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Ingenium Communications’ Caroline Kealey (Andrew Van Beek)
Ingenium Communications’ Caroline Kealey (Andrew Van Beek)

STARTING OUT

Accidental entrepreneurs find purpose, and success Add to ...

When the last recession tossed thousands of people out of work, some of them were pushed, not pulled, in  a new direction: They started their own business.

It turns out, however, that many of these “accidental entrepreneurs” have found a real purpose, and a successful one at that.

Unlike many other entrepreneurs, who always dreamed of being their own bosses, accidental entrepreneurs usually never thought about striking out on their own, until they were forced to go into business for themselves out of financial necessity.

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It also turns out that this isn’t the only thing that separates them from other entrepreneurs. In fact, at least one study has found that accidental entrepreneurs launched during the last recession expected to do better than others who made a conscious decision to become a business owner prior to the recession.

While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many people accidentally became their own bosses, Ted Mallett, vice-president and chief economist at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says there’s typically a surge in entrepreneurship during and after recessions, and the last couple of downturns are no exception.

According to the study done in 2011 by Forrester Research Inc. for Symantec Corp., accidental entrepreneurs – business owners who were laid off during the recession and then started their own companies – expected to be more successful over the following two years than other kinds of entrepreneurs.

The study found that twice as many accidental entrepreneurs expected to see their revenue grow by more than 10 per cent than other business owners, says Forrester Research analyst Tim Harmon, who was in charge of the study.

It also found that 46 per cent of accidental entrepreneurs expected to double the number of employees they had, versus just 12 per cent of business owners who started companies before the recession, Mr. Harmon says.

Why does this cohort of entrepreneurs expect to do better than other business owners? Brian Burch, vice-president of small business marketing for Symantec Corp., says one factor is their backgrounds. Many were corporate executives or managers with experience running large teams and big corporations. Mr. Harman adds that a lot of them have MBAs. “They know what it takes to operate and manage a company,” he says.

Mr. Mallett thinks that a lot of accidental entrepreneurs have been successful because they’ve built businesses around a specific expertise. “The more experience you have in a particular industry, the higher your chance of success,” he says.

So how well are accidental entrepreneurs doing? Here’s a look at four of them:

Doug Lacombe,

Founder and president,

Communicatto Inc., Calgary

Then:

When Doug Lacombe was laid off from his job in 2009, he was, naturally, devastated. For about five years, he was the vice-president of Western Canada for CNW Group Ltd., a newswire service that publishes press releases online. “The company took out a VP layer and, unfortunately, that was the layer I was in.”

He was 45 at the time and, while he did get nine months of severance, he had no idea what his next move would be.

For six months, Mr. Lacombe searched for another full-time job, but after about a dozen interviews, he sensed that his search wouldn’t prove fruitful. Just as his severance was about to run out, he came up with a plan: He would start his own company.

He always had the entrepreneurial spirit, he says, but he was addicted to the paycheque. However, with plenty of executive experience under his belt, and no job prospects in sight, he figured he might as well try to run his own business.

Now:

Mr. Lacombe started Calgary-based Communicatto Inc., a digital marketing firm, in 2009 and, so far, he says, it has been the most rewarding, and most lucrative, job he’s ever held.

His company, which counts Encana Corp. and Imperial Oil Ltd. among its clients, is growing rapidly. While he won’t divulge revenues, he says they’ve been growing by 50 per cent to 100 per cent a year.

In his first year of business, he says he was able to equal what he made at his last full-time job. The next year, his salary doubled. He incorporated in 2010 and takes a paycheque, mostly dividends, out of the business. He’s still making more now than he did in his previous job, he says.

His greatest success, he says, is is seeing that he’s been able to survive doing something on his own. “The failure rate of Canadian businesses is high, so I wondered, will this go? It turns out, the answer was yes.”

For someone who didn’t have plans to start his own business, landing his first client and hiring his first contractor have counted among his big achievements.

His biggest challenge has been a lack of resources. With just three contract workers, he doesn’t have the same kind of staff that he had when he worked in the corporate world.

“As an entrepreneur, you’re on your own until you find trusted advisers, partners and systems,” he says. “There have been countless times when I have thought ‘that’s how we did it in corporate,’ but then I am challenged to replicate that in my own business.” To overcome these issues, he uses technology as much as possible and hires contract workers for specific help.

Anyone can make a go of entrepreneurship, says Mr. Lacombe, by simply telling your network that you’re ready for work.

“The best advice I received is, ‘you can do it.’” he says. “Talk to your network. Tell them what you’re doing, and you’ll be surprised how much they’ll send your way.”

Caroline Kealey,

Founder and principal,

Ingenium Communications, Ottawa

Then:

In January, 2001, Caroline Kealey got what she thought was a dream job. She was hired by Nortel Networks Corp. to work as a senior communications strategist. She doubled her previous job’s salary and, she says, she “was giddy with excitement” to work at the company.

However, soon after she began, hordes were laid off. The early 2000s recession was in full swing and the tech sector was crashing hard.

The axe dropped on Ms. Kealey on Sept. 11, just minutes before two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. She was just over three months pregnant at the time, too.

Just a few months away from giving birth, she didn’t want to look for another job, but neither did she want to kick back and watch TV. She figured she’d ask her contacts if they needed any communications help until her baby was born. She had a severance package to keep her afloat if nothing materialized, but one job led to another, and then another. Although she never imagined becoming an entrepreneur, she quickly realized she could do this full-time.

She officially launched her company in September, 2002, under her own name; she adopted the moniker Ingenium in 2005. “Once these things get going, it’s hard to stop,” she says.

Now:

Ms. Kealey, who’s 41, never imagined her business would do as well as it has. While she won’t reveal revenues, she says the business grew 30 per cent last year, she now has two full-time staff and a dozen contractors, and plans to hire an executive assistant on contract this year. She’s worked with the United Nations and companies around the globe.

She’s also making a lot more money than she ever did at Nortel. “It’s been extremely successful,” she says.

Her business really took off in 2004, when she developed a program that helps companies create their own strategic communications plans. Rather than having to create communication strategies for businesses, she now teaches them how to do it on her own. Her business is now a mix of strategic communication and training related to the program.

Creating, and then selling, this process has been Ms. Kealey’s biggest achievement, she says. “Developing a strategic communications planning methodology that is now used by thousands of communicators, on every continent of the globe, is my greatest success,” she says.

Still, it’s been a bumpy ride, she admits. It’s not easy to move from employee to business owner and have to deal with every aspect of running a company. She made it work, she says, by hiring others to reduce her workload. Early on, she hired a virtual assistant and a bookkeeper, which helped her free up time to focus on client work. Three years after starting her company, she hired a project manager. “That was the best decision I could have made,” she says. “You can’t be consumed by the minutiae of running a business.”

Her advice to other accidental entrepreneurs? “Walk before you run,” she says. “Start small, listen to your market and adjust.”

Josh Horowitz,

Founder and president,

Sell My Stuff, Toronto

Then:

Josh Horowitz, 27, held down a “real job” for just three months. But timing was everything.

In November, 2008, Mr. Horowitz was fresh out of business school and on the job hunt. He found work doing “admin stuff” with a condo developer. In February, he was called into the owner’s office and told that he should pack up his desk. He was another casualty of the recession.

Two months before he was given the boot, he had helped his grandmother move from her house to a small apartment. She had accumulated a lot of things over the years, which she wanted him to sell. It took months for him to get rid of everything. He thought there must be a better way to sell a house full of items, but didn’t pursue the idea any further. That is, until he was let go.

After his termination, Mr. Horowitz began thinking again about his experience liquidating his grandmother’s goods. Two weeks later, he started Sell My Stuff Canada, an estate sale business that sells off an entire house worth of items in one day.

Now:

Sell My Stuff Canada has seen a lot of growth since he signed up his first client the day his website went live in 2009.

The company holds about one estate sale every week, taking a cut of the cash that’s made. Although he runs the business himself, he hires up to 30 people to work those sales each week. Revenues are on the rise, up 50 per cent last year over the year before.

He also sold two franchises, in Ottawa and Hamilton, last year, and hopes to sell two more this year, another one in Ontario and one in British Columbia.“We want to be the 1-800-Got-Junk of the content sale business,” he says.

While Mr. Horowitz loves being his own boss, the biggest challenge he’s faced is dealing with everything himself. “There’s no one higher up,” he says. “You’re the last line of defence when a tough question comes up. It’s a quick learning curve.”

Still, he tells other laid-off job hunters that, if they want to work for themselves, instead of going back to the corporate grind, they should just go for it. “It’s a cliché but it couldn’t be more true.”

Aaron Nowensky,

Co-founder and managing director,

Warrior Energy Capital, New York

Then:

In 2009, former Winnipegger Aaron Nowensky was laid off from his job as an assistant vice-president at New York-based investment banking firm NewMarket Advisory LLC. He worked there for about three and a half years, until his boss called from Europe and told him he should start to look for work.

That’s what he did, for two years, but with no luck. He took part-time jobs to make some money, but a full-time gig proved elusive.

Eventually tired of looking, he decided he’d be better off to start a company himself. He had made a lot of connections after leaving his job and saved some money over the years. So, along with two others, in 2011, he formed Warrior Energy Capital, a New York-based investment banking firm that focuses on cross-border M&A transactions.

Now:

While the 34-year-old has been running his company for just over a year, he’s already seeing successes: The firm has signed up two big clients,  each paying  a monthly retainer fee of  between $15,000 and $30,000, and he says it’s about to sign up one more. About half of Warrior’s business, he says, comes from Canada.

Like many other accidental entrepreneurs, it was his former job that gave him the experience and confidence to strike out on his own. “I got a ton of experience in the [almost] four years I was there.”

He also had “ the network underneath me and I had met mentors who gave me advice,” he adds. “I was scared at first to ask my connections for help. I was taking a risk, but had to do it.”

Still, the hardest part of being a business owner, he’s finding, is landing clients. He says he needs to convince clients that his young company is different than what’s out there.

He also realized, though, that he wasn’t the office guy he always thought he was, and has actually turned down “several” good job offers over the last year to work on his company.

“I just needed a push to go out on my own,” he says. “I created something. That’s the best part. I envision this as a long-term thing.”

He advises others who find themselves in the same boat that it’s okay to take risks. He learned how important it was to “have the courage and desire to follow your own dreams.”

“Time is limited,” he says, “so do what makes you happy.”

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