When you think of team-building, what comes to mind? For many of us, the mental picture is a cringe-worthy image of trust exercises, corporate retreats and “mandatory fun” (we all know there’s no such thing). You might even think of this funny-because-its-true commercial about team-building that American Airlines put out a few years ago:

It’s not a big shock that team-building doesn’t really work. People don’t work together because they’re friends or because they like each other – far from it, sometimes. Forcing colleagues to “be a team” through silly exercises (or by making them travel away from their friends and family to “bond” with each other) is often completely ineffective and can even create a negative situation. Yet many companies still jump through the team-building hoops because they want a workforce that truly is a TEAM. They want their staff to get along, work together, focus on goals, be productive and help build and grow the company.

So how can you get those results without team-building exercises?

John M. Fischette of StartupNation.com advocates something better than team-building: Community-building.

The key to community-building lies with the company. The company must make the employees feel like they really are part of a community, not just cogs in a machine. Many corporate office workers in a variety of fields have told me that their companies have long since stopped making them feel appreciated or supported – Instead, they say they face excessive expectations, hostile work environments, a lack of raises/perks, and a general feeling from the management that they should be lucky just to HAVE a job. It’s like the policies of their companies were enacted by the sadistic Catbert character from the Dilbert cartoons.

The companies that treat employees this way might save a little dough in the short-term, but their lack of a community culture will lead to a lack of employee loyalty, a lack of productivity and a lack of growth.

The solution, Fischette says, is to use these tips to build a community in your workplace, one that fosters growth and, yes, a team environment:

  1. Encourage your staff to think differently (read: not the “usual way we do things”), participate in lively conversation/debate about ideas, and raise objections if they have any.
  2. Make sure that all employees have an easy way to share ideas and connect with one another, and encourage ALL employees to bring their ideas to the table.
  3. Be transparent – Employees can get understandably suspicious and feel isolated if management is making decisions behind their backs. Make sure that your staff can follow any projects in real time, not just hear about them after the fact.
  4. Empower your employees – Make it clear that the company is willing to work with them to reach their goals, and make them feel that their career destiny is in their own hands.
  5. Don’t ignore milestones and achievements! Make your employees feel appreciated, because without them, you wouldn’t be in business. Acknowledge work anniversaries, awards, outstanding performance and other positives, and make sure everyone knows what has been accomplished. Do regular reviews and give merit raises annually if possible. In short, make sure that your staff get more positive feedback from you than a simple “nice work on that account, Bob.”
  6. Look for ways that you employees can blend work into their personal lives. You don’t want your staff to feel like they have to choose between work and family – That creates resentment and lowered productivity. Don’t simply roll over and allow workers to walk all over you, but do try to be flexible with hours if you have a staffer with young children, or consider letting your office workers bring well-behaved dogs to the workplace. The more welcoming and family-friendly your business is, the less likely your employees will be to call in sick or otherwise skip out on work obligations.

All of these tips will help your company foster a community environment that encourages your staff to feel more like a team. I’d also add the following suggestions:

  1. Have a sense of humor – Of course, inappropriate humor has no place in the workplace, but if you can’t laugh at yourself or laugh with your staff, you’ll come across as unemotional, uncaring and distant.
  2. Let your employees be themselves – Some offices don’t let staffers keep personal items on their desks, and sometimes, there are good reasons for that rule. But most of the time, it’s better to let your workers personalize their space. It will make them more comfortable at their desks and more likely to work happily there. In my cubicle days, I had a few family photos, some artwork that make me smile, a handful of toys (people are often really creative if you let them play a little while they brainstorm), and a drawer of snacks that anyone was welcome to enjoy. I felt happy in that space, and it made me a better worker.
  3. Keep your door open when possible – you might SAY you have an open door policy, but if your door is actually closed most of the time, people will be less likely to risk knocking on it. If your door is open and your office space is welcoming, your staff will be more likely to approach you with ideas or concerns.
  4. Don’t let too many perks slide – It’s amazing how pleased a group of people can be if the boss brings in donuts for the morning, or orders some lunches for a noon meeting. On the flipside, it’s equally disheartening to be told that one must attend a mandatory meeting over lunchtime AND supply your own lunch. Make sure your employees have some time during the day to themselves (lunch is the most common, but other short breaks are good, too), and encourage them to take that time outside the office. If you must keep them at work for a meeting or event, feed them. And before you point out the bad economy and the belt-tightening that most companies are doing, take note: Employee perks don’t have to be expensive drains on the company budget! Donuts are cheap – far less pricey than the cost of making staffers feel taken for granted. Oh, and there’s no such thing as an “employee appreciation lunch” if the food is pot-luck – No one feels appreciated when they have to cook something.

The important thing is to keep in mind while building your office community that it isn’t “us vs. them,” and it should never seem that way for your staff. Your employees will be more loyal, more eager to do their jobs and more eager to work together if they think that their voices will be heard, their ideas will be considered and their efforts will be appreciated.


So you own a small business, or you’re thinking about starting one. You’ve got the know-how in your field and the passion for your craft, and you’ve got energy and confidence to spare. But are you savvy when it comes to business lingo? Just because you excel at what you do – whether it’s repairing cars, making chocolates, inventing new gadgets or anything else – doesn’t mean that you automatically have the business expertise you need to turn your talents into success.

One of the first things that might trip you up in your forays into the business world is the terminology. Business terms can be new and foreign to those just getting started with their businesses, and standard dictionaries don’t always help with deciphering the meanings. Since we at Popular Thoughts are all about helping you launch, maintain and grow your business, we’ve compiled a short list of some common small business terms here, along with their definitions. Get to know this glossary (and others out there), and don’t get caught off guard as you wade through the currents of business ownership!

Angel Investing – Angel investors give capital to a start-up company, usually in exchange for equity. Angel investors tend to be well-off individuals, but some of them group themselves into angel networks. They usually invest their own money into the endeavor. Many companies get angel investments as a second-round funding source to keep them going when they’re between the money given to them by friends and family and the money they’ll eventually get from venture capital (see below).

Assets – This is just about anything your business owns that would have value in a transaction. It includes cash, investments, inventory, accounts receivable, office computers/equipment, machines/manufacturing equipment, etc. Assets are generally regarded to be the things that can be used to pay debts, and they can be long-term or short-term in nature (whether long-term or short-term depends on how long they last and what the company accountants decide is the benchmark for measuring the term). For tax purposes, if you buy something for your business and you call it an asset, you can’t deduct that purchase from your taxes, but you can list it under “Assets” on your financials. If you want to deduct a purchase from your taxes, you must label it an “expense,” but then you can’t list it among your assets later.

Brand/Branding – Many people think that your brand is your logo, your product or your tagline. But in reality, your brand is how people perceive you. One of the most important things you can do in your business is control your brand so that all of your potential customers have the same impression and experience with your product or service. Consider the golden arches: when you see them, you probably think of McDonalds, but you may also think of french fries, Happy Meals, smiling kids and Big Macs. Almost everyone has a similar reaction when they see that symbol, and that’s because McDonalds works hard to maintain their brand, keep it consistent, and give everyone the same impression of what they offer.

So how do you handle your branding? First, when you have a logo and/or tagline, keep them consistent in all of your interactions. Don’t randomly change the colors of your logo, the font of your web pages, the phrasing of your tagline, etc. Keep your messaging and color scheme consistent across the board. Next, protect your branding with Service Mark (SM) or Trade Mark (TM) protection- you can learn more about that here. Also, determine usage guidelines for your brand so that, if someone else wishes to put your logo on their website or in an advertisement, you have a ready list of rules for the use of your stuff (for example, you might want to require a certain amount of white space around your logo, you may want to insist that your logo not be stretched out of shape or changed in color, etc.).

After you’ve got your protections and guidelines in place, the key thing to remember about branding is that you and your company ARE the brand. In the end, it’s not your product or service that will define your customers’ experiences; it’s their interaction with you and your business. Keep in mind that you represent your company at all times, even while off-duty, and remind any staff members of this, as well. Put customer service guidelines into place for all to follow, and be sure that everyone at the company understands the need to maintain consistent quality standards in the product/service, the usage rules for the logo/tagline, and the need for positive interaction with consumers. This above all will help you to associate your brand with good things in the minds of your customers.

Business plan – This is pretty much what it sounds like: the written plan for how you’ll start and run your business. It generally needs to include a vision (where you’d like to see the company eventually), what’s needed to get there, what the chosen markets are like, what the current status of the business is, and what the results are projected to be. The business plan is essentially a “who, what, why, how and when” for the proposed company, so when writing yours, be sure not to ramble, get emotional or go off on tangents. Keep it clear, to-the-point and organized, from “why I’m starting this company” to “this is where I intend the company to be in a year.”

C Corp/S Corp – These are the two main forms of corporations in the U.S. S Corps tend to be small businesses and family-owned companies. Most major (read: large) companies in the U.S. are C Corps. A main difference between the C Corp and the S Corp is that, with the S Corp, profits go right back to the business owners directly, while in C Corps, the profits are taxed separately first.

So why would anyone want to have a C Corp? One big C Corp advantage is that it’s got the biggest protection for the owners against personal liability. A C Corp is a totally separate entity that pays taxes, and the owners are in the best position to protect their personal assets should the C Corp have trouble. A C Corp is generally the best choice for companies that are going public (or are planning to), or companies that want to grow significantly and/or raise large amounts of money.

S Corps generally have limits on how many owners there can be (these limits vary by state but tend to hover around 25 owners). Also, only individuals can hold stock in an S Corp – no corporations can be stockholders in these small companies. Neither of these limitations exists for a C Corp.

When choosing to incorporate, weigh the options and get advice from a lawyer and CPA on which option is right for you. In most cases, the S Corp is the best choice for a small business owner.

Cash flow – Cash in a business means how much money your company has in the bank, and cash flow refers to how that bank amount changes. Being “cash flow positive” means that the balance at the end of the month is higher than it was at the beginning, while “cash flow negative” is the opposite. Many businesses start out cash flow negative as they spend money to build the business, get needed equipment and advertise their goods. Ultimately, of course, you want to be cash flow positive on a regular basis so that your company can grow and you can make money.

Click-through rate – You know those ads that appear on webpages? The click-through rate is a measure of how many times someone actually clicked on one of those ads, compared with the number of times the ad appeared (the appearances are known as “impressions”). So if the ad showed up 100 times, and viewers clicked the ad four of those times, that’s a 4% click-through rate. Click-through rates tend to be pretty low, so don’t be discouraged if you run an online ad campaign and see very low numbers.

Conversion rate – How many people do what you want them to do when they visit your website? That’s basically the definition of the conversion rate. Whatever the measurable action is that you want them to do – buy something, sign up for something, download a file, watch a video, etc. – the conversion rate counts how many people do that thing and how that compares to the total site visitors. So if you get 100 visitors to your site, and five of them buy your product, that’s a 4% conversion rate.

DBA (Doing Business As) – This term means that the person running the business is using a different name for the business than his or her own name. It’s also called a “fictitious business name.” If your name is John Smith, but you want to open a company called Lemonade and Mangoes (a name that certainly does not match your name at all), you’d need a DBA to show that you legally own the business so that you can get bank accounts in the company’s name and do other business-related things. Getting a DBA is fairly easy to do on a county level and usually involves a registration fee and perhaps a notice in the newspaper (all of which tends to run under $100 total).

Fiscal year – This is your accounting year, which doesn’t have to match the calendar on your wall. Your fiscal year can start in any month and go a full year from there. To keep it from getting too confusing, accountants number fiscal years by the year in which they end, so if you have a business with a fiscal year that starts and ends in March, then March 2011 would be the end of Fiscal 2011.

Limited Liability Company (LLC) – LLCs are one way to set up a company. They’re similar to S Corps (both have advantages in how profits are treated for taxes and in how personal liability for the company owners is limited), but they can be harder to set up. Usually, the LLC has to be lacking two of the following that define a corporation: continuity of life, limited liability, free transferability of ownership interest, and centralized management. Check with your attorney if you think an LLC might be the best company structure for you.

Mission Statement – Most companies have one of these. This is essentially a short statement that defines what the company does, what the business philosophy is, and how it intends to deal with customers. Mission statements are often the butt of jokes for being overblown, wordy, obvious or incomprehensible – there are even mission statement generators out there (like this one) that poke fun at how “corporate” and interchangeable many mission statements are. Still, it never hurts to have one; you may want to include your employees in crafting a mission statement that encapsulates your company’s purpose.

Sole proprietorship – Businesses don’t get any simpler than this. A sole proprietorship is a business in which you don’t do anything to create a legal entity separate from yourself. You can operate the business under your own name or under another name (in which case you’d need the DBA defined above), but either way, the business is just you. This means that you bear personal liability for the company; if the company has debts or losses, you are personally responsible for those.

Venture capital – This is money that is invested into a company in the early stages, usually by a venture capital (VC) firm or group. The money invested tends to be from a fund that’s managed professionally by the firm. Generally, the companies that receive venture capital are high-risk but also high-potential. In return for their investment, the VC gets equity in your company, and it often gets a major ownership stake and decision-making power in the company. VC is sometimes a good choice for a young company that has a new technology to offer and that isn’t yet to the point of being able to get bank funding or other loans to grow the company. VC isn’t for everyone; explore your options thoroughly when considering funding sources, since many small business owners chafe at the idea of turning over decision-making power to a VC in exchange for the needed funds.

Sources: Business Term Glossary, Wikipedia

"Maybe we should have talked to a mediator first."

Unless your company is an army of one (you), there’s a chance of workplace conflict. Any company with two or more people working together can become a place of disagreements, misunderstandings and outright arguments – no matter how well you usually get along. AOL Jobs notes, “Managers report spending 24 to 60 percent of their time dealing with employee disputes.” That’s a lot of really unproductive time! Conflicts can drag down your company’s productivity and cause professional and legal headaches, all of which you can definitely do without. So how can you prevent workplace conflict from happening, and how can you deal with it if it DOES happen?

Arbitrator and attorney Steven Menack has a list of suggestions on the AOL Jobs page for both avoiding and dealing with workplace conflict. Here’s a quick summary of how to try to prevent conflict before it starts:

  • Skip the topics that tend to bring out passionate arguments, like politics, religion or ethnic issues. Seriously, who thinks those topics have any place at work? If someone tries to bring up an incendiary topic, change the subject to keep the peace.
  • Avoid office romance – This seems like a no-brainer, but office relationships (and breakups) happen so often that it bears mentioning.
  • Keep your personal life at home, and your professional life at the office. It’s almost impossible to have your life completely compartmentalized, but the less drama you bring to the office from home (or ask your co-workers about in their own lives), the better.
  • Stay out of office gossip. When your workplace has more than a handful of people, rumors can start to fly. Nip gossip in the bud and don’t participate in it if you want to keep things tranquil and keep yourself (and your reputation) above the muck.
  • Set boundaries. Everyone in your office is a unique person, and each one has their own needs, limits and requirements. If you set and keep reasonable boundaries for things like personal privacy, workload and time spent on work, and if you respect other people’s boundaries, you’ll be more likely to get along swimmingly with your fellows.
  • Be nice. Some people seem to think that the only way to get to the top is by stepping on those underneath you, but the truth is quite the opposite. Use kindness, compassion and respect in your dealings with those around you, and they’ll remember you for that.

If conflict hits, what can you do to deal with it as smoothly and quickly as possible? Here are Menack’s tips:

  • Stay calm. If you’re mad, wait until you cool off before you address the problem, otherwise you might say or do something you’ll regret.
  • Pick your battles carefully. I had a coworker once who made every interaction into a tooth-and-nail fight, but in reality, not all fights are worth the trouble. Decide what’s really worth the conflict – one-time confusions or screw-ups can sometimes slide, while chronic issues might merit a battle.
  • Find a neutral location. If you must confront someone, find a space that isn’t one of your offices. Consider a conference room, a coffee shop or even a stroll outdoors together to talk about the problem where neither of you will feel threatened.
  • Go in with a plan. Don’t simply tell someone, “I have a problem with you,” and then expect the conversation to unwind pleasantly. Plan out how you want to approach the issue and what you really want to say. Determine what matters to you and how you’d like things to turn out, and be ready with suggestions and ideas for changing the status quo so that you can offer positive solutions instead of simply pointing fingers.
  • Don’t attack the other person. Keep your focus on the problem and not the individual. Actions and consequences are what matter; targeting the other person’s personality or character does not help and will only cause the progress to grind to a halt.
  • Watch how you speak. Neutral words can keep emotions from escalating, so stay neutral and steer clear of hyperbole, generalizations and judgments. Keep sarcasm out of it, and maintain respect for your coworker. For example, instead of saying, “You never show up to my meetings on time,” try saying, “It is difficult and frustrating for me when my meetings can’t start on time because everyone isn’t present.”
  • Listen. This bears repeating: LISTEN. You can’t have a constructive dialogue if you ignore what the other person is saying and instead use that time to formulate your next comment. Listen and understand what they’re telling you, ask questions if you don’t fully comprehend their point, and restate what they’ve said to make sure that you get it (and to show them you were paying attention). Then formulate your responses thoughtfully and in light of what they’ve said to you.

Not all workplace conflict can be avoided or defused easily, but with these tips, most of your office interactions can be smooth sailing.

If you have employees, you need an employee handbook (or, as some companies call it, a “policies and procedures manual”). The Small Business Administration (SBA) notes that the handbook is one of the keys to communication between you and your staff, so it’s vital to have one that’s clear, understandable and comprehensive.

If you haven’t created an employee handbook yet, try not to think of it as a chore – see it instead as a chance to let your employees know what you expect of them AND what they can expect from you. Understand that it’s a chance to clarify points, put your staff on solid footing and reassure them that you have their best interests in mind. And also understand that this is the book that your employees will go to first if they have a question, dispute or concern with the company. Be sure to avoid misunderstandings and vague wording, since some court cases have found that an employee handbook is a contractual obligation.

If you don’t have one, get started on your handbook right away. This is not something you should put off! Note, as usual: This is not a legal website, we are not lawyers, and this blog post should not be construed as legal advice. We just want to help you write a good employee handbook.

Here are the 10 topics that the SBA says should be in your employee handbook:

1. Non-Disclosure Agreements and Confidentiality Statements – If you’re starting or running a small business, you probably have intellectual property or proprietary information/products that you don’t want to lose control of. Have your employees sign NDAs to help you protect what’s yours. Even if the people who work for you are your best friends or family, NDAs can prevent big headaches later.

2. Compensation – Each staff member might draw a different salary or hourly rate, but the handbook needs to make it clear that you’ll be making deductions for state and federal taxes and any voluntary benefits programs the company offers and that the employee wishes to participate in. Also, you need to outline any overtime pay policies, schedules of performance reviews, salary increases, bonuses, time/schedule keeping and other pay-related issues.

3. Work Schedule – When are your employees expected on the job, and what happens if they don’t make it on time? This section of your manual should include your company’s work hours, attendance requirements, flexible schedules and telecommuting options (if any), and what your policy is for reporting absences.

4. Anti-Discrimination – If you employ people, you must comply with equal employment opportunity laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act, regardless of the size or nature of your company. Discrimination and harassment are never permitted under the law. Be sure that your handbook outlines these laws, including any state laws that might affect your staff, and make it clear that your employees are expected to follow the laws in question.

5. Standards of Conduct – What is expected of your employees regarding behavior, dress code, etc? This is your chance to be clear about how employees should represent themselves while on the job. Also mention any legal obligations your employees might have as part of your company (such as protecting customer data if you work in a business that collects information about clients).

6. Safety and Security – This section is all about keeping the staff members safe, from hazardous weather policies to workplace safety topics. Make it clear that you commit to a safe workplace and that you expect your staff to do the same, from keeping cabinets and computers locked when not being used to keeping walkways clear and fire exits available. Explain compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) laws and how employees should report accidents, possible dangerous situations, injuries and other issues that could arise.

7. Computers/Technology – Most of us work with computers at least some of the time, so if your employees use technology on the job, make it clear what your policies are. Outline what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate computer use, and give employees instructions on keeping personal or sensitive info private and protected. You should also establish some guidelines for social media use in the workplace.

8. Benefits and Leave – All available benefits (as well as what the employees have to do to earn them) should be in the handbook. Some benefits, such as disability insurance and COBRA, may be required by law. Some leave is also required by law, such as jury duty, military leave, family and medical leave and court cases/voting leave. You should also use this section to outline any vacation policies, holiday time off, bereavement policies, sick leave options, retirement, health insurance options, and any other benefits (such as employee assistance, tuition reimbursement, business travel, etc) that you might offer your staff.

9. Media Relations – At some point, many businesses will be contacted by the media. Use this section of the handbook to tell employees what to do if they answer a call from reporters and media outlets. Your company should have a single media contact person (often, that will be you) who handles all calls and questions from the media, so be sure your employees know to simply forward all inquiries to that contact and not talk to the media themselves when calls come. Of course, most of your staff members won’t knowingly share company secrets or portray the company in a negative light to the media, but most people don’t have the media savvy to avoid saying unwanted things if they talk to reporters, so prevent any problems before they happen by establishing your media contact in the handbook.

10. General Info – This is where you share info about the business as a whole and the more general employment policies you’ll maintain. These can include policies for employee records, employee referrals, eligibility, job postings and classifications, probation, procedures for terminations or resignations, info about transfers and relocations, and even union info if you work with unions.

Here’s a list of things you should NOT do in your employee handbook:

1. Do NOT be rude, snarky, humorous or vague – This document is an official workplace communication, not a chance for you to flex your funny bone or leave major concepts unexplained. Your employees will take away from this manual a number of things, including how you as a boss see them, so be sure to keep the content professional. This holds true even if your staff is made up entirely of your own friends and family.

2. Do NOT assume that things left unsaid are understood – All of the policies that impact your workers should appear in the handbook. Period. If you leave out details and assume that everyone will simply know what to do in those situations… Well, you know what they say about “assuming” things. Be comprehensive in your employee handbook content! It’s better to have too much info than not enough.

3. Do NOT be overly detailed – The Small Business Notes site points out that, while it’s important to be clear in your handbook, you don’t want to overwhelm staffers with a hefty tome loaded with too much info. If you have other documents that you plan to give the employee (retirement plan info or insurance documents, for example), allude to those documents in the handbook and then provide them separately instead of rewriting them into the handbook itself.

4. Do NOT simply distribute the handbook and then forget about it – When you hire a new staff member, give them the book, but then also talk them through the key points. Advise them to read it thoroughly, and then have them sign a form that says “I have read and understood the employee handbook of XYZ Company.” This is called the Employee Acknowledgment Form, and it helps protect you from workers who might claim that they never received or read the book at all. A great template for this form can be found here, at Small Business Notes.

Creativity is not always rocket science.

Being creative isn’t the easiest thing for many people. Even the best writers face writer’s block sometimes. But when it comes to starting or running a small business, the ability to be creative is pretty crucial. Tapping into your creative nature can mean coming up with new solutions to problems, reaching higher levels of business flexibility, developing new innovations and even staying afloat with great ideas and business plans that might not have occurred to you otherwise. Creativity in your endeavors can lead to success where others might fail, but how can you simply be more creative? It sounds as potentially difficult as willing yourself to be more tall.

Paul Thagard, a philosophy professor and author, wrote a great article for Psychology Today about whether creativity can be taught, or at least stimulated. He examines the habits of scientists and researchers who are successful at their efforts and spots behavioral patterns shared by those who seem to be the most creative – after all, in science, creativity is often the key to achievement. He organizes his tips into categories which we’ve reprinted below (along with our own notes for each tip), so read on for the list of little things you can do every day to inspire yourself to creative heights!

1. Make New Connections

  • Read. A lot. The more you read, the more you’ll open yourself up to new ideas and concepts.
  • Broaden yourself into more than one field. Limiting yourself means limiting your creative options.
  • Use both visual and verbal representations of ideas. This will tap into more than one area of your brain as you work.
  • Use multiple methods to approach problems, and try new methods where possible. Never stick to the “usual” way of doing things if you’re seeking to go forward.
  • Do NOT do what everyone else is doing. What would be the point of that?
  • Use analogies to link ideas together. You can often see new connections between concepts if you attempt to form analogies around them.

2. Expect the Unexpected

  • Don’t get too attached to your ideas. They might not be the best, even if they come from you.
  • See and admit to your mistakes. You’ll have trouble moving past what you’ve done wrong if you insist you did it right.
  • Recover and learn from your screw-ups. Everyone has failures – some of the greatest minds in history failed a lot before they succeeded. What they did right was taking notes from what they did wrong, avoiding repetition of those errors and never giving up in their efforts.
  • Take anomalies seriously. It’s easy to write off anomalies as outliers that don’t signify, but don’t be too quick to brush off what doesn’t fit.

3. Be Persistent

  • Be systematic, and keep records of what you do. There’s nothing worse than trying something that you’ve tried before because you can’t remember how it turned out the first time.
  • Concentrate on the subject. Creativity is stymied by distractions, so keep your mind focused to maximize your efforts.
  • Focus on key problems. Not all problems are created equal, but if you give equal weight to them, you’ll be quickly overwhelmed. Figure out what is the most pressing and direct your attention there, even if you’re tempted to spread yourself around.

4. Get Excited

  • Pick projects that are fun and that don’t bore you. Why pursue something if you’re not interested in it??
  • Get playful in your ideas and tools. Channel your inner child and play your way to thinking outside the box. Even tossing a ball around can unlock new thoughts for you.
  • Ask interesting questions. Part of getting past the traditional roadblocks to your goal is getting past the traditional questions that others have asked about it. Expand your questions to get to a new realm of answers.
  • Take risks. Being creative isn’t always safe, but reaching past your comfort zone can be liberating for the creative process.
  • Be devoted to the truth, passionate about your reputation and eager to understand. Solve the puzzles at hand by actually solving them, not by simply getting around them – you’ll get frustrated and tired, but if you maintain your eagerness to get to the answer, you’ll get there.
  • Have a taste for research and a desire for that thrill of discovery. A lot of the creative process is exploring what others have done before you, and while delving into those research depths can be daunting, the potential gratification of where that hard work might lead you should keep you motivated to pursue the truth.

5. Be Sociable

  • Build a strong team and find smart people to work with. No man is an island, even the most brilliant of creators. Think of Sir Isaac Newton, discoverer of calculus and Newtonian physics, who said of his work, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
  • Listen to people who have experience, and study those who are already successful. No matter what business you’re pursuing, there are many who have paved the road for you with their own achievements and failures. Learn what you can from them – they’re a great resource for your own growth.
  • Communicate what you’re doing with others, especially close colleagues. Some people want to keep their work a secret, but you’ll get far more creative juices flowing by talking to other people about what you’re doing, being honest about your efforts and communicating your results to those who might use them. Share your knowledge just as you benefit from the knowledge of those around you.
  • Foster different cognitive styles. Yours isn’t the only way of thinking, so encourage other styles of thought to help you get out of your rut and into creative processes.
  • Have a group of people you can fall back on. Some of your efforts will inevitably fail, and when that happens, it’s vital to have the support of people you trust. Get that social circle ready.

6. Use the world

  • Look around at nature to find inspiration. Some of the best innovations come from ideas spawned by natural observations.
  • Find environments that are rich with stimulation. Don’t lock yourself in a plain white room and expect ideas to come knocking.
  • Build instruments. If you don’t have the tools handy, make them!
  • Get a great space to work in and make use of it. Surround yourself with what you need to succeed, from work items and toys to artwork and good lighting.
  • Observe and reflect intensely. One key to really mastering creativity is being tuned in to what’s going on around you, then thinking, interpreting and adapting what you observe to the circumstances you’re in. Everything you need is around you; it may just be a matter of seeing it differently.

These tips might not all apply to your situation, but they’re consistently present among the most successful and creative scientists and thinkers, so we encourage you to try them in your own small business or entrepreneurial endeavors!

To start and run a successful business requires a lot of knowledge, support and resources. Most of us don’t have all of those right out of the gate. Luckily, many who have gone before (and built successful businesses) have opened up about their experiences. Some great CEOs and entrepreneurs have put pen to paper to share how they’ve grown, how they’ve failed and what they’ve learned, and those of us who are just getting started can get a head start on our own successes by standing on the shoulders of these giants.

Over the years, we at Popular Thoughts have read a lot of business books, and we’ve compiled this list (in no particular order) of the ones that were the most helpful, informative, entertaining, inspiring and thought-provoking for us. Some of them offer concrete advice about running a business; others are more about making big-picture improvements in time management, outlook, attitude and perception, all of which contribute to business success. Our CEO recommended these books personally, so the next time you browse the business section of the book store or library, check them out and let them help you lay the groundwork for the business and personal life you want!

Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com – Zappos is well-known for its exceptional customer service and commitment to quality, and it’s also known as one of the best companies to work for. This book shares the corporate philosophies and attitudes that make such success with both employees and customers possible.

The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss – This wildly-popular book is at the top for a reason! This latest version has been expanded and updated from the original. It’s a must-read for anyone who wants to live with more leisure, drop out of the 9-to-5 rat race and maximize the time spent working to achieve the ideal lifestyle design.

Play to Win! by Larry Wilson and Hersch Wilson – This book is excellent at getting the reader to think about what’s possible, rather than what’s impossible. Simply put, you can thrive if you learn to think in terms of winning instead of thinking in terms of not losing (it sounds like a difference of semantics, but really, it’s a huge change in outlook that means much greater success).

177 Mental Toughness Secrets of the World Class by Steve Siebold – The philosophy here is aimed at helping readers go from middle class (how most people think and act) to world class (how the truly successful think and act). Being mentally tough can make all the difference in life and success, and this book makes mental toughness attainable.

Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service by Ted Kinni – Taking the best care of your customers can mean the difference between struggling in your business and achieving real success. This book explores the customer service principles developed and used at Walt Disney World and uses them as a model for how to make customers keep coming back, time after time. Use this book to ensure that every aspect of your company is consistently delivering for your customers!

These five are just the beginning – there are many other great books out there for entrepreneurs, small business owners and anyone else looking to achieve success in work and life.

Got other suggestions for great business books? Post them in the comments and we’ll try to check them out!

So you want to start a business, but you don’t want to go it alone. A partner might be a good way to split the work, risk and profits from a new venture, but working with others (even people you know and trust) can be a dicey proposition. Many a friendship has been destroyed over sharing a business; even families can be damaged through partnership efforts in the workplace. So how can you share your business with your potential partner and not become a victim of the many pitfalls involved?

The Wall Street Journal’s how-to guide for starting a business suggests that, before you go in with a partner, be VERY sure you want or need a partner in the first place. You should only partner up with someone when the partnership is vital to the success of the endeavor. If you’re leery about the partnership, you can possibly hire the other person or even ask them to do contract work for you; that way, you can still benefit from their expertise without worrying about splitting the business in half.

If you really want to create a partnership for your new business, the number one thing to keep in mind is communication. Partners MUST communicate and be comfortable enough with each other to talk about whatever might come up. The experts at eHow suggest you sit down with your potential partner and hash out your roles, strengths, responsibilities, etc. BEFORE you get started. Recognize your own weaknesses and admit to them. If, for example, you’re not so good with creativity but you balance a mean budget, stick to the money duties and let your partner handle the ideas.

Before taking on a whole new business, you might want to try a smaller project with your partner to see how well you work together. Can you focus on common goals and compromise when needed? Can you overcome obstacles together without assigning blame or pointing fingers? If you can successfully complete a smaller business project together, then you might be ready to try a full partnership together.

Don’t forget to play the “what-if” game as much as you can up front, to avoid potential issues later. For example, what if one of you has a child or spouse who might later want to join the business? What if one of you wants to move the company elsewhere, but the other doesn’t? What if one of you is caught doing something unethical, immoral or illegal? Talk out as many possible scenarios as you can think of, even the ones that make you chuckle from ludicrousness… You might be surprised at the points on which you and your partner differ, and it’s better to get everything out in the open now.

Still not sure about partnering up? You could always go old-school and check each other’s references. Talk to your potential partner’s colleagues, friends and family members. Find out if your potential partner is trusted and respected by others. Character references, professional opinions and honest assessments can go a long way toward putting your mind at ease about the person you might be working with. And if it’s someone you’ve known a long time, look to your own experiences with that person in previous social or business situations. Did he or she ever bail out of a tough spot and leave others holding the bag? Do they have a tendency to party hard or run through money fast? No matter how close you are to someone or how much you like them personally, this is business; you must consider the health of your potential company before sharing an office space with someone.

Once you’ve decided on a partnership, have a lawyer and accountant help you with the partnership agreement. Do NOT say, “We’re friends, so we don’t have to sign anything,” or “We trust each other, so there’s no need to put it in writing.” Put everything in writing that you can to avoid confusion, disputes and major problems. The written partnership agreement is a must. It should include who is investing what, who owns what percentage of the business, how and when partners get paid, how much they get paid, exit clauses, responsibilities and roles, at the minimum. It should also include how the agreement could be adjusted as the business evolves, and it should contain an outline for what to do if both partners want to get out.

How do you think your business should be run? Set up a plan with your partner and stick to it. Work out a routine for talking to each other, checking in on projects, updating each other on developments and assessing how the company is doing. Establish your separate roles and stick to them so that there’s no confusion about who does what or who reports to whom. Plan to have a meeting every few months to make sure the business is still on the right track and to determine the next steps and direction. You really can’t overcommunicate when you have a partner!

If possible, keep the business side separate from the social side. Your partner might be your best friend in the world, but you should try not to let business topics (or worse, business arguments) get in the way of your friendship. And of course, don’t forget why you chose this particular partner in the first place. You must like and trust him or her, so when the going gets tough, remind yourself of what’s positive about the arrangement and what good may still come out of it.

In a lot of ways, a healthy business partnership is like a good marriage: lots of give and take, lots of compromise, and above all, lots of communication. Good luck!