(FORTUNE Small Business) – As rags-to-riches stories go, it's tough to beat Madam C.J. Walker. The daughter of slaves, Walker invented a hair cream and parlayed it into a thriving beauty enterprise. One of the wealthiest women in the U.S., Walker was also a philanthropist who used her fortune to improve the lot of other African-American women. A'Lelia Bundles, Walker's great-great-granddaughter, chronicles Walker's rise in On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker (Scribner; $30). Look for an excerpt in July's FSB.
That sigh of relief you may have heard recently was the small business community celebrating the demise of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's despised ergonomics rule. The vote rolling back the measure was the small business lobby's "biggest victory in years," crowed National Federation of Business lobbyist Dan Danner. "It's great to see Congress listen to the small business owners that OSHA ignored." But does that mean small businesses are off the hook when it comes to protecting workers from back strains, torn muscles, and aching wrists--the so-called musculoskeletal injuries covered by the defunct rule? Don't bet on it. To mollify miffed trade unionists, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao promised to come up with her own ergonomics program, perhaps even a new rule. And OSHA investigators may still go after employers with serious "ergo" problems if their employees lodge complaints or have high injury rates. Sadly, the uproar over the standard drowned out the quiet revolution taking place in thousands of small business offices, shop floors, and shipping rooms, where smart proprietors are improving productivity and lowering workers comp costs by redesigning jobs. This summer, we'll visit small business owners who've discovered that a good ergonomics program makes good business sense.
Feng shui-ing offices isn't new, but Websites? Yup, the ancient Chinese art of room design and object placement to boost prosperity in homes and workplaces is being applied online. "Most people would probably think it's a wacky idea, but I'm sure if you ask in five years, people might do it as a matter of course," says Barbara Corcoran, who tapped feng shui practitioner Alex Stark to reenergize the Website for her New York City real estate company, the Corcoran Group. Stark, whose growing on- and offline client roster includes architecture firms and consultants, diagnosed Corcoran's site as having too much yin (slow, dark, feminine qualities) and not enough yang (active, vibrant, masculine characteristics). On Stark's advice, Corcoran added more yang elements, contrasting warm and cool colors (to appeal to both the emotional and intellectual sides), and active images of people and animals. It worked. Hits to the site have tripled, and Corcoran has received a flood of compliments that she says more than justified Stark's $1,500 fee. While feng shui may not have averted the dot-com deaths of recent months, Stark does have an opinion regarding the downfall. "A lot of dot-coms went full yang," he says. "Lots of icons, advertisements, splashy primary colors, crowded pages. That's good for short-term prosperity, but after that the energy wanes, and you crash." Profitable business plans may have helped keep dot-coms afloat too.
Few people will be amused if the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild strike when their contracts expire on May 1 and June 30, respectively. A strike won't just mean a summer of TV reruns. For the countless small companies that cater to the film and television industry, a strike could also be a tragedy. "This industry is driven by small businesses," says Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. Kyser said 81% of the area's production companies employ between one and four people. But everyone from car dealers to hardware stores (the sets aren't built by Hollywood magic) could feel the pinch. "The trickle-down [effect] would be pretty quick," says Kyser. If neither union can resolve its primary dispute over residuals, an industry shutdown could cost the Los Angeles area about $1.8 billion a month. "[A strike] would devastate us," says David Carney, 43, office manager at Sichel Inc., a 26-person firm that manufactures film and TV crew jackets, hats, and accessories. Last year Sichel grossed $2.2 million, enough to turn a small profit. Carney says his company could probably weather a short strike but that if negotiations drag on for as long as six months, Sichel could go under. Concern is also rising in New York City, where the entertainment industry adds about $5 billion and 100,000 jobs to the annual economy. "There is a very fragile community that depends on this kind of work," says Julianne Cho, director of publicity for the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre, & Broadcasting. The Writers Guild's 11,000 members are in negotiations with producers. But as FSB went to press, SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, with 135,000 members, hadn't yet begun talks.
Former Monster.com president William Warren's entrepreneurial spirit is pretty hard to suppress. In April 1999 he left Monster.com and agreed to abide by a noncompete agreement that legally banned him from working for or launching a competing business that might vie for a piece of the $1 billion online human resources market. Though Warren says he honored his agreement, he spent his post-Monster days researching the market, drafting a business plan, developing software, and seeking funding to create Wowemployers Network, an Internet-based employment service. With the help of 18 former Monster employees, Warren launched his new company just three months and seven days after his noncompete agreement expired on Dec. 1. For Warren, it was time to celebrate. For Monster.com, it was time to get litigious. The suit alleges that Warren "misappropriated" trade secrets, Monster staff, reports, and files. "[We're] preserving and protecting the trade secrets of Monster," says Evan Kornrich, director of litigation and labor for TMP Worldwide, Monster.com's parent company. Warren says he honored the letter of his noncompete agreement and has done nothing wrong. But he admits he knew Monster would be unhappy about his fledgling company. "I was prepared for this, that's why I worked with lawyers from the start to keep a record of what we did," says Warren. He's eager to point out that unlike Monster's Web-only service, his Wowemployers Network provides its clients with both Web-based tools and a customized software package to recruit employees. "Monster focuses too much on the employee. [We] focus on the employers and on making them happy."
Remember John Bates and Jeff Sherwood, co-founders of BigWords.com? Since being FSB's cover boys (December/January 2000), the two have done their best to corner the discount-textbook market. After buying distribution centers and diversifying into fashion and aromatherapy, generally overstretching BigWords' original mission and $80 million financing, the site closed down. After the assets were put on the market, Sherwood purchased the URL and launched another venture called BiggerWords.com. This time around, Sherwood says it's a small operation strictly focused on delivering the comparative prices of textbooks. "I want to help students find the lowest prices," he says.
Edited by Arlyn Tobias Gajilan. Reported by Brian Dumaine, Beth Kwon, Maccabee Montandon, Julie Rose, Louise Rosen, and Sasha Smith