Mail: November 2002
Where, and from whom, do you find the wisdom to help you through all the crises that mark the often isolated life of an entrepreneur? That was the subject of our September cover story, " Who Do You Call When No One Has the Answers?" by Jill Hecht Maxwell and Michael Hopkins.
Beyond the Board
Forget the M.B.A.'s. Sometimes a CEO's best guidance comes from people who know nothing about spreadsheets.
What a great article. I would have more appropriately titled it "Who Do You Call When You Don't Know the Question?" because that's the dilemma that faces many small-business owners I know.
Entrepreneurs are often intuitive enough to sense that something is wrong, but they just can't put their finger on what it is exactly. Too often they find it costly and counterproductive to search for the question in their stable of conventional advisers (lawyers, certified public accountants, and so on), who are skilled at postulating answers only after the question has been articulated. Many times the best advice -- of the type that helps us see the forest from the trees -- is found outside the cadre of typical business advisers.
El Macero Associates
El Macero, Calif.
Mad for Science
Also in September, in the second installment of our three-part series on innovation, associate editor Thea Singer explored how neuroscience is shedding light on the process of creativity, in " Your Brain on Innovation."
I took the September issues of Inc and of Scientific American on vacation with me. For a second, I forgot which one I was reading. Thanks for a superb article and one that I believe definitely has a place in your publication -- the only one of its kind to do justice to the process of entrepreneurship.
Terri S. Alpert
Founder and CEO
Professional Cutlery Direct
North Branford, Conn.
This reader agrees with a doctor cited in Singer's piece who believes that emotion, along with reasoning and imagination, plays an important role in the development of innovations.
I read the article "Your Brain on Innovation" with great interest. I agree wholeheartedly with Antonio Damasio [the head of the neurology department at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, who is interviewed in the story] that "emotion is literally the alarm that permits the detection."
As a package designer for a manufacturer of premium chocolates, I find that there are often many technical problems that arise when we're designing new packaging, and I have learned that problem solving is an entirely emotional experience.
When I don't like an idea or a proposed solution that someone throws out at a meeting, I try to figure out what is making me feel uncomfortable. The feeling gets me thinking of alternative solutions that are "comfortable" to me. It's as if the discomfort itself leads me to think creatively to come up with solutions. I look forward to reading more on this subject. Thanks for the excellent content.
Product Development Manager
Astor Chocolate Corp.
Green vs. Greenbacks
September's Incubator section profiled a company whose product tests water's safety; Susan Davis, who uses her elite network of pals to push socially responsible businesses; and Sumner Erdman, who has transformed his Hawaiian cattle ranch into a tourist attraction. The contrast between the first two subjects and the third left one reader aghast.
After reading the article in your Incubator section about Watersafe's home tap-water-testing kit and Susan Davis, who is now involved in "socially responsible business" (more details about those investor networks with the "triple bottom line" would have been interesting), I was appalled to read the Main Street piece on the "pasty" guy who raises cattle, grows wine grapes, and encourages all-terrain vehicles to travel over his land. What an environmental nightmare.
Westhampton Beach, N.Y.
No I in Morals?
When columnist Norm Brodsky discovered that a leasing company had overcharged his business, he and his partners filed a lawsuit against the vendor. In the process they discovered that the vendor had also taken advantage of hundreds of other companies. In September's Street Smarts, " A Breach of Trust," Brodsky described how he negotiated a settlement with the vendor. One of our readers raised questions about what happened to the other victims.
"A Breach of Trust" reveals a major flaw in Norm Brodsky's business ethics. After taking a couple of years to learn that some 750 other companies had been overcharged by the same vendor that overcharged him, Brodsky found himself in a situation that went beyond his own problem. He was the only one with the opportunity to right a wrong against 750 fellow business owners. And he didn't do it.
This isn't about whether we take advantage of a situation to parlay $10,000 into a few times that using our street smarts; it's about whether we will accept the calling for moral greatness. I'm not sure I would have been up to the challenge myself, but an article about business ethics should have at least considered those 750 colleagues.
My lesson from Enron is not just that we have to act ethically within our businesses but that we have to recognize that we are members of a community and that we owe a responsibility to it. It's not who we are; it's what we belong to.
San Clemente, Calif.
Norm Brodsky replies: Peter Shikli has a point, but the issue is not clear-cut. My primary responsibility is to my business and the people who work in it, not to the 750 other companies. In the end, I decided to do what was best for my business but insisted on a settlement that would allow me to write about the lawsuit in my column. Now the 750 other companies can decide for themselves what to do.
House of Correction
In " Letter From Ground Zero," in the September issue, we listed the wrong phone number for Adopt-a-Company, one of the organizations that provides aid to businesses affected by 9/11. The correct phone number is 212-618-5767.
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Update: The Smart Sit
A once-derided product gets people to sit up and take notice.
Like Oldsmobiles and maple-walnut ice cream, reclining chairs were once a lifestyle icon reserved for the over-60 set. But thanks to a dramatic design transformation, sales are way up and La-Z-Boy, the market-leading brand, is suddenly, oddly chic. So chic, in fact, that Tobey Maguire and Jodie Foster received La-Z-Boy gift certificates in the gift baskets they were given for working the Oscars in March. That's one way to get a little cachet for yourself. Here's another: La-Z-Boy persuaded designers Tommy Hilfiger and Nicole Miller to customize chairs to be auctioned off to benefit an AIDS charity earlier this year.
Inc's interest in recliners dates back to " Buzz," its May 1998 article about companies that had a knack for generating word-of-mouth marketing. Back then recliners enjoyed a little uptick in exposure, appearing on the hit TV shows Friends and Frasier. But in the article, author Nancy K. Austin correctly predicted that recliners would get a much bigger boost if they targeted boomer women. Her theory: stressed-out working moms with aching feet and backs would embrace recliners with superior lumbar support, especially if the manufacturers put out sexier-looking chairs.
And so it came to pass. La-Z-Boy's new recliners feature sleek lines, exposed wood, and stylish fabrics; the handle is conspicuously absent. And the product's target customers are women between the ages of 25 and 45. For this style-conscious group, "we wanted to design chairs that look stationary but that have the hidden function of reclining comfort," says Greg White, La-Z-Boy's vice-president of merchandising.
So far, the company's strategy is working. Sales for two recliner models that were released in 2001 are up 100% over last year's figures. That's not to say the company is abandoning its roots. "The puffy thing your dad had is still a tremendously important part of our business. And we're not trying to convert that customer," White says. "We're trying to show a new customer that they have a misconception of recliners as big, brown, and ugly."
The latest high-profile convert to sign on to the La-Z-Boy makeover is none other than trend diva Faith Popcorn, who cobranded two new recliner styles with the manufacturer. Launched last fall, these chairs come with such features as a worktable, a built-in bud vase, a subtle little pocket for reading material, and even a matching chenille "cocooning blanket." Amenities aside, the Popcorn-inspired products may test La-Z-Boy's newfound appeal. It's hard to imagine consumers snapping up recliners bearing the unfortunate names "Securitee" and "Tranquilitee." With monikers like those, how buzz-worthy can the products possibly be? --Donna Fenn
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