5 lessons from our first season

Author: Robin Browne

I’m writing this because I just read a great post on the Open Heroines blog called I Pledge to Write – that reminded me how important it is to write (and how much I love doing it).

We recently wrapped up our first season as Puresteam Auto Spa owners and it went very well, according to many measures.

Here are 5 key things we learned from our first season.

1) The best marketing is solving a customer’s problem. We turned clients with whom we had issues into Puresteam evangelists by solving their problems quickly and with no hassle.

2) Students are great, except when they’re students again. If you hire students, and you operate in September, you have to hire a lot of them part-time in September to ensure you’re covered.

3) Hire a Big Data person (even for little data) or become one. We hired a guy to do our payroll and I handled everything else like tracking revenue and expenses. The payroll guy was well worth the $50/month.

We didn’t hire anyone to set up a business intelligence system with the result being we have lots of data – but little intelligence.

We have the data partly thanks to having chosen to have only one bank account. That made it easy to download all the transactions which I then imported into MoneyDance financial software on my ancient MacBook. MoneyDance let’s me tag transactions with categories so I can figure out how much we made, and how much we spent on different things. However, we don’t have our own system to track things like what times of day or week were most popular, who our clients are, where they’re from, how they found us or whether they were happy with the service.

4) Make sure you have a system that easily captures customer email addresses. Communicating with your clients is key to success, whether it’s to thank them for their business or ask them how can you improve yours. As a franchise, we have to use certain tools supplied by the parent company. Much to our dismay, the booking software the company uses, Setster, doesn’t have an email export function that allows us to easily build a customer email list: we have to copy and paste each one from Setster to whatever database program we choose.

5) Don’t only define success by how much money you make. We came out almost exactly even for our first season. Our revenue matched our expenses including payments on our debt from buying the business. This is good considering most businesses lose money in their first year and take 2-5 years to become profitable. But there were many other benefits beyond the numbers.

We learned a ton about how to buy and run a business. We showed our sons an alternative to looking for a job: creating them. And we created a company that has become a community partner for causes about which we care deeply.

We also employed five young people, 1 Nigerian Canadian guy, 1 Vietnamese Canadian guy, and 3 Muslim women, two who wear Hijabs. Considering the vast majority of our clients are men, having the 3 ladies on staff was breaking down stereotypes everyday.

Not bad for our first kick at the can.

Following the advice of most of the business books I’ve read, I sought to build a team of advisors for our business, some paid, some not.

I started by asking a friend of ours who worked for many years doing business development with a large software company. In his case, “business development” meant buying up small companies and, to do that, he got very good at evaluating their value. He told me some key things to confirm before buying the auto spa like: Do they have any debt? Do they have the trademark rights? Can they provide at least three years of financial records, preferably ones that have been audited by an independent accountant?

The next people I brought in were a lawyer and an accountant – who have both paid for themselves with their advice. I was referred to them by a friend who works in high tech and is a master networker. He’s a member of the Ottawa chapter of an international networking group called TiE. So is the accountant.

One of the first decisions our lawyer advised us on was whether to structure our company as a sole proprietorship or a corporation. I figured creating a corporation was expensive and took a long time – and it was getting close to opening. However, I had also heard that a corporation offered better tax saving opportunities than a sole proprietorship. I was right about the tax thing and it’s very simple. As a sole proprietorship, you get taxed on the money you make at your personal tax rate, around 35% in my case. However, our corporation only pays half that –  the corporate tax rate of around 16%. Our lawyer also told me it would cost about $1500 to incorporate and take two days. And with that, ConsciousImages Inc. was born.

Our accountant told us about the HST we have to collect from customers and give to the government. But he also told us that we get to submit how much we paid in HST as part of our own expenses, like supplies, and claim that against what we collected from customers  (kind of like tax deductions). And he told us to get registered right away so we could claim the HST we paid on the price of the business.

The lawyer and accountant aren’t cheap. But you get what you pay for and together they will save us thousands of dollars.

Next, there was the issue of payroll: could I do it myself to save some money or did we need to hire someone? One of the other franchisees referred me to his payroll guy who I hired after a 15 minute chat about EI, CPP, and taxes – and after he told me he would only charge $50 a month.

We’ve been open a month and things are going great! One thing is already clear however: one of the next team members we will need is an IT specialist. We’ll need her to set up and train us on the equipment we’ll need to capture and use the Big Data relevant to our company. Things like: what times of day/week/season are busiest? What part of the city do most of our customers come from? How did find they find out about us? What are our most popular packages? Are there any generalizations we can see with problem customers?

Time to replace my ancient MacBook!

With any business, you want hire employees that get along. That’s why one of the number one things on every employer’s mind during interviews is: will this person be a good fit for the team? This could not be more true for our business since it requires just two employees who spend the entire day together in and around a canopy the size of a one-car garage. If they don’t get along, the days will be very long for both of them, and could lead to high turnover.

So it’s in our interest to hire people who will get along really well. But how do we do that? We can’t do it by trial and error. We need to nail it the first time to avoid work interruptions due to people leaving.

One of the other franchisees said they look for employees who have the right attitude and are team players – and that has worked for them.

For us, having the right attitude means having an environmental consciousness that recognizes that we’re not trying to save the planet -we’re trying to save ourselves. We also want folks who want to work for a company that does business in a way that respects people – whether they’re customers, employees or suppliers. If all our employees share these values, that’s a good basis for a good relationship.

One of the key ways to get employees is to place a Help Wanted Ad. The trick to attracting the right kind of people is placing the right kind of ad. That means ensuring your ad clearly reflects your business’ values. Here’s part of our ad that we put on the Ottawa edition of Ebay-owned Kijiji (the first was free and the second one we paid $30 for better visibility):

Puresteam Auto Spa is hiring! Do you want to keep our planet a place we can (and want to) live? Would you enjoy working in a team of two, with minimal supervision? If so, lets talk! We want people who care about the environment and are friendly, reliable and punctual, among other things.

It seems to have worked because we got only three responses – and hired two of them! Our interviews were really just to quickly meet the people and let them see that we’re real (and really nice ;)).

We have one returning employee who is great. We had a meeting so she could meet the new hire she’ll be working with and they got along beautifully. Looks like we’re off to a good start!

It’s done. We bought the auto spa biz!
And one of the first challenges is choosing hours of operation that both make money and allows our employees to lead a full life outside work.

One of my principles is that I won’t ask any employee to do anything I wouldn’t want to do. The car wash needs to run 6 days a week to be profitable but I wouldn’t want to work 6 days a week – and I doubt the university students we’ll be hiring will want to either. So, since we need two washers on at a time, we’re considering shifts with one pair working Tuesday through Saturday and another pair just working Sunday. Considering it’s summer, some students might like working only one day a week if they have other jobs or are taking classs during the week. We’ll have to see what kind of response we get to our job offers. Which brings me to the next step: hiring people.

The biz is in its fourth year so we hope to hire back at least one of the employees from last year and hire one or three new ones. That means we have to figure out what hours we’ll operate and, most importantly, what we’ll pay. Standard capitalism would say pay minimum wage. However, we’re not standard capitalists. In addition to the physical part, the job requires a range of soft skills, like initiative, sociability, reliability and punctuality, that deserve compensation beyond the minimum. Since the business is seasonal, we also have to find out if we have to collect things like Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance contributions from employees.

However, the most important thing is for us to clearly identify the mission and values of the company – and ensure we hire people who share them. We’re doing this for far more than the money and our employees should be too.

People. Planet. Profit.

Author: Robin Browne

As you can see, I changed the name of my blog to Social Biz: People. Planet. Profit. Here’s why…

A few months ago I had lunch with a business colleague and we ended up talking about a lot more than business. Trump had happened so, me being me and my colleague being a white guy with an Indian wife, we got on to the subject of racism. He had seen the Indian caste system up close and how deeply ingrained it was and he worried that “all these “isms” would never go away.”

I thought for a moment then said that I thought they would never go away as long as we have a dominant economic system that rewards them. Trump is the ultimate example of our current system rewarding nasty behaviour. Slavery was another. But if we change that system so it rewards humane behaviour, I think they will begin to fade.

So, following Gandhi’s “be the change you want to see” philosophy, we are looking at buying a business and plan to run it in a way that puts people and the planet before profits. The business is an environmentally-friendly car wash service – but more on that in upcoming posts.

One of our first challenges is to market the biz in a way that respects people. You may not be surprised that this wasn’t a worry that kept early ad men up at night. I never saw the wildly popular TV show, Mad Men, about sleazy ad execs, but reading about the history of advertising in Tim Wu’s “The Attention Merchants“, I learned that one of the first things that kept them up was trying to come up with even grander bogus health benefit claims to sell more snake oil (literally). They kept selling bundles of oil based on bogus claims until both the public and the government got wise to them. They were forced to stop it but apparently not everyone learned their lesson. In 2010, “Yogurt maker Dannon paid $56 million US to settle charges…over claims that the probiotic bacteria in its yogurt could aid regularity and prevent colds or flu.” In 2012, Health Canada told the maker of Cold-Fx to stop labelling its product with the claim that it “Stops Cold or Flu in its Tracks.”, saying the only approved claim for the product was that it “helps reduce the frequency, severity and duration of cold and flu symptoms by boosting the immune system.”

So, we have to make sure our claims are true and not misleading. This is especially true of the “environmentally-friendly” claim as it will be one of the key points distinguishing us from the competition.

Then there’s the challenge of getting the right people to see the ad. The obvious choice is Google so we can attract people already searching the web for a car wash. However, that means working with a company that, although it appears to have behaved relatively benignly since it began in 1998, has a disturbing amount of power its leaders could use to do really bad things if they wanted to (see trailer for Tom Hanks’ new movie The Circle for an example). A key part of their power is that they’re the only real choice for search advertising.

So we have little choice but to go with Google, which isn’t good, but we have search marketing which past advertisers didn’t and that is good – sort of. Search advertising lets us target our ads to people searching for car washes. In fact, it lets us target people within a certain radius searching for car washes. Our concern, however, is avoiding the “creepy Google effect” I sometimes experience when I get ads for things I don’t remember searching for. We want our ads shown only to people, near by, who have demonstrated their interest by searching online for a car wash.

So we’ll start our social business journey by aiming to have ads that are effective, honest and not annoying – and that might be all we need to distinguish ourselves from the competition.

Since the beginning of the social media revolution, many of us have been hearing and talking a lot about collaboration – and some organizations have actually been doing it.

Now, there’s another term we’re beginning to hear more about, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”. World Economic Forum founder and Executive Chairman, Klaus Schwab, described it this way in his Jan. 2016 blog post, The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What it is and how to respond:

“The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”

The fact that when I Googled “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, every link on the first results page referenced Schwab’s book The Fourth Industrial Revolution, may indicate that the same thing is happening with this revolution as the first three: it is being embraced and fuelled by competition-based capitalism. However, I would argue that in order for the fourth revolution to succeed – and for humanity to survive – we must change our economic system so this revolution is fuelled more by collaboration than competition.

Schwab appears to think that if we keep the current system and just make good choices, everything will be OK. However, with our current competitive system, this revolution may be the last to deliver good things to a few in the short term, with the unfortunate side effect of ending humanity in the long term.

Good things and bad are already happening. How you see them depends on your perspective. For example, Schwab’s view of the power of social media may give some insights into both Barack Obama and Donald Trump’s election victories:

“Discontent can…be fuelled by the pervasiveness of digital technologies and the dynamics of information sharing typified by social media…In an ideal world, these interactions would provide an opportunity for cross-cultural understanding and cohesion. However, they can also create and propagate unrealistic expectations as to what constitutes success for an individual or a group, as well as offer opportunities for extreme ideas and ideologies to spread.” Obama and Trump may be the first of many “social media presidents” who use online tools to skirt the mainstream media and reach millions of supporters, all too willing to accept their message uncritically.

Schwab recognizes the positive impact technologies like smart phones have had on our lives but is also concerned about the negative impact:

“Sometimes I wonder whether the…integration of technology in our lives could diminish some of our quintessential human capacities, such as compassion and cooperation. Our relationship with our smartphones is a case in point. Constant connection may deprive us of one of life’s most important assets: the time to pause, reflect, and engage in meaningful conversation.”

That’s the bad stuff. The new revolution is, of course, already delivering incredible things for some people and has the potential to deliver much more. Author, Bernard Marr describes some of the potential in his April 2016 Forbes.com post, Why Everyone Must Get Ready For The 4th Industrial Revolution:

“These technologies have great potential to continue to connect billions more people to the web, drastically improve the efficiency of business and organizations and help regenerate the natural environment through better asset management, potentially even undoing all the damage previous industrial revolutions have caused.”

Schwab would no doubt agree with Marr’s overly optimistic view – especially since his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, is Marr’s main source. Clearly, they both believe that if we just make the right choices, it will all be good. As Schwab says:

“Neither technology nor the disruption that comes with it is a…force over which humans have no control. All of us are responsible for guiding its evolution, in the decisions we make on a daily basis as citizens, consumers, and investors…We need to shape a future that works for all of us by putting people first and empowering them.”

Again, the problem is that Schwab doesn’t see the need for a fundamental change in our competition-based economic system for this to happen. That kind of thinking will lead to us losing the ultimate competition – humanity vs the planet – as problems like climate change can only be solved by collaborating.

Not convinced? Maybe the Harvard Business Review can change your mind. Two HBR articles, Collaborate with Your Competitors – and Win and Collaboration is the New Competition back up my argument. The problem is that not enough companies seems to have read them as the first article is from 1989…

Luckily, the fair trade and coop movements have listened and are challenging the dominant economic systems by working more collaboratively with each other and operating in ways that empower their employees and suppliers from developing countries.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution must be accompanied by an economic revolution. If not, and it’s dominated by companies only collaborating internally while still aggressively competing against each other to grow and satisfy shareholders, none of us will win – or survive.

 

Talk…or else…

Author: Robin Browne

The title of this post is meant to catch your attention.

My argument is that people should talk more with people different from them in real life and less with people like them on line. If they don’t, things like Trump happen – and that could get people killed.

As for talking in person, Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama seem to both agree. Trudeau just launched a cross country series of town halls where he is answering Canadians’ unvetted questions – including some tough and emotional ones. In his final speech as President, Obama talked about how divisive the election was, and said, “If you’re tired of arguing with people on the Internet, try talking to them in real life.” The problem is that it seems people aren’t even arguing enough – on or off the internet. Too many of us are just reading things that reinforce our current world view – without caring whether they’re true.

An example was the story about anti-Trump forces supposedly  bussing in protesters for a demonstration in Austin, Texas shortly after Trump’s election. Even Donald Trump tweeted it. The problem is that it was completely false. The New York Times reported that Eric Tucker, a 35-year-old owner of an Austin,  Texas based marketing company, took pictures of some some buses he saw in downtown Austin because he found the buses unusual. When he later heard about the protests, he assumed they were connected and twèeted: “Anti-Trump protestors in Austin today are not as organic as they seem. Here are the busses they came in. #fakeprotests” He later realized he was wrong and that the buses had nothing to do with the protest. However, his tweeted correction got lost in the flood of right-wing shares of the original falsehood. The story was now “post truth”.

Young Quebec activists also think getting people talking is key to helping Quebec realize its full potential. “Faut qu’on se parle” or “we need to talk” is an initiative to get Quebecers talking to each other about solutions to major challenges facing the province.

It was started by nine mostly young, mostly white Quebecers including student activist leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois. In fall 2016, they held a series of public consultations and “kitchen assemblies” where they met with fellow Quebecers to hear their concerns about, and solutions for, their province. The demand for the kitchen assemblies, where members of the core group met people in a host’s house, quickly outstripped the availability. They were all booked within a week. (They’re all completed now and the group is working on a report on the results.)

One of the big questions for Canada right now is, could lots of people sharing fake facts and not talking to each other help someone like Trump get elected in Canada?

One of the main challenges to answering this question is knowing just how many people in Canada feel things similar to what made nearly 1 in 5 Americans vote for a guy who bragged about sexually assaulting women. Polls won’t tell us because very few Canadians would truthfully answer the required questions – and no one would pay pollsters to ask them. These would be questions like: “Do you feel like immigrants are taking jobs from Canadians?”, “Do you think terrorists pose a threat on Canadian soil?” or “If Donald Trump were able to run for Prime Minister today, would you vote for him?”

Without solid data – or the ability to get it – we must glean what we can from anecdotal evidence. Some indication can be seen in the comments on the Yahoo News story about Justin Trudeau appointing Somali Canadian, Ahmed Hussen, as Immigration Minister. Here are two examples:”Appointing a terrorist to bring in more terrorists.” “This douche bag will open the gates of ISIS and they will pour in here like maggots.” There was not one positive comment out of about 30 when I looked.

Before the results of the US election, it would have been easy to dismiss these commentors as fringe, especially in Canada. But now, the big question is: just how many Canadians feel this way? We may not know for sure until the next election unless Canadians start talking to one another now.

Having returned from Brazil, I thought I would revisit my July 8 post, 5 Tech Things That Will Keep My Family Safe during the Rio Olympics to report on how the tools actually performed.

Google Translate – we’d heard that not many people speak English in Brazil and that was certainly the case in the parts of Rio and Salvador we visited. So, despite some drawbacks, Google Translate became an essential tool. We used it on my wife’s iPhone, turning on the data function only when we needed it. It worked great for short conversations like asking where things were in the grocery store. However, more in depth chats were challenging when using the audio feature instead of text as people tended to speak in long paragraphs, which would come out as gibberish. (My most used line was, “You-have-to-say-one-sentence-at-a-time.”) So, for times like that we used…

Whatsapp – Once when Google Translate failed us in our attempt to communicate with a guy sent to fix our air conditioner, he suggested using Whatsapp to call our Airb&b host to translate. It worked perfectly, despite our host living in Washington, DC. In fact, we used Whatsapp exclusively communicate with both our hosts because it’s free.

Uber – We’d been told to use Uber because it was cheaper than taxis but we ended up using it for more important reasons. In a country where few people speak English and we don’t speak Portuguese, Uber removed the need to haggle over money since it’s all automatically paid by credit card. We also didn’t have to explain where we were going as our drivers’ GPS took care of that. Lastly, we didn’t have to depend on knowing a taxi company telephone number or hoping an empty one came by when we needed it because we could request one on our phone.

This really saved us one day in Salvador when were playing pickup soccer with some kids in a park near a beach. We were about to start our second game when a boy about 15 years old named Rodrigo pulled us aside and said, “This part of Salvador gets unsafe at night and it’s about an hour from sunset so you and your family should leave now.” I pulled out the iPhone and six minutes later we Ubered off safely into the sunset.

Laptop – I was blogging the trip for rabble.ca and brought a MacBook to do it because I hate creating large content on touch screen keyboards. Also, blogging requires opening and switching between lots of windows which is way easier on a laptop than an iPad or phone. However, the laptop also served an unexpected purpose: being the place to dump pictures and videos from my phone. Without the laptop, my phone would have filled up the first day and I wouldn’t have been able to take any more pictures!

To SIM or not to SIM – our Rio host told me I could get data on my cell phone by buying a SIM card from a local Brazilian carrier and putting it in my phone. He said it would cost about $5 Canadian. As it turned out, we got along with just my wife’s phone being connected as we never separated and many of the places we visited had pretty good wifi. (Two notable exceptions were the Olympic stadiums (one for the athletics, the other for soccer). Both had paid wifi with long registration processes that didn’t work for any of us.

Out of curiosity, I bought a SIM card on the day we were leaving. It cost 10 Brazilian Reals or about $5 Canadian like he said. I popped it in my phone and I got a message asking me to enter the supplied PIN #. When I did so it said the PIN was invalid. That disappointment was, luckily, an exception on a trip where tech was mostly like a reliable friend.

One of the principles I developed late in life has to do with travel. I don’t want to be a “zoo” traveler where you just go and look at what people are doing in other countries, then leave. Instead, I want to teach my kids to always try to have a positive impact on the places they visit, no matter how small.

So, it is with that in mind that I asked one of our contacts in Brazil, who runs educational programs with kids in favelas, if there was anything we could bring that would help him out, or just put a smile on the kids’ faces. He said they can always use sports equipment.

And thus the idea of bringing soccer balls to the kids in the favelas was born.

Now, to be clear, by “kids” I mean Afro Brazilian kids. Not because I only want to bring balls to black kids but because all the kids in the program are Afro Brazilian as most people living in favelas are Afro Brazilian (about 70%).

That comes from Brazil’s unflattering and not well publicized history.

“Brazil was the last place in the Americas to give up slavery. It also imported more than 10 times as many slaves as the U.S. — some 4 million. That’s meant that more than 50 percent of the population is of African descent, but those numbers haven’t translated to opportunity.” (NPR “Expats find Brazil’s Reputation for Color Blindness Is Undone By Reality“).

So my middle class African Canadian sons will give soccer balls to their favela-dwelling Afro Brazilian brothers and sisters.  They won’t be able to communicate with words but will connect through the universal language of the beautiful game.

Which brings me to the whole point of this post: how we’re raising the money to buy 15 soccer balls.

I’ve never done online fundraising so I went to the obvious choice for advice: Google. The first non-sponsored link was from Mashable and was, of course, irresistable: Top 12 Online Fundraising Platforms for Donors and Non-profits. After a short read, I decided on Fundrazr mainly because it said it was associated with PayPal which I use. I figured anything even remotely associated with PayPal and Tesla founder, Elon Musk, had to be easy.

I wasn’t disappointed.

I registered, set up my campaign and sent my first email blast in under an hour. And it’s getting results even though I ignored the advice to create a video that would, supposedly, double my success rate. The website gives lots of similar tips on how to optimize your campaign. (I couldn’t find a mobile app but the website is mobile friendly and looks great on my Samsung S4 phone). After the first day of the campaign we had 5 of the 15 balls. Here’s the email Fundrazr made it very easy for me to create [from the “$0 raised” you can see this is an old pic ;-)]:

Soccer ball Fundrazr

My next test is to prove what I’ve said to everyone who has asked me, “How are you going to travel with 15 soccer balls?” …clearly assuming the balls would be fully inflated as they are sold in store. To this I say, “No problem. You can deflate them.”

I’m going to test this out this weekend and, if it fails, my idea may be temporarily deflated.

Don’t believe the Zika hype

Author: Robin Browne

After the Rio Olympics, what’s the first thing you think of when you think of Brazil? I bet it’s the Zika virus.

If you believe the media reports, you’d think there are swarms of Zika laden mosquitos roaming the streets of Rio looking for pregnant women to feast on. And if you’re not a pregnant woman you’d still be nervous.

Well, what if I told you that no one has screens on their windows in Rio? Oh, and there are no mosquitos now anyway because it’s  winter. And, even if it was summer, there’s almost no chance of getting Zika in the city…

Well, that’s what our Brazilian contacts in Rio are telling us (two independent contacts).

Could this be part of the reason why study after study shows people trust “people like them” more than the media? And why the mainstream media continues to struggle? (Maybe if they stop blaming the Internet and return to the good old days of reporting actual facts, people might give them another try).

Now I’m starting to question the other big stories coming out of Brazil via mainstream media, like the shitty water story. This literally means “water full of shit” because Rio pumps its raw sewage into the water like many places do. However, on this one, one of our contacts confirmed that the bay next to where we’re staying in a part of Rio called Flamengo, is one of the places mentioned in the shitty water stories and he says, “You don’t want that water to even touch your skin.”

So, it seems the media got that one right.