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Laura McGhie is a student at McMaster University who lucked out by landing a summer job last year in the university's Office of Public Relations, working primarily on their website. (Sheryl Nadler)
Laura McGhie is a student at McMaster University who lucked out by landing a summer job last year in the university's Office of Public Relations, working primarily on their website. (Sheryl Nadler)

Best of Your Business

Ten best small business stories of the week Add to ...

Check out the best stories from the week of June 28 on Your Business. Read our columnists, view archives of discussions, and connect through social media on the Your Business homepage.

Internships provide launch pad for new business

Every future CEO has to start somewhere.

There are many opportunities for students to join the work force during the summer months, but the challenge for Gen Y is to build skills that can launch them from intern to entrepreneur.

To make the most of it, interns should actively work to develop their skill set while they are surrounded by an ecosystem of expertise and support. It allows students to build their knowledge base while bringing a fresh perspective to employers.

Start by taking on extra projects of interest, setting up coffee meetings with leaders you are genuinely interested in, and seizing initiative when given the opportunity.

When I was an intern working in marketing for a Fortune 500 company, I was surrounded by encouraging colleagues who kept an open ear when it came to new ideas and a fresh perspective. The environment allowed me the opportunity to identify and pitch a program that solved a business problem but also confirmed the need for companies to better understand how to connect with students and Gen Y. I saw how leading brands approached campuses and students with archaic and traditional tactics that simply were not working.

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Business owner fights fraud with aggressive campaign

Commercial fraud has become increasingly easier to commit because of technological advances, contributing to a rise in the number of cases across Canada, forensic accountants and lawyers say.

Last year, 56 per cent of companies surveyed by PricewaterhouseCoopers reported being victims of economic crime in the previous 12 months, compared with 46 per cent in 2003. To staunch this growth, experts recommend preventive measures, such as training staff on different fraud techniques, but as a fallback they stress that acting quickly can mitigate fallout and save client relationships.

Bill Stewart did just that, after his clients unexpectedly started asking whether his company had gone bankrupt this past spring.

The questions came after they received a letter stating all service contracts of his Mississauga, Ont.-based Wilcox Door Service had been terminated, as well as a copy of an Ontario bankruptcy filing for a company with a deceptively similar name. Although a separate division of his business had gone into restructuring, Mr. Stewart said Wilcox Door Service was operating as normal. When he looked at the letter mailed to clients, it was clear that someone had ripped off a logo from his company's website, used it to build a letterhead, and then forged his signature.

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Company doubles in size thanks to advisory board

Corporations are required to have a board of directors, and non-profits have volunteer boards with their own legal responsibilities. Popular images of boards rarely conjure up thoughts of small or medium-sized businesses, but the benefits from mentoring, advising and guiding can be substantial.

"Boards of directors are accountable to shareholders and that is why they are put in place," says Grace Bugg, CFO of Strategic Leverage Partners, a Toronto consulting firm that specializes in board effectiveness. "If a person has a controlling interest in their company with a few other small shareholders and they don't want to lose control, they might want to have an advisory board that they use strategically, rather than a formal board of directors."

Depending on the setup and the legal requirements put in place, each type of board has specific responsibilities, but all of them share the goal of helping an organization achieve success. The key to that success is knowing what needs to be accomplished and in getting the right people.

Strategic Leverage Partners used its own advisory board to help raise funds for a groundbreaking study of board governance practices in the non-profit and voluntary sector in Canada. "Our advisory board has been an invaluable resource for us," CEO Susan Dallhoff notes. "One of our members, Dian Cohen, really hit the ground running when we were getting our study under way, for example."

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When the customer decides to buy the company

I'm writing this article from Starbucks on Pine in downtown Seattle.

I ordered my usual, and the woman behind the counter asked if I'd like to try a "Clover" instead.

I'd never heard of a Clover-brewed coffee, so asked for a demo. The Clover is a special machine that simulates the freshness of brewing a French-press coffee in 90 seconds instead of the typical six-minute brew cycle.

My new best friend went on to describe the Clover as a unit that was invented by Zander Nosler, a coffee addict who developed his penchant for caffeine while studying at Stanford. Apparently he liked the French-press taste but hated the hassle and wait time.

Mr. Nosler started by selling his $11,000 machines to small independent coffee shops desperate for a way to differentiate themselves from Starbucks.

Eventually, he convinced Starbucks to trial a few Clover units, and they were a hit. Customers liked the unique new approach to brewing and the freshness of the output. Since Clover delivers a custom cup for each use, customers could experiment with rare beans. Baristas loved them because they were faster and easier than the clunky process of brewing a French-press.

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Turning your business into a good time

Years ago I attended a software user conference. The event attracted thousands of people, and there were long lines for food and free swag.

But the longest line by far could be found outside the building. There conference attendees waited for a chance to get a quick motorcycle riding lesson or go for a spin around the city on the back of a bike, all courtesy of a local motorcycle dealership. It was unexpected and had nothing to do with the event, but it was a big hit. Everyone took photos, and it was a topic of conversation among attendees over the following days.

I was reminded of the incident recently after I hired staff from a local bar to do something fun with our employees. A bartender, who happened to be a friend of mine, dropped by and gave everyone a crash course in how to make the perfect cocktail, and led staff into groups so they could build their own custom drink. Everyone sampled the concoctions and voted on a winner. Everyone had a great time and, for the bar owner, it didn't hurt that a bunch of twenty- and thirty-somethings now knew about his bar.

There's a lesson here for small business owners, especially those who offer a product or service that people generally perceive as fun. There could be hidden opportunities for promoting yourself just by tapping into events that companies have for their employees or customers. Coming out of the recession, many are wary about holding "big bang" events and are looking for creative ways to boost morale while keeping costs low. Your business could be the solution they're looking for.

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