Many got to know her after gaining mainstream fame on CBC’s television show Dragon’s Den, but Arlene Dickinson built her reputation by finding amazing success in a multifaceted career.
She is the CEO and owner of Venture Communications, one of Canada’s top marketing communications companies, and has invested in many businesses that have turned around to make a tidy profit.
She has been recognized by a number of publications and independent business groups as one of the most powerful women and successful business owners in the country.
Her most recent creation is a website called YouInc (www.youinc.com) where she constructs a space for entrepreneurial education, support and investment.
She spoke with Toronto Business Times about her new website, social responsibility and finding a balance between business and personal life.
Q Talk to us about YouInc. How did the idea for YouInc come about?
A It’s a website and it came about because we really did feel that there needed to be a place where entrepreneurs could go to not only get resources and information, but to share and talk with a community of other entrepreneurs and to help each other.
Really, it was to try and create a meeting place for organizations and entrepreneurs looking for support and help.
Q What is your level of involvement with the website?
A It’s owned and operated by Arlene Dickinson Enterprises, which is my company. So YouInc is my company. One of the things we are doing is creating that website so it is directly connected to my brand.
Q Was this an idea that you came up with and wanted to push for personal reasons or was it another venture brought to you and you liked the idea?
A No, it’s all mine and this is part of Arlene Dickinson Enterprises. It’s part of the reason we created this kind of media content development company, to help entrepreneurs through a variety or media platforms and to help businesses succeed through investment.
Q A lot of the work you do involves purchasing or investing in other businesses. This is a little different because it is something you came up with and got off the ground on your own accord. Do you approach this differently than a business you would be involved with because of investment?
A Yes, anytime you are starting a business you are the entrepreneur yourself and so it is very different than investing in a company.
Although, I would say that any investment I make I also want to act and think like an entrepreneur does, so at the end of the day you are trying to build a business whether it is your own or somebody else’s – that is the common thread.
Q On the YouInc website, one of your themes is the entrepreneurial lifestyle. What is that and what does it mean for an entrepreneur to find a balance between their work and their life?
A The tagline for the site is “when work is life,” and most entrepreneurs spend our waking hours and most of our sleeping hours thinking about our businesses and how they can improve and the things we need to do on a daily basis.
We don’t really separate who we are at work from who we are at home; it is one person. We are the same person. The notion that there is this thing called balance and that you can switch it off when you are at home is not what most entrepreneurs do.
This whole site and everything I’m doing recognizes the fact that entrepreneurs do think differently and do behave differently. We do have our lives and our work intertwined and intersected in many ways.
That is OK. It’s not that we don’t love life and don’t pay attention to the other aspects of our life, but business is a big part of our life.
Q You’ve taken your personal philosophy and mixed it in with business sensibility on the website. You said you created it as a place for entrepreneurs to access information and communicate with each other. In your opinion, what is the single biggest obstacle that inhibits aspiring entrepreneurs in Canada?
A In my latest blog post on the site I outline the three worst mistakes you can make when starting a business and they are common threads that affect many businesses.
Those are underestimating the time and energy it is going to take to get a business off the ground, underestimating how much money and capital you are going to need, and underestimating the need to have people around you that balance your skills.
Q Do those three points remain true across Canada? How might they change when looking specifically at Toronto as an environment for small business?
A I think those are entrepreneurial challenges no matter where you are. It doesn’t matter if you are in Toronto or another market, the reality is that you are going to need time, energy, money and help and it doesn’t matter where you are.
Q Toronto is a bit of a different environment than other places in the country. What are some of the positive and negative aspects of starting a business here?
A I would say this is a very big market with a lot of established business here. In Toronto you have to have the determination to go and knock on doors and it is going to take longer for you to really become visible because there is so much crowding and noise in a small space.
I think it is hard from that perspective.
On the other side it is a big market so you have a bigger audience, you have more resources to draw on, you have more opportunity to network.
The negatives are also part of the positives.
Q We’ve talked about some of the problems people can encounter when trying to start a small business. Can you tell us what it is that inspires you to continue putting so much time and effort into your businesses?
A We are all motivated by different things and I think we all have to really examine what our motives are and make sure we understand what it is that drives us.
For me, I love what I do. I get up every day and start working and it is something that keeps me engaged and interested. It challenges me and it makes me, I believe, a better person because I am exposed to so many great people as a result of what I do.
For me, I’m motivated by all those things but mostly I’m motivated by my family. I do what I do because I have four children and I want to be a good parent and I want to support them. I want to help them and this is one of the ways I do that.
I’m also motivated by success. I want to be successful at what I do and we all define success differently. I think everyone has to figure out what it is that gets them out of bed every day; What makes you happy; What makes them push and get better as a person and then pursue that.
You need to figure that out and go hard for that because life is too short to not go hard for what it is that makes you happy.
Q If you could give one piece of motivational advice to an entrepreneur that is really struggling to find success but you think has a good idea for a business, what would that advice be?
A Define what success is because you have to ask yourself what success even looks like.
The one piece of advice is, “Do you even know what success looks like?” You have to know what it is in order to accomplish it. Some people say they want to be successful but they don’t know what that means.
Q When growing a business that is already established, what are some of the mistakes an entrepreneur makes when trying to make that next big step and expand business?
A The same things I said earlier and also that growth at all cost is not good. You need to have profitable growth as well as process and operation nailed down.
You can grow a company and grow yourself out of business. To grow well you need to have all the right support and infrastructure in place so that you can grow well. That takes discipline and that takes slowing it down and understanding what you are trying to deliver.
Q You’re very active with the Breakfast Clubs of Canada. Talk to us about the importance of social responsibility in your life and from an entrepreneurial perspective.
A I’m a big believer that we live a very privileged life in Canada and we have to make sure that our communities and social environments that we live in are supported. Anything that stands in the way like lack of food, shelter or support for all sorts of individual challenges.
I think it is incredibly important for individuals to give back what we can. That’s why I support the Breakfast Clubs. It’s ridiculously unacceptable to me that any child in this country should be going to school without food.
It should be a basic right and I believe it’s important that we feed our children so they can learn and be more effective in their day and can become contributors to our society. They need a healthy foundation to do that with. Social responsibility is all of our responsibility.
It belongs to the government and it also belongs to you and me and it is so important to give back whenever we can and however we can.
Q Let’s get back to YouInc. What do you think is the most important function it serves? Looking down the road, what other functionality do you hope to grow the site to include?
A Right now it is a place for people to not feel afraid about being honest about what it means to be an entrepreneur. It’s a place to share and give insight and participate in a conversation about what it feels like to be an entrepreneur.
We are doing all sorts of things to continue to add value to the site. We are going to be adding a lot more content and are going to ensure that we are going to give people not just a place to communicate but also to learn and to share.
We are going to push the needle to help entrepreneurial efforts in this country by investing in them, by helping people go and find financing and by helping their products get into the market.