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Six business stories we loved this year (but didn’t publish ourselves)

A few of our favourite reads from 2014 that we wish we’d thought of first

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(Robin Beck/AFP/Getty)

Each year, Bloomberg Businessweek publishes a “Jealousy List,” a compilation of stories from other places that the magazine’s staff wish they’d written. We loved the idea so much, we stole it. What use is jealousy unless it spurs self-improvement?

That’s not to say we don’t have plenty of our great stories to highlight. In fact, we’ve already compiled a list of the 10 most popular stories in Canadian Business in the past year. But ’tis the charitable season, so we’re happy to show some love to our fellow writers and editors.

PREVIOUSLY: The most-read Canadian Business articles of 2014

If you’re looking for easy access to more great journalism, consider a subscription to Next Issue. It will give you access to more than 100 great titles—including Canadian Business. And now for some stories that we can only wish that we wrote.

The Most Fascinating Profile You’ll Ever Read About a Guy and His Boring Startup

All Stewart Butterfield wanted to do was create a hit video game. He’s failed—twice. But in the process of failing at video games, he built two multi-million tech companies. The first was flickr and the second is Slack, which reached a billion dollar valuation within months of launching. In August, Wired published an indepth profile of Butterfield and explored the elegant genius behind his new company.

Slack’s well-designed chat function is a trojan horse for bigger ideas. Its ambition is to become the hub at the center of all your other business software. It ties in to many of the applications you use at work: Dropbox, Google Apps, GitHub, Heroku, and Zendesk to name a few. Once they’re all connected, it can keep track of most everything you do with them. Most importantly, it’s got killer search built right in. “Right now, your data ends up a little bit in Twitter, a little bit in Zendesk, a little bit in GitHub,” Stewart says. “Slack is the one mutual platform where all those things come together. That’s the longer-term thinking.”

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Do you know where your t-shirt came from?

Gildan Activewear is one of Canada’s great manufacturing success stories. With factories spread across Central America, the Caribbean and Asia, the clothing maker has managed to double its sales since 2009 and had US$2.2-billion in revenue in 2013. So, as this trenchant Globe and Mail piece asks: “When it’s doing so well, does Gildan need to play hardball with workers in impoverished countries?”

Odinel, a slight 34-year-old with a touch of facial hair, has been unemployed since he lost his job last summer at the nearby Premium apparel factory, which makes clothing for Gildan Activewear Inc., the Montreal-based multinational. He’d spent four years there inspecting T-shirts for defects. Never given a reason for his dismissal, Odinel believes it was due to his union activism.

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 Bigstone’s Lost Opportunity

Two aboriginal communities live side by side in Alberta. One, the aptly named Opportunity, is flush with oil and gas revenue. The other, Bigstone, is shockingly impoverished. Tamsin McMahon of Maclean’s dug deep into the reasons for the communities’ disparity, revealing how pettiness and bad policy meant Bigstone stayed bust as oil boomed all around it.

Spend some time driving around, however, and the physical contrast between the two communities becomes clear. Past where Opportunity is working to build a downtown from scratch, the pavement ends and Bigstone’s muddy, unpaved roads begin. The restaurants, hotels, fitness centre and arena fade away, replaced with bush interspersed by the reserve’s tightly packed rental housing and pockets of rundown trailers. “We don’t even have the money to demolish trailers,” says Bigstone councillor Clara Moberly, as she drives past a dilapidated mobile home whose owner was forced to relocate to a homeless shelter three hours away after her roof nearly caved in last winter. “It’s like a Third World country.”

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Vice: We’ve Been Had, and We Let It Happen

Within a few months this year, Vice scored a series of high-profile deals. It signed two $250-million investments from A&E Networks and Technology Crossover Ventures respectively, then struck a $100-million partnership with Rogers Communications (which also owns this magazine).  What started as an alternative magazine in Montreal is now a global media brand. In Hazlitt this fall, Alexandra Molotkow argued Vice became a media titan not by joining the mainstream, but by co-opting it.

The “edge” works best when it’s only implied, from that willingness to go and do what “old media” will not. At root, the company’s founding principle still holds: Why Can’t We? Why can’t we deploy Dennis Rodman, and three Harlem Globetrotters, to North Korea? Why can’t we ask ISIS for a ridealong?

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What Happened When Marissa Mayer Tried to Be Steve Jobs

When Yahoo hired Marissa Mayer in 2012, she seemed like the ailing company’s best chance at rebirth. She’d been one of the first 25 employees at Google and many observers thought she’d stay with the company for life. Instead, she took on the Herculean task of trying to save a Silicon Valley has-been. But her tenure has proven so disastrous, investors are now openly pushing for a merger with AOL. The New York Times Magazine offered an exhaustive account (based on a forthcoming book) on what went wrong.

Reared in Google’s data-obsessed culture, Mayer tended to require countless tests about user preferences before making an important product decision. But when it came to media strategy, she seemed perfectly comfortable going with her gut. As a teenager in Wisconsin, she grew up sneaking into the living room to watch “Saturday Night Live” and occasionally recited sketches during meetings; in April 2013, Yahoo paid an estimated $10 million per year for the “S.N.L.” archives. Even though the actress Gwyneth Paltrow had created a best-selling cookbook and popular lifestyle blog, Mayer, who habitually asked deputies where they attended college, balked at hiring her as a contributing editor for Yahoo Food. According to one executive, Mayer disapproved of the fact that Paltrow did not graduate college.

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Meet Shingy, AOL’s “Digital Prophet”

AOL pays David Shing to watch “the future take shape across the vast online landscape.” At least, that’s how he describes his job, which comes with a six-figure salary.

Shingy stopped by the office of Erika Nardini, the chief marketing officer of AOL Advertising, and handed her an iPad Mini. “Wanted to show you a little brain fart I had on the plane,” he said. It was a cartoon he had drawn of a bear wearing zebra-print pants and a shirt covered in ones and zeros.

“Love it, love it, love it,” Nardini said. “I’m thinking of the bears more as a metaphor.”

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