Finding The Next Big Thing

By Kara Miller   |   Friday, November 11, 2011
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Part 1: 

Part 2:

What are the challenges and possibilities of starting a business in today's climate? How do you identify the needs of a market?

We welcome two nationally-known business insiders for a wide-ranging conversation about seeding new companies, technologies on the rise and, of course, the next big thing.


RelayRides: Car Sharing On The Rise In Boston

By Jaclyn Cashman   |   Friday, October 28, 2011
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Oct. 28, 2011

Watch the segment that aired on Oct. 27 on WGBH's Greater Boston.

BOSTON — Move over Hertz and Budget, there's a new option for renting a car in Boston: You can borrow your neighbor's. At a price, of course.

Michael Monroe lives in Somerville and sold his car two years ago because he didn't want the financial and logistical hassle of owning a vehicle in the city, so he rents one from time-to-time.

"I feel free now that I don't own a car. Between the train, my own two legs and RelayRides I feel really covered," Monroe said.

Monroe uses RelayRides to help him find a car in his neighborhood that he can rent directly from the car owner. He rents cars by the hour and the cost of the gas is on the owner.

One big component of this service is trust, because in this case the owner has to give the renter access to the garage with other personal belongings inside.

"It really is an exercise in community and trust. I think people who are signing up are not scheming for the heist of the century," Monroe said.

RelayRides started last year and is currently only in Boston and San Francisco. It allows owners to rent out their idle vehicles, with the owner controlling the rates and availability of the car. RelayRides provides an online marketplace and a $1 million insurance policy to make the transaction safe and convenient.

Carsharing in North America has grown from 400,000 users in 2009 to 640,000 in July 2011. A recent study projects carsharing will have an estimated 4.4 million users by 2016.

That has Kevin Patton-Hock seeing green. He gets about $150 to $300 dollars a month without any heavy lifting. "It is kind of a cool neighborhood thing. It is funny to bump into someone who is using the car," Patton-Hock said.

He rents out his vehicle to strangers for seven dollars an hour and in return he gets some spare cash.

Patton-Hock says RelayRides makes him take better care of his car and also often uses the money for car repairs and maintenance.

Municipal Choice: A Power Play In The Bay State

By Adam Reilly   |   Wednesday, October 26, 2011
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Oct. 26, 2011

This story was done in conjunction with the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, an investigative-reporting collaborative based at Boston University.

Watch the segment that aired on Oct. 24 on WGBH's Greater Boston.

HUDSON, Mass., — Two years ago nearly a million people lost electricity, some of them for weeks, after a devastating ice storm hit Massachusetts. This past August, Tropical Storm Irene caused another crippling round of power outages. But in sleepy Hudson, the damage done by Irene was undone within a day.

"That Sunday night," recalled Yakov Levin, general manager of Hudson Light & Power, "by midnight, 99 percent of our customers had their power back."

Levin credits that to his colleagues. Because they know Hudson inside-out, the town was able to rebound faster than communities served by big utilities like NStar and National Grid. Hudson Light & Power has provided that town with electricity for more than a century.

"Our employees maintain service lines that feed their houses, their parents' houses, their friends' houses," Levin said. "They grew up in town; they know every street."

Levin added that because Hudson Light & Power is accountable to the town instead of to investors, there's no pressure to make a profit, which lets the people of Hudson save money, too.

"We don't have to report to a corporate headquarters," he said. "We report to our customers. All they expect from us is good service and lowest possible rates."


Massachusetts Secretary of State, Lobbying Disclosure Reports

Now a bill under review at the State House would make it easier for communities to follow Hudson's lead by forming their own power companies. Current state law essentially allows big utilities to veto any such move. But House Bill 869 would change that, and let up to three communities annually switch to the municipal model.

Supporters say that would mean better service — and lower rates.

"Every NStar customer pays 23 percent more for the same electricity than the average municipal utility charges in the Commonwealth," said Patrick Mehr of the Mass. Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice.

The bill's prospects are murky at best, however. Similar legislation has languished on Beacon Hill for a decade. Mehr contends that's because the big utilities have so much political clout.

"NStar has been spending the equivalent of $100,000 over a six month period to defeat this legislation," said Merh. "Our budget is zero."

Mehr may have a point. A recent investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found that the major utilities have spent nearly $200,000 on State House lobbying in the first half of 2011 alone. They've also showered key politicians with money, like former energy committee co-chair Mike Morrissey, who got $27,000 over four years, and his counterpart Brian Dempsey, who received $14,000 in roughly the same period.

Dempsey, who's now the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, says those donations only represent a small portion of the money he raised during that period, and that his skepticism about previous versions of the so-called "muni choice" bill stemmed from substantive concerns.

Municipal-choice supporters like Patrick Mehr are skeptical of such explanations. But even though they think the political deck is stacked against them, they're holding out hope.

"We don't believe that in America in the 21st century there ought to be any kind of monopoly," Mehr said.

NStar didn't respond to Greater Boston's request for comment. In a statement, National Grid said that when it comes to rates and customer service, its size is actually an asset.

For their part, though, devotees of the municipal model insist it's the only way to go.

"I've seen our crews go along the street getting high fives from residents," said Levin, Hudson Light & Power's GM.

And that's not something most Massachusetts residents see every day.

Consignment Shopping To Stay Stylish In A Down Economy

By Jaclyn Cashman   |   Wednesday, October 19, 2011
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Oct. 19. 2011

Watch the segment that aired on Oct. 17 on WGBH's Greater Boston.

BOSTON — Most shoppers, even label lovers, agree that clothing doesn't give you a great return on your investment, only your sense of style.

To stay stylish in this rugged economy, people are turning more to secondhand clothing.

Sam Hollister is a realtor by trade, but her passion is finding great shopping deals. She found a consignment shop in her neighborhood a few years ago and boasts that 60 percent of her clothing is used. She says she turns over her collection by bartering.

Hollister said, "If I sell a 300-dollar dress I am probably only getting less than 100 dollars for it, but I use that credit to buy another dress so it is kind of like operating at zero, which is great."

The Closet on Newbury Street has been in business for 34 years. Kevin Kish started the business in his living room and explains how the process works today.

Kish said, "It is good to have an appointment. Once someone does that, we ask them to bring in their 15 best pieces. We price it for them and mail checks every month."

The question everyone wants to know is how much can they make.

Kish said, "The contract says we set the price, but we do listen to our consigners. We don't want them walking away or being upset with the clothing that we sell."

Generally, an article of clothing sells for half or a third of the original price. If the item doesn't sell in 30 days the price drops by 25 percent and 50 percent after 60 days.

Each consignment shop offers different deals. The Closet gives you half the sale price, while Second Time Around writes a check to the consigner for 40 percent of the profit.

Another option for the cost conscious shopper is to rent a dress for a Friday night party. A company out of Harvard Business School called Rent the Runway came up with the idea.

Rent the Runway allows women to rent designer dresses and accessories starting at $40 for dresses and $10 for accessories. Letitia Tandean is a BU Student and an RTR Rep.

Tandean said, "I know a lot of college students and I know we can't get a new dress every week. It is a way to expand your wardrobe without really expanding it."

Tandean doesn't get paid in dollars but credit toward a free rental.

Tandean said, "If we get girls to sign up we get dress credits and if we get a girl to rent a dress we get more credits."

RTR lets you rent the dresses for 4 or 8 days. You don't have to dryclean it once you are done — just pop it in a mailbox.

If you don't want to share the profit with a consignment shop, you can also try your luck with eBay. However, it is very important to post photos that really show off the clothing and provide a quality description. The better the photos you post, the greater the profit. You should share your eBay links on Facebook and Twitter to publicize what you are selling.

Making Green Energy The Norm

By Kara Miller   |   Friday, October 7, 2011
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Episode 1, Part 1

Wind turbines are seen near the Columbia River in Washington State. (Shutterbug Fotos/Flickr)

America has talked for a long time about embracing green energy.

President Obama discussed the idea last year, saying, "Building a robust clean-energy sector is how we will create the jobs of the future, jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced. But it’s also how we will reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil, a dependence that endangers our economy and how security. And it is also how we will leave our children a safer planet than the one we inherited."

So, what new technologies are available that allow households and businesses to rely on green, clean energy? And how do we scale them? A panel of experts joins us to look at the green revolution and how that revolution might remake America.


Local Innovation: A Tool To Find Green-Energy Incentives

(realmofreals via Flickr)

Many homeowners and business owners are interested in building green buildings, retrofitting existing ones, or buying green appliances — but, initially, such projects can appear to be more expensive than taking less green routes. Jeremy Doochin and Jonathan Doochin, two brothers with combined experience in the Department of Energy, the private sector, and the non-profit sector, know that there's a web of state, local and private incentives available to make such projects cheaper, but it can be difficult to navigate them. They have founded U.S. Green Data, a website that puts information about available incentives in one place to help customers understand how they can save money on green projects, and offers consulting, analysis and ROI reports.

Click the player above to listen.

Friendly's Files For Bankruptcy

By Jaclyn Cashman   |   Monday, October 10, 2011
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Oct. 10, 2011

Watch the segment that aired on Oct. 5 on WGBH's Greater Boston.

CHARLESTOWN, Mass. — A Massachusetts-based family friendly restaurant chain is heading into bankruptcy. Friendly's is shutting down 63 locations across the country after more than 75 years in business. Half of those closings are right here in the Bay State.

WBGH visited one of the closed restaurants in Charlestown where we met Jim Andrea, "I went to Friendly's when I was young. It is sad. It is an icon going down. I guess it is a sign of the times."

30 locations are closing shop in Massachusetts in order to reorganize under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Nicole Lessard grew up in Wilbraham, the hometown of Friendly's. She has plenty of fond memories going there as a kid and is saddened she can't provide her daughter with the same.

Nicole Lessard of Charlestown said, "I was excited to bring my daughter to Friendly's one day and do sort of the free kid dinner night and share an ice cream cone. It is also a loss to the community because there are not a lot of places you can bring your kids to."

Frank Keane actually attended the grand opening of Friendly's in Charlestown several decades ago and used to come here each morning for his scrambled eggs before this sign appeared. Keane said, "It is a loss to Charlestown. It really is. It is a nice place to go. I really do miss it."

The neighborhood ice cream shop opened during the Great Depression, but unfortunately it couldn't stay afloat during these current economic conditions. Casual family restaurants have been hit hard by the bad economy. This old-school hang out has had a difficult time competing against places like Panera Bread. The other problem with the Western Mass- based company is its best selling item: ice cream.

As Americans become more health conscious, they are ditching their banana splits for a healthier option. On Newbury Street, there have been several stores opening up offering new low cal frozen treats. With the calories displayed on the board, customers can enjoy a guilt free frozen snack. Ibba Armancas, an Emerson College student, said, "The fact that it is lower calories, it helps people out. You feel less guilty to get your sweet thing."

But for more longtime Friendly's customers, they put calories aside and instead focus on the memories made over decades eating the delicious ice cream and cheeseburgers with their families.

It is not all bad news for Friendly's. More than 400 locations will remain open. Here's a link to the nutrition page for Friendly's. You won't believe how many grams of fat are in the kids meals.

Here's a list of the closings.

Here are some comments we found on Twitter from Friendly's fans:

About the Authors
Kara Miller Kara Miller
As a radio host, Kara Miller has interviewed thinkers from E.J. Dionne to Howard Gardner, Deepak Chopra to Lani Guinier. She is a panelist on WGBH-TV's "Beat the Press," as well as an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The National Journal, The Boston Herald, Boston Magazine, and The International Herald Tribune.

Podcast: iTunes | XML

Browse our past programs

Adam Reilly Adam Reilly
Adam Reilly is a political reporter and associate producer for WGBH's Greater Boston.


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