Why do startups fight city hall?

This past weekend, I had a brief discussion about Uber, France, tech startups and the need to “fight city hall”. It all started after I posted a story about an upcoming Paris taxi strike, which is designed to send a warning message to the French government and French people from a highly entrenched monopoly.

The message is “Don’t support something that threatens our monopoly or we will shut down the city.

The key thought in the article was that French government’s handling of the Uber situation is an illustration of what’s wrong with entrepreneurism in France and that the situation affects all French startups rather than solely impacting Uber.

It seems the laws in France are designed to frustrate entrepreneurs attempting to enter established markets, if not to suppress all new business entries. The article goes on to make note that all of this goes on while France’s leadership talks about how they want to encourage entrepreneurship.

Why care about what happens in Paris?

What in the world does this have to do with small business in the U.S.?

Similar things occur here in the States and in many cases, startups end up feeling forced into a situation where they are left with no choice but to fight city hall – often because the alternative is to be legislated out of business with the help of an entrenched competitor. Sadly, this “competitor” isn’t the least bit interested in competing. They’re happy to use the local and regional governments’ desire to protect the citizenry as a means of raising the bar into entering “their” market.

Most U.S. based entrepreneurs tend to avoid such battles because they are expensive, frustrating and quite often do nothing more than waste a business owner’s time and money.

Yet startups like Uber are often found doing that very thing – taking on governments to eliminate protections that were once created due to a public safety interest but have been perverted into something that seems perfectly designed to preserve and protect entrenched businesses not only from new entrants into the marketplace – but from their clientele as well.

Why startups?

Why are tech startups picking on established markets? And why do so many of them seem to want to fight city hall?

They often do this because that’s where the market is. We talk about the opportunity you create simply by improving service to clients here on a regular basis – and do so because it is one of the easiest ways to transform your business. Service – one of the essential things a business delivers – has gone from a foregone conclusion to a differentiating factor.

Uber is perhaps the most obvious and the easiest example to make note of, but they are far from alone on this one. Part of their attraction to consumers is how easy they make it to use their services when compared to most of their competition. Even now, their obstacle isn’t that cab companies all over the world have increased the quality of their cars, the ease of booking and paying for a ride, etc. No, their biggest obstacle is local / regional governments, many of whom have fought to keep Uber out.

The thing is, it isn’t really about Uber. They’re simply today’s easiest and most visible example to understand. What this is really about is creating more barriers to entry into a market.

Old rules that favor one company or one technology are what start ups deal with every single day. In fact they often focus on those areas because they make the market attractive. Markets with poor service often slowly become that way because of a lack of competition created by artificially created barriers to entry. Often companies in those markets treat their customers so poorly that people do business with them only because have no other choice.

These are markets that have repeatedly sent a message to their clientele that they need to be taught a serious lesson. Most local entrepreneurs can’t afford to fight City Hall. Only those who are highly capitalized have that luxury in most situations – the luxury of out-waiting and perhaps, out-spending city hall, something no small business owner can do.

As any small business owner knows, there are plenty of barriers to entry as it is. Be careful not to ask your representatives to help you create more of them, as the next time, it could be your business that’s targeted the next time. Each one of these barriers that is successfully installed makes it easier to create another one.

Starting a new business is hard enough as it is. Let’s not create more barriers.

Senate may drop the soap (maker)

About six years ago, there was a big fuss about the CPSIA, a law that was written to sharply reduce lead in clothing, toys and other items made for children under 12. Why lead? Lead poisoning causes developmental and neurological damage in young children, including by breathing dust from peeling lead paint.

I made some noise about the law as originally passed because it would force the makers of handmade childrens’ items out of business – and a lot of those businesses exist here in Montana. It wouldn’t have put them out of business because their products contained lead, but because of the costs of per-batch independent lab testing to prove they were lead-free.

The law passed unanimously. Imagine that happening today.

It passed in response to the recall of millions of lead-tainted toys in 2007-2008. However, there was an uproar from makers of small motorcycles and bikes. Lead appears in tire valve stems and other unlikely contact areas, which left them subject to the law.

The publicity resulted in a number of public forums with elected officials. In a response to my question during the Kalispell MT forum, my U.S. Representative lied to my face that he didn’t vote for the bill (the link shows otherwise). He then took the side of the youth motorcycle manufacturers (rightly so, I think) and said he’d fix the poorly-written law he’d voted for.

The law eventually got fixed, mostly, via an amendment exempting both small volume (often handmade) manufacturers – the ones who couldn’t possibly afford the testing requirements of the original law – and those reselling items they didn’t manufacture. While it didn’t save thousands of small handmade manufacturers from their losses prior to this amendment, it did stop the bleeding.

I say “fixed, mostly” because the law was amended to allow Mattel to perform their own lead testing rather than use independent labs other manufacturers must use by law. The irony? The slew of lead problems that provoked Congress to act involved millions of toys manufactured by Mattel and their subsidiaries.

What’s this got to do with soap?

I share all of that for a couple of reasons.

One, there are parallels in the CPSIA story to a new bill that could affect manufacturers of handmade soaps, lotions and the like, Senate Bill S.1014, the Personal Care Products Safety Act.

Two, there are a large number of handmade manufacturers of soap, lotions, creams, lip balms and scrubs in Montana, including my wife’s business.

Three, when the press microphones are on, there’s a high likelihood of horse biscuits along the lines of “I voted for it before I voted against it” or “My vote was a shot across the bow“, so have your biscuit filter ready.

S1014 is on the agenda of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, which is full of high-profile personalities, including two Presidential candidates. The needs of your small business or your employer may not mean squat in the context of Presidential candidate image makers advising these people.

Handmade manufacturers on alert

As in the CPSIA situation, an industry group has worked to provide exemptions for small handmade manufacturers. The Handmade Cosmetic Alliance (HCA) has for months tried to educate and reason with the bill’s authors and suggest that they include small manufacturer exemptions like those found in the 2011 Food Modernization Safety Act (FSMA). Despite that, these small handmade soap, lotion and cosmetic manufacturers will be held to the same standards that makers of prescription drugs and medical devices meet.

Most of these 300,000 (!) small manufacturers use food ingredients found in grocery stores, even though customers don’t eat them or use them to treat a medical condition. We’re talking about olive oil, oatmeal, sugar, coconut oil, etc. My wife buys olive oil for her creams off the shelf at Costco.

This law will force them to pay user fees that will result in higher consumer prices, plus it will add more paperwork burden by requiring them to file per-batch (10-50 units) reports. For the more successful homemade product makers, this could result in 100 or more FDA filings per month. Everyone has time to do that, right?

It’s almost tourist season. Many of the products tourists buy and take home are made and sold locally, and thus feed local families in your area. Speak now or …

What does your community’s welcome mat say?


Creative Commons License photo credit: archerwl

A state association of businesses has pushed legislation into our state house that would limit the on-premise retail sales volume of a related group of businesses.

Yes, we talked about this recently, but today let’s go beyond this one business, this one time.

That situation is just a symptom of a far bigger concern.

For an established business with good wholesale distribution in place, retail sales limitations wouldn’t be a big deal – except that those same businesses already have legislated production and sales volumes that limit their growth.

These production/sales limitations brilliantly restrict both growth and new businesses in that market.

One of our town’s newest businesses, started by a young family, is placed in jeopardy by this legislation just weeks before their doors open.

That doesn’t mean the “other guys” don’t have grievances to settle (such as a level compliance playing field), but those grievances aren’t going to be cured by artificially limiting sales numbers.

Even so, it shouldn’t be about one business group over the other – both have the right to do business. I know business owners and employees on both sides. I believe these two groups have much more to gain by cooperating.

While the specifics of issues like this will change from year to year, what concerns me most is the message these situations send.

What’s the message to young families and entrepreneurs?

Last week, we talked last week about what communities do to encourage young families and businesses to put down roots or return to the area. Governments and community economic development groups put a lot of effort into these programs. Meanwhile, legislative proposals that limit the growth of new small businesses fly directly in the face of that work.

My question to those in the State House is this: Does legislation that chooses one market over another send the message you want to send from your state, much less your community?

Do laws like that encourage young families to stay and invest in your community? Does the legislature realize that when a small business person sees this done to one business niche, they can’t help but wonder if it will be done to another niche in the next session?

The message we heard then

When we moved our family and our business here in the late 1990s, one of the reasons we chose Columbia Falls was the warm response we received from folks around town. When we said we were considering moving here, the typical response was something like “That’s great. We’d be happy to have you here.”

While schools, the Park and recreation opportunities were important, the overwhelming “this is the right place” feeling came from the welcoming nature of the people we met.

The message I heard back in the 90s was not “Be a no-holds-barred success at all costs.” It was “Build it here. Be a good corporate citizen, a good employer, a profitable example for others who want to build / relocate a business here, and an asset to your community. Become a member of the family.”

If things didn’t work out or legislation targeted my business, I could always move it out of state because it isn’t tied to a brick and mortar retail location. It’s a by-design luxury and a property of the kind of work we do.

Thing is, brick and mortar retailers, restaurants, microbreweries and most services businesses really don’t have that choice.

What’s the message now?

No matter what the state house is working on, they must be careful about the message being sent by legislation that artificially manipulates markets and favors one group over another. It’s a message that other business owners and entrepreneurs look for when they choose a home. Business is hard enough as it is without having to fight off competition from the state house.

This session’s controversy in your state house, whatever it might be, will likely be old news next session.

The real concern to have is this: What our legislators do sets out your state’s welcome mat.

Do you want it to say “Welcome to our state” or “Build it somewhere else”?

Bad apples make you taller, thinner and better looking (until Dec 1 2009)

Sir Millard Mulch
Creative Commons License photo credit: rick

One of the things I’ve always counseled you to use in your marketing is testimonials: carefully chosen things your customers have said about their experiences using your products and services.

On Dec 1 2009, that changes a bit.

In some ways, it’s a good thing. It’ll make almost all those lame infomercials edit their fake testimonials.

In others, it’s a bad thing because it will punish (or frighten) good businesses by making them think they can no longer use testimonials or that the ones they can use have to be gutted.

Neither is true.

A great testimonial addresses…

…a common sales objection.

Getting a testimonial – particularly a strong, believable, honest one that directly addresses a common sales objection – can be difficult. Not so much because they are hard to get, but because people don’t always like to talk about their use of a product/service. A lot of that depends on what it is.

Not everyone understands what kind of testimonials are truly valuable. When people tell you they love the product or that they love working with you and your service is wonderful, those are nice and heartwarming comments, but they aren’t strong testimonials.

One type of strong testimonial states specific results, such as “We’re up 70% in same month, prior year sales after working with Mark to improve our marketing over the last 3 months”. That’s a good testimonial, and it’s (naturally) the exact type of thing the FTC doesn’t like.

Why? Because it states specific results that might be 100% factual for one person (or 100, if you have that many), but it still doesn’t mean that every single Joe Blow can achieve the same results by simply falling out of bed in the morning.

If everyone who buys your product can’t typically achieve a documented, 100% factual result stated in a testimonial when THEY use your product / service, you will have a problem using that testimonial EVEN IF 99% OF YOUR CUSTOMERS NEVER USE IT.

Isn’t that grand? “Lowest common denominator” comes to mind.

As you likely assume, these regulations came about mostly because of the bad apples out there. So be it. Let’s get to the details.

Bad apples beware

The new FTC regulations that take effect on December 1 2009 that will require you to be far more careful about the testimonials you use.

Quoting the hard-to-believe results of one highly-motivated person and then saying “these results are not typical” is no longer sufficient. You have to state typical results that your customers get when using your product or service. If those turn out to be difficult or impossible to achieve, expect the FTC to come calling – and not for dinner.

If you haven’t already done so, you need to check your marketing materials TODAY for any claims that – no matter how real and accurate – are not typical.

You can see the FTC-issued guidance on this at http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/10/endortest.shtm

This applies to bloggers, advertisers of products/services and many others, so I strongly suggest you give it a look. It’s not a game. Regardless of what party is running Washington, these folks seem to revel in making examples out of business people to ‘send a message’ to everyone else.

Sometimes, these things come down very unfairly. Don’t let it happen to you.

More details from the FTC are available here.

Be gone with you, Debbie Downer

Now that we have the “Debbie Downer” stuff out of the way, there is some good news in this because it does punish the slime in your market along with the good guys.

Several things come out of this, but one thing is clear – it makes measurement all that much more critical to your success.

If your product or service can somehow anonymously document what it does – easy for some products and services, almost impossible for others – you will be ahead of the game.

A lot of this applies to software businesses and those with automation in their products / services – but if testimonials are important to your business, measurement might become essential across your entire product line.

Implement results measurement into your products and services. Not only will it help your product / service, but it will help you sell them to those who REALLY need them AND it’ll be the evidence you need to prove the results of typical use.

NO, I’m not a lawyer. If testimonials are central to everything you do, I strongly urge you to consult your attorney about these regulations.

Meanwhile, you should be measuring results. Imagine what will happen if your products / services can prove to your customers what they are doing for them (and what they are not).

That’s why we’ve had this measurement conversation for years prior to the FTC forcing it upon you.

In a nutshell, the FTC is making some modifications to how US firms, and those advertising in the US, can use testimonials.

It’s no longer good enough to point out that the results mentioned might be exceptional. If you use results-based testimonials or case studies, you also have to tell the viewer or reader what the typical results are that your customers achieve using the product.

This is tough for physical products, such as weight loss programs and the like, but it’s doable. It’s damned near impossible for “how to” products.

The reasons are pretty simple: Most people buy them and don’t do anything with them. Others add or remove processes, or do various things really well or poorly. All of that affects results, and makes it incredibly hard to describe “typical,”

even if you can get people to tell you their results.

Getting them to tell you what they achieved can be a tough row to hoe to start with. Many people are embarrassed to tell you they did nothing with it. Others overstate their results out of pride, or as a means to get more credibility. Some will understate them, to keep attention away from their successes.

None of this has any reflection on the product, or the truth of the advertising involved. It’s a matter of record-keeping and regulatory compliance that may prove beyond the capabilities of many information publishers.

Watering down your message

Apocalyptic Elegance
Creative Commons License photo credit: NyYankee

While grumbling to myself about the effectiveness of the “Making CPSIA testing economics reasonable for small business” population (my name for a number of “us”, not a name this non-group group has adopted), I continue to be disappointed in the actions being taken by Congress to repair the Act.

With that, I think it’s a good time to announce that the political posts here will cease.

I’ve created another blog that is designed specifically to address political and regulatory issues faced by small business.

Why?

I simply don’t want to dilute the message that Business is Personal has stuck to for the last 4 years (yeah, I forgot to mention we had a birthday – what the heck am I thinking?) and frankly, I’ve done exactly that over the last several months.

While it has been a positive for the blog’s traffic, it isn’t the reason why BIP exists. I thought briefly that maybe it should be, as it resonated with a lot of folks (blog traffic has tripled since I started talking about CPSIA).

Despite that, I’m taking that message elsewhere. It’s off topic, mostly.

When I have that “elsewhere” ready to unveil, I’ll let you know. It won’t be too long.

The force is strong with this Congress

For decades, I have avoided getting involved in politics mostly because it has a way of seriously annoying me.

As I hope you’ve noticed, I’ve also avoided getting politic-y here at Business is Personal – maybe with the exception of discussions regarding the CPSIA.

Despite my best efforts, Congress is working overtime to pull me into their world.

And then this morning, I’m talking to a prospect who asks “Do you get involved in politics much?” Hooboy:)

Never fear, however. BIP is not here to be political. I will avoid it at every possible occasion.

Regulation is necessary

Regulation is necessary and anarchy is a pretty bad alternative. The problem is that Congress seems to be working overtime to destroy small businesses, intentional or otherwise.

Those that deserve it, so be it. Most do not, IMO.

It seems fairly obvious that we can legislate the loss of jobs a whole lot easier and faster than we can create them via legislation.

Almost 30 years ago, the Regulatory Flexibility Act (RFA) was put in place to protect small business from a “substantial impact” from new rules put in place by agencies as a result of new Federal laws.

The name sounds all nice and cuddly, doesn’t it? “Regulatory Flexibility Act” Awwww:)

The law requires an analysis of any new agency rule to make sure that it wont significantly harm a substantial number of small businesses. Agency rules implement the enforcement of legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by the President.

Problem: New rules can avoid the analysis if the enforcing agency’s head “certifies” (by publishing a statement in the Federal Register) that rule won’t adversely affect small businesses.

For example, the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) recently entered official comments into the Federal Register regarding several important CPSIA issues.

One of the things in that Federal Register entry is the RFA certification statement that says the CPSIA “doesn’t impact small business”. In that link, see page 10479, section G where they make all things right with the small business world by simply saying small businesses (even those “evil mommybloggers” who own businesses<g>) won’t be affected.

My Kingdom for Safe, Modern Food!

A new challenge for some small businesses might be HR875, which has an easy-to-like name: the “Food Safety Modernization Act“.

Not even Mr. Peanut would try to convince you that we don’t have food safety work to do.

Like the CPSIA, this law appears to target large food processing facilities, corporate farms, imported foods and so on. After all, you don’t hear about thousands being poisoned from foods purchased at the local farmer’s market.

Just like the CPSIA doesn’t differentiate between moms who sew outfits for my granddaughter and big Chinese factories that import a few thousand container loads of mass-market clothes per year, the FSMA (HR875) doesn’t differentiate between Tyson, Conagra and the guy who owns 9 chickens so he can sell eggs once a week at the local farmer’s market.

Not even the USDA-certified organic farmer escapes the FSMA’s reach.

All your chickens are belong to us

No, that is not a typo.

Finally, there is the new animal radio ID labeling regulation currently National Animal Identification System that is winding through Congressional committees.

Yes, I regularly remind you to measure everything, so I can see the good coming from this.

Except…

The problem with the NAIS, as with the CPSIA and the FSMA, is in the cost of implementation when you compare a large corporate farm to someone who organically (or not) maintains even one head of livestock or 9 chickens.

The point of all of this? You need your trade association. If you don’t have one, start one. If yours stinks, get involved and make it better.

No, it won’t be easy, though fixing an org is easier than starting one.

Working as a Wal-Mart greeter is easy. Pushing the Staples Easy button is easy. If you wanted easy, you wouldn’t have started / bought a business.

These laws can just as easily impact your employer as they can you as a self-employed person, so you’re going to be subject to some of them one way or another.

Get involved.

Andy Hoffman tells CPSIA whiners to “grow up”

Pop-Tarts ARE Supposed To Be for Kids, Right?
Creative Commons License photo credit: CarbonNYC

Over at PopTort.com, consumer advocate Andy Hoffman says that opponents to the CPSIA need to “grow up”.

I shared this comment with Andy on his blog, but just in case he doesn’t see fit to mark my comment as public, I’ll repost it here. Feel free to join in with your own reply.

Here’s what I had to say to Mr. Hoffman:

You’re only missing one little issue, Andy.

This isn’t about greedy business owners wanting to avoid the lead law.

In a lot of cases, its about stay at home moms who squeeze a second income out of their cottage business and use that as a way to enable them to stay home and be a mom to their kids prior to their kids entry to school.

Some have managed substantial success, doing more than just squeaking by.

These moms (and others) who manufacture organic cotton onesies, tshirts and so forth for infants (along with a litany of other stuff) quite often started making these things *because* of the crap that is sold at WalMart and elsewhere that was found wanting in the environmentally-kind department.

Before you think that I too am just another whiner throwing a tantrum – be aware that I dont own or work for a children’s products business and NONE of my clients are in that category.

What the uproar is really about is giving small businesses who dont have the economies of scale on their side a means of testing that doesnt put them out of business.

When you manufacture (which often means “sew”) something for $6 and tell it for $12, you cant afford to spend $57 to test it. Anyone can see that math isnt going to work.

The big thing that many miss about this law is that it isnt limited to impacting those who make, retail or resell children’s products: it’s the ripple effect throughout the economy from there.

All of those businesses use accountants, lawyers, graphic artists, web site geeks, and so on. All of them will be doing less of that.

To get a full image of the ripple, I suggest you read the post linked to above (in his blog form) and take note that 80% (yes, EIGHTY) percent of the people in the room were standing when I was done asking them to.

If 80% of the businesses in your area are affected by a law that could easily be altered, it might be in your best interest to look at it without wearing the jaundice-tinted Consumer Reports hat.

Small businesses aren’t asking for an exemption and they arent asking for a different set of rules.

All they are asking for is the ability to use the component testing performed by the manufacturer of the lot of cloth, vat of vinyl, etc.

That allows everyone using that lot (etc) to absorb the cost, rather than every manufacturer having to absorb the full cost of the test for every line of items they make from that bolt of cloth and so on.

Thanks.

Your turn: Pay a visit to Poptort.com and let Andy know how grown up you are.

Denial – Not a river in Egypt, an attitude about the CPSIA

Ian over at Aquinas and More Catholic Goods sent me some reaction he’s gotten from his wholesale sources regarding CPSIA.

As you might expect, they’re all over the board.

We have found that several of our vendors are in denial about the law and have flat out said they won’t get things tested because they already know that their components are safe. They have said they will send us a letter saying that everything is safe but aren’t actually going to get things tested.

Several have said that there is no way this can be enforced so they aren’t going to bother getting certified because everything is made here in the US.

Several others have said that testing will bankrupt them.

Retailers, what are you hearing from your wholesale vendors? Or have you bothered to ask?

Are your testimonials illegal? Will they be?

Even if you aren’t using REAL testimonials in your ads, you should be. I believe we’ve talked about that a few times.

If you are using testimonials (again, you should be – I can’t nag about that enough), then you might be interested in some changes that the FTC is considering. They’d like to keep a closer eye on what people say about the things and services you sell.

As the CPSIA situation might suggest (and I think I’ve made it more than a suggestion), you have to be more vigilant about keeping track of changes in laws and regulations that can impact your business.

To that end, I suggest you slide over to the FTC notice of their Federal Register request for comments about the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising. Here’s the 86 page request for comments (pdf) from the FTC.

EIGHTY SIX PAGES? Yeesh. But you gotta do it, if nothing else to avoid another CPSIA-like experience. The PDF is on my reading list for the weekend. If I find anything ugly, I’ll be sure and make note of it here – HOWEVER, you need to check it over to see if your business is impacted.

Rather than get caught being less than vigilant as many were by the CPSIA, I suggest getting on top of this before it becomes law. The deadline for comments is January 30, 2009.

It appears that the changes are common sense, but I strongly suggest you check it out for yourself – one person’s common sense is another person’s “One lamp or two?

A quote from the FTC notice:

In the newly approved Federal Register notice, the FTCâ??s proposed revisions to the Guides address consumer endorsements, expert endorsements, endorsement by organizations, and disclosure of material connections between advertisers and endorsers (emphasis mine). On the issue of consumer endorsements, the proposed revisions state that testimonials that do not describe typical consumer experiences should be accompanied by clear and conspicuous disclosure of the results consumers can generally expect to achieve from the advertised product or program.

UPDATE: One of the reasons that we get these kneejerk reactions from Congress that hurt everyone is that there are still unethical vendors out there doing things that ought to get them slapped to the gutter. Things like this, for example. Thanks to Jeff for the heads up on this story.