Entrepreneurs are generally huge skeptics. So you can imagine the frustration as a room full of aggressive entrepreneurs found themselves baffled by one frizzy-haired magician.
The CEOs from the PROFIT HOT 50 list of Canada’s Emerging Growth Companies have faced down steely-eyed bankers and bull-spewing sales reps. But early this fall at GrowthCamp, PROFIT’s annual HOT 50 conference, they couldn’t figure out how conjuror David Ben knew exactly which cards had been selected from a deck by five volunteers spaced randomly around the room.
Then Ben, a tax lawyer turned magician and business speaker, broke all the rules of magic by explaining the trick. Suffice to say that his deck of cards wasn’t what we’d assumed it was, and the volunteers, sitting too far apart to see each other’s cards, had not been spaced out as randomly as we’d thought.
That was Ben’s point. Magic, he said, lies not in the magician, but in the audience. And businesspeople, too, succeed when they control people’s expectations. “The answer to every great activity, magic or otherwise,” he said, “is the result of the organization of hundreds of apparently inconsequential details.”
Naturally, a three-day weekend featuring 50 of Canada’s hottest entrepreneurs was the perfect setting for rule-breaking — not to mention magic. Because seven is a magic number, here are six more special moments from GrowthCamp 2005.
2 The conference began on Friday, Sept. 23, with a round of golf. Normally, entrepreneurs put everything on the line when they golf, but I knew GrowthCamp was off to the right start when one participant told me, “We had a great foursome. We played really slowly, because we were all talking so much.”
3 Award-winning retailer Donald Cooper, now a globe-trotting public speaker, discussed “the power of committing to a clear purpose.” Forget aims and targets, he said: you and your employees must commit to success. (It’s one thing to miss a goal, but no one ever wants to muff a commitment.) “When we change our language, we change our culture,” said Cooper.
4 Speaking of language, Bob Roy, Roynat Capital’s managing director of equity, used his luncheon address to decode some venturespeak. If you hear a venture capitalist talk of a “limited downside deal,” he said, it could mean “things can’t get much worse.” “Too early to tell” = “results to date have been grim.” And when they say they have “complete confidence in management,” he said, “It might mean they’re checking the legal documentation before termination.”
5 After lunch, PROFIT editor Ian Portsmouth interviewed Bill Tatham, founder of Toronto-based Janna Systems Inc. Campers were amazed to hear how Tatham and his team transformed Janna from a slumping service provider into a red-hot provider of customer-relationship management software acquired by Siebel Systems Inc. in 2000 for $1.8 billion.
Tatham showed a hint of his fierce drive in one anecdote. He was working a trade show when a key buyer from Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs walked by without even looking at his booth. Tatham sent a staffer after him with the warning: “Go get him and bring him back — or don’t come back at all.”
6 Following Tatham, the Idea Exchange sat the entrepreneurs in groups of eight, where they tabled their business challenges and shared solutions. Many seemed surprised that such diverse companies could have such similar problems, but they drew strength from the camaraderie — and took lots of notes.
The hottest exchanges involved getting more out of sales. One camper said he’d hired a customer-service director to build relationships and upsell clients, thus freeing the key sales rep to focus on new business. That led one person to complain that his salespeople hate to prospect. Luckily, another camper had a solution: hiring researchers to generate qualified leads. The conversations started here continued long into the night.
7 GrowthCamp finished with a bang, thanks to closing speaker Peter van Stolk, founder and CEO of Jones Soda Co. A former competitive skier and professional renegade, van Stolk has built a company with a market cap of US$150 million by creating emotional connections with his young customers. “When Coke and Pepsi spend $1 billion a year on advertising, there’s no way you can play by their rules,” he said. His weapons: hip marketing, alternative distribution channels (e.g., tattoo parlours) and offbeat new products. Coke may own Christmas, he said, but with Jones’ turkey-and-gravy-flavoured pop, “We own Thanksgiving.”
But van Stolk can see an end coming. He no longer eats, breathes and sleeps his company, knowing that at some point it will probably be bought by an organization that can better help it achieve its potential — even if it’s Coke or Pepsi. “You are not your business,” he warned. “I am not my brand. Now my deal is my daughter.”
The “growth” in the name GrowthCamp refers to company size. But clearly the real magic for entrepreneurs is to keep growing personally as well.