5 young Canadian entrepreneurs reveal secrets to success

These five Canadians prove that, in a volatile job market, the temptation for young people to venture out on their own may be greater than ever.
Marc Almon, founder of Opolo Pictures, centre, at work on the short film, The Fiddler's Reel, in 2010.

As jobs for young people become increasingly scarce, many Canadians under the age of 30 are trying their hands at starting their own businesses. The Canadian economy added 61,000 jobs in September, but the private sector actually posted a loss of 15,000 — the growth came from the public sector, and from a jump of 38,900 in the number of self-employed workers.

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Statistics Canada's latest numbers show 3 per cent of small business owners were under 30 in 2007, and as the population ages, this number is expected to grow.

CBC News spoke to entrepreneurs across the country about their business ventures, and about what advice they would give others who are starting or running small businesses.

Marc Almon started Opolo Pictures Inc. in 2007 at the age of 27. After producing a number of short films, Almon recently finished his first feature-length film, Bye Bye, Blackbird, due for release later this year.

Inspiration: Almon had worked for a number of film production companies before making the decision to strike out on his own, something he says was inevitable. "I’ve always had that bug," he said. "I put myself through school with a landscaping enterprise and always had that interest in running my own business."

He says it was refreshing to see other producers and directors who were so dedicated to their craft. "It was really great to see a filmmaker doing well but still producing films that said something and were meaningful. I’m striving for the same thing — to make movies that tell a great story but also make a comment on our world."

Marc Almon.

What sets the business apart: A lifelong film enthusiast, Almon says he wants his films to reflect the inimitable flavour of Atlantic Canada.

"I’m realizing my core focus is on creating really high quality feature films and television content, but from an east coast perspective," he said.

Looking ahead: Almon says finishing his first feature film marked an important milestone in his career. "I'm so proud of that film and have more projects in development, like a comedy I’m working on that should go into production next year," he said.

Once Bye Bye Blackbird has been released, Almon says he will be rebranding and relaunching Opolo Pictures as he moves on to other projects.

"My first feature provided so much focus for me," he said. "Now that it’s finished and we’re preparing to launch it, it felt like it was the right time to start evaluating what worked and what didn't."

Advice: In an industry where meeting the right people can make or break your career, Almon says prospective producers need to get over any jitters that may crop up — shyness is not an option.

"You have to go out and meet people in order to get your message out there," he said.

Almon adds that it's important to seek out as much advice as possible, especially in areas of business that are unfamiliar. "I had an ongoing struggle with bookkeeping until I finally met an accountant who was really able to simplify things, and we’re now dealing with each other on a quarterly basis."

As Almon goes through the process of rebranding, he says it is important for any entrepreneur to reevaluate their business plan. "There will always be room for improvement as things change and progress."

April Glavine, founder of Lean Machine Inc., started her company in 2005. The Moncton-based company leases vending machines stocked with healthy snacks to high schools and health care facilities. Lean Machine recently expanded its operations to British Columbia and won a gold medal at the Halifax Business Awards in 2010.

Inspiration: Glavine, who left a successful job as a financial analyst to start her business, says she has always taken an interest in healthy eating but felt compelled to start Lean Machine because of the alarming rates of childhood obesity. "It really disturbed me because there’s no reason for it — there’s plenty of healthy food available," she said. "I really felt that this was my place and I believed in the fact that I needed to start this."

April Glavine. ((Martin Jardine))

What sets the business apart: In a business Glavine says is dominated by a few major snack companies, Lean Machine is alone in offering only healthy snack options.

"The one thing that has helped us stand out has been the fact that we were the first for healthy vending company in Canada," she said. "We also have a hard-working and dedicated team of passionate entrepreneurs who believe they can make a difference by starting their own Lean Machine business in their community. They’re definitely key to our ability to grow."

Looking ahead: Glavine says she wants her business to expand across Canada, but understands the major snack companies could introduce their own health-oriented vending machines at a moment’s notice.

"They have deep pockets," she said. "There is a risk that the massive corporations who control such a large share of the market could start their own version of our service."

She says her biggest hope is that as her business grows, she will be able to cast a stronger light on the problem of childhood obesity. "Our goal is to grow and make a difference one machine at a time," she said. "What really need is a food movement that is really pushed from government or private enterprise."

Advice: If you are planning to become an entrepreneur, Glavine says it is important to remember that being your own boss is radically different than working for someone. "You are your own motivator, so tenacity is imperative," she said. "There’s nobody setting your schedule, so if you don’t believe in yourself and if you don’t do it, who will?

"You will realize that working 40 hours a week for someone else might have seemed like a lot, but you’ll easily do 70 hours and never account for it. When you’re passionate about your work, you can easily fall into becoming a bit of a workaholic."

Monica Mei is the CEO of What I’m Wearin’, a Toronto-based company with a new mobile application that allows users to share photos of their style choices. Users are part of a community which also includes designers, brand representatives and members of the fashion media.

Inspiration: Mei joined founder Jamie Alexander and developer Chris Lancaster in 2010. She says she helped make the decision to take the initiative from its web-based roots to its current mobile incarnation.

"What I wanted to do when I came into the project was to make it stand out from our competitors," she said. "When I came in, the team was made up of two very knowledgeable tech gurus, but it lacked a bit of the style and fashion they wanted it to be about."

Monica Mei. ((Joseph + Jaime))

What sets the business apart: As Mei also runs her own fashion label, Aime, she says the company’s old web-based platform was not conducive to attracting the right people to the What I’m Wearin’ community. " I’m in the fashion industry, but I’ve never posted on other style websites in the past because I found them difficult to access," she said. "Everyone these days has a smartphone, so what better way do to this than with a mobile application? It’s a snap-and-share."

Looking ahead: Mei says the response to the mobile application, available on Apple and Android platforms, has been positive. Earlier this year, Mei and her colleagues were among 20 Canadian tech teams to be selected to pitch for a number of Canadian venture capital firms in Silicon Valley.

"The response has been surprising," she said. "We managed to keep our hopes in check before we went to California, but when we got there we quickly realized people could see the viability of the project. And their excitement drives us to continue to perfect the product."

Advice: According to Mei, her experience in California further cemented her belief that it’s important to be enthusiastic about your product. "I saw some other presenters that, while they had great ideas, were not projecting themselves very well," she said. "If you don’t believe in your own product, no one else will — your passion shows through in the way you talk about your product."

Cassandra Rush, founder of Sassy Cassy’s Boots Inc., started her company in 2009 with help from the Canadian Youth Business Fund. She specializes in boots with varying calf sizes and was awarded the Entrepreneur of the Year prize from the Langley (B.C.) Chamber of Commerce in 2010.

Inspiration: On numerous trips to the mall to find boots, Rush found herself increasingly frustrated at the lack of choice when it came to size. "My whole life I wasn’t able to find a pair of boots to fit over my calves," she said. "I thought that someone needs to cater to different calf sizes in the marketplace, because no one does it."

Cassandra Rush.

What sets the business apart: Rush, who says she has wanted to be an entrepreneur since childhood, was able to identify a niche market not satisfied by other boot companies.

"Every other boot company only does standard sizing for calves. which is about 15 inches around the calf of the leg," she said. "The market calls for bigger sizes because a lot of women can’t zip up regular boots. My product is different because I offer different calf sizing so the boots are better customized to the woman’s leg."

Looking ahead: At the moment, Rush’s boots are sold online and at a number of shoe stores in the Lower Mainland. She says although it would be great to have a retail store of her own, she wants to focus on developing the brand first.

"I’m trying to figure out the best way to expand globally," she said, indicating she does have global experience as she works with Chinese firms that manufacture her boots. "I have been looking into bringing on sales reps in Europe and I have been looking into other countries for manufacturing, like Pakistan. It’s hard to find good manufacturers that create high quality boots and don’t believe in sweat shop labour."

Advice: Rush says that, above all else, passion and dedication are instrumental to a successful small business. "I’m very passionate about what I do so I started out being a sales rep and going door-to-door and showing retailers the boots."

She adds that doing the proper research before making decisions and signing contracts has also helped her succeed.

She says it is important to avoid spending too much money up front, because unexpected expenses will crop up and you never know when you might need that cash down the road. "I try and do a lot of free marketing, especially on social media," she said. "You have to be smart, especially in the first couple of years of your business."

Evgeny Tchebotarev is the co-founder and creative director of 500px, a web-based platform for sharing photographs. He started the service back in 2003 and relaunched it in 2009 with help from his business partner Oleg Gutsol.

Inspiration: Tchebotarev says he was part of an internet start-up company in Moscow before his involvement with 500px. "The product we were working on ended up being cancelled on the day it was meant to launch, so I decided it was time to do something for myself instead," he said.

Evgeny Tchebotarev.

An avid photographer himself, Tchebotarev had the idea to foster a community where other shutterbugs could share their work. "It happened to be that this started out as my hobby back in 2003," he said. "At the time, there was nothing like Flickr or Facebook, so it was definitely a unique idea."

What sets the business apart: When 500px initially launched, Trebotcharev says there were only three other similar services in the market. Even though that number has increased in the ensuing years, he says the time he spends moderating the site's photos is what makes 500px remarkable.

"There are a lot of portfolio services for photographers, so it’s important for our photos to stand out," he said. "This not only benefits the site, but the photographers as well."

Looking ahead: Tchebotarev says although his immediate focus is on launching an iPad application, he hopes to make 500px available on multiple platforms in the near future in order to reach a global audience.

"We are all things photography, so we hope to do everything we can do to have our platform on any device that’s out there," he said. "Photography is something that doesn’t need translation, so our company can expand globally easier than others."

Advice: In a sector as volatile and fast-moving as the technology sector, Tchebotarev says it’s important not to wait for too long to initiate your idea.

"Start early," he said. "I’m only really at the beginning right now with this product and I’m guessing it will take another five years or so before we get to a really big level."