I’ll get my culture from a Starbucks yogurt thanks.

Would you tolerate your government dictating to you that you have to buy your socks from a Quebecer artisan knitter, or your toaster from subsidized Ontario manufacturers? Of course not, you will go to Walmart and buy the cheapest damn option presented to you, or go online and buy the coolest variant of the above based on your wants.

We don’t allow these special interest groups to lobby our government for “Mandatory Canadian Content”, yet we do for books, television, radio content and the like. It’s ridiculous, especially when you consider that it’s new technology which allows little heard of Canadian artists, products and content to spread easily around the World, and yet we allow our government to restrict our personal benefit for the same technology if the content is coming from across the “border”. We have no reason to “protect” ourselves from outside world content, anymore than we should underestimate ourselves when it comes to using technology to spread OUR talent.

It’s stories like this, where the Canadian Booksellers Association wants to restrict Amazon from opening a distribution centre in Canada, that make my blood boil.Here’s an excerpt, which I actually can’t even believe is in writing:

A Canadian Heritage spokesman said the government has ordered a review of Amazon’s proposal to open a Canadian distribution centre to determine if the investment “will be of net benefit to Canada.”

Spokesman Tim Warmington said the proposal is reviewable under the Investment Canada Act, “if it falls within a prescribed specific type of business activity that is related to Canada’s cultural heritage or national identity, and if the governor-in-council considers it in the public interest.”

What many people don’t understand is that Amazon has probably done significantly more for Canadian companies than the Federal Government has ever done. Amazon owns the popular EC2 cloud computing infrastructure which probably allows thousands of Canadian small companies to host and grow their online business.

In media, print, audio, video, and internet, there are no more borders. By allowing fake markets to be sustained by archaic legislation, we will always end up paying more for something we rarely want, and yet still consuming that which we do want (for a needless premium).

Dear Government, protect our borders and our citizens who can’t help themselves, and forget trying to protect “my culture”.

Macro-Economics Dance Party Debate

I discovered this video from a friend who linked me to Jim Whitelaw’s blog post. I must admit, I have always found macro-economics both confusing and a bit too dry for my liking. However, if you are looking for a 7 minute primer on the differences between Austrian School Theory of Economics and the principles of Keynesian economics. You won’t find a more fun lesson.

Frankly, I am more of a free market guy, but it’s hard not to want to be a Keynesian after wathcing the video. i mean who doesn’t want to grab that bottle of Amaretto the morning after a stock market crash?

 

Edmonton’s Rockstar Tech Community

Last night was a hugely successful Startup Edmonton event, called Launch Party. The rockstars of this event were not necessarily the companies being profiled (Although they are all great), but the amazing volunteers who took it upon themselves to hold this party.

Launch Party Founders and Organizing Committee: Mark Donovan, Ken Bautista, Cindy Fulton, Cam Linke)

Photo by Mack Male

Startup Edmonton is more than just a party planning group. It is part of  a sophisticated community building strategy by some fantastic community leaders. Their goal is to create a tech community environment which rivals other creative class cities. An event based organization, Startup Edmonton includes under it’s banner:

Also, loosely associated and organized by most of the same great people, is:

The idea behind having all of these great events, is simply to create an environment where Edmonton’s “Creative Class” can collaborate, socialize, grow businesses and ultimately to stay in Edmonton. As an internet application company owner, I can tell you that these types of initiatives really help us find employees, market ourselves locally, and perhaps more importantly market Edmonton’s tech products to the World.

I have said it time and again. the volunteers behind these initiatives are doing this without budgets, bylaws, government mandates or ANY staffers. In my opinion more is done by the groups and volunteers above, at least for the local startup tech community, than several government funded economic development organizations and programs combined. It’s understandable that our economic development organizations focus on large, often patentable technologies, and of course attempt to capitalize on the $1B worth of research being done at the University of Alberta. However the small software companies being created here in Edmonton are also a significant part of the fabric of our creative class community, and will be integral to creating jobs, and sculpting entrepreneurs.

These are the companies which were highlighted last night at the party, ours included.

Mack has done a fantastic recap here, with some better photos here. Global TV has provided some television coverage here. the Twitter stream was buzzing also last night, and you can read about it here.
Finally, our friend and team member Kyle Fox has been working on a new Blog Application for Photographers, and his team from FotoJournal were one of the presentation companies. Rob and Lauren (Rockstar Edmonton Photographers) were on hand and created this fun time lapse video of the FotoJournal presentation table.

A short business update…

Just before Christmas, we were lucky to be able to come to terms with new investors in our company, Yardstick Software Inc. Mr. Ross Grieve, a very well known and successfull local business man and his son Matthew, have decided that an investment in our company makes a great deal of sense.

Considering Mr. Grieve was just named as “Canada’s Outstanding CEO of the Year” by Caldwell Partners and the National Post, it all feels pretty good. Ross Grieve will remain as Chaiman of the PCL Board of Directors. Both Ross and Matthew Grieve will join our advisory board as well, and be active in asissting us with the growth of our company.

You can see the full press release below:

Yardstick Software Inc. Welcomes New Investment

Yardstick Software Inc. is pleased to announce the addition of  new shareholders, Maggnum Ventures Inc., an Alberta investment company led by President Matthew Grieve in partnership with Ross Grieve. Maggnum’s investment (less than 10% of Yardstick Software’s  outstanding shares) will be used by the company to continue to fund its rapid growth, including the addition of much needed new office space for its expanding Edmonton based workforce.

Ross Grieve, former President and CEO of PCL Constructors Inc. and current Chairman of the PCL Board and his son Matthew Grieve, have also agreed to join Yardstick’s Advisory Board, contributing a wealth of business experience and professional leadership to the team. Ross Grieve was recently named as Canada’s Outstanding CEO of the Year™ by Caldwell Partners, Deloitte & Touche, and the National Post. Matthew Grieve, a graduate from Huron College at the University of Western Ontario, is based at Maggnum’s Calgary headquarters.

“In my previous career, training employees was of paramount importance to our success. Couple that with innovative technology used to help organizations deliver online training and testing, and you can see why we see Yardstick Software as a very attractive investment,” says Ross Grieve. “We are excited to be a part of the company and also want to congratulate Yardstick on being named for a fourth consecutive year to the Alberta Venture Magazine Fast Growth 50 list.

Chris LaBossiere Manager of Business Development and Co-CEO of Yardstick adds, “We are an industry leader in changing the way organizations use the internet to deliver training and testing online. Yardstick Software proactively embraces opportunities that allow for the positive growth and upward development of its company.  The investment by Maggnum Ventures speaks directly to the impressive growth Yardstick has experienced over the past four years, the quality of our people and product, and the long-term commitment the company makes toward being a World-Class provider in our space. We also anticipate an accelerated external growth strategy, building on our  acquisition of the assets of TDG WHMIS Compliance Centre Inc., which was completed in Summer 2009.

For more information on this transaction, please contact Tracey Hill, Manager of Corporate Operations, at:  tracey@yardsticksoftware.com.

Yardstick Software Inc. is a privately-owned, customer focused company.  Beginning in 2002, – we have provided online testing and web-based training to over 400,000 individual users, across dozens of industries, for over 200 clients.

Alberta Venture Fast 50

I am very pleased to be able to share with you that our company, Yardstick Software Inc. has again been named to the Alberta Venture Magazines, Fast 50 – Fastest Growing Companies in Alberta. What is remarkable is that this is our fourth consecutive year on the list, and trust me, due to compounding math, it get’s harder and harder to do.

This year, like every other, our growth is 100% because of our great people, and exceptional product. When it comes to selling something, you need to believe in it first. I LOVE our product and people, so selling it is easy. We may not be a big company by many standards, but small recognition like this makes the long hours and the frustrations of growth rewarding.

This year, we were also joined on the list by another great Edmonton success story, web-design and development firm, Lift Intertactive. Lift are the people behind our website (and in a small-known fact, the people who suggested the company name and brand Yardstick). If you ever need a new look for your website, I would whole-heartedly endorse the good people at Lift.

Get a customer… then figure it out

I was lucky as I progressed through my career in the waste management business to work for an icon of the industry. When I met him he was 65 and just starting to pick-up steam. He “Retired” from the company where we had met and where he initially took me under his wing. I thought I was lucky to have learned from him and thankful for the chance he gave me. But luckily and soon enough the ride picked up again.

From there, his son-in-law took control of a small public company that was doing only $25M per year in revenue. I joined him there, and we did acquisition after acquisition, all which made us the largest player in the space, doing $12B in annual revenues. He “Retired” again and yes, believe it not he came back into the picture when him and his son-in-law again took control of another regional public company. And yes, I chose to come along for the ride again, eventually taking over the Western Canadian operations, managing close to $100M in revenues.

It was a fun ride, but mostly because I was working with such a unique individual. I often look back to what I learned and question how it shaped me. There is no doubt I owe much of my “success” to this man, and the ways of business he bestowed on me. I have used much of what he taught me in shaping the growth of our small company, Yardstick Software. So when I was asked by Alberta Venture Magazine what advice I would give to other small company owners, I simply offered this advice (screen shot taken from the January 2010 edition of the magazine which will hit the newstands on January 2nd):

My old boss often added colour to his statements, so this is a better description of what he would have said to us as we were growing our business.

“Get the damn customer and we’ll figure out how to make money later.”

This advice was largely his motto. I remember many occasions where we would bid on business we had no right pursuing, or we bid at prices most people wouldn’t believe could be sustainable. In nearly every case it worked out. Primarily because it led to newer business, certainly a new customer relationship and always it was combined with the best kind of service we could deliver, an ‘attitude of gratitude’ for the business.

For Yardstick Software Inc., which got it’s start as ProExams.com and evolved into that and ProTraining.com, we have used much of the same philosphy. We GOT our first contract, and from there we built the platform to adapt to what we learned from that customer and the hoped-for next one. With that attitude and from that platform, we have expanded in a number of directions. We have completed the acquition of a safety training business and significantly changed the way safety training is delivered online. We have invested hundreds of thousands in a new product that has yet to hit the market, and will hopefully change the way small and mediaum sized organizations deliver training and testing to their users.

All from the simple concept of “Get a customer, then figure it out.” So before you spend yourself into oblivion trying to perfect your idea, product or service, I would suggest you take this advice seriously. Nothing happens without a customer. Start there.

Some of my best friends are business people.

As the foundation to what will be a few more posts on the topic of business, I thought I would tackle the issue of “Big Business”. Nothing gets my knickers in a knot more than the way we throw the term around like it’s some kind of evil certainty. Let the record show, I own and run a small business, but I have every intention of making it a big one.

I almost typed that “it’s not about the money”, but then of course I would have risked a rare mid-winter lightning strike. It is about the money. Because without money, we would be left with little to review as our “report-card”. Our company is a very fast-growing business, in a fast-growing industry. If we weren’t marching on a path of growth, we would be doing a disservice to ourselves, our customers, AND our employees. When our company was started 3.5 years ago, it was nothing but a concept and hobby created by two guys in a basement. Growth has allowed us to reach 15 employees in size, in a relatively short period of time. Each of those individual employees are helping to provide for their families because of our company and idea. Our employees and our company are also helping provide for our communities.

I don’t believe that growth should be allowed unchecked, nor do I believe that we should simply just grow and take, without giving back. BUT it’s awfully hard to give back unless you have something to give. I also believe in the spirit of entrepreneurs, and how they tend to give back in a disproportionate way versus the rest of the community.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I was at the Boyle Street Christmas Dinner yesterday helping serve Christmas dinner to the disenfranchised community of Edmonton. I was there as an invitee of a local business owner who has supported the dinner for decades. When I met other founders of the dinner, I was AMAZED at the wealth of some of the senior volunteers and founders of the dinner. ALL of them I recognized as successful entrepreneurs. They were not there to be recognized, and I will not do so, but they were largely the reason the event was a success, and their businesses were major underwriters of the day.

These entreprenuers have been successful in building their businesses. Finding success and then sharing it back are totally seperate passions, but understand that one comes ahead of the other, and profits and growth make the latter more effective.

Also, thinking that it’s the responsibility of business-owners to give back all of their profits, and/or pay greater than their share of taxes, is the ridiculous position of those who have never taken the risk, or worked a day in the shoes of a business person. Wealth is CREATED first before it can be distributed. LEGISLATING that wealth be transferred in a punitive way, FROM those who create it, TO those who rely on it, is clearly not sustainable. Of course we all know that businesses and our wealthy should be paying their fair share, but make no mistake, NO GOVERNMENT can create wealth. It can redistribute it, and it should. But an environment that allows it to be created by the people who can, is the important first step.

Now, I have also spent 15 years working for very large public companies. Two of them with Billions in revenues, and with me managing hundreds of millions per year in revenue. I will agree that the individual spirit of those organizations are lessened, as they answer to their many shareholders first. But even then, our most successful public companies are those that find a way to deliver shareholder value, in a way that sustains the communities in which they make a living.

The problem that has plagued the large public companies lately, has been the complete disconnect between senior management, who seemingly make money no matter how they perform, and the shareholders of the companies, who ironically are the everyman of society. In Canada, due to our highly regulated banking industry and stock markets, nearly every Canadian who owns an RRSP or Pension, owns the shares of a large public company.

So, in my opinion, reasonable legislation and regulation IS required when we are overseeing our business owners and managers. But if we approach it from a perspective of being punishers, instead of regulators, we will inevitably kill the Golden Goose.

Augmented reality, my toilet and the evolution of print media.

I love magazines. My favourite is Esquire Magazine, and shortly followed by GQ. The cool thing about magazines is that they have a 5-10 year shelf-life around the house. They tend to migrate from living-room to office and bathroom, but they rarely get thrown out. Magazine publishers know this of course, and so they fill their wares with cool editorial, images and usually the newest in ads and features.

The newest of those, is without a doubt the recent experiment that Esquire Magazine made with Augmented Reality. Again, like most of my magazines, they get a lot of shelf time. So after a month of it sitting in the basket next to my recliner, I finally decided to experiment with the Augmented Reality edition featuring Robert Downey Jr.

Basically, as you will see in the video I posted below, pages of the magazine have a “Marker” which kind of looks like a cubist’s barcode. To experience the Augmented Reality, you simply hold up the marker to any computer with a web-cam, and the computer takes over and allows you to watch and control what is happening on the screen. A small application is required to be installed, but it’s very quick and light-weight.

What I found amazing, was the impact it can have on many parts of the magazine experience. Of course covers, editorial and features are improved with interactive video, but most interesting to me was the affect the marker in a Lexus car ad, which allowed me to delve right into more about the car. The software and marker can also identify things like the time of day, so the video from the “Funny Jokes from a Beautiful Woman” feature which is always in a magazine, shows a fun video of Gillian Jacobs telling the joke in person, and then promises that if you return after midnight, she’s tell an even spicier joke.

This may all seem frivolous, but imagine the ability to personalize markers, and include them in targeted marketing or mail-out pieces. It’s safe to assume that I could receive a post-card in the mail in the future, hold it up to my computer web-cam, and watch Kate Beckinsale try to talk me personally into a time-share, slap-chop or George Foreman Grill. I’d buy from Kate, not from George.

The only problem, as is almost always the case, involves my toilet. I am not embarrassed to say that almost all of my reading takes place on either airplanes or in one of my bathrooms. Thinking forward to installing a web-cam on my toilet kind of wrecks the mood.

 

The reason WestJet keeps winning. They really care.

If you were following along on Twitter last week, you may have seen a few tweets from me that were born out of frustration from a lost suitcase as I arrived in Phoenix for the NOCA conference. I don’t travel well, and like most everyone, lose my patience quickly when it comes to airlines. 

So when standing at the luggage carousel and watching the last bag circle and quickly realizing that it was a dead-ringer for my bag, but wasn’t my bag, you can quickly guess what had happened. Another person had inadvertently taken mine instead of theirs.

So I started to think of ways to find the person who had my bag. I tweeted back to Edmonton to see if anyone might have known the person who’s name was on the bag. Unfortunately no one was able to help, and a claim was made with WestJet to start the search for my bag. Now, I was faced with the challenge of having to be working in a trade show booth the next morning, without even a change of clothes. So off to the mall I went the next morning.

This is where the fun started. I made a tweet out of frustration that WestJet should repay me for the $150 I had to spend on the change of clothes, however not to me directly, but to sponsor my efforts to raise money for Prostate Canada in their Movember campaign. I have been growing a silly moustache to raise money, and didn’t honestly expect any response.

What happened next, was a perfect indication of how WestJet gets social media, and perhaps better yet, how their employees really care about their customers. That same day I was contacted by the WestJet communications person behind their Twitter account, and they were proposing to re-raise my challenge. Due to corporate limitations for sponsorship, the company simply couldn’t sponsor my ‘Stache’, but the communications group at WestJet happened to be also participating in the Movember initiative.

What was really cool was that although the corporate limitation was in place, the team wanted to do something. They did some simple online research and found that our company, Yardstick Software, also had a team raising money, growing moustaches, and took up a collection for the cause. But in their fun own way, they proposed something different. They proposed a challenge between the WestJet Moustache Crew, and our own Yardstache Crew. They would “Tweet” out to their 10,000 Twitter followers the challenge, and asked them to go to each team and “Rate” the moustaches of each member. The moustache with the best rating, would get the cash collected by the WestJet team. We gladly accepted the challenge, and agreed to match the donation to the winning ‘stache.

This embodies to me how companies can use Social Media to create a relationship with their customers. It also demonstrated to me that they really get how to use the real-time search functionality of Twitter to listen to their customers. It also showed me that the company gets the true personal nature of the tool and empowers employees to do the right thing, without strict guidelines on how to do that.

My hat’s off to the fun people behind the WestJet account, and their very real commitment to the community and customers who fly their airline. If you’re not following @WestJet on Twitter, give them a follow. They rock.

Meet Chris – the Progressive Capitalist

This week’s blog posts and comments have been largely based around trying to define where one might stand on a political spectrum. Looking back, I am even disappointed in myself for falling for the rhetoric and false argument. I simply don’t subscribe to the left-right spectrum, and if I had to find myself on a political spectrum, I would insist on at least the two dimension concept that is propagated at The Poltical Compass. It’s fun, if not frivolous, to test yourself. But what will it tell you? Really nothing. No test, tool, person or party can label you in a political bucket, if you care to maintain your individual political equity.

However, since introspection AND unfettered opinion is an underlying theme to this blog, I decided to come up with a label for myself that I could live with. So, without further ado, allow me to describe what I mean by Progressive Capitalist. (I googled it, and enjoyed this NY Times article on the topic).

Progressive:
I was at the PC AGM last weekend, and was asked by my friend Shannon what I mean when I say that I consider myself a Progressive. For some it’s a hard label to understand, and there are those who will argue that the label itself has been sullied as a left-leaning person prone to liberalism, even socialism. I just don’t see that, and this is what I see.

Progressive to me means changing with the times. Adapting our policies, laws and values with the advent of new information and technology. It doesn’t mean moving away from individual rights, freedoms and responsibilities. I have seen examples of where Liberalism/Socialism hijacks the term Progressive in the effort to spread wealth THRU government, to those who are not deserving of it, and are unwilling to work for it. But I have also seen where Conservatives have intentionally sullied the term, and yet they then try to impose religious values on others, THRU government. Neither are acceptable to me, nor do they represent progressiveness to me.

Capitalist:
Ignoring the formal definition about capitalism, I will say that a capitalist is someone like me, who wants to be stinking rich. I am unapologetic about my desire to create wealth. Part of the Liberal movement as of late has been to associate capitalism with criminal CEO’s who steal shareholder money so they can buy $6,000 shower curtains. But to me, many of the greatest capitalists are actual great philanthropic citizens. Regardless of how much a wealthy citizen might donate back of his/her property, I firmly believe that the wealth of our society simply would not have been created without the ingenuity and efforts of those who are willing to apply themselves, and take risk.

So from a governance perspective, I would say get the hell out of my my way when I am trying to create wealth, but get between the unethical capitalists who might not care who he/she harms in their effort to create wealth. What does that translate to in real words? Well, it means having practical legislation and oversight in public financial markets, and sustainable viewpoints on the preservation of our environment, and the protection of workers in areas of safety, equality, etc.

How does this translate into Government or worse, Politics?

If I was forced to summarize my Progressive Capitalist manifesto into one or two paragraphs, while sitting in my recliner and giving it only a few minutes thought, it would look like this:

A progressive capitalist government should be held responsible for protecting those who can’t help themselves, using pragmatic distribution of our wealth (taxes), but must also steadfastly maintain an environment of innovation & individual freedoms and rights, so that same wealth can be created by those who do it best, entrepreneur’s & capitalists. Those freedoms and rights must be universally applied to all races, either gender, and people of any sexual orientation or religious or non-religious ilk.

A progressive capitalist party would be inclusive of all (big-tent) but use tools like free voting, transparent donor lists and a charter of individual rights for it’s members, to protect itself from special interests, be them internal ones like religious values, or extrenal ones like corporate special interests who only care about their profits.

Of course, that was extremely easy to write, and would be nearly impossible to apply. Our existing structure of Parliamentary Democracy is flawed in many ways, and as Senator Grant Mitchell reminded me this week, our form of Democracy is the longest standing and most successful of all democracies. Although that may be true, I do feel that as a Progressive, I can expect it to evolve with new information, ideas and technology.

I am looking forward to the end of the month, where I will join about 100 others at the Reboot Alberta event in Red Deer, to discuss how progressiveness can be applied in today’s government. The options being discussed are varied, ranging from shaping a new party, to re-shaping one or combining several. As excited as I am about the weekend, which will undoubtedly be filled with great political discussion, I am less confident that a new movement will get it’s start. Either way, we need to find a way to neuter the far ends of the spectrum, and get our current government to start thinking about “changing with the times. Adapting our policies, laws and values with the advent of new information and technology”