Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Tech Tales

Talk about spoiled. My last few hotel rooms have had wireless Internet access, so I expected more of the same yesterday when I checked into the Valhalla Inn in Thunder Bay – which offers high-speed Internet in every room.

So I fired up the laptop, which assured me that the wireless signal was “strong.” But I couldn’t get Google, so I played with the Control Panel for a bit, clicked on various help screens, and did everything but turn it upside down and shake it. (That would be the Etch-a-Sketch theory of tech support).

Finally I admitted defeat and went to the phone to call the front desk. And there I saw it, right beside the phone – the outlook for the network cable.

But this time I was prepared. Yesterday morning, before leaving for Thunder Bay, I threw a spare network cable into my case… just in case. I felt very proud of myself. I was able to get my work done, and still have time this morning to blog.

PS: It turns out the "strong signal"message is some ghostly leftover from my last WiFi experience, in Cornwall. Anyone know how to turn it off?

Postcards from Canada's (only) MidWest

Greetings from Thunder Bay. Arrived here for my fourth and last gig MCing the regional Ontario Global Traders Awards. Thunder Bay is a very cool city, so far from the rest of Ontario that it feels like the Prairies (where the True West begins). A lot of federal programs, for instance, file T Bay under their "Prairies" offices. (And indeed, one bureaucrat from Winnipeg will be presenting an Ontario export award today.) You can buy Winnipeg papers from the street boxes.

Thunder Bay is an interesting blend of East & West. It's a smaller city, but there's a lively, "let's get it done" edge to life here that reminds me of Alberta. And although the ocean is 1,000 miles away, this is an Atlantic seaport. It's very cool.

(Maybe too cool. The snow was swirling around yesterday.)

I just attended the opening this morning of a “Grow Your Business” conference for entrepreneurs in northwest Ontario. Some random observations:

* T Bay mayor Lynn Peterson (who is doing excellent work in making the city more effective and accountable) had an interesting remark. Referring to the Lakehead’s storied heritage with the fur trade and early exploration, she said, “We were part of the global economy before anyone knew there was one.”

* There are not enough entrepreneurs here. The need for information, especially in exporting, is huge, and institutions are doing their best to get the info out there. Somehow, we have to convince more business people to stop fighting fires and take more time to learn and discover.

* Another thought: there are International Business students here from Confederation College. Why not bring more students to conferences such as these, and train them to call on businesses to report these findings? There is lots of valuable information to share, but it’s the “last mile” – getting it into the ears of the risk-takers and decision-makers – that is always the most problematic.

* Plus, there should be a law requiring every business person in Canada to take a course in public speaking. And to pass it.

Now back to work.

Monday, April 25, 2005

VOIP: Results first, success later

This is my first chance to blog about the VOIP conference I participated in last Tuesday (April 19). The Voice Over Internet Canada (which apparently cannot be called VON Canada because of the pre-existing rights of the Victorian Order of Nurses!) conference took place at the Metro Toronto Conference Centre, and seemed as much about building the industry as selling product. http://www.voncanada.com/

Of course, VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) is still very new. If not for the insane (and very recent) success of Skype, the free long-distance VOIP service, almost nobody outside the industry would have heard of VOIP. But it’s coming: a lot of smart people are finding new applications that will transform the way we use the phone.

By now, most people know that VOIP means you can avoid long-distance rates (or at least, the telcos’ still-usurious per-minute charges) by placing your calls over the Net. “Cheap long distance” in fact, is all VOIP means to most businesses buyers. But the people on my panel (who spoke on applications for small business) believe that innovative new applications are coming fast.

VOIP can give you a truly mobile virtual presence. People in far-flung offices (and folks working in home-based business networks) can share one professional-looking phone system. Travelers can retrieve calls from anywhere. Unified messaging – e-mail and voice mail – will become everyday reality. You can integrate your customer relationship databases. And the greatest applications are those we don’t even comprehend yet.

One panelist, Alec Saunders, president of Iotum, a startup VOIP applications developer in Ottawa, made a good case for VOIP in small business. What do small businesses want, he asks? Image. Personal Touch. Value. Immediacy. All of which are now being addressed by VOIP products. (Sorry. I should have said “solutions.”)

Another point he might have added: all entrepreneurs are looking for control. Control over their environment, control over their time. Iotum’s application software will provide control by offering “contextual call routing”: your VOIP system will know what calls you want, and when. (Depending on the settings you set, for instance, your banker’s calls could shoot right through to you, or get flipped into voice mail. Your choice.)

So why isn't VOIP ready for prime time? No panelist had success stories or case studies to offer of how VOIP has helped businesses – because the customers aren’t there yet. As one audience member said to me afterward, the success of this sector depends on how long it for customers to appear on panels such as these, rather than just vendors.

The next morning, I delivered my Communicating For Results seminar for Enterprise Toronto. As I blogged the other day, one of my key points is that business people, marketers and leaders alike, need to tell more stories: attention-getting, trust-enhancing, business-building stories.
http://canentrepreneur.blogspot.com/2005/04/whats-your-story.html

Chicken and eggish as it sounds, VOIP will take off when there are stories to tell. Results first, success later.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Wal-Mart and Google: Separated at Birth?

Wal-Mart and Google: twin business behemoths that help define our age.

Both rose quickly from nowhere to eclipse established players and now dominate their industry. And having achieved unimagined success, they continue to plan their next ambitious assaults on our minds and wallets.

Great story this week at Wired.com entitled “Why Google Is Like Wal-Mart,” by Adam L. Penenberg. It’s funny, insightful and ominous, all at the same time.

Examples:

Here is how Google and Wal-Mart are alike in terms of In-house technology:

• Wal-Mart: Developed information technology (it operates the nation's largest private satellite communication system) and perfected the use of the bar code to speed up the supply chain so that both Wal-Mart and the vendor know exactly how many blenders, brooms and baseball gloves they have sold, and how many need to be delivered to specific stores.

• Google: Developed algorithms to rank web pages by link popularity so that searches are not only fast, but also yield the most useful results.

And here, the “Quote the company most regrets”:

• Wal-Mart: "I pay low wages. I can take advantage of that. We're going to be successful, but the basis is a very low-wage, low-benefit model of employment." -- Founder Sam Walton

• Google: "We are moving to a Google that knows more about you." Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

There's lots more. For the full story, see http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,67287,00.html

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Hotel Cornwall

My Ontario tour continues with the Global Traders awards. Tomorrow we are handing out the hardware in Cornwall, Ont., for the eastern region of Ontario, and I am looking forward to more exciting, home-grown success stories.

Here is a link to my previous post, "SeussWorld", on the Central Ontario awards.
http://canentrepreneur.blogspot.com/2005/04/seussworld.html

BTW, this is my first mobile posting. I am at the Best Western Cornwall, a cute little business hotel in the absolute centre of town. It’s very homey, with the rooms done up in comfy pine furniture. My favorite thing is the little bookshelf over the desk which holds a wooden decoy duck (screwed to the shelf, naturally), and eight real books (not screwed to the shelf, for reasons that will soon become clear).

I rarely see business hotels offering their readers books – you find that in old-fashioned guest houses for visitors whose tennis lessons are cancelled.

For the record, here are the books in my room:

* An Inquiry Concerning Growth, Disease and Aging (1969) (dust jacket rather tattered, but the pages look unturned);

* Proteus, by Morris West (1979), no dust jacket;

* The Keeping-Room (1981 (the newest book);

* Part II of Dombey & Son, a lone volume of The Complete Works of Charles Dickens (535 pages – he was paid by the word);

* The Bond Triumphant, a Canadian historical novel printed in 1923;

* The Sudden Guest (1946), a Book of the Month Club selection that has strayed from the library of someone named Evelyn Ross;

* Guy Mannering, a fragile hardbound novel by Sir Walter Scott that must be at least 100 years old (the paper is wonderfully brown and parchmentish);

* and So You Want to Go Into the Theatre?, a manual for young people. From 1936.

I guess this place buys old books by the pound.

Anyway, it’s nice to have the books in the room. Even old, unwanted, unread books make the place feel more human.

And to think some people watch movies in their hotel rooms.

What's Your Story?

This morning I put on the first of my two “Communicating for Results” seminars for Enterprise Toronto. We held it at the old council chambers of the North York Civic Centre, so I felt as if the ghost of Mel Lastman were watching over my shoulder.

“Communicating for Results” is intended to be my flagship product: a seminar to help business people communicate more effectively, creatively and consistently. It works for entrepreneurs or corporate executives, salespeople or startups – because communication is the No. 1 function of business, and most people are so bad at it. Peter Drucker, the ageless Austrian management guru, says 60% of management problems are caused by poor communication. I think he’s wrong. I think that number is higher.

This program also works for me, because it brings together my 25 years (!) in business journalism, writing, editing, and studying entrepreneurs – their good habits and bad. Now if I only had time to market the thing better.

We had a good group this morning, with lots of interesting comments and questions. I particularly enjoyed being one-upped by one member of the audience.

I was on my sixth point: Tell more stories.

“People don’t remember facts, dates, amounts, names or rules,” I said. “To communicate in a powerful and lasting manner, for millennia human beings have been telling each other stories.

“Sometimes it’s not enough to tell our children not to talk to strangers: the story of Little Red Riding Hood drives the message home. It’s not enough for Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola or Molson to tell us that their product is 8% more effective than the competition’s – they do it by showing us 30-second mini-movies showing people having more fun with their products, or getting whiter teeth or shinier, more manageable hair. In the end it’s the images and emotions that stories evoke in our minds that we remember.

“Every company should have its own trust-building, pride-inducing stories. What makes a good story? People, problems, and happy endings. That’s the structure of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, and it should be the theme of all your ads, sales materials and testimonials…”

When I was done discussing story-telling, I asked the audience if anyone had a good business-building story to share. Nobody moved. No one even looked in my direction. Then, one woman volunteered her story.

Melanie is in the balloon-a-gram/flower business. A few years ago, a customer confided in her that he really liked a woman he knew, but didn’t have the courage to tell her. Melanie suggested he go big, with a huge flurry of flowers that would tell her how he feels in one big, flamboyant, all-or-nothing gesture. So he did. Two years later, they were married. And every year, on their anniversary, he buys his wife a balloon-a-gram. From Melanie.

It’s a beautiful story. It’s got a hero, a problem, a solution, a happy ending – and an epilogue that makes Melanie a winner, too. I asked her what the result is when she tells her story to her customers. “They buy more,” she said.

Da-da-dum.

So… what’s your story?


PS: If you’re interested, I am doing another gig for Enterprise Toronto, at Toronto City Hall, on May 25. Admission (sigh) is free. See http://www.enterprisetoronto.com for details (click on Events).

Monday, April 18, 2005

Company of Wolves

As you may know, I wrote the book on Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies (Secrets of Success from Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies, 1997, Wiley and Sons.) http://ca.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0471642339.html

Yesterday (Monday) I was back on the case. I think I set a record for interviewing four PROFIT 100 entrepreneurs in one day, for a series of profiles in the June issue of PROFIT Magazine. I can’t tell you who they are, of course (Top Secret till early June), but I can tell you that these leaders of three of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies (two are partners in one business) are as impressive as ever.

In each case, they are building a new type of business, innovating both in their industry and their business model. They are using new technology, industry contacts, creative financing and savvy partnerships to build their business, and – most importantly, given the industries they’re in -- they are staying a step ahead of the competition by keeping abreast of emerging regulatory trends. And all four are frighteningly articulate.

What’s their secret? No secret, actually. They all learned their trade at an early age, working for other people. All of them got paid training in their chosen industry or sector, which enabled them to learn a lot from others’ mistakes. In some cases, they tried first to change their industry from within. But when they learned how hard it is to change other people, they decided to set out on their own and get it right from the start. And now all are working hard, in close collaboration with industry partners, to make the future happen their way.

My point? You hear a lot about “lone wolf” entrepreneurs, people who toil alone to challenge the world in pursuit of their private dream. Nothing wrong with that myth, so long as new and aspiring entrepreneurs don’t buy into it.

The best entrepreneurs work within a vibrant community of collaborative partners and teams.

The lone wolves starve in the woods.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Real-time venture capitalism

Once upon a time, very few entrepreneurs expected to tap into formal venture capital to help their businesses grow.

They knew it would be expensive. They knew the VCs would write all the covenants in their own favor. They knew they would be forced to perform on schedule – or else.

Then came the Internet bubble, and suddenly there were billions in venture capital money available, and everyone started writing VCs into their business plans. Just one problem: the VCs are still expensive, still hard to please, still as demanding as an incontinent doberman.

Of course, the VCs claim it’s the entrepreneurs who don’t get it – that they don’t understand the shoot-the-moon economics of venture investing, and are rarely prepared for the VCs’ in-depth inquiries. Talk about a failure to communicate.

If you’re interested in the VC scene, check out the weblog of Toronto VC Rick Segal. The former president of Chapters Online and Microforum, Segal now gets to judge other entrepreneurs. Yes, he’s smug, but at least he talks in detail about what entrepreneurs do wrong when it comes to pitching VCs, and what you have to do to get his attention.

Here are some useful insights from a recent post “VC in Canada = Excellent”, April 17, 2005. http://ricksegal.typepad.com/pmv/2005/04/vc_in_canada_ex.html

“Calvin is the kinda guy that comes into your office and heads for MARS. He tells you all about the amazing, next generation things this software could do along with 5 other ideas that have sprung up while in the elevator. We've all seen it. The slide deck that never actually tells you what the company does, the unfocused almost random approach to vision, etc, etc.

“But Calvin has a quality most of us, me included, don't often use enough. He sucks up feedback and works it. Works it hard. The message Cal was getting from our firm (and others) was that everything but what I described above was being talked about and nobody gave a rats butt about geo-whatever or space-time coordinates of yadda yadda.. What's the darn business in here.

I’ll skip to the end: Cal got help from people with experience, who helped him solidify the opportunity. The happy result: “Cal was in on Friday and nailed it.”

Follow the adventures of real-time venture capitalism at http://ricksegal.typepad.com/

Thursday, April 14, 2005

SeussWorld

People. Passion. Partnerships.
Service. Quality. Persistence.
And oh yeah, good timing.

Those are the qualities cited today as the keys to successful exporting at the Ontario Global Traders awards luncheon in Ajax, for the central Ontario region. As emcee, I got to meet a lot of exciting entrepreneurs who are making their mark internationally. It’s always a privilege to recognize and reward achievers such as these.

Of course, the news media will mainly ignore all these boring “positive” stories, so you may not hear much about them. You can scoop the press and read all about the winners here:

http://www.ontariocanada.com/ontcan/page.do?page=5918

There were lots of impressive acceptance speeches,
but I especially enjoyed the quotation cited by Glenn Cullen,
vp of Clarity Systems, winners of today’s “Innovation” award.
To encourage other companies to pursue export opportunities,
Cullen quoted Dr. Seuss:

“You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.”

Nice touch.

PS: If the Seuss estate doesn’t sue me, I will include just a couple more lines. They’re from Seuss’s marvelous book, Oh, the Places You'll Go! It’s required reading at Entrepreneur Academy.

“You won't lag behind,
because you'll have the speed.
You'll pass the whole gang
and you'll soon take the lead.
Wherever you fly, you'll be the best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
Except when you don't
Because, sometimes, you won't.”

Read the whole poem at http://www.mit.edu/people/adorai/seuss/seussboy.html

Then buy the book for your kids, your nieces and nephews, or the CEOs in your life.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Scrap Happens

We all know the old business adage that “nothing happens till the sale is made.” But I prefer the point of view of an entrepreneur whom I talked with this morning:

“Production minus sales equals scrap.”

That axiom helped this entrepreneur focus on sales when all kinds of things in the company were going wrong. And in the end, that single-minded focus on revenue saved the day.

Many business people get pretty fuzzy on their strategy and objectives. This little gem can help all of us put things in perspective.

Production minus sales equals scrap.

Monday, April 11, 2005

P.S. on that Windsor trip

Last week's trip marked my first experience using my laptop at a hotel (the Hilton) with an in-room high-speed Internet connection. It was fabulous - truly plug and play.

Now I know why so many business hotels are installing this service. Why would anyone stay anywhere else?

Return to Windsor

I had a great time in Windsor last week. I was there to MC the Ontario Global Traders awards program for southwest Ontario on April 7 – a terrific program that recognizes unheralded small and medium-sized businesses for their achievements in exporting. You can read about the winners here.
http://www.ontariocanada.com/ontcan/page.do?page=5917

My favorite story? The three apple producers who, despite competing tooth and nail with each other in Ontario, worked together to sell $2 million worth of apples to Mexico. Opportunity bears many forms, and not always the most intuitive.

I also enjoyed meeting with some economic development people from Windsor and Essex County to discuss a launch event for a new small business advisory board they are planning for Windsor. As a town built on the Auto Pact and unionized labour, Windsor has some adjusting to do for the 21st century. I’m not impressed with Solution No. 1 (big-ass casino to wring money out of gamblers from Michigan and Ohio). It’s encouraging to see the city planners taking an entrepreneurial approach, and looking for ways to stimulate initiative and self-employment in the City of Roses.

As you may know, I’m an alum of the University of Windsor, so I had a good time wandering the campus late Wednesday afternoon. It was 78 degrees (forgive me my Fahrenheit), and the mood was pure summer – students had taken their couches out of their living rooms and posted them on the lawns. It was good to see so much unchanged – the shabby gentility of Dillon Hall, pickup basketball games in the centre of campus, and the friendly cafeteria in the student centre (classier furniture now, though, and better food).

The disappointment was The Lance – the student newspaper I edited back in 1978. As you might expect, it looks a darn sight better than it used to, but all the fancy colour, graphics and explicit sexual content can’t disguise the scarcity of news writing and reporting. Much like the mainstream media, I guess – both newspapers and TV.

Next stop on the Global Traders tour: Ajax!
(The city, not the cleanser.)

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Monty Python, watch out!

The other day (two posts down, or click here http://canentrepreneur.blogspot.com/2005/04/have-you-heard-this-one.html )
I began sharing with you a few jokes that I have used in my work as a communications consultant. The best of them help illustrate some of my key points about communications practices and attitudes, and I thought it would be fun to post a few here. Then yesterday I got caught up with the way bloggers are reshaping Canadian politics, so I let the jokes languish for a day.

Now let's get back to the jokes.
(I'll be away for a few days in Windsor MC'ing Ontario Exports' Global Traders awards, so here are two yarns to tide you over.)

Lesson 3: Never assume you know for sure where the other person is coming from

An adorable little girl walked into my pet shop and asked,"Excuse me, do you have any rabbits here?"
"I do," I answered, and leaning down to her eye level I asked, "Did you want a white rabbit or would you rather have a soft, fuzzy black rabbit?"
She shrugged. "I don't think my python really cares."

Lesson 4: Writing matters everywhere
There was once a young man who, in his youth, professed his desire to become a great writer. When asked to define "great" he said, "I want to write stuff that the whole world will read; stuff that people will react to on a truly emotional level; stuff that will make them scream, cry and howl in pain and anger!"

He now works for Microsoft, writing error messages.

Monday, April 04, 2005

The rest of the jokes will have to wait

There is history being made in Canada today.

Bloggers have officially taken over from the news media as the source by which Canadians are getting their most urgent national news.

While politicians and elite journalists are buzzing over the news from the Gomery "adscan" inquiry, and whether it means a snap election, the latest testimony is still subject to a publication ban. That means the poor Canadian taxpayer isn't allowed to know what's going on - all in the name of not biasing potential jury selection. (If they could find an unbiased jury for Michael Jackson, they can find a few neutral Liberals in Ottawa.)

But the ban doesn't apply to bloggers on foreign soil.

Just look at the Internet traffic scores being rung up the Amercians who have blown the inquiry's cover. http://www.smalldeadanimals.com/archives/001630.html

Please note there is no law against reading any material you find on last Thursday's testimony. The cabinet certainly has!

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Have you heard this one…?

As a communications consultant, I enjoy exploring the world of business communications with my clients. Communication, I figure, is absolutely the core function of a business. And yet communication is so much harder than it looks – and we could all communicate so much better if we tried.

The trouble is, careless communication is a black hole with infinite potential for career-limiting errors. The latest company to learn that is Blockbuster. It is being raked over the coals for its new slogan, “The End of Late Fees” – when its new campaign entails charging customers the full retail price of their video if it’s more than a week late. So far it has had to pay the legal fees for consumer complaints in 47 states!

So one of the ways I try to deal with communication issues is through jokes that expose the deadly consequences of poor communication. I will share some with you over the next few days. Since I stole – I mean compiled - most of them from other people, please feel free to pass them on. Unless you’re a communication consultant, of course.

So here’s Communication Sin No. 1: Careless arrogance.

A patient was waiting nervously in the examination room of a famous specialist. "So who did you see before coming to me?" asked the doctor. "My family doctor,” said the patient.
"Your GP?" scoffed the doctor. "What a waste of time. Tell me, what sort of useless advice did he give you?"
"He told me to come and see you."

Ba-da-boom.

-----
Sin No. 2: Avoid absolutes.

A linguistics professor was lecturing to his class one day. "In English," he said, "A double negative forms a positive. In some languages, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative."

Then a voice from the back of the room piped up, "Yeah, right."

Friday, April 01, 2005

How gutsy are you?

One of my favorite business innovators is Donald Cooper, the indefatigable former manufacturer and retailer who now travels the world speaking about human marketing.

In a world of self-serving sound bites, his monthly e-newsletter is one of the wordiest, and worthiest, sources of business insight you will find on the Net.

In his latest issue (March) he recalls an incredibly gutsy ad campaign he created for his women’s clothing store that had the experts chortling – until it brought the customers in by the busload.

Oh, let him tell it. The ad read:

“You’ve probably heard my other radio commercials where I tell you about our incredible prices on a huge selection of the latest fashions for women of all ages. You’ve probably heard me talk about our amazing invitation to ‘Please take as many items in the change as you wish’, and our electric massage chairs for husbands and our fabulous pirate-ship play area for kids. I bet you’ve also heard me brag that we have the friendliest, most helpful staff anywhere and that they’re not on commission, so they always tell you the truth.

“Well, don’t take my word for it… call us here at the store, right now, and ask to speak with one of our customers. Ask them if it’s true. Ask them if there’s any other store, anywhere, that they’d rather shop at. Call us, right now at 555-321-1234.”

The result? According to The Donald (Cooper is the real deal; Trump is just a poseur):

“Hundreds of women called and customers begged to take those calls so that they could tell other women about their favorite store. This ad helped make us famous. It was gutsy, it was outrageous…and it worked!”

So how could your business be gutsy and unique… today?

To learn more about Donald Cooper, visit http://www.donaldcooper.com/Pages/meet_donald_cooper.htm
You’ll have to “register” to get his free articles, but they’re worth it!