Mandy Gilbert
Founder & CEO - Creative Niche
Part of the Spotlight on the Entrepreneurship Journey

It’s Not Cash That Keeps Entrepreneurs Up at Night – It’s People

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Takeaways

  1. An entrepreneur’s talent management and leadership skills are integral to the success and sustainability of his or her business. New hires must be aligned with the company’s vision and work culture, and bring crucial skills to the table.
  2. A strong, well-defined recruitment process, and a deep awareness of the companies culture among all employees, is important for any entrepreneur and company’s success. Leaders must hire the right core team members and must also have a deep understanding of what it is like to work at their company.
  3. Thinking global is great, but all entrepreneurs need to first research and understand the foreign target market, business environment and culture before expanding there.

Action

Canada needs to create a small investor private equity fund in which any investment-minded citizens can invest to support small business growth. This fund should be funded by small investors to increase growth-business investment and create opportunities for all Canadians to share in PE-style investments that have typically only been available to large institutions.


Why did you become an entrepreneur and what motivates you to keep going even after all these years?

I was 24 when I realized I wanted to start my own business, but I didn’t take the leap until three years later. I look back and am thankful I waited. I needed more experience and maturity before I branched out on my own, but it was still an incredibly difficult decision because at that point, I was making a six-figure salary and had recently been promoted to the position of Director, was leading a team, and was on the fast track to be an executive in the organization.

So, from the outside, it was the perfect job. I “had it all”. My success at a young age garnered a lot of attention. It may have looked like a dream life, but I was struggling inside because I didn’t feel fulfilled. So, I resigned and started my business with an $8,000 loan. Seventeen years later, I have never looked back. Not only did I excel in my first company – Creative Niche – but I also co-founded a second business called RED Academy four years ago in the education space.

“Whether it’s through pro bono work or volunteering, charitable work makes a positive impact on your employees, your culture, and your community.”

Both of the companies that I started do a lot to give back and contribute positively to our community. This gives me and my entire team so much joy, and proves you can be a profitable company while also prioritizing philanthropy. Whether it’s through pro bono work or volunteering, charitable work makes a positive impact on your employees, your culture, and your community.

 I recently made a small pivot and invested in two tech companies founded by young entrepreneurs. I think it’s so important to support the next generation, which is why I actively mentor approximately 15 entrepreneurs around the world. It’s so inspiring to see how these young business leaders are shaping their industries.


What have been the biggest entrepreneurship lessons you learnt since you started your first company?

Entrepreneurs have to be resilient, tenacious and humble. As you go through economic downturns, turnovers or changes in the business model, you need to constantly learn and adapt to stay relevant and sustainable.

I am in my seventeenthyear of being an entrepreneur, so you can imagine how many challenges I have had to overcome throughout my journey. Transitioning to a leadership position was definitely one of the biggest learning experiences in my entrepreneurial journey. It was really difficult to be the CEO and founder of a new company at 27, especially because I had never had to deal with all of the things leaders have to deal with. From payroll to turnover, hiring to firing, gaining clients and losing clients; managing the day-to-day and the big picture all at once was a whole new ball game. I knew I had to invest in my personal growth, so in my sixth year as an entrepreneur, I enrolled in executive education at the Bell Leadership Institute as well as MIT’s Entrepreneurship Program. I became an entrepreneur because I was passionate about my field, saw an opportunity to fill a gap in the tech market, and was great at providing solutions, but I did have weaknesses in other areas. I learnt that communication and transparency with team members and colleagues builds a healthy and productive work culture. People feel that they are part of a team and are creating something meaningful together, which ultimately drives results for years to come.

“It’s very important to be constantly interviewing. It gives you an idea of the talent pool and provides you access to a pipeline of people who can join your company when it’s the right time for the business, not out of desperation to simply fill an immediate role.”

If there is one thing that keeps entrepreneurs up at night, it’s people. My business grew relatively quickly in our earlier years, which meant I was hiring and onboarding a lot of new people. In the process, I made some hires that were not in the best interests of the company in the long run. One thing I realized later is that it’s very important to be constantly interviewing. It gives you an idea of the talent pool and provides you access to a pipeline of people who can join your company when it’s the right time for the business, not out of desperation to simply fill an immediate role.


How can be done to build a Canadian business environment that better supports entrepreneurship?

Companies like Shopify and Clearbank are putting Canada on the map. We have tremendous talent and our investor ecosystem is starting to develop. New funds are being created to specifically help Canadian businesses become successful. However, if you look at the statistics, female entrepreneurs tend to be underfunded at a pretty alarming level. There is a clear lack of female venture capitalists as well. I do think we are moving in the right direction, but there are a lot of opportunities to do more. In fact, we need to be more inclusive in general, so we must encourage entrepreneurs from different cultures and economic backgrounds as well – not just women.

“We have been so hyper-focused on tech that it is really hard for non-tech companies to find funding.”

Although we are making moves, there is still an incredible lack of funding in Canada compared to the US. In addition, we have been so hyper-focused on tech that it is really hard for non-tech companies to find funding.We are so tech-heavy because everybody wants to be the next unicorn in a short period of time, which is not necessarily realistic. Non-tech businesses also have a lot of scope to grow, generate employment and create economic growth.However, it takes a long time for traditional businesses outside of technology to scale, especially if they are brick-and-mortar or relationship-based.


As an entrepreneur, did you think global from the start? What advice do you have for Canadian entrepreneurs seeking to expand internationally?

Many entrepreneurs get really excited when they start their business and aspire to be global players from the very beginning. Big-picture thinking is very important, but you have to start local first to see if you have a viable business. Starting small also allows you to work out the kinks.

Once you’ve created a profitable business, then you have to think about scaling, and that’s when global expansion comes to play. However, from my own experience, you have to spend time in the foreign market, understand their business culture and environment, and scope out potential partners before venturing abroad.You need to figure out how they like to buy, what their communication style is, and what kind of talent works best in their context.

“You have to spend time in the foreign market, understand their business culture and environment, and scope out potential partners before venturing abroad.”

I had to learn these lessons the hard way. I went to Europe and opened a Creative Niche branch in Amsterdam. We set it up, hired people, finalized employment contracts and threw a launch party. With four full-time staff on high paying salaries, we started working with a major client one-on-one. Unfortunately, I didn’t do my homework. I had banked on working with that major client out there, only to learn our contact had been terminated and they were ending our contract. This was a hard and costly lesson for me. There was no Plan B. Amsterdam was a small market, especially in the recruitment space, which was already saturated.

If I were to redo our expansion, I would have sent a senior company leader to Europe to live there first. They would be responsible for strengthening the company culture and ensuring that it was aligned with our organizational goals and vision. I would also have spent more time building a robust sales pipeline before actually landing there. I would have also done thorough research before coming up with my sales projections, which were too optimistic at the time. This whole experience taught me the importance of doing your due diligence.


What can entrepreneurs and CEOs do to better manage and incentivize talent?

Talent attraction is incredibly important. Entrepreneurs and business leaders have to build an employer brand. It is also crucial for companies to design a solid recruitment process and create awareness about their company culture.

My experience in the talent management industry has convinced me that a company’s first few hires are extremely important because they help you create a foundation for the new venture. You need to bring in essential skills with every new hire, and make sure they align with the company’s core values right from the get-go. As the CEO, you need to spend a lot of time defining each position and picking the right core team members. Some entrepreneurs just put a job description together. Yes, that’s a start, but they also need to think about what a successful candidate for each role would look like and what their key performance indicators (KPIs) should be. There should be scorecards for every interview so that you can compare one candidate fairly against another.

“Talent attraction is incredibly important. Entrepreneurs and business leaders have to build an employer brand. It is also crucial for companies to design a solid recruitment process and create awareness about their company culture.”

Companies also need a very thoughtful onboarding process. You want to maximize a new hire’s productivity and ability to impact your business. That means making them feel engaged, successful and valued at the company.

When I am consulting, I help clients deconstruct their hiring and onboarding processes on an annual basis in order to look for opportunities for improvement. I also unpack what it is like to work at the company. Whether it is by looking at work targets, company culture, work-life balance, professional growth or recreational opportunities, all of these play an integral role to the future success of an organization. Every entrepreneur and leader should have a deep understanding of what it is like to work at their company. Would you want to work for yourself?.

At my own companies, I follow Rockefeller Habits’ One-Page Strategic Plan. Basically, the plan recommends announcing one yearly or quarterly performance target to the whole company so that everyone can contribute meaningfully towards it. If we do achieve that goal, we celebrate – in a big way.

“Every entrepreneur and leader should have a deep understanding of what it is like to work at their company. Would you want to work for yourself?”

For instance, last year, Creative Niche set an ambitious goal to grow our business with a smaller team than usual. We performed extremely well and exceeded the goal and had our best year yet, as a result of which, everyone was given a chance to come up with a reward idea. The company chose to go on a trip, so I took the entire team to the Dominican Republic for three nights. This was not only a big win and treat for the staff, but also an amazing way to further strengthen our culture. Everyone felt proud, and new we had all contributed to making the year so successful.


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