Thursday, August 7, 2014

How to Relax and Enjoy Summer

I was just outside putting the cover on the grill. I looked up and saw the gibbous moon. And I just totally stopped and relaxed and heard the crickets and looked at the fireflies in my garden and then back at the moon. And I felt complete peace. It was wonderful. 

We need to grab these moments of peacefulness.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Out of Poverty Via Small Business Ownership

I have a new appreciation for the term "bricks and mortar." Early this month (January 2014), I traveled to the Dominican Republic with members of my church (The First Congregational Church of Darien) to build houses with Habitat for Humanity. We didn't build houses for the poor. We built with them. This was quite a meaningful revelation to me. I found myself to be overjoyed as I toiled side-by-side with my fellow church members, Habitat building experts, and the families who would benefit from the manual labor we were all doing together. The kids were on a school break, so even kids were digging foundations and mixing mortar. They were dying to help us.



These people were dirt poor, but they had a work ethic. They had clean clothes (which really amazed me). But most of all, they had wonderful, open, friendly personalities. In one site, we were building bathrooms for families who lived literally in tin and wood shacks. The mom in one of the houses had been a widow for five years, but she did laundry and cleaning for others so she could feed her family. She occasionally sold mangoes from the tree in her yard. Habitat was subsidizing the construction of a bathroom for her family who, up until now, had been using an open-air pit near their home that was screened off by sheets of tin and cloth.


At another site, we dug the foundation, laid the cinder blocks, and applied the mortar to build a small house for a family with no home. The family would also own the land the house sat on -- right by beautiful yucca and bean fields. Their livelihood came from their own small business -- a stand they set up in town selling freshly grilled sandwiches and fruit juice at lunchtime. The business provided enough income so that they could afford to make payments to Habitat for their home financing. If the family's income grew, they could add onto the house, as it was designed to be expandable.

All over the Dominican Republic I saw evidence of people with small businesses working hard to eek out a living. The experience got me thinking that small enterprise, entrepreneurship, and micro-finance (including micro-finance for housing) were the best paths out of poverty for much of the world.

I'm curious what others of you think. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

An Evening with Angels



By Wyn Lydecker

It’s holiday season, so when I was invited to spend an evening with angels, how could it pass it up? Here’s the catch -- the angels I’m talking about are not celestial beings. They are investors in startup and early stage ventures, and they were all on a panel at Ultra Light Startups Investor Feedback Forum in New York.

I haven’t been to an entrepreneur pitching event in over a year, so I was really looking forward to it. I was not disappointed. Eight creative entrepreneurs gave a two-minute pitch to the panel of seasoned investors and an audience of over 200 at Microsoft’s New York offices. (Full disclosure: I was invited by one of the pitching entrepreneurs, Jim Medalia, owner of 225AM.) The panel asked questions and made insightful comments to each presenter. It was very interesting to hear the questions the panelists asked and the advice they gave not only to 225AM, but also to the other presenters. The investors saw the companies from such different perspectives than the founders.I could see how some of the comments gave new ideas to the presenters.

I was amused that during the advice portion, the hosts took the microphone away from the presenter. That forced the entrepreneur to listen and not use up time commenting on the advice. I’ve never seen that done before. Very good!

One thing that really struck me about the event was the number of women in the audience & in the mix of pitchers. In Connecticut, I only see a handful of women showing up at such events. And articles in the media would have you thinking that there’s a dearth of women entrepreneurs in the tech space. Not so last week. In fact, the entrepreneur who was chosen as the best presenter by the audience was a woman who had used technology to create new way for hard-to-fit women (ones who wear size 18+) to choose and buy custom-fit clothing. (Cynthia SchamesAbbeyPost)

Each presenter had developed an innovative solution to a genuine problem. Jim Medalia’s company, 225AM.com , provides an online service to help college and graduate students find full-time employment. Although the panelists joked about the name of the company, it captures the difficulty college students have today to fit job hunting into their demanding schedules. They only have time to work on their job search at 2:25 AM.

The need for help with finding employment is very real for college and grad students. Only 50% of college students graduate with a full-time job. 225AM acts like a mentor, guiding them through the process, organizing them, prompting them to take the actions they need to, and helping them connect to a network of referrals they didn’t even realize they had. If the student doesn’t know what they want to do when they graduate, the software helps them narrow it down. The placement offices at the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers, the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford have all signed up to do beta tests with their students.

The other presenters had equally interesting businesses filling an incredible variety of needs:
·        Cynthia SchamesAbbeyPost
·        Raphael Crawford-Marksbonus.ly
·        Benjamin Bergsma - SeatAdvance
·        Jim Medalia – 225AM.com
·        Adam Stein-Sapir – LiveAce
·        Graham Clarke – Insight Replay
·        Pam Cooper – Boosterville
·        Kaiyi Chu – Votopin

I left feeling really excited about all the incredible energy that is going into the creation of new businesses in the New York Metro area. As a bonus, I got to see the angels and the tree at Rockefeller Center on my walk to Grand Central from Microsoft’s offices on 6th Avenue. This made for a perfect ending to the evening.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Entrepreneurs, Women and Industry

When is a handmade good no longer considered handmade? Elizabeth Wayland Barber took up that question in her recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, "Etsy's Industrial Revolution." As I read her essay, I realized that she was bringing up topics much broader than the definition of handmade goods. She was also addressing the issue of women starting and running businesses.

Etsy, the site where artisans can sell their hand-crafted goods, has loosened its rules on the definition of handmade. Too many of its participants are finding it impossible to keep up with the demand for their goods, so they agitated to be allowed to start manufacturing their handcrafts. This change is running afoul of the Etsy ethos in some people's minds. Where do you draw the line?

Barber then draws upon history to make a point, women have been turning to machinery -- and inventing their own machines -- to allow themselves to create handcrafts to sell in order to feed and clothe their families. The drop spindle and the loom are both machines used for millennia all over the world to spin thread and make cloth. Would these machines be blocked by Etsy?

But this got me thinking of how hard women in all countries and in all economic levels find ways to start businesses to give themselves more control over their lives. The glory right now is going to tech startups. And Silicon Valley is being chastised for the lack of women-owned tech startups and women-owned venture-capital-backed businesses. Why are people so worried about women getting venture capital? 75% of venture-capital-backed startups fail.

The the small, manageable, low-tech businesses -- like making and selling handcrafts -- are more successful. These startups grow. And many of them are women-owned. Women are the unsung heroes of entrepreneurship. They are creative. They form businesses that create jobs and inject money into the economy. They manage their families and their businesses. Does it matter that they don't create million-dollar or billion-dollar companies?

We need to get away from lauding the male-dominated tech startups and start looking around at the entrepreneurial vigor in our own communities, particularly the women-owned startups.

Here are some choice quotes about women-owned businesses from the National Business Women's Council:

"Even as the nation’s economic growth slowed, employment in women-owned firms continued to expand while men-owned firms were contracting.1 Furthermore, projections indicate that the trend in employment growth among women-owned firms will continue. The Guardian Small Business Research Institute projects that women-owned businesses will create 5 to 5.5 million new jobs by 2018 – more than half the 9.7 million new small business jobs expected to be created and about one-third of the 15.3 million total new jobs anticipated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics by 2018.2

"Women-owned businesses already are serious players in this nation’s economy. An economic impact study conducted by the Center for Women’s Business Research and the National Women’s Business Council documented that majority women-owned firms today are driving more than 23 million jobs – both directly and indirectly."

Let's understand what's really happening out there. Women: stand up and be counted for your contributions to the economy.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Funding the "Affordable" Care Act (aka Obamacare)

When Obama was elected president, he said he wanted to spread the wealth around. The Affordable Care Act, which some people are calling the "Unaffordable Care Act," is making good on Obama's goal.

I heard the best explanation of how the redistribution of wealth is taking place on NPR in their broadcast on November 7, 2013. The title of the piece was "How the Affordable Care Act Pays for Insurance Subsidies."
People who have had very expensive health insurance or no insurance, but relatively low incomes, can now get affordable health insurance plans because the government is subsidizing the plans. The subsidies are paid for in part from a higher Medicare tax on high-income earners ($250,000+ in annual income). That's a clear redistribution of income. Funding for the system also comes from lower Medicare payments to providers and taxes on medical-device and drug companies.

Read or listen to the whole NPR piece. Everything fell into place for me when I heard it.


Unfortunately, there are a lot of unintended (but easily foreseen) consequences from Obamacare -- consequences that Obama has actually apologized for. (Hear interview with Obama on NPR.) Individuals, sole proprietors and small business owners are getting slammed with much higher insurance premiums. Virtually every small business owner I know has had their current health insurance plan cancelled. And they can only find new plans that have 40% to 100% higher premiums, and in many cases lower benefits and higher deductibles and co-pays. Small and new businesses are the engines of economic growth and job creation in this country. These new, more expensive policies are surely going to hurt that engine.

We were supposed to be able to keep the plans we had, if we liked them. Will this problem get solved? Who knows? Obama claims he'll try to get this fixed along with the glitch-filled software running the Federal exchanges.

If I were in charge, I'd expand Medicare to cover everyone. The system is already set up. Businesses would no longer have to pay for health insurance. They'd improve their bottom lines. They would be able to hire more workers and pay them more. Yes, we would have to cover the cost with new taxes. But the benefits would be enormous. And with everyone enrolled, I suspect the taxes would not be as high as the premiums we now pay. People could always buy supplemental plans, just as they do with Medicare. We are the only industrialized nation without universal health coverage. Time to catch up with the rest of the world and stop trying to jury-rig a system that is not working the way it was intended.


    


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Give and Take" - a Review

There are far too many useful business and nonfiction books are the market for any one person to read. But Give and Take - A Revolutionary Approach to Success by Adam Grant (Viking) is one I believe is well worth the time. Grant has looked at empirical evidence from many sources and discovered a novel idea: Givers can become wildly successful.

Unlike some books about success, this one is not full of hyperbole. And unlike some business books by professors -- Grant is a management professor at Wharton,-- this one does not drone on. In fact, Grant builds his case in an intriguing way, drawing the reader in with stories, surprising the reader with unusual outcomes, then explaining the paradoxical theory and supporting it with academic research. I wanted to keep reading to find out how Grant would turn each story on its head.

Give and Take really opened my eyes and got me looking at situations from a new perspective. The more I read the book, the more I recognized types of people I know and started to appreciate the Givers in my life even more. I also saw more opportunities to be helpful to others at random times. Now, I'm inspired to figure out how to start a Reciprocity Ring at my church. (Read the book to find out what a Reciprocity Ring is.)

The author does not just dwell on business and management. He uses examples from sports, education, grassroots dot-coms like Freecycle and Craigslist, finance, health care, and nonprofits, and he introduces several really fascinating concepts:

1. There are three types of people: Takers, Matchers, and Givers. Within those groups are subgroups. The Givers can wind up on the bottom, never getting ahead, or they can succeed so much that they wind up at the top.
2.  Givers who get ahead build loyalty and high-quality teams. Takers can be so self-centered that they drive support away.
3. Givers can help others to realize their full potential.
4. Givers who succeed use time wisely and do ask for help occasionally. Grant calls this being Otherish.
5. Givers who fail don't use their giving time wisely and never ask for help for themselves.
5. There's a myth about Giver burnout.
6. Takers can be generous.

But wait, there's more! Give and Take is worth reading simply to discover how Grant came to all these conclusions and to figure out how you can be more of a giver.

Full disclosure, I read this book for many selfish reasons:
1. I went to Wharton, and Grant teaches at Wharton (a little alumna loyalty).
2. I'm co-writing a business book and want to read other business books to see what will hold my interest and how principles can evolve out of anecdote. I wanted to analyze what made me like(or not like) the writing. (I really liked Grant's writing. Why?)
3.  I am on a nonprofit board for At Home in Darien, a nonprofit that helps seniors staying their homes. But seniors don't call us for help, transportation or handyman services. Why? They're all Givers. How can we get them to be Takers? (Adam Grant, if you read this review, please take on this question for further research.)
4. I've been on the pledge and the finance committees at my church, and I have often wondered why some people in the congregation give generously, while other don't. What's going on in their minds? How could we change the non-givers into Givers? I was searching for an answer. 

Not all of my questions were answered. But I came away from Give and Take with enlightenment and inspiration. The book was a complete pleasure to read, even on beautiful summer afternoons.


Friday, July 26, 2013

Entrepreneurs Come in All Ages

When people typically think of entrepreneurs, they think of 20-somethings starting a tech company. But that stereotype is not quite right. Entrepreneurs come in all ages and start businesses in all industries.

A new study sponsored by Babson and Baruch Colleges and the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) Consortium shows that 42.7% of people over 65 work for themselves. Over 25% of Americans over 55 own their own businesses. Compare that with 30.5% of 18 to 24-year-olds who have "entrepreneurial intention."

I'm co-writing a book on entrepreneurship right now with a highly successful entrepreneur who started his business when he was in his 30s. So I was quite excited to see these stats. You do have more at stake when starting a businesses at a more mature age, but you also have years of solid business experience on which you can base your venture.

No matter your age or business background, if you have the entrepreneurial spirit in you, listen to it. When our book is closer to publication, I'll start posting some of the principles from our book that can help you achieve success in your new venture.

You can read more about the study in question at: http://www.gemconsortium.org/docs/2804/gem-usa-2012-report.