Coffee heat rising

Benefits of Joining a Business Group

Thursday: another early-morning trek across the Valley to the weekly breakfast meeting of the Scottsdale Business Association.

When I was invited to join this group, I privately thought it was going to be more hassle than it was worth. Because eggs make me upchuck unless they’re well diluted with flour and sugar (as in chocolate cake…), it’s always difficult for me to find something to eat for breakfast in an American restaurant. The group’s venue, the Good Egg, sounded especially unpromising {urk!}. And having to dive into the rush-hour traffic at quarter to seven was only slightly less unappealing.

However, I’ve found it really has been a very useful thing.

The benefits have extended far beyond the occasional job lead. For those of us who operate out of home offices, belonging to a local business group has the sterling quality of getting the entrepreneur away from the keyboard and out into the world. If I weren’t teaching, the only time I’d see another human being would be in choir and during shopping trips. Meeting weekly with a dozen other business people means I get to talk with professionals about topics that matter and enjoy the friendly company of a diverse and lively bunch of people.

More concrete benefits have included leads to useful business tools, such Carbonite’s cloud-based backup service, and presentations describing how various financial instruments and business-related strategies work. To those we might add practical advice: last week my dog-&-pony show was a discussion of how my associate editor and I are planning to step up marketing for our editorial business, The Copyeditor’s Desk. In response, practically everyone in the group had some idea or advice to contribute, and this morning they all wanted to know what progress we’d made on our plan.

On the other hand, except for a small local group of women bloggers, I don’t belong to associations of bloggers. Not because I don’t want to and not because I don’t see the value in linking with others who are trying to monetize their sites, but because an online network doesn’t serve the purpose of getting me out of my garret. Virtual socializing, while it has its purposes, is not the same as meeting people face to face. And it doesn’t take you off your chair and out from in front of your computer.

Too, Funny about Money doesn’t provide enough of my little corporation’s total revenue to make it worth spending a lot more time on it than I already do. One half-way decent editorial assignment returns two or three months’ worth of Adsense revenues; the recent two-week plumbing company gig paid more than seven times the amount FaM earns on Adsense in a month. Given that disparity, it makes sense to spend a lot more time on marketing the editorial business than it does to try to further monetize the blog. Really, if I spent as much time every day marketing The Copyeditor’s Desk as I do writing blog posts (hmm…like this one…), it would be earning as much as or more than I earn teaching, which other than Social Security is my only moderately reliable source of income.

Probably one doesn’t need to rub elbows with other business owners to arrive at revelations like this. But it helps.

The Sanity Discount: Ethics for Small Businesses and Bloggers

Well. Bloggers who run ads are small businesses, of course. A couple of ripples in the daily flow of things have, over the past couple of days, led me to ruminate about integrity and ethics, and about how they should direct the course of our little side businesses, including our blogs.

First, a very nice new client recently wandered in through the door. Says he wants someone to edit website copy for a successful small business in the trades. I send my rate sheet, which frames my rates on a per-page basis. He wants to know what I’ll charge by the hour. I say sixty bucks, not an unreasonable amount in the large scheme of things (twenty years ago a friend here was getting $120 an hour for similar work). He, doing business in a large city far, far away where employees’ and independent contractors’ pay is not throttled by right-to-work laws, doesn’t even blink.

So I dive into the project, which is kind of fun. Well, “kind of fun” because it doesn’t entail a lot of technical language or esoteric theory, unlike most of the stuff I do. Mathematical biosciences this is not, nor is it abstruse postmodernist blather. But there’s a fair amount of it, and it needs substantial reorganization, rewriting, and new research & writing. I enjoy this little endeavor over the course of about 22 hours. Eventually I wrap the job and add up my bill, and…

Holy mackerel! At $60 an hour, the tab came to enough for me to buy a condo in the guy’s expensive city. It really did seem out of line, given the relative ease and mild entertainment value of the work.

Okay, it’s true that if I based my fees on how much fun the job is, I’d have to edit Poisoned Pen Press copy for free. But still…there’s a limit.

Seeking a fairer arrangement, I calculated what it would cost the client if I charged my highest page rate—justifiable, I figured, because of the amount of actual writing I did—and came up with an amount that was enough for The Copyeditor’s Desk to buy itself a couple of printer cartridges. Fairly respectable, actually, but not enough to break the bank.

So that was what I ended up billing: about four or five hundred bucks less than the hourly rate would have commanded. But at $60 an hour, the bottom line added up to a figure utterly beyond reason. In an abstract way, it didn’t seem right to charge that much for that kind of work.

Call it the Sanity Discount.

Hard on the heels of that exchange, an ongoing conundrum resurfaced. Some of you probably noticed the recent “sp0ns0r3d post” that went up recently. You may or may not have observed that it also went down.

Funny about Money is getting large enough to attract the attention of various individuals and groups who bill themselves as advertisers. Almost all of them—a good 99.9 percent of them—want me to run paid text links. And they’re willing to pay pretty well for the privilege. I could easily double or triple Funny’s revenues by selling paid text links.

These people and their brokers approach the blogger by saying either that they want to buy ad space on the site or that they are generously offering a guest post, “absolutely free to you.”

Trouble is, doing so eventually puts one afoul of Google’s arcane rules, designed to protect its search engine algorithm. To simplify a complicated story, if Google catches you publishing paid text links (which sooner or later it will), your page rank magically drops to zero.

So, after you’ve worked for months or years to build a respectable page rank, these folks come along and take advantage of it; then when their practices kill your page rank, they of course will abandon you.

That particular aspect is not at issue here, though. What we have at issue is the so-called advertiser’s strategy to evade discovery, which is to produce copy for a post that fits the blogger’s site theme. The paid link is then embedded in the post, in such a way that the link appears to point to something relevant to the post’s subject.

It’s important to understand that paid links are not advertising. They’re a device to suck link juice from a site with a relatively decent page rank into the buyer’s own site, by way of making the other site appear at or near the top of a Google search.

In other words, what looks like a real post is a deceptive device to mount self-serving links whose purpose has nothing to do with the host site’s content. Often it contains a link pointing to some outfit selling a service or product that runs counter to the host site’s very raison d’être. Why, for example, would a personal finance blogger who urges readers to get out of debt, manage money wisely, and avoid loan sharks recommend taking out a payday loan?

Why? To collect a hundred bucks for publishing two words attached to a live do-follow link, that’s why.

Such a post is, in short, advertorial. Actually, it doesn’t even rise to that level, because the articles are not really intended to be read; they exist to carry the links, which exist to use the host’s page rank to jack up the search engine page rank on the link seller’s site. While they’re billed as advertising, they’re actually a form of black-hat SEO.

Well, I started in journalism back in 1979, and over the years I’ve worked for some of the most prominent regional periodicals in my part of the country. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as journalistic ethics, and over the course of 32 years they tend to inhabit your thinking. When I came up, there was a sharp divide between advertising and editorial—in fact, the ad and circulation departments were housed on the other side of the building from where the editors and artists worked.

Magazines did publish crass little “articles” written by highly paid writers—earning far more than any of us did!—whose purpose was to plug paying advertisers. This was to be expected: magazines survive on ad revenue; subscription income does not suffice to support a print publication. However, ethical publishers mark advertorials as such: with a running header or footer saying something like “Advertisement.” Often advertorials are set off typographically and even printed on slightly different paper from the rest of the rag.

To publish advertising or SEO masquerading as an article without cluing the reader to the fact that the stuff is paid advertising is dishonest.

It is to lie.

That is why many publications do not print advertorial at all, and why those who do, if they have any decency at all, label them prominently as advertising.

Times have changed, of course, with the advent of the brave new world that is the Internet. And blogging is and is not journalism, though it has readers who presumably expect some standard of honesty from their writers. Here’s what journalistic webmaster Robert Niles says about the issue, writing at the Online Journalism Review:

The old rule: There must be a wall between advertising and editorial.

The new rule: Sell ads into ad space and report news in editorial space. And make sure to show the reader the difference.

Accordingly, I marked the paid-link peddler’s copy as a Sp0nsor3d Post!

This elicited a squawk of dismay. When I refused to remove the notice saying the post was a paid article containing links to the author’s clients’ sites, the deal fell through. Cheerfully, I removed the post from my site, and good riddance to it.

To cope with the practice of secreting paid links in fake stories, Google is now demanding that all links to commercial sites be coded as no-follow links. The would-be advertisers hate this, of course—because the link juice is what they’re paying for—and usually they will decline to place a paid link unless it’s do-follow. Many bloggers simply take a chance that Google will never catch them, and they justify the potential loss of page rank by arguing that PR doesn’t matter anyway.

Maybe it doesn’t, maybe it does. The technicalities of page rank are way above my pretty little head, and so I don’t trouble myself with them.

But one could argue, with some justice, that Google’s policy on paid do-follow links is hugely unfair, since Google Adsense places plenty of paid links on your site. And since Google pays nothing like what these often rather sleazy “advertisers” will pay, Google itself takes on a whiff of the exploitive.

About that, I say it is what it is.

Ironically, while Google’s policy is self-serving (their motive has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with the way the company’s business model works), it in fact feeds into that fundamental journalistic ethic: the effect of the rule is to discourage deceptive content and to encourage separation of advertising and editorial.

Old-fashioned…but then so is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”


Coupons for Sale or Rent…

Did you know you can sell coupons—the kind of stuff that comes in junkmail—at online sites? Saturday’s PlayNooz reported on a New York postal carrier who was arrested for the sale of coupons he’d ripped off from residents’ mailboxes and peddled on eBay. A commenter observed that some coupons, such as the ones that come from Penny’s, are worth ten or fifteen bucks. Or more…one shoe store here routinely sends out 30%-off coupons, and all its stock is in the $100-plus range.

Turns out this enterprise is not very difficult. You simply collect coupons, organize them in some intelligible way (such as by category or by likely frequency of purchase), and advertise your stashes on eBay or Craigslist. You can even consider collecting coupons that are listed online. I have found that you can go here for Amazon coupons and a ton other top retailers. Apparently you can get as much as 50% to 75% of the coupons’ savings.

There’s actually a site that will let you resell coupons from sites like Groupon, Living Social, or Tippr. How exactly you’d make a profit on coupons you have to pay for is unclear, unless you could charge a premium the ones that sell out fast.

What a hoot! Talk about your passive income…just let that junk mail roll in!

Image: Ticket for a free glass of Coca-Cola, ca. 1888; believed to be the first coupon ever. Scanned by uploader from Wired (Nov 2010), Vol. 18, No. 11, p. 104. Public Domain.

Funny on the Radio!

Cary Lockwood, proprietor of Your Auto Network and host of his own radio show on Phoenix’s KXXT, kindly invited Funny to do a segment on his program, Calling All Cars. It aired yesterday, June 19. You can listen to it by clicking here… Or check out Cary’s podcasts over here.

Cary, as you’ll recall, was Funny about Money’s first interviewee for the Entrepreneurs series. That post went over so well it eventually surfaced at the Wall Street Journal site, mostly because Cary’s enterprise and energy are so creative.

It was great fun talking with him. I hope you’ll enjoy the podcast and check out his show.

Thanks, Cary!

Entrepreneurs: Adirondack Chimney Sweep

A chimney sweep in one of America’s warmest cities: Mark C. Keever is the second in Funny’s series of stories about entrepreneurs who find creative and unusual ways to jump off the treadmill.

I came across Mark and his business, Adirondack Chimney Sweep, in Angie’s List, where a long line of customers had left ecstatic reviews about his work. Not knowing whether the chimney in my 1971 house had ever been cleaned, about the beginning of December I gave him a call, hoping to have the job done before the big Christmas party.

Mais non! The man was booked into the beginning of January! A chimney sweep with personality, it develops, has more work than he can handle. When Mark dropped in the other day to apply his skills to my old fireplace, complete with his broom and old black stovepipe hat, I asked him a few questions.

FaM: Mark, how on earth did you get into the chimney-sweep business?

Keever: Well, I grew up in Queensbury, New York, a small town between Glens Falls and Lake George. Most people didn’t have much, and when you graduated from high school, your career choice was going to work in the paper mills or going to work in the local prison. Because people had to do for themselves, one of the things we learned in our shop class was how to clean potbellied stoves and chimneys.

In my senior year, I got in a motorcycle accident and was seriously hurt: broke my left foot in twelve places, broke my left leg, messed up my knees and elbows. That was the end of my future in the paper mill.

FaM: It must have kept you out of Vietnam, too.

Keever: That’s right. Couldn’t get into the military, either, because the damage to my foot made me unfit for combat.

FaM: So what did you do?

Keever: I came out to Arizona to recuperate and ended up going to work for the Greyhound Corporation. I worked for seven years, and then I went with the Southern Pacific Railroad. That was a good job, but after four years I was laid off—along with about 9,000 other people.

Not knowing what to do next, I looked around and found out that one in four houses in the Phoenix area has a fireplace. Well, that was a natural: I already knew how to sweep chimneys.

I started a business, but by the time we were up and running, it was out of season. Nobody thinks about their fireplaces on a 110-degree summer day. So I was really struggling.

To make ends meet, I decided I’d better take a full-time job with the City of Glendale. I was happy to get the job, but I kept the chimney-sweep business as a sideline.

And I also thought I’d better go to college to learn how to run a business, so I enrolled in a business course at Phoenix College. It only took me 25 years to finish my associate’s degree!

Meanwhile, I kept on working at the city and also kept sweeping chimneys as a side job.

FaM: It’s always a good idea to have a second income stream, isn’t it?

Keever: Yes. I was glad I had it, because last spring the city offered its employees a buy-out deal. I had only just earned the 80 “points” city and state workers need to retire, but there they were: I actually was in a position to retire. I thought it over for a while, and then finally I decided to take it.

So I got a good severance package and plenty of time to make a go of Adirondack.

FaM: That must have been a breathtaking moment!

Keever: I’ve never been happier! No more stress of a day job and a commute, no more working for a big bureaucracy. I’ve got all the work I can do, most of it in the wintertime while the weather’s nice, and the business has really taken off. All told, Adirondack Chimney Sweep  has had 2,187 customers.

* * *

Cleaning the fireplace, a two-and-a-half-hour project, entailed climbing on the roof to brush out the chimney and then engaging in some lengthy and vigorous cleanup with a large shop vac. By the time Mark finished, the firebox and the family room were spotless.

He sprinkled a handful of salt at the back of the firebox. “This brings good luck,” he said. Then he set a shiny copper penny in the front right corner of the fireplace. “A penny in the fireplace not only brings more good luck,” he continued, “but because it’s this year’s date, all you  have to do is look at it to remember what year you last had the chimney cleaned. This one should be cleaned about once every four or five years.”

After a short demonstration of how to lay a fire and how to use a newspaper torch to warm the cold air seeping down a chimney to make the flue draw better, he was off.

And the next time that thing needs to be cleaned, I know who I’m gonna call!