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Keep Your Enemies Closes....So Go For The Student
From The Desk Of Drumlin S Boulder

Ever played 20 questions? Back when my kids were young, we used to play this game on longer car trips. You know, those lasting more than 10 minutes. In order to keep the kids from fighting and screaming, we'd ask them to pick a character, real or from TV, and we'd have 20 "yes or no" questions to guess who that character was. It made for great fun sometimes as the characters, questions and guesses got out of control.

All those memories came back the other day when I was invited to help judge a business plan competition at our local college. Now they were great kids and all, and I'm a big advocate of starting young, but getting at the core of some of their business concepts was quite a challenge. The most daunting cases were presented by kids who used such complex language, I just know they're going to make great bureaucrats. To all you business owners out there who think red tape is a problem now, just wait until this crop graduates! Most of the rest must have thought it was OK for business plans to lie, as long as the lies were detailed and precise lies rather than being vague and general.

But that's not all that was difficult to accept. The group leader seemingly encouraged everyone to go out and make lots of mistakes because, as he said, "experience is a great teacher and mistakes are the best route to success". Now I agree failure can always serve as a bad example, but my problem is the multiple hefty tuition costs, and, though I know he was trying to make everyone feel better about failing, he was actually advocating it as a building strategy! Would you bet on a serial loser because you think his luck is about to change?

So I voiced a dissenting opinion. I started by saying I agreed experience was great because it enabled you to recognize a mistake when you make it again, and looked around to see if anyone caught my meaning. But few smiled, so I decided I had to be merciless. I told them that after spending serious time, effort and money screwing up, no one in their right minds would back a serial loser's latest venture, nor, unless they presented a sound plan with a high probability of success, would anyone back anyone's first.

Which was in retrospect was prescient given some of the strange justifications that came next.

The first plan was introduced as an opportunity for vertical integration, which made me sit up to take notice. But it was at it's heart macabre and a land play as if it knew the combination senior's complex, funeral home and extensive graveyard garden combination could not be there forever. The promoter said he would locate away from densely populated areas to where land was cheap, to lower his costs. Eventually, he said, when his business attained critical mass, he would build a hotel for frequent visitors. He was confident because his designs would have great Feng Shui. He also ensured me there was no competition... which in this case should have actually worried him a lot.

Others were quite clever. One sixteen year old, dare I say genius, took the concept of creative accountants one step further, and based her business on the premise that corporate annual reports could be sold as works of art, and that collectors would soon be bidding up masterworks from the likes of Nortel, Enron, WorldCom, and Global Crossing. She called it "Abstractions by Auditors". She wanted money to assemble available hard copies and begin dealing in them.

The key challenge for these kids, much as any entrepreneur looking for financing, was to provide the materials and presentation that showed us they knew their product, market, and execution strategy. And that they understood that sometimes you're the fly, and sometimes you're the windshield.

So I'd brainstormed with Symon, who you know by now as our marketing MBA whiz and Carrie Balance, our accountant. We prepared some really intelligent questions, like what is the market potential for your company's product or service? What is the revenue potential for the industry, and what is its growth rate? How was it all determined? What makes your business different or unique? Why would someone be compelled to purchase your product or service? What specific needs does it address? How do you plan to acquire customers? How do you plan to keep them?

One girl, Sarah, had it all. She based her market analysis on sound research from Statistics Canada and other reputable sources, and understood she had to compete by doing things better to gain market share. Her numbers were based on operating assumption, like making X phone calls a day by Y sales people to generate Z orders. She showed us step by step how she was going to get to where she planned to be. She knew what competed for her sales companies and products, and how these products were sold and why people bought them.

Sarah also knew her costs. I almost fell over when she said it would cost an estimated $120,000 per year per employee and stressed this was not just salary, but what it would cost for salary, benefits, office space, a desk, a PC with legal software, a phone, to turn on the lights, and the free coffee and pop. Heck, I'd never asked that question myself so I filed that one away as a to do. Then she absolutely knocked me out when she said her exit strategy was based on a trend she saw in on-line digital storage of family photographs, and that she felt her company would eventually be attractive to a digital camera company or to a cell phone company banking heavily on cell phone cameras and transmission services.

I almost decided I wouldn't vote for her in case she actually ended up going into business for herself... I mean, would you want to compete with a powerhouse like that? Common sense, creativity, business savvy, leadership....she had it all!

In reality though it was easy to vote for her. How can you vote for those who'd spend $100 to acquire a customer who's going to spend $25 per year, or those who only needed to gain 5% market share....along with the other 500 companies out there doing the same thing? How about those who plan to compete by being the lowest cost producer...but have yet to make anything? Oh and here's one. Would you pay shipping costs on 100 kilo boxes of mail order kitty litter? Neither would I. At least he didn't offer to ship them for free.

So I voted for her and followed the old maxim... keep your friend close and your enemies closer. I offered Sarah a summer job before anyone else could, and she accepted. I'm hoping she's going to teach me a few things.

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