On CBC’s Dragons’ Den, Michele Romanow fields pitches from some of Canada’s most hopeful entrepreneurs. As a serial entrepreneur herself, it’s a job she truly embodies: recognizing opportunity, and knowing how to create something magical.
By Teresa Harris
Michele Romanow isn’t in the business of ‘making it’ — at least not in the traditional sense. An entrepreneur who by the age of 33 already has four businesses under her belt, to Michele, success is not the byproduct of impressive profits, or high-profile acquisitions (although she’s experienced both.) Instead, she lives her life by one compass: opportunity. And while it has taken her career in some unpredictable directions — from a fishery to a regular seat on CBC’s Dragons’ Den — it hasn’t led her astray yet.
Michele launched her first business — an on-campus, zero-consumer-waste café — while studying at Queen’s University. Following its success (the café is still open for business today, 11 years later), Michele and two of her engineering colleagues, Anatoliy Melnichuk and Ryan Marien, spent their last year of undergrad playing one game: “We spent hours trying to come up with the next million dollar idea,” Michele remembers. “Anything and everything was on the table.”
This led to the discovery of an unexpected industry in dire need of disruption: caviar. Due to overfishing, the world’s caviar supply was down by 95%, and even the biggest names in the business were unable to access the seafood delicacy.
“We asked one of the most famous chefs in America why caviar wasn’t on his menu, and he asked if we had any to provide him,” Michelle explains. “We realized then that if a really famous chef couldn’t get the product, no one could. So off we went.” First-hand research informed their business plan — “The internet is only going to have, at most, 15-20% of the info you actually need,” says Michelle — and after winning a few startup competitions, the team relocated to Evandale, New Brunswick, which had one of the few remaining natural supplies of Atlantic sturgeon, to launch Evandale Caviar.
Having never even set foot in a fishing boat before, Michele couldn’t have guessed that her first gig out of school would send her wading through the ocean in rubber boots on Canada’s east coast. And despite the business’s eventual failure, the experience only focused her drive to continue to create and innovate.
“As an entrepreneur, you feel like you’re failing 90% of the time, and succeeding 10% of the time,” she says. “You just gotta keep going, and when something starts to work, it’s magical.”
It didn’t take long for the magic to start happening. After taking a strategy job at Sears in 2011, Michele quickly noticed that the way consumers shopped was shifting. Eager to return to her entrepreneurial roots, she launched Buytopia, a dealfinding site that by 2013 had 2.5 million subscribers and had provided over $100 million in shopper savings.
“As an entrepreneur, you feel like you’re failing 90% of the time, and succeeding 10% of the time. You just gotta keep going, and when something starts to work, it’s magical.”
Her next business, a mobile couponing app called SnapSaves, further capitalized on changing trends in retail shopping by digitizing traditional paper coupons. A huge success, SnapSaves was purchased by Groupon in 2014, and rebranded in the U.S. as Snap by Groupon.
“I always thought that my job as an entrepreneur is to search for great opportunities in places where the markets are broken.” Looking back at her two successful businesses that followed her foray into caviar, it’s clear to see that Michele’s entrepreneurial strategy is disruption. So what does she see as the next industry in need of disruption?
“The next ten years are really going to be about revolutionizing financial services,” she says. “The customer experience that people have come to expect is totally different than what the customer is getting in financial services. Consumers want the Uber experience — service at the tap of a finger.”
This prediction, along with her personal desire to see entrepreneurs succeed, is what informs Michele’s newest company, Clearbanc. By providing business loans based on data insights rather than personal credit scores, Clearbanc hopes to facilitate entrepreneurs with great ideas, but less-than-ideal financial backgrounds.
“Small business banking is broken to non-existent. If you walk into any bank across North America and say you need capital, they’re going to say ‘It’s so nice to meet you, write me a business plan that I’m never going to read, we’ll give you credit based on your personal credit score.’ That’s not small business lending, it’s personal lending disguised as small business lending.” Having gone through the challenging process of self-funding her businesses simply because she didn’t know how to access capital, Michele hopes to eliminate the layer of bias that prevents viable business plans from getting off the ground.
“Algorithms don’t discriminate. In my version of the story, we use data sources to make better underwriting decisions and give [small business owners] capital with zero personal guarantee.”
This year, Clearbanc estimates they will lend over $100 million, which is more than most Canadian venture capital funds will do over four to five years — a remarkable milestone for a company that is just two years old.
“It’s my personal mission to empower the people within my organization to be able to go off and build their own thing if they want to. Because it’s how you solve problems in the world: you build companies around how to solve those problems.”
When she’s not leading the Clearbanc team as President, Michele finds incredible value in her board positions at Freshii and Vail Resorts. Inspired by Freshii’s founder Matthew Corrin, Michele was eager to contribute to his mission. “He is an extraordinary entrepreneur, and has built one of the fastest-growing restaurant chains in the world. To help him expedite that growth when [Freshii] went public was exciting for me.”
It’s this desire to be surrounded by not only a solid support system, but those that ignite her passion for creation and growth, that informs the way Michele curates her teams. Instead of hiring individuals with the intention of them staying with her for the long-term, she takes a different approach.
“If anyone I work for wants to become an entrepreneur, my job is to make sure they acquire my skill set within two to three years of working for me,” she explains. So far, four of her previous employees have launched their own businesses, and Michele has jumped on as their number one supporter, and in some cases, their first investor. “It’s not only my job in terms of Clearbanc’s mission to create more entrepreneurs, but it’s my personal mission to empower the people within my organization to be able to go off and build their own thing if they want to. Because it’s how you solve problems in the world: you build companies around how to solve those problems.”
So what are the skills Michele hopes her employees — and anyone she works closely with — acquire? “I was only successful because I was extremely scrappy, early and throughout my career. I believe in being the Chief Everything Officer,” she laughs. From living in rubber boots for fifteen hours a day to hitting the streets to promote Buytopia, Michele’s lived experience proves one thing: successful people do what unsuccessful people weren’t willing to do.