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October 2009

Stop Procrastinating

Benjamin Franklin captured the essence of his era when he said, “In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Now, more than 200 years later, we can modernize his famous quote by simply adding procrastination to that list of certainties.

5051753-540x360_procrastinateWhile we’re striving to maintain a healthy work/life balance, it seems there just isn’t enough time to get everything on the “to do” list done. Yours may look something like this:

  • Finish backyard landscaping project.
  • Conduct crisis training for frontline personnel.
  • Lose 10 pounds.
  • Address concerns about aging office equipment.
  • Talk with employees about time management issues.
  • Schedule a physical and recommended health screening tests.

Each task left undone may not evolve into a crisis, but eventually you’ll be faced with a professional, personal or medical situation that could have been avoided.

  • Delaying a crucial conversation with one person often negatively affects the entire team’s morale.
  • Postponing extensive initial training to meet a tight deadline can hinder long-term productivity.
  • Skipping medical exams might delay detection of a chronic condition.

I believe the key to success is maintaining focus to accomplish the most important tasks first. The business books are ripe with ideas, including:

  • Put First Things First: Stephen Covey’s Habit 3 (from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) gives a great visual reminder that our personal “buckets” only can hold all the little rocks if they’re added after the big ones.

  • Eat That Frog: The title comes from on the old saying “If the first thing you do each morning is eat a live frog, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing it’s probably the worst thing you’ll do all day.” Readers enjoy 21 practical steps for personal time management.

Take the first step. Review your “to do” list, open your calendar and schedule time to get things done. You’ll enjoy increased productivity and have more time to focus on your personal and professional goals.

The elements of a successful viral marketing campaign

Gameplan In my last post, we defined viral marketing. This time we’ll explore what ingredients are needed to make it work.  Although it often looks like it "just happened" -- that's not the case.  There's almost always a game plan.
The right mindset: It sounds great in theory, but relinquishing control over an aspect of a marketing campaign is not always easy. It is all good until the first customer lobs a criticism or you end up on the news because someone thinks your idea is subversive. It takes a thick skin to utilize viral marketing.

Viral marketing quickly takes on a life of its own. It is like releasing a butterfly. Once you open the cage, it is not likely you’re going to get the butterfly to return. It is always an interesting ride, but it’s rarely a smooth one. There is nothing worse than being in the middle of a viral campaign and having a CEO get cold feet and try to reel it back in. That can destroy the campaign and create a public relations nightmare.

You are not in control of a viral campaign. Sometimes they launch like a rocket, but ore often, they take days or months to build up momentum. So if you are in a hurry, you’ll need to either design the campaign for a short turnaround or not dabble in viral marketing this time.

A gambler’s spirit:
Viral marketing comes with no guarantees. Even the best ideas can fall flat. Or take a course that you had not anticipated. There is no “pay for play” here. It is more like a spin of the roulette wheel.

A willingness to be a maverick: The one thing that is going to sink a viral campaign faster than anything is to be predictable or just like everyone else. You have to be ready to do things like they have not been done in the past.

It's not that it's complicated, but you do have to possess the right mind set and have a game plan -- to keep you on point.  Is it risky?  You bet...but when you score big, it's well worth the worry.

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There is a new sheriff in town

Seal of the United States Federal Trade Commis...Image via Wikipedia

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has just issued new guidelines, which take effect Dec. 1. These guidelines prohibit commenting on products or services without revealing the compensation you have received.

Bloggers and others receiving compensation from affiliate links are justifiably concerned. Fines for violating the guidelines can total $10,000.

The FTC has stated it is more interested in education than fines. State laws modeled after the guidelines, however, often provide a private course of action. This can subject bloggers to lawsuits from disgruntled readers.

As always, the best defense is a good offense. Complying with the guidelines prior to the Dec. 1 deadline will keep you out of harm's way. At least until a court allows enforcement of the guidelines retroactively.

Brett Trout

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Right from the Start - Non Solicitation Agreements

Free 3D Business Men Marching ConceptImage by lumaxart via Flickr

My previous post reviewed non-competition agreements to keep employees from walking away with the kitchen sink - trade secrets, client lists and knowhow. This post focuses on Non-Solicitation Agreements, a more narrow method of keeping other companies from luring employees or clients away. The next post will address non-disclosure agreements.


In the second year of your burgeoning IT business, you have 5 employees. You land a project that requires a temporary workforce of 10 employees. A staffing company offers to provide workers, but a clause in the contract prohibits you from soliciting any of the temporary staff for 2 years. Should you sign?


In its third year, your company competes for a project requiring onsite work. You plan to embed your team, but are concerned that you risk losing the contract if you muddy negotiations with a requirement that the client not solicit your employees. How do you address the issue?


A non-solicitation clause is a normative approach to both situations. Non-solicitation clauses are a common method for setting boundaries with staffing companies, consultants, and trainers.


A non-solicitation agreement with another company may prohibit luring employees. The strictest agreements prohibit all contact, which has led to litigation about whether purely social interaction violates the clause. Additionally, employees may be prohibited from hiring other employees away.


Other non-solicitation agreements prohibit luring away customers. Companies have agreed that, as employees move between companies, each will not solicit the clients previously serviced by the employee for the other company. In the alternative, the non-solicitation agreements may be directly between employer and employee (often in lieu of a non-competition agreement). Those agreements may be narrow (e.g. employee may not solicit clients for whom employee was account manager) or broad (e.g. employee may not solicit any client on company’s client list). The more broad the provision, the more likely it will be scrutinized by the court.


Agreements to limit competition, disclosure or solicitation are, by their nature, restrictions on trade. Iowa courts have long held that any restraint of trade is strictly construed against the one seeking to restrain another from pursuing employment or business pursuits. As one example, Iowa Courts specifically distinguished “selling” and “solicitation” based on who initiated the transaction.

As you consider non-solicitations agreements, consider:

  • Is non solicitation good for your business?
  • Is it good for the industry in general?
  • What time limit should apply?
  • What geographic limit should apply?
  • Is the agreement limited to a certain type of client?
  • Is it limited to a certain type of employee?
  • Will it affect your ability to recruit and retain employees?
  • Is it fair?

-    Christine Branstad

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Is Being Negative Always Negative?

Cover of "Six Thinking Hats"Cover of Six Thinking Hats

Ever heard of Six Thinking Hats? I used to teach a workshop, based on Dr. Edward de Bono's groundbreaking work on effective thinking, processing and decision making. This program used the concept of six different colored hats to represent six different ways to think about -- and work through -- an important and controversial problem.

Why do I bring this up? There's so much out there these days about PMA -- "Positive Mental Attitude." You'd think it was at least a misdemeanor to think a negative thought. In Jon Gordon's current best-selling business fable, The Energy Bus, one of the strategies he suggests is:

"Engage and energize your employees on a daily basis, filling the void with positive energy so negativity can't breed."

Don't get me wrong. I don't believe in breeding negativity. I'm all for the power of being positive and seeing the glass as half-full. But...uhhh...what about the other half of the glass? If it's half full, it's also half empty. The problem with focusing on the positive is that it often leads us to ignore the negative -- which makes tough problems even tougher to solve.

So, back to the Six Thinking Hats approach. In the workshop, we'd always look at a problem from a "yellow hat perspective" of benefits and optimism and possibilities. Then, without fail, we'd set aside our yellow hats and put on our black hats and look for all of the cautions and concerns and potential road mines inherent in the same problem.

Only by acknowledging all of the negatives could we turn them into positives. We gave positives and negatives equal billing, challenging ourselves to think of every possible one, in turn -- yellow first, then black -- before moving on to decide what to do about them. We accentuated the positives, without short shrifting the possible threats and negative situations.

What do you think? Is there a time and place, and a necessity, for bringing the negative into the workplace?

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Recession 101

5235756_thl The other day I saw a billboard that had this message:  "Recession 101: Self Worth Beats Net Worth."  What a wonderful message in these trying times.

I have had several conversations in the past weeks with people who feel tired, worn out, beat up and defeated.  The constant pressure is tearing down their self worth.  They are giving their best efforts to keep their businesses alive and profitable, but they feel like they are dropping the ball.

Many organizations say that their people are their greatest asset.  I fear that even those that truly do care about their people are beginning to cave in to the pressure of this recession.  The constant bombardment of bad news makes it difficult for individuals to feel like they are making a difference.

I have a "feel good" file that I pull out when I am feeling down or frustrated. I pull it out and read the kinds words that have been given to me by my friends, peers, customers and supervisors.  It usually takes about five minutes to read and I am on my way to being refreshed.

If your organization is feeling the pressure of the economy and morale is low, you may try a "feel good" event.  Conduct a meeting where all you talk about is what you have done well.  Get people talking about all of things you have done right.  You will be amazed at how it will give new energy to your organization and make it a brighter day for all.  We all can use a little help sometimes in remembering that we are good people and have done great things.

Selling to the Next Generation?

One of the most difficult issues that owners face when family members are working in the business, is areBlog they obligated to sell the business to a family member. And if so, should they get preferential treatment.   Obviously, there is no problem when you have a strong family member and the rest of the family concurs.

But how often does this happen?

I once had a client who incensed that his son was not capable of running the business and the client could not comprehend that he had the money to purchase the business.

I proceeded to find a buyer and an offer was made. The client, in the process of reviewing the offer, discussed it with his family. The son felt that the offer was too low and wanted to make an offer. The client was dumbfounded, but gave the son two weeks to line up the funding. The son had some wealthy friends and they agreed to fund the transaction at similar terms and conditions.

Before accepting the son's offer, I contacted the original buyer and told him he would have to do better if he wanted the business. He asked for a day to review his offer. The next day, he faxed us a revised offer for an additional $250,000. The son was not able to meet this new offer.  Naturally, there were some bitter feelings.

This type of situation can be avoided if the owner plans ahead and communicates the plans to the members of the family.

- Steve Sink
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Social credibility: Keeping it real

Windows SidebarImage via Wikipedia

In my line of work, credibility is everything.

And most, if not all, of the social-media gurus I know will tell you the same thing. If you are using social networking or social media only as a means to an end, you are missing the point and are unlikely to reap the benefits of these tools.

Fellow IowaBiz blogger Cory Garrison and I got into a conversation regarding this topic while having lunch yesterday. (Sidebar: Social media stud Brett Trout and connectors Adam Steen and Catherine Berardi just happened to be having dining at the booth next to us, proof positive of the overlapping networks in a small city like Des Moines. These are the types of anecdotes I live for.)

And we agreed. If you’re the guy or gal who is constantly looking to close a sale, make a deal, find a lead or gain a client, then you are probably missing the point of what social networking is all about.

Sure, we all want to build our brands, our businesses and our careers. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with being purposeful about it. However, if your social networking and social media endeavors revolve only around yourself and your company, you will never make the type of authentic connections that can lead to great things.

On the contrary, you run the risk of being pigeonholed as the person who is only interested in closing the deal. Instead of the communicator who is truly interesting in genuinely engaging other people, that becomes your reputation.

Striking a balance between providing something of value and shamelessly promoting myself to my friends, followers, readers, contacts, clients, et cetera – online and in person – is something I strive to consider every day.

Does networking always have to lead to a transaction? No. But being open to that and being able to recognize potential opportunities – how you can help someone or how they can help you – is one of the finer points of social interaction, regardless of the medium.

Trust me. If you somehow manage to alienate those who have spent months and years establishing themselves as credible sources of information, you may forgo the chance to truly connect with them. Not only that, you may miss out on the opportunity for those connectors to link you with other people who can help you build your brand and your career.

Remember, social networking is organic and synergistic. You don’t have to be the most social person in the universe to take advantage of these tools. And there is no need to apologize for using these devices to grow your business. You just have to do it for the right reasons.

You have to keep it real.

- Todd Razor

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The risks of social media

Woman on computer Do you have a Facebook page or are you on Twitter? 

TV shows, movie stars and businesses are taking advantage of new ways to promote themselves. Social media are on the rise – and I am probably the only person I know that does not have a Facebook page.

While these are great mechanisms to communicate with your friends and family - and also a new way to market your business - they are not without added risk.

Earlier this month, a small business owner in Knoxville, Tenn. was sued for charges of libel stemming from allegations that the small business owner made on Facebook and Twitter.

In July, a Chicago Landlord sues ex-tenant over tweet complaining.

Then a doctor sued a patient for defamation over comments posted on an internet forum.

Our society is becoming very litigious and the insurance industry is certainly trying to keep up with the changes in our overall risk. However, there are limitations to insurance. That is why it is so important to make sure you purchase the right insurance for your risk exposure.

A standard business or homeowners policy will not typically cover claims for libel, slander or defamation charges. Coverage for these types of claims can be covered under an umbrella policy –  if you have one. I would, however, caution you to make sure that your agent confirms that your media exposure is covered under the policy.

For the serious blogger and/or social media networker, it may be sensible for you to purchase media insurance or a cyber-liability policy.

Most claims and/or suits stem from copyright infringement, defamation, invasion of privacy and  libel or slander. Having this type of policy can provide you with broader coverage.

Remember, as a business owner, you can be responsible for what your employees are putting on Facebook and tweeting as well. Talk with your agent today regarding your media risk exposure.

Project Management Can Be Scary

Personal Poe ShrineImage by crowolf via Flickr

My apologies to Poe fans everywhere:

Once upon a year-end dreary, while I pondered weak and weary
Over many internet fantasy football's newly posted score
While I muddled, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping
As if some one gently rapping, rapping at my office door.
"Tis some janitor," I muttered, "tapping at my office door -
Only this, and nothing more

Ah, distinctly, I remember it was in the bleak December
With year-end data lying around me, piled high upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my org chart full of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore
For the fair and just project sponsor whom the C-Suite called Lenore -
Downsized here for evermore.

And the massive piles of data rustling, of each deadline bustling
Thrilled me, filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
"'Tis some janitor demanding entrance at my office door -
Some late janitor emptying trash from at my office floor -
This it is, and nothing more."

Presently my soul grew stronger, hesitating then no longer,
"Yo!" said I, "You want my waste basket, my trash, and nothing more?
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my office door
That I wasn't sure I heard you" - here I opened wide the door -
Darkness there, and nothing more

Deep into cubicles peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing
Doubting things no mortal project manager did before
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token
And my thoughts of project sponsors lost made me whisper, "Lenore?"
This I whispered, and cubicles echoeds back, "Lenore!"
Merely this, and nothing more.

Back to my computer turning, while my CDs still were burning
Soon my email made the tapping sound, much louder than before
"Surely," said I, "email, you ox, something in my Windows in-box
Let me see then, what the message, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this strange email explore -
Tis an email, nothing more!"

Wish I could relive this odd tale, when I opened the strange email
Coming from the pompous head of Division Number Four
No apology nor excuse here, only threats and strengthened fear,
But this email came and perched on my wallpaper of Al Gore -
Perched upon ice caps melting just above my data store -
To be read and nothing more.

Then this simple email filing made my sad fancy into smiling
By the grumpy and the grouchy face unfortunately I wore.
"Though I sit here quite unshaven, over all my data slavin'
Ghastly grim and common email wandering onto my data store -
Tell me what thy purpose!"
Quoth the Scope Creep, "Do some more!"

Startled by my peace now smitten by reply so curtly written
"Doubtless," said I, "what he utters adds upon our project's score
From some sadistic master whose unmerciful disaster
Makes us work faster and harder than we ever did before
Said the email, "Do some more!"

Thus I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To this message which now threatened my performance score
In my chair I sat reclining, here now thinking of resigning
On the messy desktop's shining pile of crap from Division Four
But their manager, his message pressing me like ne'er before -
Quoth the Scope Creep, "Do some more!"

Then I felt the air grow stronger, stinking from durations longer
Made so by unnecessary tasks whose purpose shook my very core
"Jerk!" I cried, "how dare you do this, throw my project scope amiss
Now that I no longer have my fair and just sponsor named Lenore
Why, oh why, this kind of action from my dear and downsized Lenore?"
Quoth the Scope Creep, "Do Some More!"

And the email, never scrolling, all my changes now controlling
On the wallpaper of melting ice caps in honor of Al Gore
And his words have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming
Taunting, haunting me over the shadow of the downsized Lenore
And my soul from out that shadow lies floating on the floor
Shall ne'er be lifted till I do some more.

Originally published at www.carpefacum.com in October 2007.  But for anyone who's ever suffered scope creep, it's worth repeating.  Happy Haunting Season.

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Drive-Through Distinction

Energy-dense foods, such as fast food (picture...Image via Wikipedia

I've always believed that the key to great customer service is doing little things consistently, and doing them well. The difference between good and great, that which makes your service stand out, is in the details.

Bruce Temkin recently referenced an article in QSR magazine that provided quality ratings for America's biggest fast food drive-through windows. The research measured how often a restaurant drive-through got the order right. Now getting the order right may be considered a small thing. Everyone makes mistakes, right? Yet, each time the drive-through messes up your order, you make a mental check mark. When deciding where you're going to buzz through for your next lunch, you're likely to remember which company messed up your last order. It becomes a good reason to try someone else.

So, who is best in the drive through department? Here's the list:

Drive through

How does this jive with your local experience? Who is the best and worst at getting it right here in the Golden Circle?

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Augmented reality has arrived, will become mainstream quickly

"Augmented reality" (or AR, for short) is a phrase you're going to be hearing more and more through the rest of 2009 and into 2010. Basically, it's the ability to use a handheld device with internet connectivity to unlock and overlay information on top of your existing reality. Watch the video below for a demonstration.

So, let's get right into the practical business applications. UrbanSpoon.com (a review site for local restaurants) has just added a "Scope" feature to the UrbanSpoon iPhone app. Let's say you're in a dense urban area and craving a slice of pizza. Point your iPhone at the horizon looking through the UrbanSpoon Scope, and the application will overlay the percentage of positive customer reviews on top of the restaurants right in front of you.

GPS functionality makes all of this happen based on where you're standing at that very moment. The Scope feature is only available for 3GS iPhones, so if you have a first- or second-generation device (like me), you won't have access to it.

You can expect mobile devices to get smarter by the day, and you'll see a blend of GPS and AR functionality becoming the norm over time. Imagine all the possibilities here: Relevant information delivered based on current physical location.

How will you be using this technology for your business, and/or your clients?

Passive activity: Is that the opposite of vigorous rest?

Some entrepreneurs spend all of their time on one thing.  Others like to have a lot of things going on. If you37634353 multitask, you may have run into the "passive loss" rules at tax time.  If your passion is real estate rental, you almost certainly have.

The passive loss rules were designed to thwart mass-market tax shelters popular in the early 1980s. They only allow losses from "passive activities" to the extent of income from other "passive activities." Disallowed losses carry forward indefinitely to offset future "passive" income, or until they are allowed when the activity is sold.  Except for real estate, a business activity is "passive" depending on how much time you spend on it.  While there are a number of tests, the two most important ones are:

- You are not "passive" if you spend 500 hours or more on a business activity in a year, and

- You are not "passive" if you spend at least 100 hours on an activity, and you spend more than 500 hours on multiple 100-500 hour activities in a year.

Real estate rental losses are normally passive in any case, but a special rule applies to "materially-participating real estate professionals."  These are folks who spend at least 750 hours each year in a real estate trade or business, and who don't spend more time on other things.  The tax law defines "real estate trade or business" for this rule as:

any real property development, redevelopment, construction, reconstruction, acquisition, conversion, rental, operation, management, leasing, or brokerage trade or business.

These taxpayers don't automatically avoid the passive loss rules for rental real estate; they just get to apply the regular 100-500 hour rules

If you think you might be on the edge for how much time you spend on an activity, start keeping track of it on your appointment calendar.  It's up to you to prove your hours to the IRS. 

For more on the passive activity rules, go here.  These rules are complicated -- there's a lot more to them than what's in this post -- so get your tax pro involved.

What is viral marketing?

Picture 13 Everyone talks about viral marketing like it’s this brand new tactic, borne of the information age.

But really, viral marketing could be anything from free samples in the grocery store to dropping wallets throughout a downtown area and loading each wallet with a card requesting the finder to visit a certain Web site to see if they have found the lucky million dollar wallet, to launching a Presidential campaign on YouTube.

Most people use the word 'viral' and assume it must have something to do with social media or the Internet. Oftentimes, that is true. But it doesn't have to be.
There is a great deal of talk today about buzz marketing or word of mouth marketing. Those are just another way of talking about viral marketing. Viral marketing is basically any marketing effort that you “release” into the marketplace and let it chart its own course. The key element of viral marketing is that you relinquish control to the consumers and let them take the campaign where they see fit.
It’s possible and often advantageous to use an element of viral marketing in every campaign you do. In fact, it’s been that way for years. The only difference is that your options are much broader now than they used to be.

There is no magic age or demographic for viral marketing. It all depends on the product, the medium and the audience. Again, like a creative campaign – it is not just for the young.

While the 15-25-year-olds are clearly heavy Internet users, so are the business and hobby bloggers. Want to create a rush of seniors? Virally give away free samples. Age is not the key factor. Matching the campaign to the audience is.

So don't let the label scare you away.  Viral marketing has been a smart tactic for a very long time.


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Sleep on It

11777703-1024x683_sleep Sleep is essential for an individual’s health and well-being. Yet according to the National Sleep Foundation, millions of people don’t get enough, and many suffer from a lack of sleep.

Several research studies examined the impacts of sleep deprivation, and the results are cause for concern. Insufficient sleep is associated with several chronic diseases and conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and depression. It can have the same effect as alcohol on our minds.

The medical community addressed this issue in 2003 when the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (the organization responsible for medical training programs across the county) implemented standards for resident-training programs. They limited the residents’ hours to no more than 80 per week, averaged over four weeks, and included one day in seven away from work. The requirements produced positive results, including benefits for medical residents and reduced errors.

Now consider your team and their schedules, as well as your own personal sleep habits. Is everyone getting enough rest? While personal needs vary, the experts recommend an average of eight hours of sleep each night to stay alert and productive.

Sufficient sleep is increasingly being recognized as an essential aspect of chronic disease prevention and health promotion. I suggest adding sleeping tips to your organization’s employee wellness program, including: 

  • Establish a regular bed and wake time.
  • Avoid caffeine close to bedtime.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Exercise regularly (but complete the workout at least three hours before bedtime).
  • Establish a consistent bedtime routine.
  • Create a sleep-conducive environment that is dark, quiet and comfortable.
  • Discuss the appropriate way to take any sleep aid with a health care professional.

These steps can help your team members reduce mistakes and on-the-job injuries while enjoying peaceful nights and healthier lives.

Get Ready For the Real Time Web

The Next Big Thing
In the past, when you wanted to find out more about a topic you would search Google, go to an informational Web site like Wikipedia, or read a blog on the subject. But what if you wanted more information about something that just happened, or about something that is constantly changing? In the past, you would have to wait for a major news organization to gather information, compose an article and post it online. This could takes hours before you get the information you need. RealTimeWeb

What is the Real Time Web?
Like the World Wide Web itself, the Real Time Web is not something you can hold in your hand. It is not a Web site or a piece of software. It is a system, much like the World Wide Web, of search engines and instant messaging. The Real Time Web combines all of these systems together to provide nearly instantaneous access to information. What if there is an earthquake in Indonesia, a bombing in Iran or a tsunami heading toward California? Even if there was someone with a cellphone witnessing and transcribing an event as it unfolded, it is unlikely you would be able to access this information for hours. Now, services such as Twitter act as a repository for real-time messages, providing you instant access to the most current information around the world. Using powerful search engines you can sort and compile exactly the real time information you need.

Why Real Time Web
How you use the Real Time Web is up to you. It may be as simple as supplementing your internet browser, as shown in the screen shot, to provide Real Time Web information along with your standard search results. It may be to completely immerse your company in the most current information about your industry. The Real Time Web allows you to locate clients, answer questions about your business and build a loyal following. You can research competition, consumer trends, product feedback and upcoming demand. The Real Time Web drops you right in the middle of conversations customers are having about your company right now. Joining the conversation benefits both your company and your customers. The only question is: How long are you going to ignore the conversation? How long is your competition?

Brett Trout

@BrettTrout on Twitter

Managing a Multi-Generational Workforce: Part 1 social media conflict

Last month, the Business Record concluded its 2009 Power Breakfast series with the topic "Managing a Multi-Generational Workforce." The breakfast held at the breathtaking Des Moines Club on the 34th floor of the Ruan building was filled with Des Moines business people seeking answers to Power breakfast a common issue facing their workplaces. 

The breakfast featured a presentation from Seth Mattison of Bridgeworks LLC, followed by a panel discussion featuring myself, Seth and colleagues Rita Perea (Rita Perea Consulting), Ted Williams (The Williams group) and moderator Adam Steen of 25 Connections.

Seth encouraged older generations to deal with millennial workers by understanding the M factor that makes Millennials tick. The M-factor can be explained in seven key focal points that will be released in Bridgeworks’ upcoming book of the same title. Seth took one of those factors, social media, and challenged older generations to do the following at work:

•    Confirm and verify before judging. A Facebook page on an employee's computer screen might be the employee reaching out for information. However, it's also possible that the employee is doing something that has nothing to do with business. "But if they're meeting expectations, who cares?"

•    Create clear policies and procedures regarding privacy issues. Seth noted the tendency of Millennials to “share everything” both personally and professionally. "The line is blurred,” however, and throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not the answer.

•    Put social networking to work for you. People do business with people they like. Rather than dismiss the trend, learn how to make it work for you and the company.

•    Don't let the real water cooler dry up. While many Boomers are quick to point out the over reliance of Millennials on technology, the alternative is to “ take them to lunch” and “mentor them” on the importance of real conversations.

Fellow IowaBiz blogger Nathan Wright has also recently shared similar advice on this matter and I think companies should be hard pressed to take heed to these recommendations. While social media will continue to evolve over time, it undoubtedly is a behemoth, and everyone will need to decide if they want to be part of the steamroller or part of the pavement. 

You can read more about this Power Breakfast from Business Record Editor Jim Pollock’s article or watch video from the event as well. My next blog entries will focus on broader conversations I have had with the other panelist and attendees of the event as well as an exclusive one on one conversation Seth and I had following the Power Breakfast. Stay tuned!

Right from the Start - Protect Business Assets with a Non Compete Agreement

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

Even though the economy has stabilized, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (stimulus) money continues to flow into expanding and start up businesses. Now is the time to protect your fledgling business from competitors who will not hesitate to take your innovations, ideas and employees with impunity or to sue you for taking theirs.  Common rationalizations are based on the perception that because the business is not “first in the field” or “big enough," finances don’t justify a trademark, patent, Web site protection or a non-competition agreement. Think about the social media networks that came before Twitter and Facebook. Think about the auction sites before eBay, the search engines before Google. You remember these later companies and not their predecessors because these later companies protected themselves from the outset.  (I cannot name the earlier companies because I don’t know their names.)

This post concentrates on the threat from within. Trade secrets may be taken by a thief in the night, by a hacker, or by an employee who walks across the [virtual] street with your processes, client lists, templates (and even other employees).  If you wait too long, you risk losing everything. The person stealing your company out from under you need not be a stranger. It may be an executive employee or partner. As emphasized in an earlier post, putting your  relationship into a written contract is a sign of trust, not mistrust. Your business is more than a lark – it has its own identity. Take selfless steps to protect that distinction. Stand behind your commitments and clearly define your expectations. Writing is friendly. Writing drastically reduces the likelihood of fisticuffs down the road.

A non-compete agreement may provide everyone with assurance as to expectations and may address a wide range of issues including:

-   For whom a current employee/partner may work in the future.

-   The time limit for that restriction.

-   The penalty for breaking the agreement.

-   Trade secrets that are protected under the agreement.

-   Which state’s law applies to a dispute. [1]

-   The type of work for which the non-compete applies.

-   The type of industry to which the non-compete applies.

-   Distance from original business within which the non-compete applies.

An unfair or ill-conceived non-compete agreement may be modified or ignored by the court. Therefore, your agreement should not contain:

-   Restrictions that last until the employee is greeting customers at Wal-Mart. Many states strike provisions which are unreasonable in duration.

-   Restrictions which prevent the employee from ever touching a computer again. Restrictions need a reasonable underlying justification to be enforceable.

-   Provisions that restrict the employee from ever competing anywhere but Latvia. Geographic restrictions in the agreement must be reasonable.

For employers, my next blog post will explore two additional possible provisions:  1. A non-solicitation agreement with other companies to inhibit the ability to lure away employees.  2. A non-disclosure agreement to provide protection from the leak of proprietary information that an employee may release to a third party without leaving your employment. 

The door swings both ways. If you hire employees with prior industry experience, inquire about the existence of a non-compete or nondisclosure agreement. In some circumstances these may impose liability on an employer.  Often the best workers already know the business and enhance your business with their knowledge. Ask yourself, how did they get to be so good?

Finally, if you already hired your employees before you read this article, offer them something extra for signing the non-compete agreement. Some courts do not recognize non-compete agreements if there is no additional “consideration” offered to the employee to sign a non-compete after employment has begun.

-Christine Branstad

[1] In California, non-compete clauses are not enforceable based on the premise that non-competes prevent the movement of talent from company to company; such movement promotes a healthy business environment.

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Stay on Top. Stay out Front.

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

You've heard it said that business leaders need to, "work on the business, not in the business."

Do you agree?

Getting mired down in the details can be deadly -- for the leader and the business. Details are like quicksand. They suck you in and there is no bottom. There's always one more email to answer, one more invoice to approve, one more meeting to attend.

But juggling details and courting customers are not the same thing.

Nurturing customer relationships and learning from those who matter most is good.

Think about it. In most organizations, the further leaders are from the customer, the more prestige they have, the bigger the bonuses they get, and the bigger the titles they carry. Likewise -- generally -- the more contact you have with customers, the lower your status.

What's with that?

Bank teller. Call center representative. Receptionist. Grocery bagger. Where they are, is where the business "is" -- the frontline.

  • It's said that Richard Branson was pushing a trolley down the aisle of one of Virgin Airline's jumbo jets, serving drinks to passengers. Later, he commented to the flight crew how difficult it was not to keep bumping into things and how the trolley blocking the aisle was a pain to the customers. It opened up the conversation that led to the decision to move the trolley service in upper class to more of a "waitress-like service."
  • There's the story of CEO Jan Carlzon. He turned around the SAS airline, spending the first couple of weeks in his new job flying as a passenger, hanging around in terminal lounges, listening to customers, and experiencing exactly what they were experiencing. He took notes in a notebook that he carried with him everywhere. When he later stepped into the boardroom to tell the board of his turnaround strategy, it was based on what was in that notebook...the time he'd spent talking and listening to customers.

That's not being immersed in details. That's rubbing shoulders with those who pay the bills and determine a company's destiny.

Want to stay on top? How about staying out of the details and outfront with your customers.

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It Is All About Perspective

4894827_thl Have you spoken or heard the phrase "Walk a mile in my shoes and then you will understand?" This saying clearly explains the power of perspective.

Understanding the perspective of individuals, work teams and the organization is critical when implementing change.  In many cases organizational change has unintended consequences for failing to appreciate the perspective of those impacted by the change.

You may think that everyone is in the front row ready to take action, but there are most likely groups that are in fear of the front row.  Understanding others perspectives is like peeling an onion.  It will take some time, it may well stink, the stink may linger and may not go away easily, and there could be tears involved.

Making the decision of what is right or wrong is not easily decided until you can appreciate why a person is the way his or she is.  This appreciation takes time, effort and patience.  

It will not eliminate hard decisions, but it will lead to a stronger culture based on respect, responsibility and acceptance.  Remember, we each have our own skeletons in the closet!

An Alternative to Selling: Fix It

Repair FrigateImage by lukaskulas via Flickr

If times are not good and the future of your business is not bright, what should you do?  Sometimes there are alternatives to selling. (i.e. Fixing it!)

  • Refinance:  Find a new bank, re-mortgage or change the loan terms.
  • Find New Capital:  Find investors or a financial partner.
  • Re-energize Yourself:  The increasing pressures can make you want to exit vs. fighting back.
    • Get your employees to assume additional responsibilities.
    • Hire a manager with capabilities beyond yours.
    • Is there a family member who could help out?
  • Planning:  Do a serious business plan and life plan.  Hire a consultant to help you with this.
  • Liquidate:  Get rid of those unproductive assets.
  • Alliance:  Is there another business that by partnering with you both would gain?
  • Buy or Merger: Who would it make sense to buy or merge with?
  • Board:  Form an Advisory Board.  You will get some great ideas.
  • Partner:  Buy them out.

Many of these are not easy for the owner and just running the business is a full-time job.  Most of these areas can best be accomplished with a dedicated professional.

- Steve Sink

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Hispanic networking events not limited to Latinos

City of Des MoinesImage via Wikipedia

When I decided to attend the Alianza: Latino Business Association’s first Pachanga Night (Noche de Pachanga) of the 2009-2010 series last week, I knew I’d have a chance to meet a variety of local Hispanic leaders and entrepreneurs.

And I knew I would have fun; the Greater Des Moines Partnership, of which Alianza is an affiliate, knows how to put on events like this as well as anybody around.

What I didn’t expect to find, necessarily, was such a broad mix of business leaders, academic administrators and young professionals at the casual networking event, aimed at Alianza members as well as Latino and non-Latino business owners.

But that is exactly what I found.

In addition to connecting with the person who invited me, I met a doctor with Broadlawns Medical Center, a business development coordinator with Iowa Workforce Development and the publisher of El Latino, one of Des Moines’ leading Hispanic newspapers. I also caught up with four faculty members from my alma mater, Des Moines Area Community College, which was a huge bonus.

I chatted with associates, acquaintances, teachers, mentors and friends.

I also learned about Alianza, Des Moines’ Hispanic chamber of commerce; Heritage of Latino Americans (H.O.L.A.), a Wells Fargo & Co. team-member resource group focused on promoting and recognizing diversity; and EFE, a Hispanic news wire service based in Spain.

The rich diversity we enjoy in Des Moines is so apparent in multicultural events such as this. My favorite anecdote of the evening was about a colleague of mine who learned to speak French in Honduras from a Belgian instructor who spoke eight languages.

Warmly welcomed to the event, not to mention well fed, I was able to connect on multiple levels with many people of different cultures, ethnicities and worldviews. The common denominator: They believe in Des Moines.

If you want to broaden your networking horizons, I encourage you to attend an event like this in the near future. Not only will you have an opportunity to learn something new, but you could also make a connection that will help you build your brand, grow your business or further your career.

- Todd Razor

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You have enough insurance – really?

Sad I admit it – I try to avoid the news as it tends to be depressing. Thursday night’s newscast was no exception – however I found myself staying up to hear the story that KCCI was reporting about the homes and businesses in Eldora, Iowa.

In August, Eldora was hit with a hail storm in which every business and home sustained hail damage. Eldora is a small city with the last population count of 2,734.

Regardless of their size, Eldora is only 90 minutes away from Des Moines, and something of this nature could easily occur to any one of our communities.  As a matter of fact, I know several businesses in Johnston that suffered hail damage recently, as well as a couple of car lots on the east side of town.

However, it's two months later and the residents in Eldora are still cleaning up after this loss.  Why? Because many of them did not have an insurance policy or have enough insurance to cover their damages.

So what does this mean to all of us?

Well, last month I touched on being prepared for a disaster in my blog post and earlier in May I blogged about being properly insured. So it was interesting to learn that there were still so many business owners and homeowners that were either uninsured or did not have enough insurance

I know I harp on this all the time – but the reality is for most individuals – their home or business is the single biggest asset they own! So why not make sure you have insurance coverage to protect it and second make sure you have enough coverage.

I am not sure what it is about insurance – but people just dislike talking about it and/or dealing with it. I hear comments from business owners like – “Oh, I have plenty of insurance,” “I have great insurance,” and my all-time favorite is “I have a family member that handles my insurance.”

I am sure that the business owners and homeowners in Eldora are no different. However, often times it is after a loss occurs that one finds out they didn’t have “plenty of insurance” or their insurance wasn’t so “great” and unfortunately “their family member did not have them covered properly.”

So what can you do? Well – it comes down to the basics:

  • Make sure you purchase the proper insurance policy.
  • Communicate any changes that you make throughout the year with your agent.
  • Make sure that you are physically reviewing your policy with your agent every year.

Don’t let your insurance policy just renew year after year and accept it being mailed out to you. I know there are some of you that get your policy in the mail and don’t even open it!

Remember, this is about your assets – consult with your insurance agent to make sure you have the right coverage in place today.

Who's The Baa's?

Bacon_study1953 Recently, I helped shepherd a group of fourth graders through a field trip at the Des Moines Art Center (because being a project manager isn't masochistic enough in and of itself).  We received a highly informative and entertaining tour thanks to our guides.  At one point of the trip, we were looking at Francis Bacon's piece, Study After Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953.  Our guides knew how to talk with 9- and 10-year-old's and asked them who knew what a pope was.  Of our group, two or three were Catholic, yet not one even attempted to answer the question.

When I shared this incident among my Facebook friends, I was equally surprised.  One of my friends had enrolled her son in Catholic school for three years and he still didn't know who the Pope was.  Another of my friends suggested the Pope should open for the Jonas Brothers, which might help his publicity... that took us on a whole new direction of conversation I won't repeat here.

Occasionally people are unaware of who is in charge.

The leader (i.e. executive project sponsor or steering committee members) needs to make himself or herself known to the project  team and to the organization.  I have worked with large organizations enough to know that project teams often are unaware who is really calling the shots.  Some simple indicators to answer this question are as follows:

  • Who owns the budget code of the project?  In other words, who holds the purse strings for the budget?
  • Who screams the loudest about the project's progress (positively or negatively)?
  • Who is identified as the sponsor on the project org chart?  (This may seem painfully obvious, but... well... you'd be surprised.)
  • Who has the most at stake in the project's solution (and in the problem that precipitated the solution)?
  • Who controls the resources working on the project?

There's an equally perplexing problem which is the converse of the one above:  If we know who the shepherd is, who then are the sheep?  Who are the identified resources for this project?  In my field trip example, I didn't expect the non-Catholic kids to know who/what the Pope is; they are outside the scope of his "resources."  In the same way, there's a very binary way to distinguish who the followers are on the project:  are they listed in the project plan, the statement of work, and/or the project charter?  If they've been identified (and presumably approved), then they're part of the project.  If not, then they are off limits.

Even then, you still need to identify your project followers in more detail.  I liked what Kevin Archbold shared in a recent post.  Project resources come in a variety pack.  You have critical resources, interchangeable resources, and warm bodies.  Just make sure people know who they are and what is expected of them.

Do you know who's in charge?  Do you know who's following?

Carpe Factum!

Macaroni Grill Surprises Me

My wife and I were in Portland, Maine last week on business. It had been a brutally long day and we wanted a quick but nice meal before crashing at the hotel. We opted for Romano's Macaroni Grill because it was nicest choice among the restaurants that were close. I normally wouldn't have chosen Macroni Grill because my previous experiences, though a few years old, were mediocre at best. The food had always tasted like it was pre-packaged and then warmed up before serving. The service had been nothing to write home about.

Our server this particular night was a young man named George who was nothing short of spectacular (and being in the Customer Service field, my expectations are pretty high). He was cheerful, personable, articulate and carried himself with professionalism. Even when he was a little behind he would stop to let us know we weren't forgotten. He knew how to check back frequently without being bothersome. He knew his wines and his food exceptionally well. My wife and I split the chicken parmesan that night, and I was really impressed. It was tasty without being heavy. When George checked back with us and we noted the great taste of the food, he informed us that Macaroni Grill had consciously been moving toward healthier, locally prepared foods and away from the heavy portions and nuke n' serve mentality that many chains have adopted. It was a far more pleasant evening than I could have imagined. Believing that good service should be noted, I stopped the manager on the way out to compliment our server.

On our final night in Maine, (I'm shaking my head as I type this) we opted to go back to the Macaroni Grill. The hostess seated us in George's section again. Remembering us from a few nights before, and realizing we really enjoy our food and our wine, he engaged us in even more conversation about the way the chef prepared our food, the sauces the restaurant used, and in different wines he likes with different dishes. He even brought us some complimentary examples of wines to try with our meal. When he brought us the check, he informed us that the manager was appreciative that we came back and had taken our appetizer off the bill. Even nicer experience than the night before for less money. Not bad.

Our two experiences were a great example of exceeding a customers expectations and earning their loyalty. Good food, good wine and decent atmosphere are somewhat easy to replicate. George's exceptional service, and the unexpected kindness of the manager, put the experience over the top. I don't know if we'll ever be back in Portland, ME again, but I can tell you that the local Macaroni Grill can expect a visit from us. Our experience earned them another visit.

The implications of Google SideWiki

Screenshot Google recently announced the launched a new product called SideWiki, which is pretty much what it sounds like: a sidebar that can be expanded/collapsed next to any existing website, containing user-generated information and commenting similar to Wikipedia.

This feature comes with the Google Toolbar (a plug-in that you have to install in your web browser). Currently it is only available for the Internet Explorer and Firefox browsers and not Google's own product, Chrome.

What does this all mean? Users can now leave comments on any static website - including yours. The caveat is that all the participants (commenters and readers) would need to have the Google Toolbar installed, something which is far away from mainstream adoption.

Jeremiah Owyang, a strategist at Altimeter Group, wrote an in-depth post about SideWiki and said:

"The impacts are far reaching, now every web page on the internet is social and can have consumer opinion – both positive and negative."

While I think businesses should absolutely pay attention to SideWiki content as part of their listening and online reputation management strategy, I'm doubtful that large numbers of users will embrace this right away. Remember that only 1% of Wikipedia's users actually author content there. Also, we're currently seeing (with our own clients) that social media users are engaging more and more with blog content posted via the Facebook Pages platform, instead of the actual blog itself. Translation: Don't be surprised when Facebook unleashes something similar.

Siva Vaidhyanathan posted this on Twitter on September 24th:

"Can anyone explain to me how Google Sidewiki could be anything but a trough for trolls?"

To address this issue, supposedly Google SideWiki will have an algorithm that can rank the "value" of individual comments, bubbling the most valuable ones up to the top and burying "internet trolls" (vulgar, hateful people who live to cause trouble online). It remains to be seen how well this algorithm works.

So what are your thoughts? Is Google SideWiki going to be a major player, revolutionizing how we think about static web pages, or is this just another Google "beta" project that will fade into obscurity over a few months?

Who can own an S corporation? Who should?

Income Tax Dancing SchoolImage by Kevin Steele via Flickr

S corporations are popular with entrepreneurs.  Unlike C corporations, they make it easy for owners to be taxed only once on their business income, while avoiding some of the complications of partnership (LLC) taxation. S corporation income is taxed directly to the corporate shareholders, rather than to the corporation itself. Iowa S corporation owners get a special break for out-of-Iowa sales that is unavailable to Iowa LLC owners.

Still, S corporations aren't for everyone. Just this week the Tax Court ruled that Individual Retirement Accounts can't own S corporations (there is a narrow exception for bank S corporations). An ineligible shareholder can be very expensive; if an ineligible shareholder owns a corporation, it is taxed as a C corporation, with a second layer tax applied on any withdrawn dividends. 

So who can own an S corporation? 

  • Individuals.
  • Grantor Trusts.
  • "Qualified Sub-Chapter S trusts" (QSSTs) - trusts owned by individuals that distribute all of their income annually and which file an election with the IRS.
  • "Electing Small Business Trusts" -- trusts that don't qualify as QSUBs but which elect to pay a tax at the trust level, at the top individual tax rate, on their S corporation earnings.
  • Certain tax-exempt organizations, including charities and ESOPs -- but not IRAs.
  • Certain voting trusts and trusts of decedents.
  • Descendent estates.

Who can't?

  • Corporations (except for wholly-owned S corporation subsidiaries).
  • Partnerships.
  • Insurance companies.
  • Certain "split-interest" trusts, like charitable remainder trusts.
  • IRAs (with a limited exception for banks).

Who shouldn't?

  • If a non-ESOP retirement plan or a charity owns S corporation stock, they are subject to "unrelated business income tax" -- a version of the corporate income tax - on their share of S corporation earnings.  This can add much complexity and unhappiness to a charity's tax life.  
  • If you aren't willing to deal with unpredictable income and estimated tax payments each quarter, you probably won't like owning an S corporation.

The decision on what entity you will use for your business is one you should make in consultation with your tax pro.

Offshore Account Update.
  The IRS has extended its amnesty for unreported offshore accounts until Oct. 15.  If you have an offshore account and you haven't filed the TD 90-22.1 form with the U.S. Treasury, the amnesty could be a pretty good deal.  Don't wait until Oct. 14 to see your tax pro if are interested.

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