Conflicker 3–April Fool’s Joke or Computer Armegeddon?

Two things we know for sure.  Conflicker 3, the latest computer “worm” has infected millions of computers and it’s going to do something this Wednesday, April 1.  Beyond that, opinions vary dramatically on what effect this thing might have on your computer.

Worst case is that the hackers who created this monster have evil plans to destroy worldwide computing as we know it.  You could wake up Wednesday morning to find that you have a blank hard drive, or that the World Wide Web has become a World Wide Mess.

Next worse case is that you might find all your passwords and confidential information compromised.  Your bank accounts may be cleaned out and your identity stolen.

Another possibility is that you computer will become a slave, doing whatever the master computer tells it, including sending out millions of spam emails.  Combined with millions of other computers doing the same thing, the Internet could be in chaos and/or total shutdown.

Or, you may just see a message saying “April Fool!”

Like I said, experts agree that the virus is real and that it’s waiting for “instructions” on April 1 but not on what those instructions might be.

According to many of the people who know about these things, the most likely scenario is that the people responsible for Conflicker plan on making money from it.  Aparently most hackers have graduated from cyber-vandals to cyber-crooks.  Rather than just cause trouble, they want to get rich.

As far as your own computers are concerned, the first and best thing you can do is run an anti-virus program.  Don’t wait.  Do it as soon as you finish reading this.  There’s no time to lose.  April 1 is literally just hours away.  If you don’t have anti-virus software, get it now and run it.  Anti-virus software is cheap insurance.  In fact, there are free programs available on the web including one from Microsoft called “Windows Defender“.

The next suggestion, and you’ve heard it here more than once, BACK UP YOUR IMPORTANT FILES! Do it at work and at home.  If Conflicker turns out to be a file-destroying virus, you’re information won’t be lost if you back it up.  Obviously you don’t want to back up your files on your hard drive.  Use an external drive, CD or DVD, or an online storage site like Amazon S-3.

If you use Windows, Microsoft has a fact sheet on the virus including a patch for your machine that they recommend that you install IMMEDIATELY!  They also advise that you enable your firewall (instructions here) and that you make sure you have “strong” passwordsx.

Last, but not least, if you’re a knowledgable computer-type person, Microsoft is offering a $250,000 reward for the criminals who have perpetrated this latest cyber-fraud.

Here are links to some interesting articles on the topic:

No Joke in April Fool’s Day Computer Worm” from CNN.

Could April 1 Be Conflicker’s Trigger Date? from the National Business Review

Beware Conflicker Worm Come April 1” from Yahoo

Internet Worm Set to Change Tactics April 1” from MSNBC

Alert:  April 1 Conflicker Computer Worm” from CNN by way of CBS News.

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A Special Note for Real Estate Agents

Mining the Store is a podcast for all small business owners so we usually don’t get industry-specific.  But it would seem that our last post might have particular relevance to those in the real estate business.

We all know that this is a difficult and confusing time for potential home buyers and sellers. It seems like every day we’re either being told it’s a good time to buy/sell, or a bad time.   Wouldn’t it be great to have a reliable source of information on this volitile market that affects so many of us?  Wouldn’t it be even better if that source were you?  Imagine the listings and the referrals you might get if you were considered the expert in your market.

It’s not hard to do.  Build that database of customers and prospects and use it to inform them of what’s really going on in the market, not just nationally, but right in their own back yard.  When they do decide to buy or sell, or when their friends mention that they’re considering buying or selling, who do you think they’re going to call?

Think about it.

Small Business Email Marketing

I’ve written on this topic in the past, but it’s so important I think it’s worth revisiting.  As I write this, I’m printing a coupon I received via email this morning.  It’s from a company that emails me often and I look fortward to their messages.

Here’s the thing.  It costs virtually nothing to send email.  You’re already paying for the bandwidth whether you use it or not and you don’t need expensive software.  In fact, you probably have what you need on your computer already.

There are two ways you can use email to build your business.  The first, and probably most effective method is the newsletter.  It’s also the one that requires the most work and discipline on your part.  If you decide to send out a monthly, or even weekly newsletter, you have to be prepared to meet the schedule.  As the “king of the procrastinators” I can promise you that your newsletter will fail very quickly if you don’t keep on schedule.  Unless you (or someone on your staff) is willing to commit to a regular schedule, you might not want to go the newsletter route, at least not yet.

The other option is irregular email updates, done on an as-needed basis.  What’s “as needed”?  It’s something that goes out when, and only when, you have something to say.  For example, to promote a sale, an exciting new item, or an event.  While it may be tempting to use email as a jump start during a slow period, if your communications don’t offer a value to the reader, either in the form of a special sale or valuable information, he or she will soon start hitting the “delete” button every time your name shows up in the “From” field of their email client.

I’m shocked and amazed at how many otherwise excellent business people don’t maintain a customer database with email addresses.  Your customers are your most valuable asset.  Why would you let them decide when you’re going to have a conversation?  That’s what you’re doing when you don’t have their contact information.  To reach them, you’re either going to have to run an expensive ad, or you’re going to have to wait until they come to you.

I think the reason why email is so poorly used, especially by small businesses, lies in the idea that a marketing messaged is somehow “junk” or “spam”.  If that’s what you think, get over it!  That’s step 1 in a successful email campaign.  Spam is an unsolicited email promoting something you aren’t interested in.  It’s sent to a purchased list of email addresses with no regard to the person’s interest in the product.  A solicitation from a total stranger to buy a product that “enhances” some body part or other is spam.  Gardening tips from the neighborhood hardware store who got my email address from me is something of true value.  (True value-hardware store.  Get it?)  It’s something I would open and read.  If the mailing included information on a sale on grass seed, or reminding me to get my lawn mower sharpened before grass-cutting season starts, so much the better.

If it’s ok for your dentist to contact you twice a year to remind you it’s time for a checkup and cleaning, it should be ok for your auto repair shop to remind you that it’s time to get your car ready for winter and summer.

So stop thinking that you’re bothering me by sending helpful, informative messages.  And make sure everyone on your staff understands this or the next step just won’t work.

Step 2 is to build your customer database.  Every single person you deal with, whether they buy anything or not, should be asked for their email address.  This is where step 1 becomes important.  If you or anyone who works for you has a negative attitude about the messages you’re sending out they won’t ask for the contact information.  On the other hand, if they’re really excited about your email campaign, they’ll be enthusiastic about making sure no one is left out. Asking for contact information must be part of everyone’s job description.

To recap, your email campaign will be successful if:

  • Your mailings offer something of value to the customer.
  • You and your staff understand that you’re sending out valuable information, not “spam” or “junk”.
  • You get contact information from every single customer and prospect for your database.

That’s it.  It’s not rocket science.  It’s not brain surgery.  You don’t even have to stay at a Holiday Inn Express.

It’s “Quality Season”

With Spring come baseball, the Final Four, longer days, and lots of the color green.  The long winter is over (at least here in the Heartland of America) and it’s time to get back outside.

Another sign of spring is the beginning of the process for choosing winners of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award and the various state and local awards based on the Baldridge criteria.

This post isn’t about trying to win an award  (though it’s certainly a good goal for any business).  It’s about using the criteria to improve your business.  Two frequent objections to adopting the criteria as a business model are:

  1. My business is too small.
  2. I can’t afford it.

First, no business is too small.  A one man operation use the seven categories of Baldrige as a guide for improvement just as well as a larger firm.  In fact, one of the beauties of the award process is that everyone competes on an equal footing.  No one expects a smaller company to have the resources of a large one.  Applicants are scored on how well they do for a company of that size.

The categories are:

  1. Leadership
  2. Strategic Planning
  3. Customer Focus
  4. Measurement, Analysis, and Knowledge Management
  5. Workforce Focus
  6. Process Management
  7. Results

All seven apply to every business and measuring and improving the way you approach them can’t help but improve your bottom line.

As far as the “can’t afford it” objection, I suggest that you can’t afford not to improve the way you do things, especially in the current environment.  It’s a cliche, but it costs a lot more to do something over than it costs to do it right in the first place.

Details of any individual award application are highly confidential, but as I go through the examination process beginning tomorrow and running through fall, I’ll post on it from time-to-time.

For now, I’d highly recommend that you get a copy of the Baldrige criteria, either from the Baldrige web site or from your local award organization.  You can order the book by mail, or you can download the pdf.

Read through it and ask yourself how improve you can use the process to improve the way you do things.  Creating processes for performing critical tasks will make your life much easier and make your business a self-sustaining asset that you can some day turn over to your kids or sell to someone else.

No Recession on St. Patrick’s Day

Thousands of Irish and pretenders celebrate St. Paddy's Day In St. Louis

Thousands of Irish and pretenders celebrate St. Paddy's Day In St. Louis

As Casey Stengel might have said, “Nobody goes to the St. Patrick’s parade anymore.  It’s too crowded.” As you can see by the photo, St. Louisians came out in droves for both St. Patrick’s parade this week.

In spite of $6.50 Guinness and $8.00 shots, Irish (and those who wish they were Irish) celebrated the holiday by the thousands downtown on Saturday and in the Irish “Dogtown” neighborhood on Tuesday.  At Dogtown’s “anchor” St. James the Greater Catholic Church, there was a one hour wait for a corned beef sandwich.  One steetside stand was out of Guinness before 1:00.

Your intrepid reporter visited both parades and the hoolies (parties) going on afterwards (It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.) and could find no signs of an economic downturn.  That’s not to say that many people werent  looking for a little entertainment to take their minds off their problems, but it shows that folks can and will spend money with the right motivation.

The Interstate highway that runs alongside Dogtown has been closed since December and isn’t scheduled to reopen until this December.  Several small business owners in the area, especially restaurants and bars,  reported that the huge St. Pat’s crowd may have saved their year and their business.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

March 17 is a day when any self-respecting blogger of Irish descent almost has to blog about St. Paddy’s Day.  You know, the wearin’ o’ the green, Erin Go Brah, Irish coffee and all the rest.  It’s also a day when a lot of “pretenders” put on silly green hats and “kiss me” buttons in a futile attempt to become a member of the “Great Race”, the Irish.

So, rather than bore you with my thoughts on what was originally a religious holiday (St. Patrick was a man of God, after all.  He was not, repeat not, a guy who ran around in a green derby, green sport coat, and shamrock suspenders), here are a couple of the 600+ pictures I took last fall in Ireland.

Enjoy.  And Happy St. Paddy’s Day.

Buckley the butcher.  No relation.  I only butcher the English language.

Buckley the butcher. No relation. I only butcher the English language.

Powerscourt golf course, once an Englishman's front yard.

Powerscourt golf course, once an Englishman's front yard.

They say Irishmen don't park their cars.  They abandon them.

They say Irishmen don't park their cars. They abandon them.

Kinsale Harbor.  Awesome!

Kinsale Harbor. Awesome!

The Cliffs of Moher, spectacular!

The Cliffs of Moher, spectacular!

The 912 Project

Mining the Store is a business blog, not a political blog.  But it seems that lately I’ve been writing about politics more often.  Obviously the political situation, especially the economy and efforts to fix it, are crucially important to all of us trying to make a living.

We humans are complex creatures.  We have differing views on a number of things, and to suggest that these views can be shoved into convenient boxes in our minds and only be brought out one at a time is just silly.

My views on politics affect the way I run my business.  My religious faith (or lack thereof) affects the way I run my business and my political views.  My love for my family affects everything I do.

So, while some might say that expressing political thoughts on a business blog is a sure way to alienate some readers, I would hope that we all look at one another as a combination of views and values and don’t let disagreement in one area affect our sharing of ideas in another.

Having made this lengthy disclaimer, I’d like to say that I’ve been very concerned for a long time about the way that we (that’s you and me) have given up our Constitutional rights.  The government, made up of our elected representatives, the people we chose to represent our interests in Washington, D.C., and our various state and local government centers, has become a political machine operating on the principal that if something is popular, then it’s OK.  This  “government by popularity poll” has gotten us into the mess we’re in today, and doesn’t seem capable of getting us out of it.

[Sidebar:  Some of you reside outside the United States.  You may have the same discomfort level with your politicians as well.  If not, congratulations!  But I think the problem is universal enough to be of interest with most of our readers.  If not, please bear with me.]

For a country that began with a rebellion against the powers-that-be, we’ve gotten awfully complacent.  We’ve lost our trust in government, the financial markets, banking, the election process, and any number of other things that our grandparents trusted without question but there doesn’t seem to be any outrage.  When King George did this stuff to us we went to war.  What the heck happened and what can we do about it?

912_project

Political commentator Glen Beck has started something called “The 912 Project“.  The premise is to restore the unity and the resolve we all felt on September 12, 2001, the day after the terrorist attacks.  Remember?  We were all Americans that day; not red states and blue states; not Democrats or Republicans.  We’d been sucker-punched and we didn’t like it.  We were willing to do anything to preserve and defend our country.

Obviously Beck is a conservative, and the 912 Project web site leans a bit to the right, but I wanted to call your attention to the 9 Principals and 12 Values that the site promotes.  They should guide all Americans regardless of race, political persuasion, or anything elst that divides us.

I’m going to let you check out the site and evaluate it for yourself.  But I believe the project is valid and valuable for all of us.  The idea of getting together with your neighbors to discuss what’s happening in America (and the rest of the world) is valid regardless of your set of beliefs.  In fact, if liberals and conservatives would sit around a kitchen table, drinking coffee and calmly sharing ideas, instead of yelling at one another, we might make huge strides in restoring the America where most of us grew up.

As entrepreneurs we have the greatest stake of all in the country and the economy.  We can lead the way for our fellow citizens by getting involved locally in efforts to move the conversation forward.  Check out the 912 project for yourself.

Forgive my excursion into the political arena.  But it could be worse.  Tomorrow there’s a 90% chance that this space will be taken up with a tribute to St. Paddy’s Day.

Have a great week!