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Green Building and the Faltering Mortgage Market: Environmentally Sound Homes in a Recovering Economy

The following is a guest post from Houston, Texas real estate developer and entrepreneur Tracy Suttles.

Green building became a strong selling point for many condominiums and apartment buildings during the height of the real estate markets. The additional $500,000+ of construction costs were passed on to consumers, who readily paid for an investment in the environment. Not only could they feel good about themselves for supporting green Building, but they could also expect significant appreciation on that investment. Fast forward to today’s real estate market and environmentally friendly buildings seem challenged to make a case for long-term viability.

Green Building and LEED Certification

While not all green buildings are LEED certified, LEED certification provides a set of guidelines that ensure a building meets a set standard for environmental efficiency. In late 2007 and early 2008 consumers could expect to pay a premium for a LEED certified building; however, these consumers could also expect to benefit from these buildings in numerous ways. First, consumers expected to be able to charge future buyers the same premium, if not more, that they paid. Second, LEED certified and green buildings tended to be more energy efficient, saving consumers substantial money on heating and electric bills. Last, consumers were able to generally feel good about doing something positive for the environment.

Today consumers can still expect LEED certified buildings to save them significant dollars in utilities; however, they can also still expect to pay a premium. Builders must not only pay for the additional design and construction of these buildings, but they must also pay for consultants to certify the buildings.

Green Building and the 2009/2010 Real Estate Market

For many builders, it did not make sense to reverse course and redesign a cheaper, non-environmentally friendly building. As they struggle to compete with cheaper buildings that did not cater to the environment, many have found that consumers now place very little value on green building. Falling home prices do not seem to mix well with environmentally-friendly building. Even though finding low mortgage rates has never been easier, consumers are not willing to pay an additional $10,000-$30,000 for a green building.

It is important to note that as real estate price increased many municipalities began to mandate greener building. States, like California, at the forefront of this movement created substantial building mandates. Perhaps this also speaks to why consumers have very little willingness to pay substantially more for LEED certified buildings.

In the long run, green building and LEED certification will certainly save consumers money and be a valued asset to many builders. However, consumers have stated with their consumption patterns that in tough economic times, they will sacrifice the additional bells and whistles for a sound affordable home. Expect green building to make a comeback when the housing market recovers.

Custom-Made Business Cards: Making the Most of Your Business Card Investment

If you have taken the time, energy and invested the cash into your own custom-made business cards, then you’ll want to get them into the hands of your potential customers right away. The point of having a snazzy representation of your business on a wallet-sized piece of paper is to give these custom-made business cards out to as many people as possible; keeping them stashed away in your desk isn’t going to help anyone.

But how, and to whom, do you give out your custom-made business cards? If you are in need of some recipient ideas, look no further. All of these suggestions are easy, straightforward, and will get your custom-made business cards into the hands of decision makers within days – and will most likely increase your sales to boot.

Post ‘Em

Wherever people gather is where you should post a couple of your custom-made business cards. And make sure to post several, and not just one, to encourage people to take them. Think about it: it’s easier for someone to slip your custom-made business card in their wallet than it is for that same person to take their pen and paper out and write down the necessary information, and then put it somewhere they’ll find it later. Additionally, if there are several business cards left, interested parties won’t hesitate to take one – as long as it’s not the last.

With this in mind, take some thumbtacks whenever you leave the house. Whenever you’re in the area of a grocery store, thrift shop, school, mall, recreational center, library or other general community area where people meet, tack up some of your business cards for all to see.

Mail ‘Em

Whenever you pay a bill or send a letter, put one or two of your custom-made business cards into the envelope. The person on the receiving end may need your services, and you’ll be in a prime position to get their attention when they least expect it. Similarly to the previous suggestion, try putting more than one card into the envelope, just in case the recipient wants to give one to someone else as well.

Pass ‘Em Out

Take a bunch of your custom-made business cards with you everywhere you go. When you pay a cashier, leave one of your custom-made business cards behind with your payment. If you stop to talk to someone while walking your dog, give them one of your custom-made business cards, too. It’s easy to get creative with this idea – all that limits you is the amount of new people you encounter on a daily or weekly basis.

Create the Perfect Business Card: Creating Memorable and Useful Free Business Cards

Just because you choose to make free business cards doesn’t mean that customers, and sales, will pour in the door. You need to actually make business cards that not only fit your budget (free, or pretty close to it), but ones that attract business as well. Not an easy task.

First of all, make sure that your free business cards include the basics, first: business name, address, phone, fax, email, the employee’s name and title. Then, add any color, design or logo features that your customer associates with your business.

Next, find the Unique Selling Proposition (or USP as it’s known in marketing circles) for your business. In other words, this is the top selling feature for your business, or benefit to the customer, to doing business with you. This could be something along the lines of, “Get it Write, Everytime!” for a writer, or, “No Job Too Small” for a plumber. Then, make sure that the USP is prominently displayed on the free business card you are creating.

Then make an offer for something free on your business card. It doesn’t have to be big, or expensive, but it has to have value for your potential customers. Make a trial something-or-other, free taster or seminars are usually good bets to have on your free business cards, but feel free to get creative here to garner even more attention.

Finally, review the following suggestions to ensure your business card packs the most marketing punch possible, and that your client refer to it often – keeping your business name at the forefront of their mind:

  • Is it obvious from the free business cards you created what your business does, and who your customer is?
  • Create a buying discount co-op on the back of your free business cards: ask other businesses that are supportive or work in tandem with you, and offer discounts for each one right on your card(s).
  • Add anything that is useful to the consumer on your free business card: a writer could create a list of common grammar mistakes, an electrician can detail what to do in an electrical emergency, and so on. Tailor your ideas to your business’ specific products and services.
  • Add something unusual to your free business cards to create excitement and interest: a baby’s footprint on the back of a kid’s shoe store business card, for instance.

And remember, if any of these tips you want to use were accidentally missed during printing, you can easily purchase some sticky labels created with all of the necessary information, and add it to the back of each and every free business card you’ve made.

Rainy Day Funds: Alaska’s Experience and the Permanent Fund

Most states in the nation have adopted some form of a Rainy Day Fund (RDF) to mitigate downturns in the economy. RDF’s are established to help governments stabilize operating budgets by saving in boom times and using the RDF savings to cover expenses during recessions. The resource-based economy of the State of Alaska has a history of following this sort of a boom and bust cycle. In 1976, the State of Alaska began making payments into the Alaska Permanent Fund in part to save for a rainy day. It would be an understatement to say the fund could now to fund any state fiscal gap. Jackstadt and Lee point out in their paper, Economic Sustainability: The Sad Case of Alaska, that Alaska was one of the few states that could have produced a permanently sustainable economy. The political means to develop this type of economy was never up for the task. It also demonstrates the danger associated with depending on politics to implement long-term economic policy.

Many scholars point out that being fiscally conservative dictates saving for a rainy day when surplus revenues are available. Political conservatives are likely to rebate taxes in situations were there are surpluses to the treasury. Establishment of mechanisms for funding appropriations to a RDF will ensure their success. RDF’s are a double-edged sword for many states. There needs to be political support to establish a RDF and political pressure to spend from the fund increases as the fund grows. States need to judge their vulnerability to recession and how their revenue base is dependant on the economic cycle.

The generally accepted norm for a RDF is 5% of the annual general fund expenditures of a state. Funding formulas that are not constitutionally mandated will allow state legislatures to ignore required appropriations. There are many ways to determine funding levels for RDF’s. Suggestions include spending 99% of the approved budget and retaining 1% to cover the cash reserve and emergencies. States can skim off excess revenue that occur during the year, taking those funds that are beyond forecast revenue into the RDF. One state gauges deposits to its fund based on the growth of personal income. Taxes collected on personal income beyond 2.5% in one year go to the RDF. Literature suggests revenue diverted to a fund will dampen unsustainable growth.

States vary widely on requirements for tapping their RDFs. One method is the use of super majority vote of the legislature. Virginia allows use of its RDF when projected revenues drop below 2% of estimate. The government is then only allowed to recoup half of the shortfall. The purpose of most RDFs is to cushion short-term drops in revenue and not to attempt to recession-proof an economy. Tight constrictions on the use of RDF resources can also mean the loss of other economic opportunities. Virginia, Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas have instituted constitutional protections to protect the RFDs against all but true emergencies.

Knight and Levinson (1999) summarize the impacts of RDFs on state fund balances. RDF balances boost overall savings. States that have successful RDF programs also have higher rates of savings. RDF balances seem to increase total saving on a dollar-for-dollar basis. States with fully funded RDFs experience less volatile fiscal cycles. Budget stabilization funds have real impacts on state fiscal policy and economic wellbeing

Types of Business Budgets: Understanding Volume, Operating and Capital Forecasts

Businesses need to be able to forecast the future to appropriately allocate resources. Four separate areas need to be budgeted for accurate measurements.

Budgets are an important part of strategy for a company. A business needs accounting to know where it has been, but forecasting is necessary to know the direction it is going.

Volume Budgets

The beginning step in budgeting should be related to volume. Every business needs to have some idea how much in the way of goods or services they expect to sell.

A manufacturer needs to know how many widgets they expect to produce, and in the same way, a hotel has to have some idea how many room nights they will sell.

Expenses and revenues will both follow from the expected volume, so every attempt should be made to have an accurate volume budget. It is not enough to simply take last year’s amount.

That may be an effective starting point, but consideration needs to be made on things that have changed. Is there a new competitor that will take away business, or can this company expand to new markets?

Revenue Budgets

The second component is the revenue budget. Volume helps determine the amount of revenue available, but another component is what price can be charged and received for each items.

In the case of the hotel, the room nights may be budgeted at 3,000, but what price will they fetch? Will each night be the same, or vary based on the day of the week, or holiday periods?

Expense Budgets

Once the revenue is derived, the next step is to calculate the projected expenses. Expenses cannot be allowed to exceed the amount necessary to achieve the expected profit.

If expenses are greater than the revenue generated, many companies inflate the revenue expected, rather than make the hard choices to reduce expenses. This can be short sighted, since revenue is often out of a company’s control, but expenses generally can be achieved, though it may be painful.

Capital Budgeting

The three items above make up the operating budget. There is a separate category of capital expenses, that is, items that have a useful life of greater than one year.

Capital items are usually budgeted separately, mainly because they are higher cost. The funds available are not commingled, but sometimes capital purchases are curtailed due to operating budget shortfalls.

Operating budgets are usually annual, but capital budgets are often prepared for multiple years and adjusted each year has necessary. A good capital budget is an important part of a proper long-range plan.

You Need Professional Help – Find a Great Web Developer!

Web sites are becoming more and more important to all businesses each day. Many businesses, however, find building web sites very frustrating. This is for two reasons. First, most businesses are doing things that they have never done before with their sites. Second, many companies do not have the employees that they need, or do not have established relationships with experienced partners that can help them with their web development needs.

As a result of this situation, most web sites are full of major problems. You will find even find that this is the case with major sites by large corporations. Many of these sites are hard to use and unreliable.

How can a business avoid this? The best way is to have clear ideas for what you want to do with your site, and find the best people you can to help you with it. Here are some traits that you should look for when considering a candidate for a web development position, or when looking for an outside web consultant:

  • The candidate should understand and be interested in your business goals.

    This comes first, because you don’t want to be working with someone that doesn’t grasp your business and care about it like you do. For some companies, this will mean working with niche companies that specialize in your area, or looking for very specialized talent. This is also at the top because you shouldn’t look for help unless you know your goals for the site!

  • They should work with your choice of technology and complement your company’s skills.

    Every developer has tools that they are most comfortable working with. It is important that the people you choose work with tools that are compatible with your company’s. You will want to be able to control the site, and if you are dependant on your developer’s skills, you will have a major disadvantage.

  • Anyone you hire should bring new ideas to your project that work with your business plan.

    To be successful, your site must be fresh and you need to be as open to new ideas as you can. You must be able to react quickly to Internet trends, and be able to move to take advantage of them. Someone that can bring new ideas to your project can help you look at your site in ways you may not have thought about, and give you the flexibility that you will need to succeed.

Forget About the Shortage of IT Workers!

Attracting and retaining skilled IT (information technology) workers is becoming one of the key factors to many companies’ e-business success. If your business is like most, you are having trouble getting enough talented help to fill your positions. This means that that you may be delaying or even losing e-business opportunities.

The standard advice won’t work
Unfortunately, most companies are getting inadequate advice on how to solve their IT staffing problems. The standard advice is to hire people away from your competitors, and do everything you can retain your IT employees. For most companies, these tactics won’t do the trick. Why? Because your competitors are following the same exact advice. They are are hiring away your technology workers and will do their best to retain them.

Most companies look at this problem as a shortage of skilled workers, and attempt to solve that problem. Trying to solve the problem of too few workers usually is impossible, because there are just too few good people to go around. At best, this strategy will allow you to tread water.

Forget about the people shortage
Successful companies must look at the problem another way. Yes, there is a shortage of skilled IT people. But this also represents an excess of IT work. Companies need to look at the problem of eliminating some of this excess work. This may be the most important and effective strategy in combating the shortage of people.

At first glance, it may seem like it is impossible to eliminate your needs for computer people. Businesses are becoming more and more computerized and every day e-commerce becomes more important. How can one reduce the need for IT people in an environment like this?

10 Ways to Reduce Excess IT Work

  1. Improve your project efficiency
    There are several ways to reduce your need for more IT staff. One of the first things you should look at is the efficiency of your IT projects. About half of all IT projects fail to meet their goals, budget and schedule. Most of the time these projects fail because of business, not technological, issues. One of the reasons many IT projects fail is because they don’t start with clear business goals. Few projects can succeed without these goals. Make sure that any IT project you start on has clear business goals, and well-defined specifications on how the resulting system should work.

What is E-Business?

What is e-business?

This is a question that many people ask. Many other people have misconceptions about what e-business is.

E-business is not putting your catalog on the web, or even doing business online. Putting your catalog online is just using the web as another form of advertising. Doing business online is e-commerce, but isn’t necessarily e-business.

E-business is integrating Internet technology into your business. It is using Internet technology to do things that were not previously possible.

E-businesses…

  • Use the Internet throughout their business process, including purchasing, marketing and fulfillment
  • Utilize email as a primary method of communicating with their clients and suppliers.
  • Access all of their business information through the Internet or through intranets.
  • Use the Internet to automate work that was previously done manually, such as collecting information and entering it into databases, or answering customer requests.
  • Actively work to give customers and suppliers access to information within their systems, and also the ability to influence the workings of their company and systems. Examples of this are many. For example, a company like Ebay allows anyone to sell anything for any price on their site. Ebay doesn’t control the suppliers or consumers, but instead creates a place where buyers and sellers can work together effectively.
  • Take advantage of the unique qualities of the Internet for communication and interaction.
  • Automate anything and everything that can be automated, and focus their remaining resources on doing well those things that should not be automated..

This list is by no means comprehensive. Most businesses can’t do all of these things yet. As a result, most businesses are not yet e-businesses. It is clear that successful businesses in the future will be e-businesses.

Finally, e-business isn’t really something a company does. It is something a company becomes.

Some of the most insightful commentary about what an e-business is can be found at the Cluetrain site. The authors of the Cluetrain “manifesto” take a half-militant/half tongue-in-cheek view of what companies must do in order to succeed as e-businesses.

Small Business Owners Feel Pain, but Optimistic: Falling Revenues Precipitate Job Cuts

The steep decline of small business revenues are especially worrisome for the American economy, but small business owners remain optimistic with caution.

While Wall Street becomes one of the biggest headlines amid the dismal economy, Main Street, which ended last year with a lengthy list of troubles, is snubbed in the media nationwide.

Yet it is small businesses on “Main Street” that really drive the U.S. economy. As the recession deepens, it is those businesses — which traditionally have led the country out of recessions — that are feeling the pain and getting hit hard as big companies.

While large corporations have laid off mass numbers of employees over the past decade, small businesses — which politicians tout as the engine of U.S. economic growth — have generated 60% to 80% of the total new jobs annually.

Defined by the government as with 500 employees or fewer, small businesses represent 99% of all employer firms, according to the Small Business Administration. Compared with just under 19 million who work at large companies, they employ 50 million people and are the biggest source of non-government employment.

Small Business Revenues Drops

According to the Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index, nearly half of the small business owners say their revenues decreased throughout 2008.

Elpida Kosmidis, owner of Super One Hour Cleaners said in an interview at her store that her revenue was down 50% by the end of 2008 compared to one year ago.

“All slow,” Kosmidis, who has operated the store for 26 years in Brighton, Mass. “It’s very tough… People don’t have money. Customers that used to come every week now come every month.”

According to a study by the National Association for the Self-Employed, 43% of self-employed individuals and micro-business owners said this is the worst economic downturn they have experienced.

The National Federation of Independent Business said the number of businesses reporting declining earnings trends outnumbered those with profits by 42 percentage points, the worst reading in its 35-year history of the survey. More than 25% of small business owners said they fear the recession threatens their survival. And one-third of the business owners said the recession has significantly affected their businesses.

Small Business Owners are Cautiously Optimistic

A survey by Microsoft Office Live Small Business and Elance Inc. found that 37% of small business owners worry about 2009, but that 60% said they believe it will be better than 2008. But despite the undercurrent of tenacious optimism, small-business owners remain cautious about the amount of time it will take for the country to recover from the tumultuous economy.

According to the Discover Small Business Watch, a monthly index of the nation’s 22 million businesses with five or fewer employees, only 23% anticipate that the recovery will take less than a year. Forty-two percent of owners think that economic recovery will take between 12 and 24 months, while 27% believe that it will take longer than two years

Government Small Business Funding for People with Disabilities

Small business money for persons with disability comes in the form of low interest loans, grants, business supplies, education and training. Eligibility to obtain funds or to receive preferential treatment is generally based on disability status of the small business owner. The federal government provides small business funding to people with disability through agencies and no for profits.

Small Business Low Interest Loans for People with Disabilities

The Small Business Administration uses various low rate loans to fund small businesses; including those owned by persons with disabilities. Eligible entrepreneurs can claim disability status to obtain preferential treatment from the SBA. In addition to low rate business loans, SBA provides education and training to entrepreneurs. The following are some examples for funding opportunities from the government through the SBA:

  • SBA 7(a) Loan Programs – This loan facility is available through authorized lenders. Loans under this program can be used for starting a small business, for expansion of an existing business or to purchase a business.
  • CAP Lines – These are lines of credit designed to meet short term small business needs. There are five different lines of credit under this SBA program; all can be designed to meet specific needs. The maximum loan maturity is five years, typically lines have shorter maturities.
  • SBA Patriot Express Loan Initiative – This assistance is for veterans of the armed forces and their qualifying spouses. The money can be used for staring or expanding a business owned by the veteran.
  • America Recovery Capital Loan Programs or ARC – This program has been designed to provide temporary funds to small businesses that are going through financial difficulties. The maximum amount of funding is $35,000 and only one loan is allowed per business.

SBA loans applications are available online at SBA.gov

Social Security Administration’s PASS Program for Persons with Disabilities

PASS or Plan to Achieve Self – Support is a program funded by the Social Security Administration. The program’s purpose is to help persons with disability gain self support through paid or self- employment. PASS money can be used to purchase supplies for starting a business, transportation, training and business equipments such as computers, cars and telephones.

For disabled individuals looking for self employment, PASS requires a business plan document. Help is available to prepare business goals and plans from SSA and non profits organizations involved with SSA. Applications for PASS are available online at SSA.gov/PASS.

Training Assistance for Small Business Owners with Disabilities

The government funds local non profit organizations that provide disabled individuals with training and development to start a small business. This includes technical, operations and marketing training as well as free business plans. These are examples of non profits providing training to small business owners:

  • The Job Accommodation Network, JAN, at askjan.org – This organization provides business resources and business plans software for business owners with disabilities.
  • Start Ups USA at startup.biz – provides self employment assistance, business plan writing and education on starting and operating a small business.
  • T-tap Training and Technical Assistance at t-tap.org – this organization is funded by the US Department of Labor to help persons with disabilities with online and offline local business training.