New to Video Conferencing? These Tips Might Help

Photo by Van Tay Media on Unsplash

As concerns related to COVID-19 intensify, so are efforts to encourage “social distancing.” This, in turn, is fueling interest in video conferencing, which allows users in different locations to see and talk with each other in real time.

In the past, I wasn’t a big fan of video conferencing, in part because the web camera perched on top of my computer screen never seemed to stay put. Now, computers and phones come equipped with built-in cameras and microphones, making the conferencing process much more streamlined.

Most video conferencing software is fairly easy to use, even for those of us who are not tech people. If you are new to this form of communication, here are a few tips to help you get started.

Take advantage of free options. Many video conferencing choices exist for those who want to host meetings regularly. Some platforms offer a free trial, or a free meeting plan for personal use. The no-fee option usually limits the number of participants and/or the length of meetings – but may be just fine for your purposes. Here’s one article that compares some of the video conferencing platforms out there.

Practice in advance. Schedule a test session with a friend or family member. This will teach you how to set up a meeting and notify participants in addition to giving you the opportunity to try different features.

Log on 5-10 minutes early. Give yourself a few minutes in advance to test the A/V and adjust your settings, if necessary. An early arrival also increases the odds of the meeting starting on time.

Use the mute button. A siren from an emergency vehicle, a barking dog, a cough or a sneeze – these and other sounds can pop up and cause distractions. It’s usually best to put yourself on mute whenever you aren’t talking.

Opt for natural lighting, when possible. Position your light sources in front of you, so your face is clearly visible.

Be aware of your surroundings. If your work space has clutter and/or messy stacks of papers, put them out of sight (or neaten them up a bit). A neutral, light-colored wall behind you usually works well.

Make eye contact. I was reminded why this matters after watching a recording of myself during a video meeting. As I took notes, my downcast eyes were on a notepad that wasn’t visible to others – which made me look like I was sleeping. The same effect can result from looking down to read text messages or browse social media on a phone (another reason to put it away during a meeting).

One more thought: Camera-shy people may be tempted to use the audio-only option to participate in an online meeting. If that sounds like you, here’s something to consider: video is what lets us feel like we’re sitting in the same room with our coworkers, customers, friends and other people we care about. This visual connection can lift our spirits and help us stay positive during a difficult time.

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8 Tips to Build Your Network When You’re Pressed for Time

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

For entrepreneurs, networking should be a constant process. But how can you find time to cultivate new relationships — and retain existing ones — when you’re busy running a business, taking care of family matters and fulfilling other commitments? Here are some ideas to consider:

1) Meet first thing in the morning. Early morning get-togethers tend to end on time since people usually have to get to the office, or move on to other meetings. Bonus suggestion: Stick to coffee only, so you aren’t waiting for a slow breakfast order to arrive.

2) Be selective. Sometimes people accept invitations to business or social events out of habit or because “everyone else is going.” Unless you absolutely have to endure them, avoid events that you know are a waste of time. Learn to say no.

3) Do some homework. Review the program and obtain an attendance list before the event. By the time you arrive, you’ll already know the expected timetable, which sessions you want to attend, and who you’d most like to meet.

4) Join a LinkedIn group (or two). These virtual forums provide a way to meet like-minded professionals without leaving your office. Limit your participation to groups that are well-managed, active and relevant to your business.

5) Use video conferencing. Why not follow up with a prospective client or someone else you’ve just met by scheduling a conversation on Skype or Zoom? You can meet face-to-face without having to spend time sitting in traffic.

6) Sit next to someone new. Whenever you attend events that are part of your regular routine – such as a meeting of your homeowners association or back-to-school night at your child’s school – don’t sit with people you already know. Step out of your comfort zone and choose a seat next to an unfamiliar face. You might make a new contact by the end of the meeting.

7) Eat with others. Maybe you’re already planning to grab a takeout lunch at your favorite deli. If that’s the case, invite a supplier or an employee you don’t know well to come along. Even if you’re eating that sandwich in the office, the time spent walking to and from the deli, and standing in line, provides an opportunity to chat and get know someone better.

8) Stay in the present. Get the most out of every single networking event you do attend by paying attention during one-on-one conversations. That means putting away your phone, which is sometimes easier said than done.

Know of any other time-efficient networking tips to add to this list? Please feel free to mention them below.

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How a Longtime Auto Enthusiast Launched a Model Car Business

Jim Cowen

By Lynne Beverly Strang, Late-Blooming Entrepreneurs 

Jim Cowen, 64, has loved cars and collected auto-related memorabilia for as long as he can remember. When he reached his 50s, the Chicago-area consultant decided to turn his passion into a business that serves diecast model car collectors like himself. In this interview, Jim describes his entrepreneurial journey and shares some lessons learned about turning a lifelong hobby into a rewarding business.  

Why did you want to start your own business? 

Working in the corporate world wasn’t for me. During the late 1980s through the mid-90s, I founded or participated in several startups that provided accounting or consulting services. Some failed, some were bought out. But I learned something from each of these experiences.

In 2003, I started Aqubanc LLC, a Chicago-based consultancy that offers donation processing, gift entry and operational/administrative solutions for U.S. and Canadian homeless shelters, food banks and faith-based organizations. Today, Aqubanc continues to thrive, which is gratifying to see.  

How did you make the leap to model cars?   

Most of Aqubanc’s clients don’t have the time for consulting from October through mid-February. As a result, I didn’t have much to do during those months and became bored.

Being retired doesn’t interest me. I’ve always loved cars and collected model cars off and on for years. At one point, I was trying to buy a 1:12 scale Lotus and noticed a disparity in prices of about $100. That gave me the idea of becoming a scale-model retailer, which would allow me to mix my lifelong hobby with business.

I didn’t want to just set up a website to sell products. I also wanted to give back to nonprofits where even a small donation of $50 or so would make a big impact on their ability to serve others.

In 2007, I founded Diecasm, an online retailer of scale models. Diecasm donates 10% of its sales revenues to homeless shelters and other nonprofits that are mostly Aqubanc’s clients. I chose the name “Diecasm” because it reflects our mission is to close the gap, or chasm, between diecast model car collectors and deserving nonprofits.

The Sunbeam Monster Tiger, one of Automodello’s models

So you started as a model car retailer. How did you morph into a manufacturer?

After Diecasm’s launch, one of the first non-Aqubanc organizations I contacted was the Collectors Foundation, (now the RPM Foundation) which teaches youth how to work on classic cars. That’s how I met Raffi Minasian, a Collectors Foundation board member who happened to be the ex-Engineering and Design Director for the Franklin Mint.

Raffi and I arranged to meet in-person because I was looking for a way to create a model of a car I had owned. During our first meeting, we ended up laying out a plan for a business entity that would produce resin-cast, hand-built models in a 1:43 scale.

In 2009, I launched Automodello with Raffi as my primary business partner. I chose Automodello as the name because it’s memorable and plays well in multiple languages. In 2010, we released our inaugural model – a 1964 Griffith Series 200 — at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. The models were signed by Andrew “Jack” Griffith, founder of the Griffith sports car that uses rolling chassis imported from TVR in the UK. Since then, we’ve continued to work closely with auto and racing legends and used the Automodello brand to honor their achievements.

How much have Diecasm and Automodello grown over the years? 

At first, Diecasm was a hobby that let me travel to car shows all over the world, from Monterey to Paris. After 18 months, Diecasm had become a full-fledged online retailer. I would have stayed in retailing if I hadn’t met Raffi. Teaming up with him is what gave me the opportunity to expand into manufacturing.

Today, Diecasm, LLC is the corporate entity and Automodello is the brand. Automodello has about 25 dealers worldwide, though we’ve had as many as 50. Over time, dealers have been cut for not adhering to Automodello standards and rules, or simply because they weren’t selling sufficient product to be dealers.

Up until about 2015, you couldn’t buy an Automodello model from Automodello directly. Instead you had to go through Diecasm or another Automodello dealer. This became confusing, especially when models were being reviewed by the media. So around 2015 or 2016, Automodello went from being an information-only site into an e-commerce platform. This made it a lot easier for both the media and customers to find Automodello.

What were the key things that enabled you to convert your passion/hobby into a viable business? 

I had a successful consulting business (Aqubanc) that enabled me to self-fund the startup investments for both Diecasm and Automodello. Over time, I’ve been able to establish credit for Diecasm with Kabbage and PayPal Working Capital to fund the engineering and inventory for Automodello with less reliance on Aqubanc.

I have an MBA in Finance. Looking at it pragmatically, I don’t think the MBA helped much. It was more the mellowing of me and recognizing what I can – and can’t – do by myself.

Automodello’s Jim Cowen out for a spin

Do you think you could have started a business when you were in your 20s or 30s?

I tried and pretty much failed miserably. In my 20s, I was arrogant and self-centered. It wasn’t till I was immersed in business development that I was able to divest myself of these qualities (laughter). I guess it is a humbling that comes with age.

What do you enjoy the most – and the least – about being a business owner? 

I enjoy choosing and developing a new car model and talking with other collectors from all over the world. My least favorite part is the paperwork.

What’s next for you? 

With our recent agreement with GM for licensing, we’ll be selling and manufacturing many more models for GM cars over the next five years. I am always open to possible new endeavors, though I’d like them to be related to Automodello or Aqubanc.

Any suggestions for someone who wants to start a business later in life?

Use referrals to find good people. That’s how I recruited a team with the expertise I needed to operate my businesses. With Diecasm, and especially Automodello, I initially lacked about 80-90% of the expertise, though I did know how to build dealer channels and finance product development. The rest required experts.

Be honest with your business partners. In one of my earlier endeavors, my business partner and I kept getting turned down for financing. It wasn’t until he finally told me about a personal bankruptcy that I knew why.

Get a lot of sleep before you start. Entrepreneurship takes a lot of work. Whatever you estimate for time and effort, quadruple it.

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Why Volunteering is a Good Thing for Entrepreneurs

Each winter, I volunteer for my little town’s annual ping-pong tournament, a community event organized and run by local residents. Our planning committee handles a long list of tasks, from processing registrations to setting up matches. When the big day arrives, we enjoy seeing people of all ages and playing levels come together for some fun and exercise.

As we get ready for the 2020 tournament, I’m reminded of this lesson: Volunteering offers rewards that carry over to many areas of your life. For entrepreneurs, that includes these benefits.

A way to serve others. It’s gratifying to give back to the community and help your neighbors and friends.

New or improved skills. A well-run volunteer effort requires time management, clear communication, team building and resourcefulness. All of these skills are critical ones to have when you own a business.

A greater appreciation for volunteerism. Most causes and community events wouldn’t, or couldn’t, exist without selfless people who are willing to donate their time and talents. You see this first-hand when you serve as a volunteer yourself.

New relationships. When you volunteer, you may attend planning meetings and work shoulder-to-shoulder with others to set up tables, stuff envelopes, register attendees or perform other logistics. The hours spent working together sometimes foster long-lasting work relationships or friendships.

New business opportunities. Volunteerism can increase awareness about you and your professional services. Fellow volunteers who learn about your business expertise may refer you to others, become your clients or open other doors for you.

Most business owners are strapped for time. But if you can, find a way to roll up your sleeves and volunteer — even if it’s just a few hours here and there. You’ll be glad you did.

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Some Interesting Holiday Business Ideas

From ugly sweaters to festive lighting, business opportunities abound for those who enjoy helping others get ready for Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, among other holidays. Meet some entrepreneurs who began holiday-themed businesses at a later age.

DebsTackySweaters – Deb Rottum, a Florida-based single mother of three, began creating ugly, 3-D holiday sweaters as a hobby.  As described in this article, she now has a full-fledged business selling her tacky sweaters, along with dresses, skirts, shoes and other gaudy wearables to help her customers celebrate the season.

Hire Santa – Mitch Allen is the Texas-based founder and Head Elf of this service that connects clients with Santa Claus actors. Hire Santa got its start after Allen dressed as Santa Claus at an employee Christmas party. Eventually, Allen bought the domain and launched his business.  In December 2018, Allen appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank to present Hire Santa, landing a deal with shark Barbara Corcoran.

Culture Greetings – This Atlanta, Georgia-based online greeting company’s founder is Dr. Dionne Mahaffey, a business psychologist, college professor and serial entrepreneur with over 25 years of technology experience. Culture Greetings lets customers choose a culturally relevant card and write a personal note inside using handwriting fonts that mirror real penmanship.

Gift Wrapping Service Plus – Owners Sue and Julie Burgoyne, originally from Bristol, England, had other customer-service oriented careers before starting Gift Wrapping Service Plus near Fort Worth, Texas. Sue held management positions with couple of major retailers. Julie, a veteran of the entertainment industry, owned restaurants and pubs in England. Today, the duo provides custom gift wrapping services and rents decorated Christmas trees for home or office delivery.

Christmas Light Source – Shellie Gardner, another entrepreneur from Fort Worth, used her 20+ years of electrical engineering, project management and marketing experience to create Christmas Light Source, which offers an array of lights and hardware for holiday decorating. “This is more than a job,” says Gardner. “I’m on a mission to make all of life’s celebrations brighter!”

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Launching a Second Act as a Filmmaker

By Lynne Beverly Strang

Melissa Davey films an opening sequence for her documentary, Beyond Sixty Project

In October, I went to see Beyond Sixty Project in this year’s Washington West Film Festival held in Reston Town Center, Virginia. The 77-minute documentary features a series of interviews with 10 women over the age of 60 who have stories of resilience and continued relevance today.

All 10 women are remarkable. Among those profiled are a veterinarian who is the oldest U.S. woman to swim the English Channel, a psychoanalyst/drama therapist once married to Pablo Picasso’s son, and a voice-over artist who is the voice of Apple’s Siri.

But here’s the thing: Melissa Davey, the film’s director and executive producer, is pretty remarkable herself. The grandmother of three started making movies almost four years ago, when she was 65 years old.

A Pivotal Moment

For aspiring entrepreneurs, an instructive element of Davey’s journey is the pivotal moment that prompted her to move forward. As her story shows, it isn’t enough to get a lucky break. It’s what you do with that break that matters.

In her earlier life, Davey was an executive with a national managed care company. In 2015, she drove from her home in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania to attend a meeting in Washington, D.C. The meeting was a dreary, depressing replica of so many others she had endured throughout her two decades in a corporate career.

Davey didn’t go to her office when she returned to Pennsylvania that afternoon. In need of a respite, she asked a friend to meet her for lunch. Later, they went for a drive in the country and happened to come across a movie shoot taking place at an old farmhouse. They pulled over to take in the bustle of activity from afar.


“Making a film is an amazing experience. Sometimes I feel like I won the lottery. To learn something new at my age is exhilarating and exhausting in a good way.” — Melissa Davey


As the two friends sat parked on the side of a dirt road, Davey did an internet search on her phone. She learned that the movie’s director was M. Night Shyamalan, a local filmmaker who has a foundation that supports leaders with a special interest in education.

A few more clicks revealed that the foundation was auctioning “A Day on the Set with M. Night Shyamalan” to raise funds for its mission. Davey began bidding right then and there in the car – and kept at it for two weeks. She finally won after outbidding a dentist from New Jersey.

“I Want Your Job”

The day on the movie set was both exhilarating and educational. During a lunch break, Shyamalan asked Davey about her aspirations. “I want your job,” she replied. His response: You better hurry up.

“That simple, very short conversation was all it took for me to make the decision to retire from my career and move to my second act as a film director” she said.

Filmmaker Melissa Davey answers questions from the audience at the 2019 Washington West Film Festival

Since then, Davey’s life has been a whirlwind of endless tasks. She has had to hire a production crew and maintain a budget when she no longer had a paycheck. To select the women profiled in the film, she did phone interviews with nearly 100 candidates, spending two hours on the phone with each one.

On top of everything else, Davey was sick for more than a year with Lyme disease. She has tested herself, made mistakes, corrected them and felt a great sense of accomplishment.

For Davey, what’s especially gratifying is the fact that her project inspires people of all ages. After her documentary’s showing in Virginia, she was on hand to answer questions from the audience. The young woman who introduced her was moved to tears by what she had just seen on the screen.

What’s Next

“I hope young women will be inspired to seek out older women as mentors,” said Davey. “And I hope all people – men and women, young and old — will walk away with a deep sense of appreciation and admiration for women’s struggles and their hard-earned accomplishments throughout history.”

Now that Beyond Sixty Project is completed, Davey is exploring distribution options. She also wants to produce more movies, of course.

“Making a film is an amazing experience,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like I won the lottery. To learn something new at my age is exhilarating and exhausting in a good way.”

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How Older Entrepreneurs Deal with Setbacks

Photo by Michael Rosner-Hyman on Unsplash

A potential investor hasn’t responded to your emails or phone calls. A shipment is late, meaning you can’t deliver a product that a customer expects tomorrow. A social media campaign launched earlier in the year isn’t generating the results you wanted.

If some – or all – of these scenarios sound familiar, you aren’t alone. Just about every entrepreneur has moments like this.

Here are words of wisdom from a few 40-and-older entrepreneurs interviewed for my book.  Their perspectives may give you a lift if or when you’re having an off day.

“If my back starts to hurt, I pretend it doesn’t.  I just keep my eye focused.  It’s really about mental focus.” – Frannie Martin, Cookies on Call

“You have to be tough.  You have to be ready to deal with it and have emotional support.”  — Michael Penny, Savvy Rest

“Reach out. Find a mentor.  Entrepreneurs want to give back.”  — Suzanne Magee, Bandura

“Everyone makes mistakes when starting out.  If you start small, these mistakes are not likely to be expensive ones.”  — Art Koff, consultant and founder of

“You have to love what you do, then those challenges become good challenges.  Never stop learning.” – Julie Savitt, AMS Earth Movers

“Whenever we were over our heads, we found the right experts, such as attorneys who specialized in franchising, public relations/marketing experts and accountants.  Leveraging the expertise of others is key to any successful business.” — Sharon Dillard, Get A Grip

“If you have an idea, you have to be able to work hard, persevere, listen to people and still stay true to yourself.  Don’t get discouraged.” — Annie Margulis, Girls Golf

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