Rarely riveting, conferences on entrepreneurship are often like a dose of castor oil — good for you, but hard going down. Most are long on advice from the other shore — the ‘have-already-made-its’ — and replete with pious counsel but typically fails to address the real life concerns or capture the energy of this emerging professional class that by virtually all accounts accounts for a good deal of Canadian growth. The Art of Entrepreneurship held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre this past week to mark Canadian Small Business Month proved the proverbial exception. So how and why was this event different? Let me count the ways: humour, novel approaches to old problems, empathy, particularly for the plight of the female entrepreneur, and star casting, crowned by announcement of a new source of real support for the small entrepreneur that is looking to take business to the next level.
A good deal of credit for tone goes to event emcee Ron Tite, who runs The Tite Group, a Toronto-based content marketing agency and acts as content curator for Dx3 Canada, who no doubt drew on his training at Second City to infuse this Art of conference with laughter — executing on one good piece of advice offered by many of the presenters to entrepreneurs who may miss opportunity out of fear of risk: "have a sense of humour."
But humour was not reserved to between-speaker banter, rather it infused the spectacle offered up by Eric Ryan, co-founder and chief brand architect at Method, and author of The Method Method (see video below). For those of you who have not yet been introduced to this marketing phenomenon, ‘Method’ is a line of eco-friendly cleaning products, which also represents a new way of thinking about the relationship between product and organizational culture. According to Ryan, the path to innovation is through culture, which produces products that are best distributed via outreach that stays true to organizational values. For Method co-founders, these values were high design, sustainability and fun: as Ryan quipped, "people pay a premium for scarce, and fun is scarce in chores," an observation that led Method founders to abandon the (dirt) fear factor in favour of an aspirational approach, and market happiness instead. Beyond the fun, Ryan and his team had to address a number of challenges that are familiar fodder to the entrepreneur looking to find the opportunity in cultural shift: how to take on giants like Proctor and Gamble with an eco-friendly cleaner, and how to get the consumer mainstream hooked on eco products? For Method, the answer was a strong marketing focus, the "art as operator model" which brings all employees to the table to cull new ideas on delivery and distribution, as well as the determination to add a "twist" to all conventional activities, including bullying by competitors. For example, with a small legal war chest, when challenged by Clorox for use of the daisy in its advertising, Method chose to respond to the cease and desist letter with a "take it to the people" online video asking for votes on "who owns the daisy?" Answer choices were: Clorox, Method or Mother Nature. Method did not hear back from Clorox.
Debbie Travis, self-taught interior decorator and TV personality of "Painted House" fame, supplied the empathy with a refreshingly frank account of her own struggles to succeed in the broadcast industry, and to build personal brand. Travis offered up 10 commandments for the entrepreneur, embroidering notions like, find your passion, protect your brand, embrace your mistakes, surround yourself with the best (talent) and get support, with anecdotes from her own personal experience, but reserved most comment for her final counsel: balance = happiness, i.e., take time for yourself and keep things in perspective, goals that she noted are particularly difficult for women who are more susceptible to competing family demands.
In terms of star quality, Alexis Ohanian, who along with partner Steve Huffman, founded the hugely popular news aggregation, discussion and sharing site reddit, was on hand to explain "how to make the world suck less and still make a profit." According to Ohanian, reddit has had 13,000,000 unique visitors to the site, but started out facing a well-funded, established Digg competitor with the partners’ combined resources of $72,000 in the bank. Ohanian attributed Reddit success to new business models enabled by the Internet: "entrepreneurship looks very different in the digital age," he explained as the resources needed to build even very large businesses are available online free or at low cost. Low capital requirements lowers the entry bar for entrepreneurs today, provided, Ohanian noted, companies understand that they are really technology companies rather than producers of specific goods or services. In addition to founding reddit and the hipmonk travel booking site, Ohanian is also author (of Without their Permission), activist advocating for a free Internet, and investor in 80 tech startups (as well as advisor to Y Combinator, the Silicon Valley tech incubator that rejected Ohanian and Huffman’s first idea) (see video below). The key to entrepreneurial success in his view lies in technology: "the Internet is the biggest staging ground we have seen; we need to think of ourselves and our customers as creators rather than passive consumers; software is eating the world, coding is the new literacy and fluency — it’s the new wizardry. With a laptop, you can change the world."
To help small businesses looking, as Dell Canada president Kevin Peesker put it, to "take it to the next stage," Dell took advantage of the Art of the Entrepreneurship conference to offer its own version of technology support — launch of the Dell for Entrepreneurs Program into Canada. Eric Ryan’s counsel that businesses should refine and remain true to cultural values is a lesson that Dell appears to have taken to heart: announcing extension of the program to Canada (from the US, UK, Ireland, the Netherlands and France, where the program is already in operation), Peesker described Michael Dell’s own humble beginnings 30 years ago (oh no, not the dorm room video again!) and his current status, after Dell privatization last year, as owner of 75 percent of the $50 billion business. Dell is a "business based on a culture of creativity and entrepreneurial spirit," he added, and committed to "supporting entrepreneurs who leverage technology to take ideas from start-up to success, to fast track growth."
Though Dell is now looking to address the enterprise space with a solutions-oriented approach and product categories that span the IT stack, the company continues to find a solid market in the small business community. As a result, it has looked to support the community through alignment with various entrepreneurial groups, such as the Dell Women’s Entrepreneurial Network, which has contributed a member to the new Canadian Dell for Entrepreneurs Advisory Council in Catherine Graham, CEO of commonsku and president of RIGHTSLEEVE, or HIGHLINE, a VC-backed platform aimed at pushing digital startup growth, which has also contributed CEO Marcus Daniels as member of the new Advisory Council.
The Canadian Dell for Entrepreneurs initiative consists of a number of components: a dedicated website for sharing information on gaining access to resources and best practice in scaling growth; membership in the community, which offers access to exclusive product discounts, personal support, opportunities to network with other businesses and a monthly learning series focused on business as well as technology topics; and a two-year "Dell Founders 50" business acceleration program for disruptive companies that view technology as critical to their business and are "poised for massive growth." Every six months, a new class of 50 will be added to the roster who will have opportunity for global networking with other like businesses and access to Dell executive expertise, in addition to financial support. Dell as reserved 10 of the 50 member spots for Canadian startups, so for more information on how to join Cloud Dynamics, the first Canadian member of the fall 2014 cohort, Peesker urged all interested entrepreneurs to check out the website for more detail on application criteria. After all, "With a laptop you can change the world" — including your own.
The Art of Entrepreneurship event was sponsored by VISA, Dell, RBC, KPMG, TD, intuit quickbooks, Queens School of Business and UPS (not Canadian Tire).
reddit's Alexis Ohanian