By Robert Paterson
Few places in Canada could be further away from the main markets of North America. Few places have less resources. But as I found last week, while traveling with StartUp Canada around PEI, our entrepreneurs are doing very well.
Many have operations, such as Marks Work Warehouse and Island Abby Foods, that are amongst the best in class. Many have businesses, such as BioVectra and DME, that have found a particular niche, making them unrivaled in North America. Many, such as IT consulting firm Thinking Big and place-based marketing outfit Screenscape, are astonishingly novel.
Why should small businesses in a small place be so competitive?
It’s in the Island DNA
PEI is too small and too far away to attract large, mature businesses from away. So business on PEI is naturally small and owner operated. And because PEI itself is small, PEI business has always had to find a place in the larger markets off Island. It’s been like this for 200 years.
As entrepreneur Duncan Shaw told me, about his family, “Few people ever had a job. We come from a long line of pioneers, farmers, fishers and small business owners.”
Potatoes were run to the Caribbean in exchange for the official cargo of molasses and the unofficial cargo of rum. Fish ran to Boston. Lumber to the UK. Fox fur and lobster to Upper Canada.
So like their forefathers, Lorraine MacAulay had to start her Mosquito repellent business by breaking into the large national stores. Peter Toombs had to sell his brewing equipment all over the world. They had to begin by being very clever and persistent.
So how did they get so smart?
It’s not school – It’s Family and Mentors
We think that having great schools are key to developing smart people. But most of the entrepreneurs I met last week told me that they did not fit into school culture. Some never finished school. Others had to force themselves to finish. Dico Reijers took 7 years to do his BA.
All told me that culture of entrepreneurship was set at home. All told me that they grew up in a family where running your own business was the normal. The dinner table was their classroom.
Some entrepreneurs went to business school. But for most, the best business lessons were taught by mentors. They learned the old fashioned way, like an apprentice, from advice given by a person who lived their life.
Entrepreneurs helping Entrepreneurs.
I asked all of them about whether school needed to be changed. None of them dismissed school. They acknowledged that not everyone should be or even could be an entrepreneur. But they hoped that the school system would see that it could help by identifying the characteristics of kids who were destined to be entrepreneurs. Then the entrepreneurs could help.
Entrepreneurship on PEI is a personal and individual thing. All the older PEI entrepreneurs I spoke with want to reach out and offer more time as mentors to the young, up-and-coming class of rebels. What they want is a better way to connect.
If PEI stays true to its business DNA – we will do well
Large bureaucratic structures are dying. Youth unemployment in Canada and the US is over 20 per cent—in Europe it’s close to 50 per cent. Many middle aged workers are being made redundant. Pensions are being diminished. The coming transition will be very hard.
But here on PEI, I see now that we could adjust quite well. The modern PEI entrepreneur is already competing in the new networked global marketplace. They are hiring. They are growing. They are doing what Island business people have always done.
All they need to do now is to work together.
If the PEI entrepreneurs work with each other to boost the local ecosystem, if those in government do the same, then this little Island could do very well.
This insight is the great gift that StartUp Canada’s visit brought. They held up the mirror to who we really are. Now we must not waste this gift.
Time to act .
Rob Paterson gave up the institutional life nearly 20 years ago. Much
of his work centres on helping leaders see the new network context
for their business. He taught the first online courses ever at UPEI on
the new network economy and will be publishing the first 3 books of a
series on the network economy in June this year. Some of his clients
include The PEI BioAlliance, NPR, Industry Canada, York University,
Dalhousie University, The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. He
has lived on PEI since 1995. His father was a serial entrepreneur. His
two children are as well.