COVER

GOING IT ALONE

Canadians dream of running their own businesses

JOE CHIDLEY December 29 1997
COVER

GOING IT ALONE

Canadians dream of running their own businesses

JOE CHIDLEY December 29 1997

GOING IT ALONE

Canadians dream of running their own businesses

Like any opportunity, it carried an element of risk. Until three years ago, Stephen Gardner had slugged it out as a researcher and producer for various

Toronto television organizations—a veritable serial employee for CTV, CBC and TVOntario, the provincial public net-

work. By age 27, he felt he had hit a glass ceiling. “When I was in broadcasting,” he recalls, “I just

felt that there was only so far I could go.” In July, 1995, he took the big leap and started up his own one-man video and

TV production company, optimistically called Shoot for the Top Productions. The first year of business was tough—to say the least. “Basically,” Gardner says,

“I went from making $35,000 to negative $5,000.” Since then, business has turned around, thanks in part to the support of his wife, Erin, a lawyer, and in part to his growing comfort with being in charge of his own destiny. In 1996, Shoot for the Top turned a profit; in 1997, for the first time since setting up the business, Gardner expects to earn more money than he did in broadcasting. And he says he would not go back to work for somebody else even for a higher salary. “I’ve learned so much,” he adds. “And I love the challenge of doing business.”

That is a challenge that many Canadians would like to share, according to the Maclean’s/CBC News year-end poll. But it is only one aspect of attitudes towards work that emerge in the survey, which asked Canadians about a host of employment issues—from their preferred size of business to work in to whether they would be comfortable with a female boss (81 per cent said they would). In all, the poll reveals a self-reliant, confident workforce that

seems to be adapting to the often-tenuous realities of work in the 1990s. Canadians, in fact, appear to be embracing a concept similar to one espoused by economist E. E Schumacher in 1973: small is beautiful. And independent is even better. In a time of continued corporate downsizing even as the economy is relatively healthy, the poll suggests that the allure of employment by big organizations has had its day. Asked what size of company they would prefer to work for, a plurality of respondents—41 per cent—said one with around 10 employees. Next most popular was about 100 employees (31 per cent). Businesses of 500 or 1,000 workers garnered only 10and 13-per-cent support, respectively. Of those who would prefer working for smaller companies (100 employees

Workplace fantasy 63% say they would rather be in a business on their own than work in a company

or less), fully 55 per cent said the biggest

attraction was “a friendlier, less formal atmosphere.” The next most common reason, at a distant 14 per cent: the perception that smaller employers are more loyal to their workers— and less likely to lay them off. Given a choice, however, a majority of Canadians would prefer to be their own bosses. Asked whether they would rather work on their own or for a company, fully 63 per cent chose the independence option. That preference was

stronger among men than women (67 per cent compared with 59 per cent). And it was most popular among the youngest age-groups—18-to-29-year-olds

and 30-to-39-year-olds—many of whom entered the workforce during the recessions of the early 1980s and early 1990s.

Catherine Swift, president of the 88,000member Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says those numbers reflect not only a burgeoning optimism fuelled by a recovering economy, but also an increasingly pragmatic view of the job market. The brass ring of the postwar economy—lifelong employment with one company—is a decidedly remote prospect for most workers in the 1990s. “I think there is a mix of idealism and realism out there,” adds Swift. ‘There is a growing sense that the old job-for-life is not as prevalent—those types of jobs are drying up for a lot of people.” According to Swift, about 40 per cent of the Canadian workforce is either self-employed or in a business of 50 employees or fewer. And she says that now is a good time to think small. “I think people are realizing the role smaller firms have in the economy, and it’s become more acceptable to aspire to that kind of future,” Swift adds. “There is no question that there are a lot more open doors now than 10 years ago.”

If the economy is favorable for independent business, then Canadians also have two other things going for them: their desire for fulfilling employment and their commitment to the work ethic. Fully 96 per cent of poll respondents said having a job that gives them personal fulfilment and happiness was important. (Making lots of money earned a relatively small 58-per-cent importance rating.) And 92 per cent of respondents (including 94 per cent of under-30s) agreed with the statement, “If you are prepared to work hard, you can still get ahead.” It’s an attitude that no doubt comes in handy for Canadian entrepreneurs—and even those who would just like to be one.

JOE CHIDLEY