As entrepreneurs across Canada strive to turn their dreams into reality, Ownr saw an opportunity to empower small business owners. Shane Murphy, CEO at Ownr, discusses how the platform has evolved from a simple idea into a critical tool for a growing segment of small business owners, and the current trends shaping entrepreneurship.
The idea of entrepreneurship tends to paint the picture of a scrappy tech start-up led by university-educated founders, which ignores the rich diversity of small business owners across Canada. From your local Portuguese tart place, to your favourite online store for handcrafted candles, every business deserves a chance to thrive. However, the excitement of getting a business off the ground and cultivating an idea can obscure the administrative side of the equation.
Solopreneurs – individuals who operate their business alone without any partners or employees – are a growing segment of small business owners in Canada. For a significant group of solopreneurs, their businesses are side hustles to augment existing income from their full-time jobs. Given their limited resources, they often face barriers to starting and scaling their business. For Shane Murphy, CEO at Ownr, this challenge presented an opportunity to serve entrepreneurs at critical stages of their business journey – especially at the onset – by simplifying the process of business incorporation and registration.
To keep its pulse on the state of entrepreneurship in Canada, Ownr conducts an annual survey to examine the sentiment and behaviour of small business owners, with its latest survey data launched earlier this month. From their response to economic uncertainty, to how they leverage the tools and resources at their disposal, the data shows how small business owners have adapted to change, offering timely insights that allow Ownr to continuously refine its services.
Since its inception, Ownr’s team of 3 has grown to 75, and supported over 130,000 Canadian businesses with entrepreneurs at the helm who needed a push to get their idea off the ground. In this sit-down, Shane breaks down Ownr’s growth journey based on how it’s mitigated barriers to entry for Canadian entrepreneurs.
Having been a lawyer and a founder, how has your career experience shaped the way you think about how Ownr serves entrepreneurs?
My experience as a corporate commercial lawyer supporting small business owners was truly the inspiration for the broader business of Ownr. As a lawyer, I was part of an industry that was going through a rapid period of change and disruption. I think many entrepreneurs build a business around their background, and in my case, it started with legal services. When I found myself as an entrepreneur, I was put in the position of finding services to support entrepreneurs. It opened up a new world of opportunity that led to Ownr developing new products over time while continuing to go deeper on legal services. While my journey started with legal, I would say that I view myself as more of an entrepreneur who wants to help other entrepreneurs thrive.
Historically, business incorporation and registration involved paperwork that would typically be prepared with a lawyer, which cuts into essential operational expenses. Ownr’s key service is the ability to easily incorporate or register a small business online in Canada. We provide the full service of setting up a business, including a full suite of documentation for legal and compliance purposes. Once entrepreneurs get started, our digital platform enables them to fulfill their responsibilities to their respective companies throughout the lifetime of their business. It also helps business owners to maintain compliance, which can get overlooked as companies scale.
What challenges have you seen persist among entrepreneurs in Canada?
Every stage poses a different set of challenges, but I always come back to the initial phase because that’s where it’s key to alleviate mental barriers by telling entrepreneurs they can get started without putting everything at risk. There’s much debate about how developed an idea needs to be when starting a business – entrepreneurs might start with a rough idea and pivot, or wait until the perfect idea. Personally, I don’t think the perfect idea ever comes early on. At this point, it’s about helping entrepreneurs with an idea that’s good enough to get them off the ground and recognizing opportunities to refine it.
For those who start their business, evaluating the risk and reward amidst the rising cost of living and economic uncertainty is becoming more prevalent among entrepreneurs. Our past survey data has shown that 1 in 4 entrepreneurs who started their business as a side hustle were motivated by the additional revenue source. Accessing affordable services through platforms like Ownr can help reduce risk, and put entrepreneurs at ease.
Once they’re in the thick of business growth, a classic problem is building a team to scale – 65 per cent of respondents who identified as solopreneurs want to expand their team with the goal of growing their business. While I’m quite passionate about what solopreneurs do, their companies need a team to scale. Solopreneurs require the right talent, which doesn’t come cheap. Outside of compensation, people can’t be bought into the vision – entrepreneurs need people that will trust in their judgment as they pivot or look for new opportunities. Fundamentally, recruiting talent is more than a cost challenge – it’s a people challenge. If you’ve got the right people, you can figure out an optimal compensation model through a combination of equity and salary.
Looking ahead, balancing cash flow with inflationary pressure will continue to be top-of-mind in how we support entrepreneurs. While there’s no easy solution, entrepreneurs remain an optimistic bunch – 50 per cent of the respondents from our recent survey feel more optimistic about their business plans now compared to six months ago.
While there is value in formal education, there is a significant segment of entrepreneurs exploring alternatives. How should different generations of entrepreneurs approach education to benefit their business?
Entrepreneurs need to be realistic about what role education can play when they’re running a business and trying to grow. There’s no course on earth that’s going to have all the answers. In fact, only about half of small business owners received any formal business education. Formal education is only one of many tools and resources in an entrepreneur’s roster, which can be useful in more ways than one. For example, an MBA program and CFA designation also brings a network of like-minded people that is going to be invaluable as the business grows.
Alternatively, I’m not going to advise against doing a course that’s primarily based on online videos. If people find value in it, we should never write it off. Whether it’s an institutional program or an online course, it’s important to go into it with an open mind, be critical and thoughtful, and build connections with other people. More than half of the small business owners we surveyed have taken advantage of online educational resources to learn more about business and entrepreneurship, including online courses or workshops (57.6%) and YouTube videos and blogs (55.7%).
It comes down to balance. Think about this in the context of talent – some might have an incredible amount of academic knowledge, while others have more on-the-ground operational experience. This combination can create a well-rounded team with diverse perspectives and expertise that can help the company thrive.
With time and money being critical for entrepreneurs, how should they evaluate what tools and resources they should invest in?
To touch on my previous answer, it’s critical to connect with others. This is especially valuable for solopreneurs who want to build a sustainable business of one – they can’t do it completely in isolation, or worry too much about divulging secrets to potential competition. They can be quite open about their experience, which will be key in finding the tools and resources suited to their industry in their current stage of growth. We’ve already seen an increasing reliance on technology, with 69.4 per cent of small business owners using it to run their business operations. However, some platforms might not offer the same value to a larger business as it would to a smaller business, so entrepreneurs need to look at what others are doing and ask the right questions about user value.
That being said, we need to look at the common challenges faced by companies – capital, customer attraction and compliance. Two self-serve tools everyone would need outside of a platform like Ownr is a robust accounting and bookkeeping system, and a customer management tool. Similar to the way Ownr minimizes legal costs, small business owners can reduce their spend on accounting and bookkeeping along with sales services to find a balance between the cost of time and working capital.
What are some of the key administrative processes for entrepreneurs that can get overlooked?
Employee administration for small businesses in the early stages can be challenging. Many entrepreneurs have trouble with their initial hires adhering to payroll standards, along with employment law standards. From payroll to tax deductions, it’s a shame to see how often small business owners get it wrong as they navigate other elements of business growth.
There’s also the matter of insurance. Ownr’s product roadmap is founded on an open dialogue with our users, understanding what they would find valuable and what questions are on their mind. “How do I start my business?” “How do I register or incorporate the business?” “Where do I bank?” Once Ownr solved these problems for them, we moved on to the next frequently asked question – do I need insurance? We didn’t want to offer it as a referral program – we wanted to make it part of the comprehensive platform experience. Since we launched Ownr Insurance, we’ve seen exceptionally strong conversion for the service from our business registration platform. It’s one less thing for small business owners to worry about.
Overlooking these processes can truly come back to haunt entrepreneurs. With incorporation, many small business owners might think, “Oh, I’m not a corporation. I’m just a small business,” so they don’t do that extra research to figure out whether incorporation is right for them. Often, this impact manifests in opportunity costs. For example, there are potential tax savings from incorporation if you have grown to a point where you can reinvest some of your revenue into growing your business. Another case is when you’re incorporated, you’ve separated your personal assets from your business assets. If something goes wrong with your business, you’ll know that your personal assets are safe. Even for incorporated companies, ongoing compliance is critical to keep a business in good standing as the government can simply dissolve the corporation, which would hurt the entrepreneurial landscape.
Following the acquisition of Founded Technologies by Ownr as an RBCx venture and RBC, what is a key benefit you’ve used to refine Ownr’s offerings both for its client base and within the broader bank?
While Ownr was conceived in-house at RBCx, the tech infrastructure that runs as Ownr today was built by Founded Technologies, which was my entrepreneurial endeavour. I’ve seen how the infrastructure operates outside the bank without the institutional resources, so we could see the benefit RBCx and RBCx provided.
When Founded was acquired in 2020, it allowed us to leverage a wealth of insights and resources that RBC has for targeting small business owners and expanding our market. We were able to propel our growth and pursue new initiatives in a more informed and data-driven way. More importantly, integrating with RBC allowed us to directly entrepreneurs to banking services within that same platform they used to incorporate. For example, entrepreneurs can open a business bank account without ever leaving our platform and get up to $300 off on your business registration.
What are some foreseeable trends you see for the future of Canadian entrepreneurship?
I think the big trend right now is the rise of solopreneurs. People know that they can operate a business without a whole team of employees or external service providers- they can do it all themselves through a very well-managed tech stack tapping into all the payment processors, e-commerce sites, bookkeeping tools and other applications that allow them to manage their business from their phone. The successful solopreneur will be plugged into the tools available to them and creatively integrate one tool to another. Within the foreseeable future, the sophistication of solopreneurship will continue to grow. We’ll likely be seeing businesses of one that have managed to scale their operations and get acquired for staggering sums of money.
The other trend that we’ve seen is the perception of entrepreneurship. We’re entering an era where entrepreneurship is on par with traditionally respectable sectors such as law and medicine, as it’s going to require an increasingly defined skillset combined with ambition and creativity. Entrepreneurship won’t be the alternative to failing at something else – it’ll be an aspiration resulting from the courage and ambition to build something on your own in pursuit of your own vision.