Review: Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger



This review first ran in the April 22nd edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Contagious: Why Things Catch On

By Jonah Berger

Simon and Schuster


There’s good news if you’re setting up shop or looking to change the world. It’s never been easier or cheaper to get the word out on your own.

Now the bad news. It’s never been harder to cut through the clutter and get the rest of us to pay attention and help spread the word.

“Facebook and Twitter are technologies, not strategies,” says Jonah Berger. a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

“Word-of-mouth marketing is effective only if people actually talk. Just putting up a Facebook page or tweeting doesn’t mean anyone will notice. Harnessing the power of word of mouth, online or offline, requires understanding why people talk and why some things get talked about and shared more than others.”

Drawing on a decade worth of research, Berger’s come up with six principles for social transmission. If you want to get lots of people talking and your cash registers ringing, do one or more of the following.

Make sure that what you’re selling has social currency. “People share things that make them look good to others. Knowing about cool things makes people seem sharp and in the know.”

Use triggers so that something around us reminds us of you. “Triggers are like little environmental reminders for related concepts and ideas. Top of mind is tip of the tongue.”

Tap into our emotions. “When we care, we share. Naturally contagious content usually evokes some sort of emotion.”

Make your product public. “A key factor in driving products to catch on is public visibility. If something is built to show, it’s built to grow. Seeing others do something makes people more likely to do it themselves.”

Deliver practical value and news we can use. “Useful things are important. People don’t just value practical information, they share it. Sharing practically valuable content is like a modern-day barn raising.”

And tell stories. “Stories give people an easy way to talk about products and ideas. They provide a sort of psychological cover that allows people to talk about a product or idea without seeming like an advertisement.”

Follow these principles and you stand a good shot at generating a ton of online and offline word-of-mouth buzz for even regular, everyday products and ideas.

Blendtec blenders are a case in point. Tom Dickson founded his blender company in 1999. The product was great but awareness was low and sales were slow.

Seven years later, Dickson hired a marketing director to help get the word out. The director was walking through the Blendtech factory when he noticed a pile of sawdust. And that’s when he learned about Dickson’s daily routine of trying to break his blenders. Dickson would put his blenders to the test by cramming two-by-two boards through the blades.

So the marketing director spent $50 on a bag of marbles, a sleeve of golf balls, a rake and a white lab coat for his boss. The carnage was videotaped and posted online.

Within a week, the low-budget videos had been watched six million times. Within a year, retail sales were up 700 per cent.

Today, the Will it Blend? videos starring Dickson blending everything from a Justin Bieber CD and a can of EZ Cheese to an iPhone and his grandkids’ Transformer toys have been watched more than 300 million times.

“The Blendtec story demonstrates one of the key takeaways of contagious content,” says Berger. “Virality isn’t born, it’s made. Regardless of how plain or boring a product or idea may seem, there are ways to make it contagious.”

We’re surprised, amazed and amused when a kitchen blender pulverizes golf balls and turns marbles to glass dust. Dickson’s an affable mad scientist. We tell friends and family to watch the videos. We check back to see what else Dickson is blending. And we start thinking a Blendtec blender would look good in our kitchen and make the perfect gift.

Berger offers one other key insight on why things catch on. Word-of-mouth isn’t won by wooing a handful of connected influentials. Social epidemics are driven by your products and ideas.

“Contagious products and ideas are like forest fires. They can’t happen without hundreds, if not thousands, of regular Joes and Janes passing the product or message along. Some forest fires are bigger than others, but no one would claim that the size of the fire depends on the exceptional nature of the initial spark. Big forest fires aren’t caused by big sparks. Lots of individual trees have to catch fire and carry the flames.”

So whether you’re going into business, looking to bring in more business or pitching a big idea to make the world a better place, Berger has a proven gameplan to ignite a fire and get a growing army of Joes and Janes talking about you.


Review: Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits that Masquerade as Virtues by Jake Breeden

tipping sacred cowsThis review first ran in the April 8 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits that Masquerade as Virtues

By Jake Breeden



You’ve come up with a pretty cool and innovative solution to a money-wasting problem at work.

You fly the idea past your boss. Your boss likes the idea and, with nothing on the agenda at the next weekly team meeting, pencils you in for an hour of air time.

You pitch your idea to the team. A third of your colleagues appear to be vital signs absent. A third are preoccupied with their smartphones. And the remaining third, peeved that the meeting wasn’t scrubbed, tee off on you and your idea like a piñata.

Your boss mercifully brings the drubbing to a close and asks the team to email you their feedback.

Nothing lands in your inbox.

Time passes and you tell your boss that you’re ready, willing and able to test drive the idea on your own. Your boss, confusing you with an eight-year-old, reminds you that there is no “I” in team. Around here, we always do better by working together.

So you get 30 seconds at the end of another team meeting to ask if anyone’s interested in joining a planning, implementation and evaluation committee. Now everyone’s VSA.

Your boss takes the lack of feedback and the no-show of hands as a sure sign that now’s not the best time to roll out your idea. You’re told that maybe your idea could be revisited in a few months when everyone’s not so busy and the whole team can get engaged in a more fulsome discussion.

Welcome to the dark side of collaboration.

“Putting everyone together all the time means that the instinct to collaborate trumps the need to collaborate and it becomes unclear who or what can really contribute to results,” says Jake Breeden, a teacher with Duke Corporate Education and author of Tipping Sacred Cows. “It’s time to plant a new decision tree in your brain: is the outcome worth the cost of this collaboration?”

Breeden says working solo should be our default position, collaborating only when it’s helpful and not because it’s an unquestioned sacred cow. The payoff from collaboration must be greater than the pain of getting and keeping everyone on the same page.

We all have what Breeden calls a “getting things done” muscle. If we don’t flex it, the muscle atrophies and we lose our ability to carry a heavy load and step up when an individual act of excellence is needed. “Meetings are ritualized collaboration, with more talking about the work than doing the work. A calendar full of meetings indicates a collaboration binge. Just sitting in office chairs all day makes workers soft around the middle, spending the majority of time connected with others weakens the productivity core.”

Not only does our “getting things done” muscle go to seed, personal accountability also fades fast when it’s always all hands on deck.

“When everyone is collectively responsible for something, too often no one is personally accountable for it. If things don’t work out according to plan, it’s easy to blame the entire team instead of the individual.”

Breeden advocates ruthlessly eliminating automatic collaboration, making teams temporary, letting underperformers sink or swim, owning your results and getting work done by hunkering down on your own and unplugging from emails, voice mail and other distractions.

“There is no greater danger to productivity than the standing committee meeting — a team for the sake of a team, a meeting for the sake of a meeting. Hold everyone accountable, including yourself, and set aside the time and space you need to get things done.”

Along with automatic rather than accountable collaboration, Breeden warns against the dangers of six other leadership virtues with the potential to cripple your career and damage your organization:

  • Bland rather than bold balance. “Disguising indecision as a bland compromise that attempts to achieve many things but ends up accomplishing nothing.”
  • Narcissistic rather than useful creativity. “Wasting ime and money coming up with new ideas because it feels good, not because it’s needed.”
  • A focus on process rather than outcome excellence. “Spending too much energy producing perfect work instead of developing the quick-and-dirty solution needed now.”
  • A preoccupation with outcome rather than process fairness. “Keeping score and evening the score to make sure no one gets more than their fair share.”
  • Obsessive rather than harmonious passion. “Racing down a path seeking success only to find burn-out and misbehavior instead.”
  • And a preference for backstage rather than onstage preparation. “Planning to do work instead of productively working out just-in-time solutions with just the right people.”

“The truth is that many workplace values that seem beyond reproach actually do hidden damage,” says Breeden. “These are values that on the one hand give us life and direction, and on the other hand can steal our energy, effectiveness and success.”

The trick is to take a hard look at previously unquestioned virtues and your personal beliefs, keep the good and sidestep the unintended bad effects.

“Some leaders become fully aware and steadily mindful of the downsides of their and their companies’ most cherished and unquestioned virtues and, in the process, renew their spirits, get more down and enjoy more success. The goal is to stay true to yourself while avoiding the ways your unexamined beliefs and automatic behaviours can backfire.”

Review: Masters of Disaster – The 10 Commandments of Damage Control by Lehane, Fabiani & Guttentag

master of disasterThis review first ran in the March 25th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Masters of Disaster: The 10 Commandments of Damage Control

By Christopher Lehane, Mark Fabiani and Bill Guttentag

Palgrave Macmillan


Maybe it starts with a tweet or a Facebook post. An errant email. A candid comment behind closed doors that’s caught on smartphone and posted to YouTube. A confidential and damning report that’s anonymously slipped to a reporter.

However the fuse is lit, you find yourself caught in a crisis. Your credibility is on the line and restoring trust is your one and only mission.

So you move into all-out damage control mode. You offer up a heartfelt apology to the core audience who’ll decide your fate. You commit to full disclosure so a real or perceived cover-up doesn’t become the crime. You admit that mistakes were made. You make amends. And you do everything in your power to prevent the same crisis from ever happening again.

But you don’t just play defense when it comes to damage control. You should also be ready to go on the offensive and drop the gloves in a crisis.

“If you go to bed at night and you are not in a deep hole, and you wake up the next morning to find yourself peering up out of a deep hole, you can safely conclude that someone spent the night digging that deep hole for you – and to their benefit,” say crisis communication consultants Christopher Lehane and Mark Fabiani and journalist Bill Guttentag in their book Masters of Disaster: The 10 Commandments of Damage Control.

“And you simply can’t curl up and go into a fetal position – you have to climb out of the hole, stand tall and fight back against those who are trying to take you down.”

When a crisis hits, take a hard look around. Are there hidden agendas at play? Who gains from your pain? Why are they stirring the pot and how are they fanning the flames?

The authors recommend adopting the no free layups rule of legendary NBA coach Pat Riley. “If there is someone with unclean hands benefiting from the damage, you must publicly expose their conflict, put them on the defensive and hit them where it will hurt.”

At some point, self-interested parties will overplay their hand. They’ll accuse you of sins and crimes you didn’t commit. Use provable inaccuracies to undermine your opponent’s credibility and shift the spotlight from you to them.

The burden is entirely on you to connect the dots and make sure the whole story gets told. “The moment your opponent puts forth a misrepresentation is the moment you seize on a discrepancy, turn the tables and limit the damage to your reputation. By showing your opponents have engaged in a misrepresentation, you will undermine their credibility and create a favourable compare-and-contrast dynamic with your own credibility.”

But be absolutely certain you’re right and they’re wrong. The authors caution that in a crisis, you’re putting your credibility cards on the table and playing all in. “But if you have the cards, and play them right, this is a highly effective route to damage control.”

In today’s media environment, it’s virtually guaranteed that every event, every comment and every activity will be reported online, on air and in print. Add the speed at which information moves whether from mainstream media or your neighbourhood bloggers and citizen journalists and crises have now become our natural state.

What’s more, all of us are caught in a unrelenting cycle of “skeptics reporting skeptically to a cynical audience that consumes the information cynically, perpetuates itself – and deepens the skepticism and cynicism by creating an enormous feedback loop of distrust.”

In this feedback loop, it’s not a question of if your organization will get hit with a crisis. It’s only a matter of when.

To help you prepare for the inevitable, the authors draw from real life case studies to outline three guiding principles and 10 commandments for surviving a crisis with your credibility intact. “A crisis is like a knife fight in a telephone booth. And to come out on top, you will need to become your own Master of Disaster when it comes to the art of damage control.”

Review: Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs

good peopleThis review first ran in the Feb. 25 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

My Feb. 25 hour 2 interview with Bill Kelly on CHML 900 about this book is posted here

Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It

By Peter Cappelli

Wharton Digital Press


So why is good help so hard to find?

We’ve all heard this story before. A company needs to hire because business is booming, Boomers are retiring or someone’s moved on. The job posting goes out and the flood of resumés come in. But there isn’t a single applicant who fits the bill. No one has the requisite skills, the job goes unfilled and the search continues, both for the company that urgently needs to hire and the freshly minted grads, the under- and unemployed who desperately want to get hired.

According to conventional wisdom, an ever-widening skills gap is to blame. Companies complain that schools fail to deliver the right training and allow students to graduate unskilled. The government takes heat for not welcoming enough skilled immigrants and foreign-trained professionals and job candidates are blasted for having unrealistic expectations when it comes to pay, perks and benefits.

Peter Cappelli doesn’t buy it. The Wharton School professor and author of Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs says when he looks at the facts, there’s no solid evidence to support claims of a skills gap. While there’s a definite disconnect between workers and jobs, blaming the victim misses the mark and only makes matters worse, warns Cappelli.

“The real culprits are the employers themselves,” Cappelli wrote in a Wall Street Journal article that spawned his book. “With an abundance of workers to choose from, employers are demanding more of job candidates than ever before. They want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away, without any training or ramp-up time. To get a job, you have to have that job already. It’s a Catch-22 situation for workers — and it’s hurting companies and the economy.”

Cappelli says some jobs are going unfilled because there’s actually a surplus, rather than a shortage, of talent. “Employers may take longer to fill vacancies not because no one fits their requirements but precisely because there are so many qualified applicants and because they differ so much. In this case, it might pay off for employers to wait for someone who is perfect for the job, not merely qualified, or even to see who will do the job at a wage well below market rate.”

As for the complaint that jobs go unfilled because candidates balk at the wages offered, Cappelli says employers may need a refresher in how markets work. “There is a difference between saying we can’t find anyone to hire and saying we can’t or don’t want to pay the wages needed to hire. Not being able or willing to pay the market price for talent does not constitute a shortage.”

Mechanical Devices is one of the companies that has been a poster child in ongoing media coverage about growing skill shortages. The U.S.-based parts supply company had 40 machinist jobs that it couldn’t fill and those vacancies were holding sales back by an estimated 20 per cent. The 40 jobs reportedly paid $13 an hour. Yet Cappelli points out the industry average for machinists was $19 per hour. “Would that have some effect on the company’s ability to find candidates? You bet.”

Cappelli also calls out hiring processes, especially at companies using cost-saving, HR-shrinking and applicant-crunching tracking and screening software programs. The problems begin with the unrealistic expectations of hiring managers who are, as the founder of a staffing company puts it, looking for unicorns.

“Managers pile all the credentials and expertise into the job description to minimize the risk that the candidate will fail, making it virtually impossible to find anyone who fits,” says Cappelli.

Once it’s baked into the software, every requirement, no matter how critical or trivial, becomes a hurdle that applicants must clear to get an interview. Not surprisingly, few candidates survive the process, regardless of their experience and ability to do the job.

Cappelli concludes his book by saying what we’re really facing is a training gap. “Despite all the concern about the supposed inadequate skill level of job seekers, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the sagging investment in employee training among those companies apparently desperate for skills.

“A huge part of the so-called skills gap actually springs from the weak employer efforts to promote internal training for either current employees or future hires.”

In-house, employer and employee-shared training programs and traditional apprenticeships would go a long way to filling vacant jobs and putting people to work, says Cappelli. Mechanical Devices set up a 10-week training program to create its own machinists. Out of the first group of 24 trainees, 16 graduated and moved into the vacant jobs.

Cappelli also recommends more co-op programs, internships and closer collaboration between schools and employers. “Students learn academic material more easily when they see practical uses for it; employers and students alike benefit from having contact with one another and in the end, employers see graduates who are better prepared for jobs. To expect schools and students to guess what skills your company will need in the future is plain and simply bad business.”

In challenging conventional wisdom, Cappelli has written a book that will save employers from searching for unicorns and make good help far easier to find and hire.

Review: Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

trust meThis review first ran in the Feb. 11 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

My Feb. 11 hour 3 interview (35 min mark) with Bill Kelly on CHML 900 is posted here.

Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

Ryan Holiday

Portfolio / Penguin


Welcome to Diatribe Partners, Hamilton’s premier consulting shop specializing in social media smackdowns.

Got a local politician, member of the Fifth Estate, business or community leader who doesn’t share your view of the world? We’re here to help.

We custom-build campaigns to shame, silence and grind your enemies into submission. At Diatribe Partners, we don’t cast aspersions. We destroy reputations. Dissatisfaction guaranteed.

A winning combination of snark and self-righteous indignation will fire up and unleash the fury of real and fake Facebook friends and Twitter followers.

We’ll enlist the help of local hit-happy and traffic-hungry social media power users to recycle a steady diet of mis- and disinformation.

Together, we’ll blindside and bury your enemy with a barrage of well-timed tweets and posts crafted to be as viral as they are toxic.

We’ll bait your besieged and frustrated target into saying something regrettable that can and will be used against them over and over again in the court of public opinion.

We’ll manufacture online conflict and controversy that stands a good chance of generating offline coverage in the mainstream media.

And should your foe fight back, we’ll take a slight detour to the high road. We’ll claim only to be interested in having an impassioned constructive conversation and giving voice to the common people.

Here at Diatribe Partners, self-confessed media manipulator and online hit man Ryan Holiday is our patron saint. And Holiday’s expose — Trust Me, I’m Lying — is our playbook.

Holiday, who’s director of marketing for American Apparel and a freelance reputation manager, admits to having abused and misled social media to influence what wound up in the mainstream press. “I created false perceptions through blogs which led to bad conclusions and wrong decisions — real decisions in the real world that had consequences for real people.”

Those tactics and consequences can be ugly. “Online lynch mobs. Attack blogs. Smear campaigns. Snark. Cyberbullying. Trial by comment section. It is clear to me that the online media cycle is not a process for developing truth but for performing a kind of cultural catharsis,” says Holiday.

Anthropologists talk about ritualized destruction and degradation ceremonies. Colonial Massachusetts had Salem witch trials. Today, we have Twitter and Facebook. “Their purpose is to allow the public to single out and denounce one of its members,” says Holiday. “To lower their status or expel them from the group. To collectively take out our anger at them by stripping them of their dignity. It is a we-versus-you scenario with deep biological roots.”

And then there’s the predominance of snark and sarcasm in social media. People say online what they would never have the courage to say face-to-face. “There is a reason that the weak are drawn to snark while the strong simply say what they mean,” says Holiday. “Snark makes the speaker feel a strength they know deep down they do not possess. It shields their insecurity and makes the writer feel like they are in control. Snark is the ideal intellectual position. It can criticize but it cannot be criticized.

“Bloggers lie, distort and attack because it is in their interest to do so. The medium believes it is giving the people what they want when it simplifies, sensationalizes and panders. This creates countless opportunities for manipulation and influence.”

Holiday argues that you can’t have your news instantly and have it done well. That you can’t have your news reduced to 140 characters or less without losing large parts of it. And that you can’t manipulate the news and expect it won’t be manipulated against you.

The economics of the Internet have created a twisted set of incentives, says Holiday. Traffic is more important and profitable than the truth. “When we understand the logic that drives these business choices, those choices became predictable. And what is predictable can be anticipated, redirected, accelerated or controlled.”

Diatribe Partners has decided to ignore Holiday’s final words of caution. “Part of writing this book was about a controlled burn of the plays and scams I have created and used along with the best of them,” says Holiday. “Of course, I know some of you might ignore that part and use this book as an instruction manual. So be it. You will come to regret that choice, just as I have.”

Review: Walkable City by Jeff Speck

Walkable CityThis review first ran in the Jan. 28 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

By Jeff Speck

Farrar, Straus And Giroux

I’d dodge four lanes of one-way traffic for a quinoa, chickpea & black bean salad and a Cuban super burger.

But I don’t need to risk life and limb because the Earth to Table Bread Bar and Chuck’s Burger Bar have set up shop on Locke Street South. It’s a thriving street in Hamilton’s lower city that proves Jeff Speck’s Theory of Walkability.

Speck, a city planner, architectural designer and author of Walkable City, says you can attract a whole lot of pedestrian traffic if you offer a walk that’s useful, safe, comfortable and interesting.

“Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well,” says Speck. “Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe, but feel safe.

“Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban streets into outdoor living rooms. Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and signs of humanity abound.”

Locke Street South delivers on all four counts with slow-moving two-way traffic, curbside parking and a healthy mix of restaurants, shops and residences. What’s more, the street isn’t saddled with long and boring swaths of vacant lots and blacktop or what Speck calls missing teeth.

“Get walkability right and so much of the rest will follow,” says Speck.

Downtown Hamilton’s answer to Locke Street South is James Street North. Speck would agree that converting the one-way street in 2005 was a smart move. “If your downtown lacks vitality and it’s got one-ways, it’s probably time for a change.”

Speck outlines a host of other ways that could revitalize the heart of Hamilton. Get more people living downtown by allowing homeowners to add granny flats and introduce inclusionary zoning to strike the right balance of market rate and affordable housing. Speck warns many downtowns have too much affordable housing.

Revisit how much parking is mandated for new businesses and condo developments. Rather than require parking beside or behind buildings, allow owners and developers to pay in-lieu fees for shared spaces at nearby and centrally located municipal lots and garages. “Instead of providing parking, businesses are only required to pay for it, which allows the parking to be located in the right place and, importantly, shared.” Allow owners and developers to offer parking cash-outs so employees and condo dwellers can trade their parking spaces for cash equivalents.

Put an end to cheap curbside parking and designate downtown as a parking benefit district so all the coins fed into meters are reinvested to enhance walkability in the core. “In addition to improving sidewalks, trees, lighting and street furniture, these districts can bury overhead wires, renovate storefronts, hire public service officers and keep everything spic and span.”

Set height limits on new construction to encourage more mid-rise development and avoid having entire downtown blocks dedicated to single tall towers set back from the street and surrounded by acres of parking. In the District of Columbia, buildings can only be 20 feet taller than their width.

Put fat roads on a diet and reuse eliminated lanes for a combination of angled street parking, separated bike lanes, wider sidewalks, patios, trees and awnings.

“These fixes simply give pedestrians a fighting chance, while also embracing bikes, enhancing transit and making downtown living attractive to a broader range of people,” says Speck. “Most are not expensive. Each one individually makes a difference; collectively, they can transform a city and the lives of its residents.”

Before spending a dime, downtown Hamilton needs an urban triage plan. Speck recommends ranking streets (James North would get an A) and mapping out the pedestrian traffic that’s already flowing between key points in the core. “Streets are either in or out,” says Speck about where to invest money to increase walkability. “Ideally, the entirety of city leadership, both public and private sector, comes together around a simple understanding: Build These Sites First.”

Whether we live in the core or the ’burbs, we should all be pushing for a pedestrian-friendly downtown. Offering a useful, safe, comfortable and interesting walk will bring in new businesses, retiring baby boomers and the young entrepreneurial talent that every city’s chasing. “Every relocation decision, be it a college graduate’s or a corporation’s, is made with an image of place in mind. And, with rare exception, that image is downtown. If the downtown doesn’t look good, the city doesn’t look good.”

And to borrow a line from Speck, we can’t afford to have a downtown that’s easy to drive to, but not worth arriving at.

Review: Startup Communities by Brad Feld

Startup CommunitiesThis review first ran in the Jan. 14 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City

By Brad Feld


A question from the audience left Brad Feld stumped.

Feld, an early stage investor, entrepreneur and author of Startup Communities, was talking about Boulder’s thriving startup community with a local business and government crowd.

“What do you think ecodevos should be doing to help?” someone asked.

Feld was stumped. He had no clue what ecodevos were. “All I could think of was ‘Whip It’ from the punk rock band Devo and I had to restrain myself from blurting out ‘whip it, whip it good,’” says Feld.

He soon realized he was being asked about the City of Boulder’s economic development department. His advice?

“First, stop calling yourself an ecodevo since I’m certain there’s not a single entrepreneur in the room who has any idea what that means. “

Feld added that the economic development folks should stick to their role of being feeders for Boulder’s startup community and start asking entrepreneurs what they need to succeed.

“Once you’ve asked, you have a choice. You can say ‘we aren’t able to do that’ or ‘excellent idea — we are going to do that now.’ The worst thing you can do is to be in the middle with entrepreneurs.”

According to Feld, a successful and sustainable startup community needs both leaders and feeders such as economic development departments. Both are important, yet they have different roles and there can only be one true leader.

Regardless of the city, Feld says it’s essential that entrepreneurs who’ve co-founded high-growth companies actively lead the startup community. “Lots of different people are involved in the startup community and many non-entrepreneurs play key roles. Unless the entrepreneurs lead, the startup community will not be sustainable over time.”

Not only must entrepreneurs lead with a “give before you get” philosophy, they also need to make a long-term commitment to their community. “I like to say this has to be at least 20 years from today to reinforce the sense that this has to be meaningful in length.”

Established entrepreneurs also play a key role in fostering a philosophy of inclusiveness. Anyone who wants to get involved should be welcomed and quickly plugged in. “Building a startup community is not a zero-sum game in which there are winners and losers: if everyone engages, they and the entire community can all be winners.”

Feld says there shouldn’t be a leader of the leaders and the classic patriarch problem is one to watch out for (“old white guys who made their money many years ago but still run the show”). The best startup communities aren’t hierarchies. They’re loosely organized networks with new leaders constantly stepping up, taking on and doling out community building assignments.

“Becoming a leader in a startup community is a function of what you do rather than being voted into office or selected by some secret committee in a dark, smoke-filled room,” says Feld.

When talking to groups about startup communities, Feld always asks how many people in the room are entrepreneurs. “If less than half the audience consists of entrepreneurs, there’s a fundamental problem.”

Feeders are everyone else in the startup community, including government, universities, investors, service providers and large companies.

Feld says universities have five resources that are relevant to entrepreneurship: students, professors, research labs, entrepreneurship programs and technology transfer answers. “The first two resources, which are people, are much more important than the last three,” says Feld. “Every year, a new crop of eager freshmen arrive on campus. Regardless of what they end up doing, they all bring new ideas and fresh perspectives to the community.”

The core entrepreneurship activity at the University of Colorado Boulder happens in the law school. Along with hosting conferences and groups, the school offers an entrepreneurship law clinic.

The two most important contributions that large companies can make are providing convening space and resources for local startups and encouraging startups to build companies that enhance the large company’s ecosystem.

Feld also says successful startup communities need regular activities like hackathons and startup weekends that bring and bond leaders and feeders together in working on real entrepreneurial activity.

“My favourite thing about startups is that they don’t require anyone’s permission,” says Feld, who in his book shows how a city with about a fifth of Hamilton’s population became a startup powerhouse. “Great entrepreneurs just start doing things. These are same entrepreneurs who can be the leaders of their startup community. They just do things.”

This is a must read and a powerful call to action for Greater Hamilton entrepreneurs.

Review: Startup Weekend – how to take a company from concept to creation in 54 hours

Startup WeekendThis review first ran in the Dec.  17 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Startup Weekend: How to Take a Company From Concept to Creation in 54 Hours

By Marc Nager, Clint Nelsen and Franck Nouyrigat

John Wiley & Sons


There are no brilliant ideas, only brilliant execution.

So say the co-directors of Startup Weekend, a non-profit with the mission to educate entrepreneurs, strengthen communities and launch startups.

At last count, more than 34,000 people have taken part in hundreds of Startup Weekends in more than 60 cities, including Hamilton.

From Friday night to Sunday night, established and aspiring entrepreneurs get together to pitch ideas, join teams and compete to turn concepts into creations.

“The key to the startup is to, well, start,” Marc Nager, Clint Nelsen and Franck Nouyrigat advise Startup Weekend participants. The trio, who took over what was then a for-profit company in 2009, are big proponents of learning by doing. “Just pick an idea — any idea. They’re all good. And then get to work.”

One of the keys to brilliant execution is to surround yourself with the right people with complementary skill sets. Ideas are important but the team is essential, say the co-directors.

Forget the mythology of lone entrepreneurs toiling away late into the night, against all odds and for years on end in basements and garages.

“Even visionaries need a team of doers to bring their paradigm-shifting, brand new idea to life. From mentors to investors to lawyers to employees to fellow co-founders, there’s a whole stream of people involved in the most humble startup.”

And that’s whom you’ll meet at Startup Weekend. On Friday night, you make a 60-second pitch. You’re pitching your big idea and making a pitch for talent. If you don’t have an idea to pitch, you must still join a team before you call it a night.

Active networking at Startup Weekend is a high-energy, low-risk way to evaluate what potential co-founders could contribute. Deadline pressure reveals who’s a high performer in the clutch and who’s “all hat and no cattle.”

“Startup Weekend is essentially a chance to give this marriage a spin before actually tying the knot. Those 54 hours of work give you a chance to see whether things will work out. And if they don’t, nothing is lost. For many people, Startup Weekend’s value lies much more in the relationships that they form than in the business ideas themselves.”

The 54-hour deadline reinforces the need for entrepreneurs to move fast. “Startup Weekend imposes strict time constraints because there are time constraints in the real world, too. People have day jobs, families or both. They can’t take an infinite amount of time with an idea. You don’t want your great idea to be outdated — or accomplished by someone else — by the time you decide to do something about it.”

The co-directors say we’re at the beginning of an entrepreneurial revolution, with StartUp Weekend doing its part by pushing knowledge and networks, tools and technology to people who are committed to solving problems and changing the world. “Many inhibitors and limitations on startups and innovation are being removed. All at once, starting now.”

So if you spent 2012 daydreaming about launching a business, here’s your New Year’s resolution. Read the book and then do the event. Innovation Factory is hosting Hamilton’s no talk, all action 54-hour total immersion in entrepreneurship April 26-28. Meet other entrepreneurs, pitch your big idea, build a great team and execute brilliantly.

Review: Salman Khan’s One World Schoolhouse

one world schoolhouse

This review first ran in the Dec. 3 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The One World Schoolhouse

By Salman Khan

Hachette Book Group


There’s a gap in Hamilton that we need to close in a hurry.

At George R. Allan in West Hamilton, 79 per cent of Grade 3 students are at or above the provincial standard for mathematics. That’s 19 percentage points higher than the average for all schools in the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board and 11 percentage points above the provincial average.

But just a short drive away in Central Hamilton, only 20 per cent of Grade 3 students at Cathy Wever are at or above the provincial standard for math. The score’s slightly higher among Grade 6 students at 35 per cent.

While there’s significant spread in scores between the two schools, the kids have exactly the same unlimited potential. Brilliance isn’t restricted by postal code.

How well those Grade 3 students fulfill their potential will go a long way to deciding the future of Hamilton. We need every one of those students to make an outsized contribution when they join the workforce at the back end of the next decade.  High skilled workers for high skilled and paying jobs will be at a premium.

And Hamilton won’t fire on all cylinders if one in three adults and four in 10 kids in Central Hamilton continuing to live in poverty.

When it comes to helping more kids make sense of math and stay engaged at school, we all have skin in the game. And the Khan Academy could be a big part of the solution.

The Khan Academy is a nonprofit with a mission to deliver a free education to anyone, anywhere.  The academy’s founder is 36-year-old Salman Khan, an MIT and Harvard grad who was working as a hedge fund manager by day and posting 10-minute math tutorials on YouTube at night to tutor his niece.

Today, six million students of all ages watch the Khan Academy’s 3,400 no frills digital blackboard videos every month. They take interactive quizzes, get computerized feedback and earn badges. The Academy’s online material, which is available at no charge, is now part of the curriculum in 20,000 classrooms around the world

Khan is out to challenge long-held assumptions and rethink how we teach and learn. “The old classroom model simply doesn’t fit our changing needs,” says Khan. “It’s a fundamentally passive way of learning, while the world requires more and more active processing of information.

“The old model is based on pushing students together in age-group batches with one-pace-fits-all curricula and hoping they pick something up along the way. It isn’t clear that this was the best model 100 years ago; it certainly isn’t anymore.”

Khan advocates a model of active, self-paced learning where there’s no shame or stigma in progressing slowly and no dreaded moment when the class must move on regardless of whether students actually comprehend what they’ve just been taught.

The move to self-paced learning recognizes a fundamental truth: we all learn at different speeds. “Some people seem to catch on to things in quick bursts of intuition; others grunt and grind their way to comprehension. Quicker isn’t necessarily smarter and slower definitely isn’t dumber.”

What’s more, Khan says technology allows students to learn when they concentrate best. “Why do we still insist that the heaviest lifting in teaching and learning should take place in the confines of a classroom and to the impersonal rhythm of bells and buzzers?”.

Khan isn’t looking for technology to replace teachers. Rather than spend scarce class time delivering hour-long lectures to a passive audience, teachers would devote more time to doing what they best – helping students who are struggling to master the material. “The promise of technology is to liberate teachers from those largely mechanical chores so that they have more time for human interactions. It would raise both the status and the morale of teachers by freeing them from drudgery and allowing them more time to teach, to help.”

In nearly every chapter of his book, Khan takes aim at customs that date back to the 18th century. Bringing our education system into the 21st century is imperative, says Khan.

By one estimate, 65 per cent of those Grade 3 students at George R. Allan and Cathy Wever schools will end up doing jobs that haven’t been invented yet. So how do we educate and prepare our kids for a future that none of us can predict?

“Since we can’t predict exactly what today’s young people will need to know in 10 or 20 years, what we teach them is less important than how they learn to teach themselves. The crucial task of education is to teach kids how to learn. To lead them to want to learn. To nurture curiosity, to encourage wonder, and to instill confidence so that later on they’ll have to tools for finding answers to the many questions we don’t yet know how to ask.

“This is not an abstract conversation,” Khan says about reimagining education. “It’s about the future of real kids, families, communities and nations.”

Every parent and educator in Hamilton should read Khan’s book, spend some time at and then think of how we could bring the Khan Academy into every school and neighbourhood where kids are hungry to learn.

Review: The Power of Why by Amanda Lang

This review first ran in the Nov. 5 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Power of Why

By Amanda Lang



Nothing’s quite as painful or predictable as the deadly silence that follows the end of a presentation at work.

With much enthusiasm and in great detail, a project leader has just pitched a bold and brilliant plan to solve a problem or seize an opportunity for your organization. The presentation ends with an open invitation to ask questions.

If we’re not drifting off or texting away, we’re checking the clock and praying for an early exit. We shoot daggers at colleagues who appear tempted to ask questions if only to hear the sound of their voices and remind us that they’re the smartest ones in the room.

But what if we went to the next presentation and acted like a bunch of three year olds?

What if we all put up our hands to ask questions?

What if we fearlessly asked the obvious and dumb questions that everyone’s thinking?

What if we admitted that we didn’t understand three-quarters of what we just heard?

And what if we found the courage to ask whether we’ve come up with a bold and brilliant solution to the wrong problem?

Chances are, we’d become a far more innovative organization.

“As a business journalist, I’ve had the opportunity to interview a lot of people who’ve come up with a new product or service, or who’ve found a new way to run an organization,” says Amanda Lang, author of The Power of Why, co-chost of The Lang & O’Leary Exchange and senior business correspondent with CBC News.

“The main difference between them and the rest of us is that they ask more and better questions, and they are more driven to find answers and embrace them, even if the answers are at first not what they wanted or expected to find. They have less in common with Einstein, frankly, than with young children.”

Kids are naturally curious, says Lang. They ignore conventional wisdom and love to figure things out for themselves.  They question, challenge and test everything.

So what happens to those kids? Lang says they head off to school where we do a spectacular job of educating them out of their curiosity.

As one researcher puts it, we’ve adopted a pedagogy of intellectual hide and seek. The teacher holds all the right answers. It’s up to the students to find the answers, memorize them and parrot them back.

“As the educational system is currently constructed, the right answer, not the cheeky question, gets the gold star – and the faster you get that answer, the better,” says Lang.

“While teachers value innovative thinking in the abstract, in reality, they tell researchers that the kids they like the least are the ones they also rate as the most curious and creative. These are the kinds of children who are forever taking the class off track with their questions and observations. The kids whom teachers like the most, according to a growing body of research, are the compliant, polite, predictable ones. The kids who don’t pose challenges.”

Lang says the same dynamic of rewarding right answers, punishing wrong answers and not recognizing good questions repeats in the workplace.

“There are real or perceived disincentives to asking questions. A lot of people worry about revealing they don’t know something; they want to look like experts, not ignoramuses. There’s the fear of asking a dumb question, one that everyone else in the room knows the answer to, one that would make the questioner look pretty foolish.”

But here’s the problem. If you want innovation, you have to be curious. You need to ask a lot of questions, challenge assumptions and work through a lot of wrong answers.

“There isn’t a story of innovation or progress that doesn’t involve multiple false starts and flubs,” says Lang.

Our economy is driven by innovation. Our prosperity rests on the constant discovery of better products and services and smarter ways to get the job done.

Innovation also renders obsolete much of what we already know.

“The world is changing so rapidly that by the time a student graduates from university, everything he or she learned may already be headed toward obsolescence,” says Lang. “The main thing that a student needs to know is not what to think but how to think in order to face new challenges and solve new problems.

“Curious kids learn how to learn, and how to enjoy it – and that, more than any specific body of knowledge, is what they will need to have in the future.”

So that’s our challenge in our schools, at work and on the home front. We need to do a far better job of fostering, recognizing and rewarding curiosity and divergent thinking.

For inspiration, Lang profiles some exceptional innovators, from the creator of a table saw that won’t amputate your fingers to four young women who turned a soccer ball into a power source for children and families living in developing countries.

Lang’s book will help you rediscover the three-year-old version of yourself who was so fearlessly and insatiably curious.