Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

What I am learning from what I’m doing with my own business.

UBER where art thou?

As the UBER debate rages across our country and others, I have a few holiday-time stories that make my opinion clear.

The first was early in the month. I was attending an event that gave out taxi chits at the end of the evening, very responsible, very classy. No fewer than three times on the ride home (it was a 10 minute drive) the driver said that I should just give the chit to him and he’ll take care of filling it out. I never said anything, but intending on filling the thing out myself, thinking it only fair considering it wasn’t my money that was footing the bill.

Once we arrived at my house I started filling out the information with every intention of giving a generous by fair tip. However, as soon as the driver noticed this he started yelling and berating me that I should of given it to him to fill out and that I would never get a cab again in my life if I didn’t. I handed him the chit and walked into my house, but the whole situation was fairly unnecessary and unsettling.

Number two was post-Christmas leaving a Jets game. A friend and I were both going to the St. Boniface-ish area and flagged down the closest taxi. When the driver pulled over he wouldn’t unlock the doors, but rolled down the window. When he asked where we were going and was told “St. Boniface” he responded, “Not far enough,” and drove away. We were able to find another cab, but still that is a pretty terrible way to treat potential customers.

The third incident was later that same night. Leaving a different friend’s place I called another taxi, which arrived on time. The driver than proceeded to drive like a maniac to my place, and when I paid I was told that I couldn’t use credit card and he didn’t have any change. He cemented himself a very nice tip.

There are so many similar stories to these and many far worse, which serve as the reason that so many consumers are hoping and praying for the government to get out of the way of UBER. To be fair I understand that the regulations put on taxis are unfair, but by artificially creating a duopoly in the market, customer service and innovation are dead. Having a system like UBER’s could easily have solved all the above issues:

  1. After the holiday party the UBER rides could be automatically charged to the company’s account, eliminating the need for any paperwork to be filled out.
  2. We would have been assigned an UBER car and left them a lousy review if they refused to pick us up.
  3. The payment being done electronically gets rid of the awkward “My card machine is broken” conversation that is part of so many cab rides. Also, I could leave a bad review for the poor driving.

Who knows if and when ride services will be allowed into Manitoba, but I hope they are by the time any kids of mine can drive (probably still a tall order, if past ‘progress’ in this province has been any indication). On top of everything else, it seems like a great way to earn some money for someone with a car.

A Sober Second Look at Silicon Valley

I, like many other people, have griped about the lack of venture funding in Winnipeg / Manitoba / Canada. Especially compared to the States. For a country with 10% of the population, there isn’t near the same proportion of start-up funding that they have. I can’t believe it’s because there is any difference in quality of people or ideas.

There are some macro reasons and some micro, but we often don’t look at it from the other side. Maybe Silicon Valley is the one out of whack?

I don’t know and it’s up to smarter people than me to debate, but this is a very interesting article that gives a rare perspective of the other side of the dream.

http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2014/04/21/the-most-expensive-lottery-ticket-in-the-world/

I don’t think that we should stop working toward a better business environment in Winnipeg, but maybe we should define the goal of what we’re working toward before striking out.

Missing the Most Important “Why”

Simon Sinek’s golden circle and starting with “why” has been a popular framework for a few years now. I enjoy the TED Talk and have try to apply it as much as I can, in a broad sense. Though recent discussions, however, I’ve come to start thinking that while it is a very inspiring talk, and I’m sure his blog gets many more hits than mine, Mr. Sinek may be falling into the trap of reverse-engineering.

It’s easy to cherry-pick great leaders and success stories and point out that they spoke about “why” and not “what” or “how”. His evidence is very hard to refute. All I’m saying is that it’s easy to start at the end and know that those stories are worth telling. The true test is, however, how accurate this theory can be at predicting success.

I would suggest that it’s lacking.

Starting with why is great and all, but when push comes to shove if no one can relate to your why, then it’s worthless. In other words, if you let your freak-flag-fly and no one is saluting, how could you truly be a great leader or a great company? You won’t have anyone selling or buying.

Nope, the first why isn’t why you do things, but rather why those who believe in you (customers, subordinates, on-looking well-wishers) are attracted to you in the first place. That is the single most important message you can broadcast.

Not only this, but a company or leader who is aware of what draws customers / followers in is one of the best predictors of success that I can think of. I’m all about self-awareness and understanding motivations of others, but you have to be prepared for what you find out.

You may have one idea as to why people choose your business over the competitions and hearing something else can be tough. Especially when you own the business. That’s the one think that Mad Men really go right in my eyes; the scenes where clients were told something that is true, but they can’t get past their emotions and egos to use the knowledge to their advantage.

If you can embrace why your loyal fans have chosen you, however, you have the power to keep them and grow. So rather than starting with the “why” from within, it’s likely better to understand the “why” according to others.

Kill Business Plans?

Maybe it’s just my feed and the websites I frequent, but there seems to be a growing movement to encourage new businesses to scrap a business plan. While I’ve actually written about how a “business plan” with the structure that the bank wants to see or we learn about in school may not be the answer, I think it’s a disservice to be advocating forgoing the plan entirely.

The major reason that I say this is that typically those who are advocating leaving the plan in the mind of the entrepreneur and barrel forward are those who have seen a level of success in their business. So while it’s good for them that they’ve made it and maybe they never had any sort of plan down on paper (which I would contest in many cases is likely a romantic lie), run-away success stories unfortunately don’t make up the majority of businesses.

I would be more interested to hear from failed business owners who never did any business planning. I wonder what they would say in hindsight. Whether they thought that a bit more planning would have given them a better chance at success or maybe prevented them from taking the leap in the first place.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about business ideas and a large number of them end with a quick Google search and the realization that there are a huge number of companies doing the exact same thing already. Either that or after trying to write down a rough plan for the business (even a one-pager in bullet points) you realize that the idea looks pretty weak at second glance.

Whenever I see an article, Tweet or whatever about how business plans are worthless, I tend to think that the author means in their current form. I couldn’t agree more that a business which doesn’t yet exist trying to forecast five years of sales is a pointless, but the backing information that gives some legitimacy to your assumption that people will buy what you’re planning to sell is never a bad thing. At the very least it can be a thought exercise for you to explore as many aspects of your idea as possible.

So don’t dismiss creating some form of business plan in order to chase the image of being some sort of renegade entrepreneur who doesn’t play by the rules and makes all the right calls from their gut. While planning should never get in the way of action, taking some time to determine the right action to take will go a long way.

Can You Service a Startup?

I’ve noticed something recently that everyone seems to have the ability to service startups. At least that’s what they would have you believe. A listing of skills on LinkedIn got me thinking about why this is.

The profile I was viewing was of someone who was no doubt very intelligent. A double professional who, I’m sure, has forgot more than I will ever know. Regardless, though, none of the experience listed had anything to do with startups, but there it was listed in the skills section.

Why were they so comfortable putting it there, though? I have a couple guesses and would love to hear yours, too.

First, I think that it has to do with size. They had done a lot of work with bigger businesses, so how tough could a new, smaller one be?

Maybe it was because this individual was relatively young and young people all have an inherent knowledge about startups, seeing as they’re the cool new thing.

Honestly, whatever it is, I think that there is a healthy level of ignorance mixed in, whether unintentional or not.

All small businesses, startups in particular, can be a different beast. My guess the “my skills will scale down” theory goes out the window once you start setting up corporate structures, funding rounds, personal finance implications, grant requirements, fast growth, etc. These are likely all things that wouldn’t be experienced to the same extent at an established business.

I have first-hand experience with this.

When I was first setting things up with the business, I happened to be with one of my account friends one evening. Since it was top of mind, I started asking him 101 questions about finances, taxes, company structure, you name it.

He wasn’t really answering my questions in any great depth and I finally said, “I thought you were supposed to be an accountant. What gives?”

He looked at me as replied, “Kevin, I’ve never dealt with a company anywhere near as small as yours. The amounts you’re talking about are so immaterial for the companies I work for that they wouldn’t bother looking for them if they were missing from the books.”

First, sobering thought. Second, that was a breath of fresh air.

Although he could have impressed me with a bit of knowledge and likely made it up as he went along, he had enough confidence to simply state that he knows nothing about the subject we’re talking about. If I really wanted answers I should go to someone who specializes in small businesses.

So I did.

Should Businesses Begin at the End?

Beginning with the end in mind is a best practice that we hear about all the time. When I took my project management course it was pretty much the first thing that we were taught in it. While this likely is a good idea for short-term endeavors, is this really how we want people thinking when they start a business?

In the entrepreneurship classes I took, as well as books I’ve read and speakers I’ve gone to see, the “exit strategy” is a major focus. Essentially when you start a business you should have a timeframe to cashing out, most typically in the form of a sale.

While putting a timeline and dollar value on the sale of the company may be good for investors to see, is that really what is best for our companies or economy in general?

If your thought from the outset is that you are not going to be running the company for more than a few years, how will decision making be impacted? All decisions will be made with the short term in mind, which is never good for any company.

The idea of running a business for a few years then cashing out is nice and clean, especially academically when trying to teach about ownership, it doesn’t translate well into the real world.

I have a hard time believing that the entrepreneurs that I admire thought to themselves, “I have this great business idea that I can run for 5 years then retire.” I don’t remember ever reading the “Starting the Business with an Exit Strategy” chapter in any of their (auto)biographies.

If you want some more concrete examples, just look around. Bill Gates recently announced that he is taking more of a day-to-day role in Microsoft. Warren Buffett is in his 80s and still running the company. Steve Jobs came back to Apple (his baby), leaving behind another successful company. Richard Branson is still running around doing his thing.

All the above listed are rich enough to do pretty much anything they want. So what do they want to do? Stay involved in their companies!

Thinking in the longer term is also better for investors. It keeps the imagination going and the company focused on limitless growth, rather than hitting a number for sale. As a VC, would you prefer to have been an early funder of Facebook (a company that only when public when it had to) or Groupon (who rushed to IPO and is now tanking)?

One of the companies is focused on being around for a long time, while the other was focused on making a quick buck. And the results speak for themselves.

Understanding Motivation

I don’t know what it is, but something recently has calmed me down a lot. It may be the fact that it’s so cold and miserable outside that there’s no point in getting all worked up. Or maybe it’s part of getting older.

I think that it has something to do with my new mindset of trying to understand motivation. Not my own, because I think when I’m being honest with myself I know what makes me tick. And when I’m not being honest with myself I prefer the lie over whatever is really happening.

What I’ve been trying to think about a lot lately is what motivates others.

In the past I have spent too much time and energy being irritated by the actions of others, to the point of trying to convince them they are incorrect. This is a fool’s errand.

What I realize now is that the final culmination of any situation is just an outcome. An effect related to a cause. In order to truly understand behaviour and therefore influence others what I needed to think about was the underlying motivation, not the end result.

To back it up a step when I say “motivation” what I’m referring to is the reason for taking meaningful action. It can be big or small, but there is a reason for every decision we make, or choose not to make.

In order to make this shift I first had to get into the mind-frame of thinking of everyone else as a dynamic, complex human being, with the same level of depth of thought that I have. While this is something we all know on an intellectual level, in day to day interaction it’s usually not top of mind.

It may have just been me, but what I found is that my assumptions about people are usually a culmination of our interactions with one another. While this isn’t necessarily incorrect, there are definitely some downsides, especially when you want to change the dynamic of the relationship.

I have a couple of examples that exemplify how this way of thinking has helped me. One of the relationships is extremely brief and superficial, while the other very long and deep.

The briefest of relationships is that of other drivers in traffic. I used to get very frustrated at poor driving, especially when it was people cutting me off to get into the lane that I have been waiting patiently in for some time while they just breezed past the line. The worst.

During one of these instances, while leaning into the horn, I started to think about how the other driver may feel. In my mind there were three different possibilities.

  1. They didn’t know they had to get into that lane until it was too late.
  2. They have a legitimate reason to be in a rush (important meeting, family emergency, etc.)
  3. They are a genuine asshole and/or bad driver.

Then I started thinking about how I’ve done the exact same move for all of the reasons above, at least once. While I don’t do it all the time, it does happen on occasion and maybe I’ve caught the driver on one such occasion.

I let this one action completely define how I thought about this person, while there may be a number of other things at play here. What’s more is it really worth getting worked up over for the 2.5 second delay it had caused me? Likely not.

Regardless, if they really are an asshole and/or bad driver, odds are that will catch up to them some day.

The longer relationship was that with my parents. For a little bit of background, I’ve known my parents my whole life and we have a good relationship. Stable house, always loved and supported, the whole nine yards.

Now at 27, though, it does get annoying on the occasions that I’m still treated like a child. Sometimes it seems like even though I’ve lived away from home and managed not to die for multiple years now, my ability to do some pretty basic human-adult things is brought into question.

While frustrating, I just needed to stop and think about what was motivating this behaviour to make some sense of it.

First, I’ve done a lot of stupid crap in my life. Most of which my parents were left dealing with, which could not have been fun for them. Not being able to fully shake of my many bad decisions that they had to clean up seems fairly reasonable upon further reflection.

The other thing to think about is the alternative is having parents who don’t care about me, which doesn’t seem like a good option. While it is likely to never fully go away, the onus is on me to change their years of conditioning regarding my ability to take care of myself.

So while I think I may have taken the long way around, the motivation behind the actions of others is the key to truly understanding them and therefore influencing them. While it may not always seem it, people are rational and there are deep reasons behind nearly everything that they do. Once those are understood, you will be much further ahead in the relationship.

Driving Offline Action

This is actually something that I’ve written about before and I’m still on board with what I said, more or less. My thoughts are now just a little more refined, especially since I’ve been having conversations / reading about this idea in different contexts pretty consistently the past little while.

I have said, and will continue to say, that start-ups that aim to rely on the “find a user-base and then advertise to them” revenue model have a very steep uphill battle ahead of them. I’m not saying that it doesn’t work for some companies, but being successful at it is definitely the exception, and not the norm.

By virtue of that, the business idea development process of “Here’s a cool app, we’ll get a lot of people using it then sell advertising,” should be dying much quicker than it is. It’s likely better to rethink your idea or come up with something better than chase that unicorn. To reiterate, I’m not saying that there isn’t success out there, but to paraphrase from He’s Just Not That Into You (great chick flick, def in my top 5) it’s a crime when people cling on to the hope of being like the exception and not the rule.

To put it a little less 17-year-old-girl, the premise of Blue Ocean Strategy is basically that instead of trying to enter the shark-infested “red oceans” where there is huge competition, go where there is no competition. A “blue ocean” if you will. Side note: I know that’s a huge simplification of what is actually going on in that book, but this isn’t an essay about why Blue Ocean Strategy is awesome. I would suggest picking up a copy.

Where I truly think that the opportunity lays with all the online connection tools that we have is the intersection between where social technology influences or even facilitates our future decision and actions. No longer will it be able documenting what we have done online, but meaningful interaction will be taken based on information that we didn’t have before.

It’s important not to confuse this with the internet as an advertising medium. I know that technically the marketing that we see on an every day basis has the opportunity to influence us, but that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m talking about meaningful, online interaction resulting in real-world outcomes that would not have happened otherwise.

When thinking of an example of what I mean, I am honestly hard-pressed to think of a better one than online dating.

Before the internet, dating was fairly limited to your immediate network and lucky timing. Either you met someone through someone else or you happened to be at the right place at the right time to meet someone.

With online dating those barriers are broken. You don’t need to know anyone in order to participate and since profiles are 24/7, you are literally actively dating in your sleep. And every other time of the day for that matter.

Not only that, but the level of online dating is growing in sophistication. If you can believe the ads you see, they have systems running that help match you to more comparable people. That sounds way more efficient than starting the relationship with, “You like this bar? I also like this bar!” or based on what shared interests your aunt thinks you have.

The genius of online dating is that it didn’t just take something existing in the offline world and move it to the internet. Rather, it uses the technology to expand and enhance the experience. That’s what companies should be aiming for when developing their products.

I don’t know what the specific applications are, but this is something that is always top of mind for me. I just hope that I can come up with a great idea before the next guy!

Scalable Skills

Being a business grad can be a tricky thing. Regardless of the program that you went through, the exact technical skills required for any job were not something that you likely learned in school. I’m sure it’s like this for all people starting jobs, but I like to write what I know.

What’s more is it seems like there’s a very strong bias to those who have done the exact thing that a company is hiring for when filling roles. Regardless of how well you did anything in the past, if you can somehow make your experience sound like it fits in the box that they are lumping things in, you’re the type of person that they want!

While I’m not saying that a level of proficiency related to the position being hired for is important, I do think that there is something to be said about a person who doesn’t have direct experience, but has a related skill set. That way you have someone who has obviously learned a similar job and your company gets the opportunity to train them. You’re not hiring some other company’s bad habits.

All of this, in my mind, is yet another reason that a side business is a great idea for any new grad. While you likely won’t get the exact experience that is needed for a job you’re applying for, there is a high likelihood that you will have done something related. The key is being able to communicate that your skills are scalable.

Talking about my experience (again, writing what I know), I’ve been intimately involved in the development, evolution and re-development of a product. In financial management, marketing, sales, project management, service delivery, customer interfacing, researching and now hiring. There’s likely more.

Would any of those experiences be to the same extent as if I was working in one of those functions at a larger company? Likely not. Are they still valuable and show that I’m not only able to learn what is needed, but identify what that need is? Yep.

I’m here to tell you, anyone can do this.

Even if you don’t want to start a business for yourself, there is always some crossover in your job or volunteer work. Just because you had a certain title doesn’t mean you weren’t exposed to other skill sets, so make sure that you really think about what they were and how it felt to perform those tasks. They may end up coming in handy in the future.

Should You Work For Free?

A few days ago there was a piece in the New York Times by Tim Kreider calling for all those he considers artists (essentially freelancers) to stop giving their work away for free. The end result being that if all writers, musicians, illustrators, etc. were to refuse to work for free, then they would all start making more. Those who wanted their products or services could no longer just move down the list until they found someone who was willing to do the work for nothing.

The reason he put forth that people like him can be taken advantage of is that art is it’s own reward. That artists are altruistic and anyone procuring the work is “the man” and never want to pay.

While I agree that you should always strive to get paid for the work that you do, I don’t think that the issue is as black and white as the author has made it. In fact, he even admits that one of the recent asks for “free” work was a university student seeing if he would come in and speak to her class. Hardly a heartless corporation squeezing the arts for everything they can.

The ask for free is a tough one. I have even complained in the past about how I typically dislike it when I’m asked for free service from my business. Not because of the “free” factor, per say, but because those asking typically aren’t overly polite, especially after you tell them “no”. I can also agree with Mr. Kreider that everyone who thinks they’re the genius who came up with the “It gives good exposure” reasoning needs to think up something different. All work provides good exposure and typically the paying gigs are the best.

Back to my point, though. I don’t think that all work given away for free is a negative, but the conversation needs to be quite different. Rather than falling for the “exposure” lie, take a moment to think about why you would give away your work. Is it a cause you believe in? A personal favour? The tax receipt? If any of those reasons appeal to you, do it! Better yet, think about the situations where you would consider providing a freebie before you’re even asked. That’s what I do.

If the answer is no, however, be unrelenting. If they start asking for discounts (and they will), offering less than what you would usually charge, it’s best to have the fortitude to say no. If you don’t, then the consequences may be further reaching than you think.

I have a friend who does work on residential homes. When he was a little slower he allowed himself to be “talked down” to a lower price than he usually would have charged. Well, word got around in that neighbourhood and all of a sudden he had other people calling to negotiate down the discounted price. The point is that there was an entire neighbourhood that he was unable to charge his usual rate to, because they expected the same price as their friend. Or even lower!

Raising fees can often be a sticking point, as well. If you give away work for free or at a discount, don’t expect it to be repeat. At best you can hope to lay out the “I’m doing this as a one-time freebie / discount” speech and hope they remember it. Odds are, they conveniently won’t.

The absolute worst situation to happen to me was that I was giving away some services (not the business, me personally) for free, helping out a cause I believed in. After working with them a few times, they found the budget to pay someone for the same services I was providing. I WASN’T EVEN ASKED. As soon as they had some money, they dropped my free ass and went with someone else. What’s more is, once that money ran out they had the balls to come back and ask me to work for free again.

I guess this is my long-winded way of saying if you want to do some work for free, go for it, but make sure to lay out the ground rules ahead of time. You’re not suddenly expected to drop everything else in your life at a moment’s notice and if some money comes along it would be nice if it came to you. Make sure that your value is clearly communicated and you hold firm.