The chief executives of many of Canada’s fastest growing businesses gathered Oct. 8 for The Globe and Mail Growth Camp. Here are five key hacks from featured panelists to help you build a sustainable business.
1. If Plan A doesn’t work, there are 25 more letters in the alphabet
Carinne Chambers-Saini and her mother, Francine, struck out big time when they first tried to persuade retail buyers to sell their reusable menstrual DivaCup. At one mass-market trade show 11 years ago, “we spent all the money we had and we didn’t get a single order,” Ms. Chambers-Saini says. “It was pretty devastating.”
The problem: At the time, “most of the buyers were grey-haired men,” unwilling to devote shelf space to an unproven product. She and her mother could have easily given up, Ms. Chambers-Saini says, “but we knew how much the product had impacted our lives.”
So instead, the pair put their thinking caps on: If this isn’t working, what will?
Their solution was to focus on online sales and smaller retailers – specifically health-food stores. “Those stores were a natural market for us because our product is reusable and contains none of the chemicals in tampons and pads,” Ms. Chambers-Saini says. She blitzed health-food stores throughout the United States and Canada to talk up the product.
The upshot: With some solid sales figures to show, the company was able to make inroads with the big retailers, starting with Shoppers Drug Mart. In the past seven years, Diva International Inc. has hit its stride, growing from a $3-million to a $30-million company.
2. Size matters … and small is beautiful
John Levy parlayed theScore Inc. into the second-most popular digital site for sports news in North America, largely by staying a step or two ahead of legacy competitors such as ESPN and Sportsnet. The entrepreneur launched his first mobile offering on the Razr flip phone (“Remember that?”) and followed up with smartphone applications for BlackBerry, then IOS and Android, even as the big boys struggled to keep up.
Most recently, theScore became the first digital media company in North America to introduce sport betting through its digital sites. “We see betting as part and parcel of what people love about sports,” Mr. Levy says.
His takeaway: By keeping your customers’ needs and desires in mind and moving fast, he contends, entrepreneurs can carve out a place for themselves even in the face of massive competitors. “The big guys often have legacy assets, huge reputations to protect and billions of dollars invested,” he says. “And they’re stuck in their ways.” The advantage you have as an entrepreneur is “that you’re small and you can move fast,” Mr. Levy says.
3. Even old markets benefit from a new spin
“Everybody loves chocolate,” says Dominique Brown, a serial entrepreneur and president of Chocolats Favoris. “But traditionally, chocolatiers do all their business from November to April and they struggle to make money for the rest of the year.”
When Mr. Brown sold his video-game company Beenox Studios in 2012 and took over a local chocolate factory in Lévis, Que., he was hardly an expert in confections. But he asked himself how he could take an age-old product (chocolate) and reinvent the business model so it was profitable year-round. To that end, Chocolats Favoris offers soft ice cream hand-dipped in high-quality liquid chocolate (especially popular in summer), as well as chocolate fondue in a can (popular year-round and now sold through grocery stores, too) on top of the usual chocolates and chocolate bars.
By bringing his experience in the video-game industry to bear, Mr. Brown also redesigned the stores’ retail concept, creating “an immersive universe for chocolate lovers” akin to a microbrewery. Customers look on as their cones are dipped in vats of molten chocolate and spigots deliver fondue into cans, to be sealed in front of them. The tweaks have helped Chocolas Favoris grow from just three locations in 2012 to 48 this year.
4. If you handle everything yourself, you may do nothing well
“I used to do the graphic design, the sales and the marketing,” Ms. Chambers-Saini says, recalling the early days at DivaCup. “But once we started bringing in people with expertise, our company grew so much faster. I didn’t realize I was holding our company back by doing everything and anything.”
The caveat: Don’t give up “too much control” to the “experts,” Ms. Chambers-Saini adds. “Keep a handle on them and put processes in place” to make sure you’re setting the direction as a manager and leader.
5. Bump against the boundaries
Mr. Brown incorporated Beenox at 17. “At the time, the average video game cost about $5-million to create and required people with a certain skill set,” he says. “I didn’t have any of that money and those skill sets were not to be found anywhere in Quebec City. But the thing is, I did not know any of that.”
So he went ahead and developed video games. “We grew the company from six employees to 500 and we shipped video games all over the world,” he says. The lesson: “You can conquer the world from anywhere.”