Profile of a Successful Canadian Entrepreneur

Arlene Dickinson is no dragon. Despite the fact that the owner of Venture Communications is a hard-nosed investor on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, in real life, Dickinson is every bit the passionate entrepreneur one might hope—and is as humble as any hard-working Canadian we talk to at CBJ.

Originally from South Africa, Dickinson came to Canada with her family when she was young, her father hoping to emigrate somewhere with better social circumstances for his children. Dickinson speaks about Canada with reverence. “I love the country. I’m truly passionate about Canada and I think we’re truly blessed to live in a land with so much going for it.”

Dickinson’s father was an educator, and later an entrepreneur. Dickinson reasons that her upbringing and success is much the result of his influence. “He raised me to believe that you’ve got to take care of yourself and society, and society doesn’t owe you anything. He told me you can do anything if you really want to do it. I am blessed to have a family that instilled in me a belief that anything is possible if I wanted to put my mind to it,” she says, adding, “and Canada is a fantastic place to do it.”

Originally entering the workplace in order to support her family, Dickinson ended up in the marketing field, and says, “When I joined Venture, I realized I really had an aptitude for marketing.”

On her venture: Venture Communications

Dickinson joined Venture Communications in 1988, becoming sole owner of the company just 10 years later. Venture is known for being “unconventional to the bone.” The company boasts an impressive list of clients, from Subway Restaurants to Toyota to the Canadian Cancer Society.

Dickinson, as the owner of Venture, brings to the table several unique qualities. She says that when she took over, she “brought a lot of practical understanding of people. I’m able to cut through people’s need to sound smart, in order to really get to what they want to say. I really enjoy my engagement with people.”

She goes on to explain her problem with new online media networks. “That’s my beef with social networks, it really takes away some of that real personal interaction where you can understand someone through their body language and through their expressions, and how they engage with you. I love that and I think that’s what the consumer and what marketing is all about. Understanding people, understanding business. And business is all about people.”

Venture has been recognized in the past as one of the country’s best managed companies. Dickinson says that “the model for the organization was founded on trying to answer a market need as opposed to how this business had traditionally been established”, adding “we were able to create a business model that was not only unique but also able to be profitable and would make a difference in the business of the clients we worked for.” She maintains that her strategy comes from the market not wanting another ad agency, but something more.

On work and life balance

Dickinson has done what’s she’s done with her family always at the forefront of every effort. With four children and a busy home life, she has faced what many female entrepreneurs face: the struggle to find work and life balance. But she has managed to come out on top, blessed with the support of those around her.

“I always say that my family built this business. It’s not a career or a family, it’s both. Everybody has to provide support and encouragement and you have to have the latitude to be able to do both things. I just happened to have four kids that were really great, strong young individuals. When I look at my grown daughter who now has two kids I think, ‘Wow, how did I do that?’ But we all did it together. We all sacrificed where we needed to, but we always ensured that our family was the most important thing. I really believe it takes a village to raise a child, in the same way it takes a family working together to create a business opportunity.”

Of course, Dickinson recognizes the personal challenge that comes with being female, but also running a business. She says, “The groundwork has been laid for women to be successful as entrepreneurs. The challenge is more about women and life balance, about what you’re willing to give up and what you’re not,” adding, “and that’s personal decision.”

On leadership…

Dickinson has run Venture for several years now, and says that she’s learned a lot over time. “As I’m getting older I’m getting wiser. I’m letting people do what they do really well,” she says. “You have to surround yourself with people that are more talented than you are—recognizing where your talents lie. Most entrepreneurs think they can do everything but the fact is: entrepreneurs should be bringing vision and passion into their organizations, and taking hurtles out of the way for the people that are much better at delivering the vision than they are.” She adds that the best quality of an entrepreneurial leader is the ability “to champion people to a cause, get them committed to a purpose, and then be able to stand out of the way while they deliver on that.”

Dickinson also warns those who try to gain financial help on Dragons’ Den to be prepared—above all else. She claims, “I don’t suffer fools lightly”, but of course she has to be hard at times, in order to give new entrepreneurs the tough love they need—especially on the show.

And now… the advice

With the ever-increasing popularity of Dragons’ Den, more and more new business owners are taking their chances in front of the Dragons’ panel, hoping to gain some of the financial backing they need to secure their projects. But Dickinson says that there is much more to starting a business than simply having a good idea.

“When entrepreneurs come in front of us they frankly need to really understand their business. The ability to be passionate and purposeful is evident. If they don’t believe in it or understand how to present it in a compelling and factual manner, and they don’t tell us in a way that explains how we’ll leverage our investment, then they’ll never be able to build a business.” She admits that the Dragons will not always be right about the businesses they choose or choose not to support, but not being selected doesn’t mean that the idea is bad. However, she does say that if an entrepreneur is not selected for financial investment, it should never be because “we didn’t think that you could do it.” She adds that the Dragons may not see the business opportunity in every idea that is presented, but that doesn’t mean the Dragons don’t believe in the idea.

Her advice to new entrepreneurs is simple. “Make sure your vision is clearly understood by the people around you. Ensure that you hire people that are experts in your field, and always hire people that you think are better than you can afford. Make sure you’ve got a good CFO, and that you believe in the vision yourself.”

Dickinson also has advice for new business owners in the tough economy that exists today. “You have to make sure you have a business model that is viable. Make sure you have a strategy in which marketing is playing a significant role in the execution of the strategy. Marketing is a business enabler.”

What’s next?

As for the future, Dickinson plans to continue investing in new business ideas on Dragons’ Den, and simply enjoying what has grown into a tremendously sustainable career. “I’m having so much fun doing what I’m doing, and it seems to evolve every day. I want to just continue to do what I’m doing, and realize my vision for Venture, which is to build a marketing company that’s highly creative and highly accountable. I want Venture to continue to be a strong independent in the country.”

And, not surprisingly, Dickinson doesn’t plan to stop being entrepreneurial anytime soon, saying “that’s a sign of a good entrepreneur—you never stop. You’re never done.” Venture Communications operated out of offices in Calgary, Toronto, and Ottawa, and currently employs 175 people.

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