29 November 2019

Pitching an Event

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Startup pitch “events” have become a part of the modern tech work culture and make up 97% of all Eventbrite and Meetup events.

No, that's not a real stat, but you probably didn’t dispute it when you read it, right?

My point is, there are a lot of these happening all the time, the challenge is that most of them aren’t really events at all, at least not in any grand sort of way. Sometimes these tech pitches are referred to as demo days or are part of another event entirely and like many people in the startup industry, I’ve attended my share of these “events”. And, unfortunately, a lot of these are forgettable and unremarkable. Don't get me wrong, some are done well, but a lot of them, most of them, are not.

My involvement in these events has spanned from pitching, to judging, to pitch-coaching to just plain watching. In the last 6 or 7 years, I have seen over 800 pitches in cities throughout the USA, Europe, Canada and South America. 800 pitches!?!? Now, I’m sure there are folks who laugh at how small my number is and just as many that can’t believe it’s so high. Regardless, I think seeing 800 +/- of these pitches, in many markets, gives me enough of a sample size to draw some conclusions and provide some support to my suggestions on how to improve these locally, to benefit our ecosystem.

Unforgettable and unremarkable.

If there were a Regretsy site for brutal pitches, it would be filled to capacity – there’s no shortage of bad pitches, trust me. Unfortunately, some of these are actually good companies or ideas, but the pitch sucks. What truly sucks about a bad business pitch is, the person pitching is quite often heavily invested into their idea, but just can’t speak to it with any coherence, can’t articulate the problem they are solving. This is usually chalked up to a lack of sophistication in understanding the business and how to communicate the value proposition and business model effectively.

A good pitch takes practice, but only after you fully understand some of the fundamentals about your startup.

You know where you don’t see (very many) bad pitches? When the pitch event is an actual show. When effort has gone into producing the event. When the startup takes the event seriously. When there is something on the line like money or reputation. Money and/or reputation can be the inspiration to try harder to do better. Everyone wants to win money and nobody wants to be embarrassed.

I’ve encouraged local startups to go to big startup events, just to see the pitches. The pitches at these events are typically vetted and of a caliber that demonstrate a certain level of mastery in the art of pitching and some advancement in their business. When a new startup sees a seasoned startup pitching, it gives them an idea of what a proper pitch looks like and this example is engrained in them as a benchmark for them to build their presentation to. They up their game.

Which is why we should put more effort into making pitch events grand or special in some way.

Let's not forget that pitch events are a complete waste of time and are critically important. Two points of view that are both right, depending on a number of factors. Entrepreneurs must not let themselves get caught in the trap of endless pitching for the sake of pitching - this is a time vampire. It is important to understand the value of each pitch event and what you intend to get from it. Entrepreneurs should select pitch opportunities based on their needs at the time.

So, we have to be cautious not to promote these events as the end all be all for startups. Pitching is a part of the startup journey, not the destination. They should be able to pitch well, but pitching well comes with a deep understanding of their customer, the problem they solve and the opportunity they have ahead of them.

Pitch events can help a startup get noticed, they can help in recruiting, they can help in getting their story out to industry and to media and they can help in attracting investors. This is what these events have focused on to date, and it’s worked (for the most part) pretty well in doing these things. All of this is just more effective when it’s an actual event or show.

Things that make it more effective are the audience, when it's a show, you can invite the entire community. Not just the usual industry players, but people outside the ecosystem box. Include school teachers, bankers, friends and leaders from other industries. When people from the outside see good pitches, they are amazed at the great things happening in the city and try to help the startup by talking with them to understand what they need.

I have brought people from outside of the tech industry to these events quite a few times and they are floored by the ideas that entrepreneurs are working on in getting to market – this gets them excited for what we (collectively) are working on. I hear comments like, “I never knew this kind of stuff was going on in our city!”

When these pitch events are seen as important events or shows, the founders up their game. They spend more time making their story better, they practice over and over and the result is the language they use in describing their solution evolves to a sophisticated state that pushes the startups below them to attain that level of understanding of their own business. Pitching actually helps entrepreneurs in crafting a compelling story which comes through in their marketing and sales efforts and materials.

Competing for space on the stage for big pitch events puts pressure on founders to be better. Better pitches begets better pitches. Better pitches puts pressure on the entire ecosystem to create better events with better pitches. Better pitches puts pressure on the founder to be better and perhaps give them a better sense of when they are “ready” to hit the stage.

Visuals are important to pitch competitions, each company should have some visual or deck behind them when presenting. And, to help founders connect with their “ask” after they pitch, organizers of events should recap the presenting companies and their ask in a handout, on a web page or on the screen at the end of the pitches.

Anyways, I believe if everyone put a little more thought and intent to making pitch events more of a show, make it special for the founders… by putting something on the line: a cash prize or a spotlight. Both will create an audience.  it will create the incentive they require to bring their A game and inspire others to be A players too.

Last night, Platform Calgary hosted the Junction Founder Showcase with cohort 3. I think the pitches were great; the room was dark, the attention was on each founder as they spoke and it created an atmosphere of excitement. The presentations last night will no doubt inspire others in the audience to tune up their presentations, by giving them ideas on what to say and how to say it. The folks from outside of our industry that saw the event last night will tell others what an amazing group of entrepreneurs our city has along with some of the great ideas being made locally.

There are many pitch events in our city that are doing this and kudos to the organizers for thinking of the founders. When we raise the stage, when we turn down the lights, when we give them a mic, when we have people sitting, when we have a projection of their slide(s) behind them and when we ply the audience with alcohol - the founder takes it up a notch and performs.

These events make the celebration about the founders, they are meant to feel special - these events are all about them, after all. Putting the founder up on stage, gives them some credibility and actually helps to facilitate discussions with potential investors, customers and employees. By creating special events around pitches, we can affect their success in getting these key introductions and conversations going, by doing nothing more than showcasing that what the founder is doing is worth celebrating.

I love that many in our city are doing this with events now, they get better and better every time and hopefully it sparks others in the community to do the same, giving buoyancy to all startups and helping to bring outside attention to what tech founders are doing in the city.

All founders are trying to 'make the world a better place', let's start with the pitch events.

22 February 2018

Necessity's Second Child

Parenting ain't easy, especially when you're a single mother and you happen to be the mother of invention. What a gig, eh?

Well, guess what? You've been given another child: Innovation. It's an ill-tempered brat but, er, congratulations, good luck and all that...

It's widely accepted the same principles hold true for innovation as invention as they are both driven by a need to make things better.

Need itself is a commodity, and it faces the same demand and supply cycle that everything else does, especially in my home province. Invention and innovation are not stocked on shelves, they're not readily available when they are called upon. Invention and innovation come from a mindset which is created out of necessity and sometimes it takes years to cultivate a collective mindset and culture around being innovative.

When I look at Alberta, where currently there has been a huge focus to innovate as a means to stimulate the economy, I see a huge dilemma; our demand for innovation is not timed with our supply of necessity. I mean it appears as though it is, but it's not. When necessity arises, the mindset needed to create innovation isn't there until months or years after - the result is invention and innovation ship late.

The energy sector, where pressure to innovate is mostly being placed, goes through boom and bust cycles. The world oil price dictates the success of many and when things are booming necessity vanishes as there's no need to change anything except the oil in your Bentley and therefore no demand to innovate. But when the price drops below production costs, necessity shows up, there's a flurry of activity and a renewed focus on how to innovate and drive production costs down. I have witnessed this several times during my career.

Innovation is born of necessity but there is a sometimes a lengthy gestation period before we celebrate the birth of a new invention or innovation. You know what happens when you have a newborn... you have to raise it, nurture it and groom it before it becomes independent enough to be useful in its own sense.

So, even if an idea is conceived, there's a period of time before it is put into practice. Most ideas need to be tested, piloted, analyzed and only then are they implemented - this can take years as well.

The solution? Business leaders can control the commodity of need, they alone, can create the culture where necessity is built into their plans. Leaders should make necessity a part of every company's day-to-day mantra and of ongoing operations at all times. This takes time, dedication and a focus on the future.

If necessity is ever-present, so too should innovation, right?

Of course, the other parent to innovation is the inventor. The inventor requires enablers, encouragers and funders by keeping necessity top of mind and to make it an important, integral part of every company and industry.

Happy parenting!

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31 January 2017

R.I.P. Air Miles

A little background

I'm not sure when it all started but the Air Miles program has finally reached a point where it's almost dead to me. And, from what I can tell, it's already dead to many others from a quick scan of social media and the webisphere.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not just a disgruntled customer of Air Miles, I was a big fan of the program for many years. In fact, I worked closely with LoyaltyOne, the corporation that runs the Air Miles program, on many projects: Launching the program in Canada with Safeway in 1992, bringing customers into the Incentives program in the late 90's early 2000's, worked on branding projects through my creative agency, and launching gift cards on their platform with my last startup.

In addition to working closely, I have also been collecting reward miles since 1992 and have been an Onyx member since inception, I'm still unclear on the Onyx program and what it means exactly... I could never fully understand the benefits.

Although I have never used my reward miles for travel, I have redeemed for numerous gift cards and tons of household items. In fact, I've lost track of all the things that I've redeemed for. In all those transactions, I have only had issue on one or two of things I've ordered and the customer service was always top notch in finding a quick remedy.

I have watched their program grow over the years and I was always impressed with the program as well as the many talented staff they employed. LoyaltyOne have had some very smart and dedicated people working for them over the years. From the outside, it always appeared to be a well oiled machine and well run. Which is why I am so baffled at what the program is today. And, baffled is the best way to describe how I feel about the program now because I just can't make sense of why things are the way they are.

You will see I use the word baffle a lot, it's justified and intentional. And, the perfect word to describe how I feel about the Air Miles program today. 

Many of the retail partners have been involved for a long time and I've been a loyal customer of these retailers over the years; Shell, Safeway, Bank of Montreal, American Express, Fountain Tire, Rona, Lowes, Rexall, Staples and more. I used to base (somewhat) my purchasing decision on the fact that I could collect Air Miles.

User experience in decline

When it came to redeeming my points, I enjoyed going to the web site and selecting merchandise. This changed over time however, and I've enjoyed it less and less with every visit.

Typically, online stores get better with age, they iterate and learn from use of their customers. Not Air Miles, they seemed to make changes based on their needs, not those of the customer - it's the only way I can describe the downward spiral of the experience in dealing with their site as a customer trying to redeem reward miles. Frustrating.

Here are some of my observations on the evolution or de-evolution of their redemption store and if they really wanted to improve customer satisfaction, they would maybe consider improving on these points:

  • Adding merchandise that cannot be redeemed with reward miles, but only with cash, with no way to filter those results out. Why would I even want to see this when I'm attempting to redeem points and have expressly clicked on links to this effect. The first 3 items in my search to redeem my points, cannot even be redeemed with points! This has been on for some time so I can only imagine that some people are buying these items. If you had a separate category, where I could earn Air Miles on purchases, I would likely shop there, but not when I'm looking to redeem. 
  • Creating a split program, dream rewards and cash rewards. This is just baffling and confusing - I can only imagine there is some benefit to LoyaltyOne, because it is not customer centric at all. It's just plain confusing for the customer. Software can easily manage the disparity in the values of the programs, why they put the onus on the customer to help them manage their bottom line is beyond comprehension and a lazy patch to the issue at hand. 
  • The browsable space on the redemption site is still confined to single pages, so each search only shows you 9 (!) results unless you select view all (which you have to do each time). It's 2017, each search result should be display the entire category on a single page. This is not rocket science and will greatly improve the customer experience.
  • Redemption searches are confined and not reflowable to fit the size of the screen. They are still building their site to a specified width, again, it's 2017, not 2003 - customers use a variety of devices including second screens, mobile devices and laptops. This is called responsive design, not a new concept nor method and not using this is both frustrating to use and dates your site. 
  • The Air Miles app allows for viewing but not redemption (or at least did before it stopped working). What is the point of the app exactly then? Why bother? Maybe this has been corrected, I can't tell because my iOS app doesn't work.
  • The web store has removed the "wish list" function so you can no longer put something onto a wish list that you'd like to save points for. This decision baffles me, and can only be justified if you consider the needs of the company rather than the customer. 
  • The viewable area of the redemptions (the part I'm interested in) vs. the rest of the site (what you're trying to promote) is abhorrent and riles against any sort of customer focus. Have a look here what you've actively searched for is hidden 'beneath the fold', requiring scrolling and the information you are not looking for fills the page. Most good commerce sites, put search results ahead of their own navigation.
  • Finding the small text links to actually redeem your rewards is now a chore - the language obfuscates the process - not hiding it, but also not making it intuitive. It's three or four clicks before I see the first available merchandise. Why frustrate users in such a manner? You need to consider the reason customers are coming to your site in the first place.
  • The Air Miles redemption site is probably the slowest online store I have ever visited, with nearly a minute to refresh categories within the store. This has been the case since day one, I have complained a number of times to no avail, no follow up at all. I actually get the sense that this is intentional to curb redemption. 

Using their web site is like using the MVP of a brand new startup company - so much needs to be done to satisfy the customer and it's all designed from their own view, not the customers. But with a startup you know it will get better, they listen to their customer and iterate. It's almost as if Air Miles is going in reverse from a web development perspective as their user interface and user experience has gotten worse with time instead of better.

Decline in customer service

Yesterday, I noticed I hadn't received an order so I called their toll-free line. I was on for just a few minutes before a service rep was able to help me - the call took 17 minutes with the result of them crediting back my Air Miles so I could make the purchase again. However, the service rep could not complete the transaction without an override from the supervisor - I was put on hold to speak with the supervisor... for over 4 hours. I waited for 4 hours and 6 minutes before hanging up.

While I was on hold, about 1 hour in, I called the toll free number on another line and explained that I was on hold for over an hour. The service rep explained that there were 6 calls ahead of me and to keep waiting as it would be quicker. Well. I don't know what it was quicker than exactly, but, I resorted to social media and tweeted the following:

 "I finally gave up on my #airmiles service call after 4 hours. What's going on @Pearson4loyalty?"

The response from Air Miles was to DM them with details, which I did. Their DM response was to phone back to the same line I waited on hold for the previous day.

Let me clarify this: after waiting 4 hours on hold and complaining, they said to call back, using the exact same number and process I did the first time. All I could do was laugh.

What happened to this once great, service-oriented company? I always remember being really impressed by the quick resolve and eagerness to help from their customer service staff. Mistakes happen, you can tell how good a company is by how they react to mistakes far more than you can from any marketing they do. LoyaltyOne used to excel in this area, which is why I was such a big fan for so many years.

The people at Air Miles do care though, my issue was finally resolved and an apology was made. I'm sure that these customer service escalations are not the norm. But combined with the horrid online experience there's not much left to hold onto.

Final breath

Over the last year we've seen a number of frustrated customers vent publicly on social media and in court. I've started using alternate loyalty programs and begun changing my shopping habits. Once I exhaust the few Air Miles I have left, I am going to minimize the program and not worry about collecting, I will basically ignore it. Was fun while it lasted.

It's no secret that most customer loyalty is based on service, customer experience and satisfaction, the fact that a mature (read pioneering) loyalty company is making these basic errors, is completely baffling to me.

R.I.P. Air Miles

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17 September 2016

Ride On

As the summer cycling season comes to a close I can't help but look back at some of the awesome rides I completed.

Thanks in part to the Strava app, looking back at each and every ride is very easy... and full of stats. I can tell you with precision the improvements I've made on each segment of each path, trail or road I've ridden on. I am so impressed with this app, it's absolutely fantastic - if you don't use Strava, you're missing out.

Some bikers just put their head down and go, while I have done the same at times, I also stop to take photos along the way; you can't imagine what a gorgeous city we live in until you've travelled it by bike. I post a lot of these photos on Strava and quite a few on Instagram. If you're not taking in some of the scenery as your riding, I think you're missing out.

In April, I set a goal of doing 2500km this summer. So far, I've done 2665kms and expect to put on a few hundred more before the snow flies. I separated my shoulder on August 22 playing hockey which put a dent in my cycling, missing out on about 3 weeks of great conditions. I'm back on the saddle again and slowly conditioning myself to longer rides once more.

I took my Bianchi in to get fitted and made several adjustments including the purchase of a new saddle, new stem and new handlebars. My bike was now ready for some serious distance. Since buying my road bike in the summer of '14, I've ridden 4083kms.

Here's a few of my highlights from this summer:

The Badlands Fondo on June 25th in Drumheller was my first century ride (100 miles). This 167.3km ride was the first time I have ever rode my bike in the rain, a little unnerving on the descents, especially with the crosswind. The last 35km were into a 50kph headwind but I finished it in 7hrs 45mins including rest stops.

While in New York, I rented a BSO (bike shaped object) in Central Park on July 2 and did 25kms looping the park a few times. Was a beautiful day and even managed to get the 20psi tires to propel me 50kph for a bit. There were a lot of road bikers, but I'm not sure how challenging that would be on a regular basis, there's virtually no climbs and there are too many people to really open it up.

The Highwood Pass Fondo on July 9th in Kananaaskis Country was one of the most competitive rides I've been in. There were many serious riders. Although it wasn't as long as the Badlands Fondo, it was twice as much elevation. The 135.3km ride saw a total climb of 1656m with the last ascent taking over 1 hour to complete. What goes up, must come down... unfortunately, it was raining so I topped out at 76kph on the descent, I think on dry conditions I would have been a touch faster. I finished this ride in 5hrs 43mins, including stops, a fair bit faster than the Badlands ride.

The inaugural Spoke 'n Hot Fondo was held in Fort Que'Appelle, Saskatchewan on August 7. I was one of 40 people who entered the 165km century ride. The first 70kms was beautiful and we were sheltered in the valley riding around 3 of the 4 lakes, when we ascended onto the plains, the wind picked up and made for a little tougher ride but was still gorgeous country. My back started to act up on the first climb and the pressure on my sciatic nerve was getting to be a little more than uncomfortable, the second climb was painful and I began to worry about the 9hr drive home and how my back would hold up. Descending into the valley, we approached the finish line (read beer garden) before the final lap, it was at this point, I packed it in. With only 34kms left I stopped, I had lots of leg and lung left, but I didn't want to push it with my back. I did 131km in 5hrs 7 mins, including stops. I will kill it next year.

Two weeks later, after resting and stretching my back, I was ready to take on the Tour de Victoria. I entered the epic 140km race. This was by far the hardest, most painful ride I have done. The vertical was close to the Highwood Pass but the steep grades were off the charts and much more intense than any of the hills I trained on. Most of the ride was like a roller coaster, up and down and up and down. But, I did complete the ride in 6hrs and 17 mins, including stops and facing a fierce headwind for the last 25kms to the finish line. This was the most well organized event I've attended, there were over 1500 riders in the various heats and all along the 140km ride were people cheering, clapping and giving it a little more cow bell. I will do this one again, but will train a little more on the hills.

A big tip of the helmut to all the volunteers and sponsors who make these events happen.

Some stats so far this year:
Longest distance: 167.3km
Largest climb: 512m
Elevation gain: 13,892m
Fastest speed: 79.9kph
Rides: 64

I'm looking forward to biking this fall and racking up more kms. I'm not winning any races, not even close to winning the middle of the pack, but I've never felt more healthy and fit. I'm so glad I got back into cycling. My goal next year is to go on a bike tour with Two Wheel View or TDA Global Cycling... I want to be a member of the EFI Club on some epic journey.

16 September 2016

Go The Distance

Tonight I heard the news that WP Kinsella ended his life, taking full advantage of Canada's new law on assisted dying. He was one of my favourite authors.

I have read all of his books, some several times over but, there is one book in particular that I have never read; his most famous book, Shoeless Joe. I'll explain this odd exception later.

As a writer, Mr. Kinsella was mostly silent since the late 90's releasing only one book after an accident derailed his career. Like classic architecture, his stories are timeless and a marvel to take in. At some point after ebay surfaced, I made a point of collecting first editions of all the books I loved. I'm happy to report I've got most of the first editions WP Kinsella released.

There's one book that I can't seem to keep on my bookshelf though, "The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt and Other Baseball Stories" I enjoy this collection of short stories so much that I give it away to people I think would enjoy it. I've purchased several copies over the years and just realized I'm out of stock, again.

When WP was promoting Magic Time, I was fortunate enough to catch him in person at the Word on the Street festival in Calgary where we spoke for some time after his reading. Afterwards, he signed my copy of Magic Time along with "Go the distance."

Earlier this year I was in discussions with his agent, Carolyn, to see if I could sell his books through my companies online ebook store as well as the Walmart ebook store, which we operated. I could tell by the way that Carolyn spoke that WP was not just a client, but a very close friend.

In 1992, I heard Kinsella being interviewed on CBC radio one day and was intrigued, sounded like an interesting story. I stopped at the local bookstore in Edmonton, where I was living at the time, and purchased a copy of The Winter Helen Dropped By. I enjoyed this book so much, I immediately went back to the store to purchase another book by the same author. It was after reading Box Socials that I became a WP Kinsella fan.

"Every story is about sex or death, or sometimes both"

Kinsella's stories have a way of pulling you into the story, with scenes so vivid and characters so real as you read the book, you could swear you were there, that your name was just omitted by the editor to save some ink. But, you were there, man. Frankie Fencepost, Silas Ermineskin, Mike Houle, Ray Kinsella, Charlie O'Day, Gideon Clark, Joe McCoy, Mike Street and many others kept me company over the years as Kinsella wove story into story and created a very real story world. One filled with laughter and wonder.

Funny thing is, I'm not a baseball fan, I wouldn't go out of my way to see a baseball game, but his stories about baseball are so well crafted that you can't help but fall in love with the game, and every aspect of it. I am a big hockey fan, played the game for over 40 years and I've never once felt the same about hockey as I do about baseball after reading one of his baseball stories.

WP Kinsella is best known for Shoeless Joe, the only novel of his I have not read. Here's why: The movie Field of Dreams was based on Shoeless Joe and while I'm a huge Kinsella fan, I am also a huge fan of the movie. I would go so far as to say it's one of my favourite movies of all time. Do you see where I'm going with this? As you know, in most cases, the book is always better than the movie and I just don't want to tarnish my love for the flick. So, I've steered clear of the novel for fear of it wrecking the movie for me. So, I have an uncracked first edition copy of Shoeless Joe that is collecting dust... paid almost $200 for a book that I've not even opened.

Maybe it's time to take WP's advice and go the distance... pick it up and finally read it. I think I will.

Thank you Mr. Kinsella for blessing us with your marvelous stories.

18 April 2016

Road Biking: My 30yr Remission

A few years ago I started cycling again. As a teenager, I had a nice Apollo 10 speed road bike that I put thousands of kms on - it was my dream to ride across the country, or something like that.

Then I got a car and I forgot all about my bike and biking.

After 30 years or so I acquired a nice Trek commuter bike and I was hooked, I soon began making the 40km round trip to work once a week and began riding most evenings through Fish Creek Provincial Park, near my home. I was starting to get my endurance and speed up and wanted to get back into road biking.

As a teenager, I spent hours at South Cycle, the local bike shop and drooled over the beautiful Bianchi road bikes, with the Campagnolo group sets and flat spokes and aerodynamic frames. It was my dream to have such a beautiful bike.

Well, thanks to Kijiji and someones need to upgrade, I found such a bike and at a reasonable price. I lucked into a 2002 Bianchi Reparto Corse with a Campagnolo Centaur 10 speed group set. It's an aluminum frame with carbon forks and wheels, pretty light and in terrific shape. It's not a fancy carbon frame model like most road bikes today, but it's still a performance bike.

I got the bike late in the summer, I put some new rubber on and rode the bike as is. Getting accustomed to the feel of the frame and making small adjustments to the bike as I went, putting in a few hundred kilometers. In the winter I purchased a stationary stand so that I could still spin.

The second summer, I began to see what I could do on the road bike and began to take longer rides, typically 60km at a time and was quite comfortable in doing these rides, I even ventured out onto highway 23 and rode from Mossleigh to Vulcan a few times (78kms) - 14kms of uphill to start off on, but a blast coming back, I reached a speed of 76kmph on one ride... a bit disconcerting when your only protection in a crash is the lycra your wearing.

Then, I discovered the Canmore Gran Fondo (CGF). A gran fondo is a type of long-distance ride in which riders are individually chip timed. Many folks race against their own time to better their own performance and some people just go out for a fun ride. They are not serious races by any stretch. The CGF had a choice of 60km, 88km and 136km. Since it was my first go, I went with the 60km race. I finished with a time of 2:04 and still got home with plenty of time to go play hockey that night.

This gran fondo experience was such that when I got home, I immediately looked up other fondos and found one in Kalispel the following weekend. I entered it. The choice there was a 50 mile (82km) or 100 mile race (164km), I chose the 50 mile and pretty sure that I had a time of 3:05... 27kmph on average for 3 hours - not bad for an old fat guy.

That was the last fondo of the year. While the fondos I competed in were relatively short, they did present some challenges to overcome. The 60km ride from Canmore included about 20kms of 40+kmph headwinds and the 82km ride in Kalispel started out with 2ºC weather but warmed up to 18ºC.

In March, I initially set a goal to do 10 fondos in the summer of 2016. I figured I should be able to reach 2500kms over the summer and planned accordingly. As I started to plan these fondos, I found there were many great events to choose from - Hell Ride, RollFast and the Chafe 150. These intrigued me, especially the Chafe 150, which is 242kms in one day - it borders on the ultra marathon level of biking.

After reviewing all of the rides, I learned that most of the fondos fall on the same days or weekends, so booking 10 isn't really possible. I settled on 4: Badlands Fondo (167km), Highwood Pass Fondo (135km), Spoke 'n Hot Fondo (165km) and Tour de Victoria (140km).

I want to do this for a couple of reasons. The first is I want to push the limits of what I can do. I'm still relatively young and may not be able to do this in another 10-15 years. I haven't really pushed the limits of what I can do physically since I was in the army, I guess I wanna see if I can be all that I can be, again. The second reason is, I want to prove that I can do the larger distances on all of the fondos this year. At least complete my first century ride.


10 November 2015

How basic military training prepared Me to be a tech start-up CEO

Most people I work with don't know I served in the army - that's me with a Carl Gustav 84mm rifle at the CFB Suffield Range in 1988. Unfortunately, this is one of the only photos I have of me in uniform, it was an era or two before selfies and digital cameras.

I don't hide the fact I was in the military, but I don't go out of my way to promote it either. It's not that I'm not proud of my service, because I am, I just know a lot of folks that served more than I have, and have given more than I have. My service pales by comparison.

Everyone who has ever served in the military all start out the same way: Basic Military Training (BMT). My basic training began in the spring of 86 and what started as a hair cut, looking snappy in a uniform and learning how to march up and down the square, quickly became a very intensive test of mind and body.

There are plenty of movies that depict the typical screaming Drill Seargent, demeaning the troops and calling them useless worms or maggots. While some of these fictional accounts of this character and his expletive-laced encouragements are slightly exaggerated, most are not. I was called both a worm and a maggot, sometimes on the same march. We were beaten down by Master Corporals, who took turns in making every waking moment an exercise in endurance and resilience.

Basic Military Training is a grueling experience, it is nothing like the twice-a-week boot camps you can pay for to showcase your yoga pants, those give actual boot camp a bad name. BMT is physically hard and mentally challenging. There is a mix of class room time, parade square time and field time and it escalates, in every sense. Just when you think you are getting the hang of something, they up the ante and whatever you're learning becomes more difficult. I cannot stress the fact that it is an ass-whooping both mentally and physically. But, there were other factors that contributed to life during BMT in the 80's as well, the world outside of CFB Currie was a very different place.

Keep in mind, this was almost 30 years ago and some of my memories may be a bit faded, no more faded than the old gear we received as new recruits. I swear some of the gear we got was from the 50's. In fact, I know that our weapons were. We were issued FNC1 battle rifles and I remember what I said the first time I held it, "how old is this thing?". It had a wooden butt, stock and forestock and it had a bayonet stub. ...for a bayonet. A bayonet?? Are we getting geared up for the Crimean War? Don't get me wrong, everything was in fine working order and well maintained but it felt like we were going back in time.

In the mid-80's there was a number of war movies in popular culture - think First Blood, Red Dawn and the like. The cold war was still on and most civilians didn't care too much for army folk. I would go so far to say that we were shunned both by civilians and by the ruling government. This made it easy for the government to cut funding to the forces, because there was no real public support for the military and over the previous 20 years, Canada had established itself in the role of 'peacekeeper' internationally. This was a role I was happy to fill by the way, but one that didn't necessarily require the latest in equipment as far as the politicians were concerned. As a result, the Canadian Forces were the punchline in many jokes back then. Not a great time to join the forces.

What we faced off the base, would best be described as awkward interactions with the public. We would go for lunch occasionally to a local McDonald's in our combat uniforms - people would almost look down at us, as if we had no place to be there. This feeling was common in public, we felt at home on the base but like outsiders amongst the people we enlisted to protect and serve. It is so different nowadays, there is a huge sentimental attachment to military, the public is very supportive and with that, the dollars to adequately fund the troops with newish rifles, Mercedes trucks and actual camouflage uniforms. Military personnel today would have a real tough time understanding exactly how it was in the 80's.

In the army, in BMT, there is no forgiveness, no leeway, no alternatives to what you have been told to do. If you are told to stand at attention for 10 minutes, then that's what you do, it's what the entire unit did. If you didn't last, you would drop and do 20 push ups and the clock restarted. If someone in the unit breaks the hold, it happens again, until everyone completes the 10 minutes at attention. Now 10 minutes does not sound like a long time, but stand still, heels together, arms at your side, chin up... now hold that for 10 minutes and tell me 10 minutes isn't an eternity. This may seem like a trivial assignment, and it is, and it's not even that hard when you do it yourself, but get a group to do this and see where things begin to fall apart. While concentrating on this menial task, each minute contains so many thoughts, mostly about who is going to move and cause everyone to do push ups again but also about how much longer is this going to take and why are we even doing this. The thing is, it didn't matter if you were at attention and didn't flinch, if one of the other recruits flinched, you all paid. The meant your actions were paid for by everyone. This could go on for an entire day. There's a lot of things go through your mind when you're standing rigid as a post for 5 minutes, like 'I'm gonna kill the next person who makes us start over again.'

The most push ups I did in one of these exercises was 120 in a row - it was a small cocky group of us that were unassigned for work one summer at CFB Dundurn, we were mostly trying to show the master corporal that we could go all day playing his game. Was a stupid way to protest, but we were 18 and didn't really think things all the way through. I am told that they are not allowed to make recruits do pushups anymore, or call them maggots. Or worms.

While standing at attention appears to be a pointless task, the repeated punishment and do overs until it has been completed in unison forms a bond that all soldiers eventually share; teamwork. Everyone in your unit was your team. Never, ever let your buddy down. This was instilled in many other ways and all methods of instilling this were as draining and with impact and result. This has worked for eons in training troops for battle and is something you never forget.

I remember being excited for our first field exercise, we got to carry our rifles and rucksacks and headed out into the woods for a few nights. Hell, who doesn't like camping? This is where we learned how to make a bivouac. Not much use when you're on a continuous march for 2 days and 2 nights so although we stopped to make a bivouac, it was just to learn how to make one, not to actually use it. The march was designed to teach us map reading in the dark with no sleep, while under the threat of assault from enemies. We walked up and down hills, through plains and woods in silence for over 24 hours with no sleep. We would stop sporadically for moments at a time and I would fall asleep while taking a knee, the muzzle of a rifle in my back was my wake up call and we were marching again. Got my 15 seconds of sleep in, I was good for a few more kilometers. It was in these marches that you really noticed the difference in temperatures between the valleys and the hilltops, you notice the subtleties of things when your senses are heightened through sleep deprivation. Being mentally alert was key to keep going, you needed not only to be able to push your body, but push your mind - you couldn't let your unit down.

When your mind and body are tired, it becomes hard to function. Like anything though, conditional training over time and repeated exposure to the same conditions results in being able to operate under duress, stress and fatigue. With enough practice, you can actually become pretty good at it.

Sure, we learned a lot of things in basic training a lot of things I will never use again, like how to get out of a building filled with tear gas, how to dismantle, clean and assemble an SMG, how to march up and down the square, how to dress a sucking chest wound, how to build a bivouac and how to follow orders. I was a good soldier and for an anti-establishment, anti-authority type person, I managed to finish second out of about 40 original recruits, under 30 actually completed the course.

I look back at those days with great fondness, there isn't anything I wouldn't do for any one of the guys (and gals) in my unit, even after all these years. I am proud I got to stand still for 10 minutes many, many times beside each of them. But mostly, I am thankful for what I learned, because the skills I learned so many years ago have proven to be of high value over and over again as a start up CEO.

The army prepared my body and my mind for battle, to be mentally and physically tough. Each day in a tech start up is a battle, a fight to make your idea come to fruition. Being the CEO in a tech start up requires a mental toughness and resilience like no other job. There are mental challenges and physical stresses beyond that of any other thing I've done. And, there are times when it feels like every possible force is working against what you are working towards and it's times like those when you know it's easy to give up, a lot of folks do, ...but not when you're trained to fight.

"We shall never surrender." - Sir Winston Churchill

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