Q What is the best way to manage a torrential amount of e-mail? In my case, I need to know how to instruct my assistant to manage my e-mail.

Rick Alden
Park City, Utah

Since inboxes moved online, numerous experts (and nonexperts) have suggested ways to prevent choking on what author David Shenk calls "data smog." In 2004, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig declared e-mail bankruptcy, archived all his unanswered messages, and sent out a blanket apology. Amusing, to be sure--but it's no way to win new clients, maintain friendships, or inspire loyalty in employees. Some bosses ask their assistants to print out every e-mail, apparently preferring the good old days, when mail was something you could touch and then either put in a file cabinet or toss in the trash.

But the world has moved on, and so should you. For most people afflicted with e-mail overload, the problem isn't spam or unwanted newsletters. The real problem lies with all those e-mails crying out for responses. Mark Hurst, author of Bit Literacy, calls them "action items": meetings that need to be scheduled, decisions that must be made, requests awaiting replies. Every day, those tasks get buried deeper under the torrent of new messages. So Hurst suggests immediately moving action items to an appropriate place, like a calendar or a to-do list.

Your assistant, alas, can't always determine what's an action item and what's not. A good assistant can take care of all the easy stuff--trashing junk mail, adding contacts to your address book, and forwarding chain letters to prevent dire consequences. A trusted helper can even compose e-mails--as long as he or she is doing it under your guidance. Deborah L. Wainstein-Goodman, founder and president of Priority Staffing Solutions, has worked out a system so she can manage her e-mail when she's on the road. She lets her assistant know which e-mails need immediate attention and tells him how to respond. He then writes a draft and e-mails it to her for review before sending it out in her name. In fact, e-mailing is such an important part of the job that Wainstein-Goodman says CEOs should ask prospective assistants for writing samples.

But even the best assistants can't think for you. "E-mail is a very personal thing," says Wainstein-Goodman. No matter what, you will have to read your own e-mails and decide which ones are jewels and which are junk. "If you don't have the skills to manage your own e-mail," says Hurst, "you're not going to have the skills to manage your assistant to manage your e-mail." Mastering e-mail, after all, is a subset of managing information. And if you can't do that in a modern business, your problems run much deeper than your inbox.


Q I have a small business making custom quilts out of old T-shirts, baby clothes, jeans, neckties, or anything else customers send in. I know that I can make this a viable business, but I've never sold more than a few dozen quilts a year. People get excited about the product, but it's difficult to get them to actually send in their T-shirts. I need more marketing, but I'm down to my last $500. What should I do?

Kayli Pearsall
Orange, California

Quilting just happens to be a fabulous metaphor for today's marketing strategies. With very little money you can assemble a variety of parts into a unified whole that (ready for it?) blankets potential customers with your message. No? Oh, well. Anyway, there are dozens of free and low-cost marketing tools for companies like yours.

You don't say whether you have a website, and if you're down to your last $500, now isn't the time to launch one. Instead, you can piggyback on others. First, the minute you finish this column, register with Etsy.com. Etsy is an online marketplace where more than 100,000 crafters sell their goods. Founded by artists, the site charges 20 cents to list an item and takes a 3.5 percent cut of every sale. In addition to reaching hundreds of thousands of potential customers, you'll gain credibility from the mass of fellow artisans around you. Social networking sites like MySpace are also good venues, because they allow you to reach hundreds of quilters and quilt enthusiasts and to post on quilting message boards. There's also a slew of blogs dedicated to crafts; you can connect with other artisans who might enjoy your product and raise visibility for your business by joining a spirited discussion of the hot and controversial quilting issues of the day.

Of course, message matters wherever you market. Mark Stevens, CEO of marketing and consulting firm MSCO, suggests creating buzz with a contest. For example, you could offer a free quilt to whoever sends in the strangest materials or has the wildest stories about the T-shirts ("I steal them off of scarecrows"). Also, consider new ways to position the product. Wendy Mullin, founder of New York City--based clothing and apparel company Built by Wendy, suggests targeting grandmothers-to-be and framing it as a "memory blanket" or "first quilt." People who are perfectly content with their old thermal blankets might gladly haul a box of their son's or daughter's baby clothes to the post office so they can present something special to their new grandchildren. You could also try offering pillows for customers seeking a lower price point. "Have people send you their favorite T-shirt or sweatshirt," says Mullin. "I guarantee some Rush fan will be thrilled."