entrepreneurial thinking

How entrepreneurs can be better leaders 

Entrepreneurs aren’t always known for their people skills. And frankly, neither are engineers. So I felt somewhat challenged recently when I was invited to speak to students at the W Booth School of Engineering at McMaster University, which focuses on creating not just builders, but leaders.

Product-obsessed engineers and always-racing-somewhere entrepreneurs aren’t generally known for having the open, engaging and empowering management style that seems so critical in business today. Still, entrepreneurs thrive on change, so understanding people – and helping them grow  is just one more skill set we have to adopt. 

So I thanked Professor David Potter for his courage in handing me the microphone in front of his classroom of emerging minds, and tried to persuade them that leadership is much more than just getting things done. 

In recent years, I have spent more time  in my own company and with other organizations  helping people adapt their leadership approach to a world of constant, unpredictable change. And as I explained to these engineering students, addressing change succeeds or fails by understanding a concept you rarely learn in the classroom: context.

According to Oxford, “context is a frame of reference – a device you use to extract meaning from random or imperfect information. For me, “context” is the most important word in businessLeaders always need to understand the needs, concerns and demandsthat shape their actions and attitudes – as well as those factors affecting the people you do business with. Knowing all of these different motivations and frames of reference puts you in a position to find common ground and move ahead together.

Context is especially important in managing people. How can you help someone change their behaviour if you don’t take the time to understand why theyve been acting that way” in the first place?

Contextually speaking, see two stages thaentrepreneurs generally go through – andthe quantum leap they need to take to evolve their leadership style. I offer the following framework not just for entrepreneurs, but for those who work with them. 

  1.  The Island Leader: Many entrepreneurs isolate themselves when making decisions within their own businesses – for two fundamental reasons. The first is that entrepreneurs of my generation began their business journeys in a top-down age. Our bosses told us: Keep your head down, put one foot in front of the other, shut your mouth. And in 30 years, they’ll give you a gold watch.” It was an era when business success was created by followingnot standing out. Naturally, this early learning affects the waymany entrepreneurs they deal with people today – especially after fighting so hard to establish their own firms.

    Secondly, who exactly are entrepreneurs leading when we launch our companies? Usually just a few true believers – and often, no one at all. So how can entrepreneurs become great leaders when we so often begin as islands unto ourselves?

  2. The Treehouse Leader: As our companies growentrepreneurs hire other people to work “for” us. Having scant leadership experience, we tend to build our own treehouse on our business island and lob directions from above: “Do this, do that. No, that was yesterday – do this instead.” When you establish your own business, founded on your own personality and worldview, it’s not easy to open up and work more collaboratively.Entrepreneurs’ thick skin hides a lot of bruises. We have heard all the objections that come with trying to do things differently: “That’s a stupid idea. This will never work.” 

But a business model honed in the 20th century doesn’t fit any more. The island and the treehouse have to go. Entrepreneurs must open up and recognize that more heads are better than one.

Twenty years ago, the business world spun more slowly. With longer product lifecycles,you could build a viable business by coming up with one better idea every few yearsBut today’s customers demand constant innovation, customization, rapid prototyping. No leader can do all that alone.

Fortunately, entrepreneurs trying to up their game have natural allies: millennials. I can hear your startled protests, but I don’t see the new generation as entitled, cynical or smug. I associate millennials with communication and collaboration

They have grown up as Gen C, the connected generation. Through technology, they participate in any conversation, on any topic, anywhere in the world. They don’t accept Shut up and keep your head down.” We leaders must adapt. We must learn to converse instead of command.

Respectful conversation is hard – which is probably why our bosses avoided it. Conversing requires mutual respect. If you ask for an opinion, you must treat it with care, and explain why you agree or disagree. Offering a shrug – or no reaction at all – guarantees that conversation will continue without you. 

Did the students get my message? I think they were delighted to be told that their preferred method of communication – frank, fearless and always on – will eventually win in the workplace. I just hope their bosses are fast learners.

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To become truly innovative, Canadians need to become better at thinking creatively

Attractive businesswoman in clean room with city view looking at whiteboard with colorful sketch. Creative and analytical thinking concept. 3D Rendering

Originally published on March 20, 2017 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/ottawa-can-help-but-to-become-truly-innovative-canada-needs-to-embrace-entrepreneurship/article34348521/

With the federal government getting set to unveil its new innovation strategy in its March 22 budget, a scholarly article on “Canada’s Low-Innovation Equilibrium” has asked whether anything short of a crisis can jump-start our efforts to produce the better, smarter products and services we need to keep our economy growing.

The author is Peter Nicholson, one of our brainier Canadians: a physicist, computer-science prof, banker, former Nova Scotia MLA and policy adviser to former Prime Minister Paul Martin. In a highly readable article in the journal Canadian Public Policy, he points out that the business community’s generally downstream, “branch-plant” status has enabled Canadians to maintain a prosperous standard of living despite neglecting the necessary business of developing new products and services. That would explain why a century of policy efforts to stimulate innovation have failed.

But we may not be able to coast much longer. Pointing to “transformative” new technologies such as IT, biotech and nanotech, as well as the need for more and benign energy solutions, he publicly asks how long our business and political leaders can keep neglecting innovation.

I do not question Dr. Nicholson’s analysis. But he is an intellectual, firmly tied into our academic-government-corporate elite, and I believe he’s missing something. Innovation isn’t just corporate R&D flowing out of tax policy. Innovation is an attitude. It’s a way of looking at all aspects of life around us – problems, constraints, delights and discoveries – and wondering how you can use them to create new and better ideas, processes, products and services.

For most of us, business or individual, the greatest innovations will not spring from laboratory experiments or quantum computing. They come from finding new ways to do things better.

Case in point: two of the best-selling products coming out of the ABC-TV show Shark Tank are as humble as you can imagine. Consider “Scrub Daddy,” a smiley-faced scrubbing tool that changes its texture with the temperature of the water you wash with. Inventor Aaron Krause has now built a company around his silly sponge with a portfolio of innovative household products, many sourced from an inventive public.

The other breakthrough: the Simply Fit Board exercise board, developed by a mother and daughter team. The simply curved balance board lets you strengthen your core while doing basic twists and squats. The plastic, neon-coloured boards cost $9 (U.S.) to produce and sell for $40 at Amazon and Wal-mart, a profit margin that enticed investors Kevin O’Leary and Lori Greiner into a bidding war.

I’m not saying that big science and corporate R&D aren’t important. But as the politicians and economists argue over policies and incentives, Ottawa must acknowledge that individual Canadians and entrepreneurs have a huge role to play in boosting innovation. Let’s find creative ways to turn Canadians into more active, curious, creative thinkers and tinkerers. (Look at how the CBC’s Dragons’ Den, the precursor to Shark Tank, has stimulated entrepreneurial creativity.)

And let’s also remember that to become expert innovators, Canadians must do more than come up with good ideas. They must actively bring them to market – which means learning more about business models, market research, production, finance, selling and marketing. These skills must be taught in schools and inculcated throughout society. The federal government is not responsible for education, but it has many levers it can pull – such as workforce development and corporate incentives to better understand market need and product potential, and sponsorship of national pitch contests – to expose more Canadians to the fun and profit of entrepreneurship and creativity.

Bottom line: Innovation is about asking questions, defying social norms, creative thinking, understanding other people’s needs, brainstorming new business models, and learning to be flexible and resourceful when market testing shreds your dreams. These are all apolitical but essential life skills that we will need to prosper in an increasingly competitive world. Innovation is not just for ivory towers, but for kitchen tables, spare bedrooms and garages across the country.

Ken Tencer is chief executive officer of design-driven strategy firm Spyder Works Inc. and the co-author of two books on innovation, including the bestseller Cause a Disturbance. He holds the Institute of Corporate Directors certification (ICD.D). Follow him on Twitter at @90per centRule.

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Companies built on customer needs are all too rare

factory machine producing customized item based on customers' needs preferences style and requests

Originally published on December 22, 2016 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/companies-built-on-customer-needs-are-all-too-rare/article33213377/

After years of fussing over KPIs, management by objectives and zero-based budgeting, I am pleased to see more and more business owners coming to grips with one essential truth: without customers, there is no business.

It sounds so simple. But companies that are designed and built around the needs of customers are scarcer than tulips in December. Businesses are started for many reasons – to put bread on the table, scratch a creative itch, fill a perceived need – but rarely to serve a specific client base. Companies have to learn to put customers’ needs ahead of their own, and it’s a journey that will last a lifetime.

Some of the worst offenders are startups – particularly the high-growth tech startups that Canada is counting on to generate jobs and export revenues. Typically started by engineers and scientists trying to solve specific problems, these companies tend to be product-oriented. When they encounter a setback developing a new widget, they are more likely to tackle the problem with new approaches or technology than by talking with customers to ensure they’re still on the right track. Result: many startups go through a series of jarring, risky “pivots” rather than continuous, informed iteration.

But there are signs of hope in the Canadian startup scene. More companies are joining incubators and accelerators to learn entrepreneurship from mentors, advisers and fellow entrepreneurs. And increasingly these groups are pushing the idea that success doesn’t come from the lab, but from meetings with customers.

In Ottawa, Carleton University’s Lead to Win program is one of North America’s Top 10 university business incubators, according to Swedish research and benchmarking firm UBI Global. Lead to Win was founded in 2002, following the bursting of the tech bubble, to help Ottawa-area technologists become business founders. That meant immersing them in the entire business community: professional advisers, seasoned coaches, service-providers, other entrepreneurs, suppliers, investors, and, yes, potential customers.

“The research is clear: high-achieving technology entrepreneurs operate in a business ecosystem that includes many different stakeholders, including partners, critical suppliers, and market channels,” says Dr. Steven Muegge, an associate professor at Carleton University, and one of the organizers of Lead To Win. Companies applying to Lead to Win go through a rigorous opportunity review process to ensure they’re ready to benefit from the Lead To Win ecosystem in ways that create value for themselves and for their partners, Muegge says: “If the founders are only thinking about the product, they’re probably not ready.”

Although Lead to Win stresses an “ecosystem” approach, its key success metric is sales: companies that earn entry to Lead To Win must demonstrate potential to generate $1-million in annual revenues within three years. “A good product is not enough,” Muegge says. “Revenues are the proof that what you’re doing is valued by customers.”

Program advisers and mentors help the entrepreneurs to identify prospects, build a pipeline, train salespeople, work on their pitch, and arrange customer meetings. Advisers may even sit in on early customer meetings. But what they’re best at, Muegge says, is demanding progress on all of a business’s sales activities. “We train and support, observe and provide feedback, and keep metrics, but the entrepreneurs are ultimately responsible for sales. They know that, on Monday morning, someone is going to ask how your sales call went. It creates accountability.”

In Waterloo, Ont., they’re setting high targets for customer development. Communitech, an industry-led technology association, has launched a six-month sales-acceleration program called “Rev.” Its goal: to give startups the vision and process to scale to $100-million in revenue.

With the aid of experienced product, marketing and sales executives, Rev helps client companies master all the intricacies of sales: segmenting and targeting markets, pricing, developing key messages, building buyer and user “personas,” perfecting their pitch, and building and training a focused sales force. Rev also tackles a challenge most startups overlook: finding large distribution partners to scale up sales quickly. “These are aspects of building the business that most of our founders have never confronted before,” says Communitech executive director David Chalmers. “At Rev, we build that structure out.”

Companies enter Rev with a product or service, and some sales. “Rev tries to work with the foundation they’ve created,” Chalmers says. “But sometimes, there is a reset. When you’re growing companies, what you did historically, might not be the same framework that is required to take the company to new heights.”

The biggest hurdle, he adds, doesn’t usually come from the market – but from the entrepreneurs themselves. “When CEOs come into this program, they have a good understanding of their business. Our goal in Rev is to work with them on the areas that require more due diligence and refinement, specifically those related to revenue attainment and growth. In other words, you need to see your business from the customers’ point of view, identify functional gaps, then build the necessary tools required for sustained growth.”

The good news is that once you accept that reality, your viewpoint shifts immediately. By the time Rev CEOs graduate from the program, Chalmers says, “Their go-to-market strategy becomes very transparent and their business confidence goes right through the roof.”

Open your eyes and ears to your customers. Success is waiting. Up there on the roof.

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