Venturing Out with Arlene Dickinson and her guest Diana Olsen
Episode 4: Arlene and the founder of Balzac Coffee discuss being an entrepreneur and a single mom
CBC Calgary presents Venturing Out with Arlene Dickinson. It's a seven-part series of candid conversations between Arlene and some of Canada's top entrepreneurs. They cover the highs, the lows and everything in between when it comes to starting and running a business in Canada.
In this episode, Arlene chats with Diana Olsen, CEO and founder of Balzac Coffee and a winner from CBC's Dragons' Den, Season 6. Balzac's Coffee Roasters, named after the 19th century French novelist and coffee aficionado, operates 13 cafes in Ontario. They talk about what it's like to be a successful entrepreneur while being a single mother. They also chat about how hard it can be to grow a business while staying true to your original vision.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: I always say, you're either born an entrepreneur or you're not. I think you can go to classes and they can unlock some of the skills, and maybe make you better, but did you always know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
A: I think so. My father was an entrepreneur, and I did work in normal jobs in the beginning and I never really had career aspirations. I just knew I would sort of figure out something, some business that I could create for myself. I think having my father as a mentor really helped. He really encouraged it. You and Bruce [Croxon] came along right at the time I lost my father. So it was nice to have new mentors to, you know, just to bounce things off of. You've been that for me, so I appreciate that.
Q: Thanks, Diana. It's a mutual admiration club because I respect how hard it is to build a business. I'm really respectful of what you've done with your brand. You're consistent, you're driven to have the exact same experience in every store. Is this something entrepreneurs need to focus more on, this whole notion of keeping your brand solid and true? Is that something you tell other entrepreneurs to focus on?
A: Um, yeah. I would say I'm a great entrepreneur, but I'm not a great business person.
Q: Aha! Tell us what you mean by that…
A: Well, I really see my business through the lens of my customer. And that can sometimes be costly to the business, as you know. But in the long run, I think that has served me well. It can be tough, if you're really focussing on your profits. So it's maybe slowed down the growth of Balzac's, but it's saved the integrity of Balzac's. I think after 25 years we still have something to be really proud of. We still have a café that's dynamic. We're bringing in new products all the time. We're always looking out there to see what's happening, not resting on our laurels, not making it like a franchise where it's cookie-cutter and the less moving parts the better. We're the opposite. We like lots of moving parts, to keep it exciting. And that's what's fun to me, the creative part.
Q: You're an entrepreneur and a single mom. What's that like, what is your day like, what does that mean for you? And how hard is that?
A: Well, other than the fact that I'm always rushing to pick her up at school, it's pretty awesome. I was really fortunate. Being an entrepreneur, and having my own business and sort of being consumed by that, I didn't end up having children at a young age. So by the time I did choose to have a child, my business was already established. I had the support of my whole team, they were all very excited for me. I didn't really take a mat leave but they just got it that I wasn't going to be around a lot. And they still are. Annabelle is sort of raised as the village kid. She comes to work with me a lot. I've never really had a lot of childcare for her.
I was very fortunate I didn't have to juggle so much. But I can't do anything after work. Not that I want to go and have cocktails, but sometimes for business it's a good opportunity to sort of schmooze and make connections. There has been virtually none of that for the last 11 years, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. But you know, we make it work. Moms make it work. If I had a partner, and we were both working, I think it would just be equally as difficult and a juggling act. Sometimes I think it would be even more difficult because now I get to make all of the decisions for Annabelle. There's no debate, it's just this is how it's going to be.
Q: You look at the bright side of everything, you always have the positive spin on things. The good news is I get to make all the decisions, the bad news is I can't go for a drink when I want. That might be really bad news, actually, I'm not sure.
A: Well, I play hockey every Saturday night, that's my social life. I've had to rely on a lot of sleepovers [for Annabelle].
Q: You play hockey? I didn't know that.
A: I do. That's my whole outlet from my life at home and at work. Hockey is a great way to just take your mind off everything. You're totally focussed when you play hockey.
- To find out how Diana plans to grow her business, go to cbc.ca/listen
New episodes of Venturing Out with Arlene Dickinson are available every Tuesday. Next week she will be speaking to Christine Magee, president of Sleep Country Canada.
Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or on your favourite podcast app, or listen on the free CBC Radio app for iOS and Android, or at cbc.ca/VenturingOut.