Learning from mistakes: the keys to Canadian SME success

This morning, the Canadian Small Business Summit, in partnership with The Globe and Mail, featured a panel session entitled Small Business Summit Logo“Canadian SME Success: How I Did It!” What was most interesting was not what the panellists had done well, but rather the lessons that they had learned from their own mistakes.

Matthew von Teichman, the current President of Life Choices Natural Foods, has started a number of small businesses. Prior to his current venture, he helped his father start a restaurant in Kitchener, and then went on to launch JobShark during the dotcom era.

In the panel session, von Teichman shared some lessons that he learned by making mistakes throughout his entrepreneurial career:

• Don’t be afraid to give up equity in exchange for being properly funded. Von Teichman says he was underfunded in his first two businesses. That came at the expense of missing opportunities to hire enough staff – which would have given him more time to look at his business properly.

• Seek out mentors early on. Again, he didn’t do this in the beginning and he recommends finding seasoned experts to give you advice.

• Take opinions and advice with a grain of salt. Von Teichman once took advice from an advisor which ended up hurting his business. He says that you should know your business and follow your own instincts.

• Don’t take your eye off the ball. If you hire people in important roles like a CFO or Salesperson, you still need to stay on top of the money aspect and maintain your top customer relationships.

• Don’t work too hard – you need a vacation from time to time. Von Teichman says that this goes back to his first point. If you are properly funded, you can take the time for a break so that you can re-gain perspective on where your company needs to grow. He says that “without a good quality of life, founders can get disillusioned.” He now tries to hire faster than he would have in the past for this very reason.

• Trying to expand too quickly can come at a cost. He did this with some of his other businesses in the past and ended up losing money.

Tara Hunt, author of The Whuffie Factor and founder of Montreal-based startup Buyosphere also shared her wisdom on “the core traits of being successful.” She said that even though she has made many of the same mistakes as von Teichman, there are key characteristics that are necessary for small business success:

• Be delusional. It’s important that entrepreneurs look at the world differently, and find those big ideas that no one else has had. She says “there is profit in changing the world.”

• Have an appetite for risk and fearlessness. “80 per cent of success is showing up,” she says.

• Without action, ideas are worthless. Hunt explained that many people may have had the idea for Twitter. But it was Twitter’s founders who took the risk and acted upon their idea.

• You need audacity. “Everyone and everything will conspire against you and stand in your way,” says Hunt. You need to persevere.

• Adaptability. Hunt argues that “the only thing that counts is finding your product’s market fit.” She explained how even last week, her business model changed significantly based on meetings that she’d had in New York. You must be able to shift quickly based on market needs.

• Tenacity. She explained that the road to success is very long. In fact, it takes “nine years to achieve an overnight success.” Hunt told the audience that they must continue to test, measure and learn from their mistakes.

Hunt ended with a quote from Thomas Edison: “Many of life’s failures are experienced by people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” The lesson – giving up is a mistake.