Our mailbox overflowed once again with fan mail for columnist Andrew Raskin, who recently parted ways with the San Francisco start-up whose life he's chronicled for Inc. during the past year. While the letters to Raskin were lighthearted, other readers wrote weighty responses to our November article about energy deregulation.

Parting thoughts
In his December E-Diaries column, " I Really Must Be Going," Andrew Raskin said good-bye to Gazooba, the Internet company he'd cofounded more than a year earlier. After helping to hire a new CEO for the company, Raskin had decided to look for a new gig. Many readers wrote to wish him well and to offer him jobs. This one shared in the emotion of his departure.

It's rare that I ever write to a journalist. (I'll lump you in that category for now.) But my business partner and I have enjoyed your columns so much that I felt oddly compelled to tell you. She called me last week in a frenzy, saying, "Did you see the new Inc.?" It was hard for me to fathom what could produce such excitement on her part. We both enjoy reading Inc. as an informative business periodical, but rarely does it create the frantic urge to phone a friend. When she yelped, "The Gazooba guy is leaving Gazooba!" I instantly understood her shock.

We've consistently discussed and laughed about every article you've written and lamented when you were absent from the magazine. You've made us realize that the highs and lows we experience could be even more extreme, which has helped us to keep things in perspective.

We're sad to hear you're leaving Gazooba -- and sad about the name change -- but happy you'll still be writing. I think your next big thing should be writing a sitcom based on your experiences. The mime story certainly had Seinfeld-esque qualities.

Rebecca Labowitz
Co-Owner
Grow Inc.
Chicago

Split decisions
In her December article " The Two Loudoun Counties," reporter Anne Marie Borrego described the challenges one Virginia community faced as it tried both to protect its residents' quality of life and to support its growing business community. This reader recalled that Loudoun had struggled for balanced growth for quite a long time.

I moved to California in the early 1990s after living virtually my entire life in Sterling, Va., a town in Loudoun County. Each time I return to Sterling, I'm stunned by the changes that have occurred. Where there was once a field, there's now a mall; where there was once a forest, there's now a high school.

Having grown up in that area, I recall the growth-versus-nongrowth pressures. Even as a teenager I was fascinated with the land-use decisions that arose from those pressures. Last year, as I drove down Route 7 toward Leesburg, I wondered if those pressures still existed. Because of your article, I now know that they do.

Graham Mitchell
City Manager
Farmersville, Calif.

Law of averages
In December's cover feature, " The Best Cities to Start and Grow a Company in Now," we published lists of the most small-business-friendly metro areas as calculated by Cognetics Inc., an economic-research firm. We also showed how some cities had improved their rankings while others had slipped. One reader expressed confusion about the different lists.

According to your " 50 Best Large Metro Areas" list, Nashville is ranked 18th. But according to Emily Barker's box on " Big Cities that Plunged Down the List," Nashville is #16. We're wondering about the discrepancy, which for us puts all the rankings in doubt.

John Cummins
Managing Editor
Nashville Business Journal
Nashville

Inc. responds: This letter makes it obvious that we failed to include a footnote. We should have explained that the rankings in each column of the charts that tracked the rise or fall of cities on the list were two-year averages. We used averages to compensate for any unusual or one time occurrences that may have affected a city's ranking in a particular year. Although we listed both years in the column headings, we failed to indicate that the first number was the average of a city's rank in 1993 and 1994 and the second was the average of a city's rank in 1999 and 2000.

Know the SCORE
In his November column, " Help! I Need Somebody," Norm Brodsky encouraged new entrepreneurs to seek help from business veterans who could serve as mentors. One reader added a suggestion about where to find such free advice.

There are about 13,000 retired businesspeople with a wide range of expertise in SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), the free-counseling arm of the U.S. Small Business Administration. We're all over the country, so there is a SCORE chapter near everyone, and about 800 of us now do online counseling at the organization's Web site, www.score.org. The SBA also sponsors small-business-development centers, which operate primarily out of colleges and universities and use teaching staff -- including individuals recruited from professional and trade organizations, the legal and banking communities, and academia -- and paid consultants.

Sam Schiff
Small-Business Counselor
SCORE
Detroit

Pillars of halt?
In November's Obits, " Cold Feet Squash Minority-Supplier Site," staff writer Mike Hofman described the demise of M-Xchange.com, an online marketplace for minority auto-industry suppliers, which had been backed by high-profile executives. This reader was surprised by the cofounders' abrupt about-face.

Mike Hofman's article really touched a nerve. How could two so-called great business veterans, pillars of the business community, come up with a great business idea, raise $3.5 million in seed money in less time than it takes to brew a cup of coffee, and then turn around and scrap a great start-up opportunity before it got off the ground, because they felt the competition breathing down their necks? Did they assume that no one would copy and try to improve on their business concept? The probability of imitation is to be expected whenever you come up with a good concept that offers great opportunity for financial growth.

Despite all the broad business experience and support the two individuals had at their disposal, they behaved as if they had no understanding of the basic requirement for setting up and managing a business -- that is, give it all you've got. Offer a superior product, give it time to grow, and stay ahead of the competition by constantly doing research.

William P. Nater
President
Junifre Wholesalers
Kew Gardens, N.Y.

Shedding some light
In November's Upstarts, " A Shock to the System," senior staff writer Emily Barker profiled companies that were positioning themselves to capitalize on the impending deregulation of electricity providers. This reader responded to the article with additional information.

In "A Shock to the System," Emily Barker described a new way for consumers to purchase electricity -- on the Internet. Companies with this new business model are hedging their bets on whether it will pay off. Given volatile pricing in California and New York and the uncertainty of deregulation, the pace of deregulation is slowing. Deregulation will go forward, but even so, residential switch rates are low -- typically 2% -- and there may not be enough margin in selling electricity to the mass market for Internet resellers to make a go of it.

In recent weeks two Internet energy resellers -- SmartEnergy, which was featured in your article, and Utility.com -- have made announcements that signal a shift in emphasis away from retail energy sales. Both announced cash infusions from new partners that were potential competitors (that is, utilities). The funds were to be used to provide Web-based platforms for customer acquisition and service.

Utility.com announced deals with FirstEnergy Services of Ohio and Kansas City Power & Light to help those traditional utilities sell electricity services on the Internet. Utility.com will also provide online customer service and billing for the utilities with its Internet-platform product called UtilityOne. In return, Utility.com will receive a significant sum of money and free publicity in all 50 states. As part of the deal, Utility.com cannot sell energy in the utilities' service territories.

In a similar vein, Alliant Energy Resources recently announced an investment in SmartEnergy. Alliant is putting its focus on enabling technologies, including the Internet, not so much because it sees them as a vehicle for growth but rather because it believes they can serve its other businesses in the future. In our conversations with Alliant, we learned that Alliant believes that SmartEnergy's experience in developing an Internet-based transaction infrastructure will inform the way Alliant connects with its customers and with its own employees in the future.

Jill Feblowitz
Research Director, Utilities Practice
AMR Research
Boston


House of corrections

In December's cover story, "The Best Cities to Start and Grow a Company in Now," we incorrectly shortened the name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Also, in our January issue, we miscredited photos of Anne De Groot and Paul Breaux. The photographer was Peter Ross.


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