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Exit: John Warrillow

Bright ideas need not rest on deep pockets Add to ...

Last week I met with Scott Armstrong, one of the three co-founders of Brainrider, a new business in Toronto designed to help companies like Yellow Pages and Pitney Bowes use their online content to attract more customers.

Brainrider was founded in January, and I think Armstrong and his partners, John Kewley and Nolin LeChasseur, are well on their way to building a valuable, sellable business.

What struck me was the raw entrepreneurialism they were bringing to their new business. Instead of leasing expensive office space, which is de rigueur for marketing companies, Armstrong has worked a deal to get free office space from Toronto-based PR firm Cohn & Wolfe in exchange for sharing his social media expertise.

Instead of buying a $4,000 phone system, Armstrong is conserving cash by having his employees use a combination of virtual PBX, mobile phones and Skype. Instead of purchasing a company server, he's buying each of his employees a laptop and using software available on the Internet like Dropbox, Google Apps and Gmail. In all, Armstrong estimates it costs him less than $1,000 to get a new employee up and running with Brainrider.

As Armstrong described his thin approach to starting Brainrider, I was reminded of a radio interview I conducted 15 years ago with Aaron Serruya, one of the founding brothers of Yogen Fruz.

When I interviewed Serruya, Yogen Fruz was on its way to becoming one of the fastest growing businesses in Canada. Given its size and success, I assumed Yogen Fruz had started with some deep-pocketed investors footing the bill or that its owners had sold out early to some growth-oriented financiers.

I asked Serruya how he and his brother had gotten their start and managed to grow so quickly. Serruya described their first-ever store, a kiosk he and his brother Michael had rented for the summer in a Thornhill shopping mall with a little help from their father. The brothers simply used the profits from their first kiosk to fund a permanent second location. They started to franchise their model and ultimately built the largest frozen yogurt company in the world.

Inspired by Serruya, I leased my first office, a windowless storage closet for $50 per month from a landlord who had a soft spot for lending a hand to young entrepreneurs in need. I borrowed a boardroom when I needed one from a family friend who had a fancy office downtown. Our furniture was a hodgepodge of gear I got from an auction.

These days, I occasionally get asked to invest in start-ups, and I'm always wary of new business owners who think they need tens of thousands of dollars to get started. Now, entrepreneurs like Serruya and Armstrong, who have a knack for making something valuable out of virtually nothing at all-they've got something worth investing in.

Special to The Globe and Mail

John Warrillow is the author of Built To Sell: Turn Your Business Into One You Can Sell . Throughout his career as an entrepreneur, Mr. Warrillow has started and exited four companies. Most recently he transformed Warrillow & Co. from a boutique consultancy into a recurring revenue model subscription business, which he sold to The Corporate Executive Board in 2008. He is the author of Drilling for Gold and in 2008 was recognized by BtoB Magazine's "Who's Who" list as one of America's most influential business-to-business marketers.

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