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By Joseph Wilson

drumWhat motivates you to innovate?

There is a snare drum being played in the MaRS lobby.  As any drummer will tell you, it’s not a regular drum, but a “collapsible drum” designed by James Paterson at Humber College start-up expanDrums.  The drum has a removable segment that allows it to be played at a big, boomy rock show or an intimate jazz gig – a seriously useful invention for a professional drummer.

Entrepreneurs like Paterson pass through the halls of MaRS every day with a wide array of products and inventions – what motivates entrepreneurs like this? Below is a list of observations meant to understand the entrepreneurial mind:

1. Problem-solving. The most common impetus for an invented product or service is that it solves a problem an entrepreneur is having. Paterson was frustrated by having to buy multiple snare drums, and sought to create solution to his problem. Serial entrepreneurs are often addicted to recognizing problems and seeing them as opportunities to create value by solving problems.

2. Creativity. Inventing brand new solutions to existing problems requires a certain propensity towards nonlinear thinking. Where others see constraints, a creative entrepreneur will identify ways of circumventing those barriers with brand new ideas. These solutions often come from exploring analogous problems in unrelated fields. The eighteenth century English coffee houses provided an “emergent platform” (in the words of Steven Johnson) for ideas from different fields to bump up against one another and to be re-purposed in new situations.

3. Aesthetics. Software coders will often admit that what they seek to elicit from their code is not functionality, but a sense of aesthetics.  Code can be “elegant” or “clean” in the way it enables a user to solve a problem, and scorn is often heaped on “sloppy” code, even if it functions adequately. Scientists will often talk of elegant solutions to complex problems. The explanatory power of evolution, the satisfaction of swiping an iPhone screen, or the grandeur of a giant hydro-electric damn could all be described as beautiful solutions to complex problems.

4. Ego.  Entrepreneurs are often motivated by a desire to be recognized as a world-leader in a specific field.  Their desire to share their knowledge and engage with their subject matter is often a source of frustration to privacy-obsessed VCs, but is a key internal motivation for the inventor.  Stoking the ego doesn’t even have to come by external recognition. Thousands of anonymous contributors to Wikipedia and other open-source platforms like Linux are motivated by the internal satisfaction they glean from sharing their knowledge.

5. Community. Contributions to a specific field of study often serve to strengthen community bonds and social cohesion. Specific fields in engineering, biotech or web development have their own social order and community rules. Many entrepreneurs are more excited by contributing and building communities around their product than they are by protecting their idea with a patent. This is especially true in the open-innovation movement currently touching such diverse fields as biology and education.

6. Challenge. Many entrepreneurs are addicted to the challenge of building a company from nothing.  Serial entrepreneurs often share stories of leaving well-paid, secure jobs to follow a wild hunch into the market. They often fail. But an addiction to solving thorny problems, and the inherent and complex challenges of starting a company, is what keep them inventing and growing.

7. Money. This is a distant last place for many entrepreneurs, a source of never-ending frustration for investors. Entrepreneurs do need to make a living, and many of them have their eyes set on a future of bulging bank accounts and world travel. But often, entrepreneurs don’t focus on money and have their financial decisions thwarted by any of the above factors. Sometimes an entrepreneur is so captivated by an elegant solution to a problem they become blind to the fact that it will never make money. Herein lies the importance of having a talented CFO or investor partners who are prepared to make the tough financial decisions a passionate entrepreneur might not be able to make.

In his latest book, Drive, Daniel Pink introduces us to an amateur oboe-player, staying at home on a Friday night to practice her instrument. In purely rational terms, there is no reason to do such a thing. It is certainly not in the economic self-interest of a “homo economicus,” to use the favorite terminology of the Chicago school of economics.

The motivation for the oboe player is purely internal.  A desire of mastery and the challenge of getting better at something is what drives oboe-players and entrepreneurs alike.

Do you have any other factors you like to add to the list? Feel free to comment below!

Reposted from MaRS

JosephWilson is currently an education advisor at MaRS. He also writes on issues of technology and culture for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events.

The RIC blog is designed as a showcase for entrepreneurs and innovation. Our guest bloggers pro vide a wealth of information based on their personal experiences. Visit RIC Centre for more information on how RIC can accelerate your ideas to market.

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By Joseph WilsonWhen touring, KISS use speakers from Toronto audio gurus Canadian Speaker Works Pro

When touring, KISS use speakers from Toronto audio gurus Canadian Speaker Works Pro

When Shane Shah was three, he blew up his first speaker. “My Dad taught me how to join two wires together so I wired up all the speakers in the house,” he says. “After they blew up I opened them up to try and fix them.”

Ever since, Shah, worked to hone his skills repairing and designing his own speakers. Now he runs Canadian Speaker Works Pro, a design and manufacturing studio in Toronto. His speakers are used by musicians as diverse as the Black-Eyed Peas, Shania Twain and KISS.

“Many of these artists will stipulate as part of their performance contracts that the stage be equipped with CSW speakers,” says Shah. In response, AV companies in the States are starting to use CSW speakers exclusively, to give them an edge over their competitors.

Usually, speaker manufacturers order pre-made components from all over the world and assemble them before they hit the market. Since Shah’s shop designs, manufacturers and assembles all their own components, the specifications are much tighter. “We’ve built the ideal box for speakers,” says Shah. “We go through a long testing process… to make sure the audio is the best it can be.”

And louder: “Our speakers are four times louder in the front than in the back.” Usually, he explains, speakers leak sound around them in a circle, making it difficult for musicians on stage to hear properly. “90% of the time, when you hear feedback at a concert it comes from the bass,” he says. “We direct the bass to the front of the speaker, which benefits the industry by reducing feedback.”

Now this industry innovation has been formally recognized in Canada. Shah was recently nominated for a 2011 Manning Innovation Award for “Canadian citizens who have demonstrated recent innovative talent in developing a successfully marketing a new concept.”

Named after the former Alberta Premier, the Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation was created in 1980 by former CEO of Alberta Energy Company, David E. Mitchell.

Since its inception, the Foundation has sifted through over 2,500 nominees, and doled out $4 million in prizes to 216 winners, all in order encourage and recognize Canadian innovators like Shah.

Think you’ve got the next game-changing innovation? Nominations for the 2012 Manning Innovation Award are open until December 1, 2011 – click here for eligibility and judging criteria.

Reposted from MaRS

JosephWilson is currently an education advisor at MaRS. He also writes on issues of technology and culture for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events.

The RIC blog is designed as a showcase for entrepreneurs and innovation. Our guest bloggers pro vide a wealth of information based on their personal experiences. Visit RIC Centre for more information on how RIC can accelerate your ideas to market.

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By Joseph Wilson

Turbo EncabulatorHow to communicate your idea to the media

I’d like to introduce you to the Turbo Encabulator. It’s an innovative invention that “would not only supply inverse reactive current for use in unilateral phase detractors, but would also be capable of automatically synchronizing cardinal grameters.”

The product is, of course, a joke, designed to poke fun at the way scientists try to use the media to communicate their products. The footage below is from 1977, but the joke goes back even further. In 1946, the “turboencabulator” became an in-joke amongst engineers on their lack of marketing savvy.

So how can I avoid the “turboencabulator” method?

To begin with, take a careful look at your target market and determine which media are most important to your customers.  Do your customers spend a lot of time on the Internet looking at gadgets? Or do they browse a specific set of stores to find the latest fashions? Do they watch TV or play with their iPhones?

Such decisions will determine where you plant your message.

Time & money

Since you’re running a start-up, your time and money is limited. You can’t afford to blanket the media with billboards, TV ads and flyers. As such, you’ve got to identify the key opinion leaders in your field and target your marketing to them.

Who are the people in your industry that your customers listen to?

Language and your “IP story”

Is your elevator pitch full of technical jargon or clear, meaningful words? A good way of achieving clarity is by using a metaphor to explain your product. One of the reasons the Microsoft Office suite is so popular is because people immediately understand it based on the over-riding metaphor of the “Office.” You turn on your computer to your “desktop,” arrange your files into “folders,” and when you delete something it goes into the “recycling bin” (which used to be called the “garbage” or “trash” in less environmentally conscious times).

One of the most important MarCom skills to learn is the art of the sound-bite. Get a video camera and film yourself explaining your technology.  Go through the following tips for perfecting the sound-bite for different media:

Tips for soundbites

Medium Content
  • Look the interview in the eye (not the camera)
  • Pause for edit points
  • Strong voice
  • Clear, enunciated phrases
  • Less than 20 seconds
  • Mention your company
  • Avoid technical words
  • Use metaphors
  • Avoid cliches
  • Call to action
  • Emotional connection
  • Use numbers and stats

Bite by bite, you’ll eventually gather together a compelling MarCom toolkit that tells the right story to the right people, giving your product the air-time it deserves.

Join us

MaRS has designed a workshop series to help technology clients clearly define their marketing and communications (MarCom) strategy. The Entrepreneurship 201 Workshop Series: The MarCom Toolkit is an interactive, hands-on session of between 15 and 24 technology entrepreneurs devoted to steering them away from the “turboencabulator” method. We go through all of the stuff above, right down to handing out Flip cameras and getting you to film each other.

To enroll for Entrepreneurship 201: The MarCom Toolkit, talk to your MaRS advisor or email entrepreneurship201@marsdd.com.  Workshops are free for clients of MaRS and other innovation centres in the Ontario Network of Excellence.

Reposted from MaRS

JosephWilson is currently an education advisor at MaRS. He also writes on issues of technology and culture for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events.

The RIC blog is designed as a showcase for entrepreneurs and innovation. Our guest bloggers pro vide a wealth of information based on their personal experiences. Visit RIC Centre for more information on how RIC can accelerate your ideas to market.

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By Joseph Wilson
startup americaWhat are we doing to help kids start businesses? 

I’m working from home, buried under a foot of snow, as two kids, maybe 13 years old, ring my doorbell.  With the schools closed, the pair decided to get up in the morning and make some money shovelling driveways. It’s noon and they’ve already made $100.

With images of the collapse of Egypt’s dictatorship streaming through our media 24 hours a day, it’s a reminder that the freedom to start your own business, to become a self-directed entrepreneur, is central to a functioning democracy.

Those kids are learning skills at least as valuable as what they might learn in a high-school business classroom. They are not only learning the basics of how to run a business (initiative, negotiations, first-mover advantage), but their experience making money could serve to increase their self-confidence and leave them with the “entrepreneurial itch.”

In contrast, Mubarak’s Egypt relies on a system where new business ideas are often crushed under the weight of bureaucracy and nepotism.  Furthermore, proper business education is reserved for the elite, with only 7.5% of Egyptians reporting ever having taken any type of entrepreneurship course.

In our current economic condition, it becomes imperative for developed countries to remember this fact and do whatever we can to encourage would-be entrepreneurs to start companies. This is not a plea to lower income taxes, or make it easier for giant corporations to expand their hold on our fragile economies, but to empower the most vulnerable in our society to explore their business ideas and create jobs and wealth in the process.

On February 1, the Obama administration announced the launch of Startup America, a massive partnership of private and public organizations devoted to “to help entrepreneurs finance and commercialize innovative ideas, start new businesses, and create jobs.”

Over 20 corporations, including tech giants Google, Intel, Facebook and HP, have contributed resources and money to allow organizations like the Kauffman Foundation increase the quantity and quality of entrepreneurship education.

The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship is a new non-profit supported by Startup America that provides entrepreneurship education for at-risk youth in low-income communities. The effect of such education will go well beyond creating immediate jobs in neighbourhoods and keeping kids in school. If done right, these programs will instill in kids the skills and confidence needed to become life-long entrepreneurs and idea-chasers.

Here in Toronto, grass-roots entrepreneurship education is alive and well in our most vulnerable communities.  At the yearly pitch competition run by the Young Social Entrepreneurs of Canada in November, the winner was Jam Johnson, Director of the Neighborhood Basketball Association (NBA). Johnson’s program, which is a “free or low-cost” basketball program for kids in the Kingston-Galloway neighbourhood, sought to raise money for the program by selling NBA-branded t-shirts.

What impressed the judges was not Johnson’s social mission, but his insistence that the kids themselves organize the design, marketing and finances on their own.  “My goal is to teach the kids to run a business, learning how to carry themselves on a professional level,” Johnson tells me.

Charlie’s Freewheels is a program devoted to teaching kids how to fix bikes and then sell them for a profit. Twenty-eight students from the Regent Park neighbourhood have been through the program, a number sure to increase as the organization opens its own student-run store on Queen Street East later this year.

Not only do these programs serve to empower kids in poor neighbourhoods, but they help the economy as well. More and more data is being collected to show that supporting entrepreneurship education is one of the best things a government can do in a recession.

A study released last summer by the Kauffman Foundation shows that start-up companies provide the vast majority of new jobs in a community. From a period spanning 1977 to 2005, the report found that, in aggregate, start-ups contributed 3 million new jobs to the American economy every year, while companies older than five years were net job destroyers, to the tune of 1 million jobs lost every year.

A recent report by the UK’s NESTA Foundation confirms this finding.  Their paper, “The Vital 6 Percent,” shows that half of all new jobs in the UK between 2002 and 2008 came from only 6% of the total companies registered in the UK. These 6% were almost exclusively high-tech, “high-growth” start-ups.  The big question is how to turn our current crop of high-school students into the CEOs of our next big start-up companies.

In Ontario, the quality of entrepreneurship teaching is dependent on the quality of the teacher in the classroom. Textbooks are aging, resources are scarce and computers are not nearly as ubiquitous in classrooms as the average person thinks. If we’re serious about addressing our current economic woes, and providing opportunities for our at-risk youth, we should consider investing in entrepreneurship education, framing it as a fundamental freedom in a democracy like ours.

Reposted from MaRS

JosephWilson is currently an education advisor at MaRS. He also writes on issues of technology and culture for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events.

The RIC blog is designed as a showcase for entrepreneurs and innovation. Our guest bloggers pro vide a wealth of information based on their personal experiences. Visit RIC Centre for more information on how RIC can accelerate your ideas to market.

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By  Joseph Wilson

What do cleantech investors want?Cleantech investment: Where is the money going?

Recently, we kicked off the MaRS Best Practices Special Valuation series with experts talking about investor interest in the biotech industry.

The message: the economy is pretty quiet these days, and cash is not flowing like it once was, especially for R&D companies in the biotech or life sciences fields.

Rupert Merer, a Director of Equity Research at National Bank Financial, will join Tim Babcock from the TSX Venture Exchange, where he will issue a similar warning for the cleantech field in Canada.

“It’s a tough market for IPOs these days, but there’s always money for good companies,” says Merer. “The market doesn’t have much patience for companies burning too much cash. They’re looking at companies that are better at bootstrapping.”

One of the things that cleantech start-ups want to know is how investors determine how much their company is worth. “Investors value a company based on its potential to generate cash,” says Merer. “There are lots of different metrics to evaluate.”

One of the key metrics to look at is the company’s potential for global competitiveness. “It’s really an international market these days,” he says. “We market Canadian equities to the global investment community.”

A bright side to the state of venture capital in Canada is that we don’t suffer from the same extremes of boom and bust as in cash-rich Silicon Valley. “There are a number of US companies that are moving to Canada,” he says. “They are attracted by the conservatism that fits Canada’s culture of investment. In this kind of economy the Silicon Valley model suffers more.”

Merer and his team at National Bank Financial have broadened the scope of their portfolio. Instead of just focusing on technology that generates clean power, they look carefully at anything that could be considered a “clean environmental technology.” Merer’s team is looking at water technologies, alternative fuels, waste management, recycling technologies and energy efficiency.

All this work has paid off. Recently, Merer was named by Brendan Wood International as the top analyst in the country in the alternative energy category. “It really is a group effort,” he says about the award. “We have a whole sales desk working in this space.”

Merer has worked both at start-ups and at large companies such as Enbridge, so is well placed to examine opportunities in the market of environmental entrepreneurship. “I track the industry and make recommendations to investors on where to put their money in the industry,” he says. Rupert Merer is the guy you want on your side.

Reposted from MaRS

JosephWilson is currently an education advisor at MaRS. He also writes on issues of technology and culture for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events.

The RIC blog is designed as a showcase for entrepreneurs and innovation. Our guest bloggers pro vide a wealth of information based on their personal experiences. Visit RIC Centre for more information on how RIC can accelerate your ideas to market.

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By Joseph Wilson

Over the last year, we have been leading workshops across Ontario designed to help entrepreneurs with the basics of business development.

The ideas coming out of Ontario cover an impressive range of technologies, from cleantech manufacturing solutions to online platforms for innovative services.

Yet we found that the entrepreneurs often had the same challenge: they were unable to explain the value of their offering in a clear and concise manner. We also hear this comment from venture capitalists and investor relations professionals — that entrepreneurs spend too much time thinking about technology and not about value.

Watch this video to see how scientists are often so passionate about their technology they can’t articulate the value of their offering.

A value proposition is essentially an answer to the question “what do you do?” The temptation is to explain the technology that your business is based on, but the reality is that there are very few industry-specific people who care about your technology. People want to know what the value of your technology is.

Values can be vague and very personal, but when people pay for products, the same patterns keep cropping up. When engaging in B2B sales, for instance, potential customers are often drawn by promises of saving time or money. These aren’t the only things that get people buying, however. Products and services can be sold on the promise of higher quality, convenience, lowering risk or enabling productivity.

When selling directly to consumers, values are often harder for customers to articulate. Instead of being rational and business-driven, consumers make emotional decision based on latent values, such as status, aesthetics or newness.

The next step is to find out exactly which values matter to your target customer. When you craft a value proposition, it should speak to a very specific market segment. Even if you have a wide-ranging “platform technology,” you need to start selling your product to a specific target customer and then expand later.

The best way to find out what your target market values is to get out of your office and ask them. Observe them at work, read their publications and get into their head to find out what problems they are trying to solve when they go to work. You can use other tools, too, like Alexander Osterwalder’s Customer Empathy Map or the Day in the Life Scenario in our Entrepreneur’s Toolkit Market Strategy Workbook.

When you’re finally ready to draft your value proposition, use these points as a guideline:

  1. What are you offering?
  2. Who is your target customer?
  3. What value are you bringing your target customer?
  4. How is your product unique?

If you can get those four points into one sentence, you’re finally ready to talk about your product in a way that investors will understand.

Downloads and resources from the Entrepreneurship 101 lecture on value proposition:

Reposted from MaRS

JosephWilson is currently an education advisor at MaRS. He also writes on issues of technology and culture for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events.

The RIC blog is designed as a showcase for entrepreneurs and innovation. Our guest bloggers pro vide a wealth of information based on their personal experiences. Visit RIC Centre for more information on how RIC can accelerate your ideas to market.

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