Thursday, May 31, 2012

Panel Pointers

A couple of weeks ago I served on a panel on women and entrepreneurship.  I was asked to talk about networking for ten minutes and then be open to questions.  In preparation I wrote down a few points on what I wanted to cover, and I was ready to go.  

But that’s not what happened.  In fact it was much, much better.  There were three of us on the panel, each offering such a different perspective – one was a seasoned and serial entrepreneur, the other was a newbie and then moi, as someone who works with small business owners. 

The moderator did a skillful job, going with the flow and firing questions at us that generated great discussion and a range of points of view.  It was, to be honest, a small audience, but the highlight was how we connected as a panel, each of us sharing the air and our experiences with the women in attendance who seemed to enjoy the interaction.

Over the years I have moderated and organized my share of panels, and the secret is to have a diverse perspective so the discussion is rich. Having more than three people on a panel can be risky and time-challenging, especially if they all have a lot to sayJ

But all that planning can be for naught if the panelists are not willing to take turns; one person monopolizes or tries to steal the spotlight. Remember you have three successful women or experts, three egos, yet if the panelists can manage it and connect with one another as we did in Niagara Falls, the outcome is positive for everyone – the panelists, the moderator and most importantly, the audience.

So if you are ever asked to serve on a panel – here’s my advice:
  1. Do your homework – find out who is in the audience and the purpose of the panel discussion.
  2. Ask the organizer if she will be sending questions in advance.
  3. Check on the dress code for the event. (When I talked in Turkey, I was the only one in a coloured outfit and I sure stood out in the sea of black business suits.)
  4. Look up who the other panelists are so you can sound informed when you meet them.
  5. Think about your key messages – what’s the takeaway you want people to have.
  6. Prepare but be willing to go with the flow.
  7. Try to share the air – it is not all about you.
  8. Before you speak, ask yourself whether what you want to say really adds to the discussion or are you trying to be the authority on the topic, always wanting the last word?
  9. Watch your body language.  If you don’t agree with what someone says, try to be respectful.  Remember, all eyes are on the panel so don’t let your facial expression, for example, give you away.
  10. If someone from the audience asks a question that would require a long and more personal answer, suggest you talk after the panel. There is nothing worse than one participant railroading the discussion, particularly if that aspect of the topic is not of interest to the rest of the audience. 
Sitting on a panel is a great way to promote yourself and your business, but you don’t want to blow the opportunity by being too aggressive as that can be a big turn off.

Just be yourself.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Five months. Five women. Five new businesses.

For five months now our newbie group has been meeting on a regular basis.   I remember at our first meeting there was almost a group sigh of relief when the women discovered that they all felt the same way – scared, full of self doubt but brimming with ideas.

Throughout this period the women have been working through those ideas, pursuing each one to find some worked, others didn’t.  And now five months later they are on different paths.  Each has changed her direction, intention and in the process of finding herself, has also found self-confidence and the faith that this is going to work.

I’ve felt like the bus driver, taking them on a scenic route until one by one, each found her destination and disembarked to follow her dreams.   It has been fascinating to observe how their ideas have evolved – each leading to a better, more profitable business concept. But when you start off, you really don’t know which will take off, and so you have to explore different avenues, in the hope that one of the ideas, will be THE idea.

Starting a business is always a work in progress until you find your niche; the sweet spot that will propel you out of bed in the morning, ready to take on another day. And the ideas or plans that you discard are never wasted as you learn something new with each turn in the road.

What is also encouraging to see is that they support one another and likely will continue to long after the group is over.  Now that is what it is all about.   You don’t have to be alone when you own.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Business Lessons From Tommy Hunter

Last week I had the distinct pleasure to interview country music star Tommy Hunter.  I was actually writing an article about him for our local newspaper as he lives in our community.

I knew he would be, pardon the pun, entertaining and full of stories of his time on television and on stage touring, and he was all of that and more.  Not growing up in Canada I wasn’t someone who watched The Tommy Hunter Show, but many of my friends did, telling me it was a part of their growing up, that their whole family would watch his show.

What I didn’t expect was to learn some real business lessons from him. 

1.         Listen to your customers
From the early age of 11, he was performing at small country events but he would never know who would be in the audience until he got there.  So he quickly learned to gauge his audience and sing songs that would appeal to them – be it teenagers or middle-aged women. 

He didn’t, as so many of us would be tempted to do, have one program and that was what you got.  How often as service providers do we fail to listen to our customers and just deliver what we think they need, rather than what they want.

2.         Be open to opportunities
By 23 he had his own radio show, five days a week.  When he first started out, he had a producer who would write his scripts, but when he left, he decided to take on the task himself.  He didn’t know what was involved, but he was willing to learn.  This knowledge stood him in good stead later on in his career when he progressed to a TV show.

3.         Build relationships
With both his radio show and later his TV show which he started at 28, he instinctively knew that getting to know his sponsors/advertisers was a good idea.  So he visited them, learned about their product and built meaningful relationships.  He recognized that making them feel part of the show, would serve him well and keep them committed to both him and the show.

4.         Know your target audience
He made a point of also getting to know his audience; their demographics, when they would want to watch his show, etc…   With that in mind, he would plan his show carefully, never waivering from the content that he believed they would like.  He set boundaries on what and who was acceptable, and what wasn’t. In other words, he built a brand.

5.         Be yourself
As a faith-based performer, being authentic, honest and real with his audience was important to him.  He was always cheery and upfront, ending his show with the same line each night – “with the Lord willing.”   When I asked him about what he was proudest of, he was quick to say the Order of Canada, Order of Ontario and meeting the Queen, but as we dug deeper, it was the way he stayed true to his parents’ values.  No mean feat, in an industry where others have got caught up in their fame and fortune.

6.         Delegate
Over 200 people were part of the crew involved in his shows.  With the extensive detail involved in taping three shows a week, Tommy had to rely on others to ensure that it all went smoothly, but he still knew what was involved and what had to happen.

When you think that Tommy’s career started when he was barely a teenager, it is truly amazing that he followed his path, did not waiver from it, and knew instinctively what was the best and right thing to do.

Little wonder he is called Canada’s country gentleman, because he truly is.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Taking Your Product To Market

So often a product comes to market because someone is looking for something and can’t find it, and so they take the plunge and make it available.

Well since my toe surgery I can tell you there are no ready-sized dressings for big toes.  Fingers, thumbs, knees even elbows, but nothing for toes.  So this is my gift to any enterprising soul out there – develop one, I can tell you there is a market for this product.

Mind you, I have to say I have become quite skillful at improvising and making my own dressing but it would have been so much easier if something had been available, ready to go.

It takes real guts to bring a product to market.  I wouldn’t have clue where to start with the whole manufacturing piece. That’s why I am looking forward to hearing our panel on May 23 when three women entrepreneurs will share just how they did it.

I know for two of them, it was identifying a gap that led to the development of their product.  Jacqueline Sava, for example, could not find a safe detergent to use for washing knitted clothes, so she developed Soak, which is sold across North America. 

When Marissa McTasney was taking a skilled trades program she found that there were no work boots or hard hats that suited or fitted women.  She set off on a journey to bring those products to market and right now they can be found in over 250 retail stores across Canada.

Rae Lindsay, our third panelist, on the other hand, became disillusioned with her day job, and decided to pursue her passion – baking – and she sells and produces a line of biscotti that is also sold in Canada and the United States.  As a single mother, she truly had a lot at stake, but it paid off and today she is among the top 100 women entrepreneurs listed by PROFIT magazine.

I could say more about these three enterprising women, but I don’t want to steal their thunder.  Come and hear them for yourself.

And as for the toe idea – put your best foot forward and go for it. 

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Fostering The Entrepreneurial Spirit

Last weekend as we drove past a couple of little girls who had set up a lemonade stand on the street, my husband and I turned to each other and smiled, both recalling the time when our daughter, at around the same age, did that too.

In fact from an early age she was quite entrepreneurial, selling artwork to willing and supportive neighbours; putting on plays and shows in our living room.  I never forget coming home one day, to find our living room set up like a theatre, complete with an audience made up of neighbours, and even the mailman, all waiting for the next performance and being served hefty, and I mean hefty, chunks of cheese and fruit from my kitchen.

Yet years later, when she participated in Junior Achievement in high school, the involvement of the girls was not really encouraged and they tended to be assigned the more routine tasks to complete.  Creativity was not really encouraged. Too bad.  Because as a country we want and need to foster entrepreneurship in our young people and with this challenging job market, it is another option for them to explore.

As parents we can encourage our children to take responsibility; to earn their allowances or get a Saturday job, rather than just handing over the cash when requested.  When you have had to save up for a desired item, there is much more value placed on the prize, than when you ask and then receive it.

Today that same daughter is still entrepreneurial.   She started her first business, Kidz Klub, when she was just twelve. After getting her babysitting certificate, she decided to run a summer camp for the local children, (from our home I might add) .  She designed a logo, sent out flyers and charged a nominal fee.  Yes, she learned a lot from this experience – like collections and how it’s more effective to get the customers to pay upfront; or how to do a budget to make sure the income covers the expenses… all valuable lessons to learn for any business owner, regardless of age.

Since then she’s had several businesses and her latest has taken off.  Now as her mother I am just hoping she will be able to keep me in the lifestyle to which I have become accustomed when I retire.  After all, I was an early investor.