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December 2010

FCC Issues Net Neutrality Order

AT&T 'Picturephone' Mod II of 1972-73, -expose...Image via Wikipedia

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week adopted rules regulating Internet access, or more specifically, regulating Internet service providers. 

The rules are meant to protect the openness of and unfiltered access to the Internet.  So-called “net neutrality” is the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat content providers equally, and that (1) ISPs shouldn’t be allowed to give preferential treatment to their own content, (2) content providers shouldn't be allowed to pay ISPs to prioritize their content, and (3) ISPs should not be able to hinder access to others’ content. 

The FCC adopted three basic rules to be applied with the complementary principle of reasonable network management:

  • Transparency.  Fixed and mobile broadband providers must disclose the network management practices, performance characteristics and terms and conditions of their broadband services;
  • No blocking. Fixed broadband providers may not block lawful content, applications, services or non-harmful devices; mobile broadband providers may not block lawful websites, or block applications that compete with their voice or video telephony services; and
  • No unreasonable discrimination. Fixed broadband providers may not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic.

Net neutrality in general, as well as the Dec. 21 ruling and adopted rules specifically, have been hotly debated. Critics on both sides have been responding to the recent ruling. Some critics don’t think the Internet should be regulated at all, or they worry the FCC will try to gradually increase its regulatory jurisdiction over the Internet. 

Others complain the rules leave too many loopholes (especially in the wireless arena) and believe the FCC should have gone further to protect Internet users, consumers, small start-ups and entrepreneurs. 

While I’m not sure I’m ready to weigh in with an opinion myself, I will say it seems the rules have done more to fuel the debate than to settle it. 

The FCC’s press release on the net neutrality order may be found here and the report and order may be found here.

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Resistance is Futile [Useful!]

The New Year provides an opportunity to implement changes in your workplace wellness program.

People are looking forward to the year ahead and may even have fresh resolutions.  What better time to realign your workplace wellness program? Because employees are already in “change mode,” changes to wellness plans, assessments, goals or other arrangements should be welcomed with open arms.


Of course, you know the opposite is true. Change, even positive change, likely will inspire resistance. However, resistance to change is not only inevitable, it is also useful.

In physics, the term “inertia” describes a special sort of resistance: the resistance of an object to change. It is perfectly natural.

Expect resistance. Accept resistance. Learn to use resistance as a catalyst for positive change, not an impediment.

It is important to identify different types of resistance to appropriately address it. I like what change management expert Rick Maurer has to say about levels of resistance. 

Level One resistance is the one that most of us expect: an intellectual resistance to the new idea, usually stemming from incomplete knowledge of the idea. "I don’t get it." This occurs when a team member resists the idea on the grounds that it is new or “different from the way it has always "worked" or doesn’t make sense to them in some way. They may have misinformation, missing data or lack some other key component that will better help them understand, adapt and then embrace the change.

At this level, what is important is communication of the idea, to the point of overcommunication. Once these people have been thoroughly educated, they will, in turn, become advocates of the new idea and in a position to educate others. They will own the change.

Level Two resistance involves deeper issues at the professional, interpersonal or personal level, usually emotional. "I don’t like it." In other words, if employees feel they are not valued or have experience that causes them to distrust certain leaders, they will naturally resist an idea, regardless of how well they understand (or even believe in) the need for change. The stressor doesn’t even have to be work related: concerns at home can contribute greatly to an employee’s receptiveness to change.

In other words, it isn’t the idea, it is the emotional environment the employee “lives in” that causes the resistance. With level two resistance, communication is important, but not in the same way as with level one resistance. Instead, what is most important is to address the resistor’s environment.

Level Three resistance goes deep and can be the most problematic if it is misidentified. "I don’t like you!" resistance is the biggest challenge. If team members are historically difficult, have values that conflict with the organization, or simply have goals that are incompatible with the team objectives, it is time to make moves. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have the right people in the right places, and to have the fortitude to make that happen.

 Productivity and Resistance to Change Graphic Compressed

So, expect resistance, identify resistance and use that resistance to catapult the organization toward new heights through change.

Juicy words drive your message home

106582817I have to credit my daughter's 2nd grade teacher Bonnie Brockberg (many moons ago) with the phrase "juicy words."  She was teaching the class about adjectives and that's how she described them.

I've stolen the phrase and used it ever since.

Juicy words.  Succulent words.  Words that add both a flavor and a sound (or smell, or vivid visual) to your copy. You know what I'm talking about.  Ad copy or a letter that you have to read out loud to someone.  It's almost musical.

That kind of copy writing is mesmerizing.  It captures our imagination.  It's memorable.  It generates buzz.  It should be the kind of writing you work your tail off to create.

The reality is most people are lazy writers.  They use the same common words that everyone else uses and they wonder why no one listens.

I want you to promise to seek out juicy words.  Weave them into your communications.  Don't be heavy-handed about it.  It's a delicate art.  A hint of juicy is plenty.  How do you start?

Read masters of the juicy words:  The J. Peterman catalog and blog are lyrical, entertaining and incredibly juicy.

Find tools that will help you get juicy:  The Visual Thesaurus is my trusty writing sidekick.  When I'm searching my brain for just the right word, it offers me many to choose from.

Get some juice on you: Jump in and squeeze!  It's going to be sticky but there's no other way.  You have to just practice.  Give it a shot in the comments box if you want.  We'll support your efforts!

Want to earn your audience's attention?  Want to get them reading your words aloud?   Then, take the pledge.  Come on, raise your right hand and repeat after me:

"I promise to be a practicing juicy word wizard. 

I'll avoid words that are dull, mundane or ordinary in any way and replace them with language that stimulates the senses and the sales."


~ Drew

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But, umm, so, you know...

image made by myself. Front view of the mouth ...Image via Wikipedia

Ten minutes?

You seriously expect me to get up in the front of a room without any note cards or PowerPoint slides and talk for 10 minutes?

These thoughts ran through my head the first day of the Toastmasters program that I hesitantly entered into at my previous job. Ah, the timeless art of public speaking. This probably won’t be the last time I write about it. But that is because it is a blast! Yeah, I said it.

It is one of the most humbling skills there is. No matter how good you think you are, you can always get better. For the young professionals of the world, it is a skill to embrace and learn early on.

I’m glad I did.

I seriously had to be talked into this free Toastmasters program at my first job out of college. That is how crazy I am! And like many young professionals, I stumbled my way through my first speech using my fair share of the words “but,” you know,” “like” and so on.

But people say “practice makes perfect” and with time I got better. And as my public speaking ability improved, the more excited I got for my next speech. I am still nowhere near being an expert on public speaking, but now I can at least say I look forward to the opportunities I get to speak to a crowd. Not only that, but strong vocal skills can be a huge asset in being successful in the workplace.

Take the time while you are young to improve this invaluable skill. Ever ramble in a job interview you didn’t get called back on? Ever walk out of a networking event thinking I should have handled meeting so-and-so differently? Ever give a presentation to a client that left them scratching their head?

Want to rock your next 10-minute presentation? Check out Toastmasters' 10 Tips for Public Speaking.

- Jason Wells

Unexpected Partnerships: Santa and Lemonade Stands

Wanted: Santa ClausImage by kevindooley via Flickr

(It is good he never crashed the sled.)

Your lemonade stand with your best friend was probably a partnership. Unlike many other business entities (LLC, LLP, Corporation), a simple general partnership requires no paperwork.

Iowa adopted the Uniform Partnership Act ("UPA"), which defines partnership as "the association of two or more persons to carry on as co-owners a business for profit." If you provide half the service and your friend provides the other half, you may both have all the liability for breaches of contracts or negligence.

Similar to a corporation, partnerships are distinct entities from the forming partners. A general partnership leaves all partners sharing liability for partnership debts and obligations. In terms of your lemonade stand, this means that after your pal fails to provide lemonade promised to a party, that angry customer can come after the lemons and pitchers (partnership assets) as well as your piggy bank (partner’s personal assets).

In the absence of a partnership agreement, there may be internal conflict between partners about who gets to make decisions (voting rights and weight of votes), who contributes to the business entity (through money, other assets, or time), and who gets paid (partners can receive distributions, if any, from the partnership, or reinvest the money in the business).

If you have no partnership agreement, there may also be conflicts about who owes external parties, such as the lemon supplier or the sugar provider. The Iowa UPA has gap-filling provisions which kick in if aspects of a partnership are not agreed upon by the partners, such as the "equal rights in management and conduct" provision and "differences settled by a majority"  provision. If you cannot get along, breaking up is pretty easy, but your liability will likely remain to people who sue for conduct that occurred in the course of the partnership. 

Dear Santa:

I would like to memorialize our agency arrangement so that we are not confused as partners or joint venturers.

Please agree that I will work as an independent contractor obtaining presents and wrapping them for you to deliver. Although I may be paid in cookies, milk and reindeer jerky, I shall not be responsible for late deliveries, chimney damage, or the aggrieved child who didn’t get a present because of an erroneous listing of naughty instead of nice. All responsibility belongs to Santa, which should be made clear in all contracts, communication and marketing materials. I request an indemnity clause in our agreement.

I want to make sure we avoid internal disagreements in our mutually beneficial relationship, and also that the world (especially the two little customers in my house) is on notice that we are not partners.

 . . . and new gloves.


 - Christine Branstad

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A Strategy for Building a Retirement Nest Egg

4793921695_ef14639484_t There is a growing concern over the ability of Americans to build an adequate retirement nest egg. The recent losses in 401(k) accounts, the instability of social security and the fear of inflation have created this concern.

Many people do not realize that employee ownership can be a viable tactic to help combat the retirement concern. The NCEO did a study on ESOPs (Employee Stock Ownership Plans) that shows that retirees in an ESOP company have approximatley 2.2 times as much in their accounts as those in comparable non-ESOP companies. Another key point is that ESOPs are more likely to offer a second retirement plan more than non-ESOPs are to offer any retirement savings plan (56 percent vs. 47 percent).

A key take away is that employees of employee-owned companies do have the ability to impact the value of their retirement account through what they do on a day to day basis.  Obviously there are no guarentees with any retirement plan, but having the ability to have some control goes a long ways to retirement peace of mind.

Flickr photo by Gerard Fritz

So You Want to Buy a Business

Who's the Boss?Image via Wikipedia

With a lot of hard work and a little luck, you can have your own business. 

This country is filled with the entrepreneurial spirit. In fact, more people are striking out on their own than ever before. But how they make the jump from employee to owner is what's news today.

Many of these new business owners are no longer starting from scratch. Instead, a significant number are choosing to purchase one of the more than 1.7 million businesses that, for one reason or another, are up for sale on any given day across the country.

So why are business acquisitions gaining in popularity? The main reason is money. Often, the only feasible way to break into a particular field, such as a hotel or restaurant, is to buy an existing business. Start up costs for many types of businesses prohibits ground-up construction.

Many middle managers who have been the victims of corporate downsizing are forced to open their own businesses because they have difficulties finding a new job. These seasoned veterans are often highly successful in their second careers as business owners.

The advantages of acquiring an existing business are many. Here are a few points to consider:

Customers: Buy a business and you also buy its customers. The more customers (be careful of customer concentration), the more you will pay for the business. Still, you'll have an immediate cash flow and an opportunity to improve on existing business relationships.

Product: When you purchase an existing business, you usually receive the inventory. This will give you an idea of what sells and what doesn't and allows you to spend your capital on other necessary items such as advertising or payroll.

Employees: Once the business is yours, you can keep any or all of the business' employees. Seasoned, knowledgeable employees can help you overcome the early jitters and share with you any quirks or insider information that's vital to the business or industry. There can be apprehension by the existing employees, so this is an area of opportunity as well as concern.

Identity: Good or bad, existing businesses already have an identity and an image. You may have the opportunity to improve on the existing image or you may need to repair and improve a tarnished one (you’ll pay less for a bad image).  Intangible assets such as an image are often one of the most valuable and overlooked attributes of a business.

The most common reason people state for not owning their own business is the lack of a down payment and little start-up capital. However, commercial real estate and business brokers who are knowledgeable about Small Business Administration (SBA) guaranteed loans have the ability to offer their buyers the option of obtaining a long-term, highly leveraged business loan for business acquisitions.

The SBA offers guarantees on loans made through qualified lenders, with terms that are very appealing to small business owners. Highlights can include: high loan-to-value; fully amortized loans with no balloon payments; terms of up to 25 years (real estate), depending upon the use of the funds; no prepayment penalties; and competitive interest rates and fees.

As with any major financial commitment, it is important to consult experts in the field to protect and advise as the transaction progresses. Legal questions ranging from property lines, to labor union concerns, to tax issues are a very real part of business acquisitions and necessitate the consultation of an experienced attorney and certified public accountant.

A few dollars invested early on can save you money and grief down the road. With careful shopping and more than a little prudence, a business acquisition can be the best way to be your own boss.

- Steve Sink

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Starting a business: Rethink everything

Cover of "Rework"Cover of Rework

I want to recommend a book to you. As a person who has been in business for 30 years - most of those in the high tech space - it is a book that truly spoke to me. It also speaks to me from a personal level as the author is as much concerned with enjoying his life as succeeding in business. It seems it is possible to do both. 

The book is "Rework" by Jason Fried.  If you are not familiar with Jason, he is a founder of a very successful web based company called 37signals.  In a nutshell, Jason counters almost every traditional piece of business advice I can think of. Here are a few I found compelling:

  1. Say No by default - "If I'd listen to customers, I'd have given them a faster horse." - Henry Ford.  Think about Apple Inc. and their products of late.  Not customer driven but certainly customer accepted.
  2. Let your customers outgrow you. This one will challenge many of you but here is something to think about. There is an endless supply of those who need something small, simple and basic. The number that need large, complex and custom is much smaller. 
  3. Don't write it down. As a product person at heart, I really like this one. This is in reference to what customers want. If you can't remember the idea, it probably was not that good.
  4. Marketing is not a department. Amen. In the words of Phillip Knight, founder of Nike, "Marketing is a verb, not a noun."
  5. Drug dealers get it right - Jason writes that drug dealers know their product is so good, if they give you a little bit for free, you will be back for more, with money.  Make your product so good, so addictive, that they will want more.

These are just a sample of the nuggets to be found in "Rework." If you have time to read one book in the next month, make sure this is it. 

- Mike Colwell

Great Service Surprises

The Sorcerer's Hat, the icon of Disney's Holly...Image via Wikipedia

The difference between "good" and "great" is in the details.

Good service consistently delivers what customers expect. Great service surprises customers with an experience that exceeds their expectations.

I grew up going to local amusement parks each summer. Des Moines natives might remember Riverview Park with its rickety roller coaster and Wild Mouse. I learned as a kid to expect standing in lines for my favorite rides. When I went to Disney World for the first time, I expected and dreaded spending much of my day standing in long lines. About half way through my first day, I was surprised at how quickly the lines were moving. It was then that I realized that what was really happening was that Disney was entertaining me while I waited. The lines wound through a themed set with plenty of things to look at, television monitors to watch. Everything was wrapped around the theme of the ride.

It doesn't take a sorcerer's apprentice to step back and look at your typical customer's experience from his or her point of view. Mentally walk through and experience with your business from beginning to end:

  • Where might your customers be typically annoyed (i.e. getting a front end IVR message when they call rather than a human voice)? How can you surprise them by doing something different (e.g. changing the message so that it's creative, branded and makes them laugh).
  • Where are the points of their experience with your business where they might be standing around waiting? How can your business better engage and entertain them? It's a small thing, but I've always appreciated Caribou Coffee's trivia question of the day on their chalk board. It gives me something to think about or talk about with someone else in line while I wait. Plus, I might win a dime off the price of my coffee!
  • What do your customers expect from their experience at your store because it's no different than what they would experience at any of your competitors? (an offer to order something that you don't have in stock) How can you shake things up a bit? (Offering a free mystery gift on all orders, free home delivery on local orders, et cetera.)

In a drab business world in which everyone seems to want to be just like everyone else (e.g. industry standards and "best practices"), customers tend to appreciate businesses who are willing to stand out and surprise customers by doing something different.

Twitter love affair doesn't have to result in resource drain

Love Birds Like Chocolates, So I'm SoldImage by [F]oxymoron via Flickr

Looking back at 2010, one of the hot topics of discussion around social media was the resource drain and potential addiction.

Given that fewer Americans are smoking today than during the 'Mad Men' years, I welcome digital addiction. Nevertheless, there is valid concern when it comes to the potential workforce resource drain.

For me this year, the one social platform I have had to look out for is Twitter - I love Twitter! Once you spend the time to cultivate a community of followers and key people topics to follow, the amount of valuable information exchange is vast.

It can also pull you in and cause you to completely lose track of time spent there.

Here are some tips to help avoid growing blue wings and flying away:

  • Have a grasp of what it is you are there to talk about. This will make the time spend your spend covering topics and sharing with the people you follow more effecient and effective.
  • Use tools like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck to their full potential to manage your social media profiles. They range from free to professional level rates. Most of the popular management tools have smartphone applicaitons that allow you to stay connected to your social audiences anytime, anywhere in an effiicient way. My choice is Hootsuite, It is well organized and both the mobile and iPad applications are easy to use and include all of the important information from your accounts, such as lists and keywords. Plus, with multilingual clients, the translation feature is much appreciated.
  • Organize those you follow with lists. The Twitter lists allow you to organize the information. You can also create columns for lists and key topics you follow on Hootsuite that show up in the apps as well.
  • Follow those who make sense for you to follow. This is a common challenge for users: Do I follow everyone, no one or only those I know. Follow those having a conversation about the topics that relate to you and your industry. Why not folllow everyone? It makes the effeciency tools less effecient, especially on mobile applications. The pertinent topics to you are more time consuming to find when your feed is cluttered with unrelated tweets - such as those profiles that only share movie quotes or song lyrics.
  • Resist the pull. Once you realize the potential of Twitter and begin interacting with your audience, it is difficult to pull back from it. In order to maintain the return on investment from Twitter, the time spent has to be managed. Schedule time for tweeting in the day and stick to it.

According to a study released today by Sysomos, Twitter usage has increased rapidly since January 2009 with much of that growth taking place in 2010. It was valued earlier this week at $3.7 billion as reported by Reuters. The value of Twitter as a social platform is being recognized and more companies and leaders are using it.

You too can have a love affair with Twitter, without it becoming a resource drain.

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2010 year-end tax planning: shooting at a moving target

20101216-1 Year-end tax planning usually follows a standard pattern:

 - Estimate your income and deductions for this year and next year

 - Decide whether you want to move income or deductions into this year

 - Assuming you want to defer income and accelerate deductions (the usual answer), identify ways to do so that won't make you worse off after tax.

 - Consider whether you should make any year-end gifts to family as part of your estate planning.

It's more complicated this year.

As of the morning of Dec. 16, we aren't even sure what the income tax rates will be. We don't know what the rules are for gifts made today. We aren't even certain what rules will apply for deducting the cost of business assets purchased today.

Entrepreneurs are used to acting on imperfect information and we can give you just that.  We think that by the end of the day today Congress will have passed the big "framework" tax bill that extends the Bush-era tax rates through 2012. If that happens, here are some keys to your 2010 year-end planning.

 - 100 percent bonus depreciation. The "Framework" will let businesses deduct 100 percent of the cost of most new machinery and equipment bought after Sept. 8, 2010 that is placed in service before year-end. Current law also allows you take a "Section 179" deduction up to $500,000 for new or used business equipment placed in service this year.  Bonus depreciation is usually better when available because there are fewer limits on the deduction. Also, bonus depreciation can create a "net operating loss" that you can carry back to get refunds of prior year taxes. 

 - Beware related parties. The tax law disallows or delays many deductions if they involve related parties, such as controlled businesses or family members.

 - Watch out for alternative minimum tax. Some deductions, like the deductions for state and local taxes, aren't counted for AMT; prepaying such expenses can be a waste of money.

 -Don't overdo it. While cash-basis taxpayers can usually deduct expenses paid, the tax law disallows most deductions if they are prepaid for more than one year in advance. Though I would be thrilled if my clients paid five years of accounting fees in advance, they would have to spread their deduction over the five years.

 - Talk to your tax advisor. That's always a good idea when you are doing tax planning, but with huge tax law changes happening, it's more important than ever.

Flickr image courtesy Erik Charlton under Creative Commons license

Are you suffering from perfection paralysis?

93146097 I would guess we've all witnessed it.  A business owner or marketing decision maker who can't pull the trigger when it comes to marketing tactics. 

Something about the piece (be it a website, brochure or direct mail piece, etc.) is off for them.  Often, they can't even tell you what's off, just that something is.  "it's just not quite right," they'll say with a rueful smile. And so the team tries again -- revision after revision.

What was that sound?  It was the window of opportunity slamming shut.  In many cases, the piece never gets completed and marketing dollars slowly swirl down the drain.

And your prospects and customers wonder why you're ignoring them.

Pretty darn good trumps perfect every time, if it means you get to market faster (or at all) with your message.

Next time you feel your team (or yourself) begin to stall a project because perfection paralysis is taking hold, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does it clearly communicate our key message?  (no more than 2-3)
  2. Does it offer some response opportunity? (website, e-mail, phone number, etc.)
  3. Does it protect and respect our brand promise and look/feel?
  4. Is it error-free?  (typos, grammar etc.)

If you can answer yes to all 4 -- give yourself 24 hours to futz with it if you want and then get it out the door.

Perfect or not.


~ Drew


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Three keys to long-range workplace wellness

Workplace wellness programs, when properly implemented, can save a business a good deal of money over time, according to a recent longitudinal study at the University of Michigan.Workplace Wellness Keyboard and Apple 12-14-10

Still, more than 66 percent of employers indicate that the poor health habits of employees are a top challenge to maintaining affordable benefit coverage for their workforce.

In other words, the greatest opportunity to reduce your company’s health care costs is also the greatest obstacle: employee behavior. Sound like a Catch-22? The solution just may be employee engagement, and there are three keys that can help your company develop a stronger wellness ethic:


1. Change Your (then their) Mindset
2. Right-Size the Wellness Program
3. Design for Sustainability


Change Your (then their) Mindset

“But…Poor Health Habits Are Who We Are!”

Company mindset is critical to workplace wellness.

Fast food restaurants are an example of an industry that you might think would not be a hotbed for employee wellness programs.

But fast-food chain Chick-Fil-A proves otherwise.

It is a company in a notoriously “unhealthy” industry, but its wellness program is a national model, both in employee participation and in ROI.

It’s proof that no industry is “exempt” from encouraging healthy employees. If a company like this can change a seemingly entrenched mindset, any company can.

Leaders in the workplace should adopt a proactive, positive mindset toward wellness and employee engagement. 

Right-Size the Wellness Program

“We are too small (or too big) to provide a cost-effective wellness program.”

Company size is a common excuse for wellness program resistance and low employee participation. Small companies simply don’t have the budget for a large employee fitness center or a health-food-focused cafeteria. Large companies have workforce scale issues that complicate and confound even the most battle-hardened actuaries. 

But in the end, the size excuse is just that. An excuse.

After all, if Verizon Wireless (65,000 employees) can effectively manage employee intramural sports, nutrition counseling and exercise programs , other large companies have no excuse.  Thousands of healthier employees should, over time and on balance, equal thousands of reductions in employer costs associated with health care benefits.

Alternatively, small companies can take note from Oregon’s Tec Labs, which simply incorporated employee wellness during the construction of its new headquarters. Upon discovering about one-third of its 42 employees enjoyed playing basketball, Tec Labs’ leadership included an on-site court in the construction process. The point isn’t the basketball court, the point is that the company was small enough to get to know its employees’ fitness tendencies and responded accordingly.

So, the answer to the “too small/big” myth is to right-size your wellness program.


Design for Sustainability

“Our last wellness initiative was short-lived hype.”

Many new wellness programs start off with great fanfare and enthusiasm, only to wither down to an easily ignored (and sometimes costly) “wellness website” after the initial shine wears off. If your company has been burned by or simply burned out on a wellness program in the past, it likely isn’t the concept that was the problem, but the execution. And you aren’t alone.

A recent study by the National Institute for Health Care Reform discovered that:

“Behavior modification programs offered in isolation don’t have a strong track record. Participants who quit smoking or lose weight often revert to former behaviors.”

Surprisingly, the study also indicated that strict financial incentives for measurable targets, such as pounds lost during the course of a program may backfire on an annual basis if proper steps aren’t taken. Someone who lost the most weight in year one of a program may unintentionally be incented to gain the weight back only to attempt to lose it again in year two.

The study determined that “programs that are comprehensive, integrated and diversified stand the best chance of success.”

So, sustainability should be by design.

Implementing and maintaining an employee wellness program with good outcomes and cost effectiveness is not only possiblem but likely if you can change mindset, develop a program appropriate to the size and culture of your company and build it for the long run.

Using Online Images in Your Blog: Tread Carefully

Copyright Many business bloggers like to include a nice visual along with their text – a common blogging practice.

But be aware. The seemingly innocuous act of adding an image to blog posts (particularly when that image was found online) potentially sets all kinds of copyright landmines for unsuspecting bloggers. Earlier copyright discussions would apply to the use of someone else’s image on your or your company’s blog – including fair use considerations, the difference between the “Internet” and the “public domain” as well as the assumption most works are protected, and the distinction between copyright infringement and plagiarism.

Drawing from those considerations and expanding upon the licensing discussion in my last post, let’s talk about a couple considerations or tips regarding online images.

Get permission! As I hope I’ve been emphasizing these last few weeks, to properly use someone else’s image or other work, a blogger should have permission to do so. Permission to use online works often comes in the form of licensing. You may also consider simply sending an e-mail asking the owner if you can use the image, describe how you’d like to use it and ask how the owner would like you to attribute it. You may want to save that e-mail and start a file where you can save your “permission” e-mails.

Google Images. Google has some advanced searching features many users don’t know about. One of those features is the ability to search for images with specific licensing information. The Social Media Law Student blog offers a tutorial on this entitled, “How to Use Google Images Without Getting Sued.”

Other Services.  Even when using advanced Google image searches, or a content suggestion service such as Zemanta, remain cautious. Zemanta, for example, represents that its images are "copyright cleared." But the service ultimately just displays the licensing information. The user must independently decide if the image is “license appropriate” for its intended use. Many of these services also include terms of use under which they disclaim any liability for infringement or other harm that may result from use of the service. 

Ultimately, the key to understanding these licensing issues is to ensure you grasp the distinctions among the specific licenses and make an independent determination as to whether your intended use fits within the scope of the rights granted under that license.

Get Creative! So what is the safest route for you bloggers out there who want to use a photo? Use one of your own pictures! This doesn't mean you can find an image online and edit it to make it your own -- because derivative rights belong to the copyright owner. I literally mean grab your camera (or heck, you can even grab your iPhone) and snap a good on-topic picture of your very own.

Leading in a VUCA World

A Radiant FutureImage by Gilderic via Flickr

We've come to expect a business environment -- a world in fact -- that is constantly changing. We get that.

Well, hold on. Because change is just the tip of the iceberg, at least according to futurists such as Dr. Bob Johansen, author of Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World. Remember when a generation was considered to be 25 years? Now it's six years.

The difference today between a 13-year old and a 19-year old is significant: a whole new "generation." That's rapid change!

Futurists like Johansen have begun to describe our world as a VUCA world. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The term started in the late 1990's in the military and is now used everywhere.

Leaders in this kind of environment have to be at their best on a personal level, self-aware, optimistic, focused amidst distractions, cool, calm and collected under pressure. We used to talk about seizing opportunities. Those windows of opportunity open and close very quickly in a VUCA world and leaders have to be "in the zone" to seize them.

A VUCA world sounds frightening and threatening. But the positive flip side of VUCA is vision, understanding, clarity and agility. Effective leaders in a VUCA world train their brains to:

  • "See the play before it happens." That's vision.
  • Understand themselves first and then others, building empathy.
  • Sense a situation clearly and simply by paying attention to how they pay attention.
  • Be prepared to take action based on alternative realities and unprecedented challenges.

One of the biggest take-aways for me as I think about operating and leading in a VUCA world is the difference between dilemmas and problems. We love to problem solve. However, many problems today are on a gigantic or global scale and are unsolvable. They're dilemmas and can be improved, but not solved. If a situation is a dilemma and we try to frame it as a problem to solve, we're in trouble.

Are you facing any dilemmas in your VUCA world that you've been trying to problem-solve? How's that working for you?

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Tap Into Your Pride

407168418_ececfcbf71_tCompany pride is sometimes overlooked as a tool to motivate employees and increase bottom-line results. Companies that have a "special" culture sometimes fail to tell their wonderful story and miss an opportunity to give the company a boost of energy.

There are many opportunities out there for companies to be recognized locally, regionally and nationally. One of the best know awards is given by Winning Workplaces in conjunction with Inc. magazine.

The Top Small Company Workplaces award has been given for several years and Van Meter Industrial, a Cedar Rapids ESOP company, was one of the award winners in 2010. Here are the details for 2011: 

  • Winners will be featured in the June 2011 issue of Inc. magazine, the premier publication for entrepreneurs and business owners. Winners will also be featured on Inc.'s and Winning Workplaces' websites and will gain additional exposure through a nationally distributed press release.

To see if your company qualifies for the award please visit: https://tsw.winningworkplaces.org

Here is a chance to build the pride in your company.

Flickr photo by joshgerdes

Hiding the Money

Assorted international currency notes.Image via Wikipedia

Hiding the Money

I attended a meeting where a business broker spoke about a visit he had with the owner of a company. The owner had contacted him and asked to meet with him to discuss the possibility of selling his business. The owner provided the broker with a review of the financials and a tour of the factory.

While walking through the factory, the broker noticed that the warehouse was reasonably filled with inventory and the machinery was significant and up-to-date.

When they returned to the owner’s office the broker pointed out that there appeared to be a significant difference between the amount of inventory on the books vs. what was in the warehouse. The owner quickly agreed, stating that if he reported it, he would just have to pay taxes. In addition, his sales would be lower because he would not have as much inventory. Therefore, he would not make as much money.

The subject changed to the equipment, which was on the books for much less than it was obviously worth.The owner agreed and indicated that all parts for the equipment are charged to cost of goods. He then would have his employees assemble the parts for the new machinery.

The broker polled the group for their thoughts. The group, to a person, felt the business was not saleable and did not want to be associated with this type of a transaction. The owner had a serious income-tax evasion issue and the potential liability for the buyer could be significant.

The owner needed to go to a tax specialist NOW. He was probably going to need five years or more to clean up his books before he could put it up for sale.

- Steve Sink

Are you planning to fail?

failureImage by 'PixelPlacebo' via Flickr

I cannot begin to count the number of books and article written on planning and organization.  Which leads to a question: Why are people still writing these articles and books? The answer: Because so many people are terrible at planning and organizing.


One simple answer is that people like to keep their options open. They will go into the week with meetings set and lunches planned but they do not want to commit time that is open on their calendar to specific tasks. Even when on closer examination those tasks are far more important than the meeting or lunch.

The answer is pretty simple. People do not take time to plan. We are in such a hurry every day, along with an ever increasing number of distractions to interupt us. 

Here is a simple set of tools you can put in place now to improve your effectiveness. Do these things and you will become more effective. 

  1. Take one hour each week to plan. Shut off your phone(s), PDA, iPad, computer, pager and every other beeping, blinking device you have. 
  2. Plan your week. Start with what must get done. List the items you have to do.
  3. Put a star next to each item that generates income in your business.   
  4. Put a number next to each item on the list (do not use the same number twice).
  5. Put time on your schedule to complete these tasks. If it is going to take many hours, block multiple time slots over the week.
  6. Next week at the same time, review your progress and go to step 1.

Is it really that simple, yes. You can do this with a pad of paper, stickey notes, index cards or the most sophisticated planning software you can find. The key is to make time for the tasks in priority order and then start doing.

NO excuses, NO exceptions.

Put Customer Feedback in Context

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At almost any restaurant, hotel or retail establishment, you'll find examples of customer initiated feedback. Comment cards are the cheapest and most common type, though larger chains and companies have added the post-call survey (e.g. "After this call, you'll have the opportunity to rate your experience") or the 800-number on your sales receipt, which is usually accompanied by a sweepstakes offer to entice you to call).

I often wonder about how companies tally and handle the data that is collected from these surveys. I'm also curious to know if they actually put them in context.

When it comes to customer initiated feedback -- the customer must initiate the contact by filling out the form, calling the 800-number, or visiting the website -- the response bias can be considerable. Customers who initiate feedback tend to be those who are on one of either side of the bell curve. They had a really horrible experience and want to tell you about it. Or they had a really great experience or want to tell you about it.

The problem with these types of feedback is that they can prompt you to spend a lot of time and energy chasing after a small percentage of exceptionally negative experiences or feeling good about an equally small percentage of exceptionally positive experiences

These responses do have value, but the value must be placed in context. The feedback is not necessarily representative of your entire customer population and may not yield the best data on what's important to your customers or provide tactical information that will help you manage for profitable improvement.

The sample in customer-initiated feedback commonly excludes the largest segment of customers: the silent majority who had such a relatively common service experience that they weren't motivated to tell you about it.

Yet this could arguably be the most profitable customer segment to survey. Learning how to move a "neutral" or "satisfied" customer into the "very satisfied" column can provide the most profitable rewards in customer loyalty and retention.

The best way to get feedback from these customers is to stop waiting for them to contact you and initiate the contact yourself.

Sometimes it's better to give right now

It's looking more and more possible that the federal estate tax, which went away for 2010, will return with a vengeance in 2011. If Congress fails to act -- and they have failed to solve this problem since 2001 -- the estate tax will return for deaths after Dec. 31 with a 55 percent top rate and a $1 million per decedent lifetime exclusion. That makes December a crucial month for estate planning for entrepreneurs who might otherwise face this tax.

And no, not by dying this month. 20101201iabiz

The federal estate and gift tax has always had a too-little-understood bias towards lifetime gifts. 

It comes from three sources:

  • There is an annual gift-tax exclusion, currently $13,000 per donor, per-donee. That means a married couple with four children can over a 10-year period move $1,040,000 out of their taxable estates without touching their lifetime $1 million exemption.
  • Inflation shrinks the $1 million lifetime gift exemption each year. The sooner you use it, the more it's worth. An appreciating asset gifted now is an asset that will grow outside of your taxable estate.
  • If you go beyond the lifetime exemtion and incur gift tax, you pay the gift tax only on the amount that goes to your gift recipients.  The estate tax, in contrast, applies to everything in the estate -- including the amount used to pay the gift tax.  For example, at a 50 percent rate, somebody wanting to get $1 million to the next generation needs $1.5 million -- $1 million to give away and $500,000 to send to IRS.  If you wait until death, you need to have $2 million in the estate to get $1 million to the next generation at a 50 percent rate. The $2 million owned at death would be subject to a $1 million estate tax at 50 percent.  Another way to put it is that if you measure the estate tax the same way as the gift tax -- based on what goes to the next generation -- a 50 percent Estate Tax is equivalent to a 100 percent gift tax. 

Next year the estate tax and gift tax rates will both be 55 percent. Gifts completed in 2010, in contrast, will face only a 35 percent gift tax rate. If the Estate tax returns to 55 percent as scheduled, a 35 percent gift tax rate is a tremendous bargain, relatively speaking.

Of course you shouldn't be throwing this kind of cash around without professional advice. Estate planning has to take many things into account besides taxes, and you need to consider possible future estate and gift tax changes. Still, if you think your taxable estate, or that of your spouse after you die, will significantly exceed $1 million, now is the time to visit your estate planning professional to possibly take advantage of the "sale" on gift tax rates that ends Dec. 31.

Flickr image courtesy Howard Dickins under Creative Commons license.

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