Friday, January 31, 2014

Because I Said I Would...

"Integrity is telling myself the truth.  And honesty is telling the truth to other people"
~Spencer Johnson

The first week of the year, our entire staff found themselves in a meeting with our health insurance representative.  This meant that there was no one to answer the phones... so I volunteered.

After a minute or two of silence the phone rang and I suddenly found myself on the line with a long-time customer and a conversation ensued.

He asked me about how OptiFuse performed last year, and I explained that it was the best year we’ve Written-Promisehad in our 23 year history.  

I then asked him how his business was doing and what was he expecting in the upcoming year.

He told me that his business was also very strong but that he was embattled in a nasty lawsuit in which he was the plaintiff.

"It’s not like I wanted to sue anyone", he said, "but I really had no choice... the other company failed to do what we had agreed on... and now they want to renege..."

"When I first got into business, we didn’t need a bunch of contracts... we just agreed on the terms... shook hands... and that was that..."

"Now days, I need to have everything in writing because very few people will stand by their word... especially those in large faceless corporations... it’s very frustrating..."

I told him that I couldn’t agree more with him.

When things are good... everyone seems to be on the same page... it’s only when things start to go sideways does a person’s or company’s true character emerge.

I shared with him my own experiences with American Express back in 2008 when the credit bubble burst.

Unlike credit cards, American Express is simply a charge card.  It does not allow its customer to keep an ongoing balance on the account but rather requires the balance to be paid at the end of each monthly cycle. 

Customers (American Express likes to refer to their customer as members) use their AMEX cards as a convenience not necessarily as a financing tool.  In turn American Express, knowing that there is little credit risk with this structure, touts that they do not limit their members spending by having any predetermined credit limits.  

OptiFuse regularly used our American Express charge card to purchase raw materials and pay for certain company expenses... averaging about $50,000 each month in purchases (you can only imagine all the frequent flyer miles with this type of arrangement)... which was promptly paid at the end of the billing cycle.

In 2008, the housing bubble burst, sending shock waves into the financial markets unseen since the Great Depression. 

Within weeks, I received a letter from American Express telling me that they had reduced my open-ended credit limit to a mere $3,000.  I tried talking with them, but it was to no avail.  Everything they did was legal and could be found in the microscopic fine print of their terms and conditions.

As you can imagine, this was a severe blow to our cash-flow management. 

When things got tough for financial institutions, American Express turned their backs on their most loyal customers and left them in the lurch.

In discussing this situation with several of my business associates, they shared similar stories about American Express so I felt some solace in knowing that I wasn’t the only person treated this way... but still... I have vowed never to do business with this company again. 

When things got tough... they hid behind their contracts and legalese...

I recently read an article about a young man named Alex Sheen in an airline in-flight magazine.

Alex Sheen recently Contractcelebrated his 29th birthday.  On September 4, 2012, Alex’s father, Wei Min "Al" Sheen, passed away at the age of 55 after a brief battle with lung cancer.

Alex was working for a software company in Ohio at the time of his father’s death. 

He remembers going into the office the following day just to keep his mind busy, but soon found himself reminiscing about his father.

He then recalled how his father would regularly get angry at people... not everyone... but rather those people who failed to keep their word... including Alex himself...

That thought was an epiphany for Alex... so he sat down and tried hard to recall a single moment in his father’s life that he failed to keep his word... after an hour he simply gave up...

His father always did what he said he’d do... he always paid his bills on time... he always kept his promises...

A few days later, Alex gave the eulogy at his father’s funeral.  It was important to him that the people, who were gathered there that day, left the service as changed individuals.

During his eulogy, he decided to hand each person at the service a blank business card with the words "because I said I would... " typed in the lower corner of the card.

The premise was I-Saidsimple... write a promise on a card and give it to another person... when that promise is fulfilled... you get the card back... sort of as a reward...

The promise doesn’t need to be anything big... for example it can be a promise to give blood, lose some weight, finish a project or not hit the snooze button on the alarm for an entire week.

Alex passed out about 200 cards that day.

Later that day, Alex posted on his Facebook page that he would send the first 100 people who messaged him 10 promise cards free of charge.

Due to the viral action of the Internet, soon he was sending cards to complete strangers across the globe... well beyond the initial 100.

At first, Alex addressed and sent the envelopes himself, but it was soon becoming a daunting task.  

Alex created a foundation and website ( to help with the funding. 

Volunteers were soon enlisted to help with the onslaught of requests. 

So far he’s been able to fund his shoestring operation from donations and sales of t-shirts bearing the words "because I said I would... "

Within the first year, Alex and his volunteers have now sent 10 free promise cards to over 10,000 people throughout the world.

People use their cards for all types of commitments and often send their commitments to Alex, which he posts on the foundation’s website.

On September 3, 2013, Alex posted a video on YouTube with the title, "I killed a man" (click here to watch)... in less than 10 days it racked up more than 2 million views. 

The video was a confession by Matthew Cordle who tells the audience that on June 22, 2013, he was driving drunk and hit and killed Vincent Canzani. 

A few seconds later Cordle holds up a promise card that reads "I will take fully responsibility for what I’ve done..."

Cordle has been arrested, charged, and sentenced for his crime (6 1/2 years in prison). 

Today, Alex continues to receive promise cards from people around the world... people who are committed to commitment...

After reading the article I sent away for my promise cards and received them shortly before Christmas (I also bought a t-shirt, additional cards, and sent Alex a small donation).

Several times now, I’ve had the opportunity to write a promise to someone (or to myself)... a promise that I am sure to keep...

My promise is better than any contract that I’ll ever sign... not because I wrote it down on a small promise card...

...but because I said I would...
Thank you very much for your continued support of OptiFuse where our number one priority is doing what we said we would do...

Friday, January 24, 2014

This & That - Part II...

While eating lunch this past Sunday, I noticed that the television had been left on in the living room.

Playing on the TV criticalwas a show called the "Shark Tank" where "contestants" pitch business ideas to a panel of venture capitalists (or more accurately "Angel Investors" as the sum of money was still relatively small) to try and get them to invest their own money in their ideas.

I was captivated by the show, not because of the investment pitches, but rather because of the astute questions being asked by the wealthy panelists.

The questions included:
  • Is your product protected by patents to keep out "would-be" competitors?   
  • Who is your customer?   
  • What are your current sales, how much does it take to make the product, and what are your margins?  
  • How big is the overall market for your product/service?  
  • What are your expenses?  
  • How much work do you do and how much do you pay yourself?  
  • What will you do with our money if we give some to you?
All of these questions are critical for an aspiring entrepreneur to be able to answer honestly, confidently and succinctly. 

They need to be able to communicate quickly and effectively... what is their business... how it makes a profit... and what is the potential return for the investors who do give them money (remember... they are investors... not bankers).

I sat there and watched three such entrepreneurs give their presentation to the investors; however, none of the three seemed to have mastered the answers to the panel’s most basic questions.

Sure... they might have had a good idea... but they seemed to know nothing (or very little) about actually running a profitable business.

In the end... none of them were actually funded by the Angels...

What struck me as strange was that there they were... on national television... trying to feed these very sophisticated investors (sharks) a bunch of bologna... thinking perhaps that their simple idea was enough to "wow" these professional investors rather than concrete facts and a solid business plan. 

Before they actually made their pitches... one would think that they would have tried to get some coaching to be a little better prepared to answer the difficult questions posed to them.

It’s just some friendly advice should you ever decide to start your own business and find yourself face-to-face with the sharks.


I am a big fan of college basketball... particularly the San Diego State Aztecs...

At the moment, my team happens to be doing very well...

The overall record of the team is 17-1, 6-0 in its conference play, and is currently enjoying a 16-game winning streak while being rank #7 in the country.

However if you were to read comments on their fan page and not have known their record this season, you would have thought that the team record is below .500 and perhaps in last place in their conference.

It seems almost everyone who posts comments on their fan site is critical of something the teams does or doesn’t do correctly. 

If they play great defense, there is someone to write that the team didn’t generate enough offense...

If they score a lot of dunks... someone bashes the team for not making 3-point shots...

If they create turnovers with aggressive play... someone will comment how the coaches are just gambling and that it will soon come back to hurt the team in the end...

A lot of the team’s fans believe that they are bona fide basketball analysts and seem to think they know more about the game than the coaches (including one who has won a college national championship). 

When publicly questioned about their motives, these "negative Nellies" often scuff it off by saying that they are just doing the team a favor by pointing out their flaws so the team can get better...

...but I don’t buy it...

As human beings, we all have our positives and negatives... this is what makes us human...

Most of us don’t go around pointing out people’s inherent deficiencies...

...yet there are some of us in this world who, for whatever reason, can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to belittling others... generally with the attitude that they are only pointing out the flaws in order to make someone a better person...

I’m sure that all of us have had a boss like this at one time in our careers (maybe even today). 
This is the kind of person who is always critical of your work regardless how good it is... never complimenting you on what you did right... but sure to quickly point out what you did wrong...

This person manages others using fear and intimidation rather than incentives, positive feedback, and additional training...

The ironic part is that this type of manager actually thinks that they are doing the employees (and the company in general) a great service by pointing out the negatives so they have something to improve upon...

Then they wonder why no one likes being around them... go figure...

Relationships aren’t built by pointing out each other’s flaws but rather accepting people for who they are...


Last week, I had the opportunity to meet up with an old friend who I’ve now know for almost thirty-years. 

She currently lives in New York but still has family and friends in the area so she tries to visit as often as she can.

Even though we rarely talk during the time she is back in New York, we somehow always find a way to see each other when she’s back in town... meeting for what seems like a 3-hour breakfast where we laugh, trade ideas and ponder the wonders of the world together...

It’s not always convenient for me to steal away from work for a half-day to meet her but I do so because we share history together and she is a part of the fabric of my life.

Friends bring us a bountiful harvest of laughter, joy, new ideas, shared experiences, provocative thought, and the knowledge and understanding that we are liked and loved.

Sometimes friendships just happen... but more often than not... it takes two people making a concerted effort to keep the friendship intact...

Every so often I have the opportunity to speak with young people... the best piece of advice I can offer them is to reach out to connect with people... cultivating and maintaining close and distant friendship over the course of your life...

The two most valuable assets I have are the experiences and knowledge that I’ve acquired over the years and the friends that I have surrounded myself with...

...two items that you’ll never see listed on any balance sheet... but that are indeed priceless...  

Thank you very much for your continued support of OptiFuse where we understand that life is a delicate balance between this and that.

Friday, January 17, 2014

An Uncomfortable Feeling...

"The depth of a man is a limit only he can know, should he have the courage to explore into the darkness." 

~Kyle Schmalenberg  

I have two good friends, Elizabeth and Josh, who recently returned from a trip to Kenya and Tanzania to travelsee the wildlife in the national parks of Serengeti and Masai Mara. 

They had dreamed of going there ever since they were married some 25 years ago and now that their children have all grown up and finished college it was time to go.

Last week I had the chance to meet my friend Josh for lunch so that I could get a first-hand account of the wonderful things he saw and the people that they had a chance to meet along the way.

As we sat down, I told him to tell me all about his trip...

He began by telling me that there wasn’t much to tell...

I looked at him somewhat stunned...

"What do you mean?, I asked, "you guys were actually living your dream!"

"Well... I guess our dream turned into a nightmare", Josh answered.

He went on to explain that accommodations at the lodge were less that first-class.

"We actually had to sleep in tents... although they were first class tents with queen-sized beds and a private bathroom... there was no phone or TV... and it really didn’t give us much in the way of privacy... we could hear everything outside and that meant that the animal and bird noises outside kept us up all night!"

"There was a main lodge where we had our meals together with the other guests... but it reminded me a lot of a cruise ship where every one is forced to eat with a bunch of strangers."

"There was no internet or TV except at the main lodge where we all share one community TV that mostly played old movies... my access to my email and Facebook was severely limited... "

"...and to top it off... it rained almost every day so we canceled most of our excursions to go out and see the animals... we manage to see a few things... but overall it was really a disappointing trip."

I sat there dumbfounded as thoughts streamed through my brain...

" can two people plan all their lives to go on their dream vacation and be foiled by a little rain?... it would have taken monsoons to stop me from going out to the park... "

"...exactly what kind of hotel did they think would exist out there in the plains of Africa?... the Plaza Hotel or Ritz-Carlton?"

"...what was wrong with meeting people from all over the world who shared similar dreams of adventuring out to seeing animals in their native surroundings?"

I told Josh that I was sorry to hear about their "troubled vacation" and quickly turned to another subject as I felt that there was no way to change his mind about his experiences...

As I was driving back to my office I began thinking about the incredible adventures I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to experience throughout my lifetime... the places I saw and the people I met.

Over the last 35 years, I’ve actually visited 56 different countries and have met some phenomenal people, some of whom I still stay in contact with after decades.

I wouldn’t trade those experiences for all the money in the world...

I certainly wouldn’t go to an exotic and/or storied locale hoping to lock myself in a sterile hotel room... sitting around and playing on the internet, grooming my social network, or constantly checking my e-mail.

There is whole giant world out there to see... why wouldn’t we want to spend every waking moment exploring... seeing new things and meeting new people?

Life is about creating shared experiences and connecting with people you don’t know...

...but perhaps you don’t feel compelled to travel to Africa to watch the lions, antelope and baboons in their native surroundings...

I say no problem... if you don’t want to go off to see the world... let the world come to you!

How many of us have co-workers that we know nothing about (other than perhaps seeing photos of their kids on their desk or a golf trophy on their bookcase).

Maybe it’s time to ask one of those people out to lunch to learn their story... everyone has a story to tell... they’re just waiting for someone to ask..

If getting to know co-workers is a bit "too close to home"... then maybe you need to take an adventure to a place in your city or town that you’ve never been to... a museum... a new restaurant... watch a little league baseball or hockey game...

Take the time to talk with the museum curator, the chef, or the young parent in the stands cheering on their kids... ask them how it is that they came to be at that exact place and time...

If you happen to live in a small town... well then it might be time to go out and visit a neighboring town and meet some of those folks...

Sure... we can lock ourselves up in our homes... spend all of our time watching TV, farming on Facebook or reading about how famous people live in People magazine...

Our home is safe... our cubical is safe... our little circle of friends is safe...

It’s easy to be frightened by strange places and people... it’s the fear of the unknown... it pushes us out of our own little comfort zone and forces us to be uncomfortable...

New places aren’t like our home town where we know our way around and the people there... so going somewhere else makes us a bit uncomfortable... because we feel safe staying where we know...

New foods are different from what we know and like... so sampling a new cuisine at a new restaurant makes us a bit uncomfortable... because trying new food could make us sick...

Other people speak with an accent or in a foreign language... they look different... they worship at a different church... they even smell differently... so meeting and talking with them makes us a bit uncomfortable... because we can’t trust them...

Life takes courage to overcome our fears and our comfortableness...  

There is a big world out there to explore with some 7 billion inhabitants residing somewhere else other than where we live...

Life is a summation of experiences... both good and bad...

The world is waiting for you to join in and is anxiously waiting for you to participate...

Thank you very much for your continued support of OptiFuse where it is our goal to make you as comfortable as possible.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Intro to Finance 101...

"What you do with what you have is far more important than what you have"
                                                 ~  George Clason

So it's now the second week of January... so for most of us... that means two things...

The Christmas decorations are now safety put away until next year... and our New Year's resolutions are already history...

Experts say that the two most common New Year's resolutions are to lose weight (get healthy) and to save money / get out of debt.

Now long time readers of the my blog have already heard about my annual "Skinny Jimmy" diet that I do each autumn (to re-read about the Skinny Jimmy diet click here)... today I want to talk about the second most popular resolution... finances.

So here's my story...

In growing up in a large "blue collar" working-class family, my parents did all they could to put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads.  If my siblings and I wanted money to do things or buy things we needed to go out and earn the money ourselves.  This was just the way things were...

At 12 years old, I decided that I was old enough to push a lawn mower and use a pair of scissor trimmers to mow and edge a lawn. 

So all summer long I went around the neighborhood soliciting customers who wanted their lawns mowed.  I also did weeding, tree trimming, and a variety of other yard work where I could earn a very modest sum of money.

On a typical Saturday, I would work up to 6-8 hours doing manual labor around the neighborhood and by the end of the day, I might have a whole $5 in my pocket (probably worth about $50 in today's dollars)... which wasn't too bad for a 12-year old at the time.

After my "work", I would go to the local convenience store, buy a Coke and stock up on candy, and then perhaps walk with my friends to the theater to see a movie.

On Sunday, after church, I would buy a doughnut at the church bake sale.  Later that afternoon, I might head back down to the store to buy a Slurpee.

By Monday, typically I was out of money...

... but on Thursday there was a matinee movie that I really wanted to see... so I convinced one of my friends to lend me a dollar so I could go to the movies... promising to pay him back come Saturday when I knew I could earn some more money which just meant that I had to work harder on Saturday to repay my debt.

All summer long... the weeks repeated themselves... work really hard... earn some money... then spend it all (sometimes spending even more than I had earned that particular week) on entertainment and things I really didn't need (like sweets).

At the end of the summer... I had nothing to show for all my hard work (I couldn't even remember the movies that I had seen).

During the following fall and winter, I found a job as a score keeper at a bowling alley two nights a week.  I was paid $0.35 per bowler so my net "take home pay" was about $2.00 per night (after bus fare to and from the bowling alley).

Instead of spending the entire $4.00 per week, I decided to spend only $2.00 and save the remaining $2.00. 

It wasn't easy... I had to continually make excuses as to why I couldn't go out with my friends... but by the end of spring; I had saved more than $40.

Once I had enough money, I decided to look through the local classified ads to try and find a used gasoline-powered mower and edger.  I knew that if I had power tools, I could cut three times the amount of lawns that summer and earn three times as much money.

In the end, I figured out a way to spend less of my earnings through a bit of austerity, create savings with the excess earnings, and then use the savings to create more earnings (and less calluses on my hands).

Over the years, I continued this type of thinking, with different types of business ventures... paper routes... painting house numbers on curbs... and retrieving golf balls from the ponds at our local municipal golf course and selling the balls back to golfers on the back nine the next day (as well as trying to sell them refreshments).

So about this time... you might be thinking to yourself... exactly how does this little nostalgic story help us in today's world?...

Well I suppose that there are several lessons to be learned...

Many of us often find ourselves in the endless cycle of earn and spend... we earn a paycheck and then spend everything that we earn... or worse spending more than we earn and finding ourselves deep in debt... we tell ourselves that we have an earning problem... when in fact we have a spending problem...

The most important key to creating wealth is to spend less than you earn...

If this is not the case... then a lifestyle adjustment needs to be made before anything else.

Once we have created positive net income, then the next thing is to pay off debt.

I understand that not all debt is bad... for instance... using debt to purchase appreciating assets (like a home or income property) can be a good thing.

However, using debit to finance expenses or depreciating assets (cars, boats, furniture, etc.) is almost always a bad thing.

After the debt is paid off... we need to start savings... savings is created with the difference between what is earned and what is spent.

Our savings should be used for two primary purposes:

  1. As a safety net should something negatively happen to our earnings
  2. As working capital to fund new earning opportunities

We've all heard the term... it takes money to make money... and it's true!

There are countless investment opportunities, big and small, for those who have capital to participate.

Investing can be as simple as going to local garage and estate sales to look for things of value that can be resold at a small profit (I have a good friend who has created a million dollar business doing just this).

Investing is not the same as gambling... it is careful, deliberate, and educated. 

With all the extra time that we might have by not spending as much money going out, we could use that time to educate ourselves a bit on various investment opportunities.

Investment opportunities are everywhere once we have capital.  
Proper investments are the only real way to true financial independence...

Investment takes capital... capital comes from savings... and savings comes from spending less than you earn...

There are still 355 days left in the current year... so what are we waiting for?

Thank you very much for your continued support of OptiFuse where we always hope to give you a positive return on your investment.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Ringing in the New Year...

[editor’s note:  Today I’d like to present the 3rd edition of our "guest blogger" series this week by writer Heidi Donahue.]
"We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success."
~ Henry David Thoreau

It’s hard to believe that it’s already 2014. Along with a new year comes a new chance to make things better-for myself and perhaps even for others. I’ve never really
2014been good at the whole "New Year’s Resolution" thing, though. As funny as it may sound, I feel like resolutions put too much pressure on me.

A few of my best friends and I have an annual tradition of a year-end brunch, where we pick a restaurant, eat way too much food and talk about everything that has happened over the last year. One of us had a baby, one of us bought a house and one of us got engaged. (I’m the one that got engaged! )  
So much has happened in just a year, and we’re all excited to see what 2014 will bring. 
This brought up the discussion of goals and what we want to accomplish in the upcoming year.   
For some, it was cutting their credit card debt in half, for others it was exercising more. We decided it was time to write these goals down. Why?
Setting your goals in stone (or, at least paper)
There are benefits to writing down your goals, rather than just saying them out loud and letting them blow into the wind. You’ll be able to clearly remember what goals you set for yourself and you’ll also find that it feels more "real" when you write them (or type them) down.
It’s obviously something psychological, but I’ve seen blogs and other articles about how it really works.
We started an email chain and each listed our goals for 2014.
My first goal is a bit of a cheat because I put "get married" as a goal and my wedding is in March, but that was one I knew I’d reach, and I wanted to ease into this whole goal-setting-and-sticking-to thing.
My second goal is to be able to run three miles nonstop. I’m great at Pilates, but I’m definitely not a runner-yet.
Third on my list of goals was to volunteer somewhere that assists animals find their forever homes. Anyone who knows me knows that I wish I had a house large enough to adopt every homeless animal in the world. If you think I’m joking, ask my mom why she changes the channel every time one of the ASPCA commercials comes on and I’m around.
Finally, I hope to save up enough money for a down payment on a home with my soon-to-be husband.
All of my goals seem to align with the top resolutions that people make at the beginning of each year.
Now, the question is, how am I going to reach them?...
Well, I’ve already started on my goals for 2014.
There’s an app for that.
For my goal of being able to run more (okay... okay, at all), I downloaded an app that acts as a "personal trainer" of sorts and (allegedly) takes you from a non-runner to being able to run a 5K race. 
The treadmill always seems daunting to me, and I live near a park, so I’ll be heading there three times a week to get into shape.
In the end the computer doesn’t do the running... I do... so the app can only help so much... it’s up to me to actually lace up my shoes and get into shape.
If there’s a will, there’s a way.
I recently sent an email to a local dog rescue group to see if there is anything that I can do to assist them.
The catch is that, for the next few months, I’ll be super busy with wedding planning, so I’ll need to help from home after work and only during the week.
I thought this would really limit my ability to help out. However, I received a response from the Executive Director of Rescue Operations and she actually has something that I can do from home.
I’m thrilled, and can’t wait to get to work!
Every penny counts.
Bills need to be paid, so sometimes you’re not able to save as much as you’d like to from each paycheck.
Believe me, I get it!
However, I plan to start small and do whatever I can to get some extra cash into my savings account.
With credit cards paid off, it’s time to get serious about building my savings so that in the next year or two we can buy a home of our own.
I saw this very simple savings plan that people were posting about on Facebook, and I’m going to give it a try. This won’t be the only money I save, but I know I’ll have at least $1,400 by the end of the year, which isn’t a bad way to start.
What it really comes down to is choosing goals that aren’t so over-the-top that it’s easy to fail and give up.
The goals that I set for myself are all realistic and doable with a little bit of determination and discipline. 
Because my friends and I shared our 2014 goals with one another, it’ll be nice to have people to cheer on my success with when I reach a goal.
I won’t be able to take homeless dogs into my home, but I’ll help an organization that works to find them loving homes.
I won’t be signing up for a marathon next year, but I’ll be able to run farther than I can now.
It’ll take more than one year for my future husband and I to save enough for a home... but once we start, we’ll be that much closer to making our dreams a reality.
Improving your life and yourself a little bit at a time is something we can all do, and definitely takes some of the pressure off.
Write down your realistic goals, figure out what steps you need to take to achieve them and work hard.
That’s an easy action plan, if I don’t say so myself.
Now, instead of calling these my "New Year’s Resolutions" I’ve decided to dub them my "2014 Goals." It has a nicer ring to it, don’t you think?
Heidi Donahue
[Heidi is originally from San Diego, CA and is currently a professional writer and blogger for a local financial institution.]