In the world of enterprise, nothing beats the bold

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The joke is as old as it is bad, but it’s also apt.

Set-up: How do you know you’re an entrepreneur?

Punchline: When the Government of Canada won’t let you claim EI.

Certainly, 25 years ago, on a late August morning dripping with hope and heat, I wasn’t thinking about this when I toddled out of Toronto in a U-Haul with sticks of furniture, my nose pointing due East towards a land of old dreams and, if I was fortunate, new chances.

To be clear, I was born in Hog Town, but I was raised in Halifax. And I had always claimed a form of dual citizenship with all the conflicting emotions that this implied: Ontario arrogance; Maritime pride (misplaced perhaps?); bluster and bravado; and just an insouciance of Nova Scotian humour and generosity.

Frankly, I suspect that this had been the cause of my restlessness since arriving in Toronto for a “good job” some five years earlier. What I know is that, in 1989, my bones ached to move down the road again, much to the consternation of my small, close circle of friends.

“You must be mad,” one exclaimed at hearing the news of my pending departure. “Why would you want to throw your career in the toilet to go hibernate in some East Coast outport?”

Others evinced similar displays of shock and dismay. After all, they insisted, the Maritimes was over, a victim of its dependence on federal transfer payments, a have-not region that absolutely will not pull itself up by the bootstraps and do what better regions do: Quit complaining and get to work.

They had a point. At 28, I was far too young to take such a risk (My God, my eldest son-in-law is now five years older than I was then!) But I didn’t have a choice. I had a notion, and that was to be my own boss.

Nowadays, my wife likes to observe slyly that I am utterly unemployable. Of course, she is correct.

Whatever devotion to a bi-weekly pay-pouch I once had – whatever willingness I had to blindly adhere to the prescriptions of a buffoonish boss (apart from me goodself, naturally) – was gone. And the bug that bit me those many years ago keeps biting, though the world threatens to tumble into economic disarray all over again.

Happily, I’m not alone on this, the last day of small business month in Canada.

The box scores on entrepreneurship have been in for some time.

According to Industry Canada, 98 per cent of businesses in this country employ fewer than 100 people. Between 2002 and 2008, roughly 100,000 small businesses emerged (and this doesn’t include the plentitude of “Mom and Pop” operations of the self-employed kind).

In 2011, small enterprises gainfully employed about five million individuals – roughly 48 per cent of the national labour force – and accounted for more than 30 per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product. In fact, between 2001 and 2010, little companies were responsible for creating a disproportionate number of jobs in the economy, given their commercial might: just over 43 per cent of the total.

As for people like me and my wife, the perpetually self-employed, we are the canaries in the national coal mine. The cohort to which we belong account for 15 per cent of all workers; we are far more vulnerable to the ups and downs in the economy than just about everybody else; and, of course, we don’t get EI (though we pay into it) when our adventures in entrepreneurship inevitable fade and die away.

But, again, that’s okay with me. Of all the bromides about enterprise to which I actually subscribe is the late, American management guru Peter Drucker’s: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

I’m also fond of Mark Twain’s: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from from the dafe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. . .Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

And the joke will always be on them.

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