NOTE: This post is quite long and involved. The September 2007 issue of Edmontonians magazine contains an article about Dickson and I. Quite simply, I think the article is terrible. Not only is it factually inaccurate and unnecessarily negative, I feel it is an extremely unfair introduction to both Dickson and myself as individuals. In this post I start with some background information, and then delve into my thoughts on the article in more detail.
It all starts with VenturePrize
As most of you know, Dickson and I competed in the 2006 VenturePrize business plan competition. We learned a lot from the experience, and had a great time too. I’ve written quite a bit about the competition on this blog, and also on the special Paramagnus blog we setup to document our experience.
In May, we attended the 2007 VenturePrize competition along with our friends Chris and Don from ProExams, who won the competition last year. Around the same time, we were approached by VenturePrize head-honcho Jay Krysler who wanted to nominate us for the 6th annual Sizzling Twenty Under 30 write-up in the Edmontonians magazine. We thought that was pretty cool, and sent Jay the information he requested (background information on Paramagnus, essentially).
Then we forgot all about it, quite honestly, until July when we received a peculiar phone call and email from Tom Bradshaw asking to meet with us:
After this session we will each write a column giving advice on how you can improve in these areas. This will be part of Septembers sizzling 20 under 30’s. You guys will get a great profile.
He listed the “areas” mentioned in the email: “Voice, Speech and Presentation”, “Visioning and Goal Setting”, “Conflict Management”, and “Health and Wellness”. Tom’s email sort of came out of left field for us, and we said as much in our reply:
We are somewhat confused about the information you have sent us. We’re not sure what the profile or any of the panel members you have mentioned have to do with the sizzling 20 under 30?
Hopefully you can provide some clarification. We were expecting something more related to entrepreneurship, not speech therapy. Sorry to be so blunt, but you’ve sort of caught us off-guard!
Tom’s reply made it clear that we weren’t being considered for the Twenty Sizzling Under 30 at all, but for a different article written by “The Transformers”:
One of the reasons you were suggested to the Transformers, and I am sorry to be blunt back, but we were given the impression that you would have won the venture contest if your presentation had been better? Perhaps this was not the case and as I was not there I can not speak with authority on the matter.
Fair enough – ask a blunt question, receive a blunt response. That said however, we’ve never ever been told by anyone that we’d have won VenturePrize if our presentation had been better. We worked with two mentors very closely, and they were brutally honest about how we could improve. Aside from making both our business plan and presentation less technical, nothing was ever said about our presentation being anything less then awesome. I mean that – we heard countless times from many different people that the judges were very impressed with us. We were under the impression that we didn’t win VenturePrize for business reasons – certain areas just were not as well-thought out as the competition (management and marketing, primarily).
Meeting the Transformers
Dickson and I are both pretty adventurous guys, so we decided we’d accept Tom’s invitation to meet with the group. On August 1st, we met with the Transformers at Dr. Larry Ohlhauser’s downtown office. In addition to Larry and Tom, Steffany Hanlen, Les Brost, and Edmontonians publisher Sharon MacLean were all present.
The meeting was scheduled for 5 PM. I arrived slightly early, and waited in the reception area until the group finished their previous meeting. Dickson arrived just as they were finishing up, and we entered the boardroom, ready to find out what The Transformers were all about.
Let me describe the situation. We were meeting with a group of people we’d never met before. This same group of people was under the impression that our presentation skills suck and that they could give us advice on how to improve. Furthermore, we were meeting on their turf. Essentially the situation was an uncomfortable one, filled with unknowns.
I had only two tasks in mind for the meeting. First, I wanted to find out what the heck we were doing there. Second, I needed to decide if we wanted to participate or not. We started with introductions around the table, and then we asked the group to explain things. They said they’d write an article on us, with each of them taking a slightly different angle based on their area of expertise. I then asked the group how writing an article pointing out our flaws would benefit us. Steffany seemed to be leader, and she tried to answer the question by explaining that it was in their best interests to make us look good.
We then had to make an on-the-spot decision to continue the meeting, or to call it a day and go our separate ways. We decided to continue. Looking back, I’m not so sure that was the best decision.
The rest of the meeting was a fairly typical interview, with each of the Transformers taking turns asking us questions. Things wrapped up at about 6:30, and they said they’d get in touch with us to meet one-on-one in order to gather more information for the article. We thanked them, and left.
We debriefed as we walked to Dickson’s car. Our general feeling was that the article/process could go either way. Could be good, could be bad. It was disconcerting that the publisher Sharon never once got the name “VenturePrize” right, always calling it something else.
Meeting with the Transformers individually
I’m going to keep this section short, as I want to get to the article. During the month of August, Dickson and I met Larry individually, with Tom together, and with Les together.
My meeting with Larry went quite well, I thought. He’s a really interesting guy, and came across as very genuine. We met at Starbucks and then went to his office to fill out the exercises he had prepared. I got the impression that Larry is far more comfortable working with his typical patient however – someone a good thirty years older than me.
The meeting with Tom was interesting. He’s a wonderful speaker, as you might expect from a speech consultant, and he had some funny stories and anecdotes to share. Beyond that however, I wasn’t sure how he was going to be able to help us. The stuff Tom does takes days, or even weeks, and we only had an hour.
I think Dickson enjoyed the meeting with Les more than I did. Les brought along a folder of documents that we went through together. Sadly, I felt that he was just going through the motions. Again, I wasn’t sure how Les might be able to help us.
We never met with Steffany. All we did was fill out an exercise that resulted in four words. Mine were “connect”, “participate”, “experiment”, and “inspire”.
I found out about the article late on the evening of the 8th, when Dickson sent me a text message. No email or phone call from any of the Transformers to tell us that it was published (not to be expected I guess, but the lack of communication was cause for concern). The article is broken into four sections, each written by one of the Transformers.
ParamagnusParadox with Steffany Hanlen
This is the first section of the article, and the worst in my opinion. This paragraph is particularly telling:
A bit of background: In 2006, Paramagnus entered the VenturePrize competition and placed second. As I understand it, the audience watched as Mack, the president and CEO, and Dickson, the vice-president, pitched their business to various judges-angel investors-and essentially presented themselves right out of the money.
As I’ve already said, we never received any feedback like this. We presented ourselves right out of the money? News to me. I’ve spoken with some friends about the article, and a few of them have pointed out that Steffany did say “as I understand it”, as if that somehow makes it better. It doesn’t. All that does is make it clear that Steffany was too lazy to do any research. Either that, or she’s unwilling to back her comments up with a source.
She goes on:
A number of people who saw them in action instinctively knew they had something special, but some expressed concern they would not be able to attract investors, venture money or capital of any kind without some serious help.
Again, news to me. I’d really like to know if Steffany did in fact find people to say this, or if she’s making it all up. I suspect it’s the latter.
I don’t know if it’s our age or something else, but all four of the Transformers seem to have felt the need to butter us up. Steffany does it in the article:
This could be what it felt like when Steve Jobs or maybe even Bill Gates met with people of a ‘different generation’ and tried to explain what they were doing.
Thanks, but no thanks. Comments like this are flippant and meaningless. How many times has “the next Bill Gates” been written in the last two decades? Too many times to count, that’s how many. Even if Steffany did mean what she wrote, the comparison is unfair. I might think I’m brilliant, but it’s not fair to compare anyone to Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, myself included. They are iconic men.
I don’t know why she felt it was relevant, but Steffany pointed out that we turned down the offer of snacks or coffee. Maybe we just weren’t thirsty/hungry? Nope, must be that we were impatient and rude. Here’s what she wrote about me in particular:
Mack walked in with the heavy footsteps of a man twice his age. A scowl on his face did nothing but mask the spark of personality, generosity of spirit and humour that resonated later. after he figured out we were not there to embarrass them or tell them how to run their business.
I suppose that was meant to be a positive statement, but taken with the rest of her article, I can’t help but think that it could have been phrased better. It’s a backhanded compliment, at best.
Steffany finally gets on to some analysis:
The problem I see is they are unable to explain what they do, or to express their ideas in a face-to-face conversation with most people of a certain generation-and tax bracket-that could help them financially.
This doesn’t make any sense to me. First of all, Steffany decided she could represent an entire generation by declaring that we are unable to explain what we do. Secondly, she failed to take into account the thousands of people, of all ages, that we have talked with about what we do. We’ve been to dozens of conferences, trade shows, and other events, and I don’t ever recall seeing blank stares.
She finishes with this:
My goal with Mack and Dickson is to help them align their intention and desired results with their vision-just as soon as they see the value in creating one.
We have our work cut out for us.
I’m sorry, but I simply don’t see the value in filling out a worksheet to find four words. Steffany hasn’t made any effort to suggest that a vision is anything else. Obviously I’m being a bit facetious here, but seriously.
One other thing:
These McNally High School and University of Alberta grads-both 23-have known each other since childhood…
No, wrong. We’ve known each other since grade ten. You might think this is a small point to make, but I think it’s important. If Steffany is unwilling to do five seconds of research to find out how long we’ve known each other, how likely is it that she researched anything else she wrote? Not very likely I’d say.
HumanCode with Les Brost
All things considered, this section isn’t bad. I’m somewhat surprised that Les doesn’t once mention our follow-up meeting with him, which suggests to me that this was written prior to that.
Les very accurately described the initial meeting at Larry’s office as follows:
Their initial human code signaled “defensive, apprehensive and closed”. the atmosphere in the room was chilly and the tension hung in the air like a mist.
He then goes on to suggest how we could have handled things better:
Mack and Dickson could have lowered the pressure on themselves by saying something like, “We’re pleased to be here, but a bit concerned because we are unclear about the process.”
Fair enough. Except that I wasn’t at all pleased to be there. And to be perfectly honest, I shouldn’t have had to feel concerned or unclear about the process. Steffany, Les, and Tom all write that we were negative and closed when we entered the meeting because we didn’t know what was going on. Not one of them attempts to take any responsibility for that. Perhaps if they had done a better job of explaining who they were and why they wanted to meet with us, there would have been fewer unknowns, and we’d have been happier about walking into a meeting with them.
And sure, it goes both ways. We could have done some research and learned more about the Transformers ahead of time. Thing is, they wanted an hour of our time, not the other way around. Explain to me why I should give it to you, don’t make me guess.
CrediblePresentation with Tom Bradshaw
Like the previous two sections, Tom starts by explaining how we walked into the meeting “almost like they had been called to the principal’s office.” Does this magazine not have an editor? Does saying the same thing three times make it more accurate or important? Fail, fail, fail.
This line from Tom’s section made me laugh:
If you total their combined ages, they are younger than the mean age of the Transformers.
Here is Tom’s analysis of our presentation skills:
At this point, I haven’t seen either Mack or Dickson in action talking to potential investors, but there were a few traits I noticed at the intake interview that need to be addressed.
Each has a habit of speaking with a hand in front of his mouth. First, people really do hear better when they can see your lips moving. Secondly, it sends a message that you may be hiding something which reduces your credibility.
Ask either one of them a direct question, and you get an indirect answer.
I wasn’t aware that I had a habit of speaking with my hand in front of my mouth, but maybe I do. I’ll definitely think about it now. I asked a bunch of people if they thought I had such a habit, and no one said yes. We only spent about two hours with Tom, so I am not sure if that’s enough time to notice something like that and classify it as a habit, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt here.
Indirect answer to a direct question? I don’t think so. I think my direct answers are part of the reason that I come across as aggressive.
Magic21Rule with Dr. Larry Ohlhauser
Larry’s is the last section of the article, and the only one that ignores the initial meeting completely. I’m not sure why he felt the need to include so much detail, but Larry’s section is full of seemingly random comments, all of them negative:
Mack and Dickson can only carve out time to meet with me to discuss their health and wellness after work hours…
Mack apologizes for arriving a bit late and orders a small plain coffee. It is not his first and will not be his last this long day.
He states, “My biggest commitment to health is changing my drink to Coke Zero.” I inform him that the aspartame in the drink is broken down in the liver, creating formaldehyde. the only benefit I see is a reduction in his embalming cost when he dies.
I always try to arrive to appointments on time, if not a bit early. If I was late to the meeting with Larry, it was only by less than two or three minutes. I probably apologized simply because he was there before I was. I’ll keep my mouth shut next time, in case he’s got a voice recorder handy.
I did mention that I drink mostly Coke Zero now, but I said it jokingly. I’m not sure why he’s got that in quotes, because those aren’t my words. The context has been completely lost.
Here is Larry’s diagnosis of my health and wellness:
He has failed miserably on his nutrition self assessment. He rarely eats breakfast, and goes long hours without food, finally topping up late at night before bedtime at 1 AM. He has no exercise program: what little he does is hit-and-miss.
All true, I’m not going to deny that. I should be healthier! Everyone should be healthier though, right? My problem with the meeting was that Larry seemed unable to relate his knowledge to someone my age.
The rest of Larry’s section explains that I’ve agreed to keep a journal to improve my nutrition, and that I’ll start a regular exercise program. Funny, I don’t recall agreeing to those things. For whatever reason, Larry decided to speak on my behalf. Not good.
I got my parents to read the article, and they weren’t impressed either. My Mom said “that doesn’t sound like you and Dickson at all!” Many friends who have read the article have said the same thing. I don’t think it’s possible to read the article and come away with either an accurate or positive impression of Dickson or I. That’s my biggest problem with the article.
The Transformers told us they didn’t want to make us look bad, but that’s what they’ve done. They told us they could help us improve our chances of landing some sort of investment, but I fail to see how anyone could be interested in investing in us after reading the article.
We haven’t yet spoken to any of the Transformers since the article was published, except for an email to schedule another meeting. They are supposed to write a follow-up article, but I’m not sure how well that’s going to go. I don’t think the Transformers themselves deserve all the blame though. I know we could probably learn a lot from them, if only we had the time to do so. Unfortunately, getting an article to print imposes time restrictions for everyone involved, and the simple fact is we haven’t spent enough time with any of the Transformers. You simply can’t accomplish much in a few hours.
The way I see it, there’s no way they are going to make themselves look bad, so they have two options. Either they write an article that is even more negative than this one, explaining how they were unable to help us, or they write that the Transformers are gods and we’ve been successfully transformed. I am not particularly interested in either option.
I am disappointed with the Transformers thus far. I’m also morbidly curious about what’s going to happen next.