My First-ever Beer-industry Publication

Entrepreneurship, Food and Drink, Media, Wisconsin, Writing

screenshot - chocolate chili stouts

Big announcement. Da, da, DAAAAHHH!

I’ve recently published my first-ever piece of actual beer-industry writing. Please go have look!

Totally excited about Mobcraft, a real up-and-coming, two-year Madison brewery, ready to break ground on their $2 million facility.

I’ll be freelance blogging for them. This first post of mine is an article on chocolate chili pepper stouts, in advance of their newly-bottled beer No Stout About It.

My next piece for them will come out in the coming days. Stay tuned . . .

Easton Bell Sports: Now That’s Customer Service

Entrepreneurship, Health

Easton Bell $0.00 highlighted

Just wanted to send out some well-deserved praise for a company with excellent customer service.

Last December I damaged my Giro snowboard helmet.  I bent the metal snap of the goggle strap on the rear of the helmet.  (I mean the strap at the rear that clamps down over the strap of ski goggles).  After unsnapping the strap to remove my goggles, I found I could no longer close the snap.

I use this snowboard helmet for winter cycling.  As I don’t have a car, I need it on a daily basis.  This was an especially cold winter here in Madison.  I generally switch from wraparound glasses to ski goggles below 15°F.  While I don’t use goggles everyday, this is Wisconsin!

So, I emailed Giro, asking where I could buy the replacement parts.  I wasn’t optimistic.  In this age of disposable products and terrible customer service (I’m looking at you, AT&T, major airlines, Chase Bank, etc.), I half-expected to be told there are no replacement parts, if I were to be answered, at all.

They actually got back to me the very next day.  It was Customer Service Rep Amber Thomas, from Easton-Bell Sports, the parent company of Giro.  She said she would put the replacement strap in the mail, and I should receive it by the end of the week.  Sure enough, the strap arrived two days later.  I was thrilled to be able to use my goggles the rest of the season, without having to buy a brand new helmet.

(For those of you who say you don’t need the helmet strap to use goggles:  while running errands around town on my bike, I’m constantly removing my goggles and putting them back on.  This is much, much simpler to do with your helmet’s goggle strap latched to your goggles, as if the goggles were an integrated part of your helmet.)

When I wrote Amber back expressing my gratitude, she replied, “We just want you to have a fully functioning helmet.”

What you’re looking at in the image above is the packing list that arrived with the replacement parts.  Notice the figures listed in the “price” columns.  That’s right, “$0.00”

But, wait.  There’s more.

Several years back, I had a great little micro-light for the top of my skating helmet.  This was back in Houston, where the heat and humidity made Rollerblading at night the natural choice.  You need a light to skate at night, obviously.  Some of you may know this micro-light I’m referring to, called The Flea, by Blackburn.  They still make the Flea, but back then the Flea charged off of any battery via a little charging device.  My charger had a wire break loose.  I emailed Blackburn about it.  Same as with my helmet, Easton-Bell Sports, the parent company of Blackburn, sent me a replacement charger at no cost.

We’re talking a company with nearly $1 billion in annual revenue.  So how do they succeed while giving away equipment at no charge?  By making lifelong customers like me.  That’s how.

Just FYI, after selling one of its several manufacturing divisions, the company has recently rebranded itself as BRG Sports.

Beautiful New Business Cardholders

Entrepreneurship

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For all the mind-numbing busywork of starting a new business, certain tasks come with real  emotional rewards.  That’s certainly the case in choosing this new business card holder.  Like practically every other piece of start-up research, this one took time and shoe leather.  After visiting four physical shops and nearly two dozen Etsy stores, I finally settled on this handsome handcrafted wooden piece.

What clinched it for me was the manufacturer, Inelastic Goods, is a one-man operation based right here in Madison.  Steve, the creator of the line, delivered the item himself, eager to show me six or seven different models.  I jumped at the chance to buy two additional cardholders at a discount.

I’m keeping the white oak for myself and have bought two of the darker wenge wood models for gifts.  The wenge wood model is striking in the contrast of two dark planes sandwiching a lighter maple side piece.  The white oak does the opposite, playing up the continuous grain and color, as if the box were carved from a single block of wood.

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All models come with a magnetic closure that clicks shut oh so satisfyingly.  I catch myself playing with it constantly.  Plus, beyond the visual delight of the hand-finished hardwoods, Steve’s execution of the clean, minimalist design is unparalleled.  Each piece feels stunningly smooth in the hand, the joinery, edges, and curves so silky and organic.

By day, Steve works as an engineer for the state of Wisconsin.  On his own time he exercises his entrepreneurial spirit, refining his craft, streamlining his processes and tools, with the aim of not only perfecting the product, but boosting productivity.  His woodshop has become so efficient, he’s recently made good on a private order of sixty business cardholders to a private individual.

Head over to Steve’s Etsy shop for a look at the different models:

https://www.etsy.com/shop/InelasticGoods?ref=l2-shopheader-name

A Quality Color Laser Printer + Great Customer Service = Dell C1760nw

Entrepreneurship, Media

for blog - color printer review

Ah, researching office equipment–one of my favorite pastimes.  (Not!)  I took my time with this one, going back and forth with my decision tree (for instance, shifting my budget from $200 to $600, and back again).  I ultimately ordered from Staples.com, so I could return any lemon locally.  That’s a sign of me bracing against all the ways a purchase like this can go wrong.

I’m happy to report my good fortune:  not only do I have my new color printer up and running, but I found Dell customer support highly competent and remarkably responsive.

After setting up the printer, my initial test run appeared problematic:  underscore was showing more like strike-through.  Contacting Dell tech support through live-chat was instantaneous:  Niegel, the support analyst, came online the very moment I opened the chat dialogue.  Niegel was great.  His troubleshooting helped me isolate the problem to a specific application; the underscore issue only appeared when printing from Evernote.  Yay!  I wouldn’t have to return the printer, after all.

After closing the live chat module, I received an email from Niegel offering his direct contact info in case I had further questions.  He even included the contact info of his supervisor.  Now that’s transparency!  To top it off, the following day, Niegel followed up with another email, offering further assistance if I had come up with other questions.

The photo above shows the excellent quality of the printer’s text output.  Oddly, two separate PC Magazine reviews of this printer clashed in their assessments of the printer’s text quality.  Review A praised the “unusually good graphics quality” and called its text output “outstandingly sharp.”  But Review B was lukewarm, calling it “a touch below par,” further specifying the text output to be fine for “general business use, though not for uses requiring very small fonts.”  As you can see in my photo, text looks great in even 7-pt. font size.

Good show, Dell!

Beer Roundup #7: Three Midwest English Barleywines

Food and Drink, Health

Whole Hog BW

To Buy or Not to Buy?
1 = horrible
2 = bad
3 = average
3.5 = good (many better beers out there; won’t buy this again)
4 = very good
4.5 = great
5 = rare best 

A Note on the Style:  English Barleywine

I prefer the malty “English” style barleywine over the hoppy “American” style.  All barleywines have a stiff malt backbone and generous sweetness, but the hop-forward American-style is often so bitter as to be indistinguishable from a high-alcohol double IPA.  Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are double IPA’s; I love me a double IPA when it’s got intense sweetness to offset the high IBU, like Bell’s Hopslam, Dogfish Head 120 Minute, or Founders Devil Dancer.

Despite my preference for the maltier English barleywine, it’s curious that I’ve found way more good American barley wines than English ones.  

How to explain this?  Is the English style BW less common in the US?  Not really.  Nearly every brewery that produces American barleywines also produces English ones.  The more likely explanation:  brewing a good English barleywine is more of a challenge because it doesn’t have the pronounced hops to balance the jacked-up sweetness.  Hence, many are sickeningly sweet, like Anchor Old Foghorn or Weyerbacher Blithering Idiot.

But all three specimens below are really good.

Stevens Point Barley Wine Style Ale (Whole Hog Series), Stevens Point Brewery

Rating:  4.44 / 5

12 oz. bottle (4-pk)  10.2% abv, 73 IBU.

From a very reasonably priced 4-pack ($7), the first sip has me totally psyched.

It’s not a great looking pour into a tulip glass, with barely a half-finger of white head atop the opaque, red-tinged, brown murk. Sticky lacing, with legs.

Very little in the aroma, probably just too cold. But bready, mildly floral, and of course malty in the nose, plus a grape-like, mildly acid wine character. Even after it warms, the nose remains reserved.

But in the mouth, now this is a provocative surprise. Stevens Point Brewery, for those of you not from Wisconsin, is an old-time adjunct-lager outfit, one of the oldest breweries in the US. My Midwest beer friends rarely say anything nice about SPB, so I wasn’t expecting a lot from this brew. But this is right up my alley. It’s a complex sweetness, like that of my two favorite English BW’s,  JW Lees Harvest Ale and Midnight Sun Arctic Devil. The grainy biscuit flavor is what backstops the sugar-sweetness, not any bitterness. Some will call this cloying. I love it. The sweetness rounds out with an estery, mossy oak. The butter/caramel is of the burnt variety. There’s milk and coconut, too.

The mild to moderate carbonation is a welcome cleanser and leavener of the oily-sticky feel.

I’ve gone back to Riley’s Wines and snatched up the last two 4-packs. One goes in the cellar, the other down my gullet!

Schell’s Barley Wine (Stag Series), August Schell Brewing

Rating:  4.46/5

On tap,  9.5% abv, 80 IBU.

I wasn’t expecting a whole lot, thinking of Schell as merely an adjunct-lager outfit. What an awesome surprise.

On tap at Mason Lounge (Madison).  In a snifter, a handsome pour, a clear coppery amber with a finger of white head and good retention and lacing.

The aroma is a bit reserved.  There’s a diacytel caramel, dried fruit, piney hops, and a bit of sharp ethanol.

Flavor in the mouth offers sweet caramel, stone fruit, a bit of citrus, and a floral hop bitterness on the back end.  Finishes sweet, with a hint of grassy hops.  Alcohol is hardly there.

Upland Winter Warmer, Upland Brewing

Rating:  4.05 / 5

On tap,  8.5% abv, 47 IBU.

Pours a hazy, ruddy copper, topped by a fluffy, two-finger head.

A seriously complex aroma, the sweet swirls with the hops.  The hops come as white grapefruit and a bit of must.  The lovely roasted caramel struggles to dominate and ultimately does.

In the mouth the malt/hop tension from the aroma comes down solidly on the side of the malt.  Simple syrup on the front end, sweet butter and bread in the middle, plus fig and cinnamon-raisin ice cream on the back of the tongue. Goes down with just a rumor of bitter hops.  

Feels like a much bigger beer than it is, chewy, even.

Not nearly as good as the other two in this review, but it gets points for availability, as it’s pretty common to find on tap in Midwest bars in the colder months.

How to Create Pre-Press PDF Files on a Budget

Entrepreneurship, Media
bus-card Adler GRACoL 2006

Need to order a commercial print job from an online printer, but don’t have Adobe Illustrator ($560)?  That’s my situation.  I’ve laid out a nice business card in PowerPoint (above), including the logo I also designed in PowerPoint.  But Powerpoint does not produce vector graphics.   Printers need vector graphics.  They also recommend submitting PDFs that have been “pre-flighted” using certain Adobe Acrobat presets, such as PDF/X-1a.

Huh?

That’s what I said.  What a bear it was to research this.  And for an additional challenge, I wanted to see if I could accomplish all this on a budget.  I assumed I could find some vector-graphics freeware with which to reproduce my designs.  But the question remained:  how to  save the graphics file in the “pre-flighted” PDF  format that online printers specify?

(In case you’re considering skipping the preflighting step, know that preflighting helps avoid printing glitches such as font substitutions and color alterations.)

Turns out, the key to all this is Adobe Acrobat.

Some of this terminology rang a bell, as I used to  own the Adobe Creative Suite (ACS; back then, $1500) when I ran my photo equipment rentals business.  ACS includes all the programs that produce file formats press printers require, such as .ID (InDesign), .EPS (Photoshop), .AI (Illustrator), and of course .PDF (Acrobat).  I needed all four of them to design marketing materials for that business.  But that was four years ago.  For the past four years I’ve been running my healthcare business, with no need for ACS, at all.  Now that I’m starting up my freelance commercial writing business, I’ve been crossing my fingers that I won’t need to spend $1000+ on design software.

The bottom line is, yes, one can create vector graphics using freeware/shareware (I used Inkscape to recreate my PowerPoint designs).  But for press printing, you need to create properly preflighted PDF’s.  For that, you must have Adobe Acrobat (price varies depending on version and how purchased, $100 – $429).

I verified this by downloading the free trial of Acrobat 11.  With Acrobat installed, the Acrobat Virtual Printer will appear in your list of devices and printers.  (This is in Windows, obviously.)  You simply design your graphics in your vector software, then follow these steps to preflight your PDF:

1) “Print” your file (That’s right, “print” not “save”!)
2) In the print dialog, select Adobe PDF as the “printer.”
3) Click preferences (or printer properties).
4) In Preferences, the “Default Settings” area offers a drop-down menu of PDF format presets.  For business card printing, Moo.com specifies the preset PDF/X-1a:2001.  For printing a brochure, Vistaprint.com requires PDF/a-1b:2005 (CMYK).
5) Click okay to get out of preferences.
6) Click print.  You’re done.

Now you have your vector-based,  properly pre-flighted  PDF to upload to your online printer.

My Rental Studio Business: Big Multiday Photo Shoots

Entrepreneurship, Media
Magazine cover shot in my rental studio business

Magazine cover shot in my rental studio business

My Rental Studio Business:  Big Multiday Photo Shoots

Weddings in Houston, the city’s premier wedding vendor resource, shot many of its covers at my photography rental studio, Silver Street Studio.  Editor and publisher Radhika Day put together a crew that fired on all cylinders over the three-day shoot.  Crack stylist Summar Salah plied her stagecraft on three different glittery sets and twelve wedding gown wardrobes.  Hair and makeup by The Perfect Face transformed the models into showstopping brides.  And photographer Larry Fagala captured all the drama with technical expertise.

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One of three sets during the three-day shoot

ice storm

Food and Drink, Health

ice storm

We came out of Karaoke Kid and I had to ride home on my frozen bike.  For the two hours we were karaokiing, my bike was outside on a pole, getting sleeted to death.  On my way home, nothing worked.  Not my brakes, not my shifters.  Couldn’t hear the usual zippy-hum of my studded tires — they were encased in ice.

Favorite Clients from My First Small Business

Entrepreneurship, Media

Image

While running my rental studio, Silver Street Studio in Houston, it was exciting to work with photographers and agencies of international renown, like Mary Ellen Mark and Mark Seliger, Art Department and Greenhouse Reps.  But it was a special pleasure to work with those photographers and crews that were at bottom simply great human beings.

TONY D’ORIO PHOTOGRAPHY

I think immediately of Tony D’Orio, of Altoids fame.  (Note:  Tony’s photo used in the ad above was not shot in my studio).  How refreshing that, in a profession so rife with jealously guarded tricks of the trade, Tony instead offered a broad openness and generousness of spirit.  Over the course of a two-day shoot for McDonalds, he showed me a couple of studio equipment hacks that made my job easier and that would be enjoyed by other photographers in my studio for years to come.  For instance, he showed me how to switch out the hand-crank machine clamp of an Elinchrom Octabank–which have infamously weak grip—with the more robust clamp from a Matthews C-stand.

http://www.tonydorio.com/

FULTON DAVENPORT, PWL STUDIO

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Lucky for me I like photographer Fulton Davenport as much as I do since he was perhaps our biggest repeat client over the years.  With his busy creative firm, PWL Studio, Fulton was shooting in our space practically every other week for years.  One of his specialties is product photography, which was also a specialty of ours.  Take a look at the photo above, of Fulton at work for a high-end antique shop client.  The tabletop set is comprised of expendables and hardware we kept in stock and offered at no extra charge.  Even more to the point of product photography was our studio’s unsurpassed natural light.  Heres Fulton on shooting day light in our space:

“I love the highly technical work, like photographing objects with intense detail, a la Irving Penn shooting for Saks Fifth Avenue.  You’d normally need (or have to build) a light tent.   But here, you’ve got such huge windows on north and south, the light is perfect.  Tents are used just to simulate this.”

http://www.pwlstudio.com/

JUSTIN CALHOUN PHOTOGRAPHY

Imageastronaut mailer sofa guy

One of my favorite people, photographers or not, is Justin Calhoun.  Justin brought us a big job one summer, and one could tell how much the crew liked working for him.  The makeup department, the photo assistants, even the kraft service people were obviously inspired to work hard for Justin, with smiles all around.  What you see here in the two photos above is a Polaroid test shot (the client wanted Justin to shoot film, not digital) and one of the direct mail pieces ultimately produced from the images.

http://www.justincalhoun.com/

FELIX SANCHEZ PHOTOGRAPHY

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Another of our busy-busy clients was Felix Sanchez.  Felix was one of the first to shoot in our studio in the early days, and he continued to bring interesting jobs into our space over the next seven years.  (He has his own beautiful new studio now.)  Before becoming a photographer Felix played in a touring Tejano band, so naturally he’s photographed many musicians throughout his career.  Early on with us, Felix was kind enough to help me assimilate the vast expanse that is studio equipment.  He’d report on all of his new experiences experimenting with lighting equipment.  I based many of my equipment acquisitions on Felix’s information.  The job in the photo above was for Walmart, for which Felix transformed our cold, empty space into a warm and cozy living room.  Go check out his handsome new website.

http://www.felixsanchez.com/

Prepaid Wireless: How to Save $800 This Year

Entrepreneurship, Media

phablet

Entrepreneurs are always looking for ways to economize.  I’ve recently found prepaid wireless to be a great source of savings.

A few months ago I left Verizon for Virgin Mobile, and I couldn’t be happier.  I was lucky a friend had persuaded me to give it a try.  Before then, prepaid mobile service wasn’t on my radar, at all.  Why is that?

For one thing, there’s the stigma.  I’d always thought of the prepaid market as being for the credit-challenged among us.  This understanding was accurate at one point.  Prepaid cell service began as a way for someone with bad credit or no credit to essentially put down a “deposit” (hence, pre-paying for service).  By contrast, if you were middle class and credit worthy, the major carriers trusted you enough to give you service and take your payment at month’s end (aka, “post-paid”), even gave you a free phone.  It’s a little-recognized symbol of socioeconomic status.  Even more to the point of stigma:  prepaid phone cards and disposable “burner” phones purchased in convenience stores were associated with drug dealers who needed untraceable hardware for illicit communications.

There is admittedly a somewhat sketchy feel to using prepaid service.  My experience is with Virgin Mobile (VM), but I imagine this applies to most of the prepaid sector.  VM clearly insulates itself behind the Internet, encouraging all customer contact to happen through their website.  And even on the website, there is no traditional “bill”– no “statement”, no calls log, and most importantly, no account number.  If you’re able to figure out how to get an actual human being on the phone at Virgin Mobile, you’ll find them seriously cagey upon you requesting your account number.  Ask them for your account number, and they ask you why you want it.  I guess most customers seek their account number when they’re jumping ship to another carrier (you need it to port your number to another carrier).  For my part, I wanted my account number to set up VM as a “payee” at my bank to schedule automatic monthly payments.  Guess what?  Virgin Mobile doesn’t deal with banks.  They only accept credit / debit cards or “Top Up” cards purchased at drugstores and big-box retailers.  They do not accept paper checks.  Nor can you register a bank account with them for electronic payments.  (Not that I would ever do that, but since when does a company not want your bank account info?)

So what convinced me to try them?

How about saving $70 every month?  Yep, my Verizon bill was $107 each month.  I’m now paying only $37 a month to Virgin Mobile.  Sure, this is for only 300 minutes.  But $107 only got me 450 minutes from Verizon.  And with VM I get unlimited texting and data.  My $107 with Verizon only gave me 4 gigs of data.

The unlimited data has been a big plus.  I now get to watch Netflix on my phone anytime I want, without worrying about my data plan.  With Verizon, that 4 gigs of data was good for only about eight episodes of “Breaking Bad.”  One caveat for heavy data users:   there have been reports of data “throttling”.  I have yet to experience this, but I’m actually not that heavy of a data user.

How do I manage with only 300 minutes on my plan?  The same way I managed with only 450 minutes on my Verizon plan:  I make most of my calls via the Internet.  I use an inexpensive ($5 one-time purchase) VoIP app called GrooveIP.  GrooveIP uses Google Voice to make and receive free calls over the Internet.  It works best over Wi-Fi and 4G, and it does work well enough over 3G, as well.  VoIP setup is somewhat complicated, but here’s how:  http://www.addictivetips.com/mobile/make-free-wi-fi-voip-voice-calls-with-android-guide/

I’ve definitely encountered some drawbacks.  Make special note of this one — although there are a number of BYOD (bring your own device) prepaid carriers, Virgin Mobile isn’t one of them.  You have to buy a Virgin Mobile phone, whose offerings are somewhat limited.  Better than in the past (they carry iPhones, now).  But still limited.  There’s no contract, so there’s no discount on any of the phones.  So I limited myself to a $200 phone budget.  I chose the Samsung Galaxy Reverb.

The Reverb was VM’s top-of-the-line smart phone a year ago (now $130).  It sports a great feature set; by comparison, my Verizon phone was the vaunted Motorola Razr, and the Reverb has every feature I ever used on my Razr.  But, like so many of the lower-cost Android phones, the Reverb has only 2 gigs of RAM memory, and this is the source of my one regret:  with such limited RAM, my Reverb slowed to a crawl once I loaded it up with apps.  Why not install the apps on the external SD card?  Current versions of android (all versions since Froyo 2.2) have allowed users to move apps from internal memory to the external SD card.  The only problem here is, in order for this work, the developer of the app must enable the app to run from the external SD card.  Most app developers have not taken the time to do this.

But, wait, there’s a solution.  It takes some doing.  And customer service certainly doesn’t endorse this since it is essentially a hack.  But here’s how to move almost any app to your external SD card:  http://www.bongizmo.com/blog/moving-all-android-apps-to-sdcard-apps2sd-froyo/  It’s worked great for me.  Now my phone has regained its zip and pizzazz.

So despite some drawbacks, if you’re pretty handy with cell phone configuration, and you don’t rely much on mobile carrier customer service, then going prepaid is not only doable.  It’s great.  What’s not great about saving $840 every year?

(PS:  What does the photo above have to do with prepaid wireless?  Not a thing.  I just think it’s hilarious to see people talking on phablets.)