Observations from the Trenches by a Fellow Entrepreneur

This is my attempt at sharing the lessons I’ve learned and observations I’ve made while trying to find the answers to the kind of questions they don’t talk about in business books. This blog is dedicated to adventurers who set out on a shoestring to conquer the world. - Christopher Ivey, CEO ShareThink Ltd.

The Credulous Press

Written by Chris Ivey on November 10th, 2012. Posted in Uncategorized

I know, I’ve Been Quiet for a While…

It has been several months since I last wrote anything in this blog. There have been many occasions that excited my desire to comment, I have always discovered a reason to be doing something “more important” instead. Part of that is for the very legitimate reason that I have been fully engaged in the business of survival, but part of it has been a curious kind of shyness. I’m in business, and good businessmen keep their convictions very close to their chests. As one of my former colleagues once remarked in the middle of a barroom debate on politics: “Nobody gives a damn what you think, and neither should you. You’re in business.”

The theory is that if you’re engaged in the business of selling things, you should chary of airing your own opinions, lest you alienate someone who might otherwise be inclined to buy from you. To paraphrase the Grand Inquisitor from the old fantasy adventure game, a good business man should “Shun politics. Shun the appearance of politics. Shun everything, and then shun shunning!”

But I can’t. In truth, I have been doing plenty of writing lately. Over the past few months, I have written a novel’s worth of the most arid content imaginable: proposals, business analyses, software documentation, grant applications, and even (God forgive me), PowerPoint presentations crammed with neat little diagrams. I have firmly suppressed the impulse to indulge the devices and desires of my own heart, and it’s making me miserable. I must write, or burst.

For example: here’s something that really grinds my gears:

The Death of the Press?

The press throughout the western world is preoccupied of late – engaged in an existential convulsion that threatens to cast down the foundations of some of its greatest and most august institutions. They’re losing money, and they’re firmly convinced that it must be because of some new technological advance that is irresistibly and irrevocably changing human behaviour: it’s the Internet; it’s blogs; it’s Twitter; it’s tablets and smart phones.

The great institutions of the press have convinced themselves that the only way to save themselves is to re-invent the way they deliver the news. They think that perhaps if they write shorter stories and deliver them with trendy appliances, people will be more eager to read them.

Hogwash. One might as well blame the failure of the press on the invention of coloured ink or radio. Maybe, just maybe, people are less convinced of the value of organised journalism because organised journalism is failing to provide value. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the majority of people employed in the business of journalism are desperately, almost religiously committed to a particular world view, and that they will go to tremendous effort to avoid seeing, hearing or speaking anything that contradicts the little narrative that they have built for themselves. The insipid, willful credulity of the press is quickly approaching the level of parody.

“Nothing to See Here… Move Along”

A few weeks ago, when the American ambassador to Libya was murdered in an attack on what was in theory a secret CIA safe house in Benghazi, the press obediently reported the glib and somewhat bizarre explanation offered by the US State Department that somehow this was the result of a spontaneous outpouring of righteous anger in response to an unwatchable amateur video, (in English, no less), on YouTube that only a few thousand people had even seen.

When I first saw this reported, I was thunderstruck. I could instantly see that it was a lie. Surely at least one of the reporters at the press conference would ask the obvious questions that would inevitably occur to a child of the meanest intelligence! If this was a protest, why did it happen at a secret location far removed from the American embassy? If only a few people had seen this video, how could it provoke a firestorm of protest half a world away? Libya is a French Arabic country, and hardly anyone there speaks English, so how did they even know what was in the video? Wasn’t it a funny coincidence that this “just happened” on the 11th anniversary of 911?

Not only did no one question the transparent silliness of this cover story – the press committed themselves fully to the deception, and pontificated dutifully for days about hate speech and “Islamophobia”.

Inevitably, elements of the truth emerged, but not through the press. Instead, the story was taken up by bloggers, and by talk radio. The facts that did come out ought to have made this one of the biggest news stories of the decade – it certainly had all of the elements of a blockbuster movie: The US State department secretly dealing in restricted weapons with Al-Qaeda operatives; an 11th-hour recantation by a disillusioned diplomat; the flight to a safe house; a betrayal by a friendly power; gunfire in the night, and a last desperate battle on the rooftops, with an ineffectual President unable or unwilling to act while hopelessly outnumbered Navy Seals beg repeatedly for help that is held just out of reach. The shame, the tragedy, and the final horror of this affair were like something that Shakespeare might have concocted in one of his darker moods.

To date, I have yet to see a single significant story about the Benghazi affair by a major news organization. The press held back their hand, because telling this story would unmake the narrative they had so carefully crafted. They inhabited a bright and brittle universe which held at its center the absolute imperative that Barrack Obama should be re-elected as the American president.

What happened yesterday is equally disgusting. General Petraeus, a man with a brilliant and storied career – and the former director of the CIA, was charged with “throwing the president under the bus”, when he revealed certain facts about the Benghazi affair that contradicted the State Department’s cover story. He had acted in an honourable and straightforward manner, but by telling the truth, he had embarrassed the president. A mere three days after President Obama’s re-election, he was forced out of office.

What a Remarkable Coincidence!

Surely, this is a story that merits attention, and yet the response of the press is contemptible. According to a New York Times story, General Petraeus resigned after it was revealed – apparently by an accidental and unrelated FBI enquiry – that he had been having an extramarital affair with his biographer.

The explanation in this story as to why the FBI should be investigating his personal email, and why the revelation of marital inconstancy should have any damn thing to do with his appointment as director of the CIA is convoluted and tenuous to the point of lunacy. This makes no sense, and I call shenanigans.

What’s disgusting to me is the fact that the New York Times seems to be perfectly satisfied. They might as well have announced that there’s “nothing to see here”. Move along.

Here’s what it looks like to me: the director of the CIA refused to accept the blame for the perfidy of a lame duck president. Within three days of the president’s re-election, he was forced to resign. It also appears that the president has used the FBI as an instrument to investigate and undermine the director of the CIA. Should this be the case, the constitutional implications are enormous.

The press ought to be screaming bloody murder. They ought to be affronted at the insult that has been offered them with this glib, tenuous, convoluted, and incoherent explanation for what looks like a gross abuse of power. They are either very, very stupid and credulous, or else they are complicit in this abuse.

Dear journalists, this is why you are losing the faith of your readers. It’s not the Internet that’s killing your profession. It’s you.

Yes, We Have No Bananas.

Written by Chris Ivey on December 18th, 2011. Posted in Lessons Learned

Chiquita becomes a cautionary example when it gets just about everything about social media communications wrong.

I used to work for an ad agency, and I often had animated discussions with my colleagues about the danger of confusing cause marketing with product marketing. I have always maintained that they are separate disciplines that don’t mix, while many of my colleagues disagreed.

As a society, we have become distressingly pious and self-righteous – and as a natural consequence advertisers wish to capitalize on this instinct. Like my erstwhile colleagues, they see this as an easy path to identifying their product with a strong public sentiment. This is such a bad idea that it merits a blog entry of its own, but what lead me to write today was a satisfyingly spectacular self-immolation by a large American brand that managed to make the wrong choice in just about every decision their communications and marketing teams have made over the past few days.

Talking to Business Students

Written by Chris Ivey on October 19th, 2011. Posted in Uncategorized

I was pleased to be invited back to speak to Dr. David Wright’s e-business class at the Telfer School of Management. It was a slightly smaller group than last year, but I enjoyed myself nonetheless. I always appreciate the chance to brush up on my public speaking.

I found myself thinking of James Herriot’s description of his first experience in public speaking in which he gave a rather unfortunate talk on veterinary medicine to a church youth group. The students were an incredibly polite group of young people, but they watched me with such solemn attentiveness that I was positively unnerved. My few attempts at humour fell very flat, and after a while I felt obliged to give up the attempt.

I was also very surprised that in an impromptu survey of the class, not one student expressed interest in starting their own business, (though there were a few hands visible when I asked if anyone was working towards an MBA). This was, after all, a business class in one of the country’s leading business schools. I singled out one young fellow, who was wearing a suit, and said that he had the look of an entrepreneur, and then I felt bad about it because I had obviously embarrassed him.

I talked to Dr. Wright after the lecture, and he suggested that there might have been young entrepreneurs in the group who just didn’t want to talk about their business. He added that it’s quite common for students to run start-up ventures while attending school. From my own experience dealing with entrepreneurs, I found it hard to imagine young business owners not wanting to talk about their business ideas.

It wasn’t until I was making my way back to my car, and being passed by young folk who were obviously returning from the “Occupy Ottawa” protests that it struck me that the mood on most university campuses is overwhelmingly anti-business. I had just invited budding capitalists to “out” themselves on campus, and it may be that they felt discretion is the better part of valour just now. If so, I apologize.

A Near-Miss With Greatness

Written by Chris Ivey on October 12th, 2011. Posted in Uncategorized

My wife and I went to see Kevin O’Leary speak at the Ottawa Writer’s Festival at the National Arts Center. Ordinarily, I try very hard to avoid the sort of lefty-loon, quasi-intellectual bumpf that is the lifeblood of this kind of event, but hey – it was Kevin O’Leary.

There was the usual welcome and introduction from the festival chair, and a further introduction by the CBC “personality” Adrian Harewood, followed by Mr. O’Leary’s presentation.

I regret to report that he uses a Mac, and something that looks suspiciously like PowerPoint, but I enjoyed his talk very much. I drew the ire of some of my neighbours when I agreed to a point Mr. O’Leary was making about our responsibility for personal, rather than corporate charity with a loud “amen”. An “outrageously right-wing perspective” is an acceptable if slightly roué eccentricity when it’s coming from a celebrity billionaire; but in Ottawa one doesn’t tolerate it in the hoi-polloi.

Mr. O’Leary finished his talk and announced that he would take questions from the audience, but he was quickly and smoothly silenced by the organizers, who had arranged for an interview to be conducted onstage by Adrian Harewood.

What followed was a forty-minute harangue interspersed with loaded questions by an obviously hostile socialist drone. I was irritated, but completely unsurprised by the usual leftist talking points about “the growing disparity between the 98% and the 2% elite”, (meaning that Harewood disapproved of O’Leary’s disproportionate wealth), and “the responsibility for ethical investing”, (by which Harewood implied that perhaps O’Leary wasn’t sufficiently aware of how unethical he was). There were several questions obviously intended to bait Mr. O’Leary on the topic of the Occupy Wall Street Protesters.

Back in the Saddle

Written by Chris Ivey on October 4th, 2011. Posted in Lessons Learned

I have to apologize. I made the mistake of promising a follow-up column on a difficult topic, and then for the next several months I discovered one excuse after another for not sitting down to write. I damn near killed my blog by virtue of being too “busy”. Business is hard; writing is hard. Tough. I’ll try to be disciplined enough to produce a column a day, but I’ll never again make the mistake of promising to write on a topic I’m not ready to write about.

Seek Out Your Personal Yoda

Written by Chris Ivey on May 23rd, 2011. Posted in Quick Tips

If you’re a new entrepreneur, or even a seasoned pro who’s addressing a new market, it helps to find your own personal Yoda. Canvas your contacts for mentors and advisors – Maybe you don’t know any CEOs, and you don’t rub elbows with board chairs, but it’s possible that you’re only a couple of degrees of separation away from people who can be tremendously helpful in advising you. Reach out to the people you know and ask them to exercise their contacts on your behalf.

The Asymmetrical Economy of Spam

Written by Chris Ivey on May 23rd, 2011. Posted in Unmasking Spam

In an earlier post, I wrote about the curious economics of the spam industry.  Considered as an industry, the numbers initially make spam seem like an attractive proposition, with estimates, (and no figure relating to spam is better than an estimate), of global revenues from spam running as high as $3.2 billion in US dollars in the porn business alone. However, because of the quasi-legal nature of the industry, and the fluidity of the borders between nuisance selling and outright fraud, it’s difficult to really put a number on the value of the industry as a whole.

Put simply, it’s hard to determine how much of spam is selling, and how much is stealing.  The membrane that divides the merely sharp operator selling an iffy MLM scheme from the illegal operators selling unlicensed drugs and software, or from the outright frauds who are trying to find “marks” is continually breaking down as operators exchange personnel, data, and technology.

It also becomes apparent that the actual revenues generated by individual operators aren’t really all that attractive. All too often, spam operators use the methods they do because they’re trying to sell a product that doesn’t really present an attractive value proposition, and wouldn’t perform well enough to be a viable selling proposition if they were obliged to pay to use more orthodox marketing channels.

Eat All the Free Lunches You Can Find

Written by Chris Ivey on May 18th, 2011. Posted in Quick Tips

Eat all the free lunches you can find.

I don’t necessarily mean that literally, (though I always scam free food when I can), but exploit every free service and opportunity you can find. Make use of local entrepreneur’s groups and meet-ups, and make use of free local mentoring programs for start-ups like those offered in Ottawa by OCRI.

Every city will have some kind of similar economic development entity or local incubator.

Since most municipal economic development centers are staffed primarily by public sector employees, it’s tempting to dismiss them as a real resource. However, they’re a good place to start looking for contacts, and the better organizations will host regular symposia and events where business people gather. (Plus there’s usually food.) Sometimes free advice is worth exactly what you pay for it, but free is the only deal where you can get more than you paid for.

Don’t be a Solution in Search of a Problem

Written by Chris Ivey on May 17th, 2011. Posted in Lessons Learned

I had spent years working on my solution to email spam. It was a good idea, and I had patents. I had had my technology proposals reviewed by network engineers, and they all agreed that it would probably work very well. Sure, it was complex, and would cost a lot to develop, but it would work.

The problem was that no one wanted it. At least, no one wanted it enough to be willing to risk investing the money required to build it. When I spoke with ISPs and IT managers, I encountered wall of inertia.

They pointed to the effort and money they had already invested in their current solutions. They didn’t work perfectly, or even very well, but they worked – sort of. Complaints were down, and their support people were used to the technology; and they’d spent a lot of money putting it in place. Sure, they might change their solution – perhaps in a few years – if other people adopted it first.

There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to sell people on something they don’t really feel they need. You can have the best mouse trap in the world, but no one is going to buy it if they already have a trap that catches mice.

Pimpin’ (a Product) Ain’t Easy

Written by Chris Ivey on May 17th, 2011. Posted in Lessons Learned

It turns out that launching a product is much harder than launching a service company. If you’re hanging out a shingle as a service company, you can count on generating revenue almost as soon as you start to win contracts. That’s not the case when you build a product. You have to have enough money available to continuously inject revenue into research and development for months or even years before you can generate any revenues.

I had just lost my job, and had very little money of my own. This meant that I would have to convince other people to invest their money in my venture. I decided to ask my former employers for advice. They were kind enough to introduce me to a friend of theirs, a former CEO who was willing to hear out my proposal and give me some practical ideas as to how to proceed.