Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Opportunity of a Low Loonie

If you’ve been following Canadian financial news lately, you’ll appreciate that the loonie has been slumping against the greenback. In mid-July, our currency fell to 77 cents U.S., its lowest level since 2009. A number of factors are contributing to this decline, but perhaps the most important is long-term weakness in certain commodities, especially crude oil.

Canada’s economy relies on the extraction of raw materials more than most others in the industrialized world. A slump in commodity prices diminishes the incentive for investment in those sectors from abroad, reducing demand for our currency. The sluggishness of the loonie also explains why we’ve seen a small pick-up in inflation across the country since June, even though Canada is in an economic downturn, the price of oil is still relatively low, and the Harper government has promised to balance its budget despite the slump (all of which tend to put a damper on inflation). A low loonie means that the price of imports into our country, including many food products and manufactures, has risen.

But as you may have inferred from the title of this post, there is good news too: namely, the returns on our exports will also tend to rise, since those exports will become less expensive (and thus more attractive) to foreign customers. Tourism and associated industries may also see fringe benefits, as the prospect of a Canadian vacation becomes more affordable to foreign travelers. In other words, a low loonie translates into business opportunities abroad. If you haven’t done so already, now is a great time to concentrate on online marketing and distribution to foreign markets, particularly the U.S., China, Brazil, Germany, and Australia.

As with any new market, do your homework first.

Is there a demand for your product or service, or an unfulfilled need that you can help to satisfy? Are prospective customers with disposable income willing to shell out for whatever you have to offer? What do you bring to the table that incumbent firms do not?

Before you embark on a venture into overseas markets, you should be able to answer these questions definitively. Getting there simply requires due diligence. Start with some research on the internet, and identify organizations that can help you glean insight into the target market, including government data on income levels and spending habits. Aim to picture your typical client in the target market, the environment in which s/he lives and works, the amount of free time s/he has, and the recreational activities s/he enjoys.

Connect with foreign customers online.

Although overseas branches are nice to have, they’re also a luxury that most small and medium-sized firms don’t enjoy. This is where a robust online presence, including a website accessible in multiple languages, comes in handy. If you don’t have the budget to invest in a sleek, sophisticated website, there’s also a variety of existing online gateways—including eBay and other auction sites—that allow you to 1) broaden your international reach on a budget and 2) dip your toe into the waters of your target market before your dive in.

As the internet increasingly evolves from a stationary, plugged-in medium to a mobile, wireless one, more and more industries are prioritizing compatibility with mobile devices in their website design strategy. You’d be well advised to follow suit as you strive to reach foreign customers.

Choose distributors and payment processors wisely.

Select the most reputable, reliable distributor and most secure international payments system you can find. (Favour dependability even if the price is slightly higher, and investigate the record of candidate distributors and payments processors well in advance.) If customers know they can count on these aspects of your business, they’ll keep coming back, and recommend your company to their friends and associates. But if something goes wrong, even if a subcontractor is to blame, your business’ reputation could be in jeopardy.

For more on how you can take advantage of a feeble loonie, see this piece in the Globe and Mail’s business section by e-commerce expert Cameron Schmidt.           

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Few Pointers on Mentorship

As a society, we are in the midst of a demographic transition: namely, experienced and knowledgeable baby boomers are either retiring or considering retirement, while ambitious, talented millennials and gen-Yers are rising through the ranks. To truly capitalize upon this generational shift, we need to ensure that the most valuable nuggets of wisdom transfer effectively from older workers and leaders to the junior cohort.

If your business is a relatively new start-up, your workforce is likely young. But even young workers rapidly develop skills, experience, and insider knowledge from which more recent hires can benefit. Opportunities for “teaching the teacher” may also arise, if the protégé is more conversant with a specific technique or tool than the mentor happens to be. (Consider the social media savvy of the average millennial versus that of the average baby boomer, for example.)

Start with a plan.

Before you implement a mentorship program at your business, start with a set of realistic objectives, and establish ways to accomplish them. You also need an approximate timeline. How much coaching do new hires require, and how much time per week should you allocate for that purpose? Could some new entrants use more help than others? At what point is it appropriate to phase out a mentorship stint and allow protégés to do their own thing?

Criteria and measures of the success of mentorship efforts are indispensable. What skills or expertise do mentors have, that you would like protégés to attain? Why?

Bring your entire organization on board at the outset.

Gather employees and managers together for a preliminary brainstorming session. Chances are, front-line staff will know what attributes are needed to ensure success, and their counsel will be valuable when it comes to setting appropriate and attainable goals. Make sure everyone in your organization knows about the mentorship initiative, understands what her role will be, and has an opportunity to provide input and feedback at all times. (You may want to delegate a point-of-contact person or set up a committee for this purpose.)

Targets and coaching strategies may evolve over the course of the mentorship process, so allow some scope for flexibility and adjustments to the plan. But keep the big picture in mind: the primary objective of mentorship is to ensure the long-term continuity and success of the organization.

Finally, create survey documents for both mentors and protégés that include the essential measures of success you established in the brainstorming session. These surveys will enable you to aggregate data, track overall progress, and gain valuable insight into the effectiveness of the mentorship initiative.

Prioritize relationships.

A constructive working relationship must exist between mentors and protégés; without this, the prospects for meaningful progress are slim. Some mentors and protégés will develop a productive and amicable rapport almost instantly, others will need a bit more time, and occasionally, pairings may not work out. Use your discretion, keep an eye on the status of each mentor-protégé pairing, and welcome feedback. Consult your survey results for macro-level guidance.

Regular progress assessments

Meet briefly with each mentor and protégé pairing on a regular basis (if feasible). Ask them personally how they feel the process is unfolding, and provide a forum for discussion.

Over the course of the mentorship program, you should perceive that mentors and protégés are increasingly on the same page; this should be apparent to you in both the in-person meetings and in the survey results and feedback. If not, then you’ll need to modify your mentorship initiative, seeking input from your workforce on where improvements can be made.

Concerns over “brain drain”

Some managers worry mentorship brings a risk that highly trained employees will leave the organization for opportunities elsewhere, taking their newfound knowledge and skill set with them. This is analogous to the dilemma countries face when deciding whether to invest in educating their children: what if our most dextrous, astute citizens pack up and leave, causing a “brain drain”? Won’t those resources have been wasted?

Consider the matter from another perspective: if you don’t mentor new employees, how will they garner the technical and logistical proficiency they need in order to enhance the future prospects of your business?

Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of all businesses to provide a desirable place to work. If you do, then highly skilled employees will flock toward, rather than away from, your enterprise. Incidentally, one of the assets job seekers desire most in a would-be employer is the potential for professional growth and career advancement—and mentorship can help to provide that.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

How To Stay Motivated Between Projects

We’ve all experienced the bittersweet feeling that attends the conclusion of a major project.

On one hand, you’re elated and relieved to finally have a proverbial monkey off your back, and proud of your achievement. On the other hand, you may ask yourself “Now, what?”—or, “How should I get started with this next thing?” Your first strides in a long race seem like a distant memory at the instant you cross the finish line, and sometimes, the thought of taking on another complex, multi-faceted assignment can be overwhelming. You may find it difficult to focus or apply yourself, and that your progress is slow and laborious.

What can you do to stay motivated, avoid burnout, and muster your creative and productive energies for the next big undertaking?

Prioritize yourself.

When you become particularly engrossed in a project, you may find it difficult to tear yourself away from it. But from day to day, constant work can take a toll on your nutrition and physical fitness—since you may be short on time for food preparation and exercise. But the paradox of overwork is, by devoting all your attention to your professional duties and neglecting self-care, you may eventually lose stamina, experience burnout more quickly, and become more susceptible to illness.

Pencil regular breaks and downtime into your busy schedule, and adhere to it. Allow yourself time for exercise and a healthy diet. Imagine that you are sacrificing a little bit of productivity now in order to gain significant productivity later.

In between big assignments, you may want to allow yourself a more substantial unwinding period, and get away from your workspace for a while. Within reason, of course.

Give yourself things to look forward to, unrelated to your work.

Activities away from work—like hiking, soccer, mini golf, or skiing, barbecues at the beach, dinner outings, trips to the movies, and hanging out with friends—are both pleasurable in themselves, and means of escape from the daily grind. Even if you love your job, hobbies and extracurricular pursuits can offer relief from the various pressures and challenges you face every business day, and a reward of sorts for your efforts. And while you’re involved in something completely unconnected to your work, an ingenious idea may occur to you...

At the end of the work day...stop working.

As a society, we are inundated with electronic gadgets that compete for our attention. Our expectations of each other seem to have changed too—whereas decades ago, people were assumed to be “unreachable” at particular times (like while driving, or out and about), today it is common to assume that no one is ever out of contact—and therefore, why should a work-related call, e-mail, or text message have to wait until the morning or the end of the weekend? One consequence has been a tendency for work time to bleed into leisure time.

It’s important to establish ground rules, to the extent you can. Make clear to your colleagues and associates that when you clock out for the day, you’re done. Unless it’s a genuine emergency, it can wait.

Why is this important to you?

One cause of flagging motivation at work is the perception that one’s job, or a specific aspect thereof, is not really meaningful. When confronted with the daily tedium of “going through the motions”, many professionals feel disinclined to exert their best efforts. Instead, they may wile away the hours by indulging in distractions and diversions at work—like games, online shows, or Facebook.

Of the many advantages of entrepreneurship, arguably the foremost is the knowledge that you are your own boss—and thus, you reap the benefits of your own hard work. Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to set goals for yourself that are both ambitious and realistic, while remaining mindful of the importance of the task at hand. If you can’t remember why it’s important, then your best bet is probably to leave it aside and move on.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Lesson About Attitude From the US Open Golf Championship

This year, the U.S.A.’s national golf championship was held in the state of Washington. Much fanfare heralded the tournament, since the Pacific Northwest had never played host to a US Open before, and the venue (Chambers Bay Golf Course, near Seattle) opened less than a decade ago. The location, abutting Puget Sound, is visually stunning, and the golf course is reminiscent of an old British links-style layout, in both its overall design and in the abundance of sloping hillocks that test the skill and patience of even the most experienced competitors. In defiance of stereotypes about the region, too, not a drop of rain fell during the event, and blue skies and brilliant sunshine were the rule.

But there was one big problem, and many of the players in the field didn’t shy away from expressing their feelings about it: namely, the greens were below the standard than professional golfers expect in a major golf championship. A few of the competitors groused loudly and publicly, and suggested that Chambers Bay should not be a future US Open venue, barring an improvement in the quality of the putting surfaces. Incidentally, putting played a conspicuous role in the outcome of the tournament, as long-hitting Dustin Johnson missed a short stroke on the final hole to hand Jordan Spieth an outright victory.

Nonetheless, one indication of an exceptional championship golf course is its tendency to reward talent, skill, and top-notch play. The winner of this year’s US Open was by no means unheralded; Spieth was arguably the best male golfer in the world entering the championship. Irrespective of the quality of the greens at Chambers Bay, a great champion still found a way to prevail.

Focus on the factors you can control; accept the circumstances you can’t.

Tempting though it may have been to impugn the course conditions, and by extension, the staff and organizers of the event, all of the competitors in this year’s US Open faced exactly same obstacle to success. Whether a player loved the putting surfaces or hated them made no difference to the reality of the situation; if he wanted an opportunity to contend for the trophy, he would need to handle those greens to the best of his ability.

Examples abound of challenges that every business has to handle in order to compete:  taxes, customer service and retention, innovation, marketing, investment and fundraising, various categories of paperwork. Often, these difficulties coincide with each other, or arise amid unfavourable circumstances. The sooner you accept the circumstances you can’t control, the more time you can to devote to offering a great product or service to your customers, rather than making excuses.

Keep your troubles in perspective.

The gripers at Chambers Bay probably could have benefited from a little perspective.

Most amateur golfers would relish the opportunity to putt on greens as smooth and verdant as the ones competitors in the US Open were complaining about. (The typical green at a municipal golf course is bumpy, pockmarked with divot holes, and peppered with patches of dead grass.) On second thought, what percentage of the human population has the opportunity to enjoy a regular round of golf at all—let alone play the game for a living?

Likewise, while there is nothing easy about founding and maintaining a business, you should always try to maintain a sense of perspective. At least you live in a country that affords you the chance to become an entrepreneur and lead a comfortable lifestyle, all while enjoying significant personal and political freedoms.

For the vast majority of people, easy street doesn’t exist. But success is that much sweeter when you know you’ve overcome adversity in order to attain it.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Can Meditation Help You Leave Stress Behind?

At some point in your life, you may have asked yourself the question “Should I take up meditation?” There really is no right or wrong answer. For many people, meditation is an effective stress reliever and aid to productivity, concentration, and personal contentment. Others, having attempted meditation, still fail to see what all the hype is about. The only way to find out which camp you fall into is to give it a try.

Meditation is a skill.

Like all skills, it can be acquired, cultivated, and eventually more-or-less mastered. But you won’t become an expert overnight. Finally, as with all other skills, consistency and discipline are key: your progress is more likely to be noticeable and beneficial if you practice diligently.

The goal is to release tension, and quiet your mind.

If you’ve seen the second film in the Star Wars series, The Empire Strikes Back, you will recall the Millennium Falcon’s perilous voyage through an asteroid field, with Imperial fighters hot on its tail. Commander Han Solo and his passengers manage to evade their pursuers and navigate a slew of hurtling boulders suspended in the vacuum of space, only to find themselves engulfed inside a giant carnivorous worm disguised as a cave.

The asteroid field is analogous to an overloaded mind, deluged with thoughts, distractions, and stressors, and generally unable to function at its full capacity. Busy people are often haunted by the spectre of opportunity costs—the notion that they could or should be doing something more productive at this very moment, and the irritation of knowing that, try as they might, they simply can’t perform five complex tasks at once. If you’ve experienced these feelings, you know how challenging it can be to escape the mental asteroid field, and regain your focus and composure. An effective round of meditation can help to quiet your mind by redirecting your attention toward a single objective.

Start with a simple breathing meditation.

Begin by finding a relatively quiet space, and seat yourself comfortably in a balanced position, with your back straight but not rigid. A straight spine, with your chin facing forward rather than drooping down, is important in order to avoiding lethargy or sluggishness during and after a meditation session.

Next, close your eyes. Search out tense areas of your body with your mind, and give them permission to relax. Direct your focus toward your breathing. Inhale deeply through your nose and exhale fully, imagining all the while that the air entering your respiratory tract is cool, pure, relaxing fuel, while the air that exits your body is hot, tension-filled exhaust. I find it helpful to pretend that oxygen is filling my body all the way up to the peak of my forehead. I then release 100% of the breath stored within me, all the way down to the pit of my stomach.

 Feel the sensation in your nostrils as air flows in and out. Concentrate on this as you relax, and gradually settle into a natural, comfortable respiratory pattern. An array of thoughts will probably enter your mind at this stage; this is perfectly normal. Gently direct your attention back toward your lungs and nostrils, and resist the temptation of allowing your mind to wander far off course. Continue this exercise for about 10 minutes, or until your focus settles singularly on your breathing, your brain quietens, and you feel ready to resume your day.

Potential benefits.

Meditation yields different results for different people. If you commit to a 10- to 15-minute session daily, you may find that your overall stress level declines, your concentration improves, and your relations with others become smoother and more amicable. Over the long term, diminished stress and strife and greater personal contentment can promote improved physical health and career longevity too. In any event, there is no harm in trying.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

What is Growth Hacking, and Could it Work For You?

Growth hacking is a term that originated in the tech industry—coined by entrepreneurs Sean Ellis, Hiten Shah, and Patrick Vlaskovits in 2010—and remains popular in Silicon Valley. In effect, it describes a non-traditional approach to marketing, wherein expansion of the business is the primary focus. Many growth hackers (some of whom have even adopted that title) would describe themselves as more-or-less analogous to the VP of Marketing at a conventional firm. Historically, growth hackers have tended to work with small- and medium-sized enterprises rather than major established companies—although there are indications that growth hacking is now making inroads into the corporate mainstream.

You needn’t be an IT wizard—or even a self-identified growth hacker—to take advantage of growth-hacking techniques.

A common perception of growth hackers is that they are mostly associated with the dot com sector, and as such, possess extraordinary technical knowledge and skill, including the ability to code at an advanced level. While this is undeniably true of many in the field, technical expertise is not necessarily a precondition for growth hacking. Marketing and expansion techniques familiar to growth hackers can be adopted by traditional marketers, entrepreneurs, managers—in fact, just about anyone in the business world. And now that website design templates are widely available, non-techies have ample opportunity to establish a profitable online gateway.

Growth hackers’ approach to marketing resembles more conventional marketing strategies in some respects, but principally revolves around the online medium. Like traditional companies, firms that adopt growth-hacking principles aim to attract customers, facilitate sign-ups, and retain clients over the long term, in part, by offering innovative products and services. But under a growth-hacking framework, the effectiveness of the website (and online pathways thereto) take precedence.

A simple, elegant website, with an easy sign-up process

Modern society is characterized by short attention spans, and a rule of thumb for business website design is that there is roughly a ten-second window in which to attract a prospective customer’s attention and pique h/er interest. In your initial user interface, aim for short but clear descriptions, understandable options, and visible (but not gaudy) links and portals. Allow visitors to navigate to some areas of your site without registering, and give them the option of signing up for additional services.

Another vital consideration is the process of registration itself: You’ll want to collect relevant data from your prospective clients, but it’s also important to ensure that they know exactly what they’re signing up for, and don’t feel daunted by the duration and/or arduousness of the endeavour. Many would-be customers will simply give up and move on rather than endure even a few seconds of unnecessary inconvenience.
 
Tools of the trade

Among the devices in the growth hacker’s tool kit are search engine optimization (SEO), data analytics, viral video, guest blogging, mailing lists, and a wide range of specialized survey and marketing software. A fairly extensive list of utilities for marketing and metrics is available here.

Some common objectives growth hackers emphasize in the development of a new product or business are virality, effective distribution, and ease of access and use of the business’s website (from the customer’s perspective). The purpose of metrics, surveys, and other data is to provide feedback as to the success of those efforts.

Start with your networks to drive traffic. Use “calls to action” to generate sign-ups.

Online advertising can get expensive, and virality can be a difficult and time-consuming ambition. For start-ups with low cash flow, the cost and challenge of driving traffic to a website can be especially prohibitive. One of the ways around this problem is to start with your social network. Let your friends on Facebook know about your business, send e-mails to your contacts, call up friends to gauge their level of interest.

Create a landing page separate from the website’s home page, and direct visitors toward it. Once they arrive, the next goal is to promote registration. An approach that many businesses find effective is the Call to Action—usually in the form of a prominent icon that visitors can click on in order to “learn more”, “get started”, etc. This is where registration kicks in, which you can then measure, analyze, and, in turn, identify ways to improve.

Of course, there is no shortcut to a robust level of growth. But a growth hacker’s mindset can help to propel your business toward that goal.

A wealth of additional information is available online. Check out QUICKSPROUT’s Definitive Guide to Growth Hacking, GrowthHackers, growth-hacker.com, and the personal blogs of growth-hacking specialists Aaron Ginn and Andrew Chen.     

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Reflections on Celebrity Endorsements

Many people automatically associate celebrity endorsements with large, established firms, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Evan Morgenstein, president and CEO of CelebExperts—a U.S. outfit that matches businesses with celebrities keen to offer endorsements—says that more than half of the client enterprises his company serves are small- or medium-sized firms and non-industry leaders.

“The misconception by most is that only the P&Gs, Johnson & Johnsons and Gatorades of the world can afford a celebrity spokesperson, but that isn’t supported by our experience,” Morgenstein told Forbes contributor Susan Gunelius in 2013. Furthermore, just as businesses vary widely in scale and market capitalization, the category of “celebrity” is also broad, encompassing not only A-list actors, musicians, and professional athletes, but also television chefs, local news anchors, authors, and game-show contestants—to list just a few sub-sets.

If you plan to retain the services of a celebrity endorser, the process is not unlike that of hiring a new employee. You need to find the right person for the job—someone who is not only recognizable amongst your target demographic, but whose reputation is also consistent with the brand image you hope to cultivate. Finally, rather than seeking out the most famous individual who will agree to work with you, your overarching priority should be value for money.

Look for genuine enthusiasm (especially if your celebrity is not a professional actor).

It is always better to seek the endorsement of a celebrity who genuinely appreciates what your business has to offer, rather than one who is primarily motivated by the money or a desire for self-promotion. This is important for many reasons, but in particular, celebrities often have large numbers of followers on social media and make frequent public appearances. If your endorser ends up fielding an offhand question about your company, a positive, enthusiastic response would sure beat an indecisive one.

If you’re torn between hiring a highly renowned celebrity who knows little about your business, versus a less distinguished celebrity who loves and is conversant with your company, favour the latter.

Your endorser will be associated with your brand for years to come.

Celebrity endorsement is always a risk-reward proposition. In many well-known cases, celebrity endorsers have become the de facto “face” of particular companies and brands—for instance, consider actress Catherine Zeta-Jones’s relationship with telecom provider T-Mobile, or NASCAR driver Danica Patrick’s association with web domain name purveyor GoDaddy.com.

But business deals of this sort have also gone awry due to celebrity endorsers’ personal or professional struggles. Anheuser Busch (the parent corporation of Michelob Ultra) probably never anticipated that Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France titles would be rescinded because of the cyclist’s doping. Likewise, Nike invested much reputational capital in one of the world’s most gifted athletes, Tiger Woods, producing a memorable and emotionally evocative series of print and television advertisements. Little did Nike’s executives suspect at the time that Woods’s objectionable activities off the golf course had the potential to tarnish their brand image.

Of course, you can’t know everything about the celebrity you hope will endorse your business, but as always, due diligence is important. Has your prospective celebrity endorser ever been credibly accused of wrongdoing? If so, you’ll need to consider how this reflects on your brand before deciding whether to proceed.

Look for potential freebies and “barter” exchanges.

A productive celebrity endorsement can be a huge marketing boon for a business with modest cash flow and little public exposure. But this begs the question of how such a company can possibly afford to remunerate a prospective celebrity endorser.

There are a couple of ways around that obstacle. In some instances, you may have the opportunity to strike a barter deal, like a celebrity endorsement in exchange for a discount or free merchandise. Otherwise, if a celebrity happens to pay you a visit, you can follow up and encourage h/er to share positive testimonials about your business with friends and associates.

To return to the theme with which this post began: Don’t make the mistake of assuming, just because you run a small firm with an unextravagant marketing budget, that the prospect of a celebrity endorsement is entirely out of reach.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Tactful Self-promotion

In most facets of life, it is wiser to err on the side of moderation than to indulge in excess. The same
is true of the way we portray ourselves to others: confidence and self-assuredness, especially when grounded in a realistic appraisal of one’s own abilities and expertise, are admirable traits; on the other hand, cockiness, false modesty, and “humblebragging” tend to elicit disdain.

So, how can you project an air of confidence and proficiency without seeming arrogant? What is tactful self-promotion, and how does it differ from boastfulness?

Authenticity is key.

Human beings are by nature social animals, and consequently, our desire to engender a positive first impression profoundly influences our interactions. In situations where we have a significant stake in the outcome—like an investment funding pitch, or a first date with a person in whom we have a romantic interest—the motive to put our best foot forward is even stronger.

However, according to Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, our intuitions about the strategies most likely to impress the target of our self-promotional efforts are often misguided—namely, we tend to underestimate the value that others place on perceived authenticity. Studies conducted by Gino and her colleagues Ovul Sezer and Mike Norton suggest that humblebragging (for example, claiming in a job interview that your greatest weakness is a tendency to work too hard) is likely to instill an unsympathetic impression in others: the opposite of the desired outcome. Revealingly, their research found that the interviewers’ opinion of seemingly insincere humblebraggers was even less favourable than the same interviewers’ perception of chronic complainers.

Build relationships.

No one likes to feel used. Accordingly, it is important to approach other people as potential friends, allies, partners, and associates, and not merely as means to an end or targets of an impromptu sales pitch.

Introduce yourself by describing your profession and/or significant interests in about three seconds. (See “Perfecting Your Three-second Statement”.) In conversation with individuals to whom you hope to appeal, make use of open-ended questions (beginning with who, what, when, why, how) and listen attentively to their responses. Concentrate on ascertaining their wants, needs, and objectives. Then consider how you can contribute to the fulfillment thereof.

Add value.

You know what you do well, but your interlocutor may not. Specifically, prospective employers, investors, clients, or even potential romantic partners will be interested to know what you have to offer, and how they would benefit from becoming more acquainted with you.

If you feel you have a good understanding of the wants and needs of the individual to whom you hope to promote yourself, you are about halfway to your goal. At this point, rather than simply claiming to excel at X or Y (which can rub people the wrong way), an alternative technique is to recount an experience where your skills in a particular area served you well, or enabled you to overcome a challenge. A common saying in journalism circles is “show, don’t tell”, and for good reason: the facts often speak for themselves.

Rely on talking points rather than a fixed pitch.

This point should not be construed as denying the importance of a sound elevator pitch, but in real life, the context in which a conversation occurs informs its tone and content—and a rigid, memorized pitch may seem out-of-place. Therefore, it is worthwhile to have talking points in mind: pieces of knowledge or insight you can invoke that will offer people a better sense of who you are, your areas of skill, passion, and knowledge, and what you aim to accomplish. Stay abreast of news headlines too, especially items that are relevant to your areas of expertise, and be prepared to discuss at least two current events at social gatherings.


The ability to communicate those points effectively, while showing genuine interest in the people you meet, is the key to promoting yourself without sounding like a braggart or tawdry careerist.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

On Equity Crowdfunding

In the environment of tight credit that characterizes the global economy’s tepid recovery from the Great Recession, many entrepreneurs are turning to unconventional sources of startup financing. Equity crowdfunding, mediated through registered online funding portals, is one of the available alternatives.

In order to ascertain whether EC would be right for you, there is some basic information you need to know.
 
What is equity crowdfunding, and how does it differ from standard crowdfunding?

Unlike standard crowdfunding, EC involves more than simply donating money to a cause in exchange for rewards, perks, or goodwill—instead, equity crowdfunders acquire an ownership stake in the company-to-be.

EC differs from traditional equity financing in its potential to attract numerous prospective investors offering modest quantities of capital. Conventional equity financing, by contrast, often involves a small number of deep-pocketed investors capable of advancing large sums.

Advantages

   Democratization (sort of): EC can foster investment opportunities for people of comparatively modest means. However, the rules governing EC (including accredited-investors-only restrictions) vary by jurisdiction, along with the required documentation. The situation is fluid, as governments learn more about a relatively novel investment tool and modify their regulatory frameworks accordingly. It’s a good idea for businesses and entrepreneurs uninitiated in EC to seek legal counsel, so as to ensure compliance with local securities regulations.

   Breadth of investment pool: Not only can EC enable entrepreneurs and business owners to benefit from a broader pool of potential investors than might otherwise be available; the relationship is a two-way street. As EC expands and develops, small- and medium-scale investors will also have the opportunity to dedicate a portion of their savings to a vast array of endeavours that might otherwise have received little exposure.

   You set the fundraising commitment. When businesses attempt to raise early funds through venture capital firms, they receive whatever those organizations are prepared to give—usually a small sum, unless you already run a thriving business with a steady revenue stream. EC, by contrast, offers entrepreneurs relative freedom to establish and adjust their own targets.

   Your funders have a vested interest in the success of your startup. After all, the more profitable your venture, the more lucrative the returns for them. If you encourage equity funders to promote your business idea on social media and within their friend circle, they will likely be keen to oblige.

Drawbacks

   Legal complexities: As noted above, the rules governing EC vary by jurisdiction. A lot of entrepreneurs just starting out in the business world may not be familiar with financial disclosure rules, licensing, comprehensive business plans, and other requirements, and will need to undertake a lot of advance research and due diligence.

   Small- and medium-scale investors may lack business and investment experience. Sometimes it helps to be able to defer to the advice of an experienced angel investor, venture capitalist, or business professional, especially when it comes to dealing with adversity and managing the expectations of your funders. In particular, new investors may not fully appreciate the risks associated with online and startup investments.

   Some of your funders may be people you’ve never met. Obviously, this entails issues of trust and fraud prevention, and there is a risk that disgruntled investors may try to litigate against you in an effort to recoup a portion of their losses if your business doesn’t pan out. This is another reason why seeking legal advice is a good idea.

To equity crowdfund, or not to equity crowdfund?

EC may not be suitable for startups that lack a strong social media following, or that don’t offer a product or service that is marketable and compelling. For example, many of your Facebook friends may be interested in funding a bicycle store or a pet daycare; relatively few will be keen to support a more esoteric or specialized venture, like a business that designs refrigerator door hinges.

If you’re still interested in EC, I recommend this article in the Globe and Mail, by SeedsUp.ca founder Sandi Gilbert, as a basic guide to help you get started.

Equity crowdfunding portals, and useful links:

SeedsUp.ca—one of the first EC portals in Canada.

ncfacanada.org/equity-crowdfunding—a page devoted to EC, from the National Crowdfunding Association of Canada.

CloudFund.ca—another Canadian EC portal, in development at the time of this writing.

Alixe Cormick is a securities and small-business lawyer with expertise in Canadian EC regulations. She has penned an informative blog post on the subject, available here.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Building Blocks of a Top-notch Presentation

At least as important as a general knack for public speaking, is the ability to deliver a persuasive presentation. Business leaders are regularly called upon to inform and enlighten (among others) employees, clients, and prospective investors, and the ability to convey one’s ideas successfully to a wide variety of stakeholders is a hallmark of exemplary leadership.

The most important guiding principle is to know your stuff; if you have done your research in advance and know the topic you’ll be discussing inside-out, you’ll be able to both cover the essentials, and readily respond to questions and comments from the audience. That said, it sure helps to know what sort of people you’ll be addressing.

Familiarize yourself with the audience.

The best presentations take shape well in advance of a speaker’s scheduled appearance. Ideally, not only should a presenter be physically ready (i.e. well rested, nourished, and properly equipped); s/he should also have conducted a reasonable amount of advance research into the audience. What are the wants and needs of the people who will be listening to you? What are their priorities? What are they optimistic/anxious about? What information will they be most interested to hear? If you’re a presenter who likes to sprinkle in the odd joke, what sort of humour do you think will elicit a favourable response from this crowd?

Start strong.

Some presenters like to begin with a short anecdote; others prefer a punchy opening statement, rhetorical question, or a description of a commonly held belief that, to channel 19th-century wordsmith Mark Twain, “just ain’t so.” (You could even open by laying out the aspects of the misconception, asking “How often have you all heard this story?”, and then explain why it is erroneous.)

Your immediate priority should be to grab your audience’s attention. If necessary, introduce yourself and establish your qualifications. But keep this preliminary step brief (one or two sentences), and then get right to the point.

Punctuate your presentation.

Once you have captured the attention of the audience, your next challenge is to maintain it until you’ve finished. Inexperienced presenters often make the mistake of bombarding viewers with information in large tranches, rather than breaking it down into digestible fragments that leave listeners a moment to process what they’re hearing, and try to reconcile it with their pre-existing views.

A strategy that works fairly well is to partition major concepts with quotes, either from inspirational figures, or from experts in a field of knowledge that is relevant to the content of the presentation. Quotes can also be used as evidence or testimony that reinforces the message you hope to convey.

Encourage participation.

The question is a valuable item in the toolkit of an effective presenter. Questions can be open-ended, require a yes-or-no response, or take the form of a multiple-choice poll. (“Raise your hand if you believe X? What about Y? What about Z?”)

However, not all questions are useful. Avoid loaded questions unless they contain a misconception you aim to dispel; for example, “How many of you think sports cars are fun to drive?” already suggests a reply. Queries with obvious answers will also tend to nullify the participatory effect, since few members of the audience will need to actually pause and reflect before responding.

Tell a story.

Cherokee novelist Thomas King wrote “The truth about stories, is that that’s all we are.” Indeed, human civilization is built on them. The bulk of the collective knowledge we have at our disposal—from scientific theories to news, history, literature, and the arts—take the form of stories, conveyed through a vast array of media and languages, that have evolved and been modified over time.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that one of the most effective ways to engage an audience is through narrative. Financial advisor Suze Orman, a denizen of the cable networks, likes to recount her personal rags-to-riches journey during her speeches, which has the added benefit of establishing her credibility as a surmounter of major financial obstacles. Alternatively, your story could offer a description of an experience you had, an account of a significant historical event, or the anticipated result of a policy change you advocate. In any case, choose a narrative that is relevant to the topic at hand, and that is likely to resonate with your audience.