Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

Name that domain

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.

Published in Cleveland
Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

Log in

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.

Published in Cleveland
Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

Blank banners

Almost every Web site has unsold banner ad space. Studies show the average company has 75 percent of its banner space available, leaving business owners a large inventory of virtual real estate that's not making money.

One company has come up with a solution: Turn this empty space into your own branded wireless service.

"We actually allow any company on the Net to create a private-label wireless phone business," says David Steinberg, founder and CEO of Inphonic. "We allow you to sell a wireless phone that our partners activate the contracts for and pay you a percentage."

Here's how it works: Inphonic makes banners and boxes to fit the ad spaces on your site and uploads them to run in the unsold space. When someone clicks on the ad offering a free wireless phone, they are taken to a site customized for your business. For example, Talkcity.com users who click on the phone ads are taken to a site customized for Talkcity wireless.

Users type in where they live, and the site finds the wireless partner in their area to activate the contract. When the person receives his or her phone, it is labeled for the business it was purchased from -- in our example, it would be Talkcity.com.

"Because these ads are running on space that is unsold anyway, this is a zero opportunity cost," says Steinberg.

Inphonic is adding a service to allow users to answer questions about usage patterns, then be directed to the provider with the best deal for their needs.

"Only 25 percent of people in the U.S. have phones, which is the lowest rate of all the industrialized nations," says Steinberg. "That means 75 percent either don't have one now or have never had one. We're aiming for both the 75 percent and those who are already experienced."

Inphonic started working with sites that were receiving 1 million to 50 million impressions per month, but is adding an automated service so that any size business can participate. All you will need to do is upload your logo for use on the site and the phone labels. Larger companies also receive a customized toll free number to help users, while smaller companies will receive a number which, instead of referring directly to the business (such as Talkcity Wireless), will say "Powered by Inphonic." That will also be noted on the site.

"The average consumer looks at their phone 12 to 15 times a day," says Steinberg. "How much do you pay to get your name seen once a day in the paper? This is a great branding opportunity. You get a percentage of revenue for the phones sold, your customer gets a brand name phone and you are monetizing unsold ad space." How to reach: www.inphonic.com

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

Published in Cleveland
Monday, 22 July 2002 09:35

Setting the sale

You may have no intention of selling your business in the next 20 years, but start planning for the inevitable now.

"Every seller wants the same things: the highest price, the least amount of effort in the quickest timeframe," says Chad Simmons, author of the "Business Valuation Bluebook." "There are steps you need to take to make this occur, and you can't start thinking about it this week if you want to sell next week. The time to start thinking about it is the day after you start the business or the day after you buy the business.

"You need to be looking at least a year ahead to prepare. There are things you can do that will result in a dramatic improvement in value."

Secure your good location. "No lender will offer a five-year business loan to a business with only three years left on its lease," says Simmons. "Go in and renegotiate with an extended term with some options to renew. It will help ensure to the potential buyer that the location is going to be there."

Develop your Web address. "A Web site is becoming like a telephone -- you have to have one," says Simmons. "Those who put one up are more viable than those that don't, even if there is no direct increase in sales. It's just one more thing a buyer won't have to do."

Preview your business. Clean up your business, both literally and figuratively. Get rid of old inventory and eliminate positions that are no longer needed.

Prepare your numbers. "You're going to have to make some disclosures to any potential buyers," says Simmons. "It's a good idea to know what they are going to be and prepare them ahead of time. Also, get a nondisclosure agreement for the parties to sign. When someone asks to see three to five years' worth of financials, respond positively and hand them the statements you've already prepared. This eliminates a lot of the running around."

Reduce uncertainty. Don't tell your employees you're going to sell. You don't want to scare valuable employees off, and you don't want to give the buyer a reason to say no.

Don't cheat. If you're skimming from the business, stop now. It's illegal and will greatly complicate matters when others start looking at your financial statements.

Prepare to transfer knowledge on how to run the business successfully. "Be prepared with a training program," says Simmons. "Prepare a written outline on how you will help the buyer fit into the business, teach them about the product or service and introduce them to customers." Find a way to convert your skills into the business itself so the best assets aren't walking out the door when you leave.

Protect your brands. Use copyrights, service marks and trademarks to protect your brands if you haven't already done so.

Solidify your customer base. If possible, put your customers under contract, even if just for a year. It gives a potential buyer confidence that the client base will still be around when he or she arrives.

Increase your visibility. "A great time to hire a PR firm is one year before you sell," says Simmons. "The more people that see you, the more that will want you. It will make your business more attractive."

Take your own look. Hire a broker, accountant or attorney to take a look at your business as if you were going to buy it. See how it looks from an objective point of view. This will help you anticipate problems and give you an idea of how any deal will be structured -- and don't expect a suitcase full of $100 bills.

"The most important thing may be to be realistic," says Simmons. "I've seen so many who have had wonderful businesses, but they have an overinflated estimate of what it is worth. It's damaging and sad. They could put it on the market for the right price and sell it quickly and be on to whatever they have in mind next. But they think it's worth so much more, that it sits on the market for a year or more with all the associated holding costs.

"Their attitude really turns sour, the employees see that and revenue goes down. It's important to do a valuation and know what your business is worth." How to reach: Chad Simmons, www.priceaspower.com

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

Published in Cleveland
Monday, 22 July 2002 09:35

Choose wisely

In today's tight labor market, it's very tempting to hire the first person that walks through the door, even if he or she is barely qualified for the job.

But don't do it, no matter how long you've been trying to fill the position.

"The smaller you are, and the fewer employees you have, the more important it is to hire the right person," says DeAnne Rosenberg, author of "Hiring the Best Person for Every Job."

To find the right person, start by ignoring most of what is on the resumes you receive.

"The resume is virtually a nonplayer," says Rosenberg. "Resumes can be very misleading. Candidates say they have a familiarity with computers. What does that mean -- they've seen one? They say they worked very closely with the buyer. What does that mean -- they had a desk down the hall from them?"

Candidates put forth on a resume only the information they want you to know. Before you hire, have a long conversation with yourself and determine what skills you need in a person to fill that position.

"Get some clarity about your expectations," says Rosenberg. "For most jobs, there are only five major areas you need specific results in, with the rest not being as important. Pull each one apart and determine what you regard as satisfactory performance. Then, figure out, in order to meet those expectations, what skills will the person need. Your interview questions should target those competencies."

Don't make the mistake of falling back on cliches for your interview questions, because there are cliche answers that go with them. The entire interview will be on autopilot and you'll learn nothing.

"You want a match between the candidate's goals and what you need for your business," says Rosenberg. "It has to be a partnership where the candidate is helping you achieve your company goals while you help them with their career goals. You can't motivate people who have no goals, so don't hire them.

"You want people who want to expand their knowledge, because then you have the basis for a partnership."

If you have your expectations listed in advance and work off of those, you are working off a set foundation and can keep the interview focused on the aspects that are important. If you are working off the resume, you're working off the moving target that the candidate has prepared and you've lost control.

If you panic and fill a position with the wrong person, you can alienate your other employees and end up with more open positions. If the person hired isn't pulling his or her weight, and the manager simply reassigns work to other employees to make up for it, you may find that the employees picking up the extra work are heading for the nearest exit.

"There are two main reasons people leave work: They either don't like the way they are being managed or the work is boring and nonchallenging," says Rosenberg.

Being a smaller company isn't necessarily a disadvantage in the job market. Emphasize that employees will never be a number in your business and that they will have many more opportunities to grow because they are expected to perform many tasks. Also, don't give up on people who have left the company.

"You never know how the new job will work out," says Rosenberg. "Keep in touch with them by sending them birthday cards and tell them they are missed. It's always nice to know you are wanted, and it's hard for a person to admit they made a mistake by leaving.

"This way, they don't have to, and you won't have to train them." How to reach: DeAnne Rosenberg, www.managementsense.com

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

Published in Cleveland
Monday, 22 July 2002 09:33

Changing pressures

Hospitals, already turned upside down by the merger and restructuring craze that has hit health care during the last several years, are facing more difficult decisions.

According to a study by Deloitte & Touche, financial pressures are forcing hospital CEOs to cancel managed care contracts at a "surprising rate." Overall, nearly one-third of hospitals have cancelled an HMO contract; that number leaps to nearly 60 percent for hospitals with more than 500 beds. The most commonly cited reason for cancelling an HMO contract was poor financial results.

"Despite near-term financial pressures, hospitals are more optimistic about their long-term survival," says Ray Cisneros, the survey's architect and a national health care partner with the firm.

Even though the market environment is challenging and many hospitals are closing, optimism remains high. The survey found that 75 percent of hospital CEOs expect their organizations to still be operating in five years -- up from 57 percent a decade ago. This increased optimism has allowed executives to direct their attention to meeting the needs of consumers.

One of the growing demands of these consumers is alternative medicine.

"Hospitals have discovered that alternative medicine and health care therapies can provide new revenue," says Tom Hochhausler, national health care partner with Deloitte & Touche. "That's resulted in steady growth in the number of organizations offering complementary care, especially among larger urban facilities."

In fact, 25 percent of inner-city and 32 percent of larger hospitals offer alternative therapies more frequently than do their counterparts. The study also found that 24 percent of hospital CEOs use alternative therapies, such as natural and herbal medicines.

What is slow to change is the downsizing of overall acute care capacity, with nearly 40 percent of those surveyed reporting an excess supply of these services in their respective markets. A portion of this excess is being converted to outpatient use, with a growing percentage of CEOs reporting that outpatient care represents more than half of their revenue.

Despite these facts, 40 percent of suburban and other urban hospitals report plans to increase acute care offerings over the next two years.

"While nationally there appears to be an imbalance in supply and demand, some acute care facilities are simply not located where they are needed," says Cisneros. "As a result, we are seeing many hospitals shutting acute care wings while others are adding beds."

Cisneros cautions that hospitals need to keep an eye on the capacity problem and not compete on size without regard for demand. Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN's special reports editor.

Published in Pittsburgh
Friday, 22 March 2002 03:28

eVolution in Manufacturing award winners

On March 7, the SBN Magazine eVolution in Manafacturing Conference presented by CAMP honored nine Northeast Ohio companies for their achievements in integrating e-business solutions into traditional manfacturing processes. The companies displayed their e-business solutions at a conference at the CAMP Manufacturing and Technology Center on East 25th Street in Cleveland. The event was sponsored by Ameritech SBC, Crowe Chizek and Ulmer & Berne LLP.












Left photo: Dr. Stephen Gage of CAMP (center) presents the award to Don Sebiant and Paul Harty of ArgoTech.
Right photo: Dr. Gage with Sarp Uzkan and Stewart Armstrong of Danley IEM.












Left photo: Dr. Gage congratulates Jim Appledorn and Beckie Jacobs of Lincoln Electric as Smart Business Network CEO Fred Koury looks on.
Right photo: Linda Bowman and Sandy Richard of Little Tikes enjoy their honor.












Left photo: Cindy Skelton-Becker and Holly Mihok of Nordson.
Right photo: Tom Gubanc and Dave O'Connor of Swagelok.













Dr. Stephen Gage of CAMP with Wes Howard and Chad Shron of Tooling University.













Michael A. Lachman and E. Fred Leffler of USB.

Published in Cleveland
Wednesday, 05 December 2001 05:16

Too fast

The Internet has driven the speed of business to somewhere on the far side of turbo.

The hectic pace of the silicon gold rush has also caused some spectacular crashes, all because of a lack of fundamental business sense.

""There's a lot of things coming together that is creating an environment where we're all moving fast,"" says Dorothy Langer, president of Langer and Co., a Boston-based strategy consulting firm. ""When you move fast, you don't have time for planning, and planning is among one of the more important things that companies aren't doing.

""If you're not planning, you're not thinking long term.""

The speed of business may not allow you plan in the traditional sense, but you can still plan to some degree, even if it means not dotting every i and crossing every t.

"You need to plan, or else you're not thinking through your decision process -- you're not forecasting events that could change your business," says Langer. "You'll have no contingency plans, you could hire too many people and suddenly realize you don't need them. There is a lot of poor execution going on."

Some of the problems come from the relatively young management teams that companies -- especially Internet companies -- have leading them. The labor shortage also means there's not a lot of talent to be found when building a team.

Because of this, the customer isn't being served well, and people aren't being put in place to handle problems. Internet businesses are currently trying to find a business model that works. Smaller companies used to have the Internet to themselves, but now all the large corporations have jumped into it with their resources. These old economy companies have made mistakes, as well.

"They're not making the same mistakes," says Langer. "If anything, they make mistakes on the side of being too conservative. Their problem is they don't understand the Internet or the people using it."

Langer's bottom line: You have to have long-term financial, product and marketing strategies that are constantly revisited. When you have a plan and a framework, when something changes externally, you'll understand where you're at and where you have to change.

Langer and Co. website

Published in Cleveland
Thursday, 29 November 2001 18:26

Over the limit

In the old days, there was a clear distinction between management and labor.

A small number of managers dealt with a larger number of workers who worked on the shop floor or assembly line. But as the economy has moved more people behind desks, the line between who is eligible for overtime pay and who isn't has blurred.

"The Fair Labor Standards Act is very simple in its rules, but deceptively complex in its application," says Jonathan Segal, a partner in the Wolf Block Schorr & Solis-Cohen employment services group. "What the law generally says is that you are eligible for overtime unless you are exempt. You are exempt only if your are paid on a salaried basis and perform exempt responsibilities."

Exempt duties include executive responsibilities, professional responsibilities such as those of a physician and administrative responsibilities.

"The principles of the law make sense, but the framework doesn't fit the information economy," says Segal.

This means there are a lot of gray areas surrounding who's exempt and who isn't.

* To prove executive duties, an employer must show the employee supervises two full-time employees and that supervision constitutes at least 50 percent of his or her time. "If supervising is only 10 percent of what they do, that won't make it," says Segal.

* For a professional exemption, you just need to show some sort of degree upon which the job rests. This could be a doctor, nurse or psychologist, for example. This exemption is relatively narrow.

* Administrative exemptions are where most employers get into trouble. "It's fraught with ambiguity," says Segal. "To meet the exemption, the person must generally have substantial judgment and independent discretion and the ability to bind the organization. They should have the ability to develop and implement standards."

A computer programmer with extensive skills who works within an existing program may qualify for overtime pay. A programmer who has a more limited skill set but creates programs for the company to use may be exempt.

An executive secretary could be exempt if he or she has a lot of authority.

"If you want a position to be exempt, then you better give it real judgment and discretion," says Segal. "You need to show examples within the organization how they established and enforced protocol."

A title is relevant but isn't the determining factor. A custodial worker may be called a plant sanitation manager, but it doesn't change the job that's done.

Employers must also never give the impression that an exempt employee is anything but salaried, which carries special rules. Salaried workers cannot be docked pay for anything less than a full work week. If it's for sick or personal time, the minimum deduction is a day.

If you give exempt employees money for working extra hours, don't pay based on an hourly basis.

"Give them a flat amount so it looks like extra compensation," says Segal.

Published in Cleveland
Thursday, 29 November 2001 18:18

Sign of the times

Our litigious society has led to an explosion of warning labels on products. Some products take on the appearance of a quilt because of the mass of warning labels and icons.

These labels -- as well as the warnings in any manual -- are there for several reasons. Some are required by law, some are there for market access reasons and still others are there because of the requirements of the customer. Labels may warn of operating hazards, recommend safety equipment, offer maintenance tips or give an overview of how the product should be properly installed.

"Once you've established the basics, you need go into it deeper: Where will it be used? Where will it be sold? What location is it intended for?" says Darrell Lehman, director of Global Business Development for Intertek Testing Services, an independent certification firm that helps companies figure out what labels are required for their products.

If you're planning on selling to a large chain store, bilingual labels might be in order.

"There may be some cases where bilingual is required by law, such as in Canada," says Lehman. "It may not be a requirement elsewhere, but it may be implicit for market access."

The regulations can be overwhelming. Different laws govern size, placement and appearance of warnings. Additional instructions may be required in the owner's manual. There are even specific requirement for the type of adhesive used on the label itself. Foreign markets have their own set of standards.

Lehman sees products arrive in various stages of compliance.

"Some companies are more sophisticated and come in with a product that's in full compliance and they just need a final confirmation required by law," says Lehman. "Others come to us with a raw product. The sooner we get involved, the better. We encourage our clients to get us involved in the product cycle itself. By the time they're done developing the product, it's already fully compliant."

The further along the product is, the more it will have to be reworked if something isn't in compliance, leading to higher costs.

"The biggest mistake we see is companies that just don't understand what's involved," says Lehman. "They don't even get copies of the standards."

Published in Cleveland