I have been entrepreneur minded my whole life. Growing up, there was a big chestnut tree in our front yard and these huge chestnuts would fall every year. I didn’t only see nature, I saw opportunity. I asked my dad to drill holes in the chestnuts so I could make jewelry! I would paint them, thread a string through them and set up a table at the end of our driveway to try and sell them. I was seven years old! I actually started my first business when I was 16. I needed a job, but I also needed flexible hours so I could focus on my music studies. I bought a $500 car with rolled up quarters and loonies that I had saved from a summer waitressing job and started ‘Music Matters - piano lessons that come to you’. Because we lived in the country, it provided convenience for families instead of having to drive to a town centre that offered lessons. Eventually, ‘Music Matters’ grew into a music school that I established in Russell, Ontario when I was 19. In 2001, I partnered with my husband to start a transport refrigeration service called ‘Thermo-Trans’. He was the mechanic and I handled invoicing. That venture grew into the ‘TIF Group of Companies’ which now has 90+ employees throughout Canada and the United States. The group includes ‘Willow Sound Records’, my record label and publishing company as well as BarBox. These are the two startups that I am most focused on these days.
What ignited the spark in you to start a new business venture or to make significant changes in an existing business? How did the idea for your business come about?
They say that ‘necessity is the mother of all invention’. I think that applies to the business partnership between my husband and I. He had been a GM of a large company and was feeling burnt out from the long hours and lack of compensation. At the time, we had four kids and a mortgage so when we decided to venture out on our own, failure was not an option. When you have mouths to feed, it becomes about survival. My husband and I worked very well together as business partners. We are completely different in our approaches so we were able to balance each other out and create a multi-million dollar corporation. The original company was all about survival, but then we had the opportunity to grow and acquire other businesses and creative startups - kind of like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I have experienced many aspects of business, from startups to mergers and acquisitions - but the original spark was necessity and survival.
What were the biggest initial hurdles to building your business and how did you overcome them?
The first hurdles that I faced were internal, I felt a lot of self-doubt and fear. As a mother, I no longer had the ability to be fearless. I could fail when it was just me, but failing when I had a family to support was unthinkable. Battling through those insecurities was transformative for me. I think that the most challenging external hurdles to building a business are the Canadian banking system and Canadian government itself. There is a fundamental tension between the public and private sectors and a negative ‘internal culture’ toward business inside most government agencies - particularly the CRA - that makes it very difficult to grow and succeed. There is zero support for entrepreneurs in Canada when you grow past a certain point. The ‘support’ they do provide comes with lead strings. The system is organized against ambitious entrepreneurs who want to grow. It can be very detrimental, but I overcame it by understanding how the system works and educating myself on who is actually there to serve and realizing the power in that knowledge.
Did you ever deal with contention from your family and friends concerning your entrepreneurial pursuits? How did you handle it? What would you do differently in hindsight?
A little bit! In hindsight, the only thing that I would do differently is take better care of myself both physically and mentally. Growing companies and raising seven children took a toll on my health. I sacrificed things that I would have loved to have in my life in order to make it all work. Knowing what I know now, I would have approached things a little differently. That being said, I truly don’t believe that we would have seen the success that we have if I did anything differently. The reality is that it takes a lot of sacrifice to build something that will last beyond our own lifetime. As far as family and friends go, I have learned never to hire family - other than our children! Extended family and business can get messy and cause rifts. The one thing that I did not expect was our success creating distance with friends that we had for years. Things changed when we reached a certain level of success, it’s hard to put into words but I feel as though money has a very real effect on relationships. Anyone who knows me, knows that I did not grow up with very much money and my internal driver has never been wealth. I am motivated to position myself to help others, which is why the unspoken tension within friendships took me by surprise.
What would you say was the single most influential factor in your business success?
Survival! Seven kids in competitive hockey is very, very expensive!
What do you know today that you wish you would have known when you first got started as an entrepreneur?
Banks are not always your friend. Insurance is mostly a scam. You are completely on your own and there is no safety net.
I was very naive when I first started out. I thought that creating jobs would be supported and celebrated. There is no celebrating or support outside of your own sense of purpose. At the end of the day, what matters most is who you are as a person, your authenticity and your honesty. The long term relationships in business are what get you through everything - the good times and the bad. When we faced very troubling and scary situations, it was the relationships we had that got us through. Business is simply about people.
What advice would you give to an upcoming entrepreneur locally and internationally?
Cash really is King. Make sure you have access to an adequate amount of cash to get established, then set some aside for growth. If your venture takes off, your growth factor can become a nightmare if you don’t have access to enough cash to support it. Realize that you are on your own and surround yourself with a team that you can trust. Have faith in yourself. Be the kind of person that you want to be surrounded by. Remember that business comes down to people and relationships. It truly is all about who you know - who has your back and who knows your heart.
Lastly, Melatonin works very well for those many sleepless nights (so does wine).