Monday, March 31, 2014

Business Bootcamp creates unlikely outcomes

This is my National Post column for March 31, 2014. It's about heroes, and the unlikely role business can play in helping them overcome the trauma that comes from being heroic in difficult times.

This article started with a simple goal: to tell you about a unique week-long “boot camp” being held this summer in Regina, Quebec City and St. John’s, Nfld., for military members and veterans interested in starting businesses. Funded by the Prince’s Charities Canada, “Based in Business” offers lectures from entrepreneurs and business professors, assistance with business-plan research and development, mentoring and even startup loans.

But then the “mission creep” began. I decided to tell this story by asking some bootcamp graduates about their experience. But in these strange days for the Canadian Forces — post-Afghanistan, post-traumatic stress disorder — nothing is simple. Talking to Canada’s veterans about their careers becomes much more than a business conversation. Yet in the end, business took on an unexpectedly significant role. Entrepreneurship is not just about creating your own job; it’s about regaining control over your life.
If you’re a recently discharged member of the Canadian Forces, or soon to be discharged, or if you’ve been discharged for medical reasons at any time, you can apply for the “Based in Business” program. Rooted in university campuses in Quebec City (in May), St. John’s (in July), and Regina (in August), these free programs will accept 20 participants each. They offer access to people and resources who can help you complete a winning business plan and fuel a successful business launch.
For more information on The Prince’s Operation Entrepreneur go to The deadline for the Laval program (in French) is April 6; the deadline for the English-language camps is May 19.
That’s where most stories like this end. But this one is just starting.
My first call was to Gino Savard, a 27-year Forces veteran who runs a package-delivery company in Quebec City. A master warrant officer, he served five overseas tours: three in Yugoslavia, one in Haiti, and one in Afghanistan, in 2009, where he served as sergeant-major for the 51st Field Engineers Squadron. On Sept. 6, three weeks before his six-month tour was up, Savard was riding in an armoured vehicle south of Kandahar when they ran over an improvised explosive device. The truck flipped, killing two people and injuring five.

Savard was sent home to CFB Valcartier, north of Quebec City. As he recovered, he devoted the next six months to looking after his injured colleagues. “Everyone is OK now, physically,”  he says. “Mentally, it’s still hard to for some to manage what happened.”

Like many Forces personnel, some of his fellows suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s a terrible condition, easy to diagnose but difficult to treat. Savard stayed with his colleagues to help them adjust. It’s a sergeant-major’s job to make sure his troops are always ready for action, he says. “My ethic and my conviction was to stay with them and help them with their mental health as much as I could.”
A year ago, Savard got the idea to start a courier business using electric vehicles. His business plan was “80% complete” when he attended Laval University’s Based in Business bootcamp last summer. “They gave us a lot of information, on marketing, leadership, social media, and all the things you need to know as an entrepreneur,” he says.
Savard’s advisors suggested being “green” wasn’t a sufficient differentiator for a parcel company. They helped him focus on service, promoting the traits he’d learned in the military: loyalty, integrity, duty and discipline. “When you have these values,” he says, “anyone can be an entrepreneur.” Colis Grammes launched in October, backing up its promises with an app that alerts sender and recipient when packages are picked up and delivered.
Savard now employs eight drivers — all former military, all diagnosed with PTSD. “They can work any schedule they want,” he says. That kind of flexibility, he adds, “helps them adapt to civilian life.”
In Victoria, Lt. Col. Chris Linford is also recovering from PTSD. A musician who joined the Reserves to play in a pipe band, he studied nursing so he could become a combat medic. In his 25-year military career, he served in the Persian Gulf, Rwanda and Afghanistan. In Rwanda in 1994 he was part of a 200-member medical team sent by Canada to care for the victims of a brutal civil war. With civilian authority in tatters, the field hospital was quickly overwhelmed by ailing refugees.
“We didn’t count on the extent of the casualties,” Linford says. “The cholera was stopped early, but we saw advanced levels of diseases and injury that we had only ever seen in textbooks.” He was particularly struck by the deaths of 44 children under Canadian care. “That was really too much for any of us to bear,” he says. “I came back broken, mentally and physically.”
Like any good soldier, Linford shut away his feelings of anger, sadness and horror. After the 100-day mission, he returned to Canada and received regular promotions. “I thought I’d be okay,” he says. But after 10 years, the nightmares returned. He was short-tempered, unable to sleep, unable to concentrate. As deputy commander of the base hospital at CFB Borden in Ontario, he walked down the hall and asked the base surgeon for help.
Linford was quickly diagnosed with depression and PTSD. With drugs and weekly therapy, by the end of 2004 he was over the worst. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel and given his own field ambulance command in Edmonton. Then in 2009 he was asked to take command of a combat hospital in Kandahar. “Unfortunately, I didn’t count on the level of trauma I’d see there,” he says. The constant deaths and injuries triggered a relapse. “Three months into my seven-month tour of duty, my PTSD came back,” he says. He spent 18 months in therapy.
Warrior Rising
While his medical discharge took place early this year, Linford spent much of the past year writing a book about his experiences – Warrior Rising – to encourage others afflicted with PTSD to seek help. He attended Regina’s Based in Business bootcamp last summer to put a plan around his book and speaking services.
Eight months later, Linford has completed a 28-city book tour, he’s hiring a literary agent, and he is developing a couples-therapy program to help veterans and their spouses better manage PTSD together; he’s already raised several hundred thousand dollars to finance the first trials. “This is legacy stuff,” he says. “This will change relationships for the better in this country.”
With his business clearly heading in the right direction, I asked Linford how that affects his disorder. “Control is a big issue,” he confirmed. “With PTSD, you are never in control. The PTSD can manipulate and shape you any way you want.”
But with the confidence he’s gained in building his business, Linford feels he’s finally back in control. “I no longer live in fear of my triggers,” he says. When speaking about PTSD brings back memories, he says, “I sit there and control my response. I can manage it.”
Many PTSD sufferers assume “coping” with their syndrome is the best outcome they can expect. Linford now knows you can move beyond “coping” to “control,” and that is now his message.
Spreading hope and rebuilding lives is not the normal outcome of a business course. But it’s an example of the life-changing confidence that entrepreneurship engenders. Because every business begins with hope.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Democracy and Entrepreneurship

I've been reading Team of Rivals, the marvelous story of Abraham Lincoln and his divided Cabinet, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. (A small portion of the book, concerning the political development of the Emancipation Proclamation, inspired the Spielberg movie Lincoln.)
As an outsider and backwoods Illinois lawyer who would overcome numerous obstacles to become President, Lincoln truly believed that freedom, prosperity, ambition and achievement all stem from the fundamental notion of democracy embedded in the Declaration of Independence: that “All men are created equal.” (Women’s suffrage, and entrepreneurship, would of course come later.)

He gave voice to these ideals in an emotional address in 1864 to Union soldiers from Ohio (then as now an essential swing state) who were mustering out and heading home. The Civil War would continue for another eight months of blood and fire.

“I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House,” said Lincoln.

“I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations.  It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright…  The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.”

If only more politicians today had such clear vision and understanding of the importance of freedom and its relation to entrepreneurship. In an age of calcified big business, bloated bureaucracy and increasing global competition, entrepreneurs still need “an open field and a fair chance.”

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Essence of Strategy

This issue has come up in so many of my conversations lately...

"The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do."
Michael Porter

There are too many choices. Simplify and focus. Or as my brainy friend Terry Small in Vancouver tweeted yesterday: 
"A good question to ask every day: Can I make this process more simple?
{ Less is usually more.}" 

Sunday, March 02, 2014

What you missed this month in the Financial Post

Interested in growth strategies, new Web opportunities, and long-term leadership? Check out these recent columns I wrote for the Financial Post.  

Looking for a new start on the Web?
New ‘’ domain may be your best opportunity for a cooler URL

Can traditional firms be built using the principles associated with high-growth tech startups? Check it out:
How two Next 36 co-founders are trying to upend Bay Street

The power of vision, simplicity – and having good friends on Wall Street
Read how one of Canada’s oldest businesses learned to stay relevant:
What else do you think I should be writing about? Let me know. Leave a comment or email me at rick(at)

Friday, February 21, 2014

No shortcuts in selling business solutions

Dipping into the mail bag again, I recently got this email from an entrepreneur in Western Canada (his name has been changed to preserve his privacy):

Hey Rick -

You don’t know me, but I came across your article on Financial Post about “Playing detective with your 2014 planning.”  I’m a small business owner and fan of the E-Myth book and enjoyed the read!

I’ve run a couple of small businesses with varying success, but my core skill set is as a software developer.  I’ve been knocking around an idea for a product that dovetails into the E-Myth philosophy a bit, and I was wondering if I could get your thoughts.

The idea basically started a couple years ago when I was running an e-commerce store and trying to dig myself out of the usual “working in your business” mindset.  I was making procedures for processing refunds, handling damaged deliveries, etc, but I wasn’t finding an efficient way to build and improve these processes.  

What I’m picturing is some kind of software product that helps define procedures. I’m wondering if you know of any other structured software systems that help accomplish this? Do you think this is something that’s worthwhile, or do you think people are more into their own low-fi solutions?

I’d appreciate any input you have on the topic.


And here is my response:

Hi Frank. Thanks for your note.

I think your idea sounds terrific. However, having worked with an entrepreneur who tried to sell knowledge management software to small business, I know how resistant to change this market can be. So many business owners prefer inefficient paper processes to automated solutions, due to the perceived cost, fears of loss of control, and concerns about having to learn new things. 

So even a great idea is no slam dunk.

However, if you have the time and passion, pursuing this concept could pay off. But you have to research your prospects relentlessly, because chances are you have part of a solution here, and surveys and interviews with potential customers might uncover the tweaks that would make your product successful. 

Below is a link to a similar case, my recent article about an entrepreneur who spent two years working on a one-trick app before he realized that he was seeing only one tiny part of the real problem that business owners would be willing to pay for. You might find his experiences helpful.

Best of luck. Let me know how it goes. 

Rick's additional comment:

As Jeremy Potvin, the Toronto entrepreneur behind the story linked to above, learned to his cost, customers will only pay for business solutions that solve the most acute pain points. When selling BtoB, make sure you have identified the highest, most costly problems your market is facing. Your first hunch is a good start, but probably only a hint of the final product your target market is actually happy to pay for. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Should I start this business or not?

I recently received an email from an entrepreneur wanting advice on a very delicate subject: whether or not he should start a business based on an idea he has. 
As well, he asks, should he tell people about his idea, or keep it secret to prevent people from going into competition with him?

Here's a copy of my reply: 

Hi Drake (not his real name). You face a common dilemma. Is your idea worth pursuing? Only you can decide that.

Is someone else doing it? Even if they are, your approach might be so different that it is still worth doing.

I hope you don't mind if I answer your question with a link to a past article. I wrote it for entrepreneurs like you who are trying to decide whether a business concept is worth pursuing.

I'd be pleased to hear if this helps you at all. If not, I'm happy to continue the conversation.

Above all, keep in mind that you have more to gain from sharing your business idea than by keeping it secret. There are so many business opportunities out there, it is pretty unlikely that anyone would steal your idea. Even if they do, if you are the right person to launch this business, you are bringing to it certain skills or market knowledge that will be very hard to duplicate. If anyone can just walk in and compete with you with no specific training, investment or learning curve, you're definitely in the wrong business.

On the other hand, talking about your business to people you meet and trust will likely result in valuable suggestions, market insights, competitive information, contacts, and possibly even leads. (If your business requires securing certain scarce resources, such as URLs or other forms of intellectual property, make sure you have those in hand first.) Overall, my motto is: Tell everyone you can, as soon as you can.

Best of luck. Let me know how things go.

Have another suggestion for Drake? Leave a comment below.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Your Year-End Holiday Wrap-Up

It's been a slow year for this blog, as a nice problem called "too much work" kept me from updating here more than one each month or so. My resolution for 2014 is to increase that frequency by at least 100%. Wish me luck.

In the meantime, here are some seasonal treats for you to feast on:

* The New Year is the right time to think about planning. Here's a framework for setting your business's director this year - and one entrepreneur's testimonial about how it helped her figure stuff out.
(I snickered when I saw the graphic the Post used to decorate the online version of my story.)

* My official "holiday" column for the National Post looked at what business can learn from our most important Christmas traditions (you know, Charlie Brown, Jimmy Stewart, Scrooge, and the big eastern syndicate). Hopefully a fun yet thought-provoking read.

* And take a few minutes to learn from a master: my review of  the higlights of Fred Dawkins' new book, Everyday Entrepreneur. He's a long-time Ontario entrepreneur, and his business lessons are worth the drive to Acton. If you don't know what that means, click here:

* I also wrote an online-only followup to the Dawkins review. I wanted to focus on his thoughts on why partnerships almost always fail. Worth reading if you have a partner, or ever wished you did. 

Thanks for reading. Please accept all my best wishes for a happy and successful New Year. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Happy Small Business Week 2013!

Here at Canadian Entrepreneur, we like to say that every week is Small Business Week.
Still, normal people seem to enjoy setting a week aside to honour our entrepreneurial heroes - even if it's just the corner store.
So what's the real value of Small Business Week?
Check out my article at

Did you know that s Small Business Week is a trademark of the federal government's Business Development Bank?

Last year, some 10,000 entrepreneurs participated in more than 200 BDC-related activities marking Small Business Week. You might say there's room for improvement: that number represents just 0.5% of Canada's business owners, and only one-third of BDC's own customer base. It appears most business owners celebrate Small Business Week the old-fashioned way—by working on their business.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

How to assess your next business opportunity

The following column, on assessing entrepreneurial opportunities, was published in the Sept. 30, 2013 Financial Post. It drew a lot of favorable comments, including this one from a longtime business consultant:
"Your 30 Sept column rang true. I see dozens of Business Plans (and even help write some), and that column of yours is the best short summary of what is needed to bring a new product/service/venture to success."
So I figured I'd better share this story with my blog readers, PDQ.

Some people believe they could be great entrepreneurs if only they could find the right opportunity. But the most successful entrepreneurs see so many beckoning business niches that they have to separate the winning opportunities from the merely promising.
When two friends told me about an opportunity they were looking at, I offered them the following tool for evaluating whether this potential business would be the best fit for their time, their skills, and their expectations.
If you’re considering investing your money or energy in any new opportunities, ask yourself questions like these:
What is the size of the opportunity? Estimate the potential market for the product or service you  want to bring into the world. Know who your target market is, and identify significant secondary markets. What share of the market do you think your business can reasonably capture by the end of the first year, the second year, and after five years? Is this market big enough, and sufficiently open to new entries, that the reward is worth your effort?
Do customers just want this product, or do they need it? A few products — well, the Pet Rock — may succeed even though no one ever wanted one. But exceptions can’t be planned for. The best opportunities lie in markets where potential customers are actually looking for new solutions. And while it’s nice to sell into a market where buyers want your product, success will come faster if they ache for it. The more pain your customer is in, the more likely they are to buy into your solution.
What is the pain point this product addresses? Be able to articulate how your product solves a searing market need. This is your elevator pitch. Even if you don’t need to justify your business plan to investors or partners, getting this right will be a huge help in planning your butt-kicking marketing campaign.
What are the capital requirements? Whether or not you need outside capital, you need to assess the true costs of getting into business. Include raw materials and product costs, salaries, rent, consultants’ fees, distribution and transportation charges, taxes, web design and hosting costs, and so on. Take into account that the bills will pile up faster than the cheques, so make sure the startup costs align with available resources.
What kind of profit margins does this sector enjoy? When your business reaches cruising speed, what kind of margins will it generate? (Make sure you talk to several people with experience in the field, so you know exactly what the rewards are likely to be.) Don’t be the person who gets a business up and running before realizing that the entire industry runs on razor-thin margins. Ask yourself: what could I do to wring out even higher margins? It’s not how much you sell, it’s how much you keep.
What are the three most difficult problems expected in establishing this business? How well do they align with the founders’ skills and resources?These are the areas where you will spend most of your time and effort, so make sure they fit with the skills and resources you (or your team) bring to the table. For instance, Bill Wood may excel at building pine furniture, but if marketing, sales and shipping are the biggest challenges, he might want to consider a line of work more closely matching his skills.
Is this business easily scalable? “Scalable” refers to a business whose marginal costs shrink drastically as volumes increase. Consider e-books and online courses: once you’ve paid for the content and the marketing infrastructure, every sale is almost pure profit. How might you make this business more scalable?
Does this solution offer opportunities for spinoff products and services?Your best customers are your current customers. Great businesses provide numerous opportunities to sell accessories and spinoff products to the market that already loves your brand. Creating a family of products will give you many more opportunities to serve customers, with lower barriers to market entry.
Are there positive social values attached to this product or service?Whether or not you care about being a force for good in your society or industry, customers and employees increasingly prefer to do business with organizations whose values match their own. Having corporate-responsibility objectives will enhance your company’s credibility and help develop healthier long-term relationships.
Do you (and any other founders) enjoy doing this work? Running a new business is hard. If you don’t love what you’re doing, how can you jump out of bed every morning and inspire others to give their all? If you have a choice of business opportunities, select one where your day-to-day efforts align most closely to the work you love to do.
Imagine these questions are traffic lights. How many are shining green to you right now? Remember: On any dashboard, a red light indicates caution.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

CanEntrepreneur hits 300,000 visitors!

I am pleased to report that at the tender age of 8, this blog has just welcomed its 300,000th visitor.

As you can see from the FlagCounter in the right-hand column, "Canadian Entrepreneur" attracts inquisitive minds from around the world.

I installed the counter about three years ago, so it represents just over half of the total traffic since 2005. But it tells a cool story.

Canada still represents half of the blog's visitors, with the U.S. accounting for about 25%.

Then comes the UK, with 6%, and then the English-speaking former colonies: India, the Philippines, Australia, Malaysia, South Africa, Singapore, Pakistan and Jamaica. Then come Finland, Ireland, France, Germany, New Zealand and the Netherlands.

In all, these 300,000 visits have come from an incredible 196 countries. Here's the list of countries from which this blog has received just one visitor in the last three years: Seychelles, Cook Islands, Burma, Samoa, Cuba, Andorra, Papua New Guinea, Eritrea, San Marino and Vanuatu.
Come back again, amigos. Don't be strangers!

As a reminder, I don't update his blog as frequently as I used to, as I also blog for PROFIT Magazine and the Financial Post. Do follow me on Twitter @rickpence, or sign up for my newsletter, where I link you to my most recent work. Send an email asking to "Sign up" to rick (at)

Reed Hasting's Success Secrets

Today Reed Hastings is best known for disrupting both the TV industry and video stores through his company, Netflix. But that was never his intention.

Hasting was happily recovering from growing, running and then selling his previous startup, Pure Software, when he hit on the first germ of the idea that resulted in Netflix.

Here's the story, as uncovered by Dutch entrepreneur Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten, co-founder of The Next Web, in a recent interview with Hastings in Amsterdam.

Q: Usually when you ask people how they came up with an idea they have an official story about market opportunities but when you press on it is usually a more personal story and a personal frustration that inspired the original idea.

"I got this big late fee [from a videostore], for $40, and I didn’t want to tell my wife about it. I was just too embarrassed. It was like that was the defining moment for Netflix and a lightbulb went off in my head. But that frustration was the instigation for my work on Netflix. A few months later I looked into video rentals and then a friend told me about DVDs and I figured those would be light enough to mail, and based on that we got started with Netflix."

For a little more context, here's the Wikipedia version of this event:

In 1998 Hastings and Marc Randolph co-founded Netflix, offering flat rate film rental-by-mail to customers in the United States.[12] Headquartered in Los GatosCalifornia, Netflix has amassed a collection of 100,000 titles and over 20 million subscribers.[13] "I got the idea for Netflix after my company was acquired," said Hastings.[1] "I had a big late fee for 'Apollo 13.' It was six weeks late and I owed the video store $40. I had misplaced the cassette. It was all my fault. I didn’t want to tell my wife about it. And I said to myself, 'I’m going to compromise the integrity of my marriage over a late fee?' Later, on my way to the gym, I realized they had a much better business model. You could pay $30 or $40 a month and work out as little or as much as you wanted."[1]

But the TNW interview offers another significant moment, as Hastings talked about just how dissatisfied he is with his own product. His comments are instructive, because it indicates just how firmly entrepreneurs should be focused on the future, not on the current state of things.

"I see all the imperfections in Netflix. I see all the things that aren’t working. At the office I’m the one that says “we suck”. Don’t get me wrong; we are better than everyone else, but we suck compared to what we are going to be. Of course, in general I’m constraining myself from saying these things because they are too easy to take out of context. But as an entrepreneur that’s how you have to look at your product. Compared yourself to what you want to be, what you will be, in five years, and that should be so much better than what you have today."

You can read Boris's original article here:

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Entrepreneurship and the mid-life restart

It's been a busy summer. But I took time tonight to answer a letter from an entrepreneur in rural Canada who wanted some advice on starting a small processing business after a lifetime of working for other people.

My reply:

Hi Bill (name changed to protect the innocent). It sounds like you have the makings of a true entrepreneur! 

Have you considered a partner? As I wrote in my latest column, coincidentally, I think all entrepreneurs should have partners.
He or she could work on sales or marketing or admin, for instance, while you focus on the actual production work.

For space, you might see if there are any co-working spaces, or business incubators, in the city. Failing that, are there any industrial businesses that have extra space they don't currently need that you could rent out?

I strongly suggest you find an experienced local entrepreneur who could mentor you through your startup. People who have started businesses and been successful are often eager to "give back," and it sounds like you are the sort of person they might like to work with. I know many entrepreneurs who have found terrific mentors just by cold-calling business people they admire or respect.

There's lots of ways to handle your challenge, but you've started out well by asking for help. Reach out to everyone you can, and you'll find friends you didn’t know you have.

All the best. Let me know how it goes.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The World is Not Enough

For those interested in following my articles and blogposts from the World Entrepreneur of the Year conference in Monte Carlo this month, here's a list - in the order in which they were written.

What should you take away from all this work? That the quality of international entrepreneurs is growing fast. And that Canadians have to work harder and smarter to retain their edge.

World entrepreneurs reaffirm business is the best route to change, reform and prosperity
A scene-setter, including my interview with Dr. Ruth Oltjer, Estonia's astonishing Entrepreneur of the Year.

Interview with Dr. Ma Weihua, president and CEO of China Merchants Bank. "The first thing we had to do was distinguish ourselves from the competition. We had to find our own strategy and operational model.”

If you’re looking to add value for your customers, read this Czech entrepreneur’s story
Interview with Frantisek Piskanin of Prague-based transportation company HOPI sro: “No one else does things the way we do.”

Interview with Vancouver-born Lance Uggla of London-based Markit Group Ltd., a financial-services information and infrastructure provider. He is the U.K.’s 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year, and was considered a top contender for the "World Entrepreneur" title.

Meet Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and CEO of New York State yogurt producer Chobani Inc. His Canadian experience: “We found the land, we wanted to build our plant, but then we started running into all these regulations.”

A summing-up.
"We’ve enjoyed privileged access to the U.S. market for years. But other parts of the world are now growing faster, and it’s no longer enough to be big in Buffalo or Boise. New, fast-growing entrepreneurial companies in Europe, Asia and South America are putting global markets into their business plans, and some of them are gunning for you."

Summing up the "World Entrepreneur" Experience

Today (June 19) I was asked to speak briefly about my experience at the World Entrepreneur of the Year conference in Monaco two weeks ago. Today's event was the unveiling of the nominees for the 2013 Ontario Entrepreneur of the Year program; it was also a celebration of the program's 20th anniversary in Canada. Here is a copy of the text of my remarks. Sadly, most of my jokes were off the cuff and were thus unavailable for publication.

It's been a pleasure for me to be associated with the EoY program. As a founding sponsor of the Canadian EOY program [with PROFIT/Canadian Business magazines), I had the privilege of being on the first National Steering Committee 20 years ago, and also on the national judging committee for the first two years. Sponsors have come and gone, but I would like to congratulate Ernst & Young for its commitment to this program for two decades, and for maintaining the high standards of its events and the quality of the nominees and winners. I think you have made a real difference in the quality of entrepreneurship and the aspirations of entrepreneurs across Canada.

But of course, Canada wasn’t enough. And I am here to report on my impressions of the World Entrepreneur of the Year program, which kicked off two weeks ago in Monte Carlo. I was fortunate to be selected by the Financial  Post to cover the program, which included a number of networking sessions and three days of conference activities. It was first class all the way, with high quality social events and first-rate speaker such as Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, Nobel Prize winner Kofi Annan, and British comedian and creativity expert John Cleese. Panels featured experts and entrepreneurs of the year from around the world, including Edgar Bronfman Jr., and Mikael Hed, the founder of Rovio Entertainment in Finland -- and of Angry Birds.
But what impressed me most were the entrepreneurs of the 2012 EOY program, representing 47 countries around the world. I got the chance to talk in depth with about a dozen of them, and they're the most fearless, impressive people I have ever met. In Monaco, I paid special attention to attendees from non-traditional business markets. In particular I met with entrepreneurs from China, Estonia and the Czech Republic, because I was eager to learn how capitalism and entrepreneurship have sprung from Communist roots.

What I learned is that innovation is not confined to Canada and the United States, and that new ideas and breakthrough customer service can come to life anywhere in the world. This is important, because many Canadians assume the only thing developing markets have going for them is low costs. That’s no longer true, and there’s a growing cadre of ambitious entrepreneurs who can leverage value-added innovations and service on top of  their low-wage advantage — a one-two punch that will become increasingly lethal as these young firms gain confidence and global clout.
Just to give you a few examples:

* Dr. Ma Weihua had a promising career as a mandarin at China’s central bank when he decided to take an entrepreneurial flyer. He took over management of China Merchants Bank, which had the advantage of being one step removed from state ownership. Starting with one branch in 1999, he built mainland China’s sixth largest commercial bank, with assets north of $500-billion. He did it by asking, what would customers like us to do? - which is a question that is asked all too rarely asked here, let alone in China. As a result, he pioneered in online banking, credit cards, wealth management, and even small-business  lending.

* Frantisek Piskanin was working on a collective farm in the Czech Republic when its Communist government imploded in 1989. He now runs one of central Europe’s largest transportation and logistics companies, HOPI, with 3,300 employees. He explains his customer-first strategy very succinctly; “We try to understand customers’ needs and bring them new solutions they had no idea could exist.”

* In Estonia, medical doctor Ruth Oltjer built a successful cleaning supplies and cosmetics firm, Chemi-Pharm. Chemi-Pharm began as a means to import less allergenic cleaning products from the U.K., but is now a value-added manufacturer that exports 50% of its production. Oltjer is eyeing markets in Asia and Western Europe, and is in talks with Mexico, which she hopes will lead to a frontal assault on North America.
* Even the 2013 World Entrepreneur of the Year fits the category of unlikely global entrepreneurs. Hamdi Ulukaya was born in Eastern Turkey and moved to the United States to learn English and study business. He ended up buying an unwanted Kraft cheese plant in upstate New York and revamping it to produce strained Greek yogurt. Six years later, his Chobani brand is now the No. 1 yogurt in the U.S.

So here's where I made my faux pas. At the press conference following the announcement of Mr. Ulukaya's win, I identified myself as being from the National Post in Canada, and asked him what his biggest challenge has been in growing Chobani. He smiled ironically and said, "Canada." Apparently, Canadians love his yogurt as much as Americans, and a few years ago he tried to build a plant here. But he said he was foiled by red tape and regulations that prevented him from moving forward. Since then he has bought a plant in Australia and is now looking or more in the UK and Europe.
So I'd like to apologize for embarrassing Canada in front of the world business press. But how else can we learn from our mistakes?

If I can make one final point, we still turn out pretty good entrepreneurs. Canada's Entrepreneur of the Year, optometrist Alan Ulsifer of Calgary-based FYIDoctors, was a real contender for the World title. But Canada also had a second horse in the race. The UK's champion, Lance Uggla of London-based Markit Group Ltd., a financial-services information and infrastructure provider, comes from Vancouver, and learned the investment business in Toronto before moving on to London with TD Financial. Today his company is a $5-billion information juggernaut, with 2800 employees, customers in 70 countries, and 22 offices worldwide - including three in Canada.

So yes, the lesson of World Entrepreneur of the Year is that global champions can come from anywhere in the world - including Canada. Thank you.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Failure: What is it good for?

I've long thought that society needs to change its attitude toward failure. It is only by trying new things that a person learns, a business grows, or a society advances. But trying new things means making mistakes. (The only alternative is to wait until you have every single fact and have worked out every possible scenario – which is a recipe for paranoia and paralysis.)

Earlier this month, Startup Canada ran a “startup chat” on Twitter about failure. Moderator Kelly McGregor’s guest was Laura O’Blenis, Founder of Stiletto Consulting in Fredericton, N.B. They agreed that many entrepreneurs don't like talking about failure, but pointed out that other entrepreneurs in the local ecosystem need to hear their stories; it’s the best way to share solutions and the valuable lessons learned.
You can read McGregor’s summary of the chat here. I like the part where O’Blenis says, “If you are not failing or making mistakes, taking wrong turns sometimes, you are not trying hard enough.” The interactive #startupchats audience agreed, adding that what differentiates winners from losers is not whether or not they fail, but how they deal with failure.

Sounds like common sense, but it’s the kind that’s not common enough.
McGregor writes: “Embracing failure can of course be a tiresome and expensive process. The focus for entrepreneurs is on ensuring you fail fast, and fail cheap. The concept of Minimum Viable Product comes into play here, as developing an MVP will ensure you have minimum investment in a product that is likely to change many times.”


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Last Call for PROFIT 500 Ranking!

PROFIT Magazine is putting out a last call for companies that want to be considered for its annual ranking of Canada's Fastest-Growing Companies. But you have to enter by April 1!

For the 25th anniversary of this ground-breaking project, PROFIT is pulling out all the stops. This year it is celebrating Canada’s top 500 growth companies.
The listing was known as “the Fastest 50” when it started. It then became the PROFIT 100, then the PROFIT 200. Now it is leaping ahead to 500, an undertaking that promises huge benefits to participating companies.

With 500 companies, PROFIT should have sufficient volume of entries to segment the national list into specialty rankings by region and by industry. Your company may be the 267th-fastest-growing company in Canada, but you may also be the 12th fastest-growing manufacturer or the top growth company in Manitoba. (These are just examples; the categories haven't yet been confirmed).

The benefits? Every PROFIT 500 company will be listed in PROFIT magazine, as well as on This is PROFIT’s annual must-read issue, so your listing could go a long way. And those interested in personal exit strategies should know that many big companies consider the P200/500 to be Canada’s best shopping list.

PROFIT will also be profiling the top Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto companies in special supplements to be distributed the week of June 3. Quebec companies will get additional coverage in PROFIT’s sister magazine, L’actualit√©, and firms in Atlantic Canada will get coverage in Atlantic Business magazine.

All winners will be invited to the PROFIT 500 “CEO Summit” in Toronto on June 5. It’s an annual networking andprofessional development event that should blow the roof off this year with so many successful innovators in one place. PROFIT is also hosting regional events (in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary) in the fall for listed CEOs in those regions.

PROFIT has even changed the reporting criteria, to encourage more companies to enter. Companies are still ranked on five-year revenue growth. But for the first time, the listings will no longer refer to a company’s profitability. And private companies will no longer have to publicly disclose their revenue if they don't want to; they will be able to publish their revenue numbers as a range.

PROFIT insiders tell me that any company that has had five-year revenue growth of more than 50% has a chance to crack the listing.

Don't put if off any longer. Check out now!

Rick’s comments: As the former editor and publisher of PROFIT (and the guy who named the PROFIT 100 and later expanded it to 200), I salute the plucky, hardworking PROFIT staff who are continually punching above their weight level. This is an ambitious leap forward that could have a huge impact on innovation and entrepreneurial success in Canada. You rock, guys. Good luck!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Stronger Startups and Angels' Wings

I recently had the opportunity to meet with a group of young people taking an entrepreneurship course in the Jane-Finch area of northwest Toronto. I found them quite knowledgeable about business, engaged and curious. We had a good discussion about business successes and failures, and the traits that mark the best entrepreneurs. Part of that discussion turned up in my column in the National Post March 4, under the title “Do you have what it takes to run your own business?”

It’s a fairly basic look at entrepreneurship, but I heard from a lot of senior business people who said they liked it. The story features a list of the seven personality traits most required of startup entrepreneurs, as well as the seven biggest challenges they’re most likely to face. Here’s an excerpt;
Challenge No. 2: Communicating your unique selling proposition. Once you understand your competitive advantage, you have to articulate it. My advice is to create a three-part mission statement that clearly describes what you do, who you do it for and how customers benefit from dealing with you. Example: “I’m a technology consultant who helps manufacturers out-compete Asian producers.” When you know your audience and how you can help them, the right people will flock to your door.

The full story is here:

My column the previous week took an inside look at Halifax-based First Angel Network, a funding  program that had been criticized by prominent tech entrepreneur David Crow for soaking clients with inappropriate presentation fees. My story looked at both sides and found… a few things that need changing.
Excerpt: Crow contends angel groups should maximize value for entrepreneurs, not middlemen and no company should pay hefty fees just to pitch. He doesn’t like to see what he calls “brokers,” especially those who have taken government funding to help source deals, taking a slice of equity at such an early stage: “The alignment of interests is not there.”

Bonus story: A startup entrepreneur called me recently to ask how his company could reach more people with its online content. I dared them to think bigger.