Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Dragons on the Prowl

While Dragons' Den auditions continue across the country, (click here for the schedule, or click here to read how the auditions have been going so far), Enterprise Toronto is holding its own special event next week.
Dragon Robert Herjavec and DD host Dianne Buckner will be at City Hall from 6 pm to 8:30 pm on April 7 to talk about the "Dos and Don'ts" of asking for capital.

Sure, it's a game show, but most of the lessons apply to all of your business life, so why not come out if you're in town? I will be one of the roundtable of guest "business experts" helping people hone their pitches.

This is not an audition, but pitchers hoping to come out to the April 18 Toronto audition - or anyone working on their presentation skills - would be well advised to take advantage of free coaching.

Related notes:
* You can also audition for Dragons' Den online. (Or watch the video pitches so far.)

* I am scheduled to help out with the April 18 auditions at the CBC in Toronto, so come on down.

* Click here to read my account of being a "Dragon for a Day" in this week's National Post.

Do you know these free security tools?

Worried about viruses and spam and other malicious attacks on your computer or website? ITBusiness.ca has a story on “eight great free security tools” that can help secure your IT assets.

You’ll encounter security software like Avast Home Edition, antispyware utility a-Squared HiJackFree, shields such as Online Armor Personal Firewall, and proactive insulator SpywareBlaster. And they're all free.

Check out the article here.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Retro Niches in a Global Economy

At the Spring Cottage Life Show in Toronto today, exhibitors were revelling in a recession-free day. Retailers seemed to be selling lots of stuff, and cottage-country real estate agents (I know, I know) seemed to feel that the long, cold winter of their discontent was finally over.

One interesting trend: a new wave of “retro” design in boats, toys, and appliances. Baby boomer nostalgia? Recessionary longing for a simpler time? All I know is it’s fun stuff and very cool. In a world of bland conformity, products such as these attest to your individuality, your taste, and your love of pastel colours.

Pasted here are pix of a 60s-style 14-foot runabout from Retro Boats of Kitchener, Ont., and fridges and stoves from a similar era from Elmira Stove Works, a third-generation manufacturer in Elmira, Ont.

Two great examples of Canadian companies that are finding unique and creative ways to succeed in a global economy.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ontario questions minimum-wage increase

Here's a bit of good news. Yesterday, Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty told Ottawa business leaders that he's considering axing an increase in the minimum wage scheduled for 2010.

The minimum wage will rise as scheduled this Tuesday, by 75 cents to $9.50 an hour. The 2010 increase would raise the minimum wage another 75 cents, to $10 an hour.

The Toronto Star reports today in a front-page story that McGuinty explained his dilemma by saying, "Like all prudent business managers we have to take into account ... what's happening to the economy as a whole."

I agrees. Governments must be especially frugal about using their power to legislate contracts between private, independent parties.

When the economy is going well, yes, let’s share some with the young people and the recent immigrants, who are the most common beneficiaries of minimum-wage legislation. But when the economy is tanking and bankruptcy rates rising, why would any sane government load any more burdens on the small businesses and marginal retailers who are the most common employers of minimum-wage workers?

Look at the history. Minimum wage rose by 75 cents to $8.75 just a year ago. That’s a 9.4% increase. I wish someone would legislate me a 9.4% raise.

The three annual increases announced a year ago amount to a 35% increase in two years – a ridiculous burden for employers in good times, and economic suicide in times like these.

Kudos to the government for reconsidering. There is nothing wrong with admitting a mistake.

I am particularly disappointed with the response of Progressive Conservative MPP Tim Hudak, who used this welcome acknowledgment of uncertainty to score cheap political points. Hudak, considered the front-runner in the current PC leadership campaign, called McGuinty's statements "a broken promise," according to the Star. "Page 38 of the Ontario budget papers talks about the minimum wage increase, and now, less than a day later, they're backing away."

If Hudak wants to head a common sense, pro-business party, why not welcome the review? If he needs to be negative, Hudak could have pointed out the insanity of a 35% increase in two years. But to make it so hard for a government ever to admit it might be wrong is a mistake, a disservice to voters and taxpayers.

I will leave it to the neo-cons to explain why every increase in the minimum wage is a blow against the poor. I will only point out that if grown adults with marketable skills are still working for minimum wage, there is something seriously wrong. And we should not be redistributing funds from hard-pressed, innovative entrepreneurs to encourage those underachievers.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Green Light: The Freedom to Fail

I just finished talking to a Toronto entrepreneur in a fairly traditional industry who blew me away with his commitment to (and excitement for) reinventing his business based on changing markets and emerging customer needs.

I was most impressed by his passion for encouraging his staff to innovate. Since no one knows where their market is headed, he thinks the secret to success is to empower front-line people to take initiative and try new things every day.

He thinks it’s something more business owners should do. In his words:
“Most businesses have stopped being creative, because they're afraid to fail. Society has attached a stigma to failure. We’ve goofed. Failure is part of learning.
“We have this idea that everything has to be successful the first time. But that's not the way we learn. We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up. We’ve forgotten that. We’re not giving our staff permission to be creative.”
“I tell my staff, ‘I’ll support you. I’ll give you the green light. Don't be afraid to fail.”

Maybe we should start a "Green Light" campaign. Every business that believes in innovation and creativity should post a green light in their lobby. Representing the freedom to fail, so that we all may learn and succeed.

What do you think? Do we have a chance?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Cranky Contrarian

My column this week in the Financial Post stems from a jaded interview with U.S. marketing consultant Michael Port, author of a 2008 book entitled The Contrarian Effect:Why It Pays (Big) to Take Typical Sales Advice and Do the Opposite.

You see, most of his “contrarian” advice (such as “establish yourself as a trusted advisor”) is the same stuff I've been learning at sales training for years. But Port defended himself well, saying that just because people learn this stuff doesn't mean they practice it. He still sees professional sales people basing everything they do on the ABC rule: “Always be closing.”

Here’s an excerpt from the story:
So what’s Port’s solution? He believes in slowing down the sales process. Don't base it on all-or-nothing decision points: make it about developing ongoing relationships, with multiple offers along the way to keep customers hooked. The offer might be a product, or an introductory sample or an invitation – anything that keeps the sales relationship alive and moving forward.

“The concept of closing doesn’t make sense,” says Port. “Why would you try to close off something? Why wouldn’t you try to keep things open?”

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Richard Page

I've just returned from the funeral of a friend and colleague, Richard Page.

One of the fittest people I know (he’s been known to run back home to the Scarborough Bluffs from business meetings in downtown Toronto), he was taken last week by brain cancer at the age of 56.

Richard was advertising sales director at PROFIT Magazine when I was publisher. We went on lots of sales calls together, broke a few sales records, came up lots of new ideas and actually pulled some off. He left around 2001 to get involved with a startup magazine. Clearly, the entrepreneurial atmosphere of PROFIT was infectious.

But the economy had passed its peak, and Richard ended up working on lots of different entrepreneurial projects. He was also a board member, chair, and huge supporter of the Canada Safety Council. When we met once or twice a year to stay in touch and compare notes, I rarely understood what he was working on, but it was always a complex, creative solution with public service foremost in mind.

Today I learned that a risk-management tool Richard developed for regulatory agencies is now in place and working well with a leading regulatory body. I think he was on the brink of great things – which makes his passing all the more tragic.

The good news is that Richard lived life to the fullest. When he learned seven months ago about the brain tumour that was causing dizzy spells, he wrote up a motto and taped it to his fridge. It went something like this: “I will live each day to its fullest one day at a time.”

In between doctors’ visits he continued to work, but also found more time for family, music, reading, and his many other passions. Family members were amazed that his overall mood was one of joy – appreciating every day, every moment, every friend.

May all of us be able to say the same.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Fiddler on the Move

A great sub-headline on an article in the March issue of Inc. magazine sums up the startup experience:

"A new business is like a shortwave radio. You have to fiddle patiently with all the dials until you get the reception you want."

(For extra credit, how many of those dials can you name?)

(In the ensuing article, author Joel Spolsky mentions the following dials to fiddle with: "Price. Location. Employees. Marketing. Advertising. Return policies. Trade shows. Products. Search-engine optimization. And every item in your budget.")

Fiddle here to read the original article.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Lost your job? How lucky can you get?

My friend George Torok, the Power Marketing expert, wrote a fabulous article in the Hamilton Spectator this week. His theme: “Luck is more a matter of perspective than it is the roll of the dice... Because how you feel will determine your actions and outcome.”

If you've recently lost your job, you probably feel unlucky. But that may not be the case, says Torok. “If you lost your job today -- you have a lot of company and help available. And it's socially acceptable to tell your out-of-work story. Lucky you.”

He goes on to tell his own story: about entering the workforce in 1979 just as a recession was brewing. He lost his first job in 1979 and his second in 1980. Between 1979 and 1983 he had eight different jobs, sometimes two at the same time, supporting a young family.

In the end, those experiences taught him the lessons needed to build his own business and write his signature book on personal marketing.

His money quote:
“Recently, the news quoted an individual who lost his job after 28 years. He was complaining. Meanwhile I was thinking how lucky he was -- for 28 years all he had to do was show up and do the same job every day.
How lucky can you get?”

You are your own lucky control board.

You can read the whole story here.
Or learn more about George at www.Torok.com.

Two views of Hamilton: Choose your perspective

By the way, how did I find out about George's article? He Twittered it. I clicked through and read it online. I liked it, so I blogged about it.

This is how marketing works today. If you have something to say, getting the word out has never been easier.

Lucky us.

New form of financing spotted!

This week’s Financial Post column looked at a new form of finance: purchase-order financing. It’s geared to manufacturers and distributors that deal in "durable” goods and have solid relationships with sound customers.

While expensive, purchase-order financing will be of special interest to companies that have tapped out conventional credit sources and need additional credit to land new orders or big accounts. Jim Reddon of Toronto-based Intuitive Capital calls PO financing “probably the earliest-stage and most aggressive kind of [non-equity] financing you can find.”
Read the full story here.

Bonus: In tough times, tapping your employees for bold new ideas may be your best growth strategy. My column in the latest issue of PROFIT explains how to start and run your own skunkworks – a team dedicated to brave new projects. You can learn how to “kick up a stink” here.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Cutting Your Prices

Do you dare lower your prices in this economy?

Inc. Magazine this month has a good story on this subject. Writer Ryan McCarthy profiles three business owners and their price-adjusting dilemmas.

Bottom line: Sometimes you have to give something up to get more. But you're better to create value for customers without chopping prices, since lower prices can create problems later.

For instance, online retailer PearlParadise.com began noticing sales falling off last fall. Eager to save the Christmas season, founder Jeremy Shepherd created a "luxury for less" campaign and cut prices in half on Tahitian pearls. Result: December volume were up 16%, with the less-expensive pearls accounting for 40% of revenue.

GotVMail, a Needham, Mass.-based company that offers virtual phone systems, offers a $9.95/ month service that doesn't leave much room for price-cutting. So it improved its plans, by increasing the number of minutes offered per plan and including some services free that the company used to charge for. The changes cut GotVMail's margins by 10% but offered customers an average savings of 40%. Result: Signups rose 40% in November.

McCarthy’s conclusion: “Bundling more services for the same price can be an effective way to be more competitive without cutting deeply into profits.”

Read the full story here.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Hunting Season for PROFIT 100

If you run a fast-growing company, or know someone who does, now is the time to enter the annual PROFIT 100 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies.

The PROFIT 100, now in its 21st year, is the definitive ranking of Canada’s top entrepreneurial firms. Its alumni include some of the biggest names in Canadian business, such as Research in Motion, Sleeman Breweries, Forzani Group and WestJet Airlines.

Companies that qualify for the list enjoy many benefits, including coverage in the June issue of PROFIT Magazine, and an exclusive invitation to the PROFIT 100 CEO Summit, a conference for entrepreneurial achievers. As with other awards programs, appearing in the PROFIT 100 rankings also tends to attract new customers, employees and business partners.

The deadline is March 31, 2009. For more information or to enter online, visit http://www.profit100.com/

D-Day (D is for Dragon)

For the third year in a row, I will be helping to audition “pitchers” for Dragons’ Den tomorrow at the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto.

If you're there, come up and say “hi.” But Expect No Mercy.

My job is to help separate the posers from the pitchers. I’ll be asking pitchers the usual revealing questions: “How big is your market?” “What makes your product/service unique?” “What will it sell for?” “What kind of market research have you done?” And, of course, “What makes you the one person in a million on whom I would want to risk my personal money?”

Potential pitchers (whether in the Den or elsewhere) should also be able to defend their valuations. If I ask you how much money you want from the Dragons, and you say “$1 million for 50% of my company,” then you'd better be able to explain why your idea/product/business is worth $2 million.

If you need more time to practice, I am also scheduled to help out at the second Toronto audition, which will be held Saturday, April 18.For more information see http://www.cbc.ca/dragonsden/apply/

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Selling to Enterprise

My column this week in the Financial Post looks at the fine art of selling to big business.

It’s based on a Direct Engagement panel I took part in, along with Ontario’s minister for small business, Harinder Takhar, and two ambitious entrepreneurs.

Excerpt: “My key message was that selling to big businesses requires the dreaded Three Ps: preparation, process and patience. You need to understand your customers' needs - in terms of product, service, logistics and reassurances - long before you make your first sales call.”
Panelist Tony Lacavera of Globalive Communications noted that most businesses are innately nervous about entrusting major contracts to unknown companies. He suggested entrepreneurs reduce the buyer's risk by initially asking for just a fraction of the available business - say, 2% or 5%. "Downsize your proposal, but not your ambition," he said. "Get in and do a great job with a small piece [of the business]. Do whatever you can to make the buyer look good internally."

You can read the full story here.

Communicate again

I got an email today (or is it tomorrow there already?) from a consultant in Australia commenting on my column last month on change management.

He mentioned that he's involved in a major technology implementation for an enterprise level client in Brisbane.

"Tight timeframes, limited resources, client has undergone massive changes over the past 5 years – many people fatigued by technology…however, we’ve been executing well…key for us as a Chg Mgmt Team is to communicate…communicate and communicate…"

I think his three-part success formula is spot-on. Just when you get tired of communicating your message is usually when people most need to hear it again.

It reminded me of the two success tips I heard a few years ago from an entrepreneur who had just won a Global Traders Award in Ontario: "You have to overcommunicate. And you have to overcommunicate."

Monday, March 09, 2009

Dragons' Den Auditions Begin

The wind is breathing signs of spring
And now the Dragons are on the wing!

Forgive my bad poetry, but as the air warms up, the CBC is once again sending out its producers across Canada to pre-audition pitchers for its Dragons’ Den reality TV series.

That’s the show where you pitch real celebrity investors on your business idea, and they either negotiate with you in public to buy a piece of the business, or scoff at your naivete and send you packing. Or worse.

Auditions start Saturday March 14 (in Toronto) and finish in Montreal and Windsor April 11.
Here’s the schedule as I received it today.

HAMILTON: Tuesday, March 24
SAULT STE MARIE: Monday, March 16
KINGSTON: Friday, March 27
THUNDER BAY: Monday, March 23
LONDON: Wednesday, March 18
TORONTO: Saturday, March 14 and Saturday, April 18
NORTH BAY: Tuesday, April 7
KITCHENER-WATERLOO: Thursday, March 19
OTTAWA: Saturday, March 28
WINDSOR: Saturday, April 11

CAMPBELL RIVER: Friday, April 3
PRINCE GEORGE: Tuesday, March 31
KELOWNA: Thursday, April 9
VANCOUVER: Friday, April 3 and Saturday, April 4
NANAIMO: Wednesday, April 1
VICTORIA: Monday, March 30
NELSON: Tuesday, April 7

CALGARY: Friday, March 27 and Saturday, March 28
EDMONTON: Wednesday, March 25
FORT McMURRAY: Tuesday, March 24

MONTREAL: Saturday, April 11
QUEBEC CITY: Thursday, April 9

REGINA: Wednesday, March 18
SASKATOON: Thursday, March 19

WINNIPEG: Saturday, March 21

HALIFAX: Saturday, March 14
ST. JOHN’S, Nfld.: Wednesday, March 18
MONCTON: Tuesday, March 31
SAINT JOHN, N.B.: Thursday, April 2
CHARLOTTETOWN: Saturday, April 4

For more information, and to confirm dates and time, check www.cbc.ca/dragonsden

Friday, March 06, 2009

Boiling the Ocean, Opening the Mailbag

I've received some positive feedback on this week’s Post Column on “boiling the ocean.”

“Boiling the ocean” refers to businesses taking on bigger markets than they can possibly handle. Silicon Valley cynics used it to describe starry-eyed companies that wanted to change the world but it can also usefully be applied to businesses that simply take on too much.

This column referred to an Oshawa-based entrepreneur who wanted to sell an innovative new service to homeowners throughout the Greater Toronto Area. Nothing wrong with that, except her service is complicated. It takes too long to describe and understand. And her marketing budget just isn't big enough to allow her to overcome that knowledge barrier over such a broad marketplace.

The secret, I suggested, is to select a reduced market segment that represents some of her best prospects – and is small enough for her limited marketing funds to have some impact.
You can read the full story here.

One reader emailed me today and said, “Great article, thanks. I have a prospective client that needs to hear this... and your expert advice will help me give them the message.”

Most writers work without ever getting much feedback, so it’s hard to know when you’ve produced something that really resonates. Thanks, G. Comments like these are very helpful.

I also heard from a longtime contact, a Montreal entrepreneur I've known since my PROFIT Magazine days. He offered some very useful advice beyond what I had written, so I’m glad I can offer it here.

“You are correct in abandoning the mass market for a smaller niche market, but there would be an even better approach for "Shirley". While she has had limited sales, I would suggest that she truly understand the profile of those customers that bought. Then, find more customers with the same profile. Let Shirley communicate with those who bought and ask, "Why did they buy?" This dialogue can generate a wealth of information that can be used to find more of the same type of customer. Inexpensive to garner this information, and enormously powerful to use. Then, prepare a mailing targeted to those same type of customers.”

Thanks for writing in, D. My very public education continues.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Be the Change You'd Like to See

I’ve been having a number of conversations with people lately about the media. Specifically, how much do today's chronically gloomy headlines on TV and newspapers contribute to recessionary thinking by focusing people on the cutbacks, layoffs and other bad economic news?

Frankly, I’m surprised people take this point of view so seriously. I talked to one executive yesterday who was blaming the media for making the recession worse – and then he slipped into the conversation the fact that AIG had just lost $62 billion - the biggest quarterly loss in history. By his logic, he should now take responsibility for making good that loss.

The media didn’t create this recession. The media didn’t invent funny-money mortgages and horses’-asset-backed paper. The media did not create overcapacity in the auto industry or scare oil prices into falling like a rock.

Still, I agree the media have a role to play. In the last recession, no one was watching CNN, Canada had only one business daily, and there were no round the clock Canadian all-news stations on TV or radio to tell us how badly off we are. So I think they are responsible for perpetuating some of our economic fears.

What can be done about it? You can't turn the media off. And they can't stop reporting problems, such as the Stelco shutdown announced today.

Yes, the media could be more sensible. For instance, today CBC.ca came up with the headline, “BMO Q1 profit dips 12%.” Given today’s sensitivities, they might better have titled the story, "BMO still in the black," which is quite a feat in international banking today. But this is really just a nuance.

The media are just doing their job, but they're as confused about what’s going on as anyone.

It’s up to business to show leadership here. Be your own media filter. Instead of looking for (praying for?) positive economic news, create positivity around you. At work, with your staff, with clients and suppliers, share your vision of the future, and why it’s going to be better than today. Let people know what they can do to help get there, and they will rally around you.

Describe where you want to go. Be the change you want to see. Make hope a weapon.

While your competitors are sitting there in shock, staring at the headlines.