Drifting Into the Alternative Universe

This article was orginally published at Strella Social Media on October 14, 2012.

Drifting Into the Alternative UniverseA few weeks ago, I made a mistake of omission, which set off a chain of unforeseen events. It caused a lot of problems for my client as well as a few dozen unplanned hours of problem-solving for myself.

Initially, it did not appear that there would be much of a disruption to the client’s service. After this initial mistake, the lesson learned was quite simple and straight forward – I should have done my due diligence and communicated better from the onset. However, things began unraveling with new issues seemingly arising out of nowhere. In my frustration, I found myself doing something that I absolutely loath when done by others. I started using the “alternative universe” excuse.

“If I had been told to ‘B’, ’C’, and ‘D,’ then I certainly would have approached ‘A’ much differently and all these problems would have been avoided.” This was certainly a true argument, as many of the subsequent problems could have been avoided if the client had disclosed all of the relevant information. Still, this was totally irrelevant, as it’s impossible to jump into that alternative universe where all problems are averted.

This foray into the scientifically unproven domain has become a trend these days. You hear it often from the losing side of a sports contest, and most especially, in the political world. “If I had been in charge, we’d now be in much better shape…” or “things may be bad now, but they would’ve been so much worse if not for my brilliant policies…” These statements are made as absolute fact and as a way to divert attention from the reality at hand.

The truth is, we only live in this one reality and we have to own the decisions we make here.This is especially true for small business owners like myself who don’t have much luxury for academic exercises and hypothetical situations. Not all our decisions will be correct, but once made they must be embraced either as building blocks for best practices or lessons learned for the future.

Stirring Up a Hornet’s Nest (Literally)

This article was orginally published at Strella Social Media on January 23, 2013.

Hornets NestThere’s an amusing little story that I’d tell my kids when they were younger. Although I did tend to exaggerate or embellish on some of the dramatic details, the core of the story is absolutely true and profoundly relevant to my small business services today.

When I was younger, I worked a lot of construction jobs, mostly exterior work that required me to climb up and down ladders most of the day. There was this one job in McAdoo, Pa. where we did extensive work over several months – a new roof, siding, soffit, guttering; the works! We practically remade the entire outside of the house, and it was a big house. If you are familiar with northeast Pennsylvania, many homes in that area are large, vertical, and have steeply pitched roofs.

One morning I was first to arrive at the job site. I started to set up when I was summoned by the woman next door. She was an elderly and kind person with whom I had spoken with several times before, but this time she had a grave look of concern. She pointed up towards the eave below the ridge of her roof where a huge bee hive had formed. She asked me what if I could do anything to help her. Now the older and wiser version of me might have referred her to a good exterminator or some other expert, but I was twenty-something with loads of bravado and a big ladder. So I simply said “I’ll see what I can do.”

To this day, I don’t know exactly what my plan was. I climbed the ladder with a broom stick and the intention to simply knock down the hive. But upon the first gentle poke, hundreds of hornets were stirred into action and for the first (and only) time in my life, I literally slid down the exterior of a ladder in order to escape.

My embellished version of the story has the bees chasing me for blocks down the street. But the reality was actually much worse. The bees swarmed and swarmed all day, causing us to lose a great deal of production because we were constantly looking over our shoulders. We were the talk of the neighborhood as people walked by all day to observe and talk about the swarming bees nest and the kind old lady next door was more stressed than ever, especially when a removal expert arrived but couldn’t do anything until the bees settled down. And I was the fool who had caused it all.

Today I run a web design business and specialize in a group of specific skills that I’ve work hard to perfect. Still, many people assume that if you’re an expert in anything technology related, you’re proficient on all technology issues. I’ve received requests to do work outside of my scope of expertise. On a few occasions I’ve accepted, either as a gesture of altruism or with the idea to meet a new challenge. These decisions proved unwise as modern day hornet’s nests were stirred, ultimately causing more harm than the good originally intended.

So the moral of the story is to stick with what you do best and learn how to say “no” in those situations where you’re not highly confident in the outcome.

Spring Is Here!

It is a great time to be optimistic at 33 Dimensions we have plenty of things cooking which are very exciting. First, we are now developing websites using responsive design, which adapts and optimizes for any screen size – desktop, tablet, or mobile. We’ve also partnered with some great companies to provide more convenient transactions for our customers, including Fresh Books for invoicing and expense reports and Stripe for accepting all major credit cards. We have also recently added Google Analytics and Webmaster tools for each of our customers at no additional cost.

Best of all, we have some great new websites launching in the coming weeks as well as some interesting new initiatives in the works. Stay tuned for more great stuff!

Ric Albano
Owner and Creative Director
33 Dimensions LLC

Why You Should Own Your Website

This article was orginally published at Strella Social Media on December 19, 2012.

Big WWWA professional website is the most crucial marketing tool that a small business owner has at his or her disposal. Establishing and retaining full ownership and control of your website is equally important in the rapidly shifting online world.

There are scores of “out-of-the-box” options out there from large, well-known companies that offer an easy and (seemingly) low-cost gateway towards establishing their own website. Such options can be very attractive to those who have little or no experience with websites because they often including editing tools where business owners can create their site. However, beware of some potent fine print that accompanies these “great” deals.

The first common issue is a lack of control over updating content or expanding the site. When a site is new, it is also small. The handful of pages and/or features you get with these “out-of-the-box” deals is usually sufficient for a start-up, but inevitably a business’s needs will change or grow (or both). This is where the large, well-known company makes their real money, often charging exorbitant amounts for additions or simple changes. For those old enough to remember, think about the old “12 records for a penny” deals. These club memberships were great upfront, but you were committed to buy each month for a couple years at whatever “regular club prices” they decided to charge you.

The second typical issue is ownership. Depending on which company you’re dealing with, these issues could range from simple challenges like being unable to control the Twitter handle that appears when a reader selects the “share” button to more complex difficulties such as site copyright. I had a client who ultimately didn’t own anything on his existing site even though the images were of him and his staff and the words described his business. Lack of ownership can also have an adverse effect on search engine optimization (SEO) as limits are placed on how pages are constructed and the types of tools available to help improve your SEO.

As a website designer who specializes in creating custom websites, I obviously have an interest in promoting well-built websites. I have several clients who were entangled in these “out-of-the-box” schemes and the limitations were so severe that we were forced to rebuild the entire site to make even basic enhancements. Building your site organically may be a slower and (initially) more costly option but you will reap the rewards in the long run by maintaining ownership and control.

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The Uphill Battle Facing Small Business

This article was orginally published at Strella Social Media on November 19, 2012.

Uphill Battle Facing Small BusinessNext Saturday, November 24th has been deemed Small Business Saturday, positioned between Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the post-Thanksgiving shopping spurt. On the surface, this is a very good thing. It brings widespread awareness to small business in general and should cause consumers to think of the little noticed shops they may routinely pass on their way to the big box store.

I must admit, however, that I have some skepticism about this initiative. First, it was launched by American Express, a multi-billion dollar, multi-national, corporation that may be about as far from “small” as one can get. AMEX has also registered the terms “Shop Small” and “Small Business Saturday,” which means that an actual small business may get into trouble if they used these terms in this context without permission or sanction from AMEX. I don’t mean to dump too much on American Express as I still think this is a great awareness campaign for small businesses, but let’s be frank; it is a big advertisement for their financial services.

There is also a bit of cynicism with the term “small business” itself. It has been volleyed around the political world in recent times as a mere catch phrase, well focus-tested and positive. In a way, saying you’re in favor of small business is like saying you’re for “world peace,” a great sounding concept, but totally meaningless unless you’re willing to look at the finer details needed to achieve such a lofty goal.

In the past political season, we’ve heard both sides speak how they were in favor of “small businesses” or the “middle class.” But when you look at some of the finer details, you see that the opposite is true. When the IRS audits a large corporation, they receive an average of $9,173 per man hour in recovered tax revenue. When small and medium size business are audited, that figure is only $702 per hour, a ratio difference of about 13 to 1 in actual dollars for the U.S. Treasury. Yet small-and-medium-sized-businesses are audited about 30% MORE than large corporations. Why?

The answer is that small businesses are easier targets. They don’t have the resources to properly fight these audits, so they are “low hanging fruit” for bureaucrats who are more concerned with their own success rates than actual dollars recovered for the taxpayers and, of course, this proves devastating for many small business owners. This stat alone should make you furious but there are many more examples of the deck being stacked against small business.

The point is, small business is a great attribute in a free society but there are many unnecessary burdens that inhibit our growth and survival. Most people agree that they want small business to thrive and it is time we all take some responsibility in challenging these burdens.

Death, Taxes, and Social Media

Facebook goes public in 2012News broke last week that, despite bring in over a billion dollars in profit last year, Facebook owes no taxes for the year 2012. Actually, the company will be getting a refund of close to a half billion dollars. This is due to a provision in the tax law that allows companies to discharge all previous losses, from their date of inception, during the year that the company goes public, as Facebook did in 2012. However, this is not necessarily a one-time windfall as Facebook may continue to get monster tax breaks in the coming years. And Facebook isn’t the only major social media company with no federal tax liability. This week it was revealed that LinkedIn has paid no federal income tax over the past three years, in spite of an estimated $160 million in profits over that time span.

The irony here is that much smaller businesses and/or individuals who promote these large companies through their social media services get no such tax breaks. In fact, I know of fellow small business owners who are struggling to meet their tax obligations at this time. Of course, social media is just one example, as similar situations exist in all trades and industries.

Politicians try to exploit such unfairness with lofty talk of “ending tax break for millionaires and billionaires.” The richest of the rich, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, often avail themselves as props for such proposals. After all, who has more to lose than the richest of the rich? And if they are in favor of higher rates, why shouldn’t we be?

But when the rubber meets the road, such as in the fiscal cliff agreement less than two months ago, these same politicians advocate that the top tax rates be raised on those who make $200,000 per year (hardly millionaires or billionaires). So the brunt of the burden is carried by the small businesses on the lower end of the spectrum and, even for those of us who don’t quite make $200K, many of our clients and customers do. As for the likes of Buffett, such rate increases make no difference because these wealthy entrepreneurs have armies of tax attorneys to offset any meager rate increase. In fact, Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway has been fighting the I.R.S. over an estimated $1 billion in back taxes for over a decade (how many small businesses can afford to do that?).

The only real solution is to throw out the current tax system, which is loaded with loopholes for the crafty and traps for the less-connected, and replace it with a simple and straight-forward system for absolutely everyone. Such a common-sense solution will be vehemently opposed by tax attorneys and politicians who rely on the current convoluted tax system to grant special favors, but it would unleash an era of growth and certainty for everyone involved in commerce. Then even Facebook could “invest” in the infrastructure of our country.