Monday, November 23, 2009

Adventures in Entertaining

After we dropped our youngest son off at college this fall, my husband and I looked at each other - both teary-eyed - and wondered: What were we going to do with ourselves?

For 20 years, our free time revolved around our kids. School, athletics, family gatherings. With both boys out of the nest, where would our focus shift?

Over dinner at our favorite pizza joint, a plan emerged.

We would entertain, something we enjoyed doing back in those primeval days before the children came along. So, we filled our fall agenda with dinners, parties, lunches and brunches with old friends.

Are you hosting a few - or a bunch - at your house this holiday season? Here are a couple of few things we've learned along the way:

Do drape your couches or keep strategic doors shut if you've had the upholstery cleaned in anticipation of a big bash - and you have furry critters in your house.

Don't turn the burner on and then leave the kitchen for some deep conversation with your fascinating guests.

Do pace yourself: Cleaning, shopping, cooking, decorating and entertaining are fun, but exhausting. Once or twice a month is better than every weekend, unless you have a lot more energy than we do.

Don't experiment with a whole new menu when you have guests. This is a hard one for me, adventurous cook that I am, but it really is better to test them on family first.

Do make this fantastic, easy, one-pot macaroni and cheese, which I clipped in 2002 from Dorothy Reinhold's Tried and True food column. One guest last weekend loved this so much, he went back for thirds! Or maybe it was fourths. I lost count.

1/2 stick unsalted butter
1/2 onion, chopped
2 T. all-purpose flour
1 t. salt
3 c. whole milk (don't skimp and use non-fat, really)
8 oz. elbow macaroni
1 1/2 c. grated sharp cheddar cheese

Melt butter over medium-low heat. Saute onion five minutes until transparent (do not brown). Stir in flour, salt and cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Pour in milk and stir to blend. Bring to a slow, steady simmer and add uncooked macaroni, stirring to combine. Cover and simmer until macaroni is al dente. Remove pan from heat and stir in cheese until it melts. Cover and let sit for five minutes before serving. Makes three to four servings.

I doubled this for my dinner party and had plenty for seven, even with the extra helpings. If you want, you can use regular cheddar or Gruyere cheese, but the sharp cheddar is really good.

Happy Thanksgiving, and may your guests be enveloped by the generosity and kindness in your home this year!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sunny Side Down

I went to hear journalist, author and all-around rabble-rouser Barbara Ehrenreich speak recently about her new book, "Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Undermined America."

Ehrenreich is probably best known for her 2001 book, "Nickel and Dimed," which recounts her undercover experiment trying to get by on the low-wage jobs that typically are done by this country's working poor.

The new book grew out of her diagnosis of breast cancer shortly after "Nickel and Dimed" was published. Immediately, Ehrenreich says, she was bombarded with "think positive" messages - something that grated on her as a natural pessimist.

"Bright-Sided" debunks the notion that positive thinking contributes to recovery from cancer or any other disease (studies show that cranky people recover just as often as perky people do) and also examines how the wave of positive thinking has affected the business world.

Ehrenreich shows how the banishing of bad news from the corporate board room contributed to last year's horrific financial meltdown. Top CEOs (who have no excuse for not knowing better) fell for the "we can do anything we try!" motivational mentality and kicked naysayers out of their ranks.

Risk managers - those "just say no" guys and gals who have usefully put the brakes on stupid risks and harebrained plans for years - were fired or shut down. They weren't positive enough, you see.

The same thing happens in all kinds of firms, when CEOs become so isolated or intimidating that no one on the staff dares to cross them, or warn that their new ideas aren't so great. In fact, it's the number one reason companies fail, according to Billion Dollar Lessons, by Paul B. Carroll and Chunka Mui (highly recommended).

This month's Atlantic cover story takes a similar theme, laying some of the meltdown at the feet of the evangelical "prosperity gospel" preachers and televangelists.

I'm such a natural optimist that I doubt I could think negative thoughts very long even if I tried. But I sympathize with those glass-half-empty folks who are made to believe that if their disease returns or they don't get that raise, it's their own fault. That's not positive at all - it's just plain cruel.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tough Luck

Employees have had it awfully rough this year.

Productivity rates shot through the roof for U.S. workers in the third quarter. That's proof positive that workers are being asked to do more with less.

Most employees are likely doing the tasks of two or three of their laid-off colleagues. Many of them have witnessed those layoffs (always a traumatic event - I've been there) and worry they'll be next.

Well, add to all that injury a new insult: Most employees of small firms also aren't getting raises, bonuses, gifts or holiday parties this year.

My Smart Answers column this week summarizes an American Express OPEN small business survey. It showed that entrepreneurial firms are going to give gifts to their customers this year - as they did last year - but fewer of them will reward employees.

As I said in the interview, I understand that customer gifts are a marketing expense that business owners need to make, but it just seems sad to think that employees will end the year with more bad news.

I applaud the employers who mail nice cards to their customers this year and save a little money for employee bonuses (they don't have to be huge) or a nice holiday party. If your workers have stuck with you through this awful year, don't they deserve some special thanks?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Popping Your Elevator Intro

My Smart Answers podcast this week features Sam Horn.

She's the marketing guru I blogged about earlier this month.

In the interview, Sam lays out some terrific advice on a marketing opportunity that all of us get daily - and most of us squander just as often.

I won't give it all away, but it has to do with your response to that common question, "So, what kind of work do you do?"

I'm just as guilty as anyone of mumbling a half-baked response, but Sam inspired me to do better. In fact, I came up with a pretty good question (Sam advises that you answer the question with a question of your own) and tried it out over the weekend.

Just as Sam predicted, I got one of those "ah-ha!" moments in reply. Very nice technique - check it out!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Catching Up

The weather is cooling off, my holiday decorations are starting to emerge from the garage and last weekend we spotted our first Christmas commercial on TV.

All this evidence, of course, leads to the inevitable conclusion that it's almost ... year-end tax planning time! Woo-hoo!

Yes, this is the kind of thing that gets the tingles going when you live and breathe small business. In my Smart Answers column last week, I also wrote about public relations versus social media marketing.

Today's column might be a tad more controversial - truly.

My editor asked me to take a look at the business of medical marijuana now that the Obama Administration has announced it will cease raids on dispensaries operating legally. It was quite an experience interviewing many of the "legendary" cannabis activists of the past couple of decades.

And they say that business writing is dull. Tsk, tsk.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Exciting News

I'm incredibly proud and excited to announce that my BusinessWeek "Smart Answers" podcast won a gold medal today at the 2009 Digital Azbee Awards in San Francisco.

The awards are given out by the American Society of Business Publication Editors. My show won for best podcast in the "podcast how-to" category. The BusinessWeek SmallBiz page, where my column appears twice weekly, also took gold for best microsite/special section.

Very cool and a nice way to start the weekend!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

We're All in This ...

Togetherness is the hot marketing concept of 2009, according to a new survey.

My long-time source Eric Swartz, president of Tagline Guru, surveyed 150 corporate taglines that debuted in 2009.

He lists the top 10 words from those taglines.

Here's the takeaway:

Although the impact of “innovation” has been diminished from overuse, and words like “new” and “more” are typical of jaunty sales jargon, concepts such as “together,” “you,” “imagine,” and “future” paint a picture that is decidedly more intimate, inclusive, and optimistic.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


I waited a few minutes to introduce myself to Sam Horn at a conference last week.

The man in front of me kept apologizing, but he couldn't tear himself away from Sam. When their conversation was over, he hugged her and gave her a kiss.

Well! What was it about this prolific author and marketing/branding guru that inspired such devotion?

I said hi and told Sam I'd like to have her guest on my podcast sometime soon. She graciously agreed and then she did something I've rarely seen. Instead of telling me all about herself and her books and her work and her speaking business - like most people do - she started asking about ... ME.

"You're a writer, you must have a book in mind," she said, smiling. Well ... I had to admit that like most writers I did have some dormant aspirations in that direction.

Sam smiled again, flipped over the notebook she was holding, and started scribbling in it. "What do think you'd write a book about?" "What's been your most popular column?" "What's another column that got a lot of feedback and attention?"

Before I knew it, Sam showed me what she had been writing as we talked. Not only did she have a book cover sketched out (with my name on it!) she also had a catchy title and an idea for turning the book into a series.

All this in less than five minutes. Wow!

Both of us were on a five-minute pitch panel later that day, an event where would-be entrepreneurs had one minute to present their business ideas and four of us four judges had one minute to comment, question and give advice. Sam was similarly helpful and expansive in that arena.

Needless to say, I was thoroughly impressed. For many years, I've been telling entrepreneurs to give, not sell. Make their business all about listening and meeting clients needs.

But I've only rarely seen people truly embody that advice so thoroughly and charmingly. Sam is the genuine article.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Happy Entrepreneurs

The times are tough.
Consumer confidence keeps falling.
Our retirement accounts are hollow shells of their old selves.

And yet, people who work for themselves don't seem to regret it for a moment.

At least, not according to a survey released this week by business networking site and a professor from the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business.

The survey asked nearly 1,000 small business owners a variety of questions about their companies and the challenges they face. They found:

Passion and values continue to be the leading motivations for starting a business. Nearly one-third of respondents said the most important reason for starting their business was that they wanted to do something they enjoy. Another 25% cited the fact that they did not want to work for someone else. And, while only 60% of the respondents said they were satisfied with the performance of their business, 91% claim they are satisfied with their decision to work for themselves.

I know a lot of entrepreneurs and I'd say that sounds pretty familiar. And you can count me on in on that, too.