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Is your business on the Highway or the Byway?

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=highway+signs&iid=259699″ src=”0256/8cc02d39-2a22-43c0-ba77-ab28011c1391.jpg?adImageId=8890792&imageId=259699″ width=”234″ height=”158″ /]We all can admit that 2010 is going to be an uphill climb for businesses of all kinds and sizes.  Doesn’t matter if you are a solo-preneur or a global conglomerate with 20,000 employees…it’s an uphill climb.  And maybe now, this week, maybe even today, you decide on which road you will travel: the highway or the byway.

The highway is a main public road that connects one town or city with another.  It’s an artery connecting people one to another making commerce both possible and efficient.  The byway is a little out-of-the-way side road.  It is little traveled and isn’t really meant to be a commercial artery.

There was a feature story in my newspaper’s business section this morning that showcased a small family business that I believe is on the highway.  To me, some of the signposts of being on the highway are:

  • a dream and passion for the business
  • determination to make the business work
  • great customer service
  • offering added value

The article by David Morrill, Contra Costa Times, is titled “Vacuum center owner on job 7 days a week,” [different title in online version].  In reading the article, I find that Mr. Raees Iqbal’s business, Western Vacuum & Sewing Center, is not only traveling on the highway, Mr. Iqbal carries all the signposts. [from the article]

  • a dream and passion for the business – “…‘It’s great to be able to offer something that every single house needs,’ he said. ‘We give them good dependable vacuum cleaners to help keep their homes clean….'”
  • a determination to make the business work – “…Raees Iqbal keeps the doors open seven days a week. And he works nearly every day…’Right now we are just trying to hang out here and make it work,” Iqbal said. “I’m going to do everything I can to keep it going….'”
  • great customer service – “…Iqbal knows his company needs to be on top of the industry. Every vacuum cleaner brand that comes in, he needs to be able to fix. If a customer needs a part, it has to be on the shelf.…”
  • offering added value – “…’We have to treat everybody like they’re VIP,’ he said….”

These signposts of being on the highway are no guarantee of success certainly.  They are, however, indicators that the business is making every effort to be alive and vibrant.  Just like Mr. Iqbal is quoted in Mr. Morrill’s story, he’s willing to do what he must to keep his business going.  The article is not a long or comprehensive one, but Mr. Morrill gave a pretty clear picture of one small business owner’s strategy for 2010:

  • be available to customers – keeping his store open 7 days a week is one way
  • provide needed services onsite – keeping up-to-date on his industry and keeping his shelves stocked with parts
  • have a customer-centered business – in his own words, “…treat everybody like they’re VIP….”
  • keep the dream alive – “‘…make sure that you are really passionate about what you want to do and have a whole lot of patience.…'”

Not to put too fine a point on it and turn this into nothing but flowery prose I think what’s important for all of us who own businesses and wish to remain in business this year is to determine what we’re going to be willing to do to stay on the highway and off the side roads: defining the dream and vision; knowing our industry and products and services inside and out; offering customers quality care and added value…and hanging in there.

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What’s the deal with gold and bridge tolls?

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=gold+bars&iid=7094402″ src=”f/f/3/c/GLD_Fifth_Anniversary_6d0f.jpg?adImageId=8306180&imageId=7094402″ width=”234″ height=”158″ /]There is a song on the Christmas holiday television special, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” that has Sam the Snowman storyteller singing about “Silver and Gold” on the holiday trees.  Who doesn’t like gold? One of my favorite color combination’s for Christmas decorating is red and gold [blue and silver falls second for me].

I’ve been following financial news this year – who hasn’t? – and wondering what all the fuss is about investing in gold.  I’ve said before that I’m not a financial whiz and certainly no expert in investing.  So I read with interest one of Cliff Pletschet’s recent columns in which he answers some questions for me about gold.  He wrote a column on December 9 in which he touched on a couple different topics, gold included.  About gold he said, “Remember how I recently lamented that gold was not a good investment because of its price volatility, because it doesn’t pay dividends, and because timing is essential since you can make money only by selling before a drop in the price you paid?...”

In asking his questions he answered mine.  Okay gold is a problem because:

  1. price volatility
  2. no dividends
  3. timing is key to the buying/selling for profit

But Cliff goes on to include these issues:

  • “…storage facilities for gold bars and coins have been filled up. HSBC, owner of one of the largest gold vaults in the United States, has told retail clients to remove their small holdings from its lock-up to make room for lucrative institutional investors….”
  • “…Internal Revenue Service has reminded gold owners that gold and silver are considered collectibles, not capital assets…When these assets are held for less than one year, gains are taxed as ordinary income.…”

Okay, so now my list of reasons to avoid gold as an investment is now:

  1. price volatility
  2. no dividends
  3. timing is key to the buying/selling for profit
  4. no place to store my minuscule horde
  5. it’ll be taxed just like a paycheck [if held less than a year – and if longer, according to Cliff’s article, “…gains on the sale of gold and silver investments, including gold and silver-backed exchange-traded funds and gold and silver bullion and coins (except certain U.S.- issued coins) are taxed at the maximum rate of 28 percent when held for longer than a year.…”

There are those reading this who will have their own list of reasons why gold makes a good investment but after doing a  Google search I found it difficult to find someone who thinks so in a way I can understand.   Dominic Frisby, whose December 1 article at MoneyWeek [dot com], kind of helps. He says in the article, “…Gold remains a great bet…” but then goes on to talk about rising and falling and shakeouts and patterns and corrections and throws in something cautionary about the Dubai credit crisis, “…If the fears stemming from these Dubai debt problems are real and we are on the cusp of another liquidity crisis, then I would expect gold to fall, at least at first. Despite the fact that gold is a safe haven during times of stress in the banking system, there is also a lot of hot and speculative money pushing gold higher….”

I admit to being confused.  Is gold a good investment because its price is high and looking to stay high so that those who watch it very closely can sell if it looks like it’ll drop in price?  Is it virtual gold?  How much gold is actually out there for people to invest in?  Bars? Coins? Jewelry? Do we keep our gold bars in the bank in a safe deposit box and hope that one day we’ll be able to sell it for more than we paid? – kind of like houses in California.  Not good investments, houses in California.

I like reading Cliff Pletschet’s column for two reasons: one, his column appears in my local newspaper’s business section so I can read it over my breakfast with my cup of tea and second, he writes in a way I can understand – I’m not a financial person but he makes it understandable. Thanks Cliff. Well, there is a third reason, Cliff and his wife, Fran have a home-based business and produce a Personal Investment Educator newsletter.  They say this about their business:

  • “…[Personal Investment Educator] P.I.E. is a home-based business operated in Oakland, California by Cliff and Fran Pletschet. Their main goal is to encourage people to educate themselves so they can become independent investors and take charge of their money….”

I like to highlight home-based business as this is my niche.

Speaking of niches…it doesn’t matter if you have a home-based business or a large business, if you live in the Bay Area of California, bridge tolls are about to get financially crippling.   Toll roads and bridges are nothing new and show up all over the country. We ran into toll roads last winter while vacationing in Southern California, traversing highways 241, 261, 133 and 73.  Tolls can nickle and dime you to death it seems.  Here in the Bay Area, a rise in tolls is going to hurt pocketbooks, both during the work week and the weekend.  My husband and I live in the East Bay but occasionally travel to other areas which require crossing a bridge and we currently have to fork over $4.00 each time.

The best write-up about the possible raise in toll fees came in this morning’s paper on the Opinion Page – the Editorial, “Onerous toll hikes.”  I like that word, onerous;’ it means burdensome.  The online article has a different title, but the copy is the same.   The most telling remark for me is this, “…The toll czars say they want to introduce Bay Area motorists to congestion pricing — how arrogant and dismissive that is to those who cannot alter their work hours. Many of these people are in lower-paying jobs and can ill afford to pay an extra $2 a day, or $500 a year, just to get to and from work…”

It’s not just those with 9-5 jobs who cannot change their hours, it’s the many folks who are solo-preneurs who must travel to visit clients and customers…and potential clients and customers.  It’s the many folks who have home-based businesses who must travel to purchase supplies and make deliveries.  Just like the little penguin Ramon in “Happy Feet” who says, “Lemme tell something to joo…” I say to whomever listens, California is a very difficult place to live on a budget.  Housing costs are way too high. Grocery [food and sundries] prices have risen too high. Gasoline prices remain too high. It costs too much to get around.  In this part of the world jobs are in one geographical location and housing in another…most people cannot afford to live near their employment so travel on the freeways and over bridges is necessary.

Yes, I’m complaining.  On behalf of the truckers I’m complaining.   “…The toll for a small three-axle truck would rise from $6 to $15. Large seven-axle semis would see their tolls rise from $13.50 to $35.…” [from the editorial]

And these increases would, of course, be passed on eventually to the consumer.

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Cool Kohl’s and Safeway interaction

[picapp src=”b/9/a/2/Safeway_Profits_Down_448d.jpg?adImageId=7281553&imageId=4692356″ width=”234″ height=”161″ /]When I go to the grocery store I don’t expect to receive coupons to another store.  Usually when I shop at the grocery store [I shop at Safeway] I’ll get a couple of cents-off coupons for merchandise that is carried by that store chain to use on my next shopping trip.  Imagine my surprise this past weekend when I got my receipt for that night’s supper along with a “rewards” coupon for Kohl’s department store.  For some reason I hadn’t heard of this promotion.  It was  very short-lived [Nov.4-8].  For just four days at Safeway, depending upon how much you spent you got a “rewards” coupon for $10 to $50.  Then you take your coupons to Kohls and between November 9-21 you can spend them like money [certain bounds].  Wow.

To me this is an innovative and interesting way to bring in business.  Truthfully, I wasn’t planning to shop at Kohl’s this month…have no particular item that needs to be purchased now; however, because I have a couple of these “rewards” coupons, I will be going to Kohl’s to purchase something that is on my would be nice soon list.  It is important to note that the promotion didn’t draw me into Safeway because I didn’t know about it; however, Safeway is the grocery chain I use so I’m there often.

In this kind of economy, interesting business-to-business promotions that work to bring in customers to both is creative problem-solving.

Here’s an old idea become new again, and one that many businesses, even home-based businesses can use: layaway.  In my newspaper’s business section today, there is a story about layaway that takes the whole front of the section.  The article written by Eve Mitchell [BayAreaNewsGroup] is titled, ” Layway unwrapped: Retailers revive alternative to credit.” According to the article:

  • “…Layaway is here for the holidays as stores bring back the old-fashioned retail practice in response to consumers seeing reduced credit lines, rising unemployment and overall lean economic times…An alternative to using credit cards or cash to pay for merchandise, layaway requires shoppers to make a down payment followed by additional payments made in person, through the mail or electronically, until the item is paid for in full….Burlington Coat Factory, Kmart, Marshalls, Sears, T.J. Maxx and Toys “R” Us are among the retailers offering layaway programs. But not all shoppers are takers nor or all stores providers of layaway. Among retailers that don’t offer layaway are Kohl’s, JC Penney, Ross Stores, Target and Wal-Mart….”

There is a truism that if you wait long enough things come back into fashion and layaway is not different.  When my children were very young we went through some lean financial times and many of the stores I shopped offered layaway.  At that time in my life it was the only way I could shop for their birthdays and Christmas.  It allowed me to make sure I would get exactly the merchandise I wanted because I could walk in and pick it out.  Then I would go in periodically to make payments until I finally had it paid-in-full and could take it home.  It’s not an answer for everyone, but it is one way a business can help customers they might not otherwise have.  In my business I have used layaway.  I once had a customer who could not afford one of my pieces of art at the time of the show, but truly wanted it.  I offered to accept a “down payment,” then worked with the customer to set up a payment schedule.  I retained the work until he had paid it in full.

The news article also says:

  • “…Although layaway currently represents a small segment of the brick-and-mortar retail world, it has found a growing online presence with the emergence of Web sites that see the practice as a growth opportunity….”

I did a Goggle search for “layaway online” and several sites came up [note: I did not explore these sites, I only list them as examples]:

  • laymeaway.com
  • elayaway.com
  • ez-layaway.com
  • and there are others

Holiday season 2009 may just be a challenge for those of us with small and home-based businesses; however with creative thinking, we just might make it.

 

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Business news bits and bobs

IMG_1231Sometimes business news comes in little bite-size pieces, much like the Halloween candy we didn’t give out last night – this was the leanest year for TricksOrTreaters we’ve had in the seven years we’ve lived in our neighborhood.  We answered our front door less than 10 times.  And I carved my best effort at a Jack O’Lantern yet!  I know what you’re thinking, I’m supposed to be an “artist” and this is the best I can do? Well, sometimes one gift simply doesn’t translate into another.

Talking about translating, I’m finding that working in concert with various social media sites has its advantages.  Last Friday I put up a question on Twitter: are doctors small business owners? As was recommended to me -and I pass this recommendation along to others- I have my Twitter account linked to my Facebook account so that what I post on Twitter shows as a status update on Facebook – for a small or home-based business that is good to know as it increases the exposure for quick news items you might have.  I got a response on my Facebook status/Twitter question from Paul Sinasohn “…It depends on the structure of the practice. Some are, even if the practice is incorporated, but some – such as those who are partners in larger medical groups (Brown & Toland, Hill Physicians) are not.   SBA standard is $10 million average receipts….”  Thank you, Paul.

Bits from today’s news:

*Today from The Huffington Post, an article about counties in the U.S. that have been stressed the hardest by the year’s economic woes and wouldn’t you know, of the top ten counties, 4 are in my home state of California, and #8 is the county of my youth, San Joaquin County.  The housing boom/bust has had just awful repercussions – it’s not just the home sales industry, but also construction and all the pond ripples out to associated businesses of both those industries that have been hurt.  In the neighborhood in which I live, there is one home that was a victim of bank foreclosure that still sits empty [we had two].  Then you add the layoffs and other woes of the  auto industry and the computer software/hardware industry and it’s rather depressing.  Not so easy to be a solo-preneur in such a climate.

*Swine flu…actually any flu…advice is to stay home if you are contagious.  Article today by Associated Press writer Ashley M. Heher points out that this advice is difficult to follow for those who don’t get paid if they don’t show up.  From the article:  “…That idea drives an untold number of carpenters, day care workers, servers, shopkeepers and small-business owners to their jobs each day. Sniffles or not….”  Home business owners who work primarily online don’t have this as an issue necessarily.  However, those small and tiny businesses who must meet with clients/customers and potential customers daily will have to figure this one out.  Just today I went out to run errands and saw people in the store wearing a protective breathing mask over their face.  This might be one answer.

*This last item really isn’t about small business…it’s about big business.  Unless you could say that an actor is a small business person…even a home-based business person who goes from contract-to-contract.  I mention this one because my sister would have loved it.  My sister passed away three years ago and today is her birthday.  One of the things she and I shared was a love of science fiction movies and television shows.  We both, together and separately, watched the second “Aliens” installment too many times to count.  Tomorrow night on ABC, “V” debuts and it looks fantastic.  I have been a fan of Morena Baccarin since her days on the one-season series “Firefly” as Inara Serra and as Adria in Season 10 of  Stargate SG-1.  The TV critic of my newspaper, Chuck Barney, says of “V” in today’s column, “…it all makes for a suspenseful, scary concoction. The fast-paced “V” pilot sucks you in from the start and keeps you welded to your seat right up through a couple of shockers near the end of the hour….”  I’m going to watch it.  I know my sister would have loved it.

 

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Innovative business ideas in a down economy

Who says you have to hibernate in a down economy?  There is an axiom in positive thinking that goes: act as if you are already successful and your mind will go to work to make it so.  I get a joy out of reading about people who step out and use their knowledge, imagination and enthusiasm to make a go of a business of their own.  I found two this week to talk about and found them in two totally different ways.  The Oakland Chocolate Company I found while reading the business section of this morning’s newspaper while having my breakfast.  The other I discovered through Twitter and was intrigued enough to check the website.

The Oakland Chocolate Company is a home-based business with a sole owner who is her own employee.  And she has a day job. According to the newspaper story by reporter Janis Mara, Nancy Nadel is also an Oakland city councilwoman who makes chocolate on weekends.  From the article:

  • “…Oakland City Councilwoman Nancy Nadel spends most Sundays whipping up chocolates in her role as founder of the Oakland Chocolate Co….And despite the sour economy, Oaklanders and others are finding room in their own hearts…for sweets including bonbons filled with quince and truffles made with chipotle pepper….”

I was intrigued with this story for a couple reasons.  One, this is a woman who has a fulltime, consuming  job who is also pursuing a home business based on a passion.  And second, because of her reasons for her business [from the article]:

  • “…Nadel founded her company in December 2007 with the aim of helping the cocoa farmers of St. Mary Parish in Jamaica…when she learned they were struggling….”

The website for the Oakland Chocolate Co. has a page titled, “Our Chocolate Story” that gives a photo description of the growing and fermenting of chocolate in St. Mary Parish.  I learned something new today in reading it: I did not know that the cocoa beans were fermented.  This story is very cool also because it shows interconnectivity between one small business helping another small business all helped by individual consumers who buy – and love – chocolate.  Incidently, not to give any undue promotion for someone else’s business, but Nancy offers a terrific deal on her Box of the Month Club collection…which I ordered today as one of my husband’s early Christmas gifts – the man does love fine chocolate.

There is an advertisement I saw recently somewhere – I think it was a commercial I saw while watching a television show online the other day – that talked about small neighborhood businesses, and their customers, who are the bedrock of a renewing economy.  That could just be true.

The other business I came across I found through a Twitter follow: checkthishouse.com – I looked at the website and checked the Twitter profile, but cannot find the name of the owner, so I shall just refer to him as Checkthishouse.  What made me notice the Twitter follow direct message was how different its pitch was.  Instead of a self-advertisement for just another online get-rich-quick scheme or network marketing opportunity or get-more-leads info…it was about home maintenance, remodeling and repair.  This was different indeed.

The checkthishouse website is rich with information.  It is a value-packed time well spent for anyone seeking good, solid information about maintaining a home – Checkthishouse has information from air conditioning to ventilation.  From the website:

  • “…It is apparently one of the most neglected tasks required of homeowners. I say that because 10 + years of working as an Illinois home inspector and results from over 4000 of evaluated properties fully stand behind this statement...And there’s nothing unusual about not maintaining our homes for several months, even years. Many of us are acting this way because we simply have no time to check the problem, until it becomes necessary to check … or too annoying….”

It’s obvious to me, from my first glance at the website, that this person is passionate about what he does.  And passion is key to business success regardless of what the overall economy is doing.

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Twitter’s news brings thoughts of customers

For some reason I can’t quite explain, I find yesterday’s news story about Twitter Inc.’s infusion of money very interesting.  This is a company, an organization, that is only 3 years old…just a toddler in the world of business, but is making headlines around the world.   The news story says, …The investment values the 3-year-old company at $1 billion, even though it has yet to generate any meaningful revenue, let alone profits….” And for some other reason, this made me start thinking of home businesses and customers.

The article says that Twitter right now has “…more than 54 million worldwide users…” which I can attest to…not that I know 54 million people, but of the 700+ followers that I currently have for my Twitter account, there are indeed people from other countries of the world.

I found the news story interesting on two counts:

  • that the company has yet to produce any meaningful revenue, even profit, yet it has millions of users
  • it has millions of users

In the current economic climate, I know of some home businesses [which I mention because this blog concerns itself home-based business] that are not making a profit.  They’ve lost customers because their customers have cut back on spending.  Also, home businesses have people who are “interested” in the products or the opportunity [if it’s a direct selling business the opportunity itself is one of the products]…but right now these are not paying customers.  Kind of like Twitter Inc.’s users...we are not paying customers are we?

If  Twitter is a company, then who are its customers?  Makes you wonder about the definition of customer:

  • someone who purchases a commodity or service

So, if all 54 million of us who tweet [send the 140 characters or less messages] on Twitter are not purchasing its services, then we users aren’t Twitter’s customers –  are we?  Then who is?

A good basic, foundational business question to ask of yourself is just that: who are your customers? Who are the people who will pay money for the goods or services you produce or provide?  It is through the medium of customers that revenue is generated and profit obtained.  You could make an equation:

  • business profitability = products&services x people who buy them

Math is not my long suit but I’m hoping that Twitter Inc.’s owners and stakeholders [those who have a share or interest in an organization] will figure out a way for Twitter to become profitable so that it can pay its employees and keep innovating.

When I was young I never dreamed of something like the internet and I certainly never dreamed of anything like Twitter.  I find it fascinating.  I have a prediction, based on only what I think: should Twitter turn its users into customers, it’ll lose…big time.  Rather it makes sense to me for Twitter to put advertising somewhere in its world.  Facebook does, YouTube does.  Again, both of these social media have users who do not pay for a presence, but do offer users and others ways to advertise their goods and services.  That’s our market system at work.

Here’s a question: Do you use Twitter?  For what?  Social interaction?  Business?  If not, why not?

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Needlework advice for Sybase applicable for small business too

I like reading the business section of my morning newspaper – it often has interesting news – if not always news that I can actually use.  Today was different however.  There is a very interesting and well written story on the front of the business section titled, “Defying gravity – Economic slump can’t stop Sybase,” by writer George Avalos with The Bay Area News Group [which you can read at this link]. What I found most intriguing was at the very end of the article.  Mr. Avalos quoted Terry Tillman, an analyst with Raymond James & Associates as saying:

  • “…’Sybase has to stick to its knitting,’ Tillman said. ‘They will have to make good bets. They will have to be very focused and make the right kinds of bets on where they spend their resources.’….”

This was the summation to an article that talked about the success Sybase is enjoying in the face of a tough global economy.  Seems this company and its leadership have been making good decisions based on sound vision.  My translation of Mr.Tillman’s final comment is that Sybase needs to stick to what’s been working up to this point and stick to the basics of good business to keep on this successful track.

Now this is good advice for any business.  Stick to what is working and stick to the basics. If the fabric of your business is remaining strong, then don’t change the needles at this point, just keep doing what you’re doing.  Stay focused and make good decisions. Wow.  If this is advice a huge corporation like Sybase should follow, then how much more should we who have home-based businesses follow this same advice?

Here’s what I think we ought to do:

  • keep the vision alive – for the small, home-based network marketing/direct selling business or other type of home-planted business, the vision for the business is born in the dreams you have.  Do you dream of early retirement?  Would you like to pay off your mortgage?  Is financial control something you’d like to hold in your own hands?  Whatever your dreams, put on your leadership hat and use them as the driving vision for your business.
  • make good decisions – you already made the hardest and best decisions when you chose the business you’d start.  I chose direct selling after much research.  [I consider my art work to be my “product” and I consider fine artists to be artist-preneurs.]  My only decisions now are centered around daily business building.
  • focus on the tasks before you – keep distractions to a minimum.  If you are like me, with a similar type of business, you do much business utilizing online resources for communication.  One of the challenges is ignoring the influx of notices about “the next great thing.”  Here’s what I think: either you are committed to your business or you’re not.  If you did your due diligence and chose a company and product(s) [or service] about which you are comfortable and passionate, then you won’t be lured away by promises of greater riches with some other company.  For most of us financial success is not instantaneous...rather it is the result of planned hard work: consistency and determination and persistence.
  • work well and make good choices of where you place your resources – one of my greatest and most valuable resources is my time.  It is the optimal allocation of my time that is most important.

You know what else I liked about George Avalos’ story in today’s paper?  I liked that it was about a company experiencing success.  The current national and global economy causes our media outlets to highlight the gloom and sad stories…it helps to know that there are some people who are not losing their jobs.  It helps to know that there are products being purchased and that there are people purchasing them.  Hope is a precious thing.  Yes, my home-based business has only one employee – me, and I’m not a global player, but there is no reason that my business can’t succeed; there is no reason to think that there won’t be customers for my products.  If Sybase can do it, so can Linda C Smith [the name of my business].

And so can you.

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