Television star, author and CEO of Venture Communications and YouInc.com, Arlene Dickinson has achieved success as a leading Canadian entrepreneur and is driven to share lessons and stories from one entrepreneur to another.
Mediaplanet: What motivated you to launch YouInc.com, an online community for entrepreneurs?
Arlene Dickinson: In my view, 99 percent of what most entrepreneurs learn, they learn through a combination of experience or talking to other entrepreneurs. There really wasn’t a place online to hear the stories of entrepreneurs through the eyes and experiences of entrepreneurs, so that was my starting point. I think the more you can share stories, the more you foster the notion that entrepreneurship is something to be embraced.
MP: Do you find Dragon’s Den is encouraging more Canadians to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams?
AD: Yes, 100 percent. I have so many young kids that are eight to 20 years old who come up to me and say, "I’ve watched the show, I follow it and I’m starting my own business!" Anytime you can encourage water cooler talk or table talk around business, then you’re helping to get entrepreneurialism to become sexy and interesting. 10 years ago that wasn’t the case and now it’s a big thing.
MP: What was it like for you starting your business as a single mother?
AD: Everyone starting a business has a unique set of challenges. We are all motivated by different things — for me it was my kids. Other people have their own reasons. The challenge that I faced the most was self-doubt — self-confidence being the biggest. The first challenge you always have is yourself — whether in business or your personal life. And you’ll have market challenges and the challenges of starting a business — but you can’t let that be what stops you.
Video Credit: Robyn Gooding of Girls4Girls and Margot Micallef
MP: In your opinion why do so many start-ups fail?
AD: There are a few reasons: the market doesn’t want it — even though you might think they do — or you don’t have enough time, energy or money to do what is required. So it’s that ability to keep going at it. When you have no money, how do you find it? When you have no energy, how do you build it? How do you create reservoirs of it? When you have no time, how do you better manage your time? Those are core things that create business failure or success over and over again.
MP: Would you say it’s almost like a lifestyle?
AD: It is a lifestyle. There is no 9-to-5 when you’re an entrepreneur. I think it is really important that we demystify this notion of ‘balance’ that entrepreneurs seek or somehow lack. We don’t think we’re unbalanced. We’re living our lives fully. We’re doing everything we want to do and business happens to be part of who we are.
MP: What is your secret to success?
AD: I would say the secret is to never think you’re successful. I’m always trying to accomplish more. I’ve had so much luck in my life and so much good fortune, but I’ve also worked my butt off. Success is a combination of being ready to catch and being ready to walk through the door when it opens. I’m always trying to think differently about how I’m helping the world, about who I am as a person and about how to better my relationships. Those things are success to me. I still work at it every day.
MP: Where is Canada lacking in fostering innovation and entrepreneurship?
AD: We have a soft landing in Canada as a people. We wake up every day and we live in a free country; we have food and water that’s available to us, social systems that help us and we are in one of the world's richest nation as it relates to resources. I don't think that it means we're complacent but it means that we’re not as ambitious, and we don't sometimes push as hard as others do. So, I think the difference between the US and us is that there is the spirit of the American dream, where if you work hard at something you can build and grow something to the point that you’re successful.
MP: What does Canada need to do to support entrepreneurs?
AD: I'd say that Canada really needs to get its act together and celebrate entrepreneurs more. I also think we have to not look for failure as much as we do. We have to allow people to fail and celebrate failure as much as we celebrate success. We need to encourage people to try new and innovative things. There are too many ideas that are started in Canada and are then taken elsewhere to grow. And there's a reason for that. It's not about the size of the market—it’s about an entrepreneur’s mentality of wanting to be a global leader and having a nation behind you that supports that, and I think we need a lot more of that.
MP: Out of all the career paths you could have chosen, why did you choose entrepreneurship?
AD: It was a little bit of a lot of things. I didn't have a lot of options in front of me and I wanted to be independent and in control. It was also the fear of relying on somebody else to get me through and worrying about whether or not they would actually be there when I needed them. So it was a combination of depending on myself and the need to be independent and feeling like I didn't have a lot of options. It was kind of “do this or starve” so it was better that I did it.
MP: What message do you have for small businesses in growing and elevating their companies?
AD: Good business doesn't mean big business, right? And size is relative to what your goals are and what you want to accomplish. Entrepreneurs want to build things and have that crazy idea they have in their heads come to fruition. Some are good at starting things, while others are good at operating things. If your vision is to build a big business then you have to figure that out. If your vision is to build a solid company of 10 employees making a few million dollars a year, and that makes you happy, that's okay too. It’s about what you want to do. So again, big doesn't necessarily mean great. Size is not important. Delivering on whatever you see as your vision, that’s important.
MP: What challenges have you faced as a woman in business and what key messages would you give to other women leaders?
AD: You pay a price as a woman in business around intimidation. I'd say it's the number one word that gets used among all my friends that are entrepreneurial or in business. They get labelled as intimidating; therefore, less of a human. So as a female you have be careful that you remain feminine, because even if you're not an intimidating person, you're going to be labelled that way. So you have to make sure you allow yourself to be human first and not the person trying to prove herself first.
MP: What do you wish more entrepreneurs knew about getting investment capital?
AD: The biggest misconception is that money is going to solve all of your business problems. It doesn't. Money is certainly a key element in building your business. You absolutely need financing, often when you need money you probably give up more than you should. You probably overestimate the value of that funding to some extent. So, often entrepreneurs end up saying “oh I resent that partner that I brought in” etc. They think about the hard work put into building the business and financial partner only contributed by bringing money to the table. What’s important to remember is that so often, that investment is what pivoted the business or had the business get to the next level. So I’d advise entrepreneurs to think carefully about who they partner with. Remember that money is critical, but it's not the only element of the business. And remember that you dance with the one that runs you to some extent. So build relationships over time with people who invest in you. Don't just take money from them. Look for relationships.
MP: How do you manage your time and meet the needs of your demanding career and your family?
AD: I think you have to accept that you're never going to manage everything well and you have to forgive yourself for that. Some of my friends live very structured lives and every hour is accounted for and they're very schedule-driven. And some of my friends that are entrepreneurs are very random. Ultimately, you have to figure out who you are, and the people that you allow into your life have to know and understand who you are, so communication plays a key part.
MP: What was the biggest mistake you made early on and what can entrepreneurs learn from you?
AD: I think the one mistake I made was not thinking big enough. And again, that might have just been the condition and the generation in which I was creating the business. I think I just limited myself in my own view and that was probably a mistake. Now, I think instead: why can't I do that? I probably wouldn't have had that same courage then.
MP: What changed for you?
AD: The realization that, in terms of the quest to deliver excellence, the only person I really have to satisfy is me. I think we learn with time, if you try to please everybody else you end up failing yourself. And ultimately being successful is your own measure it's not somebody else’s. It took me years of finding my way to discover who I am. Some people discover themselves early in life (and they get pretty damn lucky). And I suppose some people are lucky enough to live long enough to figure it out (which I was), and some people never figure it out.