Friday, May 16, 2014

Steve Blank on the Big Screen

This week I had the pleasure of interviewing startup legend Steve Blank, live via satellite, on the big stage at the Discovery conference hosted by Ontario Centres of Excellence.

Steve is a California-based entrepreneur who originated the concept of the Lean Startup, an influential framework for rethinking the role and objectives of startups. You can read more about that in next Tuesday’s Post. (Link to come. here:

In keeping with the concept of “Lean,” I got to sit on a stool by myself on a huge but sparse stage while interviewing Steve. He’s very articulate and very funny, but he had a tendency to answer questions he wanted to answer, rather than the ones I asked, so he required a bit of wrangling. But on the whole it was a fun and eye-opening presentation that a lot of people told me they found fascinating.

Below, some pictures from the set, as snapped by members of the audience and posted on Twitter.

Or you can read more about Steve Blank on his website.

Startup Canada Awards - Ontario

Last week I was honoured to MC the Startup Canada Awards for Ontario held at the delightfully scruffy Hacker Studios, a startup space in London, Ont.

The awards were created to recognize the many hard-working and dedicated individuals and organizations that are helping to grow Canada’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

In London, Startup Canada handed out awards to organizations such as Ryerson University, Microsoft, MaRS, Communitech and Ernst & Young. Individuals recognized included mentor of the year Sean Wise from Ryerson, “ecosystem builder” Joel Adams of London, academic of the year Howard Armitage from University of Waterloo, “Lifetime Achievement” winner Gary Will of Communitech and many other organizations, and, umm, me. Presumably for writing endlessly about entrepreneurs for 25 years.

Enjoy some photos of the event. The names of all the winners appear below.
Rick interviewing event hosts Amanda Stratton and Quinn Lawson

With Jame Bowen and winner Helen Braiter from CBIP 
Sean Wise is way too happy with his Mentor of the Year award! 
Rick and his shiny new hardware, with James Bowen and Startup founder Victoria Lennox  
All the winners....

Entrepreneurial Effect Award
Awarded to the individual, group, community, network or organization that has developed and produced a program, tool, research project or event that has had the greatest impact in advancing entrepreneurship in Canada.
Runner-Up: TIM Program
Runner-Up: Humber Launch
Winner: Launch Party
Runner-Up: Fundica
Winner: Grow Conference
Runner-Up: New Ventures BC

Startup Community of the Year
Awarded to the official Startup Canada Community that has most successfully advanced their local entrepreneur community through both strengthening their local entrepreneurship ecosystem and culture as well as advancing Canada’s entrepreneurship ecosystem through active engagement and contribution nationally.
Winner: Startup Waterloo
Winner: Quebec Startup
Winner: Startup Winnipeg (RampUp Manitoba / AssentWorks)
Runner-Up: Startup Calgary 
Winner: Startup PG

Most Entrepreneurial Post-Secondary Institution of the Year
Awarded to the college or university that demonstrates the largest commitment and impact in advancing entrepreneurship.
Runner-Up: Seneca College

Professional Services Company of the Year
Awarded to a professional services firm – e.g. banking, legal, accounting, strategic consulting, etc. – that demonstrates the largest commitment and impact in supporting and investing in entrepreneurs, startups, startup communities and entrepreneurial activities locally and nation-wide.
Winner: Ernst & Young
Runner-Up: Deloitte
Winner: McInnes Cooper
Winner: Boast Capital

Incubator/ Accelerator of the Year
Awarded to a Canadian incubator or accelerator that demonstrates both innovative approaches and the largest impact in advancing the success of entrepreneurs, startups, startup communities and entrepreneurial activities locally and nation-wide.
Winner: Communitech
Runner-Up: Invest Ottawa
Winner: Launch 36
Winner: FounderFuel
Runner-Up: TEC Edmonton
Winner: Growlab
Runner-Up: Wavefront

Government Organization of the Year
Awarded to a municipal, provincial or federal government program, department, office, agency or entity that demonstrates both innovative approaches and the largest impact in advancing the success of entrepreneurs, startups, startup communities and entrepreneurial activities locally and nation-wide.

Non-Profit Support Organization of the Year
Awarded to a non-profit organization that demonstrates both innovative approaches and the largest impact in advancing the success of entrepreneurs, startups, startup communities and entrepreneurial activities locally and nation-wide.
Winner: Hub Halifax
Winner: CYBF BC
Runner-Up: Launch Academy

Anchor Company of the Year
Awarded to a large private sector firm that demonstrates the largest commitment and impact in supporting and investing in entrepreneurs, startups, startup communities and entrepreneurial activities within their community and nation-wide
Winner: Microsoft
Runner-Up: Shopify
Winner: Videotron
Winner: Hootsuite

Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Builder of the Year
Awarded to a Canadian who has demonstrated the greatest impact in advancing the success of entrepreneurs, startups, startup communities and entrepreneurial activities locally, regionally and / or nationally and who has been a leading evangelist and champion of entrepreneurship, demonstrably contributing to more entrepreneurial attitudes, behaviours and activities.
Winner: Joel Adams
Runner-Up: Reza Satchu
Winner: Robert Pelley
Runner-Up: Phil Telio
Winner: Chris Johnson
Runner-Up: Joelle Foster
Winner: Dan Gunn
Runner-Up: Jeff Keen

Entrepreneur Mentor of the Year
Awarded to a Canadian entrepreneur mentor who has demonstrated the greatest impact in advancing the success of entrepreneurs, startups, startup communities and entrepreneurial activities locally, regionally and / or nationally through no-cost mentorship of entrepreneurs as evidenced by their rate of growth.
Winner: Sean Wise
Runner-Up: Jeff Dennis
Winner: Robert Zed
Winner: LP Maurice
Winner: Randy Yatscoff
Runner-Up: Stephen King 
Winner: Ray Walia
Runner-Up: Cathy Kuzel

Entrepreneurship Educator of the Year
Awarded to a Canadian educator who has:
  • Demonstrated excellence in educating, empowering and equipping entrepreneurship students with the attitudes, skills, experiential learning opportunities and networks needed to pursue successful entrepreneurial ventures; 
  • Made a significant impact in both fostering student-led entrepreneurship initiatives and motivating senior campus leadership to adopt entrepreneurial policies and priorities; and / or, 
  • Engaged actively in the local startup community through bringing strudents into the community and bringing the community onto the campus.
Winner: Howard Armitage
Runner-Up: Ajay Agrawal
Winner: Scott MacAulay
Winner: Brent Mainprize

Media Person of the Year
Awarded to a Canadian media person who has:
  • Demonstrated the greatest impact in advancing public awareness about entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurial issues and / or 
  • Leveraged their public voice to champion entrepreneurship through the media and through their community service.
Winner: Rick Spence
Runner-Up: Ian Hardy of Betakit
Winner: Peter Moreira
Winner: Martin Cash
Winner: Rob Lewis

Young Entrepreneur of the Year
The Young Entrepreneur Award is a celebration of youth entrepreneurship – reminding us of the importance of cultivating entrepreneurial awareness and acumen both at home and through early education to fuel the next generation of Canada’s great entrepreneurs.
Runner-Up: William Zhou
Winner: Mandy Balak

Wolf Blass Lifetime Achievement Award
Awarded to a Canadian who has demonstrated the greatest impact in advancing the success of entrepreneurs, startups, startup communities and entrepreneurial activities locally, regionally and / or nationally throughout their lifetime.
Winner: Gary Will
Winner: Gerry Pond
Winner: John Dobson (Foundation)
Winner: Allan Scott

Investor of the Year
Awarded to a Canadian investor who has demonstrated the greatest impact in advancing the success of entrepreneurs, startups, startup communities and entrepreneurial activities locally, regionally and / or nationally through a blend of monetary investment and mentorship.
Winner: Randy Thompson
Runner-Up: Dan Park

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother's Day Memories

My mother, Jean McKernan Spence, passed away, rather reluctantly, six months ago. The following week, I wrote an article for the Financial Post reviewing the entrepreneurial lessons I learned from her. In honour of Mother's Day, here is that column.

Entrepreneurship begins at home – and grows from there

Although she earned a bachelor’s of science in commerce at a time when few women took that route, my mother never became a business tycoon. Jean McKernan was a stylish buyer of ladies’ gloves for Allied department stores in New York, but she gave it all up when she married a dashing Canadian banker.
Jean in October, 2013
When he was transferred to Toronto, she followed. There, this spunky daughter of Brooklyn became the essential 1960s homemaker, raising four children, joining service clubs, and putting on swanky dinners to impress my father’s clients, often with just a few hours’ notice. At the time, I am told, “the Bank” didn’t approve of managers’ wives holding outside jobs, so hers was a dutiful life of serving others.
Yet when my mother passed away late last month, she left behind a gaggle of entrepreneurs. Not just this writer, who specializes in entrepreneurship and innovation, but also my older sister, a real-estate consultant; my younger sister, a creatively caring physician who helps patients who dwell on society’s margins; and my brother, who runs his own bookstore in Paris. Each has lived their own, unscripted life of creativity and purpose, because our mother, without ever really starting a business, embodied many of the characteristics of the most successful entrepreneurs.
Confidence Graduating high school in the early 1940s, my mother matured in a world where most men were off in the military. Millions of women learned to take up the slack in business and industry. My mother never picked up a rivet gun. But she had the confidence to go to university, join the glee club, edit the student newspaper and manage the yearbook. Years later, she took apart an old shortwave radio I’d bought and fixed a mechanical problem inside. It never occurred to her that any challenge was beyond her until she’d given it a go.
50s Society Girl
Being open to opportunity In her mid-twenties, my mother was recovering from a romantic breakup when her father, a pinstriped Washington banker, invited her to join him on a special train out of New York headed to a bankers’ convention in San Francisco. Jean had the sense to board the bankers’ express, perhaps suspecting the male-female ratio would be 100 to 1. It was on this train that she met my father.
Spotting unmet market needs My mother was always thinking up ideas for new products and services. She would call up companies to offer them ideas for better products. She tried to organize a bunch of cottagers to buy the summer homes they were renting to redevelop them as a first-class recreational community. She tried to invest in the singing career of a bright young talent named Robert Goulet. Little came of her schemes; time and money were scarce. But had my mother come of age in today’s era of low-cost startups, she might have been Queen of the Apps. At age 80, long after retiring to Florida, she called Tim Hortons about buying the franchise rights for Tampa Bay.
Leadership When there was a project to be done, my mom was out in front leading the charge. She founded her university’s NAACP chapter to fight for minority rights. Heading up her Rotary group, planning Christmas parties, organizing neighbourhood groups to clean up the environment, or fighting intrusive developments, she motivated others to take action. That’s the hallmark of a great leader.
Financial smarts My mother taught us there are no free lunches. Or free lemonade or paper cups. When we opened sidewalk lemonade stands on hot summer days, mom would support us, helping us gather all the cups,  ice cubes, lemon juice and sugar. And then she would charge us for them. She said it was important for us to understand our costs so we would appreciate our profits. It was a valuable lesson reluctantly learned.
Looking stylish in 1929
Attracting people My mother loved people. She would strike up conversations with strangers, ask passersby for help, and make new friends every day at parties, stores, home and school meetings, or just waiting in line. She talked naturally with small children, tradespeople, artists, bank executives and British nobility. I think this is an essential trait of entrepreneurs: a passion for engaging with people at all levels, soliciting other points of view, and enlisting help for all your plans and dreams. To sell your business ideas, you have to sell yourself first.
Creative risk-taking My mother never feared to take chances, or to fail. For one birthday long ago, she made me a cake shaped like the Matterhorn. Sadly, it suffered a severe avalanche just before the party. She admitted her mistake and cheerily ladled out bundles of goo to all my friends. She turned her golf cart into Santa’s sleigh for a Florida Christmas parade and handed out home-made doughnuts at Halloween. When my father retired from that bank, she dragged him to a 500-year-old country house in England for two years to keep him from becoming sedentary. She saw every day as a chance to see or do something new, which in turn stimulated her imagination further.
Invincible will When my mother made up her mind to do something, it got done. She pulled off numerous projects over her lifetime, none more impressive than the Canadian Thanksgiving dinner for 22 people she organized in October in Dunedin, Fla., despite her declining health and flagging energy. Two days before her death, with company coming to visit, and having barely left her bed for days, my mom kicked everyone out of the kitchen and made a pie.
Entrepreneurs work their magic in many fields, beyond business. The day after her funeral, I toasted my mom’s memory, and her legacy, with a glass of lemonade.

25 Questions to Ask an Entrepreneur

My blog analytics tell me that a lot of people find this site using the search term “questions to ask an entrepreneur.”

So why not give the public what they want?

If you're interviewing an entrepreneur, for school or business, here are 25 key questions (plus a few supplementals) that you might profitably ask:

How did you get started in this business? Did you found the company?
Is this your first business? (If not, ask what the others were, and what happened to them.)
Were you exposed to entrepreneurship as a child (say, from family members or friends)?
How did you finance your business? What have been your most effective sources of financing over the years?

What are the revenues of the business? (They may or may not answer this.)
How many employees do you have? Full- or part-time? (This gives you some idea of the company size in case they didn't answer the revenue question.)
What is an average workday like for you?
Who are your customers? What are your most significant products or services?
How has your market changed in the past few years? How has your business changed to keep pace?

How have sales grown in the last few years? (gives you an idea of how successful the business is.)
Is the business profitable? What kind of profit margin does it have? Is that pre-tax or after-tax?
What are the most crucial things you have done to grow your business?
What plans do you have now to expand your business further?
What systems have you used to automate your business to give you more time for business planning and development?

What outsiders have been most important to your business success? (e.g., bankers, accountants, investors, customers, suppliers, mentors, etc.)
Do you have a business plan? A marketing plan? When was it last updated? (gives you some idea of how sophisticated their planning process is)
How do you market your products or services?
What has been your most effective marketing tactic or technique?
What’s the worst business advice you’ve ever received?

What three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today? (asking for three is a lot, but it forces your subject to dig deeper than just saying , “Just do it,” or “Hire good people.”)
How long do you plan to keep operating this business? Do you have an “exit” strategy for getting out of the company?
If you were to start another business, what might it be? 
Do you believe business has any obligation to make the world a better place?
How does your business “give back” to the community or to society? 

(c) Rick Spence, Canadian Entrepreneur 2014

Note to students: Don't try to ask all these questions in one interview. Pick and choose. 
And never be afraid to follow up on the best answers by saying, "That's really interesting, Tell me more." Or ask for more info by saying, "Can you give me an example of that?"

Note to teachers: For permission to reprint this list at no charge, please e-mail me at rick (at)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

10 Years Later: What I Do

I've had a few people ask me lately what I do. That's kind of hard to explain, since I move rather fluidly between business journalism, contract content development, speaking on entrepreneurship and innovation, coaching and consulting. And the fact that I've been too busy to finish the website I started in 2004 probably doesn't help.

But, I recently wrote down what I do for an entrepreneur who wanted to connect me with his network. Like many entrepreneurs., I seldom articulate what it is I actually do, so I thought maybe I should share this with you while I'm thinking of it.

If you have any questions, send me an email. Rick (@)

My background is business journalism: specifically, former editor and publisher of PROFIT, The Magazine for Canadian Entrepreneurs, and national entrepreneurship columnist for the National Post for the past seven years. My writing has always been about the “how” of entrepreneurship: best practices in strategy, sales and marketing, finance, management and motivation, exports, product development and innovation.

Since leaving PROFIT Magazine in 2003, I have been running* my own business doing three things: writing; speaking; and consulting, for small businesses, startups, and enterprises alike.

For big organizations I do content planning and development, For startups I help with strategy and planning, prioritizing, branding and marketing. With general small businesses I have had success with rebranding, rejuvenating their marketing strategies, re-energizing teams and culture, and helping these organizations find a greater purpose.

I know how tough it is to start a business, develop strategy, get the word out and build the customer base. I would be happy to chat with any of the entrepreneurs in your network who would like some help with these essential challenges.

*In my original note to my entrepreneur friend, I spelled running "ruining." Take that as you will.