

Weird, huh!? Good thing I don't care what they look like, as long as they are tasty.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Absolutely Free!

I mentioned "Hit the Ground Running," the book authored by the expert I interviewed this week on my podcast, Jason Jennings. It's the story of how top CEOs quickly make a big, positive impact on their companies.

They sent me a copy and I've read it, so I'd be happy to give it to a blog reader who can benefit from it.

I think it'd also be interesting to read the opposite book, the one about how quickly new CEOs can run a company into the ground and why. Sort of a cautionary tale.

Jason and I talked about this and he said he's pitched a couple of books from the "lessons learned" side of things, but his publishers never go for it. I guess they think the public can only handle happy endings.

I think they're selling Americans short, frankly. People love to read about how others screw up, especially if they can avoid mistakes as a result. The Los Angeles Times used to have a regular feature on personal finance that chronicled how people got into debt, how much trouble they were in and what they could do to dig themselves out.

I never missed it!

Email me with your address if you want Jason Jennings' book and I'll ship it out ASAP. You can get my email address by clicking on "view my complete profile" in the right-hand column under my picture.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Save Money - And The Planet

My Los Angeles Times column today lists several ideas for an entrepreneur concerned about both the environment - and her budget.

My source, green business writer Kim Carlson, has lots of additional tips that I didn't have room to include in the column. Here are a few:

*Use plants to do double duty bringing nature indoors while cleaning the air. Put them near copiers, faxes and other machines that emit ozone.

*Re-use one-sided, discarded copy paper for printing out notes and rough drafts. I do this all the time and go through very little paper, despite the fact that I still print out a lot of items (I just like having a hard copy, what can I say?). Re-using paper can reduce your paper cost by 20% to 35%, Kim says.

*Put recycling containers at every workstation, along with wastebaskets. Provide receptacles for recycling cardboard, plastic bottles and cans as well as paper.

*If you move your business, locate an existing office building or repurposed warehouse space rather than building a new structure.

*Deconstruct outdated square footage rather than tearing it down using a demolition crew. "Selling or donating used construction materials cuts down on waste and keeps old building components in use," Kim says.

In the mid-80s we lived in a neighborhood with a lot of historic bungalows. One of our favorite activities was scavenging tear-down sites for old architectural and design treasures. We salvaged some brass fireplace andirons from one place that we still have. And we picked up some lovely glass-paned French doors that we used in a home addition.

The Domain Name Business

A column I wrote last week, about the buying and selling of domain names, is getting a lot of feedback and has been picked up from Nevada to India.

I run across a lot of empty websites that seem to exist just to display ads and recycle content. Hard to believe they're really making any money.

But Jeremiah Johnston, whom I interviewed for the story, says domain name expenses are so minimal (a $10 annual fee for many) that even buying and holding them can be a good investment.

Of course, if you improve the site, add some content and attract regular visitors, you can add to that investment substantially.

How'd You Do That?

In this week's podcast interview, I chat with an author who studied fast growth companies.

Jason Jennings, a long-time entrepreneur who started writing business books and speaking to business owners several years ago, identified dozens of companies where CEOs came in and made big, positive impacts in a short timeframe.

Then he narrowed his list down to the top few and interviewed each of the CEO's to answer the question: "How'd you do that?"

What he found is fascinating. Each of these highly effective, highly efficient CEOs bucked the traditional mold and did things that might at first seem counterintuitive, but turned out to be brilliant.

Listen to the interview to get more info. By the way, you can listen to my podcast at the BusinessWeek website (look for "featured podcast" on the SmallBiz page) or you can do what I do: Subscribe (free!) at iTunes and listen on your iPod while you're doing something like walking, biking or lifting weights at the gym.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Down, But Not Out

As the recession drags on - "green shoots" notwithstanding - a lot of entrepreneurs are becoming very discouraged.

I answer a question from one of them in today's Smart Answers column.

Maybe things aren't quite as bad as he thinks.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Weekend Thought

"It's time for greatness, not for greed. It's a time for idealism, not ideology. It is a time not just for compassionate words, but compassionate action."

--Marian Wright Edelman

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


My podcast guest a few weeks back was Nathan Egan, formerly one of the early execs at LinkedIn.

He talked about how social media isn't going away, so small business owners had better learn to use it. Their competitors certainly are!

He's now got a new resource online called Freesourcing.

It's a business directory for free, online resources for small business owners (and others). Search on a term such as "sales" and you'll get a list of related free services and products, what they do and what others think of them.

The site is just getting started (it's in beta mode) but it could be really terrific if it takes off. I've often noted that there are loads of great freebies online but it's not easy to sift through them all and find the truly useful - and truly free - ones.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Getting Desperate?

Many small business owners are hitting the desperation button about now.

They've used up their reserves, lowered their prices and beat the bushes for new customers.

But those revenues just aren't rolling in and their credit lines are being cancelled. Things have gotten so bad, even the New York Times is noticing.

I hope that entrepreneurs are not so strapped that they're falling for unethical - and potentially illegal - schemes like "shelf corporations."

Never heard of them? Neither had I. But I write about them in this week's Smart Answers column.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Carving Up the Company

Debt financing is nearly always tough for small businesses to obtain, and particularly so right now.

What's a struggling small business owner to do if she can't get a loan to finance a great new opportunity, or just make payroll?

Options like equity investors look all the more attractive right now.

But what does it take to attract private investment of outside capital, and what do investors expect in return?

I answer those questions - and more - in my Smart Answers column today. Check it out!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

I've Got An Idea

There’s a world of blood, sweat and tears that separates a great b­­usiness idea from a great business. That’s why - with few exceptions - people don’t buy ideas. After all, ideas are a dime a dozen, right?

So, what can you do with your great idea? If you’re like most people, you’ll forget about it until the day you see that someone else has turned it into a reality. If you’re not like most people, you’ll become obsessed with the idea to the point where you know you have to find a way to add value to the idea, whether that means patenting it, licensing it or starting a company to market it.

If you’re in the latter category, put together a plan to go with your idea. It doesn’t have to be a full business plan. Start with a proof of concept that explains what your idea is, how it will generate revenue, what kinds of operating expenses you’ll incur producing it or pursuing it and what your competition will be. What unmet need will your product or service fulfill? Why will customers buy it instead of buying your competitors’ products?

If you feel that your idea is a can't miss, pursue intellectual property protection for it and share it with a few trusted colleagues – preferably people already in business for themselves. Ask them to sign “non-disclosure” agreements before you lay out the idea.

Don’t get sucked in by phony inventor or patenting schemes that fleece na├»ve would-be entrepreneurs for thousands every year by flattery and flat-out fraud.

If you really have an innovative, promising business idea, and you’re driven to pursue it, you’ll be able to prove the concept, protect the idea legally and either license it to an existing business or round up the funding that will allow you to take the idea to market yourself, perhaps with a more knowledgeable business partner.

More information on protecting and commercializing your business ideas can be found at the National Inventor Fraud Center.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Failing to Deal

When his father's small business closed its doors after many years, Dean Shepherd was devastated.

But that was nothing compared to how his father felt, Shepherd says in this week's Smart Answers podcast.

With so many small businesses shutting down these days, it's important to find coping skills for failure, Shepherd says.

Many entrepreneurs must have learned that lesson. I remember several years ago coming across a study that showed that the most successful entrepreneurs have failed early on in their careers and come back to try again, getting it right the second - or third - time.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Coordinate or Pay Up

I've never taken out a business loan (start up costs for a self-employed writer not being terrifically huge), but I have had mortgages and refinanced them a couple of times.

I remember a mad scramble on at least one occasion to ensure that a loan payoff went through on the same day that our new home loan was scheduled to open.

We all sat in the mortgage office on tenterhooks as our broker called around and we waited for faxed confirmations to come over the phone lines.

Not having someone ride herd on loan coordination - and it seemed like some luck was also involved - can land you in the situation covered this week in my Smart Answers column.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Get Ready, Get Set

I hate to come back from a long weekend with bad news, but I'm afraid it's out there.

Remember that swine flu epidemic that we were hearing so much about a few months ago?

Well, the media spotlight has moved on to other things - like the national hourly Michael Jackson update (don't get me started).

But the new strain of flu has quietly become a global health concern that is building strength in the southern hemisphere's chill and is likely to return to North America by fall.

Now's the time to get prepared, public health officials say.

Southern Californians should always have emergency supplies on hand as part of our earthquake preparedness. It's a good bet that a well-stocked earthquake kit will have a lot of the supplies needed for a flu pandemic also, but I know it's time to update my own.

I don't have nearly enough food stockpiled to last two weeks, however, which is what is recommended in case of a severe flu outbreak. If you have college students, as I do, they should have food on hand also.

Here's a good general pandemic readiness site and comprehensive list of links and resources.

Now's the time to lay the groundwork - just in case this bug turns even nastier later in the year.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Back to Work

Right now, the job market is as tight as it's been for a long, long time. It must be terribly discouraging for this spring's college grads.

Even my older son, who just finished his first year at college, has been unable to find a summer job. The best he's been able to do is work a few weekends for a local restaurant owner who takes a booth to special events. He worked eight hours yesterday at an American Idol tryout and was grateful to be squeezing lemons and making fries!

He also signed up with a temp agency, but so far has not gotten any assignments.

A friend's college son filled out an application for a graveyard shift job as a retail store shelf-stocker. He was hopeful, until he was told that 27 others had already applied!

Here's a website that is "helping put Americans back to work" with a series of national job fairs.

Check out one if you're on the market.

Garden Bounty

I hoped to start harvesting veggies from the garden this week, and we have!

Here's a sample of the goodness - and it's barely summer:

We will be well-fed this summer, no doubt about it.

I took the White Beauty eggplant and Cue Ball zucchini above, cut them in half, hollowed them out and stuffed them with sauteed vegetables and bread crumbs, topped with parmesan cheese. You can add some crumbled, cooked sausage or ground meat, but they make a nice vegetarian side dish also.

Have a great holiday weekend, everyone! I'm taking a couple days off. :-)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On the Hook?

It's a tough time for businesses, perhaps especially small businesses, and many of them are closing their doors.

When you've formed certain legal business entities, you're supposed to be shielded from personal liability for a failed business.

But as I write in my Smart Answers column today, that protection is not always there.

Read about the host of things that entrepreneurs may do - sometimes inadvertently - that void their corporate protections.

This week's podcast is an interview about social media marketing with a guy who was one of the early employees at LinkedIn.

Social networking is not something that will go away, or can safely be ignored as a marketing tool, he says. Think of it as simply a new way to communicate - like the telephone. Small business owners who refuse to adopt it may go the way of the telegraph operator.

Friday, June 26, 2009

(More Than) A Pat on the Back

In times like these, entrepreneurs have to look outside of the usual suspects when it comes to sales.

Sometimes that means empowering your subcontractors and non-sales employees to do some selling for you.

But how to you reward this activity - and encourage more of it?

My Smart Answers column talks about establishing a bonus structure for employees and subcontractors who are asked to bring in new clients for a service firm.