Wanna have a tantrum and smash something? Be her guest

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Check out the full story on Marketplace.

 

It’s a tough time to be in Houston right now. Ninety-degree weather, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and the oil and gas sector has been stagnating for the last 18 months. Eighty thousand people have gotten laid off, including Shawn Baker.

“I didn’t see it coming at all, not one bit, and I was very devastated, and I’m still very bitter about it, very bitter,” Baker said.

She took that frustration and decided after 25 years in the oil industry to finally become her own boss. She started a company called Tantrums LLC.

She bought a warehouse and converted it into five small rooms she fills with defunct electronics, glass bottles and anything that will break. For close to $3 a minute, she’ll help you pick out a tool, like a sledgehammer, a baseball bat or a lead pipe, and let you destroy everything in the room.

Television sets are available for trashing.

Television sets are available for trashing.

“Everybody’s had enough at some point of their day or their life or whatever, and so when you come in here, you can be as aggressive as you want in the privacy of your own room. You can let it out or whatever it is you’re in here for, and you don’t have to clean up,” Baker said.

Baker got the idea for the business a few years ago when she saw a few guys beating up some furniture behind a bar.

“I just thought it was genius,” Baker said. “I could see me doing it.”

There’s not much Baker can do about the downturn in oil and gas, but she feels she can help people cope.

“There’s a lot of stress in this city because we’re the energy capital, and there are lot of layoffs happening,” Baker said.

One of her customers, Lance Nolan, is a mid-level manager at a drilling chemical company outside of Houston. Work’s been tough lately.

“We actually had a fracking division and we had to shut it down, had to lay off 35 people the other day,” Nolan said.

That’s why Nolan’s wife, Holly McClellan, decided to bring him to Tantrums LLC as a surprise. They both work in oil and gas, and they care for Porter, their 10-month-old daughter.

Before Nolan starts smashing his room, Baker leads him to the safety equipment.

“The face masks are optional, but you have to wear safety glasses and you have to protect your hands, and [wear] closed-toe shoes and long pants,” Baker said.

Lance Nolan smashes into a TV. When he’s not pulverizing electronics with a sledgehammer, Lance Nolan is a mid-level manager at a drilling chemical company.

Lance Nolan smashes into a TV. When he’s not pulverizing electronics with a sledgehammer, Lance Nolan is a mid-level manager at a drilling chemical company.

Pulverizing electronics and glass objects is relatively safe, Baker said. Every so often customers walk out with cuts and scrapes, which they wear as badges of honor.

Entire offices, as well as couples and friends, come in here for team-bonding activities. If you give her some advance notice, Baker will even set up a themed room for you. A few weeks ago she had a teacher who wanted a replica of his classroom. When he walked out, Baker was surprised to find the room intact.

It turns out the teacher just wanted to scream.

Sledgehammer in hand, Lance Nolan has 15 minutes to smash a room full of glass bottles, an orange schoolroom chair, a bunch of porcelain knick-knacks and a giant TV.

When his session is over,  Nolan comes out drenched in sweat, with a big smile on his face.  He’s out of breath, but he feels good.

His wife tells him next time, it’s his turn to watch the baby. She wants a turn with the sledgehammer.

Oil bust forces Texas H-1B visa holders to exit country

Check out the full story on Marketplace.

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Twenty thousand workers have been laid off this year in the oil and gas industry across the country as the price of oil has slumped. The cutbacks are especially hard for foreign workers here on what are known as H-1B visas. For them, getting laid off doesn’t just mean leaving the office, it means leaving the country.

Scottish-born Graeme Slaven loves living in Katy, Texas.

“We like the fact that it’s easy to make friends here, we like the fact that the education system is fantastic,” Slaven said. “We enjoy being able to live in a house that for the same price back in the U.K. would be about a third or a quarter of the size.”

Slaven had survived several rounds of layoffs at the oil and gas security company where he worked for seven years. When his bosses called him into their office a few weeks ago, he wasn’t surprised. “I wasn’t in shock then, I could read the situation,” he said.

 The same thing had happened to a lot of the friends he met at his local golf club. In just a few months, he saw his entire expat community shrink.

“I actually got to the point where I couldn’t face going to any more going-away parties,” Slaven said. “They were happening with increasing regularity.”

Before getting a pink slip, Slaven was in line to get a green card. He owns a home, his sons play on local soccer teams. His youngest, Niall, who’s 9, has lived here since he was a toddler. “There are only, like, two people that I know in Scotland,” he said.

Slaven and his expat friends used to play golf at the Willow Fork Country Club.

“Every Friday during Lent we had fish and chips, and we had a big crowd that showed up for that,” club manager Richard Rowell said. “You know, if an Englishman tells you the fish and chips are pretty good, you have a thumbs up.”

The exodus of foreign oil workers has hit the club pretty hard in the last few months.

“Eighty to 100 families have relocated to their home country primarily because of job changes and changes in the economy,” Rowell said.

Graeme Slaven has a type of visa called an H-1B. Eighty-five thousand of them are allotted every year to professional workers through quotas to different countries.

Immigration attorney Ken Harder said once a foreign worker is laid off, they have few legal options.

“Much like Capt. Kirk might be beamed up by Scotty, in theory, when an H-1B worker is terminated from employment, he should vaporize and disappear,” Harder said.

Harder’s firm has seen the impact of low oil and gas prices directly.

“I would say since 8 a.m. on January 4th, the first business day this year, we’ve been furiously busy dealing with inquiries both from companies that need to downsize, as well as individuals who have been or are about to be downsized, so it’s been a real profound issue given the local economy here in Houston these last few months,” Harder said.

Slaven has a slim margin of hope. If he can find another employer willing to sponsor him, he can stay — but he knows that’s unlikely.

“The best-case scenario is a miracle,” Slaven said, “that somebody else is interested in employing me. The chances of that at this point in time are slim.”

A quick search on a job board turns up just a few companies willing to sponsor H-1B visas. Most of those companies are in IT, which is not a field Slaven has experience in.

Right now he’s trying to figure out a way to stay in the U.S. until the end of the school year, before he moves his family back to Scotland — a move he’s trying desperately to avoid.

For Entrepreneurs, Pitching To Pint-Sized Sharks Is No Child’s Play

Check out the full story on NPR.img_0427edit_custom-c7ecf8aeb9159a2338e4bf4ad625483219f1971d-s800-c85


A few weekends ago, Texas entrepreneur Regina Vatterott stood in front of 50 people on the top floor of a startup hub in Austin. She was there to pitch her smart pill box company, EllieGrid, to a panel of six judges.

“If you or your dad or mom has to take medications at breakfast, at breakfast time, the three compartments light up, and you would take, let’s say, two from this compartment, three from this compartment and one from this compartment, and it also sends you notifications on your smartphone so you can track it all online, too,” Vatterott told the judges.

It was like Shark Tank — the reality television show where entrepreneurs take turns pitching their companies to a panel of investors — but with a twist.

This panel of “sharks” is made up of kids.

Welcome to Pitch-a-Kid, where kids and entrepreneurs can learn from each other.

Regina Votterott won over the Pitch-a-Kid judges with her idea for a smart pill box.

 

Unlike the entrepreneurs on Shark Tank, Vatterott’s goal isn’t to get investors — there’s no cash prize at Pitch-a-Kid.

Still, it’s hard fought: Each entrepreneur at the first Pitch-a-Kid event has 5 minutes to present and up to 8 minutes of questions from the judges. And the kids are asking some tough questions: How do you make money? How are people going to pay for it? Do you provide a warranty if it breaks?

The judges hear six more pitches, including a social media network for books and a subscription “sock of the month” company idea.

Anicia Moncivais, the judge coordinator, is a 12th-grader; the five other kids are third- through sixth-graders. They turn in their score sheets and then deliberate.

“The judges have spoken,” intones Piers Powell, one of the judges.

Mike Millard, a co-founder of Pitch-a-Kid, announces the winner: Regina Vatterott’s company EllieGrid, the smart pill box maker.

Vatterott says she was a little nervous before her pitch.

I didn’t know if they understood the grand scheme of how important medication adherence was, but they really seemed to get it, they didn’t even ask questions about that,” she says.

Audrey Millard, daughter of Mike Millard, Pitch-a-Kid judge and co-founder, says she definitely held back.

“My dad was telling me in the car, like, how nervous these people were, and how they’re, like, I don’t know how to explain this in a kid-friendly language, oh no what will I do if they don’t understand me, and stuff like that, so I decided not to go too hard on them,” the 9-year-old says.

“About a year ago, I was doing a website with my daughter, and she asked me really tough questions,” Millard recalls. “She said, who’s the website for, how are they going to know about it, and what I realized was that they were nonfiltered, honest questions on how to be successful.”

In other words: If you can’t explain it to a kid, you probably aren’t ready to talk to investors. And just because the judges are small doesn’t mean they don’t take their job seriously — including what they were going to wear.

Before the event, Audrey says, she researched how to look “businesslike.”

The kids in the panel and in the audience got an introduction to the startup culture, and the entrepreneurs practiced addressing some of the issues they need to think through for their business model to succeed.

The next Pitch-a-Kid event in Austin is scheduled for July 30.

Why This Small Coffee Business Doesn’t Need to Compete on Price

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Every coffee company has an angle.

Folgers made it fast. Nabob made it romantic. Starbucks made it hip. And today, artisanal coffee is making it expensive. But how do you convince someone to pay a lot more for their coffee? The answer is actually pretty simple: all you need to do is tell a story.

We sat down with Helen Schafer, owner of Tiny House Coffee Roasters, to find out more.

In this interview, you’ll…

  • Find out how a great story can help you charge more for your products
  • Discover an easy way to tell your story (without an advertising budget)
  • Learn about product positioning and why it’s your key to boosting sales

Check out the full interview below:

Want to hear more? Listen to the rest of episode six now.

Is There Room For Another Fitness Tracker? Texas Firm Is Counting On It

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I did two versions of this story, one for NPR and one for the Slack Podcast.

Here is the NPR version that aired on Black Friday:

For startups the first holiday shopping season may help to make a business. Texas entrepreneur Peter Li has much at stake on Black Friday as he tries to gain a foothold in the wearable fitness market.

And here is the Slack version, it’s much more focused on the entrepreneur.

For startups the first holiday shopping season may help to make a business. Texas entrepreneur Peter Li has much at stake on Black Friday as he tries to gain a foothold in the wearable fitness market.

 

 

It’s been a great learning experience to do versions of the same story for different outlets. It’s really helped me understand that there isn’t some ideal way to do a story – it’s all dependent on the editor and what they want. Being able to adapt to different editors is a great skill for any reporter.

Why is lime flavor suddenly everywhere?

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Get the full story on PRI’s The World

If you go to any grocery store in America today you will most likely find something — chips, soda, beer, or even condiments — that are “hint of lime” or “con limon.”

Now it’s cucumber-lime flavored Gatorade at the 7Eleven, even a whole section of supposedly Latino-themed beers — all with lime.

“Now you got not only the American companies coming in,” says comedian Adrian Villegas, standing in an Austin 7Eleven aisle, “but now you have Mexican companies with [fruit-flavored] Modelo Chelada. You’re already a Mexican beer and you’re trying to make it more Mexican.”

Fellow comedian Guillermo De Leon agreed.

“Five years ago I was in the store and I was looking for Mayonnaise and McCormick has mayonesa and it’s mayonnaise with a little bit of lime in it,” De Leon says, “and I thought that was interesting, it was the first time I’ve seen anything specifically targeted.”

After the success of mayonesa, American brands realized there was a whole market of Mexicans and Central Americans who were ready for a hint of lime on almost any food product. “It’s a very cultural thing… it’s ingrained in the traditions. It’s very common to see lime at the table,” says Korzeny.

And it’s a lucrative market: Last year Latino Americans spent $1.5 trillion on consumer products in the US.

But Latino Americans are not the only consumers of lime flavoring, the whole country has hopped on board. The owner of the Austin 7Eleven can barely keep his lime products in stock.

“I’m running low on that flavor, I’m waiting for my next shipment in, so the chips, the hybrid Doritios … Is it Latino kids buying them? No, it’s all kids.”