Snowstorms Instill Fundamental Skills

I love snow, especially when I learn of a pending storm that may produce totals in the 12-18″ range with temperatures in the mid 20’s. It’s the same routine . . . a quite smile comes over my face followed by a quick little giggle. I especially love when large snowfalls start on a Friday night and the first thing you wake up to Saturday morning iSnowstorms a beautiful fresh blanket of white snow with the fireplace going and a cup of ho cocoa.

Large snowfalls remind us of simpler times. We have time to stop and talk with our neighbors while outside shoveling snow. Everyone is not in a rush to meetings, sporting events, or running errands. Younger neighbors gain fundamental business skills as they carefully hustle older neighbors by shoveling driveways and walkways in order to make some extra money. Snowmen dot front yards and snow angels are scattered about. Nature is truly at one of its finest, purest moments. Nighttime snowfalls are especially peaceful as a calm hushes the hectic world in which we live. It’s amazing to catch a glimpse of snow when the light barely hits it and illuminates a field of diamonds as each snowflake twinkles about.

Snowstorms enable us to maintain essential skills that seem to be fading the in the fast-paced world we live in. Patience, team building, communication, and planning become paramount. The blizzard that halted the eastern part of the United States earlier this year is a perfect example. People helped complete strangers by providing them with food, drink or items to keep them warm. Some families took shifts shoveling the heavy, continuous snow. For all of the good deeds that come to the forefront in events such as this, it’s amazing to watch a few people become unglued. Frustration takes hold when a situation is out of their hands and they cannot control it – whether it is because their streets haven’t been plowed quickly enough or the delivery truck could not make it through the storm to deliver essential supplies to the supermarket. Instant gratification that has infiltrated our consumer-based world is suddenly usurped by Mother Nature.

In times such as this, curling up with a good book, knitting, crossword puzzles, family games, or other hobbies move to the forefront when life is halted for a day or two. It reinforces the fundamental skills needed throughout life.


Cyber Vulnerabilities

The following letter provides insight as to a business’ vulnerability for a cyber attack. Be proactive and take the necessary precautions to protect your business.Cyber_Security_Postage_Ad-Andy Pemberton

Dear Business Owner:

Thank you for making my job so easy. Despite all of the warnings and news about computer breaches, you still haven’t taken any steps to protect yourself. Today was another great day for me as I sat in the local Starbucks hacking into your employee’s company laptop while he sipped his latte and signed on to the free wi-fi. Little did he know, that even though I sat three tables away seeming busy with my own laptop, I was hacking into his computer, stealing passwords and downloading data from your company. I wonder if your competitors would be interested in paying for the information I captured. If not, I know I can sell it on the black market without a problem.

Speaking of company passwords, thanks for allowing your employees to have such easy-to-remember ones. Sometimes it’s laughable how many times an employee reuses the same password, or just one digit is changed.

So when was the last time you actually updated your computer browsers or downloaded the security patches? I thought it was hysterical when you received a system warning that there was an intruder and your staff ignored it. So much for anti-virus software! Oh, the best one was when I contacted your receptionist telling her I was a vendor and needed some help. All I really needed was some additional information to steal an identity and she believed me. The information she provided allowed me to complete my file and now I have everything I need. I told her how grateful I was for her assistance and excellent service.

I also want to applaud you for saving your company money by refusing to send employees to those boring technology security seminars we keep reading about. What a way to save your company money in the short term by not realizing that your decision will help me make more money in the long term. I  will continually be able to re-enter your system at will.

And you thought you didn’t have to pay attention to cyber security, that it was only the large businesses that had to be concerned. Little did you know that we target companies we consider vulnerable which are small and medium sized businesses. A business just like yours.


The Mad Hacker

P.S. Whatever you do, do not visit NIU’s Springboard ( where you will find ways to make my life harder. Make sure your phone blocks calls to (815) 753-6927 where they will put you in touch with strategies and experts to make your sites more secure.

Springboard Analyst Enters the Workforce

A degree just isn’t enough.

“A lot of people coming out of college don’t have the experience that’s needed in the workforce,” says NIU graduate Joe Malak, “Businesses tend to spend more time training new jobthose students.” That’s why an experience like the one offered by NIU Springboard is vital to students entering a revitalized economy. Businesses are hiring and they are looking for proven talent. How do you prove you got what it takes? Just ask Joe how he did it.

Springboard is NIU’s outreach vehicle for businesses within the region, offering contracted “student analysts” to do research to assess competitors, untapped markets, and social media promotion, to name a few of their tasks.

Joe heard about Springboard from a professor during his final semester as an Economics student. “She said [Springboard] was a new initiative and an alternative to the traditional capstone project.” The capstone usually consists of a research paper. Springboard offered the chance to gain experience.

Joe began work as a student analyst early in Springboard’s development. Director Luanne Mayorga guided him and the other few analysts through the basics of research. “The biggest challenges were understanding the research, what could be used, what couldn’t be used, and how to back up findings by looking at different databases,” Joe says.

As a Springboard analyst, Joe’s capstone project was to identify international market trends and possible overseas markets for an agricultural technology manufacturer. This was his first experiential learning project. He would go to on to become a Senior Analyst and supervise the new Springboard recruits on their research.

This experience enabled Joe to be hired as a Quality Assurance Agent with Prime Therapeutics even before he graduated in May 2015 with a BS in Economics. And he points to his time with Springboard as the reason why. “I don’t think that [without Springboard] I would’ve gotten a call from my next employer. Springboard is a great way to prepare yourself for the next level.” The recruiter that hired Joe concurred, stating “normally [we] don’t see recent graduates with these kinds of skills…Springboard sounds like a great program!”

Social Media Recommendations

Most businesses have profiles on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Other popular platforms include LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Google Plus. What social media sites should your company be active on? We routinely provide one simple piece of advice – it depends!

There are several factors that can influence your decision of which platform you social media optionsshould use. One of the first qualifiers is whether your primary sales are to consumers (B2C) or other businesses (B2B). If you exclusively sell to businesses, then dig deeper as to whether or not you receive the expected results on consumer-driven platforms such as Facebook. We all know the popularity of Facebook, but it is important to engage with consumers in a mutually beneficial spot. Personally, I disregard Facebook page requests when it features business-related information. I would much rather have that person connect with me via LinkedIn, which is geared to a B2B audiences.

It’s time-consuming to keep up with numerous platforms so identify where you have the most interactions with consumers and eliminate those that are irrelevant to your targeted audience. Another important fact is not to think of social media platforms as another way to sell or market to your audience. If that’s the case, you may find people “unfriend” or “unlike” your page. Some promotional material doesn’t hurt, but you don’t want it to be your focus. Get to know your audience. Find out their interests, struggles, frustrations, and highlights. It may lead you to an idea for a new product. Make sure the content you post on the site is engaging, whereby it encourages people to post. However, be cautious not to make derogatory remarks that may be offensive to some viewers.

Conduct a quick social inventory and determine what is working and what is not. It’s okay to scale back from having a presence on several social media sites and being actively engaged on others.

Local Governments Fighting for Their Tax

Don’t be surprised if local governments start getting a piece of the e-commerce pie. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, if you conduct business boxing glovesonline but your business has a physical presence in a state, you must collect applicable state and local taxes.[1]  However, a 1992 Supreme Court ruling held that states cannot require online retailers to collect sales tax unless they have a physical presence in the state.

According to the Seventh Circuit of the United States, the Court of Appeals decided in 2010 that a second tax on a resale of a ticket to an entertainment event in Chicago does not fall under the Tax Freedom Act § 110 et seq., 47 U.S.C.A. §151 (hereinafter Internet Tax Freedom Act). The Internet Tax Freedom Act prohibits multiple or discriminatory taxes on electronic commerce on tangible personal property.  Because taxes on Stubhub! are done online, Stubhub!’s defense consisted of being under the umbrella of multiple taxes.  For instance, if a user sells a ticket on the Stubhub! website, Stubhub! would not charge the new user an additional tax because the seller paid the tax on the ticket when she initially bought it.  Chief Judge Easterbrook wrote the opinion on this case:

“the statute does not create ‘tax freedom’ for transactions on the Internet…”
         City of Chicago, Ill. V. StubHub!, Inc., 624 F.3d 363 (7th Cir. 2010).

Chief Judge Easterbrook explained the term “multiple tax” involves two states taxing the same thing without a tax credit.  Thus, because there was only one tax on tickets for events in Chicago, the tax is valid on the ticket (tangible property) even if they are called “multiple taxes.”  In an easier sense, the reselling of tickets is not protected under the Internet Tax Freedom act because the Chicago tax is not discriminatory against Chicago citizens (meaning all tickets are being taxed, not just the tickets outside of Chicago) and other states such as Wisconsin, Indiana, etc. would be taxed the same amount.

The Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board works to help states modernize sales and tax collection for online practices.[2]  The Streamline Sales Tax Project (SSTP) works to uniform the different state tax codes in order to propose to Congress to create a law that allows states to tax online sales.  The SSTP stresses that companies, whether they be “brick-and-mortar” stores or online remote sellers, should be on the level playing field and be taxed equally.  There are currently 44 states that utilize the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement by simplifying their tax codes and use tax collection.

As the decision to tax a corporate entity conducting business solely online comes from a United States Court of Appeals, defining whether a state or local government can collect a tax is a hot topic on the table.  Determining which sales tax to charge can be a challenge. However, lawmakers are determined to get the sales tax dollars.

Red Flags for International Inquiries

Red flagsYou just received an international inquiry. Someone found your website and immediately sent you an email to place an order. Before you get too excited, it’s important to do your “due diligence” or vetting of this person/company. Especially if it’s for a large order.

International sales are an exciting step forward for businesses but you need to be cautious because there are numerous scams. Some of these fictitious inquiries are targeted towards a smaller business due to their presumed vulnerability. They anticipate the level of excitement their inquiry will generate and expect you will immediately ship the merchandise.  Below is a list of problematic items:

  • Generic email addresses (such as Gmail)
  • Someone wanting to place a large order but insists that you send samples first so they can evaluate the product
  • Wanting to immediately place a large order without ever seeing the merchandise.
  • A credit card number is in the initial email.
  • Not providing contact information other than the email address (which is generic)
  • Using an English sounding name which doesn’t fit the country they are supposedly from

We suggest you take the following steps to do an initial vetting of a contact:

  • Conduct an online search of the contact’s name and/or company name
  • Does the company have a website? Is the person who contacted you affiliated with the company?
  • Look for social media links associated with the contact. When was the last time they posted? How many likes do they have? Has there been any recent engagement activities or conversations between the company and consumers?
  • Does the company’s inquiry match the industry represented by their online presence?
  • Are there profiles of other executives on the company’s website? If so, conduct an online search for each of the individuals.
  • Remember, there are resources to help you conduct further due diligence through your local U.S. Commercial Service office.

Don’t be afraid of international sales. It’s a great way to expand your business. Just take appropriate precautions to protect yourself from scams.