Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cleveland Ohio Economy and Small Business Status

Here are some recent observations about the state of the economy, from the viewpoint of a small business owner (I have a few diverse small businesses) that has also been discussing business and sales trends with other small and medium business owners throughout the greater Cleveland, Ohio and Northeast Ohio region. The observations surely do not leave much room for optimism about the economy at present.

Example #1: Home Theater Business
A relative of mine owns a small business providing Cleveland area Home Theater, Audio, and Video installation, sales, and design services - and even though he has been in business for over 10 years, he has never seen business as slow as it is now. His is a business that serves a demographic that would clearly be described as "upper middle class" and/or "upper class".

The clientele that keep my relative's company busy have included coaches from professional sports teams, players from those same teams, doctors, executives, and other rather well compensated individuals. Much of his company business comes by word of mouth and personal referrals. He has never had to advertise in order to obtain more work than his company can handle. But, suddenly, WHAM, this current economic mess has even these rather "upper end" clients hesitating at committing dollars to upgrading or otherwise investing in their home theater, multimedia, and audio-visual needs.

And, if these people are not engaging my relative's business for things like product purchases, wiring and other installation services, design and implementation services, and the like, the "trickle down" effect is immediate: my relative can not afford to keep as many employees active and employed. Sure, his company still sells some home theater and HDTV / digital-television equipment (especially as people hurry to be ready for the February 2009 digital TV cut-over and transition away from analog TV), but when the volume drops to the lowest level he has ever seen, it really puts the pressure on the viability of his company.

Sure, he will make it through the slowdown, but it is not even clear if the business will turn much, if any, profit while trying to maintain employees to handle those jobs that do come through yet. This is what a typical small business in Northeast Ohio is feeling right now - and the rest of the country too I expect.

The market-wide panic, and lack of buying, ripples through causing others to cut back employment and buying, which ripples through... etc. etc. It all becomes a self-fulfilling downturn: people expect a downturn, they alter their expenditure and investment habits, and gee... a slowdown occurs as they expected.

Example #2: Independent Book Publishing
One of my businesses is independent book publishing. I authored and published a Gluten-Free / Wheat-Free Recipes (Desserts) Cook Book that I sell almost exclusively via my online website. Over the past couple years of selling, I noticed this VERY strong inverse correlation between gas prices and my book sales: meaning, when gas prices went up, my sales would slow, and vice-versa.

But, after this last round of super high gas prices, and the precipitous fall to the lowest prices in years, that same pattern of book sales increases that normally accompany the fall in gas prices did not emerge. This was the first time ever that book sales did not increase when gas prices fell!

Fact is, this demonstrates a LOT about how much market panic there is, and how close to the edge everyone has been, and/or is, living - with regards to their finances. Credit cards are maxed out. People have little to zero cash. Credit limits are being cut, making "extra" credit or "excess / available" credit shrink quickly. The results on my book sales are immediate.

Further proof: even discounting my book heavily has made little difference in sales! In the past, if I ran a temporary discount or promotional sale, book sales increased dramatically and in direct response to that short-lived promotion. Now, even deep discounts have made little change to book sales volumes. People do not have, or are not willing to spend, any money - PERIOD. Even though my book can save them money by teaching them how to bake gluten-free items at home (which saves a fortune over pre-made GF diet foods), they STILL hesitate to spend even $20.00 on a book.

The ONLY exception to sales volume has been that our "scratch and dent books" (those with MINOR scratches or bends from banding of boxes on pallets during shipment, etc) have been selling as quickly as we find any in our inventory. Why? Simple: I sell them for under $10! THAT is the price threshold where people feel "OK" about spending I guess. Unreal.

Keep in mind that I performed an online survey a while back about the ideal target price for my book, and overwhelmingly people said it would be a "no brainer" purchase decision if I sold it around $20. Well, that sure changed quickly! More indication of what the economy, and fundamental mentality, is right now - and why this could lead to a full blown Depression if people do not start snapping out of this mood (it cascades everyone -- if purchases are not made for products and services, companies lay off people, and it spirals downward).

How we got here...
That is a long story, but not an overly complex one.

The idiotic move the government made last year by handing our "rebate checks" to people, while gas prices were already insanely high, allowed people to essentially bid gas prices even higher... and all those checks went to cover inflation due to bidding with more dollars for the SAME fixed supply of petroleum (which then rippled through to food, etc.) This worsened the downturn that was starting, but which remained somewhat hidden by massive debt-spending (credit-cards). Credit cards sealed our fate by allowing people to spend more than they really had, all bidding on the same commodities, causing massive commodity inflation, and the gov put the nail in the coffin with rebate checks. Home equity lines and the like, based on inflated home prices from cheap money adjustable-rate or teaser rate loans also contributed to this ability to bid things higher when they otherwise could not have been.

So, here we are post-gas-price-maximum-time after people essentially had their wallets, and bank accounts, sucked dry by the gas pumps under Bush's grand plan to bankrupt the country via insanely poor foreign policy and ludicrous energy policy (one which had us buying petroleum for the Strategic Oil Reserve at the highest prices ever, when supply was constrained like never before) - idiot! So, all of the American money handed out via rebate checks was transferred to President Bush's REAL employer (Saudi Arabia - not the US citizens).

Add on top of this the housing bubble that was created to get us out of our last stock market bubble. Pile on a burgeoning debt - all debt - public, private... it is out of control. But, we are a consumer ecomony, and our only solution to overspending (per politicians) is spend more.

Where things are headed...
Fact is, we have a HUGE problem.
I predict MASSIVE LAYOFFS in January 2009 and February 2009.

MASSIVE - especially if people do not take a chance and spend some money on products and services provided by small businesses. Small businesses employ over 1/2 the workforce. All we here about is businesses that are "too big to fail", but the fact is, widespread failure of small businesses will be catastrophic.

Large businesses will weather the storm just fine and do their usual mass layoffs regardless of their sales volumes. But, small businesses do not have the resources (in general) to keep all their employees on staff for any length of time if revenue streams suddenly dry up or are reduced to a trickle. The government (i.e., US!) is not going to bail US small businesses out... only our customers can by purchasing our products and services.

The observations from my vantage point in Cleveland Ohio are certain to be similar to observations elsewhere in the country. So, if you want to see your own local economy do well, try not to fall too far down the well of fear -- engage your local small businesses when possible, and help them maintain their employees/staffing through this economic mess. These are your friends and neighbors' jobs I am talking about.

As for large companies: I am sick of reading this stuff about companies laying off hundreds or thousands of workers were it costs them $50K, $100K, or MORE on a "per head" basis to lay people off. These unemployed workers will hesitate to spend, and further flood the market of workers seeking work.

I have a better idea for companies, like Adobe for example, to consider. When I hear how they will spend $80K/head (roughly 1yr average salary) to get rid of someone, I find it insane. Instead, tell your workers that, should things NOT improve in a year, they will be out of a job with only a month of severance pay starting ONE YEAR from now, but not immediate. During that year, while still employed, they can look for a job, but they can also focus on adding value to the company and improving efficiency, and if the end result is the company does better than expected, they will KEEP their job(s). And, since they are not part of the unemployment mess, overall market sediment will likely be more optimistic, thus creating a positive impact on the economy, including the company they work for.

I just do not get the whole thing about paying tons of money to get rid of someone - it is rather short-sighted, and furthers the downward economic pressures and overall negative sediment that looms large right now (especially employment fears). I personally will try my best to have my businesses keep everyone employed as long as possible, in hopes of remaining a strong viable group of businesses while other businesses cut their resources to the bone and jeapardize their own long-term viability.

I have told my employees that things may get slow, but that corporate profits are of little concern in the short term if it means we are best positioned in the long term when the economy improves in general. I wish more companies took this stance, as we would all be less likely to experience an inevitable deep economic downturn and worsening of the employment market.

Speaking of business: time to get back to work!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

3D CAD Software Review - Free, Cheap, Affordable, and others

For a long time I have been fascinated by modern 3-dimensional modeling capabilities that 3D CAD Software makes possible, but at the same time I have been frustrated by the cost of such software.

I have had dreams of using CAD software to help me take the ideas I see in my mind, and put them into a visual model to share with others. I am always trying to invent some new product, design some variation or improvement on an existing product, and just apply creativite thinking to all sorts of mechanical design situations and opportunities. But, there is only so much you can do with just paper and pencil or pen.

Sure, a pad of paper and pen can help with getting that idea for a new invention down on paper, but... from my experience, something can APPEAR (on paper) to work, but can not be built. You just can not get a true feel for the 3D interaction of parts, especially in a complex mechanism or structure, using old-fashioned paper/pen techniques -- certainly not effectively or efficiently. The fact is, 2D design and 3D modeling software (aka, CAD - Computer Aided Design) is a HUGE improvement over hand-drawing, and 3D modeling is quite nice for working things out before building.

You can save a fortune by avoiding costly pre-manufacturing missteps by creating a detailed and accurate 3D model ahead of time, and you can even produce a nice bill of materials (BOM) and calculate the center-of-gravity from the CAD image too (in applications that include such a feature). Try doing that by hand! So, I decided it was time to make the leap and purchase a professional-quality full-featured CAD system for my own idea development, in hopes of bringing my inventions to reality.

My Findings and CAD Research Outcome

"Big name" CAD software like AutoDesk AutoCad, Solid, Pro/Engineer ("Pro/E") and the like are prohibitively expensive for the someone like me that wants to essentially experiment with 2D/3D design and modeling for developing some of my own product ideas in a visual manner. Some of those software packages are many thousands of dollars, which is far beyond the reach of hobbyist CAD pricing to say the least. And, I can get compatibility with those products at a much lower cost.

In fact, if you have been looking for affordable, relatively cheap, low cost, low price 3D CAD software that can fit a hobby budget or small business or startup business budget, you have surely encountered the same types of things I ran into: in general, there were two classes of CAD Software on the market; 1) full featured and expensive, and 2) cheaper, but lacking most features I consider a "requirement", including 3D solid modeling and extrusion from 2D surface drawings.

Thankfully, after evaluating a pile of CAD applications, I found one that fits my needs: VariCAD. But, in order to reach that conclusion and determine which was the best affordable 3D CAD software, I looked at a plethora of packages, including these just to name a few: Bryce CAD, QCAD, Google Sketchup Pro, IntelliCAD-based software like Bricsys, VariCAD (obviously) and quite a few others.

My criteria for CAD software evaluation was rather straight forward and simple:
  • I weighed features against price to determine a price-to-performance ratio. I also pitched anything above a couple thousand dollars - that was just out of my price range, and certainly out of the range that would make a solution a fit for other hobbyist inventors and designers.
  • I looked for active product development - and threw out a lot of otherwise prospective CAD/design software just because it appeared that companies were not keeping their product up-to-date or otherwise releasing bug-fixes and/or updates
  • and, perhaps most important was my requirement that without any prior knowledge of the CAD software, and without reading any manual or help files, I would be able to quickly feel comfortable and productive uwing the CAD software UI (User Interface) and be able to draw and manipulate 2D and 3D objects.
  • In summary: it had to be easy to learn, intuitive, full-featured, and reasonably priced CAD / CAM software to meet my criteria.
My Choice: VariCAD 2D/3D - and here is why.
So many of the CAD packages I tried were either not intuitive or lacking features. Some had really nifty and modern UI's, but lacked the professional features I needed. Others were perhaps exceptionally "powerful" and feature-rich, but so overly complex I could not make sense of them no matter how hard I tried.

I spent nearly two weeks installing software trials, testing them out for up to a few hours each (and, if they made my "consideration list", up to a full day of testing), and trying to "build" just a few simple 2D and 3D models. In the end, the clear winner was VariCAD. I had a second "runner up" of sorts that nearly matched VariCAD for features and usability, but it was nearly twice the price.

I liked the UI in VariCAD quite a bit. Sure, it has some room for improvement to fit "my perfect way" of doing things, but my way is no more likely to be "your way" than what VariCAD's UI offers by default. It does implement fancy Microsoft "ribbon-bar" or Vista-specific UI elements or such, and looks more like a traditional Windows-XP application (for good reason - this software runs cross platform on Windows and Linux).

I liked that I could quickly and easily, in 3-dimension mode, figure out how to size, scale, rotate, intersect, remove, etc. Here is a quick example of something I created after just a few minutes of practice.



This tiny little part I made used various features of VariCAD, where I had multiple 3-dimensional parts connected together. Then, I really liked how VariCAD had all these sorts of "tools" to use: drill, mill, groove, fillet, chamfer... .and, VariCAD also has all these pre-defined ANSI/ISO parts available for screws, nuts, bolts, etc. You can see how I chamfered the edges of my little test part, and then I made the holes by "virtually drilling" or whatever, and/or doing an intersection-removal of a predefined screw-shape. It was all EASY. And, this was a HUGE selling point for me.

And, as you can see, there is a neat screen-shot / display export. VariCAD makes saving an image easy to do (has high-res export of current view). Plus it can calculate a bill of material and center of gravity (has a list of all sorts of base-materials from pre-defined tubings, metals, plastics, etc that it "knows" all the information needed to calculate). There are dimensioning lines available in orthographic views too, making my drawings easy for an engineer to completely understand and build parts to exact specifications.

I like how VariCAD is a 3D/2D CAD system primarily intended for mechanical engineering design - since, it is my mental "visions" for products I needed to turn into true mathematical / visual representations that others can see and/or manufacture parts for - precisely. In addition to powerful tools for 3D modeling and 2D drafting and dimensioning, the CAD system provides libraries of standard mechanical parts (ANSI, DIN), calculations of standard mechanical components, and tools for working with bills of materials (BOM) and blocks.

BOTTOM LINE: If you have been looking for an affordable and inexpensive alternative to AutoDesk AutoCAD, SolidWorks, Pro/Engineer ("Pro/E") and the like, while maintaining a degree of compatibility with those expensive titles, VariCAD is perhaps just what you were looking for, with excellent 2d and 3d CAD Features in a Powerful yet Affordable Cross-Platform 2D and 3D CAD Software (Windows / Linux) in either 32-bit or 64-bit versions.

It is compatible with "the big name CAD packages too" via import/export of common CAD file formats like: DWG, DXF, IGES, STEP and STL. So, I feel quite comfortable that whatever I create, I can give my drawings to fabricators and designers to help me realize my inventions in physical form.

This affordable CAD software represents a rather unbelievable bargain for such a capable application.  It is a 3D CAD software with professional features at rock-bottom pricing  (well under $1,000, and if you catch a sale they run, it can be as little as ~$500 or so including a year of support and software updates. As such, VariCAD costs no more than many amateur-type productswhile providing full-featured professional CAD / CAM abilities.

Now, time to get busy inventing more products and put my CAD s/w to use! (actually, it IS FREE for 30-day trials if you want to check it out and confirm what I have written here - just go to Varicad.com and read more about it and find links to the Free Trial CAD Software Download and purchase information, etc.).

Friday, December 05, 2008

Credit Cards : Small Business = Personal Guarantee

Since I own a few small businesses, I receive a boat load of small business credit card applications. The mailers always say the same thing in GIANT BOLD PRINT: get your "BUSINESS CREDIT CARD".

Yeah, sure... "business" credit card, so long as you sign with a personal guarantee.

As I sit here watching the unraveling of the American debt-laden financial system in this current economic crisis, I can not help getting a bit upset about the sick irony that these bank credit card offers present. That is, if you are a large company, a public company, and/or have reached some magical "size" threshold where, as an incorporated entity alone, credit is issued and secured ONLY by the assets of the company (as opposed to requiring any sort of personal guarantee by corporate officers and the like).

So, as all these massive corporations default on their debt, file for bankruptcy, and so in... I can not help but find these "business credit card offers" (that require my personal guarantee of payment) all ironic, sickening, and disturbing. A small business entity with small amounts of credit must secure their credit personally, but yet a "large enough" business can borrow hoards of cash and default on payment (repeatedly in many cases -- where companies have been given many a chance, gone bankrupt repeatedly, etc - like airlines e.g.) and still not be required to offer any personal guarantees from corporate officers.

I really believe this is, in large part, why corporate management in this country is so terrible. There is little vested stake in the DOWN-SIDE of the business should anything go wrong. Contrast that to the fact that if I take out "business credit" in the name of one of my small businesses, that I am really taking out money that I PERSONALLY guarantee to repay. Who do you think has more incentive to PAY BACK THE LOANS?

So, while the biggest of the big companies can borrow with nearly no limit (especially in the day of government-backstopped borrowing), and repeatedly default - sticking banks and investors with huge losses and write-downs - the small borrower does not have such a luxury of non-repayment. Instead, we have to personally guarantee every last dollar borrowed with these "business credit cards" and "business loans" that are nothing more than personal credit cards and personal loans that happen to also include someone typing the name of our business on the application in addition to our personal information.

I am not saying that there should not be personal guarantees for credit on small business loans, especially if the small business has not been around for a long time or shown significant credit worthiness. Instead, I am saying that there needs to be more "risk" for large business borrowing - risk to these insanely over-compensated executive managers that can take millions or billions in compensation and stock options during the good times (heck, even during the bad!), but yet not be on the hook for a dime in personal losses when the company defaults on loans a mere year or two later... when, obviously some of that insane compensation should have went to paying down debt or avoiding debt in the first place.

There are rampant cases of this personal-profit, company-loss scenario among large companies, but yet they continue to obtain credit without personal guarantees. And, here I am getting my nearly daily mail about how to get my "business credit card" which I have to guarantee personally. So, a note to all you banks that send me these offers for "business credit": get lost!

I will take such an offer (perhaps) when the playing field is level and those "large companies" that continually stick banks with Billions of dollars in losses will have their own management personally guarantee some of those loans. I guarantee I am a better credit risk than GM, Ford, or Chyrsler, and I still do not see banks (or the US government) demanding PERSONAL GUARANTEES from those corporate executives!