Monthly Archives: June 2012

10 Unusual Businesses to Start for Under $100

 

I’ve been researching business startup concepts and options, and working with business startups for more than 12 years. And just when I think I’ve seen it all, something else pops into view, and shows me that there is a market for things you’d never think there as a market for! So I’ll share some of those things with you.

No, I’m not going to hand you some stupid business system. If you want one of those, what you really want is to get scammed. I’ve got something better in mind. But it assumes that you have some drive, creativity, and the ability to get online and research how to do things, and then SIMPLIFY the instructions on how to do things.

These overviews do not include things like business license, ink and paper for printing your business cards, or the cost of having someone else build a website for you. I’m going to assume that if you are really on a shoestring budget, that you are going to have to do those things yourself, and use existing supplies – and I’m going to assume you do have some simple tools and a few things lurking around that you can repurpose – most people do.

Most of these are probably things you’ve never thought of… and a few are probably things you’ve heard of, but have not thought about in the way that really works for a shoestring startup.

  1. Butterflies and Moths. Yup. there’s a market for butterflies and moths. There are increasing regulations about importing them, and shipping them across state lines if they are alive, but it is still a fairly easy proposition. You can get cocoons, or eggs. You can even capture live specimens and start that way, as long as you make sure it is legal where you are capturing them. You can raise them in containers – plastic storage containers or glass jars – indoors, or in remay sleeves on trees out of doors. Products range from eggs and cocoons, to instructions, to supplies, to mounted specimens, or crafts made with specimens.
  2. Snails. Now, personally, I find snails to be rather repugnant. Like slugs, only in a cuter box. Still not my thing, and I can’t imagine actually eating one! Nonetheless, snails are a booming business in many cities, and there is usually insufficient local supply to meet the need. With snails, you MUST think local – and you have to buy or gather starter snails that are known edible, and that are legal in your area. Forget shipping them across state lines – there’s a huge regulatory burden. But growing them and delivering them locally is pretty simple, and it does not take much to get started – initial containment and starter stock is fairly inexpensive. Really, all you need are two snails in the right mood… they can be very prolific!
  3. Mushrooms. Not THAT kind of mushrooms! Gourmet, edible, medicinal. THOSE mushrooms! Nothing illegal, doing illegal things in your business is never a good idea! So… what kinds of mushrooms? Do some research. See which ones are selling for good prices. You can get started with a few bins, some compost, (alternately, use a kit), and a spot where you can keep temperatures within a warm or cool range. Growing mushrooms is not actually as complicated as it sounds, a sterile environment is not even needed, if you are just smart about keeping things tidy. Just don’t expect to make a fortune growing Shiitake or Portobello mushrooms! The markets are saturated, don’t bother. Grow something that has a solid demand, but which is underproduced, and you’ll do much better. You can sell fresh mushrooms (farmer’s markets, or shipped), dried mushrooms, gourmet mushroom products, pickled mushrooms, mushroom grow-kits, mushroom spawn, mushroom growing instructions, etc.
  4. Food Molds. Oh, NOT the fuzzy kind… the SHAPED kind. Like people use for chocolate, or marzipan. This takes some talent… Buy a block of paraffin. Carve a 3-D design in it. Something that would look good as a cookie, a chocolate, or a cake decoration. Buy some food grade silicone mold putty. Use that to create the mold. Sell the molds. Make more. Costs about $10 for enough paraffin (or other carvable wax) to make 6-10 mold designs. Costs about $40 for a mold maker’s starter kit, or about $15 for enough putty to make 20-30 molds of about 1″x2″x1/2″ in size. Larger molds, fewer of them, but higher price. Look at what people WANT to shape things like, that you can’t buy at Wal-Mart (seriously, go into the party and bridal area, where they keep the cake decorating stuff – if you can buy the molds in a plastic sheet of a dozen molds, don’t bother!). Do unique and trendy stuff. If you have a flair for carving, and a flair for style, this can be very lucrative.
  5. eBaying Junk. Ok, not junk, precisely, but garage sale and salvage items. You have to have a bit of talent for knowing what people really want here, but I’ve seen this work for many people. I’ve seen a LOT of people FAIL with eBay also. Because they don’t understand that eBay is a BUYER’S market for common things, and a SELLER’S market for rare and desirable things. Your first step is to search on eBay, in the Completed Auctions (under Advanced Search), to see what the things you’d be interested in selling, are actually selling for! A lot of them aren’t going to be selling at all – dozens of auctions, no buyers. Scratch those items. Look for the ones that EVERY listing sells, for a price from which you know you can profit. Go with your interests – you’ll keep the information in your head better that you need to keep there. Then go salvaging and yard saling, and digging through the second hand shops, for stuff that is underpriced, and salable. The potentials are really good IF you can find a type of product that you have access to, which sells well. What NEVER works with eBay, is those “drop ship companies” that tell you that you can sell their overpriced oh-so-common product, which you will pay more for than you’d pay for something better at Wal-Mart, and which no customer in their right mind is going to pay you a reasonable mark-up to take off your hands. That never works. eBay depends upon uniqueness, and desirability. If you can get that, you’ll have a moneymaker on your hands.
  6. Hatching Eggs. Ok, so the startup cost for this is debatable – depends on how you get the chickens, and whether you already have containment for them or materials to build containment. But you may have enough resources to be able to do this. If you already have chickens, you can generally just add a good rooster – hatching eggs are far more lucrative than eggs for eating. You can sell edible eggs for around $2-3 per dozen, depending on quality. Hatching eggs go for $1-2 EACH. Heck, they even sell for $1 apiece on eBay! You just need to make sure that you either have breeds segregated so they do not cross-breed, or list them as crossbred chickens. Keep good chickens also, and get the marginal ones out of the breeding pool so you can say with assurance that you are selling good quality stock. If you are planning on getting chickens with the hope for earning a little cash on the side, it is worth knowing that hatching eggs sell for more.
  7. Meal Planning. There are a number of ways to do this. Weekly menus and shopping lists, or “Prepare Ahead” Recipe and instruction booklets. For Prepare Ahead meals, a recipe book, in PDF downloadable form, for a specific number of meals which can be prepared ahead, and frozen for on-demand quick-fix the following week. Combine ingredient prep – for example, if four of six meals take sauteed onions, combine all into a single chop and cook operation. Shopping lists are also a matter of combining things. An Excel spreadsheet makes a nice way to track the shopping, and estimate costs – you can create a self-calculating spreadsheet, with places to put in the number of items, the average cost of the item, which calculates the total for that item, and then adds up the total for all items. Take pictures of the prepared food (in the freezer containers, and again fully cooked and on the plate), write down all the recipes and combination preparation instructions, the shopping list, and average prep time. If you can keep the prep time to half a day or less, and the meals tasty, healthy, and not too costly, people will be interested. Works best to target a special needs segment – people most likely to do this are those who cannot eat supermarket prepared foods. For weekly menus, meal prep times of 30 minutes or less sell best.
  8. Auto Detailing. No need for a brick and mortar shop. Operate a mobile business – carry your vacuum cleaner, rags and polish with you, and make house and office calls. Busy people love it when the service comes to them. Now, auto-detailing is one of those things that attracts a lot of fly-by-nighters who think it is an easy way to make a buck. It isn’t. You have to do a good job and go the extra mile to keep paying people coming back (or asking you to come back!). So learn to do a good job, and KEEP doing a good job.  At $100 a pop, the potentials are good for a great income.
  9. Oddball Themed Online Store. There are tons of oddball and quirky things that you can assemble together in an online store. Look through eBay again. Only this time, look for what ISN’T selling well on eBay, but which WOULD sell if you had a bunch of items of that same kind together. You aren’t looking for really common stuff. You’re looking for stuff that a LOT of people have extra laying around, but which a lot of OTHER people really don’t think to go to eBay to get, or don’t know what it might be called on eBay. Your store can become the place to find it all. This will work best if there aren’t a ton of other stores specializing in the niche you discover.
  10. Printable Posters. This is one I’d have NEVER thought would sell, but it does. Pictures, borders, nice fonts, and motivational or humorous quotes, in PDF format for self-printing. Remember when you make these that most printers have a 1/2″ margin that won’t get printed around the edge. Also, the key to reading text over a photo is contrast – bold text often reads better, and putting a drop shadow behind white text, or a glow behind black text can make it stand out and improve readability when you have an image with a lot of distraction behind the text. Also, putting the text in a box, or with an opacity layer behind it can look classy and make the text readable. Elegant embellishments are easy to do using decoration fonts. Images for this kind of thing can be purchased through places like Big Stock Photo, or through clipart or photo collections from Dover Books. There are other places that sell licensed images also. You’ll need a photo editing program, like PhotoShop Elements, and you’ll need to make sure you use high resolution images (look it up if you don’t know what it means). Holiday quotes, seasonal thoughts, learning tools, classic political quotes, or scriptures. Watch what trends on FaceBook, and sell things with a similar mood. Make it look good enough that people want to pay for it. Sell with instant download for $1-2 each.

If you start a shoestring business, you’ll expect the first revenue that you get to go back into the business, and the next dribbles to put a hefty percentage of the profit back into the business, for quite a while. But all of these options allow you to start on a shoestring, and get to the point of profit much sooner than you would if you went into debt to start up.

No business is FAST to start, but with these ideas, you can be profiting within months instead of years, and possibly even sooner than that. Go out there and look for the unusual, and think about how you can simplify it enough to get in the door for under $100. You’ll be surprised at what is possible.

UPDATE: Our book Starting a Mushroom Growing Business on a Shoestring is now available from Amazon for Kindle, and in PDF format through our Firelight Heritage Farm Books website.

Our company is now offering Cottage Industry Consulting and can help you develop a plan for a successful business on a shoestring.

Making Sense of Website Traffic Numbers

We have taught our clients how to increase traffic to their websites, by interlinking their websites with social media, so that each time they add content to their websites, it is sent out to the places they haunt regularly online.

This has several benefits:

  1. It gets the website the same traffic benefits of a blog.
  2. It helps them maintain a presence in many places, with just a single task.
  3. The pages get indexed faster, since they are fed through Twitter.

But the overriding question, as always, is:

Does it get more paying customers?

The answer, in a word, is “Usually”. Provided the website follows through with good sales presentation, the orders follow.

We’ve noticed some interesting traffic trends on sites with which we’ve implemented this strategy. To explain what happened, I’ll have to give you some definitions and explanations of what the numbers are.

  • Unique Visitors – These are people who are theoretically visiting for the first time, or the first time in a while. You need hundreds of these, if not thousands of these, per month, in order to keep a steady flow of orders. This number, more than the others, seems most closely correlated with order volumes.
  • Total Visitors – This is all the people that visited, including repeats. This does affect orders somewhat – many people come back to buy again, and people who come back over and over are more likely to refer other people.
  • Page Views – This is how many pages all of your visitors visited. Often this will have an average number attached – such as 5.2 pages per visitor. More pages is a good thing in general. It means people are interested in what you are saying, and selling. This means they are more likely to trust you enough to buy, and more likely to refer other people to your site.
  • Hits – This is a completely meaningless number in terms of traffic. All it means, is the number of times a file was accessed from the server. Each web page can be made up of dozens of files. This means, if anyone ever brags about getting 80,000 hits on their site per month, they are looking at the wrong numbers, and you can be sure they are not getting more than a few thousand visitors, if that. We’ve had sites that averaged 5 files per page, and sites that averaged 50 files per page, so you just can’t tell anything useful from that number, unless you are a web developer who thinks they need to make a site more efficient.

Ok, so now we know what we are working with. These are the trends that we see when we throw social media into the flow of website content publication:

  1. Unique Visitors gradually increase. This is a SLOW increase though. But slow is better than nothing. Since the increase is happening in conjunction with other changes, and since it is happening through the completion of tasks you’d be doing anyway, this is a great thing. Without the flow to social media, this increase would not happen without other more time intensive work. This increase happens through the gradual contact and referral to new people.
  2. Total Visitors dramatically increases. Often a 10-fold increase, literally overnight – it starts the day you post new content that is sent out to your social media profiles. The average small business website, without a tie to social media, has a ratio of about 1.2, to 1.5 visits per visitor. If tied to social media, that increases to an average of just under 10 visits per visitor, and can go much higher. This happens because people are reminded that you are there every time you publish something, so they stop by to read it.
  3. Page Views dramatically increase. Part of this is a natural reaction to the increased traffic, but we find that the percentages improve also. The pages per visitor often rise. This may be in part, due to the fact that people who are reminded that you are there, can read an extra page or two if they want each time they are there, instead of running out of time the first time, and not coming back.
  4. Sales tend to do the same thing as the Unique Visitors numbers. Gradual increases. If they do not increase as the new traffic increases, then the site is in need of a review and some changes to help people find the product better, understand it better, or feel more comfortable about purchasing.
  5. There is a direct connection between frequency of posts, and traffic. Now, the value of this is only really relevant up to a certain point. More than once a day really doesn’t benefit a small business owner (even big business seems to agree that more than once a day is not a profitable use of time). The best balance seems to be somewhere between once a week, and once a day – depending on the schedule and capabilities of the business owner. Scheduling posts to publish at a later date can help with a regular delivery of new content. We find that the greater the frequency, the greater the gap between Unique Visitors, and Total Visitors, so people are responding mostly to the immediacy of having something right in front of them that they think they are interested in. Beyond about every other day though, the increase in Unique Visitors is no longer as dramatic, and more than once a day it levels off even more. The point here is that frequency is vital – you have to post regularly, but that there is a wide range of acceptable frequencies to gain the benefits. You see this benefit really kick in at once a week, peak at about every other day, and dramatically lose benefits per post, at more than once a day.

If you have more than one website, you can get additional benefits by interlinking them, because once you do, what benefits one, will benefit the other.

We’ve found that it helps new sites also.  It takes just weeks to get traffic up to the same point that took months using other “free” methods. Sales are still sluggish at first – people are hesitant to buy things from a new site. But it gets it going faster than other methods.

This is one area where automation really helps, because you are automating the non-personal part, and making sure the personal things you do achieve maximum impact. Well worth the 20 minutes or so that it takes to set up!

A Better Way for Airlock Fermenting

In the fermenting world, debates rage over topics such as “anerobic environments”, “airtight containers”, and “traditional methods”. The debates tend to center on two extremes:

One point of view is that traditional fermenting was done under very imperfect conditions, and following a few simple rules can yield success in most situations. In fact, tradition does teach us that if food is kept under brine, it ferments just fine most of the time. A few climates, or home environments, may make this more challenging. A few people with specific health issues may have problems with foods fermented this way. But this IS true traditional fermenting, imperfections and all.

The other point of view is that in order to achieve a true “anerobic ferment”, you have to have an “airless environment”, in an “airtight container”. A system is recommended which is costly, awkward, and which is not in fact, an airtight container at all (explanation is here). It does, however, manage to achieve one thing: It limits air exchange, and microbe exchange from outside the container, and reduces the chances of some kinds of errors. It does this by allowing gas buildup to escape, while eliminating the need to open the jar to release it, or to leave the cap off. Since the container is clear glass, it also allows outside observation – this one factor is perhaps the most important, as it helps people keep their fingers out of it and not mess with it while it is in the initial fermentation stages.

I am not a proponent of either method. I know that it can be done well, either way. I know that certain things REQUIRE an open fermenting environment – that is, they will not work in an airlock system (vinegar, and wild yeast are two of those things). There are other instances where an open environment is preferable, to achieve a specific desired result. There are other instances where an airlock environment is preferable, to achieve a different specific desired result.

That said, many people prefer an airlock system, and I do like the ease of an air-release system, because I don’t have to fuss with the jar to keep it from getting messy! So I began looking for an alternative to the high priced airlock systems. Sure enough, people were making their own airlock caps to go on mason jars. But they had some of the same disadvantages as the expensive systems – they are clunky, and awkward, and the water lock stuck up out of the jar in a very cumbersome manner. I KNEW there had to be a better way, and I could instantly “see” it in my mind. A one-way valve is simpler, more compact, and requires no special instructions to properly operate it. It just works.

The problem is that nobody makes a one way valve for a mason jar lid. And nobody makes a one way valve of the type that is needed, in the configuration needed, at an affordable price! Similar one way valves are available (the concept is scientifically sound, and frequently used in many applications), but they cost upward of $10 apiece. NOT an affordable option, since our goal is to make fermenting MORE affordable, not less!

Long story short, in a trip through a hardware store, I found the pieces I needed, and was able to source appropriate versions of them, to assemble together to make a simple, elegant little Fermenting Jar Cap that goes on any standard size mason jar (Narrow or Wide Mouth). This product is now available for sale on our Fermenta Cap site, under the name of Fermenta Lock.

Fermenta Lock Compact Airlock Fermenting Cap

While we are making and selling them, we are not yet able to sell it at the price that I’d like to be able to sell it, but it is still far less expensive to assemble the parts than are the more costly systems.

A competing Pickling system sells a 1 quart pickling jar and dunker for $23. It is a one quart jar, and nothing more. Price goes up for larger jar sizes, and you have to buy one for every size you need, and more than one if you want to ferment or store more than one item at a time.

In comparison, Wide Mouth Size Fermenta Lock is $8.50, which includes an airlock cap, and a storage cap. A Fermenta Dunk plus Dunk Extender in the same size, is $5.75. So far we are up to $14.25. Add a Quart Mason Jar, for just under $1, or a Half Gallon Mason Jar, for $1.60, and we are still under $16.00 for everything (we don’t sell Mason jars – this is the price for which they typically are sold in stores).

The Fermenta Lock cap is interchangeable. You aren’t stuck spending $23 for one size jar, $25 for another size jar, and so on, and having to buy more and more of them to ferment different sizes or to ferment and then store.

A couple of cases of standard Mason Jars, or jars saved and salvaged from recycled sources give you all you need. Two Fermenta Lock Caps, and a few Fermenta Dunks and Extenders keep a range of things going, and you can swap out the lids and only use the expensive stuff during fermentation times, without having to tie it up for storage as well. Easy, flexible, and cost effective.

You can also assemble things one piece at a time, according to whatever you think is most important – get a Dunker this month, an Airlock Cap next month. No need to spend a lot all at once.

Certainly, our competition may disagree with us, but we think this is definitely a “better way”, and it makes Fermenting more affordable, and more predictable, no matter how you choose to do it!

We won’t stop there. There are more things we can see that we need to do, and we’ve been researching more parts, and suppliers, and thinking creatively to solve problems to provide good solutions for more flexible pickling and fermenting choices, for wholesale purchase of our products, and more. Because we keep looking at other aspects and thinking “There has to be a better way!”. Usually there is. Give us a little time… we’ll find it!

The Art of Inventing

 

I can invent things a whole lot easier than I can manufacture them. In a way, inventing is the easy part. Taking an invention from an idea in your head, to something you can actually USE, is quite a bit trickier.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t at one time said, “What we really need is a (insert thing) that (insert function), instead of this old clunky thing!”. Most people KNOW what the invention SHOULD be. But most people can’t get from what they HAVE, to what they really WANT.

The tricky part, is PARTS. When you have invented a thing that nobody has invented before, the parts may not exist. I mean, if nobody knows what a doohicky is, then they really aren’t going to be out there manufacturing pulley wheels and gasket seals for doohickies that they don’t even know exist.

So where parts are concerned, you have to think about FUNCTION, not the NAME of the thing. What I mean is, if you need a gasket for a certain size lid, you may not be able to find a gasket for that lid in stores that sell lids. But somewhere, someone probably makes a gasket that size, if you can determine the size accurately, and the thickness you need. Instant thingamabob for your doohicky.

So think about function – shape, and size, texture, and other properties. What could work? What can you make that might work? What can you easily obtain that you can alter that might work?

Ideally, we all think about the perfect thing, made in a special way. But manufacturing custom parts is very costly. You won’t even get in the door for less than the price of the average house (before the recession!).

Whittling a piece of wood, drilling a hole in an existing part, using two parts together in a new way, or taking parts meant for one purpose and using them in a way that is totally foreign to the original intention isn’t actually hard. What is hard, is finding exactly what you need. Simplify the idea, and think about what you can do in a simple backyard shop with simple tools.

When searching for parts, you can search online, but if you do, you are limited to what you think of searching for by name. You may miss something that would work.

If you walk through a large hardware or fastener store, and just take your time you may have better success at finding something unexpected that will do the job – never do this when you are in a hurry! Go through, aisle by aisle, and just LOOK. As you do, you’ll get ideas. And you might just spot the thing you need. It might not be precisely what you had in mind, but maybe it will work anyway.

Now, some people just don’t have the drive or energy to bother. Other people though, may be natural entrepreneurs, and the idea of creating something new, that fits a need, is intriguing, even exciting, because if you can MAKE it, you can SELL it.

If you are one of those people, then the next time you find yourself saying, “There’s gotta be a better way to do that!”, figure out how to do it! Then go find a way to make it happen.

It may just be the next safety pin or duct tape.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find a tubular shaped metal thing with one open end, that is cheap, and which can be altered to become… something else!

Our company is now offering Cottage Industry Consulting, including product development services.

Five Years and Counting

I started blogging more than five years ago. I entered the blogging arena reluctantly, and by many standards, very late in the game. That actually proved an advantage, not a disadvantage in some ways. Sure, it was harder to get noticed, but there was more objective data available on what worked and what did not, and I had to learn to use it in a way that would work forever, not just a way that worked because it was new.

I didn’t want to Tweet either. In fact, I still despise Twitter, in spite of recommending it to most of my clients who get bogged down with marketing. I don’t generally Tweet anything – unless I launch a new site and want it indexed ASAP. Mostly, I Auto-Tweet.

This is where Twitter intersects with the blog. One of the keys to being a genius web designer instead of just a mediocre web designer, is being able to think in terms of FUNCTION, and not just in terms of LABELS and FEATURES. Breaking a feature or component down by the functions it performs, rather than just thinking of it as a single purpose item.

See, most people think of Twitter as a great big global conversation, that they have to JOIN in order to get any benefit from Twitter. I don’t. I rarely login to Twitter, and I rarely directly post a Tweet. I do not use TweetDeck, and I don’t use anything to keep me up on the latest or hottest trends. Because I did not think of Twitter as an online community.

I think of Twitter as something that lets you post to a group of people, AND something that can be used to interface with OTHER places that you want to post to OTHER groups of people. It is that second thing that has value to me. I consider the first part to be largely a time waster, and I just have no time to keep up with the Joneses in little text bytes. I have a real life!

I also have a Blog. A blog that, on its own, gets a modest amount of traffic, and has a small following of people who read frequently, but never tell me they did so. I’m ok with that, even though I’d love to hear from more of them. But I can write to the faceless masses if I have to. I just pretend that you are all a bunch of people whom I’d love to hang out with if I met you in person (a few of you, I HAVE met in person… Yup! I was right, I DO like to hang out with you!).

This blog of modest traffic, which is cross linked with whatever my latest business endeavor happens to be, becomes more powerful when I use a function that it possesses – the ability to RSS articles to other places – with the ability of Twitter to interface with some of the places that I want my blog to be seen.

The blog is fed into Twitter, using TwitterFeed.com. Incredibly easy to do. Every time I post, my post goes automatically to Twitter. I also can feed Twitter to FaceBook, Linked-In, Plaxo, etc. Wherever else I want it to go. So now, every time I publish a blog post, out it goes, all over. Automatically. I like automatic.

So I have this little machine that can now be used for either direct, or indirect marketing. I prefer indirect. I prefer to just write about what I want to write about, link to my sites (mostly in the sidebar – rarely in an article directly), and let the increased blog traffic send increased traffic to my other sites. It works. Rather well, in fact.

But what if I could eliminate one of the steps? What if I could send the blog traffic directly to my regular websites?

Back to FUNCTION, not FEATURE. I do not need to turn my website into a blog. I do not even need to ADD a blog to my website. I don’t need another blog at all! I just need to take the functions I need, and add THOSE to the PART of my website that I want to use in that way. In some sites, I’m already posting regular articles to build content, which I’d do anyway. I look at those areas for enhancing with blog functions.

I’ve done this with my book website. I have a Category in it called “Tossed Salad”. It is named after a chapter in my book – this chapter was used for all the odds and ends tips that didn’t really fit in one of the other chapters. Of course, the thing about little tips is that you always come up with one more. So each edition of the book will have even more of them. Probably I’ll eventually have to categorize THEM, and may turn some into full chapters. Whatever. It works. Meanwhile, I store the new ones on this website where people can look them up, where Google can index them, and where they work to promote my book.

The website structure that I use already has the capability to RSS a Category. So I grabbed the Category RSS feed link, and headed back over to TwitterFeed.com, and fed THAT into Twitter, beside my blog feed. Now when I publish an article to that category in my website, IT goes out everywhere my blog goes. People have to click the link to read the whole thing, and that brings them back to my website.

Blogs have one more valuable element that is nice to have in a website – but only one that you want in PARTS of it, not all of it.

Pinging. A blog pings a series of search engines every time a post is published. “Hey guys! New article here! Named THIS… By THIS PERSON… About THAT!”. This gets blog posts indexed in directories fairly quickly, and gives them a millisecond of fame as one of the latest posts (blog directories are incredibly busy, with probably hundreds or thousands of posts being added per second). But it means one or two more people might see it. And it means Google gets the message right away.

So we found a pinging add-on for our website. One that let us assign the ping only to that one category. I now have the advantages of a blog inside my website, bringing a little extra traffic directly into my product sales sites, where more non-pushy articles (I believe in being helpful and informative rather than advertising) bring people who might be interested in what I sell, right to the place that I sell it. If they like the article, they are now feeling all warm and fuzzy toward me, and that is a really good basis on which to foster a good customer relationship. They are well-disposed to consider kindly anything I am selling.

Content Marketing is still the most powerful enduring form of marketing on the net. Understanding technology functions, and how to use them to make life SIMPLER instead of more complicated, is one of the keys to making Content Marketing manageable. I mean, I have time to publish an article a week. I don’t always have time to publish it and then link it to 10 different places online.

Automating the linking part makes everything I write work harder for me, instead of making me work harder because of it.

Of Keys, and Outhouses, and Little Boy’s Prayers

“Mom!”, shouted my oldest son, his feet pounding louder as he neared the campsite, “Alex is locked in the outhouse!”

It was already that kind of camping trip. We had come a day early into the weekend. Our favorite campsite on the Platte River was just 5 minutes from Kevin’s job, so we had come in the night before, and he had left that morning to work as usual on Friday, so I was now alone with the kids – all seven of them – beside the lazy river in September.

It was not really a real campground, so much as an area with possible campsites along the river, with a single concession to camping comfort – a solid concrete block double outhouse set upon a rise, just high enough to be above the high water line during the spring flood season. There were several short roads, with a nice broad area at the end of each, suitable for tents, tables, and chairs. Typically one or two other campers were on our end of the area, and a few fishers at the other end. It was frequently used, but not highly populated. We loved camping there, being able to swim on and off through the day, floating the quarter mile stretch of river near our campsite, and listening to the soft sounds of the river at night, and waking to squirrels chattering and birds chirping in the morning.

Friday evening, before dinner, I had worked on some writing using my computer in the front seat of the car. We had gone into the river, wading and floating on tubes, and I had not wanted to lose my keys if they fell out of my pocket, so I had tucked the car keys under the front seat. And forgot them. And locked the car right before bed. Like good campers we had put all of the food in the trunk of the car prior to shutting down for the night. (This was Wyoming, so not locking the car during the day was not a big deal, but it needed locked at night.)

It was morning before we figured out that the keys were securely locked up under the seat of the car. We did not have a cell phone. The nearest residence was about a mile down the road. Town was five miles away. Prayer was our only resource, so I gathered the kids around, and we had a prayer together. We explained that our keys were locked in the car, we were hungry, and had no food, and had no practical way of getting help to unlock the car, and we asked that we know what to do to get our keys out of the car.

We finished the prayer, and Sean (oldest boy) decided to go around and ask the other campers there if anyone could help. Maybe a cell phone, or something.

Sean returned with a helpful man with a slimjim. One of the three other campers there had the very tool we needed to be able to get into the car. He quickly opened the car for us, we thanked him profusely, and he left smiling to return to his campsite.

We knew that had to be divine intervention. It was too unusual to be coincidence. We gathered again to say a prayer of thanks.

A little later, as we got ready to do something together, our next to youngest child was nowhere to be found. We called her name, and received no answer. So we gathered again, and said a prayer, and then hollered some more. Within a few more hollers, she came out of the trees, and said she had been down by the river, and didn’t think she was gone that long. It wasn’t misbehavior, it was just my daughter, trying to take care of something she felt was important. But the answer to the prayer stuck.

Now, as I hurried down the road and up the small hill to the outhouse, I was already considering how one extracts a small boy from a solid block structure. I already knew it had a heavy metal door, with hinge pins that could not be removed without a blowtorch. The door closed with a 3/4 inch square metal bar slide lock. Heavy, and difficult to move, even for an adult. Sean routinely accompanied Alex to the outhouse, and stood outside, but Alex did not lock the door. I guess his six year old sense of independence was coming to the fore, because this time he locked it, and had been required to give it a good hard shove to get it to slide into place. Hard enough to get it well and truly stuck.

Alex was not the average six year old. We knew things were not right, but could not get a doctor to acknowledge it. He did not have the strength to ride a bike fast enough to get the training wheels off the ground. His arms and legs were stick thin, with far less muscle than they should have had. So it wasn’t just a six year old boy stuck in that outhouse. It was one who lacked the physical strength to even begin to help himself.

I reached the outhouse, let Alex know I was there, and looked it over. One tiny vent, up at the peak of the roof. Not quite big enough to let someone else in, or a small boy out, assuming he could even get up that high without falling into the pit trying. No, not really an option. I had visions in my head of having to call Wyoming Game and Fish Department to have them come and dismantle the outhouse to get him out. Prospective newspaper headlines danced in my head for a few moments. I quickly realized that our only option, again, was prayer.

I told Alex that he would have to do it. That we needed to say a prayer together, and he needed to ask Heavenly Father to make him strong enough to move that bolt.

Alex said a prayer on his side, and I said one on my side. Then he grabbed that bolt and yanked. Nothing happened. “Try again!” I encouraged. He threw his weight behind it and tugged again.

“Mom!” he cried excitedly, “It moved!”

“Good! Try again!” I answered. Sean cheered him on in the background, telling him he could do it.

He tried again, and it moved another fraction of an inch. And again, and again, bit by bit he worked that bolt far enough over that it finally slid free with a solid clank.

Alex came out of the outhouse and gave me a hug, and together we said a prayer of thanks. There was no doubt that the Lord had truly given him the strength to move the lock, because Alex simply could not do it himself. Ever since that day, this has been my favorite “Heavenly Father answers little boy’s prayers” story. I must have told it at least 50 times.

It proved to me that Heavenly Father does indeed hear the prayers of harried mothers who lock their keys in their cars, or have a child go missing, and little boys locked in outhouses. I have also imagined His kindly amusement as He gave Alex the strength in his puny arms to move that great big stubborn bolt.

It was not until years later that I really put the whole thing together and realized that not only had He answered our prayers earlier that day, and Alex’s prayer later, but that there was a connection between the two. That the example earlier of my keys being locked in the car, and an unquestionable miracle in getting them out, and then and Betsy’s absence and return, had given Alex the confidence to know that God could indeed give him the strength to do what he knew he could not do. Locking my keys in my car had not just been a random event, it had been a vital part of delivering Alex from his smelly concrete prison later that same day. As to Betsy’s absence, I don’t want to encourage my kids to think going missing is a positive event, so I’ll not speculate where that falls, except that the prayer WAS answered.

God does indeed answer the prayers of little boys. Sometimes He even starts answering them before little boys even know they are going to need help.

I am the Bug

He told the story toward the end of Stake Conference. “One afternoon I went out and got in my car, and there was this big bug on the windshield. I didn’t want to make a mess with the wipers, so I decided to just start driving and see how long it took for it to be pushed off.

“I got onto the street, and that bug hung on. I went from the street to the highway, and it still hung on. I was starting to have some respect for that little bug. I got up to 55 miles per hour, and he was still hanging on – though he was kind of slowly shifting around. He got his head down and is back end up, so he was more aerodynamic.

“I got out onto the expressway and kept speeding up, finally up to 75 miles per hour. That bug was still hanging on.

“It suddenly occurred to me, that maybe he didn’t know what else to do. And I felt the Spirit tell me, ‘Slow down, and let the bug go.’ I thought that was weird. But it came again, “Slow down, and let him go.”

“So I pulled off to the side, and when I had slowed way down, the bug finally let go, and flew off.

“Some people are like that. Hanging on because they just don’t know what else to do, hoping for someone to rescue them, and they are TIRED.” He went on to make a point about helping others.

All I could think, with tears streaming down my face, is “I am the bug”. Hanging on for dear life, so tired I wonder sometimes if I can make it to the next day, just wishing things would slow down, that just ONE THING would get better, that something would change to give me hope. That somehow, a miracle would occur to make the whole unmanageable mess, somehow, manageable.

This is not about having a pity party. This is about depression. This is what it feels like to have depression. It may also be described as feeling like you are in a tunnel. Like all the color has gone out of the world. Like the laughter has somehow taken a vacation. Like all the effort to make things change for the better just does not help, and there just isn’t enough of you to keep up anymore. Like somehow the rules of life that used to apply, and seem to apply for everyone else just don’t apply to you anymore. Like God loves you, and COULD fix it, but you know He probably won’t. Life just hurts, and feels so heavy. Sometimes it hurts so much you don’t know how you can bear it for one more day.

From the outside it does not look like this. From the outside it looks like this person just grumbles a lot more than they used to. It looks like they have a bad attitude, and they may be more impatient and more angry. It looks like they are lazy and just not making an effort to help themselves. It looks like they’ve become more selfish. It looks like they do not appreciate your encouragement and good advice.

If you identify with either side of this – if you feel like you are the bug, then it is likely that depression is having an effect on you, or if you know someone who just doesn’t seem to be coping in the way you remember them doing, it is likely that they are under the weight of serious depression.

Now, we aren’t talking about “gee, I feel down today” when you have a crying jag due to PMS or something else. We are talking about something that goes on for more than a few months – almost when the person cannot remember the last time they had a good day, or a time when they had more good days than bad days. They feel like they’ve gone in and just can’t get back out. And it feels like it is their fault.

There are two types of depression – Situational, and Clinical. Situational is depression caused by a specific situation – loss, change, relationship problems, etc. Counseling, exercise, activities, and other strategies may help a lot with situational depression. Clinical depression is caused by changes in the chemistry or hormones in the body, and no matter how many “good things” you do to “fix it”, it simply may not respond with enough impact to pull out of the depression. Medication may be helpful with clinical depression, as may diet changes. Sunlight, and working in the dirt (seriously! bacteria in the dirt has a specific mood enhancing effect on the brain) may help either type of depression, but it may or may not be enough to turn things around.

It usually takes something outside themselves to break the pattern. Medication may be PART of the solution, but is rarely the whole thing. In some instances, medication makes little difference – it simply may not be appropriate for some individuals. Herbs may help – St. John’s Wort can help (though it will make you sensitive to the sun), and so can Borage Oil, or Lemon Balm. In either case, you can’t just tell someone with depression what to do to help themselves – they literally may not have the strength to make an appointment to get help, or go to the grocery store to get Borage Oil.

If you have a friend who seems to have depression, don’t try to tell them how to “fix” it. Ask them to go somewhere with you. Be patient if they say no, and ask again. Don’t be surprised if you ask what you can do, and they don’t know – be specific when asking them if they want you to help them with something. Bring them dinner now and again, and bring enough that they have leftovers. Let them know you care. And be patient with their discouraging mood. This is how they feel right now. It isn’t fun, and it isn’t nice to be around sometimes, but if you are patient, they have more hope of pulling out of it. Hugs help. Love helps. Not judging them helps. Helping them see the good in THEM helps.

Certainly, if you feel like hurting yourself, or someone else, you need to tell someone. And if your friend or family member expresses that kind of feeling, you need to call a Mental Health Crisis Center and ask what to do. Because someone may feel so much pain that they really can’t stand it any longer.

Depression can sneak up on anyone. No one is immune. In fact, most people will experience at least one serious depressive episode in their life, when it is the support and kindness of others that allows them to feel the love of the Lord enough to keep going. It is part of the opposition in life that allows us to recognize joy because of pain, and good because of bad. And it is one of our greatest opportunities to be the recipients of Christlike love from those around us, if they but choose to give it.

If we are on the outside looking in, this is a chance to BE the hands of Jesus Christ. To give true charity – “the pure love of Christ”. You may not be able to slow down the car and let them off. But you can cover their hands with yours, and “lift up the hands that hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees”.

Today, I am the bug. Tomorrow, you might be. Together, we are all strong enough to hang on.

Using Milk Kefir Grains Day to Day

Kefir grains are both a blessing, and a burden. They provide you with healthy, microbe rich milk products every day, but they also take daily care, and daily “feeding”. You have to keep milk in supply, and be there to refresh it every day, as a general rule. Sure, you can skip a day now and then, but things go wrong if you make a habit of it! You can also store them in several ways for longer periods of time, but again, things go wrong if you get sloppy about it.

If you’ve been considering getting Milk Kefir Grains, and aren’t sure what it will mean in a day to day routine, this post is meant to give you a picture.

I started with two tablespoons of fresh grains, mailed to me. So they had spent three days in a starved state by the time I got them, which means they may take a few days to re-balance. I promptly stuck them in about two cups of milk and left them on the top of the fridge to incubate.

By the next evening the milk was separated, and the jar spewed on me when I opened it – there was a lot of pressure built up in the jar (I had checked it earlier in the day and it was not set – it seemed to set and go explosive all of a sudden!). The grains were floating at the top of the jar (a good sign), so it looked like the grains were healthy and responsible for the culturing of the milk.

The milk did not smell quite right for kefir – it did not smell disgusting or anything, but it wasn’t right for kefir, so I discarded it and replaced it. I also rinsed the grains in milk – the only time I did that, normally I do not do that. I did it this time just to help them get back in balance, by removing some of the imbalanced bacteria and yeasts from the outside. I put another two cups of milk in with the grains, and set them back up on the fridge.

The next morning, I checked it and it was set, so I opened it and smelled. It smelled better, so I dumped it in the strainer, over a bowl, and tapped the strainer until nothing was left but the grains and some curds and milk slime (yes, it is slimy if the grains are healthy). This time I kept the kefir – I dumped it into a larger bottle, added about another two quarts of milk, and left that on the counter to culture overnight.

Meanwhile, I washed my original jar and lid, returned the grains to the jar, filled to two cups of milk, shook it, and left it to incubate again.

The next morning both jars were set nicely. I noticed that kefir made with pasteurized milk has more of a sour milk smell than kefir made with raw milk (which smells more buttermilk-yogurty than sour-yogurty). I drained the kefir for the day, washed the small jar, added the grains back, filled to two cups with milk, and set it back to incubate. This is now part of my daily routine. We also have kefir every morning, mixed with juice – about half a cup of kefir, and about 2/3 of a cup of juice, stirred together (it stirs weird, because of the stringiness of the kefir, but does eventually blend smooth just by stirring with a spoon in the cup).

The second larger jar of kefir was dumped into a strainer that was lined with a woven dishcloth (not a towel – a smoother, large dishcloth). I left it to set for several hours, then checked it. The solids were firming up, and the clear whey was collecting below. The edges and bottom of the solids were dry enough to separate easily from the cloth (they are sticky at first, but as the whey drains they get dryer and pull easily away from the cloth). I pulled the edges into the middle so the runnier stuff in the middle could go to the edges and drain better. I let it set for another few hours.

By evening, I had about a pint and a half of whey, and two cups of solids that tasted like a slightly sharp cream cheese. The consistency was the same as cream cheese at room temp. I rounded it up into a ball inside the cloth, squeezed it gently (not too hard, or the solids will get stuck in the cloth and it won’t release easily) to get the last bits of whey out that were easy to get out. I now had a partial ball of cheese – the bottom that was against the cloth was smooth and rounded, the top more rough and crumbly looking. So I took a small bowl and turned it upside-down on the ball, and then flipped it, and peeled off the cloth. This left me with a very nice looking rounded white cheese, neatly in the bowl.

The whey went into a separate container, and into the fridge, where we use it as a moistening liquid in various recipes.

That night, I added some seasoning to part of the cheese, and we had it on toasted homemade bread. I used the rest of it several days later, stirred into potato soup, and taco soup, where it added a delightful tang.

The next day I noticed that the kefir was starting to be mostly set by evening, and very hard set by morning. This means the grains are growing and are culturing the milk faster. The solution is to add more milk, until I have enough grains to separate off. Temperatures in our home are moderately warm, it is a warm spring in Oklahoma, which also makes them culture more quickly. I upped the milk to about two and a half cups. I could see we were growing out of our little not-quite-quart jar. I also got some quart containers to use with the kefir.

By this time I was getting a solid two cups of kefir (you lose just a little due to the volume of the grains in the container, and due to what sticks to the bowl and strainer). We are using between 1 and 2 cups per day, so overall, it is increasing slowly in the fridge. The new stuff goes in the back, the older stuff to the front.

After several more days, the kefir is needing more milk again. So we move up to a Ball half gallon canning jar – room to grow! We increase the milk to the four cup mark, and it cultures nicely in 24 hours – I can see that we are going to have to increase that soon as well. It looks like I’ll be able to separate the grains in about a week. I can’t really SEE that they are growing yet – it is hard to tell whether I am putting back 2 or 3 tablespoons. But I can see how they culture the milk, and I can tell by the amount of milk they are culturing that they are growing.

We are now getting just shy of 1 quart per day of cultured milk. I have had the grains for just two weeks.

When I get two quarts of surplus, in addition to the partial that we are using from in the front, I make cheese again. The second time I made cheese I let it sit overnight, and it ended up the same firmer consistency as cream cheese – I got about 1 lb of soft cheese from two quarts of kefir. The flavor still has a sour edge to it, because of the milk (when we did this using raw milk in Texas, it did not have that sour flavor, so I am sure it is the pasteurized milk that does it). But it is not nasty, and it takes various seasonings well.

The next round of cheese will be a cooked, pressed cheese. There are many types of cheese that can be made from kefir. I am already decreasing the amount of cheese that I buy.

So how will I keep this going? How will I keep enough milk to keep the grains happy? At this rate, they are doubling their culturing volume about once a week. That is a lot of milk potential!

The grains will be ready to split soon. At that time, I’ll preserve some for backup. I’ll also start making them available to other people. A quart a day seems to be a good amount right now, to make sufficient kefir and cheese.

One of the issues with kefir that people worry about is the daily maintenance. It takes literally 5 minutes a day to drain the grains, wash the jar, return the grains to the jar and refill with milk, shake, and place them to culture, and then pour the kefir into a container and pop it into the fridge.

Making soft drained cheese is also easy – 2 minutes to set it up to drain. 2 minutes in the middle to adjust it to drain better. 2 minutes at the end to package the cheese. 3-4 minutes to wash the cloth (I do it by hand in the sink with a little dishwashing detergent, and remove any sticky cheese by rubbing the cloth against itself).

I made ranch dressing a few days ago from mayonnaise and kefir – but I can also make it just from kefir, by using some of the thicker cream cheese style kefir, blended with some fresh. The ranch dressing was really good. It is usable in place of milk, yogurt, sour cream, cream cheese, soft cheese, cottage cheese, and many other dairy ingredients. It takes about 1 minute to toss the ingredients for Ranch into kefir or cheese and stir it up. It stores well, so you can make up a cup or so at a time and use it slowly if you want.

The hardest thing is keeping a steady supply of milk. But once that problem is solved, I am loving having the kefir every day, and loving having a steady supply of cheese starter just right there. It just builds up naturally, takes no special effort on my part, and I just drain it out when I have enough.

I’m all about easy. I’ll do the hard work when that is the only way to get things done, but if I can work out a simpler way, I always will. Kefir has ended up being easy. And convenient in ways I had not thought it would.

Letting Pandora Out of the Box

Guest post by Kevin (Laura’s husband)

I grew up with a strong foundation in music. I played in band throughout junior high, high school, and college. I actually have a degree in Music Education. I love listening to music. At home, in the car, in the bathroom, where ever. Sometimes it drives my wife nuts. But silence, especially for a prolonged span of time, drives me nuts – unless I’m up in the woods. (I managed to survive a week up at Scout camp without a radio or iPod, and I’ve been up in the mountains hunting deer and elk. While working at Camp for a whole summer, we could watch movies on the computers, and listen to iTunes, so I had some respite from squirrel chitters and bird song.) I’ve been trying to tell my wife for years that I think better when music is playing. She is only recently realizing that I’ve got one of those anomalies in my brain that needs music to get it jump started. I’ve been trying to tell her that for years, but her brain works best in quiet, so her assumption was understandable.

I am always on the lookout for how to pump music from somewhere. A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a reference to the Pandora web site. “Free internet radio” it said. “Great!”, I said. On Pandora, you can create “radio stations” and it will pick “similar” tracks to what you originally put in. For instance, if you tell it Mozart, it will play Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and similar other artists. If you create another radio station and start it with Glenn Miller, you will hear Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, and other Big Band leaders. Yes, it does contemporary too.

Laura and I like to play “spiritual” music during business hours. We work from home, and it keeps us in a better “frame of mind” towards each other, and the internet frustrations, if we have music playing. So I started a station using the name Janice Kapp Perry. For a while we got similar artists like April Meservey, Mindy Gledhill. But a couple of days ago, I was only half-way paying attention, and I definitely heard some Country music. I love country music, but I didn’t want it on that station. I looked, and saw that it was a semi-religious tune by Tracy Lawrence, so I marked that I liked it. Pretty soon, I kept hearing more Country artists. At first a couple of similarly “religious” tunes, but then we got a “drinking” song. I think there was some kind of mention of bar tramps, too. I marked it that I didn’t like it. Then Pandora started adding Enya and Sissel to my Religious radio station. I like the music these ladies produce, but I didn’t want it on my “spiritual” radio station. As a matter of fact, I had already created a station specifically for Sissel, Enya, Celtic Woman, and all of their other “New Age” sisters.

So I deleted my religious station, and tried to start over. I kept putting in names of the spiritual artists that I liked, but it wouldn’t start with those artists. It would immediately start playing Sissel or Enya. After several attempts I finally gave up.

What we think happened is that I had marked that I liked Sissel, Enya, Tracy Lawrence, Charlotte Church, Diamond Rio, and it wasn’t following the original parameters anymore. Pandora searches for similar “qualities” in artists, and makes it’s choices from there. You can only tell a computer so much before the limited qualities of brain-like function give up the pretense that it can handle anything that differs from the parameters that it’s been given.

On my Sissel Radio, I had marked a bunch of artists that I liked. On my Spiritual radio, I had marked artists that liked there. I had a radio station for Broadway musicals, and pretty soon Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole started showing up there, because I had marked that I liked them on certain show tunes. But I think Pandora was getting confused, because my “parameters” didn’t fit it’s parameters. I expanded my choices because of my personal likes and dislikes. I was outside of Pandora’s box, and it was getting confused.

The point being that if you stick to Pandora’s pre-defined categories, then you and they will get along just fine.

The “Tumbs Up” and “Tumbs Down” buttons work just fine, when controlling what you want to hear on your radio station as a whole. But if you decide that you don’t want to hear “Boot Scoot Boogie” just after your cat died, and you give it a “Thumbs Down” then you will never hear it again.

One other negative. You can’t just “leave it alone”. I don’t know how long it takes for this feature to kick in. I have been seeing to other tasks in the house when Pandora decides to quit. If you don’t click on something every once in a while, the music will stop and you will get this window that asks if you are listening. If you click that you are still listening, it will keep going from where it left off.

I think that Pandora is a handy way to get radio over the internet, and have some degree over customization, but it needs more options for a listener to “truly” optimize their listening experience.

It will be interesting to see if Pandora’s options improve over the next few years, or if some “hot shot” company will come from out of no-where and pull the rug out from under them.

Grow a Garden!

Gardening doesn't have to be that hard! No matter where you live, no matter how difficult your circumstances, you CAN grow a successful garden.

Life from the Garden: Grow Your Own Food Anywhere Practical and low cost options for container gardening, sprouting, small yards, edible landscaping, winter gardening, shady yards, and help for people who are getting started too late. Plenty of tips to simplify, save on work and expense.