Friday, January 30, 2009

Nightly Rant Report

I just laid a rant on the people who produce the PBS TV show, Nightly Business Report.

For some reason they sent me a press release trumpeting the fact that NBR is launching a month-long report on eunemployment. It's called, “Reviving the Economy: Jobs.”

"As part of this month-long series, NBR reporters will tackle the following topics:
o How those with jobs can prepare for possible unemployment
o How to look for work
o What sectors/areas are still hiring
o Problems with employment insurance system."

I looked at that bumph and thought, Where's the self-employment angle?

So I replied to the hapless PR guy with the following rant:

"Where the heck is your coverage on entrepreneurship: making your own job?

There is immense structural change going on. Many jobs and companies will disappear forever. But the work they did will have to do be done by somebody - which creates tremendous opportunities for creative, competent individuals who think of themselves as "free agents" rather than "unemployed."

If you treat people like victims, they will act like victims. Your exclusive focus on "how to get a job" could impede many people in your audience from recognizing that self-employment is a viable, and not entirely unattractive, option.

It sure beats Starbuck's. Not that they're hiring either."

The PR guy wrote back, saying "You bring up a tremendous point, I think." (I love the hesitation there.) So he passed my email on to the managing editor, who sent back this reply:

"actually.. we’re working on that as well.
we're planning a story on starting your own business... looking at new opportunities and franchises."

So I wote back and said, "Yeah, but... a month-long series on the hell of unemployment... and one story on starting a business? I really think you are missing an opportunity to be of service to your audience.

Today's young people get it, because they know how easy it is to start doing business today. Entrepreneurship is a genuine phenomenon as important as unemployment, except it's hopeful. And it encourages action and self-confidence, not victimization."

I just don't understand why stories about how to apply for a job are so much more interesting and important than how to create your own job.

Makes the CBC look positively entrepreneurial.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

So many startups

I think we’re in the midst of a startup boom.

Lately I’ve been receiving an increasing number of inquiries from people who are starting a business and think I can help them with specific questions.

The sad truth is, I’m pretty much a small business management and marketing generalist: I have a pretty broad knowledge of a lot of industries, opportunities and business strategies, but my roots go deep in only a few sectors (marketing, media, sales, spelling...). When people ask me for industry-specific help, I usually have to put up my hand and opt out.

This week, for instance, I have been asked for advice from a new type of insurance company, a renovations-related company and a transportation firm – three of the many industries I know almost nothing about. I usually fall back on suggesting they seek advice from people they know who are already in the industry – people can be very patient and generous with their times and expertise when they think you are capable, sincere and genuine.

I also advise people to make the most of their local chamber of commerce, enterprise centre, economic development office, or Community Futures outpost. All these organizations have business experts who should be able to help you with marketing ideas, industry contacts, and specific problems.

Yesterday one person asked for some basic introductory marketing tips. Since I didn't know his industry, I tried to help by throwing him this bone, which applies to just about any startup in any industry:

“One thing I would advise any startup to do is to put up a quick and cheap website announcing what you are intending to do, and then promote it through Google AdWords or a similar pay-per-click ad services from Yahoo or Microsoft. What you do is identify the keywords that any prospective customer of yours may be using to look up information on the Web, and then "buy" those search terms through Google. That way you can present a short, three-line ad to anyone who searches for those search terms.

You can choose how much you will pay for that exposure, and decide where in the world you want your ads to appear (all of Canada? Ontario? Ohio? Michigan and Indiana and Chicago?). You pay only when someone clicks on your ad to visit your website or follow up on your offer. It's a very cheap and manageable way to collect market intelligence and begin building a prospect list.”

It’s great to see so many people launching businesses and reaching out for help and advice. (The worst entrepreneurs are the ones who try to do everything all by themselves.) The key is to keep on asking until you reach the people who can help you the most.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How many billion? Budget Reaction 2009

Oh, fate plays strange tricks. The Conservatives release a budget promising $64 billion in deficit spending over two years - while the Liberals are forced to walk a thin line between encouraging economic stimulus and betraying the Chretien/Martin legacy of balanced budgets.

Lots of good stuff in Tuesday's budget: Tax breaks for individuals that will be hard to roll back, money for home renovations and big infrastructure projects, extended benefits for UI recipients, more credit for small business.

They're also increasing the amount of small business income eligible for the reduced federal corporate income tax rate of 11%. The new maximum would be $500,000, up from the current limit of $400,000. The Finance department expects this measure will be worth $45 million in the 2009–10 fiscal year and $80 million in 2010-11.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has its budget reaction here.

The Financial Post has aggregated the reactions and opinions of a number of top economists: click here.

Canada's mayors whine for more.

"Hell or High Water": Click here for the CBC's nostalgic look back at prominent budgets of the past.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Dragons second-guess Stephen Harper

This weekend I caught about half of the CBC News special “The Dragons Decide” featuring those darn dragons from Dragons’ Den talking about their plans for stimulating the economy. I must admit that when I first heard about it, I thought this was just too goofy: having entertainment-geared personalities like the Dragons play out their roles on “The National” seemed to make as much sense as inviting Brent Butt to discuss gasoline prices.

Yet, it worked. The CBC got a bunch of earnest people together to pitch the Dragons on their ideas for economic stimulus: investing in infrastructure, for instance, or green technology, or higher education, or the auto industry. Each Dragon was given an imaginary $4 billion to invest wherever he or she chose.

Yes, we had the painful arguing-over-top-of-each-other scenes that may be appropriate when discussing an entrepreneur with a bright blue mousetrap, but seems undignified when talking about the future of the nation. But at the end, we got a good discussion of issues and possibilities. And yes, Kevin O’Leary proposing to invest his $4 billion in eliminating corporate income tax and capital gains tax entirely.

Most of the Dragons went for a more modest approach: investing in IT research, infrastructure and green technology. Which makes a lot of sense to me – I think green tech is going to be the next Internet, a game-changing revolution that will create incredible entrepreneurial opportunities while sweeping away many old habits, behaviours, technologies and ways of life. Green is the way to go.

(The Dragons also reserved a few billion for investing in small and medium-sized business: investing in Canadian entrepreneurs. I would take that further and say, let’s also invest in entrepreneur education: so more Canadians can learn to take responsibility for their futures and create economic value on their own.)

The best part of the show was seeing the Dragons face down the CAW’s Buzz Hargrove at the end. They accepted his argument that other countries’ export restrictions have hurt the North American industry, but they swatted away his claims for the auto sector as a high-tech industry of the future. Time to move on, they said, and once again I think they're right.

You can read about the show and watch portions of it here.

Bonus: Here is Kevin O’Leary’s advice to Buzz Hargrove:

“It’s very, very difficult to watch the sun set when you know there’s nothing you can do about it. I gave no dollars to [your] idea. We have a great system in this country- capitalism provides for bankruptcy, and from the ashes of the dead comes the heartbeat of new life, and you’re not letting that happen. Your patient’s dying, and you’re keeping it alive on a slow-drip program, and I hate to see that torture. Pull those tubes out and let that grandmother die – it’s time.”

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Private-Equity Opportunity

My Financial Post column this week looks at the surprising interest American private-equity investors are suddenly showing in small and mid-sized Canadian companies.

It's a window of opportunity for entrepreneurs looking for growth capital and strategic direction, management buyouts, or succession. But it's not for everybody, and the window may not stay open long.

You can read the full story here.

Friday, January 09, 2009

This can't be good

I'm not a hard-right-winger, but even I get nervous when I see governments turning onthe taps to help us.

Advice for a would-be consultant

The other day I was contacted by a woman who's been out of the workforce for a while, but wants to get back to work. She's an expert in purchasing, marketing and administration, but says that employers write her off because of her age. She asked whether I thought she could make it as a consultant.

Here's what I wrote back:

I think you are in good shape, consulting-wise. Today we're seeing more and more companies contract out specialist services such as marketing, and even purchasing. You just have to find clients who value your experience.

You need to get the word out about what you can do. Why not attend some meetings at the local chamber of commerce, and meet local business owners? Make sure you prepare a 10-second "elevator pitch" to explain clearly and quickly what you do. Example: "I'm a consultant who helps local business owners manage two areas that usually keep them up at night: marketing and purchasing." Be prepared to cite examples of some of your marketing successes, or anecdotes about how you saved money or accomplished other miracles through savvy purchasing.

You'll save time by choosing a target market. Do you want to work for big firms, who pay well but are often difficult for outsiders to crack? Or do you want to tackle startups and small businesses, which may not pay as well, but offer you a chance to make a real contribution and get more satisfaction from your work?

Invest in yourself. Read a book on running your own consulting firm. Buy Google pay-per-click ads in your local area to let prospects know you're out there. Get some professional-looking business cards printed (not at Staples or Office Depot!). Consider taking out an ad in local business papers or magazines. Brush up on your networking skills and attend more local business events. Consider volunteering in a not-for-profit to demonstrate your skills and build up your confidence.

It may not feel like it now, but the business world needs you. It needs your skills, experience, judgment and common sense.

Best of luck.

What would you have told her?

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Dragons' Den goes out with a Bang

The CBC gave me a sneak peek at the season finale of Dragons’ Den.

It’s a special retrospective show recapping the big deals that were done, great moments in Dragon infighting, the pitchers’ worst mistakes, and new interviews with the Dragons complaining about each other. It’s on Sunday, Jan. 11, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s one of the few TV shows that a whole family can watch together, and everyone will get something out of it.

In attention to the mistakes and infighting, the show contains some useful business content. The Dragons sum up how to get their attention, and what makes a winning pitch. I liked what Kevin O’Leary had to say about the pitchers’ biggest flaw: “90% of them blew the chance to make a good first impression.”

I also liked Arlene Dickinson’s summary of the three things every pitcher must do if they want to earn investment from a Dragon.
1) Captivate us.
2) Show us the opportunity .
3) Talk about what you've done to date.

O’Leary made it even simpler: “What is the opportunity, and how can I make money? That's all I want to know.”

A few other highlights of the show:
* the chef apologizes for making the Dragons eat dog food;
* Brett Wilson on pitchers’ biggest weaknesses: forecasting sales and assessing the value of their company.
* Wilson on what he looks for in a pitcher: “humble confidence”
* Jim Treliving admitting that “no one knows what’s really going to work
* Dickinson nailing Wilson for making “the worst deal of the year”
* and Robert Herjavec dishing on what Kevin O’Leary is really like.

Oh yeah, they also announce the winners of the $75,000 “Armchair Dragons” award, sponsored by Concrete Equities. (I don't think I’ll give that one away. But it’s an intriguing choice.)

Sunday, Jan. 11, at Could be 8:30 in Newfoundland.

Dragons Den will be back for another season. Auditions will likely be in April. You can stay in touch with the show by clicking here.