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November 2009

Can You Hear Me Now?

It used to be that people ages 65 and older were the most likely to need hearing aids, but now hearing loss has become a Boomer phenomenon.

8621559-590x813_hearing For the first generation raised on rock-n-roll, years of exposure to loud concerts, cranked-up stereos and gas-powered lawn mowers are a big part of the reason doctors diagnose more middle-aged people with hearing loss. According to study by The Ear Foundation and Clarity, half of the nearly 76 million Baby Boomers in America experience some degree of hearing loss. In the study, people with hearing loss express greater dissatisfaction with their friendships, family life, health and financial situation than people without hearing loss. 

In professional situations, poor listening can be just as detrimental.

Skillful listening and communication is important in today’s competitive work environment. People who are able to communicate effectively make successful leaders and typically develop more satisfying personal and professional relationships.
I recommend strengthening your communication skills with a quick review of the C.A.R.E. model for active listening.

  • Concentrate – make sure you are focusing on the speaker.
  • Acknowledge – use body language (a nod or occasional affirmation) to convey your attentiveness.
  • Respond – make sure to ask questions for clarification and interest.
  • Emphasize – share in the speaker’s emotions and feelings.

Remember to practice effective communication in the workplace to foster an environment of respect and cooperation, while increasing your team’s morale and productivity.

What is socialnomics?

Good marketing makes something happen.  Someone walks into the store.  A prospect fills out a form on your Web site.  The cash register rings.  A customer tells their neighbor about you.

One of the knocks against social media is that it's difficult to measure or calculate ROI.  This video shakes up that theory by showcasing how many businesses are not just creating communities...but they're creating revenue via social media.

I think the question is a valid one -- what are you missing out on, by not at least dipping your toe into the social media waters?

~ Drew

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The Perfect Gift for the Business Owner

Never Ceases to Amaze

As an intellectual property attorney, I see my share of online train wrecks. The train wrecks are usually business owners who thought the law was one thing when much to their chagrin, it turned out to be quite another. Many figure since there is no way to understand ALL of the laws governing online commerce, it is not worth the time to educate themselves about ANY of them. They learned out the hard way what a bad strategy that is.

80% of the Benefit for 20% of the Effort

The Law of the Internet is not only complex, but constantly changing. Even if you awoke knowing everything there was to know about Internet Law (which no one does), your warehouse of knowledge would be outdated by noon. It is no wonder business owners faced with such a Sisyphean task, opt to tumble blindly onward. Little do they know for about 20 percent of the effort, they can spot about 80 percent of the issues which cause the most grief to most business owners. You do not need to know how to solve every online legal issue to succeed. Being able to spot the usual suspects is often enough to keep your business out of hot water.

Handy Desk Reference

No one book will solve all of your legal problems. Actually, by itself, a book is not going to solve any of your legal problems. CyberLaw, however, might just give you enough information to steer clear of the most common online legal problems in the first place. Some business owners never realize that spotting the issues is half the battle. Spotted in time, you and your attorney can address most online legal problems and avoid their potentially catastrophic consequences. 

Cyberlaw Cover

Leverage the Opportunity

Many companies see the complexity of online legal regulations as a hindrance, while more savvy companies see it for the opportunity it presents. Understanding the why online laws are the way they are gives your company a leg up on the competition. You can expand your business more vigorously in areas of lax legal enforcement or where the law is well settled and pull back in areas of heavy enforcement or unsettled law. Most importantly, understanding the reasons behind the laws allows you to extrapolate your strategy forward. Where your competitors are busy digging themselves out of holes they never saw coming, you can be anticipating the changes two or three years down the road and reaping the subsequent rewards. If you know a slightly nerdy business owner who has been good this year, now is the time to reward him/her with a holiday gift that really will keep on giving.

Brett Trout

Be a Nurturing Sales Professional

People tell me all the time that they are not good at sales or that they could not be a salesperson. It is understandable because most people have experienced the scripted, silly and often irritating closing questions of a salesperson trying to close a sale.

They believe that "successful" sales people must GET people to buy.  They must be a "closer." 

Fortunately, most of us are just not "closers" like Vin Diesel in the movie Boiler Room.

Of course, this example is over the top. But what is obviously happening here is that manipulative techniques are being used to close the deal because the sales person wants to close the deal whether or not the lead is ready to buy. In addition to being distasteful and bad for generating referrals, many "closers" have a tendency to offer discounts or additional value for free to get the deal done thus hurting long term profitability.

The fact is most sales people are not pushy. There are far more business owners and sales professionals who will test your interest with some qualifying questions and back off immediately if you don't demonstrate that you are ready to buy. They are afraid of appearing pushy or they convince themselves that spending time with "tire kickers" is a waste. 

Like a rolling stone, they will just go on to the next lead.

Consider this. Experts agree that it will take you at least seven to 12 contacts with a lead before they are ready to buy. If you give up at two, three, four or five, your competition is finishing what you started.

Also, experts agree that in large B2B sales, 25 percent of those who are going to buy do so within six months of becoming a lead. Another 25 percent buy within seven to 12 months. Another 25 percent within 12 to 18 months. And the final 25 percent buy after 18 months. If you give up too soon, your competition is finishing what you started.

For both the "closer" and the "rolling stone," LEAD NURTURING is the way to increase sales results (not to mention professional esteem).

Lead nurturing is the process of building a relationship based upon credibility and trust with your leads so that when THEY are prepared to buy, you will be the from whom they buy and all will enjoy the process.

Lead nurturing requires three things to get started.

  1. A Belief that it will pay dividends
  2. A System to do it efficiently
  3. A Commitment to execute

What would the impact be on your sales if you abandoned the "closer" and "rolling stone" approaches and developed a system of lead nurturing?

Get it right the first time

Anillos de Matrimonio, Aros de MatrimonioImage via Wikipedia

Running to the secretary of state to get corporate filings is not the first step in developing your business.

Incorporating before your business has an identity is like getting a marriage license before you decide on a groom. You will likely have to start over.

First, determine: Who are you? What do you want? What is your growth strategy? What is your exit plan

Second, talk with advisers including: your lawyer, business mentors, tax professional, business partners. Gather information to use in determining an organizational chart, managerial structure, initial investors and future direction.

Finally, look at the types of business entities:

Yes, there is a right time to get the real security of a business entity. If you are inventing, dividing profits or shopping ideas, you may want and need the protection of limited liability. Additionally, if you are beginning to negotiate contracts (even "little" contracts like your cell phone), you want your business entity in place. It is easier to have assets and liabilities in the name of your entity from the start. . . if you do it right the first time.

Like a good marriage, your business entity will need maintenance to go the distance. Like a marriage, it is easier to care from the start than to fix the problems. 

- Christine Branstad

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The "Romance" of Interviewing

The July 24, 2006 issue of Fortune, featuring ...Image via Wikipedia

What if there were an even better way to figure out which candidate was most likely to succeed in your open position? Is there a better way than behavior-based interviewing, which about half of the Fortune 500 employers use?

There is.

At least there is according to Malcolm Gladwell, author of  "The Tipping Point," "Blink" and "Outliers." Behavior-based interviewing, you know, is based on the premise that what a person has done in the past is the most reliable predictor of how they are likely to perform in the future. So, using behavior-based interviewing, you might ask an applicant, "Sometimes things come up that get in the way of achieving our goals. Tell me about a time when your plans or schedule were seriously interrupted. What did you do?"

Sounds like a really good question, right? Now you're going to learn whether this person can adapt and stay focused on the goal! Not so, according to Gladwell's latest book, "What the Dog Saw." Supposedly, the problem with behavior-based interviewing is that it's too obvious what the interviewee is supposed to say. The interviewee can simply spin his example to fit what he knows the interviewer is looking for.

Gladwell tells of Justin Menkes, an human resources consultant from Pasadena who asks: "What if those questions were rephrased so the answers weren't obvious?" For example: "At your weekly team meetings, your boss unexpectedly begins aggressively critiquing your performance on a current project. What do you do?"

Wow! He's right. Suddenly I have to fess up. My focus is no longer on trying to figure out the "right" answer. Instead, it shifts to seeing myself in that situation and describing what I'd most likely do - without being able to anticipate how my response might land on the interviewer's ears.

This interviewing approach is known as structured interviewing. According to Gladwell, in studies by industrial psychologists, it's been shown to be the only kind of interviewing that has any success at all in predicting performance in the workplace.

  • The format is rigid
  • The questions are scripted
  • The applicants are rated on a series of pre-determined scales

Hmmmm...so if it's such a reliable predictor of success, why aren't half of the Fortune 500 using structured interviewing rather than behavior-based interviewing? According to Menkes, structured interviewing just doesn't "feel right." For most of us, hiring someone is "essentially a romantic process." Kind 'a like dating. "We are looking for someone with whom we have a certain chemistry, even if the coupling that results ends in tears, and the pursuer and the pursued turn out to have nothing in common. We want the unlimited promise of a love affair. The structured interview, by contrast, seems to offer only the dry logic and practicality of an arranged marriage."

What do you think? You've undoubtedly interviewed applicants a some point in your career. Would you be willing to give up the subjectivity and chemistry we often base our hiring decisions on? Gladwell and Menkes say you should,..let go of the "romance."

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A Paint Can of Cookies

87528962 Gifts come in many ways, but I was very surprised the other day when I received a UPS package that contained a paint can.  Needless to say I was very curious as to what the paint can contained.  It was a "welcome to the team" note with cookies from my new employer RSM McGladrey.  I have not even started the position and they are sending me a signal of their culture . Very impressive.  Even more impressive is an agenda for my first day that includes lunch.

What are the signals your culture sends to new employees?  Do they wait in the lobby with no conversation, wait for follow up calls or emails, have no idea of what the first day will bring or is it the standard paper work and then get them to work? 

First impressions are powerful and difficult to change, just as it is difficult to change a company's culture.  One of the greatest tools in changing company culture is new blood.  New employees bring no baggage and are eager to prove themselves.  They will be the first to accept change and step up to take on new challenges.

If culture change is a priority for you, it may serve you well to examine the process you use in bringing new people to your company.  It may be time for some new paint.

Seller Financing

Though sellers may not like it, seller financing is becoming a requirement for the sale of a business to take place. Some of the pros and cons are:


1) Sellers generally get a 14 to 17 percent higher price on a sale when using seller financing
2) Buyers feel more comfortable that the seller has faith in the success of the business
3) Allows for a quicker close as buyers who may not be able to line up traditional financing can borrow from the seller
4) Seller financing can have better tax advantages to the seller


1) The new buyer may not run the business as successfully as the seller, and the seller may have to take back the business or forgo the business note
2) Factors out of the control of the buyer, such as economic and natural disasters, could have a negative impact on the business, increasing risk to the seller rather than the buyer

One method that allows the sellers obtain the “pros” of selling a business without having to take the “cons” is having a buyer for the note lined up. How does it work? During the negotiations of selling the business, the seller can also seek out a buyer for the note. Once the deal with the business seller closes, or simultaneously with the business closing, the business seller can immediately sell the note or a portion of it to a note broker for cash.

The discount range on the sale of the note varies depending on various factors such as experience and credit rating of the business buyer and the maturity of the note. Discounts usually start at 15 percent and go up. However, this cost to the seller is usually offset by the increase in selling price obtained by using seller financing. In addition to the actual buyer willing to pay more for the business when seller financing is used, the market for potential buyers is larger when seller financing is available, which allows the seller to be more selective on who gets to buy his successful enterprise.

Selecting the less risk-averse buyer helps the business seller decrease the discount rate on the sell of the note. The discount rate on the sale of the note can also be enhanced for the seller after the note is “seasoned,” which generally takes at least four to six months. This allows the note broker to obtain more confidence that the business buyer is operating the business successfully and the decrease in risk is reflected in a better discount rate to the seller (i.e. note holder).

Certainly, this method is not for all sellers, but it is an option that a seller may have a need to utilize and transfers the risk to the note holder.

Feel free to contact me with your questions.

- Steve Sink
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Make sure your brand is ‘infectious,’ not ‘contagious’

Cover of "The Aviator (Two-Disc Widescree...Cover via Amazon

Speaking of viral marketing, we are always looking for ways to engage our customers, contacts, associates and friends.

Last month, while gearing up to attend the Iowa Commercial Real Estate Expo in Altoona, I knew I would have an opportunity to connect with dozens of people whom I regularly come into contact with on my beat.

I also knew that within 10 minutes of entering the venue, I’d probably shake hands with at least 20 people.

I like shaking hands. To me, a handshake is a sign of courtesy, respect and camaraderie. Shaking hands is a physical link between friends, family, co-workers and business associates. I would say especially in B2B relationships, shaking hands is customary and generally expected. When you shake someone’s hand, you are acknowledging that person’s worth.

But I digress.

Two days before the expo, I watched “The Aviator.” The movie, which is about the life and times of the late Howard Hughes, shines a spotlight on the eccentric tycoon’s germaphobic disposition. According to one Wikipedia entry, “Hughes insisted on using tissues to pick up objects, so that he could insulate himself from germs.” I watched the film with great interest as it came highly recommended. Before that, I never really knew much about Hughes’ life, except that he liked to spend mountains of cash on making movies.

The following day, a friend of mine called to tell me that one of her co-workers came to work sick and was apparently telling people in the office that she had H1N1 flu. My friend, concerned about her own health and the health of her family, shared the apparent rumor with her boss.

The “sick” employee denied ever saying she had the flu and the employer did nothing but put everyone back to work.

The events of those two days are what got me thinking about writing this post. As employers, as small business owners, as salespeople and as media professionals, we all want to “infect” others with our products, our businesses and our career aspirations. And we all know that a handshake is an acceptable, practical and tangible way to do that.

We also understand that the more often we come into contact with clients, co-workers and contacts – and the more we do to engage them face-to-face – the more “contagious” our brand will be.

Of course, if you primarily connect with people using social media rather than in person, you have less to worry about. The downside to that, however, is if you don’t make face time with your peeps a priority, they will likely never really “catch” on to who you are or what you are trying to accomplish.

Again I digress.

I'm not trying to be crass. The flu is not joke and, thankfully, I’ve managed to avoid it so far this year. And if you’re one of the unlucky ones who have caught it, I’m sorry to hear it.

All I’m saying is, let’s make sure that this flu season, we “infect” others with our brands, not ourselves.

Here are three simple things you can do to reduce your risk:
  • If you are sick, stay home. Enough said.
  • If that’s not possible, let associates know that you may be coming down with something and aren’t shaking hands for a few days. They will understand and even thank you for it.
  • In my workplace, where reporters and salespeople are constantly chasing down leads, bottles of hand sanitizer are popping up like dandelions in springtime. Use it, share it, use it again.

For more tips on sanitizing the workplace, click here.

- Todd Razor

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'Tis the season to keep your business healthy

Cold With cold and flu season here, many of you are making your doctor appointments for your flu shots.  The same should be said for your business.  Many business insurance policies come up for renewal in January.  Just like a doctor appointment, this is the time of year you should be making your appointments with your insurance agent.

In the midst of the holiday season, business may be up for some and for others business may be down. As Tim Johnson indicated in his blog earlier this month, this is a good time to "make your list and check it twice."

So let’s take at look at some highlights on insurance coverages that seem to be overlooked but can have a substantial impact on a business owner:

Building Coverage – Do you own your building? If not, you may not need to insure the building. However, you will want to make sure you have enough coverage for damage to rented premises. It is not uncommon to see a business owner only carry $50,000 or $100,000 coverage for this. Make sure your coverage is sufficient.

Business Personal Property – Have you consolidated or downsized any of your locations? Are you increasing your inventory to prepare for the holidays? Make sure your coverage is sufficient to cover any of your seasonal changes.

Tenant Improvement and Betterments – Who paid for the remodeling costs of your space? If you did, then you may want to have coverage for this on your policy in the event that you have a loss and want to reoccupy your same space. If the building owner paid for these costs or you acquired the space, then it will be up to the building owner to have the right coverage in place. Another point to make is that some companies will include this in with Business Personal Property coverage, which can be a much higher rate. So it may be cost effective for you to look at a company that separates this coverage out.

Business Income – Do you have enough income listed to cover your expenses if your business is inoperable? Do you want to be able to pay your employees during this time? If so, you may need to include ordinary payroll in this coverage.

Water Back-Up/Sump Pump – This is not flood coverage. This is coverage in the event that a sewer backs up or your sump pump fails and causes water to get backed up in your building and damages your property as a result. This coverage is not included in your policy. You will need to add it.

Landscape – Have you spruced up the outside of your building with new rock, bushes, plants or trees? If so, there are limitations on business policies for this coverage. Often times the coverage is minimal. So take a look at your policy to make sure you have coverage and that it is enough to cover any damages you may occur.

Business Income from Dependent Properties -- I am sure many of you have never even heard of this coverage. However, this coverage can provide a business owner with income in the event that their main supplier or manufacturer has a loss which in turn affects the insured’s business. So if your business is viably dependent upon another – you may want to review this coverage on your policy.

Vacancy -- Have you lost some tenants in your building or shopping center? Is your rental building sitting empty? Insurance companies can have different definitions of the term vacancy, which can mean additional costs and/or some penalty charges to the policyholder in the event of a loss. An endorsement can be added to the policy to help avoid this. So it is a good idea to discuss any vacancy concerns and make sure that your policy is written correctly to ensure you have coverage.

So in an effort to keep your business healthy, a good checkup may be all you need.

It's About Time

PLANTATION, FL- NOVEMBER 02: Howie Brown adju...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Recently, I was interviewed by Kevin Eikenberry about my upcoming book on systems thinking for his series on process improvement.  One of his listeners asked how to deal with executives who claim not to have time for process improvement activity.  My response (which Kevin blogged about) was simple:  we're all given the same bank of time each day.  The same 24 hours are doled out to executives and entry level alike.

Based on a recent discussion I had with Lisa Gates, how we spend that time is a function of our values and priorities.  Executives with whom I've worked have been notorious for claiming they don't have time for all of this "project management stuff." Yet they scream the loudest when critical priorities are not completed on time or when corners are cut in order to make a deadline.

We also are sometimes challenged with individuals who do not complete their project tasks on time.  They manage to come up with numerous excuses why they were unable to meet their committed deadline.  It almost seems they put more effort into fabricating the excuses than they put into doing the work.  Jack Molisani of LavaCon recently shared with me a line he's started using:  "Don't tell me about the labor; show me the baby."

How do you prevent the last minute "I don't have time" excuse?  I make sure to check with my resources regularly two to three weeks prior to a task's scheduled completion.  I'll ask them if there is anything preventing them from completing the task as committed.  There will be a pulse check about any possible competing priorities.  I may talk with their functional manager if there has been a track record of resources being pulled at the last second to work on competing demands.  In short, I try to mitigate last second priority shifts.

What about you?  How are you ensuring your projects complete in a timely fashion?

Carpe Factum!

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Good Service Acknowledges the Customer

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

Last night, my daughter and I walked inside the McDonalds in Story City. We were on our way home from a road trip to the Twin Cities. There was no one in line and I walked up to the counter. The seemingly well-oiled machine of workers were scurrying behind the counter. I waited for someone to step up to the register and take my order, but no one did. After a few moments, the manager, who stood a few feet from the register, called for someone to take over register duties.

I waited.

Several workers darted back and forth behind the counter filling drive-through orders and making coffee. The manager walked up and placed a cash drawer on the counter, calling once again for a young man to come take over the register. The young man walked up and argued with the manager why he had to run the register because he was "no good" at it. The manager insisted that he would do it.

I stood on the other side of the counter, waiting.

The young man now took the inventoried cash from an envelope and carefully counted the bills, reconciling them to the report, and putting them into their respective slots.

I watched and waited.

The clerk now inserted the drawer into the register and looked up, surveying the lobby but not making eye contact with me even though I was standing directly across the counter from him. I felt like the invisible man. He then turned to look back at the crew in the kitchen.

"Excuse me?" I said. "Can I place my order?"

The young man finally looked at me. "Yeah. Whattaya want?" he asked.

One surefire way to make your customers feel alienated is to ignore their presence. Yesterday's example came at a fast food restaurant, but I've experienced the same problem at much nicer establishments, as well.

Shift changes happen. People go on breaks. Customers must sometimes wait while service personnel get organized. If your customers must wait on you, make sure you:

  1. Acknowledge the customer's presence. Make eye contact, speak directly to the customer and acknowledge that you realize he or she is waiting on you.
  2. Apologize. "I'm sorry to keep you waiting," or a similar statement of apology, tells customers that you understand their time is valuable and you regret creating an inconvenience for them.
  3. Address the situation. Explain what is happening and how long the customer can expect to wait. "I need to log in to the register. This should just take about 30 seconds." If there is lag time while waiting on the system, you might even begin to address the customer's need: "It will be just a few more moments. While we're waiting, tell me what you'd like to order."

Don't ignore your customers. Acknowledge and connect with them, even in uncomfortable pauses of service.

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Exploring Google Reader's "Sort by Magic" feature

Sortbymagic Who has logged into their Google Reader account lately to discover 1000 or more items waiting to be read? Raise your hand. (Mine is currently raised.)

To combat this information overload issue, Google recently launched a feature called "Sort by Magic." This is basically an algorithm that prioritizes the information flowing into your RSS reader for you, based on what you've liked in the past (via the "star" and "share" buttons). As we all know, Google is really good at algorithms, so go ahead and give this a spin.

For those that don't know Google Reader, it's a news aggregator that lets you subscribe to various forms of content - sports scores, blog posts, keyword searches, news headlines, et cetera - and read them all in one place.

On day one, the feature won't be very intelligent. Over time, as you star and share more items, it will get smarter and more valuable for you. Google discusses the feature more in-depth on their Reader blog.

Facebook recently made some dramatic changes to their News Feed for the same reason: preventing individual filter failure. If filters fail, users stop logging in, so it's smart that both companies are tweaking their technology to address this.

What are your thoughts? Have you used the new "Sort by Magic" feature, and is it working for you?

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

Got losses? Turn them into cash.

MoneyImage by TW Collins via Flickr

Back in September, we were jumping up and down warning taxpayers with 2008 Net Operating Losses about the looming September and October deadlines to carry them back five years.

Never mind.

Congress has just changed the rules again, giving a mulligan to taxpayers who missed their chance to carry back 2008 losses five years. Normally taxpayers can only take federal losses back to recover taxes paid in the prior two years. Congress has also extended the five-year loss carryback to 2009 and has applied it to more taxpayers. The rules are a bit complex (okay, screwy) so follow along closely:

Smaller businesses: Taxpayers who elected to carry back losses from businesses with average gross receipts for the preceding three years of less than $15 million, three, four or five years for both 2008 and 2009. 

A taxpayer who qualified to elect the extended carryback for 2008, but failed to do so, has to choose between the 2008 or 2009 losses for the extended carryback.

Larger businesses: Taxpayers can elect to carry back losses from businesses with average gross receipts over $15 million, three, four or five years for either 2008 or 2009, but not both. These taxpayers had been excluded from the old five-year carry back.

But not really all of five years: Losses carried back to the fifth (2003 for 2008 losses) can only offset 50 percent of the taxable income for the fifth year. If you elect to carry back losses back only four years, you can offset 100 percent of the fourth prior year's income.

What if I have already carried back my 2008 losses? If you carried your losses back five years, you may still have to amend your carry back returns if alternative minimum tax limited your carry back refund.  A rule that limits the benefit of losses for AMT purposes has now been suspended. If you are a larger business and have carried back losses already for the two years formerly allowed, you will be able to re-file and go back five years. The IRS is expected to issue guidance soon on how to do this (UPDATE, 11/23 - see below).

How does the $15 million limit work?  If your business losses come from a partnership or S corporation, the $15 million test is applied at the entity level. If an S corporation has sales of $16 million, it's a larger business, even to a shareholder whose share of the sales is less than $16 million.

When do I have to claim the carryback?  By the due date of your 2009 returns, including extensions, by filing Form 1139 (corporations) or 1045 (individuals).

How does this affect my year-end planning?  If your losses come from one of the smaller businesses who already has used the extra carryback for 2008 losses, the new provisions don't affect your planning that much because you can carry back losses from both 2008 and 2009. Other taxpayers, who have to choose between 2008 and 2009 losses for the five-year carry back, should wait to carry back the 2008 losses until they make sure that gets you a better result than carrying back the 2009 losses.

Consult your tax pro.  There's a lot to think about when you carry back your NOLs and your tax pro can help make sure you make the most of your losses.

UPDATE, 11/23/2009: The IRS has issued guidance on claiming the extended NOL carryback period.

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Is your viral campaign working?

Virus For my last couple posts, I've been talking a little about viral marketing.  (Read them here and here.)  This week, I'd like to talk about what is often the hot button for CFO types -- measurement.  How do you know if it's working?

Measuring the impact or success of a viral marketing program can be difficult. Viral marketing is a whole different animal. There are three distinct phases of a viral campaign and each can be measured in different ways:

Start up: This phase is about measuring buzz and awareness. Is anyone talking about the campaign? Has the local media covered it? Is traffic beginning to grow on the website/blog/store? Are we seeing a different group or kind of person – in other words, are we reaching out beyond our own inner circle?

This is the phase where the viral campaign has achieved critical mass and is growing. Now you are counting frequency, demos downloaded, number of guests in the restaurant, referral sources, media attention, unique page views on the blog, return visitors etc. How many people and how often are they coming back?

The Tail:
This phase is about how long can the viral campaign last? Is the community as vibrant six months later? Two years? Some viral campaigns are designed to burn out quickly. Others can sustain themselves for years. Now is the time to measure the long-term impact of the relationships. How often do they buy? Who have they referred? Are they an influencer that drives indirect sales?
As for the difference in the results – this is a broad generalization but the results in a viral campaign are slower to result in ROI, yet the relationship with the customer is deeper and worth more, long-term.


Viral marketing is about creating a relationship between your company and its customers. Relationships take time to mature and bear fruit. But in the long run, having a loyal customer who feels a connection to you sure beats a price shopper or the “what have you done for me lately?" type of customer.

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Professional Trainers Can Improve Physical and Professional Performance

Exercise enthusiasts and the self-proclaimed “coach-potatoes” have something in common: each can benefit from sessions with a personal trainer.

Trainers help sedentary beginners create balanced fitness programs that minimize the risk of injury and support healthy lifestyles. They also assist active individuals wishing to overcome obstacles or achieve new results after maintaining an ongoing exercise routine.

9244965-566x849_exec_coach In the business world, we often seek similar assistance from executive coaches. These seasoned professionals can provide the same type of one-on-one interaction and guidance to help leaders sharpen their skills and improve team performance.

However, executive coaching, similar to personal training, is not an end in and of itself. According to the Harvard Management Update, coaching works best when you’ve identified what you want to accomplish and are open to feedback.

And the benefits can extend throughout the entire organization. Business leaders report enhanced individual performance, increased customer satisfaction and improved return on investment after utilizing corporate coaching services. A MetrixGlobal survey of Fortune 1000 executives also found coaching improved teamwork, job satisfaction and working relationships with peers, supervisors, clients and direct reports.

So whether you’re trying to shed a few pounds or streamline your team’s performance, consider a professional coach or trainer in your quest for improvement.

Trademark Your Name

Coca Cola Trademark VolumeImage by t-dawg via Flickr

Before It Is Too Late

Register your trademark. This is the best advice I wish I could retroactively give most businesses. By the time they come to see me, there is a problem, one which is often too late to fix. Protecting the name of your company with a federal registration offers major advantages. One big advantage is reducing the likelihood you will get sued by a company that did register its trademark. Another big advantage is preventing competitors from using your trademark to steal your customers.

The Process

The federal trademark registration process is relatively painless. Costs range from $800 to $2,000 or more, depending upon how unique your trademark is. The process takes between six and 18 months or more. If you are considering investing a large amount of money in your new trademark, it may be worthwhile to invest in a trademark search. Though the search will let you know of potential threats, in my experience, the trademark owners with the best claim of infringement are not always the ones who sue you. Until they come up with a who is the most litigious search, a standard trademark search is still your best bet.

Sooner, Rather Than Later

The federal trademark registration process has been known to put you in the cross-hairs of a previous trademark registrant. If your trademark is too close to another trademark,and you are going to have to change trademarks, it is much easier to change one that you have been using for six months than one you have been using for six years. In addition, paying six months of damages for your infringement is much less painful than paying for six years. If you get caught soon enough, trademark owners often decide the damages are too small to pursue and settle for you just picking a new trademark. Registering your trademark early also allows your mark to become "incontestable" sooner. This means that even if it turns out someone was using your trademark first, once your trademark has been registered for five years, your registration is immune to attacks based upon prior use.

Cheap Insurance

It is true there are trademark owners out there who have gone years without registering their trademarks. It is also true that there are thousands of businesses who don't realize their folly until they find themselves on the wrong end of a cease and desist letter. Surrendering the name your company spent years building into an institution would be devastating.  Watching your company to go under would be even worse, especially now that you know how easily it would have been to prevent. 

Brett Trout

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Finding Common Ground in the Generational Technology Gap

The 'Where do you want to go today?' logoImage via Wikipedia

When discussing young professionals in the workplace, the topic of technology is never far away. The crux of the issue always seems to involve the importance of Boomer managers understanding Millennials' reliance on technology to communicate or Millennials' need to assimilate to the communication style of a Boomer controlled workplace.

The competing perspectives set up an interesting, yet sometimes contentious, debate on what I call "the generational technology gap." My advice in dealing with this gap comes from the immortal words of Rodney King: Can’t we all just get along?

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a story that essentially asked the question “Will young people wean themselves off (over reliance on communication technology) once they enter the work force, or will employers come to see texting and social-network checking" as accepted parts of the workday?

The article attempts to show the increasing battle that companies and schools are having with getting this new generation to comply with its communication rules. Though is stops short of taking sides, the article seems to imply the battle is futile and policy makers would be wise to adjust. I would agree, to a point. The working world does need to adjust to the changing trends and behavior of its workers. However, it is still important for new workers to live off line from time to time.

Earlier this week, I attended the launch party of Catchfire Media LLC, a social-media strategy firm. There, I noticed something that I didn’t quite expect. Most of the people in attendance at the wine-and-cheese event, including the principles of the company, weren’t isolating themselves in their blackberries or iPhones “live tweeting” the event. Rather, we all were engaged in meaningful real-time face-to-face conversations. Some of these conversations had in many ways been enhanced because of previous online connections that had been established. The generationally and technologically diverse crowd wasn’t primarily focused on social media 101 conversations, but on business and marketing conversations.

It was almost like there was a general understanding from those there: "hey, we know this stuff is meaningful, but lets focus on how its going to help me." This undirected approach signaled to me that we all are ready to embrace technology, but it’s the approach in how we do it that matters most.

A new banking survey commissioned by Microsoft seems to suggest there is also common ground, even in the midst of our generational technology gap. Though the survey shows a major gap in preference in the use of technology to fulfill banking needs, it also shows that both Millennials and Boomers found many similarities in their criteria for choosing a new bank. Customer service ranked highest, followed by rates, identify fraud protection and access to bank retail branches and insurance on deposit accounts.

The opportunities are there for us to find common ground in technology and Boomers must become more apt to embrace it. However, Millennials also have to be willing to learn the “hard way” way of doing things. 

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Right from the Start - Non-Disclosure Agreements

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Non-Disclosure Agreements (also called NDAs, Confidentiality Agreements or Secrecy Agreements) have broad use in business.

The “form” NDA is a business myth. Each is designed for a purpose; the provision to protect a trade secret in a severance agreement bears little resemblance to one used when exploring a joint venture. An intellectual property attorney protecting your patent-pending machine in “pitches” to manufacturers uses a significantly different NDA than an employment law attorney protecting your client list from “walking away” with current employees.

All non-disclosure agreements should be:

-   Realistic: Protecting information should not involve parties agreeing to lock themselves in windowless rooms while dealing with each other. If you are dealing with an unscrupulous person with no assets, an NDA may not protect you.

-   Tailored enough. If collaborating, do you expect the other party to disclose information to contractors or employees?

-   Broad enough. If you provide a plant tour, is information discovered in the plant tour protected?

-   Specific enough. If one party drops out, may the other use information obtained? Is there a specific penalty for disclosure? Is there a penalty for accidental disclosure (e-mail intercepted by hacker, cleaning service theft, et cetera)? Does the NDA adhere to the laws of the state where it is written and to the laws of states where each party does business?

The Iowa Supreme Court sets out a test to determine whether a “nondisclosure-confidential agreement” is enforceable. The courts look at whether the restriction is: “(1) reasonably necessary for the protection of the employer's business; (2) unreasonably restrictive of the employee's rights; and (3) prejudicial to the public interest.”

Among ethical business partners, an NDA will set boundaries of conduct and mutual expectations. A well-worded agreement may save future headaches.

But even the best NDA will not make an unethical employee act ethically. In the event of unethical behavior, a properly drafted NDA may be a corporate lifesaver.

- Christine Branstad

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Think Like a Ginkgo

Living fossilImage via Wikipedia

Great leaders share attributes with the great Ginkgo, the oldest tree in the world. Ginkgo trees have been around more than 200 million years, undoubtedly providing shade for the dinosaurs at some point. These trees can reach 50'-80' in height, with a spread of 30'-40'. Their uniquely fan-shaped leaves start out green but morph into a golden fall foliage. They are elegant, beautiful trees.

Where's the closest Ginkgo tree to your home? Find it. Pay attention to it, season by season, year by year. Learn from it.

Like a great leader, the Ginkgo is tenacious, a survivor. They hold on when they need to hold on.

  • They adapt well to an urban environment, tolerating pollution and confined soil spaces. They rarely suffer disease problems and few insects attack them.
  • Some live to be 2,500 years old. Darwin called them "a living fossil."
  • In Hiroshima, Japan, four Ginkgo trees growing between 1-2 kilometers from the 1945 atom bomb explosion were among the few living things in the area to survive the blast. Though almost all other plants and animals in the area were destroyed, the Ginkgoes, though charred, survived and were soon healthy again. Those trees are alive to this day. In Russia, a Ginkgo was the only plant to survive the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl.

Like a great leader, the Ginkgo is also flexible, adaptable and unique. They let go when they need to let go.

  • It is said that the Ginkgo's trunk is always warmer to the touch than the temperature around it. Even in the depths of winter, most other trees feel cold to the touch, but not the Ginkgo.
  • Though they are huge trees, they can be grown as Japanese bonsai; they can be kept artificially small and tended for centuries.
  • A Ginkgo's leaves usually change to a golden color all at once in the fall, hold for a short time and then all fall from the tree together, creating brilliant showers of sparkling yellow leaves, and then a lovely soft golden carpet.

In what respects are you like the mighty, elegant and resilient Ginkgo? Do YOU exemplify the dichotomy of tenacity and flexibility?

It's interesting to note that the Ginkgo does not grow in the wild. It grows only in places where caretakers and gardeners have recognized the special excellence of this plant and have honored the connection it offers us to a history beyond memory. Hmmm...I wonder what that says about nurturing the legacy of great leaders?

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Selling to the Next Generation?

Star Trek: The Next GenerationImage via Wikipedia

One of the most difficult issues that owners face when family members are working in the business is the question of whether they are they obligated to sell the business to a family member.

And if so, should the family member 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 insisted 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 was in the process of reviewing the offer and 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 within the family.

This type of situation could have been avoided if the owner had planned ahead and communicated plans to members of the family.

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Professional Liability, E & O, D & O – E.I.E.I.O.

Insurance policy So what is this type of coverage and what do these initials mean?

Essentially, they are all forms of professional liability insurance tailored for a particular industry.

  • Professional liability insurance in the medical field is also known as medical malpractice - with coverage designed for your medical doctors, dentists, chiropractors, practitioners, nurses,  et cetera.
  • Errors and Omissions (E & O) coverage is geared toward your insurance agents, notary public, real estate agents, appraisers and technology fields.

  • Directors and Officers (D & O) coverage is for the directors and officers of a business. It provides the company with protection for any wrongful acts that one of its corporate directors may be responsible for while performing their corporate duties. These acts are not limited to misstatements, neglect or errors and omissions.

The key to remember is that a standard general liability policy or business owners policy provides coverage for bodily injury, property damage, personal injury or advertising injury claims. You will typically find that these policies contain an exclusion related to any claims resulting out of advice given. Therefore, if you want protection against this type of exposure, you will need to purchase a separate policy.

Professional liability coverage can essentially provide protection for that coverage gap and protect you from claims of negligence, misrepresentation and inaccurate advice.

The economy is changing with business executives being laid off. We are seeing these individuals starting up their own businesses, many of which are management and consulting firms.

A simple question that you can ask yourself to determine if this coverage is needed for your business is “are you giving advice, or making suggestions for an individual or business?”

If you answered “yes," then talk with your agent regarding your business exposures to ensure you have the right coverage for your business needs.

Bend your year for a bit?

Deadline (reality TV series)Image via Wikipedia

Yes, it's November. The leaves have fallen. The Halloween candy has been ingested (resulting in a sugar high and subsequent crash). The malls are now playing Christmas music.

As project managers, we're all thinking about one thing: year end.

Let's face it, many projects will be coming to an end on or before Dec. 31. Generally, there are a whole heapin', steamin' pile of maintenance things to do, which tend to get bundled into their own year-end project. There are also numerous project constraints, such as increased time off by those project resources you seem to need the most. If your business environment is highly IT driven, then there is probably a "freeze" where no new programs can be implemented (so year-end processing won't be messed up).

Do you know what YOU need to do to prepare for year end? Well, let's do what Santa does. Let's make a list and check it twice. (Believe me when I say that project managers generally wind up on naughty or nice lists due to this time of year.)

  1. Do you know what needs to be done by year-end? Is it written down? If you polled many of your resources about what they need to have done by year-end, what would they all tell you? Once you have everybody's input, does it align with the organization's mission?
  2. Do you have a risk management plan? OK, every project should have a risk management plan, but let people know what can go wrong for the company if an important year-end project deadline is missed. Will customers be upset? Will fines and penalties begin accruing? Will critical data be lost or compromised?
  3. What are the year-end priorities? Based on your answers to the first two questions above, what are the absolutely have-to-get-done items vs. the gee-it-would-be-nice-if-this-got-done by year end?  Treat your year-end initiatives like a reality show. Who gets voted off first and who gets to survive?
  4. What resources are available to help you get done by year-end? This involves both people and budget dollars. If there are things that have to be done, do you have the people to work on them?  How well can they focus on them? Do you need to contract assistance to help get this project done?
  5. What happens to your non-critical projects? Do you shelve them while everyone is working on year-end stuff? Do you keep them running on a bare minimum?
  6. Have you laid out specific time constraints? Are there tasks to complete no earlier than Dec. 15?  Are there people gone the last week of the year? (I know, I know... people have personal lives around the holidays... crazy talk, isn't it?)
  7. Last, but not least, do you have means of holding people (including yourself) accountable for getting everything done at the right time? How are you tracking it all?

So enjoy some egg nog, hang the mistletoe, throw in the Blenders Christmas and Carpe Factum!

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Service Above Self

Rotary InternationalImage via Wikipedia

"Service Above Self" is the motto of Rotary International, an organization in which I've been involved over the years. I love the motto because it is at the core of any act of service. Customer service, community service, military service and (you name it) service are all about being focused on the needs of others. Giving priority to what others need, want or expect is at the heart of service.

This is forgotten when we:

  • Ignore the customer completely. I recently stood at a counter for several minutes while the clerk finished whatever task she was doing at her terminal. There was no eye contact. There was no acknowledgment I was there. There was no "I'm sorry for the delay. It will be just one moment while I finish this transaction." It was as if I didn't exist.
  • Put our convenience ahead of the customer. I hear this when Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) refuse to help customers if the customer hasn't anticipated the necessary information that will help the CSR be more efficient and get their talk time down. "If the customer doesn't think ahead to have all the information I need, they shouldn't expect my help," I've been told on multiple occasions by different "service" reps. I experienced this recently when there was no one at the counter to help me. Finally going on a hunt for help, I discovered the clerk standing by the back room texting someone on her cell phone.
  • Focus on industry standards without regard to customer expectation. Standards can be great guidelines, but if you hit the industry bulls-eye while completely missing the customer's target, you've wasted a lot of time and resources. You'd hope that industry standards would have customer expectations in mind, but they can be so process and metric driven that they leave customer expectation and satisfaction out of the equation.

Is your staff putting "service above self" or "self above service?"

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Can Twitter Lists save the social network?

Twitter-lists1 Twitter recently rolled out a new feature called Twitter Lists. It's a way for individual users to curate lists of people based on, well, whatever they like. For instance, you could make a Twitter List of entrepreneurs in your city, your funniest friends, celebrities, et cetera.

This sounds like a simple feature. But I think it will fundamentally change Twitter for the better. Here's why: the social network has been experiencing serious problems over the last year as it's popularity and growth has exploded, specifically with spammers and marketers trying to "game" the following/follower system. There are tools, applications, tricks and scripts readily available that anyone can leverage to get tens of thousands of new followers overnight.

Twitter Lists, I believe, will return us to the Twitter we first fell in love with, reinforcing quality over quantity. For instance, if another user deems you list-worthy, that instantly carries more weight than a one-click "follow." Now, when you're screening new followers, you can check out how many lists they are on in addition to how many followers they have. As you know, 10,000 followers on Twitter today doesn't necessarily mean what it did in 2008.

Lists will be integrated with their API, meaning that third-party applications like Tweetie, Tweetdeck and Hootsuite will be able to pull the data and push it into their services and products. There's already a Web site devoted to lists of lists, called Listorious.

In my first few days of playing around with the new feature, I've started a list of Des Moines East Village businesses, Des Moines entrepreneurs and people I've hung out with at conferences.

Ryan Lynch told me this weekend that he's advising clients to create lists of followers who are actively engaged with their updates. For instance, you may have 1,000 followers, but wouldn't it be nice to have a separate bucket for the 100 people who are frequently interacting with your business? Maybe this becomes a list of 100 V.I.P. customers over time.

How will you use Twitter Lists to your advantage? Please leave your thoughts below.

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

Information returns for fun and vengeance

Information SuperhighwayImage by nickwheeleroz (on holiday) via Flickr

Information returns, like 1099 forms, are meant to help the tax system work by enabling the IRS to make sure that income gets properly reported.  The IRS matches the information returns against 1040s and sends friendly "Dear Taxpayer" letters if they don't match up.

Creative taxpayers have found information returns useful for other things. Like vengeance.

After the breakup of his marriage, an ex-son-in-law still owed money to his ex-wife's mother.  Ex-Mom and Ex-Son never could work out a settlement, so Ex-Mom gave up on the debt -- and reported it to the son as "cancellation of indebtedness income" on a Form 1099-C filed with the IRS.

Ex-Son was unhappy with this - so unhappy that he sued Ex-Mom, claiming the 1099-C was fraudulent because the tax law didn't require her to send him one.  The court sided with Ex-Mom, saying the tax law doesn't mind too much information reporting.

That's a lesson entrepreneurs can take to heart.  The penalties for failing to issue information returns can get expensive in a hurry, starting at $50 for each failure to file them on time.

The tax law requires businesses to issue many information returns. Common ones include:

  • W-2s to employees
  • 1099-MISC to non-employees who receive $600 or more in payments from the the business during the year.
  • 1099-INT to recipients of $10 or more in interest from the business during the year.

There are broad exceptions to the requirement; the biggest one is that most payments to corporations are exempt from the reporting requirements.

The 1099-C issued to report debt forgiveness by the Ex-Mom is required only of a "...governmental agency, a financial institution, or other organization in the business of lending money." But there's no penalty, other than preparation costs, of issuing an extra 1099.  Missing just a handful of those you do need to issue, however, can cost thousands.  The IRS requires many of these to be filed electronically; the penalties for failing to file the right way can be as high as for not filing at all (to be sure, there are serious penalties for maliciously filing false 1099s).

Check with your tax pro to learn more about information return requirements, and visit "A Guide to Information Returns" on the IRS website.

Oh, and think twice before borrowing from your mother-in-law.

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