In the Den of dragons
Born in Alberta and raised in Saskatchewan, Michele Romanow had already started three businesses before she was 28. Today, she is listed as one of the 100 most powerful women in Canada. With all her experience, Michele divulges to DTK her story of success, her advice to young innovators, the positive and negative impacts of social media, and how the solution to climate change may be at the hands of future entrepreneurs.
By Daisy Mellar
Michele started her entrepreneurial story while studying engineering at Queen’s University in Kingston. Realizing by her second year that she was going to be much better at building businesses than bridges, she started brainstorming ideas with her friends and launched her first venture, The Tea Rooms, a sustainable coffee shop on her university campus that is still there 11 years later.
Michele’s second business, however, took a bit of a different form, with the idea originally gaining her some funny looks: “By the time I graduated, I had figured out that [the] worldwide supply of sturgeon caviar was down by 95% because we had overfished the Caspian Sea. So, I was crazy enough, with two co-founders, to write a business plan and then to actually move out to the East Coast of Canada and build a fishery from scratch. That is literally everything it sounds like: boats, fisherman, my hands knee-deep in fish. I mean, this was one of the most glamorous products with one of the least glamorous supply chains.” She reminisces of her experience with good humour, although, with the unfortunate recession in 2008, demand for the product ceased, and the business collapsed.
Michele was never far away from her next venture, starting again, this time in the world of e-commerce. Going on to co-found Snap (originally SnapSaves) and Buytopia, Michele is also now the youngest ever Dragon on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, joining the cast five years ago, this season. During her time as a Dragon, Michele felt there must be another choice for e-commerce entrepreneurs other than the archaic option to take debt from a bank or raise money from a venture capitalist, both of which have great setbacks. She therefore set out to launch her company Clearbanc, which provides revenue sharing solutions to fund new online businesses, without taking equity or personal guarantees. Admirably, Clearbanc has also funded eight times more women than the industry average as the decision to invest is based solely on data. The outcome of Clearbanc is that entrepreneurs can affordably borrow the capital that they need to grow, without having to give up a piece of their company.
It is safe to say that Michele is really motivated in completing her life mission to make and build successful entrepreneurs. I ask her what her advice would be to young people who aspire to be innovators: “I think the most important thing as a young person is to just start. You just have to get out there and start your first business, and that will be the best education you will ever get in your whole career. Some people ask me, ‘So, how are you successful?’, and I literally just think I started early, so I tried more than anyone else. I’ve had so many projects that have failed in my career… I think I never gave myself excuses. We have to separate as women that there are some disadvantages, but there are also some huge advantages, and, I think, like anything in this world, one always comes with [the other]. I mean, imagine if I had read the study that says, ‘Well, if a woman pitches a business, it gets fined 20% less’, or whatever the number is. I never think about that. I just think, okay, that person didn’t understand — I have just got to do another pitch, and, ultimately, persistence and resilience solves almost every problem. People laughed at me throughout my career. People thought it was crazy that I was going to go build a fishery. People thought it was crazy that we were going to build an e-commerce company when I didn’t have a background in technology. People certainly thought it was crazy when I said I was going to build a bank having never been in financial services or technology. But, ultimately, when you understand your customer, you can build something really extraordinary.” Michele’s passion and drive are apparent.
Regarding social media, I was curious to gain Michele’s insight to its relationship with entrepreneurship. Her response expresses how social media is a great mechanism for businesses to gain a direct relationship with their customers. However, she continues, “I think, in addition to that, you know, in some ways that social media has gotten so polished, that I think the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, where we are looking for more authenticity than ever before… I think we are facing a backlash in some ways; you know, there is only so much perfection humans can handle until they are like, this is just not real anymore. Everyone’s life is a little bit messy and a little bit difficult, and it’s actually by being, you know, tough and resilient and persistent through those messes that you can build real companies.”
Lastly, I ask Michele how the worlds of entrepreneurship and environment intertwine: “If you don’t treat your employees correctly, they eventually leave you, and you eventually have problems. It’s the same thing with the earth… I think entrepreneurs have the best ability to solve the world’s problems, and [I hope] I can do a little bit of that through Dragons’ Den, a little bit of that through Clearbanc, a little bit of that through not-for-profit work. Those are the things that really matter to me.”