From Farm to Fish to Fintech
By Dave Gordon
Michele Romanow spent her childhood on a Regina, Saskatchewan farm, with chores that included everything from mowing the lawn, pulling weeds, and even changing car tires.
“There were no boy tasks or girl tasks. It was just farm mentality, where there was work to be done, and you did it,” said the tech entrepreneur and the youngest of TV’s Dragons’ Den judges.
“Inadvertently, that turned out to be such a powerful message,” noted Romanow.
She quickly learned she became the “scrappy woman who really built something from nothing.”
Her business ventures began as a Queen’s University student in 2006, when she opened up a sustainable coffee shop. “It gave me the first sense that I could build something.”
Not long after, she and two friends launched Evandale Caviar, a start-from-nothing sturgeon caviar business out of New Brunswick, “the craziest thing that three twenty one year olds could come up with.”
Romanow and partners had to literally scout out and hunt for fishermen, fishing boats and haggle for licensing.
The hands-on farm girl hauled sturgeon to a manufacturing plant, where she did “all of the processing – a really polite way of saying ‘getting the fish to the end product.’” In their first year, they netted roughly $100,000. The recession hammered the business, but that didn’t deter the trio.
In 2011, the launch of the discount ecommerce site, Buytopia.ca, had its humble beginnings at a convention booth – with merely a screenshot of the website-to-be. It became one of Canada’s fastest growing companies, with 2.5 million subscribers.
She also co-founded SnapSaves, a mobile couponing app, acquired by Groupon in June 2014. Romanow had already brought four successful companies to the fore before her 28th birthday.
Among scores of business ventures, she currently heads financing platform clearbanc.com.
Today, Romanow is on the list of 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada, and was named as one of the Forbes Top 20 Most Disruptive “Millennials on a Mission”.
Pie caught up with Michele Romanow, to ask her about what makes a business tick, and where she likes to travel…
Since 80 per cent of businesses flop in the first five years, could it be because many don’t realize that they are obligated to do everything necessary?
CEO isn’t ‘Chief Executive Officer’ it’s ‘Chief Everything Officer.’ I think it’s hard to know – there are a lot of reasons businesses fail, so it’s hard to put it down to one but certainly this is part of it.
You just have to do whatever it takes to succeed. I believe there are people who keep hustling, they keep living one more day and eventually build a big company out of that. I think that is just a really important part. I think that you’re right. Most often people are not prepared to do what it takes to win. They don’t appreciate how scrappy it’s going to be. They don’t appreciate that they are, literally, going to have to do everything. If you are not ready for that, it’s probably not the best choice.
You often talk about the rate of disruption. How is that going to affect business?
The rate of disruption is just so substantial now. If you look at the time of a company on the S&P in 1952 it was 50 years; today it’s 20 years the average lifetime.
So you are getting disrupted at double the rate you used to be. I think you want to be trying to look at the solutions that are the most cutting edge. Artificial intelligence is up next.
We are already seeing radiologists with machines that can do this much better than people who’ve been looking at broken arms and X-rays forever. That does not mean we do not need people anymore, it just means we are going to use people in a totally different way.
How can a company best position themselves differently, amongst its competitors?
If you are going to, for instance, build an ice cream company, your start up doesn’t need to be twice as good as what is out there already. It needs to be ten times as good. That’s what your standard should be. If things are like ‘eh, that’s a little bit better,’ you have to change consumers’ behaviour, you have to market, you have to teach people about your product, you have to do an enormous amount to get this in your hands. So, if you are not going to be ten times better, you’re not going to win. Look at Swell, the water bottle company.
Water bottles have been around a long time. People have been putting water bottles in tradeshow bags since the beginning of time. Nobody is short on water bottles at their house. Swell comes out and they create a truly better water bottle. It keeps things colder for three times as long. It looks great.
Now she’s able to create a multimillion dollar company, but she truly has something better. It’s not just ‘not another water bottle’. Everyone knows there is a huge market in water bottles, or ice teas, or ice creams, or whatever it is, but are you really better than Häagen-Dazs? Because you are going to have to be to win.
What is the thing that has brought you the most meaning?
That’s a good question. I think that ultimately, it’s been the teams that I’ve worked with that have been the best. It’s very easy – now that I’m a celebrity – to be about me, me, me, and I did this. I didn’t do all this on my own.
We did this with a team of incredible people who were along for that journey in building it with us. You have people that you’ve worked so closely with and you’ve solved problems that – it seemed for the longest time – to be totally insurmountable. You did it with people you liked and really cared about. That brings you an enormous amount of joy. There is nothing that can replace what a small and mighty group of people can do. I think it is easy to get caught up in all the struggles and why things don’t work. But when you build a good team, it’s pretty awesome.
So, what do you look for in the people you work with or surround yourself with?
The highest amount of talent for the lowest amount of drama.
There’s a lot in that. It’s not just an off the cuff statement. You are looking for talented, smart people who are incredibly hard working, don’t give up. And then you are looking for people who are not there to make it constantly about themselves, constantly cause issues. It truly is that ratio. How talented you are versus how much drama.
What differentiates a good manager, from a great manager?
I think great leaders are able to constantly paint the amazing vision of what is not there, but what could be, and conceal their own fears. Because, the reality is when you lead, you have no idea what is next. As an entrepreneur, after ten years, I think my hit ratio has gone up a little bit.
Maybe instead of one in five ventures working out, one in four ventures work out? You never quite know the future.
The best leaders just have such a strong sense of, ‘I can see this, I can build this, I can sell this to you, and I can actually hide the fact that I have no idea what’s going to happen.’ It’s not an un-genuine hiding. It’s that you need someone to say, ‘If this is going to happen I believe in it.’ Good leaders make good plans. They can rally good teams. Really great leaders just continue to see the future, and not share their fears as they bring the team along. Which is why it is so lonely as a leader.
Behind the scenes Dragon’s Den, what is something that people might not know that goes on?
We make fun of each other a lot. We make fun of each other for falling into their own stereotypes. ‘We knew you’d say no to that one!’ and ‘You just had to do that, didn’t you?’ These are really good fun. None of us knew each other. There are deals that we’ve done together, and all of us really care about entrepreneurs. That’s one thing that really binds us together.
We all got into that chair in a very different way – very different professional accomplishments, very different style. There was a totally different kind of risk taking.
It’s really long days. We sometimes see twelve pitches a day. So, you can imagine, on the twelfth one, you’re just tired.
What is a common entrepreneurial mistake?
I think the first mistake is just not getting going. That’s usually the one that I see as most.
Tell me about your favourite travel destinations.
I’ve been to so many amazing places. I think top of my list was a safari in Kenya and Tanzania. It was just so magical. The thing about the safari that they don’t tell you is you are in this jeep and you get so close to the animals. The jeep is like an inanimate object. It’s like a shadow. It doesn’t feed the animals, it doesn’t interfere with them. So, you can be a perfect voyeur into these animals’ lives. I loved that. I did India ten years ago.
I did it the year before Caviar. It was a magical trip that I still take a lot of things away from.
It is just the ultimate place where you realize you don’t need money to be happy. There’s so much spirit and joy, and colours, community. It’s a really cool place. It can be a bit intense if you are not expecting it, but I was expecting crazy. So, it was good. I did a really beautiful trip in Vietnam that I absolutely loved, if you want something calm. To go to the rice fields, and Sapa, take a bike and ride. It’s just a really cool spot. Then, for work I do a lot of North American travel – lots of New York, lots of San Francisco, lots of Toronto.