Friday, June 16, 2017

The paradoxes of entrepreneurship - a classic from the archives

Here's a story I wrote three years ago. Some of the details may be outdated, but the message is more timely than ever now.

They tell you to focus on the big picture. Then they tell you “retail is detail.”

They call entrepreneurs risk-takers. Then they tell you to be risk-averse.

In many respects, your success in business will hinge on your ability to resolve the essential paradoxes of entrepreneurship. 

Life presents us with many paradoxical situations: “Hurry up and wait.” “I saved a lot of money shopping.” Paradoxes galore were on display last week in a panel discussion I moderated with four entrepreneurs in Ottawa. 

The first speaker was Rivers Corbett, founder of two Fredericton-based businesses, caterer Chef Group and restaurateur Relish Gourmet Burgers. He told the audience his No. 1 secret of success: “I zag when everybody else zigs.” So often, Corbett says, life requires you to fit in. Paradoxically, business requires you not to fit in. “In the marketplace, you have to be different,” he says. “It’s not like high school. You have to be stand out, you need to be unique.”

Another paradox: Corbett says it’s important to be Think Big. But you also have to think small. Look after the little things. “At Relish, when we think gourmet burgers, we think total domination,” he says. But he knows domination comes from the little things, such as making sure all customers entering his restaurants in Atlantic Canada are greeted warmly by the entire team. If Corbett sees a passerby in the street carrying a Relish takeout bag, he’ll make a huge fuss about thanking them for their business. “We instill a culture of thinking small,” he says. “Little experiences that add up to big, big impact.”

Another paradox plunged Marissa McTasney into her own business. After taking a construction course geared to attracting more women into the skilled trades, she found that the required safety gear – such as steel-toed work boots – came only in men’s styles and sizes. She formed Whitby, Ont.-based Moxie Trades to sell women’s work boots and safety equipment. (You may remember her from her 2008 appearance on Dragons’ Den, where she scored a $600,000 investment from W. Brett Wilson – then the biggest-ever deal in the Den.)

Then McTasney ran into the “We have to protect our customers from themselves” paradox. Determined to get pink workboots into Home Depot Canada, she found it almost impossible to meet with then-president Annette Verschuren. McTasney says Verschuren’s team physically blocked her when they saw her approaching. Finally, McTasney took a gift bucket containing workboots, flowers and cupcakes to Home Depot HQ. When the executive who used to roll his eyes at her finally spied the boots, he said “This could be exactly what we need.” She got her meeting with Verschuren, and now sells boots, safety glasses and hard hats through more than 400 stores in the U.S. and Canada.

The third speaker, Vinod Rajasekaran, is an aerospace engineer turned lead strategist at HUB Ottawa, a company-working space dedicated to innovation and collaboration. We all know that entrepreneurs need to think positive and focus on their strengths. But Rajasekaran urged them to pay more attention to mistakes: “It’s really important to capture your failures.” It’s the best way to improve, he says: “We celebrate our failures, and we share them.”

The final speaker, Michael Daignault, is CEO of Ottawa-based Magnus Training & Protection Inc. The paradox he explored concerns the surprisingly empathetic nature of business today. 

Daignault is a Canadian Forces veteran who spent nine years with the elite Special Forces before being injured in a non-combat-related accident. “Suddenly that door – everything I’d strived for – slammed shut,” he says. He found new purpose by teaming up with colleagues to offer security services to businesses and individuals. “I had two options: develop and build my own dream, or build somebody else’s. I chose the ceiling-less route of entrepreneurship.”

He admits he knew nothing about business when he started – but he didn’t know it at the time. Studying at a one-week “business bootcamp” at the University of Regina taught him that entrepreneurship is a not a solo activity, but a community. “I guarantee it,” he told the audience. “If you ask any question of anybody in this room, they will bend over backward it get you an answer. And that’s a community that I didn’t believe existed.”

“My original approach for Magnus was to kick open the door, get into the market, and absolutely face-push everybody in my way,” Daignault admits. “Thankfully I didn’t do that. I developed advisors, I built a team, I got support from anyone who would support me. I have strategic relationships and partnerships with very heavy hitters within the security space, and now we're in two provinces and three countries.”

Think small. The market doesn’t know what it wants. Capture failure. Collaboration, not conflict. What would the combative icons of capitalism – the Rockefellers, Henry Fords and Jack Welches – make of contemporary entrepreneurship?

Perhaps they would say “This is exactly what we need.”