Lessons of a Wandering Entrepreneur

February 27, 2018


I always wanted to own my own business. I remember driving with my mum to school one morning and she asked me what I wanted to do and after a brief silence to contemplate the question I said "own a lot of businesses, use the morning to make sure everything was going well and then play golf in the afternoon." Perhaps the motivation came from my parents who were both entrepreneurs. My dad was the first Afro-Barbadian to build and own a hotel in Holetown on the West Coast of Barbados, and my mother ran her own bakery. She has been retired for more than fifteen years and people I meet on my travels often ask if she baked today. That is a huge compliment that I also take pride in  because not only did I answer the call at 2:00 a.m. (usually with a groan) to knead the dough by hand, I also delivered them in the morning while the bread was still warm. Being the one that provided the service as the owner, CEO, or artisan there is a great source of satisfaction when demand continues unabated even after supply has ceased. A happy customer is worth more than gold.


I started my first business in the summer before my final year at Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada: Handy Stewards. I had one employee, a student from France. We offered a home maintenance and cleaning service to retirees. We could barely keep up with the service requests as we would do anything they wanted us to do. Word spread like wild fire in a town of 6,000 and we became like their grandchildren helping them in the kitchen, in the garden, cleaning windows, cleaning the oven, moving boxes, getting rid of clutter, you name it we did it. At the end of the summer we gave notice and went back to school. On hindsight we could easily have run that business all through the year by hiring cash strapped students like me to continue the service. I can see now that the Handy Stewards concept was a gold mine and that if properly accessed for its impact potential, could have steadily grown into a multi-million dollar business. The shortcoming was that we thought of ourselves as a couple of students, and our clients as a bunch of sweet old ladies. We didn't have the insight to realize that we were at the forefront of what would become the Senior market. We made good money that summer saving my parents the expense of supporting me and then we released the operation with demand bursting through the roof. 


August 1989 saw me graduate into a Canadian recession. I was at the time unaware of why after I had followed the prescribed path, holding a BA in Economics and Business, that the only job I could find was a Management Trainee at Wilson's Papetrie (French for stationery) making $5.00/hr. I stepped into the position with the same enthusiasm that I applied with the Handy Stewards: Smile! "Bienvenue a Papetrie Wilson's monsieur. Je peu vous aidez" I connected with the customers in every way. The store manager and supervisor were both wonderful Quebecois ladies and helped me a lot. The manager was about 35 and the supervisor was my age or maybe a year or two younger. She was beautiful, tall, shapely, and full of life. For her age she was still very girly and playful, like she grew up protected by her parents, never allowed to see or experience the hard side of life. I wish I could remember their names but like the infamous Damian Marvay experience made into song, I remember the face, their smiles, hair color and voices, but not the name.  We were having a lot of fun, the indignity of a graduate of Lakefield College School to be making $5.00/hr faded amid the growing sense of belonging.


Proud French ladies and gentlemen could tell I was English and sometimes showed their displeasure that I was not fluent or that my enunciation was improper. Their body language demanded that I learn, I responded by asking them to teach me. I found that by genuinely showing interest in their culture and submitting to their instruction that I won them over. Not one of them asked for a Francophone sales person. I was enjoying the routine of work and earning money, being independent  from my parents. I rose early to catch the subway and was at work by eight in the morning after a 45 minute journey. I was working there for three months, eyeing my promotion when, at the end of this particular day, the very attractive supervisor and I were alone closing up the store. It was late in the evening, just after dusk, the conversation was light, we were laughing; it wasn't the first time that we had shut the store together. The aluminum and acrylic accordion sliding door was drawn with a few lights still providing illumination. We were at the counter by the till gathering our items before we left when  she said something that opened the stage for a bit of my humor to which she laughed heartily and afterward replied, still smiling and with the deepest admiration: "Oh Mark, don't be such a nigger." The words curled from her beautiful lips as easily and innocently as if she were sharing her thoughts with a friend at a showing of Bambi. I was dumbfounded, angry, hurt, annoyed. She never stopped smiling oblivious to the invisible and insurmountable chasm that had grown between us. If I said anything after that I can't remember. We finished closing the store, walked to the exit together and said our goodbyes. Her father collected her while I went tho the subway station. The next day, to the surprise of everyone, I gave my two weeks notice. I said that I was going to pursue my dream of starting a magazine. It was true in a sense because the night before, full of righteous indignation and determined to regain my manhood, I decided that the only route for me was to start my own business. Two weeks later I enjoyed my last day, smiles and hugs for everyone including the beautiful and naive supervisor. Four weeks later I received my last check, was still trying to figure out how to start a magazine, and stubbornly unemployed. Six weeks later I was broke and seven weeks later I was a bus boy in a French restaurant on Sherbourne St., a decision that allowed me to take home unsold food at the end of the night so that I wouldn't starve.


In January of 1990, my Aunt Honor told my mum about the Alberta College of Art (now the Alberta College of Art and Design) and I took the opportunity, moving to Calgary soon after. I was always an artist and pursued management studies because I had only ever heard of artists that made lots of money after they were dead. When I graduated Lakefield, I didn't love art enough to starve for it. After my experience climbing the corporate ladder in Quebec, whatever life I would eke out as an artist was preferable, it would be a pure expression of self. I studied painting and visual communications at ACA for three years, left in 1993 after running out of money, and entered a friends handy man operation as a laborer.  A year later I bought out my friends one truck operation and  offered freelance graphic design services on the side. I also used to paint jean jackets, pants and sweatshirts for my friends under the brand Em-man. In 1995 I returned to Barbados and started Markitart - signs and designs in 1996, which was my pride and joy until 2010. Along the way I dipped my fingers in a few other pies. I started SIMSPORT Marketing which had two clients: West Indies Cricket and KFC.  In 2004 I partnered with my brother in starting a drywall operation and by 2007, 90% of my revenue was derived from construction. It has been a wondrous journey, more like a river than a roller coaster. Most times it was steady paddling over calm waters, going with the flow; sometimes I had to paddle hard in the rapids and even capsized a few times. I had to forage for food, build my own fire; bears, badgers, wolves and black belly sheep would nick my food teaching me to protect myself at all times. There were moments that I thought about giving up and I have been an employee on occasion for brief periods, but the call of the wild is stronger than the politics of the office. I learned a lot and have a lot to share even if I don't have a lot to show.


Looking back there are a few things I would do differently though. I would  work for the best and largest company that would hire me for about five years in sales, marketing, and/or operations. Just to learn their system. It is important to have one. Unless you constantly review case studies, and/or have a really good mentor you wind up spending a lot of time in trial and error, which often translates as one step forward and two steps back.

The other thing is to build a team around you whether they are friends, investors or employees. Napolean Hill called it a Master Mind. You won't be able to see everything on your own and cant do it all by your self. As an artist I know it is almost impossible to look at your work objectively with it so close; you must step back and sometimes step away.

In terms of success you have to set your own definition. Whatever definition you use, I believe it has to be framed in terms of harmony. Harmony with the wants and expectations of all of the stakeholders; harmony with the physical environment, and most importantly your self. You just can't be successful if you are constantly compromising your own standards and principles. In economics one dollar above the break even point is the most basic standard of success. Keeping in mind that 75% of startups fail within the first two years, to make a profit is an achievement. Just remember when you are calculating the break even point to include your salary and your values as well.


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