Blog Posts by Adrienne Burke

  • Rainbow Loom Leads to Entrepreneurial Gold for Many

    The success of Rainbow Loom inventor Cheong-Choon Ng is every entrepreneur’s fantasy. The Michigan-based mechanical engineer-turned toymaker, who has sold 3 million of his plastic handloom kits in under three years (with revenue of over $15 million), says, “Actually, it’s mind blowing. Every day I wake up and tell myself this is for real, it’s not a dream.”

    An immigrant from Malaysia, Ng was working as a crash safety engineer for Nissan in Detroit when, inspired by his daughters’ friendship-bracelet-making hobby, he designed a small loom with hooks for weaving jewelry from colorful rubber bands. The girls and their friends liked it so much that he started a side business, Choon’s Designs, LLC, to manufacture more. He and his wife invested their entire $10,000 life savings in having a prototype and initial order made in China. (U.S. manufacturers he spoke to would have charged upwards of $20,000 just to create the mold, he says.)

    Ng ran the entire operation out of his home until seven

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  • Why a digital communications company went postal

    Alexa Hirschfeld is a something of a tech-entrepreneur celebrity for having founded Paperless Post in 2007 with her brother James when she was just a year out of college and he was still matriculating. At 29, she’s already made several “most influential women in technology lists” and she’s not even technically a technologist, just a digital native.

    Now her company has evolved to serve customers who want something other than the virtual product it offers. What sets Paperless Post apart from other electronic invitation websites such as Evite is that the Hirschfelds conceived and designed their platform to cater to the formal invitation market, which had yet to transition online. In 2007, Hirschfeld says, “pretty much everything was going online, except there were some culturally important types of communication, like wedding invitations, that just hadn’t.”

    Though many people she spoke to predicted that formal invitations would never shift from paper to electronic, she didn’t buy it. “The

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  • Sales rates are plummeting again for small business

    Small business growth is at its lowest since the recession, according to the financial information company Sageworks. An analysis of private companies with less than $5 million in annual sales reveals that these companies are seeing average sales growth of just 0.3 percent in 2013.

    Among four sectors—construction, manufacturing, wholesale trade, and retail trade—private small construction companies are faring best, with year-to-date growth of 1.6 percent. Private small manufacturing firms saw negative growth (-2.9 percent) as did private wholesale trade (-4.7 percent) and private retail trade (-1.9 percent).

    To be sure, 2013 rates are far healthier than they were at the recession’s depth in 2009 when small companies’ sales growth plummeted to between -6 and -14 percent. But in 2011 and 2012, businesses seemed to be recovering as the growth rates for all industries was better than 7 percent, and for those four sectors rates ranged from 5.9 percent to 12.8 percent. Sageworks Chairman Brian

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  • How to Handle the Shorter Holiday Shopping Season

    Some are suggesting this will be the Christmas that Congress stole, but a shutdown-induced cash flow problem isn’t the only shortage shopkeepers, restaurants, and online retailers are up against in the 2013 holiday season.

    Perhaps you’ve already noticed how crowded your holiday party schedule is with only four, not five, weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year. Black Friday is the first of only 26 shopping days until Christmas this year, making it the shortest holiday season since 2002. Last year, shoppers had 32 days to get through their lists.

    Research from Adobe Digital Index suggests the calendar will cost online retailers $1.5 billion in sales this year. And in a survey of more than 1,000 small business owners conducted by Manta only 13 percent indicated they expect to have a better sales season than last year, and half predicted that shoppers will spend less.

    To salvage the season that can make or break the year, many small business owners will be doing all they can to

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  • How to get the most out of Small Business Saturday

    Are you gearing up for Small Business Saturday? November 30 will be the fourth annual celebration of the “Shop Small” event, which was conceived in 2010 to drum up support for and lure holiday shoppers to local businesses. Most businesses that take advantage of the marketing campaign say it’s a good way to attract new customers, according to a survey of 500 owners and managers of small non-franchise storefront retail shops and restaurants released this week by American Express OPEN and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

    Held between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, savvy shopkeepers and restaurants can leverage the Small Business Saturday campaign—and several free and discounted offers for small businesses—to kick off the holiday shopping and dining season. Here’s a roundup of resources your business could take advantage of.

    American Express is once again offering its Small Business Saturday Marketing Toolkit—free digital and in-store marketing materials including printable

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  • New “Internet of Things” products could make your office smarter

    A new crop of “smart home” products equipped with sensor technology and Wi-Fi connectivity include several apps for making your office, or home office, a little easier to manage. In a new partnership with GE, the innovative gadgets manufacturer Quirky is releasing a suite of products this week that let you control electronics and sensors remotely from your smart phone.

    The products all run on the Quirky/GE Wink ecosystem app. Download that from the iTunes store to your iPhone and you can control your smart office devices from wherever you take your phone.

    We’ve written here before about apps small business owners use to run their offices remotely, such as Ted Steen who controls the HVAC system in his Stamford, Conn., event space from his iPhone at home in Boulder, Colo. Steen paid around $5,000 to set up his remote system. For small offices or home offices, apps for remotely turning off electronics or sensing deliveries will be far less costly.

    The Nimbus from Quirky-GE is a personal

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  • When “going viral” makes gold, he has the Midas touch

    If you want to understand how to make your message go viral, get to know Emerson Spartz. The 26-year-old CEO closed an $8 million financing round last week for his Chicago-based company, Spartz Inc., which simply launches websites that go viral.

    Since age 12, when he created a Harry Potter fan website that, at its peak, relied on a staff of 120 and attracted 50 million page views per month, Spartz has made a career of “pioneering a model that uses predictive science to measure the viral potential of websites and apps.” His Spartz network now includes 18 websites ranging from OMG Facts, GivesMeHope, DailyCute (created by Spartz’s wife and business partner Gaby when she was 12), and his original MuggleNet. They boast 160 million page views per month and employ 30 people.

    The wunderkind’s unique bio has been widely reported: He home-schooled himself while spending 10 hours a day running MuggleNet, which won him a trip to Scotland to interview JK Rowling; he supplemented his Notre Dame

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  • Workplace revolution: Is your business ready for the Fifth Age of Work?

    Interested in keeping your Millennial workforce happy, or at least productive? Andrew Jones says if your business is still running in old-school all-hands-on-deck-9-to-5 mode, you should rethink things. There’s a workplace revolution afoot, he says.

    Jones, who teaches management and organizational behavior at the Texas State University business school, says cloud-based technologies and the expanding “human cloud” of freelancers are changing where, how, and when work is getting done. The what and why of work are changing too, he says.

    Jones’s new book, The Fifth Age of Work: How Companies Can Redesign Work to Become More Innovative in a Cloud Economy, shares what Baby Boomer and Generation X bosses need to know about running a business when your workforce is comprised of the Millennial generation. A management consultant and expert in the history and future of work, Jones is also a partner at Conjunctured Coworking, a members-only home/office in Austin, Texas, where his interactions with

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  • Footvote: A directory to support shoppers who want to buy American-made

    For Laura Lucas, “buy American” isn’t just the movement of the moment. It’s a value that was instilled by her father, who spent his career in manufacturing. “From a young age, I heard at home all the time that we have to make things, we need manufacturing in America,” Lucas says.

    As an adult shopper, Lucas has always had an eye out for Made in the USA products, but is dismayed by how rare they are in stores. So, she left her job as a worldwide Kindle product manager at Amazon to start her own business that would help people find and buy American-made.

    Lucas recently launched, an online platform featuring a directory of nationally known brands and handcrafted products made by American manufacturers. The company, based in Seattle, where Lucas raised a seed round of funding from the local angel investors, also provides information and insights on American manufacturing and companies.

    To be sure, several online directories already point shoppers to U.S. manufacturers. Those

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  • Bill seeks to kill the (patent) trolls that plague tech startups

    For technology startups, there is a worse breed of troll than the one that posts nasty comments at the end of Yahoo articles. “Patent trolls”—people and organizations that make their livelihood collecting licensing fees or settlements by filing patent infringement lawsuits—are considered increasingly problematic to business and innovation in the U.S.

    As the Washington Post noted recently, “When you're targeted by a patent troll, the rational thing to do is to capitulate. Defending a patent infringement lawsuit can cost millions of dollars, and trolls carefully calibrate their settlement demands so that it will always cost more to fight than to settle.”

    “Any company that uses technology in its products or services today faces a steadily increasing threat of patent litigation,” according to RPX Corporation. The company, which attempts to reduce patent headaches for its clients, says legal threats cost operating companies some $11 billion per year. The fact that some patent-troll defendants

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