Cleveland (5895)

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:38

Belle of the ball

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The story of Embedded Planet reads like a Hollywood fairy tale. After just three years in existence, the company is set to live happily ever after.

“We’ve had so many nice things happen,” says Alayne Reitman, president of the technology-based operation. “It’s just fun. Somebody came up to me at Innovest (an annual venture capital conference held this year in Columbus in May) and said, ‘How does it feel to be the belle of the ball?’”

It has taken a lot of hard work for the owners of Embedded Planet to make it to the dance. Delivering the crowning touch, Ernst & Young named the company’s management trio Entrepreneurs Of The Year in the Emerging Entrepreneur category. Honored with Reitman were Robert Applebaum, vice president, and Ramon Molnar. But there is still a lot of work to do.

“The nicest thing about it right now,” Reitman says, “or at least for me personally, it’s local Cleveland recognition. It’s Northeast Ohio recognition. It’s promoting the work we’re doing so that other people see that it’s happening.

“We are still really just coming out of a true start-up phase. We have been going for now two years. And we’ve been designing product and working with our engineering team. It’s really now just six months since we’ve had any kind of sales and marketing.”

She says the company expects its sales to pick up briskly in the next year, “and we’re going to end up hiring a lot of people over the next 12 months. It’s past that initial stage of ‘Do we have the right concept?’”

Embedded Planet is looking to raise $30 million and clearly has a concept that has caught people’s attention. So what is it exactly that it does?

“We are simplifying the way technology is implemented, so it allows people to build products more quickly, have the adoption of technology reach the masses much less expensively,” Reitman says. “One practical application of the company’s technology is telemedicine. This is where a nurse can visit a remote area, perform a few medical tests, and have a physician half way across the country review the data and make recommendations.”

It’s the type of technological revolution that’s in the right place at the right time. Many people walk around with cell phones, pagers, laptop computers and Palm Pilots, and as Reitman says, the complexity has gone up with each new device designed to make our lives easier.

“The next phase of this evolution is the ability of all these devices to communicate with one another, actually flow from one to the other reasonably seamlessly. And that’s really where I think we’re all going to see an impact,” Reitman says.

To get to that point, to be the company that leads the way, Embedded Planet is looking for venture capital financing.

“It will really allow us to move full force on the marketing and sales initiatives and to continue to address and grow our engineering resources,” Reitman says. “We’ve been trying to run a little bit of a balancing act — a little bit here, a little bit there. When we raise the $30 million, we think we can generate a significant amount of marketing and sales activity, which ought to then accelerate our revenue growth. That’s the next step.”

Like many young companies, Embedded Planet has yet to turn a profit. But the plans are in place. The company should bring in $9 million in revenue this year, and within three to four years, Reitman projects revenue of $300 million.

“The secret to our success is our skill in creating and motivating teams. We employ the imagery of the Army Rangers or the Navy Seals to motivate our teams to the challenges ahead,” Reitman says. “Our staff believes they are able to tackle these challenges better than anyone else and knows that their efforts will impact lives around the world. We hire the brightest, most talented individuals we can find, wherever they live, and we encourage confidence in the individual and the team.

“An individual’s personal goals and ability to work within our culture is as important their technical ability.”

The amount of work can prove difficult at times, she says.

“We work very hard, and the hours are long, and we don’t always get great feedback. In these long days, and sometimes long nights, of working to get this business up and running, it’s really nice to get this kind of recognition.

“I feel a little bit like the belle of the ball.” How to reach: Embedded Planet LLC, (440) 646-0077

Daniel G. Jacobs (djacobs@sbnnet.com) is senior editor of SBN Cleveland.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:38

A new voice

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Business in the 21st century is moving at an incredible pace, and that speed is increasing. Businesses, however, can only operate as fast as the technology they employ.

For small- and mid-sized businesses, finding technology that fits their business strategy can be difficult. In the telecom marketplace, words like digital and analog, and acronyms like DSL, T-1 and ISDN sometimes make a simple search for new technology solutions sound like walking down a circus midway.

Business decision-makers must sort through all the information, find out which technologies best fit their business needs and make decisions that will enable their companies to thrive. Voice-over-DSL (VoDSL) is one such technology.

The basics

VoDSL is an innovative way to use a DSL line. It takes a normal DSL line and splits it into separate voice and data channels. Utilizing VoDSL, businesses can access up to 24 voice lines with value-added services including high-speed Internet access -- giving them enhanced services at a cost savings.

Because small businesses tend to be a more cost-conscious customer group, many are ideal candidates for VoDSL, which bundles local, long distance and data services across a single access line and saves money. In fact, International Data Corporation (IDC), a research analyst group, has observed a trend among small businesses noting growth in integrated voice and data.

Although it is a DSL service and requires the same prequalification as regular DSL services, VoDSL should not be confused with the voice capabilities of other DSL services. VoDSL packetizes the voice and data, and sends both over a single DSL line.

As an integrated solution for small- to mid-size businesses, VoDSL allows customers to operate voice and data over a single line. Since packet-based VoDSL voice lines only require bandwidth when a call is active, data services are enabled when calls are not active. In other words, when the customer picks up a telephone handset to make a call, the DSL data traffic is throttled back to provide the bandwidth required for the voice conversation.

Because of this dynamic bandwidth, VoDSL is an attractive and less expensive alternative to traditional phone lines.

The technology

Voice-over-DSL works by using an integrated access device at the end-user location. Using a symmetrical DSL (SDSL), voice and data lines are connected, through this device, to the telephone company's central office. The end-user location must be within a certain distance from the central office. This prequalification ensures both the quality and speed of the voice and data traffic over VoDSL.

The VoDSL device packetizes all of a user's traffic and prioritizes the voice and data packets, giving priority to voice transmissions. Symmetrical DSL (SDSL) differs from other types of DSL because the outgoing and incoming data travel at the same speed. VoDSL should not be confused with the voice capability of ADSL, which enables a single voice signal to run along a copper line using a splitter.

The benefits

In addition to the cost savings, VoDSL has several other benefits, including:

Fast Web access -- Enables employees to have direct Internet access without dial-up and empowers your business with high-speed capabilities like videoconferencing.

Excellent voice services -- Provides the same quality of service as traditional business lines with additional features not found on traditional lines.

Cost savings -- Small businesses now have access to extensive high-speed Internet capabilities without outrageous expenses.

The considerations

As you search for providers, make sure to ask questions and weigh all options before making a purchase. Some things to ask your service provider about before you buy:

Service guarantees -- Ask what kind of service guarantees you will receive and compare them with other providers.

Equipment monitoring and management -- The provider should have systems in place to monitor your equipment. With 24/7 monitoring by trained professionals, you can count on a maximization of performance and a minimization of downtime.

Network security protection -- Your provider should maintain a secure connection between your on-site equipment and the provider's network to prevent information from falling into hostile hands.

Matthew Wajda is director of sales, commercial, for the state of Ohio at ICG Communications.


Is VoDSL right for you?

Some issues to consider when determining whether VoDSL can help your business:

  • Is your business a moderate-to-heavy user of toll calling?

  • Does it have between four and 24 phone lines?

  • Have you considered purchasing some form of Internet connectivity? (i.e., dial-up, ISDN, T1 or DSL)

  • Is your business interested in maintaining enhanced calling features, such as call waiting, call forwarding, speed dialing, caller ID or three-way calling?

If you answer yes to all of these questions, you should explore VoDSL as an option for your business.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

Walk the talk

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It's an all-too-common problem: Feedback that your service to customers should be better.

That means it's time for a commitment to improve your service standards. Service excellence is not just a competitive edge. In many industries, it is the competitive edge.

Service can be, and often is, the new standard by which customers judge an organization's performance. An increase in customer satisfaction can yield a measurable rise in profits. If your service is just OK -- that is, no complaints -- it isn't going to give you the competitive edge you are looking for. Remember, your competition is always just over your shoulder. Stumble, and it could seize that edge of service excellence and take your customers with it.

So where do you start?

If you're like most companies, you'll try the front line, with the people who have face-to-face (or phone-to-phone) contact with the customer. This is a mistake. Instead, start with management. Quality service is orientation of all resources and people in a company toward customer satisfaction.

Management commitment is especially important. Management needs to embrace and develop the service culture because it should lead and motivate all employees. If your management doesn't commit, your employees will know it.

To maintain management commitment, hold regular executive sessions. Work to avoid management isolation. Make it clear that quality service is expected and even demanded. Commitment must be real and honest.

All too often, management tends to be reluctant in committing to service as a strategy for improvement and business growth. But remember this: When customers are presented with a choice between companies, and those companies offer comparable quality product and pricing, the distinct difference of service quality becomes the deciding factor in where they take their business.

With that in mind, it is critical to give your customer the service perception of a company that induces them to do business with the company again.

To do that, your management team will need to identify and implement long-term strategies such as continually evaluating the organizational environment, policies and procedures, management responsiveness to employees and responsiveness to customers. You want a whole organization approach focused on consideration of the successful customer experience. Ensuring your customers' wants and needs are represented in decision-making planning and meetings does this.

You will need to motivate and teach customer service skills. Examine and correct anything that gets in the way of superior employee performance. Understand that many employees today do not know service skills, and it is your responsibility to teach them. Only then can you hold them accountable. Be sure to reward high-performing service employees.

Your goal is to develop a service initiative that sets service standards that are practiced by everyone. Another goal is to see service as the product. You must really know that quality service can only be achieved through long-term commitment; it is not just a passing phase. Walk the talk -- with a team made up of everyone in the organization.

Pam Schuck (pschuck@strivetraining.com) is president of STRIVE Training, which specializes in motivating customer service for businesses. She can be reached at (440) 235-5498.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

Thinking big

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An enormous white fish glides out from between two rocks inside the gargantuan aquarium that reaches from floor to ceiling and divides Robert Fortney's office in half.

The 6'9" president of Fortney & Weygandt Inc. is seated in a nearby chair, watching the fish make its looping orbits around the glass tank as he tries to find the right words to explain why his construction firm has grown so quickly during the past decade.

Fortney is quick to point out that his North Olmsted-based general contracting firm is a business in the field of construction, not the other way around. Ironically, he has never set foot upon a bulldozer. And, despite his towering frame and a deep booming voice that makes him seem like he could make a serious go at a professional wrestling career, the success of F&W is fueled more by brains than brawn.

"My strength is systems and organization," explains Fortney, who bought out his former partner, Bob Weygandt, in 1982, four years after the firm was founded. "I'm the guy who can fit those two extra glasses in the dishwasher and the extra suitcase in the back of the car."

More important, Fortney's embarked on a never-ending search to improve upon existing methods of doing business. And while that is at the core of F&W's business philosophy, it's Fortney's ability to deliver on his vision that drives the company's fortunes.

In an industry in which most large construction companies work on perhaps a dozen projects a year, F&W is an anomaly. Nearly 75 percent of the firm's annual revenue is derived from more than 100 unique projects. Combined with rollout work the firm does on a consistent basis for companies including Kmart Corp. and Applebee's, the number of projects per year tops 1,000.

This ability to handle such incredible volume is another part of Fortney's blueprint. But he has also spurred growth at his 250-employee company by integrating new technology into an industry in which mountains of paper and handwritten reports from the field are the longstanding norm.

By harnessing the Internet to reduce loads of time-consuming, unwieldy internal paperwork and improve communication with his base of subcontractors, Fortney has set himself apart from his competitors. In fact, he just may be one of the first digital-age construction firms in the nation.

But Fortney doesn't want to keep all this innovation to himself. He says it's something others in the industry need to embrace as well. Toward that goal, he's launched a business to business e-commerce site that will, for a fee, let anyone shrink the nightmarish paper shuffling that has long been viewed as a necessary evil of the bidding process.

And for those old-school naysayers who chuckle at the thought of laptops at a construction site, Fortney intends to have the last laugh. Microsoft Corp. recently tabbed F&W for a case study, an honor the software giant usually reserves for high-profile Fortune 500 companies.

"We got tired of running with the pack and doing what the industry does," explains Fortney. "We basically said, 'Screw it, let's not worry about it.'"

This path-less-trodden mentality appears to be the difference between Fortney and his competitors. Today, F&W is closing in on revenue of $100 million a year. Fortney is sold on the belief that technology will help it grow even more. While other industries charge full force toward the electronic age, the construction industry seems mired in its traditional past.

But like every other step of the journeys he's traveled, Fortney intends to buck tradition here as well. If there is one person well positioned enough to help the construction industry's transition to the electronic age, it just may be the no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is Fortney. Here's why.Ten years ago, Fortney looked around his industry and realized the traditional general contracting business model no longer appealed to him.

At the time, most firms survived off a handful of high-ticket projects, which made competition for landing prized contracts a high-pressure challenge. Rather than fall in with his competitors, Fortney says he believed he could increase revenue by creating a higher quality organization from the inside out.

"We took the corporation and divided it into 200 different parts," he says. "Our goal became to take each and every one of those parts and improve it on a continuous basis. With every step we take, a secondary byproduct of that is more volume. A tertiary byproduct is more profitability on that volume."

Creating a culture dependent on constant improvement did not mean that workers were charged with bettering only the facets of business for which they were responsible. Any aspect of the company was fair game for improvement. But that led to another problem.

Fortney discovered that American workers were not especially fond of making suggestions to management. That's in distinct contrast with foreign competitors. For example, the average Japanese worker turns in 30 to 40 workplace suggestions a year. Fortney says studies show American workers are lucky if they turn in three or four comment cards over the course of an entire lifetime.

The solution: Fortney's Opportunities For Improvement program -- or OFI for short. When a worker makes a viable suggestion, he or she is entered into a quarterly drawing for $1,000. The incentive-laden program helps build employee confidence in making suggestions. Fortney now collects about 500 comment cards a year.

"I believe very strongly that cognizance of a problem eliminates 60 to 70 percent of the problem," he says. "Just being aware that there is a situation comes very close to eliminating it. We work hard to get our people to suggest opportunities for improvement.

"It doesn't need to be a $3 million cost saver. It does not need to save 500 hours a year. It can be something extremely simple."

The walls in the lobby of F&W's headquarters are decorated with framed pictures and letters of thanks from people with whom the firm has worked over the years.

The photograph collection of churches, restaurants and hotels serves as evidence of the importance and power that relationships hold in the business world. Fortney says these relationships are much too rare in the construction industry.

"If you have a legal problem, you work on relationships," he says. "It becomes obvious that the person you have the relationship with has your interests at heart and is not trying to make his $100 or $200 an hour. Construction should be the same way."

F&W forged a long-term relationship with Radio Shack more than a decade ago. Today, Fortney has 50 employees exclusively assigned to the rollout arm of the firm, which makes up a significant portion of the company's annual revenue.

Rollout, explains Fortney, is the term used to describe a job that's the same each time, such as building a photo lab in a Kmart. No matter where the store is located, the photo lab is in the same place within the store with the same specifications every time.

This strategy has helped F&W establish long-lasting relationships with Kmart Corp., Applebee's, CVS, Petland and a number of other high-profile chains, which continuously feed business to F&W.

"The niche that we position ourselves in is that of rollout work where there is a pre-established learning curve," Fortney says. "Once you learn the curve, you're immediately more competitive than anybody who doesn't know it. That way, you can make higher profits."

And though he declines to talk specifics, Fortney says F&W's profit margins are "substantially better" than the slim 1 to 2 percent considered standard for the industry. Moreover, the rollout program has helped Fortney forge longstanding business relationships that are not solely dependent upon submitting the lowest bid.

"General contracting is a service industry," he says. "You won't change this overnight, but the entire bid process is confrontational. We believe that you work on a negotiated basis. When you do taxes on April 15, you don't ask three accountants to give you bids."

Technology has had a major impact on Fortney's business. His ability to embrace it has aided in the re-engineering of his long-range vision.

But when Fortney asked his base of subcontractors a little more than a year ago to get comfortable with the idea of bidding on F&W projects via a corporate extranet, he was surprised by the response. It seemed that many of them didn't want to wait a year or two for the technology to be developed.

"We were inundated by people saying, 'Why do I have to wait when I'm ready now?'" he says. "We were shocked. It was the masses telling Big Brother, 'Hey, you're behind. We want it now.'"

The reaction spurred plans for www.fwprojects.com, a password-protected extranet launched last August. The plans and specifications for every F&W project are included on the site. So far, it has been a success, with more than 1,000 registered users and 20,000 hits a week.

Fortney reached the conclusion that such an idea was "way too good" to keep to himself and began work on www.constructionbidding.com, a business-to-business e-commerce initiative that takes the premise of FW Projects and offers it to the industry as a whole. The site, which is in beta testing, has only been around for few months but already receives a few thousand hits a week.

Other start-up Web companies are trying to cash in on the same e-commerce model, but Fortney's is the only one that is not a purely subscription-based service. In fact, Fortney has borrowed a page from Amazon.com in his jump to the Web, applying for a business method patent on the idea.

"Time is money, and if I can do it faster and cheaper than you can, then I want you to use the same system you've always used because I can't be right," he says with a sarcastic lilt in his voice. "You must be right and I must be wrong. I don't mind that."

The Internet strategies are only a piece of Fortney's overall plan to use technology to evolve F&W into a more efficient company. The development of a single-entry data system, which is about 70 percent complete, and the use of the firm's Superview 2000 program are two of the other applications Fortney sees as key components. The latter, a system that instantly e-mails every superintendent memo and report from the field to the proper files at F&W's North Olmsted headquarters, is the one that spurred Microsoft's interest in documenting Fortney's system in action.

"My goal is within five years to have my project managers go out to a work site with a laptop, hold a meeting, and before the meeting is over, have a copy of the minutes in the owner's file," he says. "It will be all voice recognition and technology along those lines. That will increase our efficiency to a multiple that most of the industry doesn't exist on right now."

There's little debate about the vast financial opportunities that exist within the construction field. With billions of dollars on the table each year, it's no wonder the industry is so highly fragmented.

There are no big-time national players, and even the biggest of the big control no more than one-half of 1 percent of market share. Compared with nearly any other industry, construction has yet to meet an age of heavy consolidation.

"Construction is the last vestige of the American economy that is still controlled by the moms and pops," Fortney says. "Every other company, from medical insurance to automobiles to restaurants to lodging to everything else, has gone to the nationals. The construction industry on the contracting side has not done that, but I see that starting to happen."

As evidence, he points to First Energy's recent purchase of several small HVAC firms in anticipation of energy deregulation. But major consolidation is still years away. If and when the industry reaches that bridge, firms will need to work out the logistics of such a huge undertaking.

Fortney believes it is the efficiencies created by the Internet and new software applications like the ones he is currently using that will allow construction companies to become national players.

"If you can actually market and establish some guidelines and procedures, take your technology and use your buying power, you could be an extreme force," he says.

Even after building F&W from a tiny company pulling in a few million dollars each year to one speeding toward the $100 million milestone, Fortney is not tipping his hand when it comes to whether he expects his firm to play a role in this future. "When, where, why and how we participate in that is not yet determined," he says, though he jokingly admits that bit of information and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee. "I think it definitely requires to be looked at and I think that's really the important part, realizing it's there to look at in the first place." How to reach: Fortney & Weygandt, Inc., (440) 716-4000, www.fw.projects.com

Jim Vickers (jvickers@sbnnet.com) is an associate editor at SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

Tackling a burning issue

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It's commonplace these days, groups of employees huddled outside in the cold, taking quick drags on their cigarettes to circumvent no smoking policies, or standing around during the hot summer, enjoying long, lazy smoke breaks.

But that strange new enclosed structure outside a neighboring office building wasn't there until recently, and suddenly, instead of throngs of people lounging in the doorway, you notice the new edifice is packed with smokers, freely gabbing and puffing away.

It's not your imagination. It's a smoking shelter. Over the past 10 years, they've been popping up with greater regularity across the U.S., mostly on the East and West coasts. Approximately 2,500 shelters have been put up by more than 1,200 companies of all sizes, and although we've yet to see one in Northeast Ohio that doesn't mean they're not around.

In principle, the idea seems good: provide smokers with an enclosed shelter so that they can enjoy their cigarettes without having to endure the harsh elements. But it leaves us with one question: What happens when the shelter is packed with people, fills up with smoke and leaves the smokers smelling like, well, smokers?

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

Review: WinFax Pro

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When e-mail exploded into the business market, the days of fax machines were thought to be numbered.

But even with seemingly every worker wired into e-mail, faxes still play an important role and have become another part in the communication tool set.

There were 400 billion pages sent by fax in 1998, and traffic is expected to increase 22 percent by 2001.

Faxing is an important part of daily business life, but going to the fax machine can be time consuming. Symantec's WinFax Pro was designed to give users all the functionality of the fax machine right on their desktops, with advanced features that might not be available on their stand-alone fax machine.

With nine previous versions, what was left for Symantec to do in version 10? Plenty.

Photos. While a document such as a real estate spec sheet might look great on the computer with crisp text and a color photo, when the item was faxed, the photo came out as an unrecognizable black blob. WinFax now recognizes when it's sending to a fax machine and keeps the images in black and white at the best resolution possible for the receiving machine.

Signatures. WinFax allows a simple process to import your signature into the program. When someone faxes you something that needs to be signed, you can push a button, have your signature appear on the document and fax it back.

Fax to e-mail. Many users wanted the ability to send faxes to an e-mail address. The problem was, computers would often have trouble reading the proprietary file format the fax was sent in and wouldn't be able to open it. WinFax now creates a self-viewing fax, so that anyone with an e-mail address can receive and view a fax from you. A bonus is if you are sending a fax out of your area via e-mail, there are no long distance charges, and the document is delivered directly to the recipient's in-box, avoiding the possibility of confidential information being exposed to others the way a traditional fax might be.

Integration. WinFax takes much of the hassle out of converting data from the most common contact manager programs, such as Act, Outlook and Lotus. The program autodetects phone books in these programs and asks whether you would like the lists imported for use in WinFax.

Drag and drop. Drag any document onto the fax icon and WinFax will prepare it to send.

Dialing options. The program was updated to recognize that some area codes are split between being local calls and toll calls from your location. You can identify the various exchanges with special dialing instructions if needed.

Enhanced interface. One of the problems with version nine was there was too much information displayed, making the interface confusing at times. Version 10 solves this by cutting down on the clutter and displaying only the most relevant information.

Reports. If you need to track faxes or charge backs for client accounts, WinFax can generate various reports to support your billing.

WinFax Pro has maintained its lead in the business fax market with this latest version, and with excellent documentation and online help available, this is a top-notch product. Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN's special reports editor.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

Out of order

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The wired world we've created has spawned a whole new range of behaviors to cope with the changing environment.

Francine Toder, a psychologist at California State University -- Sacramento's Psychological Counseling Services, has identified the top 10 computer neuroses. "One person's response to technology might be to push toward it," says Toder. "Another's might be to run away from it. Yet another might think, 'The government is trying to get us.'"

Toder's top 10 personalities are:

The technophobe. Technophobes have a strong fear of technology. They might be otherwise forward-thinking, proactive people, but like a person who is afraid of snakes can be paralyzed when faced with one, they can be paralyzed by technology.

The resister. This is the most common personality. "When you meet someone who fits this profile, you know who they are by the energy it takes to convince them to try something new," says Toder. "Resisters aren't afraid of technology; they dislike newness and prefer the simplicity of a technology-free life."

The challenger. Challengers are similar to resisters, with added anger, hostility, resentment and/or acting out behavior. They may be opposed to technology or show signs of paranoia. They can be destructive, like the Unabomber, or use technology in ways that are harmful, such as committing cybercrime. Toder says this reaction is not uncommon when people get up to speed technologically, then don't receive support from management with hardware, software or other technology.

The hermit. Hermits isolate themselves and avoid face-to-face contact. They may have strong technical skills but weak people skills. They embrace technology but have difficulty communicating with others about it.

The addict. Addicts can't stop. They have a myopic approach to life -- eating, sleeping and breathing technology while ignoring other aspects of work and nonwork life. Addictions take two forms: mind-numbing activities like playing video games and checking stock quotes; and mind expanding activities such as Web surfing.

The driver. These technomaniacs are similar to addicts but with manic energy directed toward outpacing competitors and keeping their cutting edge. Drivers are extroverts who love the attention, appreciation and adoration of others.

The procrastinator. Hidden fear of failure causes this type to avoid doing what needs to be done. Instead, they use technology for less relevant tasks that are easier and more satisfying. Unlike the technophobe, the procrastinator feels competent using technology and uses it to mask feelings of incompetence in other parts of life.

The imposter. Imposters feel like fakes, so they make a big show of playing around on the computer, hoping to avoid being found out. They spend more time covering deficits than doing their job, which interferes with work relationships and further erodes self-esteem.

The player. These are grown-up gamers who distract themselves by playing when things get heavy, scary or difficult. On the job, Web surfing, chat rooms and ongoing e-mail conversations may be the most satisfying parts of the workday. They are only interested in technology as a way to advance their play.

The dreamer. Dreamers have unrealistic expectations about the role of technology. They feel cheated when their grandiose ideas about technology fall short of reality. Dreamers may have a general pattern of wishful thinking, distorted perceptions of what is possible or a tendency to exaggerate.

Toder says that many people will not fit one of these personalities, because they only describe those who have a bad relationship with technology. Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN's special reports editor.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

Name that domain

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You want to set up a Web site, but when you try to register the domain name that best reflects your business, thumbtacks.com, you find that it's taken.

You think of some other ideas, but they, too, are already registered.

The next step is to list every conceivable idea that remotely relates to your business, and try to register each one until you find one that's available.

Or you could skip the whole process and go to Nameboy.com.

"Nameboy is the first intelligent name creation site," says Tom Jackson, who goes by the title of chief executive boy for the company. "It's different in that it has a variety of different techniques for creating domain names using linguistics."

In simpler terms, you enter a name you're interested in. If it isn't available, the site returns a list of many names that are similar in meaning to your original choice. For example, entering thumbtacks.com reveals that it is taken, but the site offers a list of alternatives that aren't, such as ethumbtacks.com and thumbtacksnet.com. It also lists words that are similar in meaning to help you find a related term. In this case, pushpin and paper fastener are two of the alternatives.

The company has one linguist on staff and another consultant to help keep the search engine fine tuned.

"We also help in the naming process by providing names that are already taken," says Jackson. "This can help stimulate brainstorming. There is also a good chance the name may be for sale if you like it. We provide information on who owns the name and how to get ahold of them."

The site gets 85 percent of its customers from small businesses. The service is free -- Nameboy makes its money on referrals to other sites.

"We're the only intelligent naming site out there," says Jackson. "They say that Network Solutions (the company primarily responsible for registering domain names) is the first step on the Internet experience. But if you think about it, you can't take a step until you find a name you like, is brandable or available.

"There are people who take the 'ready, fire, aim' approach when developing a site. We precede the purchase of the name."

As the first stepping stone into the Internet, Nameboy has become an attractive focal point for businesses targeting this niche.

"We are the narrowpoint in the funnel to selling services to new businesses. The reason we started was because we recognized this was a way to attract companies who were interested in distributing their products to a highly qualified customer base."

The 25,000 top words in the English language are all currently registered as dot-coms.

"Right now, some people think every name is taken," says Jackson. "It's a challenging problem, but I hope Nameboy can continue to be the solution." How to reach: Nameboy, www.nameboy.com

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN's special reports editor.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

Log in

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If you read the research reports, category X will rise in sales from $2 million this year to $500 million in a few years. It doesn't really matter what X is, because all the reports are almost identical.

In reality, the only products that are definitely selling well over the Internet are books and music. But if you sell something else, does this mean you can't profit from the Web?

No way.

Consider Town & Country Log Homes. Log homes aren't something you'd readily equate with Internet sales, yet the company garners 92 percent of all first contact with customers through its Web site.

"One of the things that makes it work so well is that we have such a narrow niche," says Dave Reed, vice president and marketing director for Town & Country. "We can target our customers very easily. Our customers are people who are seeking log homes and are looking for a specific thing. They are seldom just looking for a home."

In the early '90s, niche publications, color brochures and catalogs were the company's main means of showing the product.

"We decided in '94 or '95 to produce a CD-ROM as an adjunct to or a replacement for the brochure because of the economies," says Reed.

The company could produce a CD with 700 pages of plans and pictures for 65 cents each, as opposed to a 100-page plan book for $10 to $12 each.

"Our Web site really flowed along with that technology," Reed says. "As we advanced electronically, it made sense to sell on the Web because the people interested in our products were likely to have a CD player, Web access and were likely to use it.

"Our site evolved with a combination of some technical advances, along with some general updating. That's the nature of the difference between a site and a printed piece. The site is more like a fluid liquid document; there's always fine tuning. We get feedback from customers and visitors, and new photography gets online much faster. It's as much a communication tool as advertising, per se."

The company was careful in its selection of which technology to use. When virtual photos, which allow the viewer to pan 360 degrees, became available, Town & Country waited.

"We waited quite awhile until the technology got to a better resolution," says Reed. "In the earlier versions, the quality just wasn't there, and that wasn't a direct fit for us. We try to stay away from whiz-bang items just for the sake of saying it's cool. We look at is as, "How will this help the customer get more information about our product?"

The site URL is listed on every printed document the company has, from ads to business cards, to checks and invoices. It also does keyword advertising on a search engine, so when someone types in a search for "log homes" or "cedar homes," its banner comes up.

Of the 92 percent who find the company through the Web, about half found the site through printed materials or shows. The other half comes from links or Web searches.

"There are a number of companies in this business, and you have to do these things just to be ahead of the competition," says Reed. "If you don't do it, someone else will. The real key is to have a narrow niche product. You can do this cost effectively.

"I've listened to people throw around numbers -- like you need $10,000 to have an effective site. In five years, we don't have $10,000 in our site. You can have a quality site on a minimal budget that works, if you are thoughtful about it." How to reach: Town & Country, www.cedarhomes.com

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN's special reports editor.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

Healthy choice

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When illness causes an employee to miss time from work, employers suffer as well.

Chronic conditions in particular, such as diabetes, low-back pain and asthma, take their toll on businesses through frequent absences, lower productivity and higher health insurance premiums.

In Ohio, diabetes triggers enormous social and economic costs. Statewide in 1996, diabetes led to more than 11,000 deaths, nearly 3,000 amputations and close to 150,000 hospitalizations. Diabetes-related medical costs and lost productivity costs in Ohio totaled about $5 billion that year.

Low-back problems affect virtually everyone at some time during their life. Surveys indicate that one-half of working-age adults have back symptoms each year. Next to the common cold, low-back problems are the most common cause of work absenteeism in the U.S. and the most common reason for filing workers' compensation claims. Nationally, the financial toll on businesses ranges from $50 billion to $100 billion.

Back problems also affect co-workers, who must take on the disabled employee's workload. Although the causes of low-back pain are usually not serious, the discomfort can affect emotions, lifestyle and job performance.

Recognizing the challenges of low-back pain and other high-cost conditions, health insurers are responding by offering employers a new initiative known as care management. Care management programs seek to help patients better manage their conditions; reduce disease-related complications; better comply with their physicians' recommendations; and improve their quality of life. Keeping employers' health care costs affordable is another goal.

Under a low-back pain care management program, employees are identified to participate based on their claims history. Low-back programs emphasize basic patient education. Research shows that when patients better understand their illness, they tend to take better care of themselves and avoid behavior that could increase the risk of back injury.

Once identified, employees are asked to fill out a questionnaire about how their back pain affects their lifestyle. Answers are forwarded to the employees' primary care physicians on a confidential basis to help guide discussions at physician office visits.

Participants receive a guide that helps them understand the causes of low-back pain and how to prevent it. It offers tips about proper lifting, bending and sitting techniques; simple exercises for strengthening the lower back and maintaining flexibility; ideas for making one's home and workplace more safe and comfortable; and suggested lifestyle changes that can improve one's back health.

Participants also receive a video which answers frequently asked questions and explores the latest treatment options. The video offers tips on how to talk to your doctor and provides resources for additional information. Toll-free information lines are available for employees to speak to a nurse or listen to tapes about back pain.

Care management programs seek to support physicians' patient education efforts and help them achieve clinical excellence in treating patients. Physicians receive care guidelines -- prepared by the nation's leading medical authorities -- on the treatment of back problems. The programs are not intended to be a substitute for physicians' judgment or experience.

Care management programs are yielding measurable dividends. In one CIGNA pilot program, low-back pain-related hospitalizations decreased 17 percent and emergency room visits dropped by 16 percent in one year. Additionally, employers' medical costs for low back pain declined 16 percent during that period. Although still in its early stages, care management shows great promise for keeping employees healthier, reducing disease-related absences from work, and containing employers' health care costs. Jannifer Harper, M.D., is medical director of CIGNA HealthCare of Ohio.


Heavy costs

Still not convinced a healthier workplace can help your company's bottom line? Consider these facts:

  • Low-back pain, diabetes and other chronic illnesses take an enormous toll through employee discomfort, absences at work and high health care costs.

  • Care management programs, offered by insurers to employers, identify employees with high-cost chronic conditions, promote prevention and offer appropriate medical care.

  • Program participants receive educational materials to help them better understand their condition and take better care of themselves.

  • These programs seek to reduce disease-related complications, decrease absences at work, improve patients' quality of life, and contain employers' health care costs.