Friday, October 31, 2008

Render the Competition "Irrelevant"

My Financial Post column this week looks at one Ontario entrepreneur's singular growth formula: making the competition irrelevant.

Tony Lourakis of Complete Innovations Inc. nurtures relationships with big partners, uses a national army of sales reps, offers bite-size monthly payments, and relieves his clients' capital-budget burdens. As a result, sales in his key product line have doubled in the last year.

His formula for rendering rivals irrelevant?

"You do it by being innovative," says Lourakis. "You have to build value into your business or products or services that your competition can't match."

The proof is in the pudding. In the past year, Complete Innovations has doubled sales, to $10-million, and Lourakis credits that growth to continuing organic innovation. "We have companies that are in our space, but can't compete with us," he says.

Click here to read the full story.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ten Low-Cost Ways to Promote Your Business

Looking to promote your business? Don't rent a chicken suit!

Susan Ward, who runs the Small Business Canada forum for About.com, recently offered 10 low-cost ways to promote your business.

1) Use every outgoing piece of paper (and every electronic document) for business promotion. Put your slogan on your business cards, stationery, faxes, bill payments and receipts. “Whatever paper you send out should carry your full company message,” she says.

2) Write articles on topics related to your business expertise. Well-written articles can provide free advertising and build positive word-of-mouth.

3) Send out press releases. Just remember that your press releases have to contain information that's newsworthy, “and be engaging enough to get people's interest.”

4) Spend some of your online time on business promotion. Posting messages in forums (a.k.a. bulletin boards) can expose your business to people you might otherwise never contact.

5) Use buddy marketing to promote your business. Example: if you send out brochures, include a leaflet or business card from another business that agrees to do the same for you.

6) Give out freebies as business promotion. Remember lining up at a local store when they were giving away something free (CDs? ice cream? roses?) to the first 50 customers? “This kind of spot promotion works.”

7) Promote your business on a talk show. Local radio or cable TV stations have programs that are looking for guests. Find out who the host is, and let him or her know you're willing to share your expertise.

8) Promote your business by giving a seminar or presentation. You have expertise that other people need – or you wouldn't be in business. Share that expertise and promote your business at the same time.

9) Use your vehicle to promote your business. Ward says 25% of vehicles in her neighborhood bear the name and phone number of a business. She says you can get a pair of magnetic signs for under $100.

10) Promote your business through your leisure activities. “Get in the habit of doing business promotion wherever you go," says Ward. "You'll be surprised how word-of-mouth builds.”

Ward’s article includes lots of useful details and tips. Click here for the full story.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Looking for Green Companies

For a client, I am looking for examples of Ontario companies that have seriously adopted "green" approaches to conducting their business.

Examples could include solid commitments to recycling, reducing waste, managing "greener" fleets, reducing packaging waste, more eco-logical architecture or product design, anti-pollution measures, carbon offsets, incentives for car-pooling, etc., etc. Companies can be any size, and in any industry.

If you know of a company that fills the bill, can you let me know? You may hit "reply", and tell everyone the good news, or you may email me at Rick (at) RickSpence.ca.

Thanks very much!

Friday, October 24, 2008

The PROFIT Small Business Show

Mark your calendar for Nov. 13, when PROFIT Magazine beams a top-notch business conference directly to your desktop.

The PROFIT Small Business Show presents four dynamic speakers on business trends you need to know. Their goal: to give you the motivation and tools you need to grow your business. And it’s all FREE.

Starting at 10 am (EST) on Nov. 13, you will hear from:

Mike Lipkin, President of Environics/Lipkin
Keeper of the Flame: How to Inspire Other on the Cusp of Change

Lipkin helps you understand and execute the 10 steps to being a Keeper of The Flame. Examples: someone who goes first; someone with a heightened awareness of his impact on others; someone who is his own best coach; someone in total sync with her environment; someone embedded with the authority of both competence and character; someone who inspires others to be their personal best.

Jaynie L. Smith, Founder and President of Smart Advantage
Competitive Advantage: Is Yours a Hit or a Myth?

According to Smith, 95% of CEOs do not know their company’s true competitive advantage. She will provide the backbone of a new strategic planning, sales and marketing campaign that depends on clearly defined competitive advantages and not just the undifferentiated company “strengths” that most businesses claim to have.

Brian Beaulieu, Economist, Institute for Trend Research
The Future of Your Business: Economic Road Signs You Need to See
As one of North America’s most outspoken, entertaining and accurate economic forecasters, Brian can help you plan confidently for your company’s future, protect your business from economic threats and jump on opportunities.

Andrew Patricio, Partner, BizLaunch
How To Promote Your Business on the Internet
Discover how to develop an online strategy to help you bring in more customers, boost productivity, and save money using tools Web tools such as search engine optimization and LinkedIn.

POWER PANEL: Secrets of Success
Featuring CEOs from the PROFIT 100 Hall of Fame
* Tony Lacavera, President & CEO, Globalive Communications;
* Rebecca MacDonald, Co-Founder, Chair & CEO, Energy Savings Group of Companies
* John Nemanic, Director, GeeksForLess & TransGaming Technologies

You can also participate in a special Networking Lounge. Meet your peers, chat live with other entrepreneurs, exchange business cards and participate in discussion boards. I don't know how it will work, but it seems a great way to combine the convenience of online with the networking you need. Give it a shot, and see if it works. Maybe this is the future of conferencing!

For more info, click here.
To register, click here.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

More tips for troubled times

Still on the recession watch, here’s a list of best management practices for tough times – as compiled by the folks at Toronto-based Newport Partners, an organization that provides both financial and management advice to business owners.

Newport recently gathered together a number of business owners in their network to share war stories and “lessons learned.” Here are some highlights.

1. Cash is king. According to Newport Partners’ Don Lenz, “The companies and the individuals who manage through these periods successfully are the ones who stay close to shore.” Until greater certainty returns to the economy, build your cash position. Look at every expense to find areas you can trim. Stretch out your payables.

As one entrepreneur commented, “It’s not the time to be the best payer. It’s not the time for vision. It’s a time for managing cash.”

2. Communicate to your employees, your customers, your suppliers and your bankers. Says Lenz, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant. It’s better to have people aware of the challenges you’re experiencing and what you’re doing about them than to deliver negative surprises.”

3. Help your customers through their tough times. According to Gus Gougoulias of Gusgo Transport, “Sometimes people drop their pricing because they think that’s what’s expected [in tough times]. But you win more by providing extraordinary service and staying close to your best customers. When they go through tough times, share with them in the best way possible. If they need you to stay open seven days a week, do it - just make sure it works from a cost point of view. When the good times return, your customers will continue their loyalty to your business relationship.”

4. Consider strategic moves that don’t involve capital. Look at mergers, joint ventures or even informal partnerships. Mergers can reduce overhead and sometimes provide strategic opportunities while partnerships can reduce risk and open up new opportunities.

If you want to read the full report, drop me an e-mail at rick (at) rickspence.ca. I will e-mail you the full text of Newport's release (in handy PDF format). It has three more points for running your business better, and seven tips for managing your personal fortune (if any).

My column in the Financial Post this week covers similar ground. To read "Nurturing relationships key in tough times," just click here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

7 Deadly Sins

My speech to the Toronto Business Development Centre on Wednesday night attracted a capacity crowd of apprentice entrepreneurs to talk about The Seven Deadly Sins of Startups.

What are the seven sins? I thought you'd never ask.

1. Assuming that anyone wants your product (the importance of market research – and not falling in love with your product or business)

2. Overlooking your financials (Not knowing how much you're selling and spending is a recipe for disaster)

3. Misunderstanding the point of your business plan (Hint: it’s not for the bank, it’s for you)

4. Not raising enough capital (more entrepreneurs need to do a better job of sourcing cash)

5. Thinking that “If you build it, they will come” (AKA, no, one website does not a global business make)

6. Neglecting risk and underestimating the power of insurance (risk management is your most important job!)

7. Trying to do it all yourself (no entrepreneur is an island: they need advisors, mentors and trusted peers).

After my presentation, we had a lively Q&A session. At least half the questions revolved around insurance. I found many people have no idea where to even get started finding out what they need in this complex and fast-changing market.

There’s huge opportunity out there for any insurance provider who can get its message through to small business.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What to do when times get tight

When tough times hit, you have to invest in your best asset: you. Your skills, your knowledge, your potential.

With Small Business Week coming up next week, there will be conferences and seminars across the nation dedicated to building your business acumen. Do yourself a favour and participate. You'll meet new contacts, sharpen your skills, and maybe even learn something new.
You can find a list of Small Business Week-related events here (courtesy of the Business Development Bank).

Alberta
British Columbia
Manitoba
New Brunswick
Newfoundland and Labrador
Nova Scotia
Ontario
Prince Edward Island
Qu├ębec
Saskatchewan

Friday, October 10, 2008

Counter-recessionary intelligence

Recession Week continues here at Canadian Entrepreneur. Here are a few recent media items that may help you cope with what's going on.

1. The Globe Explains it All for You: For those who don't understand what exactly is going on in the financial markets and why it's hitting you where you live (which includes most of us), GlobeandMail.com is running a regular series of articles answering common questions about the fiscal crisis.

Some of the questions are basic ("What is the TED spread?", "Should you lock in your mortgage?"), while some would have been unthinkable a month ago (e.g., "Who owns CMHC and can it go under?", and "Can a country actually go bankrupt?").

Follow the long, meandering meltdown here.

2. National Post had a good interview recently with Les Mandelbaum, owner of Umbra Ltd., a household knicknacks design company that's been globally successful - until recently. This spring, in response to rising costs, Umbra laid off 10% of its workforce and shut down a warehouse in Buffalo, NY.

But Mandelbaum remains confident that useful, well designed products will always find a market. He sees three criteria for products that will do well in a downturn: they must fulfill a function that previous products don't, they must look good, and they must be priced reasonably. "You get those three things working, it doesn't matter about the economy."

Read the whole story here.

3. To find out how small business is coping, Inc. Magazine asked some of its top "30 under 30" entrepreneurs about their experiences in the latest crisis. Here's a sample.

Q: How is the crisis affecting your business? "From consumers, while we haven't seen overall sales suffer too much, we have seen a drop-off in big purchases in the last week, quite remarkably."

Q: Has credit been harder to get? "Definitely. I still haven't been able to get anything but very basic credit, and I've recently seen requirements for loans and other growth capital increasing in scope and complexity. As for investment, the last month has been a rollercoaster with investors, but I'm also seeing the appetite for angel investments increasing as brick and mortar investments actually start to look safe compared to the stock markets. This is a good thing."

Lots of variations, lots of opinions. Check out the full story here.

This didn't have to happen

Brett Popplewell of the Toronto Star has a touching story today about the pending closure of one of Canada’s oldest businesses: Gibbard Furniture Shops of Napanee, Ont. The furniture maker is 173 years old, and one of Canada’s last pre-Confederation factories.

Gibbard makes carefully detailed, lovingly finished high-end furniture. It was once described by Eaton’s as “the aristocrat of cabinetmakers.” Its website still boasts of “our twenty-step finishing and rubbing process.”

Closing the doors "was the hardest decision that we ever had to make," said Bruce McPherson Jr., who owns the business along with his two brothers and his father. "The company has been up for sale for 15 months, and although we had a lot of interest, it just wasn't happening."

The Star blames Gibbard's pending demise on cheaply manufactured offshore imports. Well, that and the fact that a mahogany dining table and chairs from Gibbard sell for $7,900, vs about $900 for an imported set made with veneered particleboard.

The writer says “it's a source of pride to McPherson” that Gibbard never lowered its standards. Yet he also notes that McPherson “lowers his eyes to the floor and speaks with a hint of regret” as he says, "We maybe didn't need to pay as much attention to detail."

McPherson knows the real problem. He says, "We make furniture that lasts a lifetime... People don't want that anymore."

I hate to see old traditions and heritage industries die. But the fact remains that business is about creating what the market wants – not what you feel like making. If you just want to amuse yourself, you become an artist and starve. If you want your business to survive and thrive, you do what the market tells you.

As I told an audience in Markham the other day in my speech on Marketing in an Uncertain Economy, “Change is part of life and a key part of business. Stability is the exception. We must always be ready for change, and ready to change.”

You can't fall in love with your product. Popplewell writes that a highlight of Gibbard's factory showroom is an 1869 walnut buffet table. According to McPherson, “An elderly lady had this piece in her family for years. She was getting old and wanted to give it away as an heirloom but none of her family wanted it. So she gave it to us.”

I feel for the McPhersons and the 85 employees who stand to lose their jobs. Hopefully, many of them will stick with their work as artisans, and keep the spirit and craft alive.

But when people can't give your product away, it’s change or die.

Read the original story here. It’s terrific, sad and enlightening.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Offspring of the Last Recession

Do strong companies start in the midst of recessions?

Let’s find out. Here is a partial list of companies that were founded in the midst of (or the immediate aftermath) of the 1990-91 recession. All were founded in 1991, '92 or '93. By the year 2000 all were ranked among Canada’s 200 fastest-growing companies by PROFIT Magazine.

Boardwalk Equities
DataMirror Corp.
TLC Laser Eye Centers
Sierra Wireless
Spin Master Toys
Open Text Corp.
Platform Computing
Angiotech Pharmaceuticals
Aware Marketing Group
BRAK Systems Inc. (founded by Robert Herjavec, sold to AT&T Canada in 2000)
RTO Enterprises
Dundas Software Limited.
Triple G Systems (Acquired by GE Healthcare)
Mad Science Group
Summer Fresh Salads
Applanix Corp.
Custom House Currency Exchange
Peak Financial Group
KIK Corp.
MTL Technologies
Biovail Corp.
Total Care Technologies
LearnStream Inc.
Canadian Plastic Lumber
Gary Jonas Computing (Jonas Software)
Chipworks Inc.
e Bridge Software
Jewelstone Systems (acquired by AGF Management in 2002 for $60 milllion)
Transpeed Express
Duplium Corp.
AMR Technologies
Chariot Carriers Inc.
Drug Royalty Group (now DRI Capital)
Great Canadian Dollar Store
Tesco Corp.
Changepoint Corp. (acquired by Compuware in2004)
Apex Corp.
iWave Information Systems
Integrated Paving Concepts
Charon Systems

Many of these companies have changed names, products, strategies and management. Many have changed ownership. Some have morphed into successor companies.
But all of them prove out the thesis that tough times breeed great businesses.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Soft Landing into the New Economy

I got back late last night from Dryden, Ont., which is so far north and west that people go to Winnipeg for the weekend. Flying low over the lakes and forests of northern Ontario is a huge treat in Bearskin Airlines’ Fairchild Metroliners - they may be small, but every seat is a single, so you have both aisle and window.

I was a keynote speaker at the FI:RE 2008 conference in Dryden, put on for the entrepreneurs of the Northwest. (The other keynoters were tireless networker Donna Messer and fashion revolutionary Ben Barry, so it was a dynamite program).

Like many resource towns, Dryden has one big employer: the Domtar pulp mill. It’s been shedding jobs for years, but at least it’s still running. That gives Drydeners a soft landing out of the “old economy” (unlike, say, the folks in Dalhousie, New Brunswick, where the pulp and paper mill my Uncle Earl used to work in was shut down by Bowater in January). Local authorities there are apparently telling longtime residents that it's time to leave New Brunswick's north shore; governments have nothing to offer them.)

That's such a crock. In Dryden I gave a version of my “Future of Entrepreneurship” speech to help local business people and government agency staff recognize that the new digital economy will actually be a huge boon. If it can get its act together, a city that's always been defined by its remoteness has a chance to develop whole new industries and sell globally thanks to the Internet’s capacity for rewarding initiative and imagination while flattening distance.

(You know, it took me an hour to get that idea across in person.)

I also led a workshop on hiring and managing “best practices” for entrepreneurs. With the active participation of the audience, we came up with lots of strategies for easing employers’ HR headaches:

* using your business and personal networks to expand your search;
* giving more time to job interviews and asking much better, open-ended questions (thanks to Cathy Argue for offering, “Tell me about a time when you...");
* getting involved in local schools and networking with teachers to get an edge in hiring the best and brightest students;
* and improving employee alignment by “opening the kimono” to share more information about where your business is going (strategy and values) and how the business is doing.

As so many entrepreneurs tell me, open-book management works because their employees already think the business is making much more money than it really does. So when they get a better idea of how thin the margins really are, they become much more conscious of (and sympathetic towards) the business’s need for higher revenues and lower costs.

In Dryden they put me up at the Riverview Lodge, an elegant inn and restaurant that used to be the home of the manager of the mill. I think I had his master bedroom: I had a great view of the mill glowing at night like a thousand stars.

Check it out next time you're in Dryden.