Archive for September, 2010

Ranking of Top Entrepreneurship Programs

Monday, September 20th, 2010

Owner Presidents in the Classroom

Is entrepreneurial ability inborn or can it be taught? Business school faculty and policymakers wrestle with this question as promoting entrepreneurship leads to employment growth. My own view is that personality traits predispose individuals to choose entrepreneurship over more traditional employment paths. But as those traits do not ensure success, support in the form of training and mentoring can be helpful. Perhaps the most important contribution of “fast track” development programs is the development of an entrepreneurial community with shared goals. Entrepreneurship is a team sport and connecting with others who are committed to realizing their visions can be extremely helpful in dealing with the inevitable setbacks in launching a new venture.

Today, the Princeton Review released its ranking of the top undergraduate and graduate programs in entrepreneurship. More than 2,000 schools were surveyed to assess their business curricula, student groups and clubs and resources such as access to entrepreneurs in residence and funds available through business plan competitions. I was disappointed that my alma mater, Columbia Business School, didn’t make the list. Columbia offers a Greenhouse Program, effectively an in-school incubator, with access to resources at venture capital funds, accounting firms and other specialized support. Even those of us who don’t plan to return to school can benefit from accessing these resources. This photograph shows my class of the Owner President Management Program of Harvard Business School.

Captive Insurer Formation in Vermont

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

Future Vision

In the first six months of this year, the State of Vermont licensed 17 new captives. The strongest interest comes from the financial services sector, with five captives formed by insurance companies and two by banking companies. Captive insurers offer a cost-effective means to self-insure the risks of their corporate parents. By insuring the risks themselves, large corporations benefit from more favorable tax treatment as well as the possibility to retain better risks rather than pay premiums to cede the risks to a third-party insurer. Vermont is the largest captive insurance domicile in the United States, offering foreign companies the ability to use their local rules in accounting for their captive insurers, as well as a streamlined formation and approval process. Last year, more than $75 billion of captive insurance premiums were written in Vermont, which volume seems likely to increase this year.

So what does this mean for the small business community? Increases in captive formation typically signal expectations of insurance rate increases. Significantly financial institutions represent most of the Vermont captive formations. With the litigation around the financial crisis, directors’ and officers’ coverage is expected to rise in cost. Small businesses should prepare for future rate increases and, if possible, negotiate renewals now.

Did a Tornado Strike New York City Today?

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

A short burst of intense storm activity disrupted us in New York City this evening. The National Weather Service is evaluating meteorological data to determine if the storm can be classified as a tornado, as it presented 60 – 80 mile per hour winds. The damage is certainly suggestive of a tornado, with powerful winds knocking over trees and hurling them on power lines, thereby causing electrical outages. ConEdison is reporting power failures in various locations in the city. The Long Island Railroad canceled commuter service this evening when fallen trees disrupted service. Displaced passengers tried to use the subways instead, forcing officials to close Pennsylvania Station (where subway and train lines converge) due to overcrowding. Subway service resumed several hours later, but as I write this post, I can see long queues for taxi service owing to the delays or cancellations of public transportation lines. This is one that caught us by surprise. I am just glad that I was indoors when it struck. 2010 has certainly been a year for extreme weather events.

Lloyd’s of London To Welcome Visitors

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Lloyds of LondonA rare treat will be offered to those who happen to be in London this Saturday, the 18th of September: the opportunity to visit the Lloyd’s building. This year Lloyd’s is participating in Open House, London’s celebration of architecture to welcome the general public to visit over 600 buildings across the city, many of which are ordinarily closed to the public. The tours are offered free of charge.  I had the fun of seeing the building when the head of one of the largest managing general agents at Lloyd’s took me on a one-on-one tour to see the Underwriting Room, the Nelson Collection and the Adam Room. I also enjoyed a fantastic view of London from the external glass elevators. Then I observed the process of running a slip to bind an insurance cover, which illustrates the speed and flexibility of what is not only the world’s largest and most entrepreneurial insurance market.

Lloyd’s began in a 17th century coffee house and grew rapidly to meet the increasing demand for ship and cargo insurance required for global trade. Today Lloyd’s is the leading global provider of specialty cover, such as marine and aviation insurance. On one of my recent trips to New Orleans, I met business owners who were insured by Lloyd’s when Katrina struck. Those of us who won’t be in London on Saturday can take the online virtual tour at the Lloyds website.

Everday Edisons

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

InspirationEveryday Edisons has become one of my favorite television programs. It chronicles the process by which individual inventions are transformed into retail-ready products. The viewer is introduced to ten ordinary people each with a passion for invention. Their ideas range from the quirky to the just plain fun: cat emery boards, bubble lamps, book covers and other ordinary items become new again with their fresh take. The program follows the engineering team’s efforts to make workable prototypes from these ideas, bearing in mind reasonable production costs to bring these products to market. The branding team comes up with names, design logos for the products and packaging. The public relations expert provides insights into her strategies for promoting the product and the sales and marketing people pitch the retailers to get the product onto store shelves. And, of course, the lawyers come up with the reasons as to why the names would infringe on the intellectual property rights of others and generally play bad cop! The inventors go on an emotional roller coaster as proofs of concept are demonstrated or not, prototypes fail and have to be revised or the product comes out brilliantly but is too expensive to produce for a mass market. The television camera is great for catching the visible disappointment on the inventors’ faces when they are presented with a name for their products that the clearly don’t like. But that is the trade-off of bringing an idea to fruition and scale, the inventor defers to the marketing people for certain key decisions. The program is a fun overview of the process and also features interviews with officials from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, marketing/branding experts, and industry leaders, such as the founders of Virgin USA Money, Dyson and Amazon. The program is named after Thomas Edison an investor who, despite having little formal education, registered 1,000 patents for his work. You can find the program on the website, at the Public Broadcasting Service site or on Hulu.

Surprising Insights Into Motivation

Monday, September 13th, 2010

This video from RSA, “The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, is fantastic.  The message resonated with me, as I was afforded unusual insight into the motivation of strangers when Crain’s New York Business named me one of its “40 under 40” New Yorkers. The short bio was innocent enough; it described my first venture and the role my business had in supporting my family life, not the other way around. A tsunami followed. Crain’s must have an extraordinary readership, because the people who contacted me in response to that article were educated and had all of the external indicia of success: prestigious employers, titles and occupations. But something was missing;  inner fulfillment eluded them.

I was reminded of the words of the poet David Whyte, “Work, paradoxically, does not ask enough of us and yet exhausts the narrow parts of us that we bring to its door.” People are exhausted, enervated by the pettiness of corporate life and yet frustrated by the impediments to making a substantive contribution to our very real needs.  It was a bit much for me, people were writing me letters through the postal mail, by fax, by e-mail and even turning up unannounced at my office. One person, aggravated by my failure to respond to his e-mail message within four hours, contacted Barbara Benson, the reporter who wrote my profile, for additional contact information for me. I removed my e-mail address from the website and replaced it with a form to capture information. Although career counseling is certainly not my expertise, I wrote a short form e-mail response thanking the writers for their interest in my work and suggesting organizations such as Idealist that could help them better align with their values. But while the experience was tiring as the flood of queries invariably came when I was on deadline, it was valuable. Whenever I envy the predictability of a corporate paycheck, I reflect on this experience and realize how fortunate I am. That is a great motivator.

A Role Model for Business Strategy

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

New Orleans Victory!I keep clippings from the business press about lessons learned that I can apply. I came across an interesting article on the iconic jeweler Tiffany & Co. in the Biz Money Matters commentary of Tony Johnston. Tiffany’s started almost 200 years ago with a $1,000 loan extended by a family member to two entrepreneurs, Charles Lewis Tiffany and John B. Young. When Charles Lewis Tiffany died in 1902, his son, Louis Comfort Tiffany, became Tiffany’s first director of design, establishing Tiffany Studios as his atelier for craftsmanship. Throughout Tiffany’s history, the United States and foreign governments, as well as business and professional associations, have called it upon to create special commissions. One of its most famous commissions is the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the National Football League Superbowl Championship. I am placing my order for Tiffany’s commemorative items for the Super Bowl victory of the New Orleans Saints. The article is a great primer on clarity of the brand promise and relentless discipline in business strategy. It is a must-read for any small business owner. One of my weaknesses as an entrepreneur is that I have a tendency to spin out activities in different directions. Tiffany’s is a testament to the power of understatement and focus.

Day of Remembrance

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

Towers of Light

The weather today was similar to this date nine years ago: sunny and mild, with temperatures in the 70’s. That contributed to the disorientation I felt back then: there was a complete disconnect between the comfort and ease of a beautiful fall day and the smoke coming from the World Trade Center site, reaching high into the sky, blowing smoke clouds that completely covered the high-rise apartment buildings to the south. I remember the eerie calm as I left my apartment building with my neighbor and his dog when we walked over to the Hudson River where police boats were waiting to evacuate us to New Jersey. I just remember the feeling of an other-worldliness, like this couldn’t be happening. But it was very, very real. In the days that followed, I had a dual screen on Lower Manhattan. I was staying in an apartment on the Jersey City waterfront, directly facing the World Trade Center site. I could look out the window and see the view simultaneously on the television screen.  When the navy’s hospital ship, the U.S.N.S. Comfort sailed up the Hudson River, I saw it from the window and on the television screen and realized the window view was better. Sadly, most of the beds on the ship remained unused as few survivors were found. I briefly watched the memorial ceremony on television this morning, as family members read the names of their loved ones. But I became tearful and turned the television off. Right now, there is a party boat blasting music on the Hudson as passengers drink and dance. I find the intrusion incredibly annoying. I will go to sleep early and tomorrow will be a new day. My friends in New Orleans, by the way, tell me that they become very cranky and irritable on August 29, their anniversary date. Just being aware that these emotional reactions are normal makes them more manageable.

Devastating Fire Strikes San Francisco Suburb

Friday, September 10th, 2010

California declared a state of emergency in San Mateo county when an explosion, believed to be caused by a broken gas line, sent flames through San Bruno, a San Francisco suburb. The fire spread over an area of 10 acres, destroying more than 50 homes and killing at least one person. More than 20 others sustained burn injuries. An investigation is underway to determine the cause of the explosion. The local news media interviewed residents who had fled their homes. One person after the next described how they picked up critical documents before leaving. There are two takeaways from this frightening fire. The first is that you should have all of your critical documents backed up and online available for remote retrieval. Scan in your critical documents and upload them to a secure site. When a fire strikes, you should not delay even one second to retrieve documents. Prompt evacuation is called for; do not put yourself in harm’s way by assembling documents and other items. Human safety is priority number one. The second lesson is that while we are all experiencing difficulty in this recession, we should give what we can to the Red Cross to aid those who lose access to their homes in fires.

California Launches First State Disaster Corps

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger launched the first state Disaster Corps to train and coordinate the activities of disaster volunteers across California. “California is always leading the way and now we are the first state in the nation to integrate volunteers into our state emergency plan,” said Governor Schwarzenegger. “Volunteers are an incredible resource, and no state has more giving, more passionate or more dedicated volunteers than California. Together, we will take volunteerism to a whole new level and make California better prepared and better equipped than ever before, for any emergency.”

With fewer financial resources to support government programs, policymakers have to be more creative to do more with less. “Government can’t do it all by itself,” said California Emergency Management Agency Secretary Matthew Bettenhausen. “Being ready for the next disaster, and ensuring an effective response, includes taking advantage of the many contributions and passion of citizens who care deeply about their communities.” If your business has operations in California, do look into the resources available for coordinating disaster response and update your business plan accordingly.