Monday, November 30, 2009

Staples launches business blog

Staples Business Depot has today launched “How’s Business?” a blog for Canadian small businesses. As far as I know, this is the first small business marketer to invest in a coherent blogging strategy for Canadian entrepreneurs.

This is a move I applaud. As one of the top small business-related brands in the country, Staples has the goodwill and the savvy to become a credible purveyor of business advice and insight.

I met recently with the Staples marketing brainstrust and they also understand – unlike many bloggers, both individual and corporate – that their blogposts will have to be engineered to benefit the reader first, not the company. They know that in today’s over-marketed economy, you have to give first to gain your target audience’s attention and respect before you can hope to have any influence.

The posts published so far (e.g., startup myths, a business plan primer, creating a workspace, dealing with failure, avoiding identity theft, and of course blogging) live up to the promise of creating value without excessive self-promotion. Looks like http://blog.staples.ca/ will be worth bookmarking.

“How’s Business?” is integrated with an improved business-resource centre that includes articles, links, how-to videos and so on. And there are already some good conversations going on in the “comments” appended to each post.

The blog leans on guest contributors, which is good. But most of the posts come from someone named Lynnette, who writes interesting stuff despite having to be the “voice” of a corporation. Since blogging is a one-to-one medium, I hope Lynnette will come out of the shadows and develop more personality over time.

One quibble: in an introductory post, Lynette says that “Blogging and the web gives us a new way to communicate with you, our customers.” It’s not exactly new – as noted by the subtle dig from “Leo,” a fellow Staples employee who left this comment on that post:

“Welcome to the conversation, cousins! I work at Staples Argentina, we’ve had blogs for three years, and it’s been great!”

Good luck to Staples on a promising initiative. The question is not why it took Staples so long – but why no one beat them to it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Learn from the past, or forfeit the future

(This post has been cross-posted from New Management Welcome, my part-time blog on chronic business blunders)
Holy Lemons! A study quoted in a recent New York Times GadgetWise column says 20.4% of laptops fail over three years.

The study, produced by SquareTrade, an online vendor of extended warranties, found evidence that netbooks fail at a higher rate, 5.4% in the first year of use compared with 4.2% for a premium-level laptop.

The study also says the accident rate for laptops is another 10%, so the total failure rate over three years is closer to 30%.

What’s most fascinating is that different manufacturers have compiled startlingly different failure rates.

SquareTrade concluded that Asus and Toshiba laptops fail about 15% of the time. At the other end of the scale is Hewlett-Packard, with a failure rate of more than 25% (my first laptop was one of those statistics - right out of the gate).

How sad is it that the report concludes, “In some cases, it would appear that failure is not only an option, but the expectation.”

We need higher manufacturing standards. Yes, price points are competitive, but the failure rate is just too high.

The big U.S. hardware brands should recall what happened to Detroit in the 1970s when foreign carmakers got the unique idea to focus on quality.

Learn from the past, or forfeit the future.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

When Entrepreneurs don't do the things they should

I got an interesting email this week from a CA with a big problem.

"My focus as a CA is business advisory services to small businesses. Unfortunately I find that even after signing on clients to an engagement, the clients don’t do the required action plans to grow their business.

This has me stumped. We had a conversation that they initiated, they bought into what services and investment were required , but once I send them the engagement letter everything stops. They have all sorts of reasons for not moving forward.

If you have any ideas , any advice or referral would be appreciated."


Does that problem sound familiar? I think it's pretty common.
Here's the response I sent.

"I have certainly noted this paradox before. (Don't worry, it's not you.) I call it "entrepreneurial inertia" - the inability of small business owners to do the things they know they have to do.

My (still evolving) theory is this: entrepreneurs like being the boss. It means they're in control. They call the shots. This means no one can ever force them to eat canned beans or broccoli ever again. When you have a mindset like that, it takes a lot of character to decide to go ahead and spend a lot of A) money and B) time doing some complicated thing that you really don't understand and probably don't believe in."

I wrote about this whole thing in a Financial Post column last year, and then followed it up with additional thoughts in a blogpost about what to do about it.

You can
click here to read the blogpost, and at the end of that post you can click through to read the Post article.

I finished by asking the CA, "Let me know what you think. If you can find a cure for this, I'll nominate you for the Nobel Prize in Economics."

What do you think? Is there a cure for entrepreneurial inertia?

How about a customer contest?

Here’s a great way for a company that prides itself on customer service to promote itself, and the very concept of service as well.

Rackspace.com, the “cloud computing” hosting company that calls itself “The Home of Fanatical Support,” puts customer service first in its own business. But it also holds a contest for its clients to recognize “one of our customers for valuing customer service as much as we do.”

The 2009 Fanati Contest is now underway (for U.S. customers only). Rackspace clients who think they have what it takes have until Dec. 11 to put together a 5-minute video explaining why they deserve to be this year’s winner.

Here are some of the approaches Rackspace suggests to contest entrants.
• Tell us who you are and what your business does.
Describe what Fanatical Support means to you.
• If you were going to take a thesaurus to the phrase “Fanatical Support” and use that in your company’s business motto, what would your new motto be?
• If you already have a Fanatical Support-like battle cry, what is it and give us the back story.
• Tell us about a time you or an employee went above and beyond (fanatically) for a customer or employee.
• Tell us how you’ve continued to enhance your motto to adapt to your business’ changing needs, culture, and/or growth to ensure that customers stay satisfied?

So why is Canadian Entrepreneur telling you about a U.S.-only contest?

Because it’s a brilliant (and inexpensive!) promotional idea. Rackspace is reinforcing its “Fanatical Support” branding. It’s building community and loyalty by engaging customers (and customers’ employees) in the campaign. And it stands to win valuable publicity as well.

What’s your brand? How could you get customers more excited about it, and promote it to the rest of the world, by organizing a contest of your own?

Perhaps you could recognize the customer to whom product quality is most important, or the one that does the greatest job of staff training or personal empowerment.

Because business is too important to be boring. And branding is a powerful tool that begs to be shared.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Re-designing the Future

Rotman School dean Roger Martin has just published a new book on "The Design of Business." He believes all businesses must develop "design thinking" (a mixture of analytical and intuitive reasoning) to solve the challenges they face today - or else face irrelevance.

It's a great book, plus it's short and easy to read, with lots of examples, from Procter & Gamble to Target and Cirque du Soleil.

But my favorite part is the insights it contains on the development of Research in Motion and its renowned BlackBerry. RiM co-founder, co-CEO and chief engineer Mike Lazaridis gets due credit for his dogged research that ended up changing the way the world communicates.

Lazaridis jumped on the potential of digital signal processing before any of the big telcos. It's part of his philosophy of business, says Martin. "Product design has to push the envelope to the point where it seems like you're making a mistake," says Lazaridis. If you're going to beat the giants with an innovation, he says, "It has to be audacious from a technical point of view."

I also liked Lazaridis' quote about never resting on your laurels. "In a business, no matter how good the process is, no matter how much you've got it down pat, no matter how much money you're making, you have to always go back and say, 'Is there something fundamentally wrong with the way we're seeing the market? Are we dealing with incomplete information?'

"Because that's what's going to get you; it's not necessarily that some young whippersnapper's going to come up with some better idea than you. They're going to start from a different premise and they're going to come to a different conclusion that makes you irrelevant."

According to Lazaridis, "Motorola lost because it didn't embrace the future... It was too damn good at what it was doing."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Letter to a Startup Entrepreneur

I had a query last night from a startup entrepreneur looking for my advice and best practices on starting and financing a business. That's way too big a question for me to answer for strangers in my spare time. But here is the free advice I offered her:

Hi Elizabeth. I think you wil find there are lots of good sources on starting a business, writing a business plan, finance and marketing. They're at your local bookstore, your local library, and all over the Web. Also look for local small business centres, which are often affiliated with your local municipality.

Your request for best practices, etc., is a bit too broad for me to help with. But I would be glad to help if you have a specific question on anything.

One particular resource I can recommend is "12 Weeks to Startup," a 12-part series I wrote two years ago, on starting a business. You can find that material at
http://www.financialpost.com/small-business/startup/index.html

I am sure you will do well. My most fundamental advice to new entrepreneurs is, "Never be afraid to ask for help." And you have obviously mastered that step already.

All the best

Rick

As the World Turns

This post isn't about entrepreneurship, exactly. But a huge part of business is knowledge and insight and understanding how the world wags, and what wags it.

So you might find the following quiz of interest.

It's a 12-question quiz devised by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center to probe your knowledge of how various peoples of the world view themselves and other parts of the world.

At the very least, it will open your mind to different ways of thinking. Which to me is the first step in business: stepping out of your own shoes and being able to understand the world as it is, not as you would like it to be.

Scoring is not important: the point is to learn a few things you didn't know. Having said that, I got 6 out of 12.

Check out the quiz at
http://pewglobal.org/quiz/iq/questions/

Then come back and leave a comment to let me know how you did.

All-Star Panel on Buying and Selling Companies

My column this week in the Financial Post recounts a few highlights from a lively business panel featuring two Dragons from CBC’s Dragons’ Den show (Kevin O'Leary and Robert Herjavec), and two of Canada’s most prominent women entrepreneurs: Teresa Cascioli (founder of Lakeport Brewing) and Rebecca MacDonald (Just Energy).

The subject was the buying and selling of companies in today's economy. The debate covered a range of subjects, including valuations, acquisitions, buyers vs. builders, and the lies sellers tell. It’s a fun (and timely) read.

As MacDonald noted, "This is a phenomenal time to be in the market... I have never seen more distress sales than I'm seeing today. If you've got cash, prices are low and it's time to buy."
Added Herjavec: "We just bought a $15-million company with no money down, based on their own cash flow... If I had approached this guy with this deal three years ago, he would have laughed at me."

The irrepressible O'Leary had lots to say: "Maybe those aren't distressed values... Maybe they're realistic values given today's market."

Many companies "kill shareholder value," he added, when they acquire other businesses that don't immediately boost the buyers' income statements. "What's important is free cash flow," he maintained. "If I buy my competitor's business, will I generate more cash than I had without it? That's the only question that matters."

For her part, Cascioli urged sellers to hold off. "If you can ride out [the current downturn], you will get more money tomorrow than you'll get today."

Read the full story here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

10 Crucial Consumer Trends

Trendwatching.com has released its list of 10 Crucial Consumer Trends for 2010.

Some of these are a bit too cute, and some trying too hard to be cool. But if you can fight your way through the confusing verbiage, this list offers some good ideas you might want to start grappling with.

Here's the condensed version of the list:

1. Business as Unusual
Forget the recession. Te societal changes that will dominate 2010 were set in motion way before we temporarily stared into the abyss.

2. Urbany
Urban culture is the culture. Extreme urbanization, in 2010, 2011, 2012 and far beyond will lead to more sophisticated and demanding consumers around the world.

3. Real-Time Reviews
Whatever you're selling or launching in 2010, it will be reviewed 'en masse', live, 24/7.

4. (F)Luxury
Closely tied to what constitutes status (which is becoming more fragmented), luxury will be whatever consumers want it to be.

5. Mass Mingling
Online lifestyles are fueling and encouraging 'real world' meet-ups like there's no tomorrow, shattering all cliches and predictions about a desk-bound, virtual, isolated future.

6. Eco-Easy
To reach meaningful sustainability goals in 2010, corporations and governments will have to forcefully make it 'easy' for consumers to be more green, by restricting the alternatives.

7. Online Tracking & Alerting
Tracking and alerting are the new search, and 2010 will see countless new INFOLUST services that will help consumers expand their "web of control."

8. Embedded generosity
Generosity as a trend will adapt to the zeitgeist, leading to more pragmatic and collaborative donation services for consumers.

9. Profile Myning
With hundreds of millions of consumers now nurturing some sort of online profile, 2010 will be a good year to introduce services to help them make the most of it (financially), from intention-based models to digital afterlife services.

10. Maturialism
2010 will be even more opinionated, risqué, outspoken, if not 'raw' than 2009; you can thank the anything-goes online world for that. Will your brand be as daring?

For more details, info and application ideas, go to http://trendwatching.com/briefing

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Honesty and Humour in Advertising

I came across a few choice quotes today from advertising legend David Ogilvy (1911-1999). Although at least one now appears quite dated in tone, I think the message is important, so I have left it intact, in all its mid-60s glory.

How to sell: "A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself."

The need for sales: "In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative original thinker unless you can also sell what you create. Management cannot be expected to recognize a good idea unless it is presented to them by a good salesman."

Honesty in advertising: "Never write an advertisement which you wouldn't want your family to read. You wouldn't tell lies to your own wife. Don't tell them to mine."

The use of humor: "The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Global Entrepreneurship Week

How time flies. Global Entrepreneurship Week is back again, from Nov. 16-22.

I have trouble getting my head around GEW. As an international event it's a growing force, and a welcome shot in the arm for grassroots capitalism around the world at a time when Big Business is under increasing attack (much of it justified). In Canada, GEW has the misfortune of directly following Small Business Week (and in some places, Small Business Month), creating a sense of deja vu.

This year GEW Canada is under the wing of the Canadian Youth Business Foundation. There's a goodly number of events across the country. as well as a number of "national" events delivered online. You can check out the schedule here: http://www.unleashingideas.org/canada/activities_calendar
You can even search for events by province (there are four next week in Manitoba, for instance).

Or you can read up generally on GEW here. http://www.unleashingideas.org/canada/activities_calendar

Have a great Week. Hug an entrepreneur.

How to pay for referrals

My column this week in the Financial Post provides a follow-up to my article two weeks earlier on referrals.

Reason: I had a fascinating note from Leonard Lee of Lee Valley Tools in response to the first column, and I wanted to let this legendary Canadian entrepreneur set the record straight in public.

Lee Valley put a lot of effort into learning how best to “encourage” satisfied customers to provide names of friends or colleagues who might be interested in his company’s products. But if you pay too much for referrals, the quality of those opportunities falls off fast.

Lee's solution: Lee Valley offered to give $5 to a charity (Nature Conservancy of Canada) for every name and address it received who ended up becoming a paying customer. As Mr.Lee points out, "This establishes a nebulous but real customer benefit, and forestalls someone sending us the Winnipeg telephone directory in hopes of earning a small fortune but at great waste to us.”

You can read the full column here:
http://www.financialpost.com/small-business/story.html?id=2200881

Friday, November 06, 2009

Even billionaires strive to please

My column in this week’s Financial Post tells about my recent encounter with billionaire Scott Cook, founder of Intuit (Quicken, QuickBooks, etc.).

He came to Toronto last month to kick off an Intuit Canada campaign to get closer to the small business market by holding information sessions with working entrepreneurs across the country. Cook himself facilitated the first one, asking 14 Toronto business owners about the problems that keep them awake at night.

So my story looks at small business’s most urgent needs today, as well as how one company is getting closer to that market in order to identify the problems it can actually solve.

Here’s an excerpt:

After the meeting, I asked Cook if he'd heard any promising ideas. One big one, he said: "Social media as a time suck."
"I don't claim I understand it yet," he said, "but it's given us more to do."

Read the full story here.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Outlive Strong

I just found out that I have outlived actor Raul Julia. Also Jerry Garcia, Gene Siskel, Enrico Fermi, Dian Fossey, Harry Houdini and Babe Ruth. Plus Lenin, and Hermann Goering.

The source of this trivial nostalgia is a clever, simple website called http://dead.atyourage.com . Just type in your date of birth and you'll find get the names of prominent people who passed away when they were just your age, or a bit younger.

It's a sobering reminder of how short life can be - and the need to make the most of every day.

If there are things you are waiting to do or accomplish, or dreams left unfulfilled - reopen the file and get them done. Life is too short to put off important things.

Don't let your goals outlive you.