Tuesday, November 29, 2016

One of the coolest startups I've ever encountered

Little Box of Rocks is a Winnipeg company that sells bouquets of rocks. It’s one of the most creative and original businesses I have ever seen.

Founder Kiera Fogg is a stay-at-home mother of three who was looking for a business she could run from home – and hit pay-dirt with her beautiful giftboxes of polished stones and crystals. Featured in gift guides from the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Cameron Diaz, Little Box of Rocks now has robust sales to throughout Canada, the US, and Australia, and is
looking at selling through retailers by mid-2017.

Most importantly, Fogg figured out that building a brand is all about telling compelling stories. 

Each of her “bouquets” carries a message – of hope, health, courage, love – that’s pretty much guaranteed to please both sender and recipient. Fogg created every bouquet and wrote every story herself,  reminding all of us that business is an art form, and creativity is an endlessly renewable resource.

Fogg will be appearing on the CBC’s Dragons’ Den on Dec. 7. She is sworn to secrecy about what happened in her appearance, which was taped six months ago. But I’m pretty sure she rocked it.

Monday, November 14, 2016

How to start your startup right

I received a request this week from a financial professional for some advice on how to advise an Internet company being started by a friend. He asked: "Can you suggest some books/blogs etc to help guide me? Any guidance would be greatly appreciated."

So here is my response:

Hi, xxxx. Great to hear from you.

There are so many resources out there.

First, looking at books, The E-Myth Revisited is a classic book on the true role of the entrepreneur: ie, adopting systems so that you are working ON your business, not IN it. 

The Lean Startup (Eric Reis) and The Startup Handbook (Steve Blank) are the contemporary bibles for tech startups.  Both authors have also published many additional articles that are very useful and informative, and are available for free around the Internet or on their own websites. The important point of their models is that startup entrepreneurs must spend much more time testing their ideas with customers and prospects, rather than fiddling with their products or trying to "perfect" them without continuous feedback. 

There are many organizations that can help your friend get off on the right foot. If they live in or near Toronto, they should check out MaRS, Startup Grind AND Startup Toronto. They all offer regular meetings with experts sharing important information, as well as opportunities to network with and learn from other startup entrepreneurs. 

Your partner might also look to rent a co-working space in their community, so they can work side-by-side with other entrepreneurs trying to master similar problems. Entrepreneurs tend to be very open and sharing about the startup process, so you can save a lot of time (and possibly cash) by finding people who are going through the same things you are - or, best of all, went through it only a year ago (so they know what works and doesn't, but their information is still relatively fresh).

Every startup entrepreneur needs a mentor or accountability coach to keep them on track. 

If your friend is under 40, they might find useful resources at Futurpreneur. They offer funding for startups, and, more importantly, they find each startup a personal mentor to work closely with over the next two years or so. I've known many entrepreneurs who didn't need the money, but took it anyway as it allowed them to access Futurpreneur's mentor pool.

I hope that helps. I might also suggest your colleague go to the Financial Post site and re-read my recent profiles of startups. As you may know, my stories focus heavily on the how-they angle: how these entrepreneurs overcame the typical hurdles and challenges faced by most startups. I think he or she will get lots of road-tested advice to shorten their learning curve.

Hope this helps. Do keep me updated on his or her progress!


Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Turning Disaster into an Opportunity

I am a proud Canadian. But as the son of a mother from Brooklyn, living one hour from the U.S. border, I share the shame and anxiety so many Americans feel today. The unthinkable has happened: a childish, narcissistic clown has harnessed the worst parts of American patriotism and despair, and ridden it into the White House.

How did this happen? The Democrats got lazy. They thought Hillary was destined to win; they believed the inexperienced, friendless Trump was a dream opponent. For her part, Hillary thought she didn’t have to answer for her Clinton-esque faults: the chasing of money, the association with elites, the questionable dealings around the Clinton Foundation and her missing emails. Her refusal to do press conferences revealed an arrogance that wasn’t far off the far right’s view of her as high-hatted and entitled.

As the Trump train gained momentum, Hillary and her handlers responded haughtily, if at all, to these legitimate concerns. At the Democratic convention in July I thought that both Bill and Hillary excelled in changing the narrative, painting a new picture of Hillary as a lifelong crusader for prosperity, equality and inclusion. But after the convention, the Dems went quiet again, refusing to tell their story while Trump gathered coverage day by day with one outrageous lie after another.

Before long, everyone knew Donald’s story. Hillary didn’t have one. Voters had nothing to identify with. Meanwhile, the media elites missed the anger simmering in the ’burbs and the countryside, over disappearing jobs, falling wages, lower home prices (ie, less money for retirement), social change, gun control and immigration. Where these concerns were acknowledged, they were rarely  addressed, but dismissed through the use of selective economic statistics or the pressure of political correctness.

So the passion for Hillary faded, and Trump emerged as an unlikely national champion. His shallow world view, his inbred, ego-feeding business career, his inexperience, his racism and his twisted view of women, are all frightening traits in a chief executive, especially a nation’s moral leader. Today, many Americans live in fear of what will happen next, given the outdated values and opinions that Trump and his team will bring to the Oval Office. In California last month I met entrepreneurs of Mexican descent, children of illegal immigrants, who have no legal status in America. They couldn't believe the rhetoric coming from the Trump camp, and will now be fearing for their futures. These are professionals who employ dozens of people. All they ask is a path to citizenship in the only country they’ve ever known. Trump’s victory will leave them shaking – as it does so many women, blacks, Jews, gays, and others who don't fit the #MAGA mold.

But this is not a time for despair.

Of all the many Republican candidates for president, Donald Trump was the least ideological, the least rigid, the least devoted to sucking up to the Tea Party. He’s a New Yorker, confident and unafraid, allegiant to no partisan principles. He’s self-centered, vulgar and uninformed, but a pragmatist, beholden to no one. I compared him earlier to Toronto’s disastrous mayor, Rob Ford, but Trump is his own movement, not the standard-bearer of a conservative counter-reformation.

He is, in a word, malleable.

So let’s not demonize Donald Trump. Let’s not write him off. Let’s build bridges. Let’s appeal to his better nature and help guide him to wise decisions. There is already tension in Republican ranks over his casual takeover of a party on a serious, long-term ideology-driven mission. The Republicans vote-chasing machine has served its purpose, and Trump is now free to disregard it in the same way he abused and underpaid his suppliers once their products and services were safely delivered to the Trump organization.

At worst, this is a time to re-evaluate and re-emphasize liberal principles. Let’s start by showing that Hillary was right: #LoveTrumpsHate. Let’s continue to show as much kindness and generosity as we can, to those who need it most, to our friends, family and communities, and to our opponents as well. (Edit: I just volunteered to help a struggling organization, and made a donation to Planned Parenthood in Florida.)

Let’s ramp up our commitment to each other. Let’s show Trump Nation what real social and economic progress looks like.

And let’s give Mr. Trump the benefit of the doubt. He is eager for approval. Let’s engage him, and guide him in his unexpected new role. Wouldn't it be ironic if he were the guy who broke the extremists’ hold on the GOP?

Let’s encourage him to be his own man and do the right thing. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll get through this.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Learning from Silicon Valley

My recent trip to Silicon Valley resulted in two fun columns for the National Post. 

The first looks at success tips from the QuickBooks Connect conference in San Jose, from both hard-working entrepreneurs and some rather susprising celebrities. By contrast, the second column focuses on failure – as discussed at a “Day of the Dead” event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

From Oct. 31:
QuickBooks Connect brought together entrepreneurs, accountants and celebrity achievers for three days in San Jose to discuss growth, collaboration, technology and creativity. Here are 10 tips to help you succeed in the new business era.
Click here for the column. 

Three quick takeaways:
Actress America Ferrara on finding your niche: As the star of "Ugly Betty" struggled to find a new role as a producer, she realized she' would do best by "telling stories only I could tell." She concluded: “You don’t have to stray from your passions to have impact.”

Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps on competition: Commenting on his intensity before  a crucial race this summer in Rio, the winner of five 2016 Olympic gold medals revealed: “When someone makes a negative comment, I make it a motivator. I use it as fuel.”

Dave Alwan, a winning pitcher on Shark Tank: “If you don’t dream big, you can’t think big.”

Moderator Marguerite Gong Hancock with Bill Reichert and iconic sock puppet
From Nov. 7:
Read insiders’ insights into why even good businesses fail –and sometimes bad businesses succeed. Find out why a tablet failed in 1991, and how the founder of Twitch.tv messed up his first startup.

The conclusion: “Canadians need to share more collective wisdom about about failure. And why it’s a beginning, not an end.”

Attendees were encouraged to memorialize their favourite failures.