Friday, December 30, 2011

Quick Reads for the First Long Weekend of 2012

A few quick links to some of my recent Post articles:
The holidays may be fading fast, but did you catch my piece on Ebenezer Scrooge? I asked the question: What happened to Scrooge's business after Dickens turned him into a nice guy?
http://business.financialpost.com/2011/12/19/a-christmas-carol-part-ii/

Here's my year-end quiz, featuring some of the best lessons from my 52 Financial Post columns. How many will you get right?
http://business.financialpost.com/2011/12/27/lessons-learned-2/

Can your company afford bend-over-backwards service? Maybe the better question is, how can it not?
http://business.financialpost.com/2011/12/29/turning-mistakes-into-wow-experiences/

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The real rewards of risk management

When the holiday season winds down, it will be time to get serious about improving your business in 2012. There are many areas you can focus on to improve your business, but one of the most lasting fixes will come from getting better at managing risk.

Risk management may sound daunting, but why would you resist a discipline that encourages you to review all the risks your company faces - regarding your market and your products, technology, operations and safety, human-resources, and even environmental and social?
Risk management gives you a holistic view of the threats surrounding your business. You then look for ways to head off or reduce the impact of the most likely risks, a process that will prepare you for most challenges the world tosses your way.

Many big companies today have risk officers who oversee the evaluation and mitigation of risk. Most SMEs won't go to this expense, but that's no excuse for not getting the best handle you can on all your business risks.

Here are just a few benefits of a serious risk-management initiative:

* It empowers you to scrutinize your business to identify blatant risks that are easily managed - for instance, a weak cash-flow position, potential health and safety hazards, or key customers who could be wooed away by the competition. By grappling with these potential problems in advance, you can head off some of these problems and take the rest in stride.

* You can save a lot of workforce headaches. Succession planning is a key part of risk management; by reviewing the risk of having to replace each of your top people, you'll know exactly what to do when your controller retires or your top sales rep turns to the dark side.

* Risk management is good management. It ensures that you always know the defect rate of your products, the lifespan of your equipment, the age of your receivables, and what to do if there's a flood or a flu epidemic. As Holiday Inn used to say, the best surprise is no surprise.
* Your staff will be happier and more confident knowing the business is being well managed. A credible risk-management program will help you retain great people and attract new ones. It also ensures that all your costly talent will spend less time searching for information and more time making informed decisions.
You don't need a risk specialist if you involve your management team. Each member could start tracking appropriate risk areas. For instance, your HR leader could study the risks related to workforce accidents and the loss of key talent, while your production manager looks after equipment, workflow, supply chain and fire prevention, and your controller oversees technology, data and financial risks.
How do you get started? An SME Risk Management Toolkit developed by the U.K.-based Institution of Occupational Safety and Health identifies four stages of risk management.

1. Identification of hazards and evaluation of risk. This means making an initial assessment of all your activities and prioritizing the highest-risk areas for further study;
2. Risk control planning and measures. How can accidents be avoided, or their impacts be mitigated? (Example: to avoid workplace accidents, you might implement safer work practices and better training programs; but you should update your insurance policies, too);
3. Planning for actions to take in the event of an accident, and how to recover;
4. Review risk situations and learn from problems and accidents.

Some entrepreneurs argue there's no point getting involved in risk management,because you can't predict every calamity that can befall your business. Of course that's true. But you can adjust for predictable risks - and thus be stronger when unexpected disaster strikes.
It's rarely one problem that sinks a business, but a combination of setbacks. I know one entrepreneur who closed his business recently because of what he called "a perfect storm" of problems: the weak economy, cutbacks by one customer, another client who simply disappeared, and a key employee who quit just when another got pregnant. Good risk management gives you a plan for each of these eventualities, and a fighting chance to survive even the harshest storm.

This post is brought to you by American Express Canada. Check out their new Amex for Business Canada Facebook Page for more SME news and insights.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Hate Networking?

You say you hate networking? Most people do. That's because meeting business people and sizing up their potential as prospects is a tough job - and may be one of the rarest skills in business.
My column in this week's National Post recounts some of what I learned from attending a full-day session on networking conducted by Ottawa networking guru Michael Hughes. It was hard to compress his technique into 800 words, so I retailed some of his most interesting ideas and tips.

Here's an excerpt:

Hughes defines networking as “the intentional process of creating and developing relationships, from initial contact to ultimate outcome.”
One of his key tenets: You must have a target market. You can’t just go to random events hoping to connect with people who need your products or skills. You have to target groups that are flush with those kinds of people. Then make one group a priority — say, an industry association — and burrow in deep. Attend all the meetings and events you can, and get to know everyone involved.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Best Opportunities for 2012 (and beyond)

Entrepreneurs are always striving to get ahead of the latest and greatest business opportunities. They may get their insights from books, shop talk, or Web-based business resources, but the best tips usually come from experienced entrepreneurs who have already been there and done that.

At a recent SME conference put on by Financial Executives International, I asked a roundtable of veteran business leaders to identify today’s biggest opportunities for entrepreneurs that are hoping to expand their current businesses or start new ones.

Here’s a summary of the exciting opportunities each entrepreneur cited:

Julia N. Dumanian is former president and CEO of Cambridge Memorial Hospital. She was named Canada’s Hospital Leader of the Year in 2007 for her passionate and transformational leadership.

“I think human capital is where it’s at,” said Dumanian. She believes Canada’s secret weapon is the “tremendous young people with great skills” graduating from our colleges and universities. She encourages entrepreneurs to tap their brainpower by setting up internships to get these graduates into your business “and really exploit some of these brilliant minds, especially on the technology side.” Given the tough time many grads have had finding good jobs, she notes, “We can help them help us grow our businesses.”

Murray G. K. Davidson is chair of RHI Investments LLC, with private-equity investments in real estate, utilities and pipeline consulting, and advanced technology. He is a senior partner of three specialty consultancies, focusing on financial services, utilities, and health care.

Davidson sees opportunities in all aspects of health care in Canada, the U.S., and around the world. Given the accelerating changes in technology and demographics, he says, you can't go wrong exploring solutions in “anything related to your health” such as health technologies, health processes, and personal monitoring and management of individual health. He is also bullish on new medical devices, particularly for in-home use, and new approaches for taming out-of-control health-information systems. “Cost improvement, performance improvement, waiting list reduction, capital management – you name it,” he says.

Davidson believes in consumer products, too, especially those targeted to Asia and Latin America. He’s also keen on specialty products aimed at young people, especially personal technologies. He said he’s working with a company on a new device that Apple is considering adding to its “i” family of products (iPad, iPod, etc.). He says it’s specifically aimed at consumers 25 and under.

Tom Enright, president and CEO of the Canadian Investor Relations Institute, is former CEO of CNW Group Ltd. His expertise lies in strategic planning, branding, sales and marketing.

To find opportunities, Enright advises, “look at the places where there are societal pain points”. He cites the debate that preceded the mandatory introduction of automobile seatbelts. “There was a lot of turmoil before we finally got there, then everyone had them.” Now, he notes, “there’s a huge societal issue about whether we can afford the cost of ‘green’ energy, so there’s got to be opportunities there.”

Enright is also high on opportunities with information technology, but especially those related to social media. “No one knows how exactly to use it, so there are great opportunities there.”

Finally, he predicts the next “big” commodity opportunity will be an area Canadians know well: fresh water.

Gerald A. Lokash is an experienced entrepreneur, consultant, and senior insolvency practitioner. He also owns several commercial real-estate companies.

Lokash believes data is the key to future business opportunities. Today’s IT systems allow business owners to measure every aspect of their business, and compare their efficiency to other organizations. “It’s inconceivable how much data has been accumulated about just about everything,” he says. “I think opportunity resides in how you use the data that's available to you in your company and your industry.”

He says companies such as communications giant BCE have expanded exponentially by exhaustively analyzing their own operational data. Lokash believes other companies can grow by understanding every inch of their business and how to achieve more from each asset. “There’s huge opportunity in accessing data in a way that can help you understand and steer your businesses forward.”

The conference buzzed with the optimism entrepreneurs always feel when they think about unmet market needs. How can your business take advantage of these golden opportunities?

“This post brought to you by American Express Canada. Check out their new Small Business Facebook Page here and stay tuned to find out who will soar their business to new heights in the Take Off with American Express Contest.”

Monday, November 28, 2011

Catching up with the Next 36 - Never Give Up!

Well, that pretty much wraps up my Next 36 coverage for the year.

In Monday’s National Post, I wrote about how the high-powered youth entrepreneurship program – developed for 36 students only – was successfully boarded by four more candidates. Rejected at the “Selection Weekend” in December 2010, they recovered from the shock and humiliation to make a successful pitch that eventually got them back into the program.

How do you fight back against rejection without making it sound like sour grapes? These four undergrads figured out the formula. They won over the reluctant organizers with a winning PowerPoint pitch that leveraged the program's own objectives and values; itemized the advantages accruing to The Next 36 (not to themselves); and shouldered all the risk.

It was a brilliant bit of sales and marketing, and only the Post got the story. You can read it here.

Last Friday, I played a small role in the latest "Selection Weekend" by moderating a panel of 2011 Next 36 grads. These kids have lived life in a fishbowl for the past year, building their own  businesses in groups of four while under the watchful eyes of their fellow students, the Next 36 owners, mentors and investors, and even the press. Yet many have built businesses that look like they may succeed; and they are very articulate about what they’ve learned about launching startups.

I wrote up a summary of some of the panel’s best learnings in a blogpost for the Post, which you can read here.

Excerpt:
Don’t bet the farm on the first business idea you come up with. Most of the 10 teams in the Next 36 changed their minds (and their business plans) during the first few months; some adopted new ideas and then threw them out three or four times. How can you tell when you’ve found the right idea? One panellist suggested, “When you know that you’d rather work on this plan than anything else.”

Finally, the Next 36 has just announced the 36 successful candidates for its 2012 program (which started Saturday).  You can read their press release here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Highlights from the Globe's Small Business Summit

Tonight I broke an Internet record for pointless activity by Tweeting the Globe & Mail’s live-blogging of its Small Business Summit, held in Toronto on Nov. 8.

I didn't attend the summit, so I appreciated being able to read their live-blogging (by two people!) of the content. The disconnected nature of live-blogging being what it is, I only covered two sessions before tiring of the exercise, but there was a lot of valuable insights there, which I tried to retail back to the universe through my own re-tweets.

So here is what I Tweeted – in chronological order, compete with atrocious spelling and grammar to fit Twitter’s ruthless 140-chracter limit. As I point out midway through, the original blogging was done by Globe editors Terry Brodie (a colleague of mine from olden days) and Sol Chrom. You can read their original work at http://bit.ly/vvxcod

Enjoy.
"My dream for Canada is that the 21st Century becomes the century of the entrepreneur:" SME minister Maxime Bernier at Globe SB Summit Nov. 8

Matthew von Teichman (Life Choices Natural Foods) spoke at Globe Summit on being underfunded: You miss enormous opportunities because you're focused on the pennies

I'm wading thru Globe's ragged live-blogging of its own small biz conference last week to see what value I can pull out for Twitter

more from von Teichman: "Nice to have another voice talking about strategy, but you make the decisions.Think through everything on your own"

von Teichman: Even if you hire great people, stay involved. Stay in close touch with most important customers, with numbers and with people

Matthew von Teichman was an attendee at PROFIT Magazine's first GrowthCamp. Only guy to make PROFIT's Hot 50 list with 2 different businesses

You can read the Globe's live-blog of its Small Business Summit at http://bit.ly/vvxcod Like most such efforts, though, it's tedious reading

von Teichman: Clear your mind; focus on strategy.Don't get bogged down in detail. "I think of every hire as someone who will free up my time"

Tara "MissRogue" Hunt, CEO of Buyosphere, at Globe SB summit: said she's committing four of the five mistakes Matthew just cited

Tara Hunt says she's more of an entrepreneur based on being not really hirable, rather than being entrepreneurial

Tara Hunt was more an intrapreneur, but nobody would give free rein to take ideas to next level; by blogging, she got on Silicon Valley radar

Buyosphere crowdsources shopping. Hunt says she is working herself to the bone in an underfunded company, which Matthew vT warned not to do

Thanks to Terry Brodie and Sol Chrom of Globe & Mail for liveblogging last week's SB summit. Not an easy thing to do.

Hunt says core trait of entrepreneurs is being "completely delusional." You need to look at the world and see something different (mkt gaps)

Hunt on delusional genius: "You probably thought Twitter was a crazy idea at first, didn't you...?"

Hunt: Next entrepreneur trait: audacity. Successful entrepreneurs don't know where they are going, they just feel their way there.

Hunt: everyone and everything will stand in your way of going forward. You need confidence to face the harsh stats of business mortality.

Next trait: Adaptability. No matter how awesome your idea is, the only thing that counts at end of day is that you find a product/market fit

Globe SB Summit Q&A: von Teichman says biz plan important in early stages, but 3 years later you won't recognize it. It's a moving entity

Hunt says Canada's SRED tax credits helped a lot. "All my American friends are really jealous"

At Globe SB Summit, marketer Tony Chapman: With social media, consumers are saying they don't want to be shouted at any more.

According to Chapman, social media has supplanted porn as the #1 activity on the web!

Chapman: Sell solutions, not a product or service. You can't provide solutions until you've listened to and understood people's needs

Chapman at Globe SB summit: "This is the time we can seize power. Small business's ability to attempt, create, and innovate."

Tony Chapman on Framing: Say, "We're the ones that..." If you can fill in the blank with something that matters, you're engaging people.

That's it for me. Thanks to the Globe for providing its liveblog summit feed at http://bit.ly/vvxcod 

Think BIG

Here's a quote for you to think about:

“The truth is that big thinking is always, always worth the expenditure of energy… The cost of small thinking has skyrocketed.”
Sales guru Michael Port, author of The Think Big Manifesto (Wiley, 2009).

Michael Port is trying to create a movement of people willing to think big, in both the business and social spheres.

“With small thinking we cannot grow – intellectually, spiritually, creatively, emotionally, financially. And when we cannot grow, society cannot grow. It cannot advance. It cannot develop. Small thinking is an ultimately autodestructive path.”

How does that change your thinking? What can you think "bigger" about?

Who do you know who can help you think even BIGGER?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Surprising Winners at EOY

Last week I attended Ernst & Young’s Ontario Entrepreneur of the Year banquet in Toronto. I wasn't intending to write about it, but the buzz was so strong and the nominated companies so darn cool that I had to write it up for my Financial Post column this past week.

Here’s an excerpt:
Most business events celebrate the act of selling, or growth. Last week’s EOY event highlighted entrepreneurship as a creative force for good, in Canada and the world – which might surprise some of the “Occupy” protestors [see previous post] who think governments hold the monopoly on higher purpose.


For follow-up reading, here's a lesson in guerrilla branding that took place at the EOY dinner - featuring two former EOY winners who simply stole the show!

Congrats to Dani Reiss (at right) of Canada Goose, who was named Ontario's Entrepreneur of the Year. He will compete for the national title at an event in Toronto on Nov. 23.



Friday, November 04, 2011

Occupy This

After attending a reception last night celebrating PostMedia’s acquisition of Sprouter – the advice service for startups – I walked through the camp of Occupy Toronto in nearby St. James Park. It was crowded, but eerily quiet for 9:30 pm.

Easily 100 tents, mostly sturdy and new, and well protected from the rain; signs everywhere denouncing banks, Stephen Harper and the IMF; a few guitar-playing troubadours hanging out by the old bandstand. There are a few large tents in which you can stand up, but most are small pup tents, meant only for crouching or lying down. There is electricity in the park, but inside the tents are dark, and cold, and I admired that people would willingly live like this.

But what are they protesting? I hung out at one sort of community discussion, where about 30 people snuggled in and around a canopied dining area to discuss “issues.” I heard complaints about colonialism, the exploitation of Canada’s indigenous peoples, Britain’s campaign in the 19th century against the Irish (“And the Scots,” added one observer, in a Monty Python-esque aside), the failures of capitalism, its roots in slavery (?!), the difficulty of finding jobs, the commercialization of culture. The discourse was conducted collegially, but somewhat haughtily (no one dared to question the contention that capitalism is rooted in slavery).

Everyone oozed concern, worry and disapproval of the current system. But I sensed no optimism. “We Will Overcome” was the anthem of protest and civil rights in the 1960s. Today’s message seems to be “We will Occupy,” as if they have no idea what victory would like. But then, when you can't clearly articulate the issues, how can you hope to find a solution?

The current economic system isn't perfect. There are inequities. Greedy people at the top take too much and/or neglect the people that our economy is supposed to serve. But how much worse are they than the labour leaders who extort cash from struggling companies and governments, or the politicians who spend money no one has in pursuit of partisan projects?

Solutions will not come from there.

At the Sprouter party, I talked to a 22-year-old entrepreneur who with little experience and almost no money has raised funds from private investors to launch an apps business that will launch next week. She has worked diligently, with her partners, for no pay, for nine months to research the market and develop a product. They have sacrificed much, because they believe their product will add value to people’s lives and that their hard work – which is still just beginning – is an investment that will pay them back many times over.

Capitalism works. It enables people to innovate – to follow whatever dreams and instincts they may have and even indulge themselves, if they wish – and to get paid only if and when their work creates value for others.

It’s a discipline that may seem harsh to those who can't find (or don't observe) that value proposition. But it’s an opportunity that is more equitable and universal than any other. It doesn't discriminate between the rich and poor, young or old, good or bad, but between those who are willing to work hard and find new ways to serve others.

At the Entrepreneur of the Year Awards the previous night, Ernst & Young paid tribute to Greg Overholt, a creative young social entrepreneur whose non-profit organization SOS (Students Offering Support) harnesses volunteer tutors at universities to raise money to build sustainable educational projects in the developing world. He’s not a conventional business person, but Bay Street bigwigs and entrepreneurs alike celebrated Overholt’s vision and enterprise. Business does care, and its sensitivities to societal problems are becoming more acute. And its solutions are usually more equitable and efficient than those dreamed up by bureaucrats.

There are many problems in society. But there are even more solutions, waiting to be discovered. While I admire the passion and courage of the Occupy movement, I don't know how many solutions will be found in their general disapproval of everything – and their belief that relief will come from anything but individual effort by small groups of disciplined, narrowly focussed problem-solvers. That’s how things get done.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Why you need to collect and display customer testimonials

"When you're good, you tell people. When you're great, others say it for you."

Scott Stratten,
UNmarketing: Stop Marketing, Start Engaging
Page 99

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Latest Insights from new Steve Jobs bio

Here's a link to a neat story from Australia's Smart Company (http://www.smartcompany.com.au/) cobbling together some early leaks from Walter Isaacson's new biography of Steve Jobs. (It's due to be published Monday morning.) Among the revelations:

* Steve intended (and Apple may still intend) to upend the entire TV market;
* Jobs swore to "destroy" the Android platform, which he considered "stolen" from iPhone technology;
* Steve dismissed Bill Gates - whose invetsment in Apple probably saved Jobs' job: "Bill is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything ... He just shamelessly ripped off other people's ideas."
* Jobs hoped Apple wouldn't go the way of Hewlett Packard after he passed away: "Hewlett and Packard built a great company, and they thought they had left it in good hands," Jobs said. "But now it's being dismembered and destroyed."

You can read the fiull story here. Or buy the book in a few hours.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Rebuilding Small Business Week

It’s Small Business Week in Canada.

So why does that mean so little to anybody?

See my column in today’s Post: http://www.financialpost.com/news/week+entrepreneur/5559637/story.html

“If we're serious about creating a robust economy for the 21st century, we should transform Small Business Week from a calendar date into a crusade…”

RiM shows some class

Great to see that Research In Motion is offering its frustrated clients free premium apps worth more than $100 each as an apology for last week's service outages.

A customer-service problem like that demanded a grand, serious gesture on the company's part (see my National Post blogpost here), and RiM has delivered.

The complete selection of premium apps will become available from BlackBerry App World for four weeks beginning Oct. 19. Enterprise customers will also receive a month of free technical support.

Good to see strong statements like these from RiM's embattled management:
“We’ve worked hard to earn [customers’] trust over the past 12 years and we’re committed to providing the high standard of reliability they expect,” says RiM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis. “We are taking immediate and aggressive steps to help prevent something like this from happening again.”

Industry analyst Francisco Jeronimo at IDC said the decision could be good for RIM, if it helps more customers to discover BlackBerry app services. He said RiM has likely struck deals with app developers to keep costs down. Even so, he says, “More important than the offer itself, is that RIM is showing goodwill and being humble. They recognized the problem, apologized and now they are compensating their users.”

In my Oct. 14 NatPost blog, "overcompensate" was the phrase I used to describe how companies can rebuild trust following customer-service breakdowns. You have to prove you learned your lessons, and that you value your customers' time and loyalty.
 
Here is my list of 7 Steps to take when faced with a company or customer-service breakdown.
 
• Acknowledge the problem quickly.
• Identify the magnitude of the breakdown as soon as possible.

• Tell customers what outcome you are working toward. (e.g., How soon will power be restored?)

• Don’t just say you’re working on the problem – show it. (Make sure they see you sweat.)

• Take steps to shut-out customers as comfortable as possible.
• Acknowledge customers’ confusion and frustration.

• Overcompensate. Once the emergency is over, find creative, memorable ways to apologize for the inconvenience and thank customers for their tolerance.
 
You can read that complete column here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

How Steve Jobs worked his magic

I've noticed a lot of traffic on this blog lately leading to a post I wrote in January 2010, "How to Speak like Steve Jobs." Given the recent revival of interest in the late Apple co-founder, I have reposted the story below.

Yesterday's release of the iPad reminds me that I forgot to point you to last week's Financial Post column, which looked at Steve Jobs' secrets of public speaking.

The starting point was a book I just read called The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience.

The book is a useful review of standard speaking practices, with a dollop of passion and personality from the iconoclastic co-founder of Apple Computer. Author Carmine Gallo isn't a great writer, so the book rarely soars, but the general principles are worthwhile:

* "Answer the one question that matters most." Reduce complex situations to simple solutions.

* "Sell the benefit." Don't just describe your solution, explain why people should care (e.g., "Apple's Genius tool creates playlists from songs in your library that go great together, with just one click").

* "Create Twitter-like headlines." Examples: "Today Apple reinvents the phone!" "Keynote was built for me!"

* "One theme per slide." Focus on single images, not bullet points.

I was particularly pleased to see Gallo identify a story-telling device that I have seen Jobs use, but could never put a name to: “Introduce the Antagonist.” To make you see the world his way, Jobs sets out what’s wrong with the status quo before introducing his solution.

When he launched the new video-equipped Nano, for instance, one of his slides compellingly compared the ultra-thin Nano to today’s suddenly-bulky Flip camcorders (see pic at left).

You can detect the same technique in many Jobs quotes. He forces you to buy his arguments by painting a dismal picture of the alternatives.

We can all learn from this. Consider Job's famous pitch in wooing Pepsi executive John Sculley to join Apple: “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” Same device exactly.

To learn more about demolishing the status quo, read the full story here: http://www.financialpost.com/news/Jobs+cool/2454771/story.html

"A magazine is an iPad that does not work"

As a former magazine publisher, I am very interested in the future of publishing in the digital age. Magazines will never go away - they're too attractive, fun and convenient - but lately I've come to see that the future of magazines is to publish on interactive digital devices that deliver a rich media experience. Basically, the iPad.

Here's the appeal. You want to know more about a story you're reading? Click (oops, I mean, just point with your finger) here. Want to see more photos that go with the story? Tap here. Want more information on an advertised product? Just touch it. You'll get a great reading experience, plus all the depth you like.

So this YouTube video sums it all up. A one-year-old who plays on the iPad encounters a stapled paper magazine - and wants to know what's wrong with it. Why doesn't her finger work any more? (She even taps her leg to make sure her finger's still there.)

This is priceless. And possibly the future.


Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

Steve-jobs
At the dawn of the personal-computer revolution, Steve Jobs was there. 30 years later, when the computer finally became an everyday accessory( iPods, iPads), he was still there, only now he was leading the revolution.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when success was about flooding the world with confusing, proprietary systems, Bill Gates was the icon of the computer industry and of entrepreneurship. In the 2000s, this leadership passed to Steve Jobs. His vision of personal computer systems that served people – rather than the other way around – won out. And it created love, joy and unsurpassed loyalty.

Visionary, uncompromising, a born communicator, and a detail-oriented product manager who demanded the very best in his products and systems, Steve Jobs represented entrepreneurship at its best.

Those who would follow in his footsteps must insist on the best user interface, the coolest designs, an obsession with customer needs – and the never-ending need to “Think Different.”

And one more thing - a flair for drama never hurts.

Rest in Peace, Steve. You made a difference.

Apple.com's home page tonight

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Seven cost-cutting strategies you may not have considered

As the economy continues to stumble, businesses are looking for more ways to cut costs. Sure, they’ve been running lean for years, but as the recovery stalls, the pressure is growing to save even more.

There are many resources out there to help entrepreneurs run more efficient businesses. But here are a few unconventional ideas you may not have considered.

1. Use the Internet to find more motivated suppliers: The Web is perfect for finding alternative sources of supplies and services.

GroupPrice.com is a Groupon-like site aimed at finding standout deals for business owners. Its weekly offers provide hefty discounts on services such as search-engine optimization, public relations, legal work, debt collection and e-commerce. Suppliers are mainly U.S.-based, but are usually happy to work with Canadians.
HiretheWorld.com is a Canadian site that offers big savings to companies looking for creative services. Instead of paying one local contractor to create a logo or website, you can hold a design contest through HiretheWorld that could attract hundreds of designers. You select the prize and pick the winner, giving you complete control over the outcome.

2. Solicit employee suggestions: Your employees know many ways to save money on front-line activities such as procurement, production, maintenance and mail-outs but they’ve probably never been asked. Why not establish a cost-saving committee or offer a monthly prize for the best money-saving suggestions? Salute employees who join you in stamping out costs.

3. Help employees who seek flexible work: Some of your staff likely have trouble balancing work and home responsibilities. In a recent survey of U.S. adults aged 33 to 46, the Center for Work-Life Policy found that 59% of men and 65% of women feel guilty about time spent away from their children. Why not find an option that can reduce their guilt and save you money? Ask your employees if any would like to work fewer hours, or fewer hours in the office. Studies show many employees are more productive working at home, and they’ll certainly appreciate your flexibility.

4. Share the risk: Your staff understand that the company is facing tough markets. Now is a good time to ask for their flexibility in ensuring your company succeeds. Where appropriate, challenge your employees to share the risk and rewards that you face as an owner. For instance, employees might accept a pay freeze (or even a pay cut?) for 2012 if they are offered a share of the year-end profits in return. Maybe you can offer “phantom stock” (units that are priced like real shares of company, but convey no ownership rights) in lieu of some salary. Don't play hardball; in return for deferring costs now, offer employees a legitimate chance to make more money if you have a good year.

5. Look for more productive advertising and promotional channels: In tough times, the marketing budget always gets cut. But you can save even more if you divert your resources into new, cheaper marketing channels. Try pay-per-click services such as Google AdWords, which lets you narrowly focus your promotional spend and provides detailed data on your results. Experiment with employee-made videos on YouTube. Or look at sponsoring relevant industry or community events – in today’s economy, many sponsorship opportunities are going begging.

6. You get what you negotiate: Next time you get a quote from a supplier, push back. If they quote $1,000 for a piece of equipment, tell them you've only budgeted $700. Let them know you really want to do the deal, but you need their help. In tough times, many companies would rather save the deal than get list price.

7. Bring on the pros: If you feel you've exhausted all possible home-grown efforts to cut costs, why not call in a professional cost-cutting consultant? They work with many companies and know where to look for waste and duplication. Many also know how to get you better discounts from suppliers of commodities such as freight, communications services and office supplies. Some may also be able to help you cut costs by pitting rival suppliers against each other. Ask your peers if they can recommend any expense-reduction consultants, or contact local bankers or accountants for referrals.

Like sales, marketing and promotion, the business of job-cutting never ends. And the more you share the accountability, the more successful you’ll be.

This special post has been brought to you by American Express Canada. See how YOUR business can soar to new heights in the Take Off with American Express contest. Check out the new Amex for Business Canada Page here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Get motivated! Get found! Get more business!

Time to recharge your batteries and get new business ideas you can take right back to work and implement! The Vancouver-based SOHO Business Group is presenting its annual SOHO/SME business conference in Vancouver this Friday, Sept. 30, and in Toronto on Wed., Oct. 26.
SOHO is the Canadian champion at putting on these shows. They always provide great guest speakers, relevant and timely topics, and the best conference content around. And the price is right!
Here’s the lineup of the Vancouver show:
OPENING KEYNOTE: Get Motivated! Developing Million-Dollar Habits For Success
with the matchless Peter Legge, author and speaker,
CEO of Canada Wide Media Ltd.
7 Proven Strategies for Getting and Keeping More Money in Your Business
Tracey Lundell, Small Business Banking, TD Canada Trust
Design Your Business To Get The Performance and Life You Want
Anurag Gupta, Founder, The Difference Engine
Google Demystified - Tips for Better Rankings
Jeff Quipp, Founder & CEO, Search Engine People
Your Roadmap to Success: An interactive interview with 2010 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award winner Emad Yacoub, owner of The Glowbal Restaurant Group
How to Do Business with the Federal Government
Ravinder Rakhra, Regional Director, Public Works and Government Services, Canada
Blogging, SEO and Social Media Tips
John Koetsier, Senior Manager, Online Media for Canpages
The Art of Networking!
Sue Clement, President, Success Coaching
Expert Panel Session: Proven Social Media Strategies for Business
Facebook? Twitter? LinkedIn? What Else? Learn from industry experts on how to maximize your online presence in a growing and competitive social media world
Chris Breikss, Co-Founder, 6S Marketing
Rajan Sodhi, Vice President Marketing & Communications, Peer 1 Hosting
So what are you waiting for? Click here to register for the Vancouver show Sept. 30. It's at the Hyatt Regency, 655 Burrard.The Toronto show (Oct. 26) will be held at the Sheraton Centre Hotel, 123 Queen Street W. I’ll post the lineup soon. And hopefully I'll give you a bit more notice.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Just a great quote

We all have two choices in life: to live consciously and purposefully, or not.

Which is summed up by this great quote I found on Twitter from twitterer @KeltieZubko, who describes herself as a writer and publisher in Western Canada. She posted today:

"There are two ways to sleep well at night -- be ignorant or be prepared." (Simon Black)

Entrepreneurs know that preparation is the key to success. I am always striving to prepare more. I made a rule once to always prepare for a meeting two days in advance. It's a good rule that I wish I could abide by more often.

While we're here, Keltie offers a few other choice quotes on her intermittent Twitter feed.

 "Free speech is the gift you give to your worst enemies so you can keep it for yourself." (Douglas Christie, Cdn lawyer)

"Is it just me or are brains today suffocating in information and starving for wisdom?" (Terry Small)

John McPhee on writing a lead: It should “shine like a flashlight down through the piece.” http://tpr.ly/9zzr6r

"It's never too late to be what you might have been." (George Eliot)

"Write every day. Regaining momentum takes three times as much energy as sustaining momentum." (Daniel Pink)
"Sure I am of this, that you have only to endure to conquer." (Winston Churchill)

And finally, a great quote that seems to be from Keltie herself:
"Those who make the most mistakes will go far, as long as they don't give up."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dragons' Den returns Tonight

Just a reminder that Dragons' Den returns tonight at 8 pm in most parts of Canada.

I think DD has become the most important show in Canada's history in terms of promoting entrepreneurship and, more importantly, entrepreneurial values (things like understanding opportunity, identifying how you create value, testing your plans by talking  to customers, and collaborating with mentors, investors and other stakeholders). It's quite ironic that it took a Crown corporation to do this. We're seeing more business-oriented shows creeping on to our TV listings this year, but none has the dynamic and built-in audience identification of Dragons' Den.

Note that there's a new Dragon in the den this season: Bruce Croxon of Lavalife has replaced W. Brett Wilson. Brett certainly became a viewer favourite during his time on the show, for his unique personality as well as his personal commitment to supporting good people and socially beneficial businesses. But truth to tell, I thought he spoiled the dynamic of the show a bit; when the other Dragons cynically passed on investing in companies that didn't meet their investment objectives, he would often find ways to bend the rules in order to support the unloved entrepreneur anyway. It was good business for the pitchers, but seemed to violate the show's own rules about "You either get all the money you ask for, or you get nothing."

I had a chance to watch some of the tapings last spring, and I can assure you that Bruce Croxon is a good guy, but a hard-nosed investor. No free rides this year!

Friday, September 09, 2011

Business owners ready to take risks, but not to raise prices

The squeeze is on Canada’s entrepreneurs, as costs are rising but most lack the confidence to raise prices in return. Yet, as the economic slowdown grinds on, more of them are saying they are willing to take risks to grow their businesses.
These are the paradoxical findings of the latest quarterly American Express Small Business Monitor poll, conducted in late July-early August 2011. According to the poll of 720 Canadian entrepreneurs, 47% of small business owners are protecting their customers and employees against rising prices, hoping that the resulting loyalty benefit will offset the immediate financial hit.

Of course, they have other choices. Some 52% of business owners say they’d rather reduce overhead costs in general than raise prices, while 48% say they're cracking down on accounts receivable in order to improve cash flow (48%). Some 36% are balancing the books by cutting travel and entertainment budgets.

Only 20% of Canadian entrepreneurs said they were willing to reduce perks for customers, and just 18% per cent were willing to reduce perks for employees. Only 12% said they were willing to reduce staff wages or benefits.

When they’ve had to raise prices, 78% of entrepreneurs say they’ve taken steps to make those increases more palatable. That includes explaining the reason for the increase (61% of entrepreneurs), extending payment terms (18%) and offering discounts to customers who pay early (16%).

But here’s the rub. According to the survey, 54% of the business owners who have raised prices say they experienced little or no customer resistance.

It’s often been said that business owners are more reluctant to raise prices than their customers are to pay higher rates – and this could be one of those times.

Eric Nielsen, VP and general manager of Small Business Services for American Express Canada, says the survey findings point to a positive strategy for business owners feeling squeezed. “The most uncertain of times can create the opportunity to be innovative and adopt new pricing strategies,” he said in a release. “Business owners are having success when they support the new price points with tactical customer communications explaining the rationale for change, or strategic enhancements to their service experience.”

(You might also try a trick I learned from a friend in retail. When margins are tight, raise the prices on just a few of your offerings. Choose those that are hardest for customers to compare – say, on custom packages or unique services that your closest competitors don't offer. Be prepared to offer a compensatory discount if customers complain – but experience suggests they’ll barely notice.)

Why are so many businesses feeling the pinch? According to the Amex survey, during the past year business owner have struggled with above-normal price increases in motor fuel (78%), heating oil/natural gas/electricity (40%), travel (37%) and insurance (34%).

A full 68% of business owners say they’ve also been hurt by suppliers’ price increases. In fact, 51% have switched to competing suppliers with lower prices as a way to mitigate the impact.

The goods news overall: 74% of entrepreneurs believe their companies are financially strong enough to weather another recession. Nearly half (47%) report an improvement in their business’ current financial position, which is a 14-points improvement over last quarter (33%).

Finally, more (28%) say they are willing to take risks today than they were three months ago (22%). And 37% indicate that growing their business is their No. 1 priority, up six points from last quarter (31%).

So go ahead and raise those prices. Respectfully, of course.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Four Resolutions for the New Business Year

With summer fading and Labour Day roaring 'round the bend, I want to wish you a safe and fun long weekend. Next week, there will be a new renewed sizzle in the air as everyone's minds turn back to business, mastering that all-important fourth quarter, and planning for 2012.

I've always thought that Labour Day marks the true start of the new business year. To mark the occasion, reprinted below is a slightly condensed version of my Financial Post column on four new years' resolutions for your business, originally published on Sept. 1, 2009. Happy New Year!

Forget New Year’s Eve and the ball dropping in Times Square. With Labour Day coming and pucks dropping in towns and cities across Canada, this week marks the start of the real New Year, especially in business, where entrepreneurs and executives are now shifting their mindset from managing vacation schedules to executing freshly minted budgets.

Here are four New Year’s resolutions to help you get your business in better shape.

• Take a fresh look at your business, through the eyes of a customer. Hire a mystery shopper to walk through the customer experience at your business and report back, or just think through all your processes and systems that touch clients. Either way, you must identify and root out any discordant element that prevents prospects and customers from experiencing your company the way you would like them to.

Here are just a few things drive customers crazy: old brochures, out-of-date (or tired) websites, or client-facing employees who don't share your passion for your products and customers. You also have to blow up the roadblocks that prevent people from doing business with you, whether they’re stringent credit policies, delivery delays, or tedious online registration systems.

Forward-looking companies track and measure the customer experience, then set standards to ensure that everyone receives consistent quality service throughout the journey from curious stranger to valued client. Even the smallest business can set customer-response standards (e.g., phones answered within three rings; messages returned within one business day), or track conversion rates to see how many inquiries become genuine leads, and how long it takes to complete the sales cycle.

• Invest more in training your people for this tougher new economy. All your staff must be miracle workers (and not in the sense that if they're working, it’s a miracle). It’s their job to turn raw resources (time, money, or metal and plastic) into value-creating products and services, or to transform ordinary customers into raving fans.

If some staffers aren't big on miracles, reorient them or invite them to seek fulfillment elsewhere. Most people can be salvaged with a consistent application of entrepreneurial zest: help them understand how dependent your company is on their actions, and give them the training they need to perform their jobs right.

If your training budget is tight, pair up underperforming employees with mentors or “change buddies” within the company. This gives troubled employees a chance to recharge their batteries, learn new skills, and ask questions they might feel embarrassed to ask their boss. It may also revitalize older or superior performers, who will benefit from learning to put into words the skills and attitudes that have made them successful.

• Cull the herd. If training and retraining don't work, get rid of underperformers. This is a great time to find motivated new staff: there are many unemployed and underemployed people eager to work for a leading-edge company such as yours. (No idle flattery: if you weren’t a sophisticated, results-oriented leader, you wouldn’t have read this far.) Plus, with the gradual return of economic confidence, good performers who are already employed will be less wary about leaving secure jobs for new opportunities.

Be a wolf. At the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, I learned that the recent reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park has helped other species, including prey, in the region. With wolves back in the picture, sick and diseased deer are now culled early, before they can infect the herd. Result: the remaining animals are healthier and breeding more successfully. (In business, we call that productivity.)

• Say “thank you” every day. This simple resolution won't require trips to the gym or costly consultants. It simply reflects your dependence on other people’s good will for your success – and the karmic benefits that result when you thank others for the differences they make in your life.

You may still have the first thank-you note you ever got from your boss. All your staff want to hear from you more often, to know that they're on the right track, that they're recognized, and that their efforts are appreciated.

Written notes, especially in this email era, can have a lasting effect. But they're not just for employees. Make sure your industry partners – customers, suppliers, bankers – know how much they mean to you. Post them a thank-you note, invite them to lunch, send them a little gift. No strings attached.

You’ll not only bolster a relationship. You’ll restart dialogues that could result in valuable business tips, new opportunities, repeat business and referrals. Your colleagues and staff already know how important they are to your business. They're just waiting to see if you do.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Catching up

New posts on this blog have been ascarce this month. But that doesn't mean I haven't been busy. Here are some links to catch you up.

"Seven new ways to lead," from the June issue of PROFIT Magazine. http://www.profitguide.com/article/28400--the-new-way-to-lead

"Vision leads the leader" - a blogpost at PROFITguide
http://www.profitguide.com/blog/rickspence/40288--vision-leads-the-leader

Win anyone's attention attention with three sound-byte steps
 http://www.profitguide.com/blog/rickspence/39737--three-sound-bites-that-win-attention

The growing role of angel investor groups
http://www.profitguide.com/blog/rickspence/37537--canada-s-angel-investor-groups-take-flight

“Businesses that want to improve performance need to improve their performance management"
http://www.profitguide.com/blog/rickspence/35522--managing-employee-performance-is-key-to-outperforming-the-economy

Monitoring your staff performance without making them nervous
http://www.profitguide.com/article/9946--monitoring-staff-performance

Can founders be leaders?
http://www.profitguide.com/article/30678

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Counting down till GROW 2011

As summer continues its sunny way south, entrepreneurs in British Columbia have a terrrific conference to look forward to next week: GROW 2011.

It's a comprehensive look at next-generation web companies and innovative business models, with oodles of successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and a very creative framework that includes a day of mentoring and an outdoor activity day for serious networking, BC-style.

You can read more about it in my column today in the Financial Post. 

Excerpt:
It has been 10 years since Wikipedia began, and 20 years since Gopher became the first common Web browser. The Internet domain name system was established in 1984, and in 1976 Queen Elizabeth II became the first head of state to send an email – a mere 35 years ago.
Clearly, the Internet isn’t new any more. Yet, as Google Canada recently pointed out, nearly half of Canadian businesses still don’t even have a website.
For more and more, however, the Internet isn’t about mere “websites” any more than the post office is about delivering personal letters. The Internet is transforming businesses and entire industries, turning product and services producers into communications and logistics innovators...

For the rest of the story, click here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Blogging for billions

Sometime last week, this blog hit another milestone: our 200,000th visitor!

This is exciting because it took us 4.5 years to get to the first 100,000, and just 21 months to double that. And the latest 50,000 came in just 8 months, for an average of more than 6,000 visitors a month, or more than 200 a day.

Pretty good for a blog that never mentions Justin Bieber.

Of course, all this comes against the inevitable background that I've been posting less often on this blog lately. This inspires me to do more, but realistically, you should also follow me on Twitter. That's how business junkies get their news today!

Thank you for your support.

Note to a Young Entrepreneur

A young Canadian entrepreneur starting a video-production company asked me for some advice on finance and "getting the word out."

Here is my response:

"Institutional capital is rare for new service businesses. Friends and family is the usual solution to startup capital in situations like yours.

Your best bet would be to look into the Canada Youth Business Foundation, which offers low-rate loans to entrepreneurs under 35. Better still, each loan comes with a mentor and mentoring process to help guide you along the way.

Marketing yours services is all about measuring the benefit you have created for other people, and communicating that information to more people like them. So it's in two parts:

1. Gather testimonials from all of your satisfied clients - get them to specify how you helped them, how great your service was, how much money you saved them or how you directed them to the best solution, etc. (The more detailed, the better.)

2. Communicate the message of how you help people. Start by identifying your target market and finding the best way to reach them (posters, brochures, ads, e-mail, Google ads, press releases, website?). Then start hammering home the message in a helpful, over-the-top, eyecatching way.

Rinse and Repeat.

Does this help?

Rick

What other advice might you offer?

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Market Research Dilemma

Yesterday I got an inquiry from an entrepreneur I'll call Ruth. She is setting out to start an upscale health-services business in Toronto, and was looking for industry-specific market research to help her pick the best locations to target.

Sadly, her request was too specific for me to offer any immediate help. But I tried to steer her in the right direction with some general advice, which I'm happy to share with you, too. Here's what I told her.

Hi, Ruth. I wish you luck in your venture, but I am afraid I am not an expert in market-research sources for specific industries. I would think, however, that any neighborhood in the city with larger, more expensive homes (e.g., Bayview Village, Rosedale, North Toronto, York Mills, the Kingsway, etc.) would fit your target market, and that information is readily available through the press or the Toronto Real Estate Board.

For specific industry stats, you might consult sources like StatsCan or Scott's Directories. My suggestion is that you call a reference librarian at the Toronto Reference Library and tell them what you are looking for; they are very helpful and can probably point you to sources that you and I have never heard of.

Here are some ideas on sources to get you started: http://torontopubliclibrary.typepad.com/business_personal_finance/market-research-statistics/

And don't forget the potential of doing your own market research. There are lots of cheap ways to gain market intelligence using personal polltakers or online surveys. You could even look for friends or locals who live in target areas and ask them to hold a focus group for you to pick their friends' brains regarding demand for your business idea. Most entrepreneurs skip this step, even though it could save them so much grief (and money!).

Best of luck! Let me know how things go.

Rick

Friday, July 01, 2011

July 1, 2011

Just a note to wish the readers of this blog a Happy Canada Day!


144 years ago, on July 1, 1867, four small, scared, and suspicious British colonies in North America formed a Confederation to provide for more secure trade, defence and economic growth. The fruit of that visionary decision is today’s Canada, a confident, well intentioned nation that stands as a beacon to peace-loving people around the world.

While not as well known or prosperous as our neighbour the United States, Canada shows that national purpose and success can be found by different paths – whether it be violent revolution against a vexatious mother country, or gradual disengagement through diplomacy and good will. Together, Canada and the U.S. are a magnet for goods, ideas and people throughout the globe, and the most successful economic partnership in history.

A salute to all things Canadian. Shut off your Blackberry, bite into a Macintosh apple, enjoy some maple butter, grab a Molson, or finish your painting chores this week with a paint roller – all of them products of Canadian ingenuity and commerce. Have a safe and sunny weekend!

And all best wishes to our U.S. friends and family for a glorious Fourth of July!