Pillows from a vending machine?

If you can get hot-cooked kosher food from a vending machine, why not a pillow? With no end to the creative ways people are using vending machines these days, a custom-made pillow is actually not such a strange concept.

And The Dream Machine does not operate the same way as the vending machines that dispense candy or pop. It’s really a mobile manned kiosk that lets consumers select the shape, density and embroidered message they want in and on their pillow. It takes about 10-15 minutes to make and costs anywhere from $130-150.

“It’s a bit of retail theater,” said Dave Young, the CEO of bedding-materials supplier VyMaC Corp that bought the master licensing rights from the machine’s creator Merrimac Dillon, the owner of The Pillow Bar retail chain. Young’s company rebranded the technology as The Dream Machine. “It’s a lot like the popcorn machine. It takes about the same footprint as those little red machines.”

The consumer is able to select their own pillow based on sleeping preference: side, back or stomach sleeper. Then they can sit back and watch as the machine fills it with its patented duck down. Customers are able to squeeze the product as it’s being stuffed, which Young said makes it more fun and interactive.

The machines are fitted with an embroidery needle that lets people personalize their pillow case with their name, initials, a word or message such as: “I love you.”

Top 5 gifts for SMBs this holiday season

– Mitch Merrifield is senior director of managed computing solutions for Verio, a Web-hosting provider for small and medium-sized businesses worldwide. The views expressed are his own. –

Much of my time throughout the year as well as during the holiday season, is focused on the wishes (and needs) of small business customers. Through the countless discussions with small and medium-sized business leaders across the country, some common wishes paint the picture of the business initiatives critical to ensuring their success in 2011 and beyond.

Based on these discussions, the following is a wishlist for SMBs this holiday season:

Businesses trim costs to combat lagging sales

USA-RETAIL/BLACKFRIDAYTina Bean’s wish for 2011 is that people will open their wallets more.

“People don’t want to spend money,” said Bean, the owner of Port Arthur, Texas-based pet food dealer, Five Star Feed Store. “They are buying necessities and that’s it.”

Annual sales at Five Star Feed Store have declined approximately $100,000 since the recession, said Bean. She has been forced to lay off three workers and has given pay cuts to the remaining five. The cutbacks have also had a personal effect. “For a long time, I didn’t draw a paycheck,” she said.

Bean’s experience is highlighted by recent financial data from Sageworks Inc., which showed a number of sectors are suffering from declining sales. The report analyzed 2010 sales, profit per employee and payroll as a percentage of sales data for private companies in six major industries: construction, manufacturing, wholesale trade, retail trade, healthcare and education.

Access trumps ownership in 2011

– Lisa Gansky is the author of “The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing” and the Mesh Directory live. The opinions expressed are her own. –

Disturbed by the sight of dead Christmas trees lying on the curb after the holiday, Los Angeles-based landscaper Scott Martin had an idea. Why not rent people living Christmas trees?

He set up a website and offered different types of live trees in a variety of sizes. Customers specified which tree, what size and on which day it would be delivered and where. Scott and his team also offered decorations for the trees they rented. After the holiday, each customer selected a day for the tree to be picked-up and Scott and his team even recycled the gift wrap and packaging. The trees were either returned to the nursery to be cared for and sold later or donated. An all around joyful holiday win for the customers, Scott and team, the community and the environment.

Now is the time to think about selling your small business

– Domenic Rinaldi is president and managing partner of Chicagoland Sunbelt, a business brokerage firm that focuses on helping people buy, grow and sell businesses in Chicago and the surrounding Midwest area. The views expressed are his own. –

There were many brokers, accountants and wealth mangers advising clients to sell their business last year in anticipation of the Bush-era tax laws expiring on Dec. 31, 2010. It appeared until very recently that both the capital gains and ordinary income tax cuts would expire on that date, leaving owners subject to at least a 20-percent tax increase on their assets.

Those who are planning to sell in 2011 may be breathing a sigh of relief now that the tax cuts have been extended for another two years. But while two years may seem like a long time, it’s important for owners to begin considering when the right time for them to sell might be. Eventually, these taxes will expire and after this two year extension, we may never see rates this low again.

Focus on what you’re good at

– Neil Patel is a serial entrepreneur that blogs about business at Quick Sprout and is the co-founder of KISSmetrics. The views expressed are his own. –

Is it me or is everyone these days trying to get rich quick? Not only am I meeting more and more people who don’t want to work hard to make money, but they are starting to get into new business ventures that they are clueless about.

I know the grass always looks greener on the other side, but it really isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, those lucrative businesses are making people millions of dollars, but it’s probably doing that for less than 0.3 percent of the people in that industry.

Why startups should embrace conflict

– Jeff Bussgang is a general partner at Flybridge Capital Partners and an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Harvard Business School. He is the author of “Mastering the VC Game” and writes the blog “Seeing Both Sides“. The views expressed are his own. –

One of my favorite business books of all time is Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. Like all books by Lencioni, it begins with a short fable in a corporate setting of a management team that is operating dysfunctionally. Then he provides a framework that analyzes the situation and draws out the general lessons as to why teams operate poorly together and how to systematically combat it.

The following pyramid graphic summarizes his advice:

Each of the layers of the pyramid resonate with me (which is probably why I have this pyramid printed and hung up in my office), but the one that I always come back to and re-read is “Fear of Conflict”. Again and again, I see management teams and boards of directors shy away from conflict.

Tax cuts for the rich bad for small business

– Lew Prince is managing partner of Vintage Vinyl, an independent music store in St. Louis. He is also a member of Business for Shared Prosperity, which has circulated a petition against extending the Bush-era tax cuts. The views expressed are his own. –

As a small business owner for more than 30 years, I have to be reality based.

I budget and make decisions that consider both short- and long-term realities. My company wouldn’t last a week if we kept repeating mistakes.

The Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans were a big mistake. We should let them expire, not repeat the mistake by extending them. It’s an illusion that it will be easier to end them after a two-year extension.

Extending tax cuts eliminates uncertainty

– Kelly Phillips Erb is a small business owner and practicing tax attorney at the Erb Law Firm in Philadelphia. She is also the author of the popular Tax Girl blog. The views expressed are her own. –

Let’s get a few things straight from the start. I don’t like the so-called Bush tax cuts. I don’t believe in trickle-down economics. And I don’t think it makes good fiscal sense to make the tax cuts permanent.

Yet, as the calendar creeps closer to December 31, I find myself in support of extending the tax cuts.

5 lessons businesses can learn from WikiLeaks

– Jeremy Reis is the founder and president of That Network, an interactive publishing firm. This article originally appeared here. The views expressed are his own. –

WikiLeaks is in the news due to their release of U.S. government files, but for many years the site has been releasing both government and corporate secrets – and with a pending release of files from a large U.S. bank, it provides an opportunity to think about the lessons this teaches business managers.

A business generates a lot of internal documents from the inane emails to complex, secret business processes that provide us a competitive advantage. Learn five lessons every manager should know from the WikiLeaks affair.

1. There are no completely secure systems