Entrepreneur Extraordinaire

Jim Treliving

Mr. Treliving is also co-host of CBC’s highly rated Dragons’ Den. Business in Focus recently spoke with him about his thoughts on the entrepreneurial spirit in this country, and how, like him, a driven passionate entrepreneur can make his or her dreams of success a reality.

Business in Focus: A 2011 Industry Canada study indicates that small businesses comprise 98 percent of companies with two to 100 employees. This statistic suggests that entrepreneurs are vital contributors to this country’s economy. What are your thoughts on this statistic and what it suggests?

Jim Treliving: I’ve questioned some of the statistics from time to time. I’ve seen it across the country more and more as I’ve travelled across Canada that I would say, if nothing else, it would be in the high 80s rather than 98 per cent. There’s a lot of industry in Canada where people work for other businesses and they’re quite happy to be there; it’s not all about entrepreneurship all the time. When you see these small companies across Canada right now, these are the ones that really, in my mind, are the ones that are driving the economy. They’re the ones that have their butt on the line, as the saying goes. They have to do well and they work harder at it.
We had a drop off during the so called recession in the United States, but it affected Canada in the same way with the car industry. But the car industries came back. There are a lot of employees that work for major companies and do quite well. I think that small business does contribute a huge amount to the economy, but I also think that big industry does too.

BIF: For you especially, starting a successful business and its accompanying successful partnerships, partnerships that you’ve aligned with that are still strong partnerships today, is attributed to a series of gut feelings, with no second guessing. What indicators suggest an entrepreneur’s instincts are credible?

JT: I think that is part of the process, as I call it. I don’t think it’s all that I do. You have to think with your head, feel with your heart and you have to make a gut feeling at times. But I think everybody, sort of in a small way, does that. I don’t really just say that my gut tells me that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’ve gone through the process of using my head.
To an entrepreneur, it’s how you feel about what you want to do and you really get behind it. Especially for a successful business, you have to analyze it before you go into it. In some cases you’re analyzing your own business that you’re starting out. So it’s a combination of three things in my mind, and I think a lot of entrepreneurs should have that.

BIF: How does an entrepreneur know when they’re on the right track in a business venture, and most importantly, how soon should they know?

JT: I look at this and say, “Am I on the right track?” It’s how you feel. For me it has a lot to do with feel. Your analytical part is looking at it and saying, ‘Does it make money here? Does the consumer really want to buy my product or is it just me that thinks that it’s a good idea?’
That’s why I think you should go out and test it before you jump right into it. You could invent something or put something together that’s great in your mind, but the people out there just don’t want it. We see lots of products like that.
How soon should you know? You probably know three or four years into it, the things that you should change – then you change. That’s the big thing.

BIF: Certainly it’s important not to build too fast, to concentrate on what you have at the moment and build slowly and gradually?

JT: I don’t know if you have to build slowly. You can build fast or slow, whatever you want to do. You’ve got to be able to handle it when you do that.
For instance, when we opened [Boston Pizza] Eastern Canada, what I call Eastern Canada from Toronto on, we had no stores and then all of a sudden we have over 100 in Ontario alone. The key to it was we knew that was going to come. We hired and made sure we had the people that we had on the ground to handle that. It’s not a question of how fast you grow. It’s how stable you are when you grow.

BIF: And how well you have business plans in place?

JT: You have your business plans in place and you have your people in place.

BIF: Young entrepreneurs, and by young I mean those coming out of university, are surfacing and jumping on the entrepreneurial bandwagon. In your opinion, do these young entrepreneurs have the skill set, experience and knowledge to be successful?

JT: I really believe that they do. It’s not just coming out of university; when I look at what we see in the Den, when I start seeing 10 and 15 year old kids that want to get into the entrepreneurial side, I am absolutely shocked. They are so bright and they really have watched shows, they’ve read books, they’ve talked about this. They’re more prepared than some people coming out of university. That’s amazing for me.
I think that some of these young guys coming out of university have great ideas. They want to try them. They’ve looked at how business is done now. We never had that 10, 12, 15 years ago. What they’re seeing is people are making money and doing very, very well. After I left the police force I was 27. I wasn’t very old. But I knew what I wanted.

BIF: As well, baby boomers right now are choosing not to retire but to start their own businesses. For this age group in particular, are there any challenges such as securing financing, taking on additional debt or time away from family? Should they be concerned about these challenges and how might they overcome them?

JT: I think they know about those challenges. The baby boomers are now getting into their 50s and 60s and what they’re realizing is that they wish they could have done this sooner. But they’re more secure now because they’ve been around awhile.
They have relationships with banks and financial institutes and have friends that have money. So when they go into business, they’re financially secure. They know what they want to do. They’re ready to do business now. I think that their challenges are not near as much as they were 20 years ago. What people are realizing now is that the old school adage where you worked for 35 or 40 years, got a pension and waited to die, is not the way to go. You keep busy. You want to do things that you thought about doing for years.
You have guys like Warren Buffet that are still buying businesses at 83. We’re living longer, therefore we’ve realized over the years that we can’t just live on the pension or whatever we anticipated back 40 years ago. People have to go out and do things. Every senior has to do something. I don’t think you have to go in to business. You have to keep busy and keep your mind alert.

BIF: Not everyone is meant to be an entrepreneur, although they may believe otherwise. What characteristics in an entrepreneur distinguish a success story from a failed business attempt?

JT: I never look at failure as something that’s wrong. It’s like running a race or being in a ball game or hockey game; there are three periods to it. I treat entrepreneurship like a sport. Some things I realized I’ve done wrong. I realized they weren’t working, so I stop and start again. You can’t just think that you’re going to get into something and it’s going to be successful right off the top.
It’s going to be hard work. You have to be thinking all of the time. You have to be sure the consumer is doing something with it. Don’t look at it as a failure. I don’t believe failure is the word – it’s a mistake maybe. You went down the wrong path.
We made a mistake in Asia [with Boston Pizza]. We didn’t have people on the ground. Were we successful? Absolutely. We made a mistake when we went into Eastern Canada because we weren’t ready. Now that we’re in there, we’re very successful. Would we have changed anything? Absolutely not, because you learn from that.

BIF: In your opinion, what is the greatest inhibitor for any entrepreneur that would prevent them from even thinking about starting a business?

JT: I think what people really worry about when they start out is, ‘Is this for me? Is this the kind of business that I can be successful at?’ Do you have the drive that you want to do this? Are you prepared for all the hard work going into it? You have to question yourself as to where you’re going with this. You’re going to make mistakes going into business and you’re going to learn from them.
I’ve often said to people, ‘Where do you want to be in five years?’ That’s what I ask every entrepreneur. ‘Are you happy with what you are now?’ If you are, stay there. If you’re not, if you’ve got this urge to go and do something, work it all out. I think people get this fear in their mind, then they keep that word back there as an excuse not to go into business. Don’t be afraid. You’re going to make mistakes. Nothing is ever perfect.

BIF: Do you believe the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Canada?

JT: I think entrepreneurship in Canada right now is the highest in the western world. I see it every day, from the ages of 10 to 70. I think that we are in a country where it’s unbelievable how much entrepreneurialism there is. I think we’re seeing it because we’re exporting it around the world.
We’re competitive around the world. People look at our banking. They look at our entrepreneurship and every kind of business. And to me that’s what it’s all about. People want to come to Canada to learn what we have. The biggest thing in Canada and around the world for us is that you can go and do what you want to do. Not all countries [allow] you to do that. You can be an entrepreneur in Canada. We live in the best country in the world.

BIF: If you could offer one piece of advice, in one sentence, for any budding entrepreneur, what would you say?

JT: Work hard at it and have all the passion in the world towards your business.

June 4, 2020, 11:02 PM EDT