Friday, December 10, 2010

Hard to Believe

If you aren’t on the Internet these days as a business, it's almost like you don’t exist.

So how is it possible that so many small businesses are still missing the technology boat?

According to the Network Solutions Small Business Success Index, only 50% of small businesses have a website, their online advertising activity has declined by 5% from a year ago and their search engine optimization strategies have declined by 6%.

Why do small businesses have an online presence at all? The survey says that the main reason for one-third of the respondents is to provide customer service. Two in 10 use online technology to get customer leads and 30% say they are trying to build their business’ reputation.

Small business owners who are scratching their heads about why their cash flow is poor or it costs them so much to find new leads should take a look at this data and see if they have some major catching up to do.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Updating Your Website?

Check out this great post, with terrific visuals, from the small business folks at American Express OPEN.

I agree with the commenters: Not only is it a big expense and aesthetic hurdle for many small companies to host a fantastic website, but the bigger problem comes in updating it and keeping it fresh.

If you don't have someone in-house, it usually has to be done under contract and becomes a low priority for the busy entrepreneur.

h/t to my web guru, Paula Johnson, for the link.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Escape the City

It's not just in the United States that frustrated cubicle dwellers dream of owning their own businesses, but it's probably easier to start a viable business here than it is almost anywhere else in the world.

Other countries are following suit, however, and encouraging their citizens toward entrepreneurship.

One online movement I heard about recently is called Escape The City. Started by two ex-city workers, the movement has been encouraging corporate professionals to follow their dreams since their London launch last March.

A recent survey of their 17,500 members showed that 70% aren’t genuinely interested in their jobs and 62% want to start their own businesses. The numbers are roughly similar in the U.S., but in the U.K., 74% of those who wanted to start a business felt that they didn’t have the necessary skills, knowledge or experience to do so.

American entrepreneurs - at least those who write me - are often blissfully ignorant about their own lack of skills and experience. But in some ways, this isn't as bad a state of affairs as it sounds.

Nearly every successful entrepreneur I've interviewed has said that if they'd known what they were in for - the long hours, the steep learning curve, the risk levels - they would never have gotten started. So, in a sense, ignorance and a little foolhardy Yankee confidence may be just what the U.K. needs.

Dom Jackman, co-founder of Escape the City, looks to entrepreneurship to turn around the economic woes of the U.K.:

Our position is that liberating unhappy people from corporate jobs to start their own businesses not only increases the UK’s net happiness levels but will also contribute towards the growth needed to power our economic recovery.

Best of luck to them.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Feast or Famine

This is the rhythm of the freelance life.

After 21 years of self-employment, I've learned that work begets work and vice-versa. One on-hold project turns into another and the downward slide begins. Suddenly, you think about using all your free time to tackle that book you always wanted to write.

And then, assignments start trickling in, the snowball starts rolling, and suddenly, you're piled on two weeks before a busy holiday season.

You learn to roll with it, and be thankful. The upswing always feels better than the downturn.

If, as I've always contended, my work load is something of an early indicator of the economy, things are definitely looking up for 2011.

That book will just have to move over to the back burner yet again. One of these years.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Follow Your Bliss

When my kids were going through the college application/acceptance process, I rejected the idea that they had to get into certain premier institutions or their futures were doomed.

Now that they are both in excellent schools, I stick by my guns on that one.

But how much does your college major truly matter?

Not much, according to an article from the Online Education Database. Check out their “9 Brilliant Business Minds and Their Totally Irrelevant College Majors.”

My brother is a mover and shaker in the apparel industry in New York City these days. But he went through school as an English major and only got into business through a summer job at Macy's when he was in high school.

So, while I tend to think it helps to study something related to what you want to do, it's probably true that dedicated, innovated people will rise to the top of whatever industry they wind up working in.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Your Mug Shot

Have you posted a picture of yourself on LinkedIn and Facebook?

If not, you should. So says a savvy woman and long-time source of mine, PR consultant Linda Hamburger.

Linda wrote me this:

No one cares if you’re a pretty face or not. But I’m starting to hear that people feel non-picture-posters aren’t as “trustworthy” as picture posters. Or, they wonder whether someone who puts up a cute surrogate is immature or has a reason to hide behind a fa├žade.

You may feel a cute surrogate says something about who you are, but these on-line presences create our professional persona to the world. ... In truth, I like to know who is on the other end of the line. We don’t get a voice anymore, some people have terrible typos, why not at least give some sort of hint at what you look like?

Linda's advice echoes some I heard a couple of weeks ago from a Facebook expert. So get that picture uploaded! And make sure it's a professional portrait that puts you in your best light. (I've gotten some absolutely hideous head shots that I can't believe people actually want me to publish!)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Small Business Saturday

First came Black Friday, then Cyber Monday, and now, on Nov. 27, comes Small Business Saturday.

It's a national movement launched by American Express, the 3/50 Project and more than a dozen partners to drive demand for goods and services sold by small, independently owned brick-and-mortar businesses.

Cinda Baxter, retail expert and founder of The 3/50 Project, says that it is not always cheaper to shop at the big box retailers. Money spent on local merchants stays local, she says, and you get the added bonus of connecting with your neighbors and community.

You know I don't need any persuading! I'll see ya on Main Street on Saturday.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Explain Away

I've mentioned it here before, but it's worth repeating: If you're not listening to Planet Money, you're missing out.

The reporters translate complex macroeconomic concepts into meaningful and even entertaining broadcasts or podcasts a couple of times a week. I got at least a basic understanding of dense concepts like toxic assets and the health insurance market from this great team of journalists. And last week, they explained why gold is indeed our most "precious metal."

My friend, medical writer Jane Rollins, recently recommended this video that I also found excellent. It's part of a thesis project from a student at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Thanks, Jane!

Strap On Those Boots

Are you bootstrapping a start up company - or thinking about it?

If so, you may want to check out this experiment in transparent bootstrapping by a couple entrepreneurs named Jared and Adam.

They read a column I wrote about bootstrapping and contacted me:

We're in the process of bootstrapping a company and we decided that we want to make our experiences as visible and tangible as possible so as to potentially help future bootstrappers.

They promise to be honest and upfront about their business efforts, including "exposing our internal workings more than most companies would be comfortable doing." Sounds interesting.

My initial feedback, which I'll send them directly, is that the blog is tough to read on my monitor. The type is small and the white/red on black makes it worse.

Do you have any advice for them, or thoughts about their experiment?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My Status Symbol

The other day, my son informed me that success is demonstrated with three status symbols: A good job, a fine watch and a nice car.

That conversation came to mind this week while I was waiting in the valet queue at The City Club at Bunker Hill.

Suit after suit accelerated smoothly away from the scrum: Here a Lexus, there a BMW, then again a Mercedes. And then up rattled The Big Orange, noisy tailpipe vibrating away against after-market trailer hitch, hood full of scratches from its long use as an extension of our garage laundry area.

The Big Orange is the affectionate moniker we gave our (you guessed it) bright orange, manual-transmission, two-wheel-drive Isuzu Rodeo when we motored off the used car lot in Chino 11 years ago. The salesman was clearly thrilled that someone - anyone - was interested in this odd duck. He named a ridiculously low price, we paid cash and climbed in. Best vehicle negotiation ever.

More than 100,000 miles later, the old girl has been a jaunty companion, taking us to the Grand Canyon, the Bay Area and over dirt roads south of the border. We've crammed the back with dorm furnishings and loaded the roof with camping gear.

Put down her middle seats and The Big Orange can bring home any kind of cargo. Her brilliance makes it impossible to lose her in a parking lot, no matter how crowded. We've maintained her well and in return, she's never refused to get us where we need to go.

I held my head high as the curious crowd watched me claim my wheels. Nope, I'm not a big banker or a wealthy investor. I also didn't get bailed out or rip anybody off lately.

The Big Orange and I drove away and left the other cars cooling their heels. Someday, probably sooner rather than later, I'll need to buy a new car. But I'll never find one as loyal, or as beautiful, as my status symbol.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Future of Marketing

I have a lot of friends and colleagues who are marketing gurus and might like to spend an hour at a virtual marketing conference next week.

The Future of Marketing features 60 leading thinkers sharing key insights in 60 seconds each. The event is free and you certainly won't get bored with the speakers shuffling through that quickly.

If you decide to attend or get the transcript tomorrow, Tuesday Nov. 16, let me know what you think.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Put Down That iPad

A few people I know freely admit that they are "addicted" to technology. They get cravings and, eventually, the shakes when they are away from the computer or smart phone for more than a few hours.

I used to share the malady. But I've been able to temper my addiction in recent years. I don't always do it, but I can log off at the end of the work day now and not feel compelled to check email or Facebook until the next morning. (I'm sure that not having a smart phone helps in this regard.) When I took a week-long cruise last summer, I had no trouble ignoring the siren call of the on-board Internet lounge.

But what if you need help prying yourself away from the pretty screen? Check out Offlining, a movement to "highlight America's ever-growing addiction to technology."

The offlining movement was founded earlier this year by a couple of advertising and PR guys. The idea is to get people to log off at certain times, especially family dinners or gatherings. Their next big push is No-Device Thanksgiving. Presumably, people who join the movement will abandon their BlackBerries and iPads in favor of the traditional knives and forks on Turkey Day.

Of course the irony here is that the movement is taking place - where else? - online. I got a press release touting the founders' facility with Twitter and their growing number of fans on Facebook.

That seems a tad ironic. But I see their dilemma. You can't reach addicts unless you're willing to hang out in crack houses.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Best. Truly. Yours.

I had an editor years ago who was - to put it mildly - difficult.

Generally, I'm ridiculously easy to work with and rarely object when an editor makes word changes or cuts to my stories. But when this woman edited my work, I knew that a tussle would ensue. Let's just say that she didn't want the facts to get in the way of a good story. Her versions of my work often read more like creative writing. It was my job to reel her in and try to preserve the truth.

Anyway, you'd hardly expect me to emulate this person - right? But I did adopt one of her habits: She signed all her email with "Best." This was back when email signature files were just becoming ubiquitous and I was wrestling with how to sign off on correspondence.

Sincerely? Fondly? Good luck? Another editor used "Cheers," which is perky and rather British, but not always appropriate for my purposes. I know a business writer who made "Success!" both her catchphrase and her sign-off.

After some thought I followed the "Best" trend, figuring it is contemporary, professional and cordial, if a tad dull. Then the other day, I got an email signed simply "XOXO," which took me back a bit, considering I don't even know the signee.

Here's a fun discussion of email signatures and what they say about you and your business.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

From The Archives

Certain columns of mine have taken on a life of their own. They may have been posted or printed years ago, but they turn up again and again online.

I'm glad that people find these columns evergreen, and believe that their information and advice stays relevant and useful over time.

Here's one oldie but goodie that I refer to in conversation all the time because it came out of a unique idea. I was really happy to see it reposted by a small business website just this week.

Friday, November 5, 2010

What's The Word?

When I ask business owners to tell me what their company does, in a nutshell, they often stumble, hem, haw or guffaw.

Eventually, most read off or stumble through a recitation of a formal "mission statement" that they've cooked up with their marketing team. Since it's typically a string of oddly related, formal words incomprehensible to the average reader, I usually have to boil down what they do by myself.

It's amazing to me how few CEOs can succinctly and spontaneously say what it is their business actually does.

That's why I like this one-word mission statement, proposed by a long-time Internet marketing source, Todd Miechiels.

It got me thinking about what one word would best encapsulate what I do writing about and for entrepreneurs. Explain? Encourage? Nurture? Advocate? I'll have to think about it.

What one word best describes your company or personal mission in life?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sad Reality

I've been incredibly fortunate to see my way through this horrid recession and most of my friends and loved ones (though not all) have similarly been able to stay afloat.

But not everyone has been so lucky, by any means. This week, I answer a question from a former small business owner who not only lost his bagel shop in Claremont (the long-time local favorite Tasty Bagel) but also pretty much his whole life in the past couple of years.

Interviewing people like this really bring home a few things: The tragedy of our economic downturn; the crushing damage that a sliver of greedy, short-sighted individuals unleashed on "the least of these" in society and how fortunate those of us who've escaped ruin really are.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Ice Creamery Says Thanks

One California small business shows how big an impact access to credit - made possible by the 90% loan guarantee in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the ARRA or stimulus bill) - can make.

Friday, October 29, 2010

At All Costs

When my hairdresser - my hairdresser - announced that she was getting into the mortgage business in the early years of this decade, I knew something was wrong.

What was actually wrong was far beyond my wildest imaginings.*

This relentless drive by corporate CEOs to maximize revenues, cut expenses and enrich themselves and their shareholders at all costs is disturbing. Frontline's expose of BP, and its culture of cost-cutting and ignoring safety, is another example.

It's nothing new, and probably not even surprising, but it is dangerous for the future of our society.

*h/t to my longtime source, John Bates of Avalon Advisors, for passing along the book excerpt

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Bully Pulpit

Have you ever worked for a bully? I have, and it made my life truly miserable.

For some perverse - and sad - reason, women in journalism back in the '80s tended to be much more difficult to work for then male editors. Maybe the women were trying to prove that they were tough and mean enough to ride herd over newspaper staffs. Whatever the reason, female editors tended to bully more than males did (in my experience at least).

My bullying editor demanded that I produce long, weekly feature stories, despite the fact that I also was expected to produce several stories every day on a busy, complex beat. I had a long, unpredictable commute downtown every morning, but if I checked in even three or four minutes late, she would direct a diatribe at me.

The stress of working for her contributed in large part to my decision to leave full-time employment and become self-employed 21 years ago.

I guess I should thank my bully, since I have carved out a successful career for myself as a freelancer and have been extremely happy working from home all these years. But at the time, thanking her was the last thing I contemplated doing!

Business owners who tolerate or ignore bullying managers put themselves at risk of lawsuits, employment actions and high turnover rates. Read this week's Smart Answers column for more.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Fall Garden

My son and gardening apprentice, Andy, was home from school last weekend. So we took advantage of the cool drizzle to reinvigorate our soil and do our fall planting:

Some of these beds have been resting since the end of summer, with compost mixed in. Those we turned over and beefed up with organic steer manure.

The others still had the remnants of tomato and pepper plants in them. We removed those, dug up the soil, lined the beds with dry leaves, then layered back in topsoil and manure, moistening as we went along.

Here's what we have planted: Lettuces, rainbow chard, kale, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, basil, Italian parsley and jicama. An artichoke plant that barely survived the hot summer seems to have rallied, so I have high hopes for it to produce by the spring.

In the center washtub, you'll see the blueberry bush I bought at the L.A. Arboretum plant sale last spring. It produced about two dozen berries and made it through the summer. It has about doubled in size, so I hope all those new canes will be loaded with berries next year:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Right to Dry

It's one of life's frustrating ironies: As many of us try to reduce our energy consumption, we live in old homes with rusting clotheslines hulking in the backyard. Like the ultimate Southern California irony, the Los Angeles Red Car line, these metal contraptions were allowed to rust over or removed altogether when clothes dryers became the rage.

When I rented a house in Monrovia, we had something like this clothes tree in the backyard:

Just picture that contraption 50 years on, creaky and sagging in spots. But I had no dryer at the time, and hey - it worked great! If I did my wash strategically (which I seldom did), I could even peg up the unmentionables on the inside and hide them from view of the house in back (which shared a lot with ours) by stringing the sheets on the outside.

Although I did eventually get a dryer, I continued using a clothes line, especially on hot days, until my kids came along. With the volume of laundry that little kids produce, the dryer really was a savior at that point.

But now that I'm washing for two again, I've been wanting to get back to line drying and I rigged up a short line near my garden this summer. The notion was reinforced when I interviewed an advocate for the right to dry movement a few months ago.

So how fortunate was it when I whizzed past a little hulk of metal and wood on someone's curb yesterday? I turned my bike around and discovered a fold-up drying rack that I slung over my shoulder:

It was in great condition except that one metal rod had come loose from the wooden rack. A hot glue gun, a nail and a bit of packing tape, et voila! Good as new.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Politics of Disgust

Everyone in this season of "enthusiasm gaps" is asking the same question: Why are Americans so disgusted with politics and the democratic process?

I think the political media plays a big part in the answer. At least it does for me.

After the 2008 election, I swear not three weeks went by before I started hearing about "repercussions for the midterm elections." Not three weeks.

In the next two years, huge policy initiatives were introduced, haggled over, debated and eventually passed - or not. But more likely than not, the bulk of the media coverage revolved not around the substance of legislation, but around the political and reelection prospects for the legislators involved.

It's all about the horse race. I understand that certain reporters are paid to cover politics and it's a very legitimate beat. But isn't there anything more to politics than elections? How about the long-term policy implications of legislation - rather than the short-term political?

We're all pretty sick of the horse race. Or at least I am.

And now, right on cue, comes the first glimmer of the next leg. Coming around the far turn, heading for the home stretch, two weeks before the midterms: There's this.

Let the handicapping for 2012 begin. I, for one, am hoping that the starting gate gets stuck.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Skim Chance

I have swiped my debit card many, many times. Thousands, probably. But never before have I been "skimmed."

Then I had the audacity to spend an afternoon downtown last week. Met a source for an interview at L.A. Live, hung out at the L.A. Public Library and had dinner with some friends.

By the time I arrived back home, there was a message waiting for me from my bank's fraud department. Some "unusual activity" on my card had been detected. I've gotten the message before, usually when I've made a purchase or withdrawn money in an unusual spot (turns out I'm deathly predictable), so I ignored it.

I wasn't worried until they called back the next morning. Three $75 to $125 charges at gas stations in Colorado that evening had triggered the red flag. Gas stations? I hadn't gotten gas in more than a week, and when I do I use my Chevron card. And Colorado? I can't remember the last time I've been in Denver or Aurora.

The fraud claim has been filed and my card has been shredded. It could have been much worse. I'm particularly grateful for the nervous Nellies at my bank, who obviously have darn good algorithms.

I can't help but think that my card and PIN number were skimmed at one of the two downtown garages where I parked. Convenient as they are, I've never liked those swipe-your-own-card machines. First off, they're eliminating jobs for parking attendants. And now, I know how easy they are to defraud. I think I'll have to avoid them whenever possible.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Finance Resources

Most of us learn little to nothing in school about basic financial life skills. Either our parents teach us good habits (or not, in my case) or we have to teach ourselves later in life.

Many people learn the hard way. This week, my friend Barbara sent me a very interesting article about how "soft addictions" can ruin people financially.

My mom certainly was not alone. In fact, I know people to this day (including some family members!) whose shopping or day trading "hobbies" have gotten way out of hand. While these things used to be seen as moral failings (like alcoholism, smoking and so many other "vices") today we know there is a psychological or perhaps even physiological component involved.

We're fortunate to be more enlightened. Plus, there are so many great tools we can use now to help us with our finances.

Two women, Jo Bittof and Nancy Gehring Lowery, have recently founded one aimed at helping people learn to better manage their money. “If you can make time to buy coffee in the morning everyday, you can make time to organize your finances for five minutes the end of each day, so you have enough money to continue buying coffee,” Nancy says.

Other sites I recommend that you check out include the AICPA's 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy, which breaks down tips for various stages of life, and FeedThePig, which is aimed at teaching financial literacy to young people ages 25-34, when they really need to establish good habits.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Just A Tiny PR Problem

An epic fail at a Florida aquarium.

This reminds me of the time we are at the old Steinmetz Aquarium in Golden Gate Park and we saw an alligator eat a turtle, crunching the shell and all. A couple kids nearby started crying while we whisked ours away before they figured out what was happening.

Jazzin' Saturdays

My mother was a wonderful, loving, fun, generous person. She sacrificed a lot as a single, working mom to make sure we were loved and cared-for. But had she lived to a ripe old age, it's likely she would have been diagnosed as a compulsive shopper.

The idea was unheard of during my childhood. All we knew was that Mom loved to shop. She loved to buy things more than she loved her marriage, her financial security or her peace of mind (or ours). Clearly, there was more going on than just shopping.

She and her sister called their every-weekend forays "jazzin'." As in, "We're goin' out jazzin' today!" Mom had really good taste (nothing like mine) but she didn't buy anything we truly needed or anything particularly valuable. She wasn't a collector or a connoisseur.

She just loved to acquire nice things. I remember the naughty look of delight on her face when she would display her latest take: Clothes, shoes, home decor, toys, furniture. It was the thrill of the chase more than the actual purchases that kept her going.

Her hobby was, unfortunately, also her downfall. Constantly in debt, she played a shell game with creditors, paying down one account while charging up another, opening new accounts here and getting fresh credit there. She hid bills from my father until one memorable day when he opened some unexpected mail and she got caught. She got older and did not have a penny of savings set aside.

To this day, I dislike shopping. It just flat-out bores and exhausts me. I avoid debt and save more than most Americans. Undoubtedly, part of my aversion is the negative conditioning of my childhood. But there may also be more to it than that.

Knowing there may have been some kind of predisposition (Mom often talked about her own mother's impulsive shopping sprees) makes it easier to understand what Mom went through. I adored her and still miss her, nearly a decade after she died way too soon. I just wish we could have had more insight into her behavior back when. Maybe we could have spared her some of the considerable anguish she went through feeding her compulsion.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Bad Old Days

The telephone calls would usually start before dinner. The ringing phone would trigger an odd reaction from my mother: She'd begin waving her arms wildly, panic on her face.

"I can't answer it! I'm not home!" she'd yell frantically.

The voice would be unfamiliar when I picked up, gruff and insistent. But the call was easy to recognize. The voice wanted to speak to Mom and didn't accept my feeble excuses. "Where is she?" "When is she going to be home?" "Tell her she'd better get in touch with us right away!" Sometimes the conversation deteriorated into threats, real or implied, at which point I hung up.

This was back in the '70s, and we didn't know about creditors' rights. We only knew that Mom was going through another rough patch, and that her overspending had caught up with us again.

My personal financial philosophy can be summed up in a simple bit of advice I got from a source years ago: "Live below your means." You don't have to live like a rat, he told me, or deny yourself quality things that you really need - or even want.

But you don't necessarily have to buy a brand new car if a good used one will do. Just because you want that shiny new gadget doesn't mean you can't wait until the price comes down - and the bugs get worked out. Just because you earn some money doesn't mean you have to spend every last dime. If you can - and I know in these days many can't - try to adjust your lifestyle so that you can cover your expenses, sock away some savings and stay out of debt.

There's no doubt that my frugal ways are a reaction to living with my mother's chronic overspending and its negative repercussions. But I also have a suspicion that there's some genetic input involved. My dad was so frugal you might have called him a miser, and sometimes we did. But savings and bargain-hunting comes naturally to me, too.

Next time: How we coped with mom's "hobby."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Fleecing The Sheep

Aside from a televangelist addict with a pension, there's no one more vulnerable than a budding entrepreneur with a nest egg.

Worried about someone stealing your idea? You should be much more worried that someone will steal your money while you're pursuing your idea.

There are an abundance of crooks preying on folks who come up with new ideas. Patent scams, marketing scams, start-your-own-business scams - everywhere new entrepreneurs turn, they run into them.

And if they're not careful, rather than competitors, they'll bump into someone who'd love to take their funds before they have a chance to even invest in their businesses.

How to avoid being robbed - and profoundly embarrassed? Get educated. Be cautious. Do your research. Do not send anyone money in advance. For anything.

It sounds simple, but you'd be surprised how many bright people fall for dumb schemes. They're anxious to cash in on their great ideas, but they're more likely to stumble on the way to the bank.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Second Generation

What's a business owner to do when the next generation isn't interested in taking over? Turns out there are options.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

We Get Questions

Interesting questions from readers recently, including an Indian freight forwarding company looking to partner with Western counterparts and someone needing a definition for an elusive bit of jargon.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Unguarded Henhouse

I've been waiting for someone to cover the media story related to the Bell corruption scandal here in Southern California. And by media story I mean, "Where was the media?" when these shenanigans were going on for so many years?

Where were the watchdog reporters and tough local newspapers that used to hold these small, poorly run municipalities to task, by listening to complaints from residents or even just by showing up for "meetings" that lasted all of 30 seconds?

Answer: They've gone the way of the dinosaur and been replaced by "new media" which - surprise - didn't do the job.

What's interesting is that it took NPR to tell the story. And NPR, a publicly funded nonprofit, is sadly one of the last, best "old media" outlets around.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Where Are the Women?

Yesterday, I was one of three women on a 15-member judges panel for the GSEA student entrepreneur awards at USC. It was an interesting and inspiring event, but the two other female judges and I couldn't help but notice that all six contestants were young men. The business school dean at USC apparently has a tough time getting women to sign up as business majors, let alone start companies in school and compete in rigorous, international contests.

Today at BusinessWeek, we feature an annual survey of the 25 most promising entrepreneurs under 25. I contributed by writing about how young entrepreneurs can get funding.

The slideshow presents an impressive and creative group, many of them former college roommates, but something stuck out as I clicked through the list. There is one - count 'em, ONE - woman included. And her business is a partnership with a male entrepreneur.

Every day, it seems, I get pitched about "mommy entrepreneurs" - women who have young children and decide to run home-based businesses to accommodate their families. That's wonderful, I'm thrilled for them, but I have to wonder why so few young women study business and start companies when it would be much easier and more logical: Before they have spouses and children!

It's sad for me, in this day and age, to see how sparse the participation of women is in the business world. I realize that entrepreneurship, in particular, is a big risk that takes swagger, self-confidence and - some might say - "balls." I just hope that's not literally true.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The New One-Armed Bandits

Business owners hate it when new expenses crop up. The biggest one for many entrepreneurs is the monthly mobile phone bill.

A few years ago, nobody paid a dime for cell phones, let alone smart phone service. Now, many businesses are finding that they must issue BlackBerrys - or at least mobiles - to all their employees. Yes, they do great things and help improve communications and productivity, but they often add a big chunk to the expense column.

This week, I interview a cellular phone expert about how small businesses should manage their cell phone plans and audit their bills.

In the course of researching the column, my own cell phone bill came up. Mindy, the expert, said that my per-unit cost (take your total expense and divide by the number of mobile phone lines you have) was pretty reasonable.

In digging deeper, however, she noted that I wasn't using the full minutes on the plan I had, and could probably downgrade to a less-expensive plan without going over the usage limit. She also advised that I cancel a video-streaming service that I wasn't using, but that was costing me $15/month.

Mindy's recommendations got me thinking. I got out my land line bill and looked it over, only to find that I was still paying for call waiting and line insurance on my home phone, which almost never rings these days. In fact, we'd been thinking about dropping it altogether.

My son, who is honing his negotiating skills for a possible job in business, got on the telephone. Verizon tried to talk us out of downgrading our plan, but he held firm and saved us $25/month. AT&T, whose customer service reps are not likely to be on commission (as Verizon's are), not only happily revoked the services we weren't using, but they also recommended a new long-distance plan that will provide unlimited calls at less monthly cost.

Cha-ching! Another $20 in monthly savings. What's the lesson here? Whether you run a small business, are self-employed or are just looking to reduce your household budget, take a few minutes to look over the little things. You can't do it all at once, so maybe this month comb through your phone bills. Next month, see if there's room to save somewhere else.

In this economy, every little bit counts.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A New Gig

Happy - nay, very happy - to announce that I'm going to be writing entrepreneur-focused features for a brand-new venue, Bloomberg's Entrepreneurs page.

Here's my first contribution, on the solar panel king of California, Danny Kennedy.

Yes, I'll still be doing my columns at Bloomberg BusinessWeek and the L.A. Times.

Back from a spontaneous summer break, but I'll be updating my goings-on at those places shortly.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Insuring Small Business Risk

Entrepreneur insurance - really?

That was my reaction when I heard about a new insurance product that indemnifies small business founders and investors from personal loss when they take out commercial debt.

With the blisteringly high failure rates for small business, it has always taken a strong constitution and high levels of risk tolerance to open a business. But in the past, one could get a bank loan and limit personal risk if a business was established and had a good chance for growth.

Not so anymore. Personal guarantees, once reserved for startups and those with shaky financial backgrounds, are now de rigueur for any business owner seeking a loan - no matter how stable and successful their businesses are.

Enter Asterisk Financial, the subject of my Q&A this week. Its founders have developed a new-fangled product that pays half of the personal loss for policyholders who have signed personal guarantees and then defaulted on their business loans.

An innovative idea, and one that would probably not be possible (or necessary) outside of the current credit crisis.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Birds and the Bees

I've developed a serious (layperson's) interest in science recently, after years of bewildered suspicion on the subject.

So when I hear about ways that science intersects with my own topic, small business, I like to explore them.

This week, I write about a new book from National Geographic senior editor Peter Miller. He believes that the collective intelligence of "The Smart Swarm" can inform entrepreneurs in management decisions.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Tweet, Tweet-Tweet, Tweet-Tweet

Yes, I worked at Disneyland back in the day and listened to the Enchanted Tiki Room soundtrack one too many times. (My restaurant, Plaza Pavilion, was housed with the Tiki Room ride and the Tiki Terrace, a Polynesian-themed restaurant that was well-known among Disney "cast members" for only hiring Asian employees).

In today's terms, "tweeting" is a technological innovation that one (apparently) must participate in to be a valid member of society. Or at least a smart marketer and savvy solopreneur.

Buzz Bissinger, once a Twitter skeptic, has become an enthusiastic convert, according to The New York Times.

I feel more like the Times' Peggy Orenstein, who wrote an insightful column in last Sunday's magazine. It's worth a read, but here's a bit that particularly resonated with me:

The expansion of our digital universe — Second Life, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter — has shifted not only how we spend our time but also how we construct identity. For her coming book, “Alone Together,” Sherry Turkle, a professor at M.I.T., interviewed more than 400 children and parents about their use of social media and cellphones. Among young people especially she found that the self was increasingly becoming externally manufactured rather than internally developed: a series of profiles to be sculptured and refined in response to public opinion. “On Twitter or Facebook you’re trying to express something real about who you are,” she explained. “But because you’re also creating something for others’ consumption, you find yourself imagining and playing to your audience more and more. So those moments in which you’re supposed to be showing your true self become a performance. Your psychology becomes a performance.”

It's that blurring between the public and the private - that sense of being "on stage" at any given moment during the day - that gives me pause and makes me a reluctant technology adopter.

No doubt one day I will tweet like the birdies tweet, several times a day. But for now, I'm content to stay quiet.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Specialty Networking

Entrepreneurs are often told to narrow their marketing efforts and target specific customers. But how effective is the highly targeted networking that is enabled online these days?

I address that question in telling the story of a new social networking group for LGBT professionals and their allies. Check it out.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Makings of Success

Half of all small companies go out of business after five years, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. But why is the failure rate so high?

It's a combination of factors, obviously, with lack of proper capitalization usually topping the list of externals.

But what about the internals? I've been writing recently about what interior qualities make for a successful entrepreneur. Over at Bloomberg BusinessWeek, we recently tackled the age-old question about whether an entrepreneur is born or made, with interesting results.

In my L.A. Times column this week I hone in on six factors that make for successful entrepreneurs even during recession.

Despite the financial challenges of 2009, approximately half of the respondents who participated in a survey done by The Guardian Life Index said that they expected either a greater than 10% increase in revenues over 2008 or projected growth for their companies over the next 12 to 24 months, or both. Of the 1,100 respondents, more than 400 looked forward to expanding their businesses in the years ahead, and 200 anticipated increasing sales even in 2009.

Turns out there are six key dimensions that differentiate those success-oriented small business owners from their less-successful peers: collaboration, self-fulfillment, future focus, curiosity, tech savvy and action orientation.

Success-oriented small business owners learn how to rely on and delegate effectively to others within their business as well as build strong personal relationships with their management team, employees, consultants, vendors and customers. They are more committed to creating opportunities for others than most entrepreneurs wholly focused on their own monetary rewards.

Pretty interesting stuff, proving yet again that the iconic image of the head honcho solopreneur who makes all the decisions with an iron fist and considers his employees like so many cogs in the company wheel is not only out-dated but flat-out wrong.

Friday, July 23, 2010

RIP Daniel Schorr

They don't make 'em like Daniel Schorr, the veteran CBS journalist, anymore. Schorr, whom I knew from his acerbic but incisive commentaries on NPR, died today after a long life well-lived.

It's especially poignant to hear that Schorr is gone this week, when the whole nation is learning about the scandal in the City of Bell.

I don't know much about South Los Angeles communities and doubt I've ever set foot in Bell, despite being a lifelong SoCal resident. But I have to wonder: Where were the reporters?

How can city and elected officials get away with this disgusting behavior if there is a bona fide news outlet somewhere in town or in the region keeping an eye on them? Back in the day, when I was a reporter for a small (and then a medium-sized) community newspaper, our main task was to keep tabs on elected officials. Rooting out corruption was the journalist's highest calling, and anyone who could pull back the screen to expose pigs feeding at the trough got high praise and monumental street cred.

Just having a reporter hanging around city hall, attending every city council meeting, requesting planning agendas and writing endless stories about budget wrangling kept would-be crooks in line. I'm not saying there was no corruption, but dull and dreary as it might have been, I have to believe that public service reporting discouraged a lot of hanky-panky.

But what about now? I confess I don't know about the state of local media in Bell. But frankly, the small newspapers in my area stink. They reprint Chamber of Commerce press releases and feature local pablum instead of real news stories. No one sits into the wee hours at the council meetings unless there's a brouhaha brewing. The Los Angeles Times, where my old friend Jeff Gottlieb broke the Bell story, used to have staff writers covering all the local cities. Then they hired stringers (my first job as a freelancer) to do it. Then they stopped altogether, deciding it was "no longer their mission" to cover local news.

Never fear, say the detractors of old-school journalism. Those dinosaurs aren't necessary. Our "citizen journalists" and community bloggers will step in to do the job even better than local papers did. My questions: Who's going to train these community journalists to investigate and cover public agencies? Where will they get the clout to stand up to surly, arrogant officials like those in Bell?

And most importantly, who's going to pay them for the considerable time and energy it takes to keep our public servants honest? This is not something one does as a hobby, no matter how much we'd like to believe it can be.

As we lose local journalism, we're all losing something precious. What will fill the gap is anybody's guess.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Ray of Sun(flower) Shine

Aren't sunflowers cheery? It makes me happy just looking at it.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Health Care Resource

I wrote recently about the top health care reform myths and realities.

As with any health care reform articles, additional questions and concerns (along with a fair share of rants) cropped up in the follow up comments.

I'm sure I'll write about reform again, but meanwhile a new, interactive forum aims to continue the discussion. HealthyChat, created by insurance giant WellPoint (parent company of Anthem), is an "effort to engage consumers using technology and social media to help improve their health IQ, help them work toward improving their own health as well as the health of those close to them," according to the company.

Check it out and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Dog Days of Summer

As I confessed here recently, I had some trouble gearing-up for work after my vacation.

But small business owners don't have to lose their edge this summer if they have employees who tend to be slow getting back in the groove. They can take the stellar advice presented in my Smart Answers column this week.

Just don't crack the whip too hard on your vacation-addled employees. We all need a little break now and then.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Harvest Time

We've been picking green beans, cucumbers, basil, peppers and tomatoes from our summer veggie garden for a while now.

But yesterday was the first time we picked some corn. Test for readiness by stabbing your fingernail into a kernel. If it just sits there, no dice. If the kernel squirts milky fluid in response to your stab, you're good to go.

We ate these ears a few minutes after we harvested them. Yum!

The sunflowers must be over 8-feet by now (Andy is over 6') but the flowers haven't opened yet. What's the matter, guys - not hot enough for ya!?


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Facts vs Fantasy on Health Care

The small business world is in a tizzy over health care reform.

This week's Smart Answers column aims to sort the myth from the reality.

Last week (while I was recovering from vacation - something I'm writing about for next week!) I did a take on how to choose a web designer.

Take a look; I hope you find these tidbits helpful.

Monday, June 28, 2010

An Elephant's Eye

Summer is here, and so is garden blogging!

That's my corn, which looks like it will be yielding about 10 bushels by Labor Day. (Of course I can say that, since I have no idea how much a bushel actually is!)

This is the first time I've grown corn in about 12 years. Last time I tried it, I learned that you have to plant a bunch of corn seedlings in a grid plot. That's because corn is a wind pollinator, so the wheat-like pollen at the top has to blow down onto the silk tassels on the ears in order for the kernels to form.

I also learned that if you mist the tassels with a little oil (or Pam spray), it prevents those fat, nasty corn worms from growing in (and eating) your corn cobs. The tassels get slippery, and the worm eggs don't stick! Organic farming solutions: Gotta love 'em.

I'm also growing green beans (the star of last summer's garden), cucumbers (the clown of last year's garden), zucchini, sunflowers, three kinds of peppers and honeydew melon.

Tomatoes, you ask?

My tomatoes were disappointing last year. Low yields, mostly. This year's crop doesn't look much better, though one small fruit is starting to ripen. I do have some heirlooms planted, however, so I'm pinning my hopes on them.

The big addition this year is a blueberry bush that I picked up at the L.A. Arboretum garden show a month or so ago. You aren't supposed to be able to grow blueberries in Southern California, but this is a new variety developed for our hot summers and mild winters.

We'll see. So far, the ripening berries are pretty tart. If I leave them on the bush too long, they disappear. I fear that a raccoon is plucking them with his little prehensile fingers. A couple of my early zucchinis were severed from the vine, gnawed up and dumped in the dirt last week.

Anybody have organic farming critter control solutions?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Giving Before You Get

I hear from lots of companies that want to get noticed in the media. Most of them are looking to get publicity and new clients.

Fewer actually follow the best advice, which is to give, give, give and then expect good things to come back to you.

When I do come across someone using the giving model, I'll let you know about it. Here's one, Blue Fountain Media, which has an online presence, and includes a page devoted to really excellent advice for entrepreneurs looking to use social media and other online marketing tools.

Are they basically giving away their expertise? Yes they are. But just by doing so, they engender good will and develop a sense of trust with potential clients. And at the end of their tips they make sure to give readers a way to contact them and do business, if they'd like. It's never a hard sell, which is an immediate turn off.

This is the way to sell services these days, and I suspect it will be for the near future. More of us should take note.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Uncle Sam Wants (To Buy From) You

The U.S. government is the world's largest single purchaser of goods and services, spending more than $500 billion annually. Add to that the additional billions being spent from last year's stimulus bill, and you've got a pretty robust marketplace for small business goods and services.

But nearly half of small business owners say they don't know whether the government buys their product or service. And they have no idea how to sell to the government even if the demand is there.

No wonder the government does not meet its (soft, unenforced) mandates to buy from small business. I lay out some tactics and tips for remedying the situation in this Smart Answers column

Friday, June 11, 2010

Entrepreneur Love

Today's Smart Answers column is all about the latest American hero: The small business owner.

But does that admiration translate to the bottom line, or is it just theoretical?

Click the link to get the answers, and to read about a local SGV business owner's brush with stardom.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Power to the People

Prop. 16, PG&E's cynical gambit to establish a long-lasting monopoly on California's energy markets, has gone down to defeat.

The Northern California electricity giant outspent consumer advocates $1,000-to-$1 and they still lost decisively. Woo-hoo!

I say it time and time again: Never underestimate the intelligence of the electorate. This one was an epic battle and one that I will take comfort in for some time to come.

Here's the dramatic tale of how the results trickled in during the wee hours this morning:

Pretty soon, our three-point loss became a one-point lead – and there was a palpable sense in the air that we could win it. I wasn’t convinced yet – scouring the L.A. County numbers to see if this positive trend in our favor was not going to start reversing itself.

When 58% of L.A. County had been counted, we were ahead there. I got up, and boldly shouted that we had won. It reminded me of the scene in Milk, when Jim Rivaldo tells Harvey Milk not to worry about the Briggs Initiative. L.A. County had just come in, and we were going to win. By now, I was sure that we had slain the Prop 16 dragon.

I only wish I could have been there to see happen live.

Post-script: The other big industry-funded proposition, Prop. 17, was also defeated, this time in a major rebuke to Big Insurance.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Misner Q&A

As promised, here is BNI CEO Ivan Misner's take on what entrepreneurs are doing wrong when it comes to social media marketing.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Sad Ending

I'm sure that veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas never dreamed she'd go out this way.

Over the years, Helen was a journalistic role model and a favorite person. She was characteristically feisty in her watchdog role, no matter which party was in power. She had a great sense of humor and was never afraid to skewer her own importance. An NPR special about how she broke down barriers in the early years of female reporters was an inspiration.

More than a decade ago, I saw her lecture at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. About one-third of the way into her talk, she began rustling papers at the podium, then shuffling them around fiercely. A few moments later, as her speech turned disjointed and a little odd, I realized she had mixed up her pages and was reading them out of order.

Ever the pro, she soldiered on, never letting on that she was flustered. And the speech, full of funny anecdotes and interesting memories, worked even though it was a little jumbled up.

I always say that I'll keep on writing and working as long as I'm able to put fingers to keyboard. But Helen's situation makes me wonder if that's a good idea. I think many people get to a certain age and they feel they've earned the right to say whatever comes to mind, politically incorrect or not.

That bluntness got the better of Helen Thomas, finally, and I'm sorry for it. I hope some friends give her the retirement party she deserves.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Local Connection

Interviewed Ivan Misner, founder and chairman of BNI, this morning about social networking "best practices." In contrast to a lot of big shots I interview (BNI claims to be the world's largest business networking organization, with 5,600 chapters worldwide, and Misner's been called the "Father of Networking" by CNN), it would be hard to find a nicer guy.

On the phone at least, Misner comes across as genuine, down-to-earth and funny. When we discovered a local connection (he lives in Claremont), he stopped for a 10-minute chat on restaurants. For the record, he recommends Tutti Mangia and Aruffo's Italian Cuisine, and he commented favorably on Yianni's, a Greek place I went to just last weekend.

Turns out that Misner started BNI in 1985 in Arcadia. In fact, the founding chapter still meets at the Coco's on Santa Anita! The second chapter started a few weeks later in Pasadena and things spread from there. Misner said it was one year and 20 chapters later when he finally figured out he had created a phenomenon and sat down to write a business plan for it.

The group operates on the philosophy that networking is about giving, and relationship building, rather than selling and promotion. True to his word, before we wrapped up the interview, Misner was mentioning that he knows loads of business owners and would be happy to connect me with some if I ever need sources.

Definitely a class act. The interview was very interesting, too. I'll post a link here when it is published next week.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ironic, Ain't It?

The word irony - nay, the concept itself - must be one of the most misunderstood and misused in the English language.

I was watching cable news the night of the recent NYC bomb attempt, and the breathless reporter-on-scene kept going on about how "ironic" it was to see normally bustling Times Square silent and empty on a Saturday night.


That sight may well have been eerie, unsettling and improbable. But it was not ironic.

You want irony? Every so often I interview someone whose whole schtick is the importance of listening in business and in life.

And he's going on about it, and going on and on and on. So much fast and furious verbiage is spilling out of my telephone receiver, in fact, that I have a hard time politely breaking in for a question or clarification. I find myself having to rudely speak over this kind of person, finally, to get a word in edgewise or redirect the conversation.

As important as my source claims it is to listen to others, he's definitely not listening to me. (And yes, there usually tends to be a "he" involved.) In fact, by the end of the interview, I'm usually feeling distinctly un-listened-to.

Now that's ironic. Not to mention damned obnoxious.

What ironies have you experienced lately?

Friday, May 21, 2010

I'm Lovin' It

What makes someone love your small business - or hate it?

There's a rather mysterious pull about companies that inspire strong feelings from their customers, but most agree that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.

I interviewed brand marketing guru B.J. Bueno about encouraging brand fanatics and managing brand detractors (he pointed out that some people even become brand terrorists, which I've actually seen) in a recent Smart Answers column.

It's much easier for entertainment brands to spawn love/hate relationships, mostly because we are hardwired to respond to stories. Check out these examples of fan-atic love for ABC TV's Lost, which ends its six-season run of sci-fi mega-madness this weekend.

Think that only TV shows and rock bands can inspire such loyalty? Think again and check out this shopper-produced YouTube anthem to Trader Joe's.

Now the only question is, how can your small business connect so strongly with customers that it inspires spontaneous poems and videos?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Helping Hand

What motivates people to help small business? Sometimes there's a monetary reward, or an investment opportunity involved.

But during this recession, a number of seasoned business people have stepped forward to become small business advisers.

They tend to be retired, financially set and motivated more by the challenge than by the promise of a pay out.

Read about a few of them in this week's Smart Answers column.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Calling All Snopes

"Talk about Big Brother!" said the woman working next to me at a volunteer event on Saturday.

We were unloading and sorting bags, boxes and cans of food donated last Saturday through the annual Stamp Out Hunger food drive.

She wasn't upset about the efforts of the letter carriers, who picked up donations along with outgoing mail. No, she was furious about some pending federal legislation that would require individuals to spend $2,500 to $10,000 weatherizing their homes before they could sell them.

"Nah ... I don't believe that," I said gently, trying to smile rather than grit my teeth. "I follow legislation pretty closely and I've never heard about that. And it would cause quite an uproar if that was included in legislation for private homes."

This lovely woman - who was sporting 20 carats of diamonds on her wedding ring, no joke - was pretty sure of her information, gleaned from a "friend of a friend."

What I should have done was refer her to, which I turned to when I got home. Within 30 seconds, I found this thorough debunking of the climate change legislation rumor.

Next time someone credulously repeats a factoid that sounds completely nutty, remember that it probably is. And check it out at Snopes.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Undercover Customer

Most small business owners would need a full-on disguise to go on reality TV's new hit show, "Undercover Boss." And even then, the phony beard or wig would only fool their staffers for about five minutes.

In fact, the entire premise of a corporate CEO needing to eavesdrop on employees to figure out what's really going on doesn't fit the small biz model, where the boss is usually right down in the trenches.

But entrepreneurs could benefit from becoming Undercover Customers, as I outline in this week's Smart Answers column.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Backup Plan

I'm no expert, but I've written several columns about risk management for small business.

In case of a natural or man-made disaster, companies are encouraged to put emergency systems in place. For instance, have files stored on remote servers with automatic backups. Have both print and electronic customer and employee files stored in several places on- and off-site. Arrange for an alternate location where work can get done if your facility is shut down by a fire, leak or what-have-you.

What continues to amaze me about the BP Gulf Oil spill is what seems to be the absolute lack of adequate risk management. There's apparently a blow-out valve on the well that has failed and so far can't be activated.

So, what do you do when there's a problem and your blow-out valve fails? There is no plan.

BP is brainstorming with the military and with other deep water drilling and oil companies to improvise a solution. One might be drilling another well, something with a three-month timeline. Another is fabricating containment chambers that might be placed over the leaks so that the leaking oil can be pumped up to ships instead of pouring into the ocean.

Let me emphasize that these ideas have rarely - or never - even been tried before. It's really hard for me to believe that this incredibly risky, monumentally expensive technology has been permitted without proven backup techniques in place. To my mind, rescue operations should have been designed and tested before oil drilling leases were ever granted.

I imagine that many of my insurance sources would agree with me. Here's what a worker on the rig told an attorney working on the case:

Another worker familiar with the rig told the lawyers that the company had chosen not to install a deep-water valve that would have been placed about 200 feet under the sea floor. Much like blowout preventers, devices that are meant to seal leaks, this valve could have served as a cutoff of last resort in explosions, the lawyers said.

“The company took their chances in not having the valve so they could save money,” said Mike Papantonio, one of the lawyers representing the shrimpers and fishermen.

How much more irresponsible can this whole situation get?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

We're All Keynesians Now

My hero, Warren Buffet (aka the Oracle), has featured rather prominently in the financial reform debates going on in Congress this week, due to his close ties to Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson.

In light of that situation, and Buffet's annual meeting coming up this weekend, financial writer James Altucher poses a hypothetical Top 10 question list for Mr. B.

Meanwhile, a bit closer to home than Omaha, UCLA econ professor Roger Farmer will be speaking at Caltech on Sunday. His topic: Untangling the economics of the recent financial meltdown and parsing the Keynesians from the - what, Friedman-ites? - in the crowd. (I wonder if we'll have to sit on "bride and groom" sides of the auditorium?)

Yes, this stuff is dry as dust to most people - and about as appetizing - but I've been trying to get a handle on economics for most of my adult life. It will be interesting to see if I can at least follow the discussion.

A couple of years ago, theoretical physicist extraordinare Lisa Randall addressed the Skeptics Society. I may have followed about one-third of what she said. But it was a great workout for my brain, which had to be taken home and coddled (not like an egg!) afterwards.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Getting Paid

The questioner in my column this week is apparently not the only freelancer having trouble getting paid.

I have to laugh a little at the Journal's intrepid reporting: Freelancers often have a hard time collecting on their invoices!

Will wonders never cease?

Those of us who have freelanced for a couple of decades know that this is hardly big news. Okay, more people are working as independent contractors these days, so maybe more are noticing that this whole "getting paid" thing isn't always cut-and-dried.

Since I got burned way back in the '90s for a $500 payment (big money for my family at that time!) from a now-defunct business journal, I've learned how to make sure I get paid.

And I have a one-off policy: Late or non-existent payment? I don't take another assignment from that client. Period.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Power Grab

Election season is cranking up in California (oh, joy!) and the TV machine is once again flooded with confusing, innuendo-filled adverts for candidates* and propositions.

Whenever these commercials start running incessantly, I ask two questions:

Who's paying for these ads, and what do they stand to gain from them?

In the case of Proposition 16 (the "taxpayer's right to vote act"), I didn't have to look far.

Turns out that editorial boards all over the state, along with the League of Women Voters, have come out against this $35 million power grab by PG&E, the utility that supplies power to Northern California.

Big electric wants to protect its monopoly by making it virtually impossible (know how hard it is to get a two-thirds vote for anything?) for cities and communities to band together and supply their own power with "community choice" programs. "The organized opposition, lacking a wealthy backer, has raised about $20,000," notes the San Jose Mercury News.

How's that for cynical and Orwellian? The "taxpayer's right to vote" - sounds great. What taxpayer wants to give up her right to vote, especially in this year's extreme "throw the bums out" climate?

But what the proposition really does is take away the right for taxpayers to get locally provided, and potentially lower-cost, electricity. And, of course, it entrenches PG&E's monopoly and likely boosts its ability to raise rates.

This is yet another perfect example of why California's ballot proposition system is institutionalized insanity. Big tobacco, big power and other deep-pocket corporate interests are the ones that bankroll these initiatives and they use deeply deceptive ad campaigns to get uninformed voters to approve them, usually to their own long-term detriment.

How do we stop this? Tell everyone you know about the reality behind Prop. 16, and tell them to explain it to everyone they know. Help out with the No on 16 campaign, which is being outspent 100 to 1.

It may not help much, but it's the least we can do.

*Speaking of candidates, check out last weekend's This American Life episode for a humorous take-down of gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Correlation Does Not Equal Causation

There was no dial tone on my business phone this morning.


Clearly, the workmen swarming around outside, installing my lovely new air conditioning unit (brrrr!), had knocked out my telephone service. It was pretty obvious.

A couple weeks ago, I spent an entire afternoon trying to get my computer mouse to work. I had disabled the critter when I took my laptop out of town, and clearly I had not properly re-installed it when I returned. Easy diagnosis, right?

Wrong. In fact, epic fail.

In both cases, I committed the dreaded cum hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy, also known as false cause.

On closer inspection (and thankfully before I accused the A/C guys) the volume on my headset was turned down, making it impossible to hear the dial tone - which was working just fine, thank you very much.

My better half took one look at my complex mouse wranglings and said: "Your mouse is shot. Go get a new one." I did. And it worked great.

Correlation does not equal causation. Correlation does not equal causation. Having been raised on magical thinking, it's hard to get this useful principle through my head. But I am trying.

My favorite related story dates back to the early '90s, after a swarm of termites emerged from my Batchelder tile fireplace in Monrovia one sweltering afternoon. I promptly duct-taped the fireplace screen shut and called three exterminators for bids.

The first two guys gave me quotes for tens of thousands we did not have. The third, a woman, took one look at the situation, ripped off the duct tape and peered into the hearth. "Here's your problem," she said, poking at the half-burned logs left over from the previous winter. "This wood's full of termites!"

"You mean ... we don't have to tent the house!?" I asked.

"Naw. These old houses are made with hard, dry redwood. Termites hate it." She brought in some garbage bags, evacuated the buggy lumber and drove off.

I wanted to kiss her, I really did.

So: Correlation does not equal causation. Or: Always look into the fireplace before you hire an exterminator.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Wait For The Beep

Beep. “Oh hello, this is just your mother calling. It’s 8:30 Tuesday night. I thought you’d be home. Just calling to see how everything’s going. I’ll talk to you later.” Click

The breezy voice projected from my car speakers, at once utterly familiar and yet not. I hadn’t heard my mother speaking in more than 10 years.

Driving to the mall a few weeks ago and hearing mom’s voice again was weird. She popped up on an old answering machine tape (remember those?) that I discovered while clearing out nooks and crannies in preparation for a yard sale last month.

Mom wasn’t the only surprise on this tape, which caught odd bits and pieces of my life circa 1989-1991.

There are messages from my old newspaper editors, colleagues and readers. (Just listening to them stressed me out!) And other ghostly voices – from an aunt who passed not long ago, an old friend I’ve lost touch with, a book binder asking me to pick up a long-forgotten job.

Most intriguing is a 10-minute conversation unintentionally caught on tape. My son is three weeks old and I’m talking to a work colleague (who? I don’t recognize the voice) about adjusting to motherhood, what’s going at the newspaper and how I hope to start getting some writing done “when the baby starts taking three-hour afternoon naps.”

Ha! Little did I know those long naps would never materialize. The eternal optimist shines through in my voice, pitifully, even as it is tinged with exhaustion.

“It’s weird, because this tape is just ordinary,” said my other baby (who did take three-hour naps on occasion, bless him), “but it means a lot because it’s old.”

That’s how I feel about a lot of things. Growing up in a disposable age with parents who valued the shiny and the new, I was the freak always longing for something old. Old houses, old heirlooms, old family stories.

I guess I never outgrew the feeling.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Freelance Tax Form

I so wish I could actually file this marginally employed tax form, IRS number BFaS (blood from a stone).

A few friends of mine would be well-served to use some of these freelancer deductions, including:

*Deduct 50% of medicines taken to combat avian flu, swine flu, rogue flu and subway poet flu.

*That/which Deduction: Deduct $1 for every grammatical error in a sign or poster thatn you pointed out to someone else.

*Your food blog

*Your other food blog

The only reason this is a no-go for me is a note in small print: "If you do not Twitter, you do not qualify as a freelancer and may not use this form."


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Someone Had to Try It

Roger Ebert is experimenting with an idea to monetize his website content by charging people to join a special club. Members get extra content and access to him at his events.

We all need to find ways to make money writing online. If Ebert can't do it, I suspect that very few of us can. I'll be watching to see how it works.

Monday, March 15, 2010

My Hero

I'm not ashamed to say it out loud: I adore Warren Buffett.

The world's third-richest man, known as the "Oracle of Omaha," is wicked smart. Of course, that goes without saying.

But he is also - along with Bill Gates - the biggest philanthropist in the United States, having pledged the lion's share of his $47 billion fortune to charitable foundations. He told his kids that they'd all be millionaires and they should be happy with that. Then he gave 85% of his money away, most to the Gates Foundation, because they do great work and he didn't need the big ego boost (or bureaucracy) of his own charitable foundation.

Buffett is an agnostic who forcefully puts the lie to the moldy old card about how you "can't be good without god," giving godless heathens a "yes you can!" role model alongside Gates.

And he lives frugally:

... in the same 6,000-square-foot, five-bedroom, gray stucco house he bought in Omaha, Neb.'s Happy Hollow suburb in 1958 for $31,500. The home has everything the 79-year-old needs, including his very own handball court that he uses to keep fit.

Okay, so he has a $4 million beach home in Laguna. I love Laguna Beach, and would live there in a shack if I could swing it, so I can hardly fault him. And besides, that's still less than one hundredth of a percent of his estimated net worth.

Probably the best piece of advice I've gotten in 15 years of writing about money is this: Live just a little bit below your means. Don't live like a rat or save like a miser, but don't spend to the outer limits of your income either. Buffett embodies that philosophy and has been able to use his fortune to make the world a better place. I can't think of a more fitting legacy.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fill Out The Form

You'll be getting a note in the mail next week from the U.S. Census Bureau. There's some misinformation swirling around this year (happens every decade), so in case you need a nudge, here are the Better Business Bureau's "Top Five Reasons To Fill Out the Census Form":

* It’s safe - By law, the Census Bureau cannot share respondents’ answers with anyone, including the IRS, FBI, CIA, INS or any other government agency. All Census Bureau employees take the oath of nondisclosure and are sworn for life to protect the confidentiality of the data. The penalty for unlawful disclosure is a fine of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment of up to five years.

* It’s easy - The mail-in census form is only ten questions long and, for many households, won’t take longer than ten minutes to answer. If you don’t return the form, you’ll be visited at your home by a census taker at least three times. Avoid the hassle and just fill out the form.

* It allocates money and resources to help you - The information the census collects helps determine how more than $400 billion dollars of annual federal funding is spent on infrastructure and services that go to benefit the public including hospitals, job training centers, schools, bridges and roads.

* It saves you money – For every 1 percent increase in mail response, the government—and ultimately taxpayers—save $80 to $90 million.

* It helps your voice be heard - Redistricting is the process of changing electoral district and constituency boundaries, usually in response to periodic census results. Census information affects the numbers of seats your state occupies in the U.S. House of Representatives.

For more advice on filling out your census form, visit the bureau's website.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Definitions Do Matter

I've been participating, fitfully, in Words Matter Week, sponsored by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors.

Today's blog challenge:

What person in your life helped you understand the importance of choosing words carefully? What would you say to them if you met them today?

My dad was a self-taught man, barely graduating from Boys High School in Brooklyn before he started work, first in a doll factory and then as a traveling salesman.

Dad was a smart cookie, however, and despite his lack of formal education he pursued a number of intellectual hobbies to the point of obsession. One was classical music and opera. The other was words.

He never met a multi-syllabic descriptor he didn't love. If there was anything he enjoyed more than learning a new word, it was using that word to one-up someone else's pedantic verbiage.

He was notoriously picky about gifts, returning nearly everything I ever gave him, but the one hit I had was the big-ass dictionary (with its own stand!) I presented one holiday season. Its thin, crinkly onion-skin pages soon became wrinkled, stained and dog-eared as Dad consulted it frequently and, I'm convinced, turned to it occasionally for light reading.

Mostly, Dad's word thing was amusing or annoying. But there were times it turned dangerous; never more so than during one long weekend we spent with my uncle and aunt in Napa. Aunt Ruth was an uber-stylish, 50-something decorator with a sharp tongue and an opinion on everything. Uncle Dan was my dad's kid brother, the one who had gotten an education (a PhD in psychology) and made the family proud. Dan must've been in his 40s at that time, and he absolutely worshiped Ruth, who had been his more-sophisticated, married next-door neighbor a few years earlier (a whole 'nother story).

One morning we were all gathered around the breakfast table when Ruth launched into one of her colorful stories, this one about how she'd walked into a client's house with several cans of paint, tripped over a step and landed sprawled out in several gallons of oozing paint. "I was so embarrassed!" Ruth exclaimed.

"You were chagrined," Dad suggested, with that "I'm teaching everyone a new word" look on his face.

Ruth paused, pressing a red-tapered fingernail to her lips, and looked skyward. "Nooooo," she said slowly, "I was embarrassed, but I wasn't really chagrined." She smiled and took another drag on her cigarette.

The game was on. Chagrined, Dad insisted. Embarrassed, Ruth corrected. Multiple dictionaries were dragged out; definitions were parsed, probed and compared. Alternate words were proposed, dissected and rejected. Spouses and children weighed in with their opinions, each of us supporting one side or the other.

Despite several entreaties to "just change the subject," neither one of these gladiators would let go. As skirmishes flared, tempers followed suit. My dad did not like being contradicted. Well, what do you know? Neither did Ruth. And it was her paint-splashed accident, and her feelings, in question - as she icily pointed out.

Mom and Uncle Dan, the mild-mannered counterparts of these mules, tried in vain to calm things down. I don't know how long the argument progressed - it felt like hours - but sometime before lunch Dad announced that we were leaving. "Kids, get the suitcases in the car!" he shouted. We scurried about until, luggage loaded, embarrassed (dare I say chagrined?) goodbyes whispered, we took our leave.

It may be my imagination, but I remember our Ford station wagon burning rubber with an angry shriek as Dad gunned it down their driveway.

The relationships were eventually patched up, but none of us still alive to this day can hear the word "chagrin" without an involuntary shudder.

Dad was a difficult man, and much of our relationship was conflicted. He died just as I matured into adulthood and started to appreciate him. One of my biggest regrets is that my sons never got to meet him. If he were alive today, I'd tell him how surprised I am that I turned out so much like him. And I'd tell him that he was right about chagrin.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


In honor of Words Matter Week, a holiday that is celebrated annually the first full week in March, the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE) is hosting a Blog Challenge with a specific daily topic Monday through Friday.

I'm a day late (yes, and a dollar short!) but I thought I'd comment on yesterday's topic:

Communication breaks down when words are misused. What is the funniest, most interesting, or worst break-down you’ve ever observed?

I was struggling through my first year as a reporter at a small newspaper in Orange County, Ca. I couldn't believe how much I was expected to know and hadn't been taught in journalism school.

I worked at an old-fashioned afternoon paper, which are all but extinct these days, with early morning deadlines. I would literally break into a cold sweat just driving to work, anticipating that deadline pressure.

As the low man on the totem pole, I routinely got the klunker story assignments. That meant on Armistice Day, I was sent to the local VFW for a World War I reunion.

It might have been an inspiring, interesting event. Except for the fact that all the veterans were wheelchair-bound, hard-of-hearing and senile. Their wives poked, prodded and shouted the old-timers through the ceremony in the most demeaning way imaginable.

If I'd been more experienced, I would have known how to handle the assignment gracefully. Instead, I gritted my teeth and tried to get out of there as quickly as possible.

At the reception after the ceremony, I introduced myself as Karen Klein and explained that I needed to do some interviews with the veterans. But somehow, my name seemed difficult to grasp.

I shouted it multiple times, until someone at a table repeated a garbled version. Like a game of "telephone," grotesque versions of my name ricocheted around the room.

Finally, one of the women seemed to understand. "Clara Pine! This is Clara Pine. She's a reporter!" she announced.

Trying to start all over was beyond me. So for the rest of the afternoon, I was intrepid girl reporter Clara Pine.

Not my best journalism moment, but I survived. And my colleagues got quite a chuckle out of it when I got back to the newsroom.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Modern Mythology

If you're not sure of the answer on a test, go with your hunch.

It's better to let out your anger than repress it.

Some people are left-brained and others are right-brained.

No brainers, right? In fact, none of those "truisms" is true. They're all included in a new book, "50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology," reviewed in this week's eSkeptic .

The title actually sells the book short, according to reviewer Dr. Harriet Hall (aka the Skepdoc). The authors go in depth on the 50 myths of the title but also briefly debunk 250 additional popular assertions like the G-spot (sorry ladies!), men thinking about sex every seven seconds (it just seems like they do, apparently) and the advantages of group think.

They also explain why myths and misconceptions arise and gain a foothold. I'm currently reading about conspiracy theories.

This sounds like a good follow up.