Dragons’ Den’s Jim Treliving, Manjit Minhas, Arlene Dickinson, Lane Merrifield, Vincenzo Guzzo, and Michele Romanow weigh in on how entrepreneurs and small businesses have adapted to the new normal and how Canadians can continue to support our economy as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having just filmed season 15 of Dragons’ Den, how did you see entrepreneurs adapt to the new normal?
We definitely had a very different season this year. First of all, there are a lot more entrepreneurs out there. This pandemic has forced a change in so many people’s lives and we saw that in the Den. We saw a lot more people, story after story, saying, “This an idea I’ve thought about for years, this is something I’ve wanted to do for years, and I finally had the time, the ability, and the space to take it on.”
Everyone who came in the Den was a reflection of having had time to think and look at their life in a different way — that’s the biggest change I felt.
The world has done a whole 180 on us! This year, we’ve seen entrepreneurs being more adaptive and resilient than ever.
Canadian entrepreneurs have pivoted and adapted with new strategies to not only survive but to thrive. Many are creating new products using existing supply chains to serve their existing customers and finding new customers in creative ways.
What makes entrepreneurs special is that they see opportunities where everyone else sees obstacles. Entrepreneurs are problem-solvers, so they’re often undaunted — and even excited — by problems.
If I look back to past seasons, entrepreneurs were simply pitching their idea or product. Now entrepreneurs are pitching their idea, how they’ve adapted for today, and how they’re going to adapt for tomorrow.
Why is it important for people to continue supporting and investing in small businesses?
Over 40% of Canada’s GDP is from small businesses. Small businesses are the backbone of the economy and our communities.
The backbone that we’ve got is now changing daily. Big isn’t necessarily the best anymore. It’s something you have to look at and ask, “Is smaller better?”
Entrepreneurs are on the bleeding edge. They’re the innovators. They’re the job creators in times like these, when our world is rapidly shifting and when the solutions that have worked for decades no longer work.
When you’re small, you’re an idea-minded business. As a corporation becomes bigger, there are efficiencies in those sizes but there are inefficiencies when it comes to innovation. Without small businesses and without entrepreneurship, the economic development of a country is stale.
Small businesses are important to the economic and social fabric of our society, and we all play a part in their survival. When you shop local, your dollars stay in the community and help local development. This is called the multiplier effect.
Think about the restaurants, clothing stores, coffee shops, art galleries, and all the other small businesses that make up the fabric of our communities and add to the rhythms of our daily lives. Lots of these places are at real risk of not surviving the winter. Now is not the time to be shy — call the places you love, the places you picture yourself when this is all over, and ask what you can buy from them now.
What are some of the key challenges your own industries have faced, and how are you working to overcome them?
For restaurants, the most important aspect is to make businesses the safest they can be in these times. People still want to get out and socialize but they want to feel safe when they’re there. First, we have to make sure our employees are safe when coming to work and secondly, that the guests are as safe as possible when coming in. Ultimately, we must make sure we’re ready for anything that can be thrown at us. For example, with takeout and delivery, many restaurants didn’t offer this or had to make their existing system better. Restaurants have had to change direction to stay alive.
Clearbanc was an entirely in-office team. You could feel the energy when you stepped through the doors. Being together was a big part of our culture — being able to have random encounters that generated new ideas and solving problems in-person allowed us to grow quickly. It’s been difficult to replicate that virtually since we’ve transitioned to a fully-digital workforce. We have three regular all-company calls to try and replicate it!
Marketing and communications are always contingent on the success of the companies we work for — if they’re hurting, we’re hurting. If revenue falls, that might mean cutting spending in ads or content creation. I get it, when your company takes a 20% hit, it’s hard to spend money on a commercial. But on the flip side, communication is even more important during a crisis. We’ve seen the most-successful businesses come out strong during COVID-19 and really get the message across — messages of new services, improved products, and enhanced safety measures. The challenge for us is to work with our partners to create a great strategy and creative that addresses the current climate, but also looks ahead and creates brand affinity for years to come.
For the movie business, it’s just a matter of time. Every pandemic, every war, every socially-shifting event has created a return to going to the movies. The truth of the matter is that the first thing people will do — “once the war is over,” as I call it — is wanting to go out and re-socialize. That re-socializing will look different, but people will go back to the movies, they’ll go back to restaurants, and we’ll get a natural upswing from being unconfined.
What surprising changes or opportunities in the business landscape have you seen during the pandemic?
I think the most surprising thing is how many Canadians are making the best of a bad situation. People who have been laid off, and maybe have had an idea for a business percolating for years — they’re using their time to form business plans.
When a new normal begins to unfold, customers discover new needs and we’re all open to trying alternative ways of doing things. In turn, innovation is accelerated and strong companies will emerge even stronger. And for small businesses, this is a moment to take advantage of your innate flexibility. It feels counterintuitive, but I firmly believe there are great opportunities now in all industries — it’s about how agile you are and how quick you can pivot for the future.
We’ve seen e-commerce absolutely surge from 14% to 28% of retail sales. It’s an incredible time to digitize your business. Clearbanc has now backed more than 3,300 e-commerce companies with over $1 billion and has continued to as the e-commerce sector has continued to grow.
Moments like these, whether it’s been the World Wars of the past or the pandemics of the current, have always been an instrument for radical change. It moves us from evolutionary businesses to revolutionary businesses. Instead of just trying to reinvent the wheel or create a better mousetrap, we’re having to build a brand-new trap that has nothing to do with mice.
What advice do you have for business owners who want to future-proof their operations?
Don’t be reactive, be creative! Entrepreneurs need to be flexible and change with the times, of course, but they also need to shape the times. At the beginning of the pandemic, I saw plenty of businesses scrambling to fill the gaps in their digital offerings, and a lot of them failed to do so effectively. Others got it immediately. I saw it as a difference in mindset — the companies that were already trying to figure out better ways to do business before the pandemic were the ones that were able to adapt the quickest.
A digital presence is critical today. We’ve all living in a world now where you can’t meet your customers face to face. It’s so important to switch your focus and be thoughtful about creating a special experience online.
• Don’t depend on one part of your business for complete success. You must think about other ways to diversify your product portfolio.
• Identify and start managing risks. You won’t be able to predict the problems that might occur in future, but you can certainly take some steps to better prepare yourself. You need to find the risks or possible points of failures for your business. These risks could be in areas like people, system or business processes, legal compliance, or data security.
• Listen to customers and observe their behaviour. Business owners are normally so busy with product development and sales that they completely forget their main stakeholder — the customer. In order to future proof your business, you should start focusing on the changes in customer behaviour that might happen in the near future.
• Watch for influencing factors surrounding your business. If you really want to future-proof your business, you need to keep an eye on your surroundings. You must make yourself aware of the developments happening around you even if they aren’t related to your industry.
• Create a favourable environment for innovation. You can’t always win by following the leaders — at one point, you must innovate to stay ahead of the game. Innovation isn’t easy and you might fail several times but once you hit the bull’s eye, you’ll leap ahead of your competition. To foster the culture of innovation, you need to create a favourable environment for it.
We’re in an era of major revolution when it comes to the workforce, how we manage the workforce, the latitudes we give, how we measure productivity, and how we return that time back to the employee.
Ask yourself: what are you doing to support the changing needs of your employees? How are you changing your policies as a company in order to adapt? How are you changing as a leader and leading differently than you were a year ago? I’m constantly asking myself all of these questions as well because it’s one thing to say, “We’re going to change our revenue model and we’re going to sell our product this way instead of that way.” However, if that’s the only thing you’re looking at, you’re missing major elements of health that need to be addressed in a company.
I think the most important thing that people need to remember is to not beat yourself up too much over this. Nobody thought a pandemic was going to happen and many didn’t plan for this so the fact that you weren’t ready is okay. Don’t panic, keep a cool head, and manage the burn rate!