Friday, December 21, 2007

Another Business Owner

So after what seemed like a drought of ability to find business owners, I've met yet another one. This guy is a friend of a coworker of mines and he owns and runs his own landscaping business. Again, while this isn't necessarily a business that I want to get into, it was nice to talk about the different things he does and how his business has evolved over time.

Apparently he employs some guys from Mexico who come over on 10 month VISAs and then they are away during the winter months when business is slow. This has allowed him to pick and choose the different stuff he wants to do when it comes to the actual work on someone's yard and frees him up to do more common business accounting and marketing tasks.

It's been very motivating to talk to a couple of people who own and run their own business. While my previous attempts have been unsuccessful (mainly because I keep giving up), it restores some optimism about building a business and a steady flow of income when you see how other people have been successful. The thing I seem to be lacking that these others have is the motivation that pushes you to keep going when things get tough. If these guys fail (at least two out of three), they don't eat or can't pay their bills. So they have to keep going, they can't pick and choose or switch to something else.

On a side note, today is the first day I really take a step in implementing the Little Book that Beats the Market's approach to value investing. I sold off two of my stocks a couple of days ago before the year mark since they had lost money. Today I sold off my winners that are now long term gains, and I purchased four stocks to replace them. I also took a gamble at some GE stock since they are favored well in the upcoming energy crisis and need to switch over to alternative power sources.

After a couple of weeks you get a good idea about how the stocks performance will range for the year, so I'm hoping that the picks I made from the screened list will be good ones. I tried to base it off of my knowledge of the state of different industries as well as how much upside potential a company has. So we'll see how it goes.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Business Owners

In the past couple of days I've run into a few business owners. What's ironic about this, is that just a few days before this I was complaining to someone that it's hard to find these elusive individuals. Apparently, I was wrong.

The first one I met at Toastmasters. The guy runs a heat pump/air conditioning repair company. While not the kind of business I would probably be good at, just talking to him about how he started his business and how it has evolved was inspiring and educating. Apparently, years back, he was out of work and running out of money with a wife and three kids to feed. So he had to do something and he had to do it fast. He told me that he didn't like fixing heat pumps for apartments and preferred individual residential houses, but when he started out he needed an income fast, so he did whatever work he could find. He always gives his clients a 10% discount of the cost of any work he does, and has built up a client el from word of mouth and the basic advertising he does on the truck he drives. While I didn't ask how much money he makes each year, he said that he has enough business now that he only does private homes and not apartment buildings anymore.

I guess the lesson to learn is that you just need to keep plugging away, working on doing a good job and building a reputation. With a good enough reputation, the word of mouth advertising, which is increasingly becoming the only form people trust, will grow your business. Also, you shouldn't be worried about competition, since by doing a good job and making a name for yourself, there will be enough people willing to pay for quality work to keep you happy.

The second one turned out to be a coworker of mine. Apparently he created a small software client, a web service that it sends messages to, and a website where people can sign up for the software and service. It all seems simply now that he has it in place, and there are lots of ways for him to expand his services. The wider benefit from it, other than the added income, is that putting in the time and effort to make the business has taught him new skills and kept him sharp in different areas. I'm not sure how much money it pulls in, but an automated, subscription based service seems like a perpetual money making machine after the upfront cost and effort.

I guess the lesson to learn is to keep practicing to keep your skills up, but find a way to do it that benefits you outside of just your job. With a little bit of foresight and the willingness to put the time and effort into learning new things and making something that could be useful, not only do you gain confidence but you can gain comfort as well.

I'm glad to meet more and more entrepreneurs because it challenges me to keep going. Also, they are very open and encouraging, willing to offer up advice about what they did or what to avoid doing.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Toastmaster's Club

I attended my first Toastmaster's Club meeting yesterday. I had been on the fence of whether to go or not, and I even blew it off two weeks ago, but this week I decided to go. It's not too far from where I work, so I opted to just stay late and then head on over.

The club is built like almost all the clubs I've ever been to before. You basically have some people who have been there for a long time who are the club leaders, then you have tiers below that. Each person is assigned a mentor to help guide them to becoming better and better. If you join, you get a packet with information about the elements that make up a good speech, how to frame your speech, how to incorporate your body movements and make eye contact with the audience. Also, there are apparently different packet levels and types for specific skills or development paths.

The meeting itself is run by a member who is deemed the meeting leader for that session. They are in charge of keeping the meeting moving, introducing speakers, and doing all the transition work between the coordinated events. Also, they develop the schedule and coordinate who will speak. There are three main sections, the planned speeches, the table topics (improvisational speeches) and then evaluations. In between there is some club news and then it concludes with an evaluation of the meeting itself. As a person goes up to speek, they shake hands with the person already there in an effort to make sure that the focal point is never left empty.

For the planned speeches, there is a timer, an ah/uh counter and the vote collector. Each person there will rate the speaker compared to the other ones in that group and a winner is determined at the end of the meeting. The speeches are given by people at different levels who are primarily focused on specific parts of a presentation. The goal is to talk from 5-7 minutes, there is a stop light device that goes on when you hit the 5, 6 and 7 minute marks.

Anyone can volunteer for the Table Topics portion. The goal is to talk from 1-2 minutes, with the lights going on at the 1, 1.5 and 2 minute marks. Since I wanted to give it a shot, I volunteered for the first topic. I improvised on the spot and talked for a minute and sixteen seconds about the topic of what is something you do every year at this time that you can only do during the winter.

The final big section, evaluations, are focused on the planned speeches. The evaluators are actually giving speeches about the speeches they evaluated and what was good and bad about them. After they finish, the group votes on who was the best evaluator as well. I don't think there is a time limit for the evaluations. The idea of the evaluation is to talk about what the person did well and then a few areas that they could improve, but the group is mainly focused on positive support and encouragement, esp since it is entirely volunteer based. Each individual can write up a little evaluation of the people who spoke during the meeting and give it to them afterward.

In the end, they give out the ribbons for best planned speech, table topic and evaluator. I got the ribbon for best Table Topics for my speech, so that was encouraging.

Overall it seems like a great way to get some practice speaking in public. There is a quote that goes something like, "I'd rather die than speak in public", so clearly there is a lot of trepidation about it. Toastmasters seems like a great place, with a lot of good structure and foundation to move past any fears as well as learn a new skill that can be useful in your career. Worst case you become more comfortable organizing your thoughts and discussing a topic and you gain confidence from knowing you can do something that others may shy away from.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Enchanted (Review)

There was one critical thing I forgot after reading reviews and deciding to see this movie. It's a Disney movie. That of course means that there are going to be certain characteristics and predictable patterns as mandated by the brand. Mainly, there is going to be some predictable happily ever after ending that is usually slightly askew from the conclusion you are setup to expect at the beginning. This movie did not fail to disappoint in that respect.

The big draw for me to see this movie was that it took the normal fairy tale and slapped it into the real world. You have a girl in a big princess dress wandering around New York and her prince trying to find her, stabbing buses and singing in the middle of a park. The problem though, is that they kept the fairy tale events in the real world. At one point, the princess sings in the park and some perfectly choreographed dance breaks out and goes on for something like 10 minutes. These kind of things just don't happen, I don't care if you're some magical princess, you're not going to have influence over everyone in this manner. People who never sing or dance aren't going to break out into perfect rhythm and synchronous movements on a spur.

Another thing that just didn't make sense was that the princess would sew together a new dress for herself every day out of the drapes or the carpet or whatever was lying around. While somewhat amusing, where did she get all the equipment she would need to do this in the allotted 5 minutes it seems to take her? Also, at one point she and a few animal friends clean up this guy's apartment, aiding by a helpful working song. But the lyrics of the song include common household devices, like a toilet or a toaster, that the princess should have no knowledge of, since they don't exist in the fairytale world.

Alright, if I let all of that go, overall the movie was pretty entertaining and held my interest. At some points I actually laughed out loud in the theater. There was just something about the situations and the wordings chosen that were weaved together brilliantly. While the Disney brand mainly appeals to kids, they do have a lot of talent putting these films together.

If you have kids (esp a little girl), or you're looking for something to see on a date, you won't be disappointed. Just go in knowing what to expect.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Slack Effect ( Mass Effect Review )

So I beat Mass Effect on Wednesday. And then I beat it again on Thursday. There are two ending choices in the last 5 minutes of the game, so I figured I'd try them both out.

I imagine that's one of the main reasons I've been slacking recently. It's a very entertaining and engrossing game, so it seems to suck in your attention and hold it until you've completed it. I figure, since I spent so much time playing it, I might as well write out a review of my opinion of it.

I started out very slow. I think after Halo 3 and some other first person shooter games, the direction each stick moves you in seemed awkward or wrong from what I was familiar with. Once I got through that and started to be familiar with what each button does in each situation, things got a lot better and my progress really picked up.

Even before any of that though, is the fun of the character creation menu. There are some restraints, like hair type, so you can't necessarily get a perfect representation of you. Also, when you are trying to determine if you have the cheek bones correct you have to move the view from side to side so that you can see how you look from those in between angles, and that can be somewhat of a hassle. Another problem is that if you go by just the head alone, nothing is going to seem correct. You have to either upscale or downscale the ratio of the size of your features to match the body below, or everything will just look off. In the end, I actually ended up making the character look more like a likeness of my brother instead of me. Turns out that was a good move because I don't think it would have been good to watch myself (or a very close look alike) do some of the things I did in the game. Which takes me to the fun part.

The game gives you an enormous amount of choice options. I had decided to be evil on my first play through. There is a difference between evil and jerk though. Jerk usually just means not doing a side quest or just giving some curt answer that makes you sound like a rogue. The only real evil choices are when you use intimidation to get what you want versus the standard option or the charm option. That was a little disappointing.

The only other evil situations are when you choose to kill someone instead of letting them go. The first time I did this was by accident. I thought I was going to tell the guy that he had to stick around and help me. What the option, "I can't let you go" really meant was that the guy would be on the floor in a bloody heap in about 3 seconds. In the long run it was no big loss.

The variety of choices leaves you thinking that you missed something every so often, esp in high pressure situations where you are just taking your best guess. While I didn't do each of these situations more than once, there are enough non-high pressure situations where you can repeat the dialog that it makes me think that either choice will pretty much end at the same or very similar conclusions. So just have fun with it and don't worry about your selections too much.

The game offers the whole galaxy to explore. Usually this boils down to going to a star cluster and then selecting one of the available solar systems. Then you survey the available planets, check for lose asteroids and survey them and then land on the one planet available to land on and explore it. The exploration is done in a warthog like machine, also similar to an all terrain tank, called a Mako in the game. The Mako gets old after a while, esp when you're going up mountain after mountain to survey some mineral just like you did on the previous planet. I discovered way too late how valuable the map was in these planet exploration pieces, so don't make the same mistake. It would have been much more helpful if they had added rockets to the back of the Mako to make it move faster, rather than the rockets that propel it off the ground. Regardless, it gets the job done and there aren't so many situations that it just gets tedious to do these parts. Each time you're doing a side quest, the purpose of the mission is at least entertaining enough to make it worthwhile.

The powers and equipment for the game took a little while to get the hang of, but worked well enough. Some of the powers I found to be pretty useless since usually the fighting segments broke down into a similar pattern. I usually used the barrier power and then went at the bad guys guns blazing, using the shield boost when I took too much damage, marksman to prevent my gun from overheating and adrenaline boost to make sure I could repeat the cycle if I needed to. That was pretty much all I ever needed with some med gel used in emergency situations. The warp and throw powers were pretty annoying to deal with when the enemy uses them on you, but I didn't care enough to make them useful for me. I did enjoy that there was no magic meter or limit on how many times you use your powers. There is a cool down period you have to wait out, but again, the adrenaline boost power usually takes care of that.

The final thing to note was the "romantic interest" side quest. I was going to pursue the blue girl (asari) at first, but once she said that there idea of reproduction was some kind of mind meld thing, I was turned off. In the end I just went after the human girl. She wasn't very exciting and seems to be a bigot in this new alien populated universe, but I was patient and fed here what she wanted to hear. I feel like I should have gotten evil points for saying some of the crap I did since it was so obviously just to get her to sleep with me. In the end, my charming wit won out. The game gives you more of a reward than I was expecting, but this is obviously just a game, so don't expect too much.

Overall, it was a great game and definitely worth playing. I'll probably give it a rest and watch some siblings play through it, but there are enough options for you to want to play through it multiple times. Like any video game, there are some tedious parts that seems to repeat over and over, but they usually only deal with side quests, so you're free to skip them or stop them when you grow tired of it. Definitely worth at least a rental, if not a buy.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


So I'm gonna be honest. I've been really slacking with my business ever since I read that article talking about how all these people are doing it better then me. I probably would still be more enthusiastic about it now, but I haven't had any luck reaching my latest investor. The prospect of paying $20 a week in parking and trying to get up to a farther away county every Friday just to get 5-10 leads isn't very inviting either. At this point I think I just need to regroup and find a better approach.

The best idea for now would probably be to attend some REI meetings, not as a "Jobber" trying to find investors to work with, but just as someone who wants to learn more about the industry. I think just taking some time to do market research and learn about the purchasing process while I look for my own house would be extremely helpful. Not only would it save me money but after going through it, I'll have experience to look back on and compare with, rather than just playing with the ideas I've read in various books.

Also, I might be able to just volunteer to work with an investor on the weekends who is already doing these deals. That way I see what they do and get some advice, since usually having a mentor to learn from is a great shortcut and extremely valuable. I've noticed that at my day job, whenever I work with a more experienced member of the staff I pick up different tips and tricks that save me time in the future. Plus, by working with an investor, I can get a better idea of the information they want and where they would go to get it.

So for now I'll keep working on trying to find a car, building up my stock portfolio and putting money into my house fund. While I do that, I can start attending REI meetings and see how things go from there. Also, I'm planning on going to a Toastmaster's club meeting this Monday, so we'll see how that goes as well.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Update of Financial Plans

So I've finally reached the point where I've "primed the pipe" when it comes to my stock portfolio.

If you've read what I've written previously, you know that I'm following the advice of The Little Book that Beats the Market in how I screen my stocks and when I buy and sell. Basically, it screens on two filters, the overall price/earnings ratio of the stock and the ROA the company gets. Each month I've been buying a couple of stocks off of the report it creates and now a full year has gone by. This is significant because owning a stock for 1 year qualifies it as a long term investment so I will have to pay the lower long term capital gains rate on the profits instead of short term capital gains.

One thing I did not do correctly based off of the books suggestions, is that I bought stocks every month this year. Instead I should have determined the total amount I wanted to invest and then put a percentage of it in every couple of months for 3 years. Since the formula is suppose to average a >=20% ROI each year over the course of a three year period, unless I continue to add to my portfolio for the next two years, I will be very heavily front loaded. If this was the market highpoint of the three years, I will have bought less for more.

Regardless, I am excited to have finished building my portfolio base. While I will most likely continue to add to my portfolio, having set this future fund up, it gives me more security. I'm planning on doing some rebalancing of where I move my money, esp since I am planning some large purchases for the next year ( a car and a house). I will most likely stop funding my separate Roth IRA and move to my company's Roth 401k program.

Another reason I'm very encouraged by this, is that now that I have a security base, I can move into a little more concentrated and riskier investment. After consulting various sources for information over the last year and a half, I've determined one source that seems to have excellent stock filters and a very broad market view. I think I'm going to build up a risky investment fund and direct the resources towards their recommendations to test what kind of results they can produce. So that will be a side project for the year to come.

Also, I've been reading Having it All. The descriptions it has about how the mind and body work have been very interesting. Some of the ideas about each person's personal beliefs shaping their reality corresponds to what is discussed in The Greatest Salesman in the World and Rich Dad, Poor Dad. It seems the part of the book I'm at now is moving in the same direction as The Pathfinder right where I am on hold. They start discussing how to figure out what your dream life would be like and how to move towards it through goal setting, positive affirmations, and directing your subconscious through positive speak and such. While this is all good stuff, I've actually come to peace with where I am for the time being. While I plan on changing things in the next year, I have established the goals I want to reach and for now I'm trying to live in the present and enjoy the situation instead of ratcheting up more and more expectations on myself. So while the advice will be helpful in the future, I'm putting it on hold until I really want to focus on it.

Things have also picked up at work. I've moved away from doing testing and bug fixing (finally) and am back to doing some development work. This is actually the main part of the job that I enjoy, so I'm trying to learn from the people I'm working with and develop a real skill that I can rely on in the future. That way, no matter how things turn out I'll have the safety net of knowing I have a desirable skill that people will be willing to hire me for.