One Dragons’ Crucial Business Advice

One Dragons’ Crucial Business Advice
National Bank Business, Innovate Business, Innovate

Michele Romanow reveals the three things that every entrepreneur should know about running a business.

Michele Romanow may only be 32 years old, but if anyone knows what it takes to create a successful business, it’s her. The Dragons’ Den judge, serial entrepreneur and the only Canadian on Forbes’ Millennial on a Mission list, launched, at age 19, her first business, The Tea Room, a zero-waste coffee shop located at Queen’s University, in Kingston. She has created several other companies since.

Creating a successful business is an immense challenge, but most hard-working entrepreneurs can make it, Ms. Romanow, now president of Clearbanc, a financial services site for freelancers, said on May 16 in Toronto, when she spoke at NB Camp, an innovative digital-revolution-focused program for entrepreneurs. However, there are three things business owners must know before jumping into self-employment.

Get to work

Her first piece of advice? Less thinking and more doing. Ms. Romanow learned this lesson the hard way. In 2008 she launched her second company, Evandale Caviar, a fishery that distributed high-end sturgeon caviar to luxury hotels and restaurants. Before starting the business, she spent a year writing an eighthy-page business plan and creating detailed notes in Excel.

The plan, she found out, didn’t help her all that much. “I learned everything I needed to from when I tried to execute that plan,” she says. “I realized then that all the planning in the world won’t make me successful or prevent me from failure. You just have to get started.”

Now Ms. Romanow doesn’t bother with business plans. You do need a good idea, a deep understanding of the industry and some sort of road map for execution, but you don’t need a sprawling multipage document, she explains.

In 2011, when she launched Buytopia.ca – a deal-of-the-day website similar to Groupon, the Chicago-based global e-commerce marketplace – its business plan was “as flimsy as it could be,” she says. Still, Buytopia.ca became one of Canada’s fastest-growing companies. Why? Because Ms. Romanow had noted that Canada didn’t have a site like it, and rather than thinking a lot about how to do it right, she just went for it.

Be prepared to get messy

It was with her caviar venture that Ms. Romanow learned the second lesson of entrepreneurship: Things can get messy. It turns out that sourcing sturgeon caviar is incredibly difficult. There are only a handful of people in New Brunswick with sturgeon fishing licenses and she needed to talk to them to get her company off the ground.

She remembers sitting outside one such person’s house for eight hours until he came home. “I thought, I have an engineering degree and an MBA and this is what it’s become?” she says. She’s also had people quit on her, vendors that didn’t pay and plans that went bust.

It can get chaotic on the personal front, too. For many years she worked around the clock and essentially had no life outside of business. “I gave up a lot over the years,” Ms. Romanow admits. “I didn’t go to birthday parties, I missed weddings. It took an enormous personal toll on my relationships and my body.”

She was finally able to take a breather after selling SnapSaves, a popular grocery-couponing app, to Groupon in 2014. “Starting a business really is messy. To be successful I had to roll up my sleeves and get scrappy.”

She also had to find resources where they didn’t exist and turn noes into yesses, she says. How? By calling in favours, talking to anyone and everyone who could help her, and like she found out in New Brunswick, waiting for people to come around to her ideas.

Iterating leads to innovating

The third lesson Ms. Romanow imparted to the assemblage of entrepreneurs at NB Camp was that the best innovation comes from iteration. Business owners do themselves a disservice by thinking they need one big idea or eureka moment. Instead, she recommends letting ideas evolve into better ideas. “We keep waiting for something that’s supposed to be incredible whereas in reality, you start with an okay idea and then iterate from there,” she says.

Ms. Romanow started SnapSaves because there were no on-line coupon options for people who wanted to save money on groceries. While it ultimately became an app that allowed people to take photos of their grocery receipts and then receive money back on certain items, SnapSaves started out as a website with coupons that people could print at home. She also had an idea of distributing sample boxes from grocery vendors to the public. “We tried a lot of different things,” she says, “but when we got the formula right, it worked.”

Entrepreneurs need to understand that while it’s important to have a vision, they should be prepared to keep working on it and refining it until it’s right. “Innovation is hundreds of different experiments and you figuring out the 10 or 15 percent of the things that worked,” she explains. “Then you double down.”

As much advice as she has for business owners, she also says that her time on Dragons’ Den has showed her that Canada has plenty of savvy entrepreneurs. While there’s still a need to do a better job of growing small companies into large ones, there’s no shortage of talent in this country. “The quality of pitches from season 1 to season 12 has totally changed for the better,” says Ms. Romanow. “We’re building more entrepreneurs here and business owners are better prepared. I’m optimistic.”

Edited on 14 August 2017

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