- Finding something which you are passionate about, that also solves a problem, is key to becoming a successful entrepreneur.
- Finding patient capital is an endemic problem faced by entrepreneurs in Canada.
- Self-awareness and self-care should be the top priority for entrepreneurs, who must be prepared to face both short and long-term challenges.
The Prime Minister and his Cabinet should take a firm stance on Canada becoming a leader in conscious capitalism. Combining profit with social impact leads to more engaged and better performing companies. Just as Canada is a leader in immigration and social policies, it can become a leader in conscious capitalism, conscious leadership and impact.
Why did you make the switch from the corporate environment to entrepreneurship? What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
Entrepreneurship is in my blood. My late father was a media entrepreneur, and I have always felt passionate about entrepreneurship. I gained experience with this during my career in the US and Canada, but I had never founded anything myself.
I was lured into the corporate world and spent five years with Rogers Communications at the executive level—but I always knew deep down that I was passionate about creating and building, and about health and helping people. I knew a long time ago that it is what I wanted to do, but it was blocked out and ignored. You know your inner voice? Mine was getting louder and louder, and eventually spoke loud and clear that I should begin my journey as an entrepreneur.
In early 2016, I had a near-death experience, out of the blue. I had worked almost 20 years straight, 80 to 100 hours each week and I had a lot of stress and anxiety held inside. I was known as a workaholic—a machine in my capacity do things and push myself—and at one point, my body gave out. I was diagnosed with an inflammatory bowel condition, and on a Friday at work I started having internal bleeding. I almost bled to death in the ER. If that doesn’t give you a wakeup call—if it doesn’t become a transformational moment in your life, both personally and professionally—I’m not sure what is. That was my turning point, and after I recovered and healed, I knew deep down that the next phase of my life would be centred on taking care of myself, my family, and doing something I was passionate about.
I believe that all humans have the potential to create and to be entrepreneurs if they so choose. Today, I talk about the intersection of psychology and business, and this is something that I’ve spent a lot of time on in the years since my near-death experience. Often, we are bound by limiting beliefs in our culture, and the systems that we live in push us in other directions. Not everyone should be an entrepreneur, but becoming one is a true expression of passion, creativity and our ability to evolve as humans—which is true to our core nature.
“Not everyone should be an entrepreneur, but becoming one is a true expression of passion, creativity and our ability to evolve as humans—which is true to our core nature.”
The intersection of what we are most passionate about and the problems that need to be solved is very powerful. Being an entrepreneur is definitely a grind—there is stress and anxiety, and the job is never really done. But I would still recommend that everyone try to find something they are passionate about, which solves a problem, and to use that passion to overcome the challenges associated with entrepreneurship.
What are some the challenges with launching a small company? What challenges have you faced as an entrepreneur?
Big and small companies come with different sets of challenges. With smaller companies, the tests come in the early stages—trying to build momentum and grow, trying to find the right product-market fit and trying to build a customer base.
There can be a lot of stress, because you have to balance the strategic with the tactical—and, quite frankly, I had never experienced these challenges in my decade as an executive with larger companies.
One of the keys to becoming a successful entrepreneur is awareness. You have to have awareness of and perspective on the challenges you might face. One big challenge is attracting the right capital and investment partners, so that you are not constantly running out of money or worrying about the short-term.
“Finding patient capital is definitely a challenge that is endemic to Canadian entrepreneurs.”
Finding patient capital is definitely a challenge that is endemic to Canadian entrepreneurs. I was very fortunate to have the Canadian Business Growth Fund (CBGF) as our backers. I have been an investment banker and a venture capitalist, and I have run companies—but there is no easy answer in terms of capital. Investors want quick, fast returns, and this is endemic of a bigger challenge to our capital system around short-erm capital. Venture capitalists can be great, but they often push you to limit your thinking to the short-term.
“If you have mentors, advisors or investors who have learned from previous mistakes, it can save your company a lot of time and energy.”
The second issue being faced by entrepreneurs is talent. We have great talent in Canada, and more is becoming available. But what I have seen—both in this company and other companies—is the need for leadership talent that can help a company scale. We need people who have experience and expertise in growing and building companies, who can bring companies over obstacles to growth. As more Canadian companies scale, this sort of expertise will grow—but I often found it challenging, especially compared to my decade of experience in the US, where there are infinitely more people who have that experience. If you have mentors, advisors or investors who have learned from previous mistakes, it can save your company a lot of time and energy.
What is the current state of the Canadian entrepreneurship ecosystem and how has it evolved over the years? How can stakeholders support its development?
The entrepreneur ecosystem has changed quite a bit in Canada. In 2004, I left Canada because I was completely disenfranchised with the entrepreneurship environment, the lack of early stage investors and the lack of risk-tolerant capital. That was very frustrating. When I came back, in 2011, I noticed a big shift in the ecosystem—it had really improved in terms of access to capital, new incubators and accelerators, and a number of entrepreneurs that had returned to Canada from the US and elsewhere.
The ecosystem has come a long way, but it can still improve. We do not need to copy exactly what the US does—which is the model people typically look at—but we can learn from some of the challenges they’ve faced and the mistakes they’ve made. The US often operates on the belief that growth should come at all costs—which exhausts people, communities, and the environment. Canada should charter its own course and become the best of both worlds.
One of the keys to supporting the ecosystem is figuring out how to harness the experience, resources and connections that entrepreneurs have made in a systemic and organized way. There is a lot happening in the ecosystem that wasn’t possible a decade ago at the individual or investor levels. But more can still be done, and we must leverage the collective intelligence of Canadians and expats living elsewhere. The government also has a role to play in developing the entrepreneurship ecosystem.
“The US often operates on the belief that growth should come at all costs—which exhausts people, communities, and the environment. Canada should charter its own course and become the best of both worlds.”
The government should be an enabler that helps to set priorities that are aligned with Canadian principles. It should take a compassionate approach to the world and to business. It shouldn’t become so involved as to run organizations like the CBGF and MaRS Discovery District, but it can provide funding and support for those groups.
Academia is another critical player in the entrepreneurship ecosystem. The entire education system can be reformed to encourage entrepreneurship, creative thinking, innovation, ideas and techniques for prototyping. Secondly, there is plenty of strong research and development (R&D) and commercialization in academia which is very beneficial to the entrepreneurship ecosystem. However, there is still work to be done in terms of making it easier for scientists and clinicians to commercialize their intellectual property (IP).
There is plenty of support in the ecosystem for entrepreneurs. There are programs, grants, accelerators, and investment pitch competitions. The government is providing concierges to help companies navigate the system in tech and biotech as well. We used the qualified immigrant visa program to bring over a developer from the United Kingdom, and it was very easy to use. But we have found others to be too confusing, complex, and challenging to navigate. We have to make it simpler for companies to understand and access these government programs. It needs to be clear what is available and to who, without jumping through hoops or waiting long periods of time before receiving a grant.
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What makes Canada a good environment for building a business? How can we improve our competitiveness?
Canada is an amazing country to build a business and have a family. It is very aligned with my personal values, and it is a wonderful place to base a company where entrepreneurs can build a reasonably sized business serving Canadian customers.
That being said, we also have to be realistic about Canada, and recognize that our economy is a small sliver of global gross domestic product (GDP) and global growth. We need to figure out how to take Canada’s strengths in education, R&D, innovation and IP to the world’s emerging markets. There is big opportunity there, and one of the reasons Unyte set up in Canada is because of the wonderful combination of that intelligence and the opportunity to market to customers across the globe.
More can still be done to attract investment to Canada. It was very hard, as an American company, to expand into Canada versus continuing to invest in the US. It is important to understand where you are as company—are you set up to properly scale to other markets? I think more can be done to help Canadian companies get to that point.
On balance, having our company based in Canada is an advantage to our value proposition abroad. We are generally well-liked, understood and appreciated around the world. People have a good sense of Canadian values, our multicultural heritage and our immigration policies. People love the idea of working with Canadian companies that have global aspirations and ideas.
One negative, however, is that American companies have been recognized as the market leaders and innovators—that is where innovation happens. But I think the gap between the US and Canada is narrowing, especially as we make strides in artificial intelligence (AI) and biotech in general.
“People love the idea of working with Canadian companies that have global aspirations and ideas.”
Traditionally, Canadians are perceived as much more risk-averse—somewhere between the US and Europe. But we have definitely evolved. As people hear the success stories coming out of Canada and the investments the governments have made, the perception of Canada is evolving.
I think there is a chance for Canada to be a real leader in specialized areas of biotech. If we continue to take the reins with a consolidated effort—from government, investors, accelerators, incubators and entrepreneurs—we will see tremendous growth and more investment.
Canada can also become a leader in conscious capitalism. I would like the Prime Minister and his cabinet to get behind the ideas of conscious capitalism and conscious leadership. The world has gone too far in one direction: capitalism for profit alone. I have lived that throughout my life and have been a driver of that, so I understand it. But there is more to life and business, and the data is showing that if you combine purpose and social impact with profit the results are much greater than with profit alone. We need conscious leaders who think about these things and build more engaged organizations that will ultimately be better performing.
“If you combine purpose and social impact with profit the results are much greater than with profit alone.”
We are already seeing this in Europe and the US, with companies looking at environmental, social and corporate governance approaches to business. There is still a long way to go, and Canada is behind in making social impact. So our leaders need to take the reins and make Canada a leader in conscious capitalism, conscious leadership, and impact.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur today?
First, I would say: make sure you prioritize yourself, your self-awareness, your self-care and your life priorities. Start with the bigger questions—why are you here? What is your purpose? What are you passionate about? There is a myth that self-awareness and performance are mutually exclusive, and I have been trying to bust that myth. You need to ensure that you are healthy, self-regulated and resilient in order to cope with the various challenges that life and business will throw at you. Be sure to spend more time prioritizing self-care—even if that means less time at work, because you will be more productive in the long-run. That is the biggest one.
In addition, I would say that COVID-19 has been a forced catalyst for us to slow down, take a breath, and re-prioritize our lives. Assuming people have their health and other basic needs met, I see many of them, including entrepreneurs, taking this opportunity be introspective and to really determine what is most important for them in their lives. Perhaps it is not what we thought, or we realize we were climbing the wrong ladder, or that we were running too quickly after goals that aren’t that meaningful anymore, or that we were not being present and aware in many aspects of our lives. This introspection and awareness—one could even call it an awakening—is happening on many levels of society. With so much fear, stress, unknowns and ongoing cues of danger—which our nervous system often automatically reacts to—related to COVID-19, taking time to pay yourself first through mindfulness and self-care is more important than ever.
“While you might not be able to change the world around you, you can change how you respond to it.”
For entrepreneurs, there are and will be no shortage of challenges to face and overcome as we move into the “new normal”. Not only will self-care help people feel more safe, calm and present in the moment, but it will help them train their nervous systems and brains to be healthier and happier over time and to better respond to any of life’s challenges. As wise people have said for thousands of years, while you might not be able to change the world around you, you can change how you respond to it.
Second, I would recommend a young entrepreneur find something that you are passionate about, that gets you excited and makes you feel expansive. Life is too short, and there are too few hours in the day to be spending your time and energy building something just for money. If it does not make you feel good every day, in my opinion, it’s not worth it. We know that one day we will all die, and if you look back from your deathbed on what you have done, you want to say you spent time and energy on things you were passionate about.
In your business, put the customer at the centre of everything you do. Really find the need, listen, test and iterate. You always want to have your pulse on what customers need. Make sure you bring the right team members and advisors on board early on, you need people that complete you, who have different experiences, and aren’t afraid to tell you the truth.
“In your business, put the customer at the centre of everything you do. Really find the need, listen, test and iterate.”
The last piece of advice is to view problems as challenges. Keep perspective, because there are going to be challenges that come up every day. Even great companies have problems, challenges and imperfection. No person and no company is perfect, so focus on improving and solving problems, and stay away from the feeling that you have to be perfect.
I also recommend meditation. You are ultimately not your thoughts, your emotions or your daily activities—you are more than that, and when you meditate you get an awareness of how to cope with the challenges that you face.