Is there such a thing as an entrepreneurial gene?
Last Updated: Tuesday, November 9, 2010 | 2:39 PM ET
By Dianne Buckner, CBC News
Is there such a thing as an entrepreneurial gene?
This is a question I pondered quite often when I was working on Venture. In my role as a host and reporter, I was often meeting entrepreneurs, but also a lot of employees. Sometimes I found myself wondering what makes the difference — why do some people strike out on their own into the rough-and-tumble world of small business ownership, while others are happy to work for a paycheque?
This week I spoke with three people who worked for large companies before striking out on their own. I asked all of them about the moment they decided to start their companies, and whether they feel they were born to be successful entrepreneurs.
"I was a very good lieutenant, I had no problem reporting to someone else," says Julie Rusciolelli, the founder of Toronto-based Maverick PR.
Julie Rusciolelli She'd spent 11 years working in public relations for large established companies, but in 1999 her father died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 68.
"We were very, very close," says Julie. "I couldn't grieve and I didn't want to cry and I had all of this horrible energy. I decided to turn that energy into something positive."
Colleagues and clients had been telling her for years that she was one of the big reasons people did business with her employer, and that she could do well on her own. But she'd never felt the urge to go independent, until what she calls the "monumental life-changing moment" of her father's death, and her desire to be consumed by something other than grief.
The cash didn't come rolling in right away, though.
"For nine months I lived off the fumes in my bank account," she says, "I took a bank loan, re-mortgaged, and did what I had to do, to keep staff busy and paid."
She'd taken an ambitious approach, hiring four staff members right out of the gate and renting 2,000 square feet of prime office space downtown.
"I knew if I worked from home I'd be in my fuzzy slippers for the rest of my life!" she laughs.
Luckily for Rusciolelli, the dot-com frenzy was bubbling away at the time, and tech companies were spending big. Maverick PR billed $1 million in its first nine months of operation.
Good thing. Her previous employer sued her for $5 million for allegedly soliciting some of its clients, but after four years of legal to-and-froing, she paid $100,000 to make it end.
Rusciolelli believes anyone considering entrepreneurship should ask themselves if they can sell their vision. Because as she sees it, you have to sell everyone on it: from staff, to bank managers, to clients.
These days, she has 20 full-time staff serving a raft of blue-chip clients, and figures the ability to run a successful company is in the blood.
"I always had the DNA to be an entrepreneur," says Rusciolelli, "I just didn't know it."
The blue-eyed millionaire from Dragons' Den who came to Canada as a poor Croatian immigrant never dreamt of running his own business.
Robert Herjavec "It always seemed like a risky thing to do," Robert Herjavec says.
But like Rusciolelli, a crisis of sorts spurred Herjavec into entrepreneurship.
"I was fired," he explains, "and I couldn't get a job fast enough to pay my bills."
Herjavec had worked his way up from salesman to president of a large firm in the computer industry. But when the owner decided to make his son president, Herjavec was out.
He quickly realized he could get access to the product himself at a wholesale price, mark it up, and make the sale on his own. Getting an order was no problem, but he then needed to purchase the inventory up-front. That was going to cost him $50,000 — money he didn't have.
"My wife and I re-mortgaged to get the money. We were living in a house that was worth about $140,000 at the time," says Herjavec. It paid off. Eventually he sold that company for $100 million. And started another. And then another.
He points out that entrepreneurs have to realize wealth doesn't usually come instantly.
"During the first couple of years, my wife used to ask me how business was going and I'd say 'great!', and then she'd say, 'Then why don't we ever have any money?' I was putting almost everything back into the business."
He says it took him a solid two years to feel comfortable running a business. Was he ever nervous? "Every day," he admits.
In Herjavec's view, entrepreneurs aren't born, they're made. "People look for some grand thing, some big idea, but really it's just about doing 10,000 little things right every day."
The Sudbury, Ont.-born co-founder of Wildeboer Dellelce LLP would have loved to have been an employee, and worked for a big Bay Street law firm. Perry Dellelce articled with one as a student. But when the job offer he'd hoped for didn't materialize, he convinced two of the older lawyers at the firm to go into business with him.
Perry Dellelce How did a recent grad have the confidence to not only go out on his own, but to also lure more experienced lawyers out of the safety and security of their corporate tower?
"I don't know if it was confidence or desperation," says Dellelce with a smile. "I just knew I could bring in business."
His father would have liked him to come home to take over the family's construction, trucking and real estate business. But the 29-year-old Dellelce had other plans.
"We knew we wanted to be a business law firm," he says. "Lawyers who litigate wake up looking for a fight. We wanted to be in a win-win situation, which is what business is when it goes well."
The firm's first big break when they represented RIM in its initial public offering. Nowadays, Wildeboer Dellelce employs 45 lawyers and the company's name is on the side of a building in the heart of Toronto's financial district.
But just like Rusciolelli and Herjavec, those early days for Dellelce were nail-biters. He also missed the days of regular paycheques. But he thinks all entrepreneurs share one characteristic.
"You have to want to be your own boss," he says. "No one's telling you be in by 8 and don't leave til 5."
Even so, he points out hard work is essential. "It's really all about heart and hustle."
My conclusion: While there's obviously no entrepreneurial "gene," there are unmistakable traits. There's no question successful entrepreneurs are all resourceful, determined, and driven.