Q&A: Venture Communications' Arlene Dickinson
Arlene Dickinson would like others to learn from her mistakes as much as her successes.
Venture Communications head, Arlene Dickinson (Photo: Christopher Wahl)
Most Canadians know her as the compassionate yet shrewd investor on TV's Dragons' Den who spends almost as much time cutting down fellow Dragon Kevin O'Leary as she does brokering smart deals. But there's so much more to Arlene Dickinson. The South Africa-born marketing maven joined Calgary-based agency Venture Communications Ltd. as a partner in 1988. A decade later, she became the sole owner. Since then, she has grown Venture into one of Canada's top independent marketing firms, become an active volunteer on several boards (including the National Board for Kids Help Phone and the Leadership Council of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics), visited Canadian troops in Afghanistan, become a bona fide television star and somehow found the time to document her business philosophies in a new book, Persuasion: A New Approach to Changing Minds . Dickinson isn't burdened by her packed schedule. In fact, she'd love to do more. But she's unwilling to sacrifice precious time with family and for relaxation. As she explains to PROFIT editor Ian Portsmouth, it's all about balance.
How do you define entrepreneurship?
To me, an entrepreneur is somebody who is driven to deliver an idea or innovation into the marketplace in a way that is led by their values and beliefs. It's not necessarily somebody who just wants to work for themselves; it's somebody who is compelled in a unique way to do something because they really believe they have a better way to do it.
When you became a partner at Venture, what surprised you most about being an entrepreneur?
How risk-friendly I am. My dad once said to me, "You know, Arlene, you can go broke owing $1 billion or you can go broke owing $100. Either way, you're broke." His point was that if you don't try to do it in the largest way possible, if you don't put all your effort and energy out there-which is really risky-you will never build what you're capable of building. You might as well go broke reaching for the sky instead of going broke simply because you didn't want to take a risk.
Do you consider yourself a role model for female entrepreneurs in Canada?
I've made a lot of mistakes and I've done a lot of things that I'm not particularly proud of. So, I am a bit of a reluctant role model. But I'm not afraid to stand up and be who I am in the hope that it does inspire other people. I treat that role with a lot of responsibility.
I think that by admitting my mistakes and by sharing my journey, I can make other women see that success can come in many forms. I don't threaten them because of my looks, my age or my social status. I don't threaten people politically, because I don't lean one way or the other. I think because I am accessible and very grounded in where I came from and who I am, I am a good role model for women who are trying to figure out how to stand out in the crowd.
Which mistake has taught you the most?
The biggest mistake I made in business was not taking the time to learn the details of a balance sheet. As an entrepreneur, I was only thinking "growth at any cost." I learned the hard way about working capital, financing, the balance sheet-that entire side of the business. I didn't invest enough early on in getting a partner at the CFO level. Who knows what I left behind because I wasn't financed well enough to capitalize on the growth opportunities in front of me?
Why did you choose to write a book now?
Because of Dragons' Den , people were constantly asking me about what made me successful. It was the right time to try to leverage the profile, I thought, to talk about what was important to me. My whole profession is about persuasion; I wanted to demystify what marketing is about, to explain that it is not an evil, conniving, manipulative profession. Also, persuasion plays such an important part in my own personal goals; I wanted to explain how to persuade yourself to be the best you can be while going through the highs and lows of building a business.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur whose company is struggling with sales and marketing?
I think three tenets are critical. One, your organization has to be genuine and authentic; you have to be able to represent clearly what it stands for. Two, you have to be honest; you have to talk about what is good and bad about the company. Three, you have to have reciprocity with clients so that people feel that by doing business with you, you're giving them what they need-not just selling to them.
If you can achieve those three things, the long-term benefit is that people will be much more loyal to you.
How has being a star of Dragons' Den changed your life for the better?
I'm most proud of the impact that we have had on entrepreneurs in this country; I think it has been genuine. We've sparked real discussions among families around dining-room tables about starting businesses. That just makes me feel so proud. I've seen 1,500 potential deals [for the show], and probably triple that for the ones I get that are unsolicited. It has given me a sense of what entrepreneurs are all about in Canada. It's very cool.
What example do you try to set for your children?
I want my kids to recognize that you should live your life fully. You should not be afraid to take risks with things or to fail. While I certainly help them wherever I can, I don't ever want to have entitled children who feel that they should just get something for nothing. I was taught that you earned money; it isn't just given to you. Hopefully, I've passed that on to my children.
And I want them to know that they have to live their lives in a way that gives meaning-not for somebody else, but for themselves. If you can live your life for yourself in terms of who you are, I believe you will be able to serve others better.
I think a lot of women need that lesson, because they become martyrs otherwise. Martyrs aren't good. They never really live life and help others; they always make other people feel guilty. It's a life of servitude as opposed to life of gratitude.
How would you spend a perfect weekend?
It really varies. There are times when I crave going up to my cottage, reading and having a glass of wine and relaxing. For me, that represents some space and freedom and a lovely piece of Canada. And there are times when I just want to spend time with friends and family. These days, the perfect weekend really is just getting some solitude. Sometimes, I just crave a little time to reconnect.
What is your most prized possession?
It's a beautiful little wooden side table that my mother and father received as a wedding gift in South Africa. It's in the shape of the continent of Africa. My father gave it to me right before he died. If the house were burning down, I would want to save it. It was with me through my entire childhood in our home, no matter where we lived. It was with my father as he got older and got ill. It's something that connects me back to South Africa.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I would want my epitaph to say that I loved life, that I lived it fully and that, hopefully, I left the world a better place. People always say, "You shouldn't work so hard" or "You shouldn't do so much." To me, there aren't enough hours in the day to do all the things I want to do. I love life, I love living and I do hope that I'm making a difference.
Information is current as of the original date of publication.
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