Women in B2B: Overcoming entrepreneurial challenges with Mandy Gilbert

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This is the third instalment of our new profile series on B2Bnn: Women in B2B, sponsored by SqueezeCMM. With these profiles, you’ll learn about the careers and business goals of inspiring female leaders in the B2B industry. 

A recent study by Dell reports that Canada ranks second in the world among the best places for women entrepreneurs to do business. That’s good news but it doesn’t mean being an entrepreneur is easy. Toronto businessperson Mandy Gilbert discovered that first-hand when she launched her staffing business Creative Niche just a couple of years after the dot-com crash in 2002 only to run into another even bigger crash six years later in 2008.

“It was a huge risk,” Gilbert says. That may be an understatement as not only was the economy just rediscovering its legs, but she was leaving the security of a well-paying gig with another established staffing agency. For maximum drama she was newly married, had no savings, no business plan and no clients.

So what else is a true entrepreneur to do but go ahead anyway?

Recalls Gilbert, “I didn’t do a business plan, I didn’t try to get small business funding. It was extremely hard 13 years ago—you know, coming off a recession, SARS, the war was happening … . At the time the only opportunity to get any kind of funding for a small business if you were let go from a company was collecting EI and some other programs. I didn’t have any of that and, honestly, I didn’t want to wait six months to start the business. So my husband and I went to the bank and we said we were going to upgrade our furniture and we got $10,000 and I spent eight of it.”

Et voilà, Creative Niche was born.

The Toronto-based company is a temporary staffing, permanent recruitment and executive search firm specializing in advertising, communications design, and many more verticals.

Ethical practice and a culture of philanthropy have always been guiding principles for Gilbert who made a point of poaching no clients from her previous employer when she left. She wanted to build the business from the ground up and, unlike bigger, more faceless operators in the industry, focus more on quality over quantity.

In practice she explains that this means spending more time with candidates and clients to build relationships. Of course, when you’re a small business—often the equivalent of a mom and pop going up against a Walmart—personalized service is virtually a baseline requirement for success.

Wearing many hats

However, it wasn’t easy building the relationships that would turn a company started with just one employee (herself) and $8,000 in seed money into one with 20 employees and $9 million in revenue 13 years later. In a story that will be familiar to almost every entrepreneur, Gilbert wore many hats, doing business development by day and interviews in the afternoons into the early evenings.

It was difficult and although she knew she’d have to weather what she calls a “confidence storm” there were times when she had her doubts. Nagging at her were those slows days when she didn’t get any callbacks.

“And you start doubting yourself and thinking maybe your competitors are so great. And who’s going to trust a small business? And who’s going to give me a shot when they can work with an established firm that’s been around forever?”

Her solution was to simply put her head down and focus on things that build confidence. “Entrepreneurial highs and lows are pretty extreme,” she says. “And I never told anybody, but I really did ‘fake it ‘til I made it.’ And—entrepreneurial specific—we suffer silently a lot of the time.”

Ultimately, she drew strength from the challenges. “It energized me because you’re seeing impact, you’re seeing the growth, you’re building relationships. They were great years. I loved my first few years in business. Up until that point I’d never felt so connected and energized.

Going beyond the niche

Today Creative Niche offers more than just staffing (temp placement, contingency/permanent placement, and executive search) and also does workforce consulting, management of strategic creative projects and custom creative team creation. The company has also expanded outside of the country, including one recently aborted foray to Amsterdam as a gateway to Asian business. Expansion continues into the US in Cincinnati and a formal New York office is in the works, though Gilbert is tight-lipped about those plans. The company also has an office in Ottawa.

Gilbert is quick and effusive about giving the credit for Creative Niche’s success to the team she’s built and not just because it’s boilerplate. She says one of the hallmarks of being a good leader is knowing when not to lead. Like so many famous business leaders before her, Gilbert didn’t finish college where she studied marketing and graphic design. By her own admission she was “never an academic” and struggled in school. But she had the entrepreneurial spirit (and $9 million in annual sales says she’s doing something very right) and getting straight to work interested her much more than studying for it.

She counts as a weakness, “anything to do with a lot of fact finding. Research is not my strength. I get energized by understanding challenges and opportunities and helping clients and my team figure those out and collaborating. That’s what I try to focus my energy on. And then anything outside of that and leading the company I engage my great team to handle.

Gilbert adds: “I have the best team in the world. Give me credit for hiring them and maybe steering the ship through some tricky times but I have to really give it to my team. They’re incredible human beings. They’re committed, they’re awesome people, they’re hard working, they’re smart, and they have amazing values.”

How to overcome Creative Niche’s biggest challenge

Outside of launching, perhaps the trickiest time was the 2008 financial crisis, which struck Creative Niche hard and fast. The company lost staff and money, dropping to 13 employees from about 22 and facing dramatically reduced business prospects.

Gilbert is brutally honest here. “I’d just had my second child. I had a lot of management in place and it was really tough. It hit us very quickly—within 6 weeks. We had a lot of money on the board, down to $30,000 that we were working on. Everyone was panicked and I wasn’t a great leader. I think as entrepreneurs we tend to start businesses because we’re good at something, but we’re not always great at leading. And I was really struggling.”

But again, she put her head down and worked through it. She sat with the CFO and crafted a strategy for weathering the storm, which included Gilbert returning for a while to day-to-day duties as a producer.

“That’s how I felt I could contribute to our culture,” she says. “And it would show to everyone that, ‘Hey, we can’t control what’s going on outside, but we can control what’s happening in here every day.’ And we literally started celebrating the smallest of accomplishments. Sometimes that looked like, ‘I had a really great conversation today’ and we would celebrate that.”

She noted the firm was able to recuperate all of its savings very quickly. “We really scaled down our spending. And then a year later we reinvested and went global and that’s when we opened up in the US and then Europe.”

‘It’s a really good time to be a woman’

With perhaps one complication—the difficulty of taking maternity leave—gender hasn’t presented a hurdle for Gilbert in meeting any of these challenges. In fact, she says there’s never been a better time than today for women entrepreneurs, and not only because there are more programs than ever in the form of incubators, government supports and other organizations. “It’s a really good time to be a woman because there’s a lot of great peers, there’s a lot of great women entrepreneurial networks so you can do some sharing on what’s happening in your personal and business life and get some advice so you’re not isolated.”

Gilbert also does a lot of work mentoring, serving on advisory boards and speaking at panels. Interestingly, her advice to other would-be entrepreneurs is a bit of “do as I say and not as I do.” Start-up owners have to temper their optimism and plan properly.

“Make sure you’re asking business minded people who’ve had some success and not just your family,” she says. “And make sure that [your business idea] is fleshed out and that you’re going to have enough money to actually support the business to give it a good lifeline. So if that means that you need to work longer and save some or get a line of credit or try to apply for a business grant, look at your options and make sure you have enough to actually invest. Because entrepreneurs are often way too optimistic about how quickly they’re going to make money and how quickly they’re going to grow their company.”

Despite the challenges she’s overcome she says that even if she could go back in time and do it all over again she would do nothing different. “I think you just have to do what you do. And I’m 13 years wiser so I don’t even think it would be fair to my former self to say that. You have to make mistakes and you gotta fail and you need to get humbled. Sometimes you get completely flattened and that’s how you learn and that’s how you develop.”

 

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Samson Okalow

Samson Okalow

Samson Okalow is a Toronto-based business writer. He has held editorial positions at a number of publications , including Canadian Business, Strategy and Adweek. He has contributed to numerous other publications including Playback, the Globe and Mail and Report on Business.