Things Every Tech Startup Needs to Know about Business Models

By Bruce Firestone | Uncategorized

Feb 21

By Bruce M Firestone, B Eng (Civil), M Eng-Sci, PhD


The Business Model is supplanting the Business Plan in many
organizations. It not only describes the complete business ecosystem, it
is a mechanism to discover profitable new relationships amongst
stakeholder groups. The Business Model is more resilient than a plan and
harder for competitors to copy. The Business Model today has 12 main
elements—flow chart, value proposition, financial model, benchmarking,
effective marketing, talent acquisition, self capitalization,
differentiated value, cash conversion cycle, integration of the Internet
and Mobile Internet, leverage and social overlay. It is possible today,
for the first time in history, to make service businesses scalable and
mass customization possible due to the advent of the Internet and Mobile


The Business Model (BM) has come a long way in the last few years
from a one page pictogram (or flowchart) of the ‘engine of a business’
to a many faceted model that fully describes the ‘engine room’ of an

Recall what a basic BM is—clients are usually on the RHS (Right Hand
Side) of the page, the business is in the middle and suppliers are on
the LHS. Typically, products and services flow from left to right—from
suppliers to the enterprise where some type of value is added and then
through the organization to their clients and customers. Usually, money
flows in the opposite direction—from clients to the enterprise and then
from there to suppliers when they are paid. Occasionally, these
directions can reverse with money flowing to clients and customers, for
example, and information or marketing opportunities flowing in the
opposite direction.

There is an orthogonal dimension in every model—a marketing
dimension, which is where each organization demonstrates how they
acquire clients and customers in a cost effective manner.

A fuller picture of every enterprise is formed when at least two
dimensions on either side (and sometimes more) are included in the
model. That is, the clients of the company’s clients and who the
suppliers to the company’s suppliers also become known. In this way, new
relationships amongst players and stakeholders can be discovered and
creative new ways to enhance every organization can be found. Each
enterprise is now being looked at as part of an overall business
ecosystem and when they are able to secure place as a liked and trusted
part of an ecosystem, business longevity is likely to increase.

Steve Jobs insisted that AT&T provide Apple with a share of its
monthly subscriber revenues in return for exclusive access to the iPhone
for two years (Wall Street Journal, How Steve Jobs Played Hardball In
iPhone Birth, February 17th, 2007,
With this single strategic move, Jobs revolutionized yet another
industry’s business model—cell phone manufacturers went from selling a
‘shrink wrapped’ gadget for a one-time payment in a brutally competitive
market that was racing to the bottom to an industry with multiple
sources of revenues, some of which are recurring.

Imagine how much harder Steve Jobs and Apple would have to work today
and how much lower their productivity as measured in terms of revenue
per employee would be without recurring revenues from iPhone app sales
and revenues, advertising revenues on their iOS platform, downloads of
paid content from iTunes and iBooks plus a share of their carriers’
subscriber fees? We estimated that Apple’s Internal Rate of Return on
the iPhone is an incredible 288% p.a. ( But it wasn’t the iPhone per se that propelled Apple to becoming the most valuable company on the planet; it was the iPhone’s business model that did that.

Was this unprecedented move by AT&T (to give Apple access to a
share of its monthly subscriber revenues) worthwhile from the telecom’s
POV? Well, (
reported that the iPhone represented 80% of all AT&T smartphone
activations in the last quarter of 2011 during which they added 9.4
million new subscribers, 50% more than in any previous quarter in
company history.

Sam Palmisano, when he was CEO of IBM, told BusinessWeek (April 3rd,
2006) why he places a great deal of emphasis on the importance of
business model innovation, “… with product innovation, it’s a
certainty that your competition is shortly going to copy what you have
done. With business-model innovation, though, if you can come up with a
unique way of doing things, it’s much tougher to react to.”

The Complete Model

The complete Business Model is today made of a dozen elements—

1. A one page pictogram (flowchart) showing the whole business ecosystem (the
enterprise embedded in a network of relationships with clients,
clients’ clients, suppliers and suppliers’ suppliers together with an
orthogonal marketing dimension showing how the enterprise acquires
customers and clients in a cost effective manner.)
2. A spreadsheet which calculates the value proposition
for a single customer or client; it demonstrates in a clear and concise
way how a new enterprise/product/service/division creates either lower
costs or higher revenues (or some combination of both) for a single
customer. The corollary here is that organizations should insist that
their suppliers provide them with their value proposition too. They
should not expect less of their suppliers than they do of themselves.
3. A second spreadsheet develops a financial model for
the enterprise. From this model, each firm is able to measure the impact
each additional client has on the top line of the firm. The firm is
also able to test the sensitivity of its top line to, say, changes in
success rate in any of its marketing channels, changes in its COGS (Cost
of Goods Sold) and other variables. The value proposition for clients
and their impact on the enterprise (which is measured by the financial
model) are mirror images of each other. The business ecosystem is
complete when suppliers provide the organization with their value
proposition and they also have a financial model of how their client’s
organization impacts them. Why should any organization care if their
suppliers have workable financial models? Long term viability of every
firm depends, in part, on maintaining a sustainable and efficient supply
4. Each business model should be benchmarked against the best-of-breed in their industry. We developed a Business Model Scoring Test, to assist in this regard.
5. Each enterprise will not be successful unless it can acquire clients
or customers in a cost effective way. If Super Bowl commercials are
needed before acquiring any launch clients, the new enterprise is
unlikely to be successful. If any new organization requires heroic
efforts to land clients, they won’t be around long. So Guerrilla Marketing, Social Media and Market Channel Development
have to be part of the marketing dimension in every business model.
This is just as true for NGOs, Not-For-Profits and Charities. These
types of enterprises need to have complete Business Models including
financial model, value proposition and other elements described here.
They have a fiduciary duty to be efficient and effective too.
6. Having a great business model without the ability to execute is not
very useful. That is, execution counts, ideas by themselves, even great
ideas, are not enough. We developed an online ECQ Test to test individual entrepreneurial ability:

“Once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music
school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how
hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very
top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They
work much, much harder,” Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success, 2008.

7. There are business models that do not easily lend themselves to
entrepreneurial startups. Typically, they require enormous amounts of
capital that simply cannot be raised by entrepreneurs. Business models
that use Bootstrap Capital and Self Capitalization
techniques to fund their new startups are usually more focused on
customer needs, customer acquisition and building cashflow. Strong
cashflow is clearly part of improving survivorship rates and low cost or
free bootstrap capital can lead to higher Rates of Return (both project
IRR, Internal Rate of Return, and ROE, Return on Equity, will likely
increase). Greater use of self capitalization techniques in early stages
of startup development will also reduce the need for either Angel or VC
capital which will increase the likelihood that original founders will
retain control for a longer period. Having launch customers and growing
cashflow improve valuations and improve negotiating positions of
entrepreneurs vis–à–vis sophisticated investors.
8. Most startups do not necessarily have to find a
never-before-tried-idea. Perhaps the reason it has never been tried
before is that it is a bad idea. There are very few startups like (where each customer sets a price instead of the business)
or Fed-Ex (pioneer of the airline hub and spoke system that made
overnight package delivery possible). But at a minimum, each
organization requires something that differentiates it from existing
firms—there must be some type of innovation brought to bear on the
industry. Differentiated Value and the ability to be
able to succinctly explain it are essential. Imagine YouTube, for a
moment, having been around circa the latter half of the 18th Century.
Perhaps a video of Mozart’s last concert or Albert Einstein’s speech
when he won his Nobel Prize in physics in 1921 would now be available?
(YouTube actually has one minute and 22 seconds of Einstein speaking in
What would such a video archive be worth today? What if
had been around since the 1800s and you could see what else interested
James Watt (inventor of the steam engine)? Test and discover enterprise
differentiated value using thought experiments like these (by thinking
backwards as well as forwards).

“I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things,” Steve Jobs.

9. The Cash Conversion Cycle should be determined
for each business model. What use is a fast growing business if it goes
bankrupt in the process? This occurs when the CCC is too long which
means that it either takes too long to collect receivables or the
organization is paying for inputs too soon before being able to deliver
its products or services or inventories are too high.
10. Jack Welch when asked upon his retirement from GE, ‘What was the
single most important invention during his decades with GE?’ pointed to
the Internet and said it’s ‘the biggest change I have ever seen.’ The Internet (and the Mobile Internet) must be integrated into every business model. More on this later.
11. Building leverage into every model is essential;
this multiplies the force and effect of effort, time, brainpower and
capital. Leverage in business models comes from ten primary sources—i.
HR (Human Resources), ii. OPM (Other People’s Money), iii. forced
savings, iv. innovation, v. capital equipment, vi. location, vii.
network effects, viii. marketing channels that reduce a marketing
problem from one to many to one to a few, ix. branding, co-branding,
co-opetition and co-creation and, finally, x. inflation. Test your
business model by asking yourself do you have great Human Resources, are
you using Other People’s Money, benefiting from forced savings,
innovating, do you have a great location or brand, does your enterprise
benefit from network effects or marketing channels that allow you to
connect cost effectively with your clients or customers and reduces that
task from one to many to one to a few and is your capital equipment top
notch/best-of-breed & do you benefit from inflation? If so, you are
probably maximizing your leverage.

“In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities:
integrity, intelligence and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the
other two will kill you. You think about it; it’s true. If you hire
somebody without [integrity], you really want them to be dumb and lazy,” Warren Buffett.

12. Business Models with a social overlay can create
a coherent community around each enterprise which make it difficult to
knock off. They also provide a platform for a separate way of giving
back to society often through a not-for-profit organization bolted onto the model. Such bolt-ons can become independent, self-funded marketing channels for the for-profit operation.

Case Study—Loose Button’s Business Model

Ray Cao and Aditya Shah are both young engineers from the University
of Waterloo. Now what can they possibly know about the beauty products
industry for a client base that is approximately 98% female and growing
fast? It turns out that Ray and Aditya and their small crew of hackers
and marketing mavens know a lot about their industry—they are reshaping
the way it delivers samplers to their consumers.

Previously, suppliers like L’Oreal, Moroccan Oil, Dermalogica and
dozens of others would employ agencies to go into malls and high end
stores to hand out samples to consumers picked out nearly randomly. How
much data did they collect? Almost nothing.

Ray and Aditya are highly analytical and believe in the value of
tracking metrics to help build an enterprise and make it smarter. So
they decided to do something about this part of the industry and, in
doing so, have created one of the most innovative business models yet

Their value proposition is, “We’re the Netflix of the beauty products industry but with e-Harmony for brains,” says Cao.

Every consumer who signs up is asked to complete a profile letting know what type of products they are interested in. Then
once a month, a Luxe Box is delivered to their door by CPC (Canada Post
Corporation) or USPS with travel-size samplers from suppliers they are
interested in. This is a form of mass customization—every Luxe Box can
contain different products matching individual consumer interests with
the right type of supplier products with a few surprises on the upside
thrown in.

Clients respond well to LB surveys and have independently started to
record YouTube videos of themselves receiving, using and experimenting
with Luxe Box products. Some of these videos are getting phenomenal
numbers of views (over 10,000) spreading the word for LB at no cost to
LB. Tribes of makeup evangelists are forming around the strongest
influencers in their ecosystem.

What’s also interesting is that clients are paying $12 per month ($10
if they sign up for a year) to receive their monthly try-before-you-buy
Luxe Box filled with samples that LB’s suppliers provide them for free.
There’s still more cleverness here. In addition to providing them with
free samplers, suppliers like L’Oreal and Moroccan Oil pay a rights fee
to be included in the Luxe Box which means that LB is in the enviable
position of being paid not only by clients but suppliers as well.

Ray and Aditya have also implemented some negative cost
marketing—organizations are paying them to market Luxe Box for them… The
Globe and Mail, Chatelaine and other publications, desperately trying
to hold onto their readers, buy Luxe Box subscriptions (at around 80% of
retail price) to give to their most loyal customers vastly extending
LB’s reach and increasing its growth rate as well. The Founders won’t
say exactly how many clients they have but it’s over 10,000.

Based in Toronto on Bay Street in shared co-worker space, their
Ottawa tie-in was they wanted to use By-ward market-based Shopify’s
platform but instead had to move to because the former is
not set up for recurring payments (aka, subscription billing). Shopify
is set up for dozens or hundreds of SKUs, LB has only one.

This is a tough business to knock off in the sense that until the
Internet can download mini portions of makeup or beauty potions and as
long as Canada Post Corporation and USPS keep going, they’re in great

Here is’s business model circa 2012. See below. Ray
and Aditya have plans to change this model in 2013—adding product
sales—because their clients are demanding that.

When asked why they named their company ‘Loose Button’, Ray says, “Buttons are fasteners that connect two pieces of cloth. We intelligently connect consumers and brands.”

They started LB right out of University and have an Advisory Board
with luminaries such as Harry Rosen and Jagoda Pike (former publisher of
the Toronto Star) sitting on it. “Mentoring helped us a lot,” says Aditya. “We
decided not to go into the apparel space since it was already
saturated. We went into the market research and product discovery side

Their biz coach comes in once per week and makes them set goals,
track metrics and live up to their word. Internet startups that track
their metrics grow 7x faster than those that don’t according to Startup
Genome Report 01, Max Marmer, Bjoern Lasse Herrmann, Ron Berman, 2011.

They are also part of which focuses on fast growing
enterprises. Started out of Waterloo, it is now a national organization.

Both Ray and Aditya were part of the coop program at Waterloo and
they each had six tries to figure out that they wanted to do during
their course of studies. What it taught them was that they didn’t like
working for other people (Ray at a Wall Street firm and Aditya at a
large accounting firm and then various tech companies).

LB has plans for other Boxes—perhaps another line focused on Men’s
products, possibly a foodie version. They intentionally called their
first Box something different from their company name so they could
conquer other verticals later. It’s what RIM tried to do with Blackberry
and Playbook.

There wasn’t much to change in their biz model other than suggesting
that they might consider adding a social layer over the whole thing—the
follow/follower model is a powerful one which knits the community more
closely together and makes it even tougher to knock off. They might
integrate the Twitter API and allow customers and suppliers to follow
top influencers in their ecosystem on a more coherent basis than just
stumbling onto one of their YouTube videos.

Other changes might include adding a Qricket Code to each Luxe Box
(that’s a QR code where you can change the website it resolves to after
printing them) so that, like ET, each Box can call home. Maybe there
will also one day be a to give back to their community

Business models today are not just about making money—enterprises
that are all about the money seem to have none and those that are about
building insanely great products and services plus making a contribution
to society seem to have it all. This is a Gen Y (and Steve Jobs)
phenomenon. So bolting on to their existing model a standalone
not-for-profit dedicated to say health and fitness and with its own
sources of funding and marketing to their existing business model would
not only help LB, it would help the wider community cope with issues
like obesity, diet, lifetime fitness, abuse of drugs, alcohol and

Their model as it exists today where they get paid by consumers and
suppliers plus other organizations pay them to market their product for
them while forming an intelligent community that is hard to knock off
is, frankly, amazing.

Integrating the Internet and the Mobile Internet into Everything You Do

The Internet is making it feasible to do things with business models that were never possible before including:

A. Create custom outputs from standard inputs

Unlike Henry Ford who said you can have whatever color of car you
want so long as it is black, the Internet allows an enterprise to
provide a nearly unlimited choice by combining standard inputs into a
myriad of customized products or services. Every experience with an
Internet-mediated entity can be wildly varied.

Mass Customize Products and Services

B. Reverse out the work to clients and suppliers

For example, a Spa could allow clients to pick and choose amongst
services and so tailor each visit to their individual preferences,
tastes and needs. Since they are doing all the work of customizing their
next visit (adding hair styling, massage therapy, pedicure, manicure,
dietary consultation, yoga class and hair coloring and then deleting
half the services because, say, they exceed current budgetary
constraints), the enterprise doesn’t care how many times they change
their minds before hitting the ‘submit’ button.

C. Embed each enterprise in a trusted, networked business
ecosystem made up of clients, suppliers, clients’ clients, suppliers’
suppliers and the organization itself

To show how this works, ask for example the question, ‘Who are the
clients of a Spa’s clients?’ Since most clients for most spas are
probably women, the clients of the Spa’s clients are likely to be men.
And what do men want? They want to purchase gift certificates from the
Spa. By examining the nodes and links in a business model, it is often
possible to discover new ways of delivering value in the ecosystem as
well as discovering new marketing channels and supply chains as well.

D. Matchmaking—directly connecting clients to suppliers making service industries scalable for the first time ever

Returning to the example of the Spa, their employees could be treated
not as employees but as suppliers. In this way, if a client wants to
have a manicure, pedicure, massage and hair colouring, the Internet or
the Mobile Internet allows the spa to create a backend system that
matches them up much as, say, or do. Match
making is not a widely understood phenomenon. Service industries are
notoriously labor intensive and hard to scale; i.e., more output
requires more inputs in a more or less linear relationship or, worse,
the ratio of marginal output to marginal input might be less than one.
This happens when a service business is too complex to manage
effectively as it grows. In consulting, that size is often one person.
As soon as the enterprise grows beyond a single practioner, their
earnings per person may actually go down while the time to produce those
earnings goes up. This is not a happy event and explains there are so
many one person service firms in real estate, management consulting, IT
consulting, accounting, legal, plumbing, electrical, carpentry, the Mr.
Fix It industry, roof repair, mechanic, appliance repair, PC repair,
Network management and so forth. Internet matchmaking is likely to
change all of these industries by making them scalable. Industry
consolidation and larger average firm sizes are likely occurrences.

E. Mass communicate planet-wide through social media and other Internet tools at almost no cost

What is interesting is that some of these communication tools which
are free to use like social media powerhouses Twitter, YouTube,
LinkedIn, Pinterest and Facebook produce a powerful, newish form of
communication—the viral message. It’s newish (as opposed to new) because
the chain letter permitted something similar before. But it’s powerful.

F. Crowd sourcing (using the Internet as intermediary) means
relying on the wisdom of the crowd to, for example, pick and vote on
stories for news agglomeration sites like

Google can serve up ads to people who are searching for, say, digital
cameras. Facebook, on the other hand, by mining its d-base, can serve
up digital camera ads to new Moms in New Jersey who have never posted
any photos of their kids. FB can also advertise wedding photographers in
Vancouver to women who have just changed their status from ‘single’ to
‘engaged’. In ‘The Facebook Effect’, David Kirkpatrick points out that
Google’s style of advertising (providing information to people who
already know what they are looking for, at least in general terms) makes
up 20% of all advertising. The rest is brand advertising meant to
target people who have not yet made a buying decision or don’t know what
they are looking for. That is Facebook’s specialty and you can
understand why Kirkpatrick thinks FB will ultimately be a hugely
successful commercial enterprise.

G. Relational data base

Organizations mine their customer (or supplier) interactions for
intelligence. For example, Amazon asks questions such as, ‘Would you
like to see what other people who bought this (book, CD, video, etc.)
also bought?’ These suggestion engines result in significant increases
in average order size and volume of sales.

H. User generated content

This is another form of reversing out the work to customers and
suppliers. It underpins the business models of,, Facebook, Twitter and many other new enterprises.

I. Network effects

Google is an example of network effects—the more people who use their
search engine, the better their algorithm is which brings more users
which brings more data which delivers greater accuracy which results in
more ads served in a self-reinforcing virtuous circle. It is more
difficult to produce network effects in a gated community which is why
Google+ is likely to struggle while Twitter flourishes.


Business modeling is a relatively new field of research and practice;
it will undoubtedly evolve extensively in just a few years.

Business modeling may be superseding business planning in many ways
because, as successful Generals know, the best battle plan ever created
changes the instant it comes into contact with the enemy. Business
models change too when they come into contact with the marketplace and
the supply chain and they evolve over time as each organization comes to
know and better understand the relationships implicit in their business
ecosystems. Also business models are much harder to copy than any
single product or service and, if an organization gets them right, they
can create amazing new (sustainable) enterprises.

As former student Daniel Beauchamp once said, “Your competitors can copy what you are doing now but what they can’t know and can’t copy is what you are going to do next.” Dwight D. Eisenhower said it a bit differently, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything,”

Entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and product managers with a solid
business model know that their implementation and execution of it will
test their entrepreneurial skill set and, while they set goals each day
and plan out each day and create To Do lists each day, they also know
they always have to be flexible as circumstances change and new
opportunities and challenges multiply around them.

The Internet is having a profound impact on the way business models
are designed and implemented. The more that the Internet and Mobile
Internet are incorporated in new or existing models, the more they are
likely to prosper. The Internet is just a teenager and is likely to
subsume everything in its path over the coming decades.

Business modeling and the integration of the Internet into Business
Models are key factors as entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs try to decode
the DNA of successful startups and product launches.


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Inside the Tornado: Marketing Strategies from Silicon Valley’s Cutting Edge, Geoffrey A. Moore, HarperCollins, 1999.
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the World, David Kirkpatrick, Simon and Schuster, NY, 2010.
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The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way
You Do Business, Clayton Christensen, Harper Business, 2011.
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Author Biography

Bruce M Firestone, B Eng (Civil), M Eng-Sci, PhD

Bruce M Firestone is best known as a professor, entrepreneur and
founder of NHL hockey team, the Ottawa Senators and their home arena,
Scotiabank Place, as well as Author, Quantum Entity Trilogy,
Entrepreneurs Handbook II and Urban Nirvana (2015).

Firestone is Executive Director of, a Canadian
registered Not-For-Profit corporation focused on educating and mentoring
entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and artpreneurs in Canada and around the
world. He is also coaching and teaching via Learn By Doing School, an
organization dedicated to providing student entrepreneurs with access to
research, education and a network of high achievers not available
elsewhere. Prof Bruce is also an effective keynote speaker for
organizations with a positive focus on creating opportunity for their
stakeholder group.

Prof Bruce has launched or helped launch more than 172 startups in
fields including tech, real estate, design, art and services. He advises
clients on business modeling, self-financing, smart marketing, social
media, differentiated value, strategic selling and business development,
market channel development, harnessing the Internet and mobile web,
urban design, real estate development, design economics, product
management, sponsorship, fundraising and development economics as well
as issues related to entrepreneurial organizations including
not-for-profits, NGOs and charities.

In May of 2006, Dr Firestone joined the University of Ottawa’s Telfer
School of Management at as its first Entrepreneur-in-Residence. He
previously taught or studied at McGill University (Bachelor of Civil
Engineering), Laval University, Harvard University, University of
Western Ontario, University of New South Wales (Master of
Engineering-Science, Traffic and Transportation), Australian National
University (PhD in Urban Economics) and Carleton University. Prof Bruce
is now Entrepreneurship Ambassador for the Telfer School.

Dr Firestone has been an operations research engineer, real estate
developer, hockey executive, professor of architecture, engineering,
business and entrepreneurship, real estate broker (with Century 21
Explorer Realty Inc), writer, researcher, columnist and novelist. He is a
peerless husband and father of five great kids and one fine grandson.

You can follow him on Twitter @ProfBruce and @Quantum_Entity and read
his blogs at and You can
find his works at and at
You can engage with him on Facebook via— and
as well as via LinkedIn at— His
real estate interests are at and His YouTube channels include— and You can also send the first four chapters of Quantum Entity Trilogy to your friends for free from:
His current motto is: “Making Each Day Count”.


Dr Bruce M Firestone, B Eng (Civil), M Eng-Sci, Phd. Founder, Ottawa
Senators; Author, Quantum Entity Trilogy, Entrepreneurs Handbook II;
Executive Director,; Broker, Century 21 Explorer Realty
Inc; Entrepreneurship Ambassador, Telfer School of Management,
University of Ottawa. 613.566.3436 X 200. @

Follow Prof Bruce on Twitter @ProfBruce and @Quantum_Entity and read his blogs at and

You can find his works at and also at

You can engage with him on Facebook via and as well as via LinkedIn at

His real estate interests are summarized at and

YouTube channels include and

You can also read the first four chapters of Quantum Entity Trilogy or send it to your friends for free from:

You can read the first two chapters of Entrepreneurs Handbook II or send it to your friends for free:

Prof Bruce’s current motto is: “Making Each Day Count”

Spread The Word

About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.