Monday, December 7, 2009

Cambodian Business: Business in the developing world

I recently returned from a 1 month visit to South East Asia to visit my girlfriend who was completing a 6 month internship for an NGO in Cambodia. It was an experience which gave me a greater appreciation for my mentors over the past couple years and the structure of the Canadian system. So I decided to write an entry about what I feel differs between the 2 countries. Keep in mind that I’m in no way an expert and these are simply my observations that I felt other entrepreneurs would enjoy. As someone currently building a business I had taken for granted the simple factors that make starting a business a bit easier. I will break this blog post into a couple main compartments that I felt differentiated Canada and Cambodia.

1. Mentorship. If you haven’t heard of the Khmer Rouge, which I hadn't 1 year ago I recommend reading up on the Cambodian history. Often history skims over the small country but the atrocities committed should be understood and remember as to never happen again. The first book I read on the subject was called “First they killed my father” which explains the life of a Cambodian girl that escaped to the US after the communist regime fell. So what does this have to do with mentorship? During the Khmer Rouge 1/3 of the countries population died at the governments own hands. The country turned back their clocks to year 0 and became an agrarian society killing all intellectuals and members of the previous government and military. Today’s leaders had no structured society, no global perspective for around a decade and generation lost before them. Imagine trying to start a country essentially from scratch. The UN only entered the country in 92. With no role models, no one to provide advice, nobody with a successful career to follow and no capital (they also killed all the rich people) it seems like an unsurmountable task. (Side note: Some young men enter the army to develop connections that will later in life help them in business, this shows the level of obstacles you must overcome and the pockets that must be lined.)

2. Entrepreneurship. Over the past several years I have established a great interest in microcredit, third world business models and developing economies in general. Although visiting for the first time made me truly understand the concept of entrepreneurship on a scale like never before. People needed to be strong to survive. I believe the main difference other than the scale of the operations is the understanding of market forces. Cambodian businesses often became commodities with several identical stalls in a small area lacking a niche and creativity. Everybody sells the same guide books, the same table covers and the same t-shirts. I kept looking for the individual that sold something different for a premium price or asked what tourists might buy that’s not currently available.

3. Structure. Everything from roads to markets are chaotic in Cambodia, which for one month was an awesome adventure. Imagine the difficulties starting a shipping business when people drive on either side of the road slowly maneuvering across through traffic slowing things down to a crawl and cops pulling over cars for bribes. Then there’s the infrastructure with only 1 major port and bumpy roads.

4. Taxation. I never thought I’d say that I appreciate being taxed but after visiting a country with little to no government services it really makes a big difference. The side streets were dirt roads because in order to upgrade all landlords had to come to an agreement. ( That being said I'm a fan of Keynesian economics for essential government services only.)

Commerce at work:

If you want to see some of the biggest commercial mayhem visit Cambodia during the annual water festival at the start of November. The city of Phnom Penh swells from 2 million to 4 million as people come from distant villages and the main area is full of branded tents. Some of my favorites’ included diapers, scooter tire treads, multiple alcohols associated with body building (Wrestler wine, Golden Muscle Liquor) and whitening cream. Basically it was a giant outdoor Walmart! Watching villagers walking around with a tire over one arm, toothpaste in another hand and a big bag of diapers under their second arm was quite the site.

Overall I think Cambodia is shaping up for a big tourism boom in the next 10 years as it’s cheaper than Thailand, less traveled and have enough of a network in place to get around fairly easily. During the month I also spent a week in Malaysia and the differences were amazing from one of the poorest to the strongest country in the region. That wraps up my travel update and I hope every has a happy holidays!

P.S. For the beer fans that have continued to read all the way to the bottom here are my top 3 from SE Asia. Overall the beer was quite boring, a lot of lagers, a few dry beers and the odd pilsner. It’s still a luxury in Cambodia so unfortunately the honeys, winter ales, and heffervisens are still unavailable. Odd beer fact, they often serve it with ice and they provide a straw since the cans are not guaranteed clean. Other fun fact: they do have a bad Guinness knock off called Black Panther.

1. Tiger, 2. Leo, 3. Phnom Penh Beer

Recent Reads:

1. End of Poverty

2. Lucky Child

3. Confessions of an Economic Hitman (Current)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Jack of all Trades

One major factor in entrepreneurial success is often understated, the people. Of course management is paramount to a successful start up business but most business books are dedicated to marketing, six sigma efficiencies and just in time shipping. I believe the 21st Century will be the return of the Cyrano de Bergerac’s, men (and women) with grace will rise. Why? Because millions of people across the world are working with their heads down and it takes the ‘generalist’ to strategically position these skills and create vision. So what does this have to do with entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurs need to deal with EVERYONE. In small business you have an accountant, a banker, employees, marketing specialists, and outside manufacturers. Today most of these people are located in different cities if not countries. Successful entrepreneurs need to be able to relate and manage the business at each level. If you’ve ever talked to an accountant and then called up a machinist you’ll notice a difference. I’m not implying intelligence but rather language and occupational culture. Professions operate on different wavelengths, in some industries deadlines are fixed whereas others tend to be more flexible. In engineering the vocabulary is completely different in comparison to e-marketing, a successful understanding of these differences can be very important. Entrepreneurs act as interpreters knowing just enough about every department to connect the dots in patterns that might not be seen by others. After 4 years in a business school I can’t recall a discussion regarding micro management of different occupations. There were talks regarding geographic workplace styles and how to manage employee conflict, but the concept that people were different was not broached. You may be thinking, we’ll I already know people are different. How often has a manager taken into account how you work effectively to improve his bottom line? At least in large companies employee protocol restricts management creativity but even in small companies most managers don’t realize how to maximize employee value.

So how can young people become a strong ‘generalist’? The simple answer is socializing with different people. Personally I find hanging out with the same type people boring. I’d rather go hiking with an engineer who tells be about the latest in solar panel design and I share my readings about business practice. Then another day hang out with a scientist and learn about recent genetics research. My generalist mantra has a lot to do with my philosophy of perpetual learning (View Read, Absorb, Repeat).

So how does this come in handy as a young entrepreneur? Knowing a little bit about a lot of stuff is very helpful. It’s much easier to call a friend who specializes in that area for a bit of advice than spend hours researching a new subject. This is also where young people have a huge advantage, with social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) it’s easy to stay in touch with A LOT of people. (So maybe all those hours on Facebook will eventually come in handy!) The more people you keep in touch with the more areas from which you can draw information. I’m fairly receptive to providing advice and most of my friends are similar. In the 21st century there is an abundance of information and naturally people will gravitate toward certain pockets. While always learning and refining many skills everyone is naturally more proficient in certain areas.

Team formation: Although my current company has been spun out of a UBC course building a team is something that is more difficult for new entrepreneurs. (The course allowed team’s complete anonymity in group formation. We formed our team by simply chatting about stuff we liked. Having teammates that can work together is very important, the idea will come later. If you’re lacking certain skills you’ll find them either through research or bringing on advisors.) Seasoned veterans or even people with years of experience in the field often know engineers and accountants and lawyers. When you’ve been working for 20 years and see a market niche often it’s easier to great a short list when it come to who would go well with this project. So how do young entrepreneurs compete? Social networks, University provides a great amount of talent in one space and if you have a couple nights a week to visit the local bar you might have a night or two to start up a new venture with a couple friends.

Students have the opportunity to succeed but it’s also the best time to fail. One quote I heard recently is Fail Fast, Fail Often. This is completely backward to the work hard philosophy taught in school, but the truth is no matter what your research there are WHAT IFS in entrepreneurship. So the ability to learn from your mistakes can be a huge advantage. Students have the ideal situation to become entrepreneurs, they have a significant amount of time, they have access to the university’s network & labs, they are used to learning quickly and they are accustomed to having no money. Many entrepreneurs fail on their first venture so why not try your first company while in school what do you have to lose?

This blog post was a way for me to hash out my ideas on Team Development for young entrepreneurs as I’m giving a short speech to SFU’s Venture Meet-Up on October 8th. If you have any ideas about Team Development feel free to post a comment or send me an e-mail.

Great Entrepreneur Training grounds:

Sports Teams (Every play needs a leader and quick decisions build confidence)

Students Council (Brings together people who normally might not be in the same room)

Fraternities (Students from different years, faculties and backgrounds, individuals often share different interests)

Classes (UBC’s New Venture Design course pairs Engineering students with commerce students, blending two different backgrounds requires creative thinking. Arts/Science Course at the 200 level. Increasingly Universities are incorporating interdisciplinary courses into the curriculum. Why, because today’s problems require a variety of different disciplines from anthropologists, economists, engineers and biologists.

The common theme among all these groups is that one underlying theme unites the group and brings together different individuals. For this reason entrepreneurs should try to work in different environments. Professional jobs of tomorrow require outside of the box thinking, and entrepreneurship is the ultimate test.

Great Resource:

Tim Ferris article on Jack of all Trades

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Read, Absorb, Repeat

Entrepreneurship is a game of perpetual learning. In order to constantly stay ahead of the curve it’s important to know what’s going on in your industry. I am a firm believer in the philosophy For also knowledge itself is power. The more you know the better your ability to lead others; power is not dominance but rather the ability to aid in a decision. Entrepreneurs are often perceived as risk takers but the best entrepreneurs minimize their risks as much as possible by developing a greater understanding of the upcoming problem. Founders of great companies slowly built up a knowledge base unparallel to those around them; Bill Gates did not wake up the CEO of Microsoft he slowly learned everything he could for a over a decade before even starting Microsoft.

As a new entrepreneur I find it very useful to read articles on everything from managing cash flow to small business marketing. Business books usually bring up new models and may cause you to rethink an area of your business leading to an improvement. The first small business book I read was “The Art of the Start” which really helped change my mindset from student to entrepreneur, if you don’t read the “been there done that” stories you’ll learn the hard way. How much of this information is used in my day to day activities? Usually very little, but it’s important to build a knowledge base now so when we get into those situations later on it will make the transition much easier. Also sometimes you can draw on information from one subject while dealing with another. Reading about small business is also very inspiring; people carve out niches you never thought were possible and other successes keep the dream alive.

My advice for someone thinking about starting their own company:

1) Subscribe to Inc. / Fast Company/ or whatever magazine publication is in your field.

2) Buy a recent industry business book, you’ll often find the best research and most fluid information on the subject.

3) Subscribe to Blogs/Websites for regular updates. These will be your ‘newspaper,’ staying up to date on what is happening in your industry.

4) Internet: Search for your domain name, potential twitter account, and ‘Facebook fan’ account. You never know if these features might come in handy down the road. Also twitter is moderately useful at finding interesting articles once you find the right people to follow. The large downside is that it can be a waste of time.

5) Other: Read outside your field. You might find a solution to your problem by taking a trick from another business or animal or sport, you never know so read whatever you find interesting.

6) Absorb: I personally find working out once a day is pure ‘free thinking’ time. It’s a time when I’m not pressuring myself to come up with a solution and it lets the day’s material absorb easily.

My lastly read about entrepreneurship because it’s COOL. Entrepreneurs are always doing things that have never been done before, and they usually have very interesting stories that lead them to where they are today. Entrepreneurship is a rubix cube where you need to align many variables, and successful businessmen don’t just pick up the cube. They usually take a look first and maybe ask a friend how it works; if you don’t already have mentors or advisors books and articles provide a great resource to start off on the right path. Below I have included a few links and some recent reads, feel free to comment on your favourite book/blog. Also my blog roll has links to a few sites that vary between green business, online media, travel and business.

Solid informational links:

TechVibes (For Local Tech Business updates)

AllTop (For updates about just about everything)

4 Hour Work Week Blog (Usually provides very interesting advice across many different subjects)

Quick Sprout (Interesting all round entrepreneur blog)

Cool Books I recommend:

The Art of the Start (Great first read for future/new entrepreneurs, Guy Kawasaki’s name is very well known and is an entrepreneurship guru)

4 Hour work week (Demonstrates how the business world is changing, and those who adapt fastest will benefit)

Free (Focused on how using a price of free can develop a profitable business)

The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (New business models in third world nations, forces you to think outside the box)

Blogging (About the success of the Huffington Post and how to build a successful blog)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

We’re not in Kansas anymore…

Life changes frequently in your last year of University but my biggest change was deciding to start a company. In January 2009 I was debating working abroad after graduating or starting EasyPlug. As we progressed through the rounds at Enterprize Canada I told my girlfriend that if EasyPlug placed in the top 5 I was probably going to give it a shot if my team members were also interested once the school year finished. Days later we placed 2nd and were on stage accepting a 10 thousand dollar cheque. We continued to work hard, place well in competitions and made sure our name were mentioned as much as possible in UBC magazines and faculty newsletters. Coming to the end of the school year we were on cloud nine with 16 thousand tucked away in a bank account and 3 Company Awards. The great aspect about starting a company after graduating is that you are new on the scene and people are often very receptive and willing to help. For example, I have met many people in the local technology industry through EasyPlug. Whether the product succeeds or fails in the long run I will still have my established networks. EasyPlug scheduled our first company meeting for the day after exams ended, quickly making the transition from students to managers. We discussed our summer goals and set a timeline which in retrospect was very ambitious. Early the next week we were scheduled to present at a luncheon at the 4 Seasons to showcases 7 of UBC’s new start ups, with audience members including the head of an Angel Forum and multiple seasoned entrepreneurs it was a great experience.

Shortly after the presentation we met with 3 law firms to pick our legal representation. We quickly realized things had changed, legal estimates climbed and we went from one of UBC’s stars to the new kids on the block. Everything was new, incorporation documents, entrepreneurial organizations (VEF, VEF Momentum, etc) and prototype manufacturing quotes.

During May we prepared for our last student competition which was in Hong Kong and a week before departing received news that the competition had been postponed due to Swine flu. Three of the team members were busy graduating, another was moving apartments and several were working part-time. Starting a company with limited funds, and limited relevant experience was definitely going to be an uphill battle. That month I met with several people for coffee as it’s important to build a network and get your company’s name out right from the beginning. (I plan on doing a future post on the importance of 15-20 minute coffee meetings.) Meanwhile during the post student transition my girlfriend accepted a 6 month internship in Cambodia and was busy preparing for her departure only two weeks away.

It took EasyPlug until about the middle of June to really begin to pick up the pace. During the initial months simple tasks including the incorporation, a corporate bank account, assigning performance metrics and company internal communications were all areas that took time to establish norms. Meanwhile we realized that our team had graduated in the worst recession in 20 years, and most funding was drying up for long term development projects. Although this was not a significant factor since we had planned to bootstrap the business and push off raising capital for several months. Gradually things began to roll and months later our business is progressing at a steady pace.

Monday, September 14, 2009

You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours: A guide to business plan competitions

A year ago while starting EasyPlug at UBC we had access to a great network. From professors and recent alumni to local community leaders which provided an edge. We knew that it was in our best interest to work together with the University for as long as possible, but it was also in the universities best interest to help new talent. For every successful company launched brings credibility to the New Venture Design program, and other programs run by various faculties. This credibility allows for steady funding and eases recruitment of the best students, along with recognition in the local business community.

We found the best way of leveraging this relationship was business plan competitions. Every new start up should enter a competition or two in my opinion; they exist in both the academic and business communities. Why? Because they have free money and free publicity! When starting a business you often have limited resources and some costs are inevitable (legal, materials, etc) so developing a small cushion is a big advantage and can delay the issuance of expensive equity. Business Plan competitions also provide an area for your ideas to be critiqued, and steadily improved with each passing round. Each time you present in front of a new panel you become more relaxed and judges ask different questions. Often you have improved your presentation between rounds but you quickly realize that entrepreneurship is a perpetual learning curve. You constantly need to expand on your most recent work.

So where does the relationship with the University enter the picture? Well there are two main areas funding and expertise. Most student business plan competitions require travel to nearby cities which can eliminate the possibility without funding for many students. (This is also a great opportunity to travel and see the nightlife once the competition wraps up. The story of how we ended up at a Raptors game and then saw the starting lineup at the club that night is a worthy of its own blog post!) Industry competitions tend to be local and a small fee is all that is required to supplement your submission, furthermore they provide a great way for students to meet people in the business community. Universities also help with expertise, when you’re entering a competition is takes a significant amount of work to be competitive. An excellent way to advance your submission is by discussing your application with Faculty members that specialize in your specific area.

So how does the University Benefit? Although the upside for student teams is significant; Universities often enjoy the publicity and student development is part of their mandate. At all competitions we were and still are happy to affiliate with UBC and discuss ongoing programs being run at the university. The key to developing a successful team/university relationship is winning, which is easier said than done. Once you win your first competition you are more likely to receive funding for a second, and then once you win again you are more likely to be written up in the university’s publication which helps both parties.

Competitions become easier with time, 80% of the work is creating the initial business plan. It will be a slow process if it’s your first and will require extensive research. Then with each round you improve the plan, this makes it easier to enter later competitions. Occasionally a total ‘overhaul’ is required as the plan begins to lose it’s consistency after multiple revisions, the worst thing you could do is say my business plan is complete. Plans are as dynamic as the businesses themselves and therefore must always be adapting to new challenges.

Pick your competitions. We conducted extensive research about competitions all across North America looking for the biggest cash prizes but unfortunately most of these competitions focus on the graduate level programs. Although we did find enough competitions that we were kept busy applying and competing for over 6 months. To apply for the graduate level competitions we found a friend that allowed us to use his name on the application, a trick that is worth a shot but probably won’t lead to acceptance. My advice is select three or four, and focus the remainder of your time on business development. We entered the rhythm of perpetually modifying the application and sending it off to a new competition. There also comes a point when you need to stop competing and start doing which is the stage EasyPlug is at right now. (At this point shift you attention to grants, another form of free money and leverage you business plan which has by now been improved significantly.)

And the best thing about competitions is free money! It’s not a loan, you don’t lose equity it’s just free. So compete while you have time and maybe you’ll have a chance to buy some lab equipment and pay your lawyers to get you started. Below are links to a couple competitions in the British Columbia area. If you’re planning on applying and need some advice here feel free to e-mail me. Also feel free to comment with other great competitions and I will add them to the links.

Industry Links:

New Ventures BC

TiE Quest

Small Business BC

Student Links:

Enterprize Canada

PolyU Hong Kong Competition

VSEA Bright Ideas Competition

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Concepts in the Classroom

It all started just over a year ago with an application to a course which I thought I’d never be accepted. UBC runs a program called New Venture Design which combines commerce students with engineering students in their final year with the hope of forming a company. With only 12 students accepted annually from the business faculty out of 500 I didn’t think my chances were that great. In order to paint the picture I will tell you my mantra towards school. I never really cared about my grades and was told upon moving into residence on my first day of University ‘D’s get degrees’. (Unfortunately this motto came into effect a few times while at UBC) I was far more interested in reading about Somalian pirates in the Economist or the Top 50 hikes in Canada than reading about transportation and logistics. Keeping busy outside the classroom while achieving mostly high 60s low 70s was much more interesting and kept me interested while in the classroom (which was most of the time, since I decided attending class was like studying). Now this doesn’t mean I slacked throughout University it just meant that school often came in on the list after social activities and sports. So it was to my surprise that I received an interview for one of Sauder’s unique programs. In the interview I stated that I wanted start a company and I felt it would be a great learning experience, but I made it very apparent that I wanted to win awards for UBC throughout the academic year as the course had a travel budget. Somehow I managed to crack the starting line up and I was excited to take on a course which involved active learning rather than academic theories.

On the first day of class I enthusiastically met with the 23 other students and the professors had arranged a fully catered BBQ. One hour later after everyone was well feed and brief 3 sentence intros were complete the professors left the room. At this point the students talked about whatever they thought was cool; I realized I was really going to like this course. Recently I had taken an interest in third world business practices and sustainable business which managed to find there way into the discussions. A week later after another mingle session our team was formed.

Then came the idea part, the downside to product development classes is that students are not informed regarding real world problems.

Example: After working for years a mechanic might look at his screwdriver and say ‘hey what if I did this’. Suddenly he has created a new product that fits a market niche and he knows other mechanics who will buy his product.

Whereas we (students) were trying to come up with a technology that filled a need, for all aspiring entrepreneurs find your need first. It will make you life much easier down the road. You will also become far more observant as you test the entrepreneurial waters.

So how did we come up with our product? Brainstorming session after brainstorming session, several were either preceded or followed by a round of beers at the Gallery to improve our creative juices. (Unfortunately one of the finer ideas “The Tingler” didn’t make the cut, feel free to guess its use) Initially everyone was assigned to show up at our group meeting with 10 cool ideas, and then we put them all up on a whiteboard to find the most interesting ones. Unfortunately this little thing called a patent seemed to get in the way of many of our ideas so we kept trying.

One day we decided to put up bubbles for every industry and try to find either hybridizations of different product or areas where each industry needed work. This developed many unique ideas but we still hadn’t come up with our perfect product. As noble university students we tried to think along the lines of Green Tech, sustainable products and Bio Fuels as these technologies would have a great social impact not to mention governments are literally throwing money into these industries. In the end a random ‘don’t you hate it when’ comment sealed the deal.

So we now had a product, an adaptor which prevents tripping over electrical cords saving both the individual and the appliance from damage. Weeks later we developed our name EasyPlug; which we are still using 9 months later.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Green Grasshopper Name

For my first blog post I’d like to explain the blog name, Green Grasshopper. Most people might think this has nothing to do with my intended subject matter (small business management for individuals Under 25) so I will explain its significance.

The first word ‘green’ was chosen because green has multiple meanings. As a recent university business graduate I am new to the ‘real’ world and ‘green’ to most common practices. The main business reason behind the term is that ‘green’ refers to money, which I hope one day will flow into my business rather than outwards. The third reason is that green signals go, and it seems the business is always moving forward at an ever increasing pace.

The second word ‘grasshopper’ was chosen as one of my fathers favourite quote’s was from Kung Fu. A Master says “When you can take the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave”. The young individual is referred to as grasshopper, I see myself as the Grasshopper learning as much as possible and trying to meet as many ‘Masters’ throughout my career for advice. The second point is that grasshoppers often fly from place to place similar to small business management which requires great flexibility when it comes to everyday tasks.

What can you expect from my Green Grasshopper blog? The main focus will be for individuals either leaving University or young people with limited experience looking to start their own businesses. The opportunity to serve as an online meeting place for young entrepreneurs and experienced business tycoons would also be advantageous. Having graduated in May and plunging directly into small business there have been lessons learned which I hope to share with others. The blog will discuss anecdotes from my business and how the situation could have improved. I will also try to keep everyone up to date on any interesting small business articles and programs especially those focused on young entrepreneurs.