There is no official textbook definition, although there are lots of misleading and faulty clichés and mom-and-pop stereotypes. But it is informally and widely acknowledged that “small business” is often misunderstood.
It’s not so much about cash flows, revenues and branding. Although small business is tough to categorize, there’s unanimous consensus that it’s a vital thread in the fabric of Canadian business.
Recent Canadian stats show that there are no generalities. Small business is no longer the mom-and-pop cliché as much as a vital fact of almost every business sector, especially in a dynamic and entrepreneurial business community like Calgary. Small business could be IT and cybersecurity firms, personal trainers, oilfield services, mobile dog grooming, brick and mortar or online retail, in-home contractors, landscapers and more.
They are important and they matter! National stats show there are more than 1.2 million small businesses in Canada and it is a business sector which contributes more than 30 per cent of Alberta’s GDP.
This month’s (October 17 to 23) Calgary Small Business Week events and awards are an opportunity for small business to network, underscoring the importance and value of small businesses to the Calgary economy.
“The impact of small business in our individual communities is often underestimated,” says Tyler Brown, regional manager, Prairie Region of TD Bank Group and a judge for Calgary’s 2021 Small Business Awards. “While a business may seem relatively small, the cumulative impact of their operations, and those of other nearby small businesses, really does have a big economic impact. Small businesses reflect the different backgrounds of their owners and employees, with unique approaches, ambitions and goals. They help shape the culture of a community and create shared experiences that bring people together. It’s important for local communities to recognize the diversity these businesses bring to our economies and neighbourhoods.”
Mohammad Keyhani, associate professor and area chair in Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the Haskayne School of Business explains that “The ‘small’ in small business is often judged by the number of employees. Small businesses (under 100 employees) are lumped in with medium-sized businesses (100-500 employees) as Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs). About 98 per cent of businesses in Canada are SMEs. Almost 90 per cent of jobs, especially private sector jobs, are in SMEs and a majority of new jobs that are created in the economy are created by SMEs.”
It’s well known that there are business advantages and disadvantages to being a small business.
While small businesses took the brunt of the lockdowns and business disruptions over the last 18 months, because small businesses are usually hands-on operations, they also have the ability of immediacy and rapidly responding to business broadsides. “COVID-19 has shown that small businesses need to be flexible, resilient and sometimes a bit creative to be successful in today’s environment,” Brown notes. “They should have a solid business plan and strategy, know their market, reflect the values of the communities in which they work, and have a strong relationship with those supporters that want them to succeed.”
“Small businesses generally suffered more during the pandemic,” Haskayne’s Keyhani says. “But many of them also found interesting ways to adapt to the new conditions.”
Brown emphasizes the value of small businesses in the Calgary market. “They are crucial to the Calgary economy. They create jobs, generate wealth and contribute to the creation of culture and community. They create shared experiences that bring people together, and they are committed to excellence in both their business practices and their contributions to our communities.
This year, Calgary’s Small Business Awards will recognize ConnectFirst Small Business of the Year Award for the Calgary small business that has demonstrated significant business achievement and sustained growth; the Surecall Community Champion Award for a business who, through the pandemic broadsides, has pivoted operations and supported their community; the TD Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Award for the business leader in progressing principles of diversity, equity and inclusion; the Helcim Emerging Growth Award for the new emerging small business that has shown rapid growth and profitability in its first 1to 3 years of operations; the MNP Innovation Award for the Calgary small business that is pushing conventional boundaries through ground breaking innovation and achievements; the Servus People’s Choice Award (determined by a public vote) for the small business that demonstrates engaging the loyal support of the community; the RBC Resilient Business Award for showing resiliency, compassion and dedication throughout the pandemic; and the CPA Alberta Social Entrepreneurship Award for the business which finds ways of doing business while doing good for the community and environment.
“The judges carefully reviewed the many applications to better understand each organization’s commitment at all levels and the work being done to make meaningful change,” he says. “The judges made the selections based on the organization’s demonstrated commitment and impact.”
Two examples of Calgary’s small business excellence and recent winners of Small Business Awards are:
- Leap Studios – the popular Calgary dance studio committed to happy, healthy and safe dance education
- Showpass – Canada’s unique, innovative and Calgary-based event management platform
“As a third-generation small business owner, the most valuable lessons about small business are: take the time to diligently watch and listen before you speak, your market will show and tell you what it wants; don’t waste time comparing yourself to others and build your business to be so unique that it’s incomparable; save for rainy days; and hire well,” says the upbeat Jill Williams, president of Leap Studios.
According to Lucas McCarthy, CEO of Showpass, small businesses have advantages over big businesses. “The smaller the business the fewer resources there are to control the narrative, while the bigger the business often clouds messaging due to the layers of people. Small businesses have less ability to correct the market through hiring communications teams but, the positive is that the stakeholders are generally much closer to the heart of the business – the owner. You can talk directly with the owner of a small business, something that you can’t do with any Fortune 500 conglomerate.
“Relentlessness, discipline and passion are the key drivers to turning your small business into a large business,” McCarthy says. “Passion drives dedication and energy and it impacts key touchpoints like customer service.”
Williams points out that financing is the most common speedbump of most small businesses. “When it comes to innovation and job creation, we hear ‘small businesses are great!’ When we talk about risk or traditional financing and investment, small businesses have a much harder haul. Small businesses bet on themselves every day, and then do the work to make it pay!”
Managing the business disruptions of COVID-19 was a particular small business challenge. “It was, by far, the most difficult thing anyone inside of Showpass has had to deal with on a professional level,” Lucas McCarthy says. “Our team members, investors, partners and other stakeholders view the Small Business Award recognition as external validation that the effort, the grit and the tears were worth it.”
Williams acknowledges the valuable timing of the award. “It boosted the confidence and pride of our small business in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. Gaining recognition as a resilient small business, especially during a crisis, helped us drop our shoulders and deeply reflect on the gratitude we hold for our customers, employees and suppliers for standing by us, and to the greater business community for endorsing our efforts.”