Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Welcoming the New Year.

Christmas is finally over, and with the New Year just around the corner now is the perfect time to not only take a look back on the year that was, but to plan for 2011 as well. Most people use this time of the year to start anew and make resolutions and promises to themselves such as eating better, losing weight or exercising more. Just as important, however is using the New Year as a blank canvass to paint a more fiscally sound portrait of yourself. Here are 7 financial resolutions worth sticking to:

1. Pay off debt. The cost of Christmas causes many families to use a credit card. For many of us “the joy of giving” often turns into sadness when we see our credit card statements in January. If times are lean pay the minimum amount due on each credit card before the due date so no late charges will add to the balance. Check the interest rate on the card and dedicate any money you have left in the budget to paying off the card with the highest interest rate.

Credit cards have a huge impact on your financial fitness. For each dollar charged on a credit card, the average consumer pays back 112 percent. That means for each $100, they end up paying $212 for principal, interest and fees. Paying off these debts will make a huge difference in your finances and will also ease the emotional stress that often comes with credit card debt.

2. Put aside an emergency fund. This maybe very difficult for a lot of individuals out there, especially with the unemployment rate still hovering around 10%, put aside as much as you can. The average emergency cost that causes consumers to use credit cards is $2,000. By having this much money in a savings account, you will save the interest and reduce further debt. Dedicate any money you can squeeze out of your expenses to this fund. Save $150 per month for thirteen months or $75 for 27 months to get close to that $2,000 target.

3. Make a spending plan or a budget. Knowing where your money goes is the first step to good money management. No matter how much you earn, you can always benefit from a spending plan. Keep track of where your money is being spent. Use a checkbook register, bills and bank records to organize expenditures. Then examine them to make sure this is how you want to spend your money. The beginning of the year is the ideal time to do this, since most credit card companies will be sending year –end statements that will breakdown all of your spending for the last year, often the charges are broken down by category and by month. It’s the perfect opportunity to look back on the things you spent money on in the previous year and will give you an idea on the things you can cut back on moving forward.

4. Reduce spending. After creating a budget, take a look at how much you are spending and see if you can reduce it. You might find you are spending money eating out, on movies or hobbies. Look for ways to reduce spending and you’ll have more to add to an emergency fund.

5. Improve your credit score. As money has tightened in our economy, your credit score is extremely important. Your credit score ranges from 300 to 850 with a minimum of 700 to apply for a credit a card or to get a favorable interest rate on a mortgage. Your credit score also can determine what you pay for insurance, cable TV and rent. Your credit score reflects whether you pay your bills on time, how much you owe, your credit history, the type of credit you have and the amount of credit you are using.

Three major credit agencies maintain credit records: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. You can request a free report of your credit record one time per year from each of these companies at annualcreditreport.com. I often tell people to get one company’s report now and work on improving your report. In four months, request a report from the second company and continue to work on your scores. In four more months, request a report from the final company. This will give you an accurate look at how your score is improving throughout the year.

6. Review your income taxes. If you have a change in the number of people in the family or your income, look at your tax withholding. If you take out too much, you are giving the government a tax-free loan. If you take out too little, you’ll be faced with a whopping tax bill and might even have to pay penalties and interest.

7. Be accountable! It’s easy to make resolutions; the hard part is keeping them. Take the time to actually type them out or write them down on a piece of paper and keep the list somewhere you can see it everyday. Also, share your resolutions with some of your closest friends and family, people that you see or speak with frequently, that way they can ask you about your resolutions as the year progresses keeping you more accountable.

I know, that for many of us 2010 came with a lot of ups and downs. Most people I come across are looking forward to seeing the many experiences that this year has given them in their rear view mirror. I am both hopeful and optimistic that the turbulent year that was ended with more optimism than dread. For the many that have seen some of their darkest days in 2010, I hope that 2011 will be a reminder that “The Sun Also Rises”. To my small handful of readers and followers, I want to thank you for supporting me and my blog that I started this year and will hopefully continue to go strong in 2011. I wish all of you a very healthy and prosperous New Year.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

When the going gets tough, the tough get creative.

In these tough economic times, when jobs are scarce and banks are stingier than ever …most people would agree that the idea of starting a company with a new product line would be foolish. While others are turning a deaf ear to all the naysayers and abysmal statistics and are attempting to pave their own way.

I have been friends with Jordan and Jemma Rane for more than 10 years and have always had a tremendous amount of respect for them as people, and have always admired their ability to make a living out of doing what they love. It is always so much easier to choose the practical path of least resistance than it is to follow your own creative compass. So when Jordy told me during one of our Griffith Park runs, that he and his wife have started their own company that makes travel kits for kids, not only was I all ears, I had to interview them and of course, write about it as well.

Jemma Rane is a Los Angeles-based designer whose ready-to-wear jewelry and boutique women’s and kids’ clothing collections are sold across the U.S. and Canada under the Jemma label. Jordan Rane is an award-winning journalist, travel writer and author, and the former senior editor of Escape and west coast editor of Travelocity magazines. They live in Los Angeles with their son and daughter, Jackson (9) and Quincy (4), and three cats.

DIS- You guys have never been the conventional 8 to 5 types, have either of you ever done the corporate America thing?

J&J- “Corporate” may be a stretch for working as a travel magazine editor for several years (Jordan) or supervising a treatment center for teens and serving as a veterinary technician at the SPCA (Jemma), but both of us worked our share of “regular” jobs (with or without desks and cubicles) before officially going freelance and deciding that self-employment was really worth pursuing. Okay, and at times enduring.

DIS- The two of you work primarily from home correct? How are you guys able to manage work life while raising 2 kids all under the same roof?

J&J- Mainly with caffeine and a sense of humor. It also helps that we’re both pretty type-A and have developed a unique, tag-team co-parenting style where one of us instinctually knows when the other is about to go crazy—and can step in seconds before that happens. In general though, one of us is on duty at any given time when the kids are home and we each have our own designated (sacrosanct) office/studio space.

The potential benefit of two parents working from home with equal work loads is that you can achieve a certain “dance” that enables you to juggle a lot of things together as a team. The potential pitfall when home is the office is that you have to know when to turn the “work” button off. Raising young kids without a nanny works wonders in that regard.

DIS- Ok, now for the original KidKit.com , you obviously have inspiration all around you (literally) for an idea like this, can you describe the “aha” moment that made you guys think, “hey we should really do this”.

J&J- The light bulb first appeared when our 9-year-old son Jackson was two and Jemma visited several kids’ boutiques and bookstores in search of an all-purpose travel kit -- before ultimately buying various items separately to keep him quietly occupied during the usual bouts of restless down time (in restaurants, at airport gates, the doctor’s office, even at a movie theater). Eventually she said—“We should really create our own great travel kit for kids.” Like many promising ideas sidelined by work, diapers and bills, it took seven years for the bulb to actually get flicked on. Fortunately, we still saw a real need for a great travel kit for kids when we finally got the project in gear.

DIS- Describe the process of taking the idea from concept to fruition; it’s one thing to have a great idea but turning that idea into something tangible is usually what separates dreamers from entrepreneurs.

J&J- Yeah, it’s much easier to sit on a “great idea” than to put it into action, but once you overcome the inertia and take the plunge things can happen pretty fast. Jemma designed an original template shortly before a family trip that we tried out with our kids and nieces and nephews. Even though the Original Kid Kit has evolved significantly since then, that was the real catalyst that got the ball rolling—because it worked, for kids and for parents, and we both got genuinely jazzed about it. Then we dove in and started writing and designing kids activity books and perfecting a way for kids to re-use them over and over again in a dry-erase jacket without marking up any pages (the whole Smart Sleeve concept). Once we started researching die-cut owl shapes, buying chalk cloth in bulk and deciding between black or white rainbow paper options we knew there was no going back.

DIS- At any point did you think it was crazy to try to start a company and launch a product line in this economic climate?

J&J- Not really. You can either absorb all the economic doom and gloom on the news and create yet another reason not to do something you really believe in or just forge ahead while trying to keep your overhead low and doing as much in-house as you possibly can—which, right now, is pretty much everything. Really, we’re just thankful we’re not opening a restaurant or designing a new minivan.

DIS- What kind of feedback have you gotten so far, and what strategy do you have for getting your product out there?

J&J- The feedback so far has been incredibly promising. Once you have school-teacher friends asking to invest and moms (and dads) approaching you at Starbucks while your 4-year-old daughter is engrossed in her Original Kid Kit and asking, “Where did you get that?” you know you’re onto something. Right now we’re in the “peddling” stage. Just getting the name out there, increasing web site traffic and trying to get into as many boutique kid stores as possible. So far, our batting average has been excellent. They’re in stores. They’re selling. We’re getting great feedback. We’re still in the beginning stages but we have reason to be very optimistic.

DIS- I know it’s still very early in the game, but what’s your vision for kidkit.com?

J&J- A nod from the Oprah world is one of Jemma’s Holy Grails in life. But we’d be satisfied seeing Smart Sleeves at the Barnes & Noble checkout, launching a recognizable brand that’s in every airport, train station, hotel gift shop and kid’s store in the country and being in a position to hook a great, battery-free educational product that kids love into various charitable networks all over the country, world and universe. Is that really asking too much?

The Original KitKit can be purchased on line at www.theoriginalkitkit.com and can be found in select boutique stores throughout Los Angeles.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

BlackBerry vs. Iphone

A topic that I have always wanted to write about was a featured article in today's Business Section of the L.A. Times. Being a BlackBerry user myself for many years, while recently converting over to Mac from PC 2 short years ago, this debate has indeed caught my attention. Cool vs. Function, Sleek vs. Bulky, Suit and Tie vs. Skinny Jeans...one proclaims fun while the other means business, do the two have to be mutually exclusive ? Below is what David Sarno of the L.A. Times had to say;

There was a time when BlackBerrys grew wild. They were everywhere: boardrooms, restaurants and kitchen tables. The dark little devices would vibrate every time a new e-mail arrived, delivering a tiny thrill that millions of employees came to both loathe and desire. It wasn't long before the device earned its enduring nickname: CrackBerry.

The famously addictive device popularized e-mail on the go and turned its Canadian maker, Research in Motion Inc., into a $34-billion company and the business world's leading supplier of smart phones. It has 41 million users worldwide, and BlackBerrys represent more than half of all corporate smart phone users in the U.S., according to research firm ComScore Inc. But now Apple Inc., the company that upended the music industry with its iPod and then the cellphone market with its iPhone, wants to gobble up a slice of BlackBerry's multibillion-dollar pie.

In September, after only three years on the market, the iPhone for the first time surpassed the BlackBerry in total quarterly sales with 14.1 million devices sold, compared with 12.1 million for Research in Motion, or RIM, as it is commonly known.

In its quest to become the de facto smart phone maker for business users — the company has already won about 23% of that market, ComScore said — Apple has hired a number of former RIM salespeople to help it sell its phones to corporate America.

Apple says the iPhone is more than a mere appliance for sending e-mail. The device, with its sleek touch screen and ability to run hundreds of thousands of Web-connected applications, games and utilities, can be used for nearly any purpose, business or personal, a line that Apple hopes to blur out of existence.

"Most people now want to use a single device to handle both their personal and professional lives," said Shaw Wu, an analyst at Kaufman Bros. "That's what Apple's really good at — and now RIM is playing catch-up."

For its part, RIM has begun appealing to consumers with an array of flashier, user-friendly devices. Newer models such as the Torch boast both an iPhone-like touch screen and a physical keyboard for die-hard Blackberry users accustomed to rapidly tapping out e-mail messages.

The company has also created an online app store, called App World, though it has only about 15,000 apps compared with Apple's 300,000. RIM officials declined to be interviewed for this report. For decades Apple has been the specialist in consumer electronics, with its iPod music player and Macintosh personal computers. It has never been more than a niche player in the corporate market.

Lately, though, the Cupertino, Calif., company is putting forth a novel argument: When it comes to smart phones and tablet computers, the distinction between a home and office device is becoming less necessary.

"We're not developing two different lines like many companies do with enterprise versions and consumer versions," Apple's chief operating officer, Tim Cook, said in an October conference call with investors. "This is another part of our simplistic approach to things that I think will pay us great dividends, and it's already starting to do so."

Apple says that 80% of Fortune 500 companies are trying out the iPhone to varying degrees, including General Electric Co., Procter & Gamble Co., Allstate Corp. and Pfizer Inc., though many of those are trials that involve small numbers of users.

Last year, drug maker Sanofi-Aventis gave iPhones and iPad tablet computers to 1,500 employees across the company and said it planned to continue moving employees to Apple's platform, giving workers the option of replacing their company-issued BlackBerrys.

With apps downloaded from Apple's App Store, Sanofi employees can use iPhones or iPads to monitor live data "dashboards" about sales of particular drugs and the performance of marketing initiatives. They can watch live Web presentations by colleagues, and they can communicate with groups of other employees via a company-specific social network called Yammer. "True mobility is now kicking in," said Vic Rupinder, a senior technology manager at Sanofi. "You're no longer tied to your desktop, so you can do work while you're moving around."

San Francisco software maker Salesforce.com Inc. broke from standard corporate information technology practice this year: Instead of assigning smart phones to its 4,800 employees, it lets them bring their own. Under this new model — known as BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) — the employee buys the device and the employer pays the monthly voice and data bill.

That approach is catching on in the business community and has tended to favor Apple, which is already a favorite among consumers. At Salesforce, BlackBerry was the standard device before the new policy. Now 40% of the employees use iPhones while 60% still have BlackBerrys.

RehabCare Group Inc., a private nursing specialist in St. Louis, has given out more than 8,000 iPod Touch devices to its therapists. (The Touch is an iPhone without the cellular transmitter, but it can still perform most of the functions via a Wi-Fi Internet signal.)

Therapists use a custom app to record patients' vital signs, treatments and other clinical information. Besides tracking a patient's progress, the company can use the data to determine whether caregivers are working efficiently. And when the therapists go home they're free to use the device however they like — to play games, send text messages, watch video or listen to music.

"With laptops we'd tell people, 'Don't take it home, don't let your kids play with it, don't download anything to it,' because as soon as they do it it's going to break, and they'll be calling the help desk the next day," said Dick Escue, the company's chief information officer. "But now that we've adopted Apple, we tell people, 'Please take it home and put all your music and photos and e-mail on it,'" he said. "And it turns out that as a result they'll take better care of the device."At the same time it is evangelizing about the business uses of the iPhone, Apple is positioning the iPad as a second corporate must-have.

At Hyatt Hotels, managers use iPads to showcase their hotels when they meet with customers looking to book parties or special events. If a bride wants to see photos of previous weddings the hotel has hosted, the Hyatt employee can use an iPad to thumb through dozens of images as well as videos and information sheets.

In earlier times hotel sales staffers had to choose a specific set of photos for each meeting, have them printed and then put them in a leather-bound photo album, said John Prusnick, Hyatt's technology innovation director. "Now they have a single, very light portable device that contains all of the images they could ever want," he said. "The iPad just seems to translate the experience better and helps us sell our hotels in a much sharper way."

Prusnick added that iPhones now account for 40% of Hyatt's mobile devices and are quickly catching up to standard-issue BlackBerrys. But even with Apple's apparent advantage in hype and consumer popularity, the BlackBerry is "still the gold standard" for mobile smart phones, said Ashok Kumar, an analyst at Rodman & Renshaw.

Also, displacing an incumbent takes time, particularly in the slow-moving world of corporate IT. Companies are often contractually bound to telecommunications providers for long periods, and skittish about any major changes that could interfere with day-to-day operations. "It's not the kind of thing that can happen overnight," Kumar said. Giving employees a completely different kind of mobile device is "much more of an open- heart surgery."

"So if it's a sunset for RIM, it's going to be a very long sunset."
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