Monthly Archives: April 2013

Odd Reactions

The end of this month kind of snuck up on me, but I’m going to keep going with my pattern of doing a bit of a blog reflection. Now that I’ve been writing posts for three months, I’ve been noticing changes both in myself and people who I talk about blogging with.

Change in me

I’ve reached the point that it’s not some huge mental debate whether or not I post about something. When i think of topic after reading or experiencing something, before I would maybe pound out a few paragraphs and realize that there wasn’t enough for me to say about the topic, so I would change the subject of the post. Now I am better at being able to know when to not start writing, because I know I’ll likely come short half-way through.

Something else happened about half-way through this month that I knew was coming; topics started to come a little more difficult to come up with. Makes sense, because when you are in the same job, running the same business and have the same people in your life then you will have many of the same experiences day-to-day, week-to-week and month-to-month. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just the way it is.

So my thought process has changed a bit for the articles. When I’m struggling I usually try to go a step beyond any initial thoughts. It’s hard to explain, but it would be taking something from my life that I wouldn’t have enough to say about, then think of the decisions or consequences around it. From there something usually comes up.

Change in others

This one I’m not too sure how I feel about. Writing this blog has seemed to start defining me more as a person to some people as any other aspect. That’s fine, but it can mean a good thing or bad thing.

There are those who say they’ve read some and ask why I started doing it (which I guess means they didn’t read my post about why I’m doing this, which is fine). Then we usually talk about it and that’s that.

The other reaction is weird. It starts as a bit of an accusation, about what my intentions are with this blog. Then it morphs into something where the person seems upset that I’m writing it. I don’t really know why and usually try to end the conversation saying something like, “Well don’t feel obligated to read it,” or, “Yeah, I’ll totally think about that.” It’s strange.

the frustrating part is that it usually isn’t any sort of constructive criticism, like what they would prefer I write about or how they disagree with my opinions. That I can do something with. It usually seems like anger that I’m doing this in the first place, which isn’t going to change because I’m not planning on quitting.

I’m still having fun writing this blog and the positive comments far outweigh the bad. To those who are personally offended that I’m writing this, I guess I’m sorry you see it as an attack against your character. Here’s a solution: stop reading. No hard feelings, I promise.

Social Media Strength

For me, it was proven the past couple of weeks that social media (specifically Twitter) is no longer some interesting way to waste time. From crowd-sourcing information about the Boston bombers, to a hacked account that caused huge upset in the financial markets and around the world, there can be some very real results from information shared online.

I have to admit that I was one of the skeptics for a long time. When I was first on Twitter I was mostly following my friends and athletes, but then when I started focusing on news outlets and business people I respected, my entire opinion shifted. Rather than a bunch of random noise, Twitter was actually keeping me informed, to an extent. Not only that, but there was some real advice and insights coming down the tubes. Done were the days of knowing what everyone in my life was eating for breakfast.

Believe it or not, but the “I use it for my news,” explanation would still fall on deaf ears when I was asked by the non-believers why I was wasting my time on Twitter. They had a hard time wrapping their heads around how this micro-blogging site had any use. We now have some real-world examples of how powerful it really is.

The specific case that really does it for me is how the Associated Press’ Twitter account was hacked earlier this week and a prank had some very real concequences. For those of you who didn’t hear, the AP’s account put out a message on Tuesday that read, “Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured.” Also, just in case you didn’t hear, this wasn’t and still isn’t true.

That didn’t matter, though. This message was retweeted thousands of times and the world took notice. Other news outlets started reporting the “attack” and the stock market lost over $130 billion in value. That’s some real reaction.

This is a great example of how our old-world and new-world ways of gathering information are colliding. In today’s world information is instant and at our fingertips. That being said, the reliability is often questionable and more than ever you can’t take it at face value. In the past there was more investigation when a story broke, but we need to get out of this level of trust.

There are countless marketing lessons from this. First, the fact that Twitter use is very real and can have huge impacts. The untold story is how a brand can be damaged by bad information. The Associated Press lost as many as 95 % of their followers after the incident. That could represent a huge number of consumers to your business.

The two things I take from this is to make sure to check information, both that’s coming into your organization or being pushed out of it. Failure to do so could be damaging for many reasons.

Keeping Control

I’ve been struggling back and forth for a while now about a feature I want to add to the business. It’s nothing major, but has a better-than-average possibility of creating additional revenue, while still staying in line with our key value proposition. The only issue that I’m finding right now is that I don’t know to what extent this feature should be outsourced.

On the one hand, at some point it is going to need to be sent to a third party. Buying the equipment to create the final product would be expensive and sending it out to someone who knows what they’re doing is far more preferable. The questions are, at what point should the third party company be involved in the process and how much involvement do I have?

One the one side, there is a ease of allowing the vendor more access. There is less administration on our side, essentially letting them do all the organization. Is that a good thing, though? I’m not sure that a little bit of extra admin time is the worst thing in the world, if we are the ones controlling the flow of information and also don’t become too integrated with one supplier.

What this comes down to, for me and I’m sure others, is at what point the need to control outweighs the desire for convenience. In that last sentence I chose my wording very carefully, for this reason: Something being convenient is nice, but if we don’t have the level of control we are comfortable with it’s a deal-breaker.

While it has come to my attention multiple times in the past that I may be a bit of a control freak (just try and cook with me some time), I like to think that I’m not too far off from a great deal of other people. It’s human nature, though. We first learn to trust ourselves, so trusting someone else may take a leap of faith.

Unless it’s someone I know and respect, I have three rules about relying on others: 1) They are lazy. 2) They don’t understand me. 3) They don’t care about be. It sounds harsh, but often that seems to be the reality. If I think there is any chance that the person doing the work for me will have to take some extra initiative or take time to learn something, I tend to shy away from using their services.

While there are some people that those rules don’t apply to, they are few and far between. Even then, communicating what you need in the simplest terms possible and frequent follow ups is important. And at that point, have you even achieved more convenience?

While the debate will still wage on in my head, writing this post has actually done wonders in making my thoughts more clear. Since this addition lines up with our core mandate, it should be a core competency as well. Unless a third party can prove that they will serve our customers to the same level we hold ourselves to, then the convenience isn’t worth it.

Culture is Your Brand

Most small businesses don’t have huge marketing budgets. This makes sense considering all the different functions which are competing for the resources they need to help the company grow. These factors, along with others like time needing to be devoted to other tasks, means that branding exercises don’t typically happen, let alone full brand strategies.

Some would think that this is a major fault of the companies. Proponents for branding will tell you that it is on of the most important exercises that a young company can go through. There are obviously pros and cons to this, but I would contest that the process doesn’t have to be a large, draw-out, expensive process.

That isn’t to say that the brand isn’t important, quite the contrary. How your employees, customers, suppliers and everyone in-between sees your company could be vital to it’s success. There just doesn’t have to be a formal process or document stating what the brand attributes are, in fact, but focusing it on something that was produced nearly in a vacuum is not wise.

Instead, your company should live it’s brand every day. Not only that, but it should be come from the inside out, not just something that is pushed outward in marketing materials. In short, your culture should drive your brand.

This may not seem to make any sense, but if you consider how the brand of a small business is usually conveyed, it actually does. Without huge marketing plans, the primary point of branding is done through interaction with clients, suppliers and your network. How they see you, as a representative of your company, will directly translate into how they see the company itself.

This is not easy, though. It is all well and good to have lofty goals for culture, and it’s even possible to stick with that plan when things are good, but things will eventually take a turn for the worse and your will be tested. It is difficult to stay the course for the benefit of the long term, when making a short term impact is in your grasp, even if it goes against the culture of the company. Nothing is truly tested until times are tough.

Similarly, any focus you put into your culture likely won’t have an immediate impact on your company’s operations or brand. Both will lag behind, but if your reasoning is sound and you have the buy-in from other stakeholders that is needed, you will eventually see impactful change.

As with everything, your brand needs to develop from inside, then be promoted out to the world. Anything that is not done this way will eventually fail your company. Without making changes at the core, there is now way that you can successfully control how your company is perceived by others.

Real Involvement in Government

With the Manitoba budget coming out this week there has been the usual number of newspaper articles and conversations tearing it apart. While I have my own opinions on it, who really cares? It may just be my jaded-too-early-in-life view about government, but at the end of the day they don’t care about newspaper articles or people complaining on the street, so long as they have a chance to win the next election. Unless they are way out of the running, at which point they just don’t care.

While political/government knowledge, as well as involvement in the process, is very important, I think that as a society we have become lazy about what this means. I doubt that reading a headline and then making sarcastic remarks on Facebook is what the Greeks intended when they invented democracy. Our current version of democracy is much more complicated, but I think that two basic principles still apply:

  1. Keeping informed and;
  2. Active participation.

Our laziness applies to both of these equally, but in different ways. Until there is a change in actions, then unfortunately I can’t really see the government changing how it operates.

Keeping informed about the government’s actions is a duty of ours as citizens. I’m not saying that every day we have to watch question period or read every bill that is passed through the House, but we all really need to keep up to date on the big issues. This is obviously easier said than done. In addition to finding the time to stay on top of these things, there is next to no unbiased information out there. Everyone has a horse in the race and it shows. Best thing we can do is read things objectively and try to form our own opinions.

Active participation can mean many things, and voting in elections is the bare minimum. When I talk to people who don’t I straight up tell them they have no right to complain about anything the government does if they don’t vote. Other than that, we can join interest groups, sign petitions, write letters (real letters, not email or social media posts), host public forums, and on and on. I know that a number of people will think, “That won’t be effective,” but how can you say that if you’ve never tried?

My whole point (and what I try to apply to my life in general) is focus on what you can change and take meaningful action. There is no point in making broad complaints and talking idly about how you would do something different if you don’t have the power to make that choice. Instead, come up with a way to use that dissatisfaction and energy to inspire actual change around you.

Here’s one thought about the government: I heard the other day that in the last 10 years the government hasn’t once come in under it’s proposed budget. If true (and I can’t find any confirmation on the Manitoba website, surprise, surprise) then all this yelling about the budget is almost a moot point. We think it’s bad now, but it just gets worse as the year goes along. If this even has a shred of truth, I think seeing reconciles is the first step in what could be a long process.

Support is Key

As the saying goes, no one is an island and the more that I open myself up to that thought every day the more I realize that this is true for everyone. Whether we acknowledge it or not, there are a huge cast of characters who have helped us get where we are, willingly or not.

This isn’t a new or novel concept (Outliers comes to mind), but it’s something that it is important to remember. Too many people I know get too wrapped up with “Me, me, me,” they forget that there are others always supporting them. I hope that I never become like that. Not only this, but I have a recent story of how something seemingly inconsequential likely played a huge role in who I am today.

For a while now I’ve always joked about how both myself and my brother own our own businesses, despite being raised by two teachers. Not that I don’t appreciate teachers (I really, really do), but my parents are the poster-children of job security and pensions. No appetite for risk and work very set hours. It’s not good or bad, just different from the life of working in / owning a small business.

However, in a moment of clarity I realized that it was really my parents to thank (blame) for sparking the bug in us. Although their jobs were not examples of entrepreneurship, all our lives they taught us to be creative about making money and encouraged us to pursue our passions. Here they are in a few details…

From a very young age being self-sustainable was a lesson that our parents taught us. If you wanted to spend money above the allowance that was given, we had to earn it (and of course they would help). This lead to a host of entrepreneurial endeavours for my young brothers and I:

  • Selling not only drinks, but baked goods, chocolate bars and other snacks during the high-volume community-wide garage sale in our area. Complete with fire-sales at the end of the day to get rid of inventory. We cleared some good coin at that one for being under 10.
  • When we went to the grocery store with my mom on Saturdays, she would let us stay outside and return abandoned shopping cars for $0.25 a pop. Turned being bored to hell into running around in traffic and making money! And when the store in our area changed to $1 for a cart we were on cloud nine. (Full disclosure: To this day if a see a shopping cart unreturned close to me I’ll grab it. Old ventures die hard.)
  • We have a park in our area which the “old kids” (and eventually I) would have bonfires in. If we were walking or playing there we always took a plastic bag to pick up empties and make some quick cash.
  • As we got older and starting golfing all summer, we would collect golf balls as we went and sell them during the yearly garage sale, to our friends, to older members at our club and to our parent’s friends. We even had different prices, depending on the quality and brand.

As far as support, our parents have been great. Even if it’s something that they don’t necessarily appreciate (my ongoing attempts to teach myself how to play guitar comes to mind) or understand they’re there, completely behind us. This, along with their positivity, has given me the confidence (stupidity?) to actually believe I can do anything.

Bitcoins Intrigue Me

I find the growth of mainstream awareness of Bitcoins amazing. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t quite know what they were until the mainstream media starting reporting on them, and even then if I hadn’t done some of my own research would not have fully understood. If you’re in this group you can find out more on the Bitcoin official website and (even more helpful) Wikipedia page.

For those of you who trust me, a Bitcoin (BTC) is a boarder-less “crypto-currency” which first came into use in 2009. The concept is that there is no government backing the currency and it can be used from country to country without need for exchange. The control of the currency is all electronic, from management to transactions, and it’s release into use is scheduled from now until 2140, when it reaches the maximum of 21 million BTC.

Recently there have been some major Bitcoin developments: a man in Alberta is attempting to sell his house for Bitcoins, which is the largest “real world” transaction to date. Secondly, a Bitcoin ATM has been created, which is one step closer to making the currency something the majority could consider using, expanding it beyond it’s current internet sub-culture.

Now that I have, hopefully, provided enough evidence that this is a real thing and I’m not crazy, what does this all mean? As I’m sure you can imagine, with the increase in mainstream awareness, critics have been coming out of the woodwork. Every talking head on TV now has an opinion about them, and I’m sad to say that there are very few that are positive, or even thinking clearly.

To me, this type of monetary policy is actually a step in the right direction. To get to my reason why, I need to first explain a few of the criticisms and why I don’t think they’re valid:

It is not backed by any government.

So what? If the last 6 years have taught us anything is that money backed by a government can be worthless as well. Not only that, but when there is a government involved there are all types of lies and cover-ups to deal with. Along with competing priorities and human error.

It is primarily electronic.

Again, so what? The large majority of our current transactions are electronic, as well. When do you really use cash? With the use of cheques, debit and credit cards, along with the growing popularity of online shopping, people don’t have to see cash for years at a time if they really don’t want to. If you think that the government is printing all of the money they are releasing into the economy, give your head a shake.

It has no underlying value and relies on a group of users believing it is worth something.

… which is the exact same as our currency. Only difference is that there is a larger group of people who believe in it and a government who is telling us it’s all going to be ok. Ever since our currency was debased, it is just a made up system of numbers that rely on the users to believe it is worth something. In terms of “underlying value” it is not worth more than the paper it is printed on. At least with the Bitcoin there is no false confidence.

Why the Bitcoin interests me.

To me this is democratic currency. It is made by the people and it’s value is based on how it is adopted. The other interesting thing is that it is predictable, in a sense. We know how it is being released over the next 130 years, which is way more than could be said for government-run currency. All of the points raised by critics are nothing different from how world currency is being managed right now.

There is a large amount of volatility right now, so proceed with caution, but I think that once it has wider adoption some interesting things are going to happen.

Don’t Over-think, Take Action

I have to admit, this is a completely new sensation for me. I typically am at the opposite end of the spectrum, making decisions and acting before I think. For the past few months (and if I’m being really honest it’s probably closer to a year), I have been over-thinking a decision. A decision that it is likely any action is better than the state of no action it’s currently in.

I would guess I’m not alone in having felt this way. Whether it’s business ownership, a relationship, financial planning or another aspect in life, we all have the ability to over-think something, stopping ourselves in our tracks. The oddest thing is, at least in my case, the more I think about it the more that we think about action, the less likely I am to take it. This can definitely be a problem.

When you think about it, though, it makes sense that when it comes to decisions that you’re not 100% sold on. If it doesn’t feel right in your gut you will keep trying to rationalize, while never being able to feel fully comfortable about it.

So where does this leave us for decision making? Should they all be done on instinct? That may not seem like a good idea, but it may depend on what the decision is and how familiar you are with the knowledge needed to make the decision.

I’m a lover of Malcolm Gladwell’s research and writing. In my favourate book of his, Blink, the validity of “gut decisions” is discussed. Obviously I can’t go into in any depth in a blog post, but the short answer is, if you have a good level of pre-existing knowledge that can be used in a decision you are going to make, then your gut reaction is likely to be a perfectly good instinct.

This is why often we hear about business leaders making decisions based on their feelings and not hard evidence. After a certain level of experience, they are able to rapidly process the information and make a split second decision that ends up being a good one.

I don’t think I’m there yet, but I think that the failure to act, in this case, is related to what Gladwell was studying. Subconsciously I knew that I wasn’t sold on the course of action, and therefore kept throwing up mental blocks for pursuing it. Now I have a clearer idea of what I think needs to be done and feel much more comfortable spending time and money.

I hope that this instinct is right, but even if it isn’t I stay in-tune with it. Eventually with enough experience it could prove a great asset.

Nothing is Ever Perfect

As a general rule, it frustrates me when people speak in absolutes. “______ is the best player ever,” or “Company x is never going to be able to pull themselves out of this.” As far as I’m concerned, no one can tell the future, and if you can why the heck are you wasting your time talking to me? Go buy some lottery tickets!

For this reason it makes me irate when people describe a product as “the best it’s ever going to be”. To me perfection is unattainable but it is something we should be striving for every day. Case and point, other than in nature, there are always improvements that can be made.

What got me thinking about this for a post is that I happened to see one of my brother’s fishing magazines on the kitchen table while eating breakfast. Since I wasn’t doing much else I decided to leaf through it. What was inside was actually pretty inspiring.

Before I go on, I should say that I’m not an avid fisher by any stretch of the imagination. I only go a few times a year and have had the same rod since my Granddad gave it to me about 15 years ago. I enjoy it, but not enough to consider it a hobby.

That didn’t matter to me, though, because the passion seeping through the pages of this magazine was inspiring. The articles and ads created by people who love (and I mean LOVE) fishing clearly shows that the sport embodies exactly what I stated a few paragraphs ago: The relentless, but futile, pursuit of perfection.

If anything had progressed to the point of perfection, would it not be fishing? Literally one of human’s oldest activities, we have had thousands of years to hone the tools used for fishing. The result of all this time and, I’m sure, literally billions of minds thinking about to improve fishing and it’s still not perfect. There is still new thought being put into it.

I know the pessimistic side of this: That products are developed to encourage unnecessary consumption, and in some cases that may be true. I would say, though, that an avid fisher knows more about fishing than I know about any particular topic and if they are taking the bait (so to speak) who am I to say the product isn’t legitimately better?

As far as I’m concerned, more people need to think this way. Who is so vain to think that something they have been working on for a year or two or even ten can’t still be improved? It may very well be the best product that you can produce at that time, but there is always a way to make it better.

Don’t Race to an IPO

If you have taken entrepreneurship classes through university/college/somewhere else or even read a book about entrepreneurship, it is likely that you have learned about how great IPOs are. In fact, they are usually positioned as the best way to extract money from your business. In theory, you and other private shareholders are able to finally get to access some of the value that up until now has just been on paper.

I can definitely see how, positioned like that, it is a very attractive offer. Getting to make some money, likely use some of the cash to grow your business and keep working at it is a perfect scenario. Almost like getting paid to make your business better. As the saying goes though, if it looks too good to be true…

I don’t know if I could ever let a company of mine that I truly care about go through an IPO. As great as it sounds to be able to have your cake and eat it too, the downsides seem too steep. All of a sudden there are a large number of owners of your company and they all want a voice.

The first and most daunting change is that all of a sudden you need to be meeting external revenue estimates, every quarter, regardless of what it means for the long-term health and growth of the company. Today’s investor has a shorter timeframe than the past. Rather than holding stocks, the ups and downs of stock prices throughout the day are now monitored and acted upon. A byproduct of this is that stock prices move quicker and more drastically, which in turn creates more trading, etc.

Facebook seemed to learn this lesson the hard way. After their IPO, the stock fell 50% over the next weeks and their revenue is now published. All of a sudden a darling of a company, who was attracting private investments left and right, Isn’t looking so shiny any more. They’re in a situation where they have to now answer to all their shareholders and turn more of a profit ASAP.

This profit-driven model we have ourselves in does not work well for invention or innovation. Creating new products is not usually something that can be done in 3 months, and recovering the research cost definitely takes longer than that. After an IPO timelines are important, and if share price is suffering it is less likely a company will be upping their R&D budget. So long as a private company has some access to money, this doesn’t matter to them.

You may think, “If I own a company that won’t be me,” but unfortunately it seems hard to resist. As an example, after years of avoiding playing the “pleasing the shareholders” game, my beloved Google has started playing the game. It was announced about a year ago that they would be cutting some non-essential projects. This doesn’t seem unreasonable, but Google was founded on the belief that giving people the opportunity to pursue their interests (non-essential projects) that good ideas can be born, and the individuals don’t get burnt out.

Honestly, Google was the last straw against IPO for me right now. Not that I’m anywhere close to needing to make that decision yet. Luckily for me the ownership is staying right were it is.