From day one, we've been encouraged to do everything better. Our parents taught us to walk instead of crawl. Our teachers showed us that, yes, we really were smarter than we ever believed. And haven't movies, books and songs inspired us to shove aside the status quo and dream-and dream big?
Some didn't heed the call. Some are still living in their parents' basements. But you're different. You went after what you wanted. You did everything better, and that will always be your plan of attack. Good for you.
But almost every day, you lose some of your edge, something that's easy to do in the confusion of e-mail, pagers, memos, political correctness, cash flow analysis and W-2 forms. You lose your edge, and you don't do everything better-and before long, it starts to show in your businesses.
That's why we're here. We're going to show you how to do everything better. Everything. After reading this, you'll be smarter, better looking, and you'll be able to program your VCR.
Well, maybe you already realize we're overpromising. (See, you're smarter already.) Still, the next several pages may serve as a wake-up call that you can do everything better. And if you can't-we'll show you how to fake it.
How To Get Your Direct Mail Opened
Everybody hates junk mail. You do, too, unless it's your own junk mail, in which case you take umbrage at the insinuation that the letters you're sending to prospective clients are anything less than personal, warm, individualized messages-all 300,000 of them.
The rule: Junk mail shouldn't look like junk, according to Christopher Nicholas, president of Eagle Consulting Group Inc., a political consulting and strategic research firm in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Try the following "look at me" strategies.
- Use a laser printer to print customers' addresses directly onto the envelope, instead of onto a label.
- "Vary the size and shape of your envelopes," says Nicholas. "Eight-and-a-half-by-11-inch envelopes with a small, upper left-hand window seem to be in vogue now. I personally like a smaller envelope."
- "Some companies have had success with actual handwritten addresses," Nicholas notes. "There are firms that employ hundreds of people to handwrite addresses."
- Stamps almost always work better than printed indicia-and first class usually works better than bulk mail. Some entrepreneurs experiment with multiple stamps-i.e., a 20-, a 10- and three 1-cent stamps rather than one 33-cent stamp.
The exception to the rule: For those who want their envelopes opened at any cost, consider these suggestions from Neil Griffin, principal of Jam Communications in Washington, DC.
- Create a "lumpy" package that has a loose object (a pen, a day planner or other gift) inside. People's curiosity will force them to open the envelope to find out what's floating around in there.
- Put a piece of Scotch tape over the flap to make it look like it was personally sealed.
- Print a spilled coffee stain on the envelope. Dirty or damaged mail is more intriguing.
- Remove your return address or your company name from the envelope. Prospects will open it up if for no other reason than to find out who mailed it. Hey, it worked for the Unabomber.
How to Score Perks from Your Landlord
In the time it takes to hop in the elevator at lobby-level and go up seven floors to hash out a deal with your landlord, you can review this checklist and decide if you've got what it takes to take what you can get.
First Floor: Is your corporate real estate broker in the elevator with you? No? If he or she were, you wouldn't even have to be here. Brokers negotiate rents and perks with landlords daily. What's more, the landlord pays your broker's fee. Your landlord probably has a broker-why shouldn't you? This isn't Mr. Roper you're dealing with.
Second Floor: Do you have solid credit? If not, get it. Susan Ruby, a broker for Cushman & Wake-field of Florida Inc., a commercial real estate company in Orlando, says, "The credit worthiness of the tenant plays a big role in what you get from the landlord."
Third Floor: Do you have a comparison list? Ruby advises showing your landlord what the city's other property owners are willing to offer you.
Fourth Floor: Can you sign a lengthy lease? "If a company is serious, they don't need to sign anything less than five years," Ruby says. Moreover, a short-term lease doesn't get you anything. And if you're uncertain your company will want to stay put for five or 10 years, Ruby suggests signing with the right to cancel. You might have to pay a penalty if you leave prematurely, but you'll have some flexibility.
Fifth Floor: What's your attitude like? Bill Beck, a broker for Colliers International, a property management company in Boise, Idaho, stresses that it's important to not appear too eager to move into your new office. It's now, not later, that you're in demand. "You're likely to get perks when you're new," says Beck. "It's human nature. You put your best foot forward to a stranger, and you wear your dirty T-shirt around your wife. Landlords have a tendency to become possessive, thinking, 'This is my tenant, and he's not going to move.'"
Sixth Floor: So you're not too happy, are you? If you've been renting from this cheesehead for several years, remember: You've been thinking of moving for some time. No matter how hunky-dory everything's actually been, don't let the landlord know that.
Seventh Floor: Why are you even in this elevator? Beck recommends that the landlord see you on your own turf.
How to Beat the IRS
Oh, sure. We're going to tell you the secret, the information 741 tax books and software programs haven't been able to tell you. Still, you could do worse than to take advice from Ron McBride, a tax preparer for 10 years and owner of Triple Check Tax Services in Jacksonville, Florida. McBride also spent two years answering consumers' questions at the IRS, where his sole goal was to "know thy enemy."
The good news: If you keep adequate records, McBride says, "You can satisfy the IRS' audit standards and legally take every business deduction that's allowed."
The bad news: No matter how good your records are, you still may be audited-and "The number-one source of IRS audits are Schedule Cs, sole proprietorships," says McBride.
The good news: Chances are good you should be filing as a Subchapter S Corporation form, not as a sole proprietorship.
The bad news: If you're using a Schedule C form, you're paying 43 percent of your net income to the government.
The good news: If you're using a Subchapter S Corporation form, you are legally forbidden from paying self-employment taxes on your net earnings. "That's an immediate 15.3 percent tax savings," says McBride. "You're taxed not at the corporate rate but the personal tax rate. You pay taxes after you subtract all your itemized deductions, personal expenses, home mortgage interest and that stuff, and then you pay taxes at what we hope is a lower tax rate than the corporate tax rate."
How to Speed Up Your Computer (Without Paying a Cent)
You've been upgrading ever since you sprung for Nintendo in 1985, and you'll be #@!%& if you're going to buy another #@%$ upgrade. Well, relax. Here are three simple steps to upgrading without an upgrade, from Bill Howard, the senior executive editor of PC Magazine:
1. "The first thing you want to do is remove any unnecessary files from your computer," says Howard, who advises storing them on a backup disk if you really think you might need them. "What [your system] can't store in RAM, it has to temporarily store on the hard drive, and if there's not enough hard-drive space, it may have to thrash back and forth."
2. Delete all the temporary files you haven't used within the last week. How do you spot the temporaries? They're anything with a "tmp" suffix. They're also anything in the Windows Temporary Directory.
3. Delete any programs you're no longer using through the uninstall routines.
If you're worried you might accidentally delete something vital, relax. "If you do those three things, you will not screw up," Howard swears. "I'll give my home number and guarantee you won't. Well, I won't go that far."
You want more? Try these three steps from Michael Healey, president of PCBuild Upgrade Centers in Needham, Massachusetts.
1. Reduce your color palette. Most users set their systems with too many colors. Any more than 256 colors is too much for a normal user.
2. Remove unwanted start-up programs. How many little icons launch during boot-up? Task bars, special utilities? Get rid of 'em! Everything you need can be accessed via the desktop or menu, so don't clutter your start-up.
3. "Modify your virus scanning-by default, most antivirus programs scan inbound and outbound files. Change this to inbound only," advises Healey. Even better, if you're computer savvy enough to know how to scan disks or anything you download, you can disable inbound scanning altogether, and your system will be much quicker.
Short of all that, drop-kick your $#@$% computer out the window, and see how fast it goes.
How to Bluff Your Way Through Technophobia
The first rule is not to bluff, if you can help it, advises Chris J. Gullette, a software developer at the Orlando branch of Litton, TASC Inc., a $400 million technology firm. "Resist the temptation to use 'object oriented paradigm' in a sentence," says Gullette, "unless you really know what it means." But if you must keep a pokerface, here's a quick primer:
- "Show no fear," says Gullette. "Although we techie-types have a [not always unfounded] reputation for being socially inept, we can smell fear of technology like sharks smell blood in the water."
- "Don't worry about making a mistake. I make them all the time, and I spend 10-plus hours a day on a computer," Gullette says. "One of the biggest misconceptions about computers is that you can break something by hitting the wrong button. Almost anything you do short of formatting a disk can be quickly fixed."
Courtesy of the gang at Strategic Management Group Inc., a Philadelphia-based consulting firm that uses technological tools to teach managers business skills, here's some meaningless technical jargon that will confound everybody else but make you sound like a genius:
- "You can't do that before converting the encapsulated postscript to a run-length-encoded file format. (Duh!)"
- "Don't forget to spool the syquest at 20 MHz before you do that."
- "I think I'll apply the meta tag technique and shock this pure Java killer app."
How to Fire Someone (Without Landing Yourself in Court)
You could hire a firing squad. No, really. The country has a number of private investigation firms that will fire an employee for you. But if you'd rather do it yourself, clip and save our handy guide to downsizing. These tips come from George Scharm, the owner of TSS Consulting Group Inc., a full-service private detective and consulting company in Chicago, whom you can hire to fire when you don't have the guts.
Before you pick up the axe . . .
- Keep documentation of the thin ice that's been cracking underneath your employees. "Because," Scharm says, "if the State Employment Office comes back to you . . ." Yeah, yeah, we don't even want to think about it.
- Avoid referring to your firm as a family. Warns Scharm: "It sends the wrong message. You're a team, you're an organization that works well together, but you're not a family." Right, and who wants to be disowned by Mom and Dad?
As you swing the axe . . .
- If an employee is fired in the middle of the woods, will anybody hear him? No-and that's the point. This should be done away from the employee's co-workers, "even if you have to take him or her to a coffee shop," says Scharm. "Do it after hours, before hours or, if there's no other way to do it, on a weekend." Friday is the best day to fire somebody; it gives them the weekend to cool off.
- Give them dignity. "Don't yell and scream. Don't bring up a laundry list of things they've done wrong over the years," advises Scharm. "Just make it matter-of-fact, that they have not met the contract you've had with them."
Let them vent, be compassionate, but do not engage in a debate. You're not going to unfire them.
- "Never take them back to their desk or locker [in front of their co-workers]," advises Scharm. "That's embarrassing." If you have to, mail them their personal belongings the next day.
- Don't let them leave empty-handed. Offer to pay for some community college classes or for a few months at a job placement program. Or give them some severance pay. "You want to make sure you're not just throwing them out on the street," says Scharm. "Make it look like you're trying to help them and get their future going again." Unless you want to appear on Court TV.
How to Cut Your Losses
Even the crew of the Titanic had an exit plan. It just wasn't a good one. And since James Cameron isn't likely to ever make your crumbling business into a $1 billion epic, you should start stocking the lifeboats the moment you splash into entrepreneurial waters. But how do you fail with style? You can either rent Titanic or do what we did: Talk to Jim Schell of Bent, Oregon, who has written for this very publication and is co-author of Small Business for Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide).
Before you even board ship:
Hire an attorney. "I'm not advocating going to lawyers any more than you have to," says Schell. "But we [business owners are] an optimistic sort, and the lawyer will help prepare us for the possibility of failure. And let's face it, even though we don't like to think about it, a significant number of small businesses are going to fail."
Two strong signals that the cruise is about to, or should, end:
- "When the fire goes out," says Schell. Incidentally, for entrepreneurs, the fire is just as likely to go out when you're ahead as behind.
- When the only gear is reverse. Which is to say that there are times when whatever you do, it doesn't work. The common term for that would be "beating a dead horse."
Somewhere between the iceberg and Davy Jones' locker:
- Take care of those who took care of you. Favorite employees and vendors first-give them priority seating on your lifeboat. Pay them what you can, and forewarn them of your impending doom.
- Stay positive! (Maybe "impending doom" was a poor choice of words.) "Most entrepreneurs live on dreams for the future," muses Schell, "and I would say that planning for the future is part of quitting in a good way. Failure isn't the end of the road. It's only a change in direction-life will go on, and so must you."
How to Keep Your Creditors at Bay
As an entrepreneur, you already know the basic rules promoted by Luis Colon, CEO of the Fairfax, Virginia-based Marcus Group Enterprises Inc., which delivers seminars on staving off creditors: Pay your oldest bills first, treat creditors like people and never let 'em see you sweat. But when your cash flow is threatened, the rules become sketchy . . .
If money is tight, but you're not desperate: Robert Teinowitz, 33, is co-owner of The Spark Factory, an entertainment marketing company in Santa Monica, California. "Some vendors accept credit cards. The trick is to know when your credit card statement closes," says Teinowitz, a regular David Copperfield and math whiz.
The equation: Your statement closes on March 25, and your vendor's bill is due on March 28.
Solving the equation: Transfer $1,000 from your credit card to your vendor between the closing statement and the vendor's due date-say, March 27.
The answer: Your credit card bill, with the $1,000, will show up sometime around April 30-with the payment due May 24. "Basically, you take a bill issued on February 28 and, without interest, have it due almost three months later," explains Teinowitz.
If you're desperate: We realize that some of the following suggestions aren't 100 percent ethical, but we also know that desperate times can call for desperate measures. Kevin Williams, 26, owns Middletown, Ohio-based Oasis Newsfeatures Inc., which syndicates a cooking column to more than 70 newspapers around the country and has a food line based on its recipes. (He's also my younger brother, I'm proud to say. Well, "proud" may be too strong a word. Read on.) Williams offers the following bases-loaded-bottom-of-the-ninth strategies:
- Send your creditor a check, but "forget" to sign it. This can buy you a few days or even weeks.
- "Some vendors take credit cards, so when you pay over the phone, you can 'accidentally' give them the wrong account number-not somebody else's, but just reverse a digit," says Williams. Eventually, they'll call and usually apologize, saying they wrote down the wrong number. This strategy buys you about three days.
- When collection agencies telephone and ask for you, tell them you're not in. Eventually, they'll stop calling and send you a letter instead, buying you valuable time.
- Change your phone number. But if you're tempted to do this, you are past the point of being pathetic, and you should take the next step:
- Go to the Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS), a nonprofit organization that will help manage your bills and oblige creditors to go after CCCS rather than you. Short of bankruptcy, "It is a last resort, but it's a good last resort," says Williams.
- If collectors are hounding you, send a cease-and-desist letter. "You aren't obligated to the collection agency. You're obligated to the company you owe money to," says Williams. "Never negotiate with the collection agency." Once you send a cease-and-desist letter, insisting that the company stop harassing you, "They are legally required to drop your account," says Williams. "I've done it twice, and it shut them up immediately."
How to Say
You need to know, because if you don't, you really will be sorry. So we offer the following advice from Ann Marie Sabath, the owner of At Ease Inc., a Cincinnati firm devoted to teaching employers and their staffs business manners and protocol.
- Don't panic. "Nobody minds when something goes wrong," says Sabath. "They care about how it's handled."
- Be creative. "You want to make the apology work out so it's almost a good thing you made the mistake," Sabath says.
Best ways to apologize:
- "Let people know you're sorry by getting on their wavelength," suggests Sabath. It's not enough to say you're sorry you've inconvenienced a client or supplier. Explain how you inconvenienced them when you apologize, so they know you really understand and empathize with their situation.
- Send a written thank-you note after apologizing verbally. "When you put it in writing, it seems much more sincere than merely mouthing the words," explains Sabath. "Talk is cheap."
- Send a small gift. "It could be anything. It could be a candy bouquet. Meet one of the senses," suggests Sabath. In other words, a recipient of an apology smells flowers or tastes candy. But Sabath adds that a gift certificate will work, too, especially if it's tailored to your client or colleague's interests.
- Don't let the mistake ever happen again.
If all else fails . . .
Try crying. Especially if you're a man.
Geoff Williams is a master at doing everything better-or at least pretending to. He isn't really a freelance magazine and newspaper writer in Cincinnati. He's a shoe salesman in Duluth.
At Ease Inc., (800) 873-9909, atease@ eos.com
Colliers International, 475 S. Capitol Blvd., #300, Boise, ID 83702, (208) 363-7687
Cushman & Wakefield of Florida Inc., (407) 841-8000, fax: (407) 425-6455
Eagle Consulting Group Inc., (717) 564-3202, email@example.com
Jam Communications Inc., (202) 986-4750, ext. 11, firstname.lastname@example.org
Litton TASC Inc., email@example.com
Marcus Group Enterprises Inc., (800) 637-0073
Oasis Newsfeatures Inc., firstname.lastname@example.org
PCBuild Inc., (781) 449-7575, ext. 228, http://www.pcbuild.com
Jim Schell, email@example.com
The Spark Factory, (310) 395-6775, firstname.lastname@example.org
Strategic Management Group Inc., (800) 445-7089, email@example.com
TSS Consulting Group Inc., (847) 263-3673, firstname.lastname@example.org
Triple Check Tax Services, email@example.com, http://www.triplechecktax.com