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Loose lips raise communities

community obligation

It’s Saturday morning, so the ritual of before-anyone-else-rises reading, writing and coffee is, as no one ever really says to anyone else, “on like Donkey Kong”.

After closing out a couple of chapters and heading to the laptop to write, I happen to see a piece in the news about a local who is heading off to the Montana State timeout facility in Deer Lodge.

I make a comment on Facebook about the story, the essence of which is “Good riddance, don’t come back”, and then move on to writing. So of course the first response to my “don’t come back” comment is politically charged (because that’s the only way some people see the world these days) and a little snarky.

Public comments of a political nature are rare from me because political conversation usually degrades into one of two things: political arguments or political rants. I have absolutely no use for either one because I find them a waste of time.

So why did I say anything about this story? Why this time?

It isn’t just news

Because this isn’t just news, and it’s only political to those who see the world only through their party’s political lens, regardless of their politics.

What struck me about this story is that the criminal in question is a convicted felon on parole who owned a business and is married – yet no one noticed a thing. Yes, despite the comings and going of employees, customers and a spouse, no one saw or did anything and when asked – the convicted criminal’s spouse said “Oh, I just thought those people were coming over to use (the convicted criminal’s) computer.”

Really?

Is that your contribution to the community? I’ll bet you can tell us what happened on the last two episodes of Real Housewives (or similar), but all that stuff in the basement (nothing out of the ordinary, just the guns, drugs and other stuff) somehow escaped your attention.

Again, why did I say anything about this story? Why this time?

Beyond the headline

Let’s go beyond the headline and it’ll become clear.

We have a business owner with employees. Now that the business owner is going to Deer Lodge, the business is likely to go under, because the owner is probably the “technician” (read The E-Myth). But there are other reasons that the business is likely to lose.

The community now knows that the owner is a convicted felon – in this case, a repeat felon with meth and weapons charges. That isn’t likely to attract more business.

What does the community lose if this business fails?

  • Employees lose jobs.
  • Employee families experience decreased financial stability, if not serious trouble. It’s not uncommon for these things to roll downhill to what might be called “social issues” such as domestic violence or changes in the behavior of kids. It just depends.
  • Whatever benefits the community might gain from the tax revenues collected from that business.
  • The rollover of money use from those employees’ pay in their community.
  • Some level of stability of the community, which drops when the stability of the communities’ employee families drops.

Those are just the obvious ones.

Had someone said something sooner, maybe this could have been averted. In the case of a repeat situation like this, maybe not. We’ll never know. The choice made to say or do nothing reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a group about their obligation to sell harder.

Why sell harder?

Selling harder benefits your community in ways that are similar to those mentioned in the above business failure discussion.

I have to repeat this because people tend to take it out of context thanks to an experience with a less-than-reputable salesperson in their past: Selling harder does not mean “hard sell” or unethical sales. It means selling better and testing the “fringes” of your market for new opportunities.

Selling better should result in a stronger business, thus more stable (perhaps increased) employment, thus more stable families, thus a more stable community.

It’s your obligation to sell more and better, just like it is to be observant and open mouth when something’s wrong.

Both reflect your leadership as well as your stake in your local community.

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attitude Business Resources Community Economic Development Entrepreneurs Leadership Small Business

Do you love your local business environment? They do.

This video is a stunning demonstration of creativity with the iPad, but also a strong testimonial for the city of Stockholm’s business environment.

The business environment where you live might be like potting soil. Or not. Regardless, it’s your garden. You decide what to plant and where.

If the local business environment isn’t as enriching as Miracle-Gro, what can you do to improve it? Your business community needs leadership as much as your business does.

If making that sort of change isn’t your thing, supporting the folks in those roles and encouraging the right people to step up, invest and lead might be your focus.

If all else fails, there are these things called “roads” in your town. You decide how to use them, as a foundation for your business or as a route to a better place. No regrets regardless of your choice.

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Business model Competition Creativity Economic Development Improvement Positioning Small Business Software business strategic planning

Is your craft becoming a commodity?

We’ve talked about this before, but it merits another mention whether you are a programmer, web designer or woodworker.

Written by Christian Heilmann in *2009* and borrowed from a slide in Nathan Smith‘s presentation: “Sass and Compass, The Future of Stylesheets Now” (cool info, BTW), the graphic’s comment is about programming, but could be about any number of skills.

Is your craft changing? Is it already commoditized or moving that direction?

In the past, we’ve talked about your work being outsourced to other countries (some that are perhaps thought of as third world countries) and how the work you do cannot be as valuable as it once was if this is even possible.

It isn’t that the work is no longer valuable. It’s that the ability to produce that kind of work has become more common and the skill to do so is no longer a true rarity/specialty.

Is that the kind of work you’re doing/selling?

Is that the positioning you want in the future, much less now?

It’s no longer about the code. Hasn’t been for some time.

 

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Indivisible

Coffee
Creative Commons License photo credit: Selma90

Howard Schultz is doing what few large corporate CEOs have done: Following up rhetoric with leadership, action and money.

While I prefer freshly-roasted beans from local roasters and rarely do Starbucks outside of airports, I will stop in this week in order to support this.

The post title? It’s inscribed on a wrist band you get if you donate $5 to the job creation fund the Starbucks Foundation started.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/10/03/us-starbucks-idUSTRE7921M320111003

 

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Community Competition Corporate America Creativity Economic Development Entrepreneurs Leadership Positioning Small Business Software business strategic planning Technology

Not a nerd? Not a problem.


Creative Commons License photo credit: f_mafra

If you’ve been reading what’s going on in the economy, it seems like a fair percentage of the new jobs that are still out there are going to technical people.

Even today in Silicon Valley, the number of applicants in the job pool for a specific skill are roughly equal to the number of open jobs in that niche.

Meanwhile, local employers here in Montana are telling me they get 100-300 resumes/applications for every open job they post – which isn’t too many right now.

Every day, more and more jobs involve technical knowledge. Even tattoos are technical these days, as evidenced by the ink on this girl’s neck.

It’s html, the language used to create web pages.

Technical people

When I say “technical people”, I mean programmers, engineers and similar folks.

While some of the work these folks do can be outsourced, the work that isn’t tends to require local cultural context that isn’t often available to the technical person in another country.

Cultural context means a knowledge of the culture of the target market for the product you’re designing. Some products require it, some do not.

For example, an electrical engineer in almost any country or region of the world can design a cell phone component because “everyone” knows what a cell phone is and how it’s used.

The same isn’t always true when the design target is something in the cultural context of a particular area.

If you are in the U.S. or Canada, would you know the important aspects of designing a motorized trike designed for the streets of Delhi or Shanghai? Probably not, unless you have traveled extensively and spent time in those places.

That doesn’t mean you can’t learn those critical design points or someone from that region can’t learn those specific to work in the U.S. and Canada, but there is a learning curve.

Not all jobs require that context. Quite often, when you look at the jobs that have been outsourced, you’ll find that those jobs were lost because those jobs *can* be outsourced.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t technical. It simply means that they are technical but anyone with the skills can perform them – no matter what culture they grew up in.

Lots of people get really angry about that, just like they got angry at steam engines, the cotton gin and other advances that changed how our economy works. Meanwhile, that outsourced job went to some guy in somewhere who’s trying to feed his kids like everyone else. He might be making $1.10 a day doing that work, but it could be twice his previous pay.

Regardless of what the pay is, that’s a job that COULD be outsourced. Technical or not, it’s too general.

I received this (redacted) email from a friend today who has forgotten more enterprise network stuff than I’ll ever know.

So now I have another big contract.

These guys build big infrastructure for municipalities and large facilities. Perfect shovel ready stuff for millions of dollars and several years putting America back to work.

My job …. getting a working solution that allows them to move the technical work to a big city outside the US. Seems those folk need the work a LOT more than their counterparts who happen to be in, of all places, a city here in the US).

This is not the first time I have had a project where the purpose was to move American jobs overseas but it sucks more and more each time.

Add the that the fact that the Sr. Management team for this company is amazingly draconian with amazing bad morale and it proves that some people truly have just about sold out to the highest bidder.

The technical work being outsourced here is highly technical, but it is also generalized. It has no local context that matters, has nothing substantial to differentiate it, nothing to keep the work from being done elsewhere, whether elsewhere is Kansas or Kazakhstan.

Not a nerd

What if you aren’t “technical” in the context I’ve described here? Let’s say you’re a cabinet maker (which to me seems very technical).

Have you made the effort to determine what needs these specialized businesses have? Their success and their specialized needs might fuel yours.

Just an example, but worth some thought and perhaps, some effort.

Not being outsourced is as much your responsibility as anyone’s. Make the effort.

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attitude Business culture Business model Competition Creativity Customer relationships Economic Development Employees Entrepreneurs Leadership market research Marketing Positioning Small Business strategic planning The Slight Edge

Uncertainty and Starships

Today’s uncertainty has a tendency to freeze people’s behavior.

It makes us forget, even momentarily, that doing nothing or continuing to do the same old thing may be more risky than doing that next big thing on their strategic plan.

That doesn’t mean you have to take giant expensive steps like people did in 1999-2000 or in 2005-2006 when almost anyone could act big and get away with it.

When everyone else is hunkering down, even more opportunity is left available to the observant and aggressive – even if they are careful.

Are you looking at mergers, acquisitions, strategic partnerships, cross-marketing, new markets, derivatives of your existing products and services? Are you looking harder than ever for those things that can bridge you into your next big thing?

Those are all worthwhile things to consider, but have you considered your customers’ situation? What has today’s economy done for their needs? What’s the uncertainty done to them and their customers?

Have you visited your customers lately, even if you have to do so by phone, Skype or Facetime? What’s on their minds? What’s their biggest concern that didn’t exist a year (or 3) ago? How can you help?

Sometimes a quiet moment of thought yields ideas that your noisy day, week, month wouldn’t let through any other time.

Likewise, a quiet conversation with your smartest customer.

  • What can you show up with that would provoke an Aha! moment?
  • What can you do to tighten your relationship with your customers?
  • What would seal your reputation in their minds as as business that is all about making sure they are doing well?

People start businesses for a lot of reasons. They aren’t necessarily doing so for the comfort of a job but often for something else. Perhaps for the same reasons man will someday step onto the deck of a starship… because risk is our business.

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Business model Buy Local Community Competition Economic Development Management Manufacturing Montana Positioning President-proof Small Business strategic planning Strategy Technology

Lucy and the Aluminum Football

World's Favorite Sport
Creative Commons License photo credit: vramak

Lately, there has been a lot of talk in the news and around the Flathead Valley about the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) offering a four year power supply deal to Columbia Falls Aluminum Company (CFAC).

The deal is subject to environmental review and other what-ifs, so it isn’t a done deal quite yet.

Given the economic struggles facing Columbia Falls, any news of new jobs is good news. Really good news, in fact.

The topic of CFAC concerns me – it always has. Folks who have lived in Columbia Falls far longer than I know the history of CFAC first hand. To summarize for everyone else: It opens. It lays off / closes. It changes hands. It opens. It lays off / closes. And so on.

Again, Lucy pulls it away
CFAC has at times been our employment Lucy (from the “Peanuts” comic strip). Just as Charlie Brown approaches to kick the football, Lucy pulls it away and Charlie goes flying through the air, screaming and lands flat on his back. Imagine having that done to your career and family -  several times.

No matter how good things are when CFAC is rocking, a shutdown ripples through the financial well-being of our fair town’s families and the businesses that serve them. The impact of the historical ups-and-downs of CFAC on those families is unimaginable.

To their credit, CFAC’s troubles haven’t always been bad news for the valley.

In at least one case, their troubles have generated substantial benefits. Several years back, CFAC paid their people to do what amounted to volunteer work for a number of groups that couldn’t have otherwise afforded the labor. Many organizations benefited big time from the hard work their employees provided back then – and continue to benefit from the work done back then.

Don’t be a commodity
It isn’t as if these troubles were created on purpose (feel free to argue about that in the comments).

While it may not have started that way in the 1950s, the CFAC of modern times is incredibly sensitive to the whims of commodity prices. Many businesses deal with commodity prices somehow affecting some part of their business. CFAC’s business has it as part of their raw materials supply, energy supply and their finished product. As things sit today, it’s a tough, tough business they’re in.

Imagine having someone else setting the prices of every major component of your business. Now imagine that the ingots you ship are not substantially different (speaking very generally here) from those shipped by a Chinese firm using labor that works for $10 a day, ore that’s mined locally by workers paid similarly, and so on.

Advice to everyone else – do whatever you can to avoid getting yourself into a commodity market. If you’re in one, work on your business model to get out of it.

In fact, that’s my advice to CFAC, though they didn’t ask. Let’s call it a wish for the betterment of Columbia Falls and the entire valley.

The Whole Valley
Wait a minute…the whole valley? Absolutely. It’s about airline seats, hotel rooms and rental cars. It’s about cafes and catering. It’s about grocery and clothing stores. It’s about car dealers and construction work. It’s about the schools that get property taxes from an active thriving business instead of the waiver-level taxes of a dead one.

My wish is that in four years no one cares what electricity costs CFAC. Not because they are gone, but because whatever they sell has so much value that people will pay whatever it takes to get it. It worries me deeply that in four years we’ll be right back where we are now.

What I’d like to see is for CFAC to add a ton of value to the aluminum they produce, *before* it hits the rails. I’m told CFAC had some of the best millwrights anywhere who could create “anything”.

I wonder
I wonder what CFAC could make that would allow them to sell a product that doesn’t get sold on commodity markets based on someone else’s price control. I wonder what they can manufacture with the skills and backgrounds of the people who worked there for the last 20-30-40 years.

I wonder what would happen to a community manufacturing valuable products for today’s economy, rather than commodities from my grandfather’s economy.

I wonder what would happen if Charlie got to kick the ball.

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The Freedom To Hire

O OUTRO LADO DO MEDO Ã? A LIBERDADE (The Other Side of the Fear is the Freedom)
Creative Commons License photo credit: jonycunha

I‘ve been listening carefully over the last month as a number of people offered their analysis of the jobs problem in today’s economy.

One thread of discussion from a sizable number of folks really stuck out.

“It’s health care reform. No one is going to hire anyone until that’s resolved.”

Generally speaking, I understand the fear, but I think it’s uncalled for in the U.S.

Over There

In some countries, you can be stuck with a new hire “for life”.

Such policies were designed to grow employment and increase consumer spending, but like many things viewed from only one angle – they’ve also had (and continue to have) a slight to significant dampening effect on hiring.

Think about it – if you knew that the next employee you hired was yours “for life” (or say, 10-20 years), you might choose to either contract out that work – or just avoid the work altogether if you can.

Avoiding profit-generating work doesn’t exactly sound like a way to grow your business.

Not in the U.S.

That isn’t what we’re facing here in the U.S.

While you could argue about the pluses and minuses of the Affordable Care Act (ACA / HCR ) forever, what I’m hearing is a genuine HCR-driven fear of hiring.

The primary reasons stated revolve around employers concerned with ever-increasing health care benefit costs. Thing is, these costs have been rising at about 10% per year since at least 2004 in both good and bad economies without ACA / HCR.

Or they hear about the penalties for not having health insurance, which are $2000 per full-time employee per year. While that is LESS than the annual cost of providing a qualifying health insurance plan for employees, even that is misleading because the penalty doesn’t apply to everyone. Back to that in a minute.

Until you know the details, it’s EASY to see how it might make someone think twice about hiring an $8-12 an hour part-time clerical employee. Adding that $2000 cost to their $8 an hour salary effectively adds another $38 a week to their full-time pay, moving them to about $8.97 an hour.

Normally, I’d suggest that you shouldn’t have an employee who isn’t generating at least three times their wages in revenue, but in lean times, I suspect most employers have figured that out.

Still, that $2000 still sticks out.

Did I mention that many of you won’t have to pay it?

The Smallest

In addition to being exempt from penalties, the smallest businesses (with less than 30 full-time workers) get a tax credit for the coverage they provide.

According to IRS form 8941, the Small Business Health Care Tax Credit for Small Employers:

“an employer or tax-exempt organization must have fewer than 25 full-time equivalent employees (“FTEs”) for the tax year, and pay less than $50,000 in average annual wages per FTE. As explained in an IRS press release, the maximum credit available under this program for tax years 2010 to 2013 is 35 percent of premiums paid by eligible small business employers and 25 percent of premiums paid by eligible employers that are tax-exempt organizations. The maximum tax credit will increase starting in 2014 to 50 percent of premiums paid by eligible small business employers and 35 percent of premiums paid by eligible, tax-exempt organizations for two years.”

Escaped Goats

Larger employers worry about the penalties for not providing a plan – but those don’t apply until you have at least 50 full-time employees (or the equivalent) excluding seasonal workers who work fewer than 120 days. For some employers, it will be cheaper to cancel your business insurance and pay the penalty than to offer an employee health insurance plan. Go figure.

Will this change? Like everything in business, probably.

While you take the wait and see approach, your competition is strategically growing their business.

Be Unpredictable

I’ll make it easy for you.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that you don’t believe a word of this and that you think the ACA / HCR bill is going to get a lot tougher for employers.

Still, you’ve got that pesky mortgage.

Sell the work. Contract out what you have to. Bullish? Go crazy and hire someone whose work might transform your business.

The political stuff will be unpredictable no matter what you do. May as well go kick some butt.

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attitude Business culture Competition Creativity Economic Development Education Entrepreneurs Improvement Leadership Small Business strategic planning

On Change and Becoming a Leader

calculator
Creative Commons License photo credit: ansik

Not often do I post two guest posts in the same day, but this one can’t wait.

The education-related portion of Steps Toward Becoming a Technology Leader: Advice to School Administrators is what originally caught my eye, but the root of the discussion has applications in every business, if not every life.

Good stuff from J. Robinson, the 21st Century Principal.

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Advertising attitude Buy Local Community Creativity Customer relationships Economic Development Entrepreneurs Facebook market research Marketing Small Business tracking Word of mouth marketing

A gift for Bobby?

Yesterday, I was reading a comment from Bobby Rich about this small business (whaaaaa?) post on Hildy’s blog.

Bobby took Hildy’s idea, smooshed it around a little and decided to see if it would work for his business.

I like the idea, but I think we can put a cherry on top of that smooshed idea.

No doubt, it’s a nice giveback to the community to promote these local businesses.

In partnership with the local Chamber of Commerce, regional marketing co-op, etc; it might also be a way to promote that group and its members, introduce new members’ businesses, and maybe urge new businesses to join that group.

Even better for Bobby, I’m thinking it’d be a simple way to demonstrate to a small business owner how well radio/tv ads for that business would work on his stations, particularly the small local businesses who might not even consider advertising on radio/tv.

Imagine the reaction of a small business owner who previously balked at the investment of a radio ad, only to find that a free ad ended up generating 100 new customers in a few week’s time – especially if the ad was designed to make the results obvious and trackable to the ad.

Kinda makes a guy wonder…