Opinion: Entrepreneurs as Leaders, Now and After COVID-19

Entrepreneurs as Leaders, Now and After COVID-19

Entrepreneur Voices: Rivers Corbett

Entrepreneurs were made for this. Every day we go to battle. Every day we face hurricanes, crocodiles, and sunshine…this is what we were made for.

As the CEO and Founder of The Chef Group for 20 years, a HealthTech Executive, and founding member of Startup Canada, Rivers Corbett is a life-long entrepreneur. He’s also the former host of the Startup Canada Podcast, a TEDx speaker, and most recently, the founder of ChefTutorial—a new enterprise born out of the COVID-19 crisis.

Describe your business before COVID-19. How has it been impacted?

For the last 20 years I’ve been running a chef talent agency, where I find opportunities for chefs, and then create teams to deliver. One of the biggest contracts we’ve had was with Sobeys in Atlantic Canada, where we provided chefs to do classes in their stores and community rooms. Prior to COVID, we were easily doing 100 to 200 a week. COVID hit, and all of a  sudden classes are nonexistent.

So, I looked at it as an opportunity to change my business model. The opportunity here is that everyone is online, chefs have been displaced because of restaurant closures, so they’re available, and people are now at home and cooking. So, we launched an online business called ChefTutorial- you can attend public ones, like a concert, or buy a private one. 

Now I have the best of both worlds: an online and offline model.

What is your biggest concern right now? What is your biggest concern looking into the future?

One thing that has always bothered me is the huge amount of entrepreneurs that fail after 5 years, which hasn’t changed in about 25 years. We’re going to see that amount increase. What concerns me about COVID is that it has only been two months and entrepreneurs and business owners, particularly small business owners, aren’t able to last. They don’t have enough cash flow reserves and they’re working week to week for survival. It’s concerning and tells me they’re not thinking properly about how to build a business to weather these types of storms. This is only two months, not two years. My estimate is 35% of businesses won’t return again. It’s survival of the fittest—it’s a shame to say it, but it’s the way it is. 

I think it’s a wake-up call for entrepreneurs going forward. They’ve got to plan for things like this.

How has the entrepreneurship ecosystem been impacted by COVID-19?

For startups, this to me is a wonderful equal playing field. Everybody is dealing with a new normal at the exact same time. For anybody that wants to start a business, this is the time to do it.

The key is understanding how consumer behaviour has changed and adapting to that. Entrepreneurs open-minded enough to embrace the new normal will win the game. Those pretending it’ll be the same as usual, or going to bankers for advice won’t. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, but bankers don’t know how to build businesses.

Entrepreneurs need to reach out to coaches, they need to work with regional organizations like Startup Canada to get the right guidance to move forward. A good mentor is an entrepreneur. Not an accountant, lawyer or banker. They’re important people for your journey, but they haven’t been through it.

Are there any recommendations or solutions that would be helpful for the government to understand from the perspective of entrepreneurs?

I’m very skeptical of this question. I don’t think governments are open to developing policy that supports entrepreneurs in the long run. They’re good at providing funding mechanisms and short term advice periodically.

The government needs to understand that if entrepreneurs aren’t successful, everything else in society doesn’t happen. In my opinion, the budget allocated to helping entrepreneurs needs to rank with education.

The government can’t lead the journey. You need entrepreneur leadership there, and you need to listen to it. They should create a Department of Entrepreneurs, not just Ministers for innovation or small business. The Minister of Small Business has the same portfolio as the Minister of Tourism—that sends a message entrepreneurs aren’t important. But, it’s entrepreneurs who will help us get out of this mess.

What opportunities do entrepreneurs have as we navigate the next few months?

Online is beautiful right now—everyone is embracing it. It isn’t a scary monster, it’s a beautiful angel keeping everyone together, connected and it’s allowing commerce to happen.

Get online and figure out how to do it best. It’ll help you take your business anywhere in the world. I’m excited about my new pivot- I can have someone in California or Mexico attend my classes, I couldn’t before.

 But, I caution people to remember consumers are acting and thinking differently and you can’t think the same online as you did offline.

Is there a story or an individual in the entrepreneurial ecosystem that has given you hope?

The guy in the mirror! I think it starts with yourself. I mean that. 

I wouldn’t say there’s one person, but it’s all the entrepreneurs excited about where the world could go. Surround yourself with something other than the news 24/7, and hang out with the people doing good things in business—there are lots.

After COVID-19 is over, what do you think the world will look like?

It’s a powerful conversation. Focusing on entrepreneurs, they’re going to have to be vocal; the world and government will be focused on protectionism and health, so the voice of entrepreneurs needs to be strong. The next heroes up are entrepreneurs. I hope society embraces them and appreciates the efforts made to provide society with what we all love.

I think there’s going to be gaslighting and panic messaging- like the toilet paper or the ‘meat shortages.’ We’re all in this sense of panic apart from reality. I caution people to make sure to do research, don’t take a herd mentality.

 On the bright side, the new normal will be really cool with great innovation. We’ll also see appreciation of the journey of life, freedom and simpler things aside from ‘work, work, work.’

How can entrepreneurs come together to support one another right now?

Be a good mentor, pure and simple. Entrepreneurs were made for this. Every day we go to battle. Every day we face hurricanes, crocodiles, and sunshine…this is what we were made for. 

We need to make sure that we’re supporting each other psychologically and intellectually, to help guide with the new ways of doing business. It’s not just about having a successful business either, it’s about going to bed smiling, not fretting. We got this.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs (aspiring and current) in light of the current situation?

Make sure you’re asking yourself—am I being different in delivering value? When you stand out from the crowd, you get noticed. Also, look after your health. I’ve suffered from depression—as positive-minded as I am—it’s a chemical imbalance. It took me down. Look after your health, most importantly.

Micah Rakoff Bellman
Micah Rakoff Bellman

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