Thursday, December 28, 2006

Best Ever Entrepreneurship Quotes, Week 12

Continuing our quest to find motivation and ideas in the experience of others.

"The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend."
- Abraham Lincoln

Who better than Lincoln, who presided over a massive Civil War, knew what an enemy was - and the need to turn them into former enemies? This is obviously a skill demanded on all levels - personal, business, political. More importantly, it's also an attitude - a vision of what could be if you look beyond day-to-day grievances.

Some of the most powerful business deals I know have been forged by companies that are (or were) competitors. Who knows you better? Who else knows your market? Who has more resources you can leverage than the businesses that are most like yours?

In this week of (relative) peace, think about how you could make your life easier by making today's "enemies" tomorrow's friends.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Two more milestones on the road to wherever


This was a busy week for me, which could be why I just wrote my first post of the week - late Friday afternoon.

And suddenly I find we've hit two milestones.

My previous post (Burn Your Treehouse) was the 400th post in this blog's history - which means I've written more articles for Canadian Entrepreneur than I ever did for PROFIT Magazine, the Financial Times or Equinox Magazine, my three previously-most-prolific outlets.

Plus, today (or very early Saturday morning) we will hit our 15,000th visitor. A drop in the bucket for some websites, of course, but a milestone for Canadian Entrepreneur. It took us 14 months to get our first 5,000 visitors, six months to get the next five thousand, and less than three months to land the latest 5Gs - so we're still on a growth trajectory.

Thanks to all who visit. Thanks for all your comments and support.

Please accept my best wishes for a great Christmas holiday season.

And thanks to Carly for decorating the cookies above.

Burn Your Treehouse!

Check out the blog of Calgary-based CambrianHouse.com, a developer of crowdsource-produced software*, for some great insights into entrepreneurship. If you click here, they’ve collected the best five entrepreneurship/startup related posts into one handy file.

My favourite post (so far) is “Burn Your Treehouse.” In this article, the authors suggest that when many people start companies, the first thing they do is turn their back on the customer – just like the little boys who build a treehouse and hang out a sign saying “No girlz allowed.”

The author (presumably Cambrian House founder Michael Sikorsky) recalls doing exactly that when he started his previous, company, Servidium. “We bunkered ourselves in and built the best web development framework in the world…. It had database abstractions, security and templating mechanisms for separating presentation and business logic. It made tea and buttered your toast and even gave us a patent. It did everything - except sell.”

He admits his company was un-customer focused. “We got so caught up in the genius of our very own framework that we forgot to include the customer as part of the process.”

The price paid for this was a product nobody wanted. “By the time we realized the error of our ways, it was too late. The product never sold and we were never more than a wannabe product company kept afloat by professional services.”

So how do you stay out of the treehouse and engage customers early? “You force it,” says Sikorsky. “Build the most compelling feature of your product and get it out there. Just build it and see if you’re meeting an unmet demand. If no one is willing to spend any credits on your product or service, you’ve got your answer.”

Bottom line: Make the gap between product development and revenue as small as possible.

Click here for the full post (there's lots more). It’ll make you laugh, cry and smarter.


*If you want to know what that means, the next issue of PROFIT may help.)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Best-Ever Entrepreneurship Quotes: Week 11

Continuing our weekly series of powerful motivational quotes personally selected to start your week on an inspiring note:

“I honestly think it's better to be a failure at something you love than to be a success at something you hate."

George Burns, American comedian, 1896-1996

This is not so much prescriptive advice in an entrepreneurial sense, but a pretty accurate description of the way many entrepreneurs view the world. Like artists, they tend to be driven by visions and personal ambitions that provide emotional rewards that more than make up for the risk and sacrifices that are often involved in taking "the road less travelled."

Although, George Burns was not above offering advice. His singular secret of success: "First of all, you've got to have talent. And then you've got to marry her like I did."

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Five Things You Wouldn't Know About Me

I got tagged.

Andy Nulman with his Montreal-based Pow! Right Between the Eyes blog caved in and revealed “Five Things You Wouldn't Know About Me,” in response to a meme challenge from fellow bloggers Mitch Joel and Michael Wagner. Then he tagged me to do the same – along with other blogging buddies Tim Sanders, Austin Hill, Roger Von Oech and someone mamed Shardy.

So, since this is the first time I’ve been memed, I’ll give it a shot. But I don't intend to make a habit of it.

Five Things Most Readers of this Blog Don't Know About Me:

1. I still call my best friend from Grade 2 Robbie. And his parents are the only people in the world who still call me Ricky.

2. I got into journalism because I was lonely. In my first and only year at the freshman factory that is York University, I got tired of going all day without talking to anyone. So I looked around to see if there was some club I could join and actually hang with some human beings between classes. Most of the clubs were ethnic-based, like the Armenian Students’ Association, and tempting as that sounded, I kept looking. Finally I dropped in at the student newspaper to see if they would have me. They were so happy to see me they asked if I wanted to be sports editor. I was never lonely again.

3. I was once almost sued by Conrad Black. I had written a story about him and his corporate domino-shuffling while I was at the Financial Times, and he took objection to my comment that he “xxx xxxx xxx as if they were xx xx xxxxx.” He demanded an apology. I wanted to fight, but I was also due to leave for Europe on a leave of absence in a few weeks, so I agreed to negotiate. His lawyers demanded a correction, but we held out for a “clarification.”

4. It was on that trip to Europe that I decided to ask my girlfriend to marry me. Eventually, she did.

5. Here's some actual news. Next month I start writing a twice-monthly column on entrepreneurship issues for the National Post. Better hope I don't tag you!

Bank Mergers, again

So now the Bank of Canada is weighing in on the side of promoting bank mergers.

I can’t help but wonder what virtue these people see in bigness. Economies of scale did not help General Motors compete with Japanese and other upstarts. Size did not help Enron succeed (it just made the damage greater when everything fell apart). Digital Equipment sat by and watched the microcomputer revolution happen.

And closer to home, the Canadian banks’ market dominance did nothing to fend off a creative, resolutely customer-focussed campaign by ING Bank. (Imagine, helping clients save money!)

My take: only innovation and customer responsiveness will save the banks as they venture into the unregulated outside world. And where are those characteristics more likely to be found?

In a group of archly competitive, fast-moving, entrepreneurial firms, weaned on competition and the need to satisfy fast-changing clients needs? Or in a few giant, monopolistic firms with less reason than ever to listen to customers, innovate or do things differently?

Years ago, I wrote an editorial saying the banks should be allowed to merge – because forcing companies to stay in business when they no longer have the will to live simply makes no sense.

But that doesn't mean that bank mergers will be good for Canadians – or, long-term, for our banks.

Your comments are welcome.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Breaking through your Blind Spots

I had lunch the other day with a marketing consultant whom I admire very much. But one thing has always concerned me about her own marketing: she hides her light.

In her monthly newsletter, she expounds on high-falutin’ issues of the day and tells us stories about her encounters with bad customer service, lousy advertising, and other marketing miscues.

It’s entertaining reading, but there’s nothing there that speaks to her personal expertise. Any idiot with a typewriter and the time to shop or read could produce a newsletter like that (and many of them do!).

But Margie (not her real name) is a senior profesional who solves real problems for Grade A business clients. Her marketing never cites the work she’s doing – which to my mind is much more interesting than her opinions on mistakes made by big, impersonal companies that should know better but never do.

So halfway through the lunch I went for it. I asked why she never writes about the situations she encounters with clients, and how she helps solve them. Why not share the practical, road-tested solutions that she comes up with for her clients – many of which will apply to every reader of her newsletter?

I'd figured she had a reason. So imagine my surprise when Margie said she’d never thought of it.

To her credit, she saw the opportunity right away. Deal with typical problems faced by her readers, and share the solutions she’s been involved with. That’s solid information for her readers/prospects – and perfect positioning for her.

We discussed ways to tell these stories without compromising client confidentiality, which is paramount, and she left our lunch determined to make a breakthrough.

Think how simple this is to do. Break away from doing what you've been doing and ask yourself: what would my clients really like from me? What would constitute real value to them?

The point is that all of us have to keep learning. We have to push ourselves. And we have to be open to feedback and criticism.

And then, of course, we have to be prepared to use that information to create positive change.

The moral: Seek out more feedback. It could be the secret weapon that moves you ahead.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Anatomy of a Startup

Last month I wrote a profile of a promising new startup company, Toronto-based Novajet, for PROFIT Magazine.

It’s the first story in a new regular feature called Startup Scan, in which PROFIT commissions a profile of a young company just starting out, and then submits the story to a jury of experienced entrepreneurs for their comments. Does the company have a credible plan? Are they going about it the right way? Are there additional, related markets the company should be pursuing?

It makes for a fun piece, and good insights into what makes for business success.

You can read the story - and the related critiques – by clicking here.

For those too busy to click through, here are a few excerpts:

-- Why CEO Chuck Buchanan walked away from his previous company after a partnership dispute, and decided to found another jet-charter company:

Having found his business-building instincts blunted in a company that had grown to 100 employees, Buchanan agreed to leave. "It was disturbing at first," he admits. "But the more I looked at it, the more I saw this as an entrepreneurial opportunity — a chance to grow something." By selling his half of Flightexec, Buchanan admits, he really didn't have to work again. "But you can't just sit around and grow petunias," he says. "You're not supposed to be a lump in life."

The Launch:
On November 2, NovaJet launched its first flight — a business jaunt for five people to Chicago's Palwaukee Municipal Airport, aboard a plane subcontracted from another charter company. Sitting on the tarmac just outside NovaJet's office abutting Hangar 9 at Pearson International Airport, the airline's sole jet, a seven-seat, 480-nautical-miles-an-hour Dassault Falcon 10 (call letters: C-JET) was still waiting for its permit to fly paid passengers. In the meantime, NovaJet had already launched its marketing campaign, featuring ads in the Globe and Mail and pay-per-click ads through Google AdSense targeting business clients who have never used chartered planes and consider executive jets a perk for the wealthy and self-indulgent.

Not true, Buchanan insists. His target market is mid-sized businesses that may have four or five people who need to fly 900 km to 1,600 km, often there and back in a single day. It might be a sales team making a presentation in the U.S. Midwest, a management team reporting to head office on the East Coast or an engineering team headed for a mine in northern Quebec. Once you add up airfares, take into account the time required to negotiate airports and change planes, and add hotel and meal costs, executive charter rates start to look good.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Canada's Best Blogs

Which are Canada's Best Blogs?

Click here to see the winners of the 2006 Canadian Blog Awards. You can click from this page through to all the winners and runners-up.

Congrats to Vancouver Housing Market Blog, which handily won two categories: "Best Business Blog" and "Best Local Blog." It rates a phenomenal 3,000 hits a day (about 30 times the traffic that this blog gets). Here's the power of blogs: It grew from 15,000 hits a month in January to 100,000 in October.

Sadly, Canadian Entrepreneur did not make the cut. For next year, clearly I have to get ALL my relatives onside. :-)

Best-Ever Entrepreneurship Quotes: Week 10

Continuing our weekly series of powerful motivational quotes personally selected to start your week on an inspiring note:

“You will never 'find' time for anything. If you want time you must take it.”
Charles Buxton – UK-based lawyer, academic and Labour Party MP

Okay, so he wasn’t exactly a business leader.
But this is surely the most powerful time-management quote ever. It speaks to the necessity of combining initiative, purpose and urgency – and what could be more entrepreneurial than that?

How might this insight help you prioritize this week?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Who will be The Canadian Entrepreneur of 2006?

The end-of-the-year countdown is underway, and I would like YOU to help me choose the first-ever “Canadian Entrepreneur of 2006” Award.

Let me know who you think has been this year’s most inspiring, successful or impactful Canadian entrepreneur. (“Canadian” being broadly defined as any Canadian-born entrepreneur, any Canadian-resident entrepreneur, or any entrepreneur operating mainly in Canada.)

You can submit as many nominations as you'd like. You can just submit their name(s), or you can tell us in your own words why you think this person should be recognized by this blog. (To submit, leave a comment below or email me at rick (at) rickspence.ca.)

The prize? We’ll salute all the nominees, and then choose a winner who will be profiled in this blog and – perhaps – in a portion of the mainstream media where I have some influence. (That influence is growing, too – watch for an announcement soon!)

Criteria? Winners will be chosen based on their initiative, success, obstacles overcome, and overall impact. Since this blog has readers from sea to sea, I hope we will receive submissions from across the country.

A few examples to get you going: Why not Balsillie and Laziridis of RiM, for their vision, persistence and success in the Blackberry department? Or Kevin O’Leary, the former tech entrepreneur turned angel investor/prince of darkness who made a huge impact this year on TV’s Dragons’ Den?

How about Teresa Cascioli of Lakeport Brewing, for crashing the exclusive beer club with her buck-a-beer brands? Or John Sleeman, who sold the family brewery that he revived single-handedly for big bucks this year?

These are all Ontario examples of the top of my head. I’m hoping outraged readers will send in their own nominations from across this land.

Entry deadline: Dec. 23.

(All nominees will be entered into a draw for the only other Canadian Entrepreneur mug in existence. It’s a priceless prize, so don't forget to check back after Christmas to see if you've won!)

Thursday, December 07, 2006

11 Ways to Improve Your Writing and Your Business

In compiling the secrets of success from some of Canada’s best entrepreneurs for my 1997 book, Secrets of Success from Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies, I realized that many of the attributes of great entrepreneurs – from great marketing skills to planning and HR smarts – stem from old-fashioned communication skills. I’ve been a proponent of strong writing and communication skills ever since.

So I was delighted to find the following article from the Minnesota-based Roberts Group: 11 Ways to Improve Your Writing and Your Business.

Here are the 11 points: feel free to click here for the whole story.

1. Begin with one grain of sand.
2. Give the who, what, when, where, and why.
3. Step up to bat and take a few swings.
4. Adopt a plain writing style.
5. Keep it short.
6. Give the reader a map.
7. Be active.
8. Cut unneeded words and prune windy phrases.
9. Watch out for these four commonly misused words.
10. Stress benefits, not features.
11. Give your writing the conversation test.

Why does simple, clear writing matter? Because your employees spend more time trying to decipher poorly written reports and memos than they spend reading well-written documents. Because employers and customers shun job-seekers and marketers who don't communicate clearly. And, as author Sherry Roberts says, because “People won't buy what they don't understand.

Here’s how you get started.

1. Begin with one grain of sand: Before you start to write any business document, identify the single idea you're trying to get across. Jot it down in one sentence on a note pad next to your keyboard. If you were writing a news story, this would be the headline.

Here are some examples:
You want an appointment to explain your new product. (sales letter)
Using computers to track inventory will save thousands of dollars. (report)
The janitorial crew will be working new hours. (memo)

Your one-line synopsis is a grain of sand; it will help you begin. Large projects can be built from it, but the grain of sand itself is neither overwhelming nor intimidating.

As you write, reread your one-line reminder. It will keep you grounded, focused, on target. Know what you want before you begin to write, and the writing will come more easily.

Get the whole story at http://www.editorialservice.com/11ways.html

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Four Ts of Blogging

I gave a presentation last week on the new interactive online media that are changing the marketing equation: blogs, search, wikis, video, and other digital phenomena you need to know.

It should surprise no one here that I favour blogs as a big marketing play. Blogs are flexible, powerful, they add life to websites, they are loved by search engines, they serve niche markets in intimate ways, they deepen relationships – and some even drive sales. It’s a versatile tool you need to understand.

BUT – blogs aren't for everyone. I count four problems with blogging - four ways that blogging strikes Terror into the hearts of many businesses. Coincidentally, they all start with T.

Time: Blogs require time. Usually, executive (or key employee) time. Sadly, no one cares what your office temp or promotions assistant thinks – they want to hear from your top person or people. And that means you have to take time to think up subjects, to write, and to post.

Talent: To blog successfully, someone in your shop has to know how to write – or you have to hire someone to do it for them. Vague, unclear, ungrammatical and other bad writing will do you no favours.

Topics: Someone, somewhere, has to keep thinking up topics to blog about. In an ideal world, you would get so much feedback and so many comments from your readers that you would never be at a loss for content. But in the real world, you have to post two or three times a week – and you need to have something to say.

Thick Skin: Sometimes people will object to what you write. Some will use your blog as a forum for criticizing you or your company. You have to get comfortable with inviting critics into the tent. As Shel Israel and Robert Scobie say in their book Naked Conversations, you may be surprised to find other customers coming to your defence, which is a wonderful outcome. At any rate, you can certainly defend yourself. But bloggers have to be prepared for pushback.

Business is full of systems and processes and shortcuts that are designed to prevent important, time-pressed employees from committing to regular, ongoing obligations such as blogging. Blogging goes against all common sense in that it asks you to sit down, think and create.

Of course, that’s why blogs are so powerful in the right hands – and useless in the wrong ones.

(There is always the possibility of delegating blogging to trained professionals, such as PR people or outside writers. Purists scoff at letting other people blog for you, but I think it can be done. But you have to agree to work closely with your PR people – and you need the same commitment, the same ability to think and analyze, and the same risk-tolerance as if you were doing it all yourself.)

Make no mistake: the product is worth it - as an archive of company knowledge and experience, a search engine attractor, a relationship-building tool, and as an interactive mechanism for engaging customers and stakeholders in ongoing dialogue. But blogging's freshness and walk-on-the-wild-side creativity will create problems for many firms before they begin to see the light.

Your comments?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Best-Ever Entrepreneurship Quotes: Week 9

Continuing our weekly series of powerful motivational quotes personally selected to get your week off to an inspiring start:

"A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds."
Francis Bacon


English author, courtier, & philosopher (1561 - 1626)

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Project-Management Tips - for entrepreneurs and astronauts

Project management is one of those skills that successful entrepreneurs seem to be born with - and the rest of us have to learn. I’m sure some managers believe studying the top online MBA programs will give them a stellar skill set. In reality, that's not true at all.

Here's a quick course in project management: 100 Rules for Project Managers, as developed by Jerry Madden, Associate Director of the Flight Projects Directorate at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Within 10 years, NASA went from shooting dogs into space (one-way) to sending three men to the moon and bringing them safely back home again. So obviously they learned a thing or two about building effective teams, creating consensus and getting things done.

Here are some of my favourite maxims as collected by Jerry Madden. (You can view and download the whole list here.)

Rule #1: A project manager should visit everyone who is building anything for his project at least once, should know all the managers on his project (both government and contractor), and know the integration team members. People like to know that the project manager is interested in their work, and the best proof is for the manager to visit them and see first hand what they are doing.

Rule #5: Vicious, despicable, or thoroughly disliked persons, gentlemen, and ladies can be project managers. Lost souls, procrastinators, and wishy-washies cannot.

Rule #6: A comfortable project manager is one waiting for his next assignment or one on the verge of failure. Security is not normal to project management.

Rule #10: Not all successful managers are competent and not all failed managers are incompetent. Luck still plays a part in success or failure, but luck favors the competent, hard-working manager.

Rule #15: The seeds of problems are laid down early. Initial planning is the most vital part of a project. The review of most failed projects or project problems indicate the disasters were well planned to happen from the start.

Rule #24: Pay close attention to workaholics—if they get going in the wrong direction, they can do a lot of damage in a short time.

Rule #28: People who monitor work and don't help get it done never seem to know exactly what is going on. (Being involved is the key to excellence.)

Rule #55: Over-engineering is common. Engineers like puzzles and mazes. Try to make them keep their designs simple.

Rule #68: Remember the boss has the right to make decisions. Even if you think they are wrong, tell the boss what you think but if he still wants it done his way; do it his way and do your best to make sure the outcome is successful.

And my favourite:
Rule #83: Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. It is also occasionally the best help you can give. Just listening is all that is needed on many occasions. You may be the boss, but if you constantly have to solve someone's problems, you are working for him.

Check out the whole list here.