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June 2009

Remember Lou’s 10/90 Rule to Manage Stress

Legendary college football coach Lou Holtz gave some great advice I draw to mind when feeling stressed: “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it.”

5808072thl_stress You don’t need to be a sports fan to benefit from Holtz’s mantra. We all experience difficult situations, and if we’re not careful, stress can cause physical, emotional and psychological strain that affects us at our home and work.

Stress is defined as the body’s response to change. Along the way, you may have already experienced some of the common symptoms: depression, heart disease, sleep loss, headaches and pain in the back, neck and jaw.

According to the American Heart Association, it’s important to identify ways you best handle stress, such as exercising, talking about your troubles or learning to accept the things you cannot change (the old Serenity Prayer).

You also should pay attention to potential stressful conditions at the office. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health outlines several stressful situations, including:

  • Task Design: Heavy workload, infrequent breaks and long work hours can take their toll on even the most serene individual.
  • Management Style: Departments lacking team decision-making opportunities, open communication and family-friendly policies may experience high turnover and employee burnout. 
  • Work Roles: Employees struggling with conflicting or uncertain job expectations, extensive travel or an endless number of immediate reports may feel overwhelmed and frustrated. 

Be mindful of your own reaction to stressful situations and focus on identifying the disruptive factors affecting you and your team. Make time to discuss difficult projects or clients while helping others develop positive methods to manage their stress.

This is important. Studies show that stressful working conditions are associated with increased absenteeism, tardiness and employee turnover – all of which can have a negative effect on the bottom line. So remember Holtz’s advice, and focus on your personal and professional health.

Reflection on the Passing of Three Cultural Icons

Michael JacksonMichael Jackson via last.fm

Last week, each generation lost three cultural icons: Ed McMahon, Farah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. Their lives had great meaning and contributed much to the popular culture. Pop culture, as silly as it can be sometimes, provides energy in an otherwise boring world, so when pop icons vanish it feels as if part of our own history our own identity has also left.  

As some eulogize these figures, many are thinking back to a life experience that somehow involved one of these stars. Though many might argue over the abundance of attention a celebrity’s death may get compared to the average person, the truth is we were able to chronicle our own lives and identity by watching them. Sometimes it was comparing our actions and sometimes it was contrasting our actions to theirs. Yet even in their passing these icons provide a reflecting lesson for the generations to take.

Ed McMahon knew his role, found success and thought it would never go away; a great legacy that in latter years was trying to regain relevance, not for limelight’s sake but for humility’s purpose. McMahon did things the right way until things changed and McMahon was left.

As the world changing Boomers now face a changing world, it is fascinating to see the struggle to pass down not just the memories of their past, but its significance and purpose to future generations that may not be as willing to absorb all its predecessors lessons.

Farah Fawcett’s death was probably the most heroic, her fight had been long chronicled, and in the end it was bitter sweet. However, before the end of the day it was largely overshadowed by the death of Michael Jackson. As time goes on she will be re-eulogized in a way that is not overshadowed, and the courage of waning days will be celebrated.

While the focus has been on Boomers and Millennials, Gen X characteristically has been overlooked. But as I’ve noticed of Gen X's embrace of an imperfect world is the generation's realization that they have to lead regardless of being in the shadows of two behemoth generations.

Jackson’s legacy was multi-generational. However, Jackson’s persona can only fully be measured from a generation that only remembers him when he was at his peak. There is no question that Millennials are a self-aware group searching to find their place in the world of work. Jackson grew up in the limelight, which allowed him much influence. But away from the stage it created a real sense of vulnerability that in the end was probably his downfall.

USA Today published a report recently referring to Millennials as the “recession generation” and indicating that this generation had particular dreams and expectations that all of a sudden took a turn when the economy tanked. Now a generation that has always been taught it was invincible is starting to realize it s vulnerability.

Thee is much more we can take away from the lives of these individuals, but let's continue to look at the lessons their lives teach us.

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Lighten up and get some new customers

We all take our work seriously, as we should.  After all, it's how we pay our mortgage.  But depending on what exactly it is your business does...sometimes it pays to take a more light-hearted approach to selling your wares.

Takes the good folks at PetButler.comDarron Kitterman, the Central Iowa franchise owner has a sense of humor and uses it to grow his business.  Pet Butler's work is for the dogs....literally.  They scoop poop.  They do provide some other services...but they're all related to dog waste of some sort.

Gotpoop Darron uses that sense of humor to make sure everyone knows what he does for a living and how he can make your life a little easier.  Darron dons a shirt like this and waves a passing cars.  He mails t-shirts (see photo) and candy bars that look like poop.

They use poop puns like "often imitated, never doo-plicated."

They have fun.  They make us smile.  And we remember them.

And when we're frustrated because your kids can't play in the back yard or mowing is a landmine avoidance game....who do you call?

Exactly....the people who gave you a chuckle and made dog poop amusing.

I'm not saying this tongue-in-cheek approach would work for every organization.  But, it's a great example and a worthy reminder to all of that that we don't always have to take ourselves quite so seriously.

Having some fun doesn't mean you aren't a poo-fessional!

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Don't Tell Twitter Your Vacation Plans

The Good With the Bad
Twitter, blogs, message boards, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media platforms are great ways toBlog connect with large groups of people. Transparency, being open about who you are and what you do, has many advantages. It generates trust. It builds relationships. In addition to the benefits openness provides, it also has dangers. Knowing what these dangers are and how to protect yourself, your home and your family, is not difficult and may just keep you from becoming the latest victim.

Dangers of Over-sharing
Everyone knows posting confidential information to the Web is an identity theft waiting to happen. Thieves will do whatever they can to get your valuable information, but did you know even disclosing your location could lead you to become a victim? Last month Israel Hyman, (Twitter handle @IzzyVideo) posted on Twitter that he and his family were on vacation in Kansas City. He also set up his Twitter account to automatically update his Facebook status with that information. After his family vacation, Mr. Hyman returned home to Arizona only to discover he had been burglarized, with thousands of dollars of video and computer equipment gone.

How Did It Happen?

In addition to Mr. Hyman's 2000+ Twitter followers, anyone could have logged onto Twitter to check his status. Once they know you will be away, thieves do not need much to find your home. A name, a cell phone number, a Web site address (which they can check for contact information) or a picture may be all they need to connect your "I'm on vacation" post with a Google Map to your home. So what can you do?

Think Before You Post
The solution is not to stop interacting online. The solution is simply to think before you post. Refrain from posting outside your closest network of friends things like: "I'm home alone" or "I'm working late." Also, continue to post while on vacation. Posts from your friends, such as "Has anyone heard from Jane? She has not posted for days" are cues that your home may be vacant.

Stay in Touch
If you are online, your network of contacts is actually your best defense against becoming an online victim. More than likely, someone in your network will be the first, not only to alert you to potential threats, but to tell you how to protect yourself from them. If you are a real glutton for punishment, and need all the latest information about cyberlaw and online threats, feel free to follow me on Twitter @BrettTrout

Brett Trout

Presentation Awareness

Earlier this week I was invited to sit in on a lunch and learn presentation that was given by a friend of a friend. The lunch and learn has certainly become a popular and effective way of introducing a business idea, promoting and marketing a company, or simply giving a group of people in the community something of value to make their business better…if it’s done correctly.

Unfortunately, this presentation died before it started (By the way, I speak from experience. I’ve been the pilot of more than one presentation that crashed and burned so I know what I’m talking about).

The meeting was advertised to begin at 12:00 and end at 1:00. It didn’t. Many of the attendees are coming from their corporate jobs so time is crucial. The presenter was sitting at a table speaking one on one with what appeared to be one of his friends and the presentation started just after 12:15. The presenter was a very friendly and funny person, but like me was like a kitten with a shiny object being waved in front of him. The presenter was just simply not aware of what was happening outside of him (i.e. everyone looking at their watches and squirming in their chairs). Way too much time was spent trying to be entertaining and the message just didn’t resonate.493765546_b1dec4b19a

At nearly ten minutes after one o’clock, the presentation ended. The presenter asked for questions (none were asked), and thanked everyone for coming. Once the audience finally received their lunch bills, they hurried out the door and back to work. I'm guessing it was not a very profitable afternoon.

So with that, I present a few (of many) obvious ways to make a lunch and learn more effective;

  • Be prepared Having fun and bringing your personality into your presentation can be very effective. But even great improvisation has structure. There is a reason people like Drew McLellan and Adam Carroll make it look so easy.
  • Respect people's time Start on time and end on time. Know your audience. In this case, many people were coming from their corporate jobs where lunch hours are actually one hour. If people are stressed about getting back to work on time you've lost them even if they are still in the room.
  • Give something of value Again, time is precious. Funny and entertaining is icing on the cake. If your audience doesn't leave with something that can make their job or life better, you've wasted your time and theirs.
  • Keep it simple Here is a slide from Garr Reynolds at Presentation Zen on keeping it simple. Think about it.

Have you sat through an awesome presentation lately? What made it great?

Avoid litigators – Don’t Destroy That Document

My posts deal with avoiding litigation. My last post addressed the benefit of putting business dealings in writing. Once you put something in writing, the next logical determination is how long to save that document.

Business owners regularly tell me they keep records for seven years because it is "the law." The magicBlog seven-year rule may be a tax guideline, but it is a business and legal myth.

Prior to going Enron on your corporate records, take a look at the IRS’s Starting a Business and Keeping Records. The Record-keeping section addresses records for taxes. To address concern about potential lawsuits, work with your attorney to design a record retention plan. Be sure the plan covers paper records and electronic data. Once you have a record retention (and destruction) plan, integrate that plan into your business processes.

What if you don’t follow the plan?

Under Iowa law [Iowa Civil Jury Instructions contain a model instruction] if a jury concludes you intentionally destroyed or failed to produce evidence, it can assume that evidence would have been unfavorable to you. The jury may see the missing evidence as the :"smoking gun." A saved receipt may nail your case down; a prematurely destroyed receipt may become a nail in the coffin. Well kept records may be more productive than winning lawsuits; they may convince opposing parties not to sue you in the first place.

How do you devise and regularly apply a sound plan to avoid problems?

In Iowa, most oral contracts have a five-year statute of limitations [section 614.1] to enforce a contract (or to be sued for a breach). Depending on your business, you may wish to retain supporting documents for five years after the contract ends.

In Iowa, most written contracts have a 10-year statute of limitations [section 614.1]. Does your record retention plan keep the contract for 10 years after performance of the contract ends? How long do you keep record of payments made or received? Should you keep emails about the contract?

Under Iowa law, as a designer, manufacturer, distributor or seller of a product, can you be sued 10 or 20 years after production and multiple re-sales if the product causes damage? What are the time limits or Statutes of Repose [614.1(2A)] for such claims? What if your product is a Web-based application? How long must you keep the records of product testing? Of use? Was your product sold with warnings or safety devices, or for a Web-based application, was a warning included with installation or initialization? Do you have records that show your product was altered?

Although the questions are complex, setting consistent policy will make later involvement in litigation less likely or, at least, less painful.

Record retention is important. Failure can subject you to legal presumptions that could end your business. Find out the factors that affect your particular business. Implement a record retention and destruction policy. Put it in writing. Stick to it.

Or wait until you have a problem. Then come see me.

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"She Made Me Mad"

A smiley by Pumbaa, drawn using a text editor.Image via Wikipedia

"She made me mad!" Ever said that? Of course you have. We all have. As if she -- whoever SHE is -- crawled inside our heads, flipped a bunch of levers, and cranked up the dial labeled, "anger."

Others don't make us mad. Or happy. Or anxious. WE pull our own levers and turn our own dials.

In fact, one of the biggest stumbling blocks we all face -- whether as leaders at work or in our personal lives -- is our propensity to believe we know exactly what's going on around us. What we see is what everyone else must be seeing, right? So, our truth is also their truth -- and our emotions must match their emotions, right? No so.

Put 50 people in a room. Stage an incident. You'll get 50 different stories about exactly what happened there. More importantly, you'll get a plethora of different emotions, based on what the various stories are about. Scary stories might create the emotion "fear." Funny stories might create "joy." Et cetera.

Remember Shakespeare's admonition, "Nothing in this world is good or bad, but thinking makes it so."


With apologies to Shakespeare, "Nothing in this world is good or bad, but 'storytelling' makes it so." If you want to change your feelings, (bad feelings like anger, frustration and sadness or good feelings like delight, happiness or curiosity) examine the story you're telling yourself.

Stories are assumptions. Remember the old adage you learned somewhere along the way: "If you assume, you make an "ass of  u and me." Storytelling...making assumptions...is especially troublesome when you're in a leadership role. I like Will Roger's thoughts on the subject: "It isn't what we don't know that gets us into trouble; it's what we know that isn't so." If I didn't know better, that concept could make me mad.

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Do Not Be A Fool - Take Your Time Off!

4822773_thl I just returned from a week long vacation in the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota.  Complete isolation - no phone and no computer - and a lot of free time to ponder life (in between the paddling and portages).

I find it extremely odd that to this day, I still know people who actually lose vacation because they do not take it.  Absolutely absurd!  The typical answers - they can not get away, to much work when they get back, and the company really frowns on long vacations.

Highly developed company cultures encourage and even force their employees to take the vacation they have earned.  Why?  During an extended vacation (no less than one week) people tend to come back with one of two attitudes - they have recharged and are ready to get back into the fray or they have realized that their current work situation is not meeting their needs and make a decision to move on.

The first attitude is easy for companies to accept. The second, well that is a different story.  Far to many organizations fear the second attitude and that is why they frown on extended vacations.  They would rather keep an unsatisfied employee than go through the work of finding a replacement or even more exasperating, they fear the challenge of creating a culture where people do not want to leave.

I say give vacation, make employees take their earned vacation, and celebrate when your employees make a choice to leave and better themselves.  Quit being selfish and bitter, and support the growth of your people.  We all need to take time to drive down the road and see what is out there!

The Business Divorce

Business relationships usually start off in a glow of euphoria and the future seems rich with possibilities.Blog   No matter how great your business relationship is, however, it's inevitable that at some point in time, you will need to manage a transition of ownership.  The absence of an agreement can lead to costly litigation with an uncertain outcome.

The possible reasons for a business "divorce" are many:

  • Disagreement about the direction of the business
  • Desire to live in another climate
  • Desire to pursue other interests
  • Changed circumstances such as death, disability, divorce, insolvency, loss of professional license, conviction of a crime
  • Retirement
  • Increase/decrease in the value of the business

If the foundation for a buy-out is put in place when everyone is calm and friendly, an orderly transition is much more probable.  In addition, the process of putting together an agreement for how to part company actually helps to build a stronger working relationship, reducing the potential for conflict. 

The process helps to clarify roles and expectations about how money will be spent, decisions made, and priorities set.  The agreement is really an opportunity to mutually and explicitly agree about how the business will operate. It's also an opportunity for minority shareholders to protect themselves when major decisions are being made.

The benefits of a buy/sell agreement are:

  • Preventing unwanted shareholders (e.g., heirs of a deceased shareholder, or creditors)
  • Establishing the terms of sales (price or valuation methodology, means of funding)
  • Provides for Alternative Dispute Resolution
  • Providing for an orderly transition (like a will or trust)

The absence of such a Buy/Sell Agreement can leave you with a nasty dispute, the resolution of which can be lengthy, costly and exhausting.  In short, don't wait for that "special moment.”

- Steve Sink

A misunderstanding about equipment breakdown insurance

Computer crash Boiler & machinery insurance - now known as equipment breakdown insurance - is one of the most misunderstood coverages. Why?

If you are not a manufacturing company or a company that uses large machinery or don’t need a boiler in your business …why would you need equipment breakdown coverage?

Well, here is a situation that you may be able to relate to.

Many businesses these days rely heavily on computers. Say you have an internal power surge or the motherboard of your computer crashes and causes your computers to go down. What would you do?

For those businesses that properly back up their data at an off-site location and work with a company that’s ready to handle this situation – kudos to you.

However, I come into contact with many businesses that do not have this situation planned out. In the event of such an occurrence, a business can lose substantial income should they be without computer access.

So how does equipment breakdown insurance work and what does it offer you? Equipment breakdown insurance covers the cost of repairing and replacing the damaged equipment. And it frequently (but not always) includes "business interruption" and "service interruption" coverage, which will cover you against loss of business or income due to computer-related "downtime."

If these additional coverages are not included in your policy, you may have to ask for them. Perhaps you are a Web-based business that operates via the Internet and your Web site is managed by an independent ISP provider. In this situation, you want to ensure that the ISP has both property/casualty and equipment breakdown coverage.

And make sure your own equipment breakdown policy includes "service interruption" coverage. This should pay for your loss of business caused by a mechanical or electrical breakdown to the ISP's servers or other equipment. Equipment breakdown is not just limited to the above examples; it actually covers many types of equipment and is broken down into the following categories:

  • Electrical
  • Air Conditioning and Refrigeration
  • Boilers and Pressure Vessels
  • Computers and Communications and
  • Mechanical

This coverage can also apply to a personal homeowners policy as well. As with all insurance policies, there are limitations and exclusions. However, I hope you think about equipment breakdown coverage with a whole new meaning now.

Click on the links to learn more about this intriguing coverage, or feel free to contact me with any questions.

Dude! We're Gettin' the Gang Back Together!

20th Reunion This weekend, my wife is dragging me has asked me to escort her to her 20th high school reunion.  All weekend long, I will be cursed regaled with mundane and boring exhilarating and adventuresome stories about growing up in her hometown.  At least there will be other spouses there... and maybe a cash bar.

Seriously, reunions are important elements of our socialization.  Sharing stories is a craft as old as the ages, and remembering all of the silly antics.of our youth can be an enjoyable walk down memory lane.

Even in a project setting, reunions are important.  The obvious reunion should occur before disbanding even takes place.  It is the lessons learned session.  Even if you are a project of one person, sit down and document all of those Homer Simpson D'OH moments that you wish you could do over, as well as those choirs-of-angels-singing-in-celebration-of-all-you-did-right moments.  My preferred method is the start-stop-continue approach:

  • Start:  What didn't you do that you wished you had done?

  • Stop:  What did you do that you wished you hadn't done?

  • Continue:  What did you do right that you will keep doing?

While the important benefit of a lessons learned session is external reuse, the ability to have a "reunion" and share stories is important to the internal project team as well.  Stephanie Barnes refers to these "after action" meetings, and she shares the following:

Even if no one outside of the project team uses the lessons learned it’s important for the project team to do the analysis. Sometimes things are happening so quickly on the project that team members need to take a few minutes once the project is done to tie everything together. Once all the tasks are complete they can see the big picture of what actually happened and the consequences of certain actions and decisions so they can learn and do things differently next time, make new mistakes rather than repeating the same ones time and again. I know I like to make new and improved mistakes rather than the same old ones.

I also like to keep in touch with various members of project teams long after the project has completed.  There are some teams which were together for many months, and I try to keep in touch with my teammates through various forms of networking:  lunches, coffee, LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.  It's helpful for me to be reminded of the project stories (the good, the bad, and the ugly) which have made me the project manager I am.

So dust off those year books status reports and get in touch with your former teammates.  Reunions can be fun... no, really!

Carpe Factum!

Customer Service is Crucial to Local, Small Business

Your Customer Service Will Be MonitoredImage by corwinok via Flickr

Living in small town Iowa has a lot of advantages. Not only do I enjoy some of the best quality of life in the world, but I'm also on the front lines of interesting, real-life business issues. The classic tension between small, local business and the "evil" corporate big boys rages continually and I've enjoyed watching the community struggle.

While my heart and desire is to support my local business people, I must admit that I've been disappointed by the service experience I've received. I have often found small, local business to take advantage of my goodwill and excuse their lack of basic customer service.

A few classic, true personal experiences from the archives:

  • I walked into a small local hardware store to buy some bird seed. Based on the type of store and their inventory you'd expect them to carry bird seed. I was met by the scowl of an employee who informed me in a snobbish tone that they don't carry birdseed because it attracts mice. "Huh," I thought to myself, "Maybe it would also attract customers who want to buy it." I went to Wal-Mart, was greeted with a smile and bought my bird seed.
  • I used to walk into the local coffee shop almost daily. I was a regular for almost three years. They should have put a sign above my usual booth saying, "Tom's Office". Not once was I greeted with a familiar smile. If they knew my name, they never used it - even though I tried to initiate and greet the baristas by name. I ordered a coffee and a cinnamon roll when I came in. After 30 minutes they hadn't delivered the cinnamon roll. When I went up for a refill on the coffee, I mentioned this. It was promptly delivered. No apology. No "thanks for your patience." No "Gosh, Tom, you're such a great customer. Sorry we blew it. Next time the cinnamon roll is on us!" The attitude was "Who cares? Screw you. Where else are you gonna go? What, you think there's a Starbucks on the next corner?" I stopped going.
  • I had problems with my roof. I called a well-known, local roofer in an effort to keep it in the community. It took multiple phone calls and several months to get a quote. It took more than 15 months to get my roof. When I had problems, it took multiple calls and several weeks to get a response and follow-up visit.
  • I walked into the local small engine and equipment shop, money in hand, to buy a lawnmower. I waited for several minutes for someone to approach me. When someone finally asked if they could help I said, "I want to buy a lawnmower." I was utterly flabbergasted at the response. "Listen, I need to unload some stuff in the back. Can you come back in an hour or two?" (I wish I was making this up).

I've heard it said that small, local business can provide the friendly, neighborly, personal service that the big, corporate stores lack. I have no doubt that they can. In fact, it's crucial that they do. The temptation that must be resisted by local small business it to take customers for granted, and expect them to accept and excuse a poor customer experience.

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The Iran elections and citizen journalism via Twitter


Above: Image by sharif via Flickr.

News reporting on the recent presidential election protests in Iran have been neutered by the country's government - in some instances, telephone, text messaging and Internet services were restricted, and journalists have even been banned from attending "unauthorized" demonstrations.

Thus, many Iranians have turned to Twitter to do their own citizen reporting, and also to receive news. A quick search on the micro-sharing network for the hashtag #iranelection or #gr88 brings back a barrage of updates. (While writing these first two paragraphs, the search brought back 2,192 more results since my first query only minutes ago.)

While the United States is steering clear of the election chaos, they are actively working with Twitter and other social networking sites to make sure information is flowing freely to and from Iran. Case in point: The State Department asked Twitter to postpone scheduled maintenance that would have impacted the site's uptime in Iran.

Any time a trending topic gets popular on Twitter, it runs the risk of being diluted (and sometimes polluted) by the masses jumping into the conversation and retweeting rapidly-changing information. That's why I love this blog post by BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow that gives Twitter users a playbook for constructive participation. He even suggests a trick to help protect the Iranian bloggers using Twitter: Changing your Twitter location to Tehran and your timezone to GMT +3.30 might help thwart security officers in their hunt to locate and censor bloggers.

While many criticize Twitter as a platform for mundane updates from the self-obsessed, the Iranian elections prove that it can be a valuable tool for quickly distributing (and retrieving) information in a de-centralized method that surpasses government or organizational control.

April 15? Feh. Missing the June 30 foreign financial account deadline can be much worse.

While the April 15 deadline for 1040s is ugly enough, there are a lot of ways to deal with it.  There areBlog extensions, and even installment agreements.  If you miss the deadline, the late filing penalty tops out at 25 percent of the underpayment -- not fun, exactly, but often manageable. 

Now imagine that the penalty for filing a late 1040 were half the balance in your bank accounts, but no less than $10,000.  But that's outrageous - they'd never be that nasty, would they?

Yes they would.  And they are.  Just not for your 1040.

Foreign Bank Account Reports due June 30

The horrific penalty of 50 percent of the highest balance in a bank account for the year, but no less than $10,000, applies for late filers of Form 90-22.1, the Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts. It is due June 30, and no extension is available.   What's worse, you might need to file the form -- sometimes called the "FBAR" form -- even if you don't own a foreign bank account.

You are required to file the FBAR if you are a "United States person" and you have either

- A financial interest, or
- signature authority

over foreign financial accounts exceeding $10,000 in aggregate

If your business keeps a bank account in Canada or China because you buy things there, the business needs to file -- as does everybody in your company with signature authority on such an account, down to the payables clerk who signs checks attached to your approved Chinese purchase orders.  An exception may apply to employees of some larger companies.

Of course you don't have to have a business to have a foreign bank account.  The FBAR requirements apply, for example, to personal bank accounts you might have opened while on a temporary overseas assignment.  They also apply to accounts with offshore gambling Web sites.

Be sure to document your filing!  FBAR filings must be postmarked no later than June 30.  While it is always a good idea to send tax filings Certified Mail, Return Receipt Requested, it's especially important with FBAR reports.  Practitioners report that the Detroit Service Center, where the reports are filed, throws away the postmarked envelopes the forms come in.  Then the IRS (outrageously) asserts penalties for forms that come in as early as July 2.  When that happens, a postmarked certified mail receipt, which costs $4.90, can save you $10,000 or more.

If you have missed prior FBAR deadlines, consider taking advantage of the current IRS semi-amnesty that runs into September.

The two sides of buying local

55799540 In the past two weeks, some interesting things have been happening around the discussion of buying locally. Let's look at both sides of the coin and then I'd love to hear what you think.

Iowa Department of Economic Development:

The Iowa Department of Economic Development recently awarded a big chunk of their $6 million dollar budget to international agency giant Burson-Marsteller

Many Iowa agencies (including this piece by Des Moines' agency Lessing Flynn) and the local Advertising Federation have called foul

It has been a pretty big news story locally.

Others, myself included, have written that while considering Iowa firms was important (which IDED did) they should choose the best firm for the job and not feel bound by the "buy local" sentiment.

You can also read IDED's official response and see what you think.

So the question here is....should the Iowa department, charged with spurring economic growth in the state of Iowa, be allowed/chastised for going outside the state to hire the expertise they need?

And on the flip side we have....


Heineken USA raised eyebrows in the agency world last week by throwing the creative account for its flagship lager brands into review and announcing it was only considering shops in Manhattan (New York, not Kansas), where it is launching a marketing headquarters for the business.

Heineken said that despite technology advances, they want to be able to have plenty of face time with their agency.

Read the whole story in AdAge here.

So, what do you think?

On one hand, we have Iowa agencies frustrated that an Iowa client went outside the state boundaries to get their work done and on the flip side...we have the world's agencies angry that Heineken has literally restricted its agency search to a 23 square mile island.

I'm not sure there is a right answer.  Maybe the right answer is....thank goodness we live in a country where we get to choose who we do business with.  Or maybe it is we owe our neighbors a shot.  Or maybe we owe them the business?

I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

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Prevention Programs Reduce Costs and Work Place Injuries

Seems like we’re all looking for innovative ways to reduce costs and do more with less. While you’re factoring different scenarios to increase the bottom line, remember that healthy, productive employees are a big part of the equation.

11928156-565x850_workplace_injury According to OSHA, U.S. employers pay almost $1 billion per week for workers' compensation costs. Tack on the additional expenses related to lost productivity, decreased morale, accident investigation and corrective measures, and you can see where employee safety is an investment area that cannot be ignored.

A proactive approach can significantly reduce, or eliminate, work-related injury claims. This stuff isn’t rocket science, but it needs to start at new employee orientation and become part of the office culture.

For example, provide an ergonomics evaluation of each person’s area during their first 30 days on the job. The cost of supplying a wrist-rest or lumbar support seems insignificant compared with the ongoing expense of treating carpel tunnel syndrome or other repetitive motion injuries.

It’s also important to promote activities to keep employees active. Our bodies were designed to move. When we don’t, our muscles grow weak and we’re more susceptible to injury. So offer a free weekly exercise class and provide a pleasant break room so employees will get up and move away from their desks for lunch.

Since overexertion caused by excessive lifting, pushing, pulling or carrying objects is the most common cause of injury, bring in an expert to teach proper techniques. (Remember, lift with your knees.)

And just like the analogy that “we’re only as strong as our weakest link,” prevention programs strengthen your organization by protecting employees, decreasing absenteeism, increasing customer satisfaction and reducing costs related to workplace injuries.

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What is the Difference Between ®, TM and SM?

An example logo using the service mark.Image via Wikipedia

Your company has a trademark, but what do you know about it? Does your company use one of these symbols with its trademark: ®, TM and SM? Are they required? Does it matter?

What is a Trademark?
A trademark is a word, name, phrase, symbol, color, scent or sound used to identify particular goods or services as coming from a particular source. Unlike domain names, you have no rights to a trademark until you actually use the trademark in commerce. "Naked" trademarks, which are not used in association with the sale of any good or service, are not allowed. Trademarks are also limited to a particular good or service. One company may own "Apple" for computers and another company may own "Apple" for records. As long as there is no likelihood that consumers may be confused that the goods come from the same source, identical trademarks can coexist for different types of goods or services.

Trademark Registration
Simply using a unique, non-descriptive trademark in association with a good or service is all you need to obtain common law rights to that trademark. With common law trademark rights, you can stop an infringer in your market area and obtain damages associated with the infringement. But you cannot get punitive damages or attorney fees. State trademark registrations extend common law rights to the borders of the state, but that is about it. As state registration typically afford little more protection than common law rights, most companies seeking trademark registration opt for federal trademark registration.

Federal Registration
Federal trademark registration is much harder to obtain, and more expensive than state trademark registration. A federal trademark registration may cost $1,200+ and take 18 months or more to obtain. Once you obtain your federal registration, you can use that registration to pursue infringers in any state, regardless of whether you are currently marketing in that state. In addition, if you can show the infringement was "willful," federal trademark registration allows you to collect triple damages and attorney fees.

® refers to a federally registered trademark. Alternatively, you may use "Registered, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office"  or "Reg U.S. Pat & TM Off." to designate your federal registration. You may not use (R). Failure to properly mark your goods or services, limits your ability to collect profits or damages from an infringer who had no notice of your registration.

TM and SM
TM refers to a state or common law trademark, typically associated with goods and SM refers to a state or common law service mark, typically associated with services. Anyone can use TM or SM. There is no registration required. TM and SM simply mean the user thinks they have a defensible trademark, and may or may not pursue you for infringing it. One thing to consider. If they did not have the $1,200 to pursue a federal trademark registration, how likely is it that they will pay the cost of a lawsuit, especially with no chance of recovering attorney fees. Watch out though. They may just be using TM or SM while their federal trademark registration is pending.

Why Get a Federal Trademark Registration?
Only a federal trademark registration holder can use ®. Use by anyone else, even someone who has merely filed an application, but not yet received the federal registration may be subject to a lawsuit for fraud and false advertising. Additionally, using the ® without a federal registration in hand may prevent you from ever getting a federal registration. Federal trademark registration allows you to recover your attorney fees and up to three times your actual damages if the infringer was "willfully" infringing your trademark. This means the infringer may be liable for ten times or more the actual damage caused. As you might imagine, the ® serves as a pretty aggressive warning to infringers. The best part about the ®, is that it dissuades most would-be infringers without you ever having to lift a finger.

Brett Trout

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Networking on the Green

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Networking on the Green, held at the Principal Charity Classic. The event was hosted by a couple of friends of mine and provided an opportunity to blend young professionals with CEOs and upper management of some of Iowa’s best companies.

Headlined by J. Barry Griswell, regarding his new book, the folks in the room were given an opportunityDSC_3409 that many never have, to ask the former CEO of a Fortune 200 company what it takes to be successful. As Griswell spoke about “owning the problem,” I thought about how many in the room had grew up not having to do just that.

Yet his message was embracing and lacked the instructional tone that I’ve heard from others of older generations who tackle the subject.

It seemed as if the theme of Griswell’s message was the “key to success is being okay with failure," a particularly useful message for a generation that is pretty bold by most standards. However, looking across the room, I’m not sure if the attendees soaked that in or not. This observation and Griswell’s advise pushed me to ask back the question “what’s the difference between going against the grain/conventional wisdom and just being plain crazy?”  Specifically, I was thinking about the person who is overaggressive with passion, but no sense of reality to navigate accordingly. Griswell's answer focused on the importance to still play by the rules, another important key. However, I wish I had an opportunity to ask a follow up question. I probably could have given many of the young pups in the room seemed intimidated by his 6 foot 7 inch frame, and failed to ask any questions of him or the other CEOs in the more intimate speed networking sessions.

The scheduled speed networking was an exercise that tends to reward keen listeners and punish avid talkers. However, it was neither who benefited, as most listeners never got to hear what they wanted nor did most talkers get to say what they wanted. Alas, that is the beauty of a speed-networking event; the ones that are skilled enough to listen and appropriately interject a question or comment in the right timing are the ones that benefit the most. The point of the event was to be a catalyst that leads to further discussions independently, not the nucleus.

I think most of those people in particular were aware that this was not the moment to sell their product or service, but to learn and build relationships, so it was rewarding to see both CEOs and YPs stay well after the event to “finish” conversations and follow up on thoughts. As a matter of fact, I think the experience of sharing with peers afterward - sharing our thoughts on networking - was just as rewarding as listening to the mentoring thoughts of Des Moines business leaders. What was not lost on me were the CEOs and serial YP networkers that weren’t there, and I wonder if an encore event is planned for the future, how will the uniqueness be preserved?

Consistency Pays

Jeff Garrison at JCG Consulting (yes we're related) tells a great story in one of his presentations about growing up on the rough and tumble tennis courts of the Midwestern United States.

When he was about 13 or 14 years old, he was competing around the state (Iowa) and on the Missouri Valley tennis circuit (so was I, he was just much better at it).  There were a few kids who really dominated around the state and they all had the same coach, a guy by the name of Allen Jones.  My oldest brother Randy persuaded Jones to work with Jeff.2846274202_06f79c2544

When they began, Jeff agreed to do exactly what was asked of him.  They started working on his backhand because that was the weakest part of his game. For several weeks all Allen would let Jeff do is hit backhands! It was frustrating for Jeff (and hilarious for me).

When he did ground stroke drills with other guys, they were only allowed to hit it to his backhand.  Jeff was not allowed to play any matches during that time either. Jones knew that under the pressure of tournament play those new habits would crumble quickly.

Eventually Jeff went on to win an Iowa State High School Championship.

Whether it’s practicing your ground strokes, losing weight, or improving punctuality, being habitual in your activity is key. It’s no different in sales. Sales takes work. It takes consistent activity to keep the ball moving. Today, Jeff teaches businesses how to build effective and consistent sales habitudes.

Here are a few of his pointers:

1.    Progress takes hard work!
2.    Acquiring knowledge of a new skill or tactic is only the first step towards progress. You can't read    "The 5 Keys to Doing This or That" and expect to get results.
3.    It takes time to get results.
4.    It takes deliberate practice to get results (one of the Sales Habitudes).
5.    Practice must be done in a controlled environment (like in front of the mirror) where the stakes are low.
6.    If you go into a high-stakes situation without having practiced, when the pressure mounts, your mind will default back to your old habits. If you don't recognize this, you'll just say that the new ideas don't        work.

Avoid lawyers and lawsuits: Watch what you write and type

1st third of 16th centuryImage via Wikipedia

What do you think is the best way to do business? Most clients tell me “by handshake.” The real answer is “in writing”.

Well-drafted, easy to read contracts stop arguments before they begin. A little nit picking up front saves money and business relationships in the future. The best businesses have known this for years.
Now, enter the computer age. As lawyer/blogger Nicole Black deftly notes: “The world has changed in ways we couldn’t have envisioned just 10 years ago-and the legal field is not immune from these changes, despite its repeated attempts to stick its collective heads deeply into the sands of time.“  So, have the rules changed? No, the rules are the same. They just apply to a vast new realm of media. The best business is still written. Given the pace of business, there is more “writing” now than ever before. Keeping writing consistent and accessible has become a new priority.

If you want to be scared, intellectual property author Brett Trout of BlawgIT offers bone-chilling insight on how your online activities and/or writings might prompt a frantic call to a litigator. Like the cute blonde in every thriller learns too late, if you don’t take action before the monster in the hockey mask breaks down your door, it gets gruesome. Hire a “happy lawyer” to review your Web site, your blog, your social-networking policy and your employment handbook.

Regular review of your documents, including Web sites, social media sites, e-mail policy, document retention policy (that includes electronic documents) and employee handbooks or network policy can save significant amounts of grief and money.

Or you may wait until you have a problem…then come see me.

- Christine Branstad

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Achieve Your Goals by "Kedging"

A sailing ship tied to shore, circa 1900-1920Image via Wikipedia

We all get stuck sometimes. There's something we have our sights set on, we want it really, really badly, and for whatever reason -- we're stalled out. We can't get the traction we need to move forward with our goal. Maybe it's bringing a new product to market. Maybe it's getting a key position filled. Maybe it's learning a new skill that will make a huge difference in our bottom line.

Desperate measures are needed. We must persevere.

What do you do to get unstuck in a situation like that?

  • Modify (i.e., lower) your original goal?
  • Wait for an epiphany?
  • Hire a consultant or a coach or a skilled pair-of-hands?

Have you ever tried "kedging?" Never heard of it? Neither had I. Until I was reading Crowley and Lodge's book, Younger Next Year. They explain it this way:

    Sailing ships in ancient times -- before the invention of the outboard motor -- often got becalmed and the crew had to just sit there in a funk. Which was all right some of the time, but not always. Sometimes there were enemy ships, a hostile shore looming closer, or the sailors just got bored out of their minds and started to squabble. The captain might decide to use kedging to get unstuck. He'd take a light anchor (called a kedging), load it into a longboat, and send a small crew rowing out a half mile or so in the direction the ship was wanting to sail. The longboat crew popped the anchor over the side of the longboat, making sure it was "set" on the bottom, and then everyone back on the big boat pulled like demons on the line attached to the anchor, literally hauling the ship to the anchor. Then they'd do the whole business again, until they got where they wanted to go...or until the wind picked up again. Sounds like a lot of work, but maybe well worth it if your ship was in dire straits.

I can think of instances when I used kedging to move projects or initiatives forward, not realizing what I was doing had a name. I just knew that I was desperate to make something happen.

For example, one time I called on scores of stakeholders --- one at a time -- over the course of months, spending countless hours in the process, in order to get enough agreement to make a much-needed major purchase. We were stuck; desperate needs sometimes demand desperate measures.

What about you? Now that you know what "kedging" is, how have you used it -- to avoid the enemy, the rocks, or poor morale -- in order to achieve a goal that your organization's very livelihood depended on?

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The Perfect Time For Training

10618447_thl If you want your company to be ready for the upswing in the economy, then start with training your people.  This is a perfect time for training.  You have the time so make the investment.

It is far to easy to get caught up in the short term thinking of slashing, cutting back and maximizing short-term profits.  Break the cycle and think long term.  It it your people that will create the long term value for your company.

Studies show that the educational and training variable is the best predictor of a company's success.  This should not surprise you since we are in a knowledge economy.  Training your employees builds knowledge and the use of that knowledge.  Another buy product of training is employee engagement, which is another significant predictor of company success.

Training should be a regular agenda item at your management meetings and a part of the strategic plan for your company.  By being proactive towards training and having a plan that is actually implemented, you will reduce the risk that your training dollars will be squandered on ineffective efforts. 

Time to Sell Your Business?

Is time to sell your business?

In these times, many businesses owners who would like to sell have made the determination to delay the saleBlog because of a severe loss of market value of their business.  Typically, unless they are forced to sell, the owner will delay selling in anticipation of a return to a previous valuation.  This forces many owners to wait several years for earnings to rise sufficiently to produce an acceptable market value and cover debt service.

If your business has not experienced this situation and you feel comfortable with the valuation, you may want to consider a sale now.  For owners of businesses whose earnings are stable or have declined slightly, this year offers an excellent opportunity. At present there are more buyers than sellers, due partially to the many laid-off workers who want to own a business.

There are several benefits to selling now:
1. The pool of potential buyers is as big as it will likely be for many years.
2. The 1031 Exchange still exists.
3. The capital gains will never be lower.
4. Proceeds can be invested in real estate or stock at deeply discounted prices.
5. Projections call for a major increase in the number of businesses, which will come up for sale in the coming years.
6. Interest rates are exceptionally low, reducing financing costs for sellers and buyers.

All projections indicate a dramatic increase in the number of businesses for sale over five years ending in 2013 as baby boomers retire. This increase in the seller pool will put downward pressure on prices. This also may be the last year with a 15 percent capital gains tax. If capital gains taxes increase to 20 percent to 28 percent--as federal lawmakers propose--you can make 6 percent to 18 percent more by selling at a 15 percent tax-rate now.

In addition, an owner might consider the "Bird-in-the-Hand" approach.  If you realized $1 million in a sale vs. $2 million in five years, you need to consider that the usage of the money (i.e. $1 million dollars), in your hands, invested wisely could realize $2 million in five years. Compared to:  The earnings of the business would have to grow at 15 percent each year for five years, to achieve this doubling of value or $2 million.  With this in mind and the proposed increases in taxes, cashing in now may be something to consider.

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A common insurance theme

Exercise In an effort to inspire me with my blog writing, a friend sent me to a recent blog post from “The Fit Bottom Girls."

She said this blog post was “funny, refreshing and highlighted past blogs” and thought it would be a good idea for me to try something like it.

Now, what makes this so hilarious to me is that:

  • These girls are talking about exercise – not insurance
  • They talk about food, family and fun – again not insurance
  • They are hilarious - really, there are a lot of funny things that can be said about exercise.

Now anyone who has read an insurance policy knows that it is not something you would casually pick up and get a chuckle over. Out of curiosity, aside from myself, has anyone out there ever even read their policy?

Of course I am really stretching this - my friend's intent was to inspire me to perhaps be a little more creative with my writing. I just thought it was humorous to use a blog about exercise as a comparison to insurance.

Aside from other insurances and maybe financial planning (especially now) there aren’t too many other industries that aren’t fun to write about.

However, I am willing to give this a whirl and see how what happens. So, here's a highlight of what I have covered year to date. 

How many times have I asked you to keep a list or write things down?  2
(An insurance resolution list for business owners, Are you managing your workers’ compensation?)

How many times have I referred to people suing you?  4
Wow – you can tell that I have a claims background! (Businesses beware , Are you a gambler, It’s not raining so why do I need an umbrella? An office errand and your business auto insurance)

How many times have I suggested that you review your policy with your agent? 3
(Don’t be a copycat, If it ain’t broke, Have you ever had to rent equipment

So I guess my “theme” this year pretty much boils down to this:

  • Write things down and keep a list because people will sue you
  • Make sure that you review your policy and discuss your coverages with your agent

It’s a simple message really – making sure you have the coverage you need in place when you need it. That is what your agent is for – to help and advise you along your journey.

Well, I hope you enjoyed the recap this month – stay tuned for more exciting news - next time we will be talking about equipment breakdown: What is it? What does it cover? And, why do you need it?

Ain't No Cure for the Summertime Blues

Johnson_men My daughter winds up her third grade career today as my wife ends another year of teaching high school.  Stretched ahead of us is the vast unknown of unbounded imagination, family vacations, adventure-filled books, backyard discoveries, splash-filled swimming pool moments... and annoying mosquito bites, occasional sunburns and long-winded sibling spats (as long as we're being realistic about the next 10 weeks).

How often do we romanticize the projects ahead of us?  After all, every new project yields so much potential for fun, excitement, and positive NPV that we can hardly contain ourselves, right?  Some people look at new projects and see ponies and rainbows and butterflies and shooting stars (at least those where you let the marketing team pitch the project for you).  Ask the IT staff about the same project and they will conjure up versions of hell that would make Dante shudder in fear.  As with many projects, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Reconciling stakeholder expectations is a scary yet necessary undertaking.  If you asked every member of your family to give you their version of the ideal summer vacation, I would venture a guess that you would wind up with wildly different answers (at least you would in my house).  The project is the same (summer vacation) and the end expectations are the same (enjoyable relaxation and recreation).  For me, that looks like cycling and hammock time.  My wife has a strong desire to camp (yeah, outdoors... crazy, huh?) coupled with reading a mountain of books.  My older daughter envisions swim lessons and camp (with cabins, only slightly more civilized) and trips to the grandparents for unbridled spoiling.  My younger daughter is completely go-with-the-flow, as long as she is entertained.  We all have the same goal (enjoyment), but our perceptions of the deliverable (outcome) and approach (requirements and tasks) differ.

Holman_expectation_curve In The Thinking PM blog, the nail is hit on the head:  deal with the stakeholders early to define and set expectations.  If I waited until August to ask everybody if the summer were successful, I'd be a really lousy husband and father.  We're setting up the calendar of events early, so we all get a say in making summer successful.  Of course, there are boundaries.  There will be no jetting off to Europe, no horseback-riding lessons, no Harley-ridin' adrenaline-laden trips to Sturgis, and no Phineas-and-Ferb-esque antics.  In setting expectations with stakeholders, it's equally important to mention what WON'T be in scope, as mentioned in the TAPUniversity blog post about scope.

My friend, Lyle Holman, a local consultant, shares with his colleagues his "Holman Expectation Curve" (pictured above).  At the beginning of every project, fantasy is high and reality is low.  The two curves eventually converge at what is called the OMG (Oh My God) moment, followed closely by the CTJ (Come To Jesus) meeting.  The curve is inevitable; virtually every project experiences it.  The real trick is to get your project stakeholders to the OMG moment as quickly as possible.

So school's out for the summer.  Are you ready to make it an enjoyable experience for everybody?

Carpe Factum!

Make a "Customer Connection"

Misleading Customer Service Kills Your BusinessImage by libraryman via Flickr

Through the years, I've learned that the best customer service providers develop their expertise by continually "improving their serve." We can learn all sorts of valuable lessons about customer service simply by having our eyes and ears open, observing the many service interactions we witness on a daily basis.

My wife and I are on vacation this week, but I'm still learning. Yesterday, we walked into a Black and Decker Outlet store in Branson, Mo. As I looked around and stood in line, I became aware that the guy behind the register was constantly making connections with his customers.

"What's your name?" he asked a little boy. After making a quick friend, he gave the lad a small little children's tool "on the house" and won the hearts of the boy's parents.

"Oh, that's an interesting name," he commented as he looked at a patron's identification. "I had a buddy in the Marine Corps with that name." The man and his customer enjoyed a pleasant conversation as the sale was rung up.

"You're gonna love this," he told a customer buying a rechargeable battery. "Let me tell you a little secret that will help you get the longest battery life."

"Is that your family?" he asked a customer who held out his billfold to reveal his identification. "Beautiful daughters. I've got a daughter a bit older than them. They grow up quick, don't they?"

"You're from Iowa?" he asked me. "Are you anywhere near, Story City? Did you know we just opened a store up there!" I didn't know, and I was happy for the information. I'll likely make an occasional stop on my way to and from the Twin Cities on business.

I was reminded how simple it is to make a "customer connection" which transforms a rote, mindless transaction into a pleasant, personable interaction. It is the interaction which makes the experience memorable and brings customers back for more!

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Social networking users aren't as young as you might think

Twitter_icons_256 In Twitter's infancy, the micro-sharing social network was largely perceived as a gathering place for hyper-connected, digitally-inclined twentysomethings. Sure, Twitter's early adopters were comprised of the younger "tech elite," but recent months have proven that the network is now more mainstream that you might think.

A couple of facts have recently jumped out at me:
  1. According to Nielsen Online, the largest age population on Twitter is 35-49, making up almost 42 percent of the site's audience. 
  2. A new survey from Pace University and the Participatory Media Network says that 99 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds have profiles on social networks, but only 22 percent are on Twitter.
  3. Switching gears to Facebook: The fastest growing demographic is females 55 and older. 
So what does this tell us? A couple of things: Youth culture has not yet gravitated to Twitter. There could be many reasons for this - one being that the 18-24 age demographic grew up within Facebook's walls, and simply don't have the need or want to migrate to another social network. Also, the Baby Boomers have finally arrived.

Marketers love to put their targets into age and gender buckets, but meanwhile I'm reminded of something Mike Sansone once said: Adoption of social networks is attitudinal, not generational.

We've moved past the age where social networking is a world occupied only by Millenials. Social networks are ubiquitous, utilitarian, mainstream - they are all around us and they are diverse. There will always be a small population that resists social networking, but they'll be less and less defined by age.

Before the end of the year, your parents will be on Facebook (if they aren't already). We're getting closer to the day that the term social media goes away forever, and all this stuff just blends into everyday life.

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