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January 2010

Disconnect to de-stress

Stress seems to be a common consequence of today’s wired world. Even the thought of establishing the cliché work-life balance can cause migraines. When you add a BlackBerry and an inbox overflowing with e-mails, the distinction between professional and personal time often disappears.  

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However, it isn’t technology that is causing the problem; it’s human behavior. Staying connected to the office is convenient, but being constantly connected is not healthy or productive. Just because you received an email at 10 p.m. doesn’t mean you should respond to it immediately.  
 
I recommend these steps to disconnect and take a much-needed break from the office: 

Be firm about acceptable times to send and respond to email. 
Silence the e-mail notification feature on your phone. 
Manage e-mails by reading a message once, then file, flag, delete or replying. 

Do your best to use your weekends and vacations to completely unplug and recharge. Disconnecting is your opportunity to reduce stress and rebalance in preparation for your next great accomplishment. 

Customer service or marketing gimmick?

87810533Holiday Inn announced a new customer service offering last week.  It's taken the traditional turn down service and ramped it up a bit. 

The hotel chain's new bed warming service consists of a staff member putting on a one-piece flannel sleeper suit and crawling into your bed...warming it for you with their body heat.

Yup...hotel employee, footie PJs and your bed. (read about the official announcement here)

I'm all for customer service excellence and believe that stellar employees are the ones who are willing to go way above and beyond for their customers...but this one seems a bit extreme.

I think the real question is -- is this a legitimate attempt at creating an amazing, buzz-worthy customer experience or is it a brilliant marketing gimmick.

When was the last time you read an article that coupled the phrases "Holiday Inn" and "customer service?"  Suddenly, they're all over the news (see a sampling of the articles below) and everyone is talking about how Holiday Inn is focusing on pampering their customers.

Pretty smart, either way.  If it's an attempt at extreme customer service -- they've clearly demonstrated that they're willing to go to new heights.  If it's about the media splash and marketing buzz -- they got it.

Either way -- it worked because they didn't go halfway.  They had the courage to go way out on a limb.  This is clearly a "be bold or go home" strategy. If they had begun offering a bed warming service that employed electric blankets or hot water bottles...do you think anyone would have even noticed?

What are you doing in your marketing that's as boring as an electric blanket?  Could you (metaphorically of course) put on your feetie pjs and shake things up?

~ Drew

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Beware of the Latest Online Scams

An example of a phishing e-mail, disguised as ...Image via Wikipedia

Not Your Father's Online Scam

By now, everyone is familiar with the Nigerian scam. You receive an e-mail for an offer you cannot refuse. The sender alleges he or she is trustee of a large sum of unclaimed money. If you will agree to take the money into the United States, you will receive half the money (typically millions) for your trouble. After sending $200 for paperwork, $500 for bribes, $2000 for customs and $10,000 for lawyers you get the impression things are not quite as they seem. With so many pigeons now wise to the "419 grift," online scammers are constantly devising increasingly clever ways to part money from fools.

Online Dating

One of the hallmarks of a great scam is selecting a highly motivated victim. Online scammers use dating Web sites to target the lovelorn. Posting attractive pictures and telling sad stories of unforeseen financial difficulties, scammers bilk online daters out of money, gifts, credit card numbers and bank information. While from a distance these scams seem easy to spot, once the scammers masterfully weave an emotional connection, logical analysis flies out the window. Anytime you receive an online request for money, gifts or financial information, there is a high likelihood there is a scammer on the other end.

Employment Scam

Praying on the desperately unemployed, scammers post fake job opportunities, sometimes using the names of legitimate companies. The job opportunity is often a payroll clerk. The scam involves sending the victim a large check. The scammer requests the victim cash the check and send out smaller to checks to "employees" of the business. The scammers large check is fake, but the victims little checks are real. By the time the victim discovers the big check is fake, the "employees" have already disappeared with the victim's money.

Professional Scams

Doctors and lawyers are increasingly the target of scammers. Posing as information technology professionals or potential clients, international criminals extract sensitive personal information, garner financial information and install viruses on the victims' computers. The scams may be as simple as posing as someone in the victim's IT department and calling the receptionist to confirm his or her password works with the "new" system, or as complex as creating a fake multinational organization, complete with a pricey Web site and myriad references. Be wary of "spear phishing" scams buried within unsolicited emails. Never open attachments in an email from someone you do not know. Even if you do know the sender, scammers often "spoof" the name of the sender. 

Charity Scams

In the wake of any large disaster, scammers lie in wait for compassionate people willing to give. Criminals build elaborate Web sites emulating recognized charities. Through a barrage of spam emails, the scammers direct people to donate to the victims of the latest crisis. Beware of any unsolicited request for a charitable donation. When in doubt, donate to an established charity. You can even check the charity out online to determine what percentage of your donation actually gets to the people in need.

Government Scams

Impersonating governmental agencies to obtain your financial information is a successful scam simply because it is so brazen. What kind of a criminal would impersonate the IRS, the FBI or Homeland Security? Receiving an e-mail from one of these organizations often leaves the victim more worried about what they might have done, than whether the email contains malicious software. If you suspect the e-mail is not legitimate, do not reply, do not click on any links and do not call any phone numbers in the e-mail or open any attachments. Contact the government agent directly to confirm that the email is legitimate.  

Pop-up Advertisements

If you receive a pop-up advertisement for anti-virus software be wary. Such pop-up ads often appear to be scanning your hard drive in an attempt to get you to click on the ad.  Clicking on the ad however, can install harmful software, extract sensitive information or send the scammer a log of your keystrokes, which includes all of your usernames and passwords. The FBI has reported over $150 million in losses attributable to this scam alone. 

What to Do

If you suspect you have been scammed, or have received a solicitation you believe may be a scam, contact your information technology department immediately, providing all of the details you have. You may also file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a partnership between the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center and the Bureau of Justice Assistance. Most importantly, be on the lookout for new scams. The most effective scam will always be the one that is new to you. 

Brett Trout

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Entitlement Will Make Millennials Save

Millennials have been saddled with the term of being an entitled generation. One that expects to get something because of who they are not because of what they’ve done. Whether an accurate term or a misinterpreted exaggeration, this trait has been placed on them. Ironically, through the mist of this financial crisis, their sense of entitlement may actually be paying off.  This generation is looking at what they believed was promised to them and beginning to think they might not get it.
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As discussed before, generational behavior results from the experience of said generation. Each generation reacts to problems they’ve encountered and attempts to fill those voids, or solve various societal ills. In the past decade, most research focused on the cultural, technological and political reactions of Millennials, but that was all before the financial crisis hit. Recently, there has been a run of articles that have researched millennial reaction to the economic crisis, and just like other major events it is having an affect on Millennials that may shape their long-term perspective.

Newsweek just published an article tackling this notion of “Generation Recession” and considering the long-term consequences such as making less, generation based class warfare, and a shift of talent from the private sector to the public sector.

A recent poll by the Knights of Columbus showed 55 percent of Millennials think their careers will be negatively impacted for the long-term by the current economic situation and are looking for free market rather than the government to handle the economic crisis.

A UK study suggests that timing might be everything. Discouraged workers tend to be affected more by financial crises when around the sensitive and professionally formative ages of 17 to 25. What happens during these periods tend to have a psychological impact that is long lasting.

A study commissioned by Microsoft also confirms this cynical view. Sixty-seven percent of those Millennials were wary of stocks, banks and investment firms due to the near-collapse of companies such as AIG and Citigroup. 

Coupled with this economic sensitivity and the generational sense to fix the problems seen as youth, makes Millennials apt to do something different. Millennials are already regarded as being a very scientific generation; looking for formulas that offer consistent solutions, willing to be collaborative, desiring positive experiences and outcomes. Last decade, we saw the emergence of how that played out in other fields; the rise of social media, everything “green," and the “Casual Professional”. It should be to no one’s surprise that the millennial generation is now reacting to the greatest financial event in three generations.

Recent research suggest that Millennials were more likely to pay off debt, had a savings goal and are not as interested in immediate luxuries.  Additionally, they are setting other financial goals and using the tools of their generation such as mobile apps from Mint.com, Wessabe.com and Pageonce.com for daily money management and budgeting.

Millennials are poised to earn less, but stay updated on their cash flow situations and save more than the previous generations. Just as the Silent Generation learned from the Great Depression and were able to enjoy the American Dream, The Millennial Generation may now be poised to do the same.

What is the Biggest Mistake Sales People Make?

I was asked at a networking event what is the most common mistake that sales people make?  That's an easy question to answer.  Most sales people don't follow any kind of framework or system.

Traffic Analogy

Long Road Map The lack of a sales framework or system is like driving to a destination without a map in a city that you don't know very well.  You may know generally where you are going such as "towards downtown," but you may not know when to go left or right.  You may drive in circles.  You may run into traffic or streets closed for construction.  You may get low on gas.  It takes much longer than it needs to and ultimately, you may never find your destination.

Having a sales framework or system is like driving with a GPS navigation system.  You know exactly how you are going to get where you are going and you know just about how long it will take.  It is easier to avoid traffic and streets closed for construction.  And if you should miss a turn, the navigation system will quickly reroute you and get you back on course.

Example

One of the biggest problems that sales people encounter by not following a system is "premature solution."  If a salesperson begins talking about solutions (i.e., products or services) to a prospect before they fully understand

  • the scope of issues and opportunities their prospect may have
  • the resources available to the prospect
  • and their criteria and process for making a decision

then they suffer from "premature solution."

Symptoms of premature solution include:

  • you have had one appointment with the prospect, but you can't get a follow up appointment scheduled
  • after you have told them everything about your products or services, the prospect is not very forthcoming with the information you need to prepare a proposal
  • their first response is that your solution is too expensive
  • after giving the client a proposal they won't call you back
  • they keep telling you they are almost ready to do something but won't move forward

The cure for premature solution is to develop a framework for conducting intelligent, productive conversations with prospects about their situation rather than "product demonstration" conversations.

Creating a framework or system for yourself can also cure or cut down on a lot of other issues that are preventing you from developing more business. 

How have mapping out your process improved your sales?

Photo on flicr by twenty questions

Avoiding Lawyers and Lawsuits - Waivers of Liability

Waivers are everywhere: the back of concert tickets, Web sites, sales agreements. As aBlog business consumer, you may wish to make sure that you are willing to give up the stated rights. As a business owner, ask:

  • From what are your protecting yourself?
  • Is this a real danger?
  • What is your goal?
  • Do you run a PR risk by warning your clients that your product “may cause death” (especially if you sell coffee tables)?

This post addresses personal injury waivers: the kind you sign at batting cages and skating rinks.

 

My next post will address the types of waivers that are part of sales agreements and are found within websites for products..

 

The post that follows that will address Indemnification Agreements.

 

First, the easiest way to avoid lawsuits and judgments for personal injury is to be prudent in taking care of your business. Common sense safety is more cost effective than waivers.

-   Encourage employee common sense through a wellness program.

-   Have a plan to keep your employees and patrons safe 

-   Talk with your insurer about risk analysis and risk reduction.

 

The Iowa Supreme Court addresses waivers in a number of cases:

Personal injury waivers must “be specific enough to identify all possible causes of injury so that a reasonable person is on notice.” A waiver that simply agrees that one party is not responsible for any injuries is not specific enough to waive all claims related to acts by that party1

 

A waiver must be "voluntary", "intentional" and "knowing". The waiver must intentionally relinquishment a known right.”2  The court uses the standard of a reasonable person to determine whether a party had notice of the provisions in question and may be bound by terms within a contract/agreement.3

 

The parties must be clearly identified to be considered released parties.4

 

Once the release is clear in its intent, parties may be bound. Even if you (or your client) does not read the release, a party who is able to read and has the opportunity to do so must suffer the consequences of failing to do so.5

 

The more dangerous your business, the more likely you can set out the risk and put them in the hands of a person who assumes the risk. For example,“Hang gliding is associated with injuries and death.” If you run a shoe-shine stand, it is more difficult to set out the risks and pass them on to a client. (Then again, hopefully the shoe-shine isn't dangerous.) From a client perspective, you may have clients who wonder why they must sign a waiver that states that “death is a possible consequence” of their shoe shine. If you are leading  rock-climbing expedition, the client likely expects a waiver.

 

A well drafted waiver will:

  • specifically set out the parties involved,
  • address the type of danger,
  • specifically waive the damages, if any,
  • show that the waiver is voluntary, and
  • provide clear language.

 

We will see how the Iowa Supreme Court handles the inevitable case about "throw in the kitchen sink waivers" written in three-point font. For amusement or consideration, the waiver below from an actual ticket. I used a magnifying glass to read it. Apparently a kids’ concert needed the following waiver:


“warning! Despite enhanced spectator shielding measures, pucks still may fly into the spectator area, serious injury can occur, stay alert at all times including during warm up and after play stops. If struck, immediately ask usher for directions to medical station. Holder voluntarily assumes all risks and danger incidental to the event for which the ticket is issue, whether occurring prior to, during or after the event, including, but not limited to, danger of being injured by thrown, batted, kicked, shot, struck, etc. objects such as balls bats hockey sticks pucks racquets and other objects or equipment or by other spectators or players or by entering a mosh pit. Holder voluntarily agrees that the management, facility, league, participants, participating clubs, Ticketmaster, and all of their respective agents, officers, directors, owners, and employees are expressly released by holder from any claims arising from such causes”


-   Christine Branstad

 

1. Sweeney v. City of Bettendorf, 762 N.W.2d 873, (Iowa 2009)

2. Benton v. Slater, 605 N.W.2d 3, (Iowa, 2000)

3. Joseph L. Wilmotte & Co. v. Rosenman Bros. 258 N.W.2d 317, (Iowa 1977)

4. Huber v. Hovey, 501 N.W.2d 53, (Iowa 1993) (plaintiff injured by fireworks misfiring into pit area of race track); Grabill v. Adams County Fair and Racing Association, 666 N.W.2d 592,( Iowa 2003) (plaintiff injured by detached wheel of race car flung into pit area of race track).

5. Forrester v. Aspen Athletic Clubs LLC, 766 N.W.2d 648, (Iowa App. 2009).

Five Whys to Leadership Challenges

Why notImage by Pete Reed via Flickr

It seems like every time I turned around the last couple of weeks, someone was talking about the Five Whys technique - online, in print, in person.

Why? I took it as a sign that I was supposed to blog about it.

You've undoubtedly heard of Five Whys: the problem-solving technique developed by Toyota after World War II to improve its manufacturing process. Its goal: determine a root cause of a defect or problem. It's used a lot within Kaizen, Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma.

My take? Leaders can also tap into this tool to improve their day-to-day problem solving. It's a great tool for anyone, any time there's a problem.

A common, easy to understand example looks like this:

  1. My car will not start. (the problem)
  2. Why? The battery is dead. (first why)
  3. Why? The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
  4. Why? The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
  5. Why? The alternator was well beyond its useful service life and has never been replaced. (fourth why)
  6. Why? I have not been maintaining my car according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)

What does use of Five Whys look like real life, real time, for leaders? A terrific example is how Jeff Bezos used Five Whys in-the-moment after a safety incident during his annual walk-through at the Amazon.com fulfillment center. The story goes:

When Bezos heard about an associate injuring a finger on the line, Bezos walked to a white board and asked:

  • Why did the associate damage his thumb?
    •  Because his thumb got caught in the conveyor.
  • Why did his thumb get caught in the conveyor?
    •  Because he was chasing his bag, which was on a running conveyor.
  • Why did he chase his bag?
    •  Because he placed his bag on the conveyor, but it then turned-on by surprise.
  • Why was his bag on the conveyor?
    •  Because he used the conveyor as a table.

Likely root cause of the associate's injured thumb? He needed a table, didn't have one, so he used the conveyor as a table. Solution to the problem: provide tables along the line.

The technique certainly has its shortcomings. And valuable tips for overcoming them. But the benefits of this simple technique holds lots of promise for leaders for quick and easy problem solving. By using Five Whys on your own or with your work group, you'll:

  • focus on root causes of problems rather than on blaming and finger pointing
  • avoid assumptions and logic traps, and drill down through layers of abstraction to root causes
  • keep your eye on the problem rather than on its symptoms
  • quickly move to solving the problem rather than getting bogged down in over-analyzing it

How can you use the Five Whys today to become a better problem-solver, a more deliberate thinker, and a leader -- like Jeff Bezos -- who models a sense of urgency and a get-it-done attitude?

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Do Not Waste A Good Crisis

89694320 There seems to be crisis everywhere and it is touching most everyone in some way.  Most people do not like crisis, but within crisis there are many opportunities that are wasted.

During a crisis, people and organizations are much more willing to be creative, change, and venture down paths that were once avoided.  Crisis pushes organizations to clean things up and get rid of "dead" weight, just as trees do during storms.  The clean up allows for new growth in different ways, which ultimately creates a stronger and leaner organization.

Crisis pushes leaders to address issues that have been put off or neglected.  In many cases the "gut" feeling that leaders may have had for sometime are now either confirmed or dismissed.

Crisis also allows past mistakes to rise to the surface and be exposed to everyone who may be impacted by those mistakes.  Crisis creates accountability for those who made the mistake and the opportunity to learn from those mistakes.  Make no mistake, the lessons that are learned can be hard and cruel.

A crisis is only a crisis if nothing is learned and nothing changes.  A crisis is an opportunity when mistakes are accepted, learned from, and there is a plan put together to avoid them in the future.

Raising Capital

337/365: The Big MoneyImage by DavidDMuir via Flickr

Important concepts to understand when raising capital

1. Raising capital through the issuance of securities, although it may seem difficult in the beginning, is by far quicker, easier and more effective than seeking capital from institutional sources of capital, such as venture capitalists, investment banks and commercial banks.
2.  Conducting a series of securities offerings will increase the probability of raising substantial amounts of capital for start-up, early-stage and even seasoned companies.  If you compete on the basis of yield by offering notes, bonds or preferred stock with higher than average yields, you will attract individual investors.  This part of the capital market is known as the fixed-income market, which is 15 times larger than the equity markets (a lot more possible investors). 
3.  Position an offering as a new product or service launch where a research and development process precedes the actual production of the product, in this case the securities offering document.  The markets are demanding high yield with some upside participation of profits to enhance the yield relative to the risk involved with the security.
4.  Carefully evaluate all options for operating your company to lower the required amount of capital needed to achieve increased revenues and profitability. 
5.  Try to keep control. Generally speaking, it is better and wiser to have many investors in your company with relatively small amounts of capital, as opposed to a few investors with large amounts of capital.  By doing so you can control the terms of the deal; maintain voting control of the company; and build a growing pool of investor contacts, which you may need for additional future rounds of financing in the company's early existence. You should always be dealing from a "relative position of strength" when seeking capital.

- Steve Sink

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Avoiding risky business

Risk By definition, insurance is a transfer of risk. Sometimes, however, you don’t really know you need insurance or you may not know what kind of insurance you need until a loss occurs.

There is so much happening in our economy – one can easily to be overwhelmed. Businesses are still closing and downsizing - and I am sure by now everyone has heard of the disastrous situation in Haiti. I came across this article in Business Week recently:  “Four Legal Pitfalls Loom in 2010” And, ironically, the author discusses many of the same subjects that I have addressed over the past year.

Here are the highlights:

  1. Employee Lawsuits – this subject was addressed in my previous blog “Businesses beware!” However, what I find very interesting is the increasing number of lawsuits – in 2008 they were up 9 percent, in 2009 they increased 15 percent over the prior year and they are expected to be even higher in 2010. With these types of numbers, this issue can be a serious threat to a business owner. Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI) is still a fairly new coverage and it is not commonly added to insurance policies. It only takes one lawsuit of this nature to get your attention – especially when you learn you have no coverage for it.
  2. Immigration Audits – while this is not really an issue that insurance can assist with, it is an issue that can be corrected with good recordkeeping as well as an employee handbook addressing procedures.
  3. Improper Insurance – I think this subject wins for my “Theme of 2009.” I actually blogged about this five times over the past year with “Don’t be a copycat," “It’s not raining – why do I need an umbrella?”, “Are you a gambler?” “You have enough insurance - really?” and “'Tis the season to keep your business healthy.”  I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I am still amazed at how many business owners make changes in their business and don’t discuss the changes with their insurance agent.
  4. Internet Security - The hot button or the buzz word, if you will. This subject comes in a close second with three blogs addressing it -“Protect your customers,” “The risks of social media” and “Does your business have e-risk.” More and more people are doing business online than ever before. Businesses are utilizing the Web with Facebook and Twitter to market their business. This is an area that business owners really want to be careful with and should have solid controls in place not only to protect their clients, but also their own business trade secrets.

Last but not least, I want to mention Haiti. The devastation that they have faced is truly shocking and heartbreaking. It is absolutely amazing what damage an earthquake can do. Which brings me to "When disaster strikes are you ready?" Make 2010 a year that you start off on the right foot. If you don’t have any insurance for your business, contact your agent to find out what you need to get a policy started. If you haven’t seen your agent in a while, call and set up an appointment to review your insurance.

You might be surprised what you learn about your policy when you review it.

Romancing The Clone

Blog_cover Last Saturday, I was invited to address a local group of romance writers to talk about accomplishment.

What's that, you say?  What would I have to offer a group like that?

Fair question.  After all, Gantt charts do not have heaving bosoms.  Status reports do not sweep people up with their rippling biceps.  Project sponsors do not sulk and pout (er... um... wait a second... let me get back to you on that one).

But throughout our round-table discussion, we were able to focus on what we had in common as writers.  Since all of my books are business fiction with characters and a plot line, we were able to discuss the development of our books.  We shared issues on writers block and finding inspiration.  We pondered the "joys" of marketing our work.

Project managers often times isolate and silo themselves.  Because, by definition, every project is unique, they buy into the fallacy that no other project manager could possibly relate to what they are going through.  After all, what could a project manager in life annuities possibly share with a construction PM?  Is it even possible for a medical project manager to talk with a marketing project manager?

The reality is that most projects have (or should have) things in common.  A favored older post by Glen Alleman articulates this better than just about any blog post before or since:

Certainly the development of a building, highway, and sewage system is not done in the same way the development of a software system - at least at the detail level. But David and Jim [two of Glen's peers] seem to be missing the field observation of the massively parallel activities, customer interaction, continuously changing plans and deliverables focus that takes place in construction projects.

The reality is that every project should possess the certain common elements, which I detailed in my last blog post on this site, when I talked about auditing a project.

My point?  After two decades of working in this town, I've noticed that project managers like to (for lack of a better term) in-breed.  They network with the same people from their company.  If they do network outside their organization, they seek out project managers in their same industry.  While it is not universally true, alarmingly many project managers do not seek those "outside their village."

If you are new to a project, I would encourage you to seek out project managers from other companies, industries, and viewpoints.  While no one project is a clone of another, there are still plenty of lessons to be learned from those who are NOT like you.  You never know what you might learn from a romance author.

Carpe Factum!

When in Doubt, Let the Customer Choose

My wife and I stopped for dinner at Famous Dave's the other night. It's one of our favorite spots for a casual87470087 bite and we had a pretty average dining experience. When the server brought our check she placed it on the table and said "I wasn't sure if you wanted one check or two. I just put it on one."

It wasn't a problem (double charging me for my drink was a problem, but that's a different blog post). I was expecting one check, but her statement begged the question: "Why didn't you simply ask?"

Customers, in general, like having a say in how they will be served. Giving customers options or asking customers what they prefer is a good thing. I often train Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) who serve customers on the phone and face situations in which an answer may take some investigating. CSRs often find this to be a "deer in the headlights" moment and struggle to know what to do. Do you place the customer on hold? Do you try to make small talk? Do you tell the customer you'll call then back? Do you just leave the customer sitting there in "dead air?"

Why don't you simply ask?

"I'm sorry, Mr. Customer, but I'm going to have to look into this and it is likely going to take a few minutes. Would you like hold or would you like me to find the answer and call you back?"

Asking the question places the customer in a position of control and sends the message that you are deferential to his or her needs and wants. The next time you find yourself wondering what you should do, try asking the customer what he or she prefers!

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What's all this hype about the Apple Tablet?

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Rumors are flying about Apple's mysterious upcoming product launch (supposedly happening on January 26). Tech industry analysts and insiders are predicting that during this event, Apple will announce some sort of tablet device.


This tablet (or iSlate, as some are calling it) represents a whole new category of devices, somewhere between a handheld smartphone and a laptop computer. E-Readers such as Amazon's Kindle have been gaining in popularity lately and I suspect this is Apple's entry into that market.

However, this tablet won't just let you read books and newspaper content - I expect it to be a full-fledged, personal media device capable of handling movies, TV, music, games, Web sites and custom applications.

Many people are dismissing this as just a large iPhone, but I do believe that these tablet devices (if built right) represent a new way to access media that mainstream consumers will learn to love.

Think about it - the content delivery pipelines are already in place: iTunes, Netflix instant streaming, Hulu, et cetera. Every day, more and more people are cancelling their cable TV and accessing media via laptops or set-top boxes like Boxee. This represents an opportunity for a device to emerge - something that feels comfortable in our hands and is portable.

I can guarantee you that portable DVD players are an endangered species and will be quickly killed off by these types of tablet devices. (Similar to what happened to the PDA after smartphones emerged.)

Business owners and marketing people: Take note that your customers will be accessing your website and/or custom applications on these machines (as they will all be wi-fi compatible) so be prepared to make sure your content is scalable, functional and good-looking on a tablet.

What are your thoughts on the rumored device?

Nathan T. Wright is the founder of Lava Row, a social media education, consulting and strategy firm based in Des Moines' East Village.

It's not too soon to start your year-end 2010 tax planning!

The United States Government's income tax is c...Image via Wikipedia

Though you can't do your December tax planning in January, what you do in January can make December a lot easier.  Big changes loom in the federal income tax in 2011, so this is a big tax planning year for many entrepreneurs.

Thrifty taxpayers like to make maximum contributions to tax-deferred savings vehicles like 401(k) plans and individual retirement accounts.  If you really want to do it right, you fund these on the earliest possible date, rather than waiting until the final contribution deadline; that gives you an extra year of tax-deferred earnings.  Here are some maximums for 2010:

One of the biggest, and scariest, tax planning tools available this year is the ability of all taxpayers to convert a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.  Taxpayers would have to pay tax on their deferred IRA income to do so, but earnings on Roth IRAs, handled properly, are tax-free forever.  The ability to obtain permanent tax exemption on IRA assets is big, but paying a bunch of tax right now is scary -- even though you can pay the tax over two years. 

With tax rates almost certainly rising at higher income levels in 2011 (the only question is how much), a lot of tax-planning will be turned on its head this year.  Traditional planning involves accelerating deductions and deferring income.  With higher rates in store, deferring income to 2011 could be costly. 

It's not too early to start talking to your tax pro about these issues.  It's a lot easier to do your year-end planning when you spread it out over 12 months.

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Are you ready to learn in the 21st century?

92989596 When I think about the necessary skill for today's business owner (in the context of marketing and for simply running a business) one of the top 5 is the ability and desire to keep learning.

If I had stopped learning about marketing when I was 30 -- I'd been in the business for almost 10 years.  I was considered "seasoned."  But, I still had plenty to learn.  And I certainly learn differently today than I did back then. 

The new buzzword "21st Century Learning" seems to be most often applied to public education and children.  But I believe there's a whole new world of learning out there for us adults as well.  Especially today's business owner who must remain incredibly current and nimble if we're going to survive.

Here are some of my favorite 21st Century Learning tools. 

TED:  (Ted.com) This non profit is dedicated to ideas worth sharing.  Through their live conference and now through their incredibly robust website, you can listen to some of the most brilliant people in the world as they happily share their knowledge.

Check out these three:

Slideshare:  (Slideshare.net)  People from all walks of life share their PowerPoint presentations on just about any topic you could imagine.  Some are dreadful...but many of them are packed with new learning and resources.

Alltop:  (Alltop.com)  Alltop is an aggregator of blogs by topic.  You want to read about geo caching...you're all set.  Leadership -- you bet.  MInd mapping, marketing and quilting...all there for your learning pleasure.

This doesn't mean I am abandoning book, learning by doing or any of my old favorites.  But it does mean that I'm smart enough to recognize there's not only plenty still to learn but there are plenty of new ways to learn it.

I'm excited that Mike Sansone has just launched a new blog on the topic of 21st Century Learning as well.  One of my favorite learning techniques has always been -- follow the smart people.  So I am anxious to see where Mike takes us all.

So....how do you learn differently today than you did 20 years ago? 

~ Drew

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Sell the Dream and You'll Find Success

The television show “The Biggest Loser” finale aired recently and millions watched as contestant after contestant weighed in with losses of 100, 200 pounds and more. Seeing where the participants began, you might wonder how some of them transformed from a person who could barely walk into someone who ran a marathon?
13757463-600x800 door to dreams
The same theme kept popping up with each story – with the life-changing transformation of their weight loss, they could dream again. The contestants said repeatedly that gaining control of their lives and their health had enabled them to plan for their future again. “The Biggest Loser” wasn’t about losing weight to the 13 people on the stage; it was about a dream they had lost and wanted back. 

Though the show’s trainers had varying methods for motivating the contestants, they practiced the fundamental principle that every CEO who wants to lead their employees toward an insurmountable goal should: Sell the dream.  

According to Carmine Gallo’s guest blog on Drew’s Marketing Minute, “great leaders cultivate a sense of mission among their employees and customers.” Your company may have a product or service, but it’s the dream of what that product or service can do that will excite your employees and draw in customers. And when you have excited employees, you have the first step toward success.

Whether you are trying to lose weight for your health or inspire your employees to accomplish the unthinkable, start first by selling the dream.

How Do I Patent My Idea?

Seal of the United States Patent and Trademark...Image via Wikipedia

What is a Patent?

Patents are documents that protect inventions. Good patents describe the invention in broad terms, making it more difficult to design around the patent or challenge a claim of infringement. Good patents are hard to draft. If they are drafted too broadly, broadly enough to cover something that has already been invented, the patent is invalid.

As you might imagine, patents are quite complex.

Patents are so complicated and technical that ordinary attorneys are not even allowed to draft them. Patents are drafted by patent attorneys, who receive special training, have undergraduate studies in a science and pass a special Bar exam to practice before the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Do I Need a Patent?

Well drafted patents grant you a broad monopoly in the marketplace. The downside is they can be expensive, averaging about $9,000 to $10,000 for a simple mechanical device and take a long time, three years or more, to obtain. The question as to whether you should pursue a patent is a business decision. From the patent attorney's perspective, it is always a good idea to pursue a patent. From your perspective, you have you ask yourself some important questions: What kind of annualized profit can I expect with a patent? How many years, if ever, before the patent pays for itself? Are there non-infringing alternatives competing, or likely to compete, in the market-space? Will my product be obsolete before the patent issues? Will less expensive “trade secret” protection suffice?

The Patent Process.

The patent process involves meeting with a patent attorney to discuss costs and timelines. If you decide a patent is something you want to pursue, you may decide to do a patent search. You can conduct a cursory search at Google Patents. Your patent attorney is also available to perform a more comprehensive search. The next step is to draft the patent application. This is the most important part of the process. Here is where you determine the breadth of protection over your invention. It is at this point where a good patent attorney can make or break your patent. Once the application is drafted, your patent attorney files the application with the USPTO. After two years or so, the USPTO “examines” the application, comparing it against patents already in existence. Your patent attorney fights back and forth with the USPTO over the breadth of protection your application is allowed. If your patent attorney is persuasive enough, and your invention novel enough, the USPTO issues your application as a patent.

Finding the Right Patent Attorney.

You do not need the best attorney in the world. You need the best attorney for you. Finding the best attorney for you means looking at factors like cost, skill, experience and communication. As you might imagine, all patents are not created equally. Skilled patent attorneys with a lot of patents under their belts typically obtain better patents than more inexperienced patent attorneys. They also charge more. The best attorney for you however, is not necessarily the most expensive. Ask around. Search the internet for patent attorneys in your area. Go to the USPTO.gov Web site and see how many patents they have drafted. Go visit with the patent attorney. If you like the attorney, confirm that he or she will actually be the one drafting your patent and not passing it off to an inexperienced underling. Ask if the patent attorney has had experience defending patents in court. Success defending patents in court, often translates into drafting better patents. The most important thing is to feel comfortable working with your patent attorney. There are a lot of patent attorneys out there. Keep looking. Pick the one who tells you what you need to know, rather than what you want to hear. You will know it when you hear it.

Brett Trout




 

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3 New Year's Resolutions for Young Professionals

2010 marks the year that Millennials are poised to surpass Baby Boomers as the largest generation on the planet. The last few years have been filled with articles from experts, business leaders, researchers and bloggers, warning about the coming generation storm.  Well folks, it's no longer 23664139 pending…it's here.

The arrival of the new decade brings a great opportunity for the ranks of the young professionals to really start coming into their own. Though this is an ever-evolving process, the new year marks a great time to establish resolutions that will help start this process on the right foot. Here are three resolutions YPs should consider in 2010:       

1.     Grow Up. Tone it down a little. You know you’re hot stuff, you’ve always been taught the world is yours and to go out and grab the bull by the horns. But as you may have learned last year through this economic recession, the real world doesn’t always go exactly by your plans. Life is more art than science, filled with circumstances that don’t always follow the formula you were taught. Your ability to take that in stride and focus on the needs and desires of those around you will not only give you enough favor to place you in a better position, but it will also provide you better wisdom of what to do once in that position.

2.     Slow down. Yes, life is short. But few things are enjoyed that are rushed. While no one wants to miss that golden moment, an opportunity passed up is not the end of the world. It might actually allow you to gain a better handle on your current involvements which in turn might lead to more fulfilling opportunities. Think of life as one of those holiday meals you recently experienced, rather than a quick fast-food bite. The holiday meal takes hours to prepare, enjoy and recover from, giving us an experience that leaves us with pleasant memories. Fast food, on the other hand, is convenient, and tasty, but is quickly fleeting and unfulfilling. Give yourself time to appreciate all the subtle nuances of life.

3.     Unplug. Your world provides conveniences that previous generations could only imagine and it’s only going to get better as time goes on. Yet, as cool as these tools and toys are in allowing us to do more with our time, the result is more and more being asked of us. Though we can take on more than ever before, are we allowing our brain to fully comprehend our actions? Stepping away for a while from the gadgets, the noise and the clutter allows your brain to catch up, process and see the bigger picture. It might help you become more creative and a more critical thinker. So, rather than become slaves of our own technology, prove that you can still function without it.  

Taking time this year to readjust will help young professionals position themselves for their arrival into prominence.

Reward Good Sales Habits

Hiring sales people who will be successful is a tricky and generally unsuccessful process.  Even for sophisticated industries where ...

  • candidates have demonstrated their people skills and sales aptitude through interviews and testing
  • where they have been given product and sales training
  • and where they are compensated well for their sales results,

the failure rate is extremely high.

The logic goes that the right person with the right tools and training will do the right things to get the financial reward. However, if people behaved logically, we would all be thin. We would not procrastinate. And we would use cash instead of credit cards. 

Don't count on logic to create sales success!  Put your money on sales habits!

These habits include things such as daily planning, daily prospecting, scheduling a minimum number of sales appointments each day and disciplined follow up.

Brain xray Here is the problem with a purely logical approach.  Logical thinking is done in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. It is the area that we use to design incentive compensation. However, MRI studies show that it is the nucleus accumbens region of the brain that lights up in reaction to incentive compensation. This region is more commonly known at the pleasure center. As far as the brain is concerned, the financial reward is about pleasure, not the logical compensation for a job well done.

Furthermore, habits are stored in the basil ganglia. They emerge from the gradual learning of association between action and outcome and they will most often defeat logic. That is why one can go into a retaurant planning to order a salad and wind up getting a burger and fries.

So, answer these two questions.

  1. Will the prospect of getting paid a commission anywhere from two months to several months in the future  keep the pleasure center of the brain active enough to motivate behavior today? 
  2. And how can we expect behavioral habits to emerge if it is difficult to learn the association between the day's specific activity and the outcome (commission) far into the future? 

Without reinforcement, only those lucky enough to already have similar behavioral habits established will likely succeed at establishing the right sales behaviors.

To increase the success of sales trainees, leverage the pleasure center to establish the association between sales habits and positive financial outcomes.

Establish short term training bonuses that reward specific activities or achievements that, when consistently repeated, lead to a full sales pipeline and consistent sales. For example, in a business with a sales cycle that averages ninety days, for the first 120 days, pay a weekly bonus if the sales person meets the daily sales activity planning requirements and schedules a minimum number of sales calls each week.  Include all the critical behaviors necessary to keep the pipeline full while maintaining simplicity.  Complexity prevents habituation.

This discussion about establishing sales habits begs the question, "What sales habits are critical?"  Let us know your opinion in the comments section below.

The (business) Climate in Iowa

I saw only the title of a New York Times piece by Nicholas Kristof titled "The Happiest People" and started to write about "The Happiest Businesses." Kristof's story is about Costa Rica. The author credits education for superior "happiness." I agree. The businesses I represent are “happiest” when leaders and workforce are educated. The happiest lawyers know their business and the business of their clients. I believe Iowa’s literacy rate and overall education leads to happiness through educated businesses and educated workers.

Iowa weather (-2 as I write this) differs from Costa Rica weather (currently 82 in Alajuela). Iowa’s business climate remains sunny. Iowans are better equipped to ride out business storms (last pun) not because of legislation. . . nor because of the tax situation . . . but because we are educated.   

As with other business assets, smart investments garner happiness dividends. In the past I encouraged businesses to watch what they write. Now I say watch what you read. Clients who read have the best results. They read contracts. They read sales slips. They read trade journals. The read thought-provoking articles.  Reading the ridiculous warnings at the end of a user agreement may lead to ideas about how to protect yourself and how to evaluate your real risks. Reading trade journals may do the same. The business section of the newspaper can certainly illuminate mistakes and strokes of genius by competitors and friends.

Readable business insight is available from Iowa’s judicial system. I point out Iowa business-related appeals cases to my Twitter followers whenever one is released. No J.D. is needed to read the cases. Iowa Appellate courts seem to take pride in writing understandable, concise opinions (something for which most Iowa attorneys are grateful). Lighter reads are supplied through the Court of Appeals summaries. Reading about litigation can help avoid litigation (and some cases are pretty interesting).

Go ahead and curl up with a nice contract, an Iowa Supreme Court decision, or a trade journal.  Take a step beyond circumspection and invest in business happiness.

- Christine Branstad

You're the Manager. So Manage.

* Mission: STS-41-B * Film Type: 70mm * Title:...Image via Wikipedia

We've all been taught that the way to engage employees' souls at work is to hire bright people, put them in the right roles and then get out of their way. Especially younger workers; they hate having someone hovering over them, checking up, providing guidance they don't think they need.

Micromanaging is a bad thing. Right? But let me ask this: are we sometimes afraid to be accused of micromanaging when really all we're wanting to do is manage? Manage the function we've been given responsibility for, in the best way we know how?

Picture this: Stephanie, your administrative assistant, tends to do things at the very last minute. Not because she's lazy or forgets. She's not trying to make life difficult for you. Doing things last minute is just how she's wired. Which is not good or bad. It's just different from how you're wired.

So far, Steph hasn't been late on any tasks or projects. She's met every deadline. But you are convinced it's only a matter of time. (There are always variables we don't have control over...even Steph!)

For example, she was supposed to have the room set up and AV technology in place by 10:00 a.m. for the annual all-employee meeting. She finished right at 10:00 as the last employees were taking their seats. (Yes, she made the deadline. Meanwhile, you're in the wings, envisioning the worst -- like a sound system that's not going to be compatible with the laptop!)

  • Is it micromanaging to insist that Steph give herself a time buffer to allow for "just-in-case" scenarios?
  • Is it Steph's problem that you're seen as a Nervous Nelly, still living by the Boy Scout oath about being prepared even though you took off the uniform for the last time 30 years ago?
  • In situations like this, whose preference takes precedence?

If you're a manager, and you care about such things as:

  • Doing a quality job, not just "getting 'er done."
  • Providing excellent customer service for internal, as well as external, customers.
  • Creating a culture of clear expectations and consistent accountability, and
  • Nurturing a set of disciplines on which team trust and respect depend... 

...then it's perfectly ok to set expectations for Steph that might challenge her innate personality of "flying by the seat of her pants."

  1. Be fair in what you're asking for.
  2. Be very clear and specific in your expectations.
  3. Explain why it's important, not just for your comfort level, but for the good of the whole: for Steph, for the team, and for the organization.
  4. Don't expect instant perfection; allow for missteps; provide coaching as needed.

You're the manager, and your standards and comfort level -- if realistic, fair, and relevant -- are legit. That's not micromanaging. So don't be afraid to manage!

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Practice Makes Perfect?

The saying practice makes perfect is used by parents, teachers and leaders to encourage their children,87514148 students and employees to improve themselves.

It is a great idea and it works, but only if they are practicing the right thing.  There are far to many instances where individuals spend countless hours practicing, only to learn they were practicing the wrong thing.

A lot of resources and efforts are wasted by companies during organizational change because the organization practices the wrong thing.

In many cases companies practice the wrong thing because they fail to engage the employees in the organizational change process.  In these instances programs are implemented and the employees will implement the program knowing full well that it will not work - they will practice the wrong thing.  Until the leadership of the organization becomes enlightened to the situation, the organization will continue to practice the wrong thing and get lack luster results.

 Engage your employees in change and practice will make perfect.

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Choosing a Career as a Business Broker

View of Wall Street, Manhattan.Image via Wikipedia

Selecting your career path can be a daunting task. If you're considering becoming one of the world's business brokers, here are some reasons you might find compelling.

First, what do business brokers do? According to the Dictionary of Business Terms, much like a real estate agent, business brokers act as agents or intermediaries in a sale or other business transaction between two parties. Business brokers act as a catalyst to make the sale of a business happen. They help sellers who are ready to sell their businesses determine when the best time to sell is, as well as help to prepare the business and the owner for the sale. Business brokers may also help in marketing the business for sale by targeting buyers and negotiating and finalizing the sale.

There are many benefits to beginning a career as a business broker. Business brokers have the ability to operate independently, meaning they often can set their own hours without being under the scrutiny of office politics. The industry can be very exciting, fun and profitable. Business brokers work mainly on commission, so your earnings can be as large or small as you make them. The potential for an excellent income makes being a business broker even more exciting.

Being a business broker can be a lot of work, but it can also be very rewarding. A sincere desire to help people is extremely important, as is the ability to relate to many different kinds of people on a regular basis. Overall, the keys to being a successful business broker are to have a winning attitude, enjoy working with people and having a strong desire to succeed. Business brokers come from all walks of life, so the opportunities are limitless.

- Steve Sink

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Planning for the new year

2010 goals It’s hard to believe that it is a new year.

This is the time of year when we think about getting organized and start our new year's resolution. We all want a fresh start for 2010, don’t we?

Well the best way to get organized is to start by writing down your goals.

It is statistically proven that when we write down our goals, we are more likely to achieve them. Just like your success in business, as Drew McLellan mentioned in his recent blog  - most marketers will enter 2010 with a huge disadvantage - no written plan.

You might be wondering what this has to do with insurance and is there a discount involved? Unfortunately, there are no discounts on insurance premiums for having a written marketing plan. However, there are advantages for having written Employee Handbooks and Safety Plans.

Employee Handbooks can be one of the most important documents that you share with a new employee, as it outlines the expectations of the employee and the employer. From an insurance perspective, it is written documentation that should outline your insurance benefits, provide information regarding your policies and procedures for reporting injuries and an acknowledgment from your employees of the policies and procedures of the company.

Safety Plans – I am sure many of you business owners are aware of the OSHA guidelines. However, some hazardous/ high risk industries can receive significant insurance benefits from having a solid written safety plan in place.  Some of these benefits include, safer work environment, healthier employees and less work related injuries. Less work related injuries can mean lower claims and lower claims can mean lower insurance premiums! Sounds like a win/win situation to me.

If you are not sure how your safety plan measures up or perhaps you don’t have one, there are a number of free services available through insurance companies and the United State Department of Labor – Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

Regardless of what type of business you own or what size you are, having written procedures in place can be beneficial for your business operation. So if you want to start out the new year differently this year – you can do so by just having a plan.

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Open Wide!

Dentist As you read this post, chances are high that I am sitting in a dentist's chair with my mouth wide open while various people prod around my mouth to ensure I've been behaving myself with respect to dental care.  When I brush and floss, I am generally constrained to what I can see and feel myself.  My dentist and hygienist have all kinds of picks and mirrors and other pokey, proddy devices to ensure that everything that should not be in my mouth has been removed.

One of the services I provide as a consultant is a project audit.  This is where I make my clients "open wide" and poke and prod around their plans and status reports and issues logs to ensure they are taking good care of their projects.

The Thinking Made Easy blog justifies why a project audit is a critical element of project management:

Projects rarely run through their full life without some surprises. It is hard for the customer or project sponsor to work out which situation they are in before it's too late to fix the problems economically. That is where a project audit comes in: an independent assessment of some or all aspects of the project's health buys at the least peace of mind, and in other cases can make the difference between problems nipped in the bud and a project whose timescales and costs are out of control.

So what goes into a project audit?  Since I am generally called in sometime in the middle of project execution, I will ask for five specific deliverables:

  • Business Case - what was used to justify the project?
  • Requirements - how was the project solution communicated?
  • Project Plan - how were the requirements translated into tasks and resources and timelines?
  • Risks and Issues - how did the project manager communicate what wasn't going well?
  • Status Reports - how did the project team communicate progress against the plan?

As far as how a project audit is completed, look at this excellent post by Michael Stanleigh, where he details the three main phases of an audit:

  1. Success Criteria, Questionnaire, and Audit Interview Development.
  2. In-depth Research.
  3. Report Development.

Remember, in the end, the goal is not to shoot messengers or drown witches; it is to get the project back on track or figure out if the project should be scrapped.  I've only had one hygienist who scolded me about my exam checkup.  She then had the audacity to defensively tell me that "some people" like teeth cleanings.  I responded that "some people" also like White Castle Hamburgers and vacations in Branson and asked what her point was.  Suffice it to say, she is no longer my hygienist.

So every once in a while, stick your project in a chair, shine a light in its eyes, and make it open wide.  You never know what you might find.

Carpe Factum!

If a Customer Could Tip You...

A very large collections call centre in Lakela...Image via Wikipedia

My wife and I just returned home from eating out. While writing down the tip amount for our server at the local restaurant, I was reminded of an experience I've had in training. When training Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) who work in contact centers or jobs that require them to provide service on the phone, I will sometimes ask "if the customer were given an option to tip you at the end of the call, would it change the service you provide on the phone?" The answer I receive has always been a resounding "yes."

As far as I know, no company has figured out how to use an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system to give the customer a "tipping" option. Nevertheless, it's an interesting question.

I link this anecdote to an experience with one particular client. There were two CSRs who worked at this client who had what I would consider bad attitudes. They approached each call as though the customer should be serving them, not the other way around. I must admit that I'd given up hope that either of these individuals would ever provide quality customer service.

But they both turned it around. When the client stepped up to the plate with a substantial bonus linked to their service quality scores, both reps demonstrated noticeable improvement. The following quarter I recall approaching one of them in a coaching session. "What happened?" I asked with surprise and joy. "You did GREAT this quarter!"

She responded with a familiar scowl and a shrug of the shoulders. "I wanted the money," she said.

While I was personally saddened to think that greed was the only thing that motivated this person to provide good service, I was glad that her customers were finally receiving higher levels of service on a consistent basis. People are motivated differently. Some are self-motivated. Some are motivated by recognition. Some are motivated by competition. Some are motivated by personal gain.

How are you motivating your employees to provide great service?

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How to start an audio podcast on the cheap

Image representing iTunes as depicted in Crunc...Image via CrunchBase

Podcasting is a great way to create, syndicate and distribute your own audio/video content on the Web. We're just getting started with our own audio podcast at Lava Row, so I wanted to take a moment to explain how you can create your own show on the cheap.


Step One: Choose a recording device
Chances are your laptop or desktop computer came with a mic (corded and/or built-in). You can get by with this if you'll be the only one in the room talking and understand that it doesn't offer top-notch quality. Our podcast is always going to involve more than one person, so we chose the Snowball USB Mic from Blue Microphones (affordable and available for around $100 on Amazon.com).

Step Two: Figure out your content ahead of time
As with any digital initiative, the first thing you'll want to do is figure out how you're going to use the medium and determine what your content is going to be. Are you going to interview others? What will the topics be? What insight can you provide that other podcast programs can't?

Step Three: Record calls on Skype
Skype is a free VOIP application that you can download and install on your computer. If you're going to be interviewing guests who can't come to your "studio" in person, just call them with Skype and record the conversation with the Pamela Call Recorder add-on. The free version will let you record up to 15 minutes, and for $25 you can upgrade for unlimited recording times.

Step Four: Choose your editing software
At some point you're going to need to trim your audio file, add music, or edit parts together. For PC users we'd recommend Audacity (a free download) for these simple tasks. Mac users will already have the iLife suite installed on their machines, which is an amazing software package that contains sophisticated tools for audio editing/mixing.

Step Five: Distribution
Apple's iTunes is probably the most ubiquitous (and common) way to distribute your podcast. Here's an outline of guidelines and specifications about how to get your podcast feed synced up with iTunes.

Pretty simple, right? That's all you need to get going. If you've set up your own podcast, feel free to chime in below - how did you make yours a success?

Nathan T. Wright is the founder of Lava Row, a social media education, consulting and strategy firm based in Des Moines' East Village.
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It doesn't have to be this way

Iowa has the 46th-best best state tax environment for business in the country.  That's a nice way of saying it has one of the worst.  High rates leavened with complex loopholes for the well-lobbied make our tax environment  poisonous for entrepreneurs.

It's easy to imagine a better tax world: the world of the Quick and Dirty Iowa Tax Reform.  It looks like this:

1. Eliminate the Corporation income tax. The Iowa corporation income tax has the highest stated rate in the country, and one of the highest effective rates. The only reason it doesn't destroy Iowa's economy altogether is that it is so riddled with loopholes that collections are very low - well below 5 percent of the state budget. Yet it is a very expensive tax to administer and to comply with. Eliminating the tax would send a powerful message to companies looking for a place to invest for the long term.

2. Reduce the Iowa individual income tax to 4 percent or less. 3.99 percent would be much more attractive to entrepreneurs and executives considering Iowa locations. It would bring our rate decisively below all of the border states except for Illinois and South Dakota. Only a low rate will enable Iowans to give up the large number of special breaks that make compliance and tax administration expensive.

3. Strip down the Iowa tax law. To get the rate down to this level, Iowa will need to strip its tax law of a host of politically-motivated tax breaks. These include, among others:

- All economic development tax credits - ethanol, films, research and development, "targeted" jobs and the like, they all should go. Low rates are more important than any of these, all of which serve primarily to fund the well-connected.

- The deduction for Federal income taxes. If the rates are low enough, the deduction doesn't matter nearly as much. If its built into the rates, you protect poorly advised taxpayers who have a big once-in-a-lifetime income item - say, from selling a business - and losing the value of the deduction by paying the tax when it is due, rather than prepaying in the year of sale.

- The exclusion for ten-year capital gains.

- The credits for tuition funds, community foundations, and the like.

- The special pension and tuition breaks for old folks. Any breaks for poor folks should be in the form of a generous low-income exemption. Old folks with low income aren't necessarily more worthy than younger folks. In fact they often are much more wealthy than their younger counterparts.

Just because a break isn't mentioned here doesn't mean I want to keep it.

4. Make federal taxable income the starting point for Iowa taxable income. If you use federal AGI as the starting point, you can achieve even greater simplification and lower the rates further. Unmodified AGI as a tax base can create grossly unfair results, but it if you allow a deduction for gambling losses and Schedule A investment interest, you get a decent base. Federal changes in income computation would automatically be incorporated in Iowa's tax code, absent a vote of the legislature otherwise. It also makes Iowa's tax forms potentially postcard-sized.

5. Make Iowa's tax forms into a reconciliation format, starting with Federal taxable income. Have lines to back out federal Treasury income, which the state can’t tax. If Iowa chooses to tax muni bond income, have a line for that. Have one last line for all (any) other addbacks and subtractions, which would feed from separate detail schedules.

6. The most difficult issue is taxation of S corporations. I would allow S corporations to elect to be Iowa C corporations and make Iowans taxable on distributions from the corporation as if they were C corporations. Electing corporations would have to report distributions to Iowa shareholders to the state, and the shareholders would be taxed as if the distributions were taxable dividends; otherwise electing corporations would pay no tax on Iowa-source income. Iowans owning Non-electing S corporations would be taxed in Iowa on all their S corporation income. This would achieve near-parity between Iowa C and S corporations.

For every business that loses a chance to shake down the state for new credits, a hundred will be better off for not having to deal with high rates and complexity. When the legislature sits down this month to tweak the tax system to pay for their spending, ask them for a tax system that benefits you instead of the out-of-staters with the expensive lobbyists.

This site is intended for informational and conversational purposes, not to provide specific legal, investment, or tax advice.  Articles and opinions posted here are those of the author(s). Links to and from other sites are for informational purposes and are not an endorsement by this site’s sponsor.