Mastering the Subtle Art of Interviewing

Vancouver 
communications startup takes 
on Shaw

Doug Holman sounds cautious and apologetic on the phone. “It’s ironic,” he says with a wry chuckle. “I really do want to talk to you about this, but I can’t.” It’s like that when you’re being sued by a huge competitor; you have to watch what you say to the media.
Holman is co-president and CFO of Vancouver’s Novus Entertainment Inc., a small cable, Internet and phone provider that’s been locked in a fight with Western Canada’s dominant cable player, Shaw Communications Inc. Novus, which employs about 40, mainly serves downtown Vancouver apartment dwellers through its own fibre optic network, with thousands of clients in more than 200 buildings.


Novus has been expanding its territory by some 40 buildings a year, Holman estimates, and new projects are expected to open up in Burnaby and, thanks to a new cable Novus had installed in the Canada Line SkyTrain track, in Richmond as well. Holman doesn’t discuss financial details, but he says the company was doing quite well until early last year.


That’s when Shaw began introducing increasingly inexpensive offers available only to customers in Vancouver apartment buildings – Novus’s principal customer base. Normally, Shaw charges around $2,040 a year for a package that includes some of its top-level cable TV, Internet and phone services, according to Vancouver prices posted on its website. Last summer Shaw was offering a package with a year’s worth of all of these services for just $300 – each service going for $10 per month, with the first two months free. 


Novus sued in July, alleging that Shaw’s below-norm pricing threatens to drive Novus out of business and seriously reduce competition in the Vancouver market. The statement of claim calls this behaviour a violation of Canada’s Competition Act, which forbids companies from abusing a dominant market position through anticompetitive acts, including “selling articles at a price lower than the acquisition cost for the purpose of disciplining or eliminating a competitor.” 


And Novus didn’t stop with the lawsuit. The company also hired Vancouver Internet marketing firm 6S Marketing Inc. to conduct an online publicity campaign called 10 Bucks Too – complete with a website, Twitter feed and Facebook group – encouraging Shaw customers outside Vancouver to call Shaw’s head office and demand the same low prices it was offering to the Vancouver condo market. Many of the comments posted on the 10 Bucks Too sites spoke of Shaw unflatteringly, to say the least. Shaw is now suing Novus and 6S for defamation. The sites have since been taken down.


Shaw denies the allegation that it is doing anything illegal by offering Vancouver apartment dwellers a special deal. “It’s a very competitive environment in Vancouver,” Shaw president Peter Bissonnette told BCBusiness. “We will compete and make offers in order to keep in the marketplace. . . . That’s just the nature of the beast.” 


However, evidence beyond this Vancouver spat suggests that Canada’s communications field may not be as competitive as it should be. Harvard University released a report in October comparing broadband Internet service among developed countries. Canada ranked particularly poorly, with researchers finding that Canadians are paying among the highest prices for some of the lowest Internet speeds. According to the study, Canada has made a half-hearted effort to help new companies overcome technical hurdles and compete with the big players in the Internet field, relying mostly on competition between the established cable and phone companies to improve the market for consumers. 


While the major Internet service providers in Canada dispute the data behind the report, Ryerson University communications professor Catherine Middleton argues that the overall conclusions are fair and that relying on competition between big established players hasn’t given Canadians the best results. “Certainly some people would say that’s competition, but it’s not really because the prices are the same and the offerings are the same,” she says. “What hasn’t happened is the ability for new companies to come into the market and be really innovative.”


Novus is an interesting case because the company is building its own fibre optic infrastructure. This is unusual for Canada, Middleton says, and it’s exactly the sort of competition that government regulators want to see. However, the company’s current troubles are likely being seen by other potential entrepreneurs as an ominous sign of things to come for any other small company thinking about entering the market.


“It’s perfectly predictable in a competitive market that this is exactly what would happen,” Middleton says, “that when a new competitor comes in, the big established competitor tries to shut it out.” And that’s one reason why other countries have put strong policies in place to encourage more competition in their communications markets, she says, something that could work for Canada as well. “I think if there were more companies like Novus in the market, then you would see the big guys responding more quickly.”


Peter Severinson


IPO marks a tentative first step toward 
city’s dream of a green economy

Vancouver has long been a mecca for people looking to live in an urban centre with ecological perks. But will clean air and beautiful scenery translate into leading the way in the green economy?


The founders of Greenscape Capital Group Inc., which bills itself as an “eco-consumer investment firm,” think so. They’ve taken their company public, calling the move a milestone in Vancouver’s transition to a hub of green capital.


Greenscape not only invests in green companies; it is a “one-stop shop” for businesses that want to reduce their ecological footprint, according to CEO Bryan Slusarchuk. Greenscape provides environmental-assessment consulting services and helps clients find financing for needed improvements, and Greenscape consultants even install and monitor retrofits or technologies that make businesses more ecologically friendly.


As the consultancy generates revenue, Greenscape invests in other green companies, diversifying its investment portfolio. The company, which employs about a dozen full-time staff (in addition to approximately eight environmental consultants it hires on contract as needed), already owns Contemporary Organic Products, a luxury seafood outfit, and Lela Designs, a manufacturer of eco-friendly women’s golf-wear. The firm raised $2.4 million with its initial public offering in October, selling 4.8 million shares at $0.50 apiece. (As of press time, shares had slid to around 40 cents.) That demand, says Slusarchuk, is “indicative of the appetite for green venture capital in Vancouver.”


Beyond what he describes as a spirit of green entrepreneurialism, Slusarchuk cites government support and a concentration of environmental professionals as evidence of Vancouver’s emergence as “a green hub.” Chief among the boosters is Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, who last October introduced Vancouver 2020: A Bright Green Future, a report providing guidelines aimed at fostering economic growth while reducing emissions and addressing climate change. The report was prepared by the Greenest City Action Team, a group made up of city politicians, businesspeople and environmentalists convened by the City of Vancouver. The team’s plan includes a branding initiative, dubbed Vancouver Green Capital, aimed at promoting economic development strategies that encourage and showcase environmentally friendly businesses.


Greenscape’s IPO is clearly a positive step, but whether Vancouver can distinguish itself from other cities vying for the title of west coast green capital hub – including Seattle, San Francisco and San José – remains to be seen. The United States Conference of Mayors predicts substantial increases in the number of green jobs in every major U.S. city by 2038. Indeed, the growth of green industries is a global development, according to James Gallagher, vice-president of corporate finance for the Bank of Montreal in Vancouver. “We’re seeing more companies in the sector, not only more companies but more companies becoming more active,” he says. “We’re also just seeing companies in general being more cognizant of ways they can operate to be more environmentally friendly in their own operations.”


But Gallagher isn’t sure that Vancouver will stand out in the race to establish green economies: “Right off the top, I can’t think of anything that would jump to my mind that would make it more prevalent here than elsewhere.” 


Dawn Paley


Pot Shots

Lab work is giving an Island startup an edge in the medical marijuana market

Ian Layfield admits he was disappointed last October when judges on the CBC reality show Dragons’ Den rejected his pitch for a $250,000 investment in his budding marijuana distribution and research company, Canada’s Medicinal Marijuana Stores Inc.


On the other hand, he can take comfort in knowing that billionaire entrepreneur Warren Buffett is among a host of wealthy investors who think his company’s business model is a winner.


“We started getting calls about 15 minutes after the show aired in Toronto, and the first message on my phone was from a guy who represents Warren Buffett,” says the Victoria native. “Probably about 50 potential investors have called since the show aired. We’re still going through the list.”


A former construction worker who was sidelined by a debilitating leg injury, Layfield founded the company in November 2008, when Health Canada approved him as a “super-designated” pot producer, giving him a licence to grow and sell unlimited amounts of medicinal bud to government-approved users across the country.


A few months later, Ottawa modified his designation and instead invited Layfield to grow and sell marijuana for Health Canada’s clinical trials department, with the goal of developing newer, healthier applications for the drug.


The agreement requires Layfield’s company to collect data from clients – for example, which marijuana strains are best suited to which ailments – and use it to develop pharmaceutical-grade forms of marijuana, including the coveted but elusive pot pill.


“It’s exactly like a compassion club, except we’re doing research in direct partnership with Health Canada,” says Layfield, 31. “We’re also looking at a topical cream and a version that can be used in a vaporizer. The goal is to develop products that can be marketed worldwide.”


The one-year-old company currently supplies marijuana via courier to about 400 licensed clients and has 10 full-time employees: four growers, three office staff and three sales staff responsible for recruiting new customers from Health Canada’s medical marijuana program.


Buyers have the option of ordering by phone or Internet, and pay $187.50 for each 30-gram packet of pot (shipping and handling included) no matter where they live in Canada.


This fall, Canada’s Medicinal Marijuana Stores Inc. was reborn as MedMe Industries, a revamped entity owned by four private investors, including Layfield and his new CEO, David Gilman, who also runs Global Health Information Science, an Ontario firm specializing in health-care software for developing countries.


MedMe has also formed a partnership with Omnia Foods Ltd., a Vancouver-based life sciences company focused on developing edible versions of all-natural health-care remedies. “Basically, they make bad things taste good,” Layfield says.


Mira Laza, Omnia Foods’ chief of food technology, says the company’s main role at this point is to provide MedMe with “regulatory advice” aimed at securing Health Canada certification for the research labs where the products will be developed.


Layfield’s transformation from construction worker to aspiring biotech magnate began three years ago when his lower right leg was mangled by a piece of a heavy equipment at a sub­division project near Sooke on Vancouver Island.


During the arduous 14 months of rehabilitation that followed, he became dependent on the powerful painkiller OxyContin and began researching the benefits of marijuana as an alternative medication with fewer long-term side effects.


Layfield completed a course in business administration with support from Workers’ Compensation and, encouraged by a fellow chronic-pain sufferer who was looking for a licensed supplier, applied to become a licensed marijuana grower in March 2008. Eight months later, a letter arrived in the mail from Ottawa informing him he’d been approved to go into the bud business.


“I was really quite surprised. Actually, I’ve been shocked all along at the approvals I’ve received from Health Canada,” he says. “And I’ve been blown away by the amount of interest from medical research companies.”


– Brennan Clarke


John MacDonald, founder, MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. and Day4 Energy Inc.


“I grew up in Prince Rupert, and when I was around 14 I had a job at a gas station. My ambition was to drive an 18-wheeler down Highway 16 – and try to stay out of the Skeena River in the process. I used to gas them up every once in a while, and I just thought it would be great to drive one.”

Chris Gailus, anchor, Global BC News Hour


“A race car driver! I would force my dad to pull over at every go-kart track during our family road trips. I loved the smell of gas and grease and still do. But more than anything, my size keeps me out of anything small and fast now. I’m too big and tall at 6-5 and 225 pounds to fit into most race cars.”

Tracy Redies, CEO, Coast Capital Savings


“I think when I was around five years old I wanted to be a doctor, but I found out in high school that I didn’t like cutting up little things. By the time I went to university, I was already looking at finance and economics, and it changed my philosophy: I figured out that instead of fixing bodies, I could fix people’s financial health, and I absolutely love it.”


It’s five minutes before the job interview. Your palms are sweating, and the seconds don’t seem to be advancing on your watch. But this time, you’re on the other side of the desk; you’re hiring, and you’ve got 15 applicants to get through this afternoon. Because interviews are tough for both sides involved, we’ve asked the professionals for their advice on how to make the most of the process: Daniel Skarlicki, professor in UBC’s organizational behaviour and human resources division; Lyz Sayer, organizational psychologist with Sayer & Associates; and Bill Gemmell, CEO of Boughton Law Corp.


RULES OF (GREEN) THUMB


Before the interviewing even begins, weed out the bad seeds to save yourself time and stress. Start with a detailed description in the job posting. “The more descriptive you can be, the more people can select themselves in and out of the process,” says Sayer. Skarlicki recommends a cognitive ability test to quickly generate a short list. Previous experience may mean applicants are capable, Skarlicki says, but “cognitive ability trumps all.”


THE 20-SECOND SIZE-UP


The first 20 seconds can be an “interviewer’s worst enemy,” says Skarlicki: employers tend to use first impressions to hire on a similar-to-me bias. As a result, he says, many offices look the same: “male, pale and stale.” Don’t rely on a first impression to predict future performance; instead, observe how the interviewee is dressed, if they’ve arrived on time and if they’ve come prepared as indicators of a respectful, professional future employee, says Sayer.


Q&A PLAY 


After those first 20 seconds, it’s time to dig deeper. Ask relevant, job-related questions. “None of these, If you were an animal, what would you be? questions,” says Sayer. Stick to open-ended, behavioural and situation-based questions. Don’t just look for solutions to hypothetical problems but also for the values behind the answers. Skarlicki recommends having another interviewer present. “More judges increases confidence in the ratings,” he points out.


HISTORY LESSONS


Employment history can reflect the knowledge, skills and practice the applicant can bring to the position. “Past efforts give an indication of who they are,” says Gemmell, and will let you know that they can get the job done. However, don’t rely solely on work experience, as sometimes “soft skills,” including personality, can be more important than technical or administrative abilities, says Sayer. Personality matters almost more in some cases, adds Skarlicki, as “it’s hard, if not impossible, to change.” 


FIT FOR TAT


Finding the right fit between candidate and company is the most important factor in an interview. “We’ve adopted the ‘No Asshole’ rule,” says Gemmell. At the interview stage, the candidate has made the cut on paper, so it’s now about knowing how they will work in your company’s environment, he explains. Never hire someone whose values are incongruent with the company’s values. And remember, “It’s a two-way street,” says Skarlicki, so if values are amiss, all parties will end up unhappy. – Jessica McMahon