I attended the Soho Business Conference in Toronto today, and was privileged to moderate the opening panel featuring three wildly successful entrepreneurs: Andrea Slingsby of Flight Centre North America, Franc Nemanic of Hostopia (No. 1 on the PROFIT 100 list of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies), and Bruce Poon Tip of Gap Adventures.
I have known Bruce for a while (since his company made the PROFIT 100 seven times), but he really impressed me today (and the audience) with the news that his adventure travel company has just bought its first icebreaker. How cool is that? The M/V Explorer is 300 feet long and used for touring the Arctic ocean in summer and the Antarctic Ocean in winter (although I guess that would be their summer, wouldn’t it?). Bruce said it costs $30,000 a day to run. But its trips are sold out till 2008, so he’s not worried.
The panelists’ job was to offer the audience inspiration and ideas for succeeding in their own businesses. A few highlights:
Frank Nemanic on vision and strategy: “I believe that everything is created twice: once in your head, once in reality. To succeed, you have to know what you want to accomplish.”
Asked which are more important to pursue, new customers or existing ones, Andrea Slingsby acknowledged a common business failing: “We don’t spend enough time taking care of our [existing] customers. It’s a mistake we’ve made, that we’re making up for now. It really should be 50-50.”
“I can’t invest enough in HR,” said Bruce Poon Tip in response to a question on the importance of employees and motivation. “Most companies have physical assets. My assets leave every day, and I want them to come back.” While admitting that HR remains an undervalued function in most companies, he said employee excellence also stems from having a unifying vision in your organization. “You need to focus on something more than just selling what you’re selling.”
A little later, Bruce tossed in a zinger that had attendees buzzing afterward: “Hire people you don’t like.” He believes entrepreneurs tend to hire people they like – which usually means people with backgrounds and skills very much like their own. But entrepreneurs need to ensure they hire people with complementary skills, he says: “So I hire people I hate.”
One attendee later asked me if I thought Bruce was serious. I hope not, but I believe he was pointing out a basic truth: the need to hire people who will challenge you. As Franc noted: “If two people agree on everything, one is not necessary.”
At the close, I asked each panelist for the best advice they’d offer other entrepreneurs.
Bruce Poon Tip: “Love what you do and be passionate about it. If you’re not passionate about your product, no one’s going to buy it.”
Andrea Slingsby: “Surround yourself with the best people – which is not necessarily people you hate.”
Franc Nemanic: “Be bold. And take more risks.”
I hope to report soon on the other conference speakers, including Michael Gerber.