Monday, April 30, 2012

Money Smart

I wrote about online entrepreneurial training not long ago and found a mixed bag of the good, bad and the ugly.

Now there's a new player in the space, Money Smart for Small Business, developed jointly by the The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The free curriculum consists of 10 introductory training modules covering topics including financial management, record keeping, risk management and tax planning and reporting. According to the agencies involved, "Money Smart for Small Business provides an introduction to day-to-day business organization and planning and is written for entrepreneurs with limited or no prior formal business training. It offers practical information that can be applied immediately, while also preparing participants for more advanced training."

If every aspiring entrepreneur took this course, I might be out of a job! (But I don't think that's gonna happen.)

The small business course is the latest offering in the FDIC’s Money Smart program, which includes a personal finance guide that clears up ambiguities around topics such as credit, consumer protection and savings. Too bad more people didn't take the home ownership and mortgage introduction courses a few years ago; we all might be in a different situation right now.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Speaking of Freelancers CEO Matt Barrie knows a lot about self-employed people. He learns even more through the Fast 50, a report that pulls data from his site's 3.3 million+ users and 1.5 million projects.

What's happening in 2012?

“We have seen a huge increase in outsourcing on the whole, with businesses rethinking their strategies moving into the New Year,” Barrie says. On his site, more than 170,000 jobs were posted in the first quarter of 2012, up from 130,000 in Q4 2011.

Projects being posted are also up, more than 30% quarter-over-quarter. "The huge growth in outsourcing is made up of a wide range of different types of projects being completed in countries all across the globe,” Barrie says. Some interesting findings, give it a look.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Speaking of Health Insurance

A lot of my friends and professional colleagues are freelancers, just like I am. Unlike me, many of them must buy their own health insurance because they are not covered by a spouse's policy.

One of the biggest obstacles to quitting an dead-end job or leaving an unhappy workplace is the health insurance obstacle: There's no getting around the fact that good coverage is harder to find and more expensive for freelancers and small business owners.

Here's an online marketplace where freelancers can compare and contrast policies, plans and providers. They recommend that the self-employed consider the following options when they are in the market for insurance:

COBRA: If you've just left your job or been downsized, you probably qualify for COBRA, which references the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 and allows you to stay on your employer-provided insurance for 18 months. It's likely to be cheaper than buying insurance on your own, though you will pay more than you paid as an employee for the same coverage. 
Private Health Insurance: After your COBRA expires, you may need to buy individual health coverage. Welcome to the world of options and price plans, which many experts say is nearly impossible to navigate because there is no consistent way to compare coverage across companies. If and when the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) goes into effect in 2014, your state must provide an online exchange, where you can look at many plans and pick the best for their budget and health needs. If you're young and healthy, and on a tight budget, you might consider a high deductible plan with low monthly payments.

Chamber of Commerce: Most people do not realize that their local Chamber of Commerce offers a small business insurance plan for its local business owners. Get in touch with your branch, see what they offer, and find out whether you have to become a member to get coverage. It might be worth it, not only for the insurance, but for the networking, marketing and other benefits provided.

Freelancers Union: Freelancers seeking health insurance might find what they are looking for with the Freelancers Union or their industry's professional association. The freelancer's group offers free membership and its sole purpose is to support freelancers across the country. You can even opt for dental and disability insurance if you choose. Depending on what industry you are working in, there may be a trade group or professional organization you can join that offers insurance at a better rate than you can get as an individual.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Going Green

According to the Office Depot Small Business Index, 61 percent of small businesses are actively trying to go greener and 70 percent of small businesses anticipate becoming more environmentally conscious over the next two years.

But other than installing a recycle bin and buying energy efficient products, how can they achieve the goal?

Peter Soyka, an environmental management consultant, has a new book, "Creating A Sustainable Organization," that offers some ideas for entrepreneurs and small business CEOs:
-- Provide sustainable investing choices in the employee 401(k) or other retirement plan.
-- Review company travel policies and practices, and determine if changes are warranted to reduce costs and environmental impacts associated with business travel.
-- Develop or strengthen a company-wide employee safety and disaster preparedness procedure, and ensure that it is deployed at all company locations.
-- Develop a carbon footprint for the company.
-- Survey major customers, investors, employees, and other major stakeholders about what environmental, social, and governance behaviors they expect of the firm.
-- Using any pre-existing environmental, health and safety, and/or climate change policies, develop and deploy a company-level sustainability policy.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Business Imitates Art

Did you know that the Holiday Inn hotel chain was named after the Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire movie of Irving Berlin-"White Christmas" fame?

Neither did I! Here's a fun list of real products based on their fictional counterparts.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Spring Cleaning

I have been doing some spring cleaning this month, both in my house and in getting my garden ready for summer. But the idea of spring cleaning social media accounts was a new one when I heard about it from Jennifer Vickery, a social media expert from National Strategies Public Relations.

Here are here recommendations for keeping up with social media and spring cleaning your profile:

1) Go through your e-mails and add the names of contacts to your social media. You can start with LinkedIn. Go straight to that search field and start typing names. Do you collect business cards or have an app that does so for you? Bust this out right now and get going!
 2) When was the last time you had a social media posting? If it was older than 3 weeks ago, you are in need of spring cleaning. First, write a post about you, your company, positive news, upcoming projects, or something to get the ball rolling. Don’t stress too heavily on what to write – just start! Next, whip out your planner and begin writing some broad topics for certain days. Now make sure you post regularly. Our rule of thumb is posting at minimum twice per week for your audience to stay engaged.
3) Spring cleaning still involves cleaning. So, do you have old information on your profile? Maybe you still have a few colleagues or employees who have left your organization and know your social media passwords. Maybe your Facebook Timeline needs some ‘sprucing.' Or perhaps you have some comments which you wish to take down all together. This is the time to get this done.
 4) Too busy to keep your social media tidy? Get one or two employees in your organization, come up with a time-table of who will post and when (that way there is not duplicated effort) and make a plan. You might find this to be a fun project for them to be included in and also showcase new talents.
5) Do you have your LinkedIn profile link on every signature line of your e-mail? Why not? Let others know that you want to connect. Have you had a great accomplishment and want to share with others? Of course you can share this with social media.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Can I Sell You Something?

An effort to require multi-level marketing companies to make certain disclosures to prospective distributors has fallen short. Although the Federal Trade Commission set out to regulate the $28.5 billion industry, which includes large corporations like Amway and Avon, it backed off after a storm of opposition.

The rule that became effective last month does force transparency on work-at-home companies and other scams that frequently rip off the elderly and disabled. But MLMs slipped out of the regulatory net, much to the disappointment of industry critics.

I don't have any experience with the industry, other than having attended my share of Tupperware parties and Mary Kay makeup sessions way back when. But many years ago, we got some new neighbors. They were a friendly family and their son hit it off with our boys.

The guy asked my husband to go out to dinner. I figured he was hoping to make a new friend, but it turned out once the meal arrived, the man started trying to sell Steve on a business opportunity. He beat around the bush, hemmed and hawed, then finally admitted it wasn't friendship he was looking for from Steve: He wanted him to become an Amway distributor.

Once he understood that wasn't a possibility, the dinner ended abruptly. To add injury to insult, the guy came up short on the bill; Steve wound up paying for dinner for the both of them. The friendship never quite materialized, as you might imagine.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cheaters Never Prosper

Today is tax day, except that it isn't. Not in 2012, when our tax deadline is April 17.

DDB, a global advertising conglomerate, surveyed people about cheating on their taxes. Only 7 percent said they were likely to do so. (Remember, this is self-reporting and most people think they are more honest, upright and beautiful than they actually are.)

What interested me is that those 7 percent who were willing to admit they cheated are very different than those who claimed to be on the up-and-up.

The survey uncovered characteristics that DDB called "chronic wanton behaviors illustrating a skewed moral compass and an inflated sense of entitlement." For example, tax cheats are more likely than noncheats to keep the wrong change given to them by a cashier, take money from their child’s piggy bank that they don’t intend to return, and value their own happiness over that of others.

I went to a fascinating lecture on borderline personality disorder a few years ago; one of the characteristics the psychiatrist talked about was narcissism. Sounds like cheaters fit into the same category somehow.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Crowd Fraud-ing?

The president signed legislation last week that will make it much easier for small companies to raise money through selling equity in their company.

Some say it will make the process too easy, and that the legislation relaxed too many regulatory safeguards - some put into place after previous bouts of scam and scandal.

Now, crowdfunding advocates are coming up with their own ways to police the market. I write about it in this week's Smart Answers column

Whatever happens, it's going to be fascinating to watch this all play out when the new law goes into effect in early 2013. Let me know if you have any story tips on this topic. I'm sure I'll be writing more about it.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Tax Time Help

It's that time again, when all good Americans must come to the aid of their country - and pay up.

Not to gloat, but my taxes were filed weeks ago and I even got a refund this year, for about the first time in a decade. (Okay, I am gloating a little - but hey.)

Anyway, if you haven't gotten around to that box of receipts or online spread sheet yet, there is help available. For instance, The Free File Alliance, a coalition of leading tax software companies, and the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program offer free tax software and face-to-face tax help for taxpayers who made $50,000 or less last year.

Through this new partnership, Free File Alliance member software is now available at self-assist computer kiosks found in nearly 300 VITA locations across 29 states. Eligible taxpayers can access these kiosks and use this brand-name software to prepare and e-file their tax returns.

Another bit of good news: Tax day is Sept. 17 this year, so you've got two additional days to procrastinate!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Startup Troubles

A good number of startup businesses fail. Either they never quite make it out of the gate, or they sputter for a few furlongs and then run out of steam. But why?

In my interview with Harvard prof Noam Wasserman, he posits some theories, most of them about people problems.

When Noam mentioned that we in the entrepreneurship community too often rely on flashy, splashy role models and gut instinct, instead of empirical data and solid research, he had this skeptic won over. He's so right - and his advice is spot-on. Give it a read.