Thursday, September 2, 2010

Opportunity for Technology Oriented Companies!

This opportunity came across my desk today. It is offered by The Technology Collaborative. If you have never received funding before, you may be eligible for up to $120,000. Read on.

Technical Scope: TTC is particularly interested in supporting short- to medium-term projects (6 to 12 months) that build on and extend Pennsylvania’s core technology competencies in areas of interest to its member firms. New product concepts resulting from this work may be further developed by these firms or marketed through the creation of a new commercial enterprise.
Examples of technical areas of interest to member companies include:

• Human-computer interface technologies – voice recognition, graphics interfaces, information visualization, etc.; interfaces between personal communication devices or other electronic appliances and the network infrastructure; rehabilitation or assistive-living applications of these technologies.
• Developments in next generation wired and wireless network systems that will interface among digital TV, home appliances, personal communication devices, and other electronic devices. New network and distribution technologies.
• Robotic technologies - Perception, vision & sensing; data fusion; mapping & navigation; positioning; collaborative/cooperative behavior; systems integration; intelligent mobile power; composite materials; new concept prototypes; rehabilitation or assistive-living applications of these technologies.
• Novel DSP/multi-core designs and implementations for advanced audio and video compression focused on improved quality and speed within existing bandwidth limitations; novel methods for real-time audio encryption and decryption, noise identification & suppression, and multi-speaker identification; Hardware/software for practical Voice over IP implementation; error resiliency and correction; video encoding performance monitoring; hardware versus software coding/decoding implementations.
• Cybersecurity – network tools, internet tools, information assurance, data protection, digital rights management, novel methods for real-time encryption and decryption, and related topics.
• Mobile systems and low power – new wired or wireless mobile data communication devices, mobile computing devices; RFID technologies and systems; core IPs for wired/wireless Internet access; low power hardware and software design and implementation; advanced mobile energy sources; rehabilitation or assistive-living applications of these technologies.
• Network Storage – devices, networking, security protocols, novel fault tolerance/redundancy methods, file systems and storage management for networked storage.
• Novel low power, low voltage (1.8 volts or less) analog circuit blocks for mixed signal integrated circuits, e.g. op amps, comparators, analog-to-digital converters, digital-to-analog converters, voltage references, and related topics.
• Advanced chip design methodologies and tools – novel design flows; HW/SW co-design environments and code encryption methods (e.g. FPGA/CPLD encoding protection); automated mixed signal design implementations; novel CAD environments for SoC and/or for bridging chip and MEMs device design.
• SoC-related MEMS – novel designs, design tools and methodologies, fabrication methods, prototypes, as applied in a VLSI context.

For more information and to download a copy of the RFP click here.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

7 Essential Principles to Maximum Business Success

Taught, repeated in thousands of articles and books over the years, here are the 7 essential principles to maximizing your business success.

1. Clarity
Be clear on your goals and plans for every part of your life, personal and business. What do you believe in and stand for? What do you really care about? What is your vision for yourself and your future?
If you don't have a vision for success, you probably will never be successful. You need a clear vision and an inspiring mission to motivate yourself and others. One of the best questions to ask yourself is: "What would I dare to dream and do if I knew I could not fail?"

2. Competence
You must be good at what you do. You must strive to be amongst the top 10 in your field. Dedicate your energy to quality work, quality products and services. You must have a passion for what you do. You need to choose an areas where your knowledge and experience will enable you to be better than 90% of the playing field. Remember, the most valuable asset a company has is its reputation. Without competence, you can't build a good one.

3. Constraints
There will always appear a constraint or limiting factor between you and your goal. An 80/20 rule applies here. Generally, 80% of the reasons that you aren't achieving your goals are limits you have set within yourself. Only 20% come from external/outside forces. So what is holding you back?

4. Creativity
Innovation is the key to successful business. How do you find faster, better, easier, cheaper ways to produce and deliver your products and services? You need to promote and unleash creativity in your business and workplace. It will help you solve problems and achieve your goals. Creativity can help you overcome some of your "constraints."

5. Concentration
Can you stay at a thing until it is complete? Can you focus? No success is possible without the ability to practice sustained concentration on a single goal or task or stay focused in a single direction. This requires discipline, and sometimes sacrifice.

6. Courage
It takes alot of courage to take entrepreneurial risks. In most cases there are no guarantees to success when you take the first steps into starting a business. Once you have begun, you need the courage to persist. A large percentage of the population do not hold sufficient courage to start a new venture.

7. Continuous Actions
A successful entrepreneur always seems to be in continuous motion. S/he is always trying new things, continually reacting and responding to change, trying new methods, abandoning activities that didn't work, picking themselves up after defeat and trying once more. Top entrepreneurs seem to have three qualities:
  • they learn more things
  • they try more things
  • they persist longer than anyone else.

The ultimate reward for applying the 7 principles is a positive perspective on business ownership. To have more, you must first be more. To realize your full potential and achieve all your financial goals in your own business, you must develop the virtues of integrity, courage, and persistence to a much higher level than you have up to now. You will have to practice the qualities of clarity, competence, creativity, concentration and continous action until they are as natural to you as breathing.

SOURCE: The Way To Wealth, Part I: The Journey Begins--Success Strategies of the Wealthy Entrepreneur. Brian Tracy. Entrepreneur Press.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Leadership - Then and Now

Sometimes it's kind of interesting to go back in time and see what folks were talking about on different management topics, then to compare that to what we are hearing today. Back in 2007, a magazine called JCI Leader (The Magazine for Young Leaders & Entrepreneurs) did a piece on "Building the 21st Century Leader: Heading Up a Successful Company Today."

The article reviewed the skills that were needed to lead your business to success, with a focus on leadership. Several key points were made, including:

  • you can't bark orders at your employees circa 1950 "boss" architype
  • buddy-buddy, hang-loose management via 1990's approaches gain you no respect
  • abilities to innovate, execute, and be a strong role model are essential
  • decisiveness, insightfulness and keeping ideas flowing is ultra important
  • a willingness to question "what are we not doing right?" and then fix it

In the end, the article pointed to a digest of key traits that are crucial for good leadership in changing workplace environments.

(1) Adaptability: change is the norm, rather than the exception. People unwilling to change will not keep up with the marketplace nor with their internal needs for a thriving company. Adaptability means hard choices, sometimes even giving up certain values or beliefs. Workers need to be encouraged to raise tough issues before they become a crisis.

(2) Self-Awareness: Ken Blanchard in the book The One Minute Manager notes that "before leaders can tackle the challenges at heir organizations, they have to look in the mirror. The journey of leadership is first taking a look at yourself." Leaders need to root out negative patterns. Assessment of strengths and weaknesses on a personal level, helps a leader to better manage themselves, and ultimately their relationships with others.

(3) People Skills: Authenticity, accessibility, and respect are just some of the traits workers look for in their leadership. Giving personal credit where it is due is also a key factor. Communicating and allowing people to feel safe about any change in the organization is another key trait employees look for in a leader.

(4) Decisiveness: Holding endless meetings are out the window. At current rates of change fast action is what is needed. Doing what it takes to speed up the decision-making process is essential for good leadership.

(5) Collaborative Skills: More managers and leaders who can work across boundaries, break down silos, and open up the conversation.

Although written three years ago, it looks like most of this article is applicable in today's management environment. What kind of leader are you?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

WOW..QUITE A HIATUS!

Yes, we've been slacking. Sorry. It happens in the world of work, where full-time focus has to shift to some things at the expense of others. No excuses. We're back on board now. Hopefully you'll enjoy today's featured article found in WorkForce online. Excellent information on independent contractors.

We promise we'll be back tomorrow, and the next day and the next day and the next day.


The Independent Contractor Question

The use of independent contractors in place of employees has been on the rise in the U.S. for years and continues to stir debate over its impact on worker protections. Congress has recently taken a renewed interest in the subject with the arrival of a Democratic majority, with one representative calling the misclassification of employees as contract workers “a national problem with implications for federal laws and our federal coffers; a problem we must solve.” By Irwin Speizer.

When California Overnight, a package delivery service, decided in 2002 to stop using employees as drivers and instead hire independent contractors, some of the drivers sued. Their contention: The switch was a scheme to avoid expensive extras like overtime pay and employee business expenses.
In a ruling that may bode well for companies using independent contractors, a California state court found in February that California Overnight, which is based in San Diego, acted properly. The court said that the company’s delivery drivers were not being misclassified as independent contractors. The decision was a victory for companies trying to reduce costs by using independent contractors in place of full-time employees.


Robert Hulteng, an attorney in the San Francisco office of Littler Mendelson who represented California Overnight, says he has received calls from other trucking and transportation companies about the ruling and expects more widespread interest if the case should survive an appeal.
"I think it could become a very significant case in providing guidance on what you can and can’t do in using independent contractors," Hulteng says.
The use of independent contractors in place of employees has been on the rise in the U.S. for years and continues to stir debate over its impact on worker protections. The California Overnight case is among a growing number of court battles around the country filed by independent contractors against companies that hire them.

Congress has recently taken a renewed interest in the subject with the arrival of a Democratic majority. U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat who chairs the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, called a hearing in March to begin an examination of the use of independent contractors. At the hearing, Woolsey described the misclassification of employees as contract workers "a national problem with implications for federal laws and our federal coffers; a problem we must solve."
Woolsey pointed out at the hearing that one of the biggest issues surrounding the use of independent contractors is the lack of workers’ compensation insurance and employer-sponsored health insurance. Woolsey says that in California alone, an estimated 30 percent of the state’s 800,000 employers do not carry workers’ compensation insurance. While the hearing focused on workers in the construction industry, a broad range of other industries use contract workers, including trucking and delivery services, janitorial services, manufacturing and high tech.

Government labor statistics do not specifically track independent contractors but rather lump them in with all contingent workers, a category that includes the staffing industry and temporary help. According to a Government Accountability Office report, there were 42.6 million contingent workers in the U.S. as of 2005—almost a third of the entire workforce.
The staffing industry, a fast-growing group of companies that provides temporary and contingent labor to other companies, is tracking developments in the contract labor field, but so far, it’s been from the sidelines. Most staffing companies hire their workers as employees rather than using them as contract labor. By serving as employers of record, those staffing firms make payroll tax deductions, carry workers’ compensation insurance and follow other rules required of employers.
"For the vast majority of staffing firms, this is not an issue," says Stephen Dwyer, deputy general counsel of the American Staffing Association. "My take on it is that any company contemplating classifying workers as independent contractors should consult extensively with attorneys and accountants. The ramifications can be drastic to both the company and the workers."

One of the largest ongoing disputes over independent contractors involves FedEx Corp., which set up a separate operating company to handle traditional ground delivery service. FedEx Ground drivers are independent contractors rather than employees of the company.
Like California Overnight, FedEx Ground was sued in a California state court by contract drivers who claimed they operated as employees and should have received benefits as such. In 2004, drivers won the first round in that case after a California state judge ruled that they should, in fact, be treated as employees.
FedEx has been sued by drivers in a number of other states, and the issue is far from settled. In March, lawyers for FedEx Ground contract drivers asked a federal judge in South Bend, Indiana, to combine 32 cases into a nationwide federal class-action suit against the company. If FedEx ultimately loses and its 14,000 drivers are reclassified as employees, the company could be liable for up to $1 billion in overtime, business expenses, taxes, penalties and other costs, according to estimates.
As with other challenges to independent contractor relationships, the FedEx case revolves around how much control a company can exercise over its contractors before they must be treated as employees. FedEx Ground drivers own and maintain their own trucks and they can hire their own workers or subcontractors to help them service routes.
But the trucks must display the FedEx colors and logos, and the company maintains dress standards and various delivery and operational standards. Drivers who have sued contend those requirements put them under direct control of FedEx Ground and thus make them employees rather than independent contractors.

Many of the same conditions exist at California Overnight, but there are some important differences. The court decision in the California Overnight case may provide some guidance on how the independent contractor relationship will ultimately be defined.
"The central question is, how much control must a company give up in order to have a contractor relationship?" Hulteng says. "Companies desperately need clarification on where the lines are going to be drawn. The judge [in the California Overnight case] has issued a decision that, if upheld on appeal, will be very helpful in drawing those lines."

California Overnight uses about 1,800 contract drivers to deliver packages around the state. Originally its drivers were employees, although they still had to own their own trucks. In 2002, the company decided to switch to independent contractors to cut costs and increase profits. Some employees kept working for the company as independent contractors, but others left and were replaced by new independent contractors.
When a group of former and current drivers sued, they argued that the switch to contractor status was simply a ruse to avoid paying overtime and other benefits that the drivers had as employees. Drivers were doing the same work—in many cases driving the same trucks. And they were an integral part of the company’s core business.
But the company also adopted policies under the new contractor arrangement to put some distance between management and drivers. Delivery drivers did not have to wear company uniforms (although they could earn extra money if they did). They could make pickups and deliveries for other clients if they wanted, and they could turn down assignments from California Overnight. They were free to use other people to make deliveries. How they made the deliveries and handled their routes was up to them. The fees California Overnight paid were negotiated and varied from contractor to contractor. Some contractors prospered under the system and added routes; a few actually bid so low that they lost money delivering packages.

The lawsuit ultimately required decisions from both a jury and a judge. Both reached the same conclusion: California Overnight drivers were not being treated as employees but rather as independent contractors.


Hulteng says that the decisions point to several important items that companies need to consider when deciding to use independent contractors for ongoing tasks:
~ The contractor must be allowed to work for other clients.
~ The contractor must be allowed the option of turning down assignments.
~ The contractor must be allowed the option of having another person do the actual work.
~ The contractor must be able to determine how the work will be carried out.

"If I am going to contract out a particular service to an independent contractor, I probably can’t say just, ‘Joe Smith, do it,’ " Hulteng says. "But I can say, ‘I want the end product to be a certain way.’ You can control the end result. You just can’t control how they get there."
While that general principle sounds simple, its application has proved tricky enough to trip up some of the nation’s largest corporations. Catherine Ruckelshaus, litigation director for the National Employment Law Center in New York, who testified before the House subcommittee, noted that one of the problems is that there can be differences from state to state.
"You could be found to be an independent contractor in one state and not in another," Ruckelshaus says. "It can get a little bit confusing. Even within the same company they can have different regional practices."


As a result, companies that seek to use independent contractors find they have to hire accounting, tax and legal experts to help set up and run contractor relationships.
For example, Albany, a global contingent workforce consultancy based in London with U.S. headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, offers a compliance service to help companies meet federal and state rules for using independent contractors. Albany says that on average, 62 percent of workers classified as independent contractors are actually employees.
Albany’s Web site features a "compliance calculator
" to give companies an idea of how much they might owe if their independent contractors are determined to be employees. Plug in the number of contractors, the average annual payment to each one, and the estimated number who may not be in compliance and the calculator spits out an estimate of how much the company might owe in taxes, penalties and other assessments.
Jason Posel, Albany’s senior vice president in the U.S., says his firm advises companies to take a very cautious approach when using or considering independent contractors. "The trend we are seeing is that IRS is taking a closer look at this, and employees and workers know more about their rights," Posel says. "It is important to take a conservative approach
."

SOURCE: Workforce Online July 2010

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Small Business Award Nominees Sought By Local Micro-Lending Program

MetroAction is currently seeking nominations for its small business awards program. More than ever, entrepreneurs are facing daily challenges in the successful operation of their businesses. MetroAction wants to highlight the very best of our local entrepreneurial spirit by recognizing the successes of these small businesses for their positive impact on our local economy.

The awards have traditionally honored local small businesses that clearly demonstrate how hard work and determination pay off. MetroAction is currently seeking nominations for the following awards:

The Small Business of the Year Award, sponsored by Fidelity Bank, recognizes the dedication, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit displayed by area small business. This award has three distinctive categories:
• Small Business of the Year: 50 or less employees
• Small Business of the Year: 51-250 employees
• New and Emerging Small Business: In operation for less than 3 years

The Virtual Small Business of the Year Award recognizes a local business without a corresponding physical identity, and includes home based businesses, vehicle based businesses, and web based businesses.

The Young Entrepreneur Award, sponsored by Bank of America, recognizes a Lackawanna County young entrepreneur between the ages of 13-30 who demonstrates entrepreneurial innovation and success.

The Small Business Advocate Award recognizes a local individual who provides a distinctive level of service and who is a noted supporter of entrepreneurial development, creating opportunities and growth for small business in the community.

All nominees must serve Lackawanna County. Anyone can nominate a business, including self-nominations. Visit www.MetroAction.org for eligibility and judging criteria or call (570) 342-7711. Award applications are due April, 30 2010 and will be presented at MetroAction’s Small Business Award Luncheon on May 25.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Interesting Links to Relevant Information

Alot of interesting links and information has come our way over the course of the last month. Instead of doing a separate blog on each, we thought we'd provide the links so you can read some other good blogs with topical discussions.

First, there's 30 Top Objections to Social Media and How To Respond. Great article, and a good blog (Marketing Shindig) to keep on hand.

Here's another great link/article: Where to Hang With Entrepreneurs Online, from Small Biz Trends. There are countless other links within this article, taking entrepreneurs to places on the Web which may be helpful and inspiring. Of particular interest is a Blog entitle "Bootstrap Business."

So, just a quick reminder that there are many places on-line where aspiring entrepreneurs and those already in business can find a wealth of information. Thank's Keith, for the heads on the above sites!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Background Checks - Employer Burden of Proof

A February job posting for a small company included an overview of a small assembly laborer, paying $9 per hour. The company listed requirements for the position: a high school education or general equivalency diploma, small assembly experience and “no convictions.”

Virtually all of this particular company's hires came out of a “no felons” policy, supported by the company. In an effort to "keep the workplace safe and out of lawsuits", the company owner instituted the policy for the first employee and continued it throughout the life of the company.

Depending on what state you are in, a felony conviction can result from bouncing a $500 check, or smoking marijuana in a park. States vary on the width and breadth of felony statute coverage.

Like most employers, this company had not conducted any studies to prove that their "no convictions" policy allowed for a safe workplace. No "empirical evidence." Companies
spend a great deal of money on criminal checks and often base hiring decisions on the results without evidence of the return on the investment or the efficacy of the decisions. The absence of empirical evidence will soon become more than a question of effective screening and hiring practices--according to a recent article (February 2010) in Workforce Management.

A recent article noted: "Within the next 12 to 18 months, employers can expect to see the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issue new guidelines that require empirical evidence for the 'business necessity' defense in racial discrimination cases that arise from screening and hiring practices, according to Rod Fliegel, a partner at Littler Mendelson in San Francisco. The new guidelines are likely to upend hiring policies based on untested assumptions about criminality and workplace behaviors."

That same article goes on to note the following: "Employers stand to benefit from the new guidelines, which may bring greater clarity to what is now a legal quagmire. In addition to the new guidelines, in September 2009 the EEOC filed the first lawsuit in what experts believe will be a new series of court actions on screening and hiring practices that may help define the empirical evidence federal courts will require.

Perhaps more important, the legal scuffle over empirical evidence will continue to kick up questions about the role of criminal screening in hiring and the extent to which employers find false comfort in a relatively cheap and easy—but unproven—risk management tool while neglecting more effective measures to reduce workplace violence, theft, fraud and employment-related lawsuits. While the screening industry continues to play to employer concerns about criminality and promote criminal checks as an effective countermeasure, broader forces are challenging those assumptions."

Screening companies have told employers for years how their assistance in screening applicants can create "safer" work environments. “Background screening can create a safer workplace,” says Theresa Preg, director of marketing development for LexisNexis Screening Solutions, also known as ChoicePoint, which runs 12 million employment-related screens a year. But the company has no empirical evidence to back up the statement.

Vendors frequently cite statistics on workplace violence but fail to note that the vast majority of incidents are not perpetrated by employees but by criminals unconnected to the workplace, clients or customers, or outsiders who have a personal relationship with an employee. They also don’t say that there is no research indicating that employees with criminal records are more likely to commit acts of workplace violence. Another common vendor claim is that employee theft causes 30 percent of all business failures. Although the number has been reiterated in marketing materials for two decades, there’s no substantiation for it.

“I don’t know of any actual studies or evidence of a decrease in fraud or theft tied to criminal checks,” says Jason Morris, president and COO of EmployeeScreenIQ, which runs more than half a million employment screens each year. “There are no hard reports or case studies, and the National Association of Professional Background Screeners hasn’t produced any.”

To construct new guidelines for screening and hiring, the EEOC will draw from testimony given in its November 2008 hearings and from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2007 decision in the case of El v. SEPTA, according to Fliegel, who represents employers and screening vendors. “The EEOC will look to the hearings and El, which talked about an empirical basis for comparing an applicant with a record with an applicant without a record,” he says. “Some scholarship is now focusing on this.”

Fliegel cites the work of Shawn Bushway, a criminologist at the University at Albany, who testified at the EEOC hearings that employers have elevated criminal-history records as the “trump card” in hiring decisions, instead of using more responsible statistical risk assessments. Increasingly, employers focus less on direct job-related employment and reference checks and skills evaluations and more on criminal records and credit checks.

In HireRight’s 2009 survey of screening practices, employers most frequently cited workplace safety as their motivation for screening. Almost half say they screen to reduce theft and fraud. But no research suggests that criminal checks can predict an employee’s propensity for workplace violence, and there is no evidence that criminal screening reduces theft or fraud.

Most fraud perpetrators, for example, do not have a record because they are first offenders, according to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. In addition, U.S. retailers commonly respond to incidents of employee theft by simply firing the employee, so no criminal record is generated.

While pressure is mounting at the federal level, the recession has forced state governments to take a closer look at the role employers play in the revolving door of recidivism that keeps prisons full and places already stretched state budgets in even greater peril. A number of states, including New York, Massachusetts and California, are tightening restrictions on screening practices and hiring bars.

At the EEOC hearings, experts reported that recidivism drops to extremely low levels for people who have stable employment during their first year out of prison. Employers that construct hiring barriers for millions of marginal nonviolent ex-offenders will find it increasingly difficult to remain compliant with federal and state regulations.

The growing trend at the state level is to require screening and hiring bars for specific jobs, including many caregiver positions, and restrict screening and hiring bars in all others. Greater clarity in state legislation is likely to reduce the small but highly publicized number of negligent-hiring lawsuits that are filed each year, and minimize the even smaller number that center on criminal records.

New EEOC regulations demanding an evidence-based approach to screening may help hone more effective hiring practices and provide a safe harbor from negligent-hiring lawsuits. The criminal screening process now in place at many companies may be an expedient method for culling candidates, but employers with hiring bars may soon have to rely more on proven methods for mitigating risk: job-specific hiring policies, proper supervision and effective performance management. (Source: Workforce Management Research Center, Fay Hansen.)