Wedgewood: The First Tycoon

Wedgwood: The First TycoonWedgwood: The First Tycoon by Brian Dolan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are parallels between Josiah Wedgwood in the 1760s and Steve Jobs in the 1980s. Both transformed an existing industry through a combination of artistry, technical innovation, and marketing prowess.

I became fascinated with the Wedgwood story after a knowledgeable tour guide’s talk at Chicago The Art Institute in 2005. The guide told his story of being the first in England to develop advanced manufacturing processes, his ongoing product development research in glazes, firing control (pyrometer), types of clay and working out processes to ensure manufacturing consistency.

Dolan’s Wedgwood biography fleshes that out, telling the story of a man rising from relative poverty through training, hard work, observation, research, an infusion of capital from his wife’s family (poor boy proves himself through industry and hard work!), good friends, and connections. Wedgewood didn’t just industrialize pottery manufacture – he was instrumental in improving transport in Staffordshire through his leadership in raising subscriptions to start underwriting the cost of the Trent and Mersey Canal, and then pushing through Great Britain’s political system to ensure that it got built. The roads were horrible in 18th century Staffordshire – deep-rutted tracks that turned into mud morasses when it rained. Wedgwood and his fellow Staffordshire potters were able to dominate the world market for pottery because that canal reduced how much of their wares were damaged in transit.

There is still much to learn from the story of Great Britain and Europe’s industrialization – it didn’t “just happen”. It’s important to understand what conditions were required for the great innovations to be worked out – and then what was required for them to spread. There is still much to be learned and managed by other parts of the world that are industrializing now – and for others needing to reinvent themselves for the next wave of change.

Those lessons are:

  1.  Infrastructure is important. Wedgwood initially had huge challenges getting his products to market because of bad roads and the resulting need to rely on third-party resellers for his early sales.
  2. Organization is important. Wedgewood was only able to get large volume consistent production through rigorous attention to worker training, paying good wages, quality control and workshop organization.
  3. Good design is the ultimate value add. Wedgewood stayed out in front of his competitors by always having the next new thing ready to roll out when the novelty of the current hot product faded.
  4. He pioneered the use of showrooms and shopping as recreation for the upper class, using premium pricing for new products, then dropping the price for the middle classes as he was able to scale production.

This is an underappreciated industrial and design history story. My key takeaway is the importance of combining art and cutting edge technologies.

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Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner

Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner, 1945-2005Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner, 1945-2005 by Paul E. Ceruzzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tells the story of how government intelligence and IT services business cluster at Tysons Corners Virginia (outside Washington) developed. A recommended read if you are not familiar with the shape of IT and computing services for the US federal government.

Atari Inc.: Business is Fun

Atari Inc.: Business Is FunAtari Inc.: Business Is Fun by Curt Vendel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summarizes the conditions under which Atari games were first developed – and launched an industry. Not as tightly edited as some books out there (was self-published), but has historical details not available elsewhere. If you want to understand the roots of today’s game industry, is an essential read.

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How to pick a first programming language infographic

Parking some links for a session I’m doing at the Women Who Code Birmingham network tonight.

One of the big questions I had when I first started programming was…. how to pick a first programming language. No student or prof would – or could – give me a straight answer as to what languages were the most useful for different applications.

Recently, I stumbled across Carl Cheo’s great flow chart on picking a first programming language based on what you need to do. I hope you find this useful and informative as I do – it’s something that I wish had been available when I first started dabbling in programming.

The other question newbies often ask is “what exactly do programmers do?” Carl Cheo has a second great infographic that answers that question.

The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley

The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon ValleyThe Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley by Leslie Berlin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tells the story both of Robert Noyce’s life, and the start of the semiconductor industry. I learned that Robert Noyce’s personal management philosophy of giving people the tools they needed and then getting out of the way – and its success at Intel is what set the pattern of Silicon Valley companies and large portions of the American tech and software sectors in general.

Good read – and important if you want to understand the roots of this industry.

Infographic tools & application – getting started

I volunteer as a Photoshop tutor at Woodlawn High School. One of the student projects is to develop an infographic. This blog entry is for those students, to explain the purpose of an infographic, how to design a good one and the tools that are available.

In the graphic arts, as in many other areas of life, engineering and design, automation makes the design and construction of things easier and faster. The artist or technician who can produce the tool they need is valuable to many potential employers – or customers. This requires, in addition to training in the visual arts and design, a good knowledge of coding, applicable programming languages and some understanding of current computing hardware.

An infographic is a visual image, such as a chart or diagram, used to represent information or data. The website, Customer Magnetism * has an infographic about infographics (and a case study to back up their claims).

What is an Infographic?
Created by Customer Magnetism.

Good infographics engage readers and make difficult concepts easy to understand. They require planning, research, and attention to colour composition, design flow, and determination of what is important on the page.

Before you start designing, you need to spend a little time organizing your information. Shift Learning has a great post detailing the steps required. They are:

  1. Gather your information. Find research sources, look for conclusions by different research teams doing different studies, make sure that you are giving your readers good, valid information that they can use. Your credibility rests on using credible sources that you have verified.
  2. Visualize the data. Who are you telling this story to? Who is your audience and what do they need to learn?
  3. Outline. Sketch out the story to be told in a rough draft.
  4. Wireframe. Sketch out, on paper or electronically, what needs to be illustrated.
  5. Design and refine. Now you start the hard work. Work out your layout, work out your color palette, choose appropriate fonts for your subject matter and audience, seek feedback and then refine again.

Another article that details the steps required to create a great infographic (read the piece – it explains the points listed below):

  1. Let the data tell its story.
  2. Determine purpose and audience.
  3. Construct an engaging narrative.
  4. Make the complex understandable.
  5. Focus on the structure first.
  6. Wireframe, explore and iterate. In the bad old days, this was called “sketching” – a quick minimal drawing to work out your ideas.
  7. Select the right tool for the job.
  8. Choose the right visual approach.
  9. Distribution and PR.
  10. Treat infographics as moral acts.

This list is a little longer than the first one – but it emphasizes similar points. The key concept that I think is important to remember, is that your job is to make complex subject matter understandable.

How Design’s tips  has additional tips regarding creating great infographics.

When infographics were first being produced, most were created in Photoshop or Illustrator – or their open source equivalents, Gimp and Inkscape.  The best ones still are. (Tips to create that work from DezineGuide )

However, there are times when you need something quickly, and perhaps your Photoshop skills are still kinda basic. In that case, check out these tools, as recommended by Levin Mejia at the Creative Bloq:

In addition, I turned up some tools that will convert .CSV (comma separated values) data, a format used for most open source and government data, into charts and graphs without needing to use Excel or other proprietary software. These are:

I consider these quick and dirty tools – they’ll give you good enough results for many circumstances, but should be used with care so that they support your message (and story), not detract from it.
Other tool options include open source (free to use, once installed) office suites such as LibreOffice, NeoOffice, and OpenOffice.

I hope that this quick reference list helps you to create your next great infographic.

*ScanWP reports that the website is built with WordPress. Another one of my obsessions. But I digress.

Where Wizards Stay Up Late

Where Wizards Stay Up LateWhere Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Decent history of how the initial Internet protocols and infrastructure were developed. If you want to understand how the underlying structure of what we use today was developed, read this book!

Grant Writing in the US

I attended my first US-based grant writing workshop a few weeks ago. Nicole Carter, of Carter Consulting, knows her stuff! Over two days, she walked us through the grant writing process, told us what information is important to include, the nature of the lead times, how to pace gathering together our information, and what to expect during first, second and third applications. She emphasized the importance of realistic budgets, developing alliances with other community agencies for service delivery and to ensure that we focused on our areas of expertise.

Excellent experience all round.  We left with initial grants identified, first proposals outlined and a checklist of what we needed to assemble in order to complete the process.

Where is the WordPress framework used?

Am now at the stage in my learning cycle where I’m examining websites to see how they are built. Am mainly interested WordPress, but am also interested in learning where other frameworks are being used.

To do so, I’m using the following tools:

  • ScanWP – Enter a URL at this site and it will generate a report as to theme and plugins used.
  • BuiltWith – Returns an analysis of the backend tools used. Doesn’t report on the actual website code framework. The site also has reports regarding usage patterns over time.
  • Wappalyzer – a browser extension that reports on what software technologies and frameworks are used within a site.

My intent in using these tools is to learn what works when and where – and to be better able to recommend tool use to others.

Starting a nonprofit in Birmingham, AL

A couple of people have asked me what one must do to start a nonprofit in Birmingham, AL. This post documents what we learned (and did) during the Red Mountain Maker startup. The snarky answer is $150/hour. There are many steps to the process – and costs and complexity will vary depending on the municipality in which you are incorporating. 

All costs mentioned are as of 2013 & 2014, when the Red Mountain Makers filed our applications. I will update this guide as I confirm additional details. If you have additional information you would like to share, please email me at shirley at velochicdesign dot com.

Questions you should ask yourself before starting a new nonprofit

You have a mission, an objective. The first question to ask (and research): is someone else in the community already doing this? If they are, great!

Joining and expanding an existing program is going to take far less effort (and resources) than growing a new one from scratch. Economies of scale (spreading overhead costs over more deliverable things, whether programs, goods, or social outreach) apply to nonprofit organizations as much as for-profits.

Contact the existing organization and find out if they are interested (or open) in expanding into your neighborhood and how you can help them do so. The help required may range from fundraising to grant-writing, to organization of volunteers or program development within your local neighborhood.

Any existing organization is going to already be stretched, so you need to be prepared to do this. The work required will be as intensive as starting your own nonprofit – but you will likely be able to get results sooner. I strongly encourage you to take this approach. Birmingham has many, many small nonprofits in operation, that could be more effective as larger coalitions with more communication across the city. Overhead, fundraising and administration absorb smaller portions of operational costs in larger organizations. Starting a nonprofit is a lot of work – and not to be undertaken lightly. I’m organizationally agnostic at this point – organization counts whether for profit or non-profit – what changes is a part of your regulatory environment – but less than you would think.


Nonprofits must be incorporated. Surprised? Don’t be. The only real difference between for-profit businesses and nonprofits is what you do with the difference between your income and expenses. Businesses have to either reinvest the profits, build cash reserves or split them between the business owners or shareholders. Nonprofits retain their excess income and either use it to build reserves, reinvest for equipment replacement or expansion of programs. No money is paid out to ownership.

The purpose of incorporation is to isolate the organization from the organizers’ personal assets – and to create it as a specific legal entity. There are two ways to do this – pay someone (usually a lawyer) to handle your incorporation, or do it yourself. A lawyer will get it done quickly and correctly. Costs will run around $800 US to register (and incorporate) the organization. You will receive guidance and checklists as to what you must do during your first years of existence. (Keeping yourself in legal compliance with tax and reporting requirements is a good thing!)

You can also do it yourself. This will take longer – and you may make some mistakes along the way. Use a nonprofit startup guide. We used the Everything Guide to Starting and Running a Nonprofit (getting a little old now), or Nonprofit Businesses for Dummies, one of many available guides. Harbor Compliance has put together an excellent state level guide with all the steps required. The nonprofit startup guide should contain instructions and model documents for the following:

  • Articles of Incorporation
  • Governing bylaws
  • Board of directors – you’ll need to gather names and addresses, along with social security and driver’s licenses for your founding board
  • Guides to governance, budgets, business plans, staffing, bank accounts, insurance and personnel issues

You will also need to develop (much of this after the incorporation is filed):

  • A mission statement
  • Policies for document retention, anti-harassment, and anti-discrimination (last two required by your insurance company as part of risk reduction)
  • Record-keeping systems
  • Budgets
  • Business and marketing or outreach plans

Once you have your model documents written, vetted and you are happy with them, you can file for state incorporation at the Jefferson County Courthouse.

Once you exist as a legal entity at the state level, you may apply for recognition as a nonprofit by the IRS.
The Alabama Association of NonProfits is a good resource*, as is the local Small Business Administration. Many of the issues for small business and nonprofits are the same – revenue must be more than expenditure if one’s mission is to be served in the long term. The excess goes into cash reserves to smooth up the bumps in income and need. Good bookkeeping is important, and careful husbandry of resources is necessary.

You will want to develop a business/operations plan in order to identify needs, risks to the mission, resources, and strengths. (SWOT analysis).
It took me about two months to research and write a first draft of the Red Mountain Makers business plan, which we then revised with a more accurate market assessment one year in.

Be prepared to revise your business plan on an ongoing basis. The Red Mountain Makers is doing so annually. Depending on your scale of operations, you may do so every six months. Your predictions as to expenses and income will become more accurate with time. This is because as your organization develops, you have more expense data for historical reference. If your predictions match outcome within 10% +/-, you’re doing really well.

Budget for 2% cost increases per year (standard allowance for inflation), and build them into your approval processes so as to lessen approval hassle for your organization, boards and management.

For cash reserve modeling purposes, the standard expected return on managed investments (your future reserves) has historically been 8%. Given current low interest rates, when you have reserves and require some short-term liquidity, you should conservatively model an expected rate of 3 – 5%, and 1 – 2% for short term certificates of deposit (CDs). Better to be safe regarding these income projections!

If you know your local needs and risks well, you can write a much shorter plan. The point of the business plan is not to create paper, but to do the research necessary to reduce the risk of failure. Your research may show you that you don’t know local needs as well as you think you do, or that there are local obstacles to service delivery that need to be dealt with before you can be effective. These are all good reasons to write that plan before you begin to commit money and resources to action.

Get a website up (start with a Wix or WordPress site) to tell your story, and to start looking for your community partners. If you can do it yourself – awesome! Otherwise, you will need to budget $400 – $1500 for an initial website, donation/payment system, and mailing list framework.

As in business, for nonprofits, scale counts. It’s hard getting things going, but as you grow a service base, things get easier. While you are establishing yourself, set up a fiscal sponsorship with another nonprofit or umbrella organization to manage donation collection, grants, bookkeeping and tax reporting. Woodlawn United is the example that I know – a good local one. They will handle this for a small service fee, which will range from 10% of incoming grants and donations to 1%. Look for one in the 1 – 2 % range – they’re handling your money, not getting it for you.

Things you need to do at state, city and county levels:

Please note that the following is specific to Alabama, Jefferson County and the City of Birmingham. Requirements at the county and municipal level will vary depending on where you live in the state.


Register your nonprofit at your local county courthouse. For us, this was the Jefferson County Courthouse. Our cost was $142 and took take 10 – 14 business days. You can pay a premium to get things done faster (we opted to do so as we needed our status established to move forward on finding a rental space). You will be given a state Entity Identification Number (EID). The EID is required for all tax reporting. The process is complete when your organization is listed at the Alabama Secretary of State site.

Be aware that as your organization grows older, your board will change. Members come and go. You are required to keep this information current. You must file each change at the local courthouse. Processing fees are $44 per change. If you have frequent board changes, this can become expensive. Our practice (so far) is to file for the change prior to when we need to file additional documentation. We’ll likely do it every few years going forward.

Sales tax exemption – the State of Alabama has a list of nonprofits who are eligible for sales tax exemptions. As per new rules that became effective August 2015, K-12 educational organizations, universities, nonprofits which are members of the local United Way, and nonprofits with a specific legislative waiver are exempt from paying sales taxes. All other nonprofits not exempt. (updated April 2016.)


Once your nonprofit is a recognized entity, you can apply for charitable status with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) at the federal level. If your expected revenues are less than $50,000/year, you can use the 1023-EZ. This is a shorter form which requires you to provide less initial documentation. The understanding in the submission is that you will complete all the documentation (as required by the longer form) and hold it for review – if requested. You’ll want to write the documentation eventually – it’s regarded as good governance by outside organizations to whom you may be applying for grants.

If your expected revenues will be more than $50,000/year, you need to use the 1023 proper with significant documentation. The IRS estimates that this will take 16 hours to prepare – but in my experience (especially if you are new to this and need to create some of the required documents) it will take much longer. The IRS wants to know that you are “for realz”. If using this longer process, I recommend purchasing access to a step-by-step guide. Google has a good initial guide. Legal Zoom has also created an automated process (Wasn’t available when the Red Mountain Makers incorporated. Would be interested in hearing from people who’ve used it.)

Our 1023-EZ was processed within one month of filing. The standard form is supposed to take four to six months.  We had to apply separately to get a copy of our 501(c)3 letter. You must include the letter (once received) with all grant applications, applications for sales tax exemptions, applications for reduced service fees with businesses, state, local and county filings.

Jefferson County:

If you are employing staff, Jefferson County requires you to report salaries paid and collect an occupational tax. You will need to set up an account with them and get a taxpayer ID number. If you are running solely on volunteer labor and aren’t selling anything on which sales tax revenue is collected, you don’t need to register.

City of Birmingham:

If you have a physical address in the city of Birmingham, you need to apply for a business license. This will cost $200 annually, and must be applied for in the same year that you start operations. The city will issue you a taxpayer ID, and will require you to report salaries and sales revenue monthly on the 20th of the month – and to submit the payments due to the city. There is a $50 penalty for each month that you fail to do so – even if you have no paid staff and no sales! In our experience, this is the most difficult part of regional compliance as it can’t be automated through and application programming interface (API) or bank payment – and someone has to actually log on to the site to do so. This has been the Red Mountain Makers’ most troublesome and persnicketty administrative task.

I’ve been told that it’s possible to arrange quarterly reporting – but that wasn’t pointed out to us at City Hall when we renewed our business license and I’ve had trouble getting an answer from City Hall regarding how to make this change. I’ll update this post when I have more information.

*Alabama Association of Nonprofits updated their website by February 2016. The new site is easier to navigate — but I haven’t yet found model documents specific to Alabama – updated April 2016.

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