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January 2009

Interpersonal communication in a digital age

In his Jan. 26 post, fellow blogger Cory Garrison wrote about his recent experience of receiving aBlog personalized note.

“E-mail, though convenient, is absolutely no substitute for a personalized handwritten note,” Garrison wrote.

Does the digital age in which we live, allowing human beings to communicate with so many people, so readily, actually help or hinder the development of relationships?

Though there has been much discourse on the subject during the last several years, I’ve yet to form a solid opinion on the subject, and can empathize with both schools of thought.

And though I’m not ready to fully weigh in on the matter, here are a few things I’ve been considering.

  • For those of us old enough to remember a time before the Internet, how does the way we form and build relationships differ from the past?
  • Has the advent of the World Wide Web and mobile connectivity, which gives us more opportunities to connect with others on many different levels, bolstered interpersonal communication or somehow cheapened it?
  • Have we grown too dependent on cellular phones and e-mail to communicate with others? And do these devices discourage people from taking the time to really think through what they may want to say or write? (I once heard that whenever Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter, he would set it on his desk at night and sleep before deciding whether to mail it off in the morning).
  • Do we become dismayed when we don’t receive an immediate response to an e-mail, a text message or a voicemail? In other words, do these instruments lend themselves to a desire to be instantly gratified, hampering the virtue of patience?
  • How do social media applications such as Facebook and Twitter lend themselves to the phenomenon? Does our ability to continually view the tweets and status updates of our “followers” and “friends” everyday somehow make us feel justified or less inclined to contact them through traditional means?

Like many people, I don’t have a home phone anymore. Instead, I rely on my cell and can’t imagine going a day without it. I also send and receive countless e-mails everyday.

I was well into my twenties before ever having either instrument.

I also enjoy using my Facebook page as it allows me to interact and keep up to speed with what’s going on in the lives of friends and associates who I don’t get to spend as much time with as I would like.

I have no doubt about the usefulness and necessity of these means of communication. In fact, as the online editor of a publishing company, I use them constantly in the course of my work, which, by the way, brings a great deal of fulfillment into my life.

And I’m certain they are here to stay.

“It’s unfortunate, but as technology grows so does the distance between us as professionals. Between email, cell phones, text messaging and social media we seem to have forgotten the art of writing,” Garrison wrote.

And before reading his post last week, I penned a letter on stationary for the first time in many months, with the exception of a handful of greeting cards, and hand delivered it.

And it felt great.

As society’s dependence on these tools continues to grow and evolve, where do you fit into the spectrum?

-Todd Razor

Is your headline catching anything?

35309290 Print advertising has been a staple of most marketing efforts for years. And for good reason – they work when done well.

There are many elements of a successful ad, print or otherwise.  But none is more important than the headline. 

The headline is the lure.  It's out there, snaking through the water -- trying to entice someone to take a nibble.  If they don't hit on your headline, you've lost them.  The headline's job is not to sell anything.  It's simply to get the person to actually read the ad.

So how do you make sure that your headline hooks their attention? 

~ Use the headline to flag your prospect: Good news for people who toss and turn all night!

~ Offer a benefit in the headline: Whiter teeth. Fresher Breath. And the attention of that new guy in class.

~ Also, don’t be afraid of long headlines. Toro did some research on their print ads and found that headlines with 20+ words sold 20 percent better than their shorter counterparts. If you need the extra words to make your point – use them.  But...make sure you need them.

~ Don't try to sell in the headline.  You want to pique their interest enough that they're keep reading:  Do you know why French men are renowned as lovers?

Naturally, the headline is just part of what makes a good ad. But, if it doesn't do its job…odds are the rest of your ad isn’t going to get read at all.

So, choose your words carefully!


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Do You Need a Patent?

Ask a patent attorney whether you need a patent and he or she will likely stare at you like you just askedBlog them if they need a new Jet Ski. Despite possessing a wealth of knowledge about what patents are and what they do, most patent attorneys simply do not have enough information to determine if a patent is right for you. A patent that may be of great value to you, may be of little or no value to someone else. How do you tell?

Self-described "Recovering Patent Lawyer," Jackie Hutter, has just posted an insightful SlideShare presentation addressing exactly this question  In addition to providing insightful tips on traits to look for in a good patent attorney, Jackie guides you through the "To patent or not to patent" decision-making process.

When should you pursue a patent? Jackie suggests looking for these three factors:

1) Your invention has significant business value;
2) Competitors will likely copy it; and
3) You have the resources to obtain and defend your patent.

When should you hold off on a patent? Look for these factors:

1) Your idea is not associated with an existing business model;
2) You do not understand the market application of your idea; and
3) You cannot invest the resources necessary to obtain and protect the patent.

Even if the foregoing three factors are present, that is not to say you should never pursue a patent on your invention. You may just want to consider regrouping until you have addressed these issues.

The bottom line is that while patents can be a valuable part of nearly any business plan, they are no pot of gold. Patents do not make money on their own; it is always the businesses developed around the patented invention that makes the money. Trying to profit from a naked idea, or even a naked patent is a fools errand. Unless you have a business model attached to your invention, it is very unlikely that your patent will ever generate enough revenue to pay for itself.

Brett Trout

Streaming Videos @ Work: Is it a Generational Issue?

Last Wednesday I had a conversation with a number of friends over the previous day'sMedia
Inauguration festivities. The conversation focused on the historic nature of it, akin to one of those "where were you when..." moments. A few of my friends were livid because they were not allowed to watch it on their computers at work.

I posted on my Twitter & Facebook status, a question on the fairness of this policy and the response comments starting flowing. It was interesting to see the range of comments that I received especially considering the political range of friends I have spanning from long time conservative financial brokers to union organizers.  Though the conversation turned into an employer expectation/productivity vs. employee rights/flexibility, and then later a conservative vs. liberal ideology, I could not help but wonder if it was more of a generational issue?

Then, as if someone was thinking the same thing, I came across this article related to IT issues in the workplace. Essentially many Millennials are ignoring IT usage policies and CIOs and other managers are having to lay the smack down. In one report 90 percent of Gen Y workers have suffered consequences for bypassing the IT policies. (and this was in Canada!)

Another close friend of mind had secretly learned that her company had the technology and capability to allow people to work from home, but the management team decided against it, opining "it is counterproductive in building relationships with co-workers." I'm not sure I agree. (This place has also cut back on the number of interoffice social & charitable events they do as well.)

I had a followup conversation with a Millennial IT security guy (who has a side Web development business) at large company in town (who recently laid off a bunch of folks) to discuss this issue further. His take: "It is just too cost prohibitive for everyone to use the technology that's available", and his company was "concerned about the lost of proprietary info." I get that, but it also left me with a number of questions:

1. What good is having the technology if it can't be used?

2. If the technology can't be used, should an alternative be provided?

3. Even without the growth of social media, hasn't proprietary info been at risk?

4. Are Millennials being consulted when these decisions are being discuss. Should they?

An Old School Tool

I wasn’t really sure what to do with it. Something I barely recognized arrived in the mailbox at my office last Friday. I don’t mean my “inbox.” I’m talking the mailbox. An envelope delivered by a United States Postal employee. It was addressed to me and hand written in ink.

A few days before this I had a meeting with Scott Jarvis, Vice President of Retail Banking at West Bank, Inc. After our meeting Scott thought enough of our time together that he took the time to write a hand written note expressing his gratitude to me for taking the time to meet.
Quill
I meet with people constantly. It’s what I do. I’m either interviewing a candidate to fill a position for my client, meeting with clients, or speaking to people at networking events. I always try to write a handwritten note to follow up. I love to receive a personalized note myself.

E-mail, though convenient, is absolutely no substitute for a personalized handwritten note. It’s unfortunate but as technology grows, so does the distance between us as professionals. Between email, cell phones, text messaging and social media we seem to have forgotten the art of writing.

It’s hard to argue that personalized notes are not as common as they used to be. Because of this they stand out and touch the reader in a way no other form of communication does. It’s tangible and personal. It doesn’t interrupt the reader at an inopportune time.

Take a gander at what Lydia Ramsey, a business etiquette expert, lists her keys to writing effective handwritten business notes.

What do you do to follow up with your associates and clients after significant meetings?

More on Twitter and the Workplace

Several months ago Iowa Patent and Cyber law guru Brett Trout (Twitter:  @BrettTrout) introduced me toTwitter Twitter. Twitter is a social media site where people write "Tweets" in 140 characters or less. It is also known as micro-blogging. I actually don't think its creators initially envisioned Twitter as a business application but it is certainly has evolved into a very effective business tool.  Several of the authors of IowaBiz have their own Twitter pages.


I'll admit, my gravitation toward Twitter has been very slow. While I immediately saw the benefits with my own blog, it took me much more time to see the benefits of Twitter for the business person. Until recently there were many occasions when I thought of ditching the exercise. At times the "noise" on Twitter can be a bit overwhelming and it is tough for me to stay connected with it during the work day. But some things occurred over the past several months that demonstrate great promise for my continued use of Twitter:

  1. There is a very active Twitter community in Des Moines. (See dmtweetup.org).  I have met several interesting and motivated individuals through this very diverse group. Some are interested in business while others are not, but I have learned about people and our community from all. Members of this group have met for roundtable discussions and also have planned business seminars and other events. Heck, even a dmtweetup with @ChuckGrassley has been scheduled.
  2. A site called LexTweet popped up for lawyers and has made it much easier to identify and follow lawyers from around the country. This is important not only for networking purposes but also from an educational standpoint. Many of these lawyers post on important topics that keep me on the forefront of what is happening with cases throughout the country. Perhaps there is a similar site in your industry. If not, start one.
  3. I had the opportunity to meet and talk with one of the real leaders in the legal social media network, @MattHomann. Without Twitter it is highly unlikely I would have learned Matt was in town for a project and I would have missed out on the opportunity to meet with him. The ability to connect with people through Twitter is downright amazing! 
  4. Added bonus:  @LanceArmstrong started on Twitter. He's actually pretty fun to follow as he returns from retirement. 
In my blog post, The Workplace is All a Twitter, I discussed the fact that someone from YOUR company is probably already on Twitter and/or other social networking sites regularly.  I also warned that if you don't define how your employees use Twitter, they will define it for you.  It's better to get on board before it's too late. 

I strongly suggest that employers meet with employees to discuss potential issues regarding Twitter use. Remind employees how their Tweets could impact your business, both positively and negatively. This past week a story of an employee who Tweeted about the town of Memphis, home of his company's major client FedEx, touched off a firestorm of controversy. One can debate whether it deserved the amount of attention it received but it is tough to deny the incident reflected poorly on the employee and his employer. After all, the client's representatives took umbrage with the Tweet.  You don't want to be THAT company.

And if you are an employee, I would think twice about publishing negative Tweets about your employer. I think you will find that more and more employers will monitor Twitter and other social networking sites. You don't want to be THE employee whose career ends in one Tweet. Remember, be professional. It may be social networking and at times you will be off the clock. But people are watching you all the time.
    
P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @RushNigut
 

'Smart Power' is Smart, and Powerful

If you have power, you can always use it.

It's human nature to want to resort to powerPower sometimes...we saw that model a lot as kids. Parents use power because they're bigger, and they can. In the workplace, we're used to seeing managers resort to discipline way too early sometimes. We're even tempted ourselves to quickly bring down the power of the law on a neighbor who lets their dog use our yard to do its business.

Whether it's at home, work, our neighborhoods, nationally or internationally -- the secret is:  don't start with power.

At her confirmation hearing on Jan. 13, Sen. Clinton declared: “We must use what has been called 'smart power', the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural—picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation”.

David Crane of Syracuse University College of Law talks about Hillary Clinton's use of that term and the message it sends about the Obama administration's return to diplomacy. He credits Theodore Roosevelt with first using that phrase -- smart power -- taken from a West African proverb -- in one of his turn of the century speeches.

Clinton's use of that term seems to be saying, "We are a powerful nation. We can always use power. But we aren't going to start with power. We're going to consider all the tools in our toolbox when we run into a difficult or crisis situation. We're not going to automatically pull out the sledge hammer and start swinging."

That same kind of "smart power" mindset is critical if a manager to going to be successful in the workplace. Helping someone see the natural consequences of their behavior, performance, or results is much more likely to get them back on track and sustain their long-term commitment than threatening to dock their pay. Imposed consequences, like docking someone's pay:

  • damage trust and respect for the leader
  • motivate resistance
  • aren't sustainable, and
  • make the leader look mean-spirited and desperate

Can you relate to using "dumb power" in the heat of the moment and later saying to yourself, "What was I thinking? There must have been something I could have tried first, before resorting to that!"

Now, let's not be naive. Sometimes managers have to impose serious consequences when nothing else seems to work...and sometimes nations have to take military action.

Remember, there's a big difference between compliance and commitment. Smart power is about getting commitment; using force and punishment is about getting compliance.

What manager would not want his team's commitment rather than their obedience? It's just smart.

Teaching Employees the Business

3181807_thlNow is the time to teach all of your employees the business.  They need to understand the numbers and how they relate to sales, profits, cash and share value.  With the dire economic conditions you need everyone focused on the business, not just the management team.   If your employees understand the business, then they are better prepared to face tough decisions and not be surprised by them.

There have been and there will continue to be, hundreds of thousands of employee that will be laid off completely surprised and with little or no explanation of why, other then business is bad.  How would you like to be one these lucky people?

If your employees do not understand the business, then you are ignoring the knowledge capital that exists within your employees.  I promise you that if employees understand the business, you will see a huge influx of new and innovative ways to improve your business.  If you were dying, would you rather have 100 doctors working on your diagnosis or just three or four? 

I personally lead a company where the employees were taught the business.  Once that happened, the business saw significant growth in sales, profits, and share value.  Tough decisions were still made, but the employees were not freaked out because they understood the business.  During one tough decision, people volunteered on their own to be laid off to preserve other' employees jobs and help the business!

Jack Stack the CEO of SRC Holdings in Springfield, MO has written a book that relates to teaching employees the business -  "The Great Game of Business".  Here are the facts.  If you invested $10,000 in 1983 when SRC was founded during tough economic times, it would be worth $23,400,000 today.  SRC taught employees the business from day one, and they continue to do so today - 26 years of it.

If this post seems ridiculous, if you do not believe me, then at least take the time to read Jack Stack's book.  Learn the lessons from a real life business stor

    

Enterprise Architecture: another component to an agile and flexible enterprise

I've been speaking a lot lately about the importance of IT governance.  Although IT governance is19223040 critical to the success of having a flexible and agile enterprise, having an overarching enterprise architecture to show how all the components of the enterprise are related and to guide the decisions that affect IT is just as important.

Now I'm sure that most of you have an enterprise architecture in place, but for those of you who don't, I'll give you my two cents.  The essence of an enterprise architecture is that it lays out how information and IT enable the realization of the enterprise strategy, and it provides a framework for supporting and automating business processes using IT capabilities.  Together with the IT strategic planning process, an enterprise architecture helps align IT initiatives more effectively with your strategic business imperatives.  It identifies both the current state of the enterprise and the future desired state, and it enables business and IT managers, including the governance team, to see how the enterprise can transform itself in stages from the current state to the envisioned future state.

I've seen some clients approach enterprise architecture as something that is done and 'set and forget'...big mistake.  An enterprise architecture is not simply a static document.  It is a dynamic, disciplined, ongoing process.  Its central focus is on evolving the key operational processes of the enterprise (the enterprise business architecture) and the information systems that support them (the enterprise IT architecture).

By describing the essential, overall design of these architectures as a holistic "system of systems" and by providing the context, guidance and discipline  for the development of the more detailed, system- and service-specific architectures, an enterprise architecture provides a way to translate between business needs and IT capabilities.  It shows how the business needs are to be met by the enterprise's information systems and the information services they provide, thereby creating a bridge that ensures alignment of business and IT.

Taking a holistic architectural view of the enterprise helps strike an effective balance across all business and IT imperatives, with a particular emphasis on agility. It helps planners see how the enterprise currently works, and how it could and should work in the future.

  • The strategy provides the overall direction (vision, goals/objectives, and measures) for the enterprise and the IT capability, while the architecture describes the operational and information systems as they are, and as they should be to realize the strategy.
  • The IT investment planning aspect of strategic planning (often referred to as project-portfolio management) uses the architecture to identify initiatives with high strategic value and acceptable risk and adds them to a committed plan of record.
  • Your program management office then drives execution of the initiatives in the plan of record, with reviews against the architecture at appropriate points in the initiatives’ life cycles.

As long as I can remember, enterprise architecture has long been promoted as a key tool in bridging the gap between business and IT. But even within the last few years, the practice of enterprise architecture had failed to deliver on a lot of the hype, causing many to lose interest. Several factors have combined to once again bring enterprise architecture to the forefront again:

  • The discipline of enterprise architecture has matured, learning from past mistakes of over-reaching, not paying enough attention to benefits vs. costs, and focusing too much on IT considerations.
  • The costs to operate and maintain information systems have continued to grow, providing a large payback for architecture-led efforts to rationalize processes and consolidate systems.
  • Architecture methods and tools have advanced significantly, including improvements in modeling of business strategies, processes and metrics, and relating them to IT capabilities.
  • Many partial models and other architectural elements are widely available, greatly lowering costs and significantly improving the ability to provide automated, flexible, real-time linkages between enterprises.

So, to wrap up this up, when properly envisioned and implemented, an enterprise architecture is a fundamental tool that anticipates future needs and enables you to implement change rapidly in response to changing business priorities.

It enables your IT organization to respond rapidly to changes in business strategy, processes and environment. It enables your business units to realize their critical business goals and strategies by providing a framework that supports all the processes, information, and IT systems that those goals and strategies require.

What do you and Warren Buffett have in common?

TEFFEN, ISRAEL - SEPTEMBER 18: American billio...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Your calendar and your clock.

That's right. 

Warren's calendar and clock are exactly the same as yours.

Even with billions... Warren can't buy more months in a year or more hours in a day.

Yup... Time is the world's even playing field.

And although we all get the same amount, everyone seems to want more.

But since we can't get more... the key is to spend it more effectively.

Now, in today's world, there are some options to help with this.

As some of us think about becoming more effective with our time... we dream of hiring help... maybe a real or virtual assistant (ala Tim Ferris's 4-hour Work Week).  Some of us want to automate.  You know... go high tech with a new electronic gadget or new freaky cool scheduling software.

All of that is fine, but I suggest starting this process with a taking a "snap shot."

That's right. 

Start by figuring out where your time is currently going.  That will enable you to figure out how to improve.

Get started by downloading this simple time tracking grid that I use with some of my coaching clientsDownload Kick Coaching - Time Tracking Sheet

Now... I can imagine that some of you are saying... "Hold on.  I have my planner.  I know where I am spending my time."

Yes, you do.  However, if you are like most people, your daily calendar shows you where you were supposed to spend your time, or where you wanted to spend your time, but it won't give you the full picture. 

This grid allows you to go deeper.

It allows you to figure out EXACTLY where you are spending your time... minute by minute.

It will help you to track the scheduled meetings as well as the impromptu chats interruptions and Internet surfs.

Yup, this grid will give you a more accurate snap shot of how you spend each day.

I know... I know... this is a scary thought for some... but this is the only way for you to come up with a more effective plan to move towards the D.D.A.E. of more effective time management!  (That's figuring out what you can DO, DELEGATE, AUTOMATE or ELIMINATE!)

Give it a try. 

And as you do, don't filter.  Don't try to pretty it up.  If you lose track of time and spend 15 minutes talking to a friend... write it down.  If you wind up doing something off task... track it. 

(NOTE: You'll need to come up with abbreviations for things.  There's not a lot of space to write and that's intentional.  Just develop a key that will allow you to jot things down and record them, without feeling like you need to write a novel each time!)

Then, in my next post, I'll offer some solutions that will help you spend that time more effectively by figuring out your "D.D.A.E. Equation!"

Okay... start tracking that time... and then... next time... we'll figure out how to do more of what you want and need to do... and less of the rest!

By the way, it probably took you about three minutes to read this... and I'm hoping you thought it was time well spent!

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Are you managing your Workers' Compensation?

Head injury Most business owners are aware that they must carry Workers Compensation for their employees. However, many business owners are not very familiar with what workers compensation actually covers.

The Workers’ Compensation law requires most employers to provide benefits to eligible employees who have injuries arising out of and in the course of employment.

So who can be exempt?

  • Proprietors (independent contractors)
  • Limited liability company members and partners

These individuals are not considered employees but may elect to be covered by purchasing a valid workers’ compensation insurance policy specifically including the proprietor or partner.


What types of benefits are covered?

  • Medical Benefits - The law provides for the payment of all reasonable and necessary medical care incurred to treat the injury. This includes reasonably necessary transportation expenses.

  • Disability Benefits – Lost wages due to a work related injury

Things you may not know

There are time limitations on reporting claims -  If an employee is injured during the course of employment, the law provides that the employer must have notice or knowledge of an alleged injury within 90 days of its occurrence. If not, benefits may be denied.

An employer’s first report of injury must be filed with the workers' compensation commissioner when an employee alleges an injury arising out of and in the course of employment, which results in time lost from work of more than three days, permanent injury or death. The report is to be filed with the workers' compensation commissioner within four days of notice or knowledge of such alleged injury.

There is a Statute of Limitations - If within two years from the occurrence of the injury the employee does not receive Iowa weekly workers’ compensation benefits or file an application for arbitration, benefits may be denied.

If Iowa weekly workers’ compensation benefits have been paid, the employee has three years from the last payment of weekly benefits to receive additional benefits or file an action before the workers' compensation commissioner. If not filed within the three-year period, the benefits may be denied. This statute of limitation does not apply to medical expenses reasonably necessary to treat the injury.

So what can you do to help manage your Workers Compensation:

  1. Improve your workplace safety: have a formal safety handbook and hold regular safety meetings
  2. Inspect your equipment and replace or fix items that need repair.
  3. Make sure your employees are wearing appropriate shoes, clothing, hats and glasses.
  4. Implement a health program. Your employees can reduce their risk of injury if they are healthy and exercise regularly. Have an early return to work program in place.

Last, take advantage of the help offered by your insurance carrier.  Many of the carriers I work with have an abundant of resources available for their customers to use or purchase.

If you are a business owner that needs guidance, there are carriers that have a designated loss control person specifically available that can help you formulate some of these plans. This person can physically come out to your business, inspect your premises and help you get the ball rolling.

By being proactive instead of reactive you can help control the costs of your insurance premium. Feel free to contact me with any questions you may have

The PM Recruiter: An Interview with Kristin Solberg (Part 2)

SolbergKristin We complete our interview with Kristin Solberg today.  As I mentioned in my previous post, Kristin is a top recruiter for consulting firm Genesis 10.  In her role, she has been exposed to hundreds of project managers, and finding the correct fit among client, consultant, and project is a daunting task.  I've known Kristin for years, and her judgment and people skills are unparalleled.  In this part of the interview, we focus on some of the current business landscape challenges and how Kristin addresses them:

Kristin, what are some of your favorite interview questions when talking with a project manager?

When I’m certain they are technically qualified to be a PM, these are my top three open ended questions:

    1. How do you define a ‘successful’ project?  I’m looking for something beyond the PMI party line of finishing a project “on time, on scope, on budget.”  A good answer includes a discussion about delivering the required business value.  Bonus points if they mention an experience when they recommend a project be cancelled because it was no longer viable.

    2. What are the top three ‘value adds’ project managers should provide to a project team? Many acceptable answers, but I’m looking for 1) managing risk 2) removing obstacles for the team 3) understanding and enabling team member strengths

    3. Describe your approach to project leadership and managing teams.  Is it more important to lead or manage?  Give me an example when your approach was more effective than what the typical project manager might have done.  I ask these questions to assess the PM's fit for a specific project and/or organization.

I'm glad you mentioned adding value, because it is certainly on everybody's mind these days.  In our lean economic market right now, how have your job responsibilities evolved to continue to add value?


The individuals that you present to the client have to be a perfect fit.  They have to have the right balance of technical fit as well as cultural.  With the competition that is out on the market it is not enough to have similar experience, they are looking for an individual that have the precise background for their project. The project manager that will secure the position is the individual that can sell themselves

What “after the sale” activities do you do for the project manager and for the client to ensure continued success?

Our goal is to follow-up with both parties within a two week window of starting a project and to have continued contact.  If a client or project manager is having difficulties we want to be able to recover the situation sooner than later.  We have a large network of contacts that we can reach out to for support. As in most situations, communication is key.

Well put, Kristin.  Thank you again for taking the time to talk to me.  For those of you out there looking to hire or contract with a talented project manager, Kristin and the folks at Genesis 10 would be a great first stop.

Presentation is Everything

Taylor engagement It was the moment that every father dreads. My wife and I sat together in our living room with our daughter's boyfriend. He had invited himself over for dinner and we were pretty sure he was going to ask our permission to pop the big question. He was nervous. There were several periods of silence. He then began to stutter and stammer in an attempt to bring up the subject of engagement. At least, that's what we thought he was trying to say. He spoke as if a dentist had recently shot his mouth full of Novocaine. It wasn't going well.

Then, out of the blue, he asks, "Can I use your bathroom?"

My wife and I stared at each other in disbelief as the young man rocketed to the bathroom. I was convinced that he was tossing his cookies in there. However, I was proved wrong a few minutes later when he returned from the bathroom. He had changed clothes and was now dressed in his best attire. He was also carrying his laptop.

"I'm really nervous, and I'm not doing a great job of getting this out," he said, laying his laptop on the coffee table and propping it open. "So, I've put together a little presentation."

And put together a presentation, he did. There were several slides providing visual and historical evidence of their love for each other. There were charts and graphs quantifying their relationship growth (in "love units"). He even worked in a Q&A slide.

To make a long story short, we did give the young man permission (we've seen this coming) and my daughter is now engaged.

My future son-in-law provided me with a great reminder. Whether you're delivering a sales pitch to a lead, trying to provide customer service to an angry customer, or delivering a presentation to prospective in-laws, getting the desired results often hinges on the quality of the presentation.

Is a sponsored tweetup really a tweetup?

This afternoon on Twitter (a micro-blogging social network populated by many people here in Des Moines) a massive discussion erupted surrounding the nature of how our local tweetups are organized. Feel free to follow the conversation by tracking the #dmtweetup hashtag here.

First, let's start with some definitions. Tweetups, simply put, are meetups for Twitter users. These events happen in cities all over the world, and are meant to be decentralized and self-organizing. By that definition, anybody on Twitter can call for a tweetup, and there is no clear "leader." Common themes are: meeting new friends, cocktails, good conversation, and a little bit of networking on the side.

3181046685_1bb9e3e63f
Photo via lindsayrees on Flickr: Tweeps gather at Raccoon River for a Des Moines Tweetup. 

Since February 2008 in Des Moines, tweetups have become quite popular. The last two events (one organized by Impromptu Studio in November, and one by Leslie Berg in December) have pulled 90+ people each. As this group grows in numbers and influence, local companies and venues have shown interest in connecting with the community. Recent sponsors of tweetups and Twitter-related events have been SmartyPig.com, Paragon IT Pros, Panchero's, Olde Main Brewing, Mars Cafe, Impromptu Studio and Technology Association of Iowa. (Am I leaving anyone out?)

The definition of sponsorship is that these companies provided booze, food, a venue, or all three things.

Some facts: Tweetups were born from discussions between myself, Andy Brudtkuhl, and a couple of others in the fall of 2007 as a way to connect Des Moines' talented (but at the time disconnected) creative class. As things evolved, Andy and I were seen as "heads" of this Twitter community. When a local business showed interest in getting involved, they often reached out to us first, and we helped steer them on how to best engage the community.

Today, Andy and I were criticized for serving as a "chokepoint" for businesses trying to connect with the Des Moines Twitter community, and legitimizing companies who might approach it in the wrong way. A monetization discussion also came up: whether or not we profited from organizing any of these events.

Full disclosure: Andy has not made any money from advising companies on how to approach a tweetup sponsorship. My company (Lava Row) has made money in one instance: the strategy and scripting of the September 2008 SmartyPig digital treasure hunt as a paid project.

IowaBiz.com is not a channel for the emotion and personal biases of today's debate. We'll leave that on Twitter. So let's just focus on othe core theme that came up today: Can tweetups - a self-organizing event by nature - still be a tweetup with a sponsor?

The opinions differ wildly, and I wanted to share a few of them below:

@aroger my 2 cents, #dmtweetup should be inspired, organized, and promoted by the community, THEN a sponser can add value

@scottrocketship Businesses should come to us, the community, not someone or someone's in particular. Let us disagree WITH them, publicly.

@amyraelle for what it's worth, i appreciate anyone who plans events for me .... sponsors or no.

@paragonitpros We had a blast at the #dmtweetup we sponsored (as in bought a round) in September. No agenda, other than to meet tweeps.

@clairecelsi I've always been of the mind that Tweetup sponsors are just trying to contribute to the success of the event, not hard sell.

@jensenrf sure you (businesses) got to go to someone but this is dmtweetup.org and not lavarow. Community should feel cheated if not in the loop. Perception.


One of the better suggestions to come out of today's debate was Neil Roberts' idea of disclosing exactly who is calling for the tweetup within the event details on Upcoming.org. Was it a member of the Twitter community, or a business? There's another idea floating around of a video interview with multiple Des Moines tweeps containing their practical advice on what makes a successful sponsored tweetup. This would serve as an educational "howto" for local businesses.

Now it's your turn to chime in below, if you haven't already. Your perspective is always welcome here at IowaBiz.com.

It's 1099 time.

What's $50 multiplied by the number of names onTax your vendor list?  If it's a bigger number than you care to lose, then it's time to get serious about getting your 1099s out.  $50 is the standard IRS penalty for failing to issue a required 1099.

Businesses - whether incorporated or not -- need to send a 1099-MISC to vendors and contractors to whom you paid $600 or more during 2008.  The only exceptions are for payments corporate vendors, and LLCs are not normally "corporations" for this purpose.  That means you should send anybody else - repairmen, lawyers, consultants, even accountants - a 1099 by the end of this month.  You have until the end of February to get the information to the IRS.

More than one business has found itself embarrassed at 1099 time because they didn't bother to get tax-reporting information from their vendors before paying them.  Some vendors don't like to provide this information, as if (perish the thought) they intended not to report their income to the IRS.  You don't have much leverage to get the information once you've made the payment.

Information reporting can apply to more than just payments to contractors.  You have to report payments of interest to non-corporate lenders, for example.  You can click here for a comprehensive list of 1099 reporting requirements.

Also, keep in mind that the IRS often requires electronic filing of 1099s, and they will impose the $50 fine if paper 1099s are filed when electronic reporting is called for.

It's wise to insist that every new vendor supply you with a completed Form W-9 before you hire them.  It makes no sense to risk IRS penalties to help someone else skip out on taxes.

A marketing resolution

86817318 Let’s face it.  We already know that you are not going to get everything done, in terms of marketing that you should or you want to. 

I know…hardly a jolly way to start the year.  But that’s our reality.  We’ll never get to it all.  So rather than lament about what we aren’t going to get to…let’s focus on what absolutely needs to be done.

By the end of next week, identify the one thing you could do that would have the most significant long-term impact on your business in 2009. 

Is it finally defining and knowing your brand?  Is it creating a customer retention program?  It is launching a new initiative?  Whatever it is…commit to getting it done.

  • Write a very simple outline of what steps needs to get done
  • Create a calendar that corresponds to your outline
  • Be accountable.  Tell your team your boss, your customers…whoever you know will hold you accountable to getting it done

Then, roll up your sleeves and get to work.  To add some accountability – e-mail me your most important marketing goal for 2009 and we’ll toss your name in a drawing for a free copy of my book 99.3 Random Acts of Marketing.

Do not ignore this one.  You’ll be amazed at how good you feel one you get this major goal accomplished!


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The wave of the future?

If you have turned on almost any television station in recent months, including Primetime networks like NBC or a cable channel, you’ve likely heard phrases such as “The wireless revolution continues” or “Come join us” and “America’s largest 3G network.” Blog

The evolution of social media applications does continue, and continues to grow. And I’m intrigued by just how much attention giant corporations are focusing on the phenomenon.

The lingo is starting to suggest that mobile technology is the wave of the future, which is probably no big news to the Internet-savvy folks that follow this site and publishing companies around the globe. But today I found myself today staring at my cell phone and couldn’t help but think about James. T. Kirk and the starship Enterprise; “a bold new world” where no one has gone before.

Sound far fetched?  Perhaps. But I didn’t purchase my first cell phone until I was well into my 20s and even then I remember thinking that it would have a positive affect on the way that I interact with people.

And honestly, I don’t think that even then I could have predicted or imagined the doors that the technological advancements of the last ten years or so have altered the way people – especially young professionals – interact with one another in society.

Forget the buzz words. And maybe this is merely a rant. But the way that businesses, specifically large-scale cellular phone companies, such as Sprint, Verizon, Apple and others, have and are attempting to adapt and market products revolving around the advent of social media and the World Wide Web is astounding to me.

I remember clearly, back in the early ’90, my friend’s car phone: A unit that by today’s standards would be considered a monstrous and overbearing.

Please take this post as an introduction to my view regarding the ongoing evolution of social-media, mobile-connectivity and how we, as humans, interact with one another in the world known as online publishing.

More to come.

See you in the news!

- Todd Razor

Six Things Your Company Needs to Know About Internet Law

Few companies know as much as they should about Internet law. Every company runs across its share of scammers, disgruntled employees and lawsuits. How often a company sidesteps trouble and how often a company gets left holding the bag, often comes down to which side knows more about the laws affecting the Internet and which side has taken steps to use these laws to its advantage. Here are a few Internet legal basics that take many companies by surprise:


1) Information is the Key. The more you know about internet law the less likely you are to get scammed. Scammers are not stupid; they actually know more about Internet law than most of the companies they scam. They pick the lowest hanging fruit first. If they try to scam your company and fail, they will likely search for easier prey. If they scam you once however, not only will they scam your company again, but they may sell your information to other scammers as an easy mark.

2) "Fair Use" Rarely Applies. Unless you have a written contract giving you the right to use a photograph, a graphic design or a piece of writing, there is a good chance you are committing copyright infringement by using the work. Nine times out of ten you may get away with it. That tenth time, however, is going to make you understand why the other nine times were simply not worth it. If you are dealing with an independent contractor for design services, make sure you get an assignment of the work AND an indemnification for infringement from the contractor in writing.

3) Most Online Security Breaches are an "Inside Job."  Whether it is a receptionist giving out a network password over the phone to someone he thinks is in the IT department or a sales rep opening a malware virus in an email attachment, scammers typically attack your employees before they attack your computers. Stay up to date on the latest ways criminals are exploiting employee vulnerabilities and pass this information along to every employee in your organization.

4) Build a Social Networking Presence Before Its Too Late. What do you do if a disgruntled employee or customer posts something defamatory about your company online? Well, you could take them to court. That takes time and money, and all the while potential customers  are confronted by these defamatory statements. Even if potential customers do not believe the statements, they have to wonder what you did to make the poster so angry. Building a solid social network before a problem arises, not only provides a buffer, burying defamatory statements under laudatory statement, but social networks provide resources to handle outbreaks quickly and efficiently, sometimes before you even have time to call an attorney.

5) Protect Your Digital Data. You lock the doors to your company every night. What are you doing to protect your digital information. Consistently updated firewalls, anti-virus software and off-site network backups are a must. Whereas a thief breaking  in and stealing your petty cash is a problem, a thief stealing digital assets is a nightmare. In addition to the cost of restoring the stolen data, you may have to deal with dozens, or even hundreds of lawsuits from clients whose personally identifiable information was taken as well.

6) Destroy Obsolete Data. Many companies are like pack-rats, storing every bit of digital information that crosses their paths. The problem is that if your company is ever sued, you may have to convert this data to a readable format and present it to the other side. Does your company have any floppy disks?  Do you have any computers that can read them? Set up and execute a document retention policy (DRP). The policy should also include a "litigation hold" order to stop all data destruction once you are on notice that your company may be sued. Failure to do so may lead to sanctions costing millions (or even billions) of dollars, and may even lead to the loss of your lawsuit.

More information on Internet Law and how if affects your company is available in the book Cyberlaw: A Legal Arsenal For Online Business.

Brett Trout



Shared Control Rather than Generational Fighting

The other day an older friend of mine were discussing the perception given off by different generations and my friend commented about Millennials saying "What these young folks don't understand is although there are communication difference with the generations, the power structure lies with the older generation, so (millennials) just need to listen and conform" Really? Interesting thesis, but aren't these the same generations that coined the phrased "never trust anyone over 40" and the other called Gen X precisely because they could not be defined?

However, beyond this tilted view of collaboration many millennials, at the very least don't care about the "power structure" and are completely content with picking up and moving on if they feel disrespected or ill-equipped. Some are willing to take jobs that appear to lack advancement but provide flexibility even if it means working side by side with their generational peers at the end of the age spectrum. The worker transfer from baby boomers to Millennials is still on its way, just delayed, and the current recession has actually forced all generations to learn and adapt like they have never before. Boomers have had to stay in the workforce longer than they were anticipating, Xers have had to adapt to working more collaboratively. What about Millennials?

Millennials have had to learn how to work harder even through their frustrations, currently many of them can not afford to job hop as before, and while working at Starbucks or Footlocker might be tempting to some of them, even those opportunities are becoming scarce. Overall Millennials can't run, Xers can't hide, and Boomers can't ride.

Through this economic crisis, Millennials also have an opportunity to showcase their collaborative skills, Xer's there ability to be creative, and Boomers their ability to endure, They all benefit by sharing control rather than fighting for it.

The Best Time to Make a Sale

I was one of those kids growing up that thought my dad was totally full of bologna.  He was always passing on ridiculous, somewhat esoteric advice that he learned from being in business back in the 60's, 70s, 80s and 90s. But over the years I have come to learn much of that advice has been dead on.

Back in 1997 I was working in Chicago for a contingency search firm that specialized in recruiting information technology professionals. I had only been there three weeks when I set a new company record for the fastest placement by a new employee. We had a big cowbell sitting in the middle of the room to ring for everyone in the office (and everyone else on W. Erie) to hear. I rang the bell, gave a high five to the my co-workers, then immediately picked up the phone to call my dad. 2196135513_5c501da546

Essentially this is what he said, "I'm happy for you and proud of you but you can celebrate at the end of the day. Right now you need to pick up the phone and make your next call. The best time to make a sale is right after you've made a sale."

As disappointed as I was, my dad was right. People can always sense your enthusiasm, passion and confidence even if it's over the telephone. Use that enthusiasm to your advantage. Let it ride.

Don't waste the momentum by doing a silly dance in the end-zone when it's only the first quarter. Close the sale, pick up the phone, and make something else happen! Who knows, at the end of the day you may just have two reasons to celebrate!

What's the most surprising piece of business / sales advice you've ever been given?

1099 Employees Don't Exist

I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard a business owner say, "He's a 1099 employee." ThatBlog  statement alone highlights the common misunderstandings business owners have regarding the differences between independent contractors and employees. But the importance of understanding these issues has increased as Governor Culver recently announced he supports an initiative to crack down on misclassification of independent contractors.

Many businesses make the mistake of treating employees as independent contractors so they can save money on taxes, red tape and benefit coverage. (Hence, the reason the state of Iowa is cracking down. Every tax dollar is important in this economy). The risks associated with this approach open the business up to fines, wage and hour lawsuits, tax penalties and lack of insurance coverage.

Sometimes businesses treat employees as independent contractors because they fail to fully understand the distinction between the two categories. The most important difference is whether or not the employer has a right to control the work. Other factors, such as where the work is performed, who provides the equipment, how payment is made and if there are set hours, also play an important role. 

Generally, an "employee" is someone whose manner of work the employer has a right to control, even if the employer does not actually exercise that control. True employees are W-2 employees because of the W-2 form issued to them for federal tax purposes.

As I said, independent contractors are not 1099 employees. You never want to refer to an independent contractor as an employee. An independent contractor is someone you engage to perform a certain task but whose manner of work you do not have the right to control. It is often helpful to have a contractual relationship with the independent contractor to provide support for such a position.

The issues regarding the classification of independent contractors are more complex than discussed here so be sure to consult an employment and/or a tax lawyer if you have any questions.


In the Culture of Innovation, Leadership is Key

I've often blogged about innovation as it related to using the technology we work in to innovate.  Now30717301 I want to take a different tack and look at the culture of innovation in a broad scope and share some of my thoughts and experiences.

In all of the reading I've done and my work inside some of the biggest companies in the world, I've learned a lot on the subject of making innovation work and the one thing that it comes down to is the culture and leadership of the company. 

Culture has many components, but I think one of the most important is the leadership of the company.  Your CEO has significant impact on the innovation culture that grows (or doesn't grow) in your company.  The CEO of your company is the key role player in making innovation part of the company culture.  Just talking about it and putting the strategy and systems in place is not nearly enough, which I see a lot of C-level executives doing. 

One of the best books I've read around the culture of innovation is The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley.  Tom and his brother David Kelley run IDEO, one of the leading industrial design firms in the world.  This company is the epitome of innovative culture right up there with the folks at Apple.  David Kelly did an interview back in 2003 with the Harvard Business Review where he said, "some companies seem more comfortable going through the methodological motions than making the cultural commitments that ongoing innovation demands." 

CEOs have to work on and in the innovation culture.

It's always very interesting to look around companies and see what kind of innovative culture they have.  Some of the companies that I've visited have had the technology folks in charge of innovation, but the business folks managing the process.  This is the stage-gate process.  Where the business side is in charge of the innovation and they invite IT to the table with the goal of achieving this sense of collaboration. 

Here is where the leadership of the CEO has to be intimately involved. 

For innovation to work, both functions have to be managed together.  One great example that I can think of is Steve Jobs.  Here is a guy that is clearly the innovation leader in his company and he pushes very hard to make sure that business and technology have effective collaboration.

I can tell you that an innovative culture has to be both conservative and risk-taker at the same time.  The conservative side makes sure that all employees are keenly aware of the importance of the resources that they are entrusted with.  That means that every investment and expense has to be looked at from an ROI perspective.  I can tell you from experience that a culture of unquestioned spending, where there is little regard for the value of the resources will lead to disaster and a company that fails at innovation.

A while back Diann Daniel posted a story on Microsoft's Culture of Innovation: An Interview with CIO Tony Scott. This is a great read on how Mr. Scott manages innovation.  They ,too, have to balance to two factors of control and trust (or as this story puts it, "freedom and control").  Control has to make informed decisions around resource allocation, strategy  development and performance evaluation.  The trust/freedom part usually happens outside the view of C-level executives and I can see that Mr. Scott can manage this innovation well enough to not kill off ideas.  `Take a quick read.

So what is the innovation culture like at your company?  Do you work in an environment where innovation (of any kind) is encouraged?  Do you feel that there is no innovative collaboration between business and IT?

Let me know your thoughts.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!

4823141_thl 2009 is starting off a little rocky for most companies.  Now is the time to over communicate to your employees.

Why?  If you do not not fill in the true story, your employees will fill it in with their own story.  When it is their own story, it is filled with false data, gossip and hearsay.  The story will continue to build until the facts are presented.  Until this happens, your organization is wasting time and resources on not solving issues.  The scenario is worse when there is a sense of crisis, as we are facing today in our economy.   

A typical response from owners, leaders and management is that they do not have time for more meetings during tough times.  The lost time you spend in meetings communicating the issues your company faces, pales to the amount of lost productivity that occurs when your employees are left in the dark.

There is not a person on earth that likes to be surprised with bad news.  We may not like bad news, but I believe that people want to know what is coming.  This allows them to prepare emotionally, financially and physically for any crisis that me be headed their way.

Slow down, gather your information, prepare for the questions you will receive and start communicating the facts of the companies situation today.  If you are worried about how to do this, follow the link for communicating bad news for some good tips.  Start today and let your people hear the true story, not the rumor mill story.

                       

Make Time. Be Consistent.

As a new year gets underway, we're bombarded with blog posts, newspaper articles and emails tellingTime us how to -- this time-- for sure-- reach our goals for the new year.

  • Want to better balance work and home?

  • Want to exercise more?

  • Want to be more collaborative with peers?

  • Want to do a better job of delegating, and developing direct reports?

Do this. Try that. The "how-tos" are endless. And every suggestion is helpful in some way. To me, the challenge is not so much "what" to do to achieve the goals. It's how to keep doing whatever we decide to do. Do you agree?

You know the drill. You decide to exercise 30 minutes a day in your company's workout room starting Jan. 1. By Jan. 9, you're already overwhelmed with new tasks that piled up over the holidays. You feel like you don't have time to hit the gym that day.

This is a crucial moment. As you sit at your desk, deciding whether to:

(1.) get up and go workout over your lunch hour or

(2.) work through lunch at your desk,

you're determining -- in that moment-- the success of your long-term exercise goal. Right then and there. Successfully making changes that we care deeply about, personally or professionally, is about minute-by-minute choices, made consistently.

Lao Tzu, father of Taoism, said, "Time is a created thing. To say "I don't have time" is to say, "I don't want to." Sounds harsh doesn't it? And yet, deep down, if we're honest with ourselves, we know it's true. Each of us has the choice as to how we spend our time. This is not to say finding the time is easy. It may require sacrifice. It means being authentic. Yet, if we can carve out only fifteen minutes a day to exercise, or coach a direct report, or collaborate with a peer, that's 91 hours over the course of a year. 99 hours!

AA-type programs recognize that we "change one day at a time in a row." To go cold turkey and say "never" and "always" is just too darn hard. But today? Anyone can do today. One day at a time -- consistency-- is gentle enough to not set off the "big change coming" alarms but it does move us into action. We're doing it -- today. And we'll worry about signing on again tomorrow, when tomorrow become today. 

What do you think? What role do choices and consistency play in the leadership goals you've set for yourself this year?

What LEGO taught me about time management!

LEGO GroupImage via Wikipedia

Our boys received a number of gifts this Christmas that had that familiar red "LEGO" on the box.

So, over the past few weeks, I've been helping them to build those different feats of engineering and design.

And... during that time... I've been noticing that LEGO has been teaching me some things about time management.

Lesson One: Start with a plan.

Have you put any LEGOs together lately?  WOW! Some of the kits that our boys received this year came with... not one... but TWO instruction manuals.  That's right!  In fact, the one my youngest son and I were working on last night had over 150 steps needed to complete the model.

At first, I thought this might be overwhelming.  Honestly, when I first saw the two volumes of instructions fall out of the box... my heart raced.  But I found that as long as we just took it one step at a time, it was completely doable. 

As long as we took it step by step, we did just fine. 

Plus, we had a lot of fun and put it together much faster than I expected.

How does this play out with our time?  Well, I bet you already know where I'm headed. 

Start each day with a plan.  Know what you need to accomplish in the day and put those "to-dos" in order, so you can go from one to another... just like our LEGO model.  That way... even the most overwhelming tasks can be tackled... one step at a time.

Now... I'll be the first one to admit that life isn't as simple as LEGO, but I have noticed that if you start your day with a plan, you'll get a lot more accomplished than if you don't have one.

Lesson Two: Group the Pieces.

When we first dumped out the box on the table, it was chaos.  It was a jumbled mess of blocks, tubes, planks and LEGO people. 

We found that as all the various pieces of LEGO sat on the table, it made sense to group some things before we got started.  So wheels would go into one pile.  Square pieces would go into another.  Long narrow rectangles would get their own pile, too.  That helped us to find the pieces we needed quickly.

How does this play out with time management? 

Well... recently, I was meeting with an entrepreneur.  He was trying to bring some order to his week and give each of his business entities the time it needed.  As he looked at his schedule, it felt like a big pile of LEGO pieces piled up on a table.  There wasn't a lot of order and there was sense of chaos. 

So, we spent some time "grouping" things.  Instead of trying to squeeze everything in... every day, we started to say one day could be for entity A, and the rest of the week could be for entity B. 

That "grouping" allowed him the ability to focus on the things he needed to do and not get overwhelmed.  It also allowed him to be more in the moment and know that everything had more order.

What could you "group" your pieces? 

Are there certain tasks that you need to do each day or each week that you could "group?"  You know... do them all together... and do it with some specific and protected time?

What could that do to your ability to focus?  How might that save some time? 

Lesson Three: Play when you are done!

That's the beauty of LEGO.  When you are done with all the steps, you have a TOY to play with. 

I know this may seem simple but since it takes some work to put it together, it's easy... even for the kids... to sometimes forget to play when it's done.

Can you identify?

Have you ever told yourself that once a big project is done... you'll finally relax or go do something fun?  But then, when that project is complete, you find yourself jumping into the next big task or duty!

Well... take a lesson from LEGO. 

Plan for some times to PLAY.  That's right!  Schedule some times in your day or week to play a bit.  Whether that's taking a 15 minute walk or calling a friend or... you fill in the blank. 

Schedule some time to play when you are done with a task... even five or 10 minutes.  And just see what it does for your overall productivity!

That's it for now. 

Those are some of the lessons I learned from those blocks... wheels... and planks.

So... I say... thanks LEGO for the reminders! 

I should have expected no less from such a great company and from such amazing toys!

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An insurance resolution list for business owners

Red phone A new beginning – that is what I like to call the new year.

Maybe you’ve procrastinated that phone call to your insurance agent. If so, now is a great time to start the new year right.

This is an excellent time to get you thinking about protecting your assets. Some of you may be laughing about that due to the volatile changes that we have had in the markets lately.

However, it’s especially important to properly protect whatever you have.

Sitting down with your insurance agent for 20-30 minutes to review and verify your policy coverage can give you peace of mind and make sure you are prepared in the event of a loss.

If you’re not sure what to review or talk to your agent about – start with the basics.

  1. Verify all contact and address info.
  2. Vehicle information – make sure you have the proper year, makes and models as well as VIN numbers listed on the policy.
  3. Confirm all driver information.
  4. Discuss and update sales and payroll information.
  5. Discuss any new purchases you have made to confirm coverage.
  6. And of course review your policy to confirm you have water and sewer back-up coverage.

This may sound simple, however, you might be surprised at what you uncover, especially if you have not looked at your policies in awhile.

If you are a business owner and need help with safety training or want to put together an employee handbook, your agent may have several resources available to you and often times they are FREE. 

So start your new year off on the right track and make your insurance appointments today.

The PM Recruiter: An Interview with Kristin Solberg (Part 1)

SolbergKristin Continuing with my highlights of local project practitioners of excellent caliber, Kristin Solberg of Genesis 10 is the focus of this post.  Genesis 10 is a national consulting practice with offices in many cities across the U.S.  They offer a wide array of consulting services, including project management and business analysis.  Kristin is the recruiter for the Des Moines branch.  I've known Kristin for a number of years, and she exemplifies the qualities of a great HR recruiter.  In the current economy, finding the right project manager for the job is critical.  My interview with Kristin focuses on her skills in matching the right client with the right candidate.

Thank you, Kristin, for taking the time to talk to me.  Where do you find qualified project management candidates?

I have been in the IT recruiting industry for close to thirteen years. The last six of those years at Genesis10 has been specifically recruiting within the Project Management space.  At this point in my career the majority of candidates that I work with come from my own network as well as from referrals of individuals that we currently work with or have worked with in the past.  If you want to find a great project manager ask for referrals from those individuals whose work you have a great deal of respect for.  Their referrals are always a reflection of who they are.

How do you match your clients’ needs with available talent?

When working with a client we try to gather as much information about the opportunity as possible. That includes why is the position open, what are the individuals missing that you have currently spoken with and what type of person will succeed in the position.  It comes down to both a skill fit as well as personality fit.  The majority of opportunities that we work on we already have a understanding of what the client looks for.  That is the great thing about working in a small market such as Des Moines.  You get to know your clients not only on a professional level but also a personal one.

How do you balance technical fit with cultural (i.e., human/organizational) fit?

A number of individuals have the same skill set so ultimately it does come down to personality/culture fit.  When we present candidates they will have the core skill set that the client is looking for but different styles on how to complete the task.  The client then has to decide what style would work best for the project at hand.

How do you measure your success?

When both parties (client/project manager)come back during the project or completion of the project and tell us it was a "perfect match."  I also get great satisfaction when a candidate or client contacts Genesis10 due to our reputation in the market place.

Thank you again, Kristin, for your time and insight.  Look for the rest of the interview with Kristin on my January 19th post.

Great Service Serves the Server, Too

I work with Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) with a  wide range of attitudes. There are those who, seemingly, don't care about anything. They willingly admit they don't care about the customer. There are those who don't really care, but they will perform if there's something in it for them. Then there are those who seem to genuinely desire to perform their job well and take good care of their customers.

No matter where you fall on the attitude spectrum, it may be worthwhile to remember that your customersCustomer perceive your attitude. Having a good service attitude may do more than serve the customer well, it may open up opportunities for the CSR as well.

I was reminded of this fact earlier this week as I met with a client. This client manages a contact center for one of Iowa's leading companies. She shared a great story about a CSR at a local retail store who went above and beyond to help her with a service problem. The CSR even called my client as she drove home from work to follow up and the issue and commit to resolve it the following day. My client was so impressed that she went to find the CSR the next day, handed the CSR her business card, and told her that she should call if she ever wanted a different career.

Within a month the CSR had called my client, received a much better paying job with plenty of opportunities for advancement, and quickly became one of the contact center's top performers. When you provide great service, your customers notice. Serve well, and you never know where it may take you.

Here's to great customer service and opportunities unlooked for in 2009!

Izea and SocialSpark: Bloggers as advertising inventory?

Recently there has been lots of controversy surrounding a company called Izea, which connects advertisers with bloggers via a marketplace application called SocialSpark.

Here's how it works: An advertiser can post an "opportunity" in the marketplace in the form of aSponsor sponsored blog post about their product or service, plus what they are willing to pay. Bloggers can browse these opportunities and select one to take on. The blogger then gets paid to write a post about that product.

A high-profile example is influential blogger Chris Brogan's post on Dadomatic about a K-Mart shopping spree. Chris was connected with K-Mart via Izea and given a $500 gift card to spend at a local store, and then encouraged to share the wealth with his readers/community via a contest.

The concept of pay-per-post has always been controversial. Blogs are essentially organic conversations, and many readers feel slighted when advertising infringes upon that. Chris Brogan wrote an excellent post explaining his involvement with the K-Mart contest, disclosing his reasons for doing it and detailing a history of successful blogger/marketer partnerships (including Seagate's ongoing sponsorship of Robert Scoble).

Here's my take. Many online influencers have become celebrities in their own right. Just like high-profile actors or athletes, money and sponsorships are going to come flying at them fast and furious. At the end of the day, it's up to them to decide which advertisers and brands connect best with their personality, reputation and fans/readers/community. Bands are considered "sell-outs" the minute they leave the garage, and bloggers will be criticized in the same manner as soon as they start selling ads or writing sponsored posts.

I believe it is the blogger's right to monetize their work and talents, as long as they participate in full disclosure. Izea, in fact, has put together a "Blogger Advisory Board" to craft the company's Blogger Code of Ethics.

So, what are your thoughts on sponsored blog posts? Do bloggers lose their credibility the instant they run ads on their site or participate in marketing partnerships? Or is this an acceptable new way for them to generate revenue from something they're good at? I welcome your thoughts and discussion in the comments below.

Nathan T. Wright

Happy New Year! Now start your 2009 year-end tax planning.

December is the traditional time for year-end tax planning. That's sensible, of course, but it asks a lot of one month to undo the other 11.  When tax planning requires actual cash, it is best to spread the planning over the entire year.  Here are some ways to get started on whittling down the income tax bill due April 15, 2010.

MAXIMIZE YOUR 401(k) CONTRIBUTIONBlog

The easiest way for most taxpayers to cut their tax bill without reducing their net worth is to increase their 401(k) payroll deduction. When you have your employer withhold extra from your 401(k) plan, you may reduce your current cash on hand, but the money is still yours - it's just in a different pocket. The earnings on the 401(k) aren't taxed until they are withdrawn for retirement.

Many employers match some or all employee deferrals. In that case, failing to use the 401(k) means you are turning down the boss's money. That's not just poor planning; that's crazy.  The 401(k) limit for 2009 is $16,500; if you will be 50 by the end of 2009, you can add $5,500 to that.


FUND THE IRA NOW!

Most people ask about the last day they can contribute to an Individual Retirement Account. From a tax-planning standpoint, it's better to ask what the first day is for IRA contributions for 2009. The answer is Jan. 1, 2009.

If you make your $5,000 2009 IRA contribution now, rather than the last possible day (April 15, 2010), that $5,000 has an extra 15 1/2 months to earn tax-sheltered income. The limit for the 50-plus generation is $6,000.  These limits apply to both Roth and traditional  IRAs. 

Maybe you don't have $5,000 sitting around waiting to be put in an IRA. If that's true now, it's not any less likely to be true 14 months from now.  That means you should start putting a little aside each paycheck for your IRA; that's a better bet than waiting until the last minute.

CONSIDER YOUR WITHHOLDING AND ESTIMATES

Probably the worst part of a prosperous year is the tax bill at the end of it. This is especially true for taxpayers who have a lot of income not subject to withholding - S corporation or partnership income, for example, or self-employment income.

If you don't meet the tax law rules for withholding or estimates, you may find yourself with a non-deductible underpayment penalty. Many taxpayers with a big year-end bill don't have an underpayment penalty, but they still don't like writing that big check.

The tax law requires individuals to pay in through withholding or estimates the lesser of

-90% of current year tax, or
-100% of prior year tax (110% if your AGI exceeds $150,000 in 2008).
-Lower installments may be available if your income is seasonal or fluctuating during the year.

While it might be better theoretically to pay a big check to the IRS in April (as long as you don't have underpayment penalties), taxpayers rarely are happy to hear they owe the IRS.  Unless you are confident you will be sitting on enough ready cash to cover your taxes in April 2010, you should have your payroll department make sure your withholding will be enough to keep you solvent at tax time.

May you have a prosperous and happy 2009!

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