Category Archives: experiment

Experience report: Applying for a Harmonized Sales Tax account

In Canada, corporations are required to collect and remit Harmonized Sales Tax if their revenues are over $30,000 in a year or if they meet certain other conditions. If you’re starting out, it might be a good idea to register for an account anyway. That way, you don’t have to change things when you do earn more than $30,000 (doable with consulting), and you can claim input tax credits for the taxes that you pay (with some exceptions).

Registering for an HST account turned out to be more of a convoluted process because Revenue Canada didn’t have my ownership information on file. I had created a federally-incorporated company just the weekend before, and the process didn’t ask for the information that Revenue Canada needs. If you happen to want to register for GST/HST for a newly-incorporated federal corporation, the easiest way is to call Revenue Canada (1-800-959-5525 – redial if you get a busy signal), explain that the business registration online system won’t let you register for a GST account probably because you don’t have information on file, and give that information (SIN, etc.) to the call center agent.

Me, I took the scenic route.

First, I tried the Business Registration Online system. It asked for my business number. “What business number?” I asked. I couldn’t find anything remotely resembling it on my incorporation certificate. I called and found out that I could use Industry Canada’s Federal Corporations Search to get my business number. Okay.

With this business number in hand, I tried registering for an HST account through Business Registration Online. It reported that my details didn’t match the owner they had on file. I called the agency to clarify, and found out that it was because they didn’t have any owner information yet.

The first call centre agent I talked to directed me to the RC1A form for opening a GST/HST account, or to the RC1 form for registering a business number and applying for a number of other accounts. The RC1 form looked more complete, so I filled in the general information section and the GST section, checked the box for the corporate income tax account (I’d probably need that!), and attached a copy of my certificate of incorporation. I figured that if the business number I looked up wasn’t the business number they were looking for, they could get the right one.

After I sealed the envelope and put a stamp on it, I hesitated and decided to call for confirmation. Was I sending the right form in? Would it create a duplicate account? Would sunglass-wearing agents from the Canada Revenue Agency break down my door?

I explained my situation to the second call center agent, who told me that yes, the ownership information wasn’t on file, but this was something that we could set up easily over the phone. I gave her my social insurance number and company details, and she set up the corporate income tax account and the GST/HST account for me. By golly. We were done in ten minutes or so.

So, if you want to set up a Harmonized Sales Tax account and the online forms just aren’t working for you, see if you can do it by phone. Sometimes that’s faster than trying to do things yourself.

See also:

Experience report: So much for having a virtual bookstore

As part of my experiments in entrepreneurship, I decided to try out selling used books online. I like books, and am happy to keep a small library of my favourite titles in order to reread, give to friends, or resell.

I checked out Toronto Reference Library’s bookstore, focusing on donated hardcover business books that had never been in circulation and limiting it further to books that I had liked.

Listing my books on Amazon was quick and easy. I described the condition and picked a price in the neighbourhood of the other sellers.

After two weeks, I received an e-mail telling me that someone had bought one of my books: Dan and Chip Heath’s Made to Stick, an excellent book on how to make ideas more memorable. I wrapped the book in bubble wrap and dropped it off at the post office as soon as the store opened on Monday.

Here’s where the wrinkle is: Canada Post is expensive. Let’s break the transaction down.

Price of book CAD $10.50
Amazon fees CAD $-3.31
Shipping credit CAD $6.49
Actual shipping cost (regular parcel, no insurance) CAD $-13.71
Cost of book CAD $-1

Net: $-1.03, not including packing costs and time. (“That’s all right, we’ll make it up in volume!” as the joke goes…)

There are probably cheaper ways to ship, but I can’t imagine that they would be drastically better, or result in anything close to minimum wage.

On the plus side, I got a blog post out of it, so that’s not too bad. I’ve increased the price on the other book I listed, but I don’t mind not selling it either – the benefits of picking books I like anyway.

Selling books online might work fine in the US and other countries with inexpensive postal systems, but probably not here. I think my future experiments will focus on things that don’t need to be physically shipped! =)

This is what five years looks like

I was thinking about my experiments with entrepreneurship the other day, and I realized that I have a lot of room to learn things. Books tell me it takes about five years for many businesses to shake out the bugs and settle down; even then, only about half of new ventures survive the first five years (according to US statistics). As a relentlessly optimistic person, I immediately read that as, “Cool! Half of new ventures succeed in surviving their first five years!”

Anyway. Five years is a long time. This is what five years looks like:


Five years is longer than my university degree. It’s longer than the time I worked at IBM. If I work hard and I work smart, I should be able to learn lots of things in five years.

Things I am curious about:

  • How to help people, groups, and organizations adopt different ways of working: This is a challenge! It’s difficult to help one person change, much less a team, much less a community. But it’s essential because otherwise people will miss out on all these productivity improvements from technologies or processes. They’ll waste time. They’ll get frustrated. They won’t make the best decisions they can make. I want to help people work better so that they can focus on things that make the most of their skills and passions.
  • How to document and improve processes: Many organizations struggle to grow beyond one person or a small team. So many things aren’t written down. There are few processes in the beginning. Then there’s no time to document operations because there are too many things to do. Besides, people don’t feel like they can write down what they’re doing, or they’re too close and they forget what else other people would need to know in order to do their job. I can interview people and watch how they work, write those steps down, and make it easier for people to scale up by delegating, automating, or eliminating the things that they do.
  • How to communicate effectively and engagingly: People want to learn, but they don’t have the time to read lots of books or listen to lots of talks. I want to help people learn more effectively. People like the things I sketch or write about, and they like my presentations too. I want to learn more about things that help other people, and I want to get better at organizing and sharing what I learn.
  • How to build a scalable, sustainable business: I want to build a business that goes beyond the time = money equation. More than that, I want to learn how to systematically build these businesses, so that I can help other people do so too. That’s because there are a lot of people whose talents and skills aren’t sufficiently used because of their time requirements, their location, or other factors. I want to help more people have these options and create the kind of value they can create.

Five years should be a decent length for a self-made program. Maybe a Master of Business Awesomeness? Here we go. =)

Taking a month off from consulting

I’m taking all of September off from consulting so that I can present at a conference, spend time with family, and work on other skills. This five-month consulting engagement has been absolutely wonderful. It turns out that you can create tremendous value as a generalist with technical, business, and design skills, and that good engagements help you refine and pick up even more skills. :) I look forward to returning for two days a week throughout October and November, but I also want to make sure I keep pushing myself to learn about business models. It’ll be a good adventure.

Six months into my business experiment, I’m delighted with what I’m learning and how I’m learning it. It was the right time to start. Earlier, I wouldn’t have had such a good foundation to build on. Later, inertia and comfort might have kept me where I was until I absolutely needed to shift.

I haven’t been able to focus my evening time and my personal days as much as I thought I might. I think it’s because my consulting work involves a lot of novelty and creativity – a good thing – and that means I focus on other things during the evenings. I should crunch the data to see what it has actually been like instead of just how I perceive the last few weeks.

I’m looking forward to doing a more thoughtful review over the Labour Day long weekend. Much to reflect on! :)

Experiment pre-mortem: Imagining and dealing with causes of failure

I am, for the most part, a relentless optimist. I embrace my inner Pollyanna. I regularly explore my goals with the Imagine Wild Success technique. Most people know this part of me, because I’m often the first to find the silver lining in any cloud.

Here’s something less visible but also very useful: I also use worrying productively. I plan ahead so that I can make myself a strong safety net. I go through mental fire drills so that I can figure out how to respond to various situations. I use the stoic practice of negative visualization to deal with loss before I have to deal with it.

I use pessimism in order to enable and support optimism. For example, a project pre-mortem is a great way to imagine causes of failure – and think about how you can prevent or address them.

I’m about ten months into this 5-year experiment with entrepreneurship and self-directed time. There are many ways it could fail. The good thing about framing it as an experiment is that even failure can give me valuable information. The main “real failure” is not being able to collect and make use of the insights it gives me. Here’s that and other things that could make this a waste of time:

20121210 business planning - experiment premortem

When I write down my ghosts, they become less scary. Knowing that the potential failures have been written down, defined, and (somewhat) planned for, I can free myself up to think about the flip side: what does success look like? how do I get there?

What are your potential reasons to fail? How can you deal with them?

Experience report: Naming my company!

Ten months after incorporation, I’ve finally come up with a name for my company. I wanted to combine the different aspects that resonated with me and with other people during conversations and events. Consulting was easy to do under my own name and with a numbered company, but if I want to expand to channel opportunities to other people, it would be interesting to see if I can build something bigger than myself.

One of my favourite words for describing what I’m working on is Experiment. I like it because it combines openness and deliberate exploration, where even the challenges are opportunities to learn. Because this is an experiment, I don’t have to over-commit to a single option. I can try something and see what happens.

For this next experiment beyond consulting, I’m thinking of building a business around visual summaries and sketchnotes. The visual aspect of it is fascinating. Somehow these sketchnotes are more engaging than blog posts or talk videos. I think it would be wonderful to see where this goes.

I’ve been collecting different name ideas. Straightforward names like Visualize Business? Something punny, like Sketchup & Relish (turns out there are a few groups by that name)? Visualisto (playing on “alisto”)? Visualysis, referring to analysis? I looked up Latin roots and played around with prefixes.

After turning over all sorts of names in my head, I started playing with this one on Tuesday night: Experivis.

Why Experivis?

I like the way this made-up word lends itself to multiple explanations. Experience –> Visuals is the one that’s the most relevant to this next experiment. Experi- also evokes experiment, and combined with vis-, it’s kinda like saying, “Let’s try things and see.” It’s abstract enough so that I can use it for other ideas, too.

(W- said, “It sounds like a drug name!” I said, “Maybe people will think of experts or experience.” He said, “People tend to think of pros instead of experts.” “Provis?” “Now that definitely sounds like a drug.” So Experivis, then.)

Okay, now what?

I did a quick check to see if the domain name was available, if it was in use on the Web or as a trademark, and if there were any unfortunate meanings or translations. Only two pages of Google results, and no one was using it as an exact word.

Then I slept, because it’s good to give your brain time to play around things like that.

When Wednesday morning came, the name still felt okay. Great! I spent a few hours setting up the domain, registering it as a “Doing Business As” name in Ontario, and putting together a quick website at with a custom theme based on Pitch. I disabled the parts I hadn’t built yet, created some pages, imported some content from my main blog, and fiddled with the text. Whee! It’s fun to spin up a website so quickly.

Some next steps

  • Explore logo ideas
  • Draw the value proposition as a sketchnote
  • Add more links
  • Write and organize useful content

Level up!