Thursday, October 29, 2009

Small-business developer: David Laverty

Last week, President Obama reminded banks who receive bailout funds that they should be lending to small businesses, because small businesses are among the taxpayers who helped bail them out.

Small firms, the president said in his weekly radio address, "must be at the forefront of our recovery."

Obama ought to recruit David Laverty to his cause.

Laverty is one of those entrepreneurs who believes the marketplace, no matter how distressed by slowdown or recession, still has room for him, and that his business-development skills can make a successful entrepreneur out of anyone with a good business idea.

Laverty is a business consultant. He advises prospective owners of small businesses on the basics of starting out: how to create a business plan that plots the way to bring a product to market; how to create a marketing plan that will sell the business; and how to design a website to help carry out a marketing plan.

He's learned over the last 24 months -- the months it has taken him to bring his own business to the stage where it can support him -- that a business consultant nowadays must also be ready to do the work required to back up his advice.

And so Laverty winds up writing much of the content for a new business's website, working with website-design specialists to produce a site worthy of his client-business's product or service, and actually writing the business plans and marketing plans the client has signed him up to devise.

That effectively is a redefinition of a business consultant. Often in the past, the consultant merely provided his or her expert advice to a new company, leaving the business owners to put the expert advice into play.

But the last 24 months haven't been easy for Laverty. He has been forced to use the tools he is urging on other small-business operators to create his own firm, which he calls Marketplace (the logo shown above).

Laverty says the economic downturn has had its impact on his own firm.

"Whenever there is kind of a national news story that casts doubt about the overall economy," he said, "I notice a tapering off in business-plan activity."

"I think the entrepreneurial dream is always there," he said. "It's just a lot harder to get money. It's almost impossible to get money through traditional lending unless you can back every red cent of it up with real-estate collateral."

Obama last week not only urged bailed-out banks to increase their lending to small businesses, but he announced a program to allow small, community banks to borrow TARP funds to lend to small-business customers, and he raised borrowing limits for U.S. Small Business Administration loans.

"Now it's time for our banks to stand by creditworthy small businesses and make the loans they need to open their doors, grow their operations and create new jobs," Obama said in his Saturday radio/Internet address Oct. 24.

Small businesses have often been cited as the nation's primary driver of job creation following an economic downturn. Downturns are also famous in Colorado for driving employees of down-sized companies into business for themselves.

Laverty hosts seminars for current and prospective business owners, gathering a mix of consultants together to share startup expertise with small audiences, almost creating one-on-one counseling. He earned his stripes for conducting such group sessions as a volunteer with the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce and as an employee of American Business Advisors, an established south Denver business consultancy.

Since then, he has taken on dozens of clients, many of whom are just starting out. Jess Tarin, for example, along with his partner Steve Niemczura, next week will officially launch, a website that matches service providers -- from home-repair contractors to lawyers -- with consumers who post projects for the vendors to make bids on.

Tarin said Laverty's help and advice was essential to the project. "He did good work for us," he said. The website firm is already registering vendors. Tarin said BidPuppy will go live signing up consumers' jobs on Wednesday.

For the first year Laverty worked on his own, he generated only about $30,000 in revenue and had to supplement his cost of living with other means, help from friends and family. In 2009, however, he is turning over about $70,000, which represents for him "a huge breakthrough. It means I'm viable," he said, "and paying my bills and paying my mortgage."

That's the way most entrepreneurs start out. With a dream and prayer. And often times, too, with a new product they can make or sell, or a service they are good at performing. But starting a business is much more complicated.

"The diversity of skills [required] to run your own business is huge," Laverty said. The entrepreneur's core strength is the making of their product or provision of their service, he says. "It's not a wise use of their time" to spend weeks and weeks on the minutia of business development. That's where the business consultant comes in.

Because of the Internet, Laverty works with both local and out-of-state clients. He recently wrote business plans for two separate customers in Kansas City, visiting each customer face-to-face over the past few weeks. He's also helping a Denver-area woman launch a dog-rehabilitation shelter, and he has written a business plan for presentation to an investor by another client who seeks funding to launch a smokeless, "nicotine-delivery" product.

And business has picked up with this fall, Laverty said. He still uses Craig's List and other free listing services to promote his firm, and recently took out an ad in Yellow Book -- marketing techniques he also advises clients to use.

That's what Marketplace is all about. Making a market and reaching a market for new businesses.

In his Saturday address, the president also repeated the assertion that small business has created nearly two-thirds of new jobs over the past 15 years. David Laverty's Marketplace is just trying to do its part.

1601 S. Carr St.
Lakewood, CO 80232
David Laverty, owner

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

To be ethical, think about it

About 200 people from a mix of 29 Denver-area companies and government agencies heard a talk on business ethics this morning from Marianne Jennings, a professor at Arizona State University.

No, the managers from the 29 organizations sent to listen to the lecture weren't being put in time-out by their employers. But as Jennings listed the drivers of a series of ethics lapses that have occurred across the nation in business over the past decade and more, the audience was peculiarly quiet.

As if the subject of broken consciences was somehow familiar.

Jennings cited a survey done periodically by KPMG, the audit firm, that found 74 percent of respondents in 2008 reporting they feel pressure at work "to do whatever it takes" to get their job done. Ethics or no.

Another survey found only 9 percent of employees reporting they enjoyed an "ethical culture at work"; and 99 percent of respondents in another survey judged their own ethics to be higher or equal to their peers in the workplace.

At the outset, Jennings showed a list of 50 companies that made national headlines for ethics scandals stretching backward over the past 15 years: Adelphia, Boeing, Merrill Lynch, Enron, Qwest, Bank of America, "KPMG (twice)."

Margie Mauldin, whose Executive Forum hosted Jennings' appearance, said she put "ethics" on her nine-month agenda for the Forum's leadership series because of the financial industry crisis of the past 18 months and the Great Recession that it caused.

Mauldin has been a friend for years, and her picture appears at the left in my list of followers. She invited me to sit in on the high-dollar leadership-training session on ethics because she knows I have always been interested in the subject.

Pressure at work, Jennings indicated, is the #1 driver of "ethical and legal debacles." Pressure to perform, pressure to conform, pressure to keep quiet when speaking up will cut across the company grain. The pressure starts in high school and grows through college and graduate school until it reaches the workplace, Jennings said.

She offered several strategies to relieve pressure and encourage an ethical performance:
  • Think long term within the company, rather than only about short-term results.
  • Develop a company creed, and practice it, especially within executive ranks.
  • Solve ethical dilemmas by devising alternative solutions; talk about the alternatives among colleagues.

"We are all going to hit walls in our jobs and in our careers," Jennings told the group. "There's no perfect organization because human beings run them."

Jennings also advised asking questions. And yet, following her presentation, less than a dozen members of the audience had any questions to ask. "You're all ethical-ed up?" she asked rhetorically?

But even I stayed silent. The question hanging in the air between members of the silent audience was still: Why? Why did two decades of business misbehavior only get worse as time went on? Why were every five years of scandal followed by another five years of new scandal?

Jennings said most people realize when they are stepping outside the bounds of their own professional or personal ethics, but many will do what they do anyway. They rationalize their action with some self-styled "noble" purpose: You do it for your kids; to survive; just this once; or because the end is justifiable.

Wrong! she said. Look for an alternative that preserves your standards. "It's possible to be ethical in business and be very successful," she said. All you have to do is think about it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Going to the brink and back, and not learning the lesson

Tuesday morning I posted to my Facebook friends a link to an excerpt from Andrew Ross Sorkin's new book "Too Big to Fail: How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System -- and Themselves." I hadn't yet read the piece, but judging from an interview Sorkin gave to Charlie Rose on Monday night about his book, I had thought the excerpt might shed some light on the recent attacks of Big Business on the Obama administration.
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Rose mentioned the assault himself. Big-bank lobbyists are teaming up to oppose new regulations for the financial industry that Obama has proposed to reduce the chances our nation might once again step to the brink of a Great Depression 2.0, as it did a year ago.

Also, last week, the health-insurance industry finally let drop it's opposition to any health-care reform by lying about the prospect for higher health-insurance premiums if currently proposed reforms go through. To my mind, the industry's contention only strengthens the argument that a public option must be included in any health-reform package. The insurance companies, after all, would be the people raising the rates!

A public option, offering lower rates, would compete against those very companies, and keep them from raising the rates if they wanted to keep their current customers.

Then on Tuesday, too, The Wasington Post, reported the White House was trying to sidestep opposition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, big businesses' highest paid lobbyist. The U.S. Chamber is bucking up against the administration on several fronts: health care, global warming and financial regulation.

To get around them, administration officials are visiting with individual CEOs over their company's positions on such issues; and several big firms, Apple Inc. in particular, have dropped out of the chamber because of its harsh opposition to administrative iniatives.

Did anyone really believe big business would turn the other cheek in these battles with a centrist/liberal administration that still holds majority support among voters?

"People" are beneficiaries of all the Obama initiatives, and that's what big business and some small businesses are opposed to.

You cannot save the middle class and the poor in this country, without taking something from the establishment and the rich. It's time the rich gave back what they, in cahoots with a free-market government, have slowly, inexorably taken away.

Sorkin's excerpt doesn't give much of a clue to any of this, but he indicated to Rose that the word "Themselves," in his subtitle suggests one of the most disturbing things he found in writing the tome. Wall Street is a club of rich people who also serve in government, and their actions in both arenas are taken with their own self-interest top of mind -- or at least as top-of-mind as the greater good of all Americans, which undeniably also remains one of their motives.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Low-down on Byte Technology

Clarence Low brought his family and his website-development company to metro Denver without much of a clue about the tech market here in 2003. The move, in fact, was primarily driven by a desire to join family already living in Evergreen.

But Low knew the Denver Tech Center was a big draw for tech workers, and he realized the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce was much larger than the Monterey, Calif., chamber, which he and his brother Terry used as a source for leads when they founded their business in California in 2001.

From the start, "community involvement" was a staple of Byte Technology, the Lows' company.

So getting involved in the Denver chamber was a no-brainer for Low. He knew he could leverage his active participation in chamber programs into a list of customers -- even in a market thick with rival web developers.

"We have donated our time, money and services to local nonprofits, whether it's helping them with their online marketing strategies, or helping them build websites, or whatever," Low said in an interview. "We have worked with childrens' services, childrens' museums, foundations, philanthropic efforts or organizations, things like that."

"Through ... working with some of the executives in those organizations, we have been able to gather referrals," he said. It was the formula Low and his brother used to found their company, so here, he said, "We're leveraging that formula."

"It's not rocket science," said Clarence Low, who is a trained marine scientist.

He and his brother both rode the tech wave that blew up the bubble in Silicon Valley, and when it burst, in 2001, and each found themselves dripping wet and without a job, they decided to stake out their own niche in the tech market -- on the shores of Monterey Bay.

Literally. Byte Technology started in a storefront shop in downtown Monterey, and offered tourists to the nearby Fisherman's Wharf and Cannery Row computer stations to log on to the Internet. "It was actually really cool," Low remembers now. Tourists from overseas would come in to download photographs or to send e-mails back home. Then the visitors would ask what the brothers did to make a profit from the enterprise.

"So we actually got a couple clients that way," Low said. At the time, the company was setting up and servicing computer stations in small businesses and nonprofits, doing network support and designing websites as well. When Clarence Low moved to Denver in 2003, Byte sold off the network business and focused on website development.

Today, Byte Technology still has only three employees in both its location, although it supplements its workforce with contract workers. Clarence Low said each customer's project is tailored to the company's or organization's specific needs. Byte's prices are competitive but also tailored to each customer's needs, Low said. In 2008, which included a good chunk of the nation's economic downturn, Byte turned about $300,000 to $500,000 in revenues, he said, being purposely vague.

"Yesterday, I gave a presentation to a nonprofit in Aurora that specializes in providing services to refugees and recent Asian immigrants," said Low whose parents emigrated to San Francisco from Southern China. "They were interested in a multi-lingual component to their website," he said, so within his 45-minue presentation Low showed the group how to upload Korean on the site with ease. That, too, is one of Byte Technology's product offerings. It can show an organization how to self-maintain the sites it creates, adding to a group's or a small business's longterm savings even as it upgrades to the latest in doing business on the web.

Clarence Low's goals for the company are reaching $2 million in annual revenues and, perhaps, 10 employees in both the California and Colorado offices over the next five to seven years. "I give myself that timeframe," he said, because both he and his brother are committed to not growing so fast they begin to shirk ongoing services they provide to their oldest clients.

Check out Byte Technology's website here, and you'll find the kind of "strong, effective, refreshing" design Byte can provide, along with a row of fruit splashing into some clear water that is also emblematic of the company's work. Clarence Low said each employee adopts one of the fruit images to include on the back of a business card, and his is the kiwi. It's a good way for people to recognize him once they've seen the card or one of his business presentations, Low said.

"Hey, you're the kiwi guy!" he said one potential customer greeted him in an airport one day. "Yes, I am," Low said he responded. "You can call me the kiwi guy, as long as you know who I am," he said.

His brother, Terry, is the orange.

Byte Technology: a brand that refreshes your digital presence. Try a bite.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Chicago woman's slave ancestry traced

Michelle Obama's ancestral line from a six-year-old, South Carolina slave girl to the halls of a White House built by slaves is the subject of a fascinating story in the New York Times today.

It's tragic, as all slave tales are, and yet inspiring (were it not for more than 150 years between start to finish). And it shows how America's bloodlines are inevitably diverse, and today's acknowledgement and celebration of diversity has been a natural outgrowth of our immigrant roots.

It shows, too, why immigration perfects the bloodlines of America's civil rights heritage, and ought to be encouraged rather than disparaged, for the betterment of the nation as a whole.

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