Archive for the 'Home Business' Category

The Yule Blog

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

Merry Christmas,

As you saw on the postcard, we did a lot of downsizing in 2011 – even our Christmas greetings downsized to a postcard – so I appreciate you taking the time to find the website to read our annual family recap.

After living on Paula Lane for 17 years, it became apparent to us that the house had become too much for us. It had too many bedrooms now that Ethan and Valerie weren’t living at home, too much yard work and way too much mortgage. We are grateful that we didn’t have to give up our first born to Wells Fargo in order to get out from under it, so after about a six month process, we moved in early November to a cozy condominium in a quiet complex called The Cottages in Cotati.

It’s more of a drive to get Jennifer Lynn to her full-on schedule of high school activities but one of the best things that has come from moving up the road is that Steve has had the opportunity to share office space with a long-time business associate in a nearby community. After working alone in a home office for the past eight years, more contact with the outside world and a bigger separation between home and office feels really good to him.

On a beautiful day in May, it was a thrill for us to watch Ethan and 5,000 of his closest friends graduate from San Francisco State. It was definitely an opportunity for me to be in the moment and set aside my worries about the job market, his compounding student loans and the $56 in his checking account. However, I needn’t have stressed, because he did get a job at a small video production company located in the nice part of Oakland. He’s working the phones to bring in projects so he can build his film industry credentials on IMDB – that’s the internet encyclopedia of movie data. He really likes the sound of Ethan Rustad, Associate Producer.

Valerie’s second year at Chapman University in Orange, CA, has been a lot sunnier than her first. We know she’s doing fine because unlike the frequent teary phone calls during her freshman year, we never hear from her. She’s too busy perfecting her graphic design projects, working part-time at a law firm in Santa Ana, taking acrobatic classes and watching “Friends” reruns on Netflix with her roommate.

Jennifer Lynn was the only one of the three kids who actually had to experience the move with us…Ethan and Valerie just got a text message from us with our new address so they could find their way here for Thanksgiving. Jennifer’s only requirement for our new home was that she didn’t have to share a bathroom with mom and dad and since our new place has two-and-a-half baths, we exceeded her expectations.

As a sophomore this year, Jennifer Lynn is combining two activities that surprisingly have something in common: cheerleading and playing the tuba. That’s because that both require heavy lifting. Wow, that girl’s getting some shoulders on her.

I have been very fortunate to continue my position at the Petaluma Visitors Center and Downtown Association in spite of the dwindling reserves in the city’s coffers. And Steve’s versatility as a marketer, designer, consultant, cartoonist, filmmaker, and pretty much anything else anyone will pay him for, has seen us through the tough economy.

We are looking forward to hanging some pictures in our new place, letting out the collective breath we’ve been holding for the last year, and seeing what opportunities the New Year has in store.

We wish you peace, happiness and prosperity in the New Year!

Home Free

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

Working in a home-based business, especially as a mom, has a lot of advantages. Top of the list has to be the flexibility; I can throw a load of wash in or run to the grocery store whenever it is convenient for me. And since almost all of the client contact for our marketing business is done over the phone rather than in-person, the only non-family members who have to witness a bad hair day or wrinkled khakis are the bank teller or post office clerk. And at the end of the day, I know that there isn’t anything I could do ““ in a business sense ““ and that Steve wouldn’t still love me.

But there is also a downside to a working from home. If the business doesn’t constantly demand face-to-face interaction, it’s very easy to hole-up in the house and lose out the energy that comes from connecting and working with people who you haven’t been married to for 25 years.

Although I definitely didn’t see it this way at first, the recession has given me an opportunity; the need to bring in some supplemental income means that I have to break out of the comfort zone of working only in our family business and venture out in the job market again.

But the thought of confronting the 15 year gap in my resume was a little overwhelming, so I decided that I would wait to update it. However something that I could do right away which didn’t require any preparation was to start talking to people. So Steve helped me come up with a list of business contacts, friends and acquaintances who might be willing to chat with me, even if I wasn’t really sure what kind of position I was looking for.

And what I’ve discovered is that I have been missing out on a lot that’s going on in the world by staying comfortably sequestered in my routine. In the past three weeks, I have probably met and talked with more people than I have in the past three years ““ and it has been very rejuvenating. Just having people take time to meet with me has given me a lot of encouragement. Plus, I’ve gotten some excellent practical advice.

And stepping out of the front door yielded sooner than expected results. I am thrilled to have picked up a short-term, part-time gig with a client we have worked with at various times over the past six years. Working outside the house will certainly stretch me and our family, but Steve says he’s committed to learning how to use the microwave and all the kids really want is to see me less stressed about money.

I feel like I’m embarking on a new chapter in my life. I love the challenge of working with new people and doing something different. It was definitely time for me to leave home.

Survey Says…

Monday, October 13th, 2008

Like owners in a lot of small businesses, I wear many different hats; sometimes I’m the account manager, at other times I’m the bookkeeper, editor, or when the trash cans are full and the cat hair is swirling on the desks, I’m the janitorial staff.

Most recently, I became the research department; a company hired us to survey about twenty different industries nationwide to determine if there was room in the marketplace for their product. They manufacture a material that is used in a variety of industrial applications.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve called about 150 different companies. Whenever I make a call, I tell them who I am and explain that I am conducting research about a certain type of product, and ask if there is someone who could spare about five minutes to answer six very brief survey questions.

Before I started making the calls, my expectation was that if I got through the phone tree to an actual person, that they would direct me to someone in the company who could answer the questions, I would record the answers and move on to the next company on the list. After all, I’m calling businesses and not a home phone number at dinner time to tell them that their name has been selected for an exciting all expenses paid weekend at a time-share in Lake Havasu.

For the majority of the companies I have called, I end up trying to blaze a trail through the phone tree jungle in the hope that I’ll land in a department or with a person who might be able to connect me with someone who understands my inquiry. Many businesses ““ including the one in Texas that was in the process of evacuating for Hurricane Ike ““ have been quite helpful or at least business-like in saying that no one could take my call but that I could leave a voice mail. And when I actually connect with someone”¦which happens about 30% of the time”¦who takes a moment to answer the first survey question so I can determine if the other questions even apply to them, I feel like I’ve scored.

However, when I look back on the notes next to each company on the calling list, there are about 10% for which my notes read, “Drop dead!” These are the companies that immediately assumed that I was selling something that they didn’t want and turned defensive in spite of my explanation that I was only conducting research. It’s always a little jolting to be told to go away.

When I talked this over with Steve, he was actually surprised that the percentage of businesses with the sad face next to their name wasn’t larger. You can pretty much expect 10% of any group of people to be jerks. If you’ve ever been in the parking lot at Whole Foods at 5pm on a Sunday then you know that’s true.

However, the range of responses I have gotten has led me to think a lot about the personality of businesses. We know everyone is busy with way too much to do and that taking my call is an interruption. So why do some companies respond to my request courteously and others react so negatively? Why do some have an attitude of openness while others slam the door shut?

Aren’t businesses in business to answer the phone? They exist to take calls from current clients, potential customers, and even people just making inquiries about the types of services they offer. It would seem to me that even taking a call from someone doing research (like me) would be a smart thing to do. If I am calling with questions, I’m interested in what they do and how they do it. And isn’t it possible that this information that I’m gathering would be used to develop a product or service that has the potential of making their business more efficient, more profitable, or better able to serve its customers?

Given the difficulty of making money these days, it’s still surprising to me that 100% of businesses aren’t working hard to connect with anyone who calls.

Thankful Thought #2

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

Our business year end is coming up at the end of June and that means sending off a bunch of reports and statements to our accountant. I can find my way around QuickBooks for invoices and day to day entries, but when it comes to pulling together the data into a way that means something to a CPA, I’m out of my element. I start stressing that it is going to be a difficult process.

So when our bookkeeper came this afternoon and in a matter of a half an hour imported the numbers from QuickBooks into neat looking Excel spread sheets and had the information on its way to the accountant, I felt like I was watching a chef whip up a soufflé that she had made a thousand times. She made it look so easy. It was such a relief to be reminded that I don’t have to know how to do everything. Thank goodness for a pro who’s there to help me; it really lightens my load.

The Summer of My Discontent

Sunday, June 10th, 2007

Yesterday, my ten year old daughter, Jennifer, asked me a question that surprised me”¦and no, it wasn’t about sex. School had just let out the day before, and what she wanted to know was if we could go to a movie on Monday.

“Doesn’t she realize that although I don’t leave the house to go to an office that I am a working mom nonetheless? I have a job to do! How did she get the impression that I can just take off and go to a movie on a workday?”

I really didn’t need to get defensive at her question. Her perspective just reflects my accessibility, which is one of the best benefits of working at home. Because our office is in what used to be our dining room, there’s never a time when I’m unavailable to any of the kids. That is unless I tell Jennifer to quit reporting on Nigel the cat’s antics and leave me alone for a half hour so I can finish my blog”¦

Back to Jennifer’s question: the truth is that because we have our own business, I could actually take her to a movie on any day. But I never would during the workweek. It’s taken a couple of years to get in this frame of mind, but now I feel a great deal of responsibility to our business. I know the only way it’s going to grow is if I’m a fully committed partner in it.

Which brings me to the challenge that summer holds: how to balance work, family, and the household? It’s not a problem when the school is in session because I have a chunk of time to devote to the business. But during the summer, I begin to feel guilty if Jennifer has spent a beautifully sunny day perfecting her fine motor skills on her Nintendo DS or asking the rhetorical question, “˜What DVD should I put in now?”

And the kids have their own agendas for the summer, most of which require my involvement like moving furniture in their rooms or chauffering them and their friends to the swimming pool.

Plus, my personal goal for the summer is to rid the garage of client files from defunct companies and deflated footballs and go on a Swiffer binge”¦the cats are starting to sneeze from the cobwebs in their whiskers.

Maybe I can get creative and kill a couple of birds with one stone ““ so to speak. Instead of sending them off to expensive camps why not devise my own?

I’m thinking of “CSI Petaluma.” While I’m working, my kids get to spend two weeks dusting all the blinds in the house for fingerprints. Or maybe “Kitchen Archeology. In this hands-on workshop, they’ll dig through cupboards for fossilized Macaroni and Cheese.” And last but not least, I’ll sign them up for “Exploring Entomology. The Web comes to life as young scientists encounter the amazing world living beneath the workbench in the garage. Material fee includes broom, dustpan, and rubber gloves.”

The Check is in the FedEx

Sunday, May 13th, 2007

There’s an envelope with our return address on it lost in the bowels of a 37-story office building in San Francisco. I’m almost positive that it has slipped into a crevice or is sitting overlooked in the bottom of a locker in the huge mail room that serves this building. I mailed this particular envelope a week ago to our client’s office 40 miles away and it still hasn’t arrived on their desk 19 floors up.

More than once, I’ve had the thought that if I could go there, I could use my mom intuition and root it out like a bomb sniffing dog. After all, I’ve been finding misplaced stuff like library books, articles of clothing, and keys for years.

But unlike when my daughter loses a sweatshirt ““ in which case we go over to the school, rummage through the lost and found, retrace her steps, and we don’t leave until it’s found, there is no way I can track down the whereabouts of this envelope. Why? Because that slot at the post office”¦it’s a black hole.

Sure, the client said that they weren’t in a hurry to get the CDs of photos returned to them so just send them by regular mail. “OK, fine, I’ll just make a stop at the post office while I’m doing my afternoon rounds of school pickups.” But that little voice said, “Think about what you’re sending.” Even when I was working 20 years ago, anything that was really important was sent by courier or Federal Express, as it was called back in the pre-Internet, dark ages of communication.

Still, I didn’t think about how I would feel when they called to say, “We never received those photos back from you,” Gulp. “I mailed them a week ago and I don’t have any way of tracking the package.” That sinking feeling is the price I’m paying for not trusting my own intuition. I now vow never to send anything more than paper that comes out of our ink jet printer by ir-regular mail.

Two days after my “why did I trust the post office” experience, I had a demonstration of why FedEx will henceforth have my undying loyalty. We had instructed a vendor to ship DVDs by FedEx Priority Overnight service which means delivery by 10:30 the next morning. Their shipping department didn’t read the instructions closely and shipped them by Overnight service for delivery by 3:00 pm.

When our client called us at 10:35 asking where the DVDs were, I called FedEx and in 15 minutes I had a call back from them telling me they had notified the driver of our situation and requesting delivery ASAP. I imagined a FedEx truck driving down Market Street when he gets an urgent call from the FedEx hub, “Marketing company in Petaluma needs you to save their ass. Make an immediate u-turn and head to California Street.”

Our client got the DVDs by 11:15. That FedEx driver is my hero.

Although the resting place of the envelope full of the client’s CDs is still a mystery, in the end, we were able to make our client a copy of all the photos we had used. And thankfully, the client was happy with that solution. And getting it to them? The only question is, “Do you want that to go Priority Overnight, Overnight or Ground?”

Apples to Websites

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

We met with a potential client to discuss upgrading their website. After sending the CFO a proposal with estimated costs, we didn’t hear back from her for a couple of weeks, so I emailed her to follow up.

She responded that our proposal was much too high for them. Steve, who has been doing this a lot longer than me, has developed a sixth sense about whether there is any real possibility of doing work with a new business prospect. And he was certainly right in this instance; when we left our one and only meeting with them, he whispered to me, “I see dead proposals.”

But even if his instincts were telling him that working with this company was a long shot that doesn’t mean that we don’t give every opportunity our best shot. So when she said our proposal was too expensive, I responded that if she could tell me what they were prepared to spend, we could scale back the project to meet their budget.

She replied that she had gotten a quote for a website for $399 plus $100 for maintenance and e-commerce. That was about 95% less than our estimated cost.

I was stunned. Not because I was surprised that there is a service out there that will do a website for less than $500  ““ I know about that,  I’ve seen it advertised in the Costco members magazine ““ what shocked me was that she would get a quote so wildly different than ours and think that she was comparing apples to apples. It seems pretty naïve of her to assume that what takes us 100 hours of work can be done by another company in 5 hours. Why wouldn’t she ask for an explanation about the difference in services between us and the other company? The phrase “too good to be true” comes to mind.

Or perhaps she thought our actual cost for doing a website is also $500 but we saw them as an easy mark for making a huge profit.  Wouldn’t she at least want to hear how we justified it? I know I would.

But the only thing that was important to her was the price; not the opportunity to communicate a message of quality and professionalism to the whole wide world of potential customers through the Internet. Apparently, a bare-bones, cookie-cutter website is fine with them.

At that point, Steve told me to take a deep breath and calm down. “There’s not much to do except send a reply back to wish her well and offer that if we can be of any service in the future, don’t hesitate to call.” I left off the part where I was tempted to add, “If you have more than a dollar to spend”¦”

I’m sure they believe that if their company has survived for years with a website that even they think “sucks,” then whatever $500 buys will be an improvement. And who am I to argue with that? At the very least, it will have a better color scheme.

Steve has been through the “meet, prepare a proposal, follow-up, and if they don’t understand the value of what we have to offer, move on” cycle hundreds of times, but I have trouble letting go when we have an encounter that just doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe another 99 more of these and I’ll get over it a little quicker.

Take a Number

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

About a month ago, a client called up with a DVD project that they needed done in a red-hot hurry. We had a flurry of phone calls with them, then we prepared an estimate with the expectation that they would be sending us the materials so we could immediately get started.

About a week passed and we didn’t hear from them. We called to see if the DVD concept had been scaled back to printing 3″ x 5″ clip-art postcards on their inkjet printer once they saw what a project like this actually cost to produce. And we were just plain curious if the project was still alive in any form. They assured us that it was. They were still getting the photos and music together and would have them to us soon.

Two more weeks passes and we don’t hear anything from them. We don’t think too much about it because, thankfully, there’s more than enough other work to keep us busy. But on Friday afternoon, when we get back to the office from a meeting, there’s two voice mail messages waiting for us, asking if we got the Fed Ex package.

I react like my leash had been yanked ““ I think we should call them back immediately. However, once Steve and I talk about it, he reminds me that I don’t need to get caught up in their panic. Steve’s going to be out the rest of the day so he suggests that I call them back later that afternoon to let them know we got the package and that we’ll talk in depth about it next week.

However, when I walk in the door, before I can even set my purse down, the office phone rings. Although I feel a little guilty, I think Caller ID was made for times like this; it’s them again. I don’t answer it. About 5 seconds later the home phone rings. Once again I let technology run interference for me and listen to the message left on the answering machine. “Hi, this is Bob, sorry to call you at home, but I just wanted to make sure you got the Fed Ex and see if you’ve had a chance to take a look at it.” Because we have a home office, if they want to track us down, it’s not hard because they literally know where we live. Much more of this, and I’m going to feel like we’re being stalked.

In the big picture of running a business, we’re not so busy that we turn away work so we’re glad the project is still happening. However, these people don’t know or care, nor should they, that a lot has happened in the two weeks since we last spoke. During that time, we have promised other clients that they would see some progress on their projects.

It’s a little cold to tell them to take a number and go to the back of the line. They are no different from any customer who is waiting to be served. It’s just that in our business, unlike the deli counter, our clients can’t see how many people are in front of them.

Steve gives me a little coaching before I call them back. “Explain why it will be a day or two before we can get to their project. But you don’t need to offer excuses; we’ve haven’t done anything wrong.”

When I call them back later that afternoon, I try to assure them that we’ll get started as soon as we can, but because of other commitments it won’t be until Tuesday. The client’s assistant pushes back, “Mmm”¦not until Tuesday”¦darn”¦how long do you think it will take Steve to do the work? I resist the urge to come back with, “We don’t hear from you for weeks and then you expect us to drop everything, ignore our other clients, and make your project the hottest priority?”

Actually, I know the answer to this question. It’s “yes.”

Take the Lead

Monday, April 9th, 2007

I remember my reaction when it became apparent that business development, or put in more practical terms, cold-calling, was going to be my responsibility because Steve was too busy doing the work to also do the outreach. It was something along the lines of “You must be joking!” But as I’ve written about in my other blogs, it’s a part of the job that I’ve actually begun to embrace.

So last week, Steve and I were standing outside the office of a company’s CFO, waiting for her to finish her phone call so we could begin our meeting. We were there to talk about redesigning their website ““ an opportunity that came from my cold-calling.

As we are standing there, Steve sizes up the situation. He’s thinking something along the lines of, “Colleen is the one who made the contact with this company, their website says it’s a woman-owned business, and the CFO we’re waiting to meet with is a woman, young enough to be our daughter. So with all this in mind, he turns to me and quietly says, “Why don’t you lead the meeting?”

I react to the question as if he had suggested that I run the meeting”¦in my underwear. “What? Are you crazy, I’m not ready to be in charge!” After all, he’s the one with 30 years of experience, not to mention that he’s really good at explaining the process to a potential client. And me? During meetings I’m happy interjecting a comment or two and taking notes, but I fear that if the focus is on me, I might be exposed as inexperienced.

Steve can tell that I’ve dug in my heels and he’s certainly not going to be able to convince me that I am most certainly capable of running a meeting in the minute or two we have before our prospective client gets off the phone.

Even as we introduce ourselves, it’s obvious that the woman we are meeting with is expecting me, not Steve, to take the lead. Steve spearheads the discussion but at almost every point, she looks to me for affirmation. Maybe I do remind her of her mother and if mom agrees it’s worth doing, then it’s important.

On the drive back to the office after the meeting, we talk about it. As stubborn as I am, even I can see that this particular situation would have been an ideal one for me to step out of my comfort zone and take on a new level of responsibility. Plus, this was a safe place to do it because Steve was there to back me up if I needed it. And the truth is that I have been paying attention during the four years that we have been working together and I do have experience to draw upon.

I vowed that the next time a similar opportunity arose, which happened to be the following day, I would not shrink from running the meeting. In this particular case, the woman and owner of the company related more to Steve than me, but I went into the meeting ready to be an equal partner with Steve.

The topic of what level of responsibility I am capable of handling, reminds me of a discussion Steve and I have had several times. He says that if for whatever reason he could not run the business, that I would be able to take it over. Sure, it might not be exactly the same business we have now, but he believes I could continue to keep our marketing business up and running.

“There’s no way I could do that!” But I do stop and think about it. And then I keep praying for his continued good health.

Call Waiting

Sunday, April 1st, 2007

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” But in my case I would expand on that phrase a bit: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned or ignored following a new business meeting.”

The story starts as I was making my way through my cold calling list and I got a call back from a voice mail message that I had left just minutes earlier. It was a high tech company and the VP of marketing was returning my call to say that he was interested in our services. Yippee for me, I hooked one! Sack dance time! Steve chatted with him on the phone, discussing a potential project that seemed to be an ideal match for our capabilities. He happened to have an opening the following morning so we made an appointment to meet with him the next day.

We met for about an hour and during the meeting, the VP frequently commented that “we really understood what he was looking for,” and he nodded his head in agreement to the points Steve was making. We finished the meeting all smiles and he took us on a tour of their facility, introduced us to some of his staff, and acknowledged that the timing of my phone call to him was fortuitous. We even chatted about our children of similar ages.

For an engineer, he seemed almost bubbly about the prospect of working together. I know that one good meeting doesn’t make someone your new best friend, but I certainly felt like we had made a connection. When we left, he said that he would be talking with the president of the company, and if we didn’t hear back from him, to give him a call in two to three weeks.

More than three weeks goes by and we don’t hear from him so I call and get his voice mail. I leave a message that I’m just checking in, and we’re still excited about the opportunity to work together, etc. I imagine what he’ll say when he calls back: “You’ve been on my mind constantly, I’ve just been very busy but I can’t get along without your services a moment longer so let’s schedule another meeting so we can immediately get started on the project.”

The reality is that I don’t hear back from him that hour, or day, or week. When I mention to Steve that I’m really bummed out because he didn’t return my call, he reminds me that we had a meeting not a date and I can stop checking my cell phone for missed calls.

Three more weeks pass and I call and leave another voice mail and again, he doesn’t call back. I’m thinking, “Why would a guy who seemed very polite not return my call?” In my mind, there’s only one legitimate reason: total incapacitation ““ in which case I want a note from his doctor. “Dear Steve and Colleen, please excuse Tom’s inability to return your calls. He has been hospitalized for the past six weeks without access to a phone. However, his prognosis looks good and he promises that you will be the first call he makes upon his discharge.” Nothing short of this will placate me.

Back to reality, I’ve already left two voice mails ““ how long should I wait before I leave another? When does following-up become stalking? I decide that driving to his office before dawn and waiting in the parking lot to ambush him when he arrives for work to ask him why he hasn’t returned my calls would probably fall into the latter category.

Steve, who has been in this business a couple of decades longer than I have, reminds me that I can’t get too invested in any one prospect. “After all,” he says, “haven’t we had more than a dozen equally good meetings with every bit as much potential for business?”

Yes, he’s right. If I slow down and set aside my indignation I know that you have to kiss a lot of toads to find a prince. And the truth is that since we haven’t talked with him since our initial meeting, this guy could in fact turn into a prince”¦he could just be a late bloomer. I should know better than anyone about taking a longer term view of things; some new business contacts I made more than two years ago are now bearing fruit.

And what if I leave him a couple more voice mails and we never hear back from him and that’s the end of it? Was that meeting a waste of time? When I think back to how I felt when he responded to my cold call, I remember that it totally re-energized me. That meeting was not a waste of time, it gave me the encouragement I needed to keep making calls, and getting meetings, and making more calls…