Thursday, February 19, 2015

Setting Up a Small Business in 2015

It looks like I have an opportunity to consult on a wireless project, which is good news.  With the pickup in the US economy and some diligence in trying to find opportunities, we (my partner and I) are seeing at least two major consulting opportunities that are promising.

The resources to set up and run a small company today like our consulting company are light years ahead of where we were in the 90's.

  • You can get the legal work to set up the company done inexpensively by an online service like Legalzoom.
  • Setting up a website, getting an email address, getting promotional materials and business cards is fast and cheap with services like Godaddy and Vistaprint.
  • You can get all your office software for free and a cloud service from Google or Amazon or Microsoft for little or no money.  You can create and edit documents together with your partners and customers in real time using the software and cloud service.
  • You can get a free business phone number and voice mail from Google.  You can also run online video meetings with free Google hangouts or use another service like Skype.  Your long distance charges can be minimal if you use Skype for calls, and the call quality is great.
  • Meetings with your partners or clients can be held at Panera Bread, Starbucks, or McDonalds with free wifi and outlets to charge your laptop.
  • You can do your own bookkeeping with Quickbooks and your taxes with Turbotax.
  • There are multiple free services to create invoices and you can accept payments using Paypal or Square.
The out of pocket expenses to set up a revenue generating white collar small business LLC can be as little as around $1,000.  It is pretty amazing compared to the old days where you had to purchase business phone lines, pay to get in the Yellow Pages, print promotional material at the printers, pay lawyers, maybe rent an office, etc.

Photo credit: Flickr

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Tax Time Again - Owning a Business Rocks

It is time to do income taxes again and I am deep in the usual Canada-US issues as well as the new situation of being an independent contractor (consultant) and a small business owner (blessed by Fox News as the backbone of the nation).

Luckily, I got a discount on my Turbotax by accident.  I received a free copy of Turbotax Premier from Vanguard based on my account status, but they wanted $80 for Home and Business version.  At a certain point in preparing my taxes the Turbotax program said I needed to upgrade to Home and Business for $10 so I accepted and saved $70.  I also had to buy a JK Lasser guide that is about 4 inches thick to understand my new situation, it looks like a phone book due to the complicated US system.

It turns out that being a small business owner or contractor, you get to deduct the costs of doing business - a share of your cellphone, internet, supplies, laptop as well as the costs of setting up the business like legal fees, website fees.  Even with a conservative estimate of my expenses, it saved me a bunch on my taxes.

In any case, unlike most Americans, I have no problem with how much tax I pay to Uncle Sam.  I paid Canadian Income Tax for years in the mid-90's and I know what high taxes look like.  The USA is a low tax paradise compared to Canada and the rest of the world.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Dealing With A Major Financial/Life Setback

Lately, I have heard about a lot of folks who have suffered a financial and life setback.  This could be a bankruptcy from losing a job, losing a house after an expensive divorce, a major investment gone bad, or the loss of money or a pension in a bankruptcy (like Nortel).

The reactions of the people involved have ranged from attempted suicide to placid acceptance.  In looking at how they handled the situation, one thing came out clearly: those that accepted the situation and put together a new plan for the future were the happiest and came through the ordeal the best.  Those that dwelled upon the problems, did not accept the situation, complained, and tried to find an easy way out or refused to accept it did the worst.

If you have something financially unfortunate happen to you or a loved one, the best course of action in my opinion is:

  1. Stand back and analyze the situation.  What is the loss?  Is anything recoverable?  What is likely to happen in future.
  2. Talk to friends, family, and/or a financial counselor about the problems.  What do they think, is it as bad as you thought or worse? Can they help?   Express your feelings.  Listen to what they have to say.
  3. Reflect on the problem and try to accept the problem and its consequences.  This will take some time, it won't happen overnight.  You may need help with this.
  4. Put together a new financial and/or life plan that takes the problem into account and gives you and your family the best outcome possible. 
    1.  Learn to live on less?  
    2. Sell that extra car to get some needed cash?  Sell that "toy" that you never use?
    3. Move to a more affordable place?  Do you need 3 bedrooms if the kids have all moved out?
    4. Save more in future to make up some of the loss?
    5. Take your government retirement pension and learn to live on that money?
  5. Be happy with what you have and your state in life and your new plan.
The key thing seems to be getting to the point of accepting the loss and coming up with a new way forward, a new plan that makes the best of a bad situation.  If you or someone you know is in this situation, I hope this helps.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Expert Networks = Post Retirement Consulting Income

I was contacted lately by a couple of "Expert Networks" wanting me to provide consulting services.  It turns out that this is quite common and as a retired professional, an easy way to make a little extra money on the side.

Expert Networks provide consulting services to financial analysts and businesses.  Usually, they want to set up a phone call between an expert and one of their clients so the client can ask questions concerning a company or industry.  For example: "Will the recent spectrum auction in the USA change the capital investments of bidders and in what way?"  The financial analyst might be part of a team looking at tens of millions of dollars in investment and a one hour phone call costing a few hundred dollars is a useful part of the analysis.

You sign up with the Expert Network, like Coleman Research Group, and fill out forms detailing your expertise, then they will contact you if needed.  Your fee will likely be in the hundreds of dollars per hour and you will be paid as an independent contractor via the "1099" process.

Of course you should be careful about these interactions.  You cannot disclose material non-public information (which you probably don't have anymore since you are retired).  You cannot disclose information that is protected by a non-disclosure agreement with a previous employer.  There are a few other rules also.  The Expert Network company will make sure you know these restrictions and make you sign an agreement that you will not violate any laws.

I was able to make a few hundred dollars from an interaction with one of these companies and it may be something that retired folks should consider as a way to keep your hand in the game and make a few extra bucks.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Cleaning Ladies - Destroyers of Our Heritage

I love cleaning ladies, also called "maids" here in the USA, but they are on a mission to destroy our family and national heritage, in addition to their main task of house cleaning.

My parents had a cleaning lady when we were young, and my wife and I have used cleaning ladies for probably 30 years, so we have extensive experience with their destruction of art treasures and archeological finds.  This mission is drilled into them regardless of nationality, as past cleaning ladies aka vandals came from Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Haiti, Russia, Poland, and Brazil.

What do these indispensable matrons of cleanliness do to our treasures?

  • My parents had good friends from Britain who were archeologists and gave us two oil lamps from the holy land.  Evidently, these are commonly found and they were about 2000 years old.  After surviving years in the ground, our cleaning lady smashed both of them.
  • Canada is famous for Eskimo soapstone carvings, and our family has quite a few of them.  Any of these with delicate features has been defaced - tusks lopped off, arms removed, flippers de-flipped.  One massive roughly hewn polar bear has survived, probably because the artist had a cleaning lady and knew that it had to be sturdy.
  • My father ran a small airline in the 1970's to prove in Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) air service for the Canadian government.  Before it closed down, he brought home a little diecast metal model of one of their aircraft in their colours.  This aircraft was attacked over 5 times by cleaning ladies and then repaired by me.  It is now basically a bunch of metal held together by Krazy Glue.
  • No plastic model built by me when I was young survived for more than 7 days before its little antennas, machine guns, or other delicate features were smashed by our determined cleaning lady.
  • Other objects attacked by the cleaning ladies include a little statue here in Virginia (Krazy Glue to the rescue), our venetian blinds (it sounds like a machine gun when they clean them), my wife's bathroom sink (still trying to get the gunk off my fingernails from that repair), and our furniture (they are weathering and aging the chairs so they look at least 50 years old).
So as a domestic "Monument Man", I salute my foe the cleaning ladies, our weekly sisyphean battle continues!

Photo Credit: Flickr, Flickr

Friday, February 6, 2015

Canadian and US Golf Courses

What is the biggest difference between the average Canadian golf course and the average US golf course?  My answer - the number of lost balls you find.

Golfing in Florida last month, I spent the usual amount of time looking for my errant ball in the rough, in the jungle, in the tall grass, etc.  I could usually find at least one ball, and maybe a few more.  Americans lose a lot of balls and either cannot be bothered to pick them up or are not allowed to get them.  One course we played did not allow you to carry a ball retriever in your bag as they did not want you to slow down the game by fishing for your ball in the lake and maybe picking up a few more.

Canadian courses, on the other hand, are more like the Sahara Desert of golf balls.  Canadians know the cost of the ball and will search for quite a while if they lose one.  Heck, they will be looking for lost balls even when they did not lose theirs.  A popular accessory is the double golf ball retriever which can pick up two balls at once from the lake.  A cheerful call of "I finished with more balls than I started!" is a common 18th hole exclamation. If you lose your ball on a Canadian course, you better find your ball, as you are unlikely to find any others.

Other than that, the game of golf remains the same frustrating pastime both sides of the border, except the domestic beer is better in Canada.

Photo credit: Flickr

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Florida Snowbird Observations

We spent January 2015 renting a house in Naples Florida to see if we liked it, and we did.  We also learned a lot about renting and the Snowbird experience in general.  We found the rental through, which is quite popular.  We enjoyed the weather, golf, daily walks, the beaches, shopping, the downtown area, and the local attractions like museums and botanical gardens.

Tips on Renting

  • If the owner is not local, it is best if they have a property manager.  If the owner is in California, and the cable or AC breaks, you will be heavily involved in getting it fixed instead of the owner.  The property manager may also make sure that the house/condo is kept to a reasonable standard.
  • If you don't know the area or the condo development, do a lot of research including doing google maps (street view), checking out the condo website, checking out the reviews on the renting website like VRBO, tourism websites, looking at real estate websites, etc.  You can avoid surprises like finding out that your luxury condo backs onto a busy street.
  • Don't bring your pet (we did).  The selection of places to rent drops by about 95% if you want one that is pet-friendly.  You may also find that there is a negative correlation between pet-friendly and tidiness of the rental and cost.  It is also harder to find good hotels that take pets when you travel.

Tips on Traveling

  • Everyone sets out for Florida in the first week of January, and everyone returns from holiday on the weekend closest to new year.  If you travel during this period, expect traffic jams.  For example, we waited about 45 minutes in a jam on I95 because someone's boat fell off their trailer and was blocking 1.5 lanes of the two lane road.
  • Don't trust your GPS system when it tries to re-route you over Florida secondary highways due to traffic.  You will spend a lot of time slowing down for little citrus farming towns on the highway and you will not save any time.

Restaurant and Activity Tips

  • Prices go up during "the season" (Jan-Apr) in restaurants and stores, so expect to pay more.
  • Early bird specials are around 430pm and prime dinner hour is 6pm, most places clear out by 730pm.
  • If you are renting in a golf resort, it will be hard to get tee times during "the season", plan ahead.
  • Avoid restaurants that advertise on TV with cheesey music, Tiki bar decor, and feature Jimmy Buffett style entertainment, just a thought.

Monday, February 2, 2015

My Career Part 5

By this time in my career, I am turning 50 and no longer have the burning ambition to climb the corporate hierarchy.  My career turns towards interesting work, good colleagues, work-life balance, and maybe a transition into something other than telecoms.

Part 5A A New Company and A New Location

I get a new job as a VP of Emerging Technologies reporting to the CTO at NII Holdings in Reston Virginia, they need a new technology to replace Iden in their Latin American networks and WIMAX interests them. It is clear that there is no upward movement in the company beyond my level, the senior execs are all from Nextel and tend to hire former Nextel execs, but this is fine with me. We quickly decide that the right new technology is UMTS not Wimax, and the group grows as the company makes the transition to UMTS 3G. My previous work on UMTS at Nortel comes in handy.  The most satisfying part of the work is developing the people within the group and watching them progress in their technical and management skills.  I also find it much easier to deal with people when I am not ambitious, as I do not have to play politics or worry about my image.  It is also a lot less stressful being the customer, a telecom operator, than when I was at Nortel and selling to the operators.

Nextel Mexico Fashion Show
NII Holdings is quite successful and their stock rises from $50 to around $90 before the great recession.  Many people at the company have made millions from their stock options and bonuses.  The Latin American Nextel marketing is also quite interesting - using sexy women to sell mobile phones is a legitimate marketing strategy in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina.

Meanwhile, Nortel has not really changed its strategy and declares bankruptcy in 2009, and eventually decides to liquidate itself.  Towards the end of the liquidation process, Nortel's patents are sold for $4.5B which would have paid off almost all of the company's debt.  Why did they have to liquidate?

Part 5B Too Many Changes

While the work at NII is enjoyable as we design and implement new 3G networks in Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Peru along with new Push to Talk functionality, the company is having problems.  NII has taken on a lot of debt to finance the 3G network, the engineering and Information Technology work is outsourced, new vendors are brought in to deliver technology (Huawei, Qualcomm, Ericsson..), new back office systems are commissioned, new execs are hired, new markets are entered like 3G Chile, and competition is fierce in Latin America.  All the changes and challenges hurt the financial results, reduce the stock price, and force the company to cut back.

Joe Btfsplk
Since I am looking for something new to do and am tired of telecom, I am luckily laid off in January 2014.  By mid-2014 almost the whole engineering group is let go, over 50 people, and by the end of the year, NII goes bankrupt.  Am I the Joe Btfsplk of telecom, with two of my employers going bankrupt?

Photo Credit: Flickr