From the December 1997 issue of Startups

Good news is on the horizon for the self-employed: The deductibility of health-insurance costs--which are at a marginal 40 percent for 1997--will gradually increase over the next 10 years, and will be 100-percent deductible by the year 2007. These changes are brought to you courtesy of the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, which President Clinton signed into law on August 5.

"This is the first major tax cut in 16 years, but the new tax act is extremely complex, with numerous technical and complicated provisions," says Ed Slott, a CPA in Rockville Centre, New York, and author of Your Tax Questions Answered (Plymouth Press, $9.95, 800-350-1007), which answers 171 of the most commonly asked tax questions.

But wait, there's more: The health-insurance deductibility is only one of the changes to be implemented from the new tax law. For a three-page newsletter summarizing the other rulings--including information about changes on electronic tax deposits, estimated tax payments and the home-office qualification--send a SASE to E. Slott & Co. CPAs, 100 Merrick Rd., #200 E., Rockville Centre, NY 11570.

Total Recall

By Jessica Hale

If you've ever been struck by a brilliant idea while stuck in rush-hour traffic, Sharp's new YO-220V is for you. This personal electronic organizer has an innovative Voice Record feature that allows you to record and play back messages with the touch of a button. Next time you only have one hand free, just push the "Rec" button on the outside of the YO-220V to record for up to 84 seconds without even opening the organizer.

When you do flip open the YO-220V, you'll find it packed with useful, time-saving features. The Telephone feature includes directories for names, addresses and phone numbers. The Schedule feature helps you keep track of important appointments. The Memo/To-Do function allows you to type notes and create special lists. The Calendar feature displays the calendar for an entire month-at-a-glance for long-term planning, and the Home andWorld Clocks feature ensures you'll be on time--no matter where you're traveling.

The YO-220V offers 48K of memory, a calculator and a Secret function to keep your information private. All these features fit into a 6.17-ounce unit small enough to carry in a shirt pocket. Suggested retail price: $89.99.

From Sharp Electronics Corp., Mahwah, NJ. For more information, call (800) BE-SHARP, or visit http://www.sharp-usa.com

Gold-Medal Sales

By Laura Tiffany

Even if you consider yourself a good salesperson, How Champions Sell (Amacom, $24.95, 800-262-9699) can provide a healthy serving of sales strategies to fortify your business bank account. While author Michael Baber focuses on 27 keys to sales success, he says that only a few may apply to your sales situation. "If you can identify the very few (often one to three) most important selling opportunities or approaches available to you--and perform them with excellence," says Baber, "you can become a selling champion."

How Champions Sell guides you through your champion transformation with an easy style and structure that allows you to skip ahead to the chapters that will help improve your sales strategies. Answering such questions as "When did you last solve a problem for a customer?" and "Who could help you get significantly more business?" will help you study your own sales case history in-depth and decide which of Baber's strategies could be your keys to success.

Filled with inspiring examples of true sales champions, How Champions Sell can help you hone the skills that will make every sales call a triumph.

Trend Watch!

Flush With Success.

By Karin Moeller

The water closet . . . the outhouse . . . the rest-room . . . Whatever you call it, this room of temporary repose is the latest to be targeted by clever product manufacturers.

Eyecatcher Gifts in New Hyde Park, New York, has been flush with success since creating its bathroom novelty gifts. A believer that a good practical joke has a place in even the most personal of quarters, Eyecatcher distributes an arsenal of potty products. The two most popular are Revenge toilet paper--a continuous roll of toilet paper that, despite the user's brawniest efforts, will not rip or tear--and On Target toilet paper--each sheet of which displays a floating red bull's-eye, intended to improve aim.

The Sharper Image, international purveyors of upscale, cutting-edge gift products, has received an influx of calls for its Jammin' Johns Guitarlet--a toilet lid fashioned in the form of a guitar, complete with a real bridge and pickguard. Created by Marvin Maxwell, a Kentucky music-store owner who originally made a guitar from a toilet lid, the new product is setting musical tones in bathrooms around the world.

And Urban Outfitters, the international retail chain that seems to hold the title of "Ringmaster of the Three-Ring Circus of Hip '90s Clothing, Gifts and Housewares," also carries an entire line of unique products for the bathroom. The company's top-selling vinyl shower curtain, which features individual slots for inserting postcards or other like-sized items, allows the user to determine the character of the plastic, while its Grassy Meadows shower curtain, which features a close-up photograph of a soothing field of grass, offers an escape to the country for those otherwise surrounded by concrete and asphalt.

Dr. Troubleshooter

By Roger Fritz

Every business has problems. But entrepreneurial survivors solve their businesses' problems as they arise, and grow by converting those solutions into future opportunities.

Dr. Roger Fritz has more than 40 years of experience as an educator, manager, corporate executive, university president, small-business consultant and author of 28 business and management books.

This month in Dr. Troubleshooter's waiting room we discover the importance of monitoring your competition.

Problem: Your sales are falling, but your competitors' are rising.

Diagnosis: Analyze your competition and determine what they have to offer that you don't. Then take whatever action is necessary.

Prescription: Here is a minimal checklist for you to follow as you compare your company against your competitors':

  • Are your competitors better known? Are the companies older? Larger?
  • Do they do more advertising than you do? Is their promotional activity, including their advertising, better than yours? If you can't outspend your competitors in advertising, concentrate on quality, customer satisfaction and service. These are the best methods of advertising you can produce.
  • What are your competitors doing that's not working? Be sure your company isn't guilty of making the same mistakes. Make a list of the competitors' weak points. Can these things be used to your advantage?
  • How good is your service? Are your competitors making it easier for customers to do business with them? How? Follow up faithfully on customer complaints. Repeat business is critical. Use outside agencies--such as mystery shoppers--to objectively evaluate your customer service and your employees.
  • Do your competitors offer customers more for their money than you do? If you can't compete favorably in everything your competitors do, pick out the areas in which you can offer superior price, quality or service.

There are several ways to acquire this kind of competitor intelligence:

  • Buy your competitors' products. Test them, take them apart and analyze them for quality and cost.
  • Talk to your competitors' employees, customers and suppliers.
  • Read your competitors' advertising.

Excerpted with permission from Roger Fritz's The Small Business Troubleshooter: 152 Solutions to the Problems Faced by Every Growing Company (Career Press, $16.99, 630-420-7673).

Q &A

By Lela Kim

Q: I've invented a new product and I need to know how to go about looking for independent sales reps to get it into department stores. Please help! I don't know where to begin.
A. Greer
via America Online

A. Provided by Lionel W. Diaz, president and CEO of the Manufacturers' Agents National Association (MANA) in Laguna Hills, California.
First of all, what kind of product have you invented? There are many types of sales representatives, and the industry your product is in--whether it be automotive, apparel, gifts and so on--will make a difference in your search for a sales rep.

Employees of outsourced sales agencies are referred to as reps, agents or brokers, depending on their particular industry. For the sake of clarity, we'll call them reps. A good sales rep becomes your interface with customers within an outlined territory. They serve as your eyes and ears in the marketplace as they seek orders for your product line.

There are two benefits of contracting with an agency. First, it can be more economical than hiring and maintaining your own sales force. Second, sales reps usually have established business relationships in given territories and a ready-to-access customer base.

Following are some general tips for finding independent sales reps:

1. If you're interested in selling your product to department or specialty stores, look at the products they carry. Does your product complement the lines they offer? Take note of product lines similar to yours in quality and target audience. Contact the store buyer or the complementary product line's manufacturer. Ask if the manufacturer sells directly to the stores and, if so, how did they get in? If they used a sales rep, ask how you can get in touch with that agency.

2. Seek referrals from other reps and manufacturers. Most reps will be pleased to recommend agencies that may suit your product line.

3. Consult an association directory. Some local, regional and industry associations publish rep listings in the publications they circulate to members. TheMANA Directory (MANA, $129, 714-859-4040) is a complete guide to manufacturers' reps in the United States.

4. Consult trade magazines and books. MANA's Agency Sales Magazine, a nationally circulated publication with a readership of 14,000, has a classified section that lists sales reps looking for product lines, as well as manufacturers seeking sales reps. For subscription information, call (714) 859-4040. I also recommend reading Harold Novick's Selling Through Independent Reps (Amacom, $69.95, 800-250-5308).

5. Attend trade shows. Many shows list participating sales agencies in their show guides. Others provide bulletin boards, and some even make meeting rooms available specifically for the gathering of manufacturers and sales reps.

Before choosing an agency, prepare by drawing a concise profile of the agency you want. Take into consideration the territory you'd like to approach, your prospective customers, your product line and its future growth.

When you find a good agency selling compatible product lines in your market, you contract their services. Contracting with the agency usually entails signing a contract delineating the territory, commission rate, products, payment time and cancellation policies.

Early Starts

A national survey of U.S. high school students found that seven out of 10 students want to start and own their own businesses. --Kaufman Foundation/Gallup Organization

Contact Sources

Eyecatcher Gifts, P.O. Box 1104, New Hyde Park, NY 11040, (516) 354-6743

Dr. Roger Fritz, 1240 Iroquois Dr., #406, Naperville, IL 60563, (630) 420-7673

Manufacturers' Agents National Association, P.O. Box 3467, Laguna Hills, CA 92654, (714) 859-4040