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Something Ventured:
Feb 19th

Insight For BC Technology Entrepreneurs

By Brent Holliday

The Talent Show

"Out there things can happen
and frequently do
to people as brainy
and footsy as you
And when things start to happen,
don't worry. Don't stew.
Just go right along.
You'll start happening too. "
- Dr. Seuss - Oh, The Places You'll Go!

I want to talk about talent. Your talent. Specifically, I want to give you my view of what talent is and what it can get you as you move through your career in technology. You have talent don't you? Do you know what I mean by talent? It's a set of learned experiences, physically, mentally and emotionally that make up your abilities. It's as unique to you as your fingerprint. It's what you try to summarize in a resume and a job interview. It's what gets the job done faster or better than anyone else. It's what feeds your ego. It's what makes you a success. Talent.

Without getting too deep in the philosophical realm, let me just point out that our society, the capitalist one, rewards talent in a big way. If it's a rat race out there, well... you better be one talented rat. The people that you idolize in your particular area of work, the one's you look up to, the one's that you measure your success against, the benchmark individuals all have talent. To be the best at anything requires drive (ambition). But talent can carry you a long way. While we can't all be the best at what we do, it's safe to say that we'd all be happier if we could improve our talent and be rewarded for it.

The key to becoming more talented is to pick the thing that you love to do. Now stop. Read that again. Got it? Are you really doing today what you love to do? There was a book out a few years ago that had something to do with picking the colour of your parachute. The entire book was about just this point. In technology, especially technology start-ups, the number one reason why people work where they do is because they find it cool. They love it. And that's a very good thing.

Way back in your formative years, you were probably exposed to many things that you didn't have the talent for. I played the piano for four years. I hated it. I quit because I wasn't any good. On reflection, I think I wasn't any good because I quit. You know the cliché, "practice makes perfect". If you are not enjoying the practice in the learning stage before you develop talent, then you won't be any good. There is a talent threshold in any learning curve, from sports to music to software programming, that will not be crossed without hard work. In order to do the work, you must have some interest.

Sure, you say, but some people are just born with talent. I would have to agree that you have a genetic pre-disposition to doing something very well and others... well not so good. Remember what I just said, the key is to pick something that you will want to do every day. If I dropped everything today and said, I want to be one of the top encryption/decryption programmers in the world in 5 years. Could I do it? No. Two reasons: 1) I am bored by math. It does not make my motor run. 2) No one would pay me to do it. Would I drop everything today to try and earn my PGA tour card in 5 years? Well, I love golf enough. But, who would pay me to learn? For most of us, our talents are limited by the one glaring reality of life: someone's has to pay us or pay for us to learn.

The shiny new computer science graduate goes looking for work in technology. She learned a lot of general things in college with a specialty in object-oriented design. The talent is raw. Experience is limited. Herein lies the dilemma. Does she take the job doing web design in small start-up or join the factory at the mega software company working in the field she has trained in? If she loves OO, she joins the factory. If she loves web programming and design, even though she doesn't know a lot about it, yet, she takes the other job. Why? Because if she loves it, then she will spend the long hours, ask the tough questions, push herself to her limits in order to get the job done well. And pretty soon, she will have serious talent.

There are other factors to be made in any decision about where to work in order to develop your self. Who will I be learning from? Are they a superior talent? Will the company support me in training and development? Start-ups might not have the cash or the time to let you attend courses or conferences. You may make a bad decision here or there or you may stay too long in one spot and stagnate a bit. Make sure you are being challenged every day to be better. Make sure that you can look at yourself 5 years ago and say, "Man, I did not know my ass from that hole in the ground back then." And then think about your position today and where you and your ass might be in another 5 years.

When you have talent, you have to let others know. Those that work directly with you will see your talent from your everyday tasks. Those that matter, the ones that pay you and promote you, need to understand what it is that makes you valuable. I talked a few weeks ago about the Canadian psyche and attitudes. A common problem amongst Canadians is that they fail to toot their own horns when appropriate. In fact, we think that Americans are boors because of their unfailing ability to feel and act superior. If you have talent, you don't need to spend all day telling people how good you are. When the timing is right (performance reviews, presentations, interviews), you have to let go of the humbleness and tell people how good you really are. By the way, it doesn't matter how much talent you have, if you are a jerk people will not want to work with you. So, self-promote only when it is absolutely necessary.

In order to be prepared for turning on the self-promotion switch, you need to have a talent inventory in your mind. Make a list of things that you do well and the things that you do very well. Memorize it. Have you ever fumbled your way through the interview question, "What is it that you do very well?". No need to anymore. I always haul out the 5 year old ass recognition story to help couch my abilities today, compared to where I've been.

One last point about your talent. You should, if possible, have a broad set of talents. Life experiences outside of your actual work count in your talent inventory. As does having a variety of work-related talents. A friend of mine recently gave up a promising career in finance to go and work in a high tech company as a product marketer. Forget the paycut, he said, in 5 years I'll have the experience I need to be better at the job I was doing. Talk about a long view. He has his head on straight. Hopefully he comes back to run the old company...

Good people make great companies. It's up to you to develop your talents in order to become valuable to those companies. The rewards for top talents are yours for the asking. If it's money you want, the market will pay. If it's perks you like, you'll get it. If it's freedom to think and innovate, the talented people get that too.

Random Thoughts

- Well, now that Paul Martin has put $100 or so a year back in my pocket, I guess we can stop the complaining. Glen, you're off the hook. Paul's outstanding generosity has made me not want to leave BC. Whew! It's so nice to know that all that bellyaching about taxes actually got them to listen. I don't know about you, but I'm gonna buy a few of those Super 7 tickets with my dough. I'm twice as unlikely to win that as the 6/49, but gosh I need something for the retirement fund...

- Internet Stock Update - Was the peak in mid-January? I loved the rush of the newspaper pundits in declaring the Internet gold rush over. I counted 25 filings for US IPOs in the Computer-online services segment in the past 8 weeks. Apparently, the investment bankers, the ones who should know better than anyone, still like their chances. Canadian Net stock IPOs in the past eight weeks: oh, still zero... but I digress.

Response From Last Week's Column:

You have missed the point about Asia. Your comments on Japan and China are nearly correct but your point generally about technology in the rest of Asia is wrong. Most Canadian technology firms are small as are their counterpoints in Asia. Asia is not buying the big ticket items now but they are buying good technology in small amounts from good small Canadian companies. Places like Singapore, Malaysia(even with its problems is still buying), Taiwan, the Philippines are all in the market for Canadian technology in areas of telecommunications, education and business software, oceans and marine environmental technologies, biotechnology etc.

I am in Asia a number of times each year on behalf of clients and the markets are moving. The difference between 2 years ago and now is that deals are being done through joint ventures, strategic alliances and tight licensing agreements.

Where Canadian firms fall down is in their ability to market properly in the region.

I do enjoy your columns.

Doug Taylor

- Doug: You should have heard the discussion with my friends at Industry Canada, whose job it is to promote trade with the ASEAN countries. You have summed it up nicely. What started out as a general comment on why Europe was a better place to look for business right now, regressed into a slamming of the Asian opportunity. Oops. Of course, I was generalizing, mostly because of the irony of being in Vancouver (Gateway to the Pacific). If you have any web links or resources for Canadian companies to do business in the Far East, please send them along.

Brent, I just finished reading your article, The Lure of the Euro. I think you are right on the money (no pun intended!).

In 1997 I relocated from Vancouver to Belgium with Creo Products, to take over Sales in Europe. I believe you make a good point that a high tech company has to be successful in at least 2 markets, and that Europe is the logical number 2.

In addition to your observations, I would add that one of the most important things to remember as a "North American" company starting in Europe, is that things are different over here! If you try to apply all of the North American business models, without allowing for the local cultures (and believe me, there are lots of them in Europe), then you will not be successful.

As you mentioned, the biggest challenge is developing sales channels. It is virtually impossible to find one partner who is strong in all the major countries. This usually results in multiple relationships, which adds to the complexity. Furthermore, if you decide to set up your own sales channels, be prepared for a difficult task. Each country has different employment laws, tax laws, vacation requirements etc. The Human Resource challenge in itself is daunting.

Nevertheless, for those who are successful, the European market can be extremely lucrative. In the case of Creo, our European sales represent approximately 40% of our Worldwide sales (and growing!)

Michael Ball
VP Sales and Service
Creo Products - Europe

- Michael: Thanks for your point of view, which contrasts nicely with Doug's. As for your points about the challenges, that's why I think a service like Protege makes sense. Let the local knowledge run your business with your input.

What Do You Think? Talk Back To Brent Holliday

Something Ventured
is a bi-weekly column designed to supplement the T-Net British Columbia web site with some timely, relevant and possibly irreverent insight into the industry. I hope to share some of the perspective and trends that I see in my role as a VC. The column is always followed by feedback (if its positive or constructive. I'll keep the flames to myself, thanks).

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