Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Career Rengade

Make a living by doing what you love
What turns you on may also be turned into a lucrative enterprise.

Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love. Jonathan Fields. Broadway Books. 288 pages.

Unlike novels, movies or music, a nonfiction book's title is a promise, and a description of its content and goals. Because of this, certain expectations are set up, though the old saying ''You can't tell a book by its cover'' should still be heeded.

In this case, if you're looking for a book to help you navigate through the treacherous waters of corporate politics, keep looking. Ditto, if you're seeking advice for dealing with any other things traditionally associated with the word "career.''

What this book does is offer advice for leaving your career behind, actually, and creating a business or businesses based on your unique passions, interests, enthusiasms or ''bliss'' (as they used to say).

The author, who had literally burned himself out as a hedge-fund lawyer, launched a series of enterprises that were extensions of things that interested him, like yoga and physical fitness. He eventually decided to turn his passion for passionately starting businesses into a business itself and now has the requisite website, schedule of seminars, blog, online videos et al.

Good for him!

But what's in it for you?

Well, once I got past Fields's new age-ish writing, I discovered a really solid reference for people who want to start their own businesses using mostly free tools available on the Web. There are ample resources for research and implementation herein, as well as tales of other refugees from corporate and other sectors who decided to create a means of supporting themselves based upon their own unique interests and skills.

There's more than one way to go, too, and the new enterprise could be a virtual one, a terrestrial-based operation or a combination. The format could be as innovative and unique as its founder, he contends.

The problem, of course, is that not everyone has the skills, intelligence and enthusiasm that Fields seems to take for granted. Even though he offers tons of suggestions and advice, those individuals not possessed with a hobby, skill or affinity that can be transformed into a new business may be out of luck. The other element that Fields misses -- and in all fairness, he'd have to have been a psychic or soothsayer, perhaps -- is that with all the layoffs and other economic challenges, this might not be the best time to embark upon this path.

Yet, for those unable to find employment, options may be limited by a variety of circumstances so this way might make the most sense. So if Fields has a substantial addendum to this book that specifically addresses the situation, I hope he posts it online or adds it to a future edition.

There are plenty of other books on this subject, including a few from Robert Allen and kindred promoters and itinerant hucksters who offer similar strategies.

Fields may even be a hipper version of them, in fact. But if you are considering ways to turn your interests into something that produces income, you can do far worse than see what this guy has to say.

published 3/30/09 in The Miami Herald

Monday, March 30, 2009

Bettye LaVette - Love Reign O'er Me

Bettye LaVette's stunning take on The Who classic, "Love Reign O'er Me" at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors. Music and arrangement by Rob Mathes.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Get Carter (1971)

If you haven't seen it, see it.

Screenplay here.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Big Boom in Post-Mortem Studies of the Financial Meltdown

Books look at various aspects of the economic tsunami.

A boom is coming. In fact, it has already begun.
The rising tide of books dealing with ongoing economic catastrophe is building and will undoubtedly crest within the next couple of months. The blame games and finger pointing ought to be a hoot — or at least a cottage industry. This time, we'll look at four attempts to identify and elucidate the root causes of the mess, and in a few weeks, we'll examine several ''where do we go from here'' efforts.

Panic. Michael Lewis. W.W. Norton & Co. 352 pages.
Lewis' compilation of articles and excerpts recounting the 20 years of mischief and malfeasance that preceded the current tsunami of crap (a/k/a ''The Great Recession'') is more fun than it ought to be. Not that it's a comedic yuk-fest, but the writing is quite sharp and a pleasure to read. The content includes contributions from Lewis himself (a master reporter and deft stylist), Dave Barry, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and James Surowiecki, as well as contemporaneous reports from major newspapers. The text covers crises ranging from the Asian Meltdown, Russian Default and other more mundane — and unnamed — disasters right up to the current mess.

Lewis notes that contributors waived their fees, and all royalties from this book will go to a fund for rebuilding New Orleans, so at least some good will come from all the pain.

House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street. William D. Cohan. Doubleday. 480 pages.
Cohan's previous book, on Lazard Fréres, was excellent, and this one is another exhaustive look inside a major financial institution, Bear Stearns. As with the earlier volume, the author does a superb job of revealing corporate culture and personalities. But this is far from a gossipy beach read. Cohan is a superb and incisive journalist, and his interviews and other research bring clarity and comprehensibility to this complicated and sordid tale.

Catastrophe: The Story of Bernard L. Madoff, The Man Who Swindled the World. Deborah and Gerald Strober. Phoenix Books. 256 pages.
While this is hardly a rush job or an instant effort, it was clearly composed rather quickly and will almost definitely be superseded by later books on Madoff, possibly by
the Strobers themselves. Their narrative is straightforward and cleanly written; requisite pop psychoanalysis and telepathic reconstructions of events are kept to a minimum. Reportage and analysis herein emphasizes the human aspects of the Madoff scandal. The sense of shock and disgust is palpable as they proffer numerous quotes from victims, including Holocaust survivors, as well as depleted donors to charitable and educational institutions. Legal citations and other documents are quoted, too.

Enron and Other Corporate Fiascos: The Corporate Scandal Reader. Edited by Nancy B. Rapoport, Jeffrey D. Van Nie and Bala G. Dharan. Foundation Press. 1254 pages.
If they ever decide to
throw the book at Madoff or any of the other financial criminals, this 1,200-page-plus tome is the one I'd heave. This hefty volume — larger than many municipalities' phone directories — is a compendium of experts' writings on the Enron debacle and other malfeasance. Writers are mostly law professors, but there's one ringer — Malcolm Gladwell — whose New Yorker article on Enron is also available online, in case you want to skip this weighty compilation.

published 3/23/09 in The Miami Herald

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cramerica Industries

Lest we forget (from 2002)...

You Got Screwed! Why Wall Street Tanked and How You Can Prosper. James J. Cramer. Simon & Schuster.

By Richard Pachter

Neil Rogers calls it "The Gambling Channel." If you watch cable network CNBC for any length of time, you're treated to an endless parade of gurus, experts, pundits, scholars and shills touting their stock picks and/or pumping up their own companies' shares.

James Cramer, one of CNBC's resident hawkers, was a tireless cheerleader for the bubble that burst along with the irrationally exuberant stock market. His exhortations and enthusiasm was part and parcel of the channel's ceaseless promotion of "investment" and speculation. But now, like the contrite convict who finds religion on Death Row, Cramer is a born-again acolyte of skepticism, caution and prudence. He has even published a thin (128 pages) and overpriced ($29) book to spread this new-found gospel.

He writes: "Is there a soul on the planet who didn't suffer from the multiple brainwashings that the media, the academics, the brokerage houses, and the mutual funds mercilessly beat into our heads for a decade? Amazingly, after trillions were lost, we still have no regrets, no apologies, nary a mea culpa from those who heartlessly led us to the financial slaughter that outranks even those of the nightmare generations 1973-1974, and, alas, 1929-1934 — that's right, the Great Depression.

"These one-note charlatans would, even after every penny of life savings had been lost, still recite their bogus mantras meant to take our eyes off the ball, and our wallets, even as they suffered not a penny for their admonitions. They haven't learned a thing about the havoc they have wrought. They are still out there shilling their wares, except now they are saying that the stock market is even more undervalued than before.

"Dow 36,000? You better hope they've perfected cryogenics by then. That's the only way you will live to see it."

Wow! Strong stuff! Plenty of righteous indignation! Unfortunately, coming from Cramer, not much credibility, either. Truth to tell, much of his hard hitting criticism should be aimed at himself.

He goes on to catalog the litany of transgressions by well-known corporate sinners, such as WorldCom, Enron, Tyco and the rest. But Cramer's just preaching to the choir here; there are no new visions or revelations among this regurgitation of recent and all-too-familiar news stories.

The final section of this extended booklet consists of more of Cramer's estimable wisdom. The self-styled guru magnanimously comes up with a bunch of (gasp!) suggestions for avoiding investment traps and, like nearly half the books published during the last few months, problems with 401(k) and other retirement plans, and a whole slew of suggestions for government watchdogs and gatekeepers.

Totally hubris-free, Cramer offers a unique service to clueless or indecisive investors among his readers; if they don't know what to do in the market, they can just replicate his investment moves! He even provides the address of his website for that purpose. What a guy!

Sad thing, though; this character probably has sufficient name recognition to attract a following and, presumably, sell books. What's next? "Survival Tips For Chickens" by Colonel Harlan Sanders?

Published 12/12/02 in The Miami Herald

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Gene Simmons, author

I'd semi-forgotten about this book, but was reminded by Bob Lefsetz's e-mails about his encounter with Gene Simmons, recounted here, here and here and shown here. Nice to see Gene hasn't changed very much. He's still a clown. Actually, it's not nice at all, just kind of pathetic.

Kiss And Make-Up. Gene Simmons.
Three Rivers Press. 304 pages.

I don't like the band Kiss. And I won't put their name in capital letters, either, but more about that later.

I've nothing against spectacle, or style rather than substance, but beyond smoke and mirrors, I need more. But that's just me; I don't like vanilla ice cream, either, and you may adore it. That's why there's more than one flavor, right?

But I do admire deft and capable marketing, to be sure. In this day of media saturation and advertising clutter, any business that rises above the din, makes itself known and flourishes over a period of time earns my respect, if not my affection.

Kiss is certainly one of those, and Gene Simmons — its most vocal member and the architect and visionary behind their marketing mastery — has written a most revealing biography that's popped up on several lists of best-selling business books.

No wonder! Simmons, who was born Chaim Witz in Israel then emigrated to America and became Gene Klein, makes no bones about his goals: "I had always seen the band as a means to an end — in my mind, making music was only part of the plan. The master plan was to create a cultural institution that was as iconic as Disney. From the very beginning, we were at the forefront of rock-and-roll merchandising: We had the usual products, like T-shirts and posters, but we also had an interest in expanding into other markets." Indeed, the music created by Simmons and crew is fairly derivative rock-and-roll, if that's not a redundancy.

Their music received minimal radio airplay in the '70s despite being issued by one of the most aggressive marketing entities of its day, the now-defunct Casablanca Records, in an era when the market was far more malleable than it is today.

The Kiss singles that broke through Top 40 radio (progressive rock stations generally ignored them) were propelled by credible album sales resulting from endless touring and solid merchandising born of canny branding.

Simmons' intuitive understanding of the youth culture of the 1970s and the effective exploitation of his band's literally colorful personae made Kiss millionaires. (The four members wore makeup, in the manner of Japanese Kabuki — or clowns — take your pick.) Fearful and determinedly ignorant — but pious — parents branded the band devil-worshipers, with their name standing for "Knights In Satan's Service" or some such nonsense. "Kiss" became "KISS" in the press, aiding the branding process, no doubt.

Simmons' story is a terrific first-person course in business. The lessons are powerful and can be applied to many products and services, not just pop music. Product development, human resources, production, distribution — as well as marketing, marketing and more marketing — are taught by a master practitioner.

The writing, presumably the product of Simmons and an uncredited collaborator, is facile and workmanlike, with little embellishment or artifice; it's functional, fairly upbeat and fast moving.

The author's personality, however, is unsympathetic, if not repugnant. His ego and narcissism are vulgar and off-putting. But Simmons probably couldn't care less as long as the money rolls in.

Lessons can be derived there, too.

published April 8, 2002 in The Miami Herald.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Nazi Nexus Review


Nazi Nexus: America's Corporate Connections to Hitler's Holocaust. Edwin Black.

Author Edwin Black is a child of Holocaust survivors. When he first saw an IBM card-sorting machine as part of an exhibit at the United States Holocaust Museum, he vowed to learn more about this machine and the role of its manufacturer. The result was 2001's IBM and the Holocaust., a devastating account of the venerated American firm's hand-in-hand collaboration with Adolf Hitler's Nazi government in identifying, organizing and exterminating Jews and others who were deemed non-Aryan and undesirable. Black's exhaustive investigation, abetted by an international research team, resulted in worldwide headlines — and stonewalling, obfuscation and denials by its subject — which continues to this day.

Black's next book, War Against the Weak (2003), studied the role of the fake science of eugenics and its rise in the United States in the early 20th century, which provided the rationale for Hitler's racial policies. In shocking detail, Black related the subjugation, sterilization and murder of thousands of Americans solely on the basis of their race, country of origin or failure to pass culturally biased ''intelligence'' tests. This was fueled by xenophobia and ignorance, and supported -- astonishingly -- by corporate names like Carnegie, Rockefeller and others.

Black's new Nazi Nexus uses these earlier works as primary sources. But this new volume offers a compact and highly concentrated dose of history that powerfully demonstrates the deleterious effects of the convergence of avarice and ideology, American-style.

The author's premise is that American businesses beyond IBM were also complicit with Hitler's rise to power, conquest of Europe and war against the United States and that many of their activities continued through the war. In addition to doing business with the Nazis, philanthropic organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation, for example, contributed the equivalent of millions of dollars in support of German institutions devoted to eugenics, which served to legitimatize racism by attaching a ''scientific'' basis for it, according to Black. The ties between German and American researchers in this area are astounding.

Black subsequently cast his attention to our insatiable consumption of petroleum in Internal Combustion, which also covered the role of General Motors in supplying Hitler with a fleet of vehicles that enabled the Nazi blitzkrieg across Poland and other nations. It was made possible, Black writes, by the close cooperation between the Germans and a wholly owned GM operation, Opel, which manufactured a light truck called the Blitz, hence ''blitzkrieg,'' the lightning attack. Black writes about GM CEO Alfred P. Sloan, who not only collaborated with the Nazis, but also worked hard to organize opposition to President Franklin Roosevelt's administration whenever possible.

More than just a ''greatest hits'' offering, Nazi Nexus brings several seemingly disparate threads together to create a fuller portrait of this dreadful chapter of our history. Though one may wish to see more details of other notorious American Nazi enablers (Google ''Bush'' and ''Nazi'' to read news reports of the former president's grandfather's collaboration, for example), Edwin Black has done more than his share. If you missed his earlier books, this is a great place to begin, and if you read one or two but not the rest, Nazi Nexus ties them all together succinctly and frighteningly.

Friday, March 13, 2009

More New Neil Young "Light A Candle"


Ricky Gervais on Sesame Street

Out-takes from his upcoming appearance.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Neil Young "Johnny Magic"

From his forthcoming album, "Fork In The Road," due April 7.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fire with Fire

From Adweek:
Brand: Federal Trade Commission
Agency: In-House
Review Date: March 10, 2009

The Federal Trade Commission has had quite enough of FreeCreditReport.com's popular ad campaign and today launched a response that not only sharply mimics the musical FCR spots and basically calls that company a big fat liar. The FTC salvo informs consumers of the truly free option, from Annualcreditreport.com. "Other sites may turn your head. They say they are free, don't be misled," sings a band's frontman, though doesn't seem quite as comfortable in the role of pitchman as the singer in FCR's spots from The Martin Agency. "Once you are in their tangled web, they'll sell you something else instead." The ad never mentions the competitor by name but anyone who has seen the memorable FCR ads will recognize the culprit and get the message loud and clear.-- Eleftheria Parpis

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hits U Missed #4: Unreleased Beach Boys: "We Got Love"

After Surf's Up, the Beach Boys were back on the road quite a bit. I even managed to interview the late, great Carl Wilson when they played at SUNY Fredonia in 1972.

By that time, Bruce Johnston was gone and Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar were in the band. During those shows, they regularly performed an unfamiliar song called "We Got Love," though it only showed up on the terrific 1973 live album. What I didn't know was that it had been intended for Holland and was replaced by "Sail On Sailor," which was somewhat hastily completed and recorded, then added to the album and issued as a single.

From Wikipedia:
Holland was rejected by Reprise Records for not having a potential hit single. It was decided to add an old unfinished Brian Wilson song, "Sail On, Sailor", which he had co-written with Van Dyke Parks. After some re-working, Brian delivered what would become Holland's most famous track. "Sail On, Sailor" was one of two songs recorded at home (the other was Ricky Fataar's and Chaplin's soulful and moog-tinged "Leaving This Town") and added at the last minute to a re-sequenced and re-submitted Holland. One of the casualties of this tracklist reshuffling proved to be another Fataar/Chaplin tune, written with Mike Love, called "We Got Love", which would resurface later in 1973 in a live context.
Early test pressings of Holland, made in the USA and in the UK feature the album in its original group-intended running order. Side one kicks off with "Steamboat", then the three-part Saga, followed by "We Got Love". The German distributor for Reprise records failed to implement the changed side-one line up correctly and mistakenly pressed 300-400 copies with the earlier running order. Early French and Canadian pressings of Holland still mention "We Got Love" on the sleeve, although the song is not on those albums.

Here's the "original" studio version of "We Got Love," still surprisingly unreleased, except for bootlegs, of course.

Friday, March 6, 2009

U2 for $3.99?

Click here to download on Amazon.com for $3.99

That's not bad at all! About 36¢ a track.

Music biz books

Keeping score of industry's devolution

Here are a few books reporting on the state of the late great music industry.

Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age. Steve Knopper. Free Press. 320 pages.
The demise resembles the Last Days of Pompeii or maybe the dis
appearance of the dinosaurs; it's gradual and involves the accelerating extinction of giant behemoths with tiny brains. But then, big record companies have often been their own worst enemies.

In his new book, journalist Knopper tries to document their mostly self-inflicted death spiral, drawing from published interviews, memoirs and other books on the subject. He also conducted numerous interviews with the usual (and unusual) suspects as he attempted to construct a narrative detailing record executives' resistance to technologies that might have helped them and their embrace of others that have hastened their demise.

Knopper has a fair grasp of the big picture and decent knowledge of the industry and its
jargon but gets sidetracked in unnecessary minutiae, such as a far-too-detailed profile of Napster creator Shawn Fanning. His research is admirable, and some of the revelations are surprising — like the fact that executives thought iTunes wouldn't be a threat because of Apple's relatively small market share but hadn't anticipated a Windows version of iTunes or the iTunes music store — but a bit more focus and editing might have made this book truly great instead of just merely good. Overall, it's an entertaining and enlightening chronicle, though far from the last word on the subject.

Bumping into Geniuses: Inside the Rock and Roll Business. Danny Goldberg. Gotham. 320 pages.
He simultaneously worked as a publicist and a journalist, an ethical no-no at the least, and later signed Nirvana to a management contract without ever seeing the band perform. But at least give Goldberg credit for writing a book revealing several of his lesser moments, a welcome change from the usual onanistic executive autobiographical exercises. In some ways, Goldberg is an old-school record guy though his career track, from the Age of Aquarius through the grunge era and beyond, provides an interesting narrative with plenty of intriguing, though mostly sanitized, nuggets.

But events are subject to interpretation. I caught a televised interview with Stevie Nicks, whose first album was issued on Goldberg's label, Mo
dern Records. She recounted an anecdote that contradicted at least one of Goldberg's recollections. Oops.

Hit Charade: Lou Pearlman, Boy Bands, and the Biggest Ponzi Scheme in U.S. History. Tyler Gray. Collins. 320 pages.
To most adults, the boy-band phenomenon is an annoyance to be endured. But the periodic phenomenon that induces hysteria among adolescents usually results in piles of cash for promoters, producers and sometimes even the performers (though usually not). Late 1990s models Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync were no exception to this rule.

Gray began following the trail when he lived in Orlando, reporting the story as a journalist for several newspapers and music magazines. The progenitor of both acts, Lou Pearlman, presented a colorful and archetypal incarnation of the proverbial corpulent and sexually ambiguous huckster, and Gray's fine reporting and witty writing result in an appealing and engaging tale of greed, glitz, hustle and — shockingly — talent, though its pre-Madoff title has been soundly superseded.

published 1/27/09 in The Miami Herald

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Racism as American as Apple Pie

History of the "science" of eugenics

War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race
. Edwin Black. Dialog Press. 592 pages.

The promise of controlling natural biological phenomena affords endless opportunities for commerce. Biotechnology and genomics will most certainly play a huge role in the future of business.

But some people are deeply concerned with the morality of manipulating these processes, fearing that the presumed objectivity of science will inevitably be tainted by human ignorance and bias.

These fears are serious and not without foundation, especially when placed in a historical context. When technology and biology intersect, there's a danger that the profit motive is one of the least objectionable forces that come into play.

In his previous book, IBM and the Holocaust, Edwin Black demonstrated how early computer technology enabled Hitler's ''final solution.'' Now Black, aided by a small army of researchers and scholars, uncovers the roots of the Nazis' obsession with racial purity and their devotion to the Nordic ideal of blond hair and blue eyes, a notion popularized in the United States, not Germany. But the effects weren't just cosmetic.

Writes Black: "Throughout the first six decades of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of Americans and untold numbers of others were not permitted to continue their families by reproducing. Selected because of their ancestry, national origin, race or religion, they were forcibly sterilized, wrongly committed to mental institutions, where they died in great numbers, prohibited from marrying and sometimes even unmarried by state bureaucrats.

"In America, this battle to wipe out whole ethnic groups was fought not by armies with guns nor by hate sects at the margins. Rather, this pernicious white-gloved war was prosecuted by esteemed professors, elite universities, wealthy industrialists and government officials colluding in a racist, pseudoscientific movement called eugenics. The purpose: create a superior, Nordic race.''

Eugenics was derived from the work of such scientists as Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel. It was further refined by the studies of Francis J. Galton, a 19th-century Englishman with an insatiable curiosity about all aspects of human life and behavior. Galton — who introduced the use of fingerprints in criminal investigations and charted the first weather maps — coined the word ''eugenics'' to describe his studied pursuit of the quantification of human heredity and behavior.

According to Black, Galton had not quite put together enough science to back up the theories, but his ideas later found fertile ground in the New World. Many Americans showed great enthusiasm for Utopian ideals, among them the curious notion that racial purity was highly desirable. The America of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had begun to experience an influx of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe — immigrants who were decidedly not Nordic. Eugenics fit neatly into these settlers' growing xenophobia.

Black chronicles the rise of eugenics and its marriage to racism in America and its subsequent adoption by a young German corporal. Adolph Hitler, in fact, studied several American eugenics texts while jailed for participating in mob action in 1924 and even penned fan letters to the authors.

War Against the Weak is hardly escapist fare, though Black's prose makes a difficult subject matter far less tendentious than one might expect. As we consider the commercial possibilities afforded by gene mapping, cloning and the like, this book should be required reading for leaders seeking to avoid the inevitable penalties bestowed upon those who fail to learn the lessons of history.

published 9/15/03 in The Miami Herald

Monday, March 2, 2009

Steve Strauss: Mr. All Biz

My Q&A with author, guru and super-nice guy Steve Strauss ran in last week's special small business section of The Miami Herald.

Unfortunately, it could soon disappear into the ether, so I've posted it here along with short reviews of the first edition of his Small Business Bible and an earlier book, The Business Start Up Kit.

Please visit his website for more Steve Strauss goodness.

MrAllBiz gives sage advice

Author Steven D. Strauss is a small business maven. This USA Today small business columnist and author of The Business Start Up Kit and The Big Idea recently released a new edition of his Small Business Bible, a veritable cornucopia of advice and information.
His website, MrAllBiz, is also a one-stop resource for enterprise. In light of the current economic anomalies and challenges, it seemed like a good idea to touch base with Strauss, so we sent a few questions to him by e-mail. Here are his responses:

Q: How should small businesses deal with the current economic state of affairs in terms of marketing, advertising, personnel, customers, vendors, financing, expansion, insurance?

A: The biggest and most common mistake small businesses make during times like these is that they cut back in the areas that are actually needed the most right now — marketing and advertising. Here's why: Customers are volatile; loyalty is something that most people abandon when what they really want are discounts and value for their dollar. The result of that is two-fold: First, you will lose customers; we all will. Second, there are plenty of new customers out there to be had as habits change. BUT, the only way they will find their way to your door is through your advertising and marketing. It is shortsighted to cut back in those areas.

That said, belt-tightening is smart. For example, if you can legally turn an employee into an independent contractor, do so. That can save plenty on costly labor expenses. Keeping overhead low in ways that don't hurt customer acquisition is key.

The other smart thing to do is to focus on customer service. Use the 80-20 rule to figure out who your most vital 20 percent is and lavish those valuable customers with added value. That is the name of the game right now — added value.

Q: Can the Internet help companies survive the downturn?

A: The Internet is critical to survival. Aside from the fact that it is where everything is headed anyway, the power on the Net in this economy is that it is so inexpensive to use, yet so powerful. For instance, you could spend $1,000 on a print or media ad that you hope the right people will see or hear and maybe act on. That same $1,000 spent on a pay-per-click campaign will yield far more targeted leads — people who saw your ad, liked it and already took action by clicking.

Search Engine Optimization is equally important. More and more people are abandoning Yellow Pages and other traditional ad forms in favor of Google searches. You have to make it easy for them to find you, and you do that through SEO.

I recently saw a stat that over 50 percent of all small businesses still don't have a website. That is shocking! You simply must have one. If for no other reason than websites are increasingly where people go to determine if they want to hire you or buy from you.

By the same token, make sure you get a good one. The Net is the great equalizer. Any small business site could, and should, look every bit as good as that of any big business. Finally, these days it is inexpensive and quick to get a beautiful, elegant, professional site.

Q: To what extent is the economy cyclical? Is it just a matter of "riding it out?''

A: I love this Paul Harvey quote: ''In times like these, it helps to recall that there have always been times like these.'' It felt like the economic sky was falling when the dot-com bubble burst, and also after 9/11. We made it through then and we will again. Is this worse? Of course! But it is survivable. People are looking for bargains. Give them what they want.

Q: What's something that most companies neglect to do when things get rough, but shouldn't?

A: Too many companies fail to see opportunities during rough times because they are so focused on survival. And while it's important to keep your eye on the ball, it is a mistake to lose sight of other possibilities.

For example, recessions are great times to innovate. The cost of goods and labor is less, and you and/or your staff probably have some extra time on your hands. Use that time to come up with new ideas and try them out now.

Recessions are also good times to see what fat can be trimmed. Find a cheaper supplier, or less expensive insurance.

But it's also important not to think the only way to increase demand is to cut price. Price cuts aren't the only way to stimulate demand, and they aren't the best approach for entrepreneurs. On average, entrepreneurs are more successful when they compete on service, quality or something other than price. So price cutting in a recession is often a losing strategy for entrepreneurs.

published 2/25/09 in The Miami Herald

What's a small business? It could be a single store in a strip shopping center, an individual freelance artist, a couple selling used computer parts on eBay from their home, a journeyman plumber, a 10-person catering company — in other words, almost anything where money changes hands for goods and/or services.

The "small" is just a matter of size, not intention. In fact, it's often just a way of describing the beginning of the adventure. After all, great oaks begin as tiny acorns.

Many people — employed or unemployed — may want to start their own enterprises but don't have a clue where to begin. Others may have already begun but are either flying blind or without a net. In either case, some guidance and direction might be useful. Mentoring might help, but it's difficult to determine the quality of the advice.

Fortunately, a few books are available to aid neophyte entrepreneurs.

The Small Business Bible: Everything You Need to Know to Succeed in Your Small Business. Steven D. Strauss. John Wiley & Sons. 526 pages.

If you're going to refer to your text as a Bible, then you'd better have your act together. I'm pleased to report that Strauss does. He's the small business columnist for USA Today, which is no guarantee, but he also authored The Business Start Up Kit, so he knows his stuff.

One of the first things that rookies discover is that when one is self-employed, it's necessary to become an expert on virtually everything, from finance, human resources, legal issues, administration, advertising, marketing, sales, technology and more, in addition to developing expertise in the company's specialty. Strauss lays out a panoply of pertinent information in a clear and logical manner. He covers a lot of ground but manages to make it all seem practical and unthreatening; no mean feat, considering the amount of potential obstacles that inexperienced entrepreneurs face.

Strauss employs a number of checklists, as you might expect, and also wisely includes referrals to other sources of information. The result is a solid primer for beginners and those who've yet to experience the full array of ups and downs that small businesses offer.
Published February 14, 2005 in The Miami Herald

The Business Start Up Kit: Everything You Need to Know About Starting and Growing Your Own Business. Steven Strauss. Dearborn Trade Publishing. 304 pages.

One potential route to riches begins with starting one's own business. Strauss, whose last book, The Big Idea, explored how certain innovative products and services were brought to market, has cooked up a do-it-yourself guide and workbook for start-ups.

It's a multidisciplinary challenge, and Strauss proves to be up to the task. His book offers advice on names, locations, franchising, production, distribution, licensing, financing, advertising and so forth.

The author turns out to be a good hand holder. And while much of what he offers may be obvious to some readers, there's enough that will likely be new to others to make this book a sort of Swiss army knife for would-be entrepreneurs.
Published March 10, 2003 in The Miami Herald