Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Sometimes Truth is Actually Stranger than Fiction

In my new job with Prince William County Development Services Department (permitting). Previously (and for the past 30 years) I practiced economic development, which is the business of "why".
Permitting is the business of "how". It can be complex and quite interesting. I continue developing the infamous 30 second elevator speech (you know, what do you do).  Right now I can certainly explain it, but not in a tight and coherent 30 second response. 
My exploration and quest of knowledge about the local permitting is ongoing. Sometimes it appears as common sense.  An example?  Continue.  As you read this column you might think it is a joke or a parody.  Let me assure you, it is not.
Now normally I do not post entire articles on my blog.  However, this is different.  It is an excellent column by Ms. Rachel Greszler about the challenges of permitting a lemonade stand in Montgomery County, MD.  The article appeared in the Washington Post
It’s time for Maryland to stop criminalizing kids’ lemonade stands
A children’s lemonade stand is moved in Bethesda after the stand’s operators were warned by the Montgomery County Department of Permitting Services in 2011. (Amanda Voisard/The Washington Post)

By Rachel Greszler 
Feb. 7, 2020 at 7:00 a.m. EST

Rachel Greszler is a research fellow in economics, budget and entitlements for the Heritage Foundation and the mother of six lemonade stand-loving children.

It’s hard to find fault with a kids’ lemonade stand. In fact, I can’t help but smile when I see one.

But in some places, it is literally a crime to operate a lemonade stand on your own property unless you’ve first gotten all the required government licenses and permits. Same thing if you’re thinking about selling hot chocolate or any other beverage.

In fact, about a mile up the road from my home, Montgomery County authorities shut down a lemonade stand in a front yard because the kids were operating without a permit. Officials slapped their family with a $500 fine. So much for the kids’ plan to donate 50 percent of their profits to a pediatric cancer charity.

After a public outcry over this action, county officials dropped the charges and the fine. But the law criminalizing unlicensed lemonade stands hasn’t changed.

Maryland’s health code makes it a crime to operate a “food establishment” (which includes a lemonade stand) that does not comply with the state’s licensing requirements. The first offense is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and 90 days in prison. A second offense carries up to a $2,500 fine and one-year imprisonment.

In addition to these criminal penalties (which typically fall on the parents of children operating unlicensed lemonade stands), the children themselves are liable for up to $5,000 in civil penalties.

So what would kids and parents need to do to operate a legal lemonade stand? It’s not entirely clear, but in Montgomery County, it could require obtaining as many as six licenses and permits:

1. A sidewalk vendor license;
2. A site-specific vendors license;
3. A limited duration sign permit;
4. An awning or canopy permit;
5. A mobile food service unit license; and
6. A special food service facility license for temporary events.

What 6- or 10-year-old has the wherewithal to do all that? And what parent is going to go through all that hassle just so their kids can have fun and make a buck?

Putting kids’ lemonade stands out of business isn’t the same as ending a person’s livelihood, but it’s nonetheless disturbing and lamentable.

Operating a lemonade stand teaches kids all sorts of valuable life lessons. For starters, they have to work together, divvying up jobs of making the sign, setting up the table, making the lemonade and obtaining the cups.

Then there are the economics and math lessons involved in pricing the lemonade and making change for customers.

And attracting and interacting with customers can help build kids’ interpersonal skills. I know my more reserved children have learned a thing or two from watching their more outgoing siblings actively recruit customers and strike up conversations with neighbors.
In fact, running a lemonade stand is such a well-established and well-regarded rite of passage, it’s even integrated in childhood development curriculums. Among my kids’ after-school activity programs is a “My First Lemonade Stand” course, which aims to “empower kids with an entrepreneurial mindset” while introducing them to the disciplines of finance, strategy and marketing.

Fortunately, the Maryland legislature is considering bipartisan legislation that would bar localities from adopting or enforcing regulations on the sale of lemonade and other nonalcoholic beverages by minors on private property.

With Maryland’s new slogan and welcome signs touting “We’re Open for Business,” it’s time to stop criminalizing children’s lemonade stands and let them enjoy this common childhood pastime while learning a thing or two about business.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Do not Meet, Exceed Customer...

Expectations!  That is the word.

This post is about exceeding expectations.  I read it in Entrepreneur and it made me think about this very concept. 

How often have you had a highly positive experience after purchasing a product or using a service?  It occurred to me after reading this article that it or the individual exceeded my expectations.  

You can think of numerous examples of expectations either exceeded or not. A few that come to mind is a meal at a restaurant (see article), watching a movie, returning an item to a store, a haircut, trying a new dish, flying, or an experience with a customer service staffer. 

All of these (and many more) reflect that we generally have predetermined expectations.  When it is less, we are disappointed. When it is met, we are pleased, but nothing to brag about to other.  However, when it is exceeded, we talk very positively about it to our friends and others. 

I do not believe I consciously thought about this in these terms as is applied to my career, but I think I do. And so do others.  

If you ask most people to relate their experience to a government agency, it is probably one of two departments:  motor vehicles and revenue.  And that experience likely leads to very low expectations (mainly because you do not want to be at either one in the first place).  And how many jokes have you heard about going to get a driver's license, the process of getting a license, and the motor vehicle department staff. 

Allow me to offer an example of one government employee who likely exceeds expectations with every customer.  In my suite I can hear interactions of county government employees with the public.  One individual in particular comes to mind. I hear her bright and sunny greeting to each customer who approaches her counter with a land use issue.  So just think about every customer who gets an enthusiastic greeting from a government employee, more than likely expectations have been exceeded right off the mark. She also is very well informed.

In my case, I look at the businesses and citizens that I serve (and I do mean serve) as clients. If my expertise or knowledge of a particular resource can help clients avoid a pain point, than it is worth the extra effort.  A couple of examples.  I would find programs or initiatives of interest and send them to appropriate businesses.  But I would craft an email (with careful formatting) that contains key points like a summary of the program, milestones, criteria, link, etc.  It is far easy to just send the program title and a link (thus meeting expectations) or making it far easier for my clients to glean the most relevant data and then decide if going to the program is worth the trouble (exceeding expectations). 

A second example is my most recent task.  Agribusiness is growing in the County, but the permitting process is a challenge. I was asked to prepare a flowchart of the County permitting process for a new agribusiness venture. The first flowchart is for an alcohol manufacturing facility (winery, brewery, or distillery) on a farm. I could have done just the County process, but I chose to add federal and state permits too. Why? My clients will benefit from understanding the entire permitting process.  Without consciously thinking about it, I tried to exceed the expectations of my boss and my customers. 

You may already do this, but you just do not look at it from this perspective. 

Enjoy the article and I hope it makes you think about your career. 

Link to article:  https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/344385

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Staying on Top is a Constant Challenge

This is a brief post.  One common theme in my posts is the importance of innovation.  This article highlights just that.  

The article is about Spotify and how it was a disruptive technology.  Now, how does Spotify maintain its leading position?  Especially when new and well funded competitors are on the horizon. In addition, technology adaption is an underlying current in disruptive technology. 

Link to article:  https://fortune.com/longform/spotify-music-industry-profits-apple-amazon/

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Take Advantage of Opportunities

One of the frequent topics I write about is economic development agencies taking advantage of changes in a competitor's circumstances.  

This one is no different. It is an excellent Fortune article by Viviene Walt about Amsterdam's strategy, execution, and likely success in becoming the financial center of the European Union when the United Kingdom finally exits. 

A key point, Amsterdam built on existing advantages. The city was up against stiff competition that included Paris and Frankfurt. 

However, the effort to attract the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to Amsterdam is an excellent part of the story. As you read the article, you will see why attracting the EMA was so important and how Amsterdam executed the strategy. 

Link to article:  https://fortune.com/longform/brexit-amsterdam-the-new-london-europe-companies/

Friday, February 21, 2020

It is Not Always About the Money

I love this article. It was in Bloomberg BusinessWeek. This piece was written by Pharhant Gopal and Vildana Hajric.

Two New York City suburbs, New Rochelle and Yonkers, are taking substantial steps to recruit millennials from Manhattan.  

The focus is on building mixed use developments of interest to millennials.  Equally important is providing the type of services that appeal to millennials. As you read the article you will see how much research was done.  It is very impressive.

Note that both suburbs enticed developers to build luxury apartments by offering two primary incentives:  long term tax breaks and rapid permit approval. 

Rapid permit approval is not generally considered a monetary incentive by most people. However, for a developer or industry, rapid permit approval ranks right up with cash and tax breaks.  Time to market definitely impacts the revenue stream and how quick profitability is achieved.   

As you read the article take note of the concerted and comprehensive effort to recruit millennials from Manhattan and New York City. It includes understanding your market, building what your research tells you the market want, and how to incent developers to partner with you.  

Link to article:  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-12-17/how-nyc-suburbs-yonkers-and-new-rochelle-are-wooing-millennials?srnd=businessweek-v2

Sunday, February 9, 2020

What You Measure is What you get

I love economics.  It is a fascinating field and is filled with incredible measurements and indices.  And remember what President Harry Truman said about economists.  “Give me a one-handed Economist. All my economists say 'on one hand...', then 'but on the other...”

One of the best aspects of economics is the churn of ideas and theories. One man is trying to move the conversation away from Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Dr. Mark Skousen, an economist suggested using another way to measure an economy is GO or Gross Output. This started in Great Britain.  

Dr. Skousen teaches at Chapman University.  He is also an investment adviser and author of several books. The following link takes you to an article and pod cast. It is worth the read and a listen.  

Link to article:  https://www.forbes.com/sites/steveforbes/2019/09/09/were-using-the-wrong-measure-gdp-to-gauge-the-economys-real-health-mark-skousen/#3b1d840452fa

Saturday, January 18, 2020


This post includes one of my favorite items:  hummus.  It is also about an entrepreneur who recognizes the need to pivot due to customer feedback and becomes very successful. 

The article is from Entrepreneur and highlights the struggles of Jesse Wolfe and his firm, O'Dang Hummus.  

As we know from reading the article, he faced the same challenges other start-up firms have when competing in the food industry and retail sales.  The article notes that Mr. Wolfe overcame the initial issues of product development, testing, reevaluating, and getting on a supermarket shelf.  But he still did not meet his expectations. 

Unlike others who fail, he learned from his product testing and found another avenue.  It required him to significantly revise the final product, but he could have never done it without customer feedback. Sometimes we forget that the customer can offer insights others simply cannot see.  Mr. Wolfe heard them and acted accordingly. 

I think you will enjoy the article. It is authored by Jason Feifer.  Mr. Feifer does an excellent job carrying you through Wolfe's journey.