Words from the wise: What 3 Edmonton entrepreneurs said they had to unlearn in order to thrive in business

As an entrepreneur, especially a new one, the road is twisty, bumpy, sometimes unfriendly and always unknown. There are a lot of unavoidable lessons to learn. Everyone seems to want to give advice, some of it good and some of it bad. It’s important to take all advice with a grain of salt and realize how contextual words of wisdom can be when it comes to entrepreneurship. However, it's never a bad idea to pick the brains of those who have forged the path before you.

We talked to three successful entrepreneurs in Edmonton about what they had to unlearn to be successful in business – the habits, mindset and advice they had going into the game that they quickly realized didn’t serve them. This collection of stories has some powerful and applicable lessons on what behaviours these entrepreneurs had to change in order to thrive. Here is their advice:

 

Arthur Smith, President at Arcom Technical Services Ltd.

What were some pre-conceived notions that were ingrained in your head as a young entrepreneur?  

If you work hard, everything will fall into place.

How did these help/harm you?  

Working very hard did help us grow and Arcom Technical Services has built a loyal customer base that continues to expand. However, with rapid growth come areas of concern that do not present themselves until those concerns are larger than they should have been. 

With the knowledge and experience you have now, what do you wish you had done differently when your business began to become successful?

I wish I had taken appropriate measures to ensure that the proper company operating structure was in place to sustain growth, especially rapid growth.

When did you notice a change in your strategy when it came to running your business? How did this come about? What did it change?

The change in my strategy was brought on by financial operating issues that presented themselves due to our rapid growth. These issues presented themselves after our growth of 205 per cent in three years. We did not have the proper structure in place and we found ourselves exceeding our operating lines while awaiting customer payments. This situation was only made worse by delinquent accounts. We were still very busy with work at that time, but the financial management was getting away from us.

I identified the problems and decided to bring in outside professional consultants (BDC) to help us. Through an in depth process of developing the much needed structure that entailed financial management, accountability, profitability and forecasting, we were able to turn Arcom Technical Services around. Then we had our best financial quarters in our 16 year history. Hopefully this continues for the foreseeable future.

What were some of the behaviors you had to unlearn in order to succeed in business? 

First, I had to unlearn being anxious, in good times and bad. Stay calm and leave the emotions out of running a business. The operational and financial decisions should always be based on factual and analytical information. This is very hard to do as a business owner, since all of what you have in the world is on the line.   

Second, I had to unlearn credence. In our new company structure, accountability is a prime factor. We have implemented key performance indicators (KPIs) for everyone, so we all are accountable for our work and positions. These KPIs are tracked and are an incentive to be more profitable with having our high quality standards maintained through profit sharing.       

What habits did you have that ended up really hurting you and your business?

Ignoring the signs of little issues because I was “too busy” to address them. Deal with an operational issue as soon as you identify it. It takes a little time to fix, but if left it will take much more time, money and resources to repair a compounded problem.

What would you say is your biggest personal success factor?

Focusing on the business. We all have competitors. Many people waste a lot of energy, time and money on trying to outwit or outmaneuver a competitor based on their misconceptions. Focus on your business, don’t focus on what your competition is doing. I don’t imply that a person should be unaware of their industry and happenings, but identify your competitive advantages and focus on driving them forward. This will put you ahead and get you recognized as a company with above the norm corporate ethics.

Listen and engage in conversations with your customer’s. The various departments that have grown within Arcom were cultivated from what our customers told us they wanted or wished we could provide. Our departments of telecommunications, technology, electrical, security and IT managed services were all wants of our clients. The successes that have happened at Arcom over the years were driven by requests, not just an idea or assumption of what the customer should want.

What sort of mindset do you think really helped improve your business?

The change in my mindset was to not try and operate the business without assistance. Yes, you are the owner and your staff looks to you to know everything, but one cannot know everything. There have been many businesses before you. Seek out the information and tools you will need and do not try to reinvent the wheel. Yes, there are costs associated with this, but the rewards can far outweigh the costs. Alternatively, without some guidance, there could be disastrous results.

What advice would you give to new entrepreneurs about the type of habits, mindset, rituals, focus and routine that will help them most as a new business owner?

My advice to young entrepreneurs would be to stay focused on one step at a time. Build a solid infrastructure and plan to grow. In the blink of an eye, if you never forget about your customers, you’ll be at that place you never dreamed you would be.

Never let your values and determination wander from the person you were on that first day you opened your business. I have witnessed egos and greed destroy national sized companies. Go as big in business as you can or are comfortable doing.

Lastly, stay humble and conduct every minute with genuine integrity. Your customers will dislike arrogance and moral inconsistency. Soon they will be someone else’s customer.

 

Cam McMillan, President at The Head Hunters

What were some things that were ingrained in your head as a young entrepreneur?

That you have to move fast and that bigger is better. You don’t necessarily have to move at rocket speed all the time. Sometimes it’s better to slow down and pay attention to what you are doing. In the beginning, we were way too focused on growing quickly. As a values-based organization, we had to focus on not sacrificing our values for growth.

How did these help/harm you?

Maybe on the fast growth piece – that I definitely had to unlearn – I think you can disturb your culture, your people and your team if you aren’t growing on a clear set of values. You can confuse them. I believe you should always hire based on values, so you want to make sure that you don’t conflict with that message. Early on we tried to do a combination of both. I personally can’t see that working. I would sacrifice some fast growth to be consistent with our values.

What do you wish you had done differently when your business began to become successful?

Not worry so much. About 85 per cent of the things you worry about don’t happen and the rest of the things you can see as opportunities. When you are starting a company, it’s easy to worry about everything, but, really, you should compartmentalize that. Some of the things you worry about become the best opportunities. This is a good shift in mindset because a lot of these “problems” present really cool things you can build your business on in actuality.

Another one, and I think it is so inherent in the nature of the entrepreneur, is the risk piece. Don’t worry about risk, just realize you will always be risking something to be successful. The sooner you can get over that, the more comfortable you’ll be with yourself. When we started our company, our plan was to open an Edmonton office and then another office in Vancouver about 6 months after that. We had a lot of discussions with the founders about whether we were opening too fast. Should we just get solid on the first office or go forward? We decided to go ahead and it turned out to be a really good decision for us. With the difference in economies, it gave us a good, solid base. Then, later on, we decided to open an office in Manitoba. Manitoba has a really steady economic base, which balances out the peaks and valleys of two “hot economies” like Alberta and BC. That diversification was really good.

When did you notice a change in your strategy when it came to running your business?

I think it’s always changing with so many moving parts. We really try to execute on the key deliverables, but as a smaller business you are able to keep pretty nimble and keep changing. We do monthly, weekly and annual reviews because things move so fast these days. We want to make sure we never get too locked in. We like to stay true to our values but also stay informed about new opportunities; keep an open mind to altering our strategy; and look around the corner for that disrupter in the business. We want to be able to take advantage of new ideas and new technology, not be the guy that is constantly reacting.

What were some of the behaviors you had to unlearn in order to succeed in business?

That you don’t have all the answers yourself, there are a lot of good people on your team. Don’t assume you know it all. Stay curious and keep asking questions. Don’t assume. The communication piece is so important too. You almost have to over communicate a lot of the time to make sure things are going in the right direction.

What habits ended up really hurting you and your business as an entrepreneur?

A good learning experience was to not avoid confrontation. Confrontation can be a really positive thing. You want to be clearly understood and direct. Don’t be scared of confrontation

What would you attribute to be your biggest personal success factor?

I think it would be the team that we have surrounded ourselves with. We have been really successful in attracting strong people to the company, people who live our values and live and breathe our business.

What sort of mindset do you think really helped improve your business?

A couple of things: discipline and staying very curious, positive and open to change. And, I’ll add a sense of humor to that as well.

 

Debbie Green, Executive Director at The Bredin Centre

What were some things that were ingrained in your head as a young entrepreneur that actually were not conducive to growth?

“Making money is the measure of success.” The greatest measure of success is how happy our customers are when they leave our service. When those same customers tell others about their positive experiences with us, that’s the true measure of success.

“Bigger is better.” In business, others often measure how successful you are by your size. When I first started in this industry, I wanted to have many contracts, a large location, lots of staff, etc. Today, size doesn’t matter. You can be more successful with less. Knowing your business well and having staff who are experts in the field is much more successful than how big you are.

How did these help/harm you?

When your focus is on making money and growing larger, you lose focus on what it is your business actually needs to achieve. I learned this early when I focused on our mission and vision. When you understand the needs of our customers, then everything else falls into place. Growth and financial resources follow naturally.

What terrible advice did you receive as a young entrepreneur?

I think the very worst advice was,“You have to be less expensive than the competition while doing the same work.” Our programs are often more expensive, but we deliver quality service. We hire the best staff, use the best resources and invest in training. I don’t want to copy the competition; I want to do it better. I strive to be innovative and I’m not afraid to take risks. If I fail, I start again and learn from my mistakes. I try not to look backwards and spend my time stressing on what went wrong.

What do you wish you had done differently when your business began to become successful?

In the beginning I had a vision of what I wanted our company to deliver. However, I didn’t always follow my heart. I took safe routes. Now looking back, I realize my vision for the company was different than the competition. However, it worked because of those differences.

What advice would you give to new entrepreneurs about the type of habits, mindset, rituals, focus and routine that will help them most as a new business owner?

  1.       Focus on placing the right staff in the right positions. When staff know what they are doing and have passion for their jobs, success always follows.
  1.       Sometimes you just have to take that “leap.” There is never a “right” time to do something.
  1.       Do what has never been done before. This will forge new growth, keeps you innovative and, for me, keeps my work exciting. I love change and a successful entrepreneur has to love change and be excited by all that is new. Doing the same thing the same way every time is stagnant. Be passionate about your work – it will keep you motivated.

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