Innovation and the Aging Population

There is a lot written these days about innovation, competitiveness and intellectual capital. I hear the banter of politicians, the monologues from leading Venture Capitalists and Investment firms, and I sit back and think about how they have it all wrong.

Our society is aging. David Foot in his ground-breaking work, “Boom, Bust and Echo” discusses the impact of the aging population on everything from Baseball to Housing Markets. As people age, we generally become more conservative. Be honest with yourself, do you find yourself thinking, “how can kids do that”, or even worse looking at your own kids and forgetting what it was like to be that age?

As the whole of society begins to turn grey, we will see a fundamental shift in attitudes, work style and social values. While these changes are not bad in themselves, they will begin to shift Canada from a competitive and innovative nation, to one that lags in industrial and technological competitiveness. The beginnings of these shifts are already occurring. Report after report documenting lagging Canadian productivity and economic slumps hits the airwaves every few weeks. Taken individually, these may represent nothing more that an slow economy. However, our economy has been slow for nearly 5 years. The “Boom” years are gone.

The graying of our population is not a bad think in itself. There is much wisdom that can be reaped from the experienced to new firms starting out. Repeatedly, our politicians push money into grants, into mega-projects, and large industrial complexes, in hopes of getting a sound-byte with their name on it, when really what we need are small focused, incubators, mentorship programs, and training platforms to transform the tacit knowledge that exists in our aging population and extend it to our youth.

Youth also must understand that they are not “unique snowflakes” (as one friend often refers to the Y-Generation) and that the struggles that they as new entrepreneurs experience are not unique and in fact–exceptionally common to almost every entrepreneur.

This does not mean that the creativity of Generation Y cannot be harnessed to develop unique products, competitive solutions and to be, yes, innovative. Mentorship programs need not be one way only–we often think of a Mentor as an older individual–young people can also run Mentorship programs teaching others–who are new to an industry, a way of thinking, how to be more creative. As we age, we become more risk adverse, how about a mentorship program that teaches us to be less prone to risk? How about a Mentorship program that engages social leaders at all levels and teaches us to be innovative?

Our next blog post will discuss how smaller cities can be more competitive in a global environment.

Business Plans for Newcomers – Part 1

I cannot tell you how many times, I have heard of newcomers turned down for loans simply because they could not produce a business plan.

In our lending systems, as covered in a past blog, it is customary to ask for a business plan. In many cases, lenders will not even look at your business idea without it.
So what is an immigrant, with poor English skills to do? Many will pay consultants to prepare plans for them.
Sometimes the immigrant will just stop the application process right there. Others will attend month long classes where they will be guided through the business plan process.

While both of these are good in principal, consultants can be expensive. Classes that drag on for months and months, are not only time wasters, but not effective at teaching what a business plan should be.

A business plan should be a guide-NOT a ROADMAP, but a guide, that gives general direction, provides some estimate of costs, and demonstrates an understanding of the market and the steps you need to get where you want to go with your business.

Many, expect business plans to be “gospel truth”, but they are not. There are those in the business world who will tell you never to plan or that they are a waste of time. I prefer a more democratic approach and believe that a general document should be prepared, but that document should never be taken as the Road Map for a new business.

For newcomers, understanding what to put in a plan, how to obtain market research, estimates of business costs and mission and vision statements, can be beyond not only their language, but also their cultural skills. Remember, Business Plans are largely a North American invention. To do them properly requires insight into Business Culture.

So what is an immigrant to do? My advice is to find a plan/template/program you are comfortable with and use that to develop a basic business plan. More important are items like personal credit and financial holdings. Also, getting a mentor in the industry would be a great asset, for immigrants or those new to an industry. In the next blog we will discuss finding a Mentor.

Article keywords: immigrant business plans

Demographics for Small Business: market segmentation and counting customers

The last couple of entries have focused on stories of entrepreneurs who have either not cared about customers or who believed that the entire world was a prospective client base.

While these strategies may work for some entrepreneurs, generally speaking, we need to have some understanding of the size of the market and what we can expect to sell. This understanding increases dramatically if you are a “product” based business, where you make or manufacture a product. Making too much can result in excess inventory and wasted operating funds, making too little and you forego potential profit.

I’ve created a 5 step process to help you segment your market and more accurately predict potential sales:
Go through this exercise – even in your head, and I guarantee you will have a better understanding of your potential customers and will be better able to quantify your market research to an investor, funder or partner.

1. Who will buy your product and why?

Most entrepreneurs create a product to fill a need or to improve. Who will buy your product and why they will buy is the first step in calculating your customer base.

2. How many of these individuals/group/needs exist?

For most people this is the hardest part of market research. Calculating the number of people in the “market” can be a daunting task. However it need not be that bad. If you determine that your product is aimed at young professionals who live with their parents, you would first need to consult the Census in your country to determine the number of professionals, then most censuses narrow these by age, so you can further segment professionals say in the 24-34 range.

3. Narrow, narrow, narrow that customer base

One of the core mistakes in research is that many people want as large a customer base as possible. This is a mistake. While some lenders will let this pass, to the trained business person, the more narrow a target market, the more I know that the individual has thought about his product and who will buy it. The trick here, is to tie the narrowed slice of the target group back to question 1 – who will use your product and why?
So in our example above, we decided that young professionals who live at home with their parents are your target market. You know that not all young professionals still live at home. However you saw a recent stat in a newspaper that said about 20% of these individuals lived at home until the age of 34. So if we determined that in our City, there are 200,000 young professionals, and we estimate that 20% of them live at home, then our market segment would be 40,000. (200K*20%)

4. Market penetration rates: The world is not your oyster.

The next biggest mistake people make is that they assume either naively or optimistically that they will sell to the entire market. Either this, or they assume a far too low market penetration rate. A general rule, the smaller and better defined your market, the larger your market penetration rate can be. The larger your prospective market size, the smaller your number.

Let’s clarify with an example.

So if I was going to sell business plans, and I know there are over 3,000,000 global searches a month in Google for business plans, I could say that I could sell to half of the market (50%) and I would have generous predictions indeed. Trust me, if I was selling 1,000,000 business plans a month I would not be here blogging!

Rather, I know that the 3,000,000 can represent less than the total market. Why? Because many individuals do a search more than once. Particularly for something like a business plan. Also, they may search on more than one device. Finally, this represents global searches and my market is the English speaking world of do-it yourselfers or those for whom English is not a first language.

So if I were to limit my search to Canada, there are over 12,000 searches in Canada. Assuming that half of these are repeat queries, and then taking the percentage of the general population that are do-it yourselfers, (perhaps in the 5-10% range) might provide me with a realistic size of the market that I am targeting.

(12,000*50% for repeat queries) = 6000*10% DIY market= 600 = the number of business plan writers that are DIYers

My target capture rate of 35% = 210 Plans per month – my sales at maturity.

Now compare this number with saying that I plan to capture 0.1% of the global business plan market – that would be 30,000 plans per month – still much to high, particularly since many of those searches are in a language other than English. Numbers below 1% make no sense to anyone, so segment, segment, segment I say.

5. What will your sales be in year one?

The third and final biggest mistake that people make, is that they assume they will sell their predicted sales at maturity in year 1. Remember, that your size of the market is once your sales reach maturity. For the majority of businesses, this can be a minimum of 3-5 years. How quickly you reach your sales will include how quickly the industry is growing, the number of competitors and the quality of your product. Anyone of these can change your sales forecast.

For myself, I know that I will most likely achieve 15-25% of sales at maturity in year 1 and then predict that sales will increase by 20-35% every year thereafter.

So, to all the prospective entrepreneurs out there, good luck and start selling!

#waystokillanidea – It is too expensive.

Ways to Kill an Idea – #4. It is too expensive

Here is part 4 on my blog series of how to kill an idea. I’ll quickly recap three ideas from a recent conference that motivated me to write these posts:

1. Fail fast, fail forward.
2. Do not be afraid to think big.
3. Do not automatically say no.

We love to say no, even when it shouldn’t be our first response. We do need to be cautious, but a quick “No” is a great way to stifle innovation and kill ideas. Whether we are scared, unsure, or uncertain, we quickly come up with some great (and not so great) excuses, which often are just ways to kill ideas. While the entries in this series are independent, I do encourage you to go back and read the previous ones. For those that have been following along, here goes #4: It is too expensive.

To me, too expensive isn’t something that should be thrown out immediately or thrown around lightly. While a luxury car may be deemed too expensive, so might a heart transplant. Before writing off something as too expensive, I like to follow these golden rules:

1. Do you know the actual cost, or are you just guessing?
2. Have you measured the benefits or returns? (Remember, gains need not be solely financial!)
3. Expensive usually implies something big – is this project/undertaking/thing as big as you think, and if so do alternatives exist?

While these may be oversimplified criteria, I do believe that they can be used to narrow down if something is truly expensive, or if we are just being truly lazy or truly un-creative. Either way, a bit of analysis can’t hurt, especially if we are being presented with something completely absurd. Of course, if I present to my team that I’d like to fly to Mars, that isn’t quite the same as asking to launch a new campaign. Yet, our knee-jerk reaction may be to treat these as the same thing and quickly dole out a “It’s too expensive”. In order to clarify, I’ll talk a bit more about the rules mentioned above.

1. Do you know the actual cost, or are you just guessing?

I know that a Porsche is expensive. But I don’t know exactly how expensive. I also know that a consultant may sound expensive, or that a marketing campaign may sound expensive, but do I really know? You may be surprised how little something actually costs. Alternatively, consider that this can go both ways: don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions to make sure that you have ALL of the costs before green-lighting something. Costs are more then just dollars and cents – consider lost time, impact on your operations, your team and maybe even your image. A lot of the little details and extras can add up – and quick.

2. Have you measured the benefits or returns?

Again, this can often be more then dollars and cents! Some initiatives can have a strong positive impact on your organization’s image, and sometimes if just feels nice to do some social good. Don’t be afraid to start adopting triple-bottom line metrics, and of course, there’s the classic ROI. Sure, something might sound like a lot of money, but if it gives massive returns, then why not invest?

3. Is this too big or are their alternatives?

Sometimes, things DO cost too much, regardless of potential returns. However, we can often make things more complicated or bigger than they should be. If you like an idea but don’t like the cost, consider evaluating both the scope and scale, and how they may relate to your strategic goals. Maybe you can roll something out in phases, or maybe you only need a piece. And even if you do need the whole thing, are their alternatives?

This may sound silly (and overly obvious), but google is your friend. It really is. You would be amazed at what you can find, and the alternatives that it may present. It is entirely possible to build your own social network, fund a venture without the use of traditional lenders, outsource part of your business, and even build your own mobile apps. This is just a short list of some of the great initiatives that the Internet has made accessible to us. The average cost of these? Less than $500.00.

I do want to reiterate that costs are important and must be monitored. Money is too important to throw away, but we need to carefully evaluate opportunities. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, explore alternatives and do some real thinking before saying “No”.

Don’t let the “too expensive” mindset kill a good idea.

– Rodolfo Martinez

Article Keywords: it is too expensive

The Customer is always right….Except when he isn’t…

As part of my continuing series on markets and customers, I would like to tell you about another entrepreneur who was determined to change his customer. Unlike Bob from the last blog who was content to live with his books, this entrepreneur, Luis, has been fighting to convince customers that he was right and they needed to change since the day he opened his doors.

Luis was a Portuguese immigrant to Canada in 1980. Luis was a bright, energetic and enthusiastic young man eager to make a life for himself and his family. He came over to Canada as a pastry chef. His family had been bakers for generations in Portugal and despite his rather Neadrathal like appearance, Luis was rather artistic when it came to decorating cakes.

Luis at a Market in the winter
Luis prefers to sell outside…and grab (sometimes literally) unsuspecting customers as they walk by.

He started off living in Leamington, Canada, working for a baker there who sponsored him. Within a few months, knowing some contacts in London, Canada, Luis moved there. Always dissatisfied working for others, Luis changed jobs every few months, much to the chagrin of his wife and young family. Finally, in 1986/7, Luis took over a Latvian bakery and began working for himself on weekends (still doing construction during the week to supplement the family income).In 1989 the bakery was forced to re-locate due to a zoning change and Luis bought a new home and bakery in Aylmer, Ontario Canada where he has been ever since.

Luis makes what we would call today artisan bread. The bread is made with flour, salt and water-nothing more. Fashionable today, these loaves in the 1980’s resembled a cross between a flatbread and a rock. Despite this, Luis peddled his wares at area markets. He haggled with customers, yelled at them, insulted them and kept coming back for more every week. For a few years he tried retail-delivering to area health food stores and supplement stores. When one of them went broke–owing him a large amount of money, he swore off retail in favor of farmers markets and flea markets where he could sell directly to customers.

What makes Luis unique? Well for one, he has never changed his product in nearly 30 years. He has added lines, detracted products, changed recipes slightly, but the core product has never changed. His selling style resembles old world Arab market (think yelling and haggling) crossed with a pushy car sales man. People either love him or hate him. He has adapted his “pitch” to go with the times. In the 1980’s-1990’s the pitch was “diet bread” no fat, sugar, milk or oil…..the magic fix pill that would make you lose weight. In the late 1990’s to 2000’s healthy bread-with no fats or oils, that would let you take charge of your health. From the late 2000’s onward he has been peddling artisan breads with no additives or preservatives that supports the small business owner.

Selling outside in the Summer time
Luis used to use cardboard boxes to sell his bread–old banana boxes. These days he uses wicker baskets because banana boxes are treated with chemicals and health regulations actually prevent their re-use in our local area.

Over time has his product changed? Not really. Instead he uses language of the times to “re-invent” himself and keep his product relevant. He is still in business, fighting with customers who disagree with him, pushing his product onto unsuspecting passer-bys. Is he happy? Yes, 99% of the time he loves what he does. He is eccentric and his work environment permits him to be eccentric.

Luis, fights with his customers to make them understand why his product is relevant. Everyweek he fights. For some this would be exhausting, but for Luis, this weekly fight is what motivates him, what drives him. At heart, he loves people (“I am a lover, not a fighter” as he would say). He is known to be yelled at to keep him quiet. However, despite all of this, he loves what he does. He is passionate about bread and never hesitates to educate customers about his product, about bread, about why you should be passionate about it. He does not let the customer dictate what product he should sell, rather he fights with the customer, changes his sales pitch and educates, until the customer exhaustedly agrees to buy a loaf just to shut him up. The funny thing is, most customers come back a second time, a third…etc. He knows he just has to get them to take one loaf. A few have put up with him for nearly 30 years, others tire of his ways, and only come back occasionally. Does Luis care? No. He knows the world is full of customers, they just have to be convinced and he will go on “convincing” till the day he stops baking.

As an aside, there is much more I could tell you about Luis–enough to fill an entire book–and that book would be called ” A Baker’s Daughter” –yes he is my dad and probably the reason I am a passionate entrepreneur today.

Article keywords: the customer is always right

Demographics Part II: The Battle Between the Customer and the Entrepreneur

I promised in the last blog post to guide you through the demographic research component of your business plan. Before we get into it, just understand that knowing demographics is really nothing more than thinking about your customers and every business must have customers.

The Story of Sylvan’s Foremost Bookstore
I would like to tell you a story about Sylvan, Ontario’s Foremost Bookstore. Sylvan is a clustering (I do not think it can even be called a hamlet) of about 20-30 people and this bookstore proudly lays claim to being the “foremost” bookstore in Sylvan–in fact it is the only thing in Sylvan.
(Sylvan’s Foremost bookstore) Yes there really is one…

Sylvan's Foremost Bookstore
Sylvan’s Foremost Bookstore

Now the reason I bring up the Sylvan bookstore is that its owner Bob Lewis, according to his bio on his webpage, is a most unusual sort of character. Having spent a significant part of his youth working in rural areas, Bob loves country living, and he loves books. The road where his business is located is quite busy in the Summer as it is enroute to some of Southwestern Ontario’s best beaches. However, the short construction period, means that this road is frequently closed during its “peak” season, leaving Bob alone with his books.

If you ever entered this shop you would realize that Bob is a bit of a hoarder. There is no where to walk with all the books in the place. Yet, there is a charm to this place and Bob, who charmingly refers to himself as the “book gnome” on his bookmarks, is not far off the mark.

Bob, on his bio-says that he “will never be a dot come millionaire” and he probably won’t. He is happy living amongst his books, reading and selling one or another when a stray customer happens to walk in. Usually, customers come in because of his claim to have 40,000 books in the place.

Bob is happy. Others may be less happy with the lack of material possessions, but to those of us who dream of running our own businesses, it is important to do so under your own terms. You just have to fully comprehend how these terms relate to the rest of the world. Bob is quite happy to be away from the rest of the world and take the consequences that come with it.

We may seem quite far off the mark from where we started. What does Bob and the Sylvan bookstore have to do with demographics? Quite simply, you have to understand the customer, you have to be prepared that customers may not want what you want and that you have to define what it is you want very early on in your dream. Do you want to be a dot come millionaire, or do you want to be Bob and his books? Do you want the inner peace that comes with doing what you love, or do you want to just make a lot of money? These are two very different objectives and it is rare that you are able to combine the two.

When an entrepreneur goes into business, many times it is because they are passionate about something. We want to share this passion with others: our customers. Yet, very often along the way, the vision changes. What we want is not always what the customer wants and needs. We have to be prepared to understand that we may either have to sacrifice our vision or sacrifice sales and the material.

Bob has chosen to not fight. He simply has removed himself.
Tomorrow, I will tell you about another entrepreneur who set out nearly 30 years ago to “change” customers and he still slugs on today and who believed his calling came in providing the world with a better loaf of bread.

Article keywords: market demand

Demographics and Your Business Plan

The term for some of you may conjure up images of university classrooms and painful modelling excercises. For others, the term might imply some kind if research to do with population, but most certainly nothing to do with your business plan.

What if I told you that demographics should form the basis of your ENTIRE business plan. That if you have not addressed the demographics of your plan that you are doomed to fail?

Before you think I’ve lost my marbles, or worse, before you start to freak out and start “Googling) the term Demographics, sit back and read the following. Demographics are no more than your customers. Most would call this market research, but I prefer the term Demographics because in my experience most people DO NOT do their market research properly (if they did-half of the businesses we see fail would never have been launched in the first place).

Demographics, to cite Wikipedia, “Demographics are current statistical characteristics of a population” and Demographic Trends ” Demographic trends describe the historical changes in demographics in a population over time (for example, the average age of a population may increase or decrease over time). Both distributions and trends of values within a demographic variable are of interest. Demographics are about the population of a region and the culture of the people there.”

So if we are to understand the WIKIPEDIA definition, Demographics provides us with information about a population and the culture of the people who live there.

This is a very powerful statement. Demographic trends not only give us insight into whether populations are increasing or decreasing, but they also tell you about the area.

Let’s go through an example. Years ago, I moved into a new subdivision. New subdivisions tend to draw young, newly married or co-habituating couples if housing prices are close to their actual market value. A couple of years later in the middle of the night, I could not find my infant son’s soother and so had to run to walmart to find a 0-6 month soother. When I got there, not only were there no soothers in that age range, but also no size 1 diapers. Talking to the sales associate, and she said, “we just can’t keep this stuff in stock” I have no idea what it is”. Fast forward a few years, and he was preparing to enter school, the local school was talking about the “boom” in enrollment and chalked it up to the excellent reputation of the school.

You probably get where I am going wiht this. The new couples who moved in had babies, those kids grew up and went to school. So why might this info be useful if you are opening a business? Well let’s say you want to open a neighbourhood daycare. It would be wise to know the age of your subdivision. Why? Because in starter neighbourhoods, couples tend to stay an average of 3-7 years in their first home. After that they may disperse. Newly married people will have their first child within 1-5 years (generally) so if you open in a neighbourhood where there are a lot of children or young married couples, you are assured constant business (as was the case with a neighbor). However, if you open your daycare in a more established neighbourhood, you will have to search further for clients and have a marketing strategy that makes up for the lack of proximate customers.

So how does one begin to navigate this minefield of information? Before we begin, I think it is important that we begin to understand the very nature of entrepreneurship and I will tell you about some entrepreneurs that I know and what entrepreneurship means to them.

Part 2: Why Businesses Fail

Since 1980 onward, business plans have become standard staple in lending and investing. They provide, or so their supporters will argue, a standardized way to look at a business. Business plans require entrepreneurs to actually “plan” and they are the road map an entrepreneur uses from start-up through to a full -scale operation.

So why is it then, that businesses with business plans still fail?

There are several reasons. Oftentimes, the challenge is not in the business plan itself but in the strategy of the entrepreneur and in the broader business model.

The first main reason that businesses fail, is that they are just generally bad business ideas. One of my favorite shows is the Canadian version of Dragon’s Den. Just watch one episode (the are available at www.cbc.ca) and see the sheer number of bad business ideas that exist. Bad ideas are bad for several reasons. The market for the product may be small or ill defined. The marketing or distribution strategy may be abysmal or non-existant and the entrepreneur themselves may be the biggest obstacle the business has.

The second reason that the businesses fail, is cashflow. Entrepreneurs are great at predicting prospective revenue, but poor at understanding cash flow. They are so eager to get orders, that they will take any payment terms from their customers, even if it is at their own expense. I have seen entrepreneurs come to me and they offer 90 day payment terms for their customers, but have all payments due in 30 days or less from their suppliers. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that there is going to be a cashflow problem here. Unless the entrepreneur has a good line of credit, or a large degree of personal savings, this issue can mean the death of the business.

There are many other reasons. Poor management. Inexperienced. Lack of contacts in the industry–take your pick. My favorite reason cited for the death of a business is poor planning. Poor planning by the entrepreneur.

Planning in itself is not the answer. What these critics mean, but rarely get around to saying is risk mitigation strategies. Identifying what the Risks are to a business and confonting ways to change/challenge those risks is really where the crux of all business success starts.

Article keywords: why businesses fail

Ways to kill an idea - #1 it cant be done

Ways to Kill an Idea – It Can’t Be Done

Ways to Kill an Idea – #1. It Can’t Be Done

I recently hosted a conference on immigrant entrepreneurship, which was meant to drive home three key ideas:

1. Fail fast, fail forward.
2. Do not be afraid to think big.
3. Do not let your immediate response to a new idea be “no”.

Obviously, there are some things we should all say no to, but generally speaking, we are often to quick with the dreaded “no”. Specifically, we are far too quick at killing ideas. Our keynote (who did a fantastic job) left us with some ways as to how ideas are killed. While everyone began laughing at each item, it became clear that we’ve all heard them before for either one of two reasons:

a) We heard someone say them, and couldn’t believe that they did, or;
b) We said them ourselves, and looking back we weren’t entirely sure why.

After this exercise, I felt that it would be fun to share some of these with you. While BCG originally entitled this “120 Ways to Kill an Idea”, I’ve trimmed this down to my favourites. Be sure to follow our blog for #waystokillanidea.

Here goes #1: It Can’t Be Done.

I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard this. A part of my gets quite upset when I hear this; another part wants to prove people wrong. Sure, some things can’t be done – i.e. I can’t flap my wings and fly to Mars, but most often we use this excuse in a poor context:

This technology can’t be developed; This product can’t be marketed; This book/movie/game can’t be made appealing. Either way, this excuse is good for one thing: killing ideas. Remember, if you have a great idea, don’t let it be killed!

– Rodolfo Martinez

Do you have a business question for one of our experts? Be sure to tweet @carmenreis or get in touch with us – we would love to hear from you!