Entrepreneurship, says Sharlene Massie, can often feel like a roller-coaster ride. And nowhere is that perhaps more true than in famously boom-and-bust Alberta.
When Ms. Massie founded About Staffing in Calgary in 1996, she had little more than a bank account, a $500 overdraft and two part-timers who worked for free. But Alberta was at the dawn of what would become one of its longest booms, and times were good – for a while.
The recession of 2008 hit Alberta hard, however, and it took a few years for Ms. Massie’s staffing and recruitment business to recover. In 2013, she faced disaster again when devastating floods pushed the company out of its offices.
Then in 2014 the price of oil plunged on global markets, taking a huge chunk of Alberta’s GDP – and Ms. Massie’s still-recovering business – with it. After 20 years, the company was looking into the abyss. “I just wondered, ‘Is this the powers-that-be telling me to walk away?’” recalls Ms. Massie.
She started slashing costs, but one bill was indispensable: her $700 monthly membership in The Executive Committee (TEC), which she’d joined after the 2008 recession. TEC pairs entrepreneurs with other local business owners who form mutual advisory boards and offer peer support. The idea is to help fellow entrepreneurs break through the tunnel vision that often plagues those who work alone.
When Ms. Massie brought her difficulties to the group, they formed a “tiger team” made up of entrepreneurs with expertise in tech, transportation, finance and more. Financial experts helped scale back budget items. A telecom expert helped build a VoIP system that cut her phone bills to $150 a month from $5,000. Most importantly, the team kept her accountable and focused on her goal: to reduce her debt to zero and start growing again.
“It’s the ten-heads-are-better-than-one idea,” says Ms. Massie. “To have a bunch of people, with nothing to gain and nothing to lose, helping with their diverse ideas and knowledge really helped me break down the difficulties into smaller pieces and solve them.”
Nearly 100,000 small businesses launch in Canada every year, and almost half will disappear within five years, according to statistics from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. For many, reaching out to fellow entrepreneurs and mentors can mean the difference between succeeding and succumbing.
Fortunately, Canadian small business owners have more resources than ever before. Besides TEC and similar groups that can come with a considerable price tag, struggling owners can find plenty of free or nearly free programs, many publicly funded, nationwide. But they need to know where to look.
“What I hear a lot from companies is that they just don’t know what’s out there,” says Scott Runté, a business advisor with Kingston-based Launch Lab, one of 17 Regional Innovation Centres (RICs) in Ontario (which include Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District and Waterloo’s Communitech).
Mr. Runté says the number of options available today is far greater than when he was starting out as an entrepreneur in the 1990s. They include national programs offered through organizations such as the Business Development Bank of Canada and Futurpreneur Canada, a non-profit that focuses on financing and free mentoring for business owners younger than 40.
Others are dedicated to specific demographics – for example, Prince’s Trust Canada offers business mentorship specifically to veterans returning to civilian life.
At the provincial level, entrepreneurs can try Crown corporations and non-profits such as Nova Scotia’s Innovacorp, British Columbia’s Innovate BC, and Ontario’s network of RICs and other resources (explore them at onebusiness.ca).
Another resource is local accelerators and incubators.
“What I tell people often is to go local,” says Dominik Loncar, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Futurpreneur. “The local Chamber of Commerce is an overlooked asset for connecting with others. Then there are small business forums like Enterprise Toronto, and when you go to these places you’ll find that entrepreneurs really want to connect and help one another.”
Mr. Loncar suggests entrepreneurs connect with as many people as possible and then try to form a peer-mentoring group. “Usually, in my experience, the magic number is five [participants],” he says.
Mentorships can play a big role in helping young businesses.
Endeavor Insight, a non-profit based in the United States that supports tech entrepreneurs, surveyed thousands of New York City startups in 2015. It found that mentorships were among the strongest predictors of long-term success. A 2014 study published by Britain’s Federation of Small Businesses found that 70 per cent of British businesses that have mentors survive at least five years – double the figure for those that don’t.
Part of the reason for the high failure rate for new businesses is simple, says Karen Greve Young, chief executive officer of Futurpreneur Canada: “For many entrepreneurs, this is the first time they’re not reporting to anyone else. … Finding a mentor makes you accountable and gets you asking those probing questions you might not think to ask yourself.”
Overconfidence can also play a role, Mr. Runté says, even when companies are clearly tiptoeing toward crisis. “Even when I was starting out,” he says, “my own arrogance might have kept me from reaching out. We see that all the time.”
That was nearly the case for Gwenaël Malbec, CEO and founder of Ottawa-based Freightpath. Mr. Malbec’s company automates quoting, shipping, inventory management and freight delivery for manufacturers and logistics companies. In 2016, still in the development and market-research phase and then based in Montreal, Mr. Malbec’s company was almost DOA.
“I was definitely cocky,” says Mr. Malbec. “I was barely listening to customers. We came up with the first version of our tool, and it was a disaster. Everyone I was meeting was giving me big smiles, very polite, saying they would subscribe to it.”
That’s not what happened, though. So Mr. Malbec joined Montreal’s District 3 Innovation Centre, where he was advised to listen more carefully to potential customers. Six months later, he moved to Ottawa and joined the iO Accelerator program at Invest Ottawa, another RIC. There, he met daily with other CEOs and co-founders to mutually hash out problems and seek one-on-one mentorship on marketing and sales.
Last year, Freightpath finally started commercialization – behind schedule, but better late than never. “Where I am now is where I’d be four or five years from now, the way I was going,” says Mr. Malbec. “If I’d survived at all.”
Last year was a year of recovery for Ms. Massie as well. But despite a dramatic turnaround in the past 12 months, she still meets with her TEC chair and mentor monthly to pore over budgets.
“It’s pretty darned amazing we’re still standing,” she says. “I won’t take that for granted.”