Monthly Archives: June 2013

June Wrap Up

Well, another month is gone and it’s time again for my throw-away article about how I feel. I have to say, that this month I’m surprised that I kept pace. I had lots of competing priorities and a hand injury that significantly limited my typing ability. I think that I am on such a streak that I couldn’t stand to see it go away. Like when you’ve been having a good run of going to the gym, it motivates you to keep going. I’m worried that (like the gym) once I skip one post, it will be easier to start skipping more.

This month I did a little bit of restructuring and rethinking of the blog. I’m working to narrow my focus and have naturally found out what I’m really interested in writing about. In turn this has helped me focus my efforts in real life, so as always, I’m getting way more out of this than anyone reading it could hope.

Something else nice that is happening is that people have been suggesting topics. To anyone who has, don’t worry, I have them written down. I’m sure that I’ll get to them, but my posting style is such that I let things stew until they come out in more-or-less one sitting. So the topics we have discussed are still in the stewing stage.

Seem to have developed a small base of loyal readers, but seems that the number of reads I get depends on how interesting the sentence I post with the link is. My “mini-pitch” determines readership. I’m not too surprised about this (makes perfect sense), so I’m trying to seem as interesting as possible in the 1/2 sentences that I put up. I’m also finding that the posts that I promote before lunch get better readership than those later in the day.

Other than that, it’s still been a good exercise and I have noticed that my writing has got better when I have to do it for non-blog reasons. Basically I’m still accomplishing the goals I had for the blog and that makes me happy. The one thing that I’ve been thinking about is other ways to make the website more robust. Other than the writing, it is basically a little bio on me, and that’s it. I’m wanting to incorporate some more photos and maybe a couple other ideas, but we’ll see what ends up happening with my limited abilities.

Have a great long weekend!

My Direction for Internet Interaction

It’s no secret that the internet has changed how we interact with one another since it’s invention. It’s also fairly obvious that over the past 5 – 10 years the popularity of social media has provided a fundamental shift in many of our relationships. This can be a scary thing.

Change is inevitable and should we embraced, but I admit that I find it a little concerning imagining that one day it will be the primary form of interaction between friends. As much as I like wasting time of Facebook and Twitter, the real interaction I have with my friends is infinitely better. I would’t be able to handle all online interaction all the time, as some people claim we are heading.

I prefer to think the opposite. Not that social media is going to go away any time soon, but as it exists now it is a means to an end. To me the space is all but saturated (case and point, what do you do when someone says they’re going to build a website that is, “The new Facebook, but better.”?). There will be changes, but I just can’t see a huge change in the players.

What I do see happening is a new group of technologies popping up that use the existing platforms and information from the current social media websites, and link it back to the new world. Taking the online experience and moving it back to meaningful human interaction.

I’m an optimist (in case it’s hard to tell) and while the recent years of social media have been a fun experiment, I truly believe that eventually as a culture we will start craving more traditional human interaction. Technology will still have a role to play, though.

That’s why I like the thought behind apps like 4square. While it is still young and somewhat superficial, it is attempting to “socialize” our experience in the real world in real time. That’s something to be commended.

I don’t know what the future is going to look like, but the convergence of the online and real world will have an impact. I’m going to keep trying to think of what this will look like and hope others will too.

Some existing examples of games that attempt to bring people together and accomplish real world outcomes that I have read about are:

  • An app that notifies you if anyone with similar interests is around you and invites you to interact over a common hobby.
  • Online role playing game where players were challenged to reduce their carbon footprint in the real world.
  • An online game which connected strangers and gave them real problems the world is facing and asked them to brainstorm on solutions.

These are just a few examples and I’m sure there are many more. While the whole social media was fun times, I can’t want for social gaming!

Innovation in Manitoba

This post isn’t as timely as I would have liked, but is still very relevant and will continue to be for quite some time (as far as I can tell). I went to two events immediately after the provincial budget was released. One of them was specifically about the budget and the other was for entrepreneurs. At both of them there was reference to commercial innovation in Manitoba, or lack-thereof.

Both people criticized the 2013 budget for not having more incentives for innovation within the province. They argued that in order for Manitoba to continue to grow and become more competitive, there needs to be ready access to government money and programs to assist innovation.

While I don’t disagree with their desire for more “home grown” success stories, I don’t think their conclusion that it’s the government’s responsibility to fund innovation is the correct conclusion. Actually, I think it’s a downright terrible idea for multiple reasons. Here are a few:

  1. After the money, there would be no support. If you look how venture capitalists or angel investors are structured, there is ongoing support to the small business that they have invested in. This can range from consultation, to seats on the board, to even management positions. This is done because a VC has a very personal interest to see this business succeed, rather than the government who writes off the expense and is likely not to follow up.
  2. The government would be unable to be selective. If you do research about venture financing, the “success” ratio of funding to the number of pitches a VC hears ranges from 1:10 all the way to 1:100. The government wouldn’t be able to turn away 99 new businesses, waiting for that one that is the right investment. There would be some arbitrary criteria set on what constituted “innovation” and everyone who made it over that bar would get money.
  3. The failure rate is too high. The success rate of businesses that receive VC funding is one, maybe two, in ten. The other eight / nine either fail hard or end up chugging along, never really growing. Tax payer dollars shouldn’t be invested with such poor odds.
  4. Private / public sector partnerships rarely work.

The best way I can see the government supporting innovation is to continue funnelling money through universities. That is the structure which has worked in the US.

What I would prefer, though, is the private sector stepping up and providing funding. Manitoba’s VC and Angel market is shameful compared to other places in Canada. In turn Canada is pretty pathetic compared to the rest of the world.

The benefits of the private sector taking the lead are many. There is lots of money to be made, jobs to be created and more experienced, established individuals to pass their knowledge to younger generations. Also, the tax base increases and our ageing population is going to need that very, very soon. It takes work and it’s not for everyone, but I have to believe the market can grow from where it is now.

I have a quick anecdote that has been bothering for for a while. I know more people in Toronto who have received Angel / VC funding than in Winnipeg. It’s not that I know many people in Toronto very well (maybe 20 – 40), and I have to believe that I don’t just happen to know the right 0.00001% of the city. It’s just a fact that there is more money there.

It’s not as though there aren’t smart people in Manitoba, or that there isn’t money. The fact of the matter is the money doesn’t change hands and young people leave for greener pastures.  While I can’t fault anyone for leaving, I’m choosing to stay here, where I love it, and water the grass. I urge others to do the same and remember this in 30 years when you have the opportunity to help a young start-up.

Be Adaptable

Apparently I’m on a bit of a roll this week with the posts that can be applicable to one or more of my categories. I don’t know if that means I’m thinking holistic or being lazy…

First, I have a confession: I’m terrified every time I go to a booking with the booth. The most anxious I’ll ever get, in fact. I used to think it was because I worried whether people would like it, but after doing close to a hundred events, I realized that isn’t the reason.

What it is, I now recognize, is that the setup is never the same twice. Even if I’m going to a repeat venue, or even a repeat event, there’s something that I different that I have to do and I just have to roll with the punches.

This can be said about any aspect of business ownership. Never mind stressing about how set up will go, I don’t even want to get into the non-event related mini heart-attacks I’ve had, but it all comes with the territory. If I can say so myself, I’m getting better at dealing with these, and dare say able to have some fun. It’s important to remember that no one is going to die. Maybe business pain is like physical pain; we don’t have the ability to actively recreate it in our minds.

This bleeds into the need for individuals to be flexible. Things come up at work and in every day life. Nothing’s worse than when you realize the person you’re needing to solve a problem is a “freaker outer” or even worse, the person who lashes out when they get stressed. Every time this happens I want to remind them that they’re not important enough to be freaking out as much as they are, but usually resist the urge.

And now the bit of a reach, but I think it’s applicable: marketing. Especially with the reduction of advertising lead time and venues like social media, being able to adapt is moving from a smart tactic to crucial.

The example I like about this is how Oreo handled the Super Bowl blackout. While a number of companies reacted on social media, I think Oreo took advantage in the best way.

The short version of the story is that when the the blackout occurred Oreo sent out a tweet saying, “Power out? No problem.” The following picture was sent as well:

Oreo Ad

The reason I love this ad is that it is not trying taking a jab at the competition, not is it making a cheap joke at the expense of the Super Bowl. It is making a simple statement, which is obviously true, based on real time events and it wasn’t a hard sell. If someone had Oreos in the house, I would have to think it made people think about going to grab some.

By Oreo, a small business or an individual showing that they are adaptable inspires confidence and respect. It is the thought that if they are able to handle this, then of course they can handle something else. That’s why I’m going to keep trying to be as much as possible in as many aspects of my life.

There’s a First For Everything

This post is going to be a bit wide-reaching. I considered breaking into a few more specific posts, but came to the conclusion they would all read the same anyway, so I might as well keep it all together. The theory is the same no matter what: people, products and strategies need to be given a chance.

I’ll start with marketing, because that’s what I live every day. The number of business owners who describe their business as “a word-of-mouth business” always amazes me. While it may be true for their business at the time, that can be said about any business that refuses to market itself in any other way, because word of mouth is all it has going for it!

In this case, it is a classic example of taking the effect and making it the cause. Your business relies on word-of-mouth, because you don’t market. It is illogical to take the outcome (only being promoted through word-of-mouth) and use that as the reason not to take action (promoting the business in other ways). It should be no surprise that the business won’t grow at a very quick pace after a point.

The other examples are more catch-22’s: giving a business or individual a chance at something new.

For people it mostly has to do with job postings. Not that I’m constantly on the hunt, but I like checking them out of pure interest. The number of times a posting states it’s for an “entry-level position” and the next line states “2-3 years of experience required” is astounding. To me the two shouldn’t be allowed to be in the same description. Do you want someone entry-level or with experience?

Unless you’re moving within industries, between very similar companies, it is unlikely that an individual is going to possess every bit of knowledge in order to do the job to their fullest potential. Businesses need to hire with the expectation that there is a learning curve and give the person a chance. Otherwise there will never be any skill development in the workforce.

The last example I wanted to give is very similar to the above, but it relates to businesses. Every business has a first customer. I know that it feels much safer to buy from a place with a proven track record, but they all start somewhere. What’s more, if you are looking for a specialized product, you may have to take this chance.

I guess the moral is that there always needs to be a first, so when it is up to you to make that leap, don’t be scared. Do as much research and prep as you can, but at a point you just have to trust others.

Are We Too Trusting?

This may be slightly odd coming from me, considering Snap It is in the business of taking people’s photos and posting them online. I have to say, though, that being said I honestly try my best to protect privacy. At the very least inform everyone that their picture is being posted online.

The reason this has been top of mind for me for the greater part of a week, is for a situation relating to my business. The details aren’t important, the Cole’s Notes being that someone who was at an event I worked was inquiring as to why the photos aren’t available online for that particular event. Reason being, the person who booked/paid me asked for them not to be.

In this situation the caller understood there was nothing I could/would do about it and was going to speak with the individual who made the booking to see if their mind could be changed. Out of the experience, what stuck with me is that in a short amount of time it seems to have come to the point where our society has few inhibitions about putting personal things up online. To the point where when it isn’t put up, the person who decided to keep the photos private’s judgement is in question.

This got me thinking of what I can only assume is the Facebook effect. The practice of posting pictures online and letting our “friends” browse at their leisure. This seems to be the most efficient way of doing this (and the fact we need to find efficient ways to interact with “friends” deserves it’s own post) and thanks to years of it happening, more and more private items are being thrown onto the web without a second thought.

To me this is terrifying. Not only for myself, knowing that I have done and said things that should never make it to the internet, but for younger people. At least I was part of the last generation to grow up without social media, so I think twice before sharing certain things. For the kids that are getting Facebook at age 6, I have great concern.

I’m no developmental psychologist, but I would have to assume that the gravitation toward the computer being the primary point of “human” interaction is doing some crazy things to children’s social maturity. Even seeing things that younger family members are putting on Facebook (people who I would definitely classify as quite intelligent) has me worried for them.

The fact of the matter is most kids under the age of 16 (and even much older) aren’t worrying about the long term effects of their actions. They haven’t been properly taught that what gets put online is there forever and could have a major effect on their lives later on. Whether it’s a picture of them doing something illegal, bullying they’re taking part in, an off coloured joke, or any number of things, someone will find it later on.

All I know is that I’m glad that I don’t have to be making tough decisions on what to let one’s kids do and not do online. Even then, you are still at the mercy of their friends and what they put online. In the meantime I’m going to keep protecting the privacy of others when I can, and hope everyone else will do the same.

I’ve Been an Offloader

This is something we’ve all done and we have had it done to us. Something I like to call offloading, or the act of doing the bare minimum to any given task and then passing it off to whomever you can so you don’t have to worry about it any more. I’m really trying to stop, though, honest!

I think we (or at least I) do this because it seems like the most efficient way to get a task off of the plate. The thing is, though, the more that I do this and the more that I have it done for me, it’s obvious that very little good ever comes from this quasi-solution. The person getting offloaded to knows what is happening and likely isn’t impressed. Not only that, but there usually ends up being more work on the back end when you don’t do it right the first time.

I guess this post isn’t so much insightful, rather than a public declaration that I’m going to do my best not to do this any more and I would urge others to do the same.

I guess now that I’m thinking about it more, this action of offloading is just one more example of something we do and we think it makes the task easier, when it really ends up making it harder for us and those around us. It’s easier to accept that there are no short cuts and someone, either your colleague or you in the future, will have to end up picking up the slack. It would be easier and less wasteful doing it right the first time.

Put the “C” in Customer Service

In this case the “c” stands for crabby. You can let your imagination go on the word that I actually though of after the encounter I’m about to describe.

Normally I think I’m ok when it comes to useless customer service representatives. They usually have no power to make a real difference and are usually discouraged from using their brain, instead following narrow scripts that don’t really address the issue you have. Note: For an excellent book about the opposite of this method and how all customer service should be read Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com.

For the reasons stated above I keep my cool and tend to let CSRs off the hook, but an encounter today (June 11) set me off and I’m now compelled to dissect it to come to some sort of peace. I’ll recount my story, marking the sections that pushed my buttons and explain why below. First some background:

I have two Visa cards. My primary and a secondary with the lowest limit possible. I use the secondary for parking meters, online purchases, etc. Basically any transaction that is higher risk, so if the card is compromised, I only have to worry about a $500 limit, not the one that’s higher than that and has all my bill payments coming off of it. The secondary card has been a bit spotty lately, but I use it so little that it didn’t bother me too much and I didn’t think much of it.

Today, however, I tried to make a purchase over the phone, which didn’t go through. I thought to myself, “enough is enough,” and tried calling CIBC Visa. The following recounts the call.

Started pleasent enough, getting my verification, asking what was wrong. As I started to explain I was interrupted (1) and asked if it was an issue with entering my PIN incorrectly. I said no and tried to explain, but was interrupted again with the same question (2). I said no again at which point I was told that I needed a new card, one was on the way and asked if I needed anything else (3).

At that point I was finally able to spit out that this happened with a telephone transaction. Taken aback I was told there were no notes on the card’s file and I was wrong (4). I’ll admit that at this point I was frustrated, I said goodbye quickly and not to worry about it. In my mind it was clear she was going to be no help, so I was just going to hang up.

As I was taking my phone away from my face I heard her yell that she was going to cancel my credit card (5). This obviously got my attention and I stayed on the line. I got yelled at that I’m not allowed to hang up (6) and if I did my card would be cancelled.

I, as calmly as possible, asked her what she was getting so upset about. She repeated that I can’t hang up and asked if I still wanted a replacement card. I declined and informed her that she essentially said that the card not working is my fault and there’s nothing she can do, so that’s why I was hanging up. At that point she said a quick “bye” and hung up on me (7).

So, here’s the way I see it:

  1.  This is the first time I was interrupted, but it wasn’t the last. A good CSR should hear the whole story before trying to help.
  2. Reasking the same question, especially when you haven’t allowed for me to tell the whole story AND the question implies fault on my end is a huge no-no for me. Never try to make the customer feel stupid. (Side note, this happened to me a month or so ago when I called 311 to report yard waste pick-up being days late on my street. I was asked no fewer than three times each if I put it in the right place [yes] and if my neighbour’s was still out [yes].)
  3. Jumped to an answer, still without fully understanding.
  4. Telling me I’m wrong about the issue I’m reporting. Again, don’t try to make the customer feel dumb.
  5. The customer can hang up at any time. There is no reason to make a threat, just chalk me up as an asshole and let it go.
  6. Yelling and again ordering me around didn’t help her cause.
  7. Hanging up on me, especially when I was told that “wasn’t allowed” isn’t the best way to finish a call.

Always trying to take some sort of positive from an experience, I think that I now know how not to treat people. Seriously, though, I think this is a case for better CSR training and allowing your people go go off script (but not in the way she did).

Being as this is a bank we’re talking about here, I’m guessing there isn’t a lot of empowerment of front-line staff. This person was likely doing everything she was allowed to, which is stay on a script and try to get me off the phone ASAP. I have to say this didn’t make me feel good as a client of over eight years, and a former employee for that matter.

Without empowerment there is frustration and that frustration may be directed at your clients, which is not a good thing for your company. Give people the tools to actually help.

Everyone Has the Answer

Yes I realize I can be very opinionated and it’s a little more than a little ironic that I would write a post about this. Something else I will say is that I am trying my best not to offer an opinion until asked, and even then not go all out. Try being the key word.

It seems recently that a lot of people have had the answer to every question I didn’t ask, mostly about my business. The best one is about a month ago when a complete stranger got in an argument with me that I was setting the booth up incorrectly. It finally ended with me agreeing with him and setting it up incorrectly until he left.

After some reflection I think the irritating part is how uninformed the individual is, and how simple people seem to make the problem. A lot of people who don’t understand how the booth works, or even has never seen it in action, knows exactly what changes need to make it better and make us rich. Then when I try and explain why their plan wouldn’t work and what we’re actually working on for growth I’m brushed off. It used to bug me when this happened, but now I just laugh it off and make a mental note to seek to understand any situation before doling out advice.

None of this to say that hearing other’s opinions can’t be good and valid. It’s often good to seek the thoughts of others, because there is no way that you know it all, even if it is your business. Just make sure to have the confidence to do what you believe is right, even in the face of opposition from the outside. No matter how convinced or convincing the person offering advice is, you are the one who needs to live with the consequences.

Did You Start a Business or Create a Job?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I love speaking with entrepreneurs. Lucky for me through my job, going to enough events and knowing enough like-minded people, I always seem to be meeting someone new who has an interesting story.

For all of these people, going out on their own is an exciting thing, and it should be. The number of entrepreneurs who are being treated like rock stars by the media have never been high, as far as I know, and suddenly owning your own business is an extremely sexy and desirable thing to do.

But do all self-employed people own businesses? This is something that I have struggled with in my own mind for a number of years now. What is the real definition of “owning a business” and who does it apply to? Lucky for me I happened upon a great book called The E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber, which discusses the difference I was thinking about, among other things.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I am not writing this to offend anyone. This is (as always) just my thoughts and opinions, and I’m not too smart anyway. Regardless, going out on your own is an amazing accomplishment and I respect you for it.

Here are my thoughts on the differences:

Owning a Business

To me business ownership implies two things: 1) the possibility of eventual disconnection from you as an individual operator and 2) scalability. Until these two issues are addressed, you don’t have a fully functional business, but rather a job you have created for yourself.

These two points are important, because to me a business needs to transcend the owner(s) and take on a life of its own. In theory, with the right management, it should be able to outlive anyone working at it, and in order to do that it can’t be relying on any one individual.

Being Self-Employed

For those who are self-employed I think that the two points I outlined above are not true. Their operation is not scalable because it can’t be removed from them as an individual. In effect, the self-employed person is not building a business, but rather they have created a job for themselves.

There can be cases of others being employed in operations like this, and in these cases I would ask how much involvement is required from the principal. If the work and contracts are still based on a specific individual’s involvement, then to me it is still not a business.

Why This Difference Is Important

You may be thinking to yourself, “So what?” and that’s fair. Does this difference really matter? I think it does in a very fundamental way.

Keeping this difference in mind will allow you to better run your operation. Know which of these you fall into, be content and grow as much as possible. It’s not like either of the operations are better than the other, so as long as your happy who cares.

If you have created a job for yourself and you really want to start operating more like a business (where I’m at) get ready for a fun process! I would submit that the first step is to do everything you can to make yourself irrelevant to the day-t0-day operation. You don’t have to leave completely, but use the “hit by a bus” test. I.e. If you were to die tomorrow, would operations go on?

If anyone has tips for me or wants to talk about their situation, drop me a line!