Someone recently ask me if I found any differences between the audiences I speak to in Canada and the U.S. The answer is yes. “Americans want to be Bill Gates. Canadians want to be careful.”
I’m not sure why this is. While Canadians are known for their more conservative approach in general, our entrepreneurs were at least as daring as the Americans’ in opening up the West, building the national railway, and pushing back the frontiers of communications, medicine, and technology. Still, when I speak about entrepreneurship and innovation in the U.S., there’s buzz about success and fortune; you can almost hear the American Dream springing to life. In Canada, however, the word entrepreneur is still painfully associated with the term ‘small business.’
Across Canada, at cocktail parties and banker’s offices, our should-be heroes of industry and innovation are still too often dismissed as wild risk-takers who needlessly put their savings and financial security on the line. But entrepreneurship is so much more than that. Businesses that employ fewer than 500 people in North America have accounted for two-thirds of job growth in the past 10 to 20 years. The dreamers and the risk-takers are the growth engine that drive our economies. So let’s not label the entrepreneurs behind these businesses and the opportunities they pursue ‘crazy.’ Rather, let’s go with ‘crazy important.’
Still, there is something to be said for the Canadian approach to entrepreneurship. While we need more people to take initiative and champion change, there’s merit in doing so conservatively. I like to advise entrepreneurs to dream big, but proceed with caution. What exactly does this mean? There is never a shortage of opportunities in business; they’re everywhere. The key to success lies not in putting all your hopes -- and life’s savings -- into the first Big Idea you see, but in taking time to define the very best venture you will actually choose to pursue.
In last month’s column, I addressed the process of bringing together your team to generate great new business ideas. We talked about the power of the group dynamic and the “Yes, and...” process that enables your team to generate a wall of Post-It notes full of ideas.
Once you’ve done that, however, you need to begin culling those ideas into a manageable short list. More importantly, your ideas should be relevant to you, your business and your prospective customers.
Sounds obvious, I know, but judging by the number of times that I read about companies selling off non-core assets or dropping unprofitable clients, I realize that dreams of glorious short-term returns too often overcome solid analytical thinking.
I approach opportunity assessment with a rigorous, three-pronged approach. I like to rank each business opportunity according to three criteria: global (which includes ensuring that each new idea aligns with your company’s high-level, strategic direction, its vision, its mission, and so on), sales and marketing (rigorously identifying the ideal customer, target markets, time-to-market, and the competitive landscape) and financial (analyzing the projected top-line revenue, contribution, productivity ratios, net profit, and so on). The bracketed examples are, of course, only a few of the concepts you need to think through; there are many others that your team will think of or may already have in place.
Before anyone on your team gets carried away by a shiny new idea, it’s extremely important that you rank each opportunity you are considering against all three of these criteria. Don’t fall into the trap of saying, “this is a great idea, even though it’s not in keeping with the long-term vision of the company. I’ll worry about getting back on-strategy next quarter.”
Unless you rank new opportunities thoroughly and objectively, ruthlessly matching them to your strategy and capabilities, you will have little chance of converting even the best new ideas into successful and highly profitable new products.
The moral of the story? Embrace the American dream, believe in the possibility of success, but exercise good old Canadian caution along the way.
Ken Tencer, CEO of Spyder Works Inc. is a branding and innovation thought leader who helps organizations reimagine their futures. He is the co-author of two books on innovation — The 90% Rule and the newly released bestseller, Cause a Disturbance (Morgan James Publishing, NY).