Tag Archives: Business owner

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.

Everyone Says We Should Support Entrepreneurs, But…

Supporting entrepreneurship should be more than a check-box on the list of talking points for public officials.

It seems like advocating for small business is a must have on any platform presented to the public, political or otherwise, but unfortunately that’s where the talk ends; at talk. Not only that, but it seems to stop at the exact same sentence for everyone. Something about needing a “Strong and robust economy where we support our entrepreneurs.”

No one has any plans, let alone any action to back it up. They win some points from the public for saying it, and then move on to something else. It’s time to put an end to the lame lip service.

I know that there are some existing supports, but let me tell you a little about them.

I’m not 100% in this world, but I have taken some time to research and try to apply for some grants. What I have found is that no one will return my calls or emails, and the process is unnecessarily complicated.

While I have a long list of criticisms, the one that I want to point out is that many of the grants or other programs require application and approval before any work on the business is started. How are we supporting entrepreneurs by telling them to come up with an idea, do piles of paper work, wait and then probably not get the money in the end?

In the case of my business, from conception to first client there was about 2 weeks. Was I supposed to say no to our first client because I couldn’t spend any money developing the product because I was waiting to hear back from the province on a grant I had applied for?

Obviously the designers and facilitators of these programs have never started a business.

This fact is the biggest short-coming, in my mind. While I’m sure they’re all nice people, I can’t see how being an employee for your entire career, or a career bureaucrat for that matter, qualifies you to tell business starters how they should operate or what they need.

What’s more, it always seems like the idea of what an entrepreneur “is” is way off base. Most entrepreneurs aren’t university drop outs that have low living expenses and can live with mom and dad. The average age of first time business starters is around 40 and 60% of them have at least one child. 10 more facts are listed here.

In the end we have misinformed people running poorly developed programs.

I do have to say that there are some who have success with grants and other government programs: Large businesses which have learned how to skirt the rules enough to access the money.

Helping entrepreneurs indeed. Rant off.

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.

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.

Cornelia Bean

My family is all about the tea and I’m not afraid to admit it. I don’t do the coffee thing too often, but do enjoy a warm drink, especially in the winter. Tea is the logical step and with the huge number of flavours out there, the possibilities are endless.

My favourite local place to get tea is Cornelia Bean. Not only because it was close to me when I lived in River Heights and isn’t too far still, but because it was a product of theirs that opened my eyes to the wide world of tea available to me.

For the longest time I was an earl grey and green tea kind of guy, never really venturing too far from those. Then I received the Cornelia Bean screened tea mug as a gift. Thanks to this product I was no longer confined to the tea bags that I had grown tired of.

Going into their shop and seeing the volume of product they have on display is awesome. Not only that, but you’re able to take a look and smell of what you’re considering before you buy it, giving you some peace of mind before you make a purchase.

One of the major reasons I like this shop is that it has got me out of a gift buying pickle more than once. Knowing that what they sell is quality and the service is great makes it an easy no-brainer if I’m out of ideas for a birthday or other holiday. So thank you for that!

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.

Coaching vs Consulting

I don’t know why, but for some reason it seems to me that lately the line between a consultant and a coach has been blurred. I don’t know if it’s because one seems more promotable than the other, if those in a coaching / consulting role fancy themselves as both or people don’t hold the same definitions as I do, but I think it’s a difference worth talking about.

It’s an important distinction, because when hiring one or the other an individual or business should know what it is getting. Also, if you are either a coach or a consultant, by promoting yourself incorrectly it may lead to a number of waste-of-time inquirers, or worse, frustrating engagements that can fall apart and even damage your reputation.

It’s also easy to realize why there may be some confusion. From a contractor standpoint, they are both usually engaged to work on a specific project and there is an agreed upon desired outcome. Typically what they are working on would not be considered the “day-to-day” business of the firm. The word “change” would come to mind.

While there are some general similarities, the specific differences are what make the distinction between the two very important.

Consultants are typically hired to help a business make a decision or implement some sort of specified change. That is to say the provide recommendations based on their expertise and even go as far as to manage the change. How I would summarize it as they take the information available to them, make a decision and then work with the company to make it a reality.

The information and communications typically come from them, with the company listening to the expertise of the consultant and effecting operations as necessary. The change comes from the outside.

Coaching is a different process. Rather than having expertise in a specific field, coaches provide a different framework in which the companies or individuals within the company grow and change. Rather than hiring someone to come in and give an answer, when companies hire coaches they should expect to work with them in order to create success from within.

If that doesn’t seem to make sense, think of a coach in high level sports. It is up to the players to have the level of skills necessary to compete at that level. The coach’s job is to organize the team and structure the type of play in order to achieve the best results possible with the available players.

There’s never a time where the coach jumps in the game because they are able to play better than the athlete in question. Such is the same with coaching; they don’t necessarily have necessary skills in order to complete the specific tasks of those they are working with. They do, however, understand what is needed in order to work together with them to maximize performance. In other words, coaches listen.

So next time someone throws around the title “Coach” as it relates to a business function, challenge them and see if they’re actually just a consultant in disguise.

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.