Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On the Hook?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 26, 2009

(More Than) A Pat on the Back

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Another Day, Another Rip Off?

What is it about the Internet that causes people to rip off content with absolutely no shame? Is there some Web protocol that I'm missing that outwardly encourages or tolerates this behavior?

Thanks to Google Alerts, I constantly find my articles posted on unknown (to me) websites with little or no credit to me or the publications I write for.

I don't even hope for permission or compensation any more, but credit would certainly be nice.

It really angers me to find something like I did today: Not only was an article that I worked extremely hard on posted on a site I'd never heard of, but there was no identifying information for me (beyond my byline) or the publication where it originated.

What's worse, the offending website seems to have obtained the article from an online syndication service. That means this company is making money by distributing my work without my permission, while violating the copyright of the publication that did pay me.

Arghhhhh ....

If you want to recommend an article, that's fine. But link to it so folks can read it on the site where it is originally posted. If you want to include a short abstract with the link, to catch peoples' attention, no problem.

But please don't do an uncredited, unauthorized copy-and-paste of the entire content. That's just wrong.

I've lodged my complaints over today's violations, both by phone and email. We'll see what kind of response I get. Based on past experience, I have to say I'm not holding my breath.

Has this happened to anyone else? If so, how did you handle it?

UPDATE: I did get responses to my complaints, both from the offending website and the syndicate. I haven't been able to connect with the syndicate yet, but the email exchange with the website representative had what my editor characterized as a "snotty" tone - on their part.

The idea that came through loud and clear is that my request was unreasonable and unacceptable.

However, when I pointed out the lack of copyright and the professional and legal confusion that could easily result from my name being on something that's unlabeled, the piece was removed from the website quickly.

My editor assures me he'll bring this up with the corporate suits responsible for such matters, and make sure it doesn't happen again. I'm still not sure the fault is on our side, but I'm very glad that rattling the cage got some action.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Obama Follow Up

The latest Smart Answers column is a follow up to my column about entrepreneurs and Obama.

This one is a round-up of reactions to policies coming out of the Obama White House.

More than anything else, I found that small business owners worry that they'll be forced to offer expensive health care coverage to their employees. If that's the case, many of them say, they'll have to lay off many workers or perhaps close their doors.

Without a doubt, most small employers would love to provide medical insurance plans for their workers. But it's simply too expensive for many of them, and even those that do have medical plans struggle with the annual cost increases.

Of course, not providing medical coverage severely handicaps many small companies when it comes to making the best hires.

If health care reform includes a way for small business owners to offer health insurance more affordably, or perhaps a viable public health care plan becomes an option - freeing up more individuals to work for smaller companies if they choose - I think entrepreneurs will be thrilled.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Entrepreneurs on the Pres

They're being bandied about by both sides in the political divide, but what do entrepreneurs really think about President Barack Obama and the new direction in which he's taking the country?

Turns out they're not so different from the rest of the populace, as I write in this week's Smart Answers column (this time with extra slide show!)

Here's another view of the president, "Obama as entrepreneur-in-chief," written by a pair of former entrepreneurs, one now a Republican ex-governor and the other the president of Babson College, which specializes in training entrepreneurs.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Garden Blogging

You may remember the organic garden where we rototilled, enhanced the soil and planted earlier this year.

Well, the hard work has really paid off!

We have already eaten some Cue Ball round zucchini, and we have Early Girl tomatoes and small pumpkins ripening:

Also flourishing are cucumbers, cantaloupe, white eggplant, bell peppers, green onions, watermelon and pole beans:

Cultivating the soil about 18 inches deep, and adding back layers of dried leaves, home-grown compost and organic manure was really hard work. But in all my years of gardening, I've never seen such healthy, vibrant plants.

The best part of the garden is that my younger son has caught the fever and has become my partner in the project.

I hope we'll be posting photos of gorgeous produce soon!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

PR Peeves

In my business writing, it's become inevitable that I must interact with a lot of publicists and press relations' people.

As an old-school journalist who grew up on newspaper staffs, I prefer to deal with sources directly. But that's becoming less easy to do as more business owners, authors and consultants hire PR people to market them and their services to the press and the public.

For the most part, I've learned to work with PR people efficiently. And they often help track down sources and schedule interviews that would take me a lot of time and effort to do myself.

But there are some pet peeves that arise again and again - not only for me but for many journalists - in dealing with publicists.

So here are a few "do's and don'ts":

1) Don't over-promise. (This just happened to me, so it tops the list.) The publicist pitches a fascinating interview with specific details on what the source will be discussing. I plan a story, notify my editor and do the interview. But it turns out that the source doesn't speak to those details or hasn't actually done that research or doesn't quite have that expertise. Now I have spent time that I don't get paid for (as a freelancer), I have to kill the story with my editor and scramble for something new on deadline. Ouch.

2) Do be available. This isn't a huge problem for me these days, but when I was a beat reporter on a daily deadline, I needed to get a hold of sources immediately. I can't tell you how many times the publicist didn't answer the phone and couldn't be found in the office, all while I sweated and chewed my nails as an editor screamed at me to file the damned story already. If you're not readily available by phone or email, give out your cell phone number and answer it.

3) Do get the details right. A publicist recently misspelled her clients' name, which was also the company name, in some background she sent me prior to an interview. I have a reflexive habit of double-checking spellings, but this was the one time I didn't remember to do so. Issuing a correction is never fun.

4) Don't neglect to mention that someone else at the publication is already working on the story a reporter asks about. There's nothing more humiliating than turning in a piece and having the editor inform you that Joe Jones in Metro just finished a thumb-sucker on the same topic, or is working on it for Sunday. I try to read everything that appears in the publications I write for, but I don't always succeed. And I'm not privy to what other reporters are working on, since I'm not in the office. Letting me know saves me time, wasted effort and embarrassment.

5) Don't insist on "listening in" on even the most mundane interviews. This practice, unheard of a few years ago, is becoming ubiquitous with the rise of conference call services and I find it supremely annoying - grumpy curmudgeon that I am. I know you want to babysit your client and bill them for your time, but it wastes my time with the convolutions of conferencing everyone in and making formal introductions and blah, blah, blah. Reporters are perfectly capable of calling sources and interviewing them all by themselves - and we can do it quicker and easier without two or three other people on the line, chiming in with "helpful comments." If we need some background that the source doesn't have, we'll ask for it. Really.

Okay, my rant for the day is done.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Small Biz Casualties

We've read and heard a lot over the past six months about the big auto companies and their downfalls.

But what hasn't gotten much attention are the nearly 11,000 small companies that make parts to go into those auto production lines. They are typically family-owned enterprises with a few dozen employees, many of them clustered in the Upper Midwest.

I write about the future of those small tool-and-die and machine shops in this week's Smart Answers column.

Despite what could be a gloomy outlook for companies whose products are closely tied to failing corporations, there is a silver lining for the small firms that are willing to hustle and open to change.

In this week's In Box column, I answer questions about quarterly taxes and how companies can continue doing good even when money is tight.

Check them out!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

What a Deal!

Here are a couple of small business ideas I've come across recently.

The first is a website that allows small companies to promote their specials and sales online. The deal aggregator, JansDeals.com, is eventually going to charge entrepreneurs a $299 subscription fee.

But for the first three months, or first 50,000 small businesses that sign up, site owner Jan Stuart is waiving the fee. That means entrepreneurs don't have to pay anything to create promotions and announce deals on a site that will market itself as a place for consumers to check regularly to find bargains in their neighborhoods.

If you're a local business owner, this could be a great way to get some buzz for your upcoming sales, as well as a no-risk chance to dip your toes into Internet marketing.

The second is a project aimed at supporting local retailers called The 3/50 Project.

Promoted by retail consultant and blogger Cinda Baxter, the idea is to "Ask consumers to frequent three local brick and mortar businesses they don’t want to see disappear, and to spend a very affordable $50 per month doing it."

The idea is to raise awareness of the perils facing small businesses, particularly those pillars of the community that pay local taxes, contribute to community decision-making and donate cash and time to the schools, sports programs and charitable organizations around the country.

I'm all for supporting small companies, and I've always frequented local retailers, so I'm happy to promote Baxter's idea. But in our free-market economy I think it's tough for these kinds of causes - even good causes - to succeed.

Right now, something like The 3/50 Project may help small companies over the hump. But for the long term, small businesses still have to provide a better product, better service and better customer relations if they want to succeed.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

That Sucks

Readers often ask me to investigate a particular business start up, work at home or franchise opportunity for them.

I typically explain - kindly - that they need to do the research themselves. Not only will they learn how easy and quick online research is, they will also educate themselves not only about the situation at hand but probably get a lot of other eye-openers as well.

There's nothing tough about entering a company name and background information into a search engine like Google or the website of the Better Business Bureau.

But my friend and web guru Paula Johnson has an even better idea:

Google the company or individual plus the word "sucks" in quotes. If anyone's online complaining about them, you'll find out pretty quickly.

Two caveats to remember: Just because someone's grousing on the Internet doesn't mean their complaints are accurate or fair. And there are probably 10 complainers online for every grateful customer, so take the negative comments with a grain of salt.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Week in SmallBiz

I never cease to be amazed when I interview high-powered, high-profile individuals who can't readily spit out a three- or four-word description of who they are or what they do without hemming, hawing or resorting to jargon.

Honestly, it happens more often than not. "How shall I identify you in the interview?" is not infrequently met by an embarrassed admission that the person "doesn't really have a title" or isn't quite sure what his/her title is.

"What does your company do, in a nutshell?" often elicits stammering or - worse - a regurgitated sound byte so twisted with marketing lingo that it makes no sense.

If you can't fluidly describe you or your company in simple, engaging language, you can't get customers, investors or potential partners interested. And you certainly can't impress the press.

Last week, I attended a competition in which start up firms give the "fast pitch" their best shot. Read about it in my Smart Answers column.

In my Smart Answers podcast, I interview a fascinating guy who has written a book about how brain research should change the way we manage people and relate to clients.

I really liked his observation that thinking new thoughts actually changes our brains physically, as new neural pathways are forged.

Guess what? New ideas really can change us - and change the world!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Financial Downfall

The Columbia Journalism Review has a hard-hitting (read: highly critical) review in its current edition of the business press and what they did or didn't report on in the lead-up to the mortgage meltdown last fall.

While many reporters and publications have been defensive about the accusations that they did not do the kind of investigative stories they could and should have, CJR concludes that the accusers are largely correct.

The information about sleazy sub-prime mortgage lenders and their ugly practices was reported on by a few media outlets and was ripe for further investigation. Unfortunately, it went largely unexplored, the CJR review says.

There are a number of reasons for the failure to uncover the danger more fully, but no good excuses for why it wasn't done. The whole article is worth reading, but here's the conclusion:

First, the public should be aware—warned, so to be speak—that its interests and those of the business press may not be in perfect alignment. The business press exists within the Wall Street and corporate subculture and understandably must adopt its idioms and customs, the better to translate them for the rest of us. Still, it relies on those institutions for its stories. Burning a bridge is hard. It is far easier for news bureaucracies to accept ever-narrowing frames of discourse, frames forcefully pushed by industry, even if those frames marginalize and eventually exclude the business press’s own great investigative traditions.

One bright note in the piece is the shout-out to Los Angeles Times' reporter Scott Reckard, who did some great investigative work on Ameriquest in 2005. Scott and his family are friends; he and my husband worked at the same small newspaper way back when.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Chicken or Egg?

Remember when you were just starting out on your own and you couldn't get a credit card? You needed a good (or any) credit history in order to qualify for a card, the companies told you. But without a credit card, how were you supposed to rack up a credit history?

(Yes, I'm dating myself to the "bad old days." College students get credit cards mailed to them before they even leave the nest today - though let's hope that will be changing soon.)

It was one of those catch-22 situations that also face a lot of frustrated entrepreneurs. Read about it in my Smart Answers column this week.

My L.A. Times column answers questions about social networking, intellectual property and buying a recruiting firm.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Take The Oath

Honor. It's a word that you don't hear much anymore, except maybe in reference to antiquated notions of chivalry or, horrifically, as an Orwellian descriptor for murder in repressive, male-dominated societies.

So I was struck, late last year, how often the word came up when I interviewed Turney Stevens, dean of Lipscomb's College of Business.

We were talking about ethics in business, which became something of an antiquated notion itself in recent years, as we have all sadly discovered.

But dishonor, greed and outright fraud is nothing new. My son wanted to watch "The Smartest Guys in the Room," the excellent documentary about the rise and fall of energy giant Enron, so we rewatched it with him recently. All of us struck by how much of what it concludes applies directly to today's financial disasters and fraud.

The more things change, as they say, the more they stay the same.

There may be a fresh breeze blowing, however, among some young people who plan corporate careers but don't want to wind up as the stars of "bad guy documentaries" in 15 or 20 years.

This NPR story about a student-proposed "MBA Hippocratic Oath" gave me some hope that "honor" won't be such a rare word in the future.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Global Marketplace

What's the best way to configure your company website so that it appeals to international customers?

Check out the advice I dug up in this week's Smart Answers column.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Moms on the Net

Thank goodness there were no blogs back when my children were babies.

Not only did I not have time to sit down and read anything for more than a minute, I surely did not have time to write for any publication that wasn't paying me by the word.

And while I'm sure I had brilliant parenting insights at the time, I have a feeling anything I actually wrote down would have come out like a screed, a rant or a trough of self-pity. (My children are wonderful, but they were "active" babies and toddlers, to employ the proper euphemism, and "challenging" to raise.)

There is a whole generation of mothers today, however, who are recording their experiences online in so-called "mommy blogs."

Entrepreneurs are beginning to realize that these women can provide powerful marketing and sales boosts, but there are rules about interacting with them on behalf of your business.

Check out this week's Smart Answers column to read about some of them.

Monday, June 1, 2009

I Get Questions ...

Entrepreneurs are notorious optimists - they almost have to be, to take the risks required to start their own ventures.

I'm an optimist too, but I temper my sunny outlook with a large dose of realism. (It doesn't always save me from making dumb decisions, but it helps.)

I love assisting people who want to start their own businesses, and particularly relish hearing from those who took my advice and have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations.

But some of the inquiries I get seem to come from untempered optimists who need a reality check, or those who are so focused on bootstrapping that they may fall into the "penny-wise, pound-foolish" category.

My Smart Answers column this week deals with the latter possibility: A couple who run two businesses merged under one financial and legal umbrella. That's not a good idea, and not even necessary in this era of cheap, easy entity formation available online.

I recently got another question from a would-be entrepreneur who wants to start not one, but two companies: One in the television and film industry and the other in food production.

Ambitious, but tough. Starting one business is difficult enough, as any entrepreneur will tell you. And both the entertainment and the food industries are costly and complex to break into, particularly for those with no experience in or ties to existing businesses. It can be done, but it's not wise to do it simultaneously.

Another would-be entrepreneur wrote me to ask about starting a social networking site, tossing out as an afterthought: "Oh yeah, I have no money."

Well, it's easier to start a home-based, online company with no resources than it is to open a brick-and-mortar firm. However, it's always smart to save, beg or borrow startup capital before starting a company.

The number one reason businesses fail, the experts say, is because they don't have enough money to get them through the year (or more) it may take to become profitable. In most cases, it's better to hold off your startup until you get the information you need, do the research that will improve your odds and amass the cash that will allow you to set your company up right.