Wednesday, December 28, 2005

"Business today is drowning"

“Business today is drowning in bulls--t.”

That’s the message (and opening sentence) of “Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide,” a short, breezy diatribe published this year by Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway and Jon Warshawsky.

The authors, U.S.-based marketers and consultants, take aim at the jargon, clichés and thoughtless repetition that sums up most business communication today. Memos that say things like “the committee will report back with a work plan for implementing the mission-critical changes necessary to transform our company into a more agile, customer-focused enterprise” are not just contrived and dull, but inimical to the way human beings like to communicate.

“Outside of work,” say the authors, people enjoy “a fundamentally different kind of conversation – a human one, with stories and color. Informal, spontaneous, warm, funny and real.”

As a writer and marketing consultant, I agree. Too many business people hide behind bland, unimaginative, they-can’t-fire-me-for-this phraseology. It’s an excuse for not thinking, for not taking the time to see beyond the next necessary step in order to find more unique, imaginative solutions, ideas and challenges. Our dependence on jargon, I think, betrays a lack of confidence in ourselves, a lack of commitment to our projects, and a failure of imagination, which I think is essential in business.

The authors believe there’s a grim consequence to writing and saying that bore people: no one really listens anymore. Most business communication is intended to persuade people (customers, bosses, co-workers) to do something. But if nobody’s listening, nothing happens.

The authors’ goal is to restore your persuasiveness by helping you write and speak so that people will listen again. “Entire careers can be built on straight talk – precisely because it is so rare.”

What should you watch out for in your writing? Jargon, wordiness, evasiveness.

How can you gain more attention need influence? Be concise, the authors advise (in fact, their book is only 165 digest-sized pages). Use fewer words, and shorter words.

Brand your work by eschewing templated slides, phoning instead of e-mailing, writing more exciting titles or subject lines, using humour (carefully), or telling stories instead of explaining policies.

And show, don’t tell.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Sorry - the parking lot is full because all our staff came to work today

With Christmas over, it's time to start thinking about the New Year -- and your NewYear's resolutions.

Specifically, resolve not to make any of the mistakes made by the clowns mentioned in this article on the 9 worst business practices of 2005.

As Woody Allen once said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up."

Friday, December 23, 2005

Santa versus the Hurricanes

This comes from a blogger in Beaumont, Texas.

The Night Before Christmas

Tis the night before Christmas
and all through the town
Debris of all kind is stacked in a mound.
Houses are beat up, trees are not there
The landscape is different and curiously bare.
Fences are gone and the dogs have got out
Insurance agents are nowhere about.
Mold in its grandeur is lining the walls
Inside the cabinets and all through the halls.

Moms are exhausted and daddies are spent
They're paying their house notes and now paying rent
FEMA is long gone, the Red Cross has split
Searching for new towns disasters have hit.

The children are restless as they lay in their beds
Troubled thoughts filling their heads
Can Santa find them amid all the rubble
Or will he think it's just not worth the trouble?

Then out of the night comes the sound of small hoofs
Prancing and pawing atop the blue roofs
Though Santa's landmarks were not where they'd been
The shine of the trailers guided him in
He managed somehow to deliver the toys
To all the deserving good girls and boys

And they heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight
"It takes more than Rita to mess up this night!"

Merry Christmas to all.

Fitness Tips for You and Your Business

I have quoted Jim Estill before, the entrepreneurial CEO of Synnex Canada, but he just keeps turning out good stuff at his blog on Time Leadership.

A runner and fitness buff, Jim mused recently on the parallels between exercise and business. Here’s a condensed version of his thoughts.

* Even if you think you are in shape, you will do some activity that makes you sore. The same is true in business. Regardless of how skilled you are, there will be new situations that will challenge you.

* Muscles adapt to the exercise routine so it becomes easier, but you do not get as good a workout. The same is true in business. By always taking the same challenges, you will get good at them, but you can also become stale. So mix it up a bit to grow.

* Overcoming challenge, procrastination and external events happens in both exercise and business. Devise systems to get re-energized and deal with the inevitable challenges.

* Small wins build confidence and lead to bigger wins. So just get started.

Great advice from a man who started a business from the trunk of his car and now runs a $1-billion company. Read Jim’s entire post here.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

With sprinkles on top

If you didn't get my e-Christmas card this week, here's a copy. And please accept my best wishes for a visionary, self-improving and client-focussed holiday season.

For more holiday greetings (from some over-achieving Hungarians, I believe), click here. And turn up the sound.
(Thanks to my Uncle Jack in Minneapolis for this fun link.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

So the Liberals knew all the time they should do this...

On Monday (Dec. 19), election candidate Paul Martin announced that the Liberals would increase the lifetime capital gains tax exemption for small businesses (and farmers) by 50%.

Last summer, I talked to an official at the Industry Dept's small business braintrust about this long-overdue move. (It's a good partial remedy to the looming sucession crisis that I've written about.) I was assured this move was not being considered. Not a priority. Not on the radar.

Suddenly, Paul Martin thinks it's a good idea. Hard to believe that he's been Prime Minister for two years, or that his party has been in power for more than 12 years.

Maybe if the Liberals didn't wait for elections to do the right thing, they wouldn't be facing an election now.

(From the Liberals' official press release, the fine print: “There’s nothing small about the role small business plays in the creation of jobs and growth in Canada’s economy,” the Prime Minister said. “Raising the lifetime capital gains exemption to $750,000 from $500,000 will allow small-business people and farmers to keep more of the profit from the sale and transfer of their businesses to a new generation.”)

(And then there's the appeal to your heartstrings: "A Liberal government will continue to create an economic environment that helps small businesses continue to thrive – not just as the engine of economic growth, but as the place where Canadians’ dreams come true.")

Reduce taxes, Paul. Lower interest rates. Dump the GST. Then maybe we'll believe you.

Andrew Coyne has a sense of humor

Excerpt from Andrew's blog, Dec. 14:

"... But what's common to all the polls are the huge numbers saying they want a change in government. The Strategic Counsel found 58% answering the "time for a change" question in the affirmative, a number which must make the Grits' blood run cold.

"If ever the voters start to make the connection between changing the government and voting for the opposition, they'll be in real trouble."

Read more here.

(Not being very political, other than thinking that most politicians should be sent to witless relocation programs, I will not often be blogging about the X-mas L-ection. But this was too good not to share.)

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Special Announcement with a tinge of irony

Early in my career as editor of PROFIT Magazine, I set aside some budget money for a Freelance Writer of the Year award. It was a way of honoring the contributions of the freelance writers who produce most of the content for most Canadian magazines, and recognizing outstanding work.

Well, the editors at PROFIT surprised me today by letting me know I had won the award this year, and that a little cheque would be coming my way.

(Now, of course, I wish we'd sprung for a trophy, too.)

They say I won for two entries: a story on the looming succession crisis, and the Spin Master Toys profile in the current issue, which I blogged about just recently.

Looking for some award-winning reading? You can read the Succession story here, or click here for Spin Master.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Focus, people, focus!

Focus, people, focus!

Already this week I’ve had two conversations with entrepreneurs about marketing/public relations, and I had to spend way too long figuring out who their market is. They are wonderfully bright and intelligent business people, but they were sadly inarticulate when it came to defining their marketplace and the needs of their prospects.

And they’re not alone.

In my experience, the evolution of a business goes like this: it starts with a specific product or service and a small group of clients, many of them previously known to the business owner and motivated to work with him or her.

Over time, the product develops and evolves, and new customers climb aboard – friends and acquaintances of the owners and their staff, local purchasers, and others who intuitively understand the product or service. This process can take years, and the company can be reasonably successful.

But there comes a time when companies need more. And they suddenly discover that they don’t know who their customer is. They don’t have a marketing strategy, or even a plan, and they don’t really understand their value proposition beyond the sale pitch they may personally make every day. In other words, there’s been no separation of the owner from the business – and no articulation of the company’s value-add, its benefit statements or its marketing vision.

Yes, marketing or communication consultants can help. But before you seek them out, make the most of your time together by thinking through questions such as these:

* Who is/are my target market(s)?
* Is this really the best and most valuable market I could be appealing to?
* What is my plan for reaching my target market(s)?
* What is the value of a new customer? How much can I afford to (or do I want to) spend on marketing?
* What do clients and prospects want from me? What problems does my company solve?
* What do existing clients say about my company, product or service? Do I have testimonials in their words that help me understand what my product/solution means to them?
* If not, can I ask them for testimonials, and learn from those?
* Have I surveyed my customers to find out what they like about us, what they don’t like, and how we can serve them better?
* What media do my prospects read/watch/consume? How do they like to be contacted?

Knowing all this in advance will not only save you time (and money) in developing your marketing messages and plans. It will also give you a big advantage over most of your competitors.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Growing Clout of Small Business

There are encouraging signs that entrepreneurship is on the march again.

In good times, everyone gets excited about working on Bay Street or going to work for big companies. But when shocks appear – and this summer’s oil price spike was an 8.8 on the Richter scale of business confidence – people get nervous about the prospects for big, dumb corporations, and they look again to the opportunity and security afforded by small business.

A few weeks ago, RBC Financial produced a survey that found more than a million Canadians are thinking of starting up a new business.

At the same time, a Scotiabank survey found 90% of Canadian entrepreneurs believe their business will perform as well or better one year from now than it does today. "It's encouraging to the business community on the whole that small business owners are generally enthusiastic about the potential for increased earnings," noted Diane Giard, Scotia’s VP of small business banking.

A CIBC World Markets study estimates 80,000 Canadians will become small business owners this year, swelling the national total to 2.5 million. Even better, says CIBC, "nearly one in four Canadians say they will be self-employed at some point in the next five years."

And today, I got an e-newsletter from VISA promoting discounts for small business (itself an indicator of the market’s clout) – and several articles geared to entrepreneurs (altho’ they’re a bit dull). In one story, writer Chuck Davies quotes CFIB economist Ted Mallett musing about the positive forces behind today's startups.

"We know that two thirds to three quarters of people who enter self-employment do so for positive reasons, they go in with their eyes wide open. It's part of their plan,” says Mallett. “The rest do it because they're forced into it, either because they haven't been able to find paid employment opportunities or because they've been laid off or downsized."

Mallett also notes suppliers’ growing interest in the small-business market. "Banks and financial institutions have realized that small business owners are a very profitable segment for them. A startup may not have much to go on, but the fact that the person starting it up is 45 years old, has finished a mid-level career, has a nice amount of equity in their home, is driven and has a good credit record – this person is going to be very profitable for a bank if treated right."

Mallett sees other suppliers joining the trend. In particular, providers of information technology are starting to realize “they've got to target a class of business that's considerably smaller than the ones they've been used to dealing with," he says. "That means their solutions and their pricing models have to be different."

In fact, yesterday the Globe ran an article saying more telecom firms are viewing small business as a market segment worthy of its own products and dedicated strategies. This isn’t new (anyone remember – but it seems a broader initiative than we’ve seen before.

So the next time you buy from a supplier, make sure they speak your language. Demand service levels and pricing structures that make sense for you, not just for IBM.

If entrepreneurs are to be truly recognized as the backbone of this country, we should show more backbone.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Tis the Season for a Management Epic

“It's the first week of November, and Christmas is coming fast. Santa's elves are working overtime, and why not? His toys have guaranteed distribution.
“Things aren't so simple at Toronto-based Spin Master Ltd. "

That’s the opening to my feature story on Spin Master, Canada's largest toy company, in the latest issue of PROFIT Magazine. It’s a pretty long piece, but it’s one of my all-time favorites, and I think it’s worth your time.

For the first time, the reclusive management team at one of Canada’s most innovative and globally successful firms opens up about how they work, their greatest challenges and where they’re heading next. They offered me full access to their daily schedules for five days, enabling a rare inside glimpse into the workings of one of Canada’s most-honored growth companies.

Adding a human element to the piece: the three owner/founders are all still in their early 30s, and they’ve been friends since university. This is a very human story about a huge business success and the founders’ remarkable ability to trust, squabble and move on.

Here’s an excerpt, for those who are too busy to click through right now and think they’ll remember tomorrow:

Despite Spin Master's many successes, [co-CEO] Anton Rabie sees its evolution as a daily battle to exist. "Every day I wake up, I am being attacked," he says, eyes flashing with characteristic intensity. "I've come to realize that this is my life."

We're in his tidy, spacious office in late October, trying to conduct an interview while the phone rings and colleagues rush in looking for urgent decisions. "The LC is four weeks late!" complains one. Whenever there's a lull, Rabie rolls his highback chair to his computer table to check his inbox. "Wow," he says. "I just got an ugly e-mail."

At its size [more than $300-million], you'd think Spin Master had earned the right to give other people ulcers. But here are just a few of the challenges Rabie is dealing with this day:

* The rising cost of plastic foam following the hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico has forced Rabie to request an emergency price increase for its kids' beds. But one buyer has just turned Rabie down flat. In a terse e-mail, the buyer adds archly, "Let us know if you don't want to ship. We have alternative product lined up."

* Meanwhile, Spin Master has been trying for weeks to license an exciting new toy technology. The deal is all but done, but the inventor just found another problem with Spin Master's proposed terms. (This haggling will continue for weeks, threatening the company's spring schedule for rolling out the new product.)

* A movie producer is about to award product licences for its next animated feature. Spin Master has a new product that would fit this property perfectly—but isn't ready to announce it. Rabie gets on the phone, lobbying hard for the producer to await Spin Master's bid.

* Meanwhile, the acquisition of a niche toy company in the U.S. seems stalled, and Rabie has to get things moving again. "Let's schedule a meeting, anywhere in the world you want to meet," he tells the prospect over the phone. His goal is to get his CFO, Mark Segal, and his outside legal counsel in the same room as the U.S. toymaker until a deal is done. "How about you send the markup by Tuesday, we meet in New York Thursday at 4 p.m., and we either leave happy or sad?" In the end, the meeting is cancelled.

"Either it's a retailer cancelling an order, competitors coming into our category or an acquisition where the terms are falling apart," says Rabie grimly. "Our business is under attack every single day." Then, flashing a grim smile, he adds, "It's great entertainment."

Read the rest of the story here.
(Hint: to read it all without having to click to a new page every few paragraphs, scroll to the bottom of the page and click on "Print Story." You can also copy and paste the story from that pop-up window if you want to save it for later.)

And let me know what you think. Leave a comment below.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

When entrepreneurs make money

Most of my career has been about helping entrepreneurs make more money. What they did with it was their business.

Until now.

This week I agreed to start writing a personal finance column for MoneySense Magazine (a sister publication to PROFIT). My first column is due in January, so it won't be out for months, but I hope you will follow along.

MoneySense editor Ian McGugan and I agree that entrepreneurs have a lot of issues around diversifying their investment portfolios, business succession, tax planning, saving for retirement, and so on, so I am looking forward to jumping into all of these areas.

If you're an entrepreneur with suggestions for topics to cover, please let me know. You can leave a comment here or email me at

In case you're keeping track, this is now three regular column gigs: I write "Frontlines" for PROFIT, and "From the Outside In" for Alberta Venture. I try to write regularly for Corporate Knights as well, when other business doesn't get in the way.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Canadian Entrepreneurs Unite! (you too, Sir Walter Scott)

More and more Canadian entrepreneurs seem to be finding Canadian Entrepreneur. How do they get here? In about half the cases they seem to be following blog directories or other links that bring them here. The other half come from search engines: mainly Google, Yahoo, and MSN.

What search terms bring them here? Glad you asked. Here’s a list of the search terms used in the past week by visitors to Canadian Entrepreneur. Some make sense, others will make you scratch your head. But they got here all the same.

Search terms that led to Cdn Ent in the past week. (Some duplicates have been removed.)

voip customer success stories
chris staples, rethink, quote
bravo bmo
rick Spence blog
Dr. Seuss specialist
canadian business fortunes 2005
hardware store coming to cornwall ont
canadian entrepreneur
ethical businesses
quotes by chris staples, rethink
Jack Welch sucks (I swear, Jack, I never said this, exactly!)
canadian the young and the restless
diff'rent strokes. media domain.
kiessling Toronto
canada's greatest entrepreneur
one entrepreneur history
shasha bread company inc
history of Sir Walter Scott as entrepreneur (huh?)
examples of poorly written e-mails
Canadian entrepreneur

There you go: that’s what people are looking for on the Internet this week.

The future of Google :^)

Google has emerged as one of the most ambitious and innovative forces in business today.
So I thought you’d appreciate a look at what it might be up to in a few more years…

It’s a joke, okay? Thanks to my daughter, who found this at

Stamps are back!

I’ve given up reading most of the marketing-related e-newsletters I receive, but there was an interesting item from Dan Kennedy (the “No B.S.” marketing consultant and author) this morning.

Noting that California’s new anti-spam laws make it illegal to send a marketing e-mail to anyone in that state who has not consented to receiving it, he wonders if that doesn’t just about kill e-mail marketing.

So he says "the Next Big Thing" in marketing is – old-fashioned direct mail! He calls it “the only targeted medium that hasn't been almost regulated out of existence.”

Sure, e-mail marketing is cheap, says Kennedy. But, he writes, “you just cannot beat a letter in an envelope, and if your business can't bear that cost, it's a lousy business. Fix it or get out.”

Kennedy’s rules of direct mail:

“QUALITY OF LIST has as much to do with success as MESSAGE.

“GETTING IT DELIVEREDAND OPENED is essential, or the MESSAGE doesn't matter. Once opened, COPY IS KING, so if you're going to be a really serious student of anything, pick direct-response copy.

"Nothing out-pulls a NURTURED 'HOUSE LIST' OF YOUR OWN CUSTOMERS, so you usually profit by mailing to them more frequently. A good resolution for this year might be to double your frequency.”

See you at the post office.

And if you like reading lots of capital letters, see more Dan Kennedy stuff at (where else?)

Deck the halls with profit-sharing

Want to increase your company’s profits? Give some of 'em away.

That’s the experience of Vancouver entrepreneur Brian Scudamore, founder of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, North America's largest junk-removal service with more than 150 franchise locations.

As related in his column in the latest issue of PROFIT Magazine, Scudamore decided two years ago to create a company-wide profit-sharing program. He committed 25% of his company’s profits to the pool – and it’s worked beyond his wildest expectations.

“Like most business owners,” he writes , “I thought that profit-sharing would increase the company's overall profits, but not enough to cover the profit-sharing payout; thus, 1-800-GOT-JUNK? would recoup less of its net earnings. Was I ever wrong! In fiscal 2004, the program's first year, our bottom line after profit-sharing payouts increased by almost 800%. This year, our annual profit is trending 50% higher than it was in 2004. To me, that's a clear sign the program is working.”

An example of the benefits: “People started watching everything from the macro, including company-wide revenue and profit, to the micro, such as the entertainment or telephone expenses of individual departments.
“One employee took the initiative to replace our expensive bottled-water service with a filtered-water system, cutting our drinking-water costs by a third and inspiring the rest of the team to find wins of their own.”

Read the whole column HERE.

'Tis the season.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Technopreneurs on the Town

I’ve gotta blog about my meeting with two people at a downtown café last week. As we were talking about putting on an initiative together, the other two (only one of whom I had known before) both told me it’s too bad a fourth guy wasn’t there. Mark’s an actor as well as a business consultant, and they were dying for me to see this commercial he’s done.

So Ron, on my right, says to Richard on my left, “Did you bring your laptop?” Richard says yes. Ron releases a chain around his neck that holds a USB storage device no bigger than your fingernail. He pops it into Richard’s USB drive and Richard copies the file onto his laptop. Then he goes to play it.

Oops. The commercial is formatted in Quicktime, and Richard doesn’t have it.

No problem. This café is wired for wireless Internet (if that makes sense to you), so Richard downloads it while we talk. Within three minutes, we are watching Mark’s commercial.

It didn’t really advance our conversation much, but I was struck by how cool this whole process was.

My first PC had a 20-mb hard drive and weighed 80 pounds (including monitor). Now we carry gigabytes of storage around our neck, haul many megahertz of processing power around in a briefcase, and download the programs we need out of the ether. As we've said around here before, it’s an amazing time to be in business.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Buying a business? Learn from the pros

Community newspapers can be very profitable businesses. Did you ever want to buy one, but didn’t want to pay a fair price?

Here’s how the pros do it. It's a long read, but very enlightening. (As you go through this, you'll realize why you don't read about this stuff in the newspapers.)

This is an edited version of a transcript of the Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications. In its mission to probe the state of Canadian media, it held a session in Dieppe, N.B. on April 21, 2005.

Senator Joan Fraser (Chairman) led the investigation. The first witness was David Henley, who had owned four community newspapers in New Brunswick. That is the province where the Irving family owns most of the daily newspapers, the weeklies, the TV stations, and the biggest industrial employers (forestry, agriculture, oil, etc.).

Here is the abridged transcript.

Mr. Henley: I am from Woodstock, N.B., and I am the former owner, with my wife, of Henley Publishing Ltd., which owned four community papers in Western New Brunswick until November 2002, when we sold those properties to the Irving-owned Brunswick News....

When it was announced that a committee was being formed to study Canadian media and, specifically, the concentration of ownership, I told my wife I would like to appear before this committee. She said, "What is the point? The barn door is already open and the horses are gone.'' My daughter then added, "Yes, and they have taken all the hay.''

Senator Munson: Why did you sell?

Mr. Henley: Well, I am 68 years old... It was becoming time to sell. Some pressures were brought to bear as we got closer to making that decision that had a great effect on what we eventually did.

Senator Munson: Are those confidential pressures, or is it the same story of a big company marching forward and gobbling up little newspapers?
Mr. Henley: Essentially, a former employee started a shopper in competition with us in Woodstock. They could not make a go of it, so they transferred it over to another person, who also could not make a go of it. In any case, the ownership eventually came into Irving hands and things then changed, because we noticed a definite increase in the competition in a number of ways.

The Chairman: What do you mean by, "a number of ways''?

Mr. Henley: For instance, before the sale, the shopper offered free classified advertising and put out a price list [for other types of ads]. There is nothing wrong with this, I suppose, but they sold ads that were far under the price list.

…. Obviously, by offering free classifieds, that cut into the classified advertising revenue of our publication. Newspapers are usually sold based on their revenue, and so when the time came to sell, obviously, the price would have reflected the decreased revenue.

(Rick: Nice work. Now here's the kicker...)

Henley: By the way, there is certainly a price now to put your classified ad in the shopper. Since The Bugle is now the only publication in the area, the classified rates are now double what they were when we owned the paper.

Rick talking: I had to omit a lot of interesting details - how Irving consolidated those papers, their alleged "predatory" pricing, why it would be hard for anyone else to enter these markets, and why Henley rejected the idea of going to the Competition Bureau.

When you have some free time, read the whole story here.

Mission Statement Impossible

I hope to blog more thoroughly about the Workplace Education and Learning conference I participated in yesterday, but I have to share this thought with you. It gets my vote as Quote of the Day.

The speaker was Prem Benimadhu, VP of Organizational Performance for The Conference Board of Canada (which put on the conference). While talking about what makes companies great, he criticized companies that put more effort into coming up with their vision and mission statements than in actually living up to them. (We all know companies like that.)

Says Benimadhu: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Put that in your back pocket for the next time your marketing people activate the spin cycle without dealing with the fundamentals.

Vision without execution is hallucination.