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.

Review: Rise – 3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader and Liking Your Job

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

Rise: Three Practical Steps For Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader and Liking Your Job

By Patty Azzarello

Ten Speed Press


Ask how my day’s going at work and I’ll tell you that I’m living the dream.

Now some folks think I’m being sarcastic. But it’s the gospel truth.

At the midway mark in my career, I’m in a job that lets me play to my strengths, be in the company of great people and make some meaningful contributions.

So how about you?

Are you a happy camper at work?

Or has your career stalled? Are promotions passing you by? Are you overwhelmed with work and burning out? Do you have a nagging and foreboding sense that there should be more than this?

Do you spend all your waking hours and sleepless nights trying to find a way of spinning  your favourite hobby into your dream job?  After all, we’re constantly told that if we do what we love, the money will follow.

Don’t tender your resignation just yet.

“It’s just plain bad advice,” says author Patty Azzarello about the follow your bliss mantra. “The number of people who make a lot of money doing what they love is so insignificantly small that it’s an unrealistic and useless thing to model. The most unfortunate thing about this is that it makes people feel like they are failing when they don’t achieve it.”

Azzarello says that when you do the thing you love full-time, the effort to make it a viable business that keeps a roof over your head quickly turns your labour of love into nothing but hard labour.

“They end up turning their love into a job they don’t like, one that generally doesn’t pay very sell. They end up not loving life after all. And they waste time that they could have spent earning money.”

So here’s the alternative work / life strategy Azzarello recommends to her clients.

“Do what you love for free. Work for money. Change how you do your job to feel less tortured about it – and maybe even feel pretty good about it. Spend the money you make on doing the things you love when you’re not at work.”

So how can you feel less tortured? Start by recognizing that your job description isn’t a life sentence. You can change it. Find the sweet spot where you what you enjoy most and do best overlaps with the biggest business needs facing your employer.

“It’s up to you to tune and renegotiate your job over time to better suit your strengths,” says Azzarello.  “If you simply leave this to the natural course of events, it will not happen. Jobs don’t rewrite themselves just to suit you. It’s a negotiation. Figure out how to align your strengths with something the business needs and then make it happen for yourself over time.”

If you want to move up the ladder of success, you need to appreciate the critical difference between outputs and outcomes.

“When you are a manager, the value you add to your company is no longer based on the hours you spend at work,” says  Azzarello. “It is based on the value of the outcomes you create.”

While it may be tough to hear, know that no one really cares that you work 16 hour days and haven’t taken a vacation in four years. Workhorses don’t get promoted. Career advancement goes to those who find and deliver more effective, efficient and productive ways to get the most important jobs done.

To focus more time on value-added work that’s good for you and your employer,  Azzarello  recommends setting ruthless priorities. Chances are, everything on your forever expanding to-do list seems really important.  But with each task and project, ask how bad it would be for your organization if you failed to deliver. The handful of tasks where you absolutely must succeed become the ruthless priorities where you devote most, if not all, of your time and attention.  Do that and your superiors will also start to pay attention to your potential and future career path.

All of these strategies are part of Azzarello’s three steps for advancing your career, standing out as a leader and liking your life. Step one is about doing better and producing exceptional results. Step two is about looking better by building your personal and professional credibility. Step three is about connecting better with a broad base of supporters who can offer you a ton of help on your road to success.

You’ll find a wealth of common sense and some  counter-intuitive advice in this book. Azzarello , who was 33 when she became the youngest general manager at Hewlett-Packard,  35 when she ran a billion dollar software business and 38 when she became a CEO, shares all her secrets and lessons learned. This is essential reading for anyone looking to join or move up the management ranks.


Review: Small Message, Big Impact

This review first ran in the Oct. 9 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Small Message, Big Impact: The Elevator Speech Effect

By Terri L. Sjordin

Portfolio / Penguin


Pick a Hamilton hot topic that gets you fired up.

Maybe you’re passionate about two-way streets, casinos or the fate and future of the eight young women at Lynwood Charlton Centre.

You’re passionate about these issues. But are you persuasive?

Can you win people over? Or do you just preach to the converted, do character assassinations on nonbelievers and anonymously rant and rave to yourself on social media?

Imagine you have three minutes to privately bend the ear of a key decision-maker or opinion leader.

Would you know what to say and how to say it? Would you throw a strike or a ball? Would you be bold or boring? Compelling or confusing? Could you win a longer meeting with a larger audience?

Too many of us succumb to what author Terri L. Sjordin calls the data-dump syndrome. We bury our audience in facts and stats. We cite study after study. If we’re lucky, we inform and educate. But we never persuade and inspire.

What we need is a well-crafted, knock-it-out-of-the-park elevator speech. It’s a brief presentation that cuts through all of the noise that so easily distracts our audience. Sjordin says the purpose of an elevator speech is to “intrigue and inspire a listener to want to hear more of the presenter’s complete proposition in the near future.”

Sjordin’s put together a speech outline that starts with a clear introduction followed by a set of three key points, a succinct conclusion and a powerful close.

“As with building anything worthwhile, structure is essential when developing a presentation,” says Sjordin. “Structure helps you stay on point or get back on point if you wander, and it helps you tell your story. Without it, you’re flying without navigation.”

Your introduction grabs attention. You let your audience know where you’re going and what you hope to accomplish in the next three minutes.

The body of your presentation makes a persuasive case with three main points supported by strong arguments and illustrations.

Your conclusion summarizes what you’ve just said and then leads to your call to action. What is it that you need and want your audience to do?

So what separates good from great presenters? Sjordin says the great meet three benchmarks:

  •  They build solid, persuasive cases and employ clean, logical arguments that support their messages.
  •  They’re creative in illustrating their talking points, blending thoughtful analysis with storytelling to win both hearts and minds.
  •  And they deliver their messages in authentic voices. They speak with rather than at their audience.

“Truly memorable, impactful, persuasive and effective speakers and presenters hit all three benchmarks,” says Sjordin.

Ronald Reagan is regarded as one of America’s best presidential speakers. Sjordin learned a little known fact about the Great Communicator from John Fund, an award-winning political writer for the Wall Street Journal.

“Ronald Reagan basically had a three-minute elevator speech card for a variety of different subjects,” Fund says. “There were times when you could literally see Reagan reach into his pocket and pull out index cards and slide them onto the podium. Depending on where he was going and who his audience was, plus how much time he had to present, he would look over a small stack of cards and select the subject and issue cards that were most relevant and timely for that group.”

Or consider these words of wisdom from former British prime minister Winston Churchill:

“If you want me to speak for two minutes, it will take me three weeks of preparation. If you want me to speak for 30 minutes, it will take me a week to prepare. If you want me to speak for an hour, I am ready now.”

So if there’s a topic you’re passionate about, spend three weeks working with Sjordin’s outline. Craft yourself a compelling and persuasive elevator speech on an issue or idea you care about.

Practise, practise, practise. And then seek out opportunities to make your pitch and argue your case with the people who can help you make a difference.

Review: Year Up by Gerald Chertavian – how to close the opportunity divide & the skills gap

This review first ran in the Sept. 24 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

A Year Up: How a Pioneering Program Teaches Young Adults Real Skills for Real Jobs with Real Success

By Gerald Chertavian

Social entrepreneur Gerald Chertavian is singing for his supper in Microsoft’s corporate dining room. The event is being hosted by one of America’s leading venture philanthropy organizations.

Chertavian, a Harvard Business School grad who made his fortune as a technology entrepreneur and Wall Street banker, is founder and CEO of                                Year Up. Launched 12 years ago in Boston, the nonprofit now serves nearly 1,500 students annually in nine U.S. cities.

Not only is Year Up free to recent high school graduates, they’re also paid a daily stipend and can earn up to 23 college credits.

Half of Year Up’s funding comes from fees paid by corporations that hire student interns. Less than 10 per cent of the program’s funding comes from     the government. The balance is covered by donors like the ones Chertavian is meeting with at Microsoft.

“The food is superb, the talk earnest and civil,” says Chertavian about the dinner. “Until I get the question that always kills my appetite.”

One of the donors questions the $25,000 per student cost for Year Up. Chertavian asks if the donor’s children went to private school and does a quick calculation that pegs four years of tuition at $260,000.

“Why then do we think that spending one-tenth that amount on a young adult who has no opportunities or advantages is somehow expensive? Why is one person worth 10 times the investment of another?”

Chertavian then cites a 2009 study by an economic consulting firm that shows Year Up grads in Boston boost their lifetime earnings by more than $1 million and contribute a commensurate amount in taxes.

Nearly 70 per cent of Year Up students graduate and the majority land high-skilled, high-paying jobs or continue their education at college.

So here’s how Year Up works its magic. Students must first pass a rigorous admissions process and sign a contract. “At Year Up, there is no tolerance for what’s been called the soft bigotry of low expectations,” says Chertavian. “We expect a lot from our students because we respect them.”

If accepted, students spend their first five months in the classroom learning marketable skills in information technology, financial operations and quality assurance. The curriculum is tied to the changing needs of the local job market.

Students also focus on mastering the ABCs of attitude, behaviour and communication. They hone their soft skills in everything from dressing and communicating professionally to managing their finances and having a positive attitude.

A mentor is recruited for each student, who’s also plugged into a peer support network. On average, a Year Up student is wrestling with three major challenges outside the classroom, from homelessness and domestic violence to lack of child care and undiagnosed mental health issues.

Students then spend the next six months completing internships at blue-chip companies. For these firms, joining forces with Year Up is a smart business decision. “It’s a source of young, ambitious, smart labour,” says John Galante, chief information officer for Chase Wealth Management.

“It’s worked out very well for us in terms of being an excellent business case for certain skill sets. It’s a great way to reach out to close the divide. It’s also a great energizer for employees around the interns as they come in. I tell anyone — there’s not a big risk here. Add it up: a great business case, great for the community, an energizer for your staff — it’s really a win-win.”

And therein lies the key to Year Up’s success. The program narrows the opportunity divide for its students by closing the skills gap for employers.

“In so many ways, they’re just what our economy needs,” Chertavian says about Year Up students who overcome adversity to become remarkably resilient, resourceful and motivated. “Despite the nation’s high unemployment rate, jobs are going begging — the very jobs our graduates learn the skills for. There are plenty of jobs out there now, many of them information-based that don’t require college degrees. But they demand skills not taught in high schools.”

Inspired by his experience as a Big Brother, Chertavian created Year Up and wrote this book to challenge and change perceptions. “Year Up’s talented, successful workforce is made up of individuals too many of us have long been conditioned to see as liabilities. Our young adults are huge assets to an ailing economy once they’re given an opportunity. Far from being a drag on our economic engine, these skilled new workers will be the key to its future.”

There are two reasons why you should read this remarkable book.

First, all net proceeds are donated back to Year Up.

And second, Chertavian makes the business case for a similar investment that’s badly needed in Hamilton’s own Code Red neighbourhoods. His stories about Year Up students and grads prove that investing in young people is always a smart, safe and sure bet.

And Chertavian reminds us that, as a community, we simply cannot afford to continue wasting so much promise and potential.

Review: Brand Like A Rock Star by Steve Jones

This review first ran in the Sept. 10 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Brand Like a Rock Star: Lessons From Rock’n’Roll to Make Your Business Rich and Famous

By Steve Jones

Greenleaf Book Group Press


We’re headed back for another sermon at the Church of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

My wife and I will be in the stands and out of our seats when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band bring their Wrecking Ball Tour to Copps Coliseum Oct. 21.

We caught their Toronto tour stop last month. Over three hours and 45 minutes without a break, the world’s greatest bar band tore through a playlist spanning four decades. The concert closed with 40,000 fans singing and dancing to Twist and Shout just 15 minutes shy of midnight.

So let’s imagine a world where all of us love our jobs the way Springsteen still loves performing Thunder Road for the 10,000th time. Where we treat our customers the way Springsteen treats his fans.   Where we hold nothing back, consistently turn in an inspired performance and never fail to surprise.

There are business and marketing lessons to be learned from the Boss and his fellow musicians, says Steve Jones who’s spent close to 30 years building radio brands across North America. If you want to build a great brand, look to great  bands.

It all starts with passion. It’s the stuff that legendary bands and brands are made of. “When you create something out of a deep desire to change the world, people pay attention. You believe; we believe. That root passion is where your rock star brand begins.”

From Springsteen and the Beatles to AC/DC and U2, great musicians and bands consistently meet their fans’ expectations. They deliver want their audience wants. Brands need to do the same, says Jones.

“When any brand creates a product that isn’t congruent with what their fans expect, it interferes with the mental real estate the brand already owns. It diminishes the brand’s value.”

Great bands and musicians know better than to try to appeal to everyone. Don’t expect a hip hop or death metal record from the Boss. Springsteen knows his fans want songs about promises kept and broken in Small Town USA where the rain’s cold and hard and the love’s mean and true.

“If you build your brand to appeal to everyone, you’ll never be the brand that people fall in love with,” says Jones. “You’ll never be their first choice. You might become the fallback second choice when the brand they love isn’t available, but that’s about as much as you can hope for.”

While Springsteen has legions of fans, there are some misguided souls who don’t yet appreciate his music. But this doesn’t bother great performers because they know the opposite of love isn’t hate.

“Love and hate aren’t really opposites in the branding world,” says Jones. “They go hand in hand. There cannot be one without the other.

“The opposite of love is simply not caring,” says Jones. “The opposite of love, when it comes to building a strong and powerful brand, is indifference. Any brand that stirs up attention is bound to have detractors.”

Great bands engage their fans and build tribes. What business wouldn’t want the equivalent of Dead Heads and Parrot Heads? “By not getting in the way of their fan’s passion, the Greatful Dead and Jimmy Buffet both created massive networks of passionate people to help spread the message about their music. That’s the opportunity brands have today if they are willing to lose some control and let the fans take over and own their experience.”

And while it starts with passion, it all comes down to your customers’ experience. Great brands deliver great experiences.

“The world  didn’t listen to Jimi Hendrix,” says Jones. “They experienced Jimi Hendrix. Watching him on stage coaxing the fire from his guitar was an experience. Experience is a vital word for brands, and not nearly enough brands understand that. No matter what you sell, it is all about the experience: the emotional reaction that your customers have when they use your brand. Rock star brands realize they don’t sell products or services, they sell experiences.”

Competitors can easily sell cheaper knock-offs of your services and products. But they can’t replicate the one-of-a-kind experiences that you consistently deliver and that your fans happily pay a premium to enjoy.

While there are almost as many marketing books as songs in Springsteen’s discography, this is the first to put a rock ‘n’ roll spin on brand building. It’s an informative, insightful and entertaining read.

@jayrobb lives and works in Hamilton and still finds reason to believe at the end of every hard-earned

Review: UnMarketing – Stop Marketing. Start Engaging by Scott Stratten

This review first ran in the August 27th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

“UnMarketing is all about engagement at every point of contact with your market.”

Unmarketing: Stop Marketing, Start Engaging

By Scott Stratten

John Wiley & Sons


I finished reading Scott Stratten’s book while my kids did a craft at a store here in Hamilton.

A mom and her preschool daughter arrived after us. They were first-time customers. They stood at the counter and patiently waited for a painfully long time while the manager ignored them and continued talking on the phone about a payroll problem.

I felt bad for the mom and wished John was behind the counter. John works as a slide attendant at The Fallsview Indoor Waterpark. My son and I had gone to the Niagara Falls waterpark a few weeks earlier.

John welcomed us to the park during our first hike up the stairs to the slides.  He later gave us the rundown on all the slides while we waited in line. In the afternoon, John asked my son if he was having a great time. John gave us a thumbs up after one of our more awesome wipe-outs at the end of a slide.

John could have adopted a dead stare into middle distance and treated us all like an inconvenience. But he never stopped smiling and striking up conversations. John clearly enjoys working at the waterpark and he’s happy we’re there.

While John’s a slide attendant, on that afternoon he was the waterpark’s chief marketing officer for me, my son and hundreds of other guests.

Stratten, a social marketing guru who calls Oakville home, had a similar experience at the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas.  While walking through the lobby, one of the employees stopped cleaning a carpet and went out of his way to greet Stratten.

“His welcome changed my entire perception of the Wynn. Almost $3 billion went into making this megacasino resort and it was one guy who made me want to stay there. This gentleman, who made me feel welcome at his place of employment, was not only exceptional, but he was extremely rare.”

And it’s these exceptional people who get us talking. Not only do we tell family, friends and coworkers. We tell our Twitter followers, Facebook friends and YouTube subscribers. Smart business owners are joining these online conversations, connecting with prospective customers and converting current customers into fans through the power of engagement.

“If you believe business is built on relationships, make building them your business,” says Stratten.

Social media offers unprecedented opportunities to do exactly that. “I love the fact that with social media I get to know business owners. I can learn not just about their businesses but also about them personally. Sharing this type of connection builds greater trust than any brochure, logo or company mission statement could.”

Many business owners and entrepreneurs initially get it wrong when it comes to social media, says Stratten. “The problem with the term social media is that whenever people see the word media, they automatically think push. Media has been classically linked as a way to push your message out through a variety of methods such as television, newspapers, radio and online. However, social media isn’t media at all – it is simply a conversation between two or more people.”

Be prepared to invest a lot of time, freely share your wealth of knowledge and engage in many conversations before ever pitching your product or service. Stratten posted 10,000 tweets before making his first sales pitch online.

“You wouldn’t open a business bank account and ask to withdraw $5,000 before depositing anything. The banker would think you are a loony. Yet people go on social media, open their account, send out a few pitches for their mediocre ebook and then complain to me that this social media stuff doesn’t work.”

Along with building relationships, social media has the power to destroy reputations, cost you customers and even put you out of business. Failing to connect with unhappy campers can cause you a world of hurt. “One person calling your customer service line to complain may not have much impact in your mind, but throw in a handful of people with the same problem, an influential blog or two, and a Twitter army, and you have a good old-fashioned revolt on your hands,” says Stratten.

If you’re running or about to launch a business, you need to do two things right now. Read Stratten’s book to shamelessly steal his ideas for building relationships and engaging with current and future customers. And when you’re not reading Stratten’s book, log on to Twitter and join the conversations that are happening right now about our community and maybe even your business at #hamont.

As for the owners of The Fallsview Indoor Waterpark, they should give John a Twitter feed and Facebook page where he can continue the conversations that made me a fan of their business.

@jayrobb works and lives in Hamilton and blogs at


Review: Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit

This review first ran in the Aug.13th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Business, in Life and Business

By Charles Duhigg

Doubleday Canada


Looking to change your corporate culture? Follow Paul O’Neill’s lead and set a goal that’s all or nothing.

O’Neill was appointed CEO of Alcoa in 1987. In his first meeting with Wall Street investors and analysts, O’Neill didn’t talk about higher profits, lower costs and maximized shareholder value. Instead, he told the confused crowd that he planned to make the aluminum manufacturer the safest company in America. “I intend to go for zero injuries,” said O’Neill who then pointed out the safety exits in the hotel ballroom and what to do in case of an emergency.

One investor recalls running to a lobby pay phone, calling his 20 largest clients and telling them to immediately dump all of their stock in Alcoa. “It was literally the worst piece of advice I gave in my entire career,” the investor tells author and New York Times investigative reporter Charles Duhigg.

The Wall Street financiers were baffled but O’Neill had done his homework. “I knew I had to transform Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

O’Neill also knew that a journey to zero accidents was a keystone habit that all workers, the union and management would support.

“If we bring our injury rates down, it won’t be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEOs. It will because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: they’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be the indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution.”

To better protect workers, the company needed to know why injuries were happening. And to know that, managers and workers had to study how manufacturing processes were going wrong. Fixing those processes would lead to safer, more efficient operations and higher quality.

O’Neill gave workers his home phone number and told them to call if their managers weren’t following up on safety issues. “Workers started calling, but they didn’t want to talk about accidents. They wanted to talk about all these other great ideas.” Managers who tried to cover up accidents were fired and those who embraced the journey to zero were rewarded and promoted.

Alcoa was one of the first companies to use email. The company built an electronic network so its worldwide operations could share real-time safety data. O’Neill logged on every morning and sent messages. Managers then started to share best practices and ask for help in solving issues beyond worker safety.

Within a year of O’Neill’s meet and greet with panicked investors, Alcoa’s profits hit a record high. By the time he retired in 2000, the company’s annual net income was five times larger than before he arrived. Market capitalization had risen by $27 billion. Some of Alcoa’s factories would go years without a single employee losing a workday due to an accident. The company’s overall worker injury rate fell to one-twentieth the U.S. average.

Transforming organizations by honing in on a keystone habit is one of many stories Duhigg tells to drive home the big idea of his book. Any personal, organizational or societal habit can be changed if we understand how they work. “Transforming a habit isn’t necessarily easy or quick. It isn’t always simple. But it is possible. And now we understand how.”

If you’re a fan of Freakonomics and the work of Malcolm Gladwell, then this book’s for you. Along with the Ballad of Paul O’Neill, you’ll learn how a hospital repaired toxic nurse-physician relations, how Target studies buying habits to identify and then market to pregnant women and new parents (the holy grail of retail), how football coach Tony Dungy turned around the sad sack Tampa Bay Buccaneers and led the Indianapolis Colts to the Superbowl, and why stressed Starbucks baristas don’t dump low-fat iced caramel macchiatos on the heads of obnoxious and rude customers.

Social media at the water’s edge (review of Michael Hyatt’s Platform)

This review first ran in the July 30th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World

By Michael Hyatt

Thomas Nelson


A quick look at the books for the Hamilton Waterfront Trust shows there’s a big problem.

The Waterfront Trust needs to spend a lot more money on advertising. Last year’s ad buy was a meager $37,000 for seven Trust-run businesses with combined revenues of more than $2 million. Eight out of every 10 ad dollars went to the Hamilton Harbour Queen. For those of you not in the know, that’s a boat and not the winner of a nautical beauty pageant.

The Waterfront Trust can’t cost-cut its way to financial sustainable. Revenues need to grow. That means more of us need to spend more of our money at the water’s edge. But we won’t go if we don’t know what’s there.

Not only does the Trust’s brain trust need to double down on its ad buy. They need to invest in social media and build a bigger and better platform beyond a website that has all the charm and personality of an instruction manual.

“A platform is the thing you have to stand on to get heard,” says author and social media expert Michael Hyatt, who has more than 400,000 monthly visitors to his website and 50,000 subscribers to his daily blog posts. “It’s your stage. Today’s platform is not build of wood or concrete or perched on a grassy hill. Today’s platform is built of people. Contacts. Connections. Followers.

“In today’s business environment, you need two things: a compelling product and a significant platform.” Hyatt says business competition has never been greater and consumers are more distracted than ever before.

A well-built platform delivers on three fronts:

  • Increased visibility that elevates you above the crowd
  • More amplification so you can be heard over the roar of the crowd
  • And greater engagement with current and prospective customers

Social media makes up the main planks in your platform. These planks include Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Pinterest, YouTube, blogs and websites.

Taken together, social media gives you a platform to start and join conversations. Share ideas. Champion a cause. Lead the charge. Offer solutions. And build an ever-expanding tribe of raving fans and loyal followers.

“Marketing may not be dead but, in the world of social media, it has morphed. Dramatically. Tribe-building is the new marketing. Marketing is no longer about shouting in a crowded marketplace; it is about participating in a dialogue with fellow travelers. Marketing is no longer about generating transactions; it is about building relationships. Marketing is no longer about exploiting a market for your own benefit; it is about serving those who share your passion – for your mutual benefit.”

An engaged tribe will sing your praises to family and friends, fans and followers both online and off. They’ll happily offer up testimonials and endorsements. They’ll share their stories and experiences. They’ll shoot videos, take photos and create some amazing social media content that casts you in favourable light.

Hyatt cautions that you must have a wow before figuring out how to build a platform and connect with your tribe.  Twitter and Facebook won’t save a lousy product or disappointing service. If anything, it will hasten your demise. To borrow a line from marketing guru David Ogilvy, “great marketing only makes a bad product fail faster.”

The Waterfront Trust has a real wow at the water’s edge. With the right social media platform, the Trust could easily connect and engage with a pretty passionate tribe. A tribe who’s looking for a safe and scenic place to run, walk and bike. To entertain in-laws and impress out-of-town guests. To go on dates. To get the kids unplugged from their iPads and Playstations and connected with the outdoors and. To throw cool parties, events and offsite retreats. And to foster an even greater sense of community and civic pride.

@jayrobb works and lives in #HamOnt and blogs at