One minor Canadian publishing event of note this fall was the release of Anthony Lacavera’s How We Can Win (or possibly, Kate Fillion’s How We Can Win, since it’s fairly clear she’s the one who actually wrote it). Lacavera is a minor celebrity in Canada for having been a serial CEO, most notably of WIND Canada, which briefly challenged the Bell/Telus/Rogers telecom oligopoly. Since the book is about innovation policy, it sort of falls into the ambit of this blog, so here we are.
The book starts out well: it tells Lacavera’s story as WIND CEO and the many disgraceful ways in which Canada’s legal and regulatory system allowed the existing telco oligopoly to repeatedly kneecap his company in an effort to forestall actual competition. He then goes on for another chapter to talk about the ways in which the Canadian market stifles competition or turns off foreign investors by making business unbelievably slow. Provincial securities regulation is one example; various types of cancon rules is another. One fascinating story included here is that of a company called Mood Media, which provides over 500,000 retail stores worldwide with integrated background music, video and digital signage. Its owner/founder is Canadian but he founded it in Texas because had the business started here all the music packages sold would have been subject to cancon restrictions. He sums all of this up with the memorable phrase: “Canada is a great place to start a mediocre business because, thanks to a lack of competition it will probably survive here”.
What I like about the opening chapters is the way he hammers away at an unpopular theme: our competitiveness problems are not about a lack of a “culture of risk” or anything else: in fact, he says, we have too many entrepreneurs. Start-ups are part of the problem, not the solution: they don’t get big enough to drive the big productivity gains the country needs to grow. The problem is, we don’t force ourselves to compete, and hence our business landscape is consumed by large, flabby incumbents. Canadian consumers as a result pay higher prices and get less quality for things like cable, internet and other goods, and we see Canadian entrepreneurs either choosing to found companies in the US or cash out early by selling to a big industry player.
This is all good. It’s true and needs to be said a heck of a lot more often. But where the book falls off the rails is when he starts talking about solutions because he’s all over the map and not in a good way.
Start with the scattershot thing. Every once in awhile, the book goes into what I call “staccato fact mode”, where it’s clear he’s randomly taking out stats he’s absorbed through quick Google searches and flipping through OECD reports. The zombie statistic that 300,000 Canadians live in Silicon Valley gets a run out (Dan Munro has pointed out more than once that it’s more like 30,000), as to some very weird and superficial comparisons between Canadian and American universities on commercialization (he seems not to have any understanding of how the requirements of the Bayh-Dole Act may affect the numbers. Predictably, PISA stats get a run out, to no obvious purpose.
And then of course there’s the more-or-less random stabs at “things that work” for innovation. Some of these, probably more by sheer random luck than anything, he gets right – his section on Polytechnics, for instance. But then he devotes an entire chapter and a half to something called “Next 36”, which is essentially a vanity project of strutting entrepreneur and sessional U of T instructor Reza Satchu, where his “teaching” entrepreneurship uses methods vaguely reminiscent of those of J.K Simmons’ character in Whiplash, only with a slightly more urbane veneer.
But leave aside the issue of Satchu and Next 36: the literary device Lacavera uses to tell us how great Next 36 is involves following a young entrepreneur who has been through the program, and has decided to develop and sell a set of hi-tech diapers to nursing homes. It’s a great story about a kid who genuinely seems quite lovely, hears Sanchu’s message about entrepreneurialism, develops his product and eventually sells his invention and company to a European manufacturer. From this, Lacavera launches an argument that the country would be better off with thousands of Next 36s teaching kids to build start-ups, which I suppose would be fine if he hadn’t written the previous damn chapter saying Canada’s big weaknesses were i) too many start-ups not enough big businesses and ii) even our good start-ups sell out too quickly. It’s almost as if he hasn’t read his own book (which of course he may not have, that’s what the ghostwriter is for, only you’d at least expect some internal consistency from a professional writer).
Long story short: I wanted to like this book because I think it makes valuable points about Canada’s too-cosy business culture. But the instant it steps beyond that point, it becomes so wildly hit and miss that it’s mostly beyond saving. Too bad.