When sparks fly

This article is the first in a series written about real people who have started real businesses. We’ve asked them to share their top three keys to success – inspiration for new entrepreneurs.

Tom Smith knows all about sparks and how to prevent them. When this Professional Engineer was laid off during the economic downturn, he saw the opportunity to start his own electrical product safety and approvals business. In 2009, he started TJS Technical Services Inc. from his Airdrie base, and now helps companies around the world meet the safety and legal standards required to market and sell their electrical products. We asked Tom about his start up experience:

How did you get your first client?

My first client actually contacted me. I had done some work for them when I was employed and so they knew my areas of expertise and offered some contract work. This showed me the value of doing my best at all times and treating everyone like a customer, even when employed elsewhere, because pays off later on.

What was your greatest fear when starting your business?

Will anybody out there be interested in what I have to offer!?  Plus, I needed to better understand the legalities and liabilities of working for myself.

What was the biggest surprise?

People that I knew decades ago have referred work to me. To me, this shows how important your reputation is, no matter whether you work for a company or for yourself. Your work ethic and record follows you for a lifetime. There is nothing more valuable if it’s good, and nothing more dangerous if it’s not.

What help did you find most useful?

Participating in the Self Employment Program took away a lot of the fear of the unknown and I learned how to avoid common new business landmines. I learned the basic tools of good business management, where to look if I need help. It was a great base to build from.

One of the best aspects of this program was the ability to learn and start my business at the same time. Personally, I learn by doing, so I liked the approach of having support, and applying new knowledge right away. It was a perfect situation.

Please share some highlights of being self employed.

It’s fantastic to have clients ranging from one to two man operations to large, multinational corporations. I’ve also had regular feedback from clients who say they appreciate the commitment I show to projects and the quality of my work. Being dependable is important to me.

I also find that no matter how many nights and weekends I work on my business, there is still a lot less stress than when trying to satisfy someone else. I have much more control over my own destiny. I remember working on my laptop on my picnic table during my early days – times have definitely changed, and now I often work on my laptop on planes, across Canada and the U.S or overseas.

Where are you today?

My company continues to grow and as we expand, more areas of opportunity are developing through partnerships. New business relationships also mean the chance to introduce new types of services and more business related to foreign markets. We’re excited about these possibilities.

What would you tell new entrepreneurs are the keys to success?

1.   Become recognized as someone who takes the time to really listen to your client and understand what they want. Never assume you know what’s best for them.

2.   Build and maintain a stellar reputation. It follows you forever.

3.   Do what you say what you’re going to do. Commit and follow through.

Read more about Tom’s business on his website.

Click on any of the tabs above for more information about the Self Employment Program, offered by Community Futures Centre West – go from unemployed to self employed!


Making the connection – a short lesson on networking

Quick: who would you rather do business with – someone you know, like and trust, or someone who corners you at a networking function and gives you a canned speech about themselves, how wonderful their product/service is and how you really need them, even if you don’t realize it yet?  All this delivered at breakneck speed in less than a minute.

If you’re like many of us, the agony of listening to a prepared spiel can be a big turn-off because it seems like such a forced way of communicating.  Why is that? Because… it’s such a forced way of communicating! Most of us don’t jump out of bed in the morning, eager to rhyme off our features and benefits and value propositions to innocent bystanders. Top sales and marketing people know this isn’t the way to attract business and can actually harm your chances of success.

Networking is about building connections, not making a pitch. Consider this the next time you meet a room full of strangers and think the only way to create leads is to launch into a preplanned speech:

  • You have no idea if the person you’re talking to fits your target market unless you’ve already had a conversation with them.
  • Professional communicators will tell you the first rule of making a speech is to know your audience, so you tailor your message to fit their needs. Giving the same elevator speech to one person after another is awkward and can be perceived as an insult, as your one person audience quickly picks up that your speech is just that, a one-size-fits-all self-promotion.  (Insert glazed over eyes here.)

 Networking events are opportunities to connect with people, not to regurgitate a canned speech. That’s not connecting – in fact, it’s the opposite and can turn people off, especially if the delivery is done in a rapid fire, no escape take-my-card – take-several-and-pass-them-out-to-anyone-you-know-who-might-need-my-service;  let-me-get-your-email-address-so-I-can-add-you-to-my-list, manner.

So what’s a person to do? Yes, you absolutely need to be able to talk clearly and concisely about what you have to offer. So don’t throw out your carefully crafted elevator speech quite yet – there’s some good information in it. It’s how you deliver that information that will make a difference. Look at it this way:

  • Have a conversation with the other person. Make it your main goal to find out if there is someone you know or something that could be helpful to the person you are speaking with – and note the words “speaking with” versus “to.” Speaking “at” or “to” someone is seen as lecturing, and not being helpful. Why do you want to be helpful? Because being helpful is the first step to being memorable. And you want people to remember you, so when they eventually do need your service or product, you’ll be first on their mind.
  • In a one-on-one situation, be the person who is interested, instead of trying to be interesting. In other words, find out more about them rather than extolling your own virtues. Listen first, speak later.
  • Once you know a bit about them, you can then tailor your “what do you do” reply in a way that will be interesting to that specific person. And don’t worry if what you do does not seem like something they would be interested in. Have a conversation instead of giving a pitch, share your knowledge and expertise, offer help or ideas geared towards them – not you – right there and then. No charge.
  •  Above all, be yourself. You’re connecting with another human being, not a prospect, not a hot lead, and especially not just another face in the crowd. Learn their name and use it. Be present in the moment and don’t scan the crowd while they are talking. Respect them for who they are, not what you might be able to sell them. 

So You Made a Mistake…

Mistakes – we all make them. No matter how much planning we do, sooner or later, something goes wrong.  How we handle our mistakes makes a difference on the effect they have on our lives. Here are few strategies to consider:

Recognize the warning signs

  • When something doesn’t seem quite right, it probably isn’t. Most of us have an early warning system that kicks in when things are about to go wrong. If you sense you’ve overlooked something, double-check your work. When your inner voice says your proposed action isn’t right, listen to it.
  •  Know when to listen to others, too. When feedback points towards a need to fine tune your plans, don’t dig in your heels just to prove you’re right – you might not be.

 Learn from them

  • Review what happened and identify what worked and what didn’t. Give yourself credit for what you did well, but spend equal time looking at the parts that didn’t go the way you wanted, and decide what you’ll do differently next time.
  • Be objective and remember things are rarely as dire as our imagination tells us. Look at the big picture and determine what parts you need to correct; then figure out how. (Warning: this may mean putting your ego aside and asking for help.)

 Move on after a mistake

  • If you make a mistake, admit it. Don’t blame others if you’re at fault. Taking responsibility for our actions means taking responsibility for ourselves.
  • Don’t press rewind and play your lapse of judgment over and over.  You can’t go back and rework the situation to magically make it disappear, but you can work to avoid creating the same results in the future.

A big mistake is to try and live life with the aim of avoiding all possible mistakes and problems. With this approach, it’s difficult to make any progress towards achieving goals or fulfilling dreams. We all fall off the bike a couple of times while we’re learning, right? It’s not mistakes that create problems; it’s how we react to them. If we look at mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow, that’s exactly what we’ll do.

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.
 Albert Einstein

This blog post has been brought to you by the Community Futures Centre West Self Employment Program – your small business start-up resource, helping you to start a business and navigate your small business journey.

How to keep it under control

Why does starting a new business seem to generate such large piles of paperwork, files and spreadsheets?  And despite our best intentions to stay organized, our 24 hour day shrink dramatically, while our workload increases and we get further and further behind.

How can we keep it under control, still have a life and get our business up and running?

In the olden days, this was called Time Management, a phrase which still strikes fear into a certain generation.  Visions of productivity experts with stop watches and clipboards are something we’d all rather not remember! There are experts out there, however, who have taken the best practices from those days and combined them with a fresh approach to keeping you and your business organized.

 One smart organizer, Georgina Forrest, talks about identifying your “prime time” and using that knowledge to make the most of your day. She says we all have a certain time of day when we feel the most energy, are up to any task and get tons accomplished. Think about it: some of us are morning people, others thrive in the afternoon or evening. There’s no law that says you have to do certain things at certain times. So, if you leap out of bed at 5 am, raring to go, use that time to work on your books, organize some files and clear up your desk. That way, when the rest of the world starts work, you’ll be ahead of the game and already have a sense of accomplishment about your day.

So take a break, grab a coffee or tea and browse for some organizing tips that will work for you. But remember, no matter how great they might seem, unless you planned to actually implement some changes, you’ll still be staring at the same load of paper next week.

Here’s a link to Smartworks!, a site offering great advice. It’s managed by Georgina, a very organized entrepreneur who manages to do it all – have a life, a business and a neat desk.

You can too.

Never stop selling your services

So says Helena Artmann of Artmann Communications. She adds, “The fact that I have clients and people call me to offer projects does not mean that I can rely on that business and not knock on new doors. This is an exercise that I must practice always – even when I already have clients – as it may take a while for a new client to actually contract me to do work.”

What great advice and so simple, yet sometimes easy to forget. The fact that you may have lots of customers or work at the moment doesn’t mean it will go on forever. Planning ahead by building a marketing strategy that involves continually attracting new business is essential for success. Another way of looking at this is to aim to always have “something in the hopper.” And there is a difference between attracting brand new clients and new business. You might, for example, build on an existing relationship by identifying new services you can offer an established client. What else can you offer them?

The bottom line is not to get so busy servicing existing customers that you don’t take time to look ahead and plan your next move. Remember that old saying: don’t just work in your business, work on it.

 Check out Helena’s website at



A Piece of Business Advice: Ask for help and be yourself!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? We decided to ask the experts. In the first of a series, this week, Lynda Kavanagh, sales and marketing expert, owner of WOW Communications, and one of our guest presenters, passes on some great words of wisdom she was told during her own entrepreneurship journey:

The best advice I’ve received was in year one of my business (1994) from John Francis, president of FWJ Communications, an advertising agency in Calgary. I gulped and made a phone call to him because he was considered the guru of marketing at the time. I asked if he would give me 15 minutes of his day to help me get a system in place. He agreed to meet. My 15 minutes turned into three hours because he introduced me to his entire staff and told them to “help me out however they could.” His parting words to me are advice I continue to live by:

Be yourself. Even if your personality is quirky, be yourself. If you aren’t, you’ll miss out on all the fun. You will always run into people who have an issue with your personality – to heck with them – when you are truly yourself, the right people will appreciate you.
I’m not sure he realized the impact he had on me.

Lynda’s experience asking for help and guidance when she first started up is a good example of what happens when you reach out. Many new entrepreneurs feel uncomfortable contacting big names for input, when in fact, most successful business owners will gladly give you 15 minutes of their time. They don’t feel threatened by a newcomer and more often than not, you’ll leave with some valuable input. Try it and see.
In her recent book, Sales suck…NOW WHAT? Lynda shares the story of how to recognize your ideal customer through a humorous tale of buying a pair of pink suede boots in Munich. She readily admits one of her quirks is an obsession with shoes and boots – which she’s turned into an advantage by building it into her marketing strategy.

Thanks for the great advice, Lynda!

Solving the marketing mystery

New business owners often wrestle with understanding what marketing is really all about. It all seems so complicated and mysterious. First of all – marketing is not the same as sales – watch for an upcoming post on the difference.

In the meantime, here’s a simple version of marketing basics:

1. People like to buy from people they know, like and trust. marketing is the process  you use to get people to do exactly that: know, like and trust you, so when they’re ready to buy, they buy from YOU, not someone else.

2. There’s no mystery to it: the more you people in your target market that you communicate with in an appealing way, the more business you’ll generate.

3. Unless you operate a monopoly, it generally takes 6 to 9 contacts with prospective customers before they’re ready to buy from you. Persistence is the key to building awareness about you and your business.

4. The most important (and overlooked) aspect of marketing is…wait for it…follow through. If you say you’ll do something, do it.

5. Look at marketing as building a house: planning is the foundation and marketing activities are the bricks. You wouldn’t build a house without a plan, right? It might fall down.

6. Experts suggest you invest at least 5% of your ongoing net revenues back into marketing your business, if you want top results.

7. Differentiate yourself from the crowd! Effective branding is essential to get your business off the ground and stand out.

8. Whether you’re comfortable with it or not, marketing is an esential part of every small business. If you’re not devoting time and resources ($$$) into it, then you’re at the mercy of maketplace cycles and pitfalls.

9. Marketing is a creative endeavour, therefore it can – and should be – fun. Smile, why doncha!

Why Business Plans Don’t Work

Why Business Plans Don’t Work

Business plans are not useful when….

1.       You don’t have one

Did you know most small businesses that fail don’t have a business plan? If you want to stay out of the statistical graveyard, do yourself (and your finances) a favour – write a plan! Some entrepreneurs are overwhelmed at the idea of examining every aspect of their dream. What if your research uncovers a flaw in your fabulous idea?  Wouldn’t you rather identify potential problems and deal with them upfront, than wait until you’ve sunk money and time into something that costs you a bundle to correct later on?

2.      You don’t complete the hard parts

 We all have strengths and challenges.  If cash flow projections and budgets send shivers up your spine – get some help! There are templates and how to guides galore online that can take the fear away (it’s usually fear of the unknown that holds us back from tackling difficult tasks.) Find someone who loves numbers and ask them for guidance. Even if you have to pay them, the amount will be a fraction compared to what a complete crash will cost you down the road.

3.       The plan doesn’t reflect your actual business

Don’t write your plan based on what you think people want to read. Be accurate about your intended business. If you secretly never want to expand past making a comfortable living, don’t include wild projections about going global within two years. Not everyone aims to be the next Dragon.  You’ll find yourself pretending to be one thing and be something else in real life. That’s way too much mental stress.

 4.       It sits on the shelf after you’ve finished it

Plan the work and work the plan. Simple, right? Many entrepreneurs view writing a plan as a necessary evil required by the bank in order to get a loan. In reality, a well written plan is also a guide for you: it reminds you of the who, what, where and when of your business. When your first flurry of customers start to roll in, it’s easy to get caught up in a fantasy that initial success is a reflection of things to come. Not always so. A plan is meant to be a working document; a place where you’ve thought out how your business is going to work and what strategies you’ll use to create a continual flow of customers. Refer to it constantly and update it as new ideas and strategies occur to you.

 5.       You think they’re for wimps

Really? You might have a brother-in-law or neighbor who started their own business flying by the seat of their pants and they’re doing just fine, thank you very much.  That may be so, but let’s face it, of course they’re going to tell you that. They may well be up at nights worrying about their next dollar, be in financial difficulty or are part of a dying market – they’ll never tell you. Are you willing to risk everything just to prove the system wrong? It’s smart business to do everything you can to make your business concept a reality, and that includes writing a sound plan. If you’re absolutely convinced your case will be different, maybe buy a lottery ticket too.

Houston, we have lift off!


At last – we’re joining the thousands of successful organizations who reach out to their clients and partners through social media. Yes, we’ve issued a successful e-newsletter in the past, use Skype and cell phones to keep in touch, but recognize we can offer a lot more.

We’re extremely fortunate in our self employment program to have fantastic clients, great community partners and access to some of the brightest minds we know: our session presenters. Our goal is to share the small business hints and tips shared by guest experts and other contacts with everyone and anyone interested in starting a small business here in Alberta.

Our clients have also asked for a way to keep in touch after they finish the program. This blog will provide a forum for comments about their own self-employment journeys: what works, the best advice they’ve received and how they’ve met the inevitable challenges encountered along the road to success. We’re sure their stories will inspire you if starting a business is in your cards.

So sit back, browse through our site, share it with friends, then fasten your seatbelt and join us every week as we help navigate the path to self- employment success!