David Arthur (1952-2014)

I just found out that my friend Dave Arthur died on June 21.

Dave and I became friends over a decade ago when we both worked downtown. Our jobs were dramatically different, but we bonded over music and he used to regale me with wild stories of downtown Regina in the 1960s. When my friend Stacey and I published the Regina Streets Magazine, he was one of our very first vendors.

I could tell stories about Dave for hours, but I would like to share one that sums him up perfectly. Years ago, I ran into Dave at the Subway/Mac’s store on 13th Avenue and Albert Street. He was trying to raise enough money to buy a sub and a pack of cigarettes to share with his wife (the amazing Arleen). I only had a $5 bill on me and gave it to Dave. He was immensely happy because that gave him enough to buy cigarettes, so we walked out of the convenience store together.

As we were leaving the store, a kid asked if we had any money. I had absolutely no money, but Dave, without so much as a thought, turned and gave the kid the five dollar bill that I had just given him. I was shocked by the generosity, but when I asked him about it, Dave was remarkably nonchalant about the whole thing.

“Greg man,” he said in that amazing voice, “bad things happen to kids out here.”

It’s fitting that one of the brightest stars I knew died on solstice. He taught me so much and I will always miss him. I hope he rests in peace.

No social widgets?

Those of you who visit this site regularly might notice that I redesigned it a few months ago. While I didn’t promote the redesign, I’ve been watching my site’s analytics and paying extra attention to feedback from my visitors. One of the most common pieces of feedback I’ve received is that my website does not have any of the social widgets (ie – a Facebook ‘Like’ button, or one of Twitter’s ‘Tweet’ buttons) that appear on most other blogs.

I will readily acknowledge that from a marketing perspective, omitting those widgets was a bad idea. They are so omnipresent that their absence is a little jarring. And, they’re just so easy to use that I know that I’m losing traffic without those widgets. However, regardless of the marketing benefits, there is absolutely no way that I will ever have another social widget on my website again. Why?

Privacy.

(more…)

Bob Hughes (1944 – 2013)

I was working on an article about statistics for a publication I’m working with when I happened upon a horrible bit of news. Bob Hughes, a longtime sports writer and general columnist for the Regina Leader-Post died this morning in a Regina hospital. He was 69 years old.

Mr. Hughes and I shared a birthday (June 1), but his impact upon me was much stronger. When I was a youngster, my family subscribed to the Regina Leader-Post and that newspaper became part of my after school ritual. Every day, when I would get home, I would hunker down in the kitchen and read the newspaper. I was too small to hold the newspaper the way my Mom and Dad did, so I would lay it out on the floor and take the time to digest every section. However, first, I always gravitated to two writers – Ron Petrie and Bob Hughes.

I’ve always loved to write and even when I was young, I felt that those two writers had much to teach me. Mr. Petrie (who tragically passed away in 2012) showed me the gift of wild humour. Mr. Hughes showed me the gift of pointed, but deserved criticism. And today, those two giants from my past are gone.

As I grew up, Hughes left the world of sports and began writing a more general column. I didn’t always agree with him, but he kept me informed about civic and provincial issues. Most of the media I was exposed to came from outside of the province, but Mr. Hughes always kept me firmly grounded in the 306. I didn’t agree with everything that he said, but I could rely upon him to tell me the whole story and let me make up my own mind.

Critics of Hughes (and he had many) like to point out that he had a few favourite topics (namely daylight savings time and our city’s problem with Canada geese) that he would always write about in a pinch. His fans point out that while he was opinionated, his opinions usually gave his writing context and never kept him from giving both sides of the story. I always loved how reading Hughes was like talking with a friend. He was frequently funny, he’d toss in references about his family, and he always seemed honest with his readers – it was apparent that if Hughes wrote something, he believed in it.

I’m aware that I have certain gifts and that writing is one of them. However, I wouldn’t be half the writer that I am had I not been exposed to his columns at a young age. Today is a very sad day.

Does your site need a phone number?

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. (attributed to Mark Twain)

I fell in love with online business in the late 1990s after I started my first real business. Like many young entrepreneurs, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and so I turned to experts for advice. Local business experts (and my professors in business school) were of little help then as they had no experience whatsoever with the online world and doing business online is dramatically different from brick and mortar. Consequently, I had to turn to the web for help.

Online, I was surprised to find entrepreneurs who had been through exactly what I was going through taking the time to share all the strategies that helped them out. Entrepreneurs seemed hell bent on sharing their tales of success and of failure and upon sharing the secrets that helped them succeed. This was all wonderful, except sometimes, it was clear that the writers were working with dramatically different markets or else they genuinely didn’t know what they were talking about. Therefore, I learned to become extremely critical of the advice that I was reading online.

(more…)

Regina’s Wastewater Treatment Plant Referendum

To those of you unfamiliar with Regina’s Wastewater Treatment Plant and the issues surrounding its expansion, I’ll start off with a bit of background. Regina is growing rapidly and, as always, rapid growth has placed pressure on infrastructure. Our current wastewater treatment plant was built a long time ago and we need a replacement. So, a plan came about to build a new wastewater treatment plant that would serve Regina until we reached 258,000 residents.

Before you read this rather long piece, I think I owe you a summary of my position. I will be voting against the P3. I have chosen to vote against the P3 because the Deloitte report which this whole project is based on has some severe flaws. Further, I have chosen to vote no because of the way the City of Regina has handled this affair. From unfairly publishing pro P3 propaganda on voter information cards, to retaining the public servant responsible for quashing a petition as chief returns officer, to only including pro-p3 information on their website, the City has not handled this affair well. There is solid research that the P3 will cost significantly more than a traditional model and this research directly contradicts the report that Deloitte wrote in favour of a P3. Thus, voting against the P3 not only makes economic sense, it will also send a message to City Council that we, the people, will not tolerate fear mongering, abuses of power, or disrespect for the electorate. Give us honest information and real numbers so that we can support your position. And frankly, we expect more from elected officials than to accept dubious reports that fly in the face of published and peer reviewed research and then call it due diligence.

In the Canadian system, we have three distinct levels of government – municipal, provincial, and federal. Constitutionally, each level is responsible for particular things, but there is enough overlap in responsibilities that outside funding can come from one (or occasionally from two) distinct levels of government. And so, in Canada, every major infrastructure project has two distinct phases before construction starts. It starts off with a vague plan, and then devolves into a big mess when the various levels of government try to figure out who will pay for it all.

As part of the city’s diligence process, they hired Deloitte to conduct a study of all the various options for building, running and financing the plan. Deloitte wrote a report (most of the report is online – I encourage you to read it, or at least appendix A, which is an assessment of all the different models the city could have chosen from.) Deloitte recommended a P3 (public private partnership) and suggested that the most economically sound model to deliver the plant was a DBFOM (Design – Build – Finance – Operate – Maintain). Under the DBFOM model, one private company takes responsibility to design, build, finance and operate the plant for a period of up to 30 years. Making the DBFOM even more tempting, the Federal government promised to give the city of Regina over $58 million for building it under the DBFOM model. All signs pointed to DBFOM and it looked like everything was going smoothly.

(more…)

Graphing the Bank of Canada’s overnight rate

Yesterday, the Bank of Canada announced that they were going to hold the line on interest rates – leaving its key interest rate at 1%, a level it has now held for three years. This got me thinking about all the overnight rates I had seen throughout my life – from the astronomical 16% in 1991, to the terrifyingly low 0.25% we saw in April 2009. And so, I decided that I wanted to find a graph and thankfully, tradingeconomics.com makes that very easy. So, here’s a graph of Canada’s overnight rate through the last 22 years:

a graph of Canada's overnight interest rates from September 1991 to September 2013.

There are a few key takeaways from this graph. The biggest is that interest rates have been obscenely low since the financial crisis. This worries me for a couple of reasons. First off, if interest rates need to be this low to keep the economy going, has the financial crisis actually ended, or are we one crisis away from another recession? And second, do long term, historically low interest rates cause people to consume more than they should?

(more…)

Businesses face backlash from NSA spying

A few days ago, I wrote about how one potential side effect of the National Security Agency’s unprecedented electronic surveillance programs was US firms potentially losing sales. Today, Computerworld published an article to help quantify some of my fears. According to the article, a Cloud Security Alliance survey discovered that 10% of officials at non-US companies cancelled contracts with US service providers following the revelation of the NSA spying programs. Furthermore, the CSA survey found that 56% of respondents are now hesitant to work with US based cloud service providers.

While these results are from a small survey, they reveal some future marketing problems for US based companies. Enterprise software as a service (SAAS) companies must be especially concerned about these numbers. It typically costs more money to acquire an enterprise customer and SAAS (which is a model in which customers usually pay a monthly subscription) can take a few years to recover those acquisition costs. Anything which increases the rate of cancellations can be deadly for enterprise services!

Fear of a wack planet (or living in a surveillance state)

Occupy if you denied
Protest songs cause I see wrong
Most of my heroes still don’t appear on no stamp
So I rant even when they say I can’t
I rise against, rage against
Hope I don’t end up being the same thing I’m fighting against
Hence, I wince never on the fence
Since they think the masses powerless
(Get up, Stand Up by Public Enemy)

It is very rare that a current event shakes me so deeply that I have to question all of my beliefs. Unfortunately, the recent revelations about NSA surveillance have shaken me to my core. The United States’ National Security Agency can access data (in real time) from email, phone calls, online chats, and other online communications and then unilaterally subject these communications to whatever sort of analysis they wish. Moreover, under this program, the NSA can keep this information for as long as they like. Technically, the NSA is only allowed to collect information on non-American citizens, but, according to reports, collecting information on non-foreign individuals is ‘nothing to worry about’.

(more…)

One year later

I’ll never forget the first time I heard the Beastie Boys. I was 9 years old (just about to turn 10) and my friend Trystan brought his Walkman to school. This was in early 1987, so Walkmans were a very big deal. At recess, we retreated behind the tires to listen to some music. I put the headphones on and he hit ‘play’. I was hooked the moment I heard the opening strains of “She’s Crafty” – it was by far the coolest thing I had ever heard, far cooler than the Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen I had listened to previously. While I had heard of rap, this was the first time I had ever heard any. That was the first time that I had ever felt down, truly down, with something bigger than myself.

As I grew up, hip hop became a lens through which I could view the world. I lived in a very small town where hip hop was known as ‘n***** music’ and the hockey playing fucks used to harass me, but I didn’t care. Hip hop was bigger than me, bigger than my town, and far bigger than the little minds that I once wanted to impress. Hip hop inspired me, a middle class white kid from Saskatchewan, to delve into Dr. Martin Luther King and learn about the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King inspired me to stand up and speak out against what is wrong.

(more…)

Financial literacy – a necessary part of growth hacking

On January 28, an entrepreneur named Jody Sherman committed suicide. In a year already marred by tech suicides, Sherman’s death was especially shocking. His company, Ecomom was loved by its customers and had managed to raise a total of $12 million (including $5 million just six months before. After Sherman’s death however, the magnitude of the shock increased – within a few weeks, the company announced it was broke and entered into Assignment for Benefit of Creditors. Unanswered questions circulated – how can you go from $5 million to near bankruptcy in six months?

Yesterday, Business Insider (whose coverage of the Jody Sherman death has been excellent) shined a light on that question. You see, Philip Prentiss (Ecomom’s controller) just published a detailed look at the company’s operations in the last few months of Sherman’s life. Business Insider posted Prentiss’ entire case study to Scribd and if you’re remotely interested in either accounting or entrepreneurship, I encourage you to read it.

Prentiss’ case study provides an incredible look at the death rattle of a startup with poor financial controls. And it contains many lessons which are critical in today’s startup climate.

(more…)