Monday, September 29, 2008

Dragons Den returns!

Season III of Dragons' Den begins tonight at 8 pm on CBC TV (check local listings). There will be 11 episodes this year.

Watch for lots more deals this season, and for the fur to really fly as rookie panelist Brett Wilson, a socially conscious oilman from Saskatchewan, challenges Kevin ("All I care about is mon-ey") O'Leary for the position of Top Dragon.

To get you into the spirit, there's lots of good stuff at the Dragons' Den website, including episode previews, consulting dragon Sean Wise's "Inside the Den" blog (with lots of teasers and pitcher updates), and a chance to vote for your favorite pitchers. Starting today, apparently, the site will even allow you to buy products that are pitched on the Den. Check it all out at www.cbc.ca/dragonsden/

The latest issue of PROFIT Magazine has a special preview of the new season. The story package includes:

* Profiles of all five Dragons

* A fun story by Sean Wise describing the types of "pitchers" the show encounters. His taxonomy includes blowfish ("We're the next Google!"), cockroaches (they get crushed by big competitors), ostriches (three years in business and no sales yet?), and giraffes (their heads are in the clouds). Click here for more.

* My article looking back at three entrepreneurs who appeared on the show, and what happened next. Whether they won deals or not, things started to happen for them pretty fast. Was it dragon sorcery - or the magic that begins whenever you start taking action and thinking positively? Click here for the full story.

* A useful primer on other sources of startup capital, from credit cards to the BDC and angel investors. For those who don't need Dragon magic.

Hit the "Comments" button to let us know what you think of the show.

Small Business Month starts with a bang

For 1,000 Canadian entrepreneurs, October is going to be the month they turn the dial on their marketing up to 11.

Toronto marketing firm Silver Lining Inc. is launching a cross-country tour Oct. 1 to recharge entrepreneurs and help them build a strategic one-year growth plan.

The system is the brainchild of Silver Lining founder Carissa Reiniger, who is also using the tour to promote the launch of her new book, Inspiring Entrepreneurs: How to Build Your Business To Its First Million. She is also launching a new website geared to entrepreneurs, called thesiteforentrepreneurs.com.

Both the book and the website launch on Oct. 1.

Yes, Carissa is the same 26-year-old entrepreneur I wrote about in the Financial Post a few weeks ago who has just taken over as president of Women Entrepreneurs of Canada. Ah, the energy of youth!

Free to attend, the Silver Lining seminars are sponsored by a host of organizations, including Research In Motion, Staples Business Depot, Intuit Canada, and Citi Financial. Each half-day event includes Reiniger’s presentation plus a half-hour workshop by a local accountant on “Financial Planning for Growth.”

Most of the events take place at Staples stores across Canada. The launch event on Wednesday, Oct. 1 takes place at the Ontario Investment and Trade CentreGalleria, 250 Yonge Street, in Toronto. Things get underway at 8 am each day.

Here’s the tour schedule:
October 1: Toronto
October 2: Ottawa
October 9:Winnipeg
October 14: Edmonton
October 15: Calgary
October 16: Regina
October 17: Vancouver
October 20: Halifax
October 22: Moncton
October 24: St. John's

You can register for these free events by clicking here.

Naturally, Reiniger is planning a similar U.S. tour for January-February 2008. Details to follow.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Entrepreneur of the Week: James Fleck

This week we salute long-time entrepreneur, business professor and philanthropist James Fleck, who was honoured tonight at a $500-a-plate dinner for his accomplishments in business, the arts and society at large.

Fleck, 77, founded Tillsonburg, Ont.-based Fleck Manufacturing Inc. almost half a century ago. Specializing in wiring systems for appliances, it started with 10 employees and a piece of wire. When it was sold to Noma Industries in 1994 for $42 million, it had 3,000 employees and $100 million in annual sales.

Fleck has since spent his time helping to build other standout businesses, such as Alias Research, ATI, and CUC Cable.

At the same time, Fleck has also had a standout career in academia (he’s taught at Harvard Business School, York University and the University of Toronto) and government. He was CEO of the Office of the Premier of Ontario, Secretary of the Cabinet, and deputy minister of Industry and Tourism.

The 600 attendees at the tribute dinner included a who's who of Toronto arts, business leaders and politicians, and senior staff of every arts group Fleck has helped over the years. Proceeds will go to LOFT Community Services, which provides housing and support for 4,000 homeless people in Toronto. Fleck himself will match the proceeds, promising to donate $100,00 each to the National Ballet of Canada, Soulpepper Theatre and Rotman School’s “Prosperity Institute.”

As Roger Martin, dean of the U of T’s Rotman School of Management, writes on the Fleck tribute website (http://www.jimfleckgala.com/), “Dr. Fleck is truly a Renaissance man with accomplishments in so many fields it is both breathtaking and humbling. In many ways, he is the perfect honouree … because of his accomplishments in fields spanning Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Urban Design, Museum Studies, Health Science and Social Work in addition to Management."

Martin also refers to an innovation that Fleck developed as he raised funds for his various causes: the “Fleck Flinch Test.” It may just work for you, too. Here’s how it works:

“When on a fund-raising call, the rule states, think of a number you think appropriate for the donor – let’s say $5000 – and ask the donor for that number – $5000. Watch their face and if they flinch before they have a chance to say no, clarify that you are asking for $5000 over five years, $1000 per year. If they don’t flinch, clarify that you are asking for $5000 per year for five years. I will probably never be as effective as Jim Fleck using the Fleck Flinch Test, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t use it often.”

Congratulations to the multitalented James Fleck, our Entrepreneur of the Week.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Hottest of the Hot

Congratulations to Richmond Hill, Ont.-based MortgageBrokers.com, which ranks No. 1 on PROFIT Magazine’s Hot 50 list of emerging growth companies.

The new list is available in the October issue of PROFIT, or online by clicking here.

The Hot 50 list, founded nine years ago as “Canada’s Hottest Startups,” ranks emerging companies (three and four years old) by two-year revenue growth to find out what sectors are sizzling and who’s getting traction, how. The ranking originated in the dot-com days, but many different types of companies have always made the list.

Twenty of the top 50 this year are involved in business services, seven in software development, five in distribution and five in construction. There are four manufacturers, and four companies in consumer services. Rounding out the ranks are three retailers and two online publishers.

The diversity in the Top 5 is fascinating. There’s a network of mortgage brokers (MortgageBrokers.com), a Calgary-based drilling company (Pacesetter), a land developer (Simcoe Canada Land Development), a model-train manufacturer (Rapido Trains Inc.) and a developer of business-improvement software (Ottawa-based Apption).

To show just how new and hip this group is, two of the top five companies are based in Concord, Ont., a fast-growing Toronto suburb most Canadians couldn't find on a map.

What do these companies all have in common? A clear vision in a specific niche market, commitment to service and product innovation, and some facility in raising capital.

The result: average two-year revenue growth of 756%. The average company on the Hot 50 has sales of $6.7 million and employs 41 people.

And here’s some more good news: seven of the CEOs (14%) are women. While that’s not a huge percentage, it’s a big improvement over the ratio found on most lists of Canadian growth companies.

Here’s where to find more information:
* Browse the Hot 50 Rankings
* Read the thematic Overview
* How fast-growth companies hire
* Management lessons from the PROFIT HOT 50

Friday, September 19, 2008

Time for a motivational check-up?

Early birds save money at the SOHO Business Conference and Expo, coming up soon in Toronto (Oct. 1) and Vancouver (Oct. 15).

Both conferences feature a main presentation on “The Future of Marketing on the Internet,” by Kerry Munro, general manager of Yahoo! Canada. Their major afternoon speaker will be Kyle MacDonald, a B.C. blogger who captured the world's attention when he set out to trade a single red paper-clip for a house. Fourteen trades and countless stories later, he succeeded – demonstrating the power of vision, building relationships, and thinking big.

Some portions of the conferences, including seminars and trade show, are free if you pre-register ($25 at the door).

The Toronto conference, held this year at the Westin Prince Hotel in North York, includes freebie presenters such as the amazing Michel Neray (“Everything Starts With a Conversation, Including Your Next Sale!”), Shane Lawrence of TD Bank (“Proven Techniques To Improve Your Cash Flow”), Rory (“Find your Magic Number”) Sheehan, and Elizabeth Williams on “Telecommunication Technologies and Trends: How All that Annoying Stuff Your Kids Use Can Actually Help Your Business.”

Let’s face it. You could use a boost of business motivation. You need a personal recharge day. Your vision is probably in need of a check-up. And you really should improve your understanding of today’s newest marketing tools.

What’s stopping you?
For more information or to pre-register, check out http://www.soho.ca/.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Political Paradox

We don't usually get political on this blog. But I was impressed with the way Garrison Keillor, the Minnesota-based author and broadcaster (Lake Wobegon, A Prairie Home Companion) managed to capture, in a recent column, the central paradox of John McCain's campaign.

"So the Republicans have decided to run against themselves. The bums have tiptoed out the back door and circled around to the front and started yelling, "Throw the bums out!" They've been running Washington like a well-oiled machine to the point of inviting lobbyists into the back rooms to write the legislation, and now they are anti-establishment reformers dedicated to delivering us from themselves."

That's pretty much what was bothering me during the whole Republican convention two weeks ago. Although I couldn't put it into words the way he did.

To read the rest of Keillor's column, click here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

7 Survival Skills for Tomorrow's Leaders

What entrepreneurial skills do today’s students need to succeed?

I took a crack at that question in a presentation yesterday to about 50 students at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. They were attending a get-acquainted session for SIFE (Students in Free Enterprise) – the Laurier branch of an international organization dedicated to building students' business and entrepreneurial savvy.

SIFE is a remarkable organization. Through SIFE, students across Canada get involved in ambitious projects designed not only to build their skills, but make the world a better place. A few of the programs SIFE Laurier is working on: helping coffee-growers in Mexico create a fair-trade co-operative; teaching business skills to inmates of a woman’s prison in Kitchener; and helping disadvantaged aboriginals in Toronto start businesses.

Building on this week’s apocalyptic events on Wall Street, I warned the students that they will be graduating into an increasingly uncertain world, where big business and government no longer have the answers. It will be up to each of them to carve their own path.

And these are the seven key disciplines I suggested they master:

* Critical thinking: Learn to question everything, to look for alternative solutions. Find the weaknesses in other people’s ideas and plans. Learn to articulate what is wrong with them and why things should be different.

* Understand strategy: Strategy is a consistent process of analyzing your assets and liabilities, understanding your opportunities, setting objectives and making appropriate plans to meet them. Strategic planning is the key tool of business. Planning what we'll do before we do it is what separates us from the apes.

* Understand a balance sheet: If you don't know how much money you have, and how long it’s likely to last, you won't be in business for long.

* Understand how to communicate: Your ability to tell explain your ideas, and convince other people to share in your enthusiasm, is essential to success in life and in business.

* Learn to tell stories. Stories are the way humans have always exchanged knowledge and information. Tell stories with beginnings, middles and end, heroes and villains and quests and obstacles. This is how people remember information; not through facts and names and statistics, but through stories.

* Embrace the Responsibility of Leadership: The world needs leaders. Leaders are simply people with ideas and visions, and the ability to convince other people to follow their lead. Confidence, passion and integrity are the leys to leadership.

* Give back: Virtually every successful entrepreneur I know is committed to giving back. No business succeeds alone: businesses win by engaging the support of whole communities of employees, investors, customers and supporters. In my experience, most business owners want to give back to the community that nourished their companies, and they are generous in doing so. They believe in kharma.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Entrepreneur of the Week: Dick Gusella refines the oil business

Seven years ago, Calgary-based Connacher Oil and Gas was worth about $1 million. This year, it has doubled quarterly revenues to the $200-million mark, and this month it cracked the Alberta Venture list of Alberta’s 100 largest companies. And it’s all due to CEO Dick Gusella, whose vision and entrepreneurial smarts have built Alberta’s newest “mini-major.”

Gusella, the 66-year-old former head of Sceptre Resources, had several business setbacks in the past decade (remember when oil was selling at $10 a barrel?). “I had to start over again when I was 58 years old,” he says.

In 2001 he and a few partners bought a shell company and then raised $1 million from investors. Today Connacher is an integrated oil producer with interests in conventional crude, natural gas, oil-sands production and refining – at a time when most of the industry is specializing in “pure plays” (just one form of production). “We are where we are consciously as opposed to sheer serendipity,” says Gusella. “Our attitude was to bring an oilfield approach to the oilsands instead of the megaproject mentality.”

Connacher's big break came when its technical team identified some promising properties being sold by the Crown near Fort McMurray. In January 2004, while most people were still recovering from Christmas, Connacher acquired 98,000 acres for $1.3 million. Just one site on that property, dubbed Pod One, is now known to contain enough bitumen to produce 10,000 barrels of oil a day – for 25 years.

Oilsands production requires lots of natural gas, so Gusella acquired a gas producer. Then he bought a 10,000-barrel-a-day heavy-oil refinery in Montana. As a result, he’s achieved true balance – if gas prices rise, he’s protected. If bitumen-refining capacity shrinks, he’s still okay.

Pod One began commercial production last December. By June, quarterly revenues had leapt to $200 million – and a second processing plant is in the works. As one analyst told Alberta Venture magazine, “You can't argue with results.”

We Easterners tend not to know a lot about the oil business, but it’s as dynamic and creative as any industry. For never giving up, for buying low, and for cracking the top 100 by defying conventional wisdom, Canadian Entrepreneur is proud to select Dick Gusella as its Entrepreneur of the Week.
(For more info on Connacher, click here.)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Turnaround at WEC

Last week's Post column dealt with some of the positive changes at WEC, Women Entrepreneurs of Canada.

When it began nearly two decades ago,WEC seemed determined to be a national voice for women business owners. It has been pretty quiet lately. But I was talking to the president-elect, Carissa Reiniger recently, and she's working on initiatives that will change all that.


Unfortunately, some members of WEC have taken offence at my article. They say the new plan has been in the works for quite a while, under the current board which is mostly leaving office later this month. They seem to bridle at Reiniger getting all the credit.

I certainly apologize to anyone who feels put out. Reiniger at no point criticized the current board or executive, and neither did my article. My comments about the weak pulse at WEC has been uttered many times by many entrepreneurs I have met in recent years. And everyone will welcome WEC's return to relevance.

Congrats to the current board (which includes Reiniger), and to the incoming board members, for a great plan. Now let's see the new folks execute.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The quotes keep coming!

The fact that our “Best Ever” quotes series has just come to an end doesn't mean you won't find any more inspirational quotes on this blog. It just means you don't have to wait till Monday for them!

So here’s a great quote from Donald A. Connelly, a U.S. motivational speaker and marketing consultant to the retail brokerage industry. He’s been a Wall Street broker, financial planner, branch manager, wholesaler, national sales manager and senior marketing officer.

This quote should be printed out and hung on the office walls of all growth-oriented entrepreneurs:

"The more successful we become, the further we get away from the basics that made us successful in the first place. In the final analysis, it all comes down to remembering the basics and keeping the focus on your clients' needs."

Connelly is well known for simplifying business concepts. It doesn't get any simpler than this.
You can visit his website for more.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Entrepreneur of the Week, Part I: The Return of Aaron Fish

Nearing the age of 70, award-winning Montreal entrepreneur Aaron Fish sold his lock-making company, Unican, in early 2001. But fate decided that seven years of retirement was enough. A year ago, Fish bought back the east-end Montreal factory where Unican first began.

And now, by working closely with his staff to lower costs and increase efficiency, Fish has returned that plant to profitability and is creating a new model for manufacturing in the 21st century.

Times had been tough for Unican since its $880-million sale to Swiss-based Kaba Holdings. Capital Industries Ltd., the lock and furniture-handle factory from which Unican sprang, employed 683 employees in 2001; by last year the staff had fallen below 200. The problem, as you might guess: fierce overseas competition.

Last November, according to journalist Marianne Ackerman, writing in the Montreal Gazette, Fish spurned his wife's advice and bought back that part of the company. "I bought it on Wednesday,” Fish boasts, “and by Monday morning we were in the black!"

It didn't come easy. Fish cut out the management fees paid to Kaba, and outsourced costly accounting and legal services to small local firms. He also cut a deal with his staff : if they agreed to a freeze of their pension plans, they would get 25% of future pre-tax profits. According to Ackerman, sales started growing almost immediately.

"Manufacturing is not dead in Canada," says Fish. "What we have to do is put our heads together with employees and find ways to compete, look for new markets and new ways of doing things."

Half of Capital's business is in metal furniture parts such as door handles. The rest involves components for locks and electronics. "We are not the most efficient operation around," says Fish. "If you need 50,000 of something, go to China. But if you want 10,000 and assured delivery, call us."

With rising labour rates in China and increasing transportation costs, Fish foresees a resurgence of specialty manufacturing in North America. Capital is now looking at opportunities in aerospace and transportation. “Bring us the designs," says Fish, "and we can make pretty well anything."

For perseverance, creativity, his concern for others and his unbounded confidence, Canadian Entrepreneur is proud to name Aaron Fish our first Entrepreneur of the Week.

You can read his full story here.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Coming Monday: Entrepreneur of the Week!

I've been dropping hints about the new Monday series that will replace the "Best Ever" Motivational Quotes we've been running for the past two years.

The new series is: Entrepreneur of the Week. A weekly salute to a Canadian business owner or innovator who has captured our imagination (or the headlines).

It's a bit of a gamble - but we think we can find someone worthy of the title every week. Your suggestions and nominations will always be welcome. Just email rick (at) rickspence.ca.

How will we choose them? An Entrepreneur of the Week must embody most of these seven entrepreneurial traits and values:

* Innovation
* Success
* Risk-Taking
* Creativity
* Growth
* Strategy
* Impact

We'll see you Monday for our first Entrepreneur of the Week. This owner's story will be as dramatic as it inspiring.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Starting a Business in one easy question

I just started using Yahoo’s online “Answers” service to suss out some anecdotal information for an upcoming speech. Today I discovered its daily archive of questions relating to “small business.” Scores of people looking for very specific business intelligence, such as how to conduct online surveys, how to make aromatic candles, or, hmm, how to recruit actors for an adult video business.

Anyway, the more general questions fit my expertise. I wrote the following reply to a recent college grad who says he hates his current job and wants to open a private music studio in his apartment. (Of course, most of this advice will relate to starting any kind of business.)

Some of the best businesses in the world have been started by people who hated their jobs and longed for something else. But new businesses fail when they are launched on impulse, without proper planning. Don't you make the same mistake.

You will be telling your students to practice every day - and so should you. In business, it's called planning. You must know what your costs are going to be, how much you will charge, how many students you need to make a profit, and how you are going to attract them.

Set out a timeline for starting your business. Allow adequate time for researching the market, preparing demo videos, developing a professional name and logo, researching your pricing, identifying potential allies and partners, creating a thoughtful marketing plan, and exploring zoning and licensing laws (you can flout them if you want, but you should know what the laws are that you are flouting),

Most importantly, find a mentor (or maybe two): someone who has run a business like yours, knows what he or she is doing, and is willing to share experiences and teach you the ropes. Don't try to do it all yourself: you will be wasting time reinventing the wheel and making old mistakes.

You may have to stick with your job for another few months. But it will be easier knowing that you are working on an exit plan. And you will have more time to bank money to support you during the first lean months.

For online advertising, learn about pay-per-click ads: Google AdWords, for instance. They let you target people who are searching for information on specific keywords - say, "music teacher" or "saxophone lessons" - within your own geographical market. And you pay (say, 20 cents a click - you set the price!) only if someone clicks through to your website.

Your site can be a one-page information site to start - that often comes free when you buy a domain name.

The good news is that since you are used to working for minimum wage, your revenue goals can be modest. If you are good at what you do, and you do a proper marketing job, you should have no problem replacing that income.

Follow your dreams - but run a check on them first to make sure they make sense.


* For more questions and answers on small business issues, check out Yahoo Answers here.

Should you start using Yahoo Answers? It may help your search engine positioning. I registered three days ago. Today my Yahoo registration (with my scanty record of questions and answers) ranks 9th when you Google my name. That ranks ahead of all my columns in the National Post or (sigh) 19 years of writing for PROFIT Magazine...

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Did your RickAlert arrive this week?

In answer to many (okay, three) requests, two months ago I started sending out a weekly email with a link to my latest Financial Post column (and occasional other writings in PROFIT, MoneySense or TechData magazines). It's small-business intelligence on demand!

If this offer sounds enticing, just send an email to rick(at)rickspence.ca. Please mention "RickAlert" in your subject heading or text, and I will add you to the mailing list.

RickAlerts contain no advertising, and you can cancel your subscription any time. And of course I won't sell, rent or otherwise abuse your email address. That's just bad business.

This week's Post column looks at ways to beat the current slowdown, hands-down. It ends with a rhetorical flourish that' s meant to remind us that things really are cheerier now than in past recessions:

Excerpt: "...There are also opportunities that were unimaginable in the recessions of the '80s and '90s: the emergence of voracious new consumer markets in India and China; vibrant commodities and exploration markets; the increase of free-trade deals with foreign markets (and the exporting infrastructure to go with them); the boom in health care and personal services for affluent Baby Boomers and the availability of low-cost e-commerce options....
The future really is in your hands."

For the full story, click here.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Easy Zoom, Easy Go

The CBC website has a mainly sympathetic story about Anglo-Canadian entrepreneurs Hugh and John Boyle, whose six-year-old Zoom Airlines Ltd. crashed and burned last week.

The article describes Hugh Boyle as “the classic entrepreneur: a man with ideas, and energy, and a great deal of self-confidence. And he's followed a classic path: start with next to nothing, win big, retire, get bored, start again. And fail.”

The Scottish-born Boyles made their fortune in Britain in the direct-sell travel business. Hugh retired and moved to Ottawa in 1998, where he became frustrated with the lack of direct airline flights to sun destinations. In 2000 he started his own direct-sell tour operator, and then launched Zoom to provide airplanes for his tour company.

Before the closure, 2007, Zoom and its British sister company Zoom Airlines Ltd. had more than 600 staff and revenue of some $250 million. The business was apparently quite profitable until rising oil prices hiked costs expenses by an additional $50 million a year.

Asked in late 2007 if anyone had told him he was crazy for starting Zoom, Hugh told the Ottawa Business Journal, "I probably am. My wife tells me I am most days."

Also interesting, as always, are the reader comments. One CBC.ca reader praises Zoom for filling a market gap with its transatlantic flights, while another lambastes the company for selling tickets right up until the closure, and for deserting and/or stranding passengers without notice.

Sadly, this has emerged as a common risk that Canadians take when they fly with discount airlines. You never know if you’re home free until you’re safely back home.

Other than that, I don’t fuss over these airline bankruptcies. Most passengers get their money back, and in the meantime thousands of Canadians have saved big money on their vacations.

It’s very different from other businesses. If a factory closes down, the jobs and the value it created are usually gone forever: the equipment gets scattered, and the owner’s web of customer/supplier relationships can’t be duplicated. But when an airline closes down, the planes are merely re-leased or resold, and there’s always another entrepreneur willing to try his luck and start again (giving the workers a chance to stay in the industry).

Happy Trails, Zoom; what colours will your planes wear next?

For the full story, click here.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Best-Ever Entrepreneurship Quotes, Week 100

This is No. 100 in our series of weekly inspirational business quotes. I hope you have enjoyed this series; you can never have enough motivation. In fact, you can re-read any entry in this series any time by browsing though our archives).

We conclude this series with an observation from John W. Dafoe, greatest of Canadian newspaper editors, as well as a publisher, statesman and canny marketer. Born in "Canada West" near Ottawa before Confederation, he watched the country grow up and assume the responsibilties of nationhood through his 43-year stint as editor of the Winnipeg Free Press. (He died in harness in 1944, stll editing the paper at age 78.)

Perhaps only a Western Canadian, filled with boundless optimism, could have said, as he did in the middle of the Dirty Thirties, "The future will be what we make it." But such a sentiment is surely the hallmark of our greatest entrepreneurs.

Next week: An exciting new weekly series begins. Please join us.