Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Daily Freebie

Last night, we stood in line and got free chicken and tortillas at El Pollo Loco for dinner. Apparently they were responding to a free chicken giveaway by KFC a day earlier.

Tonight, we paid $1.86 for six scoops of ice cream at Baskin-Robbins (.31 cents per scoop) during an anniversary special.

Apparently, if we'd known about it, we could have gone downtown and had breakfast at The Original Pantry (one of my Dad's absolute favorite places) for .85 cents.

I know restaurants are hurting and all, but how many more of them can afford to give away free food!?

What's the word on the next freebie?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Buying A WorkOut

Business turnaround experts call struggling firms that still have potential "workouts."

Not surprisingly, this is a terrific time to acquire a floundering company and turn it around. Anyone who attempts this, however, must have a strong stomach and a strong grounding both in the industry and in entrepreneurship.

One expert told me that anyone aquiring a workout should have an "MBA." Not a master's of business administration, but a "massive bank account"!

See what some other experts have to say in my most recent Smart Answers column.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Beef Up Your Website

Websites are no longer optional marketing and sales tools, but too many entrepreneurs are missing out on the Internet's full power. So says the guest on my Smart Answers podcast this week as he explains how to engage customers and monetize content.

Speaking of monetizing content (I swear I didn't plan this), my Smart Answers column talks about affiliate plans and reselling online.

Most of us are familiar with affiliate programs, where you put a link on your site to a site like Amazon.com and share in some portion of the proceeds when sales result. But some firms are going beyond that rather benign practice and asking their customers to become distributors or resellers for them.

It's an interesting proposition, but it gets into trickier, and potentially more time-consuming, territory and should be evaluated more carefully.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Red Hot Internet

Last weekend, I attended an Internet publicity seminar conducted by Penny Sansevieri of Author Marketing Experts, Inc.

I have been to three or four of these workshops, all sponsored by the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC).

Penny's was easily the best. It was detailed and practical but easy to follow. I found out that there are a lot of things I could be doing to increase my visibility online.

A few highlights:

There are more than 500 social networking sites on the web. Penny says you need only three: Facebook, Squidoo and Twitter.

She recommends downloading the Google toolbar and using PageRank, a tool that shows you how Google assesses the strength of any website or blog you visit. This way, you can spend your online marketing time wisely, targeting the strongest sites (i.e., those that have the most visitors, incoming links, etc.).

Think there aren't enough hours in the day to keep up your tweeting, blogging and commenting - let alone actually work for a living? There is software that allows you to automate your tweets and posts, so that anything you write for one venue can be repurposed everywhere else you have an account. (Exactly how one sets that up I didn't quite catch, but Penny claims it can be done.)

Finally, she says, "social media" is so named precisely because it is "social." Expect to spend time socializing online just as you would if you were going into face-to-face social situations. The great news? Online networking is much easier on the fashion budget.

Penny has written a couple of books. And she's "BookGal" on Twitter, where she apparently posts loads of short and sweet tips every day. Check her out. If anyone could persuade me to sign up myself, she may just have done it.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Employee Advice

The talk over at BusinessWeek.com's Small Biz page is all about employment, and unemployment, today.

My Smart Answers column gives alternatives to downsizing.

Staff writer John Tozzi opines on the right way to handle layoffs.

And Jason Calacanis, founder of the Silicon Alley Reporter, writes about how to hire - and get hired - in a recession.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bees in the Bin


There was some drama in the still-nascent organic garden this week.

I noticed lots of bees going into my compost bin on Tuesday. After dusk, when no bees were in evidence, my son lifted the lid (while I watched from a safe distance). Sure enough, there was a giant ball-o'bees clinging to the underside. I screamed and ran for the garage, and he dropped the lid and followed close on my heels.

For the next two days, we steered clear of that part of our yard - not easy to do since that's where our trash cans are stored.

April and May is bee swarm season, I learned, so rogue bees are not unusual (although it never happened to us before). But what to do?

If I weren't such a chicken, I would've bought a bee box and kept them myself. I love honey, but I wrote an article on killer bees once and the horror stories have never left me.

So I called L.A. County Vector Control and found out they remove bees for free. The bad news is that they have a waiting list several months long.

Then I called an exterminator to come poison my pests. But I started to get kind of fond of the little critters. It felt like a shame to kill them, especially since so many hives are dying off due to a true pest called varroa mite.

My friend Donnie Dale came to the rescue when he remembered that a local beekeeping group had recently been featured in the L.A. Times

A few minutes of Google magic and I came across Kirk Anderson, of the Backwards Beekeepers.

Kirk was all set to come out and find a new home for my buzzy friends. Then late this afternoon I noticed that there weren't many bees around the compost bin. My son flipped the lid with a shovel and - voila! They had flown the coop, leaving just a few pieces of honeycomb behind.

Apparently they found a better site for their hive. I'm relieved, but also a little sad. I only wish they'd left us some honey as a parting gift.

Business Startups

Lots and lots of people are thinking about starting companies right now. Some have been laid off, others are retiring early, all have long had the entrepreneurial bug. My email is jammed with startup questions.

I address two of them in my LA Times In Box column this week.

Having had a couple of relatives crash and burn with startups - with dire consequences for their finances and even their marriages, sadly! - I try hard to instill some common sense into my answers. If I can steer clueless newbies to a prudent, research-based approach to starting their companies, I feel that I've done both my job and a public service.

My Smart Answers podcast this week is all about how to evaluate a bank and move your accounts if you can upgrade the relationships and services involved.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Reason to Like Reality TV

Too often, reality television brings out the worst of humanity. Although I watch a couple of reality shows (The Amazing Race is wonderful fun), I abhor the tendency toward cruelty, humiliation, back-biting and focus on looks and fashion that these shallow excuses for entertainment celebrate.

However, the talent shows occasionally fulfill their purpose of leveling the playing field for obscure contestants who would not otherwise get noticed by a larger audience.

In that spirit, you must watch Susan Boyle's audition last weekend on "Britain's Got Talent," the sister show of "America's Got Talent."

This opinion column in U.K.-based publication The Herald gets the matter absolutely right.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

But Wait ... That's Not All!

Remember the Ginsu knife and SNL's brilliant parody, the Bassomatic?

It used to be late-night cable was the home of those fast-talking pitchmen whose lingo and presentation style originated with the old traveling snake-oil salesmen.

Nowadays, however, even prime-time television shows are sponsored by products like the ShamWow and the Snuggie.

In this week's Smart Answers column, I talk to an advertising expert about how small businesses can cash in on low prices and increased viewship of radio and television commercials.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

It's Tax Time

It was taxes and more taxes last week in my Smart Answers columns.

Are you procrastinating? Check out some last-minute tips for Schedule C filers (that's you, small business owners and self-employed folks).

And if you happen to own lots of properties and need tax advice for your vacation-rental business, you can find it here.

Friday, April 10, 2009

I Will Not Worry, I Will Not Worry ...

We've all said it: "There but for the grace of [insert personal deity/non-deity of choice], go I."

But it's scary to contemplate those words when the topic is losing a job.

Good to know that there are practical ways to help job-seekers, or to ask for help yourself, if you lose some big clients or a full-time job. The New York Times last month listed some things you can do in an easy checklist format.

Meanwhile, we all need to take deep breaths and try not to worry so much. The Times also had a story last week about how recession stress is on the rise.

It's difficult not to contemplate financial ruin and wig out about it (especially if you're a journalist married to a journalist!) but worrying is time-consuming and unproductive.

Just keep repeating that to yourself. I'll do the same.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Recipe For Change

Ever feel like you've "gotten into a rut" in your personal or professional life?

When that saying was coined, it likely referred to physical depressions in a road or field caused by plows or feet treading the same ground over and over again.

What's interesting is how well the metaphor holds up in the age of neuroscience, as we start to learn more about the reality of brain function. It turns out that neural connections that we make frequently (things like driving familiar routes or tying our shoelaces) become ingrained habits. The physical "zapping" of impulses down well-worn nerve pathways helps turn once-challenging tasks, like pronouncing unfamiliar names, into everyday items that we don't have to consciously think about.

While this evolutionary achievement makes life a whole lot easier, it can also mean that we're naturally resistant to change. Why learn to make new brain connections, which can be tough or uncomfortable, when those worn-down ruts are so much easier to navigate in our thinking?

The guest on my Smart Answers podcast this week works with clients whose companies need change. Dr. Andrea Simon, a corporate anthropologist, explains why it is so difficult to achieve that change and why we all need to find different perspectives on our lives.

She is a fascinating interview, so check it out!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Calling All Writers

Since I started blogging, I've often mentioned the creative genius of my friend and web guru Paula Johnson.

Her latest project is a website anthology for authors of "flash fiction." (She defines that term as really, really short stories - 1,000 words or less.)

The site is a place for fiction writers to try out their work, get some feedback and perhaps develop a following. There are a couple of rules about content but mostly you can write about whatever you want to, as long as you wrap it up quickly.

Are you a short fiction writer - or a wanna-be "flasher"? Go over to Rose City Sisters and get your work published online.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Don't Be A Quitter

One thing I instilled in my kids is that they are not quitters. If they signed up for a team or a class, they finished it (barring extraordinary circumstances). They didn't have to love it, and they didn't have to sign up again, but they did have to live up to their commitment to the teacher or coach and their teammates.

I hate quitting. With very few exceptions, I even force myself to finish books that I don't like - even books I'm just reading for fun.

But as much as I believe in sticking with things, reality dictates that sometimes I have to throw in the towel on an idea or a project. So does everybody.

I get lots of questions from readers who have gone far beyond reality in trying to wring success out of a failed business. "What else can I do?" they ask. "Why didn't this work out!?"

It's impossible to answer without a complete investigation of their businesses, of course. But there are times when entrepreneurs have to do a reasonable assessment and decide that it's time to quit.

I address one of those situations in my Smart Answers column this week.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

It Was A Very Good Year

Here's a fun look back in time at entrepreneurial developments since Inc. started publishing 30 years ago.

Click on the year and you get a handful of quirky, thought-provoking facts and trends.

(Hat-tip to Paula, who's always finding these kinds of things.)

Me - and the Suits


The panel discussion this morning at the Pasadena Playhouse District's annual meeting went very well.

Amid all the gloom and doom, I tried to give some glimmers of hope and some practical suggestions for how small business owners can capitalize on their enhanced standing with the public.

Several people thanked me afterward. I only wish more entrepreneurs had been in attendance. City officials and legislative assistants seemed to outnumber actual small business owners in the audience.

One point I made was how important it is for business owners to get together with their peers and trade information and encouragement at this tough time. It's easy to hunker down with a cave mentality when things aren't going well - but it is very unhealthy, both personally and for your business.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Update

I'm free! At least for tomorrow.

No jury duty means that I'll be able to share my thoughts with the small business owners who are in the Playhouse District Association.

It was recently included in a new Pasadena Enterprise Zone, so there are lots of possibilities that entrepreneurs there should be learning about.

Hope I can offer them some good information and advice.