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September 2011

To C or not to C

While most entrepreneurs set up their businesses as "pass-through entities" taxable on their personal returns, the traditional corporation retains fans.  "C" corporations pay their own tax, unlike "S corporations," which "pass through" their income to their owners returns.   Economist Martin Sullivan ponders why this old format still hangs on: 

20111001iabiz Graduated corporate rates, the low rate on corporate dividends, and an exemption from payroll taxes combine to make subchapter C the most advantageous choice for a lot of small business profits. If a business owner can afford to leave profits inside the corporation, the resulting deferral of individual tax only makes subchapter C more attractive.

While the top tax rate for individuals and corporations is 35%, C corporation rates are as low as 15% for the first $50,000 of taxable income.  This can be attractive to a top bracket individual. Some tax-free fringe benefits are also available to owners only in C corporations.

In venture capital deals, sometimes C corporations are required because they are funded by tax-exempt entities.  If business income passes through to tax-exempts, they may have to pay "Unrelated Business Income Tax."  They prefer dividends and capital gains from C corporations, which they can receive tax-free.

Still, there are good reasons for the popularity of pass-throughs. 

  • The 15% bracket can only be used in one corporation with the same owners.
  • "Personal service corporations," including law, medical, accounting and consulting practices, don't get the lower brackets.
  • Appreciated assets inside a C corporation can be trapped there because a distribution is taxed to the corporation as a sale and to the recipient as a dividend at fair-market value.  This can get very expensive when it comes time to sell.

You should consult with your tax professional when it's time to choose a tax structure for your business.  You might also want to ponder these words from the standard treatise on corporation taxes:

Decisions to embrace the corporate form of organization should be carefully considered, since a corporation is like a lobster pot: easy to enter, difficult to live in, and painful to get out of.

Though, a C corporation is still likely to have a better ending than the lobster.

- Joe Kristan

Image by Hartmut Inerle via Wikipedia under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

 


Will 2012 be the year your business gets smaller?

92100234There are many ways a business can get bigger -- more customers, additional sales, staff size or even in product or service offerings.  Growth in any of these areas can result in bottom line growth as well. 

All good, so far.  But, bigger isn’t always better. 

One lesson that we can take away from the recession’s aftermath is that there’s incredible benefit in staying focused on your company’s sweet spot.  Knowing what you do best (both in terms of results for the customer and profitability) allows you to hunker down and spend every resource as efficiently as possible.

It seemed like those organizations that were spread too thin or tried to be something to everyone really got thrashed around when the economy tightened.  

That lack of brand vision and bad habit of taking on clients they couldn’t serve profitably ended up costing many businesses a significant amount of money and in some cases… it shut them down.

Especially when times are lean, it’s very tempting to chase dollars even if they’re outside your normal scope of services.  After all, a dollar is a dollar, right?  But that bad fit will inevitably cost you time and money.  And the biggest loss of all is that it takes your proverbial eye off what you do best.  

It takes a very savvy businessperson to be disciplined enough to not stray outside of their core competency. That’s not just smart business, that’s smart marketing.  How can you differentiate yourself or be seen as an expert, if you do everything?  

As you begin to do your strategic planning for 2012, is it possible that you could grow your business by being smaller? What if you said “no” to work or clients that took you out of your sweet spot? 

Maybe it’s worth trying on for size.

~ Drew

What makes your data vulnerable?

It's a very difficult situation when I must tell a new client that they have to spend a minimum of $1,500 just to get to the point they were at hours ago. That's for a seven day turn around. Next day service starts at $12,000. Not new equipment, just a business' data recovery. Finally, that's assuming that the wizards at my favorite data recovery center can actually recover the data, which isn't guaranteed. 

While the equipment that is used to access data is easily replaced, often the data itself is not. Furthermore, a business' reputation is often at stake. Needless to say, a critical part of your IT services is to plan for data loss. Let's look at the largest causes of data loss, along with the data backup philosophy that fits best with minimizing it:

Intentional and unintentional actions:

An end user accidentally deletes a file. Another forgets to save it in the first place. These are intentional and unintentional actions. Not malicious, but damaging all the same.

This is why applications such as Microsoft Office Suite, and now even Operating Systems, such as Apple's OS X Lion, offer automatic save technologies. Even with such technology, it is still easy to accidentally delete a file. Because of this, I am a fan of self-service local backups for end users. This way, they can recover from accidental deletions without needing to involve IT staff.

Disaster:20080613_Des_Moines_River

In the midwest, our primary concerns are fire, flood, and tornados. Other places might add hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanoes. 

An offsite backup is required for this type of data loss. Many small businesses rely on the "take a backup home" method to provide protection. However, they are still taking a risk that their home will be affected by the same disaster as their office. With the onset of cloud backups, it is possible to obtain inexpensive offsite backup that is thousands of miles away, allowing the greatest protection against disaster.

Crime:

Theft, viruses, unauthorized intrusions all fit within this category. It's also the sad state of our world that we must acknowledge possible terrorism, and how to respond. 

Like disasters, offsite backups are key, but another variable is also important. Offline backups. It's important that there is at least one copy of the data that the intruder cannot modify. This is especially important with cloud-based backup services, because they are essentially online all the time. To account for this, most services keep multiple copies of all files, and make it difficult to delete files and impossible to modify them.

Failures:

This is the largest category with hardware failures, such as hard drive crashes, power failures and overloads, and data corruption. Cloud computing can have a business failure, which is where the service you are utilizing closes their doors, or changes their licensing in a way that is incompatible with your business.

Hardware failures often are dealt with by building in redundancy. Since hard drives are both a high point of failure, and inexpensive, IT staff will often place RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) arrays on servers, where downtime often means thousands of dollars of lost work. Virtualization, which I will cover in a later article, allows redundancy in actual computers, even further reducing the possibility of data loss, and even reducing the possibility of downtime.

Power failures and overloads are often accounted for with UPSs (uninterruptible power supplies), which perform two functions. First, they keep your equipment running during short power events. The other function they perform is that they notify the computer equipment of impending power failure so that the equipment can power down gracefully, reducing the possibility of data corruption.

Finally, the advent of cloud computing has amplified the ability for business failures to affect a company's data. Don't think of this as just a cloud business failing, but rather anything that could go wrong with an external service. Therefore, it is important to include the cloud service in your backup plans, or provide local redundancy if the cloud is the backup plan.

Conclusion:

In a future article, we'll further discuss the strategies used, and how to balance them with the costs involved.

- Jon Thompson

Bridging the gap

Too often I get asked who are the next group of leaders in Des Moines? Who is working to make sure Des Moines stays at the top of Forbes rankings?

There are countless networking events and conferences around the city and state. However, what there aren’t enough of are cross-generational opportunities. To be honest I think there are a lot of young professionals in Des Moines trying to step up and take the reins. But how often are they put in front of the current leadership?

I have had the opportunities to attend various events and sit on leadership boards. By now I can just about tell you what the demographic will be for most events. And it isn’t a wide range. Too often I am in a room where 90 percent of the attendees might be mistaken for my parents. Too often I am in a room where 90 percent of the people are within a few years of my age.

Did you know that Iowa has a statewide YPIowa Conference every year to help YPs stay on the path to success through leadership, professional development and social skill building? Each year a different YP organization from around our great state gets to host the conference as an opportunity to showcase their region and organization as well as to gain the experience in putting on such an event.

This Friday the Sioux City Growth Organization (SCGO) will host the 2011 YPIowa Conference in an effort to help put young professionals on the “Fast Tract to Success!”

For those needing more of a background, YPIowa is an organization focused on helping young professionals around the state grow their communities to help ensure long-term success in Iowa. There is no organizational structure. For example the SCGO is not a “chapter” of YPIowa. However, YPIowa does host events to help the YP organizations from around the state come together to share ideas and opportunities.

Our neighbors to the West in Omaha host an annual Omaha YP Summit, which is one of the largest YP conferences in the country. Now the YPIowa Conference is not on that level yet, but it continues to grow across the state and attract more attention every September.

So why is this conference important to the state of Iowa and what makes it deserving of more attention?

Because the YPIowa Conference is about finding the next group of young leaders. This week attendees of the Sioux City hosted event will attend breakout sessions focused around professional development, personal growth and young professionals. Teachers and mentors from those already considered a thought leader on their particular topic will educate and converse with professionals to help advance them towards their career and life goals.

If you live in Iowa and are still looking for those breakthrough opportunities, are you attending? Current leaders wondering who is going to keep Iowa on top, are you attending?

In Iowa let’s do more to put the next generation of leaders in front of the current mentors. Let’s rid ourselves of the perception that young professionals aren’t ready to look for a chance to step up or that leaders don’t have time to share with the next generation.

The opportunities are available. It’s what we do with them that counts.

- Jason Wells

White is the new green in roofs

In 2009, Al Gore and Mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed for the painting of one million square feet of roofs in New York City and launched "NYC Cool Roofs." The plan was to reduce energy costs and give college students a job.  It at least got people thinking about the color of their roof.

A white roof performs better in two areas over the typical dark colored roof. It reduces the surface temperature and cools the surroundings.

A white surface reflects sunlight before it can be absorbed and transformed into heat energy. In the process the surface temperature is reduced by as much as 30 degrees. The lower surface temperature reduces air conditioning and saves anywhere from 5-40% in electrical savings.

Seems the big factor is how much insulation is on the roof. The thicker the insulation the less impact surface temperature makes on the interior temperatures of the building. So if you have hardly any insulation on your roof you could paint it white and save some cash but if you have 5-6 inches of insulation you probably won’t notice a difference.

The other attribute of a white roof is it reduces the amount of heat re-radiated back to the surroundings. The phenomenon known as the heat island effect is best seen in cities like Phoenix where is does not cool down during the evening like the surrounding countryside.  So much heat energy has been absorbed by all the dark surfaces that it continues to heat the air even after the sun goes down. Some areas of the country can experience 10 degrees difference but probably not in Iowa.

I don’t think the time will come when the Iowa roofscape looks like those cities from Indiana Jones movies with the minarets and desert in the background. The cities with all white roofs are most likely never white from snow. But I wonder how long it will be before white roofs are a permanent part of landscape in Iowa. 

- Rob Smith

How to protect your business from an employee background check

Hand.Pen.Paper.DupontCircle.WDC.17sep05Image by ElvertBarnes via Flickr

President Obama’s proposed American Jobs Act purports to offer a $4000 tax credit for hiring a worker that has been unemployed for more than six months.  

Hiring someone who has been unemployed comes with obvious questions. When sifting the unfortunate from the incompetent, savvy employers use available tools to complete the profile of a potential hire.

What can you legally find out? Online research includes: social media, criminal history, and paid sources.  I assume each online reader is proficient enough with Google, Bing or at least lycos to run an internet search; therefore, this blog focuses on Iowa criminal searches and credit checks.

One simple preliminary source is Iowa Courts Online which compiles case dockets for Iowa legal matters. As stated in a previous blog, docket information for criminal charges remains on the Iowa Courts Online website, even if the charges are subsequently dismissed.

For certified confirmation of charges and disposition, the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigations (“DCI”) certifies search requests for a fee of $15. Iowa Code provides the Department of Criminal Investigation “may provide copies . . . [of] criminal history data to . . . (1) a person . . . upon written application[.]” The available “criminal history data” includes: arrests, convictions, the disposition of charges, correctional institution information, and any adjudications.

Note, employers do not need signed authorization for a search by the Iowa DCI, but, without an authorizing signature, an employer may not receive information about arrests more that 18 months old if the arrests do not have a final disposition. Additionally, without authorization, employers will not receive information about deferred judgments.  

Employers increasingly rely on credit checks. Credit checks require signed releases. More importantly, employers must comply with specific requirements if adverse action is taken based on the candidate’s credit score. If a potential employer uses a credit score in the hiring process, the employer must disclose:

  • that a credit score was used
  • information on the credit score
  • the credit score
  • up to four key adverse factors in the score
  • the agency that provided the score

If an adverse hiring decision is made, the employee must receive:

  • a copy of the report
  • the name of the reporting agency
  • the guidelines on disputing the report

As you consider taking advantage of any incentive to hire the previously unemployed, be aware that checking criminal history and credit comes with restrictions. Make sure that your job posting clearly requires consent to these checks and that you get written authorization from the candidate. If you find anything adverse, you will save time. If you get the green light, you may find a great employee in time for an incentive under the American Jobs Act. 

Christine Branstad 

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Bring problems to their knees

Ever heard of Steve Ventura? He's a smart guy. He said, "The hallmark of a well-managed organization is not the absence of problems, but whether or not problems are effectively resolved." Sure beats trying to create a problem-free environment, huh?

Apollo 11, the first successful space flight to land humans on the moon, was off course 80 percent of the time throughout its successful 1969 mission. But thanks to continually making strategic changes and fine-tuning, they reached their goal.

Problems are inevitable and provide the best opportunity for real learning. No one welcomes yet another challenge, but we learn through the experience of dealing with them. Leadership guru Warren Bennis calls mistakes "missteps" that are necessary for actualizing visions and achieving success.

  • When faced with a problem, do you develop and consider at least two solutions? Or three? or four?
  • Are you comfortable with the challenges of "what if's?"
  • Do you consistently look beneath the symptoms to find the root causes?

Decide right now to use your next misstep as a practice field to bring problems to their knees and solve them.

- Shirley Poertner

Using an appraiser to value the business

So, you have found a buyer for your business but there is a significant difference in the offer and the asking price. One common method to handle this issue is for both parties to agree to use appraisers to determine the value of the business. If appraisers are going to be used to determine price in a valuation process, they need instruction regarding the specifics the parties to a buy-sell agreement are seeking. The agreement should define the issues/guidelines the appraiser(s) will use to provide the valuation.

1. Standard of value

2. Level of value

3. The “as of” date

4. Qualifications of appraisers

5. Funding mechanism

Standard of value

Will the pricing value be based on “fair market value” or “fair value” or some other standard? If the standard of value provision in a buy-sell agreement is not clear, appraisers may have to decide what the written words mean—a decision they may prefer not to make. Or the parties, whose interests have already diverged, will have to agree on a standard of value to provide instructions to the appraiser(s). Neither situation is ideal.

Level of value

The levels of value suggest a range of values, from the strategic controlling interest level of value of the enterprise as a whole, to the non-marketable minority interest level of value applicable to illiquid, minority interests. This lack of direction leads to some of the largest variations in valuation opinions by appraisers. These differences almost inevitably arise from absent or ambiguous specifications regarding the applicable level of value in particular agreements.  For example, is the company valued from the perspective of a non-marketable minority level or as a strategic acquisition?  Situations like this can and do happen and they are never pretty in their resolution, nor are the parties generally satisfied with the ultimate results.

The ‘as of’ date

The effective date of an appraisal is often called the “as of” date. It is the date the appraisers will use to assess the economic environment and the facts known about the company at that exact date on which they base their valuation.

Qualifications of appraisers

Buy-sell agreements are often silent regarding the qualifications of appraisers.  Parties to buy-sell agreements should consider appraiser qualifications when agreeing on an appraisal process. The logical requirements become apparent as parties begin to reflect on individual appraisers and appraisal firms. Therefore, the qualifications of appraisal firms should be specified based on their size, the scope of their business, and perhaps, on their specific industry expertise. 

The Funding Mechanism

The agreement should have a funding mechanism designed to ensure that the agreed-upon value will first, be affordable to the company (cash flow, financeable, viable assets etc.); and second, realizable by the seller. The funding mechanism is an essential business element of buy-sell agreements but only part of the due diligence process.

- Steve Sink

Is your idea marketable?

marketImage by dcJohn via Flickr

Here is a hard truth for most first time entrepreneurs.  There are a lot of great ideas out there and many of them  are not original.  A great idea is a beginning to the entrepreneurial road, but it is not even a full first step.  The first full step is determining if your great idea is marketable. 

So what does it mean to be marketable? Here are a few starting points.  Keep in mind this is by no means a complete list.  Bookshelves have been filled with volumes on what it means to be marketable!

  1. Can I reach my potential market at a cost I can afford?
  2. Am I solving a problem my customers believe they have?
  3. Can I deliver my product at a cost that leaves room to make money?
  4. Who are my competitors and how do I compare?  Keep in mind there are always competitors including those favorites of mine, excel spreadsheets and apathy. 
  5. Will customers pay for what I have to sell.

Inc Magazine had a great post titled "How to Assess the Market Potential of Your Idea"  It is worth the read. They listed five ideas on how to asses the market potential:

  1. Ask the right questions
  2. Google it
  3. Collect Feedback
  4. Sell something, anything
  5. Just Do It

I have to say you must be careful with the "Just Do It" idea.  I think that is great when your investment in "Just Do It" is something you can afford to loose.  Those who blindly launch into the market are often the first to fail.  On the other hand, Sell something, anything is great advice.  The vast majority of entrepreneurs are not good sales people yet they will spend their days selling their products and their ideas.  Selling is the education most entrepreneurs need. 

What would you add to these lists?

- Mike Colwell
www.bizci.org
www.startupmodels.com

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So this is it

Four and a half years ago, Drew McLellan approached me about a "new blogging opportunity" which would be bringing together some of the best business bloggers in Des Moines under one roof. It was going to be called Iowabiz.com and we'd each contribute 2-3 posts a month under our area of expertise.

I have to say, it's been a blast sharing my insights and thoughts about project management with you over this time. We've covered the appropriate ways to turn an idea into a real project, prioritize it, plan it out, write status reports about it, audit it, recover it, and close it out. We've talked about the human nature of projects, how some people will report a task as 100% complete when it's not, how to play office politics, what to do when restarting a dormant project. I've used holidays, family vacations, current events, politics, and movies to drive home my points.

But there's one last thing I need to cover: walking away.

I'm a strong proponent of "fit" between a project manager and a project. I've fired myself before on projects when I've realized I was not the best person to move a project forward. I've also removed myself when I saw I had take a project (or team) as far as I could, and it was time for fresh leadership. And I've said "no" to projects where I knew I could not add value or just would not enjoy the project.

Sometimes, you have to walk away from a project, to say no, to turn it down. Such is the way it is for my relationship with Iowabiz. Do I have more to say on the topic of project management? Oh yes, and you'll still see my insights pop up on my blog. Have I appreciated our conversation over the past few years? Tremendously! But now it's time for me to say "yes" to some new adventures in my life, and in order to do that, I feel compelled to say "no" to others; Iowabiz is one of those "others" to which I'll bid a fond farewell. (Stay tuned for the announcement about my replacement; I'm confident the topic of project management is going to soar to new heights, and I'm excited to pass the baton.)

I wanted to thank you all who have read these posts month after month. Some have commented; others have just read; occasionally, I receive an email or a comment on Facebook or Twitter. But I know you're out there. And I've appreciated you. Carpe Factum, my friends... in Iowa business... and in life.

- Timothy Johnson

When two S corporations are one too many

Entrepreneurs often set up a new corporation for each new business. It makes sense; if one has a catstrophe, the others are shielded from the damage. But if you aren't careful, multiple corporations can cause a tax catastrophe. It caused a $16 million problem in Tax Court this month for a Michigan couple.

S-walnut Owners of "S corporations" may be eligible to deduct the corporations business losses against other income on their personal tax returns. There are a number of limits on such losses, starting with the owners' "basis" in their S corporation stock.  Basis starts with their investment in the company; it is increased for earnings of the business and additional investments, and reduced for losses and distributions from the business.  Owners may also get basis for losses from personal loans to the S corporation.

If you have two corporations, one might be profitable, but the other might be losing money -- and short on basis.  Owners may be caught with non-deductible losses at year-end if they can't figure out how to get the basis where it needs to be.  That's what happened to the Michigan couple.

The easiest way to deal with this problem might be an "S corporation holding company."  If you have two S corporations with identical ownership, you can contribute all of their stock to a new corporation (it has to be all of the stock).  The new corporation makes a timely S corporation election on Form 2553, and the now-subsidiary corporations file timely "Q-Sub" elections. 

The tax law treats the new corporate group as a single corporation for basis purposes, eliminating the need to try to shuffle basis between them at year end.  The lawyers are happy because the liabilities of the businesses are still in separate corporations under state law.

Of course, don't try this at home.  Check with your tax and legal advisors before messing with your corporate equity structure.

- Joe Kristan

Want to be an expert in your field... write like one!

104393124Especially in today's information age, we value professionals who have achieved a high level of expertise and knowledge in their chosen field.  

Sometimes, when you don't know how to assess someone's skill level (i.e. I don't get cars, so I have no way of recognizing a good car mechanic) you look for clues.

One of the most tried and true clues is -- if they've written a book on a particular subject, odds are pretty good that they're an expert.  It's human nature to give those people their proper due and assume that they really are at the top of their game.

Several well known Central Iowans have penned excellent business books.  You should check them out:

The Personal Side of Leadership by Marty Baddeloo, CPA (click to buy the book)

Marty uses his decades of work experiences as a leader and now a coach to teach his readers about the Triangle of Leadership and your role in making all three sides stronger! The book is full of stories, lessons and points to ponder.

Ignite! by Mitch Matthews with visuals by Jocelyn Wallace (click to buy the book)

Part storybook, part workbook and full on inspiration -- Mitch reminds us how to uncover and clear the cobwebs off our dreams and ignite our passion for chasing them.  Jocelyn's beautiful art direction and photography are eye candy that teach and fan the flames.

Winning the Money Game by Adam Carroll (click to buy the book)

Adam's passion is to teach young people (college and young professionals) how to take control of their money so they can have the life they want and deserve.  This book outlines how to make that a reality.

SWAT by Timothy L. Johnson (click to buy the book)

Tim's third book deals with how systems can make all the difference on any team. Written as a business parable, this story pairs up Toby the reluctant business leader and his friend a SWAT commander.  A really fresh way to explore what could potentially be a dry topic.

And that's just scratching the surface.  Several other Central Iowans have also graced bookshelves with their smarts. (Feel free to list some in the comments section).

Not only do you get some instant cred as a published author but there are several other benefits from writing a book:

  • It becomes an instant leave behind or direct mail piece (think of it as a really thick business card!)
  • It may lead to speaking opportunities or consulting gigs
  • If it sells well, you can leverage it into a second book
  • You get to swear a smoking jacket and smoke a pipe  (okay, not every author will opt for this!)

So how about you?  What's your area of expertise? What story could you tell that would be of benefit to others?  Think it can't be done? 

Just scratch out an outline.  Take that first step.  We're ready to read what you have to say!  And believe me, it will be good for business!

Three tips to clarify your vision

Business owners. Leaders. Entrepreneurs. Intrapreneurs. Domestic Executives. Gas-guzzling SUVs. We all have something in common. Drain Gain by jocelynwallace

We are a bit drained these days!

I consult for companies who drive in the fast lane of marketplace change. As they adapt and innovate, business leaders want to clearly communicate their vision, both internally to their teams and externally through sales and marketing channels.

But if a business owner assumes everyone sees what she sees, she is driving an “SUV gas guzzler” -- burning a lot of resources and moving the needle from full to empty quickly.

To avoid this, I help management teams clarify and communicate their vision through the use of visual strategies. Interestingly, the same basic principles and processes work for clarifying and communicating a vision for life too.

3 Tips for Clarifying Your Vision for Work and Life

  1. Discover or Redefine Your Core Values. I created a VISUAL HOMEWORK tool to help with this, so click here for the tool and instructional guide.
  2. Get your vision down on paper. Most people have a vision in their heads of who they are, what they want to do and where they want to go. Move it from your head and get it down on paper.
  3. Draw the vision. If you want more people to be on the same page, you’ve got to make it visual. If you are like most, you think you can’t draw. No worries! Use stick people, circles, squares, arrows and clouds. It makes a difference!

When we have a clear vision we get focused (internally). When we make it visual, it becomes the anchor for communicating it clearly (externally). And that, my friend, moves the needle from drain to gain!

Give it a try. And then tell me how you did in the comments. Did it help to clarify your vision?

-- Jocelyn Wallace

Related & Helpful Articles:

Is Your Vision Shared by All? (eosworldwide.com blog)
If Everything is Important...Nothing Is (Patrick Lencioni’s blog)
Overwhelmed? Fill Your Tank (www.jocelynwallace.com blog)

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A quick guide to troubleshooting network connectivity

Greetings, my name is Jon Thompson, and I am exited to write about Information Technology for Iowabiz.com. I’ve been in the IT business for coming on fifteen years now, and am exited to share my knowledge with the IowaBiz.com community. My business, Evolve, works solely with Apple Macintosh and iOS (for those that don’t know the lingo- that’s iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone.) However, my experiences transcend particular platforms, and I’ll always make sure that my posts are informative toward the entire business computing ecosystem.

Caterham WiringImage via Wikipedia

As an IT consultant, I am often diagnosing network connectivity, which is increasingly vital as services continue to move into the cloud. Enterprise network downtime costs have been discussed for years now, and has even been extrapolated down to SMBs. However, cloud computing itself comes with its own risks.

A user following a few standard steps can determine whether a connectivity issue is internal to their business, or something that is beyond their control.

 

 

    1. Start by identifying potential problems on your own computer and work toward the cloud

Check to see if another device is having problems as well. If they are not, chances are there is a problem with your computer, rather than the network.

    2. Check your network connection. 

A computer isn’t able to communicate if it doesn’t have some sort of wireless or wired signal.

    3. Check the IP address of your local router.

Generally these have a web interface and the IP address is easily locatable in the network settings. Look for a number with the word “router” or “gateway” beside it that looks like either 192.168.x.x or 10.x.x.x. The number might be different, but these two formats are very common.

    4. Check the link to the ISP.

The modem and/or router will have a light that indicates whether the device is actually talking with your ISP. If it is not:

    5. Check the connections on the back of the router.

DSL will have a phone connection; Cable will have a coax connection.  Make sure they are connected to the proper location on the wall. 

    6. Check DNS. 

DNS is the system that translates IP addresses into names, such as iowabiz.com. When it isn’t working properly, it will feel like a broken Internet connection. To troubleshoot, enter 209.85.225.104 into the address bar of your web browser. Google should appear. If it doesn’t, you have a DNS problem.   

    7. Contact the Cloud service provider.

Chances are that the issue that you are facing is with the cloud service provider at this point.

By having a basic understanding of the network troubleshooting workflow, one can speed up the time that it takes to work with IT and minimize downtime.

- Jon Thompson

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A better Des Moines through 2050

Official seal of City of Des MoinesImage via Wikipedia

Sustainability.

You’ve probably heard this word bouncing around the Central Iowa region recently. I question how many of us actually know what it means.

Sustainability: “The quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.”

In other words it is about being responsible in order to make a better future for Des Moines and the Central Iowa region. At first, I’ll admit the subject seemed a little dry to me. But I’d be willing to bet it seems that way for a lot of young professionals.

On Tuesday, the Des Moines Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) will publicly launch The Tomorrow Plan with an event at the State Historical Building. In short, it’s about “Planning for a Greener Greater Des Moines.” Makes sense, right?

After taking a step back and educating myself on what this is really about, it’s a topic that should be anything but dry to young professionals. The Tomorrow Plan is trying to provide for a better Des Moines through the year 2050! (Read a Business Record Story)

2050? Even I’ll be past my prime by then! All the more reason sustainability should be something young professionals not only take an interest in, but an active role in.

I’m not an expert on sustainability by any means, but I’m in the process of learning what goes into it… Everything! Whether it be transportation, environment, construction, etc.; it all goes hand in hand. You need to factor in all the different components just to make a simple improvement to one.

Everything about Des Moines points towards a city that is poised for growth and success. Whether you are looking for a great city for young professionals, a place to raise a family or quality of life, you notice Des Moines is at the top of all these lists.

In order to keep Des Moines ahead of the curve, studies of the regions projected growth and existing conditions will help MPO leaders put together a plan and the necessary framework to allow for a bright future. As a young professional building a future in Des Moines, now is the chance to take part in what that future looks like.

The Tomorrow Plan kick-off event in Des Moines is planned to be interactive. Not just a chance to listen, but a chance to take action. Come check it out from 4 to 8 p.m. at the State Historical Building. (Click for details)

Part of planning for success is never being satisfied!

- Jason Wells

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Don't be a chicken: Fail quickly!

Rooster in grass.Image via Wikipedia

The people who design jet engines use a chicken test. This test fires chickens (usually purchased at the supermarket) at a running engine. They attempt to run this test as early in the design process as possible because if the engine can't pass the test, there is no point in spending additional millions designing it.

Fast failure is acceptable; slow failure is not. But even more unacceptable is NO failure. If you aren't failing anywhere at work, then it's likely that you're not trying hard enough. You are not pushing the envelope.

The following related story may be urban legend but it's a good one. (It comes from David Thielen's, The Twelve Simple Secrets of Microsoft Management.) A British company asked Boeing for one of its chicken guns to test a new jet windshield. After using it the Brits called up Boeing and reported that the chicken went through not only the windshield but also the brick wall behind it. Boeing sent an engineer over to England to investigate. After watching the workers run the test again, Boeing added to the instructions, "Make sure chickens are defrosted before firing."

The point? Identify failure as fast as possible.

  • Sit down and try to come up with everything you're doing that could lead to failure. (It's usually pretty easy to accurately predict all the things that could trip you up. The surprise is usually in which of the predicted items actually did cause the failure.)
  • For each item on your list, figure out how to determine, as early as possible, if this is a showstopper.
  • For each showstopper, don't give up. See if you can find a way around the problem.
  • Only if the problem is truly unsolvable do you kill the project.
  • Oh, and be sure to read the instructions. All the instructions.

- Shirley Poertner

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Culture still counts

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The topic of how culture can improve financial performance is becoming more prevalent as companies look for ways to compete in the new economic environment.

There is a company that has made culture a priority for over 40 years - Southwest Airlines.  Not only has it been a priority, it has lead to 38 straight years of profitability in the airline industry, which is amazing.

How do they do it?  I was on a Southwest Airline flight yesterday and picked up their magazine Spirit.  The first article in the magazine was by their leader Gary Kelly and it was titled "The Importance of Culture".  It struck me that companies that understand the impact of culture have leaders that walk the talk - Herb Keller, Colleen Barrett, and now Gary Kelly.

Shortly after reading the article an announcement was made looking for a passenger on the plane.  A four year old girl raised her hand and the attendant announced that this was her first airline flight and would everyone give her a round of applause - which everyone did.  He then proceeded to hand her a certificate for her achievement.  It does not take a genius to figure out why Southwest Airlines has had 38 straight years of profitability.

What kind of culture do you have at your company? If asked, would one of your employees raise their hand and would the rest of the team applaud?  If an attendant on an airplane can get a bunch of strangers to applaud someone they do not even know, then leaders should not be afraid to engage their employees and improve their company's culture and profitability.

- Victor Aspengren

Flickr photo by GirlieErin

Serving customers means anticipating what they need

call centerImage by vlima.com via Flickr

Every time you call a company's Customer Service line you hear the recording: "Your call may be recorded or monitored to ensure service quality." You may wonder, "Does anyone actually listen to these calls?"

Yes. Welcome to my world.

Not every call is monitored, but companies who care about their service typically have some kind of program for routinely listening and analyzing their customer service calls. In fact, that's a big part of what my company does. And so, this past week I listened to the customer who called my client who happens to be a financial institution.

Customer: "I'm really upset with my bank and the money they charge me just to have an account there. Does your bank charge fees just to have an account?"

Customer Service Representative: "No. Our bank doesn't do that."

Customer: "Oh, okay. Thanks."

Customer Service Representative: "You're welcome. Good-bye."

The Customer Service Representative (CSR) would likely say that he did his job. The customer asked a question and he answered it. He answered it correctly. But, did the CSR actually address the customer's need? The customer was not just looking for an answer to her question, she was looking for an answer to her banking needs. The CSR technically answered her question, but failed to perceive the customer's true desire: "I'm looking for a new bank who won't charge me just to have an account."

"We don't charge fees and we'd love to have you as a customer."

"Our checking is free. I'd be happy to help you open an account."

"Wow! I'm sorry you've had a bad experience. No only do we NOT charge our customers for having an account, but we have a gift of appreciation for every customer who opens an account with us. I'd love to help get you started."

This call happened to be a bank, but the principle translates to any industry. Good customer service is not just answering the question the customer asked, but perceiving and meeting what the customer genuinely needs.

- Tom Vander Well

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Make the customer's life easier - Tell them the price!

Lincoln on U.S. one centWikipedia

Price gets in the way of doing business. For those who have sold for a living, you could probably each write a book about getting around the price issue. Yet for most businesses this is a self-inflicted wound.

Today, the worst example of this is booking an airline trip. Try it. Try to get a complete final price for a trip. Unless you know exactly how many bags and their individual weight, it is impossible to get the final price.

In the on-line world, a recent change by on-line retailers is to provide free shipping as a standard offering. This is happening based on evidence that purchase rates increase for items with free shipping.  Evidence also exists that these customers tend to comparison shop less where free shipping is offered. I believe this is simply a case of making it easy for the customer to buy. 

One key market that is just beginning to change pricing practices is the services area.  A good example of this change is in the practice of law.  Most people know that lawyers typically charge by the hour.  Many of us start off our discussion with a lawyer trying to figure out what the work we need done will cost us.  This is especially true if the client-lawyer relationship is new.

Recently, several firms in town have started providing some services at a fixed price.  In the area I work, mentoring start-up companies, this is a real change for the good.  When your cash balance is precious and there is little or no revenue coming in, it is hard to engage in an open-ended-fee relationship.  A good example of this change is Start-up Launchpad by Davis Brown Law.  For a set fee, the client receives a set of services that are typically needed by a new start-up company.  Even better, potential clients can sign up for access to the site for free and access valuable information without cost.

So think about the average start-up business person facing the long list of tasks to start a business.  Getting all of the legal work done is only one item on that long list.  Which do you think the entrepreneur will choose, the hourly rate with the unknown total cost, or the flat fee bundle of services?  The customer choice just became so much easier.

By providing a clear price for a product or service, you are taking away a roadblock to business.  Look at your business and find new ways to make the buying decision easier for your customer.  They will thank you. 

- Mike Colwell

www.bizci.org

But what about the rest of us?

Holding_hands I've spent a majority of my time writing for this blog, directing my posts toward project managers, trying to help you improve your project performance.

Project managers, you get to sit this one out.

This post is for everyone who works with project managers... primarily, the project team members.

You may be totally enamored with your project manager... you may think she/he is the most outstanding person on the planet, a savior for your project's success. Or you may wonder what they're smoking half the time... why do I have to do status reports? What's with this issues log? Another meeting... really? Why can't I just do stuff?

There's a reason for that. A great post by Richard Wilner compares project management to customer service. As a project team member, your job is to provide amazing customer service to the end stakeholders. It's also to provide the same outstanding customer service to your project manager (assuming s/he is competent and plays nice in the sandbox and has earned your respect). Wilner states three key points to this end:

1) You can’t manage what you can’t measure.  How are you measuring your team’s skills? How are you ensuring they match project requirements? Tight correlation here is the easiest way to create an effective, engaged team.

2) No one ever got fired for thrilling the customer.  How are you measuring and tracking customer satisfaction?  A short customer or stakeholder survey given at critical project milestones will help bring the picture into focus.

3) Be a good vendor and a good customer.  To properly deliver for your customer, your vendors must deliver.  As a customer, set your vendor up to succeed – pay them on time, fully define deliverables and dates as soon as they are known, and if your vendor readjusts expectations, make sure you pass that through to your customer.

To that end, I'll let the project managers start reading. I've used the attached contract for project managers to partner with their project teams.

Download Team Member Agreement

OK, everybody, now all together...

CARPE FACTUM!

- Timothy Johnson

Is your social media presence "perfessional?"

The number one question I'm asked when talking about social media to professionals is "How can I create a social media presence that is professional but still reflects my personality?" This is a vast improvement over three years ago, when the number one question was, "How can I get all these freaks who I didn't even like in high school to stop following me on Facebook?"

Here are my suggestions for creating a social network that is both personal and professional. Hence, the term "perfessional."

  1. Be Professional: Relax. It's not rocket science. You are used to being professional, day in and day out. Year after year. You know how to play office politics. You know how to keep confidences. Now take those skills and apply them to your social media presence. A good rule of thumb: Don't write it if you wouldn't want your comment read by your boss, or your mother! Or both!
  2. Make funny observations: The best way to show your personality is to allow your sense of humor to show. Share a clean joke. Post a funny Onion article. Allow your friends to see that you're not a wet blanket.
  3. Avoid spam: Don't be that guy that falls for every "Here's a cute photo of you!" spam link. People will not only unfriend you in a heartbeat, but also think you're a dork. If you find out you've been spammed, for goodness sake, delete the offending post and apologize!
  4. Express your opinion occassionally: Believe it or not, people care what you think. Don't feel you have to remain neutral all the time. People will respect you for expressing your opinion on matters that are meaningful to you.
  5. Share your personal interests (in moderation): If you enjoy motorcycle racing or are proud of your grandkids, by all means, share a photo or two! As long as you're not constantly gushing about your perfect child or posting pictures of every meal you cook, it's great to share your non-work interests.

Nobody wants to follow a business-only Twitter account or a Facebook page that does nothing but push out real estate listings or press releases. Lend your personality to your social network, and make it one of your biggest assets.

Don't flush that home office deduction

20110901iabiz With the rise of the Internet and the wonderful business computer tools now available, more entrepreneurs make do without fancy rental office than ever before. But not everyone who works at home qualifies for a home office deduction. A Florida accountant learned that the hard way in Tax Court recently.

The accountant worked out of a home office. When you take a home office deduction, you get to deduct some otherwise non-deductible home expenses attributable to your business space.  The catch: the space has to be used "exclusively" for your business. And they mean it.  From the Tax Court:

Petitioner argued that he also used the hallway and the bathroom adjacent to this bedroom exclusively for his accounting business. Petitioner testified, however, that his children and other personal guests occasionally used the bathroom. Accordingly, the hallway and the bathroom were not used exclusively for business purposes.

Jean Murray explains what you need to know about your home office deduction:

  • The space you deduct must be used (1) regularly AND (2) exclusively for business. A bedroom or part of bedroom that you don't use for anything else might be deductible, but not a bathroom that's also used for personal reasons. (I'm still trying to figure out how a home bathroom could have a business purpose.)
  • You can deduct the percentage of the space compared to your home's total living space.
  • You can deduct direct expenses related to the home office, like a separate phone line.
  • You can also deduct indirect expenses, like roof repairs, using the percentage.

If you are a Schedule C entrepreneur, you compute the deduction on Form 8829.  If you are an employee, it gets more complicated, so check with your tax advisor or IRS Publication 587.

- Joe Kristan

Flickr image by dfwcre8tive2009 under Creative Commons license.

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