Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bustin' Loose

I've been having an amazing, uplifting week talking to people across Canada who run Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies.

I’m writing a story for PROFIT Magazine that requires interviwing about 18 different CEOs of companies that will appear on the next PROFIT 100 list, coming June 4.

These are the coolest, most upbeat people in Canada. They face the same recession all of us do, but instead of complaining about the wind and weather, they see this as a great time to do business. While their competitors are cutting back, they are busting loose: hiring, investing, acquiring, training, marketing, launching! They are moving forward with confidence and daring.

And no, it’s not just because they have a bigger war chest than you do. In some cases, they simply feel uncomfortable standing still. They're trying out new ideas because they think turbulent times create perfect opportunities to approach clients, prospects and markets with new ideas and creative solutions.

I can't tell you more – my editor would shoot me. But what if 18 successful people whispered in your ear that this was an amazing moment in time, full of opportunity for those with the guts to seize it? Wouldn't it make you feel a little better about your business?

Presume for a moment that they're right. What chance could you take that would help you create amazing new value for your customers?

Change or Die

Speaking to the Business and Professional Women’s Group in Oshawa yesterday, I met a woman who works for a funeral home that is offering scrapbooking classes. And another woman who works at a cemetery that offers a power-walking course.

How appropriate! My Financial Post column this week looked at the changing funeral sector, and how the attitudes of funeral directors must change if they are going to survive the big consumer shift away from burials and church funerals toward cremation and “celebrations of life.” And now I was meeting people who embody this changing market approach.

Attitudes are changing, but slowly. According to funeral directors I have spoken to, staff training, marketing and promotion are still foreign to many businesses in this profession. But I have never met a sector with so much opportunity if they can just learn to think "outside the box."

(I am pleased to say I avoided using that pun in my article.)

Excerpt:

“Today, sales people in all industries are trying to position themselves as trusted advisors. Insurance agents, financial planners and sellers of computer systems all want to be known for their ability to provide valuable counsel. But funeral professionals are already recognized experts. They provide a clear mind and strong shoulder for mourning families. And this is their moment to step up.”

You can read the full story here.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Pandemic in Progress?

Today may have been the tipping point: people are starting to get very worried about the swine-flu breakout in Mexico that is starting to spread around the world.

Health authorities in Canada and elsewhere have long considered a flu pandemic to be inevitable. (They normally occur every 30-40 years, and we're long overdue.)

I had a conversation on this subject with a municipal health official just last Tuesday. He said Toronto, having been a centre of the SARS epidemic, was well prepared to respond to a pandemic. But when I asked him if business was well prepared with contingency and continuity plans, he just grimaced and shook his head.

Time for a reality check. A new pandemic (or perhaps just the fear of one) will harm many businesses. If people are afraid to congregate in groups, or even go outside, how will that affect your company? Who will buy your products? How will you get work done if half your employees decide to stay home? How will it affect your supply chian? What if things get worse?

You need a plan now.

In case of pandemic, public authorities may impose such controls as social distancing, school closures and restriction, cancellation of large public gatherings, travel restrictions and border measures. Let's hope things don't get out of hand, but prepare just in case they do.

Reassure your employees. Adopt work-at-home plans. Examine the potential impact of closed borders, reduced travel, hoarding of food and water, consumers declining to shop (or go anywhere, for that matter), the sobering costs of fear and doubt. Let's hope none of this happens. But as the Scouts say, Be Prepared.

Three Globe stories today on swine flu developments:

* Swine flu confirmed in Canada

* Mexico on edge as reports of swine flu cases climb

* Flu fears prompt quarantine plans, pork bans


Download the INFLUENZA PANDEMIC: Continuity Planning Guide for Canadian Business, from Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters.

Download the City of Toronto Pandemic Influenza Plan


It may well be that all we have to fear is fear itself. But look how the news has these people Twittering already. (I did a Twitter search for "pandemic" - these posts all took place in just 5 minutes. The fear and doubt are just starting:

askool: Who else in the central valley is a bit paranoid about this Swine Flu pandemic? #swineflu
half a minute ago from Tweetie · Reply · View Tweet

CivilActivist: RT @Alonis: IN: (AP) State officials say IN is prepared 4 a swine flu pandemic, altho they haven't seen any cases of the illness thr.
1 minute ago from TweetDeck · Reply · View Tweet

SativaDreams: For info on the pig>bird>human flu pandemic go to Alex Jones' infowars.com. Is this a weapon?
1 minute ago from web · Reply · View Tweet

TrustedAdvice: WHO says world better prepared to deal with possible pandemic http://ff.im/-2nKEo
1 minute ago from FriendFeed · Reply · View Tweet

blueair: RT @ajkeen "kill 2 birds with one stone: understand Internet & pandemic with one bk RT @gleonhard: "read 'The Power of Network" by Cushman'"
1 minute ago from web · Reply · View Tweet

damiendamien: Bruce Sterling, smartest person I can conceive by a light year quells my pandemic doomlust http://tinyurl.com/dyakt2 (expand)
2 minutes ago from web · Reply · View Tweet

srlm: UN warns outbreak of SWINE FLU in mexico might become a GLOBAL pandemic. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8019566.stm
2 minutes ago from TwitterFox · Reply · View Tweet

plutoniumpage: Apparently, Bobby Jindal is giving a press conference on the swine flu. "Something about 'pandemic monitoring..." (I made that quote up.)
2 minutes ago from Nambu · Reply · View Tweet

KellyHK: Thanks GOP for trying to BLOCK pandemic preparedness. Do the words Captain Tripps mean anything to you wingnuts? http://tinyurl.com/chhzwb (expand)
2 minutes ago from web · Reply · View Tweet

Alonis: Indiana: (AP) State officials say Indiana is prepared for a swine flu pandemic, although they haven't seen any cases of the illness there.
2 minutes ago from web · Reply · View Tweet

Campus68: With current fears of swine flu emerging around the world, here's a live report from Dec 68, during the last flu pandemic: http://is.gd/uKGH (expand)
3 minutes ago from web · Reply · View Tweet

soozarty: @robluketic I'm w/ u r: swine flu concerns. The last pandemic (1917-8) killed 40 million. & that was b4 airplanes.
4 minutes ago from mobile web · Reply · View Tweet

singaporenews: Gauge pandemic plans, take preventive steps: THE swine flu outbreak in Mexico brings back memories of the 2003 S.. http://tinyurl.com/cwqx9s (expand)
4 minutes ago from twitterfeed · Reply · View Tweet

jreed: @briska so zombies in one city, epidemic. Zombies in major cities in north america, pandemic?
4 minutes ago from txt · Reply · View Tweet

NeilGilbert: Is it time to be worried about a flu pandemic yet?
5 minutes ago from TwitterFon · Reply · View Tweet

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Bright Side

I was talking to an entrepreneur yesterday about a project he is working on. It was so thrilling to hear him say:

"The market couldn't be better right now for what I want to do. There's lots of space on the market, and the landlords don't care about the convenants and conditions they used to attach to real-estate deals."

An important reminder that tough times create big opportunities for those who think ahead.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Survey finds entrepreneurs take hit to keep paying staff

A new survey from American Express finds Canadian small business owners digging deep to overcome economic recession. Amex says they are taking “bold and sometimes extraordinary steps, like cutting their own salaries, to keep afloat.”

The good news: nearly a third of Canadian small businesses plan staff increases over the next six months. And 70% believe that their business situation will improve over the next six months.

The American Express Small Business Monitor finds that even in today’s tough times, 76% of entrepreneurs believe that the rewards and opportunities of running their own business outweigh the risks and challenges.

Startlingly, the survey found that one in four Canadian small business owners have stopped taking a personal salary. Another quarter have invested personal funds in order to continue to support employees during the current economic downturn.

More traditional cost-saving tactics include cutting back on expenses (60%),curbing personal spending (48%), and increasing customer value (46%) to improve cash flow during the downturn.

Attesting to the long-held belief that a business's greatest asset is its employees (see previous post), the survey's respondents indicated a willingness to sacrifice to retain talent and keep employees happy, including the continuation of bonuses (30%) and pay raises (28%).

Respondents to last fall’s Small Business Monitor said they were hoping to ride out the downturn making many changes to their plans or practices. Now entrepreneurs report that they have already taken steps to protect their business, such as:

- Hiring freeze (38%)
- Salary freeze (34%)
- Stopped taking a personal salary (25%)
- Investing personal assets in the business (34%)
- Introduced flexible work hours for employees (26%)
- Reduced employee hours (25%)
- Re-evaluated supplier relationships (29%)

Still, the survey finds only 17% have resorted to laying off staff, and only 8% expect to do so over the next six months. Instead, 28% expect to be hiring over the next six months, even if it's part-time or contract staff.

You can read the full press release here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Still a seller's market

Overheard yesterday at the Board of Funeral Services professional development conference:

"Management needs great employees more than great employees need to be managed."

Building a Business on .... Bacon?

Some entrepreneurs just make it look easy. Seattle-area friends Justin Esch and Dave Lefkow believe that “Everything should taste like bacon.” And according to ABC News, their new product, bacon salt, cleared more than $1 million in profit last year.

The self-proclaimed "bacontrepreneurs" founded their business after finding they shared a fondness for the greasy, smoky taste of bacon. They quit their jobs at a local tech company and began experimenting with different forms of bacon salt.

With five employees and no marketing budget, they introduced the product last year by storming sporting events - dressed as bacon, of course. In their first week, they processed 800 orders.

The low-sodium, zero-calorie product is now on grocery shelves around the USA, and the duo has since launched bacon-flavored sunflower seeds and a new sandwich spread, Baconaise.

They're even experimenting with bacon-scented soap, body sprayand suntan lotion. Says Lefkow: "I don't think there is any limit for what bacon can do.”

In a time of recession and business gloom, it’s heartening to see two innovators doing so well. And a useful reminder that any of us can have a great idea and make it sizzle.
Full story here.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Day in the Dragons' Den

It was a big day Saturday at CBC’s Toronto broadcasting centres, with more than 120 “pitchers” lining up to audition for the new season of Dragons’ Den. I was one of several outsiders recruited to listen to the pitchers and help recommend who should be invited to the tapings, which take place in May.

I enjoy doing this job (it was my fifth time) because it’s a great chance to help entrepreneurs focus their message (and sometimes their thinking). So I tended to be a little slower than most of the other “deputy dragons,” who are mainly concerned with how these people will come across on TV.

My most common advice to pitchers:
1) tell me what your product or service does before giving me all the history;
2) make sure you know what your customers want, not just what you want to produce;
3) never, ever, say,"I just know this will be successful." Give me some evidence.

The good news is, there were a lot of great pitches. We actually met people with established companies and real products, who were looking for dragon capital to get their business to the proverbial next level. Most often we see people pitching unproven concepts. The Dragons will occasionally consider products that have been undermarketed, or are close to hitting the market, but they, like all investors, prefer to put their money on products with a track record.

Potential is good, but the best way to test potential is get out there and actually sell your products and services in the free marketplace.

We also saw a few people with what I call “Forbid” ideas (a concept borrowed from dragon Kevin O’Leary, who once told a pitcher “I forbid you to spend any more time on this idea”). Here’s a clue: if you have been working on your idea for years, if friends and family are not fighting to invest in your business, or if you can't convince any retailer to carry your product, chances are you've been spending your time on the wrong thing.

Yes, miracles can happen – but smart entrepreneurs don't count on them.

And don't expect high-priced angel investors such as these Dragons to give you the hands-on coaching you need to succeed. They want to invest in people who know what to do and where they're going, and just need more cash to get there.

As I Twittered on Saturday evening, if you don't have a product on the market yet, at least be talking regularly with your potential customers. If you want me to invest in your company, tell me stories that illustrate how badly the market needs your product, and how impatient the marketplace is for your solution. Get me excited about what you're doing. It’s not the product that angel investors or VCs are buying. They're buying your unique abilities to make the product successful.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Legacy

Two signed watercolours by Adolf Hitler are set to be sold this month at auction in Nuremberg, Germany.

It makes you wonder.

Hitler had more influence on the 20th century than any other world leader, possibly any individual. Yet none of his political/military legacy endures. All the great buildings, monuments, war machines and grand plans: all are dust, save a few high-speed autobahns.

Yet these watercolours of farm buildings survive. So far removed from his malice and hatred, and all that he strived to build. These simple pictures remain.

Makes you wonder, doesn't it? What legacy will you leave to the world? What part of you will survive?

Business can be sold or lost, assets dispersed, good intentions forgotten. What will be your legacy?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The latest Recessionary Updates: Marketing and Borrowing

Random useful ideas for a slow news day:

A) I read this gem in a recent article by my friend George Torok, a marketing speaker and consultant. It sums up a complex concept in a simple, doable way.

George identifies the three objectives of marketing:
1. Grab attention
2. Demonstrate value
3. Build relationships

You can read more in his article, "What a Difference a Decade makes to Marketing."

B) The Bank of Canada’s latest surveys of borrowers and bankers suggest the credit crunch may be easing. While credit is still tight, business borrowers interviewed in March indicated that things were loosening up significantly compared to the record-tight conditions of the previous survey. The cost of credit hasn't fallen, but borrowers said the terms and conditions attached to loans have been easing.

C) TeleNet Marketing Solutions has released a report showing how U.S. marketers are adapting their telemarketing strategies to deal with the recession. Marketing Sherpa has read it for you and identified these five insights:

1. Marketers see growing importance for telemarketing. The best marketers now give telemarketing a 9.9 ranking out of 10 this year – up from 8.76 last year. (This will surprise those who thought marketers were depending mainly on low-cost solutions, such as email marketing.)

2. More marketers are using telemarketing for lead nurturing and data hygiene campaigns (i.e., confirming whom to contact, or whether the previous contact is still with the company).

3. Appointment-setting campaigns are increasing as marketers focus on generating revenue.

4. Multichannel integration (i.e., using telemarketing to follow up on events, or following up calls with an email) is essential for satisfactory telemarketing results.

5. Agent training and product/market alignment are critical factors for telemarketing success.

For more info, click here. (This link may work only for a limited time.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Know-how you need

This week’s Financial Post column looks at the benefits of formal peer networks: organized groups of (non-competitive) business owners who meet regularly to discuss mutual problems and issues. If your business isn't ready for a board of advisors, this is the next best way to get ongoing, informed know-how and advice from experienced entrepreneurs who understand your business.

And as the story shows, in times like these, peer boards can help more than ever.

Excerpt:
"We talked about what assets would be best in a recession, and decided that would be cash," says TEC chair Pierre Gosselin. As a result, his peer group all started boosting their balance sheets and disposing of surplus inventory months before it became trendy (or necessary). One business owner cut his firm's inventory to $3-million from $9-million and arranged a $1.5-million financing just before the bank vaults slammed shut. When the recession hit, he was able to expand his sales reach while competitors were struggling to meet payroll.

The article cites an alphabet soup of organizations that offer peer groups, such as TEC Canada (The Executive Committee), Young Presidents' Association (YPO), Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO), and the Canadian Association of Family Enterprise (CAFE). I also mentioned Innovators' Alliance, Presidents of Enterprising Organizations (PEO), and Communitech, all based in Ontario.

Readers have since reminded me of the Business Roundtable, which operates in BC and the Maritimes, and told me about a new group called the Inner Circle, which is just moving into Canada from the U.S.

UPDATE: Another reader has reminded me that the Strategic Coach program offers similar benefits (although I perceived it to be more for self-development than peer counselling). He says, "I have been a member for 14 years. In my view, nothing could be finer for the business owner for their professional and personal lives."

You can read the complete article here.

As a bonus, here are the Business Roundtable’s Top 10 Survival Lessons:

1) Never run out of cash.
2) The only thing worth cash is more cash.
3) Don't spend time trying to raise cash; spend it trying to find new business.
4) Be prepared to provide collateral to the bank but not more than necessary... Negotiate.
5) Find a banker who believes in people, not just the numbers and keep him/her informed.
6) Learn to say No!
7) When things are really tough, go on the offensive - don't hide.
8) Assume things are worse than they look, because they probably are.
9) Get people involved in your company who can give it some credibility when needed.
10) Believe in yourself and don't forget to stop and smell the roses once in a while.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

We Never Close

I've noticed recently that several Canadian business websites I have visited recently have been “shut down temporarily for repairs.”

We all know that’s shorthand for “the company is going belly-up,” right? But that’s not always the case, because some of these companies really are overhauling their websites. And for some reason they have elected to shut their site down rather than go with the old one while the new one is being put together.

Memo to management: Don't do it. “Under construction” is for shysters who have bought domain names and hope to sell them at a premium. Or for companies that have gone bust, and have no idea what to use their site for.

Every human being on earth who researches your company looks it up on the Net first. Your website is their first stop. It should never, ever be down, if you can help it.

If you're redesigning your website, and most people usually are, keep your old site up till the new one is ready to go. Who cares if it no longer matches your new corporate colours? A temporary misalignment is better than even one prospect assuming your company is in trouble – or sleeping with the fishes.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Facts at Your Fingertips

I only recently discoverd what a wealth of information the Toronto Public Library offers small business owners - and of course, many of these resources are available to anyone, anywhere through the wizardry of the Internet.

And now, through the miracle of copy and paste, reproduced below are some of the best online information resources available to entreprneurs - selected and annotated by Toronto's finest librarians.

If you appreciate this stuff, buy a kid a library card.

Aboriginal Business Enterprises
Magazines and Journals
Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations
Networking and Mentoring
Blogs (Weblogs)
Organizations and Associations
Bookkeeping
Procurement (Selling to Government)
Business Closure or Expansion
Purchasing, Leasing and Outsourcing
Business Ideas and Innovations
Registration, Business Name, and Incorporation
Business Improvement Areas
Research Tools
Business Plans & Planning
Sales
Chambers of Commerce
Shipping
Education and Training
Small Business-Central Ontario
Electronic Commerce
Small Business-Eastern Ontario
Entrepreneurship
Small Business-Greater Toronto Area
Family-Based Businesses
Small Business-Northern Ontario
Financing
Small Business-Ontario-Wide
Franchising
Small Business-Southwestern Ontario
Home-Based Businesses
Taxation
Human Resources
Trade Shows
International Business Enterprises
Women and Business
Law and Legislation
Young Entrepreneurs

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Secrets of Selling

My Financial Post column this week tries to sum up a full-day conference in 700 words.

The Art of Sales conference, which took place late last month in Toronto, brought together major-league speakers on sales and marketing, communication and time management. I summed up five presentations in 700 words.

Highlights:
* Sales coach Jeffrey Gitomer called the multibillion-dollar business stimulus packages in the U.S. “political B.S." As he pointed out, "If you're an entrepreneur, there's no bailout for you. You are your own bailout."

* Communications coach Frances Cole Jones urged attendees to make better use of the word “You.” Instead of telling prospects what makes your product or service the best, she says, shift your pitch to make it about them. "Your health is important to us. That's why we use only the purest ingredients..."

* Think Big guru Michael Port reminded folks that selling is not about products, but people. "If we look at selling as a numbers game, or just overcoming objections, then we miss something huge," he said. "We're missing mad, passionate love for the people we sell to."

Click here to read the full story.

Similar Art of Sales conferences will take place in Calgary on June 12, and in Vancouver and Montreal this fall. Check out http://www.theartofproductions.com/home.html for more info.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Leaders tell their recession-beating stories

The March issue of PROFIT Magazine has lots of recession-fighting tips for you and your business.

Its article, "How to beat the recession", features tried and true strategies from entrepreneurs who have beaten slowdowns before, and are working to do it again.

JOSEPH MIMRAN of Toronto-based Joe Mimran and Associates, founder of Club Monaco, says recession is a great time to acquire strategic assets cheap. In the recession of the early '90s, he acquired choice retail locations in Toronto, New York and other key centres for just 12% to 15% of what he would have to pay for them today. “These are the times that can set you up for the next big move in the marketplace."

DOUG KERR of Vancouver homebuilder Kerr Construction survived the slow markets of the 1990s by surveying consumers’ wants and needs, then doubling his sales and marketing budget to promote his services with weekly mailouts. During slow times, Kerr found that three-quarters of his business came from existing clients, so he “serviced the heck” out of them to earn repeat business. “It didn’t really matter what the economy was doing,” says Kerr: “It was what I did that made a difference.”

RITA TSANG, CEO of Toronto-based Tour East Holidays, beat the SARS crisis of 2003 by boosting employee communications. With travel to and from Asia reduced to a trickle, says Tsang, “We didn’t lay off anybody at all. What we did was have very good internal communications. We let them know that it was indeed a very difficult time, but that we’d hold on. We encouraged them to take their discretionary vacations. We also reduced work hours so that people worked on rotation." She says the company's decision to avoid layoffs gave employees "a great sense of belonging. They were grateful that the company was there for them."

In addition, the company expanded its tours to include closer-to-home speciality destinations, such as spa holidays. "It was really well received, and today we continue to grow in that area."

For more war stories, click here.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

When Buzzwords Attack

All business people should be working constantly on refining their elevator pitch - the 10-second to two-minute description they use to explain what they or their companies or their products actually do.

In mingling with the software moguls at the Branham 300 lunch event in Toronto earlier today (see previous posts), I found myself meeting lots of people who weren't able to escape the jargon and explain their offering (and benefits) in language that could be easily understood by laymen, journalists, or their children or grandparents.

So when I saw this video, I had to laugh. Click below and watch as a standard corporate video descends into buzzword hell and becomes increasingly - and humorously - incomprehensible. Then think of the poor journalists, ad agencies, accountants and spouses who have to follow jargon of this type every day.

Click here to meet the Rockwell Retro Encabulator. (It's just two minutes.)



Thanks to John Mayer for the link. (Yes, that John Mayer. We're Twitter pals now.)

Good News from Canada's Top Tech Companies

Today I attended the launch of the Branham 300 Top Technology list at the Turf Club bar in Toronto, in my capacity as a director of one of the software companies on the list. It was interesting to be there not as a journalist, which is my usual affiliation, but as a bona-fide member of the industry.

The place was packed with representatives from many Toronto software and IT companies. I was pleased to see what good networkers they were – people were constantly (and confidently) starting up conversations with complete strangers in a way I have not seen before at networking events in this city.

The Branham 300 represents a list of the 250 largest Canadian technology companies, both public and private, as well as a list of runners-up known as The Next 50. The list also subdivides into several other lists:
· Top 25 Canadian IT Multinational Companies
· Top 25 Canadian IT Up and Comers
· Top 25 Canadian Software Companies
· Top 25 Canadian IT Professional Services Companies
· Top 25 Canadian IT Hardware and Infrastructure Companies
· Top 10 Canadian IT Security Companies
· Top 10 Canadian Wireless Solutions Companies
· Top 10 Canadian xSP Companies
· Top 10 Canadian Healthcare Solution Companies

According to Branham Group president J. Wayne Gudbranson, the news from this year's industry survey is good. Average sales for the companies in fiscal 2008 rose 18% over the previous year, a higher figure than most people expected. Total sales for the 300 companies exceeded $70 billion for the first time.

More than 40 companies made the Top 250 list for the first time, pushing many familiar names off the ranking - and into the new Next 50 list, created this year just for this reason.

You can read more about the Branham survey and meet lots of exciting Canadian entrepreneurial companies - just click here.

The list is published this month by Backbone Magazine.