Why is Saskatchewan’s Business Climate Bleak? We’ll Only Grow if We Grow Small Business, Leaders Say

This week’s posting is a Special Report on the Feb 19th 2019 Podcast of CFCR’s “Civically Speaking”

Last week, on Lenore Swystun’s highly thoughtful and eclectic public radio program, “Civically Speaking” (CFCR 90.5 FM), entrepreneurial leaders Monica Kreuger (founder of Global Infobrokers and CVO of the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship), Sara Wheelwright (Founder and Owner of S&E Trusted Online Directories, and Trusted Marketing Services) and Mark Zielke (Team Lead of StartFreshMedia.com, President of KwickAutoRepair.ca and People’s Advocate) participated in a “state of the union” style discussion on the shape of small business in Saskatchewan. 

I urge all Saskatchewanians to listen to this podcast, whether you’re entrepreneurs or not. Visit the podcast posted on Facebook: https://bit.ly/2VhPXHs This week’s blog posting summarizes the highlights.

Since 1990, Monica Kreuger and her team’s Praxis School of Entrepreneurship (full disclosure: I will graduate from it in April) has trained about 900 new and diverse entrepreneurs. But it has not seen a change in the types of small businesses that entrepreneurs offer. Instead, as Kreuger stated at the outset, the changes that have occurred during the past five to 10 years among proteges of the program have been due to gender and cultural diversity: Praxis has seen increasing participation from women, Indigenous people and from international newcomers or new immigrants. These are all good developments.

Kreuger, Wheelwright and Zielke agreed, furthermore, that there are always challenges to stay in business and to keep a business growing—we have to keep innovating and reinvent, or we won’t be able to keep operating our businesses. Entrepreneurs must be nimble.

Sara Wheelwright observed that her marketing services support local business owners, from “Ag to tech to local plumbers, roofers, lawyers, realtors, mortgage brokers,” many of whom currently are “doing well . . . [But] the key is innovation.” Standing still is not an option.

Mark Zielke sees less optimism among small business owners whom he meets in the province. He cites that one property developer in construction in the city has laid off half his staff in the past six to 8 months. Zielke asserts that “the status quo isn’t working and . . . there are a lot of businesses that aren’t able to adapt.”

“This is the new norm, he says. It’s not going to pass. “What are you going to do to adapt and to break in and get people into your [small] business?” People on the street whom Zielke talks with are not optimistic, either.

Kreuger agrees that present economic challenges are the “new norm,” but that to adapt, we need to look at “new business models. What we’re looking and seeing now and stats show it that . . . there is continuing growth in small businesses and entrepreneurship, but in certain age categories” such as “the 55-64 year range [who are] stepping out of traditional business . . . taking their expertise and starting their own companies. But where I see us having to reinvent how we operate as businesses is starting to collaborate in smaller groups—how do we help each other succeed?” Praxis’ entrepreneurial training schools do this. Sara Wheelwright’s intensive marketing services do this and Lenore’s consulting and broadcasting work do this. How do we come together, to “lift each other up,” and “collaborate, cross-market?” This is about more than just keeping one’s business going. “It’s about helping each other to grow,” more broadly. 

These are questions with deep implications for our province’s communities, as a whole.

What do the community and our governments need to do to be visible and to encourage innovation? What climate do we need to build, to support small business?

Wheelwright says that Saskatoon’s municipal government does not currently support small business. The City is not visible (whereas not-for-profit supports like WESK, the Saskatoon Chamber and the NSBA are). The downtown is not vibrant during daylight hours. Many storefronts have closed: the City needs to become involved. Downtown vibrancy will drive business growth, she says. How can we afford to build new bridges and host new festivals unless there’s a vibrant downtown to support it all?

Zielke observes that business cannot be a silo, but should draw others to participate in it. Entrepreneurs are risking their mortgages, inheritances and many investments. He cites the recent report of the Saskatoon and Area Homebuilders’ Association as showing that less than half the number of annual building permits is being requested for Saskatoon. He says it’s a “litmus test” for what’s going on in Saskatoon’s economy.

Kreuger says that the “lens has not been placed” properly “by all [three] levels of government” on “the small business and entrepreneur.” There are plenty of policies and procedures and focus on support medium- to large-sized businesses, which are necessary. But she challenges governments to look at small businesses. When “87% of our businesses in Saskatchewan have fewer than five employees, including the solopreneurs, . . . we need a lens at the local, provincial and federal level[s], where we can address policies, from the perspective of the small business . . . Because we’re small, we don’t have a lot of time to go through all of the various procedures that larger companies have. And to do one policy to fit all . . . doesn’t work.”

On how to think about small biz policy, Wheelwright says the City and Province need to “cut the red tape,” so that small business owners can find the time to sit on boards and engage actively in the community—something almost none of them currently has the time to do.

Small business owners are the hardest working members of our community. We wear many hats, including developer, researcher, sales and marketer, service provider, communicator, bookkeeper and more. . . . We have little time to do deep dives into government policy or to lobby various levels of government to make much needed changes in policy. So small businesses struggle and, in some cases, flounder.

Wheelwright argues that we need an overhaul of the summer intern program, Edwards’ School of Business’ intern program, and to the grants that available to new entrepreneurs that small business owners don’t even know about. Small business owners are not reached and don’t know how to fill out grant applications or to spend “five, six or seven hours plus [written] business plans to get the financial assistance they need.” 

Wheelwright says that internships should provide “hands-on” business experience, allowing small business owners to acquire “massive skills and experience” that they can use, as they build their businesses.

Small businesses underpin our community, but lack the “tons of resources” that large companies garner, to do all of the wonderful things that get celebrated in the media.

Kreuger cites as an example the Federal Government’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), as a rare program to focus its lens focused on small business. The TFWP allows companies with less than 10 employees to find policy that optimizes their use of the program. If that small business-friendly lens “was focused on every business policy out there, we would see much more engagement by [the] small business and entrepreneur[ial] community,” and we’d simultaneously be much more seen by the community. Community would see “we are a part of them.”

“Without a healthy and vibrant business community,” Kreuger says, “we have no community at all.”

She cites the example of a small town’s grocery store: When it closes, the community dies. That’s a business we need. Two or three people (or more) who lose their jobs, when a small business closes, add enormous burden to the community.
And at the end of the day in SK, “most businesses are small.” 

And we must understand, Wheelwright adds, that “small business supports local.” And small business fuels crucial not-for-profit organizations. The public and government need to “get it.”

Kreuger translates the reality of small business under-representation and support in terms of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in SK. Each small biz contributes “$165K /year to the province’s GDP. If we help small businesses to grow one or two people more . . . [with lens on policy] we will make a huge difference on the GDP.”

To have one policy to fit all businesses doesn’t work.

Municipal, Provincial and Federal Governments need to move their “lens” to see and include small businesses in their policies. A “one size fits all” has dominated in SK through the 20th and 21st centuries, but simply “does not work,” Kreuger says. We are missing out on great opportunities for community enrichment and financial growth and development. For instance, innovative internships, collaborative working models (starting, for instance, with Saskatoon Makerspace) could offer vibrant growth.

It can be tough to acquire these skills of collaboration, she observes. But it’s very necessary. “What can we do together as a group?” It’s easier for young entrepreneurs, who are working in incubators and start-up groups, already. But we need more than that and we are not all tech start-ups.

While local entrepreneurs work unbelievably hard in SK, growth and change sometimes come more slowly in our province than in other regions of the country. How can we address this need for change? 

Kreuger repeatedly cites the statistic from the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB) that “87% of all businesses in SK are made up of five or fewer people.” And yet government policy at all three levels does not enhance practices and policies that are needed for small business growth and development.

The “new norm” forces small business owners to make changes to our businesses and to seek new business models to succeed. We have to “reinvent how we operate,” Kreuger says. And we face the daily reality that the changes we know are needed to our business climate take time to happen.

A question we can and should ask is: “What can we entrepreneurs do together, as a group?” The model used by the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship that Kreuger founded is one of “entrepreneurs helping entrepreneurs.” Many collaborative ventures and partnerships could come from small businesses and even sole proprietors, but government policy is not encouraging such collaboration.

The age-old division between home/business no longer represents Saskatoon or SK. Instead, we should ask what entrepreneurial models and policies are best for the city and for businesses to grow and scale? Kreuger argues that we need to be clearer at the civic level about the management of small businesses.

For instance, one way to measure the undue burden on small businesses is property taxes. The media tends to discuss these as if there’s a competition between business and personal sectors.

Kreuger summarizes that when small businesses rent space from property owners, the cost of the taxes gets filtered into rent, making business unaffordable to the entrepreneur/small business owner, who then reverts to “home-based operations and reverse growth.”

As Wheelwright notes, small businesses pay all of their employees and only then take something home–if there is any profit left.

With such a small profit margin, many small businesses suffer isolation and struggle to find support amongst themselves.

Yet entrepreneurship shouldn’t be a solo activity. We all need to connect with networks. We need to reach out, talk and find people with like and diverse minds and find ways to work together, Kreuger challenges.

Can we give incentives to encourage small business activity that contributes to the GDP? Wheelwright cites the cost of parking in the downtown business district as debilitating, creating negative implications for community involvement, there.

The statistic Kreuger cites that “87%” of SK businesses are small, means that there are 150 K such bizzes in the province, as a whole. We fuel SK’s economy. The small business owner “is in SK forever. We stay and grow. That is not the case with large employers, who are not always here,” Kreuger says. For instance, consider the large potash industry giant, Nutrien, who recently announced that it was bringing two of its executives back to Saskatoon from their head office in Calgary. Kreuger laments that we continue to give incentives to large businesses to do such things, but seldom (if ever) to small ones, when it’s the latter which will always stay and grow. A 50% increase in growth is quickly achieved by and achievable for a small enterprise.

While the Provincial and Federal Governments must contribute far more, “Civically Speaking’s bold discussion (ably directed, as ever, by Lenore Swystun) offered that such civic services as better snow removal, subsidized/free parking passes for the downtown core and other, small business incentives would alone boost community life. The time is past due for the City of Saskatoon’s government–and its Provincial and Federal counterparts–to listen and act: For the future of our city and our province, we must do much more to raise the profiles and practices of the local small businesses on which we depend.

On “Capabilism”: Chris Kneeland Speaks at the 23rd Annual Raj Manek Memorial Banquet

Proteges and mentors of the annual Raj Manek Mentorship Program banquet (February 7th) enjoyed a keynote talk from Chris Kneeland, CEO of US-based “Cult Collective” (a marketing firm that reimagines how brands can engage both consumers and employees: http://cultideas.com) and a Co-founder of Communo (an online company that helps small agencies and solopreneurs find work in marketing: https://communo.com).

Kneeland held marketing roles early in his career at the headquarters of John Deere (with a $7M marketing budget) and, overnight, at The Home Depot (with a $70M marketing budget). He co-founded “Cult Collective in 2010 and “Communo” shortly after. He and his family lived in Calgary for eight years (Calgary), but prior to and after that period have been based in the US, where Kneeland is from. 

Borrowing from marketing guru Don Sullivan, Kneeland referred to a capacity that entrepreneurs need, as “capabilism,” or a combination of both “capability” (“the power or means to do something”) and “capitalism” (“an operating system whereby individuals can excel within a free marketplace”). He said that the neologism “capabilism” refers to entrepreneurs’ ability to thrive by exploiting their own unique talents and ambitions.

What’s “aspirational” becomes also “attainable” if we thrive, whereby we rise “to a level of which you’re capable.” Kneeland said that money is not itself the issue, but it is needed to buy us the freedom from having to worry about money.

Aspirational plans might involve living someplace warm (by contrast to SK’s winter!), participating in recreational activities more often, and being free from having to negotiate with an employer when we can take time off.

But Kneeland warned against entrepreneurs living beyond their means in the rush to succeed, whereby we take on extra work to pay our bills and ultimately become re-enslaved to the working world we earlier left.

He also suggested that entrepreneurial success is driven by ambition—not just doing what we love and what we’re naturally good at, but finding a way to practice it, so that we can excel at the work and with the money it earns us.
While he studied a first-class and innovative MBA degree from Northwestern (going into $100K debt, to finance it), Kneeland says there are more pathways to entrepreneurial success than mainstream, academic study.

For instance, he spoke of regularly calling on a panel of experts to advise him, even 20+ years in the field. He also recommended that we stop viewing retirement as a date we’ll stop working, when our work should bring us joy to continue, long after age 65. (Remember that life expectancy is longer than in previous generations—so that it’s not unreasonable to expect to live and work into one’s 80s or 90s.) If we don’t relish that prospect, Kneeland recommends a change in career or direction.

The skill of self-awareness is most needed by any business venture, Kneeland concluded, since fear of complacency should be far greater than our fear of failure. This is because only failure (and not resistance) enables us to learn from our mistakes.

These are some of Chris Kneeland’s best insights as the 2019 Raj Manek keynote speaker on February 7th.

And now it’s your turn:  Do you agree with the “take-away” insights that Chris Kneeland shared?  Would be be interested in learning more about the Raj Manek Mentorship Program? Please write back on the “contact” page of my website. I’d be delighted to extend this conversation.

Is Silence Golden? On Entrepreneurial Well-being

Today I’m launching my newly rebranded business, “Storytelling Communications,” with a blog posting on the importance of silence. It might seem odd to do so for a company that focuses on written and spoken communication! I distinctly remember (some 20+ years ago) a professor of Victorian literature joking that 19th century prose writers typically could (and did) devote “23 volumes to the importance of silence.” The irony is not lost on me that as I launch my business today, I’m also potentially adding to the “chatter” of our noisy, digital world . . .

But on this New Year’s Day, I’m reflecting on the importance silence holds from science, not sales. In an article on www.upliftconnect.com, writer Azriel ReShel argues that “Noise Hurts and Silence Heals.” Noise in contemporary life has been linked to such health problems as high blood pressure, heart disease, insomnia, depression and anxiety.

Studies have also shown that noise causes our brains to produce stress hormones, when sound travels in electrical signals through our ears to our brains. Cortisol, for example, is released when we hear sound waves that activate the amydala (the portion of our brains that is connected to memory and emotion).

ReShel finds silence to be “comforting, nourishing and cozy,” in a high tech world where noise “drowns out our creativity, our inner connection and hampers our resilience.” While many people commute daily (whether by vehicle or on foot) listening to music, radio or podcasts, more people than ever also report being highly sensitive to noise and losing some of their hearing, when they encounter noisy environments.

In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that among 340 million of the population in Western Europe were losing “a million years of healthy life every year, due to noise.” There is no shortage of evidence on the detrimental effects of noise—recently, the slow progress of inefficient and very loud jackhammering through the concrete balconies of my workplace has seen tenants leave in droves. Most of us have sought daily refuge away from our once peaceful home offices.

When our brains and bodies are exhausted or overwhelmed, science tells us that silence can restore them. In 2006, Italian medical doctor Luciano Bernardi discovered that when patients were exposed to silence in between episodes of noise and music, the silent “pauses were far more relaxing for the brain” than calming music, or even more than longer periods of silence. Duke University biologist Imke Kirste connected two hours of silence daily with cell development in the hippocampus, the brain region related to the formation of memory and sensory functioning.

“When we spend time alone in silence,” ReShel writes, “our brains are able to relax” and so recover some of their cognitive functioning. The prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that makes decisions and solves problems) gets overworked in noisy environments, but can relax when that overstimulation ends. (Remember too that our apparently “silent” digital devices bombard us with texts and social media to read or answered.) When the human brain relaxes, we can better understand our environments and gain the perspective needed for us to function well in the world.

ReShel reminds us that ancient spiritual masters have known the reparative effects of silence that science is now confirming.  Buddha  said, millennia ago: “Silence is an empty space. Space is the home of the awakened mind.”

Having just emerged from the noise that  the holiday season brings, I hope that you find these insights helpful. As we start a new year, do you expect to experience the healing effects of silence on your brain? If not, when can you schedule some quiet back into your life?

Please drop me line on my “contact” page. And Happy 2019 to you all!