Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Christmas Business Model

I know it's a little late to be talking about Santa Claus, but my Xmas card/Dec. 24 post generated a compelling response from one of my favorite business thinkers, Donald Cooper, so I didn't want to wait till next Christmas to share it with you.

My previous post asked if Santa qualifies as a true entrepreneur. Donald's reply ran thusly:

"Rick, as I give your Christmas message more thought, there are many observations re your “mystery entrepreneur’s” business model and the business lessons that evolve from it...

1. He has clearly focused target customers....good little girls and boys.

2. Hires people with physical challenges....elves.

3. Business is based in a low-rent location....North Pole.

4. Pays close attention to detail... makes lists and checks them twice.

5. Offers the convenience of on-time, home delivery and free gift wrap.

6. Has gone Global.

7. Successfully uses Social Networking to get customers to write him re what they want, so as to plan production and control inventory.

8. Is masterful at getting loads of free media publicity.

9. Cleverly arranged a global cross-brand promotion with Coca Cola.

10. But, he has no discernible revenue model...and,

11. No succession plan, or exit strategy.

There is much to be learned from all of this."

I especially like No. 7. It's true and subversive at the same time.

For more of Donald's out-of-the-box thinking, check out his free articles and resources at http://www.donaldcooper.com/

I also liked his signoff: "Be well...make a difference...have fun."

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Is Santa Claus a real entrepreneur?

Yes: Innovative distribution model (flying reindeer)
No Ho Ho: Antiquated, one-size-fits-all marketing model; all customers pay the same price

Yes: Prepares an annual operating plan, and checks it twice
No: Hiring practices include recruiting only elves in his workshop

Yes: Popular brand is known the world over
No: Failed to control his intellectual property, meaning anyone can use his image to sell anything

Yes: Exports to over 200 countries
No: Tax and visa status unclear; not good with paperwork

Yes: No. 1 in market share
No: Only works two days a year

Yes: Creates incredible value for his customers
No: No known succession plan or exit strategy

Yes: Has clearly defined communication plan focusing on one positive message:

Merry Christmas to all!

And best wishes for a happy holiday, and a prosperous New Year!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Mentors and Movies

My column in this week's Financial Post looks at the role mentors can play in small business. I met with a trio of experienced business mentors with the Innovation Synergy Centre in Markham, Ont., and grilled them on their best advice for other entrepreneurs who don't have mentors. The result was some great, road-tested wisdom anyone can benefit from.

• Go where the money is. [Mentor Reza] Reza Alavie once mentored a home-services company that provided quality service but was barely breaking even. "Like a lot of SMEs," he says, the company wasn't charging enough for its services. That doesn't mean it could just raise its prices; Alavie helped the owner recognize she should reposition the company to serve high-end consumers at higher price points. Today the company has a carriage-trade reputation and a long waiting list for appointments.

Click here to read the full story.

Holiday Bonus: Last week’s column took its lead from my recent visit with an economic-development agency in Saskatchewan. I was impressed by the work done by Sagehill Community Futures in creating jobs and businesses in its territory, north and east of Saskatoon. In fact, I realized it reminded me of something: George Bailey’s community co-operative Building & Loan Society, in the Frank Capra movie It’s a Wonderful Life.

In the movie, Jimmy Stewart’s character gets to discover how different things would be if he had never been born. Productive ventures like Sagehill get to see the difference they make every day.

Playing the part of Bailey’s Savings & Loan is Sagehill Community Futures Development Corp., headquartered in Bruno, a 500-person town 90 km east of Saskatoon. Under the direction of an all-volunteer board, Sagehill’s five-member staff provide loans no one else will make, hand out free business advice, offer management training and development, and help new or insecure entrepreneurs navigate the bureaucracies of banks and governments. They also play a key community-building role co-ordinating the economic development activities of more than 50 small towns in an area three times the size of Prince Edward Island.

For the full inspiring story, click here. And savour a government-funded program that works.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Why Groupon turned down Google, and other cool stuff

My friend Amrita Mathur has just launched a new blog on technology, media and startups. It's worth your attention because she's a good writer and frightfully smart.
Today she is blogging about why Groupon turned down Google's $6 billion acquisition offer. She even makes it sound like it was the right thing to do.
Here's what she says:

"Groupon is no fool. They know how valuable a support they can be to Google’s Adwords service – allowing vendors to deepen their existing relationships with Google. Not to mention the loyalty it might bring back to Google, the same loyalty they have lost to the Facebooks of the world. Groupon also knows they would be quite complementary to Google Places as well as Google’s new service Hotpot."

Go ahead. Read Amrita's full story here.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Think Big, Shop Small

Happy “Small Business Saturday” to all our American friends. It’s so designated because, after the rush and crush of Black Friday, everyone is being encouraged today to shop with their local small businesses.

Perhaps you will find some gem that isn't advertised on TV, or discover a capacity for personal service that you didn't know existed any more. At any rate, the intention is that more of the money you spend will be retained and reinvested in your local community.

According to the statistics on http://www.localfirst.com/, when you shop at a locally owned business, $73 of every $100 spent stays in the community. Apparently, when you shop at the big chains, only $43 of every $100 you spend stays in town to fund jobs and public services.

You can learn more about Small Business Saturday at http://www.facebook.com/SmallBusinessSaturday

Sponsor American Express celebrated the occasion by awarding free Facebook advertising to 10,000 small businesses as part of Small Business Saturday. So I guess big business has its uses too.

The Architectural Conservancy of Ontario points out that the federally established Heritage Canada Foundation used to have a Main Street Promotion program with similar aims. According to the ACO, “it is time to bring it back.”

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Google Street View, or, This is no Place for Modesty

On a dark November night in Toronto, I cruised down the summery Trans-Canada Highway from Banff to the BC border... courtesy of my computer and Google's Street View. I find this addendum to Google Maps fascinating. It's a useful tool for previewing places I am headed to (eg, Saskatoon next week), or a fun way to explore foreign sites or to just look back at some favorite places.

It's remarkable how in just two years, Street View has expanded from not just Toronto and Montreal but to rural towns and highways right across Canada (not to mention all over the U.S. and Western Europe, and selected parts of Asia, Australia and major cities in South America -- see map).

You've probably gone looking for pictures of your own house or office - it's the first thing we did, and we found our daughter got in the picture when she was out weeding the front lawn. (She never noticed the Google car with the 9-lens camera mounted on top.)

But I think Google Street View will become recognized as an amazing way to explore the world. Main highways, back roads, even pathways (using something called Google Trikes).

For instance, I've always dreamed of driving the Dempster Highway up to Inuvik, NWT, almost to the Arctic Ocean. Yet I know the drive would be long, hazardous and boring. So how cool is it to follow along with Street View - their camera went to the very end, to a junkyard at the end of Navy Rd., just north of Inuvik. And here it is: the very end of driveable Canada.

(Looks like the Google cars travel in pairs. And sometimes they get very muddy.)

But how cool is to see some of the most famous places in Canada immortalized in candid shots in Google Street View? Remember, these aren't just still pictures - they are melded into amazing panoramas where you can pan, tilt, or zoom, and follow the road as far as you want just by clicking your mouse (I estimate maximum speed to be about 100 kph. But that's a lot of clicking!) So enjoy Peggy's Cove, Quebec City and Niagara Falls.

But here's my favourite view. Following the TransCanada west from Lake Louise, I climbed to the summit that marks the border between Alberta and BC. As you can see, they were just putting up a new "Welcome to Alberta" sign for eastbound drivers, promoting "Wild Rose Country" (a beautiful name, but what does it mean?).

Now look how BC takes advantage of the situation. It shouts to westbound motorists, "Welcome to British Columbia: The Best Place on Earth."

I guess they didn't get the memo about Canadians being modest, unassuming people. Good on them.
If you have an office or a prominent sign along a city street or stretch of highway, maybe you should be marketing to Google Street View - as well as to local passersby. Increasingly, the whole world is watching. So let's think big!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Best Entrepreneurship Quotes, Week 34

"The man who will use his skill and constructive imagination to see how much he can give for a dollar, instead of how little he can give for a dollar, is bound to succeed."

Henry Ford, founder, Ford Motor Co. (1863-1947)

Speaking of imagination: just imagine how different the North American automobile industry might look today if it had held on to Henry Ford's vision.

Put value first, profit second.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Are your missing out on Twitter feedback?

Last weekend I delivered a keynote on "Secrets from Canada's Top Entrepreneurs" to 200 student delegates at the Impact 2010 conference in Toronto. Little did I know that some members of the audience were Tweeting portions of my speech.

The cool thing about Twitter is that when people tweet about a topic, issue, person or place, they can place a hashtag (#) in front of the name and suddenly turn it into a trending topic for others to follow. Or if they put the "@" sign (not the asterisk, sorry about that mistake) in front of a person's Twitter name, that person (or anyone else) can follow that part of the conversation easily, because it will show up in a feed to that person or anyone else who wishes to follow it.

So today I discovered some of the things people Tweeted about me. Since you rarely get detailed feedback on specific parts of a speech, this is an interesting way to see what resonates with people - eg, local references, or an insight someone finds particularly useful.

Here's what people said about me on Saturday afternoon:

1. KLinked: @RickSpence definetely lived up to expectations! Great job selecting speakers #INC10 @GoDevMENTAL 4:40 PM Nov 13th

2. u_christine: When asked what is the major problem for young entrepreneurs today, @rickspence answers, "you don't have problems." We r at a huge advantage 4:25 PM Nov 13th

3. jadechoyy: @rickspence interesting and informative keynote about canadian entrpreneurs! #inc10 4:18 PM Nov 13th

4. DamiDina: "Become someone worth talking about." Inspirational and Great quote by speaker @rickspence at #INC10. 4:18 PM Nov 13th

5. lu_christine: So awesome to finally hear @rickspence speak! Thx for coming to share such inspiring stories #INC10 http://twitpic.com/36kkcx 4:14 PM Nov 13th
6. summers_megan : @rickspence just mentioned the ottawa valley! aww yeah! #inc10 @impactorg 3:52 PM Nov 13th

What are people saying about you? Get a user account on Twitter and find out!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

My List of Great Entrepreneurial Thinkers

I got an email recently from a budding business academic asking about my opinions on the best sources of academic information on entrepreneurship.

I had to tell him that I'm not an expert on the academics of entrepreneurship. Most of the academics I know who teach entrepreneurship do so with very subjective perspectives, and often use "texts" made up of photocopied articles rather than specific books or authors. I think the field of entrepreneurship is just moving too fast for the academics to keep up!

When there was an international conference of entrepreneurship academics held in Halifax a few years ago, I contacted the professor in charge of reviewing the research papers to be presented there, and asked him to point me to the most groundbreaking studies he had seen. I wrote a column about those papers, but they were a pretty undistinguished lot, to my layman's eyes.

For better or worse, here are the works I pointed my correspondent to:

“For me, the most significant thinker in entrepreneurship is Joseph Schumpeter, who came up with the notion of "creative destruction" - that entrepreneurs' role is to create progress by destroying what came before. A lot of people still talk about his work today, although "disruption" is the preferred term now for the impact of innovation.

Roger Martin at the U of T's Rotman School is certainly the most influential Canadian academic when it comes to disrupting and succeeding in business markets (not exactly entrepreneurship, but close). I only recently came to understand that his model, "integrative thinking", is really just code for all kinds of ideas and practices that don't fit into traditional management thinking, such as the importance of design, or innovative approaches to innovation. He seems to write a new book a year, mainly retailing anecdotes from his current favorite business success stories. So I think the state of the art in business scholarship is pretty flimsy.

However, I think the most respected thinker in entrepreneurship is Peter Drucker, who wrote many, many books on management, and settled on innovation and entrepreneurial thinking as the two priorities in business. Geoffrey Moore (Inside the Tornado, and Crossing the Chasm) is king of fast-growth entrepreneurship, focusing mainly on the problems faced by Silicon-Valley-type tech companies.

Jim Collins (Built to Last, and especially Good to Great) is by far the most quoted author I know. He's sort of a freelance academic who uses what seem to be legitimate, academically-oriented research teams to probe management problems that interest him.

At a lower, more operational level, the most influential thinker has been Michael Gerber, author of The E-Myth and The E-Myth Revisited, among others. He created the concept that entrepreneurs should work "on the business, not in it," which I hear quoted back at me at least twice a week.

The other books most quoted by the entrepreneurs I know are layman works, especially by Malcolm Gladwell (Blink, Outliers, etc.) and Thomas Friedman (The World is Flat). Which tells you that the journalists are way ahead of the academics in distilling today's business trends."

How about you? What are you reading?
What thinkers do you admire?

Friday, November 12, 2010

150,000th visitor!

We interrupt your day to inform you that yesterday, around noon (Eastern Standard Time), this blog received its 150,000th visitor.

It's been just 13 months since we recorded our 100,000th visitor, so we're pleased to say that Canadian Entrepreneur is still growing faster than ever.

The fact that we hit our new milestone during a low-content period underscores the fundamental value of blogs: they stands as permanent content archives, attracting and informing new visitors whether they are being actively updated or not. That alone makes blogging an ideal tool for small businesses with short attention spans: your best messages can last forever (or at least a very long time).

Most of the information in this blog is intended to be of lasting value, so I am pleased that people are still finding it of use and interest. As you can see by the Flag Counter I added to the right-hand margin last year, we continue to attract readers from all over the world. Because capitalism works, and Canadians have a lot of entrepreneurial expertise to offer.

Next stop: 200,000!

Free Business Information Thursdays!

The Learning Enrichment Foundation, near the site of the former Kodak plant in west-end Toronto, is a fascinating place. Occupying a huge old World War II-era factory, it offers day care, skills training, business development, incubation services and on-the-job experience to anyone across the city looking for a hand up.

And for the next five Thursday afternoons they're offering some decent free programs for any entrepreneurs looking to start or grow their business.

Here’s the lineup:

November 18: Join Lisa Kember from Constant Contact as she talks about how to make Award-winning email marketing campaigns, and how to take advantage of online social marketing.

November 25: Business specialist Gerri Sefi talks about how to buy a franchise, and what you need to know before you buy. Gerri is a coach and facilitator who works closely with clients to ensure they get the franchise that bests suits them.

December 2: Join business expert Katherine Roos from Enterprise Toronto as she explains how the City of Toronto can help you do business. Learn about city-hosted workshops, training, networking, trade shows and clinics that can link you to expert help and advice.

December 9: Albert Peres and Marvin Greenberg from Toronto's Food Business Incubator explain what you need to know to get into a restaurant or catering business.

December 16: Everything you need to know about exporting and importing. Expert Maggie Weaver gives you the goods on running an export/import business. She writes the daily newsletter of I.E.Canada, the Canadian Association of Importers and Exporters.

For more information or to register, call 416.760.2566, ext. 2085 or 2083. Or email David Cohen at dcohen@lefca.org . He’s a great guy who will connect you to the help you need.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Pay per click hits the big time

Slowly getting back into blogging mode after a busy few weeks.
Here's a great article from the National Post on how a few entrepreneurial organizations use social media -- particularly Facebook ads and Google pay-per-click -- to promote their cutting-edge products. Lots of best practices here.

Click here for the full story by Denise Deveau.

More entrepreneurs need to use and experiment with these amazing marketing tools. If someone had told us 15 years ago we would soon have a no-risk advertising medium that lets us target our market precisely and pay only when prospects actually respond to our ads, we would have thought they were lying. Then we would have gone home and prayed for that day to arrive!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Welcome to Small Business Week 2010.

It's that time of year again, when politicians and big business make a fuss about entrepreneurs and say good things about how we are the backbone of the commnituy, the economic engine of Canada, and so on and so forth.
Hey, it's better than a kick in the teeth.

From Oct. 17 to 23, Canadians will be celebrating Small Business Week, and entrepreneurs will be attending numerous events designed to educate and motivate them for greater performance.

As you may know, SBW is a creation of the government – the Business Development Bank of Canada, to be precise. Together with national and local sponsors, the BDC names a group of outstanding young entrepreneurs from each province, and holds events across the country dedicated to helping businesses grow. The BDC selects a new theme each year, and this year the theme is “Power Up Your Business. Invest. Innovate. Grow.

(They mean well. But they do need a new copywriter.)

The best part of SBW is meeting with other entrepreneurs and learning new growth tactics at special conferences, awards programs and networking events across the country. Click here to learn about local events near you.

The BDC’s Young Entrepreneur Awards nomination program kicks off this week. The awards are open to all entrepreneurs aged 19 to 35. Nominations are open until Nov. 30, with the winners to be announced at a special event in Saskatoon on May 3.
Click here for more information on the Young Entrepreneur Awards.

Someone the other day asked what special activities I had planned for Small Business Week. I just told them that at Canadian Entrepreneur, “Every week is Small Business week.”

Friday, October 08, 2010

Best Entrepreneurship Quotes, Week 33 1/3

"A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality."

John Lennon

Who would have been 70 tomorrow (Oct. 9).

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Generals, Blunders and Cold Courage

The books that fell off my bookshelf into my hands most recently were coincidentally of a type. One is a tattered copy of Lincoln’s Generals, by T. Harry Williams (1953), which I picked up free at the end of a garage sale, and the other is Sir Basil Liddel Hart’s History of the Second Word War (1970), which I've had around the house for at least 20 years.
In Hawaii last summer we visited Pearl Harbor, where I realized  how little I know about the war in the Pacific. So when I returned home I read Liddell hart's chapters “Japan’s Tide of Conquest” and (138 pages later), "The Tide Turns in the Pacific."  I enjoyed both so much that I went back to the start and began reading the whole way through. I'm now safely into 1943 and enjoying the book much more – the early years of the war are heartbreaking for the Allied side.
What you learn from studying the Union generals in the Civil War, or the various commanders in WWII, is how often leaders blunder. No one knows why the Japanese failed to destroy the shipbuilding resources and fuel storage tanks of Pearl Harbour; that could have significantly delayed the U.S. Navy's remarkable comeback.
Hitler himself, whose mad hatreds won so many early victories (to the endless surprise of his generals) saved the Allied cause several times: by not annihilating the British Expeditionary Force as it retreated from France, through Dunkirk, in 1940; and again by turning on the Soviet Union in 1941 before he had pacified his western front.
The Allies themselves made mistake after costly mistake. After the Belgians failed to blow up a few key bridges, the numerically superior French armies panicked at the Nazi tank columns invading from the north (instead of dashing themselves to pieces on the Maginot line). The Brits moved a weak force into Greece that only served to attract the Nazis' wrath. In Crete, the New Zealanders ceded the airport to a smaller attacking force and failed to counterattack while they had the manpower advantage – dooming them to defeat and capture.
Several times the British failed to chase Rommel out of Africa when they had the chance. And by building up their defences in Egypt, the Brits doomed Singapore, a more strategic asset.
Even more fundamentally, prior to Pearl Harbor the Americans and British cut off Japan’s oil supplies, but they didn't adequately prepare for the Pacific war that they should have known would follow.
In the Civil War, the North had a huge advantage in manpower, armaments and manufacturing muscle. Yet the generals of the Union Army were timid. Time after time, Gen. George McClelland (facing Lincoln in photo at right) and his ilk failed to move against the Confederates when victory seemed possible; the generals constantly overestimated the size of their opposition, and were always waiting for more supplies, more certainty.
Even after Gettysburg, as Lee’s beaten army was fleeing south towards the safety of Virginia, the Union army failed to chase the Rebels and create a rout that could have ended the war two years early. Only U.S. Grant, fighting on the Mississippi front, harried his foes consistently, using whatever resources he had and never whining for more.
For years, Lincoln told his generals that the strategic objective was the destruction of Lee’s army. He despaired at how often his generals forgot that objective. Instead they would bring him plans for seizing this city or that bit of territory, while avoiding a major battle. They couldn't understand that the war would not end until Lee could no longer threaten them.
Of course, it’s easy to criticize the decision-makers after the fact, long after “the fog of war” has lifted. But it is astounding to see how often bad decisions are made in the heat of battle. It’s a useful reminder why bold initiatives often succeed in times of confusion and uncertainty.
Which should be very encouraging to entrepreneurs assailing established markets.  If you can sow confusion and discord with a sudden frontal attack on a market, it is very likely that your bigger opponents will make mistakes in reaction – giving you a chance to consolidate your early gains and win a victory.
Read up sometime on the battle for Tunis, and how German general Walther Nehring and his outnumbered defenders outwitted, outhustled and outbluffed a huge Allied attacking force, thus prolonging the war in Africa by a full six months. Speed, flexibility, courage and yes, desperation, can work wonders against confused opponents who don't have a clear idea how to win.
There seems to be a lot of those people out there.
Above: Gen. Walther Nehring (at right) with Rommel (in cool peaked cap).

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Three words of advice

I blogged recently on PROFITguide.com about my participation at PROFIT Magazine's GrowthCamp, the conference for the growth-company entrepreneurs who made the magazine's Hot 50 list in September.

In moderating a roundtable discussion with 10 GrowthCamp attendees, I asked each of them: What three words of advice would they offer other business owners?

Not all of them managed it in three words, and a few mantraa require some explanation. Overall however, I think their responses address a lot of key business challenges:
  • Protect your reputation.
  • Be proactive, not reactive.
  • Persistence is everything – never give up.
  • Focus. Niche.
  • Personal relationships: know your clients inside-out.
  • Monitor your reputation. (If you want to protect your reputation, this entrepreneur said, you have to first know what other people are saying about you, so you can defend your good name. Think Twitter searches and Google Alerts.)
  • Listen to your employees and your customers.
  • Drive your dreams. (When I asked what that means, the entrepreneur said, “To attract talent, they have to believe in what you're driving for.”)
  • Protect your time, and plan. (This entrepreneur wanted his peers to understand that time flies away if you're not guarding it; make sure your workday is well scheduled to give you the time to make reasoned, thoughtful decisions. “Being effective,” says this entrepreneur, “is more of a technical challenge than we think.”)
  • Empower your People.
What’s your three-word business mantra?
Take six words if you need them.

Where do we go from here?

What’s really going on in the world? Who’s winning the War on Terror? And how capable is the Obama administration of making the right decisions today?

If you're a fan of foreign affairs, you won't want to miss Condoleezza Rice in her upcoming Toronto appearance. The former national security advisor and secretary of state will be speaking on Tuesday, Nov. 2 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
The event starts at 3.30, though you’ll want to get there sooner to drink in the buzz.

According to the organizers, this event "will give the audience a candid look into world affairs, the status of Canada and US relations, and an inside look into the current administration."

Tickets range from $100 to $180, or you can get the $330 VIP package that includes admission to the post-speech reception and an exclusive photo opportunity with Condi herself!

Click here for tickets. And if you use the promo code “world” you’ll get a discount off the list price.

This presentation is put on by Innovative Events LP, an entrepreneurial Calgary-based partnership that enables individual investors to invest in big-time speakers' events. Last year, Innovative Events brought Alan Greenspan to Calgary and Edmonton. Good luck to them in their foray East.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Best Entrepreneurship Quotes, Week 32

"Some people regard discipline as a chore. For me, it is a kind of order that sets me free to fly."

Julie Andrews, British born actress-singer, born Oct. 1, 1935

Dame Julie Andrews is 75 years old today (Oct. 1). As the legendary Guenevere in Camelot, Eliza Doolittle, Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp, she became one of the best-known stars of the 1960s and 70s, and still shines today, despite the tragic loss of her singing voice due to a bungled surgery. I see great similarities between the lives of artists and performers and entrepreneurs, so I felt pleased to find this quote that reminds us all that creativity doesn't have to mean disorganization - and that efficiency actually creates an empowering form of freedom.

A few more nuggets of business wisdom from the woman who won an Academy Award for portraying a character "practically perfect in every way":

"Sometimes opportunities float right past your nose. Work hard, apply yourself, and be ready. When an opportunity comes you can grab it.”

"Perseverance is failing 19 times and succeeding the 20th."

"I would be a fool to deny my own abilities."

"I've learned things about myself through singing. I used to have a certain dislike of the audience, not as individual people, but as a giant body who was judging me. Of course, it wasn't really them judging me. It was me judging me. Once I got past that fear, it freed me up, not just when I was performing but in other parts of my life."
and finally (even if she didn't write this one herself:)

"In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and... SNAP! The job's a game!”

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dragons' Den Returns!

Dragons’ Den returns tonight with a full season of new episodes. Once again, aspiring entrepreneurs will take on 5 judgmental multimillionaires in an effort to win investment capital for their business ideas.

It’s fun, it’s human, it’s the quintessential challenge of business recast as fasinating five-minute dramas. What’s more important, to me, is that millions of Canadians are getting valuable lessons on business and opportunity with every episode. They're exposed to the vision, optimism and drive of real Canadian entrepreneurs. And they get to see how the marketplace (represented by the five Dragons) welcomes great opportunities and bounces the rest – no matter how earnest, likeable or smart the pitchers may be.

For this season, I hear the deals are bigger and better - and if anything, more complicated. Viewers this season are going to learn that equity investing isn't the only way to go - sometimes a deal that gives the investor upfront income makes more sense for both sides.

I think Dragons’ Den is changing entrepreneurship in this country, for the better. Give it a look.

You can watch it at 8 pm on CBC TV, or catch reruns online.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Big Small Business Debate

So what questions would you ask the Toronto mayoral candidates?

On Friday morning, Sept. 24, I will be moderating The Big Small Business Debate, featuring the five leading mayoral candidates, at the Royal York Hotel.
Organized by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and sponsored by the National Post, the event starts at at 8 a.m. and goes to 10:15 a.m. Admission is free, and includes continental breakfast.

C'mon down to the Royal York and join us.  For more info or registration, click here. 

But first, tell me - what questions would you ask?

Best Entrepreneurship Quotes, Week 31

"If you want something, why not ask for it? What's the downside? All they can say is NO."

CBC Dragon, business pundit and one-time software entrepreneur Kevin O'Leary (as quoted in an interview in the October issue of PROFIT Magazine. He was asked how he became so entrepreneurial at a young age).

O'Leary continued:
"I learned early on, if there's something I want, I'm prepared to ask again and again, and try to find the path to getting it. That's also, I think, what defines an entrepreneur. You set a goal, you may not succeed the first time, but you keep trying."

Click here to read the full PROFIT interview with Kevin O'Leary.

GrowthCamp, part II

In the late morning at GrowthCamp today, the 60-something entrepreneurs were divided into groups of 10 to participate in "Idea Exchange" roundtables - where they get to talk to each other, in a confidential setting, about mutual problems and exchange experiences and possible solutions.

The conversation, as I mentioned, is confidential, but here are a few highlights from the session I moderated.

* There were two main topics everyone wanted to discuss: building the sales funnel, and attracting new talent. No matter what business they're in (we had everyone from construction contractors to app developers), they all wanted to talk these two issues.

* One other issue emerged: how you build your team, create alignment around quality, and how you deal with staff members who don't get it. We tackled this issue first, and the group could have spent the entire hour discussing this alone.

The consensus: hire people for attitude. ("Find people who think like owners," said one entrepreneur.) Never hire in a hurry: Take as long as you need to find the right people.

And treat your team like adults: Delegate responsibility and hold people accountable for results. Don't tell people how to do things - but adopt quality assurance standards to ensure you get the outcome you want.

Good stuff, huh?

GrowthCamp brings together the leaders of Canada's emerging growth companies.
Click here for the 2010 "Hot 50" rankings.
Click over here to read about the list and what it means.
And click here to meet the No. 1 company on the Hot 50 this year, Great Circle Works Inc.:

Live from GrowthCamp

I'm live at GrowthCamp in northern Toronto, PROFIT Magazine’s conference for the entrepreneurs behind its Hot 50 list of emerging growth companies. I’ll be sharing a few insights along the way.

Business writer and speaker Jim Harris is giving a great talk called Blindsided based on his book (but constantly updated). It’s all about how change can overtake any company in any industry – you can choose either to be the bug or the windshield.
A few highlights from his talk:

• Blockbuster Video turned down a chance to buy 50% of Netflix to help the mail-order movie service get off the ground. Blockbuster called it the worst business model they had ever seen. Today Netflix’s market cap is 672 times that of Blockbuster (which is down to $11 million.

• Going forward, accessing banking services is essential. Banks themselves may not be.

• When the first energy crisis hit, the Japanese hunkered down and restructured their energy-intensive steel industry to consume less energy. The Americans did not. Result: over the next few decades, the U.S. steel sector lost 300,000 jobs. So was cheap energy a benefit or a trap?

• “If every car in North Africa got the same fuel efficiency as my Prius we would have to import no oil into North America.”

* "The only thing worse than training people and having them leave, is not training them and having them stay."

Keeping the Faith at Research in Motion

What's the matter with RiM? Its latest quarterly results blew the roof off last week, yet the stock went up just a few pennies. It looks like iPhone-phobia is choking off Canada's best high-tech success story.

But Canadian value investor Saj Karsan has another perspective. In an article this weekend entitled "Six Reasons You Should Buy Research in Motion," he points out some of the company's enduring strengths that Wall Street may be overlooking.

Among his points:

RIM has very high Return On Capital - its trailing 12-month return on average equity is 38%! "To put it in perspective," writes Karsan, "Google, Microsoft and Exxon, three very profitable companies at the moment, generate returns on equity of just over 20%."

* There is Safety in RIM's Financial Position: The company has no debt, and sits on a couple of billion dollars of cash. 
* New Products: RiM's current earnings reports include costs associated with products not yet on the market (such as the tablet company the company is reportedly releasing later this year). RiM now spends $300 million per quarter on R&D, but the profits from these new products are of course not reflected in the current statements (although the costs are). "As such, the company is even more profitable than it appears."

* Buybacks: Believing its shares are cheap, RiM is reducing its outstanding share count. In the first half of this year, RIM spent $2 billion buying back shares. This buying pressure supports the stock price even as it reduces the number of shares between which profits will be shared!

You can read the full article here (registration required).

Full Disclosure: Yes, I own shares in RiM. Doesn't everybody?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

And how was your sunrise this morning?

Nothing better than a Vancouver harbour sunrise. The cruise ship entering the harbour was a nice bonus.
In town to talk to Telus dealers about the small business market. Great way to start the day!

Monday, September 13, 2010

12 technologies that changed the world

What are the top world-changing technologies of all time?

IT World Canada has a geeky but fun slideshow listing the top dozen of these game-changers, from Sputnik to the Slammer Worm to iTunes and ...  Pong? Yes, Pong. Literally, a game changer. (I remember playing it when it came out. It really did rock your senses. At the time.)

You can see the entire list here.

Startup doubts, approaching your bank, low-cost marketing, and more!

I was interviewed recently on a long list of small business topics by Donna Martin for Staples.ca's blog, How's Business. I opined as best I could, and it looks like they ran the whole darn thing.

Click here to read the interview.  We cover the following issues:

* I have a great idea brewing for a start-up. How do I overcome those doubts hovering in the periphery?

* How do I need to prepare before I approach a bank with my idea?

* I’m about to launch my business. Are there ways of advertising to the general public without incurring huge fees?

* Can you suggest some actions I can take to help me better learn and understand the needs of my target market?

* My day is busy enough as it is. How important is it for me to devote time to exploring social media?

* Are there a few key strategies I can use to take my business from good to fantastic?

* What is the most common learning curve that small businesses tend to encounter?

* Is there a really great entrepreneurial quote you’ve read lately?

* What is the one piece of advice you would like to share with others thinking about starting a business?

As an excerpt, here's my take on social media:

If you are a natural writer or communicator, you can make friends fast through new channels such as Facebook, blogging, Twitter or YouTube. But if you’re a busy entrepreneur who would rather meet clients and customers face to face, social media may not be a first priority.

Do yourself a favor: explore Facebook. Figure out what you think it’s good for, and what your prospects might expect from a Facebook “page” (or mini-site) for your business. Then think through whether you have the time and talent to create new business-related content that would engage customers and prospects and help build stronger relationships.

Statistics show that more and more people every day (300 million on Facebook alone) are relying on social media for news, relationships and all kinds of decision-making. But unless you have access to good content and marketing skills, you may find social media a lot of fuss over nothing.

Here's the funny thing about Staples' blog. I was in there to see them about 5 years ago to tell them they needed to start blogging to their small business market. It took them about four years to get to it (there were various reorgs and restructurings in the meantime.) But hey, they did it. Still, one of the things I told them they must do was promote it heavily in their home page. Of course, they nodded, of course.

Sadly, if you go to www.Staples.ca today, you have to look awfully hard to find the link. I know space is limited on the home page, but come on. A major customer-relationship tool like this deserves better placement. Which is why I link to their blog in my right-hand margin, under "Best Outside Links." 

Someone has to save big business from itself.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Best Entrepreneurship Quotes, Week 30

“Governments never learn. Only people learn.”

Milton Friedman, American economist

As fall begins and many Canadians (not to mention Americans) get swept up in election fever, what could be more important than to remember that government is just an abstraction. In the end, government is just the sum total of numerous anonymous decisions, and incremental activities more concerned with damage control than with effectiveness.

Unless you'd like to discuss this point in the Comments, below.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Seth Godin on taking responsibility

In most organizations, there is intense competition for recognition and promotion. Everyone wants "Authority."

Seth Godin, the irrepressible writer on marketing and the new economy, suggests taking a different approach. In a recent blogpost, he wrote:

"It turns out you can get a lot done if you just take more responsibility instead. It's often offered, rarely taken."

Accept accountability. Volunteer to get things done. Take responsibility for organizing, planning, monitoring, quality control, and meeting deadlines. Other people will shy away from such responsibilities, so you'll get your chance to shine. Leaders are looking for you.

One other tip from Seth:
"You can get even more done if you give away credit, relentlessly."

Seth tends to be a bit of a utopian, but I think he is right in this. Some people will always get ahead through politicking, but many more will succeed through attitude and accepting accountability.

Happy Labour Day! Leaders are looking for you.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Best Entrepreneurship Quotes, Week 29

“If you fear competition, all you really fear is your own incompetence.”

Richard Templar, The Rules of Management

As a longtime business writer and entrepreneur, Templar fills his books with homespun but incisive wisdom. I also like this quote from him:

"Any idea that there is something wrong should always be met with, 'And what would you like me to do about it?'"

Help for Cold Callers

I wrote a blogpost recently for PROFITguide.com featuring some of the best cold-calling tips from Art Sobczak of Businessbyphone.com. Here are the bare-bones points:

Have call objectives.
Don't be too concerned about “best times to call.”
Always start at the highest level at which you feel your decision could be made (or even one higher).
When the screener informs you that the person you're asking for on a prospecting call is no longer with the company, without missing a beat, ask, “Who took his/her place?”
If you're prospecting out of a directory, try starting at the back: these people receive fewer calls.

Sobczak’s latest marketing offer is a free e-book with 501 “Telephone Tips That Sell!” To find out how to get it, visit my original post at profitguide.com.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Best Entrepreneurship Quotes, Week 28: Bringing Humanity Back

“When trust disappears from an environment, everything becomes more expensive for everyone. For producers of goods and services, it means that they need to spend significantly more on marketing and sales to achieve the same results with skeptical customers. For consumers of goods and services, it means that they must conduct a lot more due diligence before making their buying decisions.”

Francois Gossieaux and Ed Moran, in their new book: The Hyper-Social Organization: Eclipse your competition by leveraging social media

The authors claim that the right application of social media will restore humanity to business communications. That. they say, will “bring trust back into the equation and reduce transaction costs for all parties involved.”

Sounds grand, but I buy it. People want to trust each other. Life is easier that way.
But you have to give them grounds for trusting you.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Lessons from the Erie Canal

My column in this week's Financial Post looks at the lessons learned in my trip last week on a barge along the Erie Canal, the nearly 200-year-old waterway that opened upstate new York – and indeed the continent – to western migration and settlement.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Erie Canal to the development of the United States, the North’s victory over the South in the Civil War, and the growth and success of New York City in becoming the world’s greatest centre of commerce and trade.

Yet today it’s a neglected backwater, a weedy, 600-km waterway for blue herons, fishermen, and the odd pleasure craft. (In our four days on the canal, my friends and I passed probably no more than a dozen boats a day. Although we hear July was much busier.)

In its day, however, the Erie Canal was an information superhighway, transporting people, goods and ideas throughout the state at speeds approaching 4 miles an hour (much greater than you could average in a carriage on that era’s roads). That’s why movements as diverse as abolition, women’s rights, utopianism and Mormonism flourished in upstate New York, and spread from there around the world. Even to Canada, eventually.

Not being much of a sailor, I learned a lot about boats and boating, knots, navigation and so on. And many of these concepts related to business, of course I wrote about it in my Post column.

Boating is all about gaining advantage where you can, and so is business. But you have to know when to stick to your course. When you cruise the Erie, you get used to navigating in a narrow band -- there's no room for creativity. Sometimes, when the canal widens, you get the urge to break for the far shore or cut a corner. But we heard stories about the boaters who ran aground because they didn't realize the boating channel remains the same width, no matter how wide the canal may get.
It's a sobering reminder that not all corners should be cut. Not all shoals are marked. If you have a plan worth executing, improvising when things look easy may not be the best course.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Best Entrepreneurship Quotes, Week 27: Systems Count

"Growth is only fun when everyone enjoys their work.”

Randall Litchfield, president, Inbox Marketer Inc. of Guelph, Ont.

My predecessor as editor of PROFIT Magazine, Randy has emerged as a top-notch business leader – but he still remembers how to write. With this quote, from a recent article in PROFIT Magazine, he encapsulates the challenge facing all growth entrepreneurs: how to expand the business without destroying the culture that makes it great in the first place.

Randy’s complete thought was this:

“Growth is only fun when everyone enjoys their work. When stress levels build because growth strains your existing processes, people and infrastructure, it's time to retool (itself a stressful exercise). And at this particular stage, it is not the normal, incremental retooling you've performed so flawlessly in the past. We're talking transformational, gut-wrenching change.”

You can read the rest of Randy’s article here.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The service economy never looked so good

My column in last week's National Post analyzed Inc. Magazine’s recent list of Top 30 Entrepreneurs Under 30, to find out how this list of "America's Coolest Entrepreneurs" hints at the future of business.

The list consists almost entirely of Web-based services - think FourSquare, RedLaser ("Impossibly accurate barcode scanning"), Sprouter and CrowdFlower ("Labor on Demand") that connect people in new ways to create innovative information products, social games, strategic communities and business solutions.

“Crowd-sourcing, community, databases, social entrepreneurship: The future, it seems, is all about sharing. The service economy has never looked so good.”

Check out this story here: http://tinyurl.com/2bynqcf

Beat the Talent Shortage through Hiring Diversity

My column in this week's Financial Post looks at why small business owners should be looking to hire more immigrants to solve their talent-shortage problems – and how they can start getting better connected to ethnic communities.

My source: Deepak Chopra, president of Pitney Bowes Canada, an immigrant hmself who has led several initiatives in which PB works hard to attract, develop retain and encourage multicultural talent. As he says, "In the boardroom, diverse talent tends to hold back."

Leveraging immigrants' skills would also help companies tap fast-growing consumer markets, such as the Chinese populations in cities such as Richmond Hill, Ont., and Burnaby, B.C., says Chopra. Family businesses especially would benefit from hiring skilled newcomers to complement the family's skill set and help them identify and serve new markets.