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.