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.