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MONEY Small Business

4 Phrases that Will Kill Your Startup’s Pitch To Investors

Looking to get a new biz funded? Better not say these things—or you'll sink your chances before you're even gotten off the ground, says entrepreneur Seth Talbott.

Unfortunately, there are many different areas where you can fail with a startup—and raising money from investors is no exception.

Having founded numerous companies, advised dozens more, and put together more pitch decks together than I can count, I learned the hard way which pitching mistakes are fatal and which ones are survivable.

This is why having veteran entrepreneurs in your startup team is an attractive factor for investors; experience is often life’s best teacher. But if you don’t have that knowledge at your fingertips, instead be a student of other startups’ failures. Make sure that your pitch doesn’t reflect inexperience or naiveté—not just because investors won’t touch your startup, but because your survival depends on it.

Over my time as an entrepreneur, I’ve identified these as the four most lethal phrases to use when trying to raise money:

“We have no competition.”

Why it’s a pitch killer: It shows that you either don’t understand your customers or have done a terrible job analyzing the competitive landscape—and often it means both.

With any business, you are either competing against ingrained behavior or against a rival company, and you need to know the balance of that situation better than anyone.

Just because you think that you are a “first mover” doesn’t mean that you get a free pass in studying the competitive landscape. In fact, I would argue that you have even more work to do.

As a general rule, assume that any idea you’ve heard of has been done before. If there isn’t already a market dominator, there’s probably a really good reason for that.

So don’t discredit yourself by presenting your idea to investors assuming that you’re the first one to think of it and assuming that being a “first mover” will give you a huge advantage. Proceed with caution and skepticism about the uniqueness of your solution. Study, research and dig until you find prior failures and have a deep understanding of why they didn’t work.

“No one can copy us.”

Why it’s a pitch killer: It makes you look ignorant and it also shows arrogance about your development prowess, which is a red flag to investors.

If you are a small startup, you are likely working the kind of product or technology that would take GE, Amazon, Microsoft or HP a long weekend to copy.

Additionally, in the case of software companies, patents are often not useful because startups are rarely creating new technology as much as applying existing technology in new ways. Plus, enforcing and defending patents is expensive and a massive distraction.

“We will be profitable in one year.”

Why it’s a pitch killer: Investors don’t expect you to turn a profit quickly, and, in fact, will become highly suspicious of your financial predictions if you suggest a profitability roadmap that defies industry norms.

Also, while financial projections never end up being perfectly accurate, they do speak to your ability to estimate labor costs and whether the business will scale efficiently.

So don’t make the rookie mistake of giving wildly unrealistic financial predictions.

“We are cheaper.”

Why it’s a pitch killer: A lower price point is rarely enough to unseat an entrenched leader or differentiate yourself from the competition—which is why no one with a decent amount of entrepreneurial tread on their tires starts companies from that approach.

Undercutting competitors with efficiency improvements and brilliant execution can be one of a few competitive advantages. However, the “we’re going to be cheaper” approach almost always fails because new entrepreneurs typically don’t have appropriate expectations for the actual cost of doing business, the costs of labor, or the length of the sales cycle.

And think of it from an investor’s perspective: How sexy is it to be investing in a business that is trying to be cheaper instead of premium?

So now you know the worst of what to avoid in your pitch. But the point isn’t just to eliminate these phrases—rather to also realize why they are a problem and what blind spots they reflect. My point isn’t that a few words will ruin your startup, but that a few bad decisions based out of ignorance will.

Seth Talbott has founded numerous companies, including Promedev (which provides lab services for medical providers), AtomOrbit (which helps businesses create mobile workspaces with access to legacy data) and Preferling (which helps users find restaurants based on preferences).

Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program.

TIME Small Business

You Can Now Buy Girl Scout Cookies Online

You can now have cookies shipped directly to your doorstep

(NEW YORK) — Watch out world, the Girl Scouts are going digital to sell you cookies.

For the first time in nearly 100 years, Girl Scouts of the USA will allow its young go-getters to push their wares using a mobile app or personalized websites.

But only if their scout councils and guardians say OK.

“Girls have been telling us that they want to go into this space,” said Sarah Angel-Johnson, chief digital cookie executive for the organization covering about 2 million girls. “Online is where entrepreneurship is going.”

And the best news for these digital natives: They can have cookies shipped directly to your doorstep.

More than 1 million scouts, from kindergarten-age Daisies to teens, were expected to opt in as cookie-selling season cranks up this month and the scouting organization gets digital sales underway. But digital sales are intended to enhance, not replace, the paper spreadsheets used to generate an estimated $800 million in cookie sales a year — at anywhere from $3.50 to $5 a box, depending on scout council.

There are important e-lessons here, scout officials said, such as better articulating and tracking goals, learning to handle customers and money in a new way, and more efficiently processing credit card information.

“A lot of people have asked, ‘What took you so long to get online?’ We spend a lot of time thinking how do we make this safe, scalable and smart,” Kelly M. Parisi, chief communications executive for Girl Scouts of the USA, said at a recent demonstration for select media.

Councils were offered one of the two platforms but not both. For web-based sales, scouts customize their pages, using their first names only, and email prospective customers with links to click on for orders. They can also put up videos explaining who they are and what they plan to do with their proceeds.

The mobile platform offers tabs for tracking sales and allows for the sale of bundles of different kinds of cookies. It can be used on a phone or tablet.

“They can get them quicker than waiting for me to deliver them because sometimes it takes me a long time to deliver,” offered 11-year-old Priscilla at the preview. The adults at the event asked that only first names of scouts be used.

Added 7-year-old Anna: “My favorite part is that now I can sell more Girl Scout Cookies.” She pulled down about 200 boxes last year and has upped her goal to 600. Girl Scouts use their cookie money to pay for community service work or troop activities such as camping and other trips.

The websites will not be accessible without an email invitation, requiring the girls to build client lists. And personal information is as protected as any digits out there, for both the scouts and customers, using encryption in some cases.

Much of the responsibility to limit identifying details about scouts online falls on parents.

Troop Leader Karen Porcher of the Bronx has an 11-year-old scout and is particularly psyched about the digital options. They live in a house rather than an apartment, and she and her husband work at home, eliminating at-office cookie and neighborly building sales.

“During cookie season my daughter is wearing her (scout) vest on the subway and people are so excited to see a Girl Scout,” Porcher explained. “Strangers actually will buy a case of cookies and wait for her to call. This is going to be amazing because now she can just say ‘Give me your business card,’ or ‘I’ll take your email address,’ send the email and they can be delivered. This is gonna be sweet.”

Porcher also sees word-of-mouth value in getting cookies delivered quickly.

“People are going to be walking around with cookies and others are going to say, ‘Whoa, how did you get those already?'”

Zack Bennett of Manhattan has a 9-year-old scout who sold more than 1,000 boxes last year. She hopes to increase her goal to 1,500 this season and went through training to learn how to set up her new cookie website.

But dad won’t be letting her loose alone.

“I’ll be sitting in the backseat to help her, certainly when it comes to credit cards, things of that sort,” he said. “But it makes perfect sense to have it be on the computer. It’s definitely time the Girl Scouts came into the 21st century.”

Read next: You Asked: Is Eating Dessert Really That Bad For Me?

TIME Small Business

Growers Grateful for Higher Christmas Tree Prices

Christmas Tree Cost
Jenny Howell stands among snow-covered Christmas trees on her family-run Howell Tree Farm, Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014, in Cumming, Iowa Charlie Neibergall—AP

"There are more options and choices out there"

(DES MOINES, Iowa) — Christmas tree likely will cost a little more this year, and growers like John Tillman say it’s about time.

Six years of decreased demand and low prices put many growers out of business. Those who withstood the downturn are relieved they survived.

“I’m awful proud to still be in the Christmas tree business,” said Tillman, who ships up to 20,000 trees each fall from nine fields south of Olympia, Washington. “We lost a lot of farmers who didn’t make it through.”

Prices vary according to the variety of tree, but growers this year will see about $20 per tree, $2 more than the last several years, according to Bryan Ostlund, executive director of the Salem, Oregon-based Pacific Northwest Tree Association. Prices will likely rise as the holidays near and supply decreases.

Consumers looking to deck their home could pay a little more than last year, but costs vary widely depending on factors such as transportation, tree-lot rental space and big-box retailers’ demand that prices remain stable. For example, a 6-foot Douglas fir in Oregon, which grows about one-third of the nation’s Christmas trees, could sell for $25 while a similar tree hauled to Southern California might go for $80.

Tara Deering-Hansen, a spokeswoman for Midwestern supermarket chain Hy-Vee, said wholesale tree prices have climbed slightly but prices are set at each store and customers might not see any increase.

Heavy snow last week slowed the shipment of trees from Michigan, which ranks third in production and supplies much of the Midwest and parts of the South. In some loading yards, stacks of trees awaiting shipment were covered with up to 2 feet of snow.

“Getting the snow off was more work than loading the trees,” said Dan Wahmhoff, co-owner of a nursery in southwestern Michigan. “It was definitely a challenge — wind and snow and cold, trucks were getting stuck — but we made it through.”

In the coming years, growers expect the supply of trees to remain stable with prices gradually increasing, in part because it takes six to seven years for a seedling to grow large enough to sell.

Even with the increase, most growers are being paid less now than in the mid-2000s, when trees from new and expanded farms hit the market as demand fell. And the industry still faces challenges, as competition from artificial tree manufacturers and other factors have led to a drop in trees harvested, from 20.8 million in 2002 to 17.3 million in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The National Christmas Tree Association, based in Missouri, has encouraged growers to offer more options that meet the needs of younger people who live in urban areas and don’t have space for a towering tree, says executive director Rick Dungey. More growers are realizing that if they offer different looks — such as a tree that could fit on a coffee table or one thin enough to squeeze into a narrow room — people will buy them, Dungey said.

“There are more options and choices out there,” he said.

Small tree-farm owners who sell straight to customers aren’t as affected by the factors increasing prices to consumers nationally.

Jenny Howell, whose family runs Howell Tree Farm southwest of Des Moines, said they’ll raise prices a bit because of high fuel prices for mowers and other equipment over the summer and drought that caused some seedlings to die. But their customers typically return each winter and don’t spend time comparing her farm’s prices to those in city lots.

It can be cold, hard work traipsing through the snowy tree farm in December, but Howell said her family still enjoys it.

“It’s a happy business,” she said.

___

Associated Press writer John Flesher in Traverse City, Mich., contributed to this story.

MONEY Small Business

Can Ferguson Recover? The Lasting Economic Impact of Violent Unrest

Flames illuminate the St. Louis Fish & Chicken Grill next door to where fire crews worked to douse a burning furniture store.
Riots erupted moments after it was announced Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson will not face criminal charges in the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Mike Brown. Several buildings were looted and burned. James Cooper—Demotix/Corbis

The looting and destruction of businesses in Ferguson could have long-term effects.

A grand jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown has stoked anger in Ferguson, Mo., where peaceful protests have given way to looting and violence, virtually shutting down the city last night. “People don’t want to come into the area,” Jason Bryant, a local pastor, told TIME.

The events echo those in August, when the shooting first caused long-standing tensions to erupt into violence, theft — and shuttered storefronts. TIME reported last night that local retailers have seen sales slow by as much as 80%.

While the loss of local business may seem trivial next to the potential for additional violence — not to mention the civil rights and other legal issues at stake — there is a danger that rioting could disrupt the lives and livelihoods of Ferguson residents for years to come.

In the ten years after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, for example, the city lost nearly $4 billion in taxable sales, according to research conducted by Victor Matheson of College of the Holy Cross and Robert Baade of Lake Forest College.

“Social unrest can have a lasting negative impact on a local economy in a way that’s much more persistent than even a natural disaster,” says Matheson. “Though Hurricane Andrew caused more damage upfront, businesses were able to bounce back as soon as cleanup began. We didn’t see that in Los Angeles.”

Matheson and Baade found that the steps toward recovery are relatively clear after natural disasters: Communities tend to join together to build shelters, clean up, and storm-proof structures against future events. After rioting, by contrast, it’s much harder rebuild confidence and community trust among frightened business owners, or to convince new employers to move in. “It’s not as simple to just stamp out violence and anger,” Matheson says. And reluctance to rebuild is dangerous because it is self-perpetuating, he adds.

Concerns about lasting damage to business-owner confidence similarly followed riots in London in 2011 (also triggered by a police shooting), and economic aftershocks are still felt today, despite the commitment of more than $116 million in riot-recovery funding.

While there are no easy fixes that will keep Ferguson from suffering a similar fate, quelling anger is a first step. Various experts and commentators have suggested policy changes that could help rebuild trust in the police department, including a consent decree like the one that eventually helped the LAPD improve relations with residents of L.A.

No matter what path Ferguson takes, says Matheson, the sooner the violence ends, the faster the local economy can begin to heal.

 

MONEY Getting Ahead

How to Convince Someone You Admire—but Have Never Met—to Mentor You

New York Public Library
Kyoungil Jeon—Getty Images

A little bit of flattery and a lot of research can get you everywhere, says entrepreneur Travis Steffen.

Five years ago I was living in a cramped three-bedroom apartment in East L.A., trying to build two startups simultaneously with no clue what I was doing and no seed capital. I had very little income, no connections and, frankly, no friends. Nevertheless, I was determined to find a way to become successful.

I had recently attended an entrepreneurship conference and bought a DVD profiling young millionaires. One of the lessons from that DVD was to find a mentor—that is, a person who currently is where you want to be, who can take you under his or her wing and show you the ropes.

I hadn’t really made an effort to network with other entrepreneurs up until that point, so I couldn’t just call one up and ask for an intro. So, I carefully crafted a series of emails and follow-ups to all of the young millionaires profiled in the DVD I was watching!

Not only did I get responses, but I impressed one of them enough to agree to mentor me. This individual guided me when I needed it and eventually granted me access to her incredible network. I have since started, scaled and sold five companies.

The key to my success was simple. I didn’t want to blend into the crowd of others like me who I was certain were going after the very same entrepreneurs, so I set 8 simple rules for myself, as follows:

1. Do your research.

Before you seek out a mentor, know which industry you want to learn about, and in what way. Then, come up with a shortlist of people you’d like to target—and do your research on each. See if you can find their bios online; look for articles written on them; and check out their LinkedIn profiles.

When you do reach out, make sure your research is apparent. This attention to detail will show your prospective mentor that you’re not just blanket emailing a ton of people at once—that you actually want to learn from him or her specifically.

2. Don’t be desperate.

Many people seeking a mentor will resort to begging. They’ll talk about how they don’t know what they’re doing, how their company is failing, or whatever other negatives they think will demonstrate their need for a mentor.

However, just as a bank won’t loan to somebody who’s broke as they don’t want to risk not being paid back, successful people won’t mentor somebody they feel they can’t make an instant impact on as they fear wasting their time.

3. Show that you’re a self-starter.

You need to remember that the best mentors out there will often be the toughest to get.

To give yourself the best chance of success, demonstrate that you’re not starting from complete scratch, that you’ve made it pretty far on your own already.

If you’re an entrepreneur, for example, you’ve might explain that you’ve already got a business plan or spent a significant amount of time getting to know the industry. If you’re a career changer, you might show that you’ve taken some classes on the topic. If you’re looking to climb in the field in which you currently work, you might describe what you’ve done so far.

4. Demonstrate self-confidence.

Successful people were not always successful, but most of them were confident—even early on in their careers or entrepreneurship—in their ability to learn and become successful.

In your communications with your potential mentor, your ability and passion to make things happen needs to be apparent not just in what you say and do, but how you say and do it.

5. Establish specific, low-pressure terms.

Asking a successful entrepreneur, “Will you mentor me?” is akin to a man asking a woman he’s never met to marry him. He’s much more likely to be successful if he instead has a nice conversation and asks if he can call her sometime.

Approach a prospective mentor in the same way.

Don’t flat-out ask them to be your mentor. Instead, let them know that you really respect them and have learned a lot from what they’ve done, and then start with one specific question that shows you’re actively working on building your own empire. Get your first positive response, and then go from there—slowly.

6. Don’t create work for them.

When starting to work with somebody you want to mentor you, make it known that you’re aware how busy they are and how valuable their time is. Then propose something as simple as a 15-minute call once per month when their schedule permits.

7. Showcase your implementation.

There’s nothing more encouraging—and more flattering—to a successful businessperson than someone showing them how much they’ve learned from them, how they’ve implemented it, and the conclusions and next questions they’ve come to as a result.

After you ask your first question or two, don’t even think about asking anything else until you’ve implemented the advice they’ve given you and can show it.

8. Show your gratitude.

By and large, if you’re asking a successful person to give you their valuable time, you need to acknowledge that you understand that they are making sacrifice on your behalf.

While you likely don’t have much to offer them at this point, you can remember to thank your mentor each time you talk. But also show your appreciation in a unique way now and again, perhaps with a gift around the holidays or when they help you with a particularly challenging problem. I prefer something like Edible Arrangements as it shows how thankful you are without sending an inappropriate message.

Travis Steffen is currently the founder of UP (upshare.co) and one of the founders and VCs sharing their insight at MentorMojo, an entrepreneurial e-learning platform. Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs.

 

MONEY Careers

What To Do When The Boss’s Daughter Is Tough to Work With

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I work for a small firm of about 20 people. The problem is that the boss’s daughter also works there and is a trial for everyone. She is 25, not particularly bright, and very arrogant. She acts and speaks like it is her firm and has alienated just about everyone. No one will dare say anything to the boss, not even during reviews. What should I do?– Name Withheld

A: You have two options: Find a non-confrontational way to make your boss aware of the situation and see if he or she is inclined to act. Or look for a new job.

The latter might seem unfair, but that’s the reality of working for a small, family-run business, says Dana Brownlee, a corporate trainer and founder of Professionalism Matters. “Your boss clearly wants his daughter to play a role in the company, and he calls the shots,” says Brownlee.

It’s not clear if her behavior is just unpleasant or if her attitude is affecting the business in a material way. As much as your boss loves and supports his daughter, if she is driving valued employees away or hurting client relationships, he may not want to jeopardize the business, says Brownlee.

Even at a small firm, your boss may not be aware of what’s happening, especially if no one is speaking up at reviews. If you can get your boss to see what’s going on, there’s a chance the situation will change.

Set a meeting with your boss. Don’t criticize his daughter. Instead, talk about the issues that are having an impact on business and ask for advice on how to handle them. For example, if you have a client who has complained about dealing with the daughter or a decision she made, you can report that and say you’re worried about losing business. Your case will be stronger if you can get several colleagues or even the client to bring the problem up with your boss too.

You could also recommend a change in how reviews are done so that staffers have a way to give honest and frank feedback confidentially. Brownlee recommends a 360-degree review process, in which employees receive anonymous feedback from the people who work around them. That might not be an easy sell in a small organization, but if you have any influence with your boss, this would be an objective way to raise his awareness, says Brownlee.

The best you can hope for is that your boss gets concerned enough about her behavior that he talks to her about it. Even if your boss does that, however, it’s not very likely he will fire his daughter. “If that’s not a situation you can live with,” says Brownlee, “your best strategy is to find a new job.”

Have a workplace etiquette question? Send it to careers@moneymail.com.

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