Friday, February 27, 2009

Another Free Friday

Fridays are good days for freebies, so here is another post of freebies for people who are starting a new business or looking for a way to improve the business they own.

Free help is always a nice gift; a free membership into Marketing Profs will give you access to marketers and their forums so you can see what professionals think of your latest tag line or marketing idea. Even the best of products needs good marketing to get the word out, so once you have your tag line, think about going to copywriting to see how to use that line in an ad. There are lessons and examples of good ad copywriting as well as general advice on how to write to your audience. Once you have your tag line and your ad, go to small business brief to get ideas and advice on how to grow your small business from other small business owners.

And when you are ready to go on the road to promote your business (or when you need a break from your business), sign up for the new hotels.com welcome rewards loyalty program which gives you a free night (up to $400 a night) at any of their partner hotels after you book ten nights at any of their hotels. Finally, a free night for those of us who like to book at different hotels in different locations but never get the rewards of a brand specific hotel program.

Sometimes the best things in life really are free.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Money Lessons

Most of us learn about money from our experiences, good or bad, and we take our lessons with us to the next test of what to do when we make or get more money. Without a strategy or an understanding of how to use our money to work for us we are left making poor choices that may well end with us in the poorhouse.

Education is the key to nearly every success in life, and that includes money. The more that you learn about money, the better your decisions. As with any other education, the earlier you start, the better, so why not take advantage of the free lessons available from Schwab Money Wise? They are appropriate for every child old enough to count, to teenagers getting their first job and saving for a car, and on to college students figuring out how to budget their expenses away from home for the first time. They even have a section for teachers to give them ideas of how to introduce lessons in money for their students. It's a great resource for new investors who want to know what a mutual fund is, how to calculate the cost of a loan, a home, or a saving account with compounded interest. If you don't know where to start your money education, this is a good place to start.

If you know something about money but want to learn more about business and are planning to apply to a business school, then check out Veritas Prep to help you prepare for the GMAT admissions test. Of all the test preparation services, Veritas offers 50% more class time than their competitors for the price ($1500 for 42 hours), and instructors who are so highly qualified that they only pick one of every eight candidates who apply to be instructors. They are working on developing both law school and medical school online admissions courses; and Veritas realizes that their services are expensive, so they give away 24 full scholarships and 25 half scholarships to those who can not afford the fees.

Education being a good value is a no brainer.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Green Moving Boxes

Rent A Green Box is one of those companies I wish I had started because it combines the best of useful frugality with green technology. My friend Pel just moved and spent over $300 in moving boxes alone (not to mention tape and packing peanuts); the problem was after she emptied the boxes, she could not recycle the cardboard in her trash and taking them to a landfill was literally trashing $300, with the added insult of having to haul it there.

Spencer Brown had the same problems finding a way to recycle his used moving boxes, and Rent A Green Box is his solution for using landfill products to build reusable moving boxes and packing materials. Imagine the stackable toy and office containers you see in office supply and organizer stores but green (of course, what other color would be appropriate?). Now imagine that these boxes are delivered to you in trucks that run on biofuel and vegetable oil and then they are picked up from your new location a week later! All this for about HALF the cost of buying cardboard boxes (which must be made by chopping down trees). Prices start at $169 for 30 boxes to $299 for 70 boxes of varying sizes, with additional boxes or weeks available for slightly more. I can't imagine a nicer way to move. They even have packing supplies (no tape required for the boxes) to wrap your fragile items, stickers for your boxes, and palettes to help you stack, about the only thing they don't provide is someone else to do all the packing and unpacking for you.

These boxes are only available for rent around Los Angeles and San Diego right now, but like all good things, it will grow with word of mouth, so start spreading the green word.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

St. Bart Villas

St. Barthelemy or St. Bart is probably my favorite island in the Caribbean because it is one of the few islands where there was never any slavery, very low crime, and a very high standard of living. Add beautiful beaches, French inspired food, and friendly natives, and you have a recipe for a pleasant vacation no matter how much time you spend cooking your skin on the beach.

I rented a one bedroom condo through St. Barth Properties, the Terrasses de St. Jean, close to the airport and across from the beach with a view of the bay for about $1500 a week off season (April-December). It was fully equipped with a TV, DVD player, CD player, all kitchen appliances, linens, towels, and spotlessly clean, and daily maid service is included except for Sundays (be sure to ask if the property you want has Wifi if you want to surf on the internet).

With a nice terrace (hence the name of the property), for the price of a room, this condo was bigger than most suites in a hotel, with the added benefits of a full kitchen and living room. If you need a larger villa, they have full houses for rent starting at about $4,000 for a three bedroom (which sleeps six) with a fantastic view, which works out to about $570 a night for a family that would normally rent several hotel rooms and have to pay for restaurants for every meal. There was a very nice grocery store across from the condo I rented which had all the supplies for breakfast, including great croissants, and perfect picnic food, like pates and roasted chicken, for beach lunches. We had dinner out every night of the week except for one (it was a vacation after all), but for the one night we cooked, everything we needed was at the store.

Renting a property with this company does not mean you must do without hotel amenities, a rental with St. Barth Properties can include all the concierge services at a hotel, from an airport meet and greet to arranging for scuba dives or golf tee times. They are only a phone call away if you need anything, but you have the option of going into seclusion or exploring the island solo if you prefer.

Living like a native is one of the best ways to travel, so why not go native on one of the best islands?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Allegiant Air

In this era of frugality, let's not forget to have some fun. Those of you who have jobs and savings can take advantage of some spectacular deals now on travel packages; remember that the economy of the world depends on tourism, so you are helping to stimulate the economy by traveling. Visit some friends, find some new places to explore, or simply take some time away from home to rejuvenate.

There's a small airline headquartered in Las Vegas, called Allegiant Air, which will begin flying out of LAX in May, but they are taking reservations for flights now. They have limited routes right now, but the ones they have are so affordable, you may want to try out a new city just to explore it.

One route they have is to Monterey, CA for only $39, so for about the price of driving (without the time and headaches) you can be on the scenic Northern California coast, just a few miles from Big Sur and Carmel. Or how about going out of state to Grand Junction, CO, or Sioux Falls, SD for $59? If you really want to go to Vegas, they only have flights from Santa Barbara to Las Vegas now, but for only $49, why not combine a beach and desert trip? If you want to go from the desert to the coast, they fly from Palm Springs to Bellingham, WA for $88.

So many choices that cost so little money, where should we start?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Free Laughter Yoga

Laughter is one of the best antidotes to relieve everything from depression to the blahs, and even if you are already in a good mood, laughter can elevate that even higher, to euphoria! Medical studies have shown how laughter lowers stress and helps boost your immune system, so if only for medicinal reasons, enjoy a dose of laughter along with your vitamins.

If you haven't already heard about Laughter Yoga, you can watch the video on You Tube with its' founder Dr. Madan Kataria. Dr. Kataria has even taken his program to Indian prisons! If you have heard about it and want to try it, Hilary Kimblin (who has studied with Dr. Kataria) has a free monthly meeting in Beverly Hills that is so much fun you will want to do it every month.

Anyone can do it, you don't need any special clothes or training and you will enjoy it more than almost any other exercise, simply because it is fun! If you enjoy Hilary's Laughter Yoga, she also takes it on the road to companies, social events (parties), and schools, so take a 30 minute laughter break with her to share some laughter with other people.

There is something about being with a group of people that makes the laughter infectious and more intense. Human interactions have a way of multiplying the prevailing energy, so when that energy is fun and light, the upward spiraling effect is a delicious cocktail of bubbling laughter.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Green Gas Station

How is it possible to be green and sell gasoline at the same time? There is a place on the corner of Olympic and Robertson that looks very futuristic, and indeed it may be what future fuel stations will look like. This BP station is actually made from recycled metal, uses energy efficient lighting, and uses the green roof concept so that power comes from the solar panels.

Green Curve designed this station from the lighting to the interiors and maybe other businesses will use this company to bring more greenery to Los Angeles. After all, if a gas station can do it, why can't you?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Kind of Fraiche

I walked by and looked at the menu for Fraiche, thinking that one day I would have to try this restaurant in Culver City's main downtown area. The evening menu included dishes like skate wing and a raw seafood platter that reminded me of the European bistros I love.

The outdoor seating area is beautiful with a covered and heated patio with some twinkling lights overhead; this is a year round outdoor area. The chocolate brown tones with the crisp white tablecloths invoke a warm welcome to the space and the host/hostess do a great job of coordinating during their busy lunch service.

Lunch is a mix of salads, like the wild mushroom or nicoise with optional add ons of shrimp, fish, or meat, and sandwiches include a royale burger. You can also opt for pasta like the spinach ravioli or a true entree like the steak frites. I decided to try the closest thing to a dinner item I saw, which was the steak frites. One of the best tests for a restaurant imho is how they cook a steak, a high second is how they cook their french fries and this dish would give me both items.

Three specials of the day were also available but unfortunately my waitress did not bother to announce them to me; I only learned of them after I heard a different server tell a neighboring table about them. I was pleasantly impressed by their extensive wine list and prices with bottles ranging from very decent domestics under $40 to $1000 bottles of Grand Cru Rothschild.

The steak was presented beautifully sliced, showing it was indeed blood rare as I had ordered, a very good sign. Unfortunately the taste was a bit charred and tough for a flat iron cut; it also lacked any other flavor so I had to add salt to it. The fries were also beautifully presented in a metal cup with homemade mayonnaise, but somehow they managed to be soggy and hot at the same time. The classic bistro double fry method of ensuring crusty yet tender fries was apparently lost on this chef.

Perhaps they do a better job at dinner, or on a week-end, I may never know. It is such a gorgeous space I might come back for their bar menu, which includes steak tartare and raw oysters, after all how badly* can you ruin raw ingredients?

*I know you can, but I am hopeful to find a good food reason to come back.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Timeless Treasures

While walking around Culver City the other day a beautiful couch caught my eye in the window of Timeless Treasures. I went inside to ask about it and ended up shopping for an hour in this midrange thrift store/charity shop.

The layout of the store is easy with furniture and housewares on the right and clothes in the main area, complete with dressing rooms. The quality of the regular merchandise ranges from yard sale to Target type, so I would say skip it unless you want something to wear as you do your yard work or paint your house. There are good bargains in their Gold Room (designer section), which included a cashmere sweater from J. Crew for $15 and a great top from Cache for $7.50 on my visit. Some decent designer suits were also in the Gold Room, but watch out for stains or tears when you shop.

It turns out that all the items are either donated from people or shops to benefit the NCL charity which helps build relationships between mothers and daughters by having them work on philanthropic community services. The couch I saw in their window was brand new and donated to them by Z Gallerie; it retailed for $1600, but was on sale at Timeless Treasures for only $425.

This shop is definitely not a high end consignment shop like the Discovery Shops, but it's not a bargain basement junky thrift shop either. If you hunt you can find a treasure, and with all the proceeds going to the NCL charity, it makes impulse shopping a guilt free experience.

Monday, February 16, 2009

$10 Dinners at Savannah Newport

Since it's a holiday for many people today, why not take the day off and enjoy a lunch or dinner out at the beach? Even with the rain, the beach is a nice place to spend a wintry day; the locals are more relaxed, the shops and restaurants are eager for your business, and if you dress warmly, you can stroll the deserted beach.

Savannah is offering a nice respite this week from both cooking and the rain with discounted lunches or dinners, featuring main courses like Filet Mignon, 1/2 lb of King Crab Legs, or Halibut, all for only $10 each! To top it off, you can order a Mango Martini or a Kenwood Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon for only $5 more, or get a Corona for only $2. Wait, it gets even better if you go between 4-6pm any day of the week, because you will also get to see live Tahitian dancers performing.

Dinner, a drink and a show for under $20 per person; it may be worth going out in the rain.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Royal/T

The space at Royal/T is fun just to wander around as an art gallery and shop, but what if it is a lazy afternoon and you want a nice nosh in Culver City? Royal/T cafe offers a food fusion of Japanese art/aesthetics with French and Californian styles, all served by waitresses in French Maid Costumes (I know my friend Pel wants to work here just to wear the costumes).

All this translates to a High Tea with a choice of loose tea, served with small pastries, mini quiche, kappa maki, California roll, egg salad and spicy tuna finger sandwiches ($19.50). If you want Japanese comfort food they have a chicken curry bowl ($9.50). Just want a salad, then get a spinach & beet salad with goat cheese and walnuts ($9.00). Meat lovers can order the flank steak with roasted tomato and Gruyere on baguette ($10.00).Wash it all down with one of their 15 kinds of tea, a fruit juice, or one of the organic espresso drinks.

Today may be Friday the 13th, but there is nothing unlucky about finding great fusion fun at Royal/T.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Plenty of Fish / One Time

Don't have a date for Valentine's Day yet? Sign up at Plenty of Fish to meet someone. It's free and with over 10 million members, you will have plenty of fish to choose from (whether you are a man or a woman). I have not personally signed up (my life is already full of fish), but the woman I know who told me about this site says her matches have been good, fun, and frequent.

If you meet someone you like and want to take a spontaneous last minute trip somewhere this week-end, wouldn't it be nice to have a website that compared all the discounted consolidator prices for hotels and airlines? One Time compares the prices for several aggregators all in one place and allows you to sort by the location, dates, property names, and star ratings. I checked for a last minute trip to Las Vegas this Saturday (Valentine's Day) and found the five star THEHotel (Four Seasons at Mandalay Bay) for $99!

Anything can happen with the potent combination of a free dating site and discounted hotel rooms.....

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hertz by the Hour

I learned to drive when I moved to California from New York; almost no one in New York City owns a car (unless they are rich) because with easy public transportation and parking that costs upwards of $20 an hour, the obviously smarter transportation choice is either a cab or the subway.

Hertz has recognized this and they have adapted the Velib concept of hourly bike rentals in urban centers of Paris, to cars, in cities like New York, Boston, London, and Paris. They have recognized that people who live or travel to densely populated cities with good public transportation and sparse parking, might want a car for just an errand or a day. This is even a great option if you have your car in the shop for a few hours and the repair facility does not offer a loaner. College campuses are also a great location for this new Connect concept because some students don't own cars and may actually try something new, less expensive, and handy; one location here near Los Angeles is the Pepperdine University Campus in Malibu.

Costs start at $6.80 an hour with a $50 yearly fee, and the rates include up to 180 miles a day, all gas (each car comes with a gas card), insurance, and road side assistance. Cars include the thrifty gas sipping Prius or Camry, and just about the only restrictions are that you must be at least 18 years old, you can not drive to Mexico, smoke, or have a pet in your car.

Everything is high tech in a nice simple way; you book on the phone or online to join and they send you a Hertz Connect card which allows you to unlock your car with a swipe on the windshield. Once you make a reservation, they will email and text you directions to your car location. Keys are inside along with a gas card and the paperwork. When you are done, just park it where you found it and swipe your card to lock up. You can even use your card in London or Paris!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tofu Villa

In the Sawtelle "New Tokyo" area, there is a nice Tofu Villa addition on the first floor of the busy Nijiya Market complex. Tofu Villa is a nice casual Korean/Asian cafe which offers everything from Bibimbab, an assortment of sliced mushrooms, bean sprouts, spinach or greens, bamboo shoots, a hard boiled egg, (served with or without your choice of meat) served with either rice or noodles, hot or cold, to soon tofu, a hot bowl of tofu soup served with either seafood or meat, and the classic kalbi short ribs (a bit tough but tasty). Like all Korean restaurants, every dish is served with several side dishes (I counted five) ranging from hot kimchi to mild tofu skins. Everything was nice but not memorable from the service (obviously young and inexperienced) to the food (better than fast food but not great restaurant quality). They have only been open a year and they may work out some of the kinks with time (like clearing tables so waiting patrons can sit down). I prefer the friendliness of the staff to some better quality meals with rude servers and they do try to please with a nice free dessert taste of frozen yogurt at the end of the meal, so this is a pleasant stop on Sawtelle.

The proximity to Beard Papa makes it tempting to get another dessert of hot pastry cream puffs after you finish the bite of frozen yogurt, but if you are watching your weight/sugar/fat intake, just walk on by.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Activa Clothing

Some brand name athletic clothes are a challenge to find at any discount (unless you buy them used on ebay or at your local consignment store). Activa carries lines like Prana, Patagonia, Lole, and Nike for 10-70% off retail. I found a brand new Prana top ($25 instead of the $40 retail) on their site for less than the same top on ebay used! They even have very sweet deal right now if you want to stock up on your yoga or hiking wear; buy four items and the lowest priced item is yours for only $1.00, just use code FZ190001 at checkout.

You can sort your searches by category, size, price, color, or brand, so they really do try to customize your shopping experience. For those who are style challenged, they even have an outfit tab which puts together a coordinated outfit for you whether you are lounging around home or going to a power yoga class; this is the website for all my friends who ask salespeople in stores for the outfit on the mannequin.

Service is the best thing about Activa; they will actually tell you (if you call them, they are not psychic) if a particular piece of clothing of a brand runs large or small so you can order online or by phone with less guesswork.

Sorry guys, Activa only carries women's clothing, but you can still shop here for your sister, girlfriend, mother, or wife for Valentine's Day and save enough to buy her some flowers too!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Soft Bamboo Wrap

It's cold and rainy here in Southern California (yes, it really does rain here, albeit rarely) and the only thing I want to do is sit wrapped in cozy warmth sipping a hot cocoa. Wrapables carries a soft 100% bamboo wrap with eyemask that is so soft you would think it was cashmere, only this set costs $39.95, is washable, antibacterial, and since bamboo is hypo-allergenic and anti-bacterial and can be grown without the use of pesticides, it is a green product! It's also a handy set to take with you on your next plane trip; it's so much nicer than anything the airline will provide (even in first class).

For the cocoa, I like making my own with a nice cocoa like the Spanish dark drinking cocoa from Zingerman's which I mix with milk (I use soy), some brown sugar, a sprinkle of cinnamon, and a dash of hot cayenne if you feel adventurous. There's nothing like home made hot cocoa to warm the cockles of your soul on a gray rainy day.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Chateau Tresor

I don't have any children, but since nearly all my friends are parents, I keep an eye out for shops they might like and I found a treasure, Chateau Tresor, which literally translates to Treasure Castle. It's a children's resale shop, and a great idea for a store in today's turbulent economic times. Why not buy great quality at a discount when all children will eventually grow out of everything?

The salesperson was friendly and very laid back, actually allowing me to browse without asking the dreaded, "May I help you?" question. I was impressed by the selection of children's clothing, toys, games, books, and strollers; some of the items are brand new with tags still attached, including a pair of pink embroidered Cinderella pants by Disney for under $20 and a stuffed Mumbles penguin for under $4. This is not your average resale shop, all the items are in great condition and the presentation is very spacious and feels high end. If you happen to be shopping with children, there is even a small children's play area in the back for them.

Even if you don't have children, this is a great shop for gifts for relatives and friends who do. You might even find something like a Chutes and Ladders board game, or a copy of the favorite bedtime book, Goodnight Moon, to make the child in you smile.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Giga Bite

Every once in awhile my beloved Mac laptop needs to go to my computer doctor, or my DSL line goes out, or I need to do something on a PC (yes, I am bi computer literate). When any of the above arises, I go to Giga Bite to fulfill my online needs. Their prices are about HALF of what Kinko's charges, and if you use their wireless or wired connection, the price goes to to about 25% of what the big chain charges, and they are open until midnight most nights (1 AM on weekends).

Their system is prepaid like a phone card, they give you a code for the time you buy which you use to log in. The codes have no expiration date, so the more time you buy the less expensive the rate. Even at the minimum of 15 minutes or 60 minutes with your own laptop, the price is only $3. I paid $8 for 120 minutes to use on their computers, which all have 17" screens and T1 speeds. Their PCs have an entire suite of software you might want from Photoshop to Excel, and you can use their other services, like faxing and scanning, for only $1 a page.

There is a small counter of snacks and beverages if you find yourself staying awhile. They used to have a hookah, but I haven't seen it for awhile, so maybe they are concentrating on people coming in to use the computers instead of being there to smoke and hang out. The desk stations are semi private with towers between each, so only people walking behind you can see your screen.

These days what was private is now public in an instant on YouTube, TMZ, or Homeland Security's database, so use your discretion on what you want to work on or surf to in a public internet cafe; do you really want the world to know about your addiction to purses?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Almost Free MGM

As I've written in previous posts, the hotel industry in Las Vegas is offering some unbelievable deals now and the MGM has an almost free stay deal if you book by February 17, 2009. You don't even have to go right away, you just have to book in the next two weeks, but you may travel until August 31, 2009 on this deal. Rooms start at just $69 a night (about $100 for the week-ends) and you get a $50 credit to use for entertainment, dining, or shopping! Just use code INB251 to get the discount, or if you don't mind giving the MGM your telephone number, send text MGMMOBILE to 30364 and get an even better deal code.

Yes, if you do the math that means you can get a room at the MGM Grand for $19 a night, and it's right on the strip in a nice hotel; you can't do any better either at the hotels downtown or the hotels at the border of Nevada/California.

When an offer is too good to refuse, it's a sign that it's time to go for it!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Taste on Melrose

It's a rare thing to find a good restaurant in Los Angeles where three courses (with choices on all three courses) comes in at $22 per person. Taste is one of those rare finds during this week's Dine LA program, which encourages people to try new (or revisit old favorite) restaurants for special prix fixe menus.

The term "prix fixe" in France usually translates to mean a discounted 2 or 3 course set menu of the house specialties which represent a good introduction to the chef's skills. Happily that translation works at Taste.

Choices for the first course include a grilled artichoke with white balsamic tarter sauce, or mac and cheese with white truffle oil and mushrooms, or a chicken tortilla soup; main course offerings include a Kobe beef burger with Gorgonzola cheese, onion jam, arugula, and tomato on a sesame bun with their famous fries, or a blackened salmon salad with baby greens, fresh herbs, slow roasted tomato, capers, and goat cheese served with a white balsamic vinaigrette; and dessert choices include a tres leches flan, flourless chocolate cake, or a chocolate bread pudding. I chose the artichoke, salmon salad and bread pudding. I was impressed by how perfectly cooked the fish was, but less impressed with the undercooked, but tasty artichoke; the chocolate bread pudding was a nice finishing touch, with a nice balance of melted chocolate, vanilla creme anglais, and brioche.

The ambiance is minimal but warm, and the casual feel of the small space provides a relaxing break after shopping at the chic antique dealers surrounding the restaurant. Service was like the decor, relaxed and minimal; the waiter and busboy were available, but you had to search for them if you needed anything during your meal.

Taste is almost directly across the street from Comme Ca, a slightly more refined French bistro which I wrote about in an earlier post, so depending on your mood, you have your choice of casual or chic on Melrose; either way your taste buds will be happy.