• Getting that letter of recommendation

                                                         image from cartoonbank.com

    Letters of recommendation are often required when one is applying for a new job or applying to a transfer or graduate school. These letters can make all the difference.  However, students and people new to the workforce may not understand the business etiquette involved in asking for a letter of recommendation. Alison Doyle, a job searching expert, wrote a series of linked articles that address several aspects of this process. Her first-and-foremost piece of advice is:

    "Don't ask 'Could you write a letter of reference for me?' Just about anyone can write a letter. The problem can be what they are going to write about. Rather, ask 'Do you feel you know my work well enough to write me a good recommendation letter?' or 'Do you feel you could give me a good reference?' That way, your reference writer has an easy out if they are not comfortable writing a letter and you can be assured that those who say 'yes' will be enthusiastic about your performance and will write a positive letter. Offer to provide an updated copy of your resume and information on your skills and experiences so the reference writer has current information to work with."

    Also, Ms. Doyle says it it easier to ask in an email, as this gives the person you are asking the opportunity to say "no" in a diplomatic way. She also says to be sure to include the following items as attachments, or in the body of your email:

    • a copy of your resume
    • a copy your cover letter (or your personal statement, if you are applying to grad school)
    • the link to your Linked In profile
    • a detailed list of your accomplishments
    • a copy of the job announcement (or scholarship blurb) if you are applying for a specific position

    You might also consider the following:

    • A reminder to the professor or previous employer of the time period in which you were a student or employed might be helpful.
    • Two weeks' notice before the recommendation is due--particularly if it is during the holidays or a summer vacation period--will show your respect for the other commitments the recommending person might have.
    • A thank you note and a follow-up note regarding the results of the application are usually appreciated.

    Sources: "Requesting Letters of Recommendation," by Alison Doyle for about.com, downloaded August 29, 2014.
    "How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation" (linked within the article above, by the same author)
    "How to Ask your Professor for a Letter of Recommendation" (linked within the article above, by the same author)

    For Discussion

    • What mistakes have you made in asking for letters of recommendation in the past?
    • What are the ethical issues, if any, involved in writing a letter for yourself, and asking someone else to sign it?
    • What are the ethical issues, if any, involved in using a letter someone has written for you for a different purpose?
  • Fees for bank accounts are higher than ever

    from Cartoonstock.com

    A survey done by MoneyRates.com has found that checking account fees in 2014 are higher than ever before. This was due to a hike in monthly maintenance fees and fees for overdraft protection. Here were some of the changes the survey found:

    • Percentage of free accounts in 2012: 36.6%. In 2014: only 28%.
    • Monthly maintenance fees rose 15 cents over the same period, to $12.69.
    • Overdraft fees were up 45 cents to $32.48 on average.
    • The minimum balance to avoid fees and get a free checking account rose $724.69, to $5,440 on average.

    The good news is that internet banks were more likely to provide lower fees--58% of them offer free checking.

    Source: "Checking account costs rise; only 28% are free, study finds," by E. Scott Reckard, the Los Angeles Times, August 27, 2014.

    For Discussion:

    • What is "overdraft protection"?  How does it work?  What personal financial habits can ensure that you do not incur overdraft protection fees?
    • How do your personal fees compare to these national averages? What is your bank? Is there any circumstance that would cause you to change banks?
  • Big Data and "Social Good," Part two

    photo by David Gura for Marketplace

    The other day, I wrote about the new and burgeoning business field of analyzing "big data." This analysis is being used mainly to develop targeted marketing that will increase sales per unit of effort or cost. (Otherwise known as "optimizing ad click.")

    But the analysis of big data in order to change the world for the good was the focus recently of the presentations from the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good Fellowship. The Fellowship was managed by Rayid Ghani, who currently teaches at the University of Chicago. Ghani  spent ten years analyzing big data in the corporate world, and then worked for Obama's re-election campaign before heading to academia, where his goal is to encourage others to learn top-notch analytic skills and apply them to for "social good." Ghani gathered 48 top student analysts--the fellows--in an incubator space in Chicago for twelve weeks to use big data to try and solve problems posed by various community, governmental, and non-governmental entities. 

    Sources: "Beyond Ad Clicks: Using 'big data' for social good," by David Gura, Marketplace Tech, August 22, 2014.

    Data Science for Social Good Fellowship

    Data For Good

    For Discussion:

    • What presentations mentioned in the article were interesting to you and why?  If none of those interested you, check out the projects at the Data For Good site linked above.
    • What else is Rayid Ghani involved with now? What turns did he take in his career path?
  • Things that professors (and bosses) dislike

    No kidding.

    College professors are the "immediate supervisors" of students in college, so students can pretty much know the kind of employees they will be by the kind of students that they are while in school.  It doesn't hurt, as part of one's business education, to know what one business publication gathered about student behaviors that annoy professors. From the Business Insider, here are ten pieces of advice that identify problematic student behaviors (they are explained in detail in the article):

    1. Don’t use unprofessional correspondence.
    2. Don’t ask the professor if you “missed anything important” during an absence.
    3. Don’t pack up your things as the class is ending.
    4. Don’t ask a question about the readings or assignments until checking the syllabus first.
    5. Don’t get mad if you receive critical feedback.
    6. Don’t grade grub.
    7. Don’t futz with paper formatting.
    8. Don’t pad your introductions and conclusions with fluff.
    9. Don’t misrepresent facts as opinions and opinions as facts.
    10. Don’t be too cool for school.

    The most frequently mentioned item was listed as #2...but my own personal pet peeve is #6...especially by students with a 95% average. 

    I have one more item to add to the list--regarding requests for letters of recommendation--but that is another blog post.

    Source: "10 Things Every College Professor Hates," by Lisa Wade, Sociological Images for The Business Insider, August 26, 2014.

    For Discussion:

    • In which of the listed behaviors have you indulged?
    • Rewrite the list, with analogous behaviors regarding a business office environment.
  • Big Data and "Social Good", part one

    The ENGLISH portion of the video begins at 1:05: Jaime Fitzgerald on Big Data for Social Good

    Data--including "Big Data"--is useless without analysis. In the video above, Jaime Fitzgerald makes the point that there is a big gap between the potential of what data can provide, and the value of what it is being used to provide.

    Because those in the non-profit sector--who are trying to do social good--are often working in areas with scarce resources, finding ways to maximize those resources (find funding) or maximize the value of the resources (create the most good) is important.

    Fitzgerald presents a way to approach a fundamental big data problem: Complexity. He suggests using a model which he calls "causal clarity" to simplify the complexity. His approach entails:

    • beginning with the end in mind--for a non-profit, this is probably a "theory of change"
    • asking the question: What are the drivers of the results we want?
    • asking the question: What are the points of opportunity?

    This applies to the use of big data in this way:

    "Begin with the end in mind:

    points of opportunity (decision points)...translate to...
    Insights or information required...which drives...
    analysis methods required to produce this information...allowing definition of...
    required data...and selection of the right...
    Tools, Platforms, Technology, People and Processes."

    Whether working for a non-profit or a profit-making business, the end goal must be stated in the simplest terms, and, if possible, reduced to a drawing or graphic.

    Source:  "Turning Big Data into Social Good" by Jaime Fitzgerald, edX published on YouTube, January 29, 2013.

    For Discussion:

    • How does Jaime Fitzgerald's big data company actually make its money?
    • How does Jaime Fitzgerald use a graphic model of an income statement to illustrate points of opportunity in the causal clarity model resulting in net income?
  • Cool iPad apps for business

    PC Magazine recently published a list of iPad apps that were highly rated by their editors, and had particularly helpful uses for businesspeople. Among their 100 suggestions (which were also mentioned in the article on geeksblog.com) were the following:

    • eFax: How convenient is it to deal with a fax machine these days?  The free app allows you to receive faxes and an inexpensive upgrade ($12.95) will allow you to send faxes as well.
    • Keynote: This $9.99 module (part of iWorks for iPad) is the go-to application for presentations.
    • OfficeTime:  This is a time management system for tracking billable hours ($47.00).
    • Dropbox:  This cloud-based storage and sharing system is free, but limited capacity can be increased with purchased upgrades.

    Also suggested were Microsoft Office Applications, security applications (Umbrella) and even an app that would let you write with your finger (Penultimate).

    If you are interested in apps that are particularly suited to business students, check out S2S Community.

    Sources:  "The 100 Best iPad Apps of 2014" by Jeffrey L. Wilson, PC Magazine: News, April 25, 2014.
    "iPad in Business: Amazing iPad Apps to Manage Businesses Like A Pro," by Jigness Padhyar, geeksblog.com, August 25, 2015.

    For Discussion:

    • What apps would you recommend to your business colleagues? What medium would you use to share your list with others?
    • What is your best source of information about new and useful apps?
  • Dressing for success

    The Business Insider summarized the work of Sylvie di Giusto, founder of Executive Image Consulting, in a recent article.  Her book, "The Image of Leadership," discusses five dress code levels for working professionals:

    Source: "How To Dress Like A Leader In Any Work Environment," by Richard Feloni and Mike Nudelman, the Business Insider, August 5, 2014.

    For Discussion:  Do these levels make sense for you in your workplace? Or in what you imagine your workplace to be like in your next job? Why or why not?

  • PricewaterhouseCoopers hides info; gets $25 million fine

    photo by Reuters of Benjamin Lawsky, New York State Department of Financial Services Superintendent

    Benjamin Lawsky, NY State Department of Financial Services Superintendent, was instrumental in negotiating a $25 million fine against PricewatersCoopers (PwC), one of the Big Four accounting firms. In addition, PwC is prohibited, for two years, from doing consulting work for banks regulated by New York State.

    What did PwC do wrong?  They were hired to help the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ to respond to a regulatory investigation regarding transactions prohibited under sanctions on dealings with Iran and other countries.  In the first draft of their report, they mentioned that there were "special instructions" bank employees were to follow in order to make these transactions less detectable to auditors and regulators. Under pressure from the Bank, PwC changed their report.  If the whole purpose of having PwC involved was to provide a reliable narrator for regulators as to what had occurred, that purpose was completely annihilated by PwC's final report. Thus, the fine.

    Of course, PricewaterhouseCoopers has a different vision of its own place in the ethical, sustainability, and corporate governance environment:

    YouTube corporate promo by PricewaterhouseCoopers

    Here is the central question: What exactly is the purpose of independent auditing firms? According to Robert Montgomery, writing in 2008 in the CPA Journal:

    "Accountants and the accountancy profession exist as a means of public service; the distinction which separates a profession from a mere means of livelihood is that the profession is accountable to standards of the public interest, and beyond the compensation paid by clients."

    Are public accounting firms even trying to live up to this standard for the profession?

    Sources:  "Altered Study Draws Fine for Giant Auditor PwC," by Ben Protess, New York Times DealB%k, August 18, 2014.

    For Discussion:

    • What is the popular (non-business educated) assumption about what public accounting firms actually DO?
    • How does the popular assumption differ from reality, under the best of circumstances
    • What pressures on PwC might have influenced their decision to act in this way with the bank?

  • Google's "Toothbrush Test"

    cartoon by Dave Simonds for the Economist

    Silicon Valley, increasingly, is leaving investment bankers out of the mix when it comes to evaluating a company to acquire. Financial ratios and present-value analysis of guessed-at future revenues are the classic tools that bankers bring to a merger or acquisition decision. But Larry Page of Google has a different standard:  the company being acquired should have a product that a person uses twice a day that adds value to their life. The Toothbrush Test.

    Some recent acquisitions that have been done without the services of investment bankers include:

    This kind of "out of the box" thinking--applied to the finance arena--is parallel to the product development strategies used by successful Silicon Valley companies. So the Toothbrush Test makes good sense.

    Source: "In Silicon Valley, Mergers Must Meet the Toothbrush Test," by David Gelles, the New York Times DealBook, August 17, 2014.

    For Discussion:

    • What are some of the services provided by investment banks in a merger/acquisition situation? Why are these services less important to Silicon Valley companies?
    • What products or apps can you think of that meet the "toothbrush test"? What product or app that does not yet exist would meet the toothbrush test is your life?
    • What acquisitions acquired without investment bankers turned out to be a "Fail"?
  • Surprise! Amazon launches new product to undercut competition

    YouTube video

    Amazon is branching out, again...this time into the credit card processing business. Sticking to its tried-and-true sales strategy, it is undercutting its competitors and going after small-time retail outlets by offering a product millions of small businesses need and offering it at a bargain price.

    The new item is called the Amazon Local Register. It costs $10, and it plugs into the iPads or other tablets that new retailers are using at their cash registers. Customer credit cards can be swiped for payment--and Amazon will not charge the same processing price for the transaction as Square or PayPal.  Amazon's charge will settle at 2.5%--and it is only 1.7% through the end of 2015 during the promotional period.

    Here are ways this new product works for Amazon:

    • the swipe provides data about purchase history of customers and the retailer--straight to Amazon's Big Data collectors
    • the product generates a new revenue stream to Amazon--and though its cost is small, the potential for customers is large--even your hairdresser or gardener can afford to take credit cards with this cheap device.
    • this further vertically integrates the business chain for Amazon--they want to not only be the provider of goods but also be the distributor and now the financial medium for all related transactions.

    Source: "Next target for Amazon is credit card readers at stores," by Mike Isaacs, the New York Times, August 13, 2014.

    For Discussion:

    • What do the other card readers charge for the same service? What are your thoughts on how this market might play out?
    • What is Amazon's history, in terms of its business focus and the way it has expanded over the years?  What makes it different from most other companies?
    • Given Amazon's differences, would you invest in the company? Why or why not?

  • Turning small talk into a conversation

    talk given at Google, linked below

    Conversation is an important way to make yourself known in a business environment--for better or for worse. Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker, recognizing that the need for skill improvement in this area is practically universal, did research and wrote a book about how to improve conversational skills. Some of their techniques include:

    • Asking questions that will produce stories rather than a one-word answer: "What was the best part of your weekend?" rather than, "Did you have a good weekend?"
    • Rather than mirroring back agreement to another's comment, responding with a totally new and out-of the box comment or question. If someone says, "It's a beautiful day," respond with a comment about a similar day...or an upcoming night...rather than just agreeing that the day is, indeed beautiful.
    • Skipping the expected response: Answer the query, "How was your flight?" with "I'd be more intrigued with an airline where your ticket price was based on IQ or some other measurable data point" (if you dare).  Or ask if the questioner really wants to know about the antics of your unusual seat-mate...

    The advice seems to lean toward getting people out of conversational ruts by pushing individuals just slightly out of their comfort zones. The goal? Make the conversation interesting without revealing too much personal information.

    Sources:  "What to Talk About," by Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker--a talk at Google for employee development on July 28, 2014, based on their book, published April 15, 2014.
    "HOW TO TURN SMALL TALK INTO SMART CONVERSATION" by Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker, TED Global 2014.

    For Discussion:

    • Does the Google talk model good conversation techniques? Which of Colin and Baedeker's guidelines do they practice? What works and what doesn't?
    • Think of a situation at work--such a being in an elevator or en route to a common designation--with someone who is higher up in the company hierarchy. What techniques would you use, based on those suggested here, to start a conversation or keep one moving?
    • What are the conversational pitfalls you might want to avoid?
    • How can you apply these techniques to texting, tweeting or email?
  • The perils of financial illiteracy

    John Lanchester (photo) talking about the specialized language of money--video linked at (28 min)  UK Telegraph

    As it turns out, most "educated" people do not know the jargon associated with finance. But few people want to admit to it. John Lanchester cops to educating himself late in the game. I will say this: I was a super-smart graduate of the University of Michigan with a major in English and teaching minors in Physical Science and Social Science when I was audited by the IRS at the ripe age of 24. I realized that I did NOT KNOW THE VOCABULARY OF BUSINESS...so I signed up to take an Accounting 1 course at Wayne State University. Wow! What an eye-opener!  First, doing accounting was WAY EASIER than teaching 12 year olds how to write...and there was a phase shift in understanding that I experienced once I understood basic financial statements and basic business vocabulary.

    I'm with John Lanchester: it is totally worthwhile to dive in and ask the questions you need to ask and get the information you need to know to be able to read about the HORRIBLE travesties that occur in the business, economic, and financial world of current events.

    Welcome to the business literati, folks.

    By the way...John Lanchester has also written a novel called Capital, which I am going to read.

    Source: "Money Talks: Learning the Language of Finance, " by John Lanchester, The New Yorker: Annals of Argot, August 4, 2014.

    A longer talk about Illiteracy in the language of finance: Whoops!

    For Discussion:

    • Do you agree that there are perils to being less-than-literate about language used to describe monetary activity?
    • How has the meaning of the word "debt" changed, according to Lanchester?
    • What IS the difference between "fiscal" and "monetary"?
  • Would you tolerate this GRADE distribution? Piketty's book simplified

    cartoon by Mike Luckovich for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    A lot of people have bought Thomas Piketty's best seller on income inequality. But very few people have actually read it. Recognizing that people would like to know what it is the book, but few people have the patience to plow through it, Nicholas Kristof wrote a summary in a recent issue of the New York Times. According to Kristof, Piketty's book says:

    • "First, economic inequality has worsened significantly in the United States and some other countries." When we hear about the top 1%, we are talking about the folks who own more capital wealth than the bottom 90%. In a lecture classroom of 100 students, this is like ONE STUDENT having more points toward an "A" grade than the bottom 90 students combined. Would you tolerate that kind of grade distribution?
    • "Second, inequality in America is destabilizing." Studies show that the more equal economic environments thrive, and that seriously un-equal situations, such as in banana republics, have such destabilized social situations that doing business becomes more costly and difficult.
    • "Third, disparities reflect not just the invisible hand of the market but also manipulation of markets." This means that government lends support to those who are already rich, rather than maintaining a level playing field.  Kristof suggests an easier-to-read book on this topic by Joseph Stiglitz, “The Price of Inequality.”
    • "Fourth, inequality doesn’t necessarily even benefit the rich as much as we think." Once a rich person has everything they want, marginal satisfaction can only be achieved by attaining the status of having the "best," but only one person at a time can be the best. This is a tough and unsatisfying game of one-up-man-ship.
    • "Fifth, progressives probably talk too much about 'inequality' and not enough about 'opportunity'." Tirades against the rich are less effective as public policy than promotion of a positive ideal such as opportunity for all, so even an article like this one can be polarizing. But the reality that more money is being spent on educating rich kids than poor kids is both an opportunity problem and an inequality problem.

    Meanwhile, the myth exists that "equal opportunity" is an American thing, but now it is harder to achieve in the USA than it is in Canada or Europe. If this is a troubling or even interesting concept to you, I encourage you to read the original sources.

    Source: "An Idiot's Guide to Inequality," by Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, July 23, 2014.

    For Discussion:

    • Have you purchased Piketty's book? Have you read it? 
    • Evaluate the communication techniques used by Kristof in writing this article. Were they effective? What was he trying to accomplish by simplifying Piketty's thesis?
    • Back to the original question: What would the student reaction be in a class with a grade distribution analogous to the wealth distribution now in the U.S.?
  • How to generate good reviews in social marketing situations

    from ConversationStarters PR in Denver

    Small businesses may not have the resources for mining big data like larger corporations, but every business wants to reach their customers in the most cost-effective way possible. Sometimes small businesspeople think that social media marketing is mainly about finding ways to "game the system." Reports of robots clicking on sites to drive up statistics make the whole process seem both mysterious and unfair.

    Nevertheless, Mike Hanbery of Webolutions says that the key to getting good online reviews is that you have to actually provide an extraordinary experience in the real world.

    That is a pretty straightforward concept.

    Source: "Social Media Marketing July 2014," by ConversationsStarters PR, via YouTube, July 31, 2014.

    For Discussion:

    • Check out #SMGdenver or the other source suggested at the end of the video: List any helpful specifics regarding social media marketing.
    • According to the short video, where do most people go to get a review of a business?  Does this represent your experience?  List the sources you use and the pros and cons of each.
  • B Corporations: "Companies with Benefits" for the world

    Do you want to make a profit AND make the world a better place?  Then organize as a "B Corporation" or a very similar "benefit corporation." These are some of the companies who have opted to take this route:

    • Patagonia
    • Etsy
    • Warby Parker
    • Seventh Generation

    Each company that has "B corporation" status has to undergo annual certification that the company has met its stated social improvement goals. These certifications are done by B Lab, a nonprofit company, and it is analagous to LEED certification for sustainable building. "Benefit corporations" make similar promises to meet social improvement goals, and delineate them in their incorporation papers.

    A corporation organized as a B Corp or benefit corporation must balance the needs of different stakeholders in setting and achieving business goals. This means that the corporate managers are not beholden to the rule that "profits for the shareholders" are the highest--or only--value. Other goals--such as research and development of sustainable materials for wetsuits (Patagonia)--also have a priority. In fact, if corporations do not fulfill their promised social values obligations, they leave themselves open to shareholder lawsuits.

    One company that I mistakenly thought was a "B Corp" was Ben & Jerry's.  Before they were bought out by Unilever, Ben & Jerry's funneled significant profits into local communities, education and sustainable dairy projects. When they were selling their company, they felt obligated to maximize the shareholder financial benefits, rather than to sell to a company that would continue its practices at the same level (see the Milton Friedman quote below). Since they were incorporated as a regular corporation, they may have exposed the company to shareholder lawsuits had they not just sold to the highest bidder. (Unilever still maintains some sustainable initiatives as part of the Ben & Jerry's branding.)

    image from slideplayer.us

    Even for-profit corporations historically balanced the need for stockholder profits with other goals. Two examples cited in the article were Henry Ford's commitment to pay higher wages and produce higher-quality cars, and Johnson & Johnson's stated obligation first to "doctors, nurses, and patients."

    Source:  "Companies With Benefits," by James Surowiecki, The New Yorker, August 4, 2014.

    For Discussion:

    • Think up a B Corp or benefit corporation that would be aligned with your personal values. What product would you make? What "world benefits" would you want to create?
    • What are the differences between B Corps and benefit corporations?  Summarize the pros and cons of each.
    • What are your thoughts about the Milton Friedman quote?
    • Do you think that B Corps and benefit corporations are good option for potential shareholders? How could this status be used in a marketing campaign?