Friday, February 27, 2009

The Future of Business

My column this week in the Financial Post focuses on “cleantech”: the much vaunted new industry sector covering products, services, technologies and energy solutions that promote environmental sustainability and are expected to create new wealth and thousands of jobs.

Two government agencies devoted to sustainable business solutions last week released a “Cleantech Report” that focuses on the growth potential of Ontario environmental firms and analyzes the key challenge facing cleantech entrepreneurs.

The big challenge: commercializing cleantech products and technologies. As the report points out, Canadian companies are known “for underperforming in their efforts to commercialize their products."

Based on interviews with Ontario cleantech entrepreneurs both successful and aspiring, the report authors cite 12 commercialization “best practices.” My article summarizes six of those success tactics – while making the point that they apply not just to cleantech companies, but to virtually any business trying to market innovation.

Be intentional about growth: The authors say many cleantech entrepreneurs set arbitrary growth targets for their companies every year. But they found the more successful companies set specific growth targets based on the critical mass they think they will need to survive and compete in their markets.

You can read the full story here.

Or you can download the full report here, for free. If you are at all interested in the future of business, you need to read this document.

Friday, February 20, 2009

7 Opportunities in the Current Recession

If you read just one blogpost this year, this is the one.

I attended the Wisdom Exchange today at the Mars Discovery District in Toronto, an annual gathering of leading growth firms sponsored by the Ontario government. Ontario’s ministry of small business recognizes that a tiny minority of SMEs, the export-oriented gazelles, account for a disproportionate share of job creation, and it does a great job of encouraging, motivating and supporting the CEOs of such companies through educational opportunities such as the Wisdom Exchange.

I moderated a panel on financial alternatives in challenging times, where I learned a lot about purchase-order financing and angel investment. I also attended an excellent session on innovation, by U.S. innovation expert Scott Anthony of Innosight, and heard an inspiring first-person turnaround story from John Keating, CEO of Cambridge, Ont.-based Com Dev International. You will be hearing more about all these topics later in this space.

For today, I want to share with you a portion of a presentation from Jayson Myers, the respected economist who now heads up Canada's largest industry association, Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters.

Myers offered a fair bit of bad news to the group – he warned that the recession “will be deeper and last longer than consensus forecasts,” and that total Canadian merchandise exports have actually been falling for six years. He also cited several major business risks going forward, such as: further turmoil in financial markets, China (especially if it ever tires of financing U.S. deficits), the US treasury market, and appreciation in the Canadian dollar.

But here is the good news. Myers also cited a whole listfull of business opportunities created by the current downturn. Not every company is in a position to seize these opportunities, but those who can should definitely be looking at this list as a recipe for action.

Opportunities in the Current Recession:

· For companies with cash and investment strength
· Replace competitors (who falter or struggle in this economy)
· Acquisitions
· Respond to new and emerging customer demand
· New product and market development
· Infrastructure and Innovation (including the smart grid, green energy, health care, logistics and security, and energy – all areas where Canadian companies have some advantages)
· Product specialization, services, new processes, new skills

Print out this list and stick it on your fridge. It’s your way out of this economy.

Hail to the Chief

We conclude USA Week here on Canadian Entrepreneur with a nod to PROFIT Magazine’s story this month on "5 Management Lessons from Barack Obama."

PROFIT editor Ian Portsmouth says the new U.S. president, who dashed into Canada today for seven unforgettable hours, can teach us a thing or two about landing customers. Here’s an excerpt:

* In order for Obama to demonstrate his empathy for the average citizen, he portrayed himself as the American everyman: shooting hoops with voters, conducting kitchen-table talks for a national TV infomercial audience and even wearing jeans and sneakers at campaign stops. LESSON: Be like your customers.

* If John F. Kennedy was the first TV president, Obama is the first Internet president. The Web-savvy former senator used text messaging, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to recruit Obamamaniacs and raise millions in campaign contributions. LESSON: Grow with Web 2.0.

You can read the full story here. It'll take you two minutes.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The 30 top innovations of the last 30 years

PBS’s Nightly Business Report teamed up with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, to select the 30 most important innovations from the last 30 years. The list was made public today. No prizes for guessing the top four (see below).

I think this list is useful in a couple of ways. First of all, it’s always good to remember how new so much of the technology we use today really is. Secondly, I’m a big believer that business opportunities arise at the intersection of different trends. (The iPod combined data-storage advances with Internet communication, just as the Blackberry combined cellphones and computers). So as you ponder this list, think about how each of these individual innovations could be mixed and matched to create tomorrow’s next big opportunity.

30. Anti retroviral treatment for AIDS
29. SRAM flash memory
28. Stents
27. ATMs
26. Bar codes and scanners
25. Bio fuels
24. Genetically modified plants
23. RFID and applications (e.g. EZpass)
22. Digital photography/videography
21. Graphic user interface (GUI)
20. Social networking via internet
19. Large scale wind turbines
18. Photovoltaic Solar Energy
17. Microfinance
16. Media file compression (e.g., jpeg, mpeg, mp3)
15. Online shopping/ecommerce/auctions (e.g., eBay)
14. GPS Systems
13. Liquid Crystal Displays
12. Light emitting diodes (first real devices in 1960s; in products in mid-70s)
11. Open source software and services (e.g., Linux, Wikipedia)
10. Non-invasive laser/robotic surgery (laparoscopy)
9. Office software (Spreadsheets, word processors)
8. Fiber optics
7. Microprocessors
6. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
5. DNA testing and sequencing/Human genome mapping
4. E-mail
3. Mobile phones
2. PC/laptop computers
1. Internet/broadband/WWW

Friday, February 13, 2009

Learning from Obama

This seems to be USA Week here at Canadian Entrepreneur. So to honour next week's visit to Canada by President Barack Obama, one more America-themed post...

The Financial Post's Executive Blog recently posted included a freelance article by a Ryerson University business student, Greg Murray, on "What Barack Obama Taught Me About Business." Murray's list of lessons featured some terrific observations.

* Establish a clear and simple brand identity, then stick to it. "The Obama campaign was always about change."

* Manage your employees through metrics. "The Obama campaign amassed a payroll of 5000 employees with a volunteer base in the millions. Each employee and volunteer had metrics to meet. Whether it was a field organizer assigned a set amount of volunteers to recruit, or a fundraiser delegated a certain amount of money to raise, everyone knew their goals and their role in the organization."

* Stay one step ahead of your competition. "David Plouffe has repeatedly stated that Obama is president today because of their state-by-state strategy during the primaries. They were usually one state ahead of the Clinton campaign."

* Keep your customers' expectations in check.
Well, three out of four isn't bad.

You can read the full story here.

All-Star Advice

The January issue of Inc. Magazine had a lot of great recession-fighting tips collected under the title, “The Ultimate Business Tune-up for Times Like These.”

Among the business owners surveyed were John Mackey of Whole Foods, Jenny Craig, Bernie Marcus of The Home Depot, and Brian Scudamore of Vancouver-based 1-800-GOT-JUNK?(Maybe they forgot he’s Canadian.)

Here are my favourite tips from the article.

Tony Hsieh, During the first month of training, Zappos offers new employees $2,000 to quit, plus their time worked. It sounds expensive, but in the long term, it's not. We want people to be here because they are passionate about customer service and because they like our culture. We don't want people who are just here for a paycheck.

Jenny Craig: Rather than cut staff, we have gone against the conventional wisdom and advertised to bring in more business. While our competitors were hunkering down, we would spend a bit more than we had planned, which resulted in a huge competitive advantage.

Bert Jacobs, Life Is Good: We randomly call our retailers and ask, "During this difficult time, is there anything we can do to help?" You would be surprised how many requests you can meet. For example, retailers have input about the upcoming season. They say, "I think you guys have gotten too far away from bright color palettes. Everything seems to be earth tones now." You hear 60 retailers mention that, and you make a change. Then, you give them a sneak preview. They are ecstatic that you listened to them.

Paul Orfalea, Kinko's: Reward co-workers who deliver leads that turn into clients. Now is the time to reinforce the notion that everyone is in sales and marketing.

John Chambers, Cisco Systems: Even in the midst of a downturn, make sure you prepare for the rebound. Start planning as soon as possible for how you are going to gain share and differentiate yourself from your peers.

You can read the full story here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Something we can all learn from

I have friends who have been to Florida in the past few weeks and come back with nightmare stories of distressed property sales, empty malls and economic cataclysm. But apparently there's another story writing itself under the Florida sun.

Mark Usher, a partner with Toronto-based specialty finance firm Wellington Financial, attended last week's Annual Florida Venture Forum in Naples. He came back with renewed respect for America's entrepreneurial spirit.

As he writes in Wellington's blog, "I can report that after spending two and a half days with 600 entrepreneurs, VCs and the various service providers who support the industry, the spirit of the U.S. entrepreneur is alive and well. Everyone I met and listened to at the conference acknowledged the tough place they are all in. But the determination, resiliency and can-do attitude was extremely invigorating...

"After attending the conference, I am much more optimistic that better days lie ahead. Obama’s inauguration message of pulling up your socks and working harder to get through this was resonating with the conference attendees..."

"The spirit of the U.S. entrepreneur is something we can all learn from - no problem or obstacle cannot be overcome."

Heady stuff. Almost unCanadian. But a powerful message nonetheless.

Perhaps our obstacles can be overcome as well.

Read Mark's full blogpost here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Change is hard. Think harder!

How do you manage change? How do you convey the need for change, and then actually get people to embrace new attitudes and behaviours?

My Financial Post column this week covers “Five Unusual Ideas about Change,” a recent presentation by University of Toronto management prof John Oesch.

To whet your appetite, here are his five concepts:
1. Rather than emphasize the benefits of the proposed change, highlight the potential losses from not changing.
2. Be explicit about “what’s in it for you” (you, that is, not them)
3. Recognize the bias toward the status quo.
4. “Pull” can be more powerful than push
5. The Data Dilemma

“Change management is one of the most written about, but least understood, aspects of leadership,” notes Oesch. “While many change leaders follow existing models and perform requisite rituals, too many continue to rely on hope as a strategy for success.”

You can read the full column here.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Stimulate This!

This week's Financial Post column took a second look at a little item in last week's federal budget: Jim Flaherty's proposal proposal to spend $5 million over the next two years to help upgrade the "financial literacy" of Canadians.

But imagine what would happen if the feds got what they wish for. Financially literate consumers would see right through a stimulative budget trying to persuade hard-pressed Canadians to spend lots of money on cars and real estate in uncertain times.

I propose a better idea: invest more in entrepreneurship education.

Excerpt: Entrepreneurship education is the foundation of financial literacy. After all, financial assets aren't just something you manage; they first must be created. Entrepreneurship values alone -- vision, initiative, selling skills and the dedication to meeting people's needs -- teach you how to build the value that leads to wealth.

You can read the full column here.

Earlier this week I received a delightful email from a Post reader who is working hard to save an entrepreneurship training and development program is his hometown. He asked for permission to adopt the slogan, "Entrepreneurship education is the foundation of financial literacy," as his personal mantra as he goes about raising funds for the program.

I wished him the best of luck. And anyone in a similar position is welcome to adopt it, too.

Let me know if it helps!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Four Years Old

I just missed the big anniversary; on Sunday, Feb. 1, this blog turned four years old!

If it were a child, this blog would be starting school, learning to skate, and constantly being warned to look both ways and never talk to strangers.

(Good thing it's just a blog.)

In those four years there have been 800 posts. I'm a little less chatty than I used to be: looking at the first year, I see I used to tell jokes (usually with some sort of business slant), and I spent more time looking at wacky companies and even test-driving high-tech equipment. I even wrote a short post about the sheer wonder of having (gasp!) high-speed Internet in my hotel room!

Ah, the sweet days of youth, that shall not come again.

Here's a sample of 2005 content: my favourite joke, which contains an instructive warning against making assumptions about other people:
(Warning: may be offensive to four-year-olds.)

A little girl walked into a pet shop and asked,"Excuse me, do you have any rabbits here?"

"I do," the clerk answered, and leaned down to her eye level. "Did you want a white rabbit or would you rather have a soft, fuzzy black rabbit?"

The little girl shrugged. "I don't think my python really cares."