Worth Its Weight: Free Shipping

Since I live across the country from my family, I buy most of my gifts online.  Usually there’s no sales tax (which can save you almost 10% if you live in California), and it saves me a trip to the post office.  Unfortunately, my sales tax savings are always trumped by the high cost of shipping, so I was psyched when I found freeshipping.org today.  It’s a lot like my other favorite coupon site, retailmenot, only it specializes in free shipping codes.

I love the Internet.

Worth Its Weight: Top Ten Typography Mistakes

Maybe it’s because I just saw that “Helvetica” movie, but I thought I should share this with you: Brian Hoff’s “10 Common Typography Mistakes.” This is a great primer for anyone DIY-ing the design of their own marketing materials.  Even if you have no professional design training, using these tips will get halfway to having a professional-looking brochure or web site. via swissmiss

typographymistake

Worth Its Weight: MagCloud

A few months ago I wrote a post about Ponoko, a service which allows you to create and sell custom laser-cut products on demand.  Today I was introduced to yet another interesting on-demand service: MagCloud.  MagCloud allows you to publish magazines on demand, at a cost of $0.20 per page.  They handle all the printing, binding, subscriptions and distribution, so you can focus on the creative work of putting the publication together.  Even better: while they are still in Beta mode, publisher proofs are free (excluding shipping).  All you have to do is upload a hi-res pdf.

Like other on-demand production services, MagCloud isn’t cheap.  An issue of Craft would cost $30 to produce this way — twice the normal cover price and significantly higher than the cost of a subscription.  But without advertisers to satisfy, magazines published on-demand can be a lot more streamlined about their content, which can help cut down on costs.  Have you ever noticed, for example,  how many magazines these days have more than one product review section?  Craft and ReadyMade have at least three apiece (tools, kits, books, music, etc.).  I recently learned from someone in the industry that these reviews exist primarily to lure advertisers.  Companies that advertise get first dibs on submitting products for review, thus gaining free publicity alongside their paid advertisements.

As a new service, (they’ve only been around since July), MagCloud is still somewhat limited in its parameters. Shipping is currently only available in the U.S., U.K. and Canada, and there is only one page size available (US letter, trimmed down to 8.25” x 10.75”).  They are also conspicuously missing an FAQ page.  To get all the specifics you need to look at their front page, their blog and the help section.

Still, with most of my favorite publications out of print or on the verge of total blogdom, I’m happy to see that there is hope of filling the void.  I can’t wait to see what innovations occur in publishing now that anyone can run a magazine.

Tip: You can use MagCloud publications as textbooks, catalogs and portfolios, too! At $0.20 cents a page, it’s a lot cheaper than making color copies.

Worth Its Weight: StartupNation

If you don’t already use StartupNation on a regular basis, you probably live under the same rock as I do.  I was a little appalled at myself to have just discovered the site this morning.  It’s extremely comprehensive and well-written, but what differentiates StartupNation from other entrepreneurial web resources is its integration of information and services.  For example, in an article about timing a good PR campaign, you can click right to a page that gets you quotes from pre-screened PR firms.  The best part?  Everything at StartupNation is 100% free.  You don’t even need to sign up for anything.  You just visit the site and use whatever you want, barrier-free.  I’m currently loving the ten-step plan for growing your business.

In addition to the web site, StartupNation also runs a weekly radio show, which you can download as a free podcast.  It’s great for commutes, though it admittedly has a “boomer emphasis.”

Worth Its Weight: Silent Packing Tape

There is no sound my husband hates more than the jerky scream of packing tape being pulled off the roll.  I admit, it’s an unusually loud and jarring noise, even from a couple of rooms away.  So when I recently ran out, I went looking for alternatives, and I have been extremely pleased with what I found: Office Depot’s Medium Duty Packing Tape.  It’s just their standard tape, but it’s thicker, stickier and less expensive than the Duck Brand tape I had been using, and better yet — it’s noiseless!  Now I can pack and tape as much as I want and it doesn’t bother anyone.  Huzzah!

Worth Its Weight: RetailMeNot

My photography instructor pointed my classmates and I to retailmenot.com so we could find good deals on online book publishing, at sites like blurb.com, lulu.com and mypublisher.com.  But there are coupon codes for thousands of online stores at this website, along with the posted success rates of shoppers who tried to use them.  It’s like signing up for every major company’s promotional e-mails, only without all of the inbox-clogging spam.  Sweet!

Worth Its Weight: NWBC Town Hall Meeting

Today I attended a San Francisco Town Hall Meeting sponsored by the National Women’s Business Council — an advisory council that reports to the offices of the President and Members of Congress the issues that women in small business face every day.  While it is obviously important to make your voice heard to your representatives in government, our concerns as small businesswomen could have been collected via e-mail or online survey.  Such a method might have gotten more more responses (today’s event was limited to 200 participants) and certainly would have cost a lot less than holding a full-day conference in a hotel.  But I’m glad the NWBC didn’t go this route and I’ll tell you why:

  1. Networking.  It’s true that as one speaker said today, “women love to help other women.”  I had many more people approach me wanting to offer advice or moral support than wanting referrals or publicity.
  2. Resource sharing.  I have four pages of notes filled with nothing but the names of web sites, organizations and business services that other women at this event have used and can personally recommend.  I will be sorting through these in the next few days and reporting back which ones live up to the hype.
  3. Brainstorming.  I can come up with several issues I confront every day about which my elected officials should be concerned, but there are also some I almost never think about that are nevertheless important.  One example: a woman in our break-out section on micro-business mentioned something about sustainability, which reminded me that sometimes I feel frustrated that there are no incentives for greening home-based businesses.
  4. Sharing ideas directly.  I was able to speak directly to a member of the NWBC about my green home-office issue and she told me that this was an issue on which immediate steps could be taken, and would therefore be sure to bring to Senators John Kerry and Olympia Snowe of the Senate Small Business Committee.  Wow!  Also, an outreach member of the I.R.S. listened to me gripe about their web site: that the completeness of available information was excellent but that it is extremely difficult to navigate or search.  She recommended I use Publication 910 (her professed favorite) to find a list of the I.R.S.’s free resources for small businesses, and a full index of their other publications.  I suggested that this publication be made visible in the Small Business section of the web site, and while I was I surprised that she seemed suprised by this suggestion, she nevertheless thanked me for it and said she’d pass it along.  You just can’t beat direct results, folks.

Sure, the NWBC could have conducted an electronic survey, or just directed us Biz Misses to Obama’s new web site, but even in this age of online sales and networking, there is still no substitute for being in the company of your sisters.

p.s.  If you didn’t a get chance to attend one of their Town Hall meetings, you can e-mail the NWBC at [email protected] with your concerns.  There are only four women in the office, so they will read your message and get back to you.

Worth Its Weight: the SCORE Web Site

SCORE stands for “Service Corps of Retired Executives,” and is a volunteer organization dedicated to helping individuals start successful businesses by receiving advice from those who have already done it.  I’ve taken a few SCORE-sponsored workshops in the past, and used their sample business plan to write my own, but today I discovered even more free, useful goodies on their web site.

I’m particularly taken with their “60-Second Guides,” which cover everything from pricing to hiring.  Especially at this time of year, time is tight, and I love being able to learn how to make real improvements to my business without having to read a lengthy guide.  One of my favorites is the 60-Second Guide to Building Word-of-Mouth Referrals.  Similar to the 60-Second Guides is their collection of “Top 5 Business Tips,” which also helps you focus on just the essentials in a variety of topics.  In this section, I especially liked the tips on budgeting, which can help you put together a rough budget for when you don’t have time to go line-by-line.

Another collection of goodies I love is the template gallery.  Here you can find tweak-able templates for a lot of things you can’t find elsewhere, like a break-even analysis, and a business plan for a business that already exists.  The financial templates all come in both Adobe PDF and Microsoft Excel formats, with the formulas already programmed in.  This allows you to plug in your own numbers or to tweak the formulas and see how the totals change. No fancy calculations required!

Finally, for the days when you have more time for professional development, you can read in-depth articles in SCORE’s online “Reading Room.” There are literally hundreds of articles here, that cover everything from selling online to disaster preparedness.  And of course, I always recommend visiting the web site of your local SCORE chapter for free counseling and low-cost workshops.  Biz Miss, educate thyself!

Worth Its Weight: Ponoko

Apparently I’ve been pretty out of the loop lately, because I hadn’t heard of Ponoko until this week.  An article in ReadyMade piqued my interest, but it wasn’t written very clearly so I read through the Ponoko web site in order to understand how it all works.

Ponoko is similar to Etsy in a lot of ways.  Members have their own little Ponoko shops, where they can list items for sale, buy things from other members, request custom items, and contact each other.  Where Ponoko differs from Etsy is that you can only sell things that are made (at least in part) in Ponoko’s laser-cutting shop.  This is how they make their money.  They don’t charge listing fees or take a percentage of your sales, but they do charge you for the materials and laser time it takes to make your item (or item components).

Most of what gets sold on Ponoko right now is jewelry.  This is because the easiest and least expensive thing to make with their laser is a small, two-dimensional cut-out.  People mostly design silhouettes or etchings that get cut and/or carved into thin sheets of wood or plastic, and then turn them into pendants, earrings, jigsaw puzzles, coasters, and other flat design-y objects.  3-D objects like tables and lamps sometimes appear in people’s shops, too.  These are mostly put together using layering (to acheive a topographical map sort of effect) or a slot-and-tab configuration.  Unfortunately, this causes a lot of people’s products to look very similar to one another.  Additionally, some people also sell or give away products plans in their shops, so that customers can build items themselves, or have the Ponoko factory folks build it for them.

Because of the limits of just one process (laser-cutting) and a few, flat materials (basically wood and acrylic), Ponoko has a ways to go before it can become the small-manufacturer-to-the-masses it would like to be.  I would love, for example, to see them expand to vacuum-formed plastic or fabric-based manufacturing.  If there were a place in the U.S. where I could get on-demand plush toy manufacturing, it would solve a LOT of the problems inherent with my current business.  Luckily for me, however, another product line I’m working on can be made perfectly with Ponoko’s lasers and plywood.  I’ve already researched a lot of industrial cutting facilities for this project, but having one right here in San Francisco that can make them on demand is infinitely preferrable to having to buy and then store some huge inventory again.  I had all but written off this new line for that very reason, but I’m excited to think the possibility exists to move forward with it again.

Ponoko’s ultimate vision is to have dozens of little factories all over the world, so that no matter where you live, whatever you buy can be made nearby.  Making things only to order cuts down on waste, and having lots of scattered factories cuts down on the costs and emissions associated with global transport.  This is an example of one of those forward-thinking green businesses profiled in books like Cradle-to-Cradle, in which it is more profitable to be eco-friendly, not less.  They still have a lot of growing to do, but I really think Ponoko is onto something big.  If I were a venture capitalist, or if they offered stock, I would definitely be investing in these guys.

Worth Its Weight: Things

My husband is a productivity junkie.  Every week he likes to show off some new piece of software he’s found that will improve his daily work speed by nine seconds, and I usually just smile encouragingly and walk away.  Occasionally, however, I try out one of these tools, and this time, I have found one that I love: Things.

Things is a to-do list/task manager for Mac OSX by Cultured Code.  Now, there are a LOT of list-managing “solutions” out there, and I’ve tried many of them, but I always ended up going back to a disorganized paper list, because it was just too inconvenient and/or slow to use software.  With Things, however, I never use paper anymore.

One of the reasons Things is so convenient is that you can type in a to-do item without actually having to be in the Things application.  If I’m working in Photoshop, for example, and it reminds me of some product pictures I forgot to take, I can hit a particular keystroke and a little black box pops up.  I can then type, “Take product photos” in the box, hit the Enter/Return key and my item will end up in my Things inbox, where I can sort it later.  At no point do I have to switch out of Photoshop to do this, so there’s no delay in being able to get right back to work.  Since I type faster than I write, this process is actually faster than using pen and paper.

 

At a good stopping point in my day, I usually open up Things to sort my inbox.  Like in other programs, in Things you have the ability to create projects and due dates to house your to-do items, but the most wonderful and brilliant thing about Things is that you can use tags as well.  Whats so great about tags?  It means you can sort your items by any category that is meaningful to you.  In most other programs, you can sort items by priority, due date, person responsible, etc.  All the usual office categories.  But by creating your own tags, you can sort items by where they occur, how long they take, or how fun they are.  For example, maybe you run most errands in three different places: your local main street, the street near your work, and the big box strip mall two towns over.  You can tag the errands you need to run with “local errand,” “work errand” or “mall errand.”  Then, the next time you are headed to any of those three places, you can click on that tag and all of the errands you can do in that place pop up.  Print your list and you’ll never again kick yourself for forgetting something while you were out.

But maybe you don’t have time to “Buy a new dishwasher,” even though it’s on your “mall errand” list. If you’ve also tagged your items with the time they take, you’re good to go!  Just click on both the “mall errand” tag and (while holding down the Shift key) the “5 min” tag, and you’ll get only those items you can do at the mall in five minutes or less.  Sweet!  By using tags, you can create and sort a list based on how you already live and work, rather than having to adjust the way you think in order to fit into some software company’s idea of what is the best way to organize your life.

 

Things has many other great features, such as an automatically generated “Today” list, based on your due dates, reminders and recurring tasks.  Really, the only big drawback of Things is that it only works on Apple products, like Macs and iPhones.  If you use a PC or are planning to get a Google phone that uses Android, you are S.O.L. my friends.  The developers have said that they are not going to release a version of Things for these other platforms anytime soon.  For the rest of us Mac-only users, Things will remain free of charge until MacWorld, when it goes from beta to full release.  At that point it will cost $39 for early adopters, and $49 for everyone else, which is still much cheaper than your average Filofax.