Free Trade. Free for who?

Free Trade – Make it fair, tax goods from those who tax ours!

Imports and Exports – Why is it free to bring anything into the US but cost a fortune for others to import goods from the US?

Until I got involved in online retail in 2002, I had no idea how badly (in my opinion) this country is shooting itself in the foot (and face for that matter). Some seroius pressure needs to be put on politicians to change this or someone needs to explain it because I simply don’t get it.

Here is the example:

If I purchase something from a person in Great Britain (UK) for $100 and pay $25 in shipping to get it here, it costs me $125 when all is said and done.

If that same person in the UK buys something from me for $100 and pays $25 in shipping to get it him, he gets slapped with a huge import tax depending on the type of goods and their classification. Some customers are paying upwards of 175% on these goods coming in.

No wonder we import so much crap and export so little. Why would someone send the US a car for $30,000 and get paid $30,000 so they can pay up to $60,000 for the $30k US car we send them??

Good idea, those foreigners won’t figure it out!

If someone can explain it better for me, please comment as this lack of logic is crazy and hopefully there is a misunderstanding on my part. I’m ok w/ being wrong here, in fact I would prefer it if I was.

Fear, the Creativity Killer

It’s pretty hard to get up if you’ve never fallen down.

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong you’ll never come up with anything original.” – Sir Ken Robinson

This quote was from a short speech given by Sir Ken Robinson, viewable on Ted HERE – A really good source of high quality information “ideas worth sharing

The topic is on how schools kill creativity, forcing their curriculum without seeing the potential of the children and allowing them to do the things the were born to do along with educational guidance. I couldn’t agree more.

Likening it to employees at the company, the fear of failing and not moving ahead in their role, career and life as a result of this fear is an absolute shame.

Have a plan, share it or don’t, but move forward with what you think is right. No one has ever been fired for failing at an attempt to improve the customer experience, their efficiency at work, the products and services offered at the company.

Nothing earth shattering in this post, just encouragement to run with it, be wrong, learn from it and try again.

A tribute to a good friend, husband and father.

Robert N. Highway (Bob) – My 15 years with a great man.

In 1993 I was working at my last place of employment that I didn’t own or run. I was a 20 year old kid, a college drop out and self-taught computer nerd. Within this company and the one before I had worked my way up the ladder at a very fast pace going from data entry clerk to systems, network and database admin for a newspaper personals company. Needless to say, while I always claimed “I can do that!”, I found myself a bit over my head when it came to re-writing the entire database for this application. Migrating from an IBM System 36 to Paradox and then Access was quite an adventure.

Needing some help with this, I asked around and was introduced to a guy that worked for a local PBX installation company where he managed their IT and database platforms. He agreed to scope out the project and help me with not only the database re-write, but also with a migration from Lantastic to Novell (another fun adventure).

Bob Highway in the 80s
Bob Highway in the 80s

Bob, as I knew him then was a 30 year old, father of three, living on the West side of Buffalo, very close to where he had grown up. I think this picture  is a bit earlier than 1993, but this was Bob in his earlier days with his daughter.

He was a very hard worker, a genuine and nice human being, generous with his time, knowledge and anything else he had to offer. His family always came first and they knew that despite the countless hours spent working after dinner so that he could make ends meet and provide a brighter future for all of them.

Fast forward about a year and my projects have been complete, I was all set with a new database platform as well as a new network on a smokin’ hot 10 base-t (a big upgrade from Coax). I moved into a new apartment and my roommate and I were having a party. Having got to know Bob fairly well and having a lot in common with him, I invited him to come to the party. He wasn’t much of a drinker, but stayed until the very end where we found ourselves chatting it up and writing out some plans on a napkin. Plans to compete with my then current employer (who was a jerk to say the least). The napkin came true when my boss got suspicious of one of his sales reps and I talking. Before he could utter the words “you’re fired”, I had my car’s trunk packed with my books, computer, discs and everything else I might need. Time to move on!

By then it was just about 1995 and the plans were in motion to start our company. We received some private funding (very generously) and had enough for me to get going though Bob was going to help out and come on board full time when he could do so without risking his family’s financial needs. Ok w/ me and off I went. The first company, IVR, Inc. was formed in 1995. We were going to be a newspaper personals company and planned to compete with my former employer. Ha! That didn’t last long. It took a few months to get our software written and off the ground, but by then we had realized that the market was already saturated and we didn’t have the resources to compete effectively. All the while, though not at the office during the day, Bob helped me with the software and ultimately helped me get started so I could program myself when he wasn’t around. True to his word, Bob came on board after about a year and half, just in time to take over a lot of necessary programming and get involved with customer needs and support. Six months before coming on board, we changed our focus and became a toll-free service bureau writing automated telephone applications (Interactive Voice Response) for contests, sweepstakes, customer satisfaction surveys, medical research, data capture, dealer locator’s and automated outbound message  delivery. It was awesome, that with every job being different and all with recurring revenue. Like most businesses, the first few years were tough. We burned through our seed money and borrowed just in time as the money would run out. Eventually, in year three, our debt was caught up and the company was profitable. The snowball ran downhill.

These were great days for me, each day a challenge, a chance to learn and an opportunity to excel. I miss this business, the environment, naivity, the good natured people and most of all my partner Bob. The time spent at work, the long hours and late night support calls certainly wore thin on us and more so on our spouses, yet we pushed on promising “soon, soon”. This day came in late 2000 when we were approached by a competitor interested in buying us out to leverage our revenue, brand name and customer base. An opportunity hard to pass up at that age and with that little experience. Bob and I took the deal and sold the company in 2001, just in time before the Internet imploded. In hindsight, both of us may have thought differently about this, but you simply can’t change the past.

Bob stayed with the company for a year after that while I went on my way and started my next company. This company I started was name B2 Technologies with the distinct intention of it being Ben and Bob (B2) once again. Unfortunately that never panned out and I went my way while Bob went his. Bob sold his non-compete and started IVR Tech Group, a competing custom IVR service bureau while B2 became VoIP Supply as it is today.

Over the next five years, we didn’t talk much or see each other often, but when we did it was always as if no time had passed and we picked up the conversation as though it had never stopped. Oddly enough, with some issues within my family, Bob heard about them through the grapevine and called up as he wanted to talk and make sure I was ok. This was in the middle of January 2009 when we met at Friday’s for a couple of drinks and some conversation. We caught up, talked about work, talked about my woes and as a true friend, he offered to help in any way he could, even so far as to be a mediator and counselor to help us get through the issues. I never got the chance to take him up on the offer.

Nancy, Robbie and Bob
Nancy, Robbie and Bob

Here is a typical picture of Bob. Always with his family, always smiling, always genuinely happy to be where he is doing whatever it is he is doing. I wish I could be so lucky as I can’t say the same about myself and don’t know anyone else (well enough) that I could say the same of.

Bob and Tracy - Waving hello, not goodbye.
Bob and Tracy - Waving hello, not goodbye.

Bob had a couple of partners in his new company. Mike in Atlanta and another silent partner in Buffalo. Mike ran sales and was our sales manager years before at IVR, Inc. Also a genuine guy and a good friend, I always enjoyed hearing from Mike and often got the inside scoop on how Bob was, how the business was and in general how it was going at ITG.

On March 3, 2009, at 6:45pm, while I stood on my deck looking at the sunset and preparing to go to dinner with my brother, my cell phone rang and the caller id showed my friend Mike’s name. I’ve had some crappy phone calls in my day, but this one will never be forgotten. Mike proceeds to tell me that Bob has died. I thought for sure he was messing with me, how could my young and seemingly healthy 46 year old friend be dead? Maybe a car accident ws all I could think of. No, Mike gave me the details as he knew it. Bob was on a conference call with Mike and some others,  it was 8:30 in the morning. While on the call he excused himself from the conference session stating that he was not feeling well. Standing up and taking a couple of steps towards the hallway, my good friend, a devoted husband, caring father of three children, an overly generous son and brother to his family died before he was able to fall to the floor, apparently suffering from a blockage of blood flow to his heart.

Wow! What a shame for the world is not a better place without him. How unfair to his family, his children and his devastated wife. Poor Bob, to be taken from all that he loved with no time to say goodbye, no warning and at such an early age. With all of the thieves, murderers, abusers and otherwise evil people out there, how is it justified that Bob should go?

It certainly does make you think and remind you how important it is to make sure you are enjoying each day, that you are happy with who you are and what you have or make the necessary changes to get it before its gone. To prepare those you care for however uncomfortable that process may be. Tell your kids you love them everyday, take time to smell the flowers, walk the beach, climb a mountain, swim with the dolphins or whatever it is that you hope to do before you die.

Despite our disconnect and inability to get back into a working partnership after IVR was sold, I loved Bob as a brother and would have done anything for him. I miss him very much and hope that he felt no pain, going quickly to the next step on his journey. So sad, such a shame. 🙁

Goodbye my friend.

Merchant Processor Reserves – Retailers Beware!

Watch out for Reserves being held back by your Merchant Processor.

For years we were using Chase Paymentech to process our credit cards for online sales. They received hundreds of thousands in profits from fees charged to us as we pushed through more than $10,000,000 per year in transactions. With an incredibly low charge-back rating (<.01%) and a consistent and positive relationship, Chase Paymentech somehow thought it would be a good idea to put the squeeze on their best customers and withhold up to $200,000 of our working capital.

I understand protecting yourselves, but this is completely unnecessary, insulting and inconvenient to our business. We are not a high risk merchant, we are selling VoIP hardware B2B.

Our average credit card sale is about $750 and our annual charge-backs are few and far between with only one or two per month (out of 1,500+ transactions) and usually because the customer does not recognize the name on their statement.

Why would a company (Chase) making so much off a good customer want to take unjustified steps that potentially upset the cash-flow and balance of said customer? Is it really just “policy” or is this an opportunity to solve some of their internal cash flow needs?

I know we are not the only one being subjected to this and it is a shame as for other companies, this could be a death sentence. There are other processors out there that do not carry reserves (higher rates though), so I would make sure you have Plan B in your back pocket if you are a retailer taking credit cards.

Needless to say, we switched to another processor that doesn’t (or isn’t) holding any Reserves. Thanks Chase, well done!  We’ll do fine without you.

Today's Labor Unions – one piece of a spoiled pie.

Who thinks that today’s Labor Unions are necessary and beneficial to this country?

The US economy is a mess today, but even with all of the changes taking place and being made, the root causes are still in existence and spoiling the delicious Apple Pie that all home grown Americans take for granted.

I’m no historian, politician or labor expert, this is merely my opinion. Comments are welcome, especially if you have reason (legitimate selfless reasons) why anyone should feel otherwise. This is less about complaining and more about asking someone to please clarify this for me and anyone else bothered by Labor Unions.

In my humble opinion…

Labor unions have been around since the dark ages and from time to time have actually served a valid purpose, but how many employers in the US could actually get away with paying next to nothing for slave labor? The idea of unionized labor isn’t all bad, but I truly feel that combined with some of the other spoiled pieces of pie I’ve written about, today’s unions are making America weak and threatening (not helping) the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people.

Why is it that labor union members are entitled to $70,000 a year for pushing a button or pulling a lever?

How is it ok with the general public that a union member, laid off because of financial strain to the employer could possibly be entitled to years of compensation (without doing any work) at a large percentage of what they were previously making?

What a joke that the government is willing to bail out car makers, force them into bankruptcy, allow for large scale layoffs, dealers closings and perhaps the total collapse of consolidation of certain brands.

What a joke that the CEOs of these auto giants can’t seem to figure out a basic plan to get their company back on track and making the country proud. Cut your pay, give back money clearly not earned to help preserve jobs and right the ship and most importantly, find a way to right size the labor unions or find a way to get rid of them altogether.  I have to imagine (though I don’t have the facts here) that if unemployed people were not compensated by the employers any more than their last day and if the hourly rates for unskilled button pushing were more in line with minimum wage. When the executives took compensation based on what they contributed and earned not what they felt entitled to and the labor unions recognized how good they would look if they tried hard to preserve jobs and the very companies that fund them, that billions would be saved, no bailout would be necessary and a whole lot of other positive changes would also result.

Come on people, the problem is not nearly any worse than we make it, stop allowing greedy and un-entitled people to force this country into the dumpster. Stop supporting the unions or pretending they are not the problem or at least one of the connected problems.

While I have always thought that labor unions were a thorn in America’s side, the recent rumblings that Obama might change the rules to permit even more labor unions to pop up without employer knowledge and force employers to begin bargaining immediately is crazy. How is that going to help anything? As a CEO myself, if the employees are that unhappy that they need to form a union then I suck as an employer and they should walk out the front door and get a job they are happy with.