Thursday, June 29, 2006

Wanted: Dragon Food

I posted earlier about the new CBC program, Dragon's Den, which is picking up a lot of buzz as it wings its way toward its August taping and its October debut.

The show features real business owners and financiers deciding whether or not to really invest in real entrepreneurial ventures - which I guess is why they call this reality TV.

The CBC, with what seems like a pretty health budget, is crossing the country looking for fodder -- er, victims, er, innovators -- to pitch their ideas to the 5-member Dragon panel.

The lineup:
Victoria, Calgary, Ottawa, Halifax: July 6th
St John's, Nfld., Montreal, Edmonton: July 7
Vancouver: July 7 and 8
Winnipeg: July 10

For more info on time and place, see http://www.cbc.ca/dragonsden/

Oh, they did Kingston and Waterloo today.

A big shoutout to the Kingston Economic Development Commission, which stole, I mean borrowed, liberally from my blog in their email anouncing the auditions. Quoting and Linking are fine, guys. Plagiarism is not.
(Thanks to Lukas and Optimus Crime for the heads-up.)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

In praise of podcasting

A few readers have responded to my call for comments re podcasting. So far, it has attracted more fervent audio-blogging believers than passive non-pod people, which I suppose is normal for non-professional polls such as this.

But there's an intriguing article today on the StartupNation blog called "Podcast – you can do it!"

It starts out explaining why no one should bother getting into podcasting. "The audience is too small & fragmented. Not everyone listens to audio stuff delivered over the internet. You really don’t have anything to say, anyway. As a matter of fact, the competition from bigger companies with bigger budgets is just too tough. Heck, you might as well just throw in the towel completely and go find a job at a big company."

Then, the tone changes. "Now that we’ve gotten rid of the tire-kickers, let’s have a real visionary-like conversation.Small business is always looking for the differentiator that can set it apart from larger competitors. We’re more nimble. We can let our personality shine through easier than bigger companies can. We can make decisions faster and implement new strategies tomorrow.

"All of that fits in pretty well with podcasting. Especially if your business has 1-to-1 contact with your customers. You’ll wind up speaking with them at some point anyway, so why not grease the skids with your voice in advance, or retain them as customers with a valuable reminder of your expertise?"

The author goes on to say why he thinks podcasting is so powerful. "When I listen to podcasts something extremely intimate happens. Especially when I listen using my ipod & headphones. There is a very personal connection that happens when the audio is flowing directly into my ears from the ear buds and no-one else is listening but me. I’m hooked. I am a customer just waiting to happen.

"Tell me about a product or service that you’ve used and enjoyed - I’m there. Educate me on what it is that you are an expert on – you’re the one I’m calling when I’m in the market for whatever you’ve got."

If it's true, that's power.
My experience with podcasting is still too scant to comment on this phenomenon. Anyone out there want to opine on the power of pods?

Touched by an Editorial

I was touched and honoured at a recent speaking engagement when an attendee asked me to autograph a copy of an editorial I wrote nearly five years ago for PROFIT Magazine.

Usually, the stuff we did in the past stays in the past, and we never hear how it affected others. But my new friend told me how inspiring he had found the article, both as an entrepreneur and a concerned member of his community. He thanked me for writing – and now signing – the article. And I thanked him for the compliment and the feedback, which were inspiring in their own right.

If you're interested, here’s a copy of that editorial, from the November 2001 issue of PROFIT. It says a lot about the role I think entrepreneurs can play in the world. Most of it really was written in my car on the back of a piece of paper at the side of a road a mile south of Hockley Valley.

Letter from the Editor
The GrowthCamp valedictory that never was
A roadside appeal for entrepreneurs to get involved

By Rick Spence

I am writing this note in my car parked on the side of the Mono Third Line, which traverses Ontario's rolling hill country just east of Orangeville.

I've just left GrowthCamp, our second annual conference for Canada's Hottest Startups (a list published last issue). My senses are overwhelmed by the memories and energies unleashed by three days of close contact with the country's most exciting entrepreneurs. The comradeship, the networking and the laughter still echo in my mind. I closed down GrowthCamp with a reading of the camp poem and a call to return next year.

Driving home an hour later, I realize I left too much unsaid. So here it is — the GrowthCamp valedictory that never was:

'You are among Canada's finest entrepreneurs,' I should have said. 'You worked very hard to be here. And you've worked hard here, too, making contacts, listening to keynotes and sharing ideas in our workshops. You've met entrepreneurs from across the country, and I have watched you gain strength and confidence just from being around them.

'But now you have to take this further. Your talents, which have created success in business, are needed in a wider arena.

'Now is the time to begin using your skills to benefit your community. Take this energy, and all your many gifts — for sizing up a situation, seeing an opportunity, planning, leading and analyzing — and focus your efforts on organizations and issues outside of your business.

'We have so many needs in society. We have skills gaps and digital divides. We have too many homeless and not enough homes. We have schools that are out of touch with their market and unable to engage their students. We have big governments that overtax us and municipalities struggling to collect garbage.

'What can entrepreneurs give the world? Contagious enthusiasm and a bias for action. There are too many committees where lawyers debate process and nothing gets done. I've seen what impact one courageous board member can have on a group. By raising questions no one has asked before, suggesting new ways of thinking and proposing creative solutions, you can make an impact on any interest group.

'It won't be easy. Entrepreneurs are used to giving direction. And they like things done right away. Getting involved will require levels of patience and diplomacy you never knew you had. Don't give up, because you have unique gifts to share.

'Don't give up, because the world needs you.'

That's what I should have said.

It was Monday, September 10, 2001.

Fighting Back from a Heart Attack

David Crow is a trouble-maker. Well, that's how he defines himself on his website.

He's actually more of an instigator, a fast-talking, easy-going catalyst who is helping bring focus and community to Toronto's flegling Web 2.0 community.

And last month he suffered a heart attack.

It was totally unexpeted and scary, he wrote in his blog on June 5. "I’m only 32, I don’t use cocaine, I don’t have a strong family history of heart disease, I don’t smoke, I don’t use intravenous drugs, I eat pretty well, and I try to exercise."

It can happen to anyone. Please read his post to see what his warning signs were, and what happened next. It's riveting reading.

You'll even see an innovative use of YouTube video.

David is now mainly resting, with another month or so of recovery time expected. I wish him all the best for a speedy return to healthy instigating.

One of the first features I ever commissioned at PROFIT Magazine was a story about entrepreneurs and heart disease. The typical entrepreneurial lifestyle - long hours, constant pressure, endless rushing around, poor eating and sleeping habits, the never-ending stress of meeting payroll and finding the next customer - is the perfect breeding ground for a heart attack.

Slow down. Manage your stress. Eat better. Stay well.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Podcastaway

A friend has approached me about doing some podcasting together - a regular weekly "radio show" for the Net.

I would love to get a better idea of who listens to podcasts, and why. A number of people have told me that business-related podcasting is becoming a Big Thing. While it's not attracting Big Numbers (and let's face it, neither do most blogs), I am told podcasting is becoming an important medium for promotion, networking, community building - and business development.

So tell me - Do you listen to podcasts? Where, and when? Do you listen live, or download to an iPod? Do you have favorites you listen to regularly? Why do you listen to them? What have you gotten out of them? Do you prefer audio blogging to the text versions (like this blog, for instance)?

When I was speaking to a group of young entrepreneurs a few months ago, I asked how many of them listened to podcasts. Very few hands went up. But hey, if it's the right hands, maybe that's enough.

Please leave a comment or send me an e-mail (rick(at) rickspence.ca). Even if you have never heard a podcast, or have no intention of listening, or have never heard of this podcasting thing before, I would love to hear from you. Thank you for your feedback.

When employees become competitors

I've blogged before about PROFIT Magazine's great online resource, Peer to Peer, where real entrepreneurs answer business questions posed by other real entrepreneurs. Who knows better what you're going through, right?

This week's question, from an anonymous entrepreneur, is pretty compelling.

"I am a new entrepreneur running a small but growing business in custom window fashions and home furnishings. I spent thousands of hours and dollars acquiring market information and locating suppliers before plunging into this business. I hired one salesperson who had no prior experience in the industry, and I extensively trained him. But after learning everything there is to know about my business, the fellow stole data from me, poached one of my employees and started his own identical business, which directly competes with mine.

"Could I have avoided this situation? How do business owners stop employees from stealing their ideas and starting their own companies? And should I take this person to court?"

The best answers are here.

For the whole gamut of previous Peer to Peer questions, click here.

Maybe you've heard the old Chinese proverb: "To know the road ahead, ask those coming back."

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Dragons spotted in downtown Toronto

I had lunch yesterday with a group of TV producers from the CBC talking about their new program, a five-part reality show scheduled for this fall: Dragon’s Den.

It’s an entrepreneurial version of American Idol, and it looks fabulous.

It’s a TV version of a venture fair: entrepreneurs and inventors pitching for capital in front of a panel of investors. Only the investors are accomplished Canadian entrepreneurs: articulate, experienced, hopeful, but notoriously skeptical.

The “pitchers” are real Canadian innovators, looking for $50,000, $100,000 or more to fund development or expansion of their products or businesses. At a rehearsal I saw a few weeks ago, the products ranged from an incomprehensible computer service to high-end fashion to a Web 2.0 twist on the age-old jukebox.

The trick, by the way, is that these judges, the dragons, are committed to what they're doing. They have to put up their own money to be on the show, and if they deem a deal worth doing, they invest their own money.

Now, TV being TV, there will be lots of sensationalizing and trivializing of the process. The format requires the “dragons” to be demanding and impatient and superior (think acerbic American Idol judge Simon Cowell – times five!). Aspiring entrepreneurs being entrepreneurs, there will lots of inarticulate, half-baked presentations that will get shot down in hoots of laughter and scorn.

At the root of this, though, Dragon’s Den could do much to promote and showcase the entrepreneurial evolution of Canada. Through the national TV exposure of the dragons themselves – entrepreneurs as rock stars! – and through the motivation and inspiration potential innovators could receive by seeing the breadth and variety of entrepreneurial projects being carried out across this country.

And if it teaches potential pitchers how to present more effectively, Dragon’s Den will be performing a national public service.

The show’s producers are now busy interviewing and auditioning potential presenters for the show, which tapes in August. If you're interested, there's an open audition in Toronto this Saturday from 9 am to 2 pm. There’ll be another audition soon in Montreal, and perhaps others.

For more details, visit http://www.cbc.ca/dragonsden/

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Fire sale at EDC

Export Development Canada is a rare bird - a Crown corporation that makes money, a government-owned body that actually helps business.

And now it's acting more like a real business than ever - it's holding a half-price sale.

From now till June 28, you can access EDC's online EXPORT Check at 50% off.

EXPORT Check is an easy way to obtain valuable financial information on potential U.S. or foreign customers. It's a key step before signing any export deal. Prices now start at just $30 until June 28.

EDC, whose mandate includes encouraging more Canadian businesses to export, calls EXPORT Check "a consistent way for everyone involved in sales to decide which potential leads to pursue first," and "fast and easy 24/7 access to valuable information."

Use EXPORT Check from anywhere to evaluate potential customers. For more info visit http://edclist.edc.ca/t/105486/192572/1776/0/ .
(You can also see a sample "credit profile" to preview what your money buys you.)

For more info on exporting, check out http://www.export.ca/

Monday, June 19, 2006

Alternatives to Selling your Business

One of the more popular speakers at last week’s Small Business/Big Thinking conference, sponsored by Visa Canada, was Doug Robbins, a business broker from Hamilton. The buying of small businesses is about to become a big business, as more and more businesses come up for sale with their baby-boomer owners look to cash out while they're still young enough to rollerblade across Russia (or so they think).

I didn’t get to see Doug’s presentation, but I hope to link to a summary soon. Meantime, here’s a post from Robbinex’s website on “11 alternatives to selling your business.”

According to Robbinex, there are several reasons for a business owner to consider selling their business:

* Illness, Retirement, Lack of Capital, Burnout, Boredom;
* Partnership Dispute;
* Family Concerns;
* Too much equity tied up in the business;
* Business is not successful; or,
* Business has become too risky.

Based on Robbinex’s experience, “for each of these reasons, there are alternatives to actually selling the business. If you are thinking of selling your business, these are the 11 alternative options you should consider:

1) Recapitalization
2) Strategic Alliance
3) Amalgamation or Merger
4) Intergenerational Transfer
5) Management Buyout
6) Refinancing
7) Hire Competent Management*
8) Liquidate
9) Value Enhance to increase sales and / or reduce operating costs
10) Joint Venture
11) Create an advisory board to identify and manage problems.”

For more info on these and other strategies, click here.

(*I especially like the tactic of "hiring competent managment." It strikes me as something more companies should do.)

Friday, June 16, 2006

Ron Blunn and the lost art of customer focus

Two days ago, my pal Ron Blunn died of cancer.

Ron was my predecessor as managing editor of the Financial Times of Canada back in the 1980s. He was a visionary journalist and a tough, inspirational mentor. He took a kid who thought he knew how to write and, well, taught him how to write.

Examples, examples, examples,” he would say, pounding his fist loudly into his palm. In other words, don’t say it, show it. If you have a thesis, prove it.

What does this mean to investors?” he would ask. “Why should they read this story? How is it useful?”

The day Ron died, on June 14, I gave a presentation in Guelph on business lessons from magazine publishing. My point: in everything they do, great editors put the readers' interests first. The message for business: the way to engage customers is to put them first in everything you do.

Today I realized that it was Ron Blunn, more than anyone else, who taught me that.

I should note that Ron and I also learned from the late David Tafler, the former editor and publisher of the Times who also passed away way too young. Tafler believed that all stories in the publication had to be “Specific, Useful, Timely and Exclusive.” If subsequent management had been as reader-focussed as Ron and David, the Financial Times of Canada would still be around today.

In 1985, Ron Blunn moved into business development for the Financial Times. To most of the writers at the Times, it was a curious career switch: how could he leave journalism? The answer, of course, was that other disciplines paid better, and could be just as satisfying. Ironically, the key spinoff products Ron came up with (the Mutual Fund Sourcebook, and Investment Executive magazine) both outlived the Times by far.

About 1990, Ron left the Times and formed his own investor relations firm, Blunn & Company. Again he was a pioneer, becoming an expert in annual reports and the future of corporate disclosure. Ron's work was industry-leading and he was sought-after as a speaker and consultant across North America.

My best wishes to Ron’s wife Heather and his two 20-something sons, Josh and Oliver. He will be missed.
--
BTW, about 10 years ago Ron moved into my neighborhood, just six blocks away. Every time I drive by his house I think, “Gotta call Ron sometime.”
Call a friend today. Because sometime never comes.

Addition, Friday afternooon.
Here's the link to Ron's obituary in the Globe, with service details.
And click here to see a moving memoir from his I-R colleague, Dominic Jones. He has much better detail on Ron's post-Times career, including his three-year stint at RT Investor Relations, which I'd forgotten about.

Learning from Bill Gates & Co.

In his ezine today, my buddy Curt Skene, a speaker on sales and leadership with a background at Microsoft, has posted one of the best leadership articles I’ve seen.

By looking at the management styles of three leaders at Microsoft, he comes close to defining executive excellence.

Microsoft.
Who knew?

Curt’s ezine is not yet posted on his website, http://www.aahhah.com/ezine.htm, so I hope he’ll forgive me for summarizing his insights here.

Bill Gates would probably tell you to be more curious about the world that surrounds you. He would remind you that his fortune came when he thought of how the world might be with a computer on every desktop. His passion is in asking, 'what might change?' ...

“Bill surrounds himself with people who think differently than him... Bill was always open to be challenged but keep in mind he demanded that everyone think smart. If you had a different way of seeing the world that’s ok, just be sure you can articulate it clearly…

“Finally, Bill might tell you to never take your success for granted. No industry leader leads forever. He would remind you of all the market leaders that have come and gone. Be paranoid about being the best, don't ever take your position for granted.

Steve Ballmer [current Microsoft CEO] would remind you that you can never know enough about your customer and you can never know it soon enough. ‘Be customer-passionate,’ are words he would yell and scream until he knew that everyone understood that the customer will always be our livelihood…

“Steve would tell you to know more about the customer’s problem than they do themselves, and to have better answers to the problems your customer faces... As CEO he believed his best day was spent in front of a customer learning and exploring their business and the way they make money.

Frank Clegg [former president of Microsoft Canada] would tell you to net it out. Your story, your plans, your approach all needed to be clear, concise and crisp. If you can’t say it in one page then you don’t know your message well enough. ..

“Frank would also tell you that your people are your brand. Treat them well, respect them and give them the freedom, autonomy and flexibility to do what’s right for the business. If you question your ability to do that, then question your hiring or management practices…

“Twelve years ago Frank telephoned me and told me to leave the business to be with my dying Brother. His words were simple, “I don’t care what’s on your agenda, you need to be where you’re needed most.” I can still hear the passion and feeling in his words today. I flew out to Calgary that very night, my brother died a few days later. Frank always knew when to push people hard, but to do it in a way that everyone knew he cared immensely about their future.”

If you're serious about improving your business, here's the place to start.
Next: Leadership Lessons from Darth Vader.
(Just kidding.)

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Visa Revisited

Visa's Small Business Big Thinking conference in Toronto yesterday was a huge success.

I will be blogging about it more over the next few days as I find time, but more than 200 entrepreneurs turned out and the speakers were fabulous. (Full disclosure: I selected most of them, as a subcontractor to the conference organizers.) I talked to a number of delegates and reviewed a few feedback forms, and it looks like we were a huge hit.

Our keynote speakers, Donald Cooper and Teresa Cascioli, great Canadian entrepreneurs and mavericks, were inspiring and challenging. Donald woke the audience up with humor, insights and challenges, and Teresa sent them marching out the door full of fire, enthusiasm and confidence. I will blog more about them or point you to other writeups later this week.

Another crowd favourite was Krig Kramers, our one American import. Many entrepreneurs lack the experience, structures and processes and systems to grow their businesses in a systematic, professional way. Kramers' "CEO Tools" offer well designed processes and systems that fill the gap.

I didn't attend his sessions (he was the only speaker we asked to speak twice, because he has so much material), but I can point you to his website to check out his tools for yourself. (Yes, most of them are for sale, but you can preview them for free and learn a lot just by looking at the PDF files.)

Want to recruit better? Check out his Interviewing tool. To retain your best people, take a look at his Employee Satisfaction Index. If you're not afraid to think bigger, preview his What causes Sales? tool. Lots more good stuff at http://www.ceotools.com.

One of the best features of the conference? The Meet the Pros lunch, where attendees got to meet over sandwiches with most of the day's speakers. Thanks to all those who took part.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Off-Target Marketing

Catherine McQuaid is a Toronto-based business-development with a new approach to selling to big business. I liked it so much I asked her to speak on it at the Visa Canada Small Business/Big Thinking conference on Monday (June 12).

If you can't make it, at least you can read her theories online. I wrote about Catherine and her journey in my column in the June issue of PROFIT, which has just been put online. Click here for the full story.

For those who hate to leave this site, here's Catherine's insight in a nutshell: "Don't go to the decision-maker." Enlist his or her assistant in the process. (That's why I call it off-target marketing.)

If you call the switchboard to ask for the CEO's phone number or e-mail address, McQuaid warns, you may be pegged as a nuisance. Ask for the number of the support person, and you'll likely get through.

For the rest of the story, click this way.
Catherine's website is at http://www.huntnewbiz.com/

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Who are Canada's Fastest-Growing Companies?

PROFIT Magazine has just released its 18th annual PROFIT 100 list of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies.

Why should you care? Two things:

1. Seeing what kinds of companies are succeeding and growing incredibly fast in today’s economy is very eye-opening - and could inspire you to defy conventional thinking in your own business.

2. The issue contains lots of great business advice from today’s growth leaders: business insights, tips and tactics that are too new, creative and personal to be found in any books.

You can read the entire list online here. Some of the highlights:

* The No. 1 company (with five-year growth of 31,598%) is Rutter Inc., a St. John’s, Nfld. systems integrator and software developer that makes “black box” recording systems for ocean-going ships. Fascinating stuff. They also do electronics manufacturing and engineering services.
I was lucky enough to write the Rutter profile in this issue, but PROFIT seems not to be putting many of the stories in this issue online until July 3. (They must want you to buy the magazine.)

* The next 4 ranked companies are Workbrain (No. 2), a leading developer of workforce-management software; Fruit d'Or Inc., a $20-million berry processor from Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, Que.; Peer 1 Network Enterprises Inc., an Internet company in Vancouver; and Imaging Dynamics Co. Ltd., a Digital radiography company from Calgary.

(How great to see a company from Atlantic Canada top the list, for the first time ever! And the fact the top five all hail from different parts of Canada speaks to a welcome diversification of economic potential.)

* Other companies on the list include makers of digital X-ray machines, surveillance systems, solar-powered lighting and soft-soled baby shoes. Plus: Research in Motion makes the list for a sixth year.

* Average sales growth of the P100: 2,597% over five years. It's the highest overall growth rate seen on the PROFIT 100 since 2001, and it hasn't come at the expense of profitability: fully 79 of the 100 firms on the list were in the black last year.

For more information, including the Next 100 companies list, see http://www.profit100.com/

For my two stories in the issue and the best new management ideas, check your newsstand next week. Or drop by again in July and I’ll try to remember to link to them.

Getting Calls Returned, part III

My posts on getting calls returned (click here and here) continue to resonate. Here’s a comment from one executive who e-mailed her thoughts to me rather than posting them in order to preserve his anonymity. (Although actually the Comment system here is completely anonymous if you like. Have no fear, ye who enter here.)

Anyway, here are her thoughts:

"I always try to put myself in the other guy's shoes when it comes to getting through on the phone. A variation on the guy who suggests saying he has "a couple of questions" - I use my knowledge of the prospect's interests and leave half an important tidbit of information. If I know he's a sailor I'd say something like "Did you hear how McLaughlin is using his wife to avoid having to contest trials for the Canada Cup?" This works best when you know the person.
"I also usually go back to reception and say I left a voicemail, but it is rather urgent and I wanted to make sure he's not away for a couple of days. That often gets me through or gets a cell phone number that I didn't have. When the person is away, I sometimes ask to speak to their boss, based on the urgency (best if you know the boss' first name).

I brought up this subject at my mastermind group today. Some of that group’s advice for getting calls returned:

* Get used to it. Everyone has more messages than we can handle. And we’re starting to lose our guilt over those we never get around to responding to.
* If your calls or e-mails are going ignored, it’s a sign your value proposition is not attractive enough. Pump up the value.
* Keep calling. I sometimes call even good clients seven times, said one entrepreneur. But often they end up saying, “Thank you for continuing to try to get through.”
* Keep your messages short and simple. “I never send or read long e-mails,” said one. So I asked if had had ever had a time when ignoring long e-mails landed him in trouble or made him miss out on something important. “No,” was his reply.

Keep the comments coming. It’s a fascinating topic that goes to the heart of today's entrepreneurial experience.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Upcoming Appearances

Real posts (i.e., with content of interest to more than me and my mom) will resume tomorrow.

For now, a few promotional notes:

* Rick is speaking on "20 Ways to Grow Your Business" at the Visa Canada "Small Business/Big Thinking" conference at the Metro Toronto Conference Centre on Monday, June 12. It's going to be an innovative and cutting edge, interactive session, with great ideas you'll never find in any book. (Until I publish it next fall.)

The conference alsp features Donald Cooper, Tom Stoyan, Michel Neray, Teresa Cascioli and other superstars of Canadian business.
I couldn't recommend this show more highly if I had selected the speakers myself. :^)
For more info visit www.visa.ca

* Next Wednesday, June 14, Rick will be speaking on "Excellence in Magazines and Business", at the annual Guelph Awards of Excellence Gala 5:30 p.m. at the Guelph Place Banquet Hall. For details, visit www.guelphchamber.com or phone 1-519-822-8081