Tales of an Alberta Entrepreneur

It is just dawning on me, after three entrepreneurial attempts, that starting a business is so much easier than growing one. And growing it appears to be much, much harder than it looks; at least it has been for me. My epiphany about growing a business may not be news to some of you, but I am usually slower than many to catch on.

 I currently own a small, actually very small, high-tech business in Alberta and have been learning over the recent year or so that I may have a significant disability. It is presumably the reason that my corporate dreams have not reached the monumental heights that I imagined so many years ago.

According to some in my immediate circle of battle-weary peers, and a mountain of evidence on my desk to back them up, the problem lies not generally in my inadequacies as a business leader, but more specifically in my circumstances. It seems that I was probably doomed before I even took my first tentative steps as a new entrepreneur.  If only I had known what a debilitating cross I would have to bear, I might never have launched myself so eagerly, and dare I say carelessly, into the fray.  Please humour me while I explain.

Canada, we are told, is woefully unproductive. In fact, I have come to understand that we swim in a swamp of organisational pathologies that limit our potential and that stifle our growth. Committees, councils, researchers, and expert panels have studied every aspect of Canada’s plight. The list of scathing indictments is long and on all accounts we come up lacking.

Our businesses invest too little in research, in technology and in our people. Our investment community is risk averse. Our governments do not have the right tax policies, the right immigration policies or the right incentive plans. They also fail to attract foreign investors and do not enter into enough free trade agreements. And let’s not forget our universities. They do not commercialize enough of their innovations, nor do they create the necessary curriculum to support productivity and innovation in our businesses.

In 2012, as part of their Future of Canada series, Deloitte[1] published a delightful romp over the savannah that explains how Canadian businesses start out as gazelles, confident and nimble, skimming along, outpacing our competitors at every turn.  Quickly though, we morph into water buffalo, our confidence evaporating, replaced with fear and self-doubt. In response, the authors serve up a thoughtful list of recommendations for governments, businesses, and academia, holding us each guilty, and collectively responsible, for Canada’s deplorable economic situation. 

In more recent articles, the experts tell us that Canada is a great place to start a business. We start thousands of them every year. But can we grow them here? The jury still seems to be out on the answer to that question.

So, the maladies from which we suffer have been endlessly documented, and it is crystal clear to some experts that unless we can mend our ways, we have little hope of ever leaving our foul little pond for the pristine oceans of global competition.  And who do our experts ask us to emulate? Who are the very models of business acumen that they compare us against at every turn? Well the Americans of course.

We are told, and I think that some of us truly do believe, that anything we can do, the Americans can do better. They are smarter, stronger, more competitive, and by extrapolation, more productive. Not only are their businesses larger, their government invests more into those businesses. Their venture capitalists and investors are smarter too, calculatingly throwing buckets of cash at half-baked start-ups that grow into super stars. Some of these companies are even Canadian ones, which are quickly closed and moved to climes more becoming, south of our border. Their universities build better incubators too, patenting their brilliant ideas, leading to such crown jewels as Silicon Valley. And rumour has it that if we want to hire skilled people we have to get them from them.  Local talent is just not sufficient, if it exists at all. Yes, the grass is so much greener over there. It always is.

And what should all of this mean to me? What if I really am hopelessly unproductive and my governments are not sufficiently investing in my success? What if the American business owners do have it easier? What if they are all better at business than I could ever hope to be? Does this mean that I close up shop permanently, because I am betting on a pipe dream? Should I drag my family to the United States and set up shop there? Should I just slap a coat of lipstick on my little pig of a business and try to sell it off to whoever will buy?  Or should I just take the path of least resistance, rolling slowly downhill, waiting for those around me to slow my descent or better, propel me to the top? And is my best course of action to complain bitterly about the shortcomings of others while I await my slow demise?

The upshot is this. My business wallowed for a decade in the doldrums, without even a slight breeze for momentum, at least partially due to my inability to create a coherent strategy.  It is also likely due to my juvenile attempt at painting a compelling picture to communicate the vision to my chosen audience. And I am absolutely to blame for failing to inspire, develop and lead a team of like-minded individuals coherently working toward our corporate dreams for better education. Of each of these flaws I am, in most measure, guilty. 

But I am an entrepreneur and entrepreneurs start businesses because we want to share something with the world. We face the unknown with courage and with hope. We are smart, resourceful and resilient. We solve the world’s biggest problems because we can. We invent technologies that improve the lives of others and we dream endlessly about future possibilities. It is because of the spirit of the inventors, the dreamers, and the entrepreneurs, that humanity has thrived.

We start our businesses for a reason, doing something that only we can do, and growing these little creatures is just one more problem that we have to solve. We can’t wait for others to save us because what if they never do?  

[1]Currie, B., Scott, L.W., Dunn, A. (2012, October). The future of productivity: clear choices for a competitive Canada. Retrieved from http://www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-Canada/Local%20Assets/Documents/Insights/ca_en_

We believe in you. Gung Ho Friends!