Having it all … depends on what “all” means

Interesting all the commentary — supportive and outraged — swirling now that Anne-Marie Slaughter chose family over power. Slaughter left her high-level State Department job to return to her (mere) job as a tenured Ivy-League college professor so she could spend more time with her two boys.

The money, prestige and power elements are different, but the choice to opt out of the corporate race is one we made for our kids.   It was a conscious choice — one that worked for us.

The background:  My mom, a single parent of six, died less than a year after I graduated from college. My mother-in-law died before our first child was born.  My father-in-law had given years to the corporate world, which, despite his success, eventually decided to dump him.

My husband and I met and married in Washington, D.C. We came back to Reno (his home town) for family reasons. Friends who stayed in DC felt — and still feel — the pressure to make it all work. Many do a spectacular job at both. Some stayed and fought the system so they could stay home with the kids — and paid a professional price.

I do think it is possible to blend corporate and family life … but you have to want it, you have to be lucky, you have to work your tail off, and usually, you need lots and lots of  help.

And it will ONLY work if everything goes right, and you make enough money.   Have a needy/challenging/problem child? An ogre for a boss? A job that must come first?   A need for health insurance?  Any complications and the equation falls apart.

If more people had a choice of two terrific jobs, with one that allows for family, they might make Slaughter’s choice.   I did — in a much less lucrative/less influential way.

Yet, I suspect the people who say having four kids and working full-time is great and everyone is happy, have lots of other help — nannies, grandparents, stay at home spouses.

A baby, or even a couple of babies, may not demand all your time. Running a multi-child family with multiple sports, music lessons, varying school schedules, plus schlepping them to dental appointments, play dates, birthday parties, etc is a full-time job for someone — or several someones.

I admire those who can juggle demanding jobs and family life well and make it work for everyone.

I had a huge ego adjustment to being a full-time parent and a part-time business owner. It literally took years to adjust.  It flew by … and I do know why Slaughter doesn’t want to miss it.

VizKinect’s eye-tracking system changes advertizing game

Incorporated on Sept. 17, 2011, VizKinect’s cutting-edge biometric eye-tracking system is set to


VizKinect founder Norm Smith (right) and COO Ron Nichols flank the development team of Mbinya Ndonye, Bailey Hein and Ellin Nesbitt at their offices at C4Cube in Reno.

revolutionize the way advertisements, movies and other media get our attention.

The VizKinect system takes eye-tracking, which has been around for 30 years in various forms, and simultaneously expands and simplify the entire process. The value to advertisers is immense, said Norm Smith, VizKinect chairman and president.

VizKinect will test focus groups of up to 20 people at once, analyze the results quickly to produce nearly instantaneous feedback.

“This will be a game changer (in several industries),” Smith said.

Advertisers and product-placement specialists will be able to tell if consumers see their message before spending millions on actually airing the ad on television or paying for a product to be in a movie.

Up until now, eye-tracking was done one person at a time in a lab with elaborate equipment. Almost every research institution has a version, but it becomes obsolete, is expensive to buy and to train people to use, plus eye color and skin pigmentation can throw off the results, explained Ron Nichols, VizKinect chief operating officer.

Not so with the VizKinect system.

VizKinect uses no invasive equipment. Test subjects either wear special glasses, or have a special scanner follow their eye movements. They just sit and watch the screen. The system records (tracks) where individuals look at a video screen. Do they look at what an advertiser or movie director wants? The data will tell.

Smith, a successful serial entrepreneur, said $354,000 has been invested in developing and refining the VizKinect system so far. It has two patents pending and numerous trademarks on the unique programs and equipment. The company is seeking $3 million from investors to expand.

“Part of the beauty of VizKinect is that it will adapt and change over time and we can use (any type of) tracking technology,” said Nichols. The uniqueness is in the system, the code and the analysis process, which the team, including Ellen Nesbitt, Bailey Hein and Mbinya Ndonye, has spent months refining and streamlining to work out the kinks.

Focus groups can be run in VizKinect’s offices in Reno or at a client’s location – with results delivered in time to reshoot for more effectiveness. Basic focus group and analysis work starts at $5,000. For an agency spending millions on producing and placing an ad, it is money well spent, Smith said.

Data can be broken down by age, gender, race and other metrics, Nesbitt said.

VizKinect is being developed at the C4Cube offices inReno.  C4Cube is a non-profit business incubator started in 2006 to help entrepreneurs start companies and to bring jobs to this area, said Ky Good, managing director of “The Cube.”

It’s working. Several types of companies have offices within C4Cube, including Eye-Com, another business working with biometrics in a very different way from VizKinect.

“Reno is a great place to start a business,” Smith said.

VizKinect is ramping up its staff. This summer it will have 10 employees and interns on board, by the end of 2013, Smith expects to have at least 72 working for the company. Most will be inReno, though the company expects to go global.

Reno Rebuild invests in downtown

Founded in April by childhood friends who are now local business owners, Reno Rebuild Project captures a portion of every dollar spent at certain local restaurants and puts it into a fund that will eventually help others open a business.

RenoRebuild Guys – photo by Reno Gazette-Journal

Michael Connolly, Chris Kahl and Zachary Cage run the Legends Grill, Sierra Tap House and the soon-to-open Brewer’s Cabinet started Reno Rebuild. The group pledged 5 cents of every sale at these establishments to the fund.

They made their fist deposit into the account on May 1.

“We have a current cash balance collected of $5,485.55! It is definitely a great start with our goal being $20k for 2013, so we are on a great pace,” said Michael Connolly.

After a year of deposits, the fund will be used to award one loan to non-franchised, small, local businesses.  The Community Foundation of Western Nevada, which is helping make the Reno Rebuild Project a non-profit organization, will administer the fund and help establish eligibility guidelines. One guideline already set: Each application must include a detailed business plan.

As the fund grows, the trio hopes to award more than one low-interest loan per year.

Reno Rebuild grew out of the trio’s struggle to get funding to start their own venture. Banks and other traditional sources simply wouldn’t lend, so they tapped into family and friends for financing. Realizing that not everyone has family and friends who can provide such support, they developed Reno Rebuild to extend a hand to other entrepreneurs.

“Someone just needs to give them the opportunity to meet their goal if they want to open their own business,” Kahl said. “It’s a cool opportunity for them.”

Other businesses have already expressed interest in participating in the program.

“We also structured it to where other business owners and individuals in general can put money in,” Connolly said.

Find out more at www.renorebuild.com

Lessons in Parenting — number 452

One of the toughest things for a parent to do is to sit on the sidelines during tough events in an offspring’s life.

Growing through challenges and disappointments is part of the process  — one that helps each of us mature.  I know it.  I don’t have to like the pain it causes though.

We are so fortunate — and we count our blessings — to have the family that we do. I never take it for granted.

When these stumbling blocks and disappointments confront our children — people who used to be shorter than us — the parent in us wants to ride to the rescue — or at least provide the bear hug and kiss that used to make everything all right again.

But we can’t rescue them — and we shouldn’t most of the time.

What we can do is sympathize, offer perspective and advice — along with a hug and a kiss if we’re close enough to do so.

Some people bounce back or roll with adversity and disappointment easier than others. When you’re tired, lonely or homesick it’s easier to wallow.

That’s when the parent wants to swoop in, apply that bandage — not really to change anything, but let them know we care. That alone can help change mood/perspective.

I can’t do that today …  the one who needs it is 3,000 miles away … but I want to.

I am missing this college student and knowing we won’t be reunited until late July just makes it tougher.

Being part of the Conversation

Everyone has a role to play in bringing Nevada out of the economic doldrums — whether as a consumer, a business owner, an entrepreneur or an investor.  Changing the perception from doom and gloom to optimism — in real terms, not just wishful thinking — plays a role.

Being part of that conversation — having a seat at the table of Entrepreneurship Nevada — means helping celebrate that goal by creating and writing a newsletter called ENevadaNow.  Entrepreneurship Nevada  is a nonprofit umbrella coalition of the many groups trying to get northern Nevadans back to work.  The groups do this by supporting, promoting and educating neophyte entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs. Some members such s NSBDC, SCORE and others also serve some of the 6,000 businesses in Washoe County with 1 to 4 employees.

My role: Senior editor of eNevadaNow.org, the newsletter/PR arm of the coalition.  This month’s newsletter celebrates:

  • Bumblebee Blooms — a flower shop breaking even less than one year after opening in downtown Reno.
  • VizKinect — a high-tech start-up firm using patented bio-metric eye tracking systems in a way that will revolutionize advertising and movie product placement, all from their offices in Reno.
  • Reno Rebuild — a novel give-back effort on the part of several young businessmen that creates a loan fund specifically for new businesses
  • Updates on other efforts and successes in the community.

The voice I bring to the table celebrates each member organization and their successes. Businesses can — and do — grow and thrive in Reno, Sparks and the surrounding communities.  These trailblazers deserve credit and notice. That’s what the newsletter does — praise these companies, and the various groups that helped get them there.

I believe in the project and the community and salute the people leading the effort to grow jobs in the Reno area.

Take a look at our latest ENevadaNow issue here, and give us your feed back on anything that can move us forward!

Opportunity knocks — even when you don’t realize it

Doors open and close in our lives all the time.  People, places, jobs — changes leave us sad and simultaneously offer us a chance to grow, explore and evolve.

My journey includes opportunity and setbacks.  Small town and island-living in Maine,  led to great adventures in college at Boston University, thanks to scholarships, sacrifices by my mom and grandparents, as well as my own hard work …

Post college sadness at losing my mom and becoming a guardian to a teen sister with developmental issues, led to opportunity in Washington, D.C. at USA Today.  Which is where I met my incredible spouse …

Eventually that led to our journey west and three terrific offspring … and a career as a freelance writer, editor and photographer covering and exploring northern Nevada through family adventures, special events,   business and real estate writing, education and sports ….

Empty nesting coincided with downsizing at the newspaper, which opened so many doors to personal and professional growth.

I landed initially at ProNet, a non-profit organization devoted to helping professionals get back to work. There I grew through training and course work in personal branding, social media for business, train the trainer to name just a few. The bonus: the camaraderie  and support of the 100-plus top-notch professionals in the group and the leadership of the professional staffers.

I grew to understand some of the unique skills and talents I bring to the table.  My writing, editing, marketing and an openness to the wider world brought opportunities to learn about entrepreneurship and how businesses outside newspaper work.

Networking skills grew through attending Western Industrial Nevada and Chamber of Commerce events.  I teamed with incredibly talented and insightful  people at E-Nevada.org determined to get Nevadans back to work through entrepreneurship.

That led to the creation of eNevadaNow.org an online newsletter for Entrepreneurship Nevada that I developed — and a seat at the table with the tier-one people who can make this happen.  I have a voice, a viewpoint and a value to add …  and people hear me!

Along the way I learned to write marketing proposals; started writing for Northern Nevada Business Weekly, designed a display for Grappers, Inc. and made so many new connections.

I stubbed my toe a few times — didn’t get a few jobs I applied for, fell flat on a few proposals I made, learned some things I don’t want to do and some I’m just not suited for …

In the long run, and it does feel like a long eight months, opportunities are opening up!  Thanks to all who continue to believe in me …

Have you found your journey includes huge boulders, little streams and ultimately promise?

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Pizza Plus beats the odds, plans to expand

Dan Blake went into business in 1981 with loads of strikes against him. Back then, Ronald Reagan was president; the country was in a deep recession; inflation was 9.1 percent and interest rates hit 20 percent. Such economic conditions make experienced entrepreneurs blanch.

Yet for Blake, who had taken two years of business classes at Truckee Meadows Community College, the challenge was just what he needed. That year, at age 23, he lost a leg in a motorcycle accident and needed to refocus his life.

Dan Blake started Pizza Plus in Sparks, NV

“I always knew I wanted to own my own business,” he said.

What to do? Do what you know.

The Sparks resident knew pizza. His first job at age 14 was at the old Shakey’s Pizza chain. He loved pizza and turned into a passion.

He opened his store in the fall. His future mother-in-law Diane Ross provided start-up funding and mentoring. He had minimal staff, mostly family and a few ex-Shakey’s pals.

The first years were rough. Funding and managing cash flow were huge learning curves.

“Cash flow is king. We didn’t have much of it in the beginning,” Blake said.

For five years they grew by word of mouth.

“That was our only advertising. It was all we could afford,” he said.

After 12 years they opened a second store. Then seven years later, in 2001, they opened a third store.

“You know what happened in 2001 – 9/11 hit and the entire economy ground to a halt,” he said.

In 30 years of business he’s seen boom and bust economies – and thrived through both. Today, Pizza Plus is a four-store chain with 100 employees.

       Pizza Plus had humble beginnings averaging $9,000 a              month in sales. Last year, sales were $500,000 a month, a 26     percent year-over-year increase from 2010 to 2011.

“So far this year we’re up another 20 percent,” Blake said.

Looking ahead, Blake plans to expand Pizza Plus regionally in the next five years.

Blake attributes much of his success to a terrific staff and to the mentoring and support from peer groups.

The annual Pizza Expo convention keeps him and his staff abreast of trends, innovations and industry advances and marketing techniques.

In addition, he regularly meets with owners of other local small businesses and a professional business coach.  He currently is part of a SCORE-Reno group facilitated by John Moran and Nicole Barde. SCORE is a free service of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) dedicated to helping small businesses grow.

In prior years he paid for professional business coaching from other facilitators including the private Vistage group.

He finds peer advice invaluable in learning to balance life and work.

“They hold your feet to the fire. They support the entire life-balance focus. Each of us is a three-legged stool and you need to pay attention to each leg – you, your family and your business. You need to work on all of them,” he said.

Past mentor groups charged up to $12,000 a year per person.  SCORE does basically the same thing – free of charge.

“One thing that amazed me is that even with the diversity of businesses in our group – the similarities of what we’d run into – supply issues, customer service – are the same across industries. It’s great to have a group of peers of business owners. It’s just not the same as talking to your employees, because you’re the boss,” he said.

He learned of SCORE after the latest recession hit in 2009. The fees became too much for some business owners in the construction and trades.

“We meet once a month. We’re all owners of different local businesses (no direct competitors). SCORE is a life preserver for established business trying to find ways to make it. The counselors have a great wealth of experiences. They’re very bright people,” he said.

Pizza Plus is part of SCORE’s Northern Nevada Business Forum (NNBF). Owners like Blake and SCORE facilitators meet to share their unique knowledge and talents with each other to help their companies prosper and grow, said Moran.

“This pooling of resources often results in new business opportunities, specific problem resolution and valuable contacts for all members,” Moran said.

Hiring the right people matters. 

Great people, key to any organization, Blake said. He has more than a dozen who have been with Pizza Plus more than 10 years.

“You have to have trust in your people and training the right people. It’s by far the hardest lesson in running a business,” he said.

Dennis Cain, Blake’s old boss at Shakey’s, joined Pizza Plus early on and today is director of operations.

“One of the growing pains was letting go and building a system for consistency of operations between (stores),” Blake said.

His toughest issue over the years was marketing and advertising.

“We made lots of mistakes in our early marketing efforts. They were just horrible,” Blake said.

Hiring Ann Armbruster, marketing director, changed that. She over sees their community partnership program, which has allowed Pizza Plus to give out $75,000 last year to local teams and organizations, while bringing in new customers.

Pizza Plus puts customer service and food value right up front, Armbruster said. “That’s what keeps a customer. We want them to say ‘Wow’ every time,” she said. Staff members know they are part of the team that makes the business a success.

“Dan inspires his staff with leadership his perseverance, both are such rare commodities these days,” Armbruster said.

With SCORE, Blake is developing a strategic plan to take Pizza Plus to the next level – expanding regionally.   SCORE is helping him focus on organizational systems and getting a strategic plan in place.

“It’s a document to help keep us on track. We’re so busy running the business, actually doing it is tough,” he said.

“It is a pleasure to work with Dan and to see him applying tools and ideas from the NNBF to help his company grow,” Moran said.