W. Brett Wilson's top 10 tips for small businesses and startups

W. Brett Wilson, business veteran and co-host of CBC's Dragons' Den, offers advice for small business managers and entrepreneurs.
W. Brett Wilson has brokered deals worth $150 billion, but he now spends as much time giving money away as making it.
With as much energy as the city he calls home (Calgary), business veteran and Dragons' Den  co-host W. Brett Wilson never gets tired of bankrolling the right deal.

A gutsy negotiator with a surprising eye for detail, this big city player with small town charm helped turn a maverick startup into the energy industry's leading investment bank, brokering thousands of financing and mergers and acquisitions (M&A) deals worth more than $150 billion.

After being told by his first employer that he wasn't management material, Wilson proved the doubters wrong by translating his instincts for investing in the right people into major stakes in the energy, agriculture, real estate, sports and entertainment industries.

Wilson now spends almost as much time giving money away as he does earning it.

Growing up on the Saskatchewan prairie with a mother who did social work and a father who sold cars, Wilson was touched by his parents' commitment to give back to their own community. He promised to do the same — on a slightly bigger scale. Known for his flair for throwing a great party in support of a great cause, he is one of Canada's most successful philanthropists, having given — and engaged others to give — tens of millions to non-profit initiatives.

After surviving an advanced case of prostate cancer in his early 40s, Brett slowed down his round-the-clock lifestyle to spend more time on his most passionate priorities: his family and friends. This includes traveling the world with what he refers to as his three greatest assets: his three young adult children.

Here are 10 pieces of advice Wilson offers to small businesses and startups.

1. Follow your passion, no matter what the critics say.

I worked for about three years as an engineer at one of the big oil companies.  I discovered that I wasn't passionate about engineering. I was passionate about business. 

Despite being told by one of my first employers that I wasn't management material, I enrolled in the MBA program at the University of Calgary.  I was the first graduate to major in entrepreneurship. 

I began working right away as an investment banker and never looked back. After I started my business — a company named Wilson Mackie —  my dad asked me if I was still looking for a job. Entrepreneurs have to be willing to stay the course even when those closest to you question what you're doing.

Business high 

It's a tie.  Because entrepreneurship is in my blood, my biggest high came from co-founding my first business, Wilson Mackie 1991, which marked the beginning of my life in business.  My second was co-founding the investment bank FirstEnergy Capital Corp. in 1993, and seeing a maverick start-up compete with — and eventually outrun — the more established investment banks.

Business low

In 1999, just days before our annual fundraising event called FirstRodeo, we contracted with a company to erect tents on the rodeo grounds. The tents were the standard variety used for weddings and large events. During set-up, a metal pole came in contact with an overhead wire and an employee of the tent rental company was electrocuted. It was a tragic accident, and we were subsequently sued. Certainly no one intended this sort of outcome from an event that was to raise money for charities in our community. Very shortly after, we implemented a company-wide policy to ensure safety at our corporate events — safety for workers and safety for guests. Although we couldn't change the outcome of this tragedy, we owed it to our employees and all those we contracted with to ensure changes were made. It was the right thing to do.

2. Understand marketing.

Marketing, in my mind, is invaluable and underrated by most people. 

To this day, the most valuable class I have ever taken was called Consumer and Buyer Behaviour. It helped me understand things like product differentiation; how to make marketing memorable; advertising; the impact of brand logo and positioning, and post-purchase dissonance. I believe that a class like that should be taught within every discipline at every university. 

It doesn't matter if you are a doctor, scientist, engineer, or a lawyer — the tools of marketing are invaluable. Projects compete for capital, so you have to sell your projects. You sell your company against other companies to investors, staff and clients. It happens at every level.

3. Keep learning.

One way to reach your fullest potential is to keep learning. 

My first degree was in engineering at the University of Saskatchewan.  During that time, I studied the bi-weekly Financial Post from cover to cover. It was great education about the real world of business.

Eventually, some friends and I started an investment club. There were nine of us, and we each put in $200. At the time minimum wage was $1.65 an hour, so it was a fair bit of change for us and we just pretended like we knew what the stock market was all about.  In the end, each of us got $221 back for our $200 investment. Not only were we successful financially, we were also successful in terms of process — understanding how the stock market worked: how to buy and sell; paying commissions; following research and market trends. Those were the early days, but it was a start.

4. Have a clear set of priorities.

I learned the hard way that life is about balancing passion with priorities. Simply being excited is wandering aimlessly.  And a plan with no passion is empty. 

I often encourage people to take some time to think about their strengths and talents relative to their colleagues and pursue them, but always in balance with a set of priorities.

5. Diversify yourself.

It's all about the rounded package.  When I'm hiring, I want to see people who have excelled, whether in church, Cub Scouts, starting a small business, charity, working for a student newspaper, being active in sports or coaching younger kids. I want people who have done more than just ride the bus.

6. Think outside the job market.

If you're struggling to break into a tough job market, here's some advice your parents might not give you: There's no greater time than now to travel, spending some time making a difference in your community, and getting your education enhanced. 

Learning doesn't just happen in school or on the job. Success is not about purely academic performance. Don't take unemployment as downtime — take it as an opportunity.

7. Innovation and entrepreneurship are important in every industry.

Entrepreneurship can have a profound impact on any industry. Innovative thinkers are constantly asking the question: How can we make things better?

When we were in the planning stages for the Wilson Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence at the University of Saskatchewan, we purposely developed it as a multi-disciplinary school that would transcend the school of business, the college most commonly associated with entrepreneurship. 

But we knew that there wasn't a faculty on campus that wouldn't benefit from having innovative ideas encouraged and supported.

No matter what stage you're at in your career or what industry you work in, everyone around you can benefit from new ideas. Don't be afraid to think outside of the box —  just because something works doesn't mean it can't be better.

8. Slow down and choose wisely.

Each of us is blessed with abilities, but choose carefully how and where you will use those abilities. It troubles me how fast we push our kids in school to choose a career path. 

It takes time to figure out what you can uniquely offer to the world. I am not suggesting abandoning plans you have made.  I am saying do it with passion, or slow down and wait for passion to develop.

9. Learn from failure.

My early experience with entrepreneurial activities goes back to my youth. I recall cutting lawns for the elderly widow next door. Dad had spoken with her earlier in the spring and suggested I take on the job. I knew a friend who was making $3 per cut, and I thought it would be a good way to earn some extra money.

I didn't negotiate a price up front, I just went right ahead and cut her lawn twice a week, which added up to about 30 cuts over the summer. When I went to collect, she invited me in for a cold pop, proudly handed me $10, and asked what I would spend it on.

I was speechless.

I learned a lot about communicating and being up-front, and establishing mutual expectations. In hindsight, a great learning experience and all for a great cause — the widowed neighbour!

10. Balance passion with priorities

For many years I spent my life working 24/7. I lost my marriage and I almost lost my three greatest assets: my kids. After I nearly died from an advanced stage of prostate cancer at the age of 43, I radically reprioritized. 

That included taking care of my health first, and focusing more time on family and friends.