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August 2009

Be the Best

Whether you’re competitive in nature or simply prefer to play for the love of the game, I think it’s safe to say it’s always nice to be counted among the best. That feeling also runs deep for the companies where we work.

Trophy By now you’re familiar with the well-known “top” employer lists, including Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For and Working Mother Magazine’s list of the 100 Best Companies. These annual contests draw attention to some amazing employee perks: Onsite child care, telecommuting, flextime and great health-care benefits.

I know what you’re thinking. We’re trying to promote healthy living around the office, but we don’t have Google’s gynormous budget to offer free daily “healthy and delicious meals prepared by gourmet chefs.” (Yes, this is a direct quote from their Web site’s Way Beyond the Benefits employment section.)

Let’s face the facts: Talented people are drawn to places like Google, but fortunately for the rest of us they can’t employ every great applicant. It’s time to evaluate your surroundings and implement programs to elevate your company to the top.

Try these simple initiatives to get the ball rolling.

  • Put free fruit in the breakroom a few days a week to encourage healthy eating.

  • Decorate the stairwells so it’s more enticing to skip the elevator the next time your team heads to the top for a meeting.

  • Get involved with the American Heart Association’s Start! walking program, which helps your company encourage its employees to live healthier lives.

  • Include healthy recipes and exercise tips in employee communications. The Live Healthy Iowa site is a great place to start.

Our own Principal Financial Group is continually ranked among the nation’s best employers. A quick glance at their list of employee benefits shows that employee health is a priority. They provide everything from medical, dental and vision insurance to wellness programs, on-site fitness facilities and no meeting Fridays.

Ultimately, looking out for employees and making sure they're taking care of themselves makes good business sense. And if Des Moines can snare the title “Hippest City in the USA” by Fast Company, your organization can land a top spot on the employer scene.

Capture them while they're captive

32225966 Finite dollars and infinite opportunities.  That's the reality regarding advertising.  There are plenty of places to put your money and your message.  But you only have so much money -- so where do you go?

For most business owners the question isn't whether or not they should do some marketing/advertising but what should they do.

There are so many choices out there...and each one has its place.  But one of the biggest challenges is...how do you choose a media that will have captured your audience's attention so you can get your message across?

There's a new advertising opportunity in town that is all about captured audiences.  I don't know about you, but I'm not sure I have seen a more captive, bored group of people than those who are sitting around, waiting to board their plane.

The airport noticed that as well.  So they've partnered with a local group in town to offer exclusive advertising space at all 12 loading gates at the Des Moines International Airport. Each gate will have 42' flat paneled TV screens that will allow you to put the equivalent of mini TV commercials on them.

Think about it. Your customers waiting to board a plane with nothing else to do but view your message.

Not a bad new offering.  If you want more information, shoot an e-mail to Peter Tarpey by clicking here.

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The Internet is a Legal Minefield

Watch Your Step
Moving your business online requires a lot of work. Hiring the Web site developer, tracking orders, updating changes, ensuring supply, collecting money, et cetera. One thing often overlooked is the legal ramifications of doing business online. While most business owners have a sense of what it takes to build a Web site and fulfill orders, very few have any sense of whether what they are doing will get them into legal hot water. Rather than learning what they need to do, they stumble blindly forward into the crowded minefield that is internet legal regulation.

The 80/20 Rule

The Law of the Internet is complex and constantly changing. Even if you knew everything there was to know about Internet Law (which no one does), your warehouse of knowledge would be outdated in hours. You can hardly blame business owners, faced with such a Sisyphean task, for tumbling blindly forward. I mean, "What good is a little knowledge?" Quite a bit as it turns out. For about 20 percent of the effort, you can learn about 80 percent of what you need to know, or at least where the most explosive online legal pitfalls lie. Understanding the remaining 20 percent requires 80 percent of the effort, but I would recommend this only to those playing Trivial Pursuit: The Pompous Patent Lawyer Edition.

If Only There Was a Some Kind of Map
Thankfully, there is.  Cyberlaw CoverCyberLaw: A Legal Arsenal For Online Businessis a great place to start. Its 19 chapters cover everything from employee use of e-mail, to document retention policies, to the top ten legal oversights that can shut down your Web site. It even includes forms and an index to use it as a handy desk reference. Many companies do not even realize they are moving into an online legal minefield until they are facing a lawsuit. By that time, the cost to extricate themselves from the lawsuit and get back on track can be more than the company is worth. Often, following the legal path is no more expensive than following the lawsuit path. Without knowledge of which path you are on however, the difference between the paths may only become apparent when a judge shuts down your company. Written in layman's terms, Cyberlaw is not legal advice, you still need your lawyer for that, but it is legal information, which allows you to make sense of your lawyer's advice.

Spot the Issues
"CyberLaw: A Legal Arsenal For Online Business" will not turn you into a cyberlawyer and, while it may eliminate your need for Ambien, it will not replace your lawyer. What it will do is offer you a map to navigate your company through the online legal minefield, steer away from catastrophe and identify potential problems before they spiral out of control. Cyberlaw helps you spot the relevant issues and ask the right questions. Understanding at least the basic principles of online legal regulation vaults you ahead of your less informed competition and may even afford you a little more restful sleep, knowing you have the map you need to guide your business out of the lawsuit minefield.

Brett Trout

A multigenerational staff discusses working in a multigenerational workforce

My Generation album coverImage via Wikipedia

I had the pleasure of doing a workshop recently for a staff of career services professionals at Iowa State. The staff was conducting a beginning-of-the-year retreat and wanted to address the issue of working in a multigenerational workforce. The staff of about 10 people ranged from early Baby Boomers to late Millennials.

To have that range in an office this small provides a very unique opportunity to study multiple generational interactions as they happen, while also helping to prepare students for those same realities as they enter the workforce.

The staff discussed an idea that has been addressed in comments on this blog before,  the idea that the study of generational issues is not an exact science. In reality, descriptions of varying generations are broad generalizations. One should be careful not to believe that all people who are born between year "x" and year "y" behave in a particular manner, because there is more to be taken away from someone’s personality or behavior profile then his or her age. However, age is important as those common experiences that happen during a particular time period do shape our perspectives, which in turn influences our personality or behavior.

This sentiment regarding experiences was evident in the room as the group was divided into pairs to discuss what irritated them about those they knew in other age groups. Each pair talked about the lack of appreciation for some type of perspective or experience that they personally held dear. It was clear that the group did not want to label themselves.

What was interesting to note was the response from the Millennials toward the belief that they behave like an entitled group. The 20-year-olds in the room said that they always been taught to play nice we each other, that can achieve whatever they want and that technology will make your life easier. As I thought about their responses two questions dawned on me: When did this become a bad idea? Are Millennials the first generation in ages to actually listen to their parents? The massive number of Millennials would have me think that Gen Xers feel overshadowed and Boomers feel rivaled by this assertive generation that has yet to fully experience life…and seem to be okay with it!

As the staff affectionately discussed these issues, they came to the conclusion that for older generations an opportunity exists to teach younger generations…if the older generation is also willing to learn from them. The conclusion for younger generations challenged their demographic to set themselves apart individually by listening to the advise of their older colleagues or settle into the negative stereotype that they have of them.

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Circle of Friends

This past weekend, my mother-in-law was here visiting from Texas. One evening she was on her cell phone with a friend back home. She was really laughing and carrying on. When she hung up the phone she said in that wonderful southern accent, “I love having such an incredible circle of friends.”

 A circle of friends is entirely different than simply having lots of friends. With a circle of friends not everyone has to be present for the relationships to grow. Someone could leave the group for a short period of time and the circle continues to expand. And with a circle of friends I would argue that it’s easier to bring new faces and personalities into the group with less disruption.

 In an excerpt from his new book Whose Got Your Back, entrepreneur and relationship expert Keith Ferrazzi talks about a few ways to multi-task your relationship building activity.3178543285_687ae73aa5

“No time” is what people tell me all the time when I tell them they need to get serious about creating more and deeper relationships. “I have enough trouble keeping my wife/kids/boss/houseplants happy. Now you want me to make the list longer?”

YES! Here’s how to make it happen, for all you busy (whiny!) high-powered professionals.

1.    Prioritize. Once you recognize that relationships are to success as food is to survival, you’d be surprised how much easier it gets to find time for them.

2.    Blend not balance. Tired of feeling work is crowding out your personal life? Blend them by recognizing that every single one of your business relationships could also be personal relationships.

3.     Stop compartmentalizing. Don’t be afraid to mix your friends up. Say, for example, you’re in New York for only a night. Instead of playing eeny-meeny-miny-mo to decide which of your contacts to meet, have a dinner and invite them all! Don’t worry too much if they’re from different worlds – a little shake-up from new people and new perspectives is good for everyone!

4.    Get more out of meetings. So many of us waste so much of the relationship time we do set aside by smothering ourselves with small talk. Take steps to build closer relationships faster – talk about your passions, be candid, let people know how you really feel. (Remember the Eight Steps to Instant Intimacy from Who’s Got Your Back!)

 (By the way, one way to get the ice broken quickly in one of your laborious meetings is to use Mitch Matthews’s game, Q).

So stop collecting business cards and start making more friends. And as you make more friends, introduce them to one another. You’ll be floored by what happens next. Oh, and watch out…it’s like a boomerang. It will come back to you.

Leading as Acting

Stage Door (desaturated)Image by slimmer_jimmer via Flickr

Lesley Stahl said recently on MSNBC that President Barack Obama needs to learn to be the actor that President Ronald Reagan was. And she didn't mean when Reagan was a movie star. She meant when he was president.

A president -- or really a leader at any level, of any group -- is always "on stage."

  • If you're a "team lead," your team members are always watching you for tell-tale signs that you're worried about something, or hiding something, or that you like one person better than others.
  • If you're a C-level leader, employees in your company and people in your community are making assumptions every time you open your mouth about what's behind your words.

Your presence "on stage" is always a factor to be conscious of when you're a leader.

What do you do as a leader/actor to convey the total message you want to convey? Remember, everything you do and say is a reflection of you and your message:

  • What you look like
  • How you carry yourself
  • How organized you appear to be
  • How prepared you are to say something, whether it's spur-of-the-moment or a standing meeting

Whether you're new to a leadership role, or you've been a leader for decades, it's important to always be vigilant about the impression you're making. It's a matter of survival for political leaders, but it's no less an issue for corporate and non-profit and public sector leaders.

  • If you're a new leader, join the local Toastmasters Club. Get some basic training in comfortably thinking on your feet and coming off polished and self-assured. All in a low-risk environment.
  • Find a trusted confidant or two to give you feedback about how you're coming across at work. This has to be someone who is not afraid to tell you the truth, someone who cares about you as a person, and wants the best for you and your career.
  • Hire a coach to help you with specific aspects of your demeanor or style that seem to convey something you're not meaning to convey.

If we're leaders, we're always on stage. Just recognizing this and accepting it as true sets us up to close gaps between the message we're wanting to convey and the message that's getting through.   

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10 Things You Need to Know About Raising Capital

Phil Town at the MSNBC Desk to Shoot "You...Image by Phil Town via Flickr

10 Things You Need to Know About Raising Capital

Rule #1. Generally speaking, you will need five years of operating history and more that $5 million in annual sales.  
Rule #2.  The equity capital source will most likely dictate the terms of the deal and they will most often demand control and substantial equity. This source of capital may also dictate your compensation, overhead allocations, and be at odds with your concept of the American dream.  If you want to dictate the terms of the deal and maintain control of your company's destiny while increasing the probability of being funded, then you will need to conduct a securities offering.
Rule #3. When raising capital, you must comply with Federal and State securities laws or face the consequences.
Rule #4. Prior to structuring the deal, producing the proper securities offering documentation, or conducting a full blown securities offering effort, one should "test the waters" by researching the local geographical area for Angel Investor interest, as well as, their own personal market of private capital contacts.
Rule #5. There are no guarantees when it comes to raising capital, only degrees of probability. The degrees of probability increase in direct correlation with the amount of seed capital available to promote the capital raising effort
Rule #6. For start-up and early stage companies, your capitalization plan should request the minimum amount of equity capital needed to bring your firm to the $5 million in annual sales to engage an investment bank to sell your company's securities.
Rule #7. Most entrepreneurs are under the impression that their offer is the greatest opportunity.   Investors will consider this be a naive position.
Rule #8. Most entrepreneurs make the mistaken assumption that once they receive their funding the company's secrets, employees, et cetera, will protect their operating margins.  Again, investors will consider this to be a naive position
Rule #9.  Most securities brokers do not fund start-ups or early stage companies. Why? There is very little money in it for them, the deals are too small, too risky and the stock is usually very thinly traded. 
Rule #10. Sadly, most entrepreneurs go through the arduous task of attempting to raise capital, for about nine months, before they realize what has been disclosed here is brutally true. By then, they are out of money, patience, and had it with broken promises, so they simply give up.

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Minus 6 degrees of separation

Six degrees of separation: Artistic visualizationImage via Wikipedia

I wear a lot of hats. And if you are reading this, I bet you do, too.

If there are truly no more than six degrees of separation between any of us, a decades-old notion cited by journalist Malcolm Gladwell in his book,“The Tipping Point,” then how many degrees do you think separate us as individuals in Greater Des Moines?

I would also wager that the more you network, the faster you come to realize that in a metropolitan area comprising about 500,000 people, there is an enormous amount of overlap in the various professional, civic and recreational communities around town.

If you refine that even further, taking into account only B2B companies and industries such as real estate, branding and marketing, and publishing – in which meeting and interacting with people is one of the most important parts of the job – I would gamble that in your daily comings and goings, you are continually stumbling upon the same names and faces over and over again.

Granted, in larger cities like Chicago or Minneapolis, it is probably safe to assume that people who operate in the business world have a pretty good sense of who’s who.

But unlike Des Moines, a small town with a big-city flavor, do business people and entrepreneurs in larger communities have nearly as much access to one another as they do in our neck of the woods?

I doubt it.

I think most would agree that we are connected in one way or another. Humans, especially the curious and outgoing ones, interact with a wide range of people each and every day. A lot of us run in many, many circles. You know the businessman who rides his Harley-Davidson out of state or to the bike show every weekend? Or the top-level executive who is an integral part of her local running club?

Many of those types are probably connected in multiple ways, though multiple sources, multiple times over. As far as degrees of separation go in our town, I wouldn’t be surprised if that for most Connectors, Mavens and Salesman, the number is no larger than one.

We all wear a lot of hats.

See you in the news!

- Todd Razor

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Risk management and roller coasters

Roller coaster It is hard to believe that the summer is winding down and the kids are heading back to school. My kids start today.

Our summer was filled with camping trips (no roughing it for me though – camper all the way!), family reunions and a vacation to Florida. Of course we had to go to the amusement parks – Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.

Surprisingly – several of the rides had some technical difficulties while we were there and we had to either wait an extended period of time or we had to return later in the day.

I always get a little nervous when I hear “we apologize for your delay – we are experiencing technical difficulties.” Especially if the technical difficulty is happening to a roller coaster that I am planning on riding.

If any of you have visited these parks, you are aware that they have a lot of special effects – some with water and several with fire.  So with these types of special effects you never know how serious the “technical difficulty” is. 

My family and I love amusement parks.

So far, we have not actually been on a ride where we have suffered any injury or even seen anything go wrong with their operation. However, it can occur. Earlier this month, 24 people were stuck on a roller coaster in California for almost five hours. Luckily, in this incident, no one was seriously injured.

However, sometimes people aren’t so lucky. Resources show that there have been several incidents over the summer from park employees falling, roller coasters derailing or colliding and boat rides capsizing – causing death.

So what does this have to do with insurance? Amusement parks are large companies – surely they have the right insurance to cover these incidents.  You are probably right.

However, the premise applies to any size company. It comes down to the basics – proper maintenance of equipment, making sure you have visible signage posted for any dangers, have printed employee handbooks and hold regular safety meetings with your employees.

Every business has a risk exposure.

An important way to avoid losses and injuries is to manage that risk. Many insurance companies have resources available for businesses to use and they are FREE. I actually work with some carriers that will send out a loss prevention specialist to help you get maintenance and safety programs implemented. 

So don’t wait until you get stuck on a roller coaster – contact your agent today and start managing your risk.

How Much Bull Is In Your Project?

Bull_superbull Anyone who has ever been to the Iowa State Fair knows how to locate the biggest and baddest of the state's livestock.  We have the "big boar" (and you thought your boss was bad).  We also have the big bull.  And let me tell you, it was a whole lot of bull this year... unless you're a project manager.

If you're a project manager, you've invariably had the the thought (spoken or not):  "I just wish I could do it all myself."  Whenever we have to rely on others, whenever projects are completed in a team environment, there is a certain degree of faith in other people to do what they say they are going to do.

Most of the time, we can count on others to perform.  However, there's the outside occasion when my BS-o-meter alarm starts going off, the when needle of dishonesty is edging toward the red zone.  Sometimes, this is due to ignorance... people don't know what they don't know.  Other times, the misleading information comes through maliciously in the status report.

If you are not the expert, how can you tell if the statements being made to you are honest?  How do you know if somebody is really 75% complete with their task?  When a teammate claims to be done with testing, can you take them at face value?

Bull_side Here are a few pointers I use to keep everyone on the straight and narrow:

  1. Create a culture of honesty - Robbins Gioia is a leading project management vendor.  Their code of ethical business conduct says it all.  You need to allow people to be honest and motivate ethics at every turn.  It only takes a single shot messenger to turn off everybody else and make otherwise honest people into ... well... something less desirable.
  2. Watch out for timing issues - Boeing is experiencing this in a very unfortunate way with the release of the 787's flaws... which were now revealed the company knew about since June.  While one can only speculate the many reasons why the secrecy, it probably boils down to stock price declarations and annual reports.  But still... the stock market wasn't kind when the news came out.
  3. Consider ulterior motives - when I talk to audiences about office politics, the first two things I tell people are to understand the "game" and the motives behind playing it.  Will people lose their jobs if the project fails?  Is there a huge bonus on the line if the project succeeds?  Who stands to gain?  Who stands to lose?  Ask GT&T if this is important.
  4. Scrutinize the language - phrases like "experiencing delays" and "having problems" (with no back-up detail) are sure-fire red flags.  I also look for status reports to be in active (Tom will complete the testing plan on Tuesday) rather than passive (The testing plan will be completed) voice.  Then I look for what's not there.  Check out the last status report... it should provide some kind of projection for what should be reported this week.
  5. Develop your own BS-o-meter - I'm a huge fan of Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink.  Sometimes you just have to rely on your own intuition to tell you something is wrong.  But you can't rely on intuition if you don't develop it.  I've been hoodwinked on more projects than I care to admit, but from each of these, I learned what to look for on the next project.  I've known a few consultants who claim to be highly ethical and moral, except when they "needed" to lie to save their own skin.  You eventually get to know whom you can and can't trust.

So when you're visiting the State Fair, stop by and enjoy the giant bull.  Just don't invite him to be on your project team.

Carpe Factum!

Do You Know How Your Customers' Expectations Have Changed?

VHS LogoImage via Wikipedia

The other week, I sat with my parents, my wife and my teenage daughters for a lazy Saturday morning conversation. I asked my parents about some of their earliest memories and what they viewed as the biggest changes they've experienced in their lifetime. My dad commented about reading the comic strip, Dick Tracy, when he was a kid.

"I remember he had this wristband watch/radio. He could talk into it and communicate with headquarters," my father recalled, "and I thought that was the stuff of fairy tales. As a child, I thought there was no way that type of thing would ever be real."

Technololgy is speeding up how we perceive and interact with our world. The VHS tapes my teen daughters watched as children are now dusty old technology. The clunky, brick-sized cell phone I got 15 years ago seems ridiculous today. Two years ago, no one had heard of Twitter and Facebook.

How does changing technology and communication change our culture? How does it change the way your customers want to interact with you? How does it change their expectations for customer service?

Our company recently did an annual customer satisfaction survey for a client. Two dimensions of service that didn't appear on their customer's radar 12 months ago had suddenly become vitally important to their customers. The two dimensions were an interesting contrast. One was "ease in finding the phone number for customer service" (e.g. I want to call when I'm on the go with my cell phone and need to quickly find the number). The second was "using my name when talking to me" (e.g. in an age of increasingly disembodied communication I want you to provide me with a sense of interpersonal relationship).

Have you ever asked your customers what they expect from your company? Do you have your finger on the pulse of what satisfies your customers today? Is it possible you're stuck delivering VHS service to a Blue-Ray culture?

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How to successfully unplug from your devices

Person with PDA handheld device.Image via Wikipedia

The more our day-to-day lives (both professional and personal) become intertwined with laptops, mobile devices and social networks, the more difficult it becomes to unplug from everything.

I actually wrote this post in advance because I'm on vacation right now, and want nothing to do with any sort of electronic communication device. However, that is easier said than done, and I've trained myself how to untether from those devices over the years. Sometimes I'm more successful than others - it's always a work in progress!

I truly believe that our mobile devices create unnecessary stress in our lives, because we've opted in to having information (e-mails, texts, Twitter DMs, et cetera.) blasted to our person rather than retrieving it at our convenience.

If you're looking to disconnect over vacation, or even on a daily basis, here's a tip. If your iPhone or Blackberry device makes a noise every time you receive an e-mail, turn that off. Consume your email messages in chunks. Go to it. Don't let it interrupt you minute-by-minute.

I used to have a habit of checking my e-mail messages on my iPhone before I went in to work every morning. Then, I'd spend the drive to the office contemplating how I'd respond to each message, and this created unnecessary stress. I have a personal rule now where I don't look at my phone before I go in to work. This simple method has made my life much more relaxed.

Last but not least, if you're on Twitter, one of the greatest things you can do is learn how to ignore it. Your network of tweeps will still be there when you get back, and I know this is hard to believe, but you won't miss anything.

Don't get me wrong, I love being connected in real-time with interesting people via these amazing devices, but at some point you have to learn how to "go dark." How do you unplug? Looking forward to seeing your comments below.

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An easy loan you should never touch

Internal Revenue ServiceImage via Wikipedia

When cash is tight and your vendors are howling for cash, it's so tempting to shut them up with that money that's just sitting in the bank account for next week's payroll tax deposit. 

Resist the temptation.

One of the nastiest weapons in the IRS armory is the "trust fund recovery penalty."  If you are "responsible" for remitting withheld payroll taxes, this penalty can put you on the hook personally for them. And you don't have to own the business to be "responsible," as the CEO of a struggling Florida hospital recently learned the hard way in a federal courtroom. The judge found that James Doulgeris paid $1.9 million of withheld taxes to vendors, instead of remitting it to the IRS. The judge explained why the IRS could collect the money from Mr. Doulgeris personally:

The two legal issues informing the resolution of this case are 1) whether Plaintiff was a person responsible for paying over to the government payroll tax funds collected from hospital employees for the May and June 2003 tax quarters, and 2) whether Plaintiff acted willfully in failing to pay over those funds. Because the court has now ruled for the government as to each issue as a matter of law, the clerk is directed to enter judgment in favor of the United States and against James Doulgeris in the amount of $1,935,204.33.

The court found that Mr. Doulgeris was both "responsible" for paying the taxes and "willful" in not paying them, so now he has to come up with $1.9 million out of his own pocket. Can he wash his hands of it in bankruptcy? Nope.

This teaches us two important lessons:

As a business owner, never stiff the IRS on payroll taxes.  It might seem like an easy place to borrow money -- a loan without paperwork -- but it is a good way to commit financial suicide.  Even if you catch up, the late payment penalties add up in a hurry.

As an employee, never follow orders to pay other vendors instead of remitting withholding taxes.  The IRS doesn't much care for the Nuremberg defense.  A judge might be more sympathetic -- or maybe not -- but you might be crushed by lawyer fees trying to make your case.  It's easier to find a new job than to find, say, $1.9 million to make the IRS go away.

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Innovate or die?

There's a of buzz around the idea of being innovative.  It sounds mysterious, but really it is about understanding the shifts in the marketplace.  Customers have changed...both on the consumer side and B-to-B side.  I think in many ways, being innovative simply means recognizing the shifts and adjusting accordingly.

Check out this slide show from North, sort of a marketing think tank.  One of their managing partners, David Brody is a North graduate from here in Des Moines.

No mumbo jumbo.  Your customers aren't asking you to be creative for creative's sake.  They are asking you to:

  1. Listen
  2. Adapt
  3. Care

If you'll do those three things, they'll think you are not only innovative, but the company they want to do business with.

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Ask Me 3 for Healthy Communication

Before tackling a big project, consider taking the “Ask Me 3” approach and have a candid conversation to answer these questions:

  • What is the main problem?
  • What do we need to do?
  • Why is it important for us to do this?

It’s a great exercise to focus business activities, save time and minimize frustrations, but the questions12147581-1208x1590_askme3 actually were developed for an entirely different purpose: to help patients better communicate with their medical team.

We all know it can be difficult to grasp medical terminology, especially when you’re feeling sick, receiving difficult news or not trained in the special language used by a health care system. So to help foster clear communication, the National Patient Safety Foundation and Partnership for Clear Health Communication developed Ask Me 3 as an easy-to-remember framework for patients and families.

For tough talks, the business world has a similar, more in-depth resource I highly recommend. In Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, the authors coin a crucial conversation as “a discussion where stakes are high, emotions run strong and opinions vary.”

Crucial conversations take place throughout the day – during employee performance reviews, at the end of a long project or over the family dinner table – and your comments and reactions play a key role in successfully sending the right messages to those around you.

Just as Ask Me 3 helps facilitate open communication between patients and medical providers, learning Crucial Conversation skills can help you:

  • Prepare for high-stakes situations. 
  • Transform anger into powerful dialogue.
  • Improve professional and personal relationships.
  • Achieve improvements in productivity, quality, safety and change management.

Make time to ask the right questions and discuss important topics, and encourage effective communication across your organization. Your business, and business relationships, will benefit, and you’ll understand why most career openings seek candidates with “good communication skills.”

- Bill Leaver

Do I Need a Patent?

Dolbeer "Logging Engine" Patent 256,553Image via Wikipedia

What is a Patent?
A patent is a document which allows you to prevent anyone else from making your invention. There are different kinds of patents: plant patents, design patents, provisional patents and utility patents. The patents most people are familiar with are utility patents. These patents cover new, useful and non-obvious products and methods.

Not all Patents are Created Equal
The value of a patent depends upon many factors. A "broad" patent covers not only the invention, but a wide swath of alternatives as well. A "narrow" patent may be easily designed around by changing one or two aspects of the invention. The breadth of a patent depends upon several factors: the novelty of the invention, the similarity of items already made public, the cooperation of the government patent examiner and of course, the skill of the patent attorney. A great patent attorney is not going to be able to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but a bad patent attorney can certainly work that magic in reverse.

Patent Pros.
A good patent provides you a monopoly in your marketplace. Items with a high markup are especially well-suited for patent protection. Without a patent, the market would simply drive the price of the product down to just above the cost of manufacture. Even while the patent is in the "pending" stage, you can sell your invention, while your competitors are kept at bay wondering what your patent may or may not cover. You can also sell or license your patent rights to a third party in exchange for a lump sum and/or a royalty stream. Patents can last for up to 20 years from the filing date.

Patent Cons.
Patents are expensive. Even patents on simple machines can end up costing $9,000 or more over the course of the application process. The application process can be lengthy, often taking three years or more. It can be very expensive to defend your patent. Unless you can find an attorney to defend your patent on a contingent fee basis, you may have to spend several hundred thousand dollars to have your day in court. As the infringer faces similar costs, patent infringement cases are far less likely to go all the way to a jury than many other types of disputes.

Do You Need a Patent?
This is a question only you can answer. A patent attorney answers this question from the perspective of whether the patent attorney could use an additional $9,000. You answer the question from the perspective of knowing your business better than anyone else. Where patent attorneys can help is in offering advice (often at no cost) to guide you through the questions you need to ask yourself. What kind of annualized profit can I expect with a patent? How many years, if ever, before the patent pays for itself? Are there non-infringing alternatives competing, or likely to compete in the market-space? Will my product be obsolete before the patent issues? Will less expensive "trade secret" protection suffice?

Get the Facts.
Once you have the facts, the question boils down to a business decision, unique to your company. A patent by itself is not going to generate income. You still need a great invention and marketing plan. Many times patenting an invention is not the right answer. Get the facts before your invention falls into the pubic domain and you lose your right to patent your invention at all. 

Brett Trout

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Lead and Learn by Your Own Example

Regardless of where I’ve been in my life, I have always had someone step up, take me under his wing, and try to show me a better or more effective way of doing (whatever I happen to be doing). Whether it was in school, playing tennis, acting, sales and recruiting, or being a father, there has always been somebody there to make me better.

I will forever owe a debt of gratitude to those people who selflessly volunteered their time and energy to making me better! And even today there are countless people who continue teaching me. Being mentored is one of the greatest and fastest ways we improve. But what about being a mentor?

I’ve had many opportunities over the past several years to work with people on the basic skills of playing the game of tennis (a game I spent years trying to compete in). I’ve also had many opportunities to talk to people about my time studying and training at the Improv Olympic in Chicago, arguably the greatest training ground for long form improvisation, and how those skills are so transferable to sales. And naturally, I’ve trained and taught many people on both the art and science of executive recruiting.

I have benefited tremendously every time I’ve had the opportunity to play the role of mentor. That’s because teaching people the rudiments of what we already know makes us focus on improving our own skills. Sometimes mentoring and coaching others gets us to focus on the basics and apply them better ourselves.327939900_a752bcfdc5

Michael J. Freeman lists below what he considers to be the top seven characteristics of a good mentor;

  1. A desire to help. Individuals who are interested in and willing to help others.
  2. Have had positive experiences. Those who have had positive formal or informal experiences with a mentor tend to be good mentors themselves.
  3. Good reputation for developing others. Experienced people who have a good reputation for helping others develop their skills.
  4. Time and energy. People who have the time and mental energy to devote to the relationship.
  5. Up-to-date knowledge. Those who have maintained current, up-to-date technological knowledge and/or skills.
  6. Learning attitude. Individuals who are still willing and able to learn and who see the potential benefits of a mentoring relationship.
  7. Demonstrated effective managerial (mentoring) skills. People who have demonstrated effective coaching, counseling, facilitating and networking skills.

Whether you’re in sales, social media, marketing, or finance, take the time to identify someone in your community or organization who can benefit from your knowledge and experience. You’ll likely find it’s you who really benefits.

Good News for Good Businesses: Snake Oil* Sellers Beware

Charles Ponzi (March 3, 1882–January 18, 1949)...Image via Wikipedia

Ever wonder how unscrupulous sellers get away with going door to door (or phone to phone) spewing pitches for deals that are too good to be true? Whether it’s a fund-raising scam, a vacation club, or a highbrow ponzi scheme, we repeatedly read about segments of the population who are swindled by miscreants. Until this year, it was incumbent upon law enforcement and the Attorney General to clean up the mess.  With the July 1, 2009 enactment of Iowa’s Consumer Fraud Act (Section 714.16), attorneys in private practice have greater power to redress unscrupulous conduct. More [bad] businesses will be targeted. The good news is that they are not targeting your business. Parasitic competitors who infringe on your clientele are in jeopardy.

Iowa is the latest and last state to adopt legislation allowing a private individual to not only sue a business for fraud, but to collect attorney fees for doing so. The new law provides a stiff deterrent to businesses that willfully and wantonly disregard the safety or rights of the consumer: Wrongdoers may be on the hook for three times the actual amount taken and attorney fees above and beyond that amount.


There are good reasons to legislate a private right of action for consumer fraud. Most attorneys have turned away some aggrieved consumers because we couldn’t get paid for the cases and couldn’t afford to represent consumers on small dollar cases. Wronged consumers, upon hearing that even if they won a case, the fees may exceed the award, dropped the pursuit to avoid King Pyrrhus’ fate. In the past, Iowans had to rely on a common law action for causes of fraud under which only the most seriously injured consumers would prevail. The Attorney General was left to handle all the claims and had to choose which merited attention (and litigation).  Now, Iowans have a statutory cause of action for fraud.


The statute provides a cause of action for a consumer who is the victim of an “unfair practice, deception, fraud, false pretense or false promise, or in the misrepresentation, concealment, suppression, or omission of a material fact with the intent that others rely upon”  them for a purchase, or solicitation of charitable contributions. Not a lot of translation is needed to determine what is actionable. (And not a lot of translation is needed to determine how to stay out of trouble.)


Business owners may worry about seeing more litigation. Don’t worry, buyer’s remorse is not a cause of action. The statute is clear about the nature of acts covered and cause of action only exists if the business was provably fraudulent or unfair in conduct.


Additionally, many regulated professionals, such as architects, doctors, attorneys, et cetera, are exempt from this legislation because their codes of conduct subject them to both discipline for unprofessional conduct and civil liability for malpractice. 


Avoiding lawsuits is commonsensical: be honest with your customers and clearly convey the scope of the purchased service or good.


Overall, the new law provides the consumer the power of industry regulation with the cost shifted to the wrongdoer rather than the government.   Good businesses will benefit – a rising tide lifts all boats.

[*] This applies equally to sellers of bird milk.

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You Don't Know MY Boss!

I was executive coach for a guy a while back who hated his boss. Despised him. He was so emotional about the situation that it had started to affect his performance and other relationships he had at work.

Ever been there? What did you do? How did you handle the tension and stress that's often associated with a relationship that's so important and yet so broken?

Most of us -- sometime in our careers -- end up working for someone whose values or style or goals clash with ours. I've had dozens of bosses over the years. Working for a few of those was like tolerating fingernails on a blackboard every day we were in the office at the same time. It's critical to know how to not only survive but to learn from experiences like that -- and not to let it derail our careers.

Here are some of the things I did to continue to be productive and to make the situation as tolerable as possible -- for both my boss and me. (Because let's face it: when the chemistry between two people is toxic, both know it.)

1. Manage the relationship. Take responsibility for making it work between you. Don't fall into the trap of feeling like a victim. Focus on meeting the responsibilities associated with your role. Make sure you are meeting expectations and getting the results you're supposed to be getting. Focusing on doing your job to the best of your ability gives you less time for focusing on why you dislike your boss so much. And that's a good thing.

2. Try to see the boss as a person with strengths and weaknesses, just like you. Objectify the situation. Identify the things that trouble you the most and for each one, develop a strategy for dealing with those things. In confidence, seek the help of someone else if needed . Ideally, this should not be a coworker. (It's important, as employees, to give bosses our support and loyalty, unless there are ethical or integrity issues involved.) Ask the advice of a mentor or of someone in HR.

3.Think about what role you might have played in the relationship going sour. Are there things you could have done differently early on that would have made a difference? So what can you learn from this situation? And what will you do next time when you see the first signs of trouble?

You don't ever have to invite your boss to your home, but you do have to deal with this person as your boss. Remember, bosses come and go. This too shall pass. Either he/she will move on or you will. Learn everything you can from this situation -- about yourself, about "managing up," about the dynamics of relationship building. Your career will continue past this boss and you want to be the better for it.

Finding Fresh Eyes


Remember years ago as a child looking for the elusive four-leaf clover in the yard?  The hunt could last for hours as you strained and focused on trying to find the lucky piece of clover.  Eventually, you started to wonder if it really existed.  Then your mom or dad would walk up and see how you were doing.  The look of frustration on your face explained the situation all too well.  They sat down and within minutes they would find the four-leaf clover.  The same story can be told for working on puzzles, coming up with ideas and changing the culture in your company. 

The fact that you did not find the clover sooner is not due to a lack of effort, knowledge, or willingness.  It is that your eyes and perceptions become clouded due to your intense focus.  That is why your parents found the clover so quickly – they had the fresh eyes.

Those responsible for changing company culture to improve the bottom line and their employee's lives, sometimes suffer from the same tired eyes as the child hunting for the lucky piece of clover.  They have the want, knowledge and willingness, but blinders have narrowed and clouded their view of the company and its employee owners.  They become frustrated, cynical, and start to lose the passion once at their fingertips.  It does not take long for the company to begin to mimic the same symptoms.  This is a time when you need to find ways to re-energize your eyes or bring some fresh views into your world.   

Does this sound familiar?  You preach the same ideas, practices and stories, but it seems to have no impact.  It is similar to how parents sometimes feel about their children – they just do not listen or get it.  This is opportunity where an outside influence may be the answer.  In the family it may be a grandparent, aunt or uncle, or a good friend that can help the child to understand.  In organizations it can be the independent board member, an outside speaker, consultant, or even your customers.  These resources bring the fresh eyes that can see issues clearly and provide solutions.  Do not be afraid of the “outside“ perspective. 

Do not let the routine of business, personnel issues, or individual habits restrain you and your organization from reaching new heights.  Take the actions that can widen the view of possibilities to increase the bottom line and enhance your employee's lives.  Remember that fresh eyes are the best eyes!



Leave Your Business to Your Family - Not the Government

Some shops on Main in Pella illustrating the D...Image via Wikipedia

Successfully passing a family business to the family upon death of the owner is not an easy task. Most business owners fail to realize the importance of a sound business succession plan. As a result, only about half of all family businesses are transferred to the next generation.

A significant number are forced to look elsewhere for capital and management expertise.

Without the benefits of a succession plan, grieving loved ones are forced into a business they know little about, which can adversely affect the financial stability of the business and the financial security of your family. Not only should management succession be addressed in the business succession plan, but transfer of ownership and estate planning issues as well.

Choosing the successor is one of the biggest challenges in business succession planning. Appraise the individual's strengths and weaknesses and ensure that the he or she has the leadership skills and drive to meet the goals of the business. The needs of the business should be your foremost consideration and not the desires of family members. It is imperative that a plan is developed in the early stages so that whomever you choose can benefit from your experience and knowledge.

Other crucial elements of a sound business succession plan are transfer of ownership and estate planning. Buy-sell agreements, stock gifting, trusts and wills are some of the ways to transfer ownership. Each of these means of transfer have specific legal and tax ramifications and should be considered in conjunction with proper estate planning.

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Is your pollution clean up covered?

Pollution To piggy back on Steve Sink’s recent blog postSad Tale of a Phase 1 – I find that most business owners are unfamiliar with this particular coverage on their policy. As a matter of fact, I often hear people ask me if they really need it.

As in this situation, I am sure the owner of this building probably did not think that he had an exposure for this type of loss either.

So what types of incidents would need to occur for this coverage to be effected? Well the first thing is that it has to be a result of a covered loss. In short, that means an accident had to have occurred which resulted in a pollution spill. For example:

  • A piece of equipment overturns during its use, spilling fuel into a body of water causing pollution.

  • A leak in a line at a manufacturing company accidentally dumps chemicals or chemical waste into the water supply.

  • A building owner has several oil tanks that are damaged during a fire and leak oil into the ground water causing pollution.

  • Old paint and cleaning supplies that has been stored is spilled and penetrates the soil.

Pollution can have an effect on many different industries. It is not just manufacturing companies or chemical companies that are at risk. Those companies should have a stand alone pollution policy to cover their environmental exposure.

Another consideration to understand is the limitations on coverage. Most insurance companies only allow minimal coverage for these incidents unless you increase your coverage.

Most policies will only cover $10,000-25,000 for pollution clean-up. While it may seem like a lot of coverage, it is easy to exceed these limits when you consider debris removal and clean up of the site after a loss occurs.

In order to avoid having a "Sad Tale" of your own, make sure that you address your pollution exposure with your agent annually.

Specific Generalities

Items_for_sale Last month, when vacationing with the family, I happened across this sign by the side of the road.  Now one might think, "Items for sale?  Cool!  Where do I sign up?"  But this intersection of Pandora's Box meets Craig's List just gave me a headache.  What are the items?  How many are there?  Are they legal?  If not, can I get more?

Some of us like a little more detail before we part with our hard earned money.  At least a picture.  Or a description.  Or an interpretive dance.  But how many of you are going to fork over non-described sums of cash for "items for sale"?

But we do it all the time in project management arenas.  Read through people's project descriptions.  Or worse yet, look at their plans.  Ambiguous tasks.  Unclear requirements.  Uncertain results.  Vague activity.  Unclear direction.  Confusing communication.  And there you have it:  Items for sale.

Code Logics blog had a great post about how to build a solid project plan.  There's some great stuff in there.  The bottom line is simple:  BE SPECIFIC.  How?  Well, good project plans are just a collection of good project tasks... and it is not that hard to write a good project task. 

Let's look at how to do it the wrong way first.  Let's say you want one of your project resources to create a marketing campaign for you.  So you add the task "marketing campaign" to your project plan.  And the next day you get hit by a bus (a strong possibility here in Des Moines).  So your next-in-command picks up your project plan after your funeral.  "Hmmm," she muses.  "I wonder what the stiff wanted done with a marketing strategy?  We already have a marketing strategy."  (Okay, we'll hope she doesn't refer to you as "the stiff" ... but you get the idea.)

Now for the "right" way:

  1. Start your task with an action verb:  Write, test, create, build, implement, et cetera.  Let everybody know what you are going to DO.
  2. Follow it up with an object.  WHAT are you going to write, test, create, build or implement?
  3. Add in any modifiers that will help you keep is straight from anything else you are going to write, test, create, build or implement.
  4. Keep it under 10 words (15 if you are desperately verbose) per task.  If there's any detail, put it with the adjoining notes.  People want a project plan, not a dissertation.
  5. Make it understandable... clear... beyond the shadow of a doubt... so a 4-year-old could pick it up and do it.

Okay, so maybe the last one is a bit tongue-in-cheek... most kids don't read until they're 5 or 6.  But unless your project is the roadside equivalent of "items for sale," do your team a favor and give them something a little more tangible.

Carpe Factum!

Service Extends Beyond the Bricks and Mortar

from whence the brick cameImage by Leonard John Matthews via Flickr

Last week, my colleague and I stopped by Orlando's for a late lunch. As we approached the door, one of the employees appeared from behind us. I don't know if he'd been taking out the trash, having a smoke or just showing up to work. Nevertheless, he went out of his way to greet us, welcome us to Orlando's and then insisted that he hold the door while we entered first. It was a nice first impression.

The following day, I stopped into one of the local Target stores. There, in front of the store, was a group of employees on a break or just off their shift. They congregated in front of the store and ignored me as I pressed to get through them to the door. I was not greeted or acknowledged in any way.

My wife and I were on our way into Iowa Methodist hospital this weekend. Employees were arriving for the morning shift. It felt as if we were in competition with them to get to the building. Again, we weren't even acknowledged and we got the sense of attitude like "get out of our way, we work here."

"People sometimes forget that customers are still customers whether they are inside the building or in the parking lot," my wife commented. As I recalled my experiences outside three different businesses this past week, I realized how right she was.

Does your customer service extend beyond the bricks and mortar?

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FTC plans to crack down on forms of social media marketing

2404635465_caab54a0e6_m The Federal Trade Commission is considering regulating certain forms of word-of-mouth and social media marketing: specifically, certain claims made on blogs, forums and social networks.

Here is an excerpt from AdAge setting up the situation:

As part of its review of its advertising guidelines, the FTC is proposing that word-of-mouth marketers and bloggers, as well as people on social-media sites such as Facebook, be held liable for any false statements they make about a product they're promoting, along with the product's marketer. This could present a significant issue for marketers, including the likes of Microsoft, Ford and Pepsi, who spend billions on word-of-mouth and social media. PQ Media projects that marketers will spend $3.7 billion on word-of-mouth marketing in 2011.

This will definitely have an impact on marketers that send products to influential bloggers/social media users for review, which is currently a common practice.

As a marketer and consultant in the social media space, I'm not too worried about guidelines or regulations, because I've always imposed my own set of rules and best practices from the start. They've worked well for my business and my clients. The rules go something like this:
  • If you send a product to a blogger for review, encourage them to post their candid thoughts. Don't push for a positive review.
  • Encourage the blogger to disclose within the post that you sent them the product.  
  • If you participate in any sort of pay-per-post activity (i.e. paying the blogger for a review), be 100 percent transparent about this fact. Chris Brogan wrote an excellent post about the issue, and advertising and trust in general.
If you follow these simple guidelines, you'll steer clear of any murky gray areas. I'm not sure what shape the FTC guidelines are going to take, or if they're even necessary. I'd like to think that we can govern ourselves online, but as we all know, sometimes sleazy practices can get through the cracks.

So, what are your thoughts on the FTC's announcement?

Earn it there, tax it here: Iowa's tax on out-of-state income

Iowa state welcome signImage via Wikipedia

Iowa's C corporations face the highest stated corporation tax rate in the country, yet Iowa collects a relative pittance in corporate taxes.  Why?  A big reason is Iowa's use of "single factor" apportionment, allocating taxable income to Iowa based only on the ratio of Iowa destination sales to total sales.  This minimizes the tax on Iowa-based corporations while sticking it to non-Iowa companies that sell here, at least when compared to the traditional allocation formula that also takes into account in-state property and payroll.

Single-factor works great for C corporations, but not so much for other businesses.  Iowans who report business income on their 1040s -- including income from S corporations, partnerships and sole proprietorships -- have to include 100 percent of their out-of-state income in their Iowa gross income.  If they have to pay taxes to other states on their non-Iowa income, Iowa allows a credit to the extent the other state's taxes are no higher than Iowa's tax on the income.  You claim this credit for taxes in other states on Form 130.

S corporation shareholders -- but not partners or sole proprietors -- may be eligible for a credit on Form 134 attributable to non-Iowa sales; this credit is supposed to enable Iowa S corporation shareholders to get a result similar to single-factor apportionment, but it is a complex and poorly-designed credit that goes to zero if an S corporation distributes all of its taxable income to shareholders.

If the Form 134 credit doesn't work, the Iowa taxpayer can claim the Form 130 credit for taxes paid in other states on their non-Iowa S corporation income.

An Iowa taxpayer recently learned about this system the hard way. The couple's CPA apparently filed a return leaving out the couple's non-Iowa S corporation income.  In affirming the examining agent's disallowance of this approach, the Department of Revenue explained:

The simplified explanation of this situation is: 1) a resident taxpayer with apportionable S corporation income must report the gross income to Iowa, and 2) the taxpayer is allowed a choice of credits for the non-Iowa portion of the S corporation income.  One credit is the S corp apportionment credit, identified above, which uses form IA 134.  Alternatively, a taxpayer may take a credit for taxes paid to another state on non-Iowa income, using form IA 130.

The department is correct in this case. 

As a policy matter it would be far better for Iowa to repeal the corporate tax and allow Iowa S corporations to elect to be taxed (that is, not taxed) as C corporations for Iowa purposes; Iowans would then be taxed on distributions from the corporations.  Not bloody likely, I'm afraid.

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