Thursday, May 28, 2009

Global Info

One of my best international sources is Peter Zapf, of Global Sources. His firm has worked in Asia nearly 40 years and it specializes in facilitating international trade.

Now, he tells me, the company is making its print magazines available for free download in .pdf format.

Entrepreneurs who want to source manufacturing or product in China, and U.S. firms that want to begin exporting, often feel like they face a bewildering morass of treaties, laws, cultural dissonance and language barriers.

These magazines would no doubt be a terrific resource for companies who need to research the international market.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Conventional Wisdom Upended

Not-for-profit organizations used to be told that they needed to operate more like for-profits if they wanted to become truly successful.

Well, a lot of them took that advice and are thriving (or were, before donations tanked due to recession).

And now, the same advice is being turned back on the small business owner, according to this week's podcast guest, Roger Sametz.

My Smart Answers column chronicles my visit to a speed-coaching event last week in Anaheim.

Frankly, I was skeptical about how much help entrepreneurs could really get in 30 minutes with a SCORE counselor.

But honestly, an experienced counselor can touch on a lot of solid business information in half an hour! I was pleasantly surprised after sitting in on several sessions. And of course the real purpose of the event is to bring entrepreneurs together to network, encourage each other and hook up with the organization's long-term help and support.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Keeping Tabs on Your Brand

Small business owners often go to great lengths commissioning surveys so they can find out what their customers think about their products or services.

But these days, it's cheap and easy to find out what people are saying about your brand online: Monitor social media sites for individuals talking about you in discussion groups, online forums and reviews.

Small business owners who are not keeping track of kudos and squelching rumors or dealing with complaints are bound to fall behind, says the founder of The Escapist, an online gaming community, in my Smart Answers column today.

I've Cracked the Code!

My college student heads into finals week starting tomorrow and I head up to collect him next week. It's hard to believe he has completed his first year away at school.

He's done wonderfully well (as far as we can tell) but keeping the lines of communication open has not been easy. After barely hearing from him first semester, we instituted a weekly telephone call that has worked out nicely.

But often when I needed to tell him something, or ask a question, my emails went unanswered. I didn't know whether he was not getting them, getting them and ignoring them or what.

Then I signed up for Facebook (after long years of resistance) and I finally figured out how to get through to him: Send him a Facebook message! I tried it and he replied the next day.

The funny thing is, some of us still think of email as "modern communication." But to teenagers and 20-somethings, email is old school.

Seriously. They don't use it and have to be prompted to remember to check it. Everything seems to go through Facebook.

So if you want to communicate with your teenager, I recommend it. That and an AIM account is all you need.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Bright Spot

You might think this would be an awful summer for the travel and accommodations industry, and you might be right.

But for a small sliver of the industry, one dominated by small business owners, things are looking pretty good this year. Read about it in my Smart Answers column this week.

My podcast is a fun one this week, too. It's the story of a successful business co-op, one of 300 cooperatively owned companies in the United States.

The bakery started out as an offshoot of the Red Clover Worker's Brigade in Petaluma, a '70s hippie commune, which totally cracked me up.

Um ... Thanks, But No Thanks!

Yesterday, I got a FedEx package containing a surprise: Chocolate-covered grasshoppers!

Turns out that the little critters are a promotion for a telephone system targeting small business owners.

Marketing folks, take note: They rebranded from GotVMail to Grasshopper, using the tagline, "Entrepreneurs Can Change The World." Their website urges potential customers to "Join the movement now!"

Quite a transformation, from a mundane company name and mission to a memorable brand that literally "jumps out at you."

The marketing piece inside the package dared me to take a risk and snack on the little goodies. Not me! I could hardly open the bag and when I did, just looking at them made me shudder.

But then I have a deep-seated revulsion to large insects that goes back to a childhood vacation at the Salton Sea when I was five or six.

We stayed overnight and woke up to a scene straight out of the Old Testament: Grasshoppers everywhere. All over the walkways, stacked up on walls and littering the grass. Most of them were dead, but I found a live one and bent down to look closely at it.

My proximity must have been threatening, because it shot some kind of brown liquid at me that looked like tobacco juice. It didn't hurt, but it startled me so badly that I screamed my head off. I've had a visceral reaction to grasshoppers ever since.

So I'm not a fan of the delicacies, but I have to give them thumbs up for getting my attention! What do you think?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Mystery Volunteers

Before I could even get my organic garden planted, some squash plants cropped up.

I remembered tossing some wilted zucchini into my compost pile a few months ago, before I tilled the compost into my garden soil. And those plants looked like zucchini to me.

Since we can only eat so much zucchini, and the plants tend to be very prolific, I gave away a bunch of seedlings to members of my freecycle group.

Then today when I was weeding, I turned up some suspiciously pumpkin-like seeds. And then I remembered that I had also tossed our rotted Halloween pumpkin into the compost bin, back in the fall.

Ooops! Are my "zucchini" plants really pumpkin vines?

Here's a bigger picture of the garden, which is starting to take shape nicely:

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


If you own a private company or are a shareholder in one, you need to check out my latest Smart Answers column.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Free Range Kids

Some mothers look horrified when I mention that I made my boys ride their bikes to school starting in junior high. The traffic! The kidnapping pedophiles! And what about those heavy backpacks!?

Others raised eyebrows when I told them it was inappropriate (not to mention completely emasculating) to drag boys older than about five into the women's restroom. My kids starting going to the men's room by themselves, with me waiting outside the door, around the time they entered first grade.

But the killers! The dirty men! And what about those kidnapping pedophiles?!

You know what? My children gained some independence, I began the reasonable and wholly necessary process of letting them grow up and we all lived to tell the tale.

My parenting philosophy may offend some, but it jibes fully with that of Lenore Skenazy, who is interviewed in Salon today.

Skenazy is a columnist, author and blogger at FreeRangeKids, where she argues that children today are just as safe as we were in the '60s and '70s, according to crime stats. But despite reality, nervous parents protect them like they are always seconds away from disaster.

Why the disconnect? The answer may partly lie in the pervasive, over-hyped, over-heated scare mongering that comes mostly from cable television. Sociologist and media critic Eric Klinenberg, son of my good buddy Ed Klinenberg, was interviewed on NPR's On The Media program last weekend about the panic (or non-panic, as it turns out) around swine flu. It's very telling, and also quite funny.

Are your kids free range or do you keep them cooped up?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Investors (Still) Open For Business

Credit is tight, or non-existent. Friends and family are tapped out. What's an inventive, determined entrepreneur to do?

The good news is that although private investment has dropped sharply, it is still available from specialized sources.

I talk to a few folks who are still ponying up money for enterprising startups in my Smart Answers column this week.

In the podcast, I interview one of those determined enterpreneurs, Eileen Gould - a female general contractor working in a man's world. Eileen is a long-time source whom I interviewed for the L.A. Times back in the '90s, when her business was booming.

Things aren't so good right now, but Eileen hasn't given up. Her pluck and creativity inspire me and remind me why I love writing about small business owners!

Speaking of the Times, my In Box column this week answers questions about finding startup clients, improving cash flow and whether having a helper hubby on the job is a problem.

Avoid Swine Flu

Don't Do This