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North Key Construction, founded by Andrew and Michelle Isbester, started by clearing land for commercial development and later became a go-to company for assembling solar installations in Ontario. (Lars Hagberg For The Globe and Mail)
North Key Construction, founded by Andrew and Michelle Isbester, started by clearing land for commercial development and later became a go-to company for assembling solar installations in Ontario. (Lars Hagberg For The Globe and Mail)

IT STARTS WITH ONE

Entrepreneurs too often don't want to grow Add to ...

Michelle Isbester learned that you can't wait for opportunity to knock.

When she and her husband Andrew founded North Key Construction in Napanee, Ont., in 2005, they began by bidding on small projects, such as clearing land for building stores or gas stations. Then a newspaper headline gave them an idea.

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“There were plans to build Canada's largest solar photovoltaic project, practically in our back yard. It was the first array like it in North America and there were bound to be others.

“We recognized it could become a specialty for our company,” Ms. Isbester says.

It wasn't as easy as just saying they wanted the job, however. They called the office of the general contractor for the project, Sun Edison LLC in Toronto, but could never get through to the project manager.

But they didn't give up. “We called several times a week for a month in the summer of 2007. Finally, we got through to someone who said the manager was going to be on the site and we could meet him while he's there,” she recalls. In a discussion over the hood of a pickup truck on a dirt trail, they won an agreement to clear the 300-acre site of scrub brush and boulders.

By early 2008, the company had grown to 75 employees from 15 as it expanded its field and began setting up solar panels. As more solar projects were announced, North Key became the go-to company for assembling photovoltaic installations in Ontario. Today the company has 265 employees.

It's a demonstration of what can come from looking for opportunity and being persistent. But that doesn't come naturally for all entrepreneurs, says Thomas Hellmann at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business.

“Most entrepreneurs don't want to grow their business. They fear if they go beyond their own expertise, they might lose everything. Or, conversely, if they become too successful, they wouldn't be able to keep control over all facets,” says Prof. Hellmann.

However, if small businesses don't look for new opportunities they risk stagnating or falling victim to more aggressive competitors, warns Elspeth Murray, associate dean of MBA programs at Queen's University and director of the Queen's Centre for Business Venturing in Kingston, Ont.

“Even if you're now the leader in your field, the half-life to any business is a lot shorter than it ever was before. There are always others who are looking for their own niche in your industry,” she says.

Here are ways to find new business:

Develop radar

Look for signals that indicate what else might be possible. “Industry news is one source, but customers are the ultimate signalers. They'll say things like, ‘This is great, but it would be even better if you could also provide this,'” Prof. Murray advises.

Listen for opportunities in adjacent markets, too, Prof. Hellmann advises. Go to industry conferences and networking events.

And you don't have to do it all yourself, he says. “I'm a big fan of bringing in external financing and expertise. Angels and venture capitalists will help open doors and encourage pursuing opportunities.”

Open the discussion

Entrepreneurs have to shake a tendency to be too close to the chest with their ideas. Seek feedback to determine whether an opportunity is worth the risk and whether you have the strengths to pull it off, Prof. Hellmann advises.

“While you want to keep proprietary details quiet, if an idea is so fragile that if anyone gets wind of it it's gone, then it probably is too limited to be worth pursuing,” he says. Seek out people who are smart and so successful they don't have the time or interest in pursuing your idea themselves.

Play to your strengths

“Chances are you're going to find opportunities. The bigger issue is doing them really well,” says Becky Reuber, professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

You need a clear idea of what your firm is good at. “It needs to be profitable for you and you have to do it better than the competitors. In the case of North Key, they found no one else is doing this. Once you get in, the barriers are higher for other firms to enter the market.”

However, no matter how promising fast growth in a new area can seem, it's important to keep things predictable and stay close to your existing business. It would be inefficient to take on something completely different from your core business, she notes. “You've got to make sure that you dedicate people to take care of the needs of the customer base that got you to where you are today.”

Delegate gracefully

Consider delegating control of the core business to others while you lead the expansion.

“Your whole leadership approach has to change,” Prof. Hellman says. “Founders are often unwilling to release the reins. By trying to keep on top of everything they fail to move quickly enough and make an expansion successful.”

Managing spectacular growth is going to be an issue for a growing number of entrepreneurs, he believes. “Especially with service and tech companies that operate online. They don't need plants and real estate. Not existing in the tangible world allows you to scale up more quickly and operate anywhere.”

Ms. Isbester reflects on her company's fast growth, saying that managers learned important lessons in the struggle to find talent and communicate with staff on job sites. Also, she says, it would have made more sense to specialize directly on renewable energy, rather than continuing to pursue projects such as municipal infrastructure and retail site development.

“We could have avoided some speed bumps if we had grown more slowly. But you have to seize opportunity when it presents itself.”

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