September 1, 2014
Are you an entrepreneur?BY ROD McDONALD
Not everyone gets to run his own company. Not everyone gets to play in the NHL or the national orchestra. Some of us are not ready for the responsibility, just yet, but we will be in a few years. Others, put simply, lack the talent to do so. They just don’t have it.
It’s always difficult to tell someone that they are one of those who think they are an entrepreneur — but they are not. Very few people take it well or accept the speaker’s premise. They blame their company’s demise or underperformance on many things, from the economy to the banks to the lack of skilled labour. All of them have an excuse.
Running your own company is not easy. To quote Garfield Marshall, who ran Advance Orchards in Grand Forks, B.C., for many years, “If this business were easy, then everyone would be doing it.” Twice in the last week, the door bell at my house has rung and it has been a young man whose pitch is that he is starting a landscaping business and do I want a free quote? I just ask one simple question, “Do you think my yard and garden would benefit from your services?” My garden is immaculate, by the way. They look around, smile sheepishly and walk away. The first rule of selling is to identify prospects and separate them from the herd. Don’t try to sell to everyone.
I am not opposed to young men and women starting their own company, and I am perfectly okay with someone knocking doors. God knows I have knocked on a few doors myself. Knocking doors is a great way to start out, the first year. I also know that four out of five people who start their own company are kaput within the first year. Again, if this were an easy business, then all would be successful.
I started out in the 1970s. I have seen many hopefuls come and go in those years. There have been people who were quite loud in their plans for success and were adamant that they were on the right path. They were good at talking, which is not the same as being an entrepreneur. Those people have faded away. Most are gone quickly in the first year, others will last a few more. I had a young man, who showed up at my garden centre, with a set of blueprints and plans for his new greenhouse. He had the greatest of ideas. However, his financial plan was greatly flawed and Les Anderson, who was my Greenhouse Manager, was kind enough to point those flaws out. I write the word ‘kind,’ because allowing him to operate under false assumptions would have been cruel. He didn’t understand the intent, but we were trying to help. Rather than thank us, he was annoyed. Most people do not take it well when they are told that they need to re-examine their methodology. That event occurred in 1995 and ‘til this day, that greenhouse has never been built, nor have we ever seen that fellow again. Perhaps there is a snake oil plant close by that he is operating.
This business requires enthusiasm, but it also requires much, much more. If I were to pick one word that is required by us operators, I would choose tenacity. Sometimes, we have to keep going when it is easier to quit. Sometimes, we have to stay open when others have closed their doors and gone for a beer. To quote my friend Willard Larson, “sometimes we have to play hurt.”
These are some of the things that leaders, builders and entrepreneurs have to do in order to succeed. Before I write more, let me say this: There are people who should be in this business as builders of companies, and there are those who should not. That is as polite as I can be, recognizing that the diplomatic corps has never called, saying they needed my services.
There is no set personality for people who run successful companies. There was one fellow, who was so strong at sales, that people in the trade often remarked, "He can sell snow to Eskimos," which has now lost its political correctness certificate. This man lost his company because, while he was selling anything and everything, he was not a detail man. He did not pay attention to those things that would have accented his success and provided his company with many years of stability. The question he faced was: How do you sell from an empty shelf? He did not remember, nor did he hire someone, to refill his shelves. Every peddler, from the early 1900s, knew, "You can’t sell from an empty cart." Old school, but it makes an excellent point.
Stick with the winners
My neighbour, who ran a greenhouse, was on CBC explaining he was closing his doors because of the cost of natural gas. I phoned CBC and asked the producer, “Why didn’t you talk to me? My natural gas prices went up as well, and I didn’t close my doors? And neither did the other operators. Just him.” Never base an opinion on one man who is failing. In fact, when seeking advice, my advice is to stick with those who are successful.
Over the years, I have met a number of highly successful entrepreneurs, both men and women. They were an interesting collection. Some resembled used car salesman and others would not speak more than the required two or three words. Each had their own personality. I introduced a friend to a fellow who I went to school with. He is an extremely, successful business man, yet her reaction was, “He is too quiet to be successful.” I laughed. He is quiet. He was quiet when we were kids. He also thinks and observes and when the deal is right, he inks the contract. He speaks very few words but he is successful at what he does. He has the ‘killer instinct.’ He closes deals.
One day, I was with Cary Rubenfeld, from Cary’s Wholesale in Winnipeg. We were at a trade show and we looked down the aisle. There was a gentleman wearing rubber boots, his shirt tails were hanging out and his glasses were held together with a band aid. He was carrying a shopping bag that was overflowing with material. Definitely not a model from GQ nor did he appear to rock with the big boys. Cary whispered to me, “Pick out the guy who can write a cheque for ten million.” We laughed. You learn not to judge a book by its cover. This fellow, the one we were observing, was an entrepreneur, pure and simple, and he paid no attention to what he wore. When it came to running a garden centre, he paid attention to all of the details. That was his focus and his forte.
Born for the business?
If you were to take a group of successful men and women and study them for any length of time, you would find that all types are represented within the group. However, the one common characteristic that you would find is that they are list makers. They were organized and if they themselves did not do certain tasks, they ensured they had the staff to keep them organized. Okay, if you don’t get it yet, let me make it clear. Organization and attention to details makes you money.
There has always been the question, “How do I know if I am suited for the life of running my own company or entrepreneurship?” That is a good question and all young people, starting out, should ask themselves this question. Their answers should be honest, or the question and the results are invalid.
When I lecture, I tell students, if you are not certain, if you don’t know for sure; then get a job selling cars at a dealership. Within months, or a year at most, you will find out if you can live with this life. Why? It’s simple. Selling cars or running a landscape company or a greenhouse, you only ‘eat what you kill’. That is a basic premise of entrepreneurship and if it bothers you, then you need to get out. There are some people who can never live with the idea that there are days when they will not get paid. They need that steady paycheque. That is their emotional make-up. They are not risk takers. Then, there are those who take risks. They need to, it makes them feel alive and in essence, that is who they are.
Last summer, when offered my transplant kidney, my wife, who is a nurse, wanted to turn it down as there were concerns that it might have been damaged. I accepted the kidney, knowing the risk, saying, “All of my life, I have rolled the dice and taken chances.” Just for your information, the first eight months were a living hell. I paid the price for rolling the dice as my body adapted to massive amount of drugs. The last four months have been much better and I have returned to work. As with every decision that I make, I always hope for the best. That is quite similar to my life as an entrepreneur. I have struggled and there were times when my death was predicted and each time, it was predicted prematurely. I am a risk taker and for no apparent reason, I am proud of being a risk taker.
There is an excitement that comes from a plan succeeding, and being the author of that plan is rewarding. Being an entrepreneur is an exciting life, one that was suited to me and one that I do not regret. Each time that I tried to live conventionally and receive a paycheque, I chomped at the bit, and my readers do as well. We have that in common. We don’t belong in that alternative world because we have to build things. It is who we are. We are builders and risk takers. We can never steal second base if we keep our foot on first.
I will end with something I find funny. My wife, who has never been an entrepreneur (you can’t have two of us living under one roof), was at a convention with me in Vancouver. We returned after three days. People asked her what the convention was like. Her response: “Imagine being in a room with 700 Rod McDonalds.” I laughed. I had a really good time at the show. There I was with all of these people who understood what I was saying and more importantly, they understood who I am and how I feel. No doubt, when you take in your convention, whether it is local or national, you don’t feel as if you stand out. You belong there. You are amongst friends, friends who understand how you feel.
Staying connected to similar people, keeps us on The Road to Success.
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.