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Book review: Cold Hard Truth on Business, Money and Life

Cold Hard Truth On Business, Money and Life

By Kevin O’Leary

Doubleday Canada


A dead dream turned up in the basement last weekend.

Buried at the bottom of storage closet was a long forgotton box. Inside the box was the daily cartoon strip I drew for the school paper back in my university days.

Instead of going to class, I doodled. And instead of reading textbooks, I studied the collective works of Garry Trudeau, Bill Watterson and Berkley Breathed.

The strip was badly drawn and rarely clever. But sometimes I’d get in a shot at the sorority sisters and fraternity brothers who gave the Harvard of the North its well deserved reputation.

A few of my strips got taped to office doors, pinned to bulletin boards and were the target of angry letters to the editor.

For a time, I dreamed of becoming a full-time cartoonist. I’d create the next Calvin and Hobbs, Doonesbury or Bloom County. I'd be happy, rich and famous. 

But once I left the ivory tower, I quickly came to realize I wasn’t prepared to invest the time, pay the price and make the sacrifice on what was at best the longest of shots. I'd never be a great or successful cartoonist.

It’s the same conclusion that Kevin O’Leary reached with help from his stepfather George Kanawaty.

Before he was a successful entrepreneur, chair of his self-named investment fund company and media personality, O’Leary was a struggling teenager in search of direction back in the early 1970s. He harbored ambitions of being a photographer.

“In my last year of high school, George sat me down for the Talk About My Future,” says O’Leary. His stepfather asked O’Leary what he was willing to do in order to be a photographer.  Was he willing to pay the price?

“How much money do you think you’d need to make, every year, to be happy,” Kanawaty asked his stepson. O’Leary said $20,000.

Most photographers don’t make that much, Kanawaty said. Which meant O’Leary would need a full-time job with photography gigs on the side. He’d have to put up with jobs he didn’t enjoy to continue doing what he loved.  

Yet even at that early age, O’Leary knew he couldn’t work for someone else. He was meant to be an employer and not an employee. “What was I willing to do to make money while I honed my craft? Lay bricks? Work in retail? Clean garbage trucks? Plant trees? I’d done all those jobs. The idea of spending the rest of my life subsidizing a passion felt impossible, and because I had no postsecondary education, those were about the only jobs for which I was qualified. Without the drive to work at other jobs to support that passion, I had no chance of becoming a wealthy photographer.”

So O’Leary put that dream to rest, went to the University of Waterloo and got an MBA at Western. He credits his MBA with giving him a head start, some much needed discipline and a rolodex of classmate contacts that proved equal to the cost of tuition.

After graduation, O’Leary launched Special Events Television. The feather in the company’s cap was Don Cherry’s Grapevine, a half-hour program that premiered on CHCH-TV. Cherry followed a few golden rules for TV that O’Leary clearly took to heart. Never be boring. Never be small. Always be the antagonist because the good guy’s not interesting. And always get in the first and last words.

O’Leary sold his stake in the production company and got into the computer software business in the early 1980s. He started the company out of his basement with a $10,000 loan from his mother. The company took off, licensing software for pennies and bundling with printers which sold in the millions. The company sold its products in big box stores and retail giants like Wal-Mart, stayed flexible on pricing and put a heavy emphasis on product testing and package design.

The company was stamping so many CD-ROMs that one of the production runs delayed by four days the release of Michael Jackson’s album Bad. “Bad went on to sell about eight million copies that year, which should give you some idea of how big we were, and how fast we were growing,” O’Leary says.

A few years later, he sold the educational software giant for more than $3 billion.

O’Leary then looked at buying Report on Business Television. Instead of making a deal, the CEO put O’Leary in front of the camera and a star was born.  O’Leary now co-stars on Lang & O’Leary Exchange, Dragon’s Den – the number one Canadian produced TV show – and Shark Tank south of the border. He’s also chairman of O’Leary Funds, a money management firm.

“Whether I’m wearing the scales of a Dragon or the fins of a Shark, my message is consistent and clear: I want to go to bed richer than when I woke up,” says O’Leary. “By reinforcing that idea on my television shows, in books, on the radio and in newspapers and magazines, I’ve made making money my brand.”

According to O’Leary, entrepreneurs are the superheroes of capitalism. “Entrepreneurs do something governments can’t do: we inspire the next generation of wealth builders.”

 And he adds that the only thing money truly buys you is freedom.  “Freedom is a gift I’m grateful for every day. It is the result of a single-minded pursuit of the only thing that matters in business: money. I took great risks and made some hefty sacrifices to get here, and I’ll do whatever it takes to stay here. Because let me tell you, here is a very nice place.”

O’Leary’s book reads exactly like he talks on Dragon’s Den. He doesn't pull any punches. He’s also a consummate marketer so it’s no surprise he does a masterful job of telling his life story with the right mix of swagger and humility. You’ll gain a deeper appreciation for his business acumen, drive and determination. And if you’re an aspiring entrepreneur or someone who’s debating whether to pursue your passion, you’ll get some invaluable advice and cold hard truth for the bargain price of just $29.95.


Book review: Triumph of the City

This review first ran in the Sept. 12 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier

By Edward Glaeser

Penguin Press


As a Hamilton taxpayer, I’m less than thrilled that we’re picking up the $100,000 tab for the fiasco that was lingerie football at Copps Coliseum back in July.

And I’m not completely convinced that Festival of Friends needs a $100,000 handout from local taxpayers.

But I’d have no problem if $200,000 from the public purse paid for special events put on by Hamilton Hive.

The Hive brings together Hamilton’s new blood and young guns. It’s in the business of building networks among our city’s next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs, small business owners, corporate leaders and civic boosters.

And it’s through these Hive-brokered conversations, connections and collaborations that we could finally fix Hamilton’s image problem and our never ending search for an identity. The Hive could prove to be a catalyst in building Hamilton’s reputation as the start-up capital of Canada. The best place and first choice for young, smart and savvy professionals looking to set up shop, launch a business, grow a company, raise a family and make their mark. 

Hamilton Hive is contributing to a key requirement for all successful cities, says author and Harvard University professor Edward Glaeser who believes the world isn’t so much flat as it is paved and urban. “To thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively. Cities thrive when they have many small firms and skilled citizens.”

So what’s it take to attract smart people and small firms? Glaeser says there are two competing visions. There’s the Richard Florida vision of chasing after the creative class by embracing the arts, celebrating alternative lifestyles and investing in a fun, happening downtown.  With a fondness for coffeehouses and public sculpture, Glaeser says it’s a vision that seems aimed at a 28-year-old wearing a black turtleneck and reading Proust.

The second vision of city building is boring by comparison, with a focus on doing a better job of being brilliant at the basics and delivering core public services like safe streets, fast commutes and good schools. It’s a vision built around meeting the needs of a 42-year-old biotech researcher concerned about whether her family will be as comfortable and their quality of life will be as good in Hamilton as they’d be in Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver.

With scarce resources, cities can’t afford to be everything for everyone. So which vision is best? Where should a city invest limited revenues and the energy of its leaders? While Glaeser supports subscribing to a bit of both visions, sticking to the basics is the best option for most cities on the rebound.

“There are roughly three times as many people in their thirties, forties and fifties as there are in their twenties, so it would be a mistake for cities to think that they can survive solely as magnets for the young and hip,” says Glaeser. “As much as I appreciate urban culture, aesthetic interventions can never substitute for the urban basics. A sexier place won’t bring many jobs if it isn’t safe. All the cafes in Paris won’t entice parents to put their kids in a bad public school system.”

Struggling cities confuse aesthetic interventions with urban basics and accelerate their decline. “Too many officials in troubled cities wrongly imagine that they can lead their city back to its former glories with some massive construction project – a new stadium or light rail system, a convention centre, or a housing project,” says Glaeser, who calls this the edifice complex.

It’s a blind belief that struggling cities can build themselves out of decline and that abundant new building leads to urban success even if the existing stock of housing and office space outstrips demand. “Successful cities typically do build, because economic vitality makes people willing to pay for space and builders are happy to accommodate. But building is the result, not the cause, of success. Overbuilding a declining city that already has more structures than it needs is nothing but folly.”

Glaeser says city planners and civic leaders need to be realistic and expect moderate successes rather than blockbusters. “Realism pushes toward small, sensible projects, not betting a city’s future on a vast, expensive roll of the dice. The real payoff of these investments in amenities lies in attracting the skilled residents who can really make a city rebound, especially if those residents can connect with the world economy. We must free ourselves from the tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.”

Glaeser says municipal leaders have one overriding priority. “Ultimately, the job of urban government isn’t to fund buildings or rail lines that can’t possibly cover their costs, but to care for the city’s citizens. A mayor who can better educate a city’s children so that they can find opportunity on the other side of the globe is succeeding, even if his city is getting smaller.”

What cities must build first and foremost is their workforce. “There is no such thing as a successful city without human capital,” says Glaeser. Building that capital starts with kids and teens staying in school, getting a good education and going on to postsecondary. A highly educated, highly skilled workforce serves as the magnet that attracts employers with high skilled, high paying jobs. And those employers in turn attract even more highly skilled newcomers.

“The path back for declining industrial towns is long and hard,” warns Glaeser, who says Rust Belt cities built their economies around major employers that required low skilled labour. “Over decades, they must undo the cursed legacy of big factories and heavy industry. They must return to their roots as places of small-scale entrepreneurship and commerce. Apart from investing in education and maintaining core public services with moderate taxes and regulations, governments can do little to speed this process. Not every city will come back, but human creativity is strong, especially when reinforced by urban density.”

Glaeser’s case studies and histories of thriving and dying cities from around the world should be required reading for all Hamiltonians. His book also begs a question. We had no trouble taking $45 million out of the Hamilton Future Fund to rebuild a football stadium. What if we took another $45 million and covered the full costs of apprenticeship training, college diplomas and university degrees for every child in our Code Red neighbourhoods?  As Glaeser makes clear, educating our kids is a surefire way to fund a city’s future.

Book review: Out of our Minds: Learning to Be Creative

This review originally ran in the Hamilton Spectator.

Out of our Minds: Learning to Be Creative

By Ken Robinson

John Wiley & Sons


My daughter was a happy camper this summer.

She spent her days dancing, rehearsing and performing in plays, productions and talent shows.

My daughter was in her element. Dancing has long been her creative outlet. She’s at her happiest when she’s on stage. It’s where she shines the brightest. Dancing fills my daughter with grace and brings a real joy to both her and her parents.

Yet watching my daughter’s Friday performances this summer left me frustrated on two counts.

In a few weeks, my daughter returns to school. She won’t spend any part of her days dancing. She’ll have to leave an important part of who she is at home. My daughter doesn’t dance at school because dancing falls on the bottom rung on the hierarchy of academic disciplines. It’s not tested so it’s not taught. Dancing doesn’t factor into the standardized testing that’s used to sort, rate, rank and process students. Her natural abilities aren’t being engaged or valued. And I’m bracing for the day when a teacher or guidance counsellor unwisely questions and challenges my daughter’s ambition to be a ballet instructor.

Fortunately, my wife and I can afford to send our daughter to summer camps and to the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts where she adores her teachers and feels very much at home. But not every family is so lucky. There are too many kids who never get to discover, much less develop, their special talent. If they’re resilient, they’ll survive their education and find their true calling beyond the classroom. If not, they’ll drop out and, even worse, spend the rest of their lives believing that they’re not creative, that they’re not full of potential and that they can’t contribute, make a difference or add value to our community.

That represents a huge waste of our most valuable resource, says Sir Ken Robinson, author and professor emeritus of education at the University of Warwick, in his fully updated and revised edition of Out of Our Minds. “Our best resource is to cultivate our singular abilities of imagination, creativity and innovation. As the world spins faster and faster, organizations everywhere say they need people who can think creatively, communicate and work in teams: people who are flexible, and quick to adapt.”

These people are hard to find. It’s not that we grow out of creativity. Robinson says we’re educated out of it.

We continue to use a seriously outdated educational system that was created to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution. We don’t need educational reform, says Robinson. We need a wholesale transformation.

“In the interests of the industrial economies, we have subjected generations of people to narrow forms of education that have marginalized some of their most important talents and qualities,” says Robinson. “We have wasted much of what people have to offer because we have not seen the value of it. Along the way, we have jeopardized the balance of communities by not recognizing how our different talents and passions sustain and enrich each other.”

We need to move from an impersonal system built on the primacy of linearity, conformity and standardization to one where the focus and value is on entrepreneurship, innovative and creativity. The future belongs to those who can imagine, rethink and create it.

“Current approaches to education and training are hobbled by assumptions about intelligence and creativity that have squandered the talents and stifled the creative confidence of untold numbers of people,” says Robinson.

“The whole process of elementary and high school education is a protracted process of university entrance. Those who go to university rather than straight into work or vocational training programs are always seen as the real successes of the system. You might conclude that the primary purpose of compulsory education is to produce university professors.” We educate our kids from the neck up and to the left side of their brains.

South of the border, 30 per cent of students who enter Grade 9 don’t graduate. In some areas, the dropout rate hits 50 per cent. As we learned through this paper’s Code Red series, dropout rates are equally high in some Hamilton neighbourhoods.

“It’s wrong to blame the students for these numbers. Any other standardized process with a 30 per cent wastage rate would be condemned as a failure. In the case of education, it isn’t a waste of inert commodities; it’s a waste of living, breathing people. Those who don’t graduate from high school are offered few alternatives apart from low-income work if they can find it; or long-term unemployment if they cannot.”

Robinson sets out an agenda for creating an educational system that unlocks and develops creativity. “When students find something they enjoy and can excel in, they do better in education generally,” says Robinson. “Transforming education is not easy but the price of failure is more than we can afford, while the benefits of success are more than we can imagine.”

Education and training are the keys to the future. But as Robinson points out, a key can be turned in two directions. Turn it one way and we lock resources away. Turn it the other way and we release resources and give people back to themselves.

“To realize our true creative potential — in our organizations, in our schools and in our communities — we need to think differently about ourselves and to act differently towards each other,” says Robinson. “We must learn to be creative.”

My daughter is one of the lucky ones. She’s realizing her creative potential albeit beyond the classroom. And whether she follows through on her dream of becoming a ballet teacher or chooses a different path, she’ll always carry with her the creative spirit she’s developing when she slips on her ballet shoes at the conservatory. Here’s hoping your children have the same glorious opportunity to be fully in their element. The future health and prosperity of our community depends on it.