Tag Archives: entrepreneurship

Time to plant a tree

IMG_1398For years, this trick-or-treat month was also known – at least, in policy circles – as the four-week period during which to celebrate the achievements of Atlantic Canada’s small businesses and entrepreneurs, an overture that always seemed to me to be one part patronizing and two parts disingenuous.

After all, as any entrepreneur will tell you, this sort of enterprise is a 24-7, year-round proposition. There are no (or few) paid vacations. Supper is, more often than not, consumed cold over a kitchen sink. And don’t even think about a cushy retirement. Who needs a special month to contemplate the textured meaning of the late Steve Jobs’ assessment of the vocation: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Easy for him to say. Still, there’s little doubt that entrepreneurship has played – and continues to play – a disproportionately important role in the regional economy, something the University of New Brunswick must understand to its institutional bones. It just received a large gift of money to support innovative enterprise across the province. Meanwhile, in Fredericton, a non-profit organization recently joined up with a clutch of other like-minded groups to, among other things, spread the gospel of small business.

A few years back, a federal government monograph attempted, mostly successfully, to explain the character and dimension of this dynamic sector on the East Coast. “As we go about our daily routines, small businesses, defined as those that employ fewer than 100 people, are all around us,” it winsomely declared. “We see them in malls, operating out of homes and along the main streets of every town. But of what importance are these small businesses to our lives in Atlantic Canada?”

Answering its own question, the document continued: “Of the approximately 88,000 businesses in Atlantic Canada, 95 per cent are considered small businesses. . . The average annual entry rate of new businesses in Atlantic Canada from 1990-2000 was 18.2 per cent. When one considers that the business entry rate for Canada averaged 14.5 per cent during this period, Atlantic Canada asserts itself as being a very entrepreneurial region. . . In 2000, the self-employed represented 13.4 per cent of total employment in the region or 137,300 people, an increase of almost 20,000 individuals compared to a decade earlier. Self-employment has increased almost 17 per cent, whereas overall employment has increased only 9 per cent.”

What’s more, “The 2001 Census indicates that more than half the self-employed have at least some form of post-secondary education, with 19 per cent possessing a bachelor’s degree or higher. Interestingly, the highest rates of self-employment growth are occurring for those that have a university degree. This trend towards better-educated entrepreneurs is even more pronounced among females, a promising circumstance in light of the growth among female entrepreneurs generally.”

Still, there’s a downside and it remains as stubbornly challenging today as it did 15 years ago. “As the knowledge-based economy continues to grow in importance, so does the need for ongoing training and development of managers and employees to remain competitive,” the government report observed.

All of which suggests the surest path to a more enlightened and entrepreneurial society. That’s the trick, of course. But the treat is clearly worth the effort.

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The enterprising East Coast


It’s always cause for rueful amusement when a major Canadian financial institution expresses delighted surprise upon discovering that people in the Atlantic region are among the most entrepreneurially minded in the nation.

To hear the Bay Street bankers crow, you’d think they’d come across a family of duck-billed platypuses living in a corner office: Why looky here. . .a true wonder of nature, don’t you know.

According to a recent missive from a spokesman for RBC, “When it comes to entrepreneurial spirit, Atlantic Canada leads the nation with 93 per cent of people expressing desire to work from themselves. That’s much higher than the national average of 84 per cent.”

The poll’s findings continue in a news release: “Over half of Canadians (57 per cent) are entrepreneurs at heart and have thought of owning their own business, according to a recent RBC Small Business survey. While one-third (36 per cent) of Canadians who have thought of owning a business have actually started one, 84 per cent of those who have not started a business say they would rather work for themselves than for someone else.”

Adds Sarah Adams, vice-president, Small Business, RBC, “Entrepreneurs play a key role in our economy by creating jobs, stimulating growth and encouraging innovation and creativity. They are the backbone of our economy so it’s important that we provide them with the advice and support so that they can compete and be successful.”

The research also finds that young people, age 18-34, are most inclined of any demographic group to at least “think” about starting a business; they are, however, the least likely to do so, thanks to empty-pocket syndrome? “In addition to lack of capital,” the survey reports, “34 per cent did not know how to start and almost one-in-four (23 per cent) said they had too much debt, such as student loans.”

What’s more, “The survey also found that respondents who thought of owning a business had been engaged in entrepreneurial activities as children such as doing yard work (49 per cent), shoveling driveways (37 per cent), creating a lemonade stand (22 per cent), painting (22 percent), selling crafts that they had made (17 per cent) and walking dogs/pet sitting (13 per cent).”

Finally, “Of those who started their own business, 40 per cent saved their own money; 35 per cent started small or with a side business to test the waters; 28 per cent got moral or financial support from family/friends; and 21 per cent contacted a financial institution/accountant/lawyer.”

As for the allegedly preternatural interest in small business and entrepreneurship in Atlantic Canada, it’s not hard to understand. When jobs are scarce – as they have been on the East Coast for generations – you’re often better off making one for yourself.

That’s what I did, although my reasons weren’t tinged with the desperation associated with sudden, involuntary unemployment.

I left the Big Smoke, and a good job working for a major national newspaper, some 25 years ago, of my own free will.

Somehow, coming back to the region where I was raised seemed to me to be the right move. The proposition of being my own boss amid a whole population of self-employed bosses was decidedly comforting. Besides, when a good deal of the people you meet are working for themselves, the networking opportunities are virtually endless.

Somebody once wrote that entrepreneurship is “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled”. That is to say, it’s perilous – which is why, perhaps, it’s much at home in Atlantic Canada, where we never go a day without risk.

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In the world of enterprise, nothing beats the bold


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.


The paradisiacal perils of entrepreneurship


Over the past 40 years of a reasonably successful span in the world of work, I’ve held hundreds of jobs; but only six of them have been salaried or, perhaps more accurately, indentured. Throughout, I demanded my freedom.

The first found me as a “copy-boy” for The Canadian Press, working the weekend graveyard shift amid hard-smoking deskers who knew more about the affairs of mid-1970s porn stars than they did about their own jobs, let alone the terror of the 15-year-old boy they sent to the local pool hall for 2 am supplies of instant coffee.

The second saw me as a Pepsi-sponsored “junior sports reporter” for a Dartmouth AM radio station, where the best salary among on-air talent was $14,000 a year, and the best digs anyone there could afford was a bachelor-basement apartment, replete with hot plate, on the Halifax side of the harbour.

The third elevated me to “box-boy” for a major women’s apparel retailer at the Halifax Shopping Centre, where for $3.55 an hour I unpacked garments, organized hangers, swept floors, vacuumed carpets, and otherwise ducked the grandmotherly purpose of the elderly ladies who peddled the merchandise I placed in their parchment-white hands to pinch my cheeks whenever they were on break.

The fourth brought me to Toronto, where I laboured (mostly happily) to become the best “trencher” (i.e., novice reporter) the Globe and Mail had ever seen. As it happened, that didn’t.

Still, I managed to keep the job, despite the fact that I knew virtually nothing about the businesses and politicians I was assigned to cover. As my boss said at the time: “Bruce, justice demands that all of us have our buckets of shit to carry every once in a while. Just make sure you’re not one of mine.”

My fifth is hardly worth mentioning, if a nest of vipers is hardly worth remembering.

My sixth was for this newspaper as a writer and editor (for about ten minutes) in the first decade of the current century. Unlike my earlier experiences in the salary mills of this industry, it was an almost uniformly enjoyable experience. Lots of license. Plenty of authority. A multitude of talented writers from which to draw. And a not-bad salary to boot.

So why, after three months, was I itching to get out from under that efficacious boulder?

The only answer I’ve been able to credit with any degree of verisimilitude is that I had been ruined by the 90 per cent of my working life spent in various degrees of productive entrepreneurship.

To be clear, this has not meant that I have invented anything, or improved a manufacturing process in any way, or even inspired another to follow in my footsteps. It has just meant that, on balance, I have been happier working for myself than anyone else.

Why this is, is anyone in my own family’s guess. Some there say I am an unreconstructed narcissist. Some believe that I am a lazy ox, unwilling to hold down a “real job” and pull the plough till death do us part. Others simply don’t care. Oddly enough, neither do I.

The essence of entrepreneurship is freedom. Freedom to succeed. Freedom to fail. Freedom to begin again, over and over, just as you did when you were ten years old, and the world was a boat you floated in an icy May bay on the south shore of Nova Scotia, as you looked for a good wind to take you to the far shore – somewhere you had seen, coveted and had never visited, until, of course, you did.

Make no mistake, the darkness is coming. The good jobs have all gone. The salaried positions are winnowing. We, in this place, in this fine and decent plain on the planet, must rebuild the entrepreneurial culture that made this country possible.

We are the true heroes of our futures in this roundly, friendly, lovely, exquisitely elegant community that is New Brunswick.

Let us all be entrepreneurs. Let us all scratch that itch to be free.


Should New Brunswick become Legoland?


My grandsons are hopelessly, faithfully, determinedly in love with a little Danish block that appeared almost a century ago in the workshop of Ole Kirk Khristiansen.

As the story goes, faithfully recounted by Wikipedia (surely, by now, we may trust the source), “in 1916, Khristiansen purchased a woodworking shop in Billund which had been in business since 1895. The shop mostly helped construct houses and furniture, and had a small staff of apprentices.”

Naturally, of course, “the workshop burned down in 1924 when a fire ignited some wood shavings” – the kind of misadventure that literally prescribed the fortunes of post-industrial, small-time manufacturing operations the world over at that time.

But good old Ole Kirk was made of stern stuff. First, he built “a larger workshop, and worked towards expanding his business.” Then, when the ‘Dirty Thirties’ settled in, he decided to “focus on smaller projects (and) began producing miniature versions of his products as design aids. It was these miniature models of stepladders and ironing boards that inspired him to begin producing toys.”

And, so, Lego was born.

These days, thanks to my grandsons and millions of other grandsons and granddaughters (and parents and uncles and aunts and, yes, grandparents), the brand is riding high on a global marketing tidal wave.

This is from reporter Katie Hope, writing for cityam.com the other day:

“Lego yesterday laid out its plans to dominate the world toy market after revealing sales for last year that trumped the general market. The Danish maker of colourful toy bricks, already the world’s second largest toymaker after barbie-maker Mattel, said it expected to continue to grab market share. The popularity of its city range, which features police and firemen as well as its China toy tribe of animal warriors, helped to drive sales up 11 per cent in 2013, outperforming the global toy market which fell slightly in value.

“Net profit at the firm rose nine per cent to 6.1bn (£673m) kroner from 5.6bn in 2012. . .Revenues rose 10 per cent to 25.4bn kroner. . .It said it now employed 180 designers across 24 different countries as the group’s ‘creative core’, charged with creating new products. Lego’s popularity means that on average each person on Earth owns around 86 of its bricks.”

Actually, I own about 450 pieces from the 1960s. I won’t hazard a formal inventory of my nephew’s horde, but I imagine his collection now tops 10,000. My legacy boys, Euan and James, are beneficiaries of the extended family’s generosity.

But I wonder whether there’s a broader benefit to be extracted from all of this – an example that Denmark sets for debt and deficit-laden New Brunswick. Indeed, is there one for all of Atlantic Canada?

To what depth of ingenuity – apart from the technology required to exploit our natural resources – have we in this region of Canada plumbed to invigorate our entrepreneurial class of decidedly home-grown producers and job-generators?

It’s true, we have the great family firms who employ thousands of people. In the Maritimes, alone, the names Irving, McCain, Sobeys, Bragg and Jodrey lay testament to   a vigorous form of private enterprise that stands the test of time.

Still, what of the future? Where are the new brands consecrated by, even reconstituted from, the old ones?

Lego has effectively reinvented itself at its birthplace in northern Europe. It continues to provide jobs there as it expands, like a juggernaut, everywhere else. Its secret is simple, or so it says for itself on its website:

“Curiosity asks, ‘Why?’ and imagines explanations or possibilities. . .Playfulness asks ‘What if?’ and imagines how the ordinary becomes extraordinary, fantasy or fiction. Dreaming it is a first step towards doing it. Free play is how children develop their imagination – the foundation for creativity. . .Creativity is the ability to come up with ideas and things that are new, surprising and valuable.”

Dreaming it is a first step towards doing it? Creativity is the ability to come up with ideas and things that are new, surprising and valuable?

Yes, that’s what my grandsons will say as they build their plastic spires into the imaginary sky.

Shall we ask any less of ourselves in the world we call real?

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Re-inventing the N.B. economy


No statistic serves ruling political priorities more faithfully than the monthly jobs number. When it’s up, governments rush to congratulate themselves for their acuity. When it’s down, they go out of their way to remind voters that deepening unemployment can’t possibly reflect a wayward policy agenda.

So it was, mere days ago, when Statistics Canada confirmed that in June New Brunswick posted the worst jobless rate in years – the worst, in fact, in Canada. According to a CBC report, “At 11.2 per cent, New Brunswick had the highest unemployment rate in the country for the first time while Newfoundland and Labrador saw its unemployment rate dip to just below 11 per cent to 10.9, a significant decrease of 1.9 percentage points from a year ago, the biggest year-on-year decline in the country. . .Manitoba and British Columbia saw the biggest employment increases in June, gaining 7,300 and 8,900 jobs, respectively.”

Meanwhile, “Ontario’s unemployment rate inched up slightly in June, rising 0.2 percentage points to 7.5 per cent. Employment was up 1.6 per cent in the province compared with a year ago. An increase in part-time work in the province was offset by a decline in full-time work, which was also true for the country as a whole.”

The news left New Brunswick Liberal Leader Brian Gallant salivating. Quoted in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, he said, “We’ve lost 7,000 jobs since the government came to power and as we’re waiting for them to come up with a plan we see that New Brunswickers have to leave our province. We’re the only province in the country that saw its population decrease last year.”

To which Energy and Mines Minister Craig Leonard appeared to retort, in a statement, “We are building new jobs and new industries through our recently announced $20 million investment over five years to support research and innovation in New Brunswick as part of our $80-million innovation strategy.”

He then blathered on, in predictable fashion, about the job-killing predilections of his Grit rivals, whose support of a moratorium on shale gas development, he insinuated, threatens to upend longterm economic development in the province.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the wisdom of hitching New Brunswick’s fortunes to the deeply controversial prospect of onshore petroleum production, this government wastes its time defending its record in the face of the June unemployment metric. It might argue just as convincingly that the jobless rate in that month was good news, for it could have been much worse.

For some time, New Brunswick’s economy has been undergoing profound, even structural, changes, most of which have had little to do with the partisan identities of those who have ruled the roost in Fredericton. Governments of both Progressive Conservative and Liberal persuasions have been broadly feckless in their management of economic opportunities.

There have been the “prosperity plans” and the “growth agendas,” the “blueprints for change” and the “roadmaps for sustainability.” There have been the “big gets” and the “major announcements.” Sprinkled throughout the years have been new slogans, old slogans and, occasionally, no slogans to reflect New Brunswick’s salient dilemma:  A fundamental lack of direction.

People, here, are aging. Young people are leaving. Aging people are leaving. The problem is not, essentially, that they can’t find rewarding work; it is, increasingly, that such work is temporary, fleeting, rootless.

Economic development is not about plans, priorities and programs. It’s not even about tax breaks. It’s about building capacity from the ground up. It’s about nurturing a culture of innovation, enterprise, self-reliance and self-determination. It’s about incubating entrepreneurship.

“What makes Silicon Valley so successful?” asks the website Internationalboost.com. “It’s the story of a number of pioneers who were able to produce an environment that stimulated the emergence of entrepreneurial talent and, most importantly, attracted more of this same talent into the area. . .Silicon Valley is not only the place where companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Apple can literally be founded in a garage – it is the foundation for these companies to continue to re-invent and innovate, becoming world-dominant players in ever-evolving markets and technologies.”

If New Brunswick’s political establishment finally grasp what ought to be self-evident about the province’s prospects, then the monthly job numbers will look after themselves.

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