My 10 hard-learned principles for starting a business

I am an entrepreneur.

marbles - games of chance and skill

When I was 7 or 8 years old I was running my own gambling game and market stall at my public school.  With glass marbles, dozens of us would offer games of skill and chance. If you could hit the tiny ball bearing with a marble, you would get a larger ball bearing or a crystal boulder (a large marble). Sometimes you would amass a bag full of “misses” when people tried to hit your tiny ball bearing.  And there was a clear ranking as to the value of all sizes of marbles, boulders, and ball bearings, one that changed regularly, depending on supply and demand. Besides the games, there was a brisk market for trading various types of balls based on these values.  Ten marbles might get you a crystal boulder, for example. Or on a good day, you might negotiate a better deal, only to trade it for a higher value deal the next day.  Then there were bullies who tried to steal your collection.  The school yard was pretty well policed by teachers, but without overt permission for this marketplace to take place, the market was basically unregulated.  When the inevitable day came when the games and market were shut down by the powers-that-be, there was a true sense of loss for many of us.  But then we moved on to trading hockey cards. One entrepreneurial addiction to another…and just 8 years old.

Living in a town where alcohol was the preferred choice of entertainment, I would ride my bike up and down miles of roads looking for empty beer cans and bottles in ditches.  What a great gig for a 10 year old! As soon as the snow had melted in the spring it was bonanza time:  A whole winter of drinking and driving throwaways were mine for the taking. That is, if Lou, the retired Hawaiian guy who lived across the street, didn’t get them first.  He was a real competitor:  Arising at 5 am, Lou would head to the backstreets of the industrial area of town where guys in cars would drink themselves silly, throw away the cans and bottles, and then drive on.  I had a secret weapon, however:  Lou would walk his dog. I would ride my bike.  So I had vast areas to scout for my glass and tin loot that he couldn’t get to.  But he was a clever guy: He knew that Saturday and Sunday mornings were the best days, after workers got paid their weekly wages on Friday.  I listened to his proudly announced techniques and learned.  I loved to learn how to do things smarter and better.

A clean driveway...
A clean driveway…

When I was a bit older my brother and I would cut lawns in the summer, rake leaves in the fall, and shovel snow off people’s driveways in the winter. Newspaper routes were, of course, also thrown in there for good measure during those years.

As a teenager I tried buying and selling comic books, which was a real money pit. I learned that the commercial trader bought comics at a pittance for what they sold them to me for. And of course when I tried to sell my collection, I was offered only this pittance. Once rid of that business, I instead learned about the horse racing and horse trading business (literally) from another neighbour. Another summer I worked in his greenhouse business, seeing what an amazing cash cow bedding flowers were. As the teenage years rolled on, I wandered through a handful of businesses, learning how the world worked:  Window frames, house painting, furniture manufacturing, building supplies, a department store. Of course, the teenage years meant wanting to socialize with girls, so I often held down 2 or 3 jobs and businesses at the same time. From Burger King to babysitting. I did it all. Money and having an excuse to hang around girls. Perfect.

My adult years meant a dozen more businesses: From importing water filters with my college friend Reiaz to buying bicycles from police auctions, tuning them up, and reselling them at a tidy profit in the spring.  Online businesses, consulting businesses, writing,  training, buying and renovating properties, selling door lites, distributing infra-red heating panels, keynote speaking, … and the list goes on.  All great learning experiences and deepening of my understanding of how the world works.

From 40 years of business successes and failures come 10 principles I base my new business ventures on:

1.  Is there any money in it?

Want to help others?  Volunteer.  I do, and it feels great to give from the heart.

Want to make money?  Always be sure to leave your “do gooding” feelings at home.  Is there little chance for significant revenues and profits in the short or long run?  Immediately and firmly shut down any attention to that idea.  Only start businesses where you can clearly make a good profit with reasonable effort.

And context is important here:  What is the scale of profit you want to make?  Doubling your money on a $50 sale sounds wonderful. But you can’t live on the profits from a $50 sale if you only make one sale a month.  Is this a “fun” business or a “pay the bills” business?  Being clear on the context of this business opportunity helps to put into perspective your expectations and how those expectations compare to the scale of profitability of the business.

2.  Are there enough possible customers who would want your product or service?

No guessing here.  Yes, you can prove there are enough customers or no, you can’t.  Yes?  Take the next step. No?  Stop that business idea immediately.

3.  Can they actually pay for it? And will they?

“Never try to sell something to someone who can’t afford what you are offering.” This is a paradox, because often in life those in most need can’t afford to pay to have that need met.  Even more subtly, many people who can afford what you have to offer say they can’t afford it and want it for free. Then they turn around and spend 10 times the amount of money on some luxury they want.  So clearly, there must also be a strong desire for what you have to offer –  a desire that is not a nicety, but a “here is my cash: give it to me now” kind of desire.

4.  Can you get them to buy your product or service?

Most of my business failures resulted from me not having the confidence, tenacity, acumen, and willpower to promote my products and services properly.  I always felt that a great product – one that offered excellent value – would sell itself.  True, if you have something unique and differentiated. Or something that people know well and want more of:  A Subway franchise, for example.  But false if you are just a “me too” business. Another standard offering. Then you have to work hard at promotion.

Marketing has been the most complicated and stressful part of all my efforts.  And I know it is for many others.

But now, I have a simple and clear question to guide me: “Can I simply and easily get people to buy what I am selling?”  Yes? Proceed. No?  Shut down that idea right away.  I will not engage in a “me-too” business, unless I can offer significant differentiation or access to a customer group that makes marketing clear and simple.

5.  Understand and offer what your customers want to buy, not what you want to sell.

You want to sell lawn cutting services.  Your customers don’t want their neighbours thinking bad thoughts about them because of an unkempt lawn.

Two completely different products.  Your view is irrelevant.  Theirs is always right.  Learn how the world works:  You are almost never selling a functional product or service. You are always meeting emotional needs.  Learn to speak to customers in a way that means something to them, not you.

So, I ask:  “What emotional needs am I offering to meet? Will customers pay lots of money to get those emotional needs met? Can I correctly and fully meet those emotional needs so that I can get lots of money in return?”

6.  Deliver excellent value, above and beyond what your customers expect.

Giving them everything you can think of?  Then find a way to give them more.

7.   Fire your worst customers right away.

I hated the guy who demanded his driveway be shoveled right away after it snowed, and then got his expensive car stuck trying to push his way through the snow piles, because he couldn’t wait for us to finish our shoveling work.   Instead he had us push him out. And when we were done shoveling, he told us to come back another day for payment because he didn’t have any cash.

Never, never do business with bad customers.  Fire them immediately or better still, simply say “no” to selling them your product or service in the first place.

8.  Pareto Principle your efforts

80% of your sales and profits will come from 20% of your customers.  Give those 20% of your customers your best attention and service.

80% of your work will come from 20% of your customers who make you no profit and give you all the grief.  Find out who those 20% are and get rid of them.

9. Buy low and sell high.

If you can’t buy low and sell high right away, don’t start the business.  Low profit margins never get better. They just get lower as costs go up.

And the key here is real margins: Not 10%, 20% or even 30%.  Never touch a startup business idea without a 50%, 100% or even 200% profit margin.  This is not greed, it is simply logical:  No real profits and you don’t have a real business. You have a charity. Great, if you are rich. Not great if need money to live on.

10.  Start right away and stop right away.

Start up your business at minimal cost and right away while you have hungry customers.  Even if you don’t have it all planned and organized perfectly yet.  Just do it.

And shut down your business right away when the customers don’t need you any more.  The moment your sales look like they are going to drop significantly due to factors beyond your control, shut down that business right away.

I learned this early in my career  I pushed for the sale of our first house only 6 months after we bought it and I had done a bunch of renos on it by myself.  My wife and all our extended family were shocked at the idea of selling and discouraged the sale.  To them, it was a home, something that you didn’t treat as a saleable asset.   To me, it was a freshly renovated asset in a market that had just peaked. Further, the cash from the sale of the asset was needed for our Masters degrees, something my wife and I had both just started working on full-time.

One month after we sold, the market plummeted, eventually dropping the value our house 25%.

Business decisions will often be unpopular.  But if you know when to start a business and when to stop it, hold firm and make the decisions, despite naysayers. Even if you are occasionally wrong, you establish a pattern of thinking, listening to intuition, and trusting yourself.  This is a confidence that is very, very valuable to you in the long run.

11.  Fall, get back up, and do something differently.

A bonus principle:  Expect to fail.  And then learn why you failed.  The only real failure is to not learn why you failed. If you do learn, then it is not a real failure, but rather a great learning experience.

And when you do fall down, get up right away and do something differently.

Entrepreneurs are not those who get their businesses right the first time. They are the ones who make 10 mistakes, learn all they can, and then succeed spectacularly the 11th time they try.


A week after I wrote this blog post another question came to mind:  “Where did I make the most money from all these ventures?”

Buying houses, renovating them, and reselling them.  Hands down the biggest payoff in absolute profit terms.

In relative terms, for the capital and effort involved?  Selling myself:  Teaching in Dubai on contract was the most spectacular payoff, in cash, personal growth, and the lifestyle “wow” factor.

The most satisfying?  Collecting bottles and cans as a kid.  Every one you find, pick up, and return feels like a gift.  Is there anything more satisfying in business than feeling grateful when you make money?


Photo credit:  Marbles, Flickr User: “Rebecca Barray”. Creative Commons Licensed, accessed February 21, 2014.

Travel, living, and learning: A recipe for life?

Why is travel such a deep calling for many people, myself included?

Why does our deepest self resonate with feelings that travel can trigger, including a sense of opening, expansion, learning, connecting meaningfully with others, and freedom?

Many years ago I posted a theory that travel is essential for learning, and particularly for children and teenagers. The theory posited that only travel could deliver certain experiences and learning opportunities, ones you could not get any other way.  To my surprise, I got a lot of backlash, particularly from mothers. Clearly not everyone agrees with my theory.

Over the years since I mused about the potential role and power of travel in our lives, I have come to even more strongly believe it is an essential part of a life lived fully.  Maybe it is just that my reality has formed from my belief – a self-fulfilling prophecy, so to speak. Or maybe my particular life path includes travel as a planned and useful part of my personal growth – part of my destiny. Regardless, travel is what I am called to do and travel is what I am doing…right now.  I am writing this while occasionally glancing out the window at a volcano (actually 3 volcanoes, if you look closely), on the shore of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala:

volcanosBut eye-candy aside, I am returning to the idea of travel as an essential part of life in order to gain some clarity on how it fits with living and learning my life. I am attempting to form some sort of recipe for my life, with travel as a central ingredient.

In comparison, there are many recipes for cooking food, and many different ingredients. But a few ingredients in cooking food tend to repeat across many or most recipes in a particular culture.  But are those ingredients foundation ingredients or simply spices that enhance the experience of life?  Hmmmm…interesting question.  For the culture I am from (“Western”), my stage in life (“past middle age”), and my personal growth path (“a rushing river”), my recipe for life seems to include a large dollop of travel.  But again, did I put that ingredient into my recipe, or it essential?

Case experience:  My first 10 days on this trip

The first 10 days of this trip have given me every indication that travel is delivering exactly what I needed and wanted.  In just 10 days:

– I have met a dozen interesting people who have expanded my views of the world:  Young Israelis who struggle with politics, how they interact with other cultures, and how to love.  A crazy-funny gay owner of a hostel who hits on all the male guests – myself included.  A Canadian couple constructing a life of travel and remote work (“digital nomads”).  A woman from Switzerland who is a distant relative of mine. A lovely young woman building a life for herself and her Guatemalan boyfriend between America and Guatemala. He is working on an organic farm on Long Island and Riley is spending a few months on an organic farm…in Guatemala.

– I have hiked past waterfalls, through vivid forest of flowers, and past banana leaves so vibrantly green that I thought I had never experienced such a color before.  I passed Maya women carrying huge loads of concrete blocks on their backs.  I greeted children with eyes and smiles so bright I wondered if I had arrived in paradise.  I stepped off the path to allow old men to pass, receiving a heartfelt (and sometimes surprised), greeting and thanks.

– I have shopped in traditional markets, buying new and strange foods using my basic Spanish skills, and a smile, and some proverbial scratching of my head. “How am I going to get a dozen loose eggs all the way across the wavy lake on a rickety, crowded, bobbing boat, without breaking them?”

– I swam many times in a beautiful lake surrounded by volcanoes (see photo above).  The first swim in the lake likened to “a baptism” by Riley.

Clearly, travel has been an ingredient of my last 10 days that has generated a veritable feast for my life.

The blessing… and the curse

It is so easy to make everything seem so wonderful in reflection. Most of my first 10 days have been wonderful, no doubt. But travel also brings a form of curse, one which must also be acknowledged and honored.  Also in the last 10 days:

– I have had the “runs” on and off for 5 of those 10 days. Nothing serious, just adjustment to new food, water, sleep, and energy patterns.

– I woke up in the night with my heart pounding and my arms and legs numb and tingling. This lasted a few hours until it passed and hasn’t returned since. (No, I don’t do drugs).

– I struggled with communication, working to improve my Spanish and feeling humbled once again for those who are learning a second language (read: my students).

– I had to regularly and consciously stay “centred” in order to flow easily through chaos of ever-changing conditions of my life. From moment to moment my life has changed in the last 10 days, something that can be hard on a psyche.

– I have had to put up with noise around me. Being sensitive to noise when I am tired, listening to construction noise from the villa immediately next to ours has been a minor irritant.

– My plans changed. And then they changed again. And then I let go of those and just went with what came up in the moment.  Travel forces you to be flexible, whether you are naturally so or not.  Resisting change is a quick way to blacken your work. Acceptance of change leads to wonderful new experiences (usually).

Each one of these “curses” I feel safe in saying were not daunting to me.  I overcame them pretty easily, flowing into my next moment with more grace than I have every mustered before in life.

Travel:  An essential ingredient for life?

Given the aforementioned analogy of the recipe, the last 10 days of travel have delivered me a feast of experiences, learning, and feeling very much alive.

So is travel an essential ingredient in life, such as rice would be in Asia, flour (or sugar) would be in North America, or beans to a Guatemalan?  Does travel create a life that is akin to a feast?

We like feasting on food. But we can’t feast on food every day. So, is travel an ingredient like in a food  feast? Wonderful to enjoy on occasion, but not something that we would be able to stomach every day nor would be good for us? What balance of stability and travel would be a healthy mix?

Questions for further consideration…

Musings on Education, Part 4: A letter to my students

A letter to my recent students:

Dear Students,

I am writing you today because I feel it is time for openness from my perspective on you and your experiences in my recent courses.

I went into teaching in higher education 22 years ago because I loved learning, helping others learn, and to enjoy the intellectually stimulating place that universities and colleges can be. I also thought that I was somehow doing good – helping the world be a better place through education.

The journey over 22 years has been very rewarding to me. I smile when I reflect on the amazing experiences we have had together. Many of you I will remember fondly for the rest of my life. Some have become my dear friends, too!

During these last 2 decades it was not only you who have grown professionally and personally through our experiences together, but me too! We have both gained new skills, awareness, knowledge, and self-confidence.  I used to be scared of going into the classroom when I first started teaching. This and many other fears and insecurities have been replaced with confidence and strength. And I have seen the dramatically increased  confidence and strength in hundreds of you, too!

Recently, however, I have found myself scared again of teaching. And it surprised and disturbed me when I uncovered the reasons:

1. I love learning and growing intellectually and personally, and always have. Recently, I have found a mismatch between what I love to do and what you are seeking. Most questions I get from you now are either grade related or “tell me what to do” queries, not learning related. As I don’t worry much about grades (and never did) receiving your questions has become increasingly frustrating for me.

2.  Further, there has been a lot of emotion attached to your queries recently:  Shock, anger, disappointment, and blame pointed at me when your grades do not meet your expectations, or I won’t tell you “what to do”. When I was in university, I knew that my grades generally reflected my effort, understanding, abilities, and skills.  Obviously, there were good teachers and bad teachers, great courses and crappy courses.  But overall, it was *me* who was responsible for my grades, not my professors. I always knew this. To my recent surprise, apparently many of you think I am responsible for your grades and for your learning!

3.  I always knew that I had to change and grow up as a necessary part of my learning. And for most of my 22 years, I think most of my students understood this too. Through mutual trust, engagement, hard work, and opening up our minds and spirits, learning happened through change.  Now, I am finding that most of you want to do more of the same things you did before, in the same ways, as if learning is about simply more volume of information intake in the ways you did before. This is so fundamentally opposite to learning as I understand the process that I simply don’t know how to teach in the way you want me to.

4. Mentoring has always been an important part of my learning. When asked at the end of my degree who I held up as a person I respected and wanted to be like right then, It was Professor Jim Erskine, a master teacher and overall amazing person. He represented at that time the person I wanted to be primarily because he was dedicated to crafting the most amazing learning experiences for his students and making it safe for us to learn. I grew tremendously from his teaching, mentorship, and those transformative learning experiences. From building our communication skills to new ways of seeing the world, every class had something to learn, even if I didn’t fully understand at the time all of of what it was I was learning. I knew I was on to something good in Jim’s classes and gave all I could to learning and growing during our time together. I was no perfect student, to be clear, but I really worked hard at changing myself.

Over the last 22 years, I have found myself humbled by the number of my own students who feel I have helped them learn and grow. This alone has made the journey worthwhile for me.

In the last 2 years I have been humbled again. This time, however, it has not been in a happy way. Despite crafting and honing what I thought were my best learning opportunities yet, and looking forward to our time together with all that I have to give, I witnessed very little interest from you in engaging and learning. Oh, we have had the odd fun times in the classroom and a few of you have excelled, but would have despite anything I have done. As a whole, however, I feel little change has happened as any result of my role as your teacher. In other words, I am no longer making a difference.

These last few courses together have been the most difficult experiences of my career and have led me to reconsider why I teach and whether I am able to teach any longer.

“Maybe it is me who is now simply a bad and uncaring teacher”, I have asked myself in reflection. So, how did I go from being a teacher that made a difference to one who students get angry at because they don’t like their grades or I won’t tell them what to do?

After some reflection, I have come to the conclusion that there is no judgement needed. No good or bad conclusions to be made about myself or about you.

There is simply a mismatch.

We now have different purposes. I am here to help others learn and grow because I love to learn and grow.

I sense that you have come to my classroom with different purposes and for different reasons. Not good or bad reasons, to be clear, but simply because you want something other than learning as I understand it and can help you with.

I regret that I did not see this mismatch coming sooner. But that is the nature of learning, isn’t it? You sometimes have to learn by experience.

I now take full responsibility for finding where I can do what I do best. I make this commitment to myself and to any future students I teach. Future students:  I will help you to the best of my abilities and with all the care I can for your human development. If, however, you want something other than learning as I understand it and can help you with, I will graciously decline to be your teacher.

In conclusion, I hope this letter helps you understand more about our time together these last few courses, the grades you earned, and why I was not able to deliver what you wanted:  Top grades and a simple path to your success in getting those grades. We have a mismatch of purposes, perhaps, that is all.

All the very best to you. May you find the success you seek!



Musings on Education, Part 3: Where learning really takes place – a way forward?

Part 1:  “Education” is increasingly being treated as if it can be a business-able service.  Nah. It can’t really. “Training”? Sure:  Training can be a business, but not education.

Part 2:  I have been designing, staging, and offering educations for 22 years.  But 99% of my students don’t want an education . They want the outcomes of an education. Different product.  I have been trying to “educate” when I should have simply been “delivering”.

Part 3:  Where learning really takes place – a way forward?

I am an educator.

I stand on the side and coach, facilitate, guide, encourage,  honour, and stage learning experiences where the students are the actors and the audience at the same time.

I am the director, the playwright, the stage manager, the acting coach, and the usher.

These activities and roles are in my blood. They are what I am, not something I do.  I work from the heart in helping others grow as human beings.

I cannot “deliver” education. I cannot lecture or be the “sage on the stage”.  To me, education is only about active, engaged, human development. Not about “knowledge acquisition”.

But knowledge acquisition is what the system is designed to do.  And for the most part the players in it are comfortable with that design, desire it to be that way, and actively support it being that way.

And the “players” include students.

Oh, the students say they want an education, but they don’t, really (see Part 2).  Again, they really only want the desired outcomes of an education.  The actual “education” part? Well it is something they will try hard to “game” their way around.  Or avoid completely, if possible.

Because simply put, acquiring an education is a messy, non-linear, challenging, emotional, and uncertain experience.

And who wants all that when you can have the nice and tidy opposite?

The conundrum

Well, if students don’t want an “education”, and I really can’t “deliver” the goods they do want –  a nice comfy linear mental “knowledge fill-up” process leading to the outcomes they desire, then what role do I have to play from this point forward?

In other words, I am an “educator” and the system wants “delivery men and women”.

And I am tired of twisting myself into a pretzel to try to squeeze an education into a system designed for delivering outcomes rather than educations.

I used to sigh and shake my head every time I would arrange my classroom tables and chairs so that students could work in teams or face each other. In doing so they could engage with each other in learning.  These classroom structures are based on all the best principles of adult education – principles that encourage ownership of learning, engagement, responsibility taking, discussion, teamwork, communication skill building, and active learning.  Principles that have been clearly documented for 50 years. 100 years. Oh wait, even from earlier than that…

Then, the next teacher in the classroom, or the students themselves, would dutifully put the tables and chairs back into neat rows facing the front, so that delivery could take place. So that they could pass authority, power, and responsibility back to the teacher.  Just where it belonged.

But the classroom desk re-arrangement game is not funny anymore.  After two decades of trying to educate in a system that wants a linear,  mechanical, knowledge-delivery process , this game is just lame.

I don’t want to play this game anymore. Nor the other pretzel games I have had to play to try to educate in the classroom.

In summary, very few students in my classes now want an education.

But educate is what I do.

A conundrum.

Where learning really takes place, and a possible way forward…

But wait!  Hang on.  Enough sucking of my proverbial thumb.

Some tough questions to ask myself:

1.  Is it fair to say that all students don’t want an education?

Answer: No. Of course it is unfair. Some small percentage do seem to want an education.  And the rest?  They will learn in their own way in their own time. If not in the classroom, then in other ways and for many, later in life.

But some small percentage are ready to learn…right now.

2.  Does learning actually take place in the classroom?

Answer:  Well, it can, in principle. But in practice, given the structure of the higher education system as “delivery” oriented, and given that most people in it want the structure to be that way, then no:  “Filling up” at a knowledge level certainly happens, but learning as I understand it does not actually take place in the classroom – not in the traditional lecture based classroom where assessments are designed to test knowledge or designed for students to mimic mechanical processes.  And even if you offer rich learning experiences, most students don’t want them. They actually want a delivery mode instead. In my most recent teaching terms, students have actually been rejecting engaging in rich learning experiences. Some even walk out of the classroom and don’t return, skipping some or much of my term in favour of spending their time “studying the really important courses” (read:  ones that allow them to learn in a linear, mechanical, knowledge-based manner).

3. Where does learning actually take place, then?

Well if rich learning doesn’t take place in the classroom, where does it take place?

Answer:  In a dozen other places!  In student reflections – both alone and over coffee with a friend. In work experiences or co-op educations. In social events on campus and off.  In late night chats.  In office meetings with professors who care.  In….

Not in the classroom, but outside of the classroom!

In one-on-one meetings and small group discussions.  And with larger groups of students who choose to learn.

Where learning is emotionally safe.

And when learning is on a student’s own schedule and when they decide to learn.  Even if this means after they have run into the barriers of their own limits and have come to realize that they need change and grow in ways that simple knowledge acquisition can’t deliver.

And so a possible way forward begins to emerge:

I have been trying to educate in the classroom, where education can’t really take place.

Maybe I should explore how I can help students learn outside of the classroom!

Maybe this is in one-on-one sessions, with small groups, and with larger gatherings of students who want and choose to learn.

Maybe I have simply been in the wrong setting and at the wrong point in their development.

Or maybe I have simply outgrown the classroom setting.

In either case, a way forward begins to emerge for me:  a point and new perspective to start exploring from…


What my students want is not what I am here to do

Musings on Education, Part 2:  What my students want is not what I am here to do.


Oh dear.

I have just spent 22 years teaching and designing programs at colleges and universities.  I have been offering education and crafting programs that offer educations. And in recent years I have even been consulting and speaking on how to do things better in delivering educations at other institutions.

Now I realize that I have got it all wrong:

I haven’t been actually doing what students wanted.

I have been doing what I wanted.

Worse, I didn’t know I was out of synch with reality.

You see, students don’t want an education, they want the outcomes of an education, including:

  • a degree that tells others something about their status and abilities.
  • a good job.
  • lots of money.
  • a lovely mate.
  • happy parents (who paid for the education).

And here I thought I was supposed to be educating them.

Silly me.


Time to rethink this teaching thing.