Lessons in Entrepreneurship with Arlene Dickinson from Dragons’ Den
Listen to the extended interview:
- To get more entrepreneurs to put their hands up and take risks, Canada must do a better job of celebrating entrepreneurship.
- Businesses must invest in enabling their workforce to use the technological resources available today, including AI and data analytics.
- Entrepreneurs need to collaborate more with each other within their industry to devise concrete solutions to common challenges.
The government must remove the barriers that small businesses and startups face, including reforming the tax policy, simplifying the process of applying for government support, improving procurement, and addressing the costs and inaccessibility of domestic travel.
You are a Dragon in CBC’s Dragons’ Den, but tell us about the Arlene behind the Dragon. What did your journey through entrepreneurship look like?
My story started about 35 years ago. I was an entrepreneur by accident. I needed to find a way to put food on the table and support myself and my kids. Somebody made me an offer to come and work with them in a marketing firm as a partner. However, it was such a startup at the time that I ended up working for free. There was no real value creation at the beginning.
That said, I loved it. I was a small business owner for a lot of that time and became more entrepreneurial over time. I started to invest more and understand business more, and I saw that my passion was working across a variety of opportunities to get things started. I have been doing that ever since and it has been quite a journey.
Because of Dragons’ Den, I have had the chance to see probably 10,000 – without exaggerating –entrepreneurs over 17 years, both on and off the show. I have a real front seat to what entrepreneurialism is all about.
What sets apart Canadian entrepreneurs from the ones in other countries? What defines a Canadian entrepreneur?
There are unique characteristics of Canadian entrepreneurs that can be good and bad. On the positive side, we have a lot of innovation in our country. There is a lot of research and development, innovative ideas and new IPs. However, the commercialization side of the equation is not as strong in Canada and we do not tend to celebrate entrepreneurialism as much as other countries do.
As a result, we do not see a lot of people wanting to take the risks associated with entrepreneurship. The entrepreneurs that we do have – and we have many – are very determined. They are very gritty and scrappy because they are not used to having a plethora of resources around them to support their journey. This can be in terms of the venture capital that is available to them or the support and resources.
Being scrappy is a good thing when you are an entrepreneur. You need to be scrappy and determined and have grit and perseverance. Canadian entrepreneurs have all of that.
“Canada could do a better job of celebrating entrepreneurialism.”
However, in Canada, people are reluctant to put their hands up as entrepreneurs to be heard about the importance of taking innovation, putting it in the market and building something nobody else has. Canada could do a better job of celebrating entrepreneurialism, which is what Dragons’ Den does and is why I stay on the show. I love that we celebrate entrepreneurs. But for the most part, Canadian entrepreneurs are a little bit shy, conservative and reluctant to get big because of the fear of standing out.
What are some of the challenges of being an entrepreneur in Canada? How can we better support them?
There are many challenges in Canada that you might not think about. Our population is so spread out across a broad landscape that it makes it difficult to do business with each other across provinces. It is very expensive. Flying in Canada across the country is actually more expensive than flying anywhere in the world. It is too expensive in Canada for someone to get into the major cities in other provinces to do business. That is a barrier and it is a big one.
“The process of obtaining government support is so onerous that very few businesses can access it.”
Entrepreneurs also face difficulties in getting retailers and support from the ecosystem to work with us. This includes distributors, customers, and even the government itself. There are programs in place where the government does want to buy from small businesses, but they are so constrained. They have the typical problems most government programs have, where the boxes that someone has to check to qualify for support are so difficult to meet. The process of obtaining government support is so onerous that very few businesses can access it.
“There is not enough venture capital available to entrepreneurs and founders in Canada.”
The government could do a much better job taking down the barriers to success. They need to look at our tax policies to ensure that small businesses and startup enterprises are not overtaxed. They need to look at making travel more accessible and affordable across the country. They need to think about all the ways they can buy from entrepreneurs and support the ecosystem in a way that actually helps with their growth. There are a lot of things that we could be doing differently in Canada.
There is not enough venture capital available to entrepreneurs and founders in Canada. There is not enough bank financing available to them. We get a lot of lip service paid to it. A lot of people say, “Oh, we have great programs for small businesses,” but what they have is for early-stage startups, not for growth companies or entrepreneurial-driven companies, because, again, entrepreneurs do not tend to check all the boxes.
You have a new venture, Believeco:Partners. What is your company focused on?
Believeco:Partners is a consolidator in the marketing communications space. I had owned a marketing communication firm for over 30 years and I decided that the market could use a consolidator that was more independent and entrepreneurial. The space needed a firm that was driven by an understanding of what it is like to build a business and what it is like to go to bed at night worrying about your business succeeding the next day. This kind of firm could benefit a multibillion-dollar company as well as a mid-sized company.
I knew that there were founders, presidents, and CEOs out there who wanted to work with people who actually felt their pain, help them build their dream, and solve the pain points they had. That kind of thing is what independent shops are really good at because they live that reality. We go to bed worrying about payroll and whether the bank is going to call in our loan. We understand what it is like when a customer leaves us. We know the marketplace in a very unique way, as well as what it is like to run a business.
Beliveco:Partners took on investment from the Canadian Business Growth Fund. Why did you go ahead with that?
When I was putting this whole platform together, we needed to have private equity backing in order to be able to scale and grow as quickly as we wanted to. I knew I wanted to keep it in Canada. I was very committed to the Canadian environment and building entrepreneurialism here. So, I wanted to find a firm that understood what we were building and was not only just keen on the space but could also see the opportunity for this new platform.
What became very apparent to me when I was talking to the Canadian Business Growth Fund (CBGF) was their true understanding of entrepreneurialism and their desire to let the founders of the business – in this case, the entrepreneurs –be the ones to actually control the business and ran it into the future. A lot of times, private equity takes majority positions. CBGF does not. CBGF takes a minority position. That was meaningful to us. It meant that they understood the value of the entrepreneur and the management team that was in place and that they also had a deep passion for Canadian businesses.
There is no bias when you talk to CBGF. There are no issues around gender, age, or industry. They are simply looking for a business with the right idea and leadership, that can articulate their strategy well, and that can actually grow in the marketplace.
What are the forces or trends shaping the marketing and communications industry in Canada and North America?
The one thing that is consistent in every sector is change. There is a lot of change going on now and the change is generally technology-driven. Artificial Intelligence applications like ChatGPT are providing different ways to think about business. Businesses are consolidating and that creates different needs and requirements. But what does not change in the marketing world is the need for the right type of strategic human input and guidance to build a marketing communication plan that actually develops the relationships you need in order for your business to be successful.
That is what a great marketing communications firm does. Whether you are drawing on advertising, public relations, media expertise, or something else, it is important to remember that you are there to serve the customer’s needs and the customer’s needs are evolving. As your customer’s needs evolve, you have to evolve.
“There is so much data out there but so little good interpretation of what that data actually means.”
Marketing firms need to expand in the area of data analytics, which is critical. There is so much data out there but so little good interpretation of what that data actually means to help businesses grow. There is little understanding of how data impacts marketing and communications efforts. In addition, AI applications will also continue expanding and companies will need to build up their resources in response to these advancements to ensure that their marketing and communications are current and able to answer the questions their customers have.
As someone instrumental in the growth of various companies, what advice for entrepreneurs do you have?
I mentioned the challenges entrepreneurs face, but there are also positives in the journey.
“Every entrepreneur who is worth their salt will go and find ways around the challenges.”
Canada is a friendly nation in that we want to help our neighbours and we want communities to grow. When facing the challenges that I brought up earlier, entrepreneurs must remember that even if it is difficult, it is not impossible. Every entrepreneur who is worth their salt will go and find ways around the challenges. Part of being an entrepreneur is your creativity and the ability to see past the problem in front of you to the solution that is around you.
To all entrepreneurs who are struggling with some of the things I mentioned, whether it is financial support, lack of support in scaling your business, or working across different regions, there are solutions in place if you just take the time to figure them out and work with other entrepreneurs.
Talk to other entrepreneurs who are in your space and collaborate more. This is something that Canadians do not do really well. We tend to be afraid of each other and refrain from talking to somebody in the same space because we think they will take our idea. In other nations, there is much more collaboration within sectors where people actually work together, challenge each other, and support each other. We need to understand that all boats rise and it is better when everybody succeeds in a sector rather than just one business succeeding. Keep finding people to support you and keep looking for solutions.