In August of 2005 I started a wireless notification group on the free website www.upoc.com that helped alleviate a business problem that has vexed the Chicago Transit Authority for years.My brother Kevin O’Neil runs CTA Tattler, a highly popular site about things “seen and heard on the CTA”. I saw that lots of readers were miffed about lack of communication from the CTA during an emergency/service outage. I also saw that these users had highly detailed information about service conditions that would be useful if they were willing to share them in real time (instead of 5 hours later when posting comments to a weblog)!So I created the wireless alert group so that riders could share what they knew with each other. It was a big hit and got some media attention as well as the attention of the CTA Board, who received testimony from my brother and I at their August board meeting.The next day, the CTA joined the group as a member and began posting high quality info sent directly to the phones, PDAs, and email accounts of the hundreds of subscribers.What did I do? Not much, really. Just signed up for a free account to create a free group on a free wireless notification utility site– an effective, inexpensive solution for solving a very real business problem.Here’s the Chicago Tribune story covering the Board meeting:Skyrocketing Fuel Costs Blow Hole in CTA BudgetAug. 19–The soaring cost of petroleum could force the Chicago Transit Authority to spend $10 million more than expected on diesel fuel for buses and maintenance vehicles this year, transit officials said Thursday.Fare revenues rose in June as more riders used CTA buses and trains–at least some of them seeking relief from gasoline prices.But it was not enough to cover a growing deficit as the price of fuel skyrocketed, the CTA reported.”We obviously are dealing with the same kind of fuel price increases that everybody else is dealing with and that’s a very tough challenge,” said CTA President Frank Kruesi after a board meeting Thursday.It’s too early to say whether fuel prices will hit transit commuters where it hurts, either with fare increases or diminished train and bus schedules, said CTA board Chairwoman Carole Brown.”I’ll reserve judgment,” she said. “We’ll have to see how our other costs come in.”Even as they struggle to make ends meet, however, officials said they remain committed to making the agency more nimble and user-friendly.The CTA said early next year it will offer a free e-mail alert system that sends instant messages to cell phones or other wireless devices, to advise commuters of delays.Passengers have long complained of information blackouts when trains are delayed. Unintelligible messages delivered over the antiquated public-address system have only added to the frustration.New technology can help fill the gap, however, as one transit user has proven with a private text-message service he created that allows users to inform one another about delays. Daniel X. O’Neil, an Internet consultant, launched www.ctatattler.com, which he said now serves about 400 people.The CTA has not endorsed his service but pledged to create a pilot program that officials hope will eventually serve a large portion of its riders.On Thursday, board members approved an $89,000 contract with St. Paul, Minn.-based GovDocs Inc. to develop and maintain an e-mail alert system.CTA officials said they appreciate the work done by O’Neil, who testified before the board Thursday, but it would be more complicated to install similar technology systemwide.”I was impressed by the CTA Tattler, and anyone that can help us get information to our riders, I think that’s a good thing,” Brown said. “But we are working on it and working on it in a way that all our 1.5 million riders can access that information efficiently.”The system by GovDocs will be operated as a pilot program for train riders first and should be rolled out systemwide early next year.Steve Reardon, exiting a Blue Line train at Clark and Lake Streets on Thursday, said he is one of the people who is using mass transit more than he used to and said he would use the new technology.”This type of thing is all over the place and it’s really simple to do,” he said. “I’m a little surprised that this is just happening now, but better late than never.”Reardon, 36, who works at a insurance agency downtown, said he has never driven to work but has stopped taking cabs.Cab fares rose nearly 12 percent in May, but taxi drivers are seeking an additional $1 surcharge to counter rising fuel costs.The cost of fuel may have led a few more people to use mass transit, but it was not the driving factor behind the 800,000 additional trips taken in June, compared with the same period last year, said CTA officials, who also credited service improvements.For the first half of the year, ridership was up 3.2 percent to 226 million, according to the CTA.Revenue generated during those six months from fares was $201.4 million, an increase of $5.1 million, primarily due to higher ridership, according to the CTA.But that was only a part of what the agency needed to offset fuel costs.During the first week of August the price the agency paid for a gallon of diesel fuel hit $1.98 per gallon, better than the price retail customers paid at service stations, but still 58 cents more than what was budgeted by the CTA, officials said.”There’s a problem with structural deficits of the CTA funding and that’s something we’re hopeful gets addressed by the General Assembly,” Kruesi said.
In summer 2004 I helped launch an innovative product configurator for a jewelry manufacturer.This Flash-based application allows the customer to choose ring size and stone type as well as place a customized inscription inside the clam-shaped ring.
The application increased retail sales and sales for the company’s channel partners as well as reduced mistakes and reworks.
Here’s the full text of a Chicago Tribune article on the company:
MINDING YOUR BUSINESS
Artist’s savvy adds glitter to jewelry firm
Knack for business helps designer craft sparkling results
By Ann Meyer
Special to the Tribune
July 18, 2005
One hit can lead to even bigger opportunities, if you manage it right.
For Chicago jewelry designer Tammy Kohl, her patented TakohlTreasure Rings, selling for $990 and up, have become a cash cow for hercompany, she said.
"I had a vision to come up with a piece I could protect and call my own," she said.
Kohl, who is president of Takohl Design Ltd. and also runs Takohl–AGallery of Exceptional Jewels in Chicago, attributes her success to herbusiness savvy as much as her creative ingenuity. She started sellingjewelry to pay her college tuition bills in 1984, but she had toyedwith having her own business since long before then.
"When I was a little girl, I played cash register instead of dolls,"said Kohl, the Wisconsin-born daughter of farmers. "I’ve always beenfascinated by business."
That’s unusual among most creative types, suggested Cindy Edelstein,president of Jeweler’s Resource Bureau in Pelham, N.Y., specializing inbusiness advice for jewelry designers.
"So many artists say, `I don’t like sales,’ but how else are yougoing to get your art out of the basement?" she said. "I have countlessclients that are just treading water."
But Kohl is different. To free up time to focus on the business,Kohl no longer makes her own jewelry, though she buys her own gems anddesigns all her work. Instead, Kohl uses in-house jewelers and aChicago jewelry manufacturer for production.
"Tammy Kohl is making it work," Edelstein said. "One idea is trademark-patented, and she can market the heck out of it."
Kohl’s Treasure Rings, which have bands that swing open to reveal apersonal inscription, are available at more than 100 stores and at herWeb site, www.treasurering.com. Customers choose the metal and gemsthat go into each ring, and create their own message, so each ring isunique, Kohl said.
To ease the ordering process, Kohl’s Web site includes a specializedform that reduces errors, she said. Even retailers use it. "By makingit easier for their customers to buy the product and for them to sellit, I’m a step ahead," she said.
Kohl’s emphasis on the Web puts her ahead of the curve, suggested Toni Lyn Judd, an independent jewelry manufacturers’ rep.
"Craftspeople need to reinvent the way they do business,particularly with the opportunity for consumers to buy goods in so manydifferent venues," Judd said. "People are going to do less shopping inretail stores and more in the confines of their home and office."
The Treasure Ring has another advantage over most artists’ work inbeing personalized yet available in quantity. While many consumers likeone-of-a-kind products, retailers don’t like to disappoint customerswith unavailable merchandise, said Merle White, editor in chief ofLapidary Journal, based in Malvern, Pa.
"To get a retail venue to take their work, it has to be repeatable," White said.
While the patented line, launched in 1997, has become Kohl’s breadand butter, fully 40 percent of her business is custom design work, shesaid. Many who own the Treasure Ring come back for something different,she said.
Employing a staff of three to help with daily operations, Kohlconcentrates on building the business. The result is a businessgenerating revenues of between $1 million and $2 million a year, shesaid.
Besides operating her retail gallery, Kohl works as her ownwholesale sales rep, often visiting retailers in person and attendingtrade shows where buyers scout for products. She takes out national adsand uses public relations to build awareness of her brand. Having hercreations adorn the fingers of celebrities such as Helen Hunt, KevinKline and Steven Tyler helps attract attention as well, she said.
Kohl made the most of the downturn following the Sept. 11 attacks toaccelerate advertising, taking out national ads in slick magazines suchas Town & Country and Harper’s Bazaar at lower-than-usual rates,she said. The ads, in turn, have helped land her jewelry in more stores.
A public relations campaign also can lure new clients.
The bigger your reputation, the more likely you are to sell to stores outright, instead of on consignment.
"It’s a huge expense to have 20 pieces at a gallery on consignment.It’s like making a long-term loan, which is difficult to do," saidEvanston jewelry designer Noel Yovovich said.
Yovovich hopes recent media exposure of her titanium jewelry willhelp her pick up some new gallery accounts. She has been featured inseveral articles, and her $8,000 teapot is included in a recentlypublished book, she said.
While Yovovich would like to expand her business, she acknowledgedthat she hasn’t made the leap to put business before art. "I would loveto hand the entire business aspect of it over to someone else," shesaid.
Consultant Edelstein encourages jewelry designers to see business as another opportunity to create.
"Once they get that there’s a lot of creativity in business, thenthey can really rock," she said. "They need to fall in love with thecreative challenges of marketing and promotions and sales."
Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune
Here’s a screenshot from the spot that Fox News did on the launch of CTA Alerts.