February 25, 2024

You’re the Boss Blog: Wrestling With Expansion Plans

She Owns It

Portraits of women entrepreneurs.

At the most recent meeting of the She Owns It business group, the owners gave updates on some longstanding issues, and raised a few new ones. Thinking Caps Tutoring, owned by Alexandra Mayzler, may be closing — and opening — a location. At the same time, Ms. Mayzler is moving ahead with the company’s new tagline and a Web site redesign. Beth Shaw, who owns YogaFit, also has plans to revamp her Web site. But they’ve recently been delayed.

Ms. Mayzler opened a Houston location in January. Now she is considering closing it because the branch has failed to pay for itself, let alone make a profit. She’s not sure why. Perhaps, she speculated, it’s because of personnel changes in that office or maybe it’s because Houston’s population is so spread out. “But those are just excuses,” she added. For now, she plans to see how things go through December and determine whether Thinking Caps should adjust its Houston prices.

Thinking Caps’ location in Austin, Tex., is doing fine, Ms. Mayzler said. New York, where the business started, remains its largest market. And despite the disappointing results in Houston, Ms. Mayzler is still interested in expanding. But this time, she plans to stay closer to home.

She has set her sights on central New Jersey, a location Thinking Caps can manage from New York with existing staff. Despite high demand for tutors in “the obvious places like Long Island, Westchester, and northern New Jersey,” Ms. Mayzler said it’s been hard to find tutors to service those areas. “No 20-year-olds live in Westchester,” she said. “So you wind up sending tutors out there, which is a logistical pain and very difficult and exhausting for the tutors.”

Central New Jersey appeals to her because it is close enough to keep an eye on from New York, yet far enough from the city to pull in different clients. And with Princeton and Rutgers in the area, there are plenty of graduate students to draw on as potential tutors. She said she has already interviewed a few promising prospects. Additionally, Thinking Caps is contacting schools and education professionals in the area. “We’re just feeling it out — we’re not going to do anything crazy,” she said. But if everything falls into place, she hopes to move forward.

In addition to making these decisions, Ms. Mayzler is overseeing the redesign of her Web site, which she said is proceeding on schedule. “I was thrilled to see all the comments Deirdre got,” she said, referring to reactions to my previous post in which the group member Deirdre Lord, who owns the Megawatt Hour, solicited feedback on her company’s site. Ms. Mayzler said many of the comments addressed issues that wouldn’t have crossed her mind.

“Did you ever pick a tagline?” asked Ms. Lord, following up on a discussion from previous posts.

Yes, she said. “We’re going with, ‘Where bright students become brilliant learners.’”

Ms. Lord said she loved it but didn’t recall hearing it among the options Ms. Mayzler mentioned during earlier meetings.

Actually, said Ms. Mayzler, it was one of her first ideas. When she came up with it, she ran it by two people. One liked it and the other said it was too long, so she scrapped it. But recently, she revisited all her old ideas. She realizes it’s long but, “I’m not coming up with the next, ‘Just do it,’” she said, referring to the Nike slogan. Thinking Caps’ logo will be redesigned to complement the longer tagline.

Further refining Thinking Caps’ tutor-training program, which Ms. Mayzler revamped last fall, is also on her 2012 to-do list. “By December 15, a lot of stuff needs to get finished at Thinking Caps,” she said.

The conversation turned to Ms. Lord, who said Green Capital Empire, which introduces investors and start-ups, just named her company one of the 50 most promising privately held green tech companies in New York. She said she is trying to figure out what, if anything, this will mean for the Megawatt Hour. At the very least, it puts the company on the radar screens of potential angel investors and V.C.’s, she said. “We’ll see about what it really turns into, but it’s better than not being on the list,” she added.

Ms. Shaw said she is back to “square one” with YogaFit’s Web site redesign plans. “I thought I had found a company to redo our Web site and they ended up bailing,” she said.

“Why?” Ms. Mayzler asked.

“They wanted us to switch to their back-end system to go forward and then said their quote was going to be higher than they anticipated, so I’m thinking they didn’t realize the scope of the work when they first looked at the project,” she said. YogaFit now uses Orderwave to manage its inventory, which includes apparel, books, DVDs and CDs. Ms. Shaw said that Orderwave, unlike the back-end system the Web design firm proposed, is compatible with QuickBooks, which her company uses. Additionally, she said YogaFit has invested at least $100,000 into the Orderwave system and has no plans to switch to another one.

In future posts, we will take a closer look at all of the companies’ Web sites. In the meantime, do you think Ms. Mayzler’s expansion plans make sense? If your business has expanded geographically, how did you decide on the right location?

You can follow Adriana Gardella on Twitter.

Article source: http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/wrestling-with-expansion-plans/?partner=rss&emc=rss

You’re the Boss Blog: Getting the Message Across to Your Employees

She Owns It

Portraits of women entrepreneurs.

Alexandra MayzlerSara Krulwich/The New York TimesAlexandra Mayzler

How do you get your employees to think like you? During a recent meeting of our business group, Alexandra Mayzler raised that question as she weighs expanding her business, Thinking Caps Tutoring, into new markets. Thinking Caps currently has locations in New York City and Austin, Tex. Ms. Mayzler is considering opening a Houston outpost,but said she wants to be sure systems are in place before taking the plunge.

Over the summer, Ms. Mayzler worked with her staff to create a manual that provides a blueprint for opening and running a Thinking Caps location. The detailed manual offers guidance on everything from the proper way to save a document, to the script to use when first meeting with a student’s family. But, said Ms. Mayzler, “It’s really boring, and I think no one will want to read it.” She hopes to find a more dynamic and engaging way to present the information, and she would also like to improve the way the company trains its tutors, which she fears is too boring.

“We’ve written four operations manuals for the company at this point,” said group member Carissa Reiniger, who founded Silver Lining Limited in 2005. At first, all of the information was included in one document. But it was too much, said Ms. Reiniger. She has since broken it into components. For example, she said, Silver Lining’s manuals include a brand book and a “sales bible.”

“Did you sit down and write it one fine day?” asked Ms. Mayzler.

“I hired someone to sit me down and ask me questions,” said Ms. Reiniger. When she did the writing herself, she said, she found she spoke in a way that made sense to her but not necessarily to the intended audiences. Getting someone to translate her thoughts into a form that others could more readily absorb worked well, she said.

Still, Ms. Mayzler wondered about the boredom. She asked how Silver Lining, which offers an online tool that helps small businesses set and reach financial goals, presents the information. Ms. Reiniger uses Google Sites, an application that lets her create separate Web sites for the different categories of people in the company, including the staff and the certified experts who teach her Silver Lining Action Plan. The sites provide access to materials relevant to each group.

Like Ms. Mayzler, Jessica Johnson, another business group member, has spent the last few months working to standardize processes at her growing company, Johnson Security Bureau. Toward that end, she used a grant from the Economic Development Administration to hire a human resources consulting firm. Working with the consultants, Johnson Security created an intranet site to store material for the company’s guards, including their schedules and information on company policies.

The site is also easy to update. One day, after spotting an earring on a uniformed guard, a client called Ms. Johnson to ask if that was allowed. “No,” she said. Although the policy was stated in the company’s written manual, it was then added to the Web site — “for people who don’t like paper,” said Ms. Johnson.

Susan Parker, a group member who owns BariJay, a dress manufacturer, asked how the employees were notified of such additions. The site generates and sends e-mails, said Ms. Johnson.

Ms. Reiniger pointed out that, while it’s her responsibility to notify the staff of new policies, it is their responsibility to be aware of them. New employees sign a document to that effect. She added that her perspective on presenting company policies has changed. “I built this amazing manual, and no one ever read it,” she said. She now sees Silver Lining’s written polices more as risk management tools and less as “something I’m going to force everyone to read.”

“That’s exactly where I am,” Ms. Mayzler said. “Except we’re working with 13-year-olds, and their parents only care about the end result.” If a tutor doesn’t read her policies, it becomes Ms. Mayzler’s problem.

“I agree with that,” said Ms. Reiniger. “It’s all of our problems if our products don’t work.”

Ms. Mayzler agreed. She has a manual and her tutors seem to be reading it, she said, but based on some of their questions, she senses the material is not having an impact. “For all their good intentions, something’s not clicking in the way we’re communicating,” she said. “We’re teachers, so we should be able to figure this out.” Now, instead of thinking about how to teach math to a 13-year-old, Ms. Mayzler said she will continue to think about how to teach a 25-year-old.

You can follow Adriana Gardella on Twitter.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=721f740e289bb1315a696375981f4459

Bits Blog: F.C.C. Chairman Counsels Students to Be Moderate With Digital Media

Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, welcomed students back to school on Thursday by asking them to walk a line: use technology to learn, but don’t get distracted by it.

In remarks at a back-to-school forum in Washington, the chairman said that with high-speed Internet, “a student anywhere can have access to the best libraries, the best teachers, the best tutors in the world.”

“How many of you are sick of carrying 50 pounds of textbooks in your backpacks?” he asked students at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus. He went on to say that the use of mobile broadband could allow access to digital textbooks and “interactive learning tools.”

But the chairman also said that “as with every revolution, broadband Internet brings not only real opportunities but some real concerns.” Chiefly, he said policy makers and parents should be concerned about the potential for distraction; he said that research shows that the average teenager consumes 11 hours of media content a day, and sends a text every 10 minutes he or she is awake.

Mr. Genachowski said that half of driving-age teenagers have admitted to texting and driving. “We need to get that number to zero.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=a8559ec79cb1ee78391c80f2e68feeb6

Your Money: When One Child’s Illness Is Worth Less Than Another’s

In the last couple of years, Sallie Mae has been trying to deepen its financial ties with customers, adding an online bank and a credit card.

And earlier this month, it added a curious product known as tuition refund insurance, which can make you whole if an ill child must withdraw from college sometime during the term.

The insurance, which Sallie offers in partnership with Next Generation Insurance Group, a company it recently bought a stake in, doesn’t treat all sickness equally, though. If a student withdraws because of a physical illness or injury, a family gets 100 percent of its money back. People who leave because of mental health problems, however, get only 75 percent back.

This would probably be illegal if tuition refund policies were deemed health insurance, instead of insurance that just happens to be based solely on your health. Federal law now mandates equal coverage for mental and physical illness in many instances when employers offer any health insurance for mental illness.

Even if disparate tuition insurance coverage is legal, however, it’s still offensive to people who spent their careers fighting for so-called mental health parity. “There should be a buyer beware sign blinking on and off,” said Ken Libertoff, who ran the Vermont Association for Mental Health for 30 years. “Parents need to know that there is a fatal flaw in these plans’ constructions.”

Indeed, that construction suggests a question: Is it even worth taking an insurance offer seriously when it forces you to accept less coverage for the debilitating illness that is most likely to befall you?

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Tuition refund insurance in the United States dates back to 1930, when a company called A. W. G. Dewar offered a plan that provided tutors to families whose children were home sick for an extended period. Eventually, the insurance became a policy that paid out cash to make up for whatever a private primary or secondary school would not refund.

Dewar’s offering took root at private schools, and today it serves about 1,200 private elementary and secondary schools along with 180 colleges, where the tuition stakes can be even higher.

According to Dewar, just over half of secondary schools (though only one college) that offer the insurance make it mandatory for some or all families — say, for new students, who may have adjustment problems — or for anyone who doesn’t pay tuition in full up front. At colleges, fewer than 10 percent of parents choose to buy the tuition refund plans.

That low take rate at colleges probably reflects the “it can’t happen to me” syndrome, but perhaps some parents who have dug into the details discovered that these policies often covered mental illness differently from physical injury. Not only is the payout less, but the insurance often requires a multiday hospital stay as a sort of proof that the depression or anxiety is real.

A couple of years ago, a University of Vermont student named Sherry Williamson discovered that the Dewar policy available to her fellow students worked like that. As a registered nurse suffering from depression, she found the differing treatment difficult to stomach. “I couldn’t believe that UVM, which tries to promote diversity and be all-encompassing, would take on a policy that was clearly discriminatory,” she said.

She found her way to Mr. Libertoff, who got her complaint in front of the appropriate state agencies. Like the federal government, Vermont had its own mental health parity law, but the state ultimately used a separate nondiscrimination statute to force Dewar and the university to equalize its coverage.

In the wake of that decision, another insurance company called Markel that offers tuition refund policies decided to offer equal coverage on all policies nationwide that it sold through schools, rather than risk the wrath of state insurance commissioners.

Sallie Mae, however, chose to adopt the disparate treatment approach even though it’s using Markel as its underwriter. According to John Fees, president of the Sallie partner Next Generation, it had no choice if it wanted to offer affordable premiums to everyone in the United States and do away with any mental illness hospitalization requirement.

How much more would it have cost to offer equal coverage? “I’m not at liberty to say that at this point,” he said. “It’s a confidential business relationship with Markel.”

Mr. Fees seemed a bit miffed by my suggestion that his policy might be discriminatory on its face. “I live with a clinical psychologist, and I had this conversation with her,” he said. “The aim is never to discriminate against anyone.” When I asked Dana Tufts, Dewar’s president, about the potential for discrimination, his public relations representative, Carmen Duarte, interrupted and refused to let him answer.

Discriminatory or not, it’s possible that Sallie’s policy is actually too generous. The price starts at $599 for the maximum $50,000 in school year coverage for tuition, room, board and other related expenses, with some identity theft and medical evacuation insurance thrown in gratis. The price goes down from there if families want less coverage. Also, undergraduates who borrowed money from Sallie Mae starting July 1 get $5,000 in tuition refund coverage free.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=cf1645ab13efa6a49923b5691502fe0f