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Exploring the ‘Micro-Entrepreneur’ Economy with Don Ludlow

Don is the Vice President Small Business, Business Financial Services, Strategy and Partnerships at RBC. He is responsible for leading RBC’s Small Business segment and teams. In his role, Don provides strategic oversight in delivering market-leading client experiences through innovative partnerships and differentiated, beyond-banking solutions to help aspiring entrepreneurs and Canadian business owners start, manage and grow their ventures.  He also leads the strategy development for RBC’s Business Financial Services portfolio, including its client experience, CRM (client relationship management) and data analytics strategies. 

Don is an experienced leader and manager with 20 years of experience at RBC, including senior sales leadership, corporate strategy and marketing.  He enables exceptional performance through a focused, collaborative and motivational leadership style. Prior to joining RBC in 2001, Don served as an Infantry Officer with the Canadian Army, where he led soldiers on a number of domestic and international operations, and worked in both staff and training roles.   

Don has an MBA from McGill University, an MSC from the London School of Economics & Political Science and a BA from the Royal Military College of Canada (Kingston).

Don also believes in giving back to the community, and helped co-found the Treble Victor Group (3V), a network of ex-military leaders who work to support one another in their post-service careers, as well as help military leaders transition to new careers. He’s also on the Chair of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, the Chair of Northstar Trade Finance Corporation and a Board Director of Goodwill Industries (Ontario Great Lakes).

Rising costs and inflation are creating a challenging environment for small businesses. Yet your recent RBC Small Business survey found that this is actually spurring interest in entrepreneurship among Canadians – can you dive deeper into this finding? 

We found that today’s economic environment is motivating Canadians to start small, nimble businesses that can adapt to rapidly changing conditions, giving rise to what we call a ‘micro-entrepreneur’ economy.

A number of factors are setting the stage for this shift. First, the rising cost of living and inflation are spurring Canadians to explore other paths outside traditional employment. Our survey found that 74 per cent of Canadian small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs are motivated to start a small business or side-hustle due to the increasing cost of living, and eight in ten reported that one income isn’t as viable of an option as it used to be and a side-hustle provides a secondary income which gives more financial freedom and security.  

At the same time, the accessibility of new technologies and digital solutions are lowering barriers to entry and allowing Canadians to quickly and easily start small businesses.

Finally, among consumers, we’re also seeing an increased hunger for more localized, customized, and authentic goods and services – a preference that small businesses by their nature are well-positioned to meet. This recent shift in customer preferences is creating fertile ground for small and micro-businesses.

Exploring the 'Micro-Entrepreneur' Economy with Don Ludlow

The survey found that younger generations of Canadians are more likely to eye entrepreneurship to adapt this changing economic environment. Why do you think that is?

While 74 per cent of the aspiring and current business owners surveyed stated that they are motivated to start a small business or side-hustle due to the increasing cost of living, this number rises to 84 per cent among Gen Z respondents. Similarly, 86 per cent of millennials say that their chief aim in starting a small business is to create a source of income to support themselves, compared to 77 per cent of Canadians overall.

Indeed, there’s no doubt that economic conditions today remain uncertain, and that younger Canadians are coming of age in a time of great change. Technology is rapidly reshaping the way we do business, traditional modes of employment are being transformed, and there’s increasingly a strong drive for ‘grassroots’ experiences – whether in the businesses we frequent, or in the companies we work for.  

Millennials and Gen Z are digital natives – meaning that they’re uniquely attuned and positioned to capitalize on the new opportunities that come from emerging technologies. Moreover, they’re also at the forefront of changing consumer preferences and attitudes about employment. All of this creates an environment where micro-entrepreneurship is more viable and desirable for younger Canadians – and our survey shows that they remain keen to tap into these opportunities, to explore entrepreneurship, and to take the reins for themselves.

Exploring the 'Micro-Entrepreneur' Economy with Don Ludlow

Can you speak more to the role of technology – how exactly is it enabling Canadians to start businesses and supporting the emergence of the micro-entrepreneurship economy across the country?

Nearly half (47 per cent) of the current and aspiring entrepreneurs that we spoke to in our survey reported that emerging technologies allow them to reach new markets and explore new ways of doing business, and the same number said that being able to conduct their business or ‘side-hustle’ online remotely lowers the overhead costs associated with starting and running a business. In addition, 42 per cent of Canadians say that digital solutions reduce the efforts for administration and back-office aspects of running a business.

In short, the accessibility of new technologies and digital solutions is the key factor that makes ‘micro-entrepreneurship’ possible.  It enables the emergence of these new, nimble small businesses by lowering barriers to entry and reduces the costs and effort associated with getting a business off the ground, allowing more Canadians to make that critical step into entrepreneurship.

Has there been a shift in consumer preferences and behaviors? How will that impact small businesses?

Canadians are increasingly craving authentic, localized, and customized goods and services – and they think that small businesses are uniquely positioned to provide this experience. 

In our survey, 71 per cent of Canadians were more likely to support businesses with an active presence in their local community. To this end, 89 per cent also agreed that small businesses are better able to provide products and services tailored to local needs, and another 72 per cent stated that they believe small businesses have the ability to innovate at a more rapid rate than larger organizations. Indeed, we know that small businesses are the backbone of Canada’s economy and of our communities – and these findings from our survey confirm that Canadians truly do see them as such.

What advice would you give to small businesses looking to remain competitive amidst rising costs and inflation?

First and foremost, the old adage ‘cash is king’ has never been truer. For a business, closely monitoring and forecasting your cashflow is even more important in an economic environment affected by rising costs, interest rates and inflation. That means a daily monitoring of cash balances and reconciliation with your accounting. It’s a good idea to implement a cash flow forecasting process on a 13-week cycle to help drive your short-term decisions as they relate to payables, receivables and inventory.

To help you monitor your cash flow, RBC offers tools like NOMI for Business, which offers a snapshot of the money going in and out of your accounts, as well as the RBC Business Cash Flow tool which small business owners can use to get an analysis of your current cash flow position.

At the same time, it can also be beneficial to explore digital and e-commerce solutions to enhance your customer experience and streamline operations. Customer needs have changed dramatically at this time, and it can pay dividends to take the time and truly understand how their needs may have evolved. What problem can you solve for customers in this environment?

For this, online tools and platforms like RBC Insight EdgeTM for Small Business that provide real-time intelligence on client activity, preferences and spending patterns can be invaluable to dig deeper into your customers’ wants and needs, and to tailor your inventory accordingly. To further boost sales and enhance their customer experience, businesses of all sizes may want to consider solutions, like Moneris, that make it more convenient for customers to pay with digital payments.

You can also invest in digital solutions to streamline your back-office activities like invoicing, payroll, and cash management. Digitally enabling your operation can help you save on time and costs, allowing you to reinvest those resources into what really matters: your customer experience.

Finally, the one thing we emphasize to every entrepreneur is: don’t go it alone. Beyond digital tools, the most important resources are often the people around you. Your accountant, lawyer, mentor or other trusted members of your professional network can all be valuable for honest feedback, advice, and support. Don’t hesitate to reach out! At RBC, our advisors are always happy to help you manage and grow your business, offer solutions to simplify your day-to-day processes, and connect you with other professionals to help you achieve your business goals.

Entrepreneurs can also access many of our tools, resources and business advice at RBC’s Starting a Business hub online.

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