Category Archives: True Stories

Horror Story of Small Business Fraud

If you’re a business owner, and especially if you’re in the expert business, you should know this small business fraud story. It involves a very sophisticated scheme, including a fraudulent cashier’s check, and a very well faked charity, that would have fooled me.

This could happen to me or to you

Click on the image for the podcast

Melinda Emerson, a good friend, tells the story herself in her SmallBizChat podcast from earlier this month.

That it fooled Melinda is very impressive. She is as knowledgeable and sophisticated about small business ownership as anybody I know. She is best-selling author of small business advice, and true small business expert. She’s on the web, and in social media, as Small Biz Lady.

A fake cashier’s check?

What would you do? You have a cashier’s check that arrived via Fedex overnight. You took it to your bank and the bank cashed it. So you spend a part of it, as agreed with the sender.

A cashier’s check is like cash, right? An automatic assurance? That’s Melinda thought, and what I thought too. But no.

The bank took the cashier’s check and put the money into Melinda’s account. She’s a longstanding trusted client. And then she donated part of it to a fake charity. Why not? After all, a cashier’s check is like cash, right?

A week passed. Then it turned out that the cashier’s check was fraudulent. The bank took that money back. And meanwhile, Melinda’s donation disappeared into a fake charity out of the country. The bank apologized as it docked her account the amount of the cashier’s check. But what Melinda spent as quid pro quo charity donation had already disappeared. So she was plain out of luck. And out of a lot of money too.

They are targeting experts

It’s a very sophisticated small business fraud. It involves people in three countries, a fake cashier’s check, a fake charity, and several websites and related materials, all fake. Melinda of course reported it to the FBI and is now cooperating with an investigation that includes other victims, apparently many of them are experts, like Melinda, who write books, give webinars, post on blogs.

But they could be coming after you next. Expert or not. So be aware.

Video: Scott Cook: Savor Surprises in Business

Nice short video of Scott Cook giving a great example of how surprises come up in business. My Friday video for this week, from Stanford eCorner. He talks about discovering the value of doing simple bookkeeping for people who aren’t accountants and don’t care about debits and credits.

As he tells how Intuit discovered the market for people who don’t know or like or want to know accounting – way back in 1984 – I can’t help recommending to all business owners that we should know our numbers. Getting the basics of accounting is not nearly as hard as you fear. And there is no substitute for the peace of mind of knowing our own numbers.

So, rather than accept the idea that we can’t or don’t want to, how about knowing your numbers?

My suggestion starts with this 13-minute video on debits and credits. And from there, three essential projections and six key terms. You’ll be glad you did.

Headlines: Naked, Vicious, Brutal, and So Forth

1972 Tim Berry Mexico City
That’s me there in the UPI office in Mexico City in 1972

I was 26 years old. Married, already a father, but still, so young, and so full of illusions. I still thought – although I was starting to wonder – journalism could be about changing the world for the better. And not at all ready to accept the truth as Matt Kenny presented it to me that night, beer in hand, in a bar in Mexico City.

“Tim,” Matt said, “you have to learn about 50 words that will almost guarantee you play in the papers.” He swallowed. He looked at me and frowned. “But first I have to warn you,” he said, shaking his head, “you’re probably not going to like it.”

He swallowed again, then started listing the words:

“naked, violent, brutal, cruel, vicious, rape, clash, showdown, face-off, fists, bare, nude, stripped, fight … “

I can’t remember them all. Using these words, and combinations of them, Matt told me, would guarantee much better readership. Headlines with these words beat all other news stories.

This was in 1974.  Matt Kenny, 50-something, gray hair, glasses, and quick to smile, was day editor for United Press International in Mexico City. I was night editor. Matt had been with UPI longer than I’d been alive.  We were at that bar together that night because I Matt was a nice guy, a teacher at heart, and I was annoyed at him. So he took me out for a beer, to explain. To teach. And what he taught me 44 years ago is still true today. It’s true about headlines, readership, traffic, and people. Matt’s 50 words still work.

I was annoyed at Matt because a few days before he had rewritten my lead about a Kon-Tiki-like raft trip arriving on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. I covered the story live, from Cozumel, and Matt handled it on the desk. It was a scientific expedition, a social science experiment, or so said the adventurous organizer. I wrote a lead focusing on the science, the experiment. Matt rewrote my lead to emphasize “suntanned bikini-clad” women and the co-ed journey across the Atlantic Ocean on a raft. He took the science out of it, and replaced it with the sex.

United Press International, alias UPI, was a wire service with generations of history as the “other wire service,” the competition to Associated Press, AP, which still lives today. Mexico City was an outpost. We filed stories from Mexico City to the New York editors. The system gave the editors in New York our first sentence only, as they scanned new stories coming in. From that one line they decided whether or not they wanted to see the first paragraph.

Matt was right, of course; I didn’t like it. And he was right about headlines. Matt Kenny was not unhappy or bitter or cynical or even hard-boiled. He was a pro. He did his job well. Matt’s 50 words don’t tell us anything about him — I liked him a lot, was proud to work with him — but they tell us a lot about us. I’ve seen it over and over in the years since. I see it in the coverage of politics, news, and life in general, not just in news media, but throughout social media. And in email subject lines too. That’s who we are. It’s not the media; it’s us. Now, about violence and the primary elections … do you think this is related?

(Image: that’s me in the picture, in 1972, in the UPI Mexico City Bureau, photo by David Navarro)

How did Tim Berry grow Palo Alto software?

I was amused to check in with Quora this morning and find somebody had asked me to answer “How Did Tim Berry Grow Palo Alto Software?” Obviously that’s a question dear to my heart. So here’s what I answered, which seems fitting for this blog today.

Business Plan Toolkit
The first Business Plan Toolkit in 1988

Slowly, carefully, bolstered by good product and reviews that validated, doing a lot of coding and documentation myself, and not spending money we didn’t have.

It started as spreadsheet templates. The first of those was published in 1984 to accompany a book “How to Develop Your Business Plan,” published by Oasis Press. In 1988 I separated from that book, and redid the templates to accompany my own book when I published “Business Plan Toolkit,” released in MacWorld January 1988. All of these early products were 100% my work, my spreadsheet macros and my documentation. It helped to have a diverse background, including 10 years as a professional journalist, foreign correspondent in Mexico City, plus a Stanford MBA. I could write about business so (people told me) others could understand.

Throughout the early years I kept up a healthy consulting practice doing business plans for some startups and some larger high tech companies, plus workshops on business planning for dealers of high tech companies. Apple was by far my best client, with repeat business in consulting on business planning from the beginning until 1994 (Hector Saldana was a steady client for years, and a supporter of the business idea, and informal advisor). The consulting supported marketing expenses. There was no Internet to speak of until 1995, so the early marketing was a combination of small ads in the back of magazines and product reviews in major computer magazines.

It was a major struggle for years.  I was sacrificing consulting revenues to prop up products. The motivator, for years, was “I want to sell boxes, not hours.”

My wife’s role was especially important during those long hard years. She didn’t give up on me. We have five kids and we depended financially on my consulting, but she stick with my idea of “boxes not hours” as I continued to use scarce funds to keep the product dream alive. We had some money to deal with because my role in Borland International paid off in 1986, but we were still struggling, with small houses and used cars. And by the way we’re still married as I write this in 2016.

When we moved it from Palo Alto to Eugene OR in 1992, I had three early equity shareholders (1% each) who agreed to surrender their shares because there was no value in them. My wife and I moved to Oregon because we wanted to. She said to me: “we put up with all the downside of you having your own business; let’s get the upside and move to where we want to live.”

By 1994 I was in deep trouble, with a quarter of a million dollars of unsold product stuck in retail, coming back from channels. The template products never made it. And in the words of Kathy Colder, a key purchasing executive from Fry’s, “Tim, your boxes suck.” At the worst point, we had three mortgages and 65K$ credit card debt.

Business Plan Pro
Business Plan Pro circa 2000

What I did then was decide not to just repackage, but to build stand-alone product instead, dumping templates entirely.  I found a local three-person programming company (Cascade Technologies, which no longer exists; its founder was Ken Barley) to take my templates and my vision and create stand-alone product for Windows using Visual Basic and an Excel-compatible spreadsheet we were able to buy as a tool, and include in the software. It added a complete interface to include the words as well as the numbers, and keep it all, even formatting and printing, inside the one application. I wrote about a third of the code myself, in Visual Basic. My vendor got a low monthly fee for 12 months, plus a percent of future revenue. We were still not able to spend money we didn’t have.

That effort was launched in 1995 and became successful as Business Plan Pro so I was able to stop consulting and dedicate myself to the business. My daughter Andrea Breanna joined me in 1998 and developed the web business with downloadable software. We grew quickly to more than $5 million annual revenues by 2000. (Andrea left in 2001 and became CTO of Huffington Post in 2007 and founded RebelMouse in 2012).

In 1999 we took on a minority investment from Palo Alto venture capital, RB Webber and Associates. That was our first outside investment. In 2002 we negotiated a buyback with them because after the dot-com crash valuations had plummeted and the company was worth more to me and my family members than what an acquirer would pay for it.

I stepped aside in 2007 and asked Sabrina Parsons to become CEO while I focused on blogging, writing books, speaking, and teaching. She and the team released LivePlan in 2012 and that – a web app, SaaS, browser based has become very successful, having had several hundred thousand paid accounts already. I’m still chairman, and founder, but Sabrina and her team get a pretty free rein to run the company. Market share and awareness keeps growing and we’ve had several years of double-digit growth in revenues again, after the great recession. And it is entirely family owned.

Here is the source on Quora: How did Tim Berry grow Palo Alto software?

True Story: Steve Balmer Drops Out

“What? Steve Balmer dropped out? He’s not coming back?”

“Nope. He did his summer job at a software startup in Washington, and he’s staying there and quitting here.”

So went the gossip in September of 1980 as the Stanford MBA class of 1981 finished up the summer vacation and started the second of the two-year program. I was there then, a member of that class. Steve’s absence was a surprise. At the end of our first school year he’d won the coveted $5,000 scholarship award as the best student in the class. He was a bit of an oddball in his own way, often dressed in formal pants, white shirt, and wing tip shoes, instead of the standard student garb of shorts, t-shirt, jeans, etc. He’d been very active in class, quick to participate, always active, clearly smart and ambitious. We thought it was crazy to drop out when only halfway through. Statistics said we were going to be a very well-paid bunch of MBA grads when we finished up nine months later. And Steve dropped out.

So here’s the rest of that story, from his side. Oh, and to be clear, the software startup was Microsoft, the Bill in this story was Bill Gates, and Steve Balmer’s net worth today is probably more than that of the other 300 of us combined.

And this is here because it’s a good story. In this story, back in those times, the safe move was going back to school. And the right move was staying in Seattle with the software startup. Go figure.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Fear When Public Speaking

Whether you’re making a speech before thousands of people in an auditorium or just two people in the small conference room, there are professionals who proclaim confidence is key. Stay poised – be bold – win your audience with self-confidence.

I’ve noticed a much different pattern with myself, though, when public speaking. It came up again just this week when I did a segment at the Ready to Launch conference in New York, sponsored by and Canon. (That’s me on Tuesday in the image here … and my thanks to fellow-speaker Ivana Taylor of DIYMarketers for that picture.) 

Tim Berry Ready2Launch by Ivana Taylor

My job has always required a lot of speaking even when I was still pretty young. Before I was 25 I had done radio and standup television for UPI out of Mexico City. When I was in my 30s, I did workshops and speaking dates at trade shows like Comdex. And I’ve been doing business planning and startup workshops, and teaching, and some large-group speaking ever since.In spite of my decades of experience, however, I still have a fear of public speaking – and I wonder if this holds true for others. I still lose sleep the night before and worry about the outcome. Sometimes this type of anxiety can hold people back. With me, it’s just the opposite.

Newsflash: A little fear never hurt anybody

For many years, certainly for most of my career, there was a strong correlation between nervousness and doing well. Strange, I suppose, but true: the more nervous I got beforehand, the better I did. When I’d be tossing and turning all of the night before my talk, or had that embarrassing dry mouth and shaking hands at the beginning of a talk, I’d end up doing better.

Confidence seemed to be a bad sign. For years, for most of my career, if I was cool and calm then my performance was not as good.

Some of my anxiety wore off a little by the time I reached maybe 50 years old. But even now, with the big groups, the 1,000-seat auditoriums, I still get nervous and the stage fright or whatever that is tends to make me perform (as far as I can tell) better, not worse.

Ignore the nerves and jump right in

Sometimes, out of nervousness, speakers tend to prepare long preambles to an actual speech. While you may think it gives your time to gain confidence while trying to connect with an audience, chances are, your audience is tuning out. And by the time you get to the meat of your talk, no one may be listening.

I like this advice: Start in the middle. Start at the most interesting point. Choose powerful first words, with immediate interest. Grab your audience quickly. The worst ways to start a presentation (or any story) is “My name is ___ and I’d like to talk to you about…”

I recently listened (again) to JD Schramm’s speech on How to Tell Your Story for Impact. A Stanford business school communications lecturer, Schramm advises people skip the boring preamble altogether. He says:

Many times we feel like we have to do a lot of prefacing, but four minutes goes by quickly. If you spend two minutes on background, you’ve lost an opportunity to grab attention. Far better to leave the identifying bits until the second paragraph, or to the overhead PowerPoint image, or to the person charged with giving the introductions.

Schramm has also posted the speech on YouTube.  Be sure you get to about 27 minutes into his talk where he starts talking about seven habits of concise storytelling and take note of all seven.

In the end, I think the best way to survive a fear of speaking is to just do it, over and over again. And really, a little nervousness keeps it real for both you and your audience. Do you agree?

True Story: Social Media Morality Tale

The Chronicle of Higher reported last week on this news item on a social media director getting caught lying about her resume and exposed via social media: 

… social-media director quit her post on Monday after it was alleged that she had lied about graduating from college on her résumé—an assertion that, ironically, first bubbled up on social media.

Somebody went to the trouble of getting her resume from public documents and paying to have it verified (or not) by the National Student Clearing house; then posting the proof over a Reddit site:

According to The Michigan Daily, a recent thread in the university’s Reddit community alleged that [she] had not graduated from Chicago’s Columbia College despite claiming a degree on her résumé and job application. The user making the allegations, who signed the message as a “Concerned Taxpayer,” posted [three] images as evidence, asserting that they had been obtained through public-records requests.

So there we have both transparency and authenticity in the new post-social-media landscape. We talk about it. We write about it. Lying is more likely than ever to come out. 

The story here isn’t just about social media. This is also about people, revenge, and karma. The real story hidden here is the what-did-who-do-to-whom story behind the scenes. Clearly “concerned taxpayer” spent time and money on a quest. Why? Jealousy? Getting even for something? Relationships gone bad. There’s a story there. Right? What motivates a person to go exploring in the resume and job situation of another? 

Live by authenticity, die (or lose a job) by authenticity. No way out. But damn! That’s a nasty piece of social media behavior. Was it justified? All for good? We’ll probably never know. 

Old Chinese proverb: “He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself.” 

(Based on my previous post on my other blog at

True Story: Programming, Paradox, and the Pot of Gold

Paradox is the spice of life. Maybe. Because life is full of contradictions and other hands. Take this very interesting juxtaposition. Kevin Systrom, founder and CEO of Instagram, just sold it for $! billion to Facebook. And he built the Instagram prototype himself, in his spare time, after teaching himself to code, also in his spare time. Here’s more detail, from Instagram’s product genius is a self-taught programmer on The Next Web:Pot of gold

Systrom, an active user on Quora, is a largely self-taught programmer. While working in the marketing department at Nextstop, which Facebook acquired in 2010, he would spend his evenings learning to program. According to Systrom, small projects included combining elements of Foursquare with Mafia Wars.

Now consider this: The success of this do-it-yourself programming story generates a flood of pay-others-to-do-it designers in Silicon Valley, according to User interface designers invade Silicon Valley after success of Instagram, as reported by Reuters, on The Verge.

The “new breed” of Valley people are dubbed “user experience designers” and can fetch as much as $80,000 for an entry level position. In some situations, designers are becoming embedded in the conceptIon of new features — Facebook, for example, has begun assigning a designer to consult with a team of engineers led by a project manager.

True, designers aren’t engineers. But they aren’t do-it-yourself programming-at-night entrepreneurs either.

Go figure. The pots of gold aren’t always where they are supposed to be.


Could This Be You? One Great YouTube Launches a Startup

CNET’s Rafe Needleman posted about yesterday and I picked it up this morning. It seems that the key to a successful launch was one extremely-well-done one-minute video on YouTube, which I’ve embedded here:

I find this inspirational. It’s fascinating how this one big hit can be so effective. How much would a couple of million views cost in the open market? I haven’t investigated the back story, but whatever that is, this is still one great piece of marketing.

Notice that, although it may be the work of a startup, there is nothing amateurish about this video. Its production values are very high. It’s funny, it’s engaging, but it’s also very strongly focused on a value proposition. I’d love to know background on how it was produced, and how much it cost. (And I’ll add that in if I get it).

This is great work, and a good reminder of how many new ways there are to package an old product, start a new company, and disrupt a market.

True Story: Flying Out of San Diego After the Outage

Yesterday at about 6 pm I was with a few dozen people in the terminal that United Air Lines uses in the San Diego airport.

Things did not look good. We’d been without power for more than two hours, and, according to what we learned via mobile phones and iPads and such — there was no wireless, because there was no power — the power was out for at least 50 miles to the north, maybe 100 miles to the south, and all the way to New Mexico to the east. Where I was, on the boarding side of security, the emergency generators powered only some dim lights in the main restrooms, the public address system, and nothing else. The cluster of United employees in the terminal had no computers working, and of course no skybridges to board or unboard people. San Diego, meanwhile, was in gridlock, heat of about 90 degrees, and the word from local hotels was no power, skeleton elevator service, and no water or power to the rooms. Somebody near me shared that the local power company said restoring power might take overnight. And behind us, security had stopped screening passengers when the power went out.

My wife, daughter and grandson were back at the hotel, so I was thinking that if things didn’t look better soon I might walk the four miles or so back (the San Diego airport is remarkably close to the city) there. We’d been attending the annual ASBDC conference in the Manchester Hyatt, but they were going to stay one day longer than me. The walking option would have been without my bag — I almost never check luggage, but yesterday I did because I was carrying some stuff related to a daughter having just moved — and it wasn’t clear that taxis were going to be available.

I considered renting a car, maybe collecting my hotel-bound refugee family, and driving north to Los Angeles, but then it occurred to me that the rental process required electric power. And outside, within sight of the terminal, the interstate looked stopped dead, like a parking lot.

Not that the hotel sounded like a great option: Yes they had emergency power so one of every three elevators worked, but it wasn’t enough power to light the rooms or, worse still, pump water to the rooms. Their room is on the 32nd floor. But if the power didn’t go on, I guessed, that would be better than spending all night in the unlit terminal.

That was about when one of the United employees announced — the public address system worked — that those of us who were in the terminal, through security, with seats to San Francisco, were going to be loaded up by stairway on a plane going to San Francisco.

And I wrote the first draft of this post on that plane. They took down our names by hand, the old fashioned way, and walked us down a stairway to the tarmac and up a stairway to the plane. There are 12 of us on board, on a B757 jet that seats 182. It left two hours after the scheduled time, so I missed my connection to home in Eugene, but that wasn’t so bad. The illustration on this post is that empty plane.

Yes, I was glad to be out of the airport and power outage and flying to San Francisco, one of the lucky 12 that arrived early enough to be through security when the power went out. But damn, I worried about a long and unpleasant night for my wife and daughter and grandson. And I hoped they would get it fixed so they could make their flights today.

Is there a moral to this story? Not really. I’m just sharing my good luck in being at the right place at the wrong time. Gratitude is good, we all tell each other the bad travel stories, and this one worked out.

Update: the power came back at the hotel around 3 am. And I got back home shortly after midnight. As of this morning, San Diego is back to normal.


(Image: my iPhone)