They are ideas whose time may or may not have come. Yet, to the credit of American free enterprise, the marketplace has never been without odd or peculiar innovations that are seen as meeting a need.
Passports From Hell
When terrorists on a jet liner in Beirut murdered serviceman Robert Stetham because he carried a U.S. military ID, "the idea jelled," says Donna Walker. "There you are minding your own business and there is nothing to do -- no options. I started thinking it would be nice having another passport."
A one-time travel agent who lost her passport on her only two trips abroad, Walker discovered that to carry an actual passport from a second country is either illegal or too complicated and expensive. So, she wondered, why not a passport from a nonexistent country? The State and Justice departments told her it wasn't legal. "No one would ever say specifically how it was illegal," says Walker, president of International Documents Service, in Houston.
She calls her product "camouflage passports." Most of the 11 passports she designed are from nations that no longer exist. A few are fictitious.
"The main thing is my passports are designed to be plausible, obscure, not noticeable," says Walker. "Whatever anyone is looking for if they want to beat up on anybody, they don't find it with people from my countries."
Walker estimates she has sold more than 500 of her passports, mostly to businessmen and experienced travelers, and a few to military personnel. Each passport costs $135. As for the U.S. government? "I have been studiously ignored," she says.
No Recommendation Is Better
Prospective employers fail to check job references in nearly three-quarters of today's job applications, according to a survey conducted by the Chicago-based placement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas Inc. The reason? Many former employers are not cooperating with such requests out of fear that a bad job reference may land them in court.
"Nowadays, people are hesitant to write recommendations and a lot of firms are increasingly reluctant to give out more than name, rank and serial number," says Robert Thornton, professor of economics at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. "Letters of recommendation are becoming increasingly unreliable forms for evaluating a person."
No thanks to Thornton, it should be added. Two years ago, one of Thornton's colleagues mentioned to him a glowing recommendation he'd written for a student: "I simply cannot recommend this person highly enough." A wonderful witticism of double entendre, thought Thornton. He figured there must be other examples of word play that straddle the fear of writing recommendations with ambiguity and humor. He started looking for "ways of providing favorable information to an employer," as he says, "that also could be read unfavorably."
The outcome: his "Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations." Calling it by its acronym, "LIAR," Thornton says it first appeared in a short form in the Chronicle for Higher Education, and 300 such equivocations are scheduled to be published this spring as a Meadowbrook paperback book. A sampling:
To describe someone who is woefully inept: "I most enthusiastically recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever."
For an unindustrious candidate: "In my opinion you will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you."
A backhanded compliment Thornton credits to labor economist Clark Kerr: "I'm sure that no matter what kind of work this person goes into, he will be fired with enthusiasm."
For the applicant not worth considering: "I would urge you to waste no time in making this candidate an offer."
Thornton stresses that the bogus recommendations are tongue-in-cheek only. "I want to impress on everybody that although there is a serious problem today with job recommendations, this is not presented as a serious solution," he says.
None of This Is Written in Stone
The most unnerving statistic for job seekers may be that the average employer glances at a re'sume' coming across his desk only 20 seconds before deciding where to file it. About two years ago, a Charlottesville company decided to develop a product that would increase the life span of re'sume's.
Short of spraying stickum on the paper, Daryl Ferguson figured that first impressions were vital to vitae. Putting to work the principles of entrepreneurship that he taught at the University of Virginia, Ferguson surveyed fellow faculty members and corporate executives to find out how to improve the ordinary American re'sume'.
The results: Using the right paper weight, color, watermark and texture makes a difference. "It is not a gimmick or a packaging trick," claims Ferguson. His wife, Joan, director of operations at their company, Vitae International, adds that all successful re'sume's "start with the visual."
Vitae's re'sume' kit -- now distributed nationally and retailing for $8.99 -- includes 50 sheets of 24-pound weight, 100 percent cotton content paper to give a re'sume' "the substance behind the feel," says Joan Ferguson.
Each kit recommends paper color selection based on profession. Engineering and health professions prefer white or off-white, reports Joan Ferguson. So do finance, accounting, law and computer sciences. Advertising is partial to light gray. "Not dark gray," she says, stressing that no professions show preference for bright or flowery colors. The Fergusons also found that most people equate a watermark symbol with paper quality. "There is a certain window effect where the eye immediately falls just above center on the paper," she says, "and that's where we've put our watermark." Matching envelopes and a 12-page guide to writing re'sume's are included.
So far, Vitae's best market for the kits have been college campuses, where its "term paper" kits ($5.49) containing a how-to guide and 80 sheets of 30 percent cotton paper also have sold well. Now Vitae is looking to expand its market with a "business report" kit that provides the proper paper and guidance for writing memos, sales proposals and letters of complaint.
But Is It Worth 1,000 Words?
Are today's professionals ready for business cards bearing their full-color photos?
When a young Glen Burnie entrepreneur wanted business cards to promote the Halloween "haunted trail" he operates annually, he had a photograph of himself in his most disturbing "Freddie" costume made into business cards. Authors have had their pictures taken with shelves of books in the background. One dentist wanted a photo of himself drilling a patient's mouth to appear on his calling card.
"We redid that photo session because everyone cringed when they saw it," says Vicky Brooks, who heads Snappy Foto, the division of Severn Graphics. Since entering the photo business card business eight months ago, says Brooks, several hundred clients have ordered the cards.
Photo business cards have been around since the early '80s, but their expense ($330 for the first 1,000 from Snappy) has limited demand. "People just don't walk off the street and ask for them," Brooks says. But once you see one, she contends, you don't forget it. "It's an actual photo," she says. "It has someone's face on it. There is an immediate feeling of how can I take care of this so it doesn't get wrinkled or damaged."
Beyond the novelty, Brooks says there's another compelling feature: You can size up the person you are considering conducting business with from his portrait. "Here's an accountant with a nice smile looking very efficient," she says hypothetically. Actual clients have included real-estate salesmen in front of the style of house they sell, car salesmen with automobiles, chiropractors preparing to work on a patient.
One client got a little too personal. In the business of delivering singing striptease telegrams, the woman appeared on her business card posing seductively in a skimpy negligee.
Fast Food for Thought
What with mergers, takeovers and detours on Wall Street, some corporate mavericks hardly know from which side of the saddle to mount a business venture anymore. Enter "ponies" for power pinstripers.
For subscriptions at $82, a company in Bristol, Vt., offers what has been called "the Cliff Notes of business books." Cynthia Folino, publisher of Soundview Executive Book Summaries, sees the pared-down versions of today's hottest business books pragmatically: "What's obvious is that people are busy as hell and there are a lot of books to read."
The monthly service, which boasts 25,000 subscribers, "summarizes -- not condenses -- 30 books a year," says Folino. Typically, tomes of 200 to 600 pages are compressed into no more than eight. Last month, Soundview reduced into brochure-size summaries the 209-page Time Power by Charles Hobbs and local author Jeffrey Davidson's 271-page Blow Your Own Horn. Davidson reports: "They summarized that thing better than I could have done on my own."
Previous best-read digests, according to Folino, include In Search of Excellence (360 pages cut down to six) and Further Up the Organization (from 254 pages down to four). Currently on the chopping block is Harvard political economist Robert Reich's Tales of the New America and business guru Peter Drucker's Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
"People want to keep a competitive edge and want to be on top of the current ideas," says Folino, adding that most of Soundview's subscribers are U.S. and Canadian business people, lawyers, accountants and some corporations. She admits, however, that the summaries are also used in traditional pony style -- to gain a talking knowledge of an unread book.
But the "big response" since last January when Soundview started selling the very books it summarizes, says Folino, suggests some subscribers are sizing up which books to read in their entirety from the summaries. "It isn't that the summaries are just a quick read for them," says Folino. "We're choosing the best books in the field." Still, there's something ironic about making short work of the One-Minute Manager.