Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Invent yourself and then re-invent yourself

"Invent, Invent, Invent," was the headline on a Tom Friedman column I pulled up from the Sunday New York Times that I hope you can pull up from here, too.

Friedman is the author of "The World Is Flat," a revised version of which I could never finish, because, as I told the friend who recommended the book to me, the prose is about as flat as the world described in the 600-page volume.

But Friedman gained a reputation from that book and others as well as from the op-ed column he has written for years for the Times. He has made himself into an expert on world development, and the position the United States holds in that competition.

The column Sunday was about just that: Friedman reported he had been in St. Petersburg, Russia, realizing that the again-increasing price of oil was reducing pressure on Russian bureaucrats to press their economy into innovations that will stimulate production in industry outside of the nation's wealth of oil and natural gas.

He made the point that the U.S. should not allow itself the same luxury by virtue of its production of stimulus money by the government in order to stabilize a foundering financial industry. Bailout is what he was talking about. "We might be able to stimulate our way back to stability," Friedman wrote, "but we can only invent our way back to prosperity."

Thus the headline, "Invent, Invent, Invent." It's an old saw for Friedman. He's been harping on that mantra from at least the publication of his first edition of "The World Is Flat" in 2005. Since it has been such a successful and timely chant, there is no reason to give up on it now.

Last night, Keith Dubay and I were discussing the necessity of journalists to re-invent themselves now that our industry has collapsed around us. I'm trying to do that on this blog, as well as on my poetry website, http://www.robertschwabpoet.com/, and through writing about literature for http://www.examiner.com/. Keith is trying to create a business he calls Blue Coast Media Group, which advises business clients on how to write and be published in new media.

Invent, invent, invent! is a mantra that rings true to both of us.

John Beldock is another friend who is trying to invent something new, and he's been at it for almost 10 years now. Beldock has created EcoBroker, a certification of real-estate agents as "green" experts, masters of buying, selling, retrofitting old homes and designing new homes to be sustainable in a world climate that is changing fast.

Beldock's organization is one that would make Friedman proud. Perhaps even more importantly, it is a growing group as is the business niche where it has pioneered. Change is what happens everyday, and Beldock is trying to turn around the unhealthy change that now seems to entrap our planet.

All small business must "invent, invent, invent." That's the nature of a true entrepreneur.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Max Appel mourns Billy Mays

Colorado entrepreneurs should mourn Billy Mays as the rest of the world has mourned Michael Jackson.

Mays' infomercials powered one of the state's most successful entrepreneurs, Max Appel, maker of Orange Glo and OxiClean, to fortune and fame for his whole family. (Photo credit: www.myz99.com)

The Appels sold Orange Glo International to Dwight & Church Co. Inc., owner of the Arm & Hammer brand, three years ago, Max Appel said Monday.

"We're going to miss him," Max, who is 77 now, said of Billy Mays, who boosted Orange Glo's sales in the late '90s from $2 million a year to $12 million.

Here's what a company description on http://www.fundinguniverse.com/ says of the pair's relationship:

"While Orange Glo worked with talented producers, much credit for the success of the infomercials went to pitchman Billy Mays. Appel and Mays met at a Pittsburgh home show and became friends as their paths crossed at other shows. Mays brought sales experience, including hawking Washomatiks on Atlantic City's boardwalk, to the infomercials. Trained by veteran salesmen along the boardwalk, Mays brought a high-energy, hard-sell style to the two-minute and 30-minute infomercials. Eventually, Mays wrote scripts and produced Orange Glo infomercials as well. Orange Glo spent $400,000 per week on response television advertising, which generated 15,000 orders per week."

Max Appel remembered Mays trying out lines on him at breakfast or dinner in Florida where the two often met regularly to produce new Orange Glo infomercials. "He was always using new phrases," Appel said, as he was preparing a press release himself memorializing Mays.

Appel already has a new product he's again selling with infomercials. This one, which by terms of the sale had to be a non-compete item until August of this year , is call the Aaah, produced by Appel's new Aaah Co. It's a wet, toilet-paper wipe, which I told him only half seriously I would be interested in seeing demonstrated on TV.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Abound Solar abundant with opportunity

For a young guy, only a seven-month marketing director at a new Colorado company that is manufacturing solar panels to power the nation, Mark Chen knows his stuff.

Chen on Friday led a half dozen reporters and a half dozen others on a press tour of Abound Solar's new manufacturing plant along Interstate 25 in Longmont (you can see it from the highway), and rattled off the company's story as if he were trained in its solar engineering.

"We are a manufacturer of solar modules," Chen said. "This is our product." Then, leaning toward a framed, dark piece of glass (upper right) the size of a small, flat-screen HDTV standing on end, Chen added: "These are thin-film, photo-voltaic modules. We apply a thin film of semi-conductor, microns thick, of a chemical component, to two sheets of glass.... You put them out into the sunshine and they will generate electricity."

From there, Chen went on to explain a litany of things about his product: How much electricity can be produced per panel; how much each panel costs at retail ($140); how Abound plans to sell 100-kilowatt installations of the panels primarily to commerical customers who would most likely put them on the roofs of commercial buildings; how Abound warrantees each panel for 25 years and guarantees to recycle them when they break or wear out; how Abound's new production facility, when its built out, will produce enough panels to produce 200 megawatts of power each year, or the equivalent power to supply 70,000 homes for a year; how Abound already employs about 200 people companywide, and when the plant is built out, will bump that workforce up to about 400; how the company was incorporated in January 2007 but was really founded on 15 years of research done in the labs at Colorado State University; how the company has so far secured $150 million in financing and still has enough of it left to finish out the plant and ramp up sales and distribution; and how Abound's primary ingredient is cadmium telluride, a refined mixture of cadmium and tellurium, which are both found in enough abundance as a byproduct of mining that supply lines are relatively assured even as prices rise.
Chen did not, however, say anything about how cadmium is increasingly being removed from consumer products for health reasons, nor how its disposal also presents a problem to environmentalists. The recyclability of Abound's products presumably addresses that problem.

Chen knows his stuff.

His company has a future, and that future is here in Colorado. If you read deeper into this topic, its process, and its engineering, you might realize there are a lot of money-making opportunities involved. They all come with a "clean energy economy." Be careful, but good hunting.
(Photo credit: www.examiner.com)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Invisible, old racism

The print version of the old newspaper, the one that gets delivered to my doorstep, had a new subject for me to blog about today, headlined right there, top right, front-page: "Educators to file U.S complaint about DPS."

The story was about an allegation of race discrimination being practiced against African-American teachers in Denver Public Schools.

Larry Borum, according to Denver Post writer Claire Trageser, accused DPS of "plain old discrimination based on race," and I bet Claire Trageser lost many of her readers at that very point in her story, the moment when readers finished reading that exact quote.

Why? Institutional racism.

Herman Malone, an African-American businessman from Denver who co-authored (with me) his book, "Lynched by Corporate America," was this region's forerunner in spotting -- and suffering -- institutional racism, the systemic racism of the sort Borum is complaining of in DPS schools.

Malone suffered it in the business world, through business contracting. Borum is complaining that teachers -- who make a business of their profession -- suffer discrimination at the hands of their employer, DPS.

Borum is chairman of the Denver school district's own Black Education Advisory Council, which counsels DPS board members on issues related to the school district's relations with black students, teachers and parent consumers of the DPS product: education. His criticism of the district, therefore, cannot be taken lightly.

Ironically, Trageser wound up quoting former Denver city councilwoman Happy Haynes, herself African-American, in defense of the district. Haynes admitted DPS recognizes a problem of declining numbers of African-American teachers at DPS, but she said those lower numbers in themselves are not indicators of actual discrimination.

Her response was typical, stereotypical, of an institution's response to an allegation of institutional racism.

Systemic racism often is invisible to those working within the criticized system.

Perhaps it's only visible to those who are its victims.

"Lynched by Corporate America" is a lesson in systemic, institutional racism; in its case, racism existed and yet was denied at U.S. West Communications, the predecessor of now Qwest, our area's largest communications provider.

Qwest, although it settled with six of Herman Malone's co-plantiffs in a federal lawsuit, defeated Malone in his shared discrimination claim before a federal-court jury, and left him hanging to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees for pressing the case.

Not many readers recognize all that as institutional, systemic racism; the book, after all, hasn't sold very many copies.

But Boron's raising the issue of systemic racism in a school district in our region is another indicator that the racism exists here, even if many people do not recognize it. And Boron's Black Education Advisory Council complaint shows more blacks are aware of institutional racism in the age of Obama even if their institutions cannot admit to it.

Speaking of invisible things, though: Old editor that I am, I noticed the missing period after the letter "S" in the Post's front-page headline. I only mention it here because I noticed it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

News you can use tomorrow

If you want to peak into the future of newspapers and the newspaper business, check out an article in Monday's Denver Post about a MediaNews project called I-News.

Colleen O'Connor seems at first to be writing a "must-report" story on the front page of the Business section for her employer, the Post and MediaNews Group, Dean Singleton's newspaper publishing company that owns the Post and many other newspapers, shoppers and weeklies across the nation.

But the project is indeed news.

MediaNews is testing a new method of delivering news to consumers at home and in hotels that truly gives a glimpse of what newsgathering is moving toward. It won't be for free, as your own gathering can do now across many websites on the Internet, but it will be a product of your own choosing, delivered to the screen of your choice as well: cell phone, fax, mobile device, Internet reader (Kindle), desktop or laptop computer, or your hotel door as a batch of loose papers collected for you by the desk and dumped there, like a newspaper, after you have "subscribed" at the hotel's expense to the news you want delivered.

Maybe Dean can be forgiven for selling off the bottom of his Sunday front page of the Post to Target if the ad revenue the sales produce buys him a jump start on the newspaper of the future. Newspapers have to reach that future faster than they have ever been forced to before.

Traditionally, the future has not been a newspaper's familiar territory, and certainly not a profitable one. But MediaNews may have linked to a little corner of the next 100 years of publishing. Their experiment will be fun to watch.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Entrepreneur's workshop

Pat Wiesner, the owner of Wiesner Publishing at the time I joined the company as editor of ColoradoBiz in 2000, held a nearly six-hour seminar on how to start a business on Thursday. I sat in not as an editor or reporter but as a student of a master entrepreneur.

It seemed like a lot less than six hours, yet I learned much I had not picked up peripherally during eleven years of covering small business for The Denver Post and ColoradoBiz. I learned at my own pace, encouraged, yet made aware of the hard edges business flashes at the people who try to accomplish the hard work of being their own boss.

I have been to several such seminars before. Mostly they have been discouraging. One, the most recent for me, practically talked me out of trying to go into business for myself in a quick 90 minutes. Others have tended to take an SBA-inspired technocrat approach that you could hear reflected back in some of the responses of participants in Wiesner's session.

But Pat admitted up front he had never done one before. He said we - 12 of 15 people who said they would come to the free event - were "part of an experiment."

He would weigh how we responded to what he's learned about starting businesses and starting magazines, and change any future seminars he did based on what worked for us and what didn't.

We could take his advice for whatever we thought it was worth; the results we made for ourselves from his shared thoughts would self-indicate to each of us whether our "passion" for creating a business was strong enough to secure its success.

Passion was one of the qualities Pat said was necessary to go into business for yourself. He said an entrepreneur had to be "hopelessly committed" to the idea of his or her business, and ready to "submerse" themselves in a current that would sweep them away to destinations in their lives they would never, ever be able to predict.

Then he taught us how to prepare a profit-and-loss statement, how to plan cash flow, why marketing information - Who are your customers? How do you reach them? - was important to selling your business concept to a "Mr. Big" and why it was important to seek the money it takes to give your business a fair start.

Two "Big Ideas" to absorb and enact while you also are sweating the small stuff:
  • "When your are out of cash, you are out of buisness."
  • "Cash is totally different from profit."

Wiesner said don't even pretend you are ready to ask an investor for money unless you have the answers in your head and sometimes on paper to all the questions you need to answer for yourself about how you plan to operate your business.

"How deep will the financial hole you are digging for yourself get before your business goes positive?" "Will the business make a profit?" "When?" "How do you plan to repay your investors?" "What will you give them in return for your use of their money?"

But having answered all the questions, Wiesner says, don't be afraid to ask for the money.

That's the kind of advice Wiesner offered in his first-ever seminar on how you can start a business. He's planning to have more. Read the magazine or its website to find out when your next opportunity will be to listen and learn.