Thursday, August 28, 2014

Small Business Certifications: Where Do I Start?

For many small, privately held businesses, navigating the world of small business certifications can be a daunting task.  Certification options abound for women, minority, veteran-owned, and small disadvantaged businesses.  What does it all mean, and where does one start?

The website of the U.S. Sm
all Business Administration (SBA) explains it well: “Small business certifications are like professional certifications; they document a special capability or status that will help you compete in the marketplace.”  Here, I address women-owned business certifications, a topic on which our office receives frequent inquiries.

Women-owned businesses may seek certification through both governmental and private entities, and while certification requirements vary, both generally require that one or more women own at least 51 percent of the business and manage the business.  In other words, a woman holding a 51 percent or greater ownership interest in a company in which her husband is CEO isn’t going to cut it.  She must be responsible for both the long-term decision making and day-to-day management of the company.  

Typically, a business primarily focused on serving as a supplier to governmental entities will want to become certified by a governmental agency, whereas a business that primarily works in the private sector and with large, publicly traded companies should seek certification from a third-party certifier.  For Minnesota businesses, governmental certifiers include (i) the SBA, (ii) the State of Minnesota, and (iii) the City of St. Paul.  Third-party certifiers include the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) and the National Women Business Owners Corporation (NWBOC).  

The SBA administers the Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program, which authorizes federal contracting officers to set aside certain federal contracts for eligible women-owned small businesses.  

The State of Minnesota and its agencies administer the Targeted Group/Economically Disadvantaged Small Business Program (the TG Program) and the United States Department of Transportation Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program (the DBE Program).  Upon certification under the TG Program, the business is added to the state’s vendor list, and the TG may be eligible for up to a 6 percent preference in selling its products or services or bidding on construction projects to the State.  The DBE Program is a federally-funded certification program intended to help disadvantaged people, including women, participate in the planning, construction and management of the country’s transportation system.  The Minnesota Unified Certification Program (MnUCP) makes certification decisions with respect to participation in the DBE Program.
The Central Certification Program (CERT) is a small business certification program administered by the City of St. Paul and recognized by Hennepin County, Ramsey County, and the City of St. Paul.  Certification makes you eligible to participate in activities specifically designed for certified vendors.    

Two of the most prominent third-party certifiers are the WBENC and NWBOC.  Each certification provides women-owned businesses with access to supplier diversity and procurement executives at major corporations and federal, state and local government entities.  The application fees for these certifications start at $350, and certifications are usually valid for just one year.  

This is merely a high-level overview of the reasons companies may seek certification and the types of certifications available to Minnesota companies.  As you consider whether certification may be right for you, keep in mind that the process is lengthy and rigorous.  Numerous document requests must be fulfilled and on-site visits may be required.  Recertification may also be required on an annual basis, but the numerous benefits that accompany certification may make it all worthwhile.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What Would Brandeis Think?

In 1890, Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren wrote their seminal Harvard Law Review article “The Right To Privacy,” suggesting that government and the media had gone way too far in invading the privacy rights of individuals and arguing that legal remedies were necessary to combat the then-intrusive technology known as “photography.”

What would Brandeis think about Snowden, the Internet, Google Glass® and drones?

I am not sure what his views would be on new technology or government surveillance, but I do believe that Brandeis would have enjoyed A Legal Guide to Privacy and Data Security, a Minnesota CLE class presented this past Monday, and that he would have found the presentations and discussions intriguing.  

The CLE, attended by over 150 lawyers, covered issues from the origins of privacy rights to issues of data breach and security. Topics also included big data as well as key federal, state, and global privacy laws and regulations. The Privacy Guidebook prepared by Gray Plant Mooty was used as the written material for this CLE. 

In setting the stage for the day, I invoked Brandeis as an early champion of privacy rights, as evidenced by both his law review article and his dissent as a Supreme Court Justice in Olmstead v. United States (1928). In Olmstead, the Supreme Court found that wiretapping the phones of a bootlegger was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. There was no trespass since the phone lines were tapped from outside the bootlegger’s home. Brandeis disagreed, stating that it should make no difference where the physical connection with the telephone wires was made. According to Brandeis, the Constitution “conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”

Brandeis became a champion of the right to privacy during his tenure as a member of the Supreme Court from 1916 to 1936.  Jurists have continued to expand upon his early views on privacy and still look to his Olmstead dissent and his law review article as support for further legal protection of privacy. 

While you may have missed your opportunity to attend a live presentation of this CLE, there will be two video replays in Minneapolis—September 4 and September 23—with others scheduled at later dates in Duluth, Mankato, St. Cloud, Marshall, and Moorhead.  Click here to view the CLE brochure and information on the video replays.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Someone Finally Did Things Right! Lessons from Robin Williams’s Estate Plan

Last week we tragically lost an entertainer who played a major role in my life, and, I am sure, in the lives of many others as well. Most of the time when I write about celebrities and their estate plans it is to point out something they may have done wrong, but today I am pleased to report that I am able to discuss one celebrity who may have done things right.  Early reports, citing TMZ (seriously, where do they dig this stuff up and how ridiculous is it that I am citing it?), indicate that Robin Williams may have used a revocable trust as his primary vehicle to transfer his assets at death. 

There are a number of reasons a revocable trust may be the perfect estate planning tool, but primary among them is privacy: a revocable trust is a private document that normally will be unavailable to the public, an important consideration for a public figure. In contrast, consider the cases of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and James Gandolfini, among others, whose wills and dispositions from their large estates were on public display.  A will is a public document, filed with the court in a probate proceeding, and as such is available to the public; a trust is not automatically subject to probate or court jurisdiction.  If a client-say a celebrity, an athlete, or even a resident of a small town full of nosy neighbors—ever has a need for privacy, the revocable trust is the preferred instrument.

A revocable trust can also reduce (but not eliminate) the possibility of intra-family drama surrounding the estate plan.  A revocable trust avoids a probate proceeding, without which no notice to family members and heirs is necessary.  Only the named beneficiaries need to get notice of the distribution from a trust, unlike in probate where all defined heirs, along with named beneficiaries, are required to receive notice.  This means that a child or someone else who intentionally may have been excluded as a beneficiary will receive notice and will be an interested party in a court-supervised probate proceeding.  It is still possible to bring action to determine the validity of a trust, or to contest distributions from a trust, but a party who might wish to press such claims may never even receive notice that the trust exists.

Just because Robin Williams appeared to use a revocable trust instead of a will as his primary estate planning vehicle doesn’t mean his estate plan was perfect, but it does mean he was able to ensure that the division of his assets will remain private.

One caveat: revocable trusts are only helpful if you have actually transferred your assets to the trust.  In many jurisdictions if you have more than $50,000 or $100,000 in assets titled in your own name, and not in the name a trust or a designated beneficiary or in common ownership with another person, a probate proceeding will be necessary even if a revocable trust exists.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What: T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)

Why:  How one man, starting with little but his ambition, built a transportation empire and shaped the infrastructure of the American economy in the process.

It is not unheard of for entrepreneurs with whom members of our Entrepreneurial Services Group work bemoan how they are hampered by legal regulation at almost every turn. How much more they could achieve if only the government would keep its nose out!

So what was it like in the good old days? Enter T. J. Stiles, whose biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt quite justifiably won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2009 and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2010. In the interests of full disclosure, I note that I take a certain vicarious pleasure in these achievements, as both Mr. Stiles and I were history majors at the same small Midwestern liberal arts college, he being of somewhat newer vintage than me.

Stiles gives us a front row seat to the development of an economic empire that began with a ferry plying its trade between Staten Island and Manhattan and ended—many, many millions of dollars later—with a near-monopoly in the railroad industry. All mostly accomplished by Vanderbilt’s drive to run any business in which he was involved better than any of his competitors.

Along the way, we witness the growth of the stock market, the transformation of the corporation from a vehicle for public works to an engine of private business, and the boom in transportation that drove American economic growth in the 19th century. Vanderbilt was a part of it all, and himself played a crucial role in the transformation of the United States from an agrarian-based society to an industrial giant.

In all of this, the law lagged behind the growth, but the growth clearly drove the law. Vanderbilt himself resorted to the courts only rarely, preferring to use his economic power to punish rivals. Vanderbilt’s obituary quotes a letter he purportedly sent to partners who had double-crossed him. The letter actually never existed, but perfectly captures Vanderbilt’s attitude: "Gentlemen: You have undertaken to cheat me. I won't sue, for the law is too slow. I'll ruin you. Yours truly, Cornelius Vanderbilt."

Perhaps Vanderbilt’s life is best summarized by this dust-cover blurb: “He was a visionary who pioneered business models. He was an unschooled fist fighter who came to command the respect of New York’s social elite.” This is an excellent read, an inspiration for any entrepreneur, but at some 585 pages not for those adverse to commitment or faint of heart.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Musings About the Minnesota Fringe Festival

This past weekend I was able to take in a couple of shows that are part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival. For those (like the couple who attended with me) who are Fringe “virgins,” the Minnesota Fringe Festival, one of many such festivals in the US, is the largest “nonjuried”  festival (meaning shows are selected by lottery) and reportedly the third largest fringe festival of any sort in the nation. This shouldn’t come as a surprise if you already knew that Minneapolis is second only to NYC in live theatre per capita.

The Fringe Festival is a collection of shows performed at a host of venues over 11 days (this year, 169 shows and 19 venues from July 31 through August 10). Each show is 60 minutes or less and they are conveniently scheduled to permit seeing more than one show on a given day or evening. While the content of shows is wide-ranging (comedy, drama, dance, youth, opera, etc.), frequent readers (and others who know me) won’t be shocked to learn that both shows I attended were musicals.

It was a typical Fringe experience. One of the shows, Top Gun: The Musical, was basically a one-joke parody—light on substance and a cast not up to the task. The other, Pretty People Suck (And Other Undisputable Facts About The Universe), was as good as anything I’ve ever seen at the Fringe. Clever songwriting, excellent acting—something that, with a little work, could have a future life.

One of the things that struck me about the shows was just how many creative and (sometimes) talented people work tirelessly to bring these works to the stage. Given the economics, they aren’t doing it for the money (although a few shows, including one of my favorites of the last decade, sometimes graduate from festivals like this to commercial productions). 

Just like someone else I know really well, they probably do this because of the challenge of the creative process and the reward of seeing something you create come to life. I suppose it isn’t all that different from the rush that entrepreneurs get from creating a successful business out of nothing more than an idea—but without all the equity return.

The Fringe runs through Sunday, so you still have a chance to take in a performance!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What: Peter Cohen, The Gospel According to the Harvard Business School: The Education of America’s Managerial Elite (Penguin Books, 1973)

Why: For those of you who want a dose of pure 1970 angst, here you go.  If you are genuinely interested in what it’s like to study for an MBA, there have got to be better choices than this. 

Every once in a while, if for no other reason than to placate my co-editor, I actually pick up and read a book that is directly on topic—something, say, with the word “business” in the title. A few days ago, while rooting around in boxes long ago consigned to the attic and until recently forgotten, I came across this book, which I had apparently read as a law student.  Perfect!

Except that it wasn’t. Oh sure, there is some engaging discussion here about decision-trees and other stuff B-school types learn in the ordinary course. But perhaps the most profound insight Cohen has to offer is to conclude, with respect to one case study, that the problem presented was “a bag of worms that’s intertwined.” Did he really have to earn an MBA to produce such piercing insights?

I have to admit, though, that the historian in me did find the cultural subtext of the book somewhat interesting. Cohen attended B-school during the dark days of 1970, and student protests, the first Earth Day and the Kent State incident feature prominently.

As a memoir of those times, the book does have some redeeming value. Taken out of its historical context? Not so much. This is not a book that has aged gracefully. I came of age during this period, but I was genuinely shocked by certain assumptions and stereotypes of that period, particularly regarding women in the business world. Here’s one guy, describing a coworker: “She was a young girl in her early forties.” Girl? Forties?  Really?  

I guess this only goes to show that, as a society, we have come some distance since those late Mad Men days.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Way We Were

For a couple of summers when I was very young, my family stayed at a cabin near Brainerd.  The cabin was owned by one of the families for whom my dad worked, and I learned later in life that my dad painted the cabin and did other handyman jobs in exchange for our use.  It was basically a one-room building with a kitchen on one end and a living area with beds, chairs and tables all mingled together.  It was clean and bright, with lots of screened windows that let the breezes pass through.  It had indoor plumbing and sat on a lovely private beach.

During the day we would swim, fish, go to the neighborhood store for a Popsicle® or hunt for agates along the beach and gravel roads.  At night, we would do jigsaw puzzles, play cards, have campfires or go to the city dump to watch the bears.  At least once during the week, we would go to a drive-in movie.  We ate hot dogs cooked on a charcoal grill, watermelon on paper plates, buttery popcorn made in a cast-iron skillet and marshmallows toasted on sticks over a fire.  We drank strawberry and grape soda pop in glass bottles and water from a garden hose.  There was only the sound of slamming screen doors, splashing swimmers and laughter during the day, and the lapping of water on the beach and droning of mosquitoes at night.  There was no TV and the phone that hung on the wall in the kitchen never rang.  The night skies were filled with stars.  It was heaven.

A couple of weeks ago we were invited to spend a weekend with my brother and his family at their cabin in Wisconsin.  We hadn’t been there for a while and they were eager to show off their recent improvements.  We had a busy winter and early spring, and welcomed the opportunity to go someplace where our dogs were welcome and we could read, relax and generally unplug.  Maybe recapture a bit of those heavenly moments at the “Pat’s Cabin” of my youth.  I even purchased a jigsaw puzzle.    

On Friday, we checked traffic on the Internet, piled in our car with the dogs, set the GPS, plugged in our phones to recharge on the drive, and set the iPod to road music.  We packed light – an overnight bag with a change of clothes, a gym bag with toiletries, books and leashes, a crate with dog food, a few groceries and the jigsaw puzzle.  And, of course, the computer bag with laptops, iPad, cords, etc.   Nevertheless, it felt more crowded in our car with two humans and two four-legged companions than I ever recall in our family station wagon filled with parents, four kids, a dog and assorted sleeping bags, pillows, blankets, groceries, tools, etc.  

We arrived at my brother’s “cabin” which had now been doubled in size.  They had added a “room” that was bigger than all of Pat’s Cabin, finished the lower level to add a guest room and game room, and extended the deck – part of it now screened.  The entire place was wired for wi-fi, they had a satellite dish for their two large flat screened TVs and a kitchen with a granite-topped island and every possible appliance and convenience you could imagine.  

Over the weekend, we drank cappuccinos, red wine and lemon-flavored water from a specially designed infusion pitcher.  We cooked gourmet meals on a gas grill using recipes and instructions we popped up on the laptop. We took long walks along trails and gravel roads, but found no agates, instead concentrating on a new bird-watching app, even though we saw no birds that we didn’t already know.  When the dogs ranged too far, my nephew called them back (along with an assortment of neighborhood dogs) using his dog whistler app.  We used our cell phone lights (or flashlight app) to walk around at night, and joined the neighbors for a campfire where we listened to guitar music provided courtesy of iTunes®.  It was a clear night with lots of stars, so we used an iPad® to identify constellations using the GoSkyWatch Planetarium app .  

We all regularly checked emails and voice messages, paid bills on line, scheduled appointments and chatted with family members that were not with us that weekend.  Electronic games were played on every sort of electronic device.  NETFLIX® was our source for movies.  Everyone found some time to work on the jigsaw puzzle - during the day in the cool air conditioning with the drone of a golf match on the TV in the background, and at night in the warmth of the gas fireplace while eating microwave popcorn.  Entrepreneurs working diligently on technology to make our lives easier and more connected have made all of this possible and are hard at work on the "Internet of Things," although I'm not how I feel about that.

The weekend was relaxing--but it wasn’t magic.  And it definitely wasn’t unplugged.