While its unlikely well see a host of other young companies become billion-dollar successes anytime soon, more than a handful of local upstarts have, nonetheless, shown a serious potential to take off into the economic stratosphere. So whats the lesson for the regions aspiring entrepreneurs looking to bring the next blockbuster to market?
It will show that you dont have to leave Pittsburgh to become a billion-dollar company, says Ajmal Noorani, vice president of Mastech Corp. and manager of the founders new $50 million eVentures fund for Internet-oriented start-ups.
It may indeed be possible to create a billion-dollar company on your first stroll down Wall Street but only with the right kind of business idea, sharp management and adequate financing. FreeMarkets meteoric rise would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, without the help of early-stage venture capital to develop its service, provide critical management expertise and demonstrate its promise for big returns to the first buyers of its stock.
Providers of that kind of risky investment capital finally appear to be gaining some level of comfort in this region. The managers of several homegrown funds, as well as those from outside the region, are beginning to see an alluring shade of green in the hills and valleys of Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Another reason for the interest in local deals is that venture funds are once again flush with capital and looking outside the traditional geographical hotbeds to find places to invest.
Theres so much competition and so much hype in the valley, says Sean Sebastian, managing partner with Birchmere Investments, a $20 million early-stage venture fund started by wealthy steel industry entrepreneur Richard Simmons. Birchmere partners today cant help but celebrate their success, thanks to their early investment in FreeMarkets. In fact, the fund still maintains holdings in a number of local start-ups, including CoManage, another company lining up for sizable entrepreneurial success.
Mastech created eVentures in 1999, and Lycos Ventures was launched in July in a partnership with Triangle Capital, headed by local entrepreneur and educator Don Jones. Redleaf Management, a $150 million Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm, opened an office in Pittsburgh last year, and the Western Pennsylvania Adventure Capital Fund, led by Pitt professor and investor Richard Patton, mounted a second round of fund-raising last September.
And a rejuvenated Innovation Works, a retooling of the former Ben Franklin Technology Center, got a $6.6 million grant from the state, earmarked for parceling out in $100,000 to $500,000 bits to promising upstarts.
For funds such as eVentures, the objective is a symbiotic relationship among entrepreneurs, investors and Mastech. Investments in new companies will provide not only a speculative opportunity for gain which stems directly from their success, but also creation of entities that could use the kinds of services that Mastech can offer, as well.
In effect, Mastech will find new customers for its products by spawning new ventures and foster the development of businesses that can feed off of its client base by offering services they can use.
Were the smart money because we can understand the technology, says Noorani.
Along the way, eVentures plans to provide the practiced guidance and mentoring that fledgling firms often need nearly as much as they need capital.
At the most fundamental level, Mastech is offering a select group of Carnegie Mellon University students, through the schools entrepreneur-in-residence program, the opportunity to get their ventures off the ground. University seniors get a monthly stipend, office space and administrative support. In exchange, Mastech gets a guaranteed stake in the new company and reserves the right to participate in up to 20 percent of any future funding.
Redleaf, too, sees the value of adding operations, marketing and legal support to the cash it pours into promising ventures. The fund is establishing offices in locations such as Pittsburgh, which offers a core of high-tech companies, local support for their development and a strong university community.
In addition to capital, Redleaf will offer a range of services, including operational support and a digital incubator systems integration capability to help seed-stage Internet firms mature into category winners, says C. Lloyd Mahaffey, director of Redleafs Pittsburgh operations.
Venture capital firms are spread thin, especially the top few, says Ashok Trivedi, Mastechs president and a co-founder with partner Sunil Wadhwani. What start-ups need is a committed investor who has a strategic interest in the success of the company, and who has the expertise and deployment capabilities to help them scale up quickly. How to reach: eVentures, www.mastech.com/eventures; Western Pennsylvania Adventure Capital Fund, www.wpacf.com; Redleaf Management, www.redleaf.com; Birchmere Investments, www.birchmere.net; Innovation Works, www.innovationworks.org
Ray Marano (email@example.com) is associate editor at SBN.
A recent federal court ruling may make it easier for employees to win reverse discrimination lawsuits. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a heightened standard adopted by many courts for people charging reverse discrimination and reinstated a white New Jersey postal workers suit alleging that he was passed over for promotion because of his race.
Under federal law, a member of a minority group or a woman can make an initial claim of discrimination by showing that he or she was turned down for a job which that person is qualified to do, and that the job remained open. The employer has to show its actions were based not on discrimination, but on legitimate business reasons.
Courts have generally held, however, that the person alleging reverse discrimination must first show background circumstances showing a bias against a majority group. That is, the plaintiff must initially show that the employer tends to discriminate against white people, and that discrimination motivated the employment decision.
The 3rd Circuit rejected such a disparity in placing the burden of proof, and called the background circumstances requirement vague and ill-defined. The court said that a plaintiff charging reverse discrimination need only show that the employer is treating some people less favorably than others based on race, color, sex, religion or national origin.
William E. Adams
One incident, one harassment case A federal court has ruled that one act of physical aggression by an employee can serve as the basis of a sexual harassment lawsuit even in cases in which the employee committed no sexual misconduct.
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit made the ruling in a case in which the defendant, a jail guard, allegedly battered a female officer at the jail in 1992. The victims arm was twisted so badly she needed surgery. Although no explicitly sexual contact occurred, the attacker did use gender-based epithets.
According to the panels majority opinion, the offensive conduct doesnt necessarily have to be inspired by sexual desire. The panel cited the Supreme Courts 1998 opinion in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services Inc., in which the high court found that a claim identifying a workplace as a hostile environment need only be somehow related to the victims sex.
In the current case, the opinion said the defendants intent to discriminate was shown by his history of verbally abusing only female colleagues. Moreover, the defendant had never been disciplined, and it was the plaintiff, rather than the defendant, who was transferred to a job she deemed inferior.
A dissenting opinion said the case should have been handled as a case of assault, not a sexual discrimination case. A representative of the Cook County states attorneys office, which handled the appeal for the defense, said a petition for rehearing will be filed shortly.
William E. Adams
Records: Keep or toss?You probably sometimes feel swamped by old records; other times, youre terrified of throwing anything out. Here is a quick guide of what to keep and for how long:
Forever Never throw out tax records or related documents, mostly in case the IRS gets curious about them. This includes tax returns, correspondence relating to tax returns, audit reports, financial statements and legal correspondence. Also preserve eternally contracts, real estate transaction documents and leases, and corporate records, all of which may be needed in connection with lawsuits. With employment-related lawsuits increasingly common, keep employment-related records indefinitely.
Six years Other records which relate to tax returns only need to be kept six years from the date of the return or the date the return is due, whichever is later. This includes financial records such as bank statements, deposit slips and sales records, employee expense records, including expense reports and supporting documentation, and income records such as W-2 and 1099 forms.
Three years This group includes documents which can be tossed three years after the filing date or due date, whichever is later, of the associated tax returns. This includes canceled checks, paid invoices, payroll records and depreciation schedules, and other documents related to expenses, such as 1098s for mortgage interest received, receipts for charitable donations and real estate tax bills. Inventory records should be kept for at least three years, but much longer if your company uses last-in, first-out inventory accounting.
Eileen R. Sisca
Law briefs is compiled by attorneys from Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, a national law firm based in Pittsburgh.
During the past decade, Pittsburgh-area businesses and entrepreneurs have had more than their share of conferences, committees, partnerships, alliances and other aggregations of experts seeking to nurture high technology as if it were a commodity. The Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse, unveiled in June 1999, is something else entirely.
The local entrepreneurial ranks may soon rejoice and worship at the new Greenhouse because of its tightly focused, single-minded goal of growing one specific cash crop: the new “System-on-a-Chip (SOC)” technology.
Planting the seeds of growth and prosperity
Leading the charge in this nonprofit organization, funded in part by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and a consortium of private-sector members, is Dennis Yablonsky. Yablonsky, former president and CEO of Carnegie Group Inc., is president and CEO of the Digital Greenhouse.
He’s working with a host of companies which are among the who’s who of the nation’s high-tech industries. Among them are international giants Cadence Design Systems Inc., Casio Computer Co.,Ltd., Cisco Systems Inc., Oki Electric Industry Co. and Sony Corp. Academic members include Carnegie Mellon University, Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh.
Civic, business and professional organization members include the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, the Pittsburgh Technology Council, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Local associate members include Neo Linear Inc., Pittsburgh, which develops and markets software tools for the design of mixed-signal integrated circuits; Videon-Central Inc., State College, a provider of digital video hardware and software designs for the computer and consumer industries; and Sima Products Corp., Oakmont, an innovator in consumer electronic accessories.
“The Digital Greenhouse was born out of a corporate demand for an integrated environment that enables innovation and sustains new product development,” Yablonsky says. “Each component works in synergy, creating an ideal environment for forward-looking companies. Every angle of research, product development and marketing has been considered in planning the ideal environment for the 21st century SOC-based product design.”
The Digital Greenhouse is designed to operate through five distinct but interrelated programs:
Electronic Design Technology Development Program This is the key building block. It will provide research funds, expertise from Greenhouse leaders and project management to facilitate breakthroughs in focused intellectual property (IP) applications for digital video and digital networks.
Electronic Design Education Program This will develop courseware and training modules for the retraining of electrical engineering and computer science personnel in SOC technology. It also will create a joint degree program among academic participants.
Electronic Infusion Program This is a new technology concept centered on sending highly specialized teams into medium- and large-sized companies to identify opportunities for the use of electronics to add value to existing products.
Intellectual Property Exchange Program This responds to a need for commercializing intellectual property available at local universities and high-tech companies. The center will develop the standards and processes to exchange intellectual property and develop marketing plans and alliances with similar R&D groups around the world.
Complex Support Program This will be housed in a facility with highly secure electronic infrastructure that enables technology companies to efficiently transmit their product to supplying, collaborating and user companies. It will connect organizations within the Digital Greenhouse to suppliers, collaborators and users outside the region. Companies involved will have access to a telecommunication test-bed environment. Access to venture capital will be provided through the Complex Support Program.
How the technology works
Charles Brandt, PhD, chief technical officer for the Greenhouse, describes the infant technology this way: “SOC integrates many functional systems directly on a single chip to more efficiently control the features of the product into which it is incorporated. For example, designers previously would use one chip for memory and another chip for data processing, and so on, all within a single device. SOC eliminates that process by combining these various functions in a single microchip.
“Smaller, faster and more affordable smart products from integrated data, cable and cell phones to wireless handheld devices for voice, fax and data are in the works,” Brandt continues. “These, and others not yet imagined, are examples of digital consumer devices enhanced by the addition of an SOC microchip.
SOC also will allow designers to bring products to market faster and cheaper.
“Previously, chip designers would start from scratch when developing a product. But SOC technology allows designers to mix and match capabilities sort of like building blocks rather than having to come up with a whole new chip at the outset.”
Before joining the Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse as its science guru in October, Brandt was a researcher at the Northrop Grumman Science & Technology Center in Pittsburgh for 11 years, most recently as manager of the microelectronics department. He will coordinate the Greenhouse’s Electronic Design Technology Development Program.
Something for everybody
Digital Greenhouse marketing literature describes the organization as “an attempt to leverage the region’s existing assets to create an SOC cluster that initially focuses on the digital video and digital networking markets, but will ultimately come up with new ways to put innovations like SOC to work to develop a wide range of next-generation products.”
The Digital Greenhouse is held up as a new model of public, private and academic business and technological initiatives designed to foster the growth of smart products in Western Pennsylvania. The aim is to generate, in one environment, the essential components which support SOC development and technology.
Among its greatest benefits to industry leaders that join, Yablonsky says, is that they gain access to an unprecedented concentration of highly specialized resources specifically geared toward SOC design. And they’ll be able to work toward establishing a set of standards and an efficient market for reused intellectual property. They also will help create a pool of engineering talent with special training in repurposing intellectual property.
For these corporate giants, the technology-friendly environment described by Yablonsky means access to streamlined legal frameworks, intellectual property valuation models and technical practices which will reduce intellectual property lead-time transactions.
Regional businesses that join will enjoy the influx of companies attracted by the Greenhouse. That means more buyers and sellers, more intellectual property availability and a more robust intellectual property market. These firms are expected to work through the Greenhouse toward building a standard methodology for reusable intellectual property and construct an electronic infrastructure that enables such property to be easily bought and sold among participating companies.
Local start-up companies likewise will get a reliable framework for sustained growth as well as special access to specialized design software, venture capital funding for SOC-related businesses and support services such as marketing, finance and legal assistance.
The Harrisburg perspective
Gov. Tom Ridge has been a prime mover in the creation of the Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse, putting up state funds to launch the initiative and traveling to Japan and throughout the United States to attract ideas and members.
“The world has taken notice of the Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse,” Ridge said recently. “Unlike traditional economic development strategies which focus on the attraction of individual companies while placing the emphasis on bricks and mortar, the Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse gives Pennsylvania a competitive advantage by establishing a total and unique environment for the 21st century electronics industry.”
Ridge’s hope is that it will give Pennsylvania the high-tech credit he says it deserves.
“World-class firms now recognize what we have known for some time Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania are forces to be reckoned with in today’s high-tech economy,” Ridge says. “We seek to create the greenhouse of tomorrow to grow the products we’ll all use tomorrow and the high-tech jobs we need to ensure Pittsburgh’s prosperity into the 21st century.”
How to reach: The Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse, (412) 201-3423
William McCloskey is a free-lance writer living in Pittsburgh.
The rumpled old man, his long beard matted to the gray tattered blanket around him, almost blended into the doorway as I strolled casually past him on Forbes Avenue with my young son that Christmas Eve.
I hadnt even noticed him or the cup of change in front of him.
It was my sons first trip into Pittsburgh, and I wanted him to fully experience the blend of music, frigid air and the mad rush of last-minute shoppers like me running around like panicked elves. I dragged him by the hand up and down each street, showing him the holiday window displays.
I pointed out the landmarks and tall buildings, and I shared some history about the region. We rode the escalators and bought gifts. In all of this Christmasy excitement, I almost caught myself singing Silver Bells as we glided through this fair and festive city.
But I never saw that old man.
We rushed right past him and on down Forbes to Wood Street when my son finally tugged on my hand to stop me.
Why is that man sitting there like that? Adam asked, pointing to the weathered old man in the doorway, sitting hopelessly on a piece of cardboard. This was the first time he had ever seen a real beggar on the street.
He has no place to live, I told him matter-of-factly, and he wants people to give him money.
But its Christmas, Adam said. You mean he doesnt have anywhere to go on Christmas? No family of friends?
No, I said. He lives on the street.
I pulled Adam forward. We had lots of shopping left to do, and we were running out of daylight. But he pulled me back and just stood there. Then he asked me the question of questions.
Could we take him home with us tonight? he asked. Nobody should be alone like that on Christmas.
I stood there speechless. He had just knocked the wind out of my pleasantly shallow Christmas experience. So I gave to Adam $5 to give to the man, and we went on our way.
I was too busy watching the sidewalk in front of me to look up long enough to notice this guy. I was too busy thinking about the experience I wanted to have and share with my son of downtown Pittsburgh, and of all the things I still had to do between then and Christmas Day.
My son got to experience Pittsburgh, alright, but not the Pittsburgh I wanted him to remember. But I was too focused and selfish to notice.
How many of us go through our business lives thinking about ourselves and the success of our companies, staying focused only on what remains in front of us? And we fail to look up long enough to see how we might contribute to the greater good.
Contributing to the economic vitality of this region certainly is part of it. But many people dont bother. They figure someone else will reach out and mentor or invest or help set policy for the regions economic future. Theyre too busy managing their own companies, they say. Theyve got enough to do without worrying about getting involved in the region.
Those same people then grumble about how far behind this region is economically from similar cities. And they complain about the regions shortcomings. In football, we call them armchair quarterbacks.
In this special issue, we have taken the time to identify 55 business, civic and government leaders, Pittsburghs Pacesetters, who are willing to give of their time, money and ideas to make Southwestern Pennsylvania a great place to live and do business. Many of them are doing it one person at a time. Some share their wisdom and experience with others. Some are using the wealth they have earned in this region to invest in the futures of other entrepreneurs. Still others are doing what they can to promote Pittsburgh to the region itself and to the rest of the world.
Then there are people like Jack Roseman, this months One On One interview, who offer up all of the above in a life dedicated to others in business. It took him a massive heart attack and doctors giving him one day to live to get the picture. But when he finally looked up from his life as a workaholic entrepreneur, he never looked back.
Twenty-seven years later, hes still looking up, taking time to notice the people who need his help and then helping them. Thats why I call him the Quintessential Pacesetter.
So what does it take to become a quintessential pacesetter? Wisdom that youre willing to share, passion for life and for the region and a compassion that forces you to take the time to look up and see who you can help today. But most of all it takes action. You can think about it all you want, but its your action that truly benefits the greater good.
In this issue, were talking about business and economic prosperity, but the same does apply for the greater good of humanity as well. If you make only one New Years resolution this year, make it this: To look up and contribute to the greater good of this region and its people.
Its just a shame it took an innocent, compassionate 8-year-old to teach me that lesson. Daniel Bates (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of SBN magazine.
I was recently thinking about something I read a while back. I dont recall the source, but the quote was, You learn about life when you learn to love the people you dont even like.
Theres a great deal of wisdom in that little phrase, for all of us. Whether its in school, the workplace, or even the home, there are times when we are not certain how much we really care for the people around us. According to a quip from Readers Digest a few years back, a little boy wrote a letter to God.
He said. Dear God, I cant understand how you can love everyone in the whole world ... There are only five in my family, and I cant do it!
When I was starting out, many years ago, I worked with a large group of salesmen in a rather confined area. One fellow seemed to have a smart remark every time I said something. This went on for nearly a year. Finally I suggested we take our differences outside. Im certainly not proud of my lack of maturity, but it was a long time ago.
The other fellow looked at me with what could best be described as shock. And Ill never forget his next words: But I just wanted to get your attention so we could be friends.
Strange as it may seem, that little exchange has had an important impact on my life. When I form an instant dislike for another person, I make a sincere attempt to determine why I feel this way. What is it about this person that causes me to react to him or her so negatively?
In all honesty, after thinking about it for a time, if I do find something I dont like, it probably isnt that important. In most cases you may never see the person again. So why get bent out of shape over a perfect stranger?
On the other hand, if this is a co-worker, some effort should be made to discover a common ground that allows you to work together without this becoming an issue. If youre managing someone you dont like, that can be a serious problem.
When you accept the mantle of leadership, you must make a conscious effort to treat all of your people equally. Granted, this doesnt always happen in the real world. We all are subject to some degree of prejudice, envy and personal bias. But in these difficult times, with the stress and the proclivity toward violence, people in management in leadership positions must make an extra effort to provide guidance and act as positive role models.
At least 20 percent of the people in any organization suffer from low self-esteem. They often feel unimportant. They dont see their work as important. They feel left out. They are the people who hesitate to offer suggestions and ideas to improve performance.
And yet, in my experience, they often have a completely different perspective on the tasks they are performing, which can provide valuable insights for improving performance. The tendency often is to avoid them because they are not aggressively outgoing. They dont readily speak up with their ideas.
Take a few moments to say hello. Show appreciation for their efforts. Solicit their suggestions.
I cant honestly say I ever became a social buddy with the guy I mentioned, but I do run into him on occasion. And we do have a friendship of sorts, which we wouldnt have had if first impressions had won out.
William Armstrong, a management consultant for 30 years, is president of Pittsburgh-based management consulting firm Armstrong/Associates. Reach him at (412) 276-7396 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Anita Brattina wasnt yet 27 years old when she put a desk in the spare bedroom of her apartment, recruited her sister-in-law as a secretary/bookkeeper and set out to build a multimillion-dollar international marketing consulting business. A brash dream, even for 1984.
Today, Brattina is president and CEO of Direct Response Marketing Inc., a full-service telemarketing and telephone research organization providing business-to-business and consumer capabilities to clients around the world. The firm, now based in Forest Hills, provides everything from buyer preference profiling, direct mail follow-up, customer research, appointment setting and telefundraising to market research, opinion polls, seminar and focus group recruitment and database enhancement and verification.
At the outset, Brattinas resources were scant a journalism degree from Duquesne University, seven years experience in corporate marketing, and a little cash from an employment separation package she had received.
But she had two secret ingredients that give this story a positive twist persistence and a willingness to learn.
As I got into it, I was totally unprepared to realize how little I knew about business, even after years as head of a corporate marketing department, says Brattina, looking back on 15 years of progress. I was naive. I knew how to do the business, but I didnt know how to run it. So I was forced to learn, somewhat painfully at times, that knowing your craft doesnt make you a CEO.
I didnt know about business plans, financing, hiring, delegating the skills it takes to keep all the plates spinning.
Chronicling the journey
That Brattina learned both quickly and well is evident from the success of DRM. In the process, she documented her struggles and the lessons learned, producing one of the most popular small business books in recent years, Diary of a Small Business Owner: A Personal Account of How I Built a Profitable Business (AMACOM, 1996, $21.95, available from the National Education Center for Women in Business, (724) 830-4615, and in bookstores).
The challenges, obstacles, strategies and ultimately the triumphs she describes are invaluable reading for those who would be entrepreneurs.
Brattina reports, for instance, that despite her enthusiasm for the new enterprise, she experienced an unexpected and painful sense of isolation when she stepped out on her own.
Moving from the connectedness of a thriving corporation to the isolation of working in the apartment was severe a culture shock, she wrote. No secretary, no phones ringing with incoming business, no using solid years of business to justify constant name recognition, no flood of mail from professional organizations, no phone calls from colleagues sharing ideas.
Even five years into the venture, Brattina still was learning basic skills, she wrote.
In some ways, I had been running two businesses concurrently ... my business and the business my employees saw, she noted. My personal vision wasnt focused enough. I saw possibility in every idea. That meandering of vision dragged me through more trouble than I needed to endure.
Turning the corner
Brattinas open-mindedness and willingness to learn eventually carried the day. By 1992, the company was doing annual business of $250,000; by 1994, it generated more than $1 million in revenues.
During those two years, Brattina got help from Powerlink and other women-owned business consultants who provided her expert advisory boards and taught her to delegate responsibilities, focus on the CEO role, develop business plans and attract and optimize financing.
Through the learning process, Brattina says, she managed to hang onto her core values. She wanted to operate a professional and expert service based on customer and employee loyalty sore points in the teleservice industry at large. And she wanted to establish a work environment that fostered employee involvement and ownership.
Everything else was open to revision for this married mother of four, who came to Pittsburgh from her native Philadelphia to attend Duquesne. Today, five years after the intensive CEO training, she finds herself re-energized and refocused.
Our growth has been strong and steady, she says. Personally, Im enamored of the entrepreneur role again. Im getting the fulfillment I sought when I started.
And her plans for the future?
Were for poised for the next step, she says. It was a gradual and painstaking process to grow from a local company to a regional company, then from regional to national and international. Now we intend to become a truly global enterprise and open offices in other parts of the United States, and eventually, in key locations around the world.
Whether we grow our own or expand through acquisition thats something I cant say today. But we have the vision and the skills. So its not a matter of how just when.
How to reach: Anita Brattina at Direct Response Marketing Inc., (412) 242-6200, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
William McCloskey is a Pittsburgh-based free-lance writer.
About this series...
The SBN/PNC Women in Business Series is a new monthly series sponsored by PNC Bank showcasing the achievements of some of the regions top women business owners and the obstacles they have overcome.
PNC Bank continues to expand its commitment to women business owners. In its latest initiative, the PNC Bank Foundation offered a $250,000 grant to Seton Hill Colleges National Education Center for Women in Business to create a Web site resource for women business owners. Its Web address: e-magnify.com.
The special event is a marketing technique that can make a favorable and long-lasting impression.
Annual meetings, open houses, dinner meetings with customer groups, sales meetings, even having a hospitality suite at a trade show, all qualify as a special event.
Pulling off a special event in memorable fashion comes down to a single point: Taking care of the details.
The invitation list
Staging the event is only half the effort. Convincing the right people to attend is the other half. Many companies leave this detail until the last minute.
If you do, some people will receive their invitations too late to place your event on their schedules. Start working on the list as soon as you begin planning the event.
If the location isnt predetermined, select one that is convenient to most of the people attending. Making it easy for your audience to get there will increase attendance.
Dont forget to consider road construction schedules. Deal with construction by letting everyone know its there, giving them details on how to get around it and urging them to get an early start to the event site. Provide something to do for those who arrive early.
Consider bringing in a speaker to liven up the event and help get your message across. An organization moving from one downtown location to another not long ago wanted to prepare its employees and customers for the move.
We brought in the producer/narrator of a local television series about Pittsburgh people and places. He had delightful, behind-the-scenes stories which he interspersed with film clips from the series. We arranged for him to focus on the people and places that make the Strip District unique. So, much of what he said focused on his film about the Strip.
It was a little detail, and it paid off. The audiences loved the presentations. And they began to get a subtle message that the move was going to be good for everyone.
You dont always have to budget large sums of money to get them onto the stage. The TV producer didnt charge anything for his appearances. He liked the opportunity to promote his films, and he absolutely delighted in telling stories about how he made them.
With any speaker, consider budgeting for audio/visual support. Your location can be ideal and the speaker may be great, but if you need A/V support, and the A/V system isnt up to par, youll lose the opportunity to tell the audience what you want them to know.
Consider hiring a local A/V firm to bring in a system. Your site already may have its own A/V system, but if the sound or projector fails during your event and you cant switch over to the second system, the partys over. Use the hotel system as a back-up. The professional A/V firm is going to have better equipment and it will work.
The size of the room dictates when you need a microphone and screen. If youre talking to a group of 50 or more people, you may need the mike, and youll likely need a screen as well.
At the end of the event, dont forget to ask the members of your audience to fill out an evaluation form and ask them to provide you with suggestions for the next gathering. It may provide you with surprising information.
Attention to detail. Every detail. Thats what makes a special event special.
Jeff Krakoff is the president of Krakoff Communications, Inc., a Pittsburgh-based marketing communications and public relations agency. KCI is the agency of record for First Night Pittsburgh, the regions largest annual special event For a free copy of KCIs meeting/special event check list, call Jeff Krakoff at (412) 434-7718.
One of the first things that students learn in a writing or journalism class is to avoid using clichés and jargon in their writing.
Unfortunately for us writers, we are bombarded with both on an almost daily basis by people who are determined, it seems, to help us fall from grace.
Covering business exposes us to lots of clichés and jargon, both spoken and in press releases, that grow ragged with overuse. It should come as no surprise that these are most often used when companies or their public relations agents are attempting to get our attention. Ironically, they usually end up shooting themselves in the foot. Whoops!
Here are the ones we hear most often:
- Were a unique company. Unique should be stricken from the English language. Despite the fact that they know it drives us nuts, or maybe because it does, public relations and marketing writers continue to use this word. A letter to us is almost certain to hit the trash can if you use it.
- We are doing a lot of interesting things. Interesting to whom? If you want to increase your chances of getting our attention, ask yourself the hard questions before we do. Who would want to hear this story? Why would anyone care about what youre doing?
- Weve been in business for (10, 20, 100) years. Quite frankly, the length of time a company has been in business is of only passing interest to most people, let alone us. We might be interested, though, in how you managed to stay in business. But dont mention the following as one of the reasons:
- We exceed our customers expectations. Thats good, but why is it that so many businesses disappoint me? I just want to go away feeling like I got my moneys worth. Besides, I havent met anyone who ever said, Our customer service isnt too good.
- Its a win-win. Weve been laughing up our sleeves for a couple of years at this one. I dont know too many people who would say, for publication at least, that they beat the pants off the other guy. And most of us find it hard to admit that we got a bad deal. Besides, weve seen too many win-wins degrade quickly into lose-lose.
- Its a win-win-win. In an attempt to outdo the win-winners, there are those who insist on finding a third party to win with.
Of course, not every catch phrase is dismissed so lightly by us. In fact, when an expression reaches wide familiarity, we can put it to work for us. I took advantage of Show me the money, coined by a character in the movie Jerry Maguire, when I came up with Show me the service, the headline for my column last month.
I used Only in Amarraca as the headline for my December 1999 column. In fact, in my never-ending quest to be clever, I often try turning the common expression on its head.
Ray Marano, associate editor of SBN, spends much of his time trying educate SBNs readers and exceeding their expectations. We could say its a real win-win. But we wont. Reach him at email@example.com.
The hush of Infoliant Corp.’s Station Square offices is in contrast to the hubbub over the Y2K issue that dominated the news during the waning weeks of 1999.
Yet, in its own quiet way, the company formed in 1997 to offer computer users updates on the Y2K status of their software may very well have helped corporate and government computer users avoid a chaotic, or at least troublesome, New Year’s Day.
With thousands of software products available and in use, it would have been nearly impossible for most companies to assemble the Y2K status information to judge their exposure. Infoliant’s founders realized that and came up with the Year 2000 Network Advisor, a service that helped its clients do just that.
“What we do is aggregate and standardize and package the information for companies that don’t have the resources to do it themselves,” says Kevin Weaver, Infoliant’s executive vice president and co-founder.
Weaver repeats the conventional wisdom that appears to be emerging about Y2K: The likelihood of major catastrophes was remote, at most, and software makers, government and private industry saw the potential for problems and acted decisively and spent considerable dollars to head them off. That made the first hours of 2000 uneventful, at least as far as the millennium bug was concerned.
While they are undetectable to most of us, some lingering effects of Y2K do exist; some software did prove noncompliant, which created problems. That will mean weeks or even months of vigilance and ongoing demand for reporting on the status of software fixes.
Weaver says some help desks got swamped, and Infoliant still received status changes during January, something he expects to continue at a brisk pace, at least until the end of February. It also could mean a flurry of litigation coming out of those failures, and that, Weaver believes, may offer opportunities for Infoliant.
In this month’s One on One, Weaver reveals why he wasn’t worried that the world might come to an end at midnight Dec. 31, 1999, and talks about Infoliant’s future in a post-Y2K world.
SBN: What’s in the future for Infoliant?
Weaver: We’re looking at a couple of different strategies. We have prepared something called the compliance archive. Part of our process is to collect information about the Y2K status and keep that record as it changes over time. So we can tell you that this product was originally deemed compliant on May 21, 1998, and that in August, they found an issue, and in September, they found a second issue.
We’ve got all of that kind of information documented. We put that together in anticipation of supporting the legal community if there were a large number of Y2K lawsuits, so we’re exploring some outlets for that information.
The market for that, the need for that, is later, after the lawsuits start to get filed. That’s something that is there and just needs a bit of polish if we need to turn it on. What we’re doing right now is the market research and some product development work.
Many of our customers took it upon themselves to contact us and tell us some ideas they’d like to see us do, and we heard a very common message. What they told us basically is that they absolutely love what we’re doing with Y2K with the Year 2000 Network Advisor, but from their perspective, the year 2000 was just a special kind of bug, and that they would love to see some sort of service expanded, not just to cover a Y2K topic, but the general problems that occur every day with computers.
We’re in the process now of formalizing that in terms of understanding how big the market is and how we price and package it and adapt what we have to cover a broader range of topics. That probably won’t be ready for the market for a few more months.
Are we out of the Y2K woods?
The media attention on midnight, Dec. 31, was unfounded. It was kind of a lightning rod point, but anybody who’s been involved with Y2K and the information technology business understands that really only a small number of the problems were going to occur at that time, and that the nature of the problems was not going to be catastrophic.
According to some of the studies by the Gartner Group and others, a lot of the problems started occurring before Dec. 31, and we knew that from feedback from our customers. They feel about 50 to 60 percent of the problems are yet to be reported, and we’re starting to see that even with the products that we track.
From the perspective of everyday life, I think, yes, there certainly still are incidents cropping up here and there where bills get sent out with the wrong date or what have you. What we undertook as a problem was what we call the broad Y2K problem.
It wasn’t so much that there was a big old application that ran a bank written in COBOL 30 years ago that was not Y2K compliant. We took on all the desktop PC-distributed systems, things that companies have thousands of spread out all over the place. [For our customers] it was a logistics issue of, ‘How do I get technicians and people and information out to all these places and pick up all these things?’
So what we were getting feedback on now are people finding pockets of small things, things they had missed, things that vendors didn’t test thoroughly but are not at points that are affecting overall company performance.
There’s been a lot of stuff written in the last week or so asking whether this was a big hoax, did we overspend, was this a waste of money. There’s no doubt in my mind that had we done nothing, we would have seen a lot more significant issues.
We never expected to see lights go off or telephone service interrupted for any significant amount of time or anything that was going to be nationally newsworthy. I wasn’t surprised to see that. I was surprised to see that there were a relatively small number of reports.
How important was the role played by Infoliant and other similar services in averting widespread problems or even disaster?
This is something I told our employees in our wrap-up meetings. We have several hundred global 1000 firms as customers. Granted, they have lots of other resources going into Y2K we didn’t get a fraction of that $600 billion [estimated worldwide expenditures for Y2K compliance efforts], but we did certainly have an impact on some of the major organizations.
Almost every bank, brokerage firm and investment firm were customers of ours. Many of the leading telecommunications companies around the world are customers of ours.
I want to give some credit to the computer manufacturers and the software manufacturers. I think they did a stellar job of getting information out and available. Without their cooperation, we couldn’t have done our service. It’s unfortunate that it [compliance status] changed frequently.
One of the things our service did was to detect when patch one didn’t really fix the problem, so patch two came out to fix it, or patch one introduced a problem that patch two had to fix.
What was all the hype about with regard to Y2K?
I think what had people concerned was that in the history of technology, there have been a couple of instances where small failures cascaded into bigger problems, problems with telephone systems, where one phone switch in the long distance system goes haywire and all of a sudden things start to go down.
On the Internet in the fall, there was a cut in a fiber optic line in Ohio that pretty much shut down East Coast-West Coast traffic for several days until that got repaired. There was the blackout in the 1960s on the East Coast, where a power generator facility went down and everything started to cascade after that.
We’re talking about billions of lines of code and million of systems and hundreds of thousands of human beings worldwide working on things. It seems difficult to believe that nothing bigger occurred, that somebody didn’t miss something that was important.
That was a little bit of a surprise to us. [Infoliant] is in an odd position; we certainly didn’t hope for a disaster, but at the same time, we’re surprised that things went as smoothly as they did.
Ray Marano (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor at SBN.