- The startup community in Canada needs to take steps to build international brand awareness and be more assertive in promoting their achievements.
- Adaptability is a key trait for entrepreneurs to master in order for them to find success even in trying times.
- The federal and provincial governments need to better the marketing efforts of their support programs in order to reach more entrepreneurs and startups.
It is not enough for the private sector to simply act as a customer for startups and small and medium-sized enterprises. Full collaboration and mentorship can go a long way to benefitting both parties and allowing entrepreneurship in Canada to reach new heights.
How would you characterize Canada’s entrepreneurship ecosystem and its strengths and weaknesses?
I would characterize the Canadian startup ecosystem as strong, vibrant, and diverse. We typically fly a little bit under the radar, and what I mean by that is there is less brand building or general brand awareness around a lot of the startups or startup communities in Canada, especially when you compare us with our neighbours in the US. They are very boastful in how they promote their startups, both in terms of the philosophy and the community but for individual organizations as well. In Canada and Atlantic Canada especially, we are a little bit quieter about our accomplishments and what we are doing. It is very much a “head down and grind” working environment and we could do a much better job of promoting some of the accomplishments that our startups or small and medium-sized enterprises accomplished and some of the work that we are doing in Canada.
“There is less brand building or general brand awareness around a lot of the startups or startup communities in Canada.”
There is a Canadian government program called the Canadian Technology Accelerator, and it puts you into some of these really centralized, large, and fast-paced cities in the US to help build your business and do some go-to-market planning. It was there that I realized how quiet some of the Canadian entrepreneurs are about how we do things and the accomplishments that we have. We should have a bit more of a pedestal and be confident about telling people what we are doing and also what we want from them, including what we need out of organizations we are meeting with or government programs that we are participating in.
What are the skills needed for entrepreneurs to grow a company from idea generation to scale up?
This is not unique to Canadian entrepreneurs, but things like persistence and commitment are attributes that are required from an entrepreneur because it is not an easy road and does require a lot of hard work. Attributes that are not as commonly advertised but are critical to success would be things like self-awareness and adaptability. Self-awareness and humility really lend to the stability of a lot of our entrepreneurs’ goals in communities, just because you need to understand what your strengths are but more importantly, you have to understand what your weaknesses are and where the gaps are so that you can fill those. Separately to that, adaptability is critical. If 2020 taught us anything, it is that we never know what is coming and you might need to pivot your business brand or the application of what your organization is doing very quickly. You need to have that flexibility in your back pocket and knowing that it does not need to take a crisis to utilize some of that flexibility to adapt to circumstances is a huge benefit.
What must be done by various stakeholders to help small and medium-sized enterprises?
I have been very fortunate through my experience at LifeRaft to have done a lot of engagement with government programs. The easiest and most straightforward feedback I could give is there is excellent programming out there. The process could be streamlined more because many entrepreneurs do not know about them. The marketing behind some of the government programs is not strong enough or it is not being directed to where entrepreneurs would know to look. We need to improve on the process and coordination. We are very fortunate that the federal government has very solid programmes in place, especially as it relates to exporting and discovering new markets for startup companies. However, the Atlantic provinces and each province have their own programs, and we need more collaboration between the provincial government and the federal government, as some of these programs are either redundant or could be utilized side-by-side. They could be a lot more impactful if entrepreneurs and organizations can utilize both or know what programs are available from each entity in order to decide which ones to actually engage with.
“The marketing behind some of the government programs is not strong enough or it is not being directed to where entrepreneurs would know to look.”
For companies that are trying to scale, mentorship or advice could be even stronger. When an organization does take on investment, they need tactical advice on what to do in certain scenarios and knowledge sharing on the strategic goals of the organization. They need to know how to accomplish those goals and how to put money to the best use. We could improve more on that, from a communication standpoint and also in terms of the mentoring of organizations with their investment companies. I am partial because we are fortunate to have Canadian Business Growth Fund (CBGF) as our partner in that. Aside from monetary investment, mentorship, communication, and brainstorming opportunities are hugely valuable.
“When an organization does take on investment, they need tactical advice on what to do in certain scenarios and knowledge sharing on the strategic goals of the organization.”
In Canada, there is a gap—there is no strong private sector community that has been engaged or even formalized. A great example of somebody that has done this really well is a program out of Atlanta, Georgia called the Atlanta Bridge Community, which is a coalition of private sector companies. They have large brands among them, including Coca-Cola as one of their flagship brands. They have designed a community to engage over a dozen of these private sector companies but also up to 50 different entrepreneur startup companies. They give them the space and opportunity to collaborate on a workshop basis to help those entrepreneurs bring their product or service to market, but in the process get very valuable expertise and feedback from private organizations. At the end of this, the added benefit is those private sector companies are often looking for the solutions that a lot of entrepreneurs are developing. Throughout that process, not only are entrepreneurs understanding and gaining knowledge from their experience, they are also gaining a potential customer at the end of that.
“Streamlining co-op processes or marrying them up a little closer to provincial and federal government programs would be hugely beneficial.”
A lot of universities have excellent programs and opportunities for collaboration between students and startup organizations—these programmes are just not very well known, especially for some small businesses. There needs to be better advertising from some of those academic communities to the startup community on what they are looking for and how some partnerships can emerge from that, not even just from a cooperative standpoint as there is a lot of post-secondary education in Atlantic Canada that actually focuses on project-based engagements. They will look for students to do a communications plan for a startup company or an organization that might not have a full communications department. In that scenario, both of those entities win, so streamlining co-op processes or marrying them up a little closer to provincial and federal government programs would be hugely beneficial.
If you could pitch to someone in a position of power to improve Canada’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, what would you say?
I would love to have representatives from the investment community and also private organizations in the same room so that I could pitch to them, from my standpoint in the startup community, is how it is important for the private sector to work with the startup community and be more than a customer. I do not want to just pitch companies to be customers or just pitch investors for investment; I would love to have collaboration between those markets and organizations like mine or the startup community for mentorship and direction. We need to know the best way to do a go-to-market plan from an investment and private sector perspective so that we can reduce the time-to-market and really hone in on the go-to-market fit and our messaging for those organizations.