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Harry Rosen, right, is Ray Cao's business champion. They are seen together in Harry Rosen's Toronto office. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/Jennifer Roberts for the Globe and Mail)
Harry Rosen, right, is Ray Cao's business champion. They are seen together in Harry Rosen's Toronto office. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/Jennifer Roberts for the Globe and Mail)


Champions help startups punch above their weight Add to ...

Canadian menswear scion Harry Rosen rarely attends an event these days without singing the praises of Loose Button.

Mr. Rosen was impressed with Ray Cao, chief executive officer of the startup, when the two met at a 2006 youth entrepreneurship conference. “He was very smart, very aware,” recalls Mr. Rosen, who is now a member of Loose Button's advisory board.

But his alliance with the Toronto online retailer, which helps consumers discover and try luxury cosmetics, is not just about charity, or mentoring young entrepreneurs. “I'm very interested in seeing what happens to this type of business, and how consumers react to buying on the Internet,” says Mr. Rosen, 79. “I have that kind of relationship with a number of young people and I get as much out of it, if not more, than they do.”

Finding and then convincing a high-profile, well-connected advocate – a champion – to sing the praises of your company is often cheaper, and more valuable, than entrepreneurs think.

Companies have always been on the hunt for big-name advisers and adoring customers with famous faces. But today's small and medium-sized businesses are chasing a different kind of champion – leaders in their communities and areas of business. Experts say the fact that Mr. Rosen, who receives no compensation from Loose Button, is also getting something out of the relationship makes it that much more authentic – and convincing.

Mr. Rosen is a prime example of this new kind of champion, says Darren Dahl, who teaches marketing research at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business. “We all know him and respect him, but he's not a classic star” such as an entertainer or sports figure.

Dr. Dahl also points to the B.C. restaurant chain White Spot, which last year kicked off an ad campaign featuring endorsements from celebrity chefs in Vancouver including John Bishop, Rob Feenie and Melissa Craig. “Different types of people are showing up in ads and promotions,” he says. “It's a spreading of the notion of opinion leader.”

Matthew Corrin has pushed the notion of a homegrown champion one step further. The founder of Toronto-based fresh-food chain Freshii, with 50 stores in four countries, encourages its store managers to discover and then motivate an army of champions of their own.

“We tell them to watch for heavy users, people you get to know by name,” Mr. Corrin says. Then managers offer incentives such as free food in exchange for bringing in new customers. “We might also ask for their business card and an introduction to someone in their office who handles catering.”

How to find and keep a champion

They must believe: Your product or brand must be worthy, and for champions and advocates to be believable, they have to be excited about it.

“A champion needs to be someone who truly believes in your product and is happy to talk about it – not just a paid shill,” says Dr. Dahl of UBC. People will see through that, he says.

If you find your brand has big-name fans, approach them and ask about a potential partnership.

Look for skills: “Don't just pick someone because they're a big name,” says Katie Dunsworth, a partner in the Vancouver financial website Smartcookies.com. She and her four partners have appeared on Oprah Winfrey's TV show. But they began with local champions, says Ms. Dunsworth, including Beverley Briscoe, a director of B.C. mining giant Goldcorp Inc., and Judy Brooks, CEO of Blo Blow Dry Bar. They were chosen because they offered skills the five partners were lacking, says Ms. Dunsworth. “They've introduced us to the right lawyers, nominated us for awards and have shared their wealth of knowledge,” she said.

Champions must also be chosen based on appeal to target markets, Dr. Dahl says. Figure out who your customers admire.

Don't overuse them: Don't wear your champions out.

“Our strategy has always been to recognize how valuable their time is and not just pick up the phone and call them with a

question you can get answered somewhere else,” says Ms. Dunsworth.

Change as needed: As your brand and company grow, so will your needs. “When we started, we were going to be more retail-focused in apparel and clothing, which is why we really wanted to get Harry on our board,” says Mr. Cao. “The challenge with a lot of small and medium sized businesses is that they think, ‘I have to get this ideal board member' – but it changes.”

Loose Button has since lured the former publisher and president of Star Media Group, Jagoda Pike, onto its board. “She has really helped us with publishers to open doors,” says Mr. Cao. “Finding a champion is like recruiting for a business – the job never ends.”

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