MONEY small businesses

Immigrant Entrepreneur Launches High-Tech Mailbox Business

Nigel Thomas' American Dream was to start his own business. This is it.

Nigel Thomas and his family moved to America from the Caribbean when he was just seven years old. Education and having a thriving career were always important in his culture, but Thomas yearned for something bigger than that security. When his employer offered a severance package to employees, he saw his opportunity to fulfill his dream of owning his own company. The venture Thomas founded is GoLocker, a service that allows customers to get their packages at their convenience from lockers inside 24-hour grocery stores. With five sites in Brooklyn currently, he hopes to expand to as many as 15 locations before the end of the year.

MONEY

This Is Why You Should Consider Dumping Your Traditional Job

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Hero Images—Getty Images/Hero Images

79% of independent workers say they're happier without a regular job.

Don’t feel bad for independent workers because they don’t have regular jobs, with benefits, traditional work hours, and such. This broad category of workers, which includes freelancers, independent contractors, and the self-employed, is quite happy with life as it is.

According to the 2015 edition of the State of Independence report from MBO Partners, a business services company focussing on the self-employed, 79% of independent workers say they are happier working on their own.

The full report will not be released until the fall, but Steve King, partner at the small business analysis firm Emergent Research that worked with MBO on the study, also said 59% of independent workers reported they were healthier than if they held a traditional job.

Why are independents in such a good mood? King says features like control, autonomy and flexibility make independent work more attractive than the typical 9-to-5. “Our research, and the research of others, is finding growing numbers of Americans are willing to trade income and job security for the autonomy, flexibility and control independent work provides,” King writes.

To some extent, the study’s findings are to be expected. The majority of those surveyed say that, for a variety of reasons, they voluntarily chose the independent work life over more traditional gigs. So it’s no surprise nearly two out of three independent workers report being “very satisfied” with their work situation, and why four out of five plan on staying independent. After all, most of them consciously decided to pursue this style of work.

MBO says almost 18 million Americans are full-time independent workers, an increase of 12% over the last five years. According to the company, the overall employment market grew by 7% in the same time period.

MONEY Startups

3 Ways to Figure Out If There’s a Market for Your Business Idea

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Dina Belenko Photography—Getty Images

Before you waste a whole mess of money.

When entrepreneur Everett Dickson made plans to take lessons in racing open-wheel cars at a school in Arizona, he ran into an awkward problem. As a user of smokeless tobacco—aka chewing tobacco—he needed a portable spittoon that he could take with him into the car. He could only find one model when he searched the internet, and it didn’t appeal to him. “It literally would open in your pocket,” he says.

That led to the idea for his Atlanta-based company FLASR, which makes its own portable four-ounce spittoon. Launching the business in 2012, Dickson—an engineer by training—sketched the original concept drawings himself, then hires pros to convert them into 3D designs and enlisted a prototype company to build working models. Then he negotiated the opportunity to test his wares in 400 retail outlets, such as convenience stores. His beta test lasted from December 2013 to May 2014. FLASR sold 25,000 units in 4 months—a sign to him that it was worthwhile to proceed.

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After making some tweaks, such as enlarging the opening diameter and changing his point of sale displays, he did a gradual rollout in 2015. FLASR, which makes several models with different looks, is off to a strong start. In the first quarter of 2015, the startup generated $20,000 in sales. Dickson is the only employee at his company, which relies on contracted help in areas such as sales.

As Dickson, a veteran entrepreneur, has found, determining if there is a market for your idea is essential before you roll it out. Otherwise, it’s easy to waste a lot of time and money on a product or service that no one wants.

Here’s how to figure out if the world wants to buy what you have to sell.

Do your market research. Before working on a prototype for his product, Dickson pored over market research reports on the smokeless tobacco industry from Euromonitor International, to make sure there were enough potential buyers. He found that the size of the U.S. marketplace was expected to grow from $4.8 billion in 2010 to $9 billion in 2015. “We assume much of it is being driven by widespread implementation of smoking restrictions in public and private buildings,” Dickson says. He also saw that big corporations in the tobacco industry such as RJR were acquiring makers of smokeless tobacco. “The industry seems to be recognizing this,” he says. The homework he did gave him confidence that there was potential to create a scalable business in the market.

The same type of research is important if you sell a service. At LiveStreamingFitness.com in Tulsa, Oklahoma, CEO and serial entrepreneur Keith Kochner concluded there was an untapped need in the marketplace for his service—which streams fitness videos around the clock—after reviewing market research showing that only a small percentage of the American population has a health club membership.

Once Kochner set up his website, he enlisted several hundred beta testers to see how they reacted to the service. In response to their feedback, he fixed glitches on the site and made tweaks such as adding music to their videos. “I found all kinds of things weren’t working,” he says. Then he did his official launch, which took place January 1. Charging $9.90 a month for a 30-day membership, he says he is on track to hit at least $3 million in revenues in the next 12 months.

Turn to your clients. If you have even a tiny handful of customers, they may be your best source of candid feedback on whether your product or service idea is appealing. RevTrax in New York City offers technology that makes it possible for retail clients to measure how their digital promotions are affecting in-store sales. After winning early clients such as Jackson Hewitt and Walgreens, chief operating officer Seth Sarelson and his co-founders paid close attention to cues from such customers to assess the market for their technology. “Sometimes clients can help you see the largest business opportunities,” he says. In response to feedback from one client, RevTrax expanded from providing data only on the results of affiliate marketing to many forms of digital marketing, such as email marketing. The company, founded in 2008, now has grown to more than 60 employees.

Anisa Telwar Kaicker is CEO and founder of Anisa International, a maker of private label cosmetic brushes and applicators in Atlanta that serves clients such as Estee Lauder and Laura Mercier. She will often ask such customers what they think of a new brush before rolling it out. “Even if I went into a client and said this is not fully vetted yet, but I’d like your insight, they were always honored to have a first look,” she says. “They would be the ones buying the product.” To protect her ideas, she routinely files for provisional patents and will mention in conversations, “This is patent pending.” Her firm, founded more than 20 years ago, now generates $40 million in annual revenue, she says.

Ask an expert. At Guardian Pharmacy in Atlanta, which serves institutional clients such as long-term care facilities, CEO Fred Burke and his cofounders turned to Burke’s mentor when trying to figure out where there would be a market for the high-service model they wanted to offer.

His mentor, Bill Bindley, had previously launched Bindley Western, a major drug distributor acquired by Cardinal Health. “You need to look at long-term care facilities,” he told Burke. Burke paid attention and moved into that niche, quickly finding customers. Today, Guardian Pharmacy has grown to a chain with $325 million in annual revenue, and Bindley is an investor and board member. “He is an industry veteran,” says Burke. “I listen very carefully to what he has to say.”

MONEY Small Business

Guess Which Small Business Industry Is Growing the Fastest?

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Driendl Group—Getty Images

Growth in manufacturing and consumer spending has helped this unglamorous industry prosper.

Those big rigs you see rumbling down the freeway are a sign of good times.

Trucking is now the fastest-growing small-business industry in the U.S., thanks to a robust economy and expanded options for small-business loans and financing.

Two kinds of small businesses in trucking posted the biggest jumps in revenue in the 12-month period ending May 31, according to a report released this month by Sageworks, a financial analysis software company.

General freight trucking, which covers small businesses that transport a wide range of merchandise, was at No. 1, recording a nearly 25% uptick in sales, the report said.

At No. 2 was building and construction, at 19%, followed by specialized freight trucking, which covers tankers and refrigerated trucks, at No. 3 with a 17% gain.

The survey was based on an analysis of financial statements of small businesses with annual revenue of less than $5 million.

Trucking’s momentum is evident in California, home to the biggest trucking association in the nation.

“Trucking is one of the great entrepreneurial opportunities,” Shawn Yadon, chief executive of the California Trucking Association, tells NerdWallet. “We typically trend with the overall economy.”

And the trend has been upbeat, highlighted by growth in manufacturing and consumer spending that’s “still doing well,” he says.

Trucking’s momentum was also underscored in May when the American Trucking Associations reported that the industry’s revenue topped $700 billion for the first time ever.

“Trucking is, and will continue to be, the dominant way to move goods in this country,” Bill Graves, the association’s CEO, said in a statement.

In fact, there’s so much demand for trucking services that the industry is wrestling with a shortage of 35,000 to 40,000 drivers, according to the American Trucking Associations.

That points to even more opportunities for entrepreneurs who now have more access to small business loans and other kinds of financing.

David Gilbert, CEO of alternative lender National Funding, says his company is “seeing fundamental growth” when it comes to transportation-related small business loans. “People are transporting more stuff,” he tells NerdWallet. “The economy is growing again.”

Trucking can be a complex industry, and entrepreneurs interested in entering that industry should focus on three key areas:

Make sure you know and understand rules and regulations

Yadon of the California Trucking Association stresses the need to “go through the proper channels.”

If you plan to operate in multiple states, the website of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation includes information on requirements.

A key step is getting a USDOT number, which federal authorities use to keep track of your small business in connection with safety audits and crash investigations and inspections.

You also have state regulations to think about. In California, for example, you’ll need to comply with regulations related to air emissions and carrying different types of cargo, such as animals, crops and produce. A good place to start is the website of the state’s Department of Transportation.

Have a clear plan for buying and maintaining trucks

Of course, one of the most important steps in starting a trucking business is, well, buying trucks.

Yadon estimates the cost for a truck ranges from $50,000 for a used rig to $150,000 for a brand new vehicle “with a lot of bells and whistles.”

“There’s a lot of very good technology going into the equipment now,” he says.

But you need to plan this investment carefully, says Gilbert of National Funding, which offers financing to both owner-operated companies with just one truck and bigger firms operating at least five vehicles.

That means having a game plan for maintenance and being prepared for the business impact of trucks breaking down, he says.

“They need to really manage good quality vehicles,” he says. “If they need to fix the vehicles, if there’s a hiccup and they don’t fix it, it could hurt their business.”

Join a local or state association of truckers

For entrepreneurs who are just starting out, it’s wise to reach out to other trucking companies, which usually means joining local or regional associations, Yadon says.

For example, members of the California Trucking Association get access to exclusive programs, such as special deals for tires, legal services and financing truck purchases or leases.

The trucking industry has so much momentum, “you’re probably going to see another uptick in the second half of the year,” Yadon says.

“It’s definitely a good time for trucking,” he adds.

More From NerdWallet:

MONEY Food & Drink

From Trap to Table: Luke’s Lobster Serves Fresh Maine Catch

Luke's Lobster is all about simplicity, sustainability, and a great Maine lobster roll.

President and co-founder Luke Holden was raised in Cape Elizabeth, Maine; he founded his restaurant chain after “jonesing” for a good lobster roll in New York City. “All these great chefs [were] adding their interpretation of what a lobster roll was, but for me that was screwing it up,” Holden says. “They were adulterating the super-high-quality lobster meat.”

The first Luke’s Lobster restaurant opened in October 2009 in New York’s East Village. Six years later there are 16 locations, with one opening soon in Boston and another one just opened in Tokyo.

MONEY Small Business

How Not to Go Broke When Starting Your Own Business

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Andy Roberts—Getty Images

4 tips for for getting your ducks in a row to smooth your transition from employee to entrepreneur.

When New York City executive consultant Stefanie Smith was toying with the idea of leaving her career at Grant Thornton and starting her own firm, it was a fellow alum of Wharton’s MBA program who pushed her to take the plunge.

“You’ve done all your homework. You’re finished with the research. Now, the last thing to do is act on it,” the classmate told her.

Smith left behind her role as a supervising consultant, specializing in organizational and operational productivity, and dived into running her own boutique firm. Her goal was to provide more customized and flexible services to her clients than was possible in a staff role. She soon ended up landing Grant Thornton and KPMG as clients.

That was in 1996. Today, she has no regrets that she has poured her energies into her business, Stratex Consulting. “You have to have the courage to invest in yourself,” says Smith.

Not everyone’s transition from employee to entrepreneur goes as smoothly. Here are some tips on how to quit your job and start a business with a minimum of pain.

Don’t quit your day job tomorrow. Saying “See ya!” to your boss may be tempting, but not so fast. It may take months before your startup can pay your bills, so you may need to keep working in a traditional job for a while. Research by Gallup last year found that only 38% of entrepreneurs with businesses that are one-year-old or less depend on their venture as their main source of income. But once businesses are two to five years old, 51% of owners rely on them for their primary income. In the meantime, many keep other jobs.

Test the waters. Try to find your first client while you are still working, as long as you haven’t signed agreements that prevent you from taking on outside clients. “All you need is your first client to be in business,” says Jaime Klein, founder of Inspire Human Resources, a consulting firm in New York City.

Can’t find a client? Take a hard look at your business model. “There might be something fundamentally wrong with it,” says New York City career coach Caroline Ceniza-Levine. “You may need to change your strategy.” Or it could be that you don’t enjoy crucial aspects of running a business, such as closing deals, as much as you thought you would. That’s valuable information to have—before you’ve quit your job.

Eyeing a business that requires a big outlay of capital? Try a small, controlled experiment to see if you like running one, suggests Ceniza-Levine. “Instead of a retail store, start a popup store,” she says. Or try volunteering your services to contacts who run businesses like the one you want to start. “See if you like their lives,” says Ceniza-Levine.

Build your cash reserves. You can shorten the time it takes to quit your job by living frugally and tucking away startup money. If won’t be able to rely on another source of income, such as a spouse’s paycheck, during the launch period, save about a year’s worth of living and business expenses before you quit your job, advises Rohit Arora, CEO of Biz2Credit, an online matchmaker between small-business borrowers and lenders in New York City. “Anything you do to start a business will take double the time and expense that you think,” says Arora.

Launching a business in an area where you have experience can help reduce the amount of money you need to save, he says. “Having prior experience is more valuable than cash,” Arora says. “That’s more valuable than cash. It will teach you a lot of tricks for how to start a business cheaply and leverage your contacts to start the cash flow of the business much faster.”

Make sure you’ve got a support team in place. When Smith went into business for herself, she built a “dream team” of trusted colleagues to guide her on an informal basis. “You want smart, honest people around you who really understand what you bring to the table and what makes you special,” she says. They gave her input on everything from her business cards to how to define herself in the market.

As she built her business, their candid feedback helped her raise her game. When she wrote her book, The Power of Professional Presence, for instance, her colleagues gave her very specific editorial suggestions, such as including the type of anecdotes she shared in her speeches. “I had to completely revisit what I had written–which worked perfectly well as a consulting program–and rewrite until the voice was authentic,” she says.

Your support team also needs to include your life partner, if you have one. “It’s important you have your spouse on board when you are going to start a new business,” says CPA Jay Penn, managing partner at tru Independence in San Francisco, who has advised many registered investment advisors who have left Wall Street firms to start their own. “Going from having a regular W-2 paycheck involves everyone in the family,” he says. “If you have the support of the people around you, you can make anything happen.”

Read next: How One Woman Overcame a Panic Disorder to Build a $2 Million Solo Business

TIME

This Company Is the Best Place to Work For Millennials

Courtesy: Power Home Remodeling Group Corey Schiller (left) and Asher Raphael, co-CEOs of Power.

Believe it or not, it's a home remodeling company

If you’re under 35 and looking for a job, you might want to check out this new Fortune ranking of the Best Workplaces for Millennials.

The list, in partnership with researcher Great Place to Work, examines the 100 companies that earned the highest marks in a survey of employees under the age of 35. Many of the companies that earned a spot are the ones you’d expect: tech giants like Google, Salesforce, and SAS; smaller, hot tech companies like Yelp and Squarespace; and hotel chains like Kimpton and Hyatt. But the overall No. 1 might surprise you: Power Home Remodeling Group.

The small contractor started with three small regional offices on the east coast—then two ambitious millennials who joined the company right out of college encouraged expansion. They consolidated the three offices into one headquarters in 2007, then began rapidly opening new offices across the country.

Now those two men, Asher Raphael and Corey Schiller, are the CEOs of the company. And they’ve turned it into a haven for young go-getters that appreciate a performance-driven culture, team spirit and mentoring. The construction business may not be the most sexy industry, but Raphael and Schiller have made it their mission to get top young talent on board.

Read Fortune‘s profile of the company for more.

MONEY Startups

How One Woman Overcame a Panic Disorder to Build a $2 Million Solo Business

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Shutterstock

And she works from home.

Driving to work one day, multimedia producer Pamela Grossman felt like she couldn’t breathe. “My heart was racing,” she recalls. “I thought I was dying. I had to pull over.”

That day changed her life. It turned out she had a panic disorder, and it kicked in with a vengeance. She embarked on years of treatment, from medication to therapy, but the condition didn’t go away.

“It was devastating,” says Grossman. “I’m a go-get-‘em performer.”

That was about 17 years ago. About six months after the attack, in January 2000, the multimedia producer left her job at an ad agency and started a boutique marketing and production studio called In the Present.

Because the attacks made it impossible for her to drive, she set up her business at home, in the Atlanta metropolitan area, and relied on rides from others to get around. “I had no choice,” she says. “It was either that or go on disability. While these panic attacks were really, really bad, I had to work. I love what I do. I can’t not work.”

Today, Grossman is one of a growing number of solo entrepreneurs who are building their businesses to more than $1 million in revenue. According to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 30,174 “nonemployer” firms brought in $1 million to $2,499,999 in 2013, up from 23,176 in 2009—a 30% increase. “I’m hoping to tip over $2 million [in revenue],” she says. “We’re really close to that.”

How did she pull it off, even while battling a disorder that dramatically altered her life? Here are some of her strategies.

Be honest: When Grossman’s disorder first struck, she arranged to have a flexible schedule at work. “I had to be able to leave when I wanted to,” she says. Eventually, when she realized it made sense to start her own business, she was candid with her clients about her health. “I was very lucky all of my work connections knew who I was before the panic attacks,” she says. “They knew something was seriously wrong.”

Still, they saw that the quality of her work was as high as it always had been. “A lot of the clients I had worked with wanted to continue working with me,” she says. Today, she is serving many of those same clients—and their referrals.

“I have not lost one client in 17 years,” she says. “Eighty percent of them, I’ve had almost since the beginning, if not the beginning. The rest came mostly from referrals.”

Build a flexible team. Grossman’s business handles projects such as logo design, brand building, marketing and promotional programs, social media marketing and video production. With work quickly flowing in from the beginning, she realized she could not do all of it herself. But she didn’t need full-time, ongoing help, so she opted for a contract model, where she compensates highly-skilled contacts with excellent rates. “I’ve got a great team of people that rotate in and work,” she says.

With clients around the globe, she is able to make time zones work in her favor by hiring contractors who get things done while she is sleeping. “We work around the clock,” she says.

Make technology work for you. Grossman uses GoToMeeting to hold conferences with distant clients “They can see our screens and work on designs together,” she says. The GoToMyPC app lets her access her computer from wherever she happens to be.

Skype is also part of her routine. “For someone like me who can’t always go out to the client, Skype has been my best friend,” she says. “If a client wants to see my face, they can see it through Skype.”

Stay alert to unexpected opportunities. Grossman has recently seen some improvements in her panic disorder thanks to working with a service animal—a 70-pound Labradoodle named Milo. “We’re just getting in the rhythm of him helping me move about, drive again, and do the things I need to do,” she says.

Her condition has made her aware of the struggles of other people with disabilities who use service animals, which are allowed to enter public buildings and transportation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“One of the things I quickly realized was how many businesses don’t understand the law and how you are turned down going into a post office or gym,” Grossman says.

In a division of her company called ITPVIDEO, she recently produced a video and test to train businesses and governments how to comply with the law. She sells them for less than $5 per person, with 20% of the profits going to nonprofits that train service dogs.

“That was a great project,” says Grossman. “It is really helping people with disabilities lead a better life.”

MONEY Startups

5 Smart Ways to Build Your Business Into a Distinctive Brand

Pair of red Converse sneakers in row of white Keds sneakers
Leonard Mc Lane—Getty Images

How to build a business that stands out from the competition.

When QuadJobs—a website that connects local employers with college and grad students looking for work—launched in October 2014, the founders wanted to perfect their branding right out of the starting gate.

The three co-founders were all veterans of the business world and knew that if their branding did not immediately convey their value proposition to potential users, they might not get a second chance.

“We realized early on that for people to understand the brand, you have to be hyperfocused about that,” says co-founder Betsey O’Reilly, a former managing director at Deutsche Bank, who teamed up with Andra Newman, formerly head of recruitment for J. Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch, and Bridie Loverro, founder of Blue State Coffee.

So how’d they do it? To start, the team spent a lot of time researching their market and incorporating what they learned into their brand. When they found that potential employers want their work force to be college-educated, for example, they fine-tuned their marketing to highlight that. Their official tag line: “The educated way to get things done.”

This and similar branding refinements seem to be working. In the first six months QuadJobs has attracted about 1,000 subscribers who hire help through the site and worked with 8,000 students, according to O’Reilly. Investors are also responding to the brand. QuadJobs raised $500,000 in initial funding and recently borrowed $300,000 in convertible debt.

Want to get your own branding right from the start? Here are some strategies to help you strike the right note.

1) Don’t expect to do it in one day. Building a brand is a multipart process that starts with getting clear on your mission and target audience and creating images and words that reflect that, says Donna Maria Coles Johnson, founder and CEO of the Indie Business Network, a 1,200 member trade organization for makers of handmade and artisanal products (think soaps to baked goods). “It’s not just how it looks,” she says. “It’s what you bring to the table as you become the walking, talking representative of that brand.” Build enough time into the launch of your business to reflect that.

2) Talk with potential customers. Getting as clear as possible about what you’ll offer and how you’ll explain that in your branding will ensure that you build a strong brand from the outset. One of the best ways to do this is by talking with people in your target market to find out their needs, so you can fine-tune your offering and your brand to reflect that.

QuadJobs arranged about 10 focus group sessions with about 200 participants—including both clients and employees—to make sure the company’s value proposition was clear. “We really tried to pinpoint what the pain point was for both sides of the equation,” says O’Reilly. That enabled its team to focus the site, and its branding, on what mattered to both groups.

During the focus groups, employers often made comments like, “I am so much more comfortable bringing a college student into my house than a lot of the other options that are out there,” O’Reilly said. Getting this feedback showed QuadJobs’ founders that the education level of their talent was their core differentiator. That in turn, shaped elements of its branding such as their tag line.

Meanwhile, from the students in the focus groups, the company learned that finding gigs that they could fit into a demanding schedule of classes was very important. QuadJobs highlights the flexibility of its gigs on the site’s home page. Many of the young people also hoped to build a work history that would help them get future jobs. That led to the development of the JobGPA, a compilation of employers’ reviews and comments about a student’s performance that they can show to future employers. “We think there is real value in these jobs,” says O’Reilly. “They show work ethic, commitment, and skills.”

3) Keep it simple. If you do a marketing campaign, whether on radio or the web, it’s tempting to try to cram a ton of information into your message. That will only confuse your audience, says O’Reilly. It is better, she says, to stay clear and focus on your core offering. “You have to assume people are hearing your message for the first time—every time,” she says.

4) Connect on an emotional level. Sometimes conveying the vibe of your brand and your company is more important than trotting out a list of features you offer. “Start with an emotional connection,” recommends Jason Pomeranc, co-founder of SIXTY Hotels. His boutique-hotel chain has opened two properties in New York City—SIXTY SoHo and SIXTY LES (short for Lower East Side)—and one in California, SIXTY Beverly Hills, since the firm launched in November 2013. Another outpost is slated to open in South Beach, Fla., in October.

One way SIXTYHotels conveys its ambiance is through an online publication called alphasixty, which covers topics like art, fashion, and food. “We don’t talk about the hotel that much,” Pomeranc says. “We talk about what we love.” In a previous hotel business he sold, he found customers really connected with a print magazine that the company published. It gave them a sense of what a hotel stay would feel like, he says.

5) Stay flexible. Don’t expect the brand you launch to remain static. You may need to make some nips and tucks over time. “When your target audience responds to you, that’s when the brand begins to be created,” says Coles Johnson.

Many companies discover that their brand resonates—but with a different group of customers, or in a different way, than they originally expected. One personal-care products company run by a husband-and-wife team in the Indie Business Network focused on female customers in the beginning. When the husband got involved in talking with their clientele, the business began to attract more men, Coles Johnson says. The couple changed the brand from Simply 7 Skincare to SoapCommander.com, she says. “Whether you start off knowing who your customers are, your customers will come and tell you if you’re right or you’re wrong,” says Coles Johnson.

The trick is responding to unexpected opportunities. “In order to create a successful brand, you have to follow where your customers are telling you that you need to go,” says Coles Johnson.

Read next: 5 Creative Ways To Fund Your Small Business

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