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the top tens

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As the Great Recession fades from our collective memories, and the Canadian economy once again finds its legs, one of the downturn's most positive lasting effects may be a rebirth of entrepreneurial spirit across the country. Many who lost their jobs or struggled to find new ones chose to launch their own venture. But what difficult lessons might they have avoided if only, along the way, they had received some practical advice from Canada's most successful entrepreneurs?

We asked more than 400 individuals who have attended QuantumShift, Canada's premier leadership development program and network for the entrepreneurs and executives who are running and driving the growth of Canada's most successful private companies, what they wished they had known and done from the very start. Here are some of their tips to entrepreneurial success:

1. Never stop learning. "The tools needed to operate a successful business are changing at an incredible pace. The moment you think you have it all figured out, you're already a step behind. Dedicating time to life-long learning and self-improvement are key." – Wally Budgell, president, Robertson Bright Inc.

2. Don't ignore the basics. "I wish I had known about the critical importance of having a simple and effective business plan, having the right management team by your side, and not getting distracted by opportunities that don't clearly support your company's vision." – Adam Hill, CEO, LGM Financial Services.

3. Slow down to go faster. "Don't forget that people understand what you say through their own filters, experiences and perceptions – not yours. The best way to get everyone in your business on the same page is to slow down and ask probing questions to clarify their understanding. Repeat this until you know you're all aligned and headed in the same direction. Then buckle up, because now your organization is set to engage at warp speed!" – Frederic Boulanger, CEO, Macadamian Technologies Inc.

4. Listen to your gut. "Although my business training and experience provides me with valuable tools to make good decisions, listening to my gut is just as important. It may not be scientific but sometimes it tells me something crucial I need to consider before I make a decision." – Roberta MacGillivray, president, B.G.E. Service & Supply Ltd. (The Filter Shop).

5. Culture is a competitive advantage. "Strategy and execution are important but culture is everything. You can't execute unless everyone is aligned behind a common mission and set of values – that's culture. Learn the tools to create and manage it and you'll have a committed and engaged workforce that gets things done faster and more creatively." – Richard Stacey, president and CEO, Northern Response (International) Ltd.

6. Hire the right people. "I wish I had known how to hire the right people. It's important to screen applicants for skills and abilities, then hire for a positive attitude and values in sync with your company's. Use behaviour-based interview questions to test prospective employees for fit, check references and listen to your gut." – Karen Richardson, president, Freeze-Dry Foods Limited.

7. Find a coach. "It can be lonely at the top. Join business leadership groups like TEC Canada and surround yourself with peers you can confide in and mentors to help steer you in the right direction. Rely on advisers who will hold you accountable to your business goals." – L.T. (Larry) Hilworth, CEO, dealer principal, Maple Farm Equipment Partnership.

8. Move quickly. "Remember the importance of the 'first-mover advantage' – get there before your competition and gain control of resources and customers. It's all about moving smart and moving fast. Of course, it's equally important to have the skill set and management capacity to move quickly and take advantage of opportunities." – Michael Going, co-founder, Good Earth Coffeehouse.

9. Don't ignore your customers. "Most customers don't complain when they're dissatisfied. They simply stop using your product or service. So cherish, don't shun, the one person who speaks up. I can guarantee you there are 99 more with the same issue who remain silent." – Vik Khanna, CEO, Khanna Enterprises Inc.

10. Unearth hidden return. "When looking at a new opportunity, separate your company's finances from the cash required to make the opportunity a reality. It might appear too expensive a proposition at first but, often, the return is hidden in how you finance it. Truly understand the requirements of the opportunity independent of your ability to finance it." – Will Andrew, president, Trimark Sportswear Group.

While launching and running a company is never easy, entrepreneurship is critical to our economy's well-being and to its future health. Not only do entrepreneurs spur innovation, they boost competitiveness and create important jobs from coast to coast. So whether you're starting a new business, or running a high growth mid-size company, you will do well to embrace these tips. Many of them will allow you to make the shift you need to drive your business to new heights.

Eric Morse is the associate dean of programs at the Ivey Business School. Paul Woolford is a tax partner at KPMG Enterprise with over two decades of experience advising private companies. Together they lead QuantumShift, Canada's premier executive development leadership program and network of entrepreneurs who are driving the growth of Canada's most successful private companies.

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