Opportunistic Entrepreneurs

By Ennio Vita-Finzi

Many people believe that their self-worth and success in life is based on excelling at a job and working for others. They trust that their salary will be automatically deposited in their bank account every two weeks and their pension plan will eventually protect them when they retire. Unfortunately, this sought-after security can be an illusion when companies are mismanaged, or simply cannot rely on a stable economy and need to restructure. The result can be devastating to faithful employees who lose their jobs.

The Gamble

For some, self-worth involves succeeding at their own business and fulfilling their dream of independence. However, becoming an entrepreneur is a financial gamble that can affect personal relationships, take a toll on health, and in failure can be psychologically even more devastating than losing a job. The standard advice given to would-be entrepreneurs is to have sufficient financial reserves before starting off, but without sufficient capital some work at a full-time job while simultaneously starting their own business. Others start a new venture by recognising an opportunity. Here are some real-life examples:

Commission Agent

A retired (and very bored) policeman attending a Rotary breakfast met an Argentine government official on vacation. Because of the cop’s law enforcement expertise, the man confided that his government was experiencing security challenges and was seeking to import specifically related Canadian products. Recognising an opportunity, the cop registered a company, contacted ten manufacturers of those products, offering to act as commission agent for South America and signed trial representation agreements with eight. He then contacted his Argentine friend and within a year he had travelled to Buenos Aires three times, appointed a local representative, influenced the sale of several thousand dollars of products, earned a good commission and learned to speak Spanish with an Argentine accent.

House Cleaning

Based on her background in hotel housekeeping, an Iranian immigrant whose kids were in daycare all day offered to help a neighbour clean her house for a small fee. After four referrals to other neighbours, she recognized the business opportunity and created a team of three friends who, armed with their own cleaning equipment, were soon handling several weekly contracts. After nine months the new company had leased a van to carry the equipment to handle its 60 bi-weekly clients, designed its own logo and uniforms, and started training two new teams of cleaners.

Language Courses

A multilingual University professor originally from Florence was now employed as an accountant, but longed to teach again. A friend living in a seniors’ residence suggested that retired people might be interested in learning another language. The professor designed a curriculum for a basic Elementary Italian course and contacted the head offices of large seniors’ residences. One of the residences offered him a 10-session evening contract at the end of which his elderly students asked him to lead a group tour to Florence to put their new language to good use. He now teaches Italian regularly and organises groups to Italy every year.

Travel Industry

An airline representative heard that one of the travel agents he called on was looking for a trilingual travel counsellor. He recommended a friend and the grateful agent mentioned the lack of employment agencies with expertise in the travel industry. The rep saw an opportunity and started his own employment agency with his wife, specializing in travel jobs. The firm was soon deluged with qualified applicants because of that industry’s appeal, and the constant turnover of staff at the agency level resulted in a growing business. Still employed by the airline, the rep was always aware of which agencies were looking for staff and he passed these leads on to his wife. Within two years the company had four employees and was planning to open a branch office in another city.

Home-made Delicacies

Copying her mother’s recipes for her own family, a young mother enjoyed giving small pots of her favourite mixtures to friends. A friend who owned two restaurants decided to add one of her dishes to his menu and was soon flooded with requests for the recipe from customers. He offered her financing and soon she was providing his restaurants with many of her creations, while also developing a successful online service with clients throughout Canada.

Piano Expertise

A University student who played the piano by ear enjoyed entertaining his friends at their many raucous parties. A neighbor heard him practicing and invited him to a nearby piano bar to hear a professional musician. One weekend the bar’s resident pianist was sick and the student offered to play in his place. The experience of entertaining his friends helped him to lead the bar’s patrons in several sing-along choruses and the impressed owner offered to turn one of his other locations into a weekend piano-bar for him. On graduating the student created a small band which became his second source of income when he got a full-time job.

Recognizing Opportunities

It takes curiosity, imagination, persistence and a willingness to work hard to recognise and take advantage of entrepreneurial opportunities. The fact is that such opportunities present themselves to us more often than we believe and the secret of success is just to have the courage to try. As Ben Franklin reportedly said: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Ennio Vita-Finzi is a former Trade Commissioner, banker, service sector entrepreneur and College and University lecturer. Retired, he now writes and often mentors others.