Monday, April 2, 2012

TiEQuest Toronto

This past Saturday, I had the good fortune of being a judge at the Toronto TiEQuest Finals. TiE is The Indus Entrepreneurs organization (, which provides mentoring, education, networking and a lot more to entrepreneurs with or without an Indian background. There are chapters literally all over the world where the Indian diaspora exists.

The judges reviewed 19 candidates, from which 3 moved on to the international TiEQuest Finals.

I was amazed at the quality of the opportunities that were presented. While many of the companies were lacking in some important factor for success (which is why they were presenting to TiEQuest), for the most part each contestant had some combination of product validation, experienced management and advisory boards and customers or beta customers. Some were pre-money start ups looking for financing to get them over the hump until their expected cash flow kicked in. Others needed someone with entrepreneurial management experience to compliment the technology background of the founder.

While I don't want to disclose the companies at this stage as they haven't heard whether they made it to the final round, stay tuned for the results as they become public.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Problem with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is a Lack of Leadership Skills

I voted for Rob Ford for mayor of Toronto. I supported his vision for fiscal responsibility and the building of subways. The Mayor's vision is getting sidetracked by squabbling in the council chamber. Much like the situation in the US congress, the business of government is getting shunted aside by partisan politics.

So what does this have to do with entrepreneurship? To my mind the issue at both Toronto City Hall and the US congress is a lack of leadership. Great leaders, whether in government or business can move mountains. Poor leaders can get bogged down and accomplish very little. That seems to be what's happening in Toronto and in Washington.

So what are the qualities of great leadership?

1. Integrity. I am not questioning Mayor Rob Ford's integrity. I have no doubt that his heart is in the right place. He has, to some extent, led by example by reducing the budget of his own office.

2. Teamwork. Here is an area when the Mayor breaks down. Teamwork requires, among other things, fairness and empathy. The Mayor has been unable to keep his right of centre coalition together because he has lost touch with the members of his team. A leader with empathy for his team members doesn't experience the type of mutiny from his own supporters.

3. Planning. The whole subway vs LRT debate was lost by the Mayor because he had no plan. While he may be right that his constituents want subways, there was no plan in place to pay for them. If he had anticipated the weakness of his position, he would have realized that a fiscally prudent plan was required and he would have beaten his critics to the punch. Instead, the debate defaulted to what was considered affordable (or at least more affordable).

4. Vision. Rob Ford has a vision. However, it was incomplete. His vision, as far as I can see, consisted simply of slogans such as "end the gravy train" and "the people want subways". He may be right, but he was unable to inspire other politicians at City Hall to follow his lead, due to the lack of specifics for his vision.

5. Adaptable. A great leader has to be openminded and adaptable. Rob Ford's strategy is to shout and bang his drum the loudest. An astute leader would have seen that things were moving against him and would have adapted to bring more of his colleagues on board with this vision. Instead, he loudly and arrogantly stuck to his guns and he alienated some of his supporters.

6. Passion. There is no question that Mayor Ford is passionate. He often looks like he is going to blow a vein. Passion is important. But,  it has to be a passion of the infectious kind. A great leader is able to get people to come along with him for the ride. If the Mayor wanted to play the populist game, as he has tried, he needed to motivate the people to come out in support for his vision for the subway. If there had been a rally at City Hall supporting subways, the "mushy middle" might have been too afraid to abandon the Mayor and risk crossing their constituents. Instead, the Mayor merely pounded on his desk (at least metaphorically).

7. Positive. Great leaders have a positive outlook. I haven't seen the Mayor smile in months. He always appears under siege. And angry. This is not very motivational for either his fellow councillors or the voters.

8. Persuasive. Successful leaders are charismatic and can get their followers to follow them anywhere. Any great leader is a great salesman first. The Mayor's selling style is more in the nature of bullying. If you are a bully, make sure you can deliver on your threats. The Mayor's opponents called his bluff and the emperor had no clothes (sorry for that unfortunate metaphor). Rob Ford neglected to line up the support that he would need to win the day on subways. Bluster just doesn't cut it.

9. Communication. Rob Ford got elected because he was seen as an "everyman", the people's mayor. In campaign mode, he was able to effectively stay on a simple message of "end the gravy train". However, once elected he had no plan. And if he did, he has not communicated it in an effective manner.

Mayor Rob Ford doesn't seem to understand how City Hall politics works. We have a "weak mayor" system here in Toronto. This means that Mayor on has only one vote. Therefore, he must garner the support of over half of the other councillors in order to move his agenda forward. It appears that he is in way over his head at least in terms of his leadership abilities and his ability to manage and lead a diverse council.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Much has been written lately about "crowdsourcing", the latest trend in funding start up businesses and other projects. The JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act, which allows crowdsourcing in limited circumstances, recently passed the US House of Representatives. No such legislation exists yet in Canada, so crowdsourcing for business start ups still violates Canadian securities laws.

What is crowdsourcing? According to Wikipedia, crowdsourcing describes the collective cooperation, attention and trust by people who network and pool their money and other resources together, usually via the Internet, to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations. Websites such as Kickstarter allow people to raise funds for their projects. For example, a musician can launch a tour by raising money from their fans.

Until recently, crowdsource funding for businesses was caught by US securities regulations. With the introduction of the JOBS Act, businesses can raise up to $1,000,000 from up to 1,000 investors with no one investor owning more that 10% through crowdsourcing and would be exempt from the typical securities legislation.

From a start up business' perspective, this is a great new source of capital with substantially lower transaction costs. Businesses will be able to post their offering on Kickstarter or other crowdsourcing websites (I'm sure that new ones will be popping up). Investors will be able to invest up to $10,000.

However, investors must be wary. Without the protection of securities legislation, you can expect scammers to jump in to raise money from an unsuspecting public. Buyer beware!

I have mixed feelings about crowdsourcing for financing start ups. On one hand, entrepreneurs will be able to harness the power of the internet and social media to raise capital for their business ideas. On the other hand, fraudsters will surely take advantage of the lax regulatory regime for crowdsourcing. Investors will have to be very careful and carry out their due diligence.

As Canada decides whether to jump on the crowdsourcing bandwagon, we should carefully monitor the US situation and determine what additional investor protections should be included in a Canadian crowdsourcing environment.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Partnership - A Necessary Evil

I have been asked to prepare a session for MaRS' Best Practices program on partnerships. So, I have been thinking a lot about what I might say. I found this column that was published in Profit Magazine in 2005. I thought I would share it with you:

It’s said that business partnerships are like marriage: easy to get into, messy to get out of. Surely you’ve heard horror stories about breakups that nearly ruin the business, if not the divorcees. When Jana Matthews and I polled entrepreneurs about their worst mistakes for our book, Lessons from the Edge, well over half the stories involved partnerships.

It’s also often said that partnerships are a necessary evil. Whoever came up with that one got it half right. Partnerships are often necessary, but they are not necessarily evil. Whether a partnership goes bad depends largely on what its participants invest in managing it. In fact, there are many simple ways to foster the productivity and longevity of even the most unlikely alliances.

For my entire entrepreneurial career I have been in partnerships. Why does anyone choose to have partners at all? Usually, an entrepreneur requires something only a partner can bring to the table (in exchange for equity, that is), such as money, contacts or a skill set. Sometimes an entrepreneur needs the confidence that can only be provided by working with someone else. Having someone to bounce ideas off can be very helpful—after all, running your own business can get lonely.

For example, one partner can provide industry expertise, while the other partner brings financing.

You can trace the roots of most failed partnerships to the beginnings of a business. The partners become so enamoured with the potential of their venture that they jump into bed before determining whether they share the same values and expectations. In some cases, entrepreneurs spend more time interviewing and checking the references of prospective employees than they do of their future partners.

Even if they’ve met their perfect match, many partners fail to discuss their respective responsibilities and contributions, such as what happens if more money or resources are needed, how decisions will be made and how they will get out the partnership. And they neglect to put it all in writing. (I’ll grant you that a shareholders’ agreement can be very expensive, but far less expensive than a litigated breakup.)

But some partnerships fail despite their solid foundations. Differences in ambition, work ethic or simply the stage of life can result in the relationship changing midstream.

As in marriage, don’t take your partnership for granted. Renew your partnership vows at least once a year. It is a good idea to go on periodic retreats to review your goals, roles and expectations. And when you don’t? Inevitably, problems and frictions arise that require patience and understanding to resolve. When this happens, you can employ a facilitator or coach to mediate a partners’ retreat to help resolve issues that have percolated to the surface.

Face it: partnerships take a lot of work. To make it a little easier, I’ve compiled a list of my favourite tips and tactics for making alliances fruitful and long-lasting.

1. Check out your prospective partner. Make sure that you share the same values, your skills are complementary and you have the same timelines. A 50-something partner will want to retire when the 30-something partner is just coming into his or her own. Don’t hesitate to conduct a background check: investigate references, do a credit search. Create some conflict during your “courtship” to see how your prospective partner reacts.

2. Put it in writing. Ideally, you should have a shareholders’ or partners’ agreement drafted by a lawyer. The pact should address all aspects of the partnership: what you are contributing, how decisions are made, how disputes are resolved, who is responsible for future capital injections and, most importantly, how you get out of the relationship. Even if you can’t afford a lawyer, at least write something down on the back of a napkin!

3. Have an annual retreat. Get away from the office once a year to review where you’ve been and where you’re going. Revisit your mission statement, business plan, etc. Address any issues or festering problems. Don’t be afraid to have it facilitated by a professional moderator or coach. It may help you resolve some issues or reach higher goals.

4. Get out more. Talk to businesspeople outside of the partnership. Organizations like EO, YPO and TEC provide a useful venue for exploring issues. After all, your fellow entrepreneurs may have already been there and done that. Better yet, they won’t be afraid to tell you when the problem isn’t your partners, but you.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Have You Checked Out Pinterest?

It would appear that Pinterest is the next big thing on the web. It is a virtual pinboard where you can organize and share images you find on the web. Once you register for the site,  you can create various themed "pinboards" and "pin" images to the pinboards. For example, if you are into photography, you can pin images which you find on the web or on your computer to your "Photography" pinboard. Like with Facebook, people like your pins. Like with Twitter, people can follow you and see what you pin to your pinboards from time to time.

Businesses have gotten into the act as people pin images of a business' product they like to their pinboards. Images sourced on the web will link people back to the business' website. The "Like" and "Following" features create an opportunity for viral marketing of a product or service.

As recently reported in Inc Magazine, when someone wore a Camiband, a new fashion accessory, recently on the Today Show, they got 3,500 hits on their website. However, when a raving fan pinned an image of a Camiband on their pinboard, it went viral and Camiband got over 40,000 hits. Clearly, Pinterest works for B2C businesses. It will be interesting to see how B2B businesses take advantage of it.

Pinterest has an interesting approach to registration. They have taken a page off gmail's marketing strategy. A user must apply to be invited to join. I have yet to hear of someone not being invited to join, but their approach has helped to create the buzz that's starting to fan out. Pinterest is growing fast. According to web measurement company CommScore, in January 2012, 13.76m people worldwide visited, and spent an average of 89 minutes there.

I have started a Pinterest page myself and I have begun experimenting with it. I plan on having an Entrepreneurship pinboard where I will pin images of interest to my following of fellow entrepreneurs. I will also create a Photography pinboard on which I will pin images relating to my hobby. Follow me on Pinterest to see how it evolves. Let me know if you have any suggestions.

Check out Pinterest yourself and I will follow you! 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Are Internships Exploitive?

I have very mixed feelings about internships for students and recent graduates. I have encouraged my own kids to seek them and they both have had excellent experiences, which in my son's case turned into a full time job. However, employers, who can otherwise afford it, are bringing young people into their businesses for little and often no pay. These young people have absolutely no bargaining power and are at the whim of the employer. They are also potentially taking work from others that the employer would have to pay.

I can see it from the employers' perspective - they are providing on the job training to young people who are otherwise relatively unemployable. To many companies, this is an opportunity to give back to the community by bringing young people into their business. Important skills are learned and the young person is better prepared for their first paying gig. In return, the company gets free or low cost labour.

However, from the young person's perspective, they are providing their time and energy and are receiving very little remuneration in return. Often they are doing low value tasks for which the employer would have to pay someone else. While it is true that they have the opportunity to learn important skills which will stand them in good stead for future employment, the young person has absolutely no bargaining power to ensure that they are treated fairly, particularly since unemployment rates are so high for their demographic.

Furthermore, students and young people looking for entry level opportunities don't have the financial ability to carry the cost of the internship. While they may not have mortgages and car loans to pay (mind you, many of them do), they do have to pay tuition and carry student loans.

To me it seems a bit exploitive. With governments cutting back education and student job funding, there will be more pressure on industry to provide internship opportunities and more and more young people will be joining the work force for little or no pay for an "internship experience". As far as I am aware, there is little in the way of regulation or governmental protection for these young people, other than minimum wage laws perhaps.

There is also a class issue that arises as young people from affluent families are better able to take a low or no pay internship than a student from more modest means. My kids had the luxury of having internship experiences for little or no pay as my wife and I are prepared to underwrite their education, including the costs of launching their careers through internship experiences. Not every student can afford to do so.

Now I am not advocating unionizing interns or anything as draconian as all that. However, I think there should be a debate around the issue of internships and some consensus as to what is fair in the circumstances. My own view is that unless there is a formal (perhaps accredited) educational benefit coming from the internship, the young person should be paid fairly for their work. What do you think?

Monday, February 6, 2012

What do you do with a Deadbeat like Mohit Gupta?

We all have collections problems with customers from time to time. However, I have an issue with a customer that's driving me crazy. Its  bad enough that he stiffed me for my bill, but what really irks me is that he lied to my face about paying it. Here's the story.

In the summer of 2008 I was retained by Mohit Gupta of Geo Drilling, an Indian company that was interested in finding a Canadian partner with expertise in the natural gas business. I asked Mohit for a retainer and the funds were wire transferred to my account. I then arranged a series of meetings in Calgary with potential partners and we went to Calgary together for a whirlwind couple of days.

On the morning of the last day, Mohit advised me that his grandmother was seriously ill back in India and that he had to go home right away. He asked me to represent him at the meetings on the last day of our trip and off he went back to Delhi. I finished up the meetings and sent him my report and my final invoice. I never heard from him again.

I sent emails, made telephone calls, all to no avail. My final invoice remains outstanding to this day.

That would have been the end of it, however, in the Fall of 2009, my wife and I were on vacation in India. It was Diwali and we were the guests of a friend and his wife who took us to a series of Diwali parties one evening. We were at the first of 3 events that we attended that evening and I couldn't believe my eyes - in a country of over 1 billion people, the first person I bump at this party was my old "friend" Mohit Gupta.

Rather that avoid me, he came right up to me, apologized and asked to meet with me to discuss the project and my invoice. My wife and I were leaving for Bhutan the next day, but Mohit and I agreed to have dinner in Delhi upon our return from Bhutan 10 days later.

So, off we go to Bhutan. I am busy telling my travelling companions about the Karma of running into Mohit and how he is going to pay my invoice. We meet for dinner my first night back in Delhi and he apologizes profusely, provides me with a long story about business challenges and promises to wire transfer my funds so that they will be waiting for me upon my return to Canada.

That was the last I heard from Mohit Gupta. I re-sent my invoice monthly. I sent emails, made phone calls, left voicemail messages, and yet I never heard from him again. My invoice is still outstanding almost 4 years later.

I did get some modest revenge as I was contacted by someone on Linkedin who was asking for a reference on good old Mohit. Suffice it to say that I gave the guy a strong warning.

So, what's the lesson? I got 50% of my fee prepaid as a retainer, so while I didn't lose money on the project as I was able to cover my out of pocket expenses, I got stiffed for the balance of my invoice. I suppose I could have gotten 100% of the fee up front, but that seemed a bit excessive at the time.

I guess the bottom line is to be careful who you are dealing with. Get references. Get as much of your invoice paid up front as possible if you are dealing with foreigners. And finally - don't do business with Mohit Gupta of Geo Drilling and MG Industries of Delhi, India.