Monday, May 21, 2012

Smart Time Management - Fitting a New Business Into Your Daily Life – Part 2 of 2

In the first part of this series on Smart Time Management, we discussed the planning and organization side of time management to fit your new business into your daily life.  In part two, we cover the actual ways to fit it in on a daily basis.  If the first part was the warm up, this is where you hit the ground running!  So let’s get started!

Setting Time Aside

Time - Yep, it flies.
The first and foremost part of time management when trying to fit a new business venture into a busy life is obvious and common sense – Set the time aside.  I know this one can be difficult, but it really is one of the most important things you need to do.  Block out time that will be dedicated to nothing but your new business.  Tell the kids and other family members that you are “at work”, and pay attention to your business.  The rest of this article describes how to integrate your new work tasks into existing daily activities, but if you don’t dedicate uninterrupted time to your new business venture, you will never be able to get off the ground.  Whether it is an hour or three on a week night before you go to bed or a block of time on a Saturday morning before everyone else wakes up, you will need to prioritize this new business as a factor in your life.  One way to help others in the household understand and respect this work time is to have a dedicated “work space”.  This can be as involved as a home office, or as simple as a desk in your bedroom.  Family needs to know that, when you are at the desk working, you are at your job.  Of course interruptions will happen, but it’s okay to lean on your spouse or older children to play some defense for you here.  In my previous blog on “Taking A Shot”, I mention leaning on family members to help get your business off the ground.  There are so many things you need to get going when starting a business, but they are not always about the business itself.  If you have to get a grandparent to keep an eye on the kids for an afternoon so you can order inventory and work on your web page without distractions, it doesn't make you a bad parent.  Quite the opposite, it brings the kids closer to the grandparent, and lets you work on the business that is going to have a great impact on your kids’ future.

Smart Time Management - Fitting a New Business Into Your Daily Life – Part 1 of 2

So you decided to start a business, but you don’t know how to fit the responsibilities of your fledgling business into your daily life.  Welcome to entrepreneurship!  The most important thing to realize is, you are not alone!  Just as a point of reference, a Google search on the phrase “time management” returns over 1.6 BILLION hits!  Yes, it makes me want to find a support group where I can say, “Hi, I’m Jerry, and I’m a full time worker and family guy who wants to start a business.” <Insert crowd response of “Hi, Jerry” here.>  But, as millions of people around the world have learned through trial and error, it IS possible.  This is the first in a two-part series on smart time management for the budding entrepreneur. 

Serial Entrepreneurs has an article on entrepreneurs who own and operate multiple businesses simultaneously, with their suggestions on time management.  It’s a quick read, and it provides some good ideas.  I really like their use of the term “serial entrepreneur” because it indicates that they are running multiple businesses.  What most people don’t realize is, we are all serial entrepreneurs.  One of my businesses is my day job.  One is being a husband and a father.  One is as a handyman in my household.  The list goes on and on.  Each “job” I have requires commitments of time, energy, money and emotion.  As an employee, I see the benefit every two weeks in my bank account.  As a husband and father, my payday is the love and affection I get in return, and the satisfaction of taking care of those I love.  As a homeowner, having a safe, enjoyable home for my family is my payment.  While some may not consider these “businesses” in the traditional sense, they all add up to how I spend my week, divide up my time, and they are what makes my world go round.  We are all serial entrepreneurs in our own way.

In this first part of this series, I discuss preparation for smart time management.  The steps you can use to get ready to start your business, or change your way of thinking if you are currently under the proverbial gun.  The second part of this series discusses ways to fit your new business tasks into your daily life.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Hello from the other half!

Hi fellow bloggers (and bloggees!) and welcome to our blogspot. You may have been following Jerry's posts about our exciting new venture and I figured it was high time to say hello. I'm the Andrea half, business partner, and more(!) although to be quite honest, Jerry has done much more than half to begin launching our dream of starting our own business. You see, he's a really good guy, and we both understand that sometimes you give 100 percent, but often it's more like 150 percent.  And as I’m sure you all can relate to, life is crazy.

Just to let you know a little about me, in case you were wondering.  I have teenage children.  The end.  No, no, no, just kidding, not about the teen part, but about the end.  I also have younger stepchildren.  Together, Jerry and I have four, and sometimes, when you add friends into the mix, it gets a little hectic, which you may also relate to.  More about those nutty kids later.  I’m also a nurse, and currently work at a very large school with a special needs population, which keeps me on my toes (and knees, and hands, and even back sometimes when those wheelchairs need to be adjusted).  Although I do complain about the pace, tiredness, and generally get cranky at times, I’m actually just really lucky to have the opportunity to be around so many people.  Human interaction is, I believe, a basic need.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Get the Most Out of a Vendor Demonstration

This weekend, Andrea and I will be heading to St. Louis, MO, for a two-day, hands-on demonstration of one of the products we’re considering for our startup engraving business, an Epilog Laser.  These products are advertised as extremely user friendly.  As with any equipment purchase, we have to make sure we have all of the information before getting into negotiations with our vendors.  We haven’t yet decided if Epilog is the product we will definitely buy, but getting a hands-on demonstration, as well as two days of classes in laser engraving, will help us make an informed decision.  In a previous article, I wrote about Seven Steps to Product Evaluation.  We have been doing a lot of research and will be taking all of the information into consideration before we decide on the final vendors to give us quotes.  In all, we’re currently looking at about a half dozen different vendors, and will get quotes from probably two or three of them.  Looking at the pros and cons of each product will give us the best chances of deciding which is right for our specific business needs.

One of the most important things we have to realize going into this business trip is that the vendor and reseller may be pressuring us to buy on the spot.  As with working with car dealers, it is imperative to not let a sales person pressure you into making any buying decisions before you are ready.  Being ready includes having enough information about the product you are buying and its competitors to make an informed decision.  While we do know a lot about Epilog and their competitors, making a purchasing decision “on their turf” (after 2 days of company sales pitches), without competitive quotes from other vendors is not in our business’s best interest.  So how do we handle the situation?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Work-Life Balance – The First Article of Many On This Topic

Downtown Jim Thorpe
The view of downtown Jim Thorpe
from the top of Flagstaff Mountain
This past weekend, Andrea and I took our first business trip.  Since we’re planning on including a lot of photography work into our products, we went to one of the most beautiful places we know, Jim Thorpe, PA, to take pictures of the scenery and various landmarks in this historic Victorian town.  In addition to providing us with an endless landscape of material for our camera, this town also holds a special place for us as a couple.  We often take the opportunity to “escape” for a day or two, staying at a bed and breakfast in town and learn about the local history.  In fact, Yahoo Travel has listed Jim Thorpe as one of the top 10 places to enjoy the fall.  Rightfully so, if you ask me.

Gilded Cupid Bed and Breakfast
The Gilded Cupid
The best part of this past weekend was that we could incorporate working on our new business with some always-needed relaxation time.  We stayed at a new bed and breakfast (new for us, anyway), The Gilded Cupid, where owners Sheila and Bob willingly shared their extensive knowledge of town history as well as provided a wealth of knowledge and advice in starting a new business.  Their home has as much historic value as anything else in Jim Thorpe, and it also provided many great photo opportunities for us.  And Sheila’s Sunday breakfast was one of the best I’ve ever had on vacation.  Saturday night’s dinner at the eclectic Wheel Restaurant also provided us with the quality and originality we’ve come to expect as regulars.

Race Street in Jim Thorpe, PA
Race Street in Historic Jim Thorpe, PA
Jim Thorpe offered us countless locations around town to take pictures, from waterfalls to 19th-century architecture to the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway.  The town also offers a lot of adventurous activities, including white water rafting, bike trails, Skirmish Paintball and everything else you would associate with the Pocono Mountains.  A hike along the Switchback Trail gave us the opportunity to take pictures and talk about business plans while also letting us just relax as a couple.  A late Sunday afternoon visit to the Libations Lounge at the Harry Packer Mansion also gave us the chance to squeeze in a few extra minutes of relaxation before returning to the real world.

What is most important about this trip is that we could divide our time between working on our business and spending time together as a couple.  Andrea and I may have an advantage because we are starting our business together, but it is always important to involve family in your business.  Talking about your plans, bouncing ideas off of each other, and letting them know what you’re up to is all part of the normal communication families need.  And if you have the chance, bring your spouse or significant other on a business trip.  Instead of letting business pull you away from each other, find ways to have it bring you together.  Our trip left us with over a thousand pictures to get us started, a lot of new ideas for our fledgling business, and most importantly, a few more great memories that keep our relationship growing.

Path to Nowhere in Jim Thorpe, PA

Monday, April 30, 2012

Seven Steps to Product Evaluation

As you may have figured out, our business will involve engraving personalized products on a variety of media, including wood, metals, acrylic, glass, crystal and plastic.  We are currently reviewing products that both fit our budget and meet our design needs.  Here are some recommended steps when comparing products and trying to find what best meets your needs.
  1. Identify your requirements – Unless you know exactly what it is you are trying to accomplish, you will not be able to figure out what products will meet your needs!  Come up with a list of your goals.  In our case, we are looking for an engraving solution that will work with various media.  As we go through the rest of the steps below, you’ll see how requirements can be refined, but knowing what you’re trying to do is often overlooked by people who jump in and say, “I’m going to get ‘PRODUCT X’ and see what I can do with it.”  By defining your requirements first, you’ll be able to narrow down your contenders easier.
  2. Research! – This one is self-explanatory.  Learn everything you can about the technologies or products you are thinking about buying.  Watch demo videos on  Find online discussion forums for people who are currently using the products (and not only those forums hosted by the vendors).  See what people who use the products daily have to say.  Talk to people in the business, whether at a local business or online.  I have learned so much about CNC routers and laser engraving systems in the past few weeks, I can now hold a conversation with a sales person and hold my own.  I know this, because I just did it today!  And don’t forget places like Amazon and other online resellers to get user reviews from actual people.  As you research your potential products, you’ll learn about different features that will affect your requirements identified above.  The requirements list is allowed to grow as you learn more about the products and services you need.  For example, I learned that speed is also a very important (and varying) factor in laser engravers, and is greatly impacted by the wattage of the laser used.  A 60 watt laser engraves much faster than a 35 watt laser, and the 35 watt laser is relatively useless when mass-producing on certain mediums (such as wood).  So I adjusted my requirements accordingly!
  3. Find multiple vendors – A good sales person knows who their competition is, but they may not tell you.  If you haven’t found their competition, they aren’t going to tell you where to look!  Look online for at least 3 or 4 different vendors so you can make an educated decision.  Never go with the first vendor you find, unless you have learned that they actually offer the best deal for your needs.  (see requirements, #1)
  4. Request documentation and samples – Contact the vendors you are interested in and ask them for literature, links to online videos of their equipment being used, and samples of their products.  One vendor seemed shocked when I asked for samples.  Others jumped at the opportunity to send me samples to show off their product.  Who do you think we’re going to lean towards when we make a decision?
  5. Compare apples to apples – One of the biggest problems when making these kinds of decisions is that everyone offers their own thing, and competing products don’t often match up.  How do you compare products when they all have different features and options?  With organization!  Create a spreadsheet in Excel or even on a piece of paper.  Put each product/model/flavor of what you want on the left side, and each feature across the top.  Fill in this matrix as thoroughly as possible.  I include columns for all basic features, add-ons, price, and anything else I think will influence my overall decision.  I also add a field at the end for “Notes”, since there are always things that just don’t fit in anywhere.  Your research, requirements and matrix are all inter-dependent upon each other, and they will continue to grow and have a lot of the same information.  This is how you can make the best overall decision – by laying out in front of you what you need to level the playing field.  If you are requesting quotes, make sure the specs are the same on each vendor’s products.  If they aren’t be sure to identify the differences and, if possible, ask for line item additions so you can see what it would cost to add a specific feature.
  6. What’s included in the deal in addition to the product itself? – Don’t only think about the product you are buying.  What else is included?  Does the vendor offer free training?  Do they throw in accessories?  Is there a 1 year support contract with one product, while another of equal quality provides 3 years for the same price?  Remember, there are a lot of considerations, not just the product or service itself.
  7. Consider after-sale support – What did those on the forums have to say about the support after the sale?  Are there forums that you can view on the vendor’s site?  If so, what is their response time when a user asks a question?  If the support forums are password-protected, ask for access before the sale so you can take this into consideration.
When evaluating any product for your business, always do plenty of research so you know what your choices are, regarding features and functionality as well as your initial vendor’s competition.  Always compare apples to apples.  By knowing what your choices are and leveling the playing field between options, you will be best-informed to make smart financial and business decisions.

In the beginning, there was an idea…

So what is it we’re trying to accomplish here, you ask?  Our vision is simple.  Create customized and personalized gifts.  There are a million places on the net where you can get something for an anniversary present for your great grandparents.  You can even go to Things Remembered and get them a picture frame with their names and the anniversary date on it.  That’s pretty cool, and they very well may love it.  But how do you take it one step further?
Our vision is to create gifts that are truly unique.  Yes, we do understand that a big part of this business is going to be to incorporate the traditional gifts people are used to, specifically including the picture frame mentioned above.  But what about if the contents of that picture frame was not just an 8x10 glossy of the couple’s wedding picture.  What if the picture itself was engraved into the medium that comprised the frame?  Instead of having an off-the shelf frame with a name engraved into it, the present would be a truly unique project, custom made for that individual recipient.  That’s the idea.
Picture frames are one of an infinite number of possibilities.  They are common, and even this blog entry has not yet discussed anything Earth-shattering or unique.  Yes, you can already order projects like this at a variety of online and retail locations.  So where is the uniqueness in this project?  It’s in the design.  What else can be customized to provide a truly unique gift?  How does one design something that really is for the person who has everything?  We’re working on those designs right now.  I’m obviously not going to give away our unique design ideas this early on! (Sorry!)  But while we are learning the ins and outs of the engraving process, writing a business plan, evaluating accounting software and researching marketing possibilities, we’re also putting a lot of thought and effort into our actual product line.  Because you can have the best accounting software in the world, and the best engraving equipment on the market, but if you don’t have something that people want, your business will go nowhere.
This is the start of a process to get our business off the ground.  Thanks for reading.  I’d love it if you would leave some feedback or advice.  As we go through what we expect to be a busy, crazy, hectic and fun time in our lives, Andrea and I will be keeping you posted on how we’re doing, what we are working on, decisions we’ve made, etc.  And we’ll always want your input, because we hope you can become a customer, and your ideas are important to us.