Q&A: The co-founders of Ryan Murphy Construction have successfully led their general contracting business through a few economic downturns.

Lara + Karen

Lara Murphy is one half of Ryan Murphy Construction, a woman-owned construction and contracting company based in Calgary, Alberta. Lara and her co-founder Karen Ryan met on a construction site in 2008. Acknowledging how rare it is to work with other women in the construction, renovation, and general contracting arenas, they teamed up to bring something new to the construction industry. Ryan Murphy Construction has been growing steadily and has been disrupting the industry with each of their corporate, commercial, and residential projects across Canada.

 

How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?

Events like the global pandemic and fluctuations in the economy requires us to always maintain an in-depth working knowledge of our financial performance, and goodness knows there has been a lot of fluctuation in Alberta in the last 12 years! We launched our business during the 2008 global financial crisis, made it through the Calgary flood of 2013, and persevered during Alberta’s oil and gas market decline. Our team’s agility in accommodating these changes has been crucial to our momentum, and it continues to show throughout the pandemic. 

Hard decisions had to be made about staffing; we decided that we had to put some team members on temporary leave to ease cash flow strain, and fortunately, we were able to bring people back in September of 2020. 

Before the pandemic began, we were working with strategic consultants to evaluate the business and collaborate with our team on scalability. When the pandemic hit, we actually had the time to sit with our core team and personally evaluate our company goals and strategic direction, which wouldn’t have been possible without the “down time” during the pandemic. At the time, it seemed counterintuitive because we didn’t know how the pandemic would impact the company, but the insights we gained and the changes we made refocused our business and resulted in geographical and fiscal growth.

Has your approach to sales and marketing changed? 

During the pandemic people were shocked, sad, frustrated, and unsure of anything. Some of our clients and friends lost their businesses, and many people had lost loved ones. We knew this was not the time for traditional marketing and decided that we’d share uplifting, optimistic, comforting, and supportive messaging. Our social media posts were inspirational, humourous, informative, and provided people with a much-needed smile and the reassurance that we were in this together and were going to pull through together. 

Check-ins with clients, partners, and tradespeople were frequent and more focused on their well-being. Video calls with them became the norm and included a combination of laughter, vented frustrations, tears, and, occasionally, wine. This dedication to our clients resulted in strengthened relationships and new projects once the province began to reopen. 

How has technology played a role in your business during this time? 

Technology certainly helped prove to clients that remote work is effective, and it created an alternative, efficient work life balance for our team — a new hybrid model for people to move more freely while accomplishing their goals. We were able to encourage our team to continue feeling purposeful and supported during a difficult time, while placing emphasis on their ability to be successful — both individually and collectively. Video conferencing platforms replaced our in-person meetings for project and client management, and it was also used to check in with the team when we were all working from home.

At our sites, we wanted to prioritize the safety of our clients and people in trades, so we implemented and invested in a touchless QR code system as a new approach to an onsite safety measurement for required sign-in’s, health checks, meetings, and more. This allowed us to continue to work during the pandemic and was easy for our tradespeople to manage on their cell phones.

How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?

Because of COVID-19, I’ve learned to adapt to having a day-to-day mindset, and to appreciate small joys and achievements more fully. Pre-pandemic, I was constantly going from meeting to meeting, gone all day from the office and from home. Once lockdowns began, there were no more events or travel (and no hair colouring!), which was somewhat of a welcomed relief — I was able to spend time with my partner Liv and our dog, Ruby, during her final days. A few months after Ruby left us, we were lucky enough to adopt two new pugs, a mother and son — sweet Rosie and hilarious Bubba. Spending so much more quality time with Liv and the “kids” has been fabulous, and we even carved up the mountains on a ski trip together. This slower pace made me able to be more productive and focused, and allowed me the space to not only imagine new personal and professional goals, but to achieve them.

Our team felt the same way, at times choosing to work from home or adjust their schedules to better suit their work and their mental health during such turbulent times. We had many more check-ins, supporting each other and sharing our experiences. This work environment has lasted, as we saw that our staff were happier and just as productive — if not more so — when they are able to have flexible schedules.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?

Make time to strategize as a team — no interruptions, no rainchecks. Get everyone in a room — safely in person or virtually — and have them do exercises to define the company and ways to envision growth and enrichment opportunities. During a brainstorm session, everyone can call out words that define the company, or write down ideas for change. This dedicated time is priceless. It creates a real investment in the business, allows everyone to have a chance to share their diverse voice, and strengthens team bonds.

Why it’s important to approach philanthropy holistically — regardless of your income.

Lydia Potocnik

For Lydia Potocnik, philanthropic planning is a career as well as a passion. Trained as an Estate Planning lawyer, she began her career working in philanthropy planning for a hospital foundation in Toronto. “That role really allowed me to appreciate the work being done by charitable organizations and the impact donors can have with their wealth,” she says. 

Now, as Head of Estate Planning & Philanthropic Advisory Services with BMO, Lydia says more Canadian women are making plans for philanthropic giving than ever before. Statistically, women tend to be more strategic in their approach to giving, looking for ways to contribute time and money, maintaining meaningful relationships with charities they’re supporting, and using their philanthropy as an opportunity to be a role model for their families. 

In order to account for personal financial needs and wants — both current and in the future — Lydia suggests that women take a more holistic approach to their wealth in order to ensure that their philanthropic goals are met. A good wealth plan, she says, will look at tax planning, wealth protection, estate planning, business succession planning, and philanthropy planning, and every aspect should consider a woman’s values, goals, and concerns. 

To help simplify the process and make sense of philanthropic planning, we sat down with Lydia to discuss. 

Where should a person begin when it comes to philanthropy?  

The best place to start would be to get clear on your values and determine which causes and organizations best align with those. If you decide you want to have an impact with your giving, it’s a good idea to think about what that looks like to you. 

Do you need to have a large amount of wealth in order to be a philanthropist?

No, you don’t need to have a significant amount of wealth to be a philanthropist. This is something you can build toward throughout your lifetime. However, it is important to note the difference between charitable giving and philanthropy. Charitable giving is often a one-time donation made in response to an immediate need, such as shelter or food or medical assistance. These contributions are often emotional or empathetic and provide short term relief — like donating to an emergency response fund. Charitable donors usually don’t enter into a long-term relationship with the organization. 

Philanthropy, on the other hand, is a much more strategic — and personal — undertaking. Instead of focusing on short-term fixes, philanthropy aims to have a long-term, sustainable impact by identifying and addressing the root cause of systemic societal issues — everything from addiction and poverty, to racism and environmental causes. 

What can someone do if they don’t have a significant amount of wealth but still want to begin their philanthropic journey?

There are several things they can do. Even without a significant amount of wealth, you can still make a difference with a charitable organization. I often tell individuals to reach out to the charity and find out what is important to them and what they’re trying to raise funds for. If you direct your giving toward a specific project, then you’ll be able to see the impact of your donation and that’s going to make it a lot more meaningful to you. 

If someone is looking to become more philanthropic and has a larger amount of funds to allocate, what advice would you give them?

I would suggest they meet with a wealth advisor to determine how much they can afford to donate during their lifetime and combine this with their estate planning. By giving some money away while you are alive, you can experience the impact that you are having while also creating a legacy. An advisor can assist you with establishing goals and aligning them to your vision and values by taking a more strategic and long-term approach. They will often include the charitable organizations you want to support in these discussions. 

Why is an advisor recommended? 

An advisor will have experience helping individuals identify their goals and values and will also make educated recommendations as to how you can meet those goals. They’ll also consider your financial ability to make donations while alive and provide advice on the most tax efficient way to do so. 

How important is planning and goal setting for younger women looking to begin their philanthropic journey?

For younger women, we typically recommend they divide their income into three pools: pay yourself (your savings), pay your expenses, and then give money to charity if you can afford to do so. We recommend a similar approach to children as they learn to navigate finances with their first allowance. 

With women, it’s especially important to make sure that your own needs are met. We have found that with Millennials, there’s often a desire to get more involved when it comes to philanthropy. They often like to do things more publicly, get involved in broad-based fundraising initiatives, get their hands dirty, and get involved with the charity rather than just giving money. Boomers tend to be a bit more private and don’t always want to reveal who they are when they give money. Philanthropy looks very different to different demographics. 

Regardless, the one thing that should remain the same is the plan. Having clear financial and giving goals will help you meet them without any added stress. 

Are there any tools that can help women establish philanthropic practices earlier in their careers?

The Donor Advised Fund (DAF) tends to be ‘step one’ for a lot of women before they establish a foundation. The goal of this type of fund is to put in a minimum of $10,000 up front, which is earmarked for charity. 

The whole amount is invested and every year, you decide how much you want to give to a chosen charity. You’ll get a tax receipt for the $10,000 when it’s invested. You can also choose to skip a year of donating if your focus is aggressive investment. When you’re no longer here, you can appoint someone else to take on the fund and continue to support the charities of your choice.

Q&A: serial STEM entrepreneur Sherry Shannon-Vanstone on launching and scaling a social network.

Sherry Shannon-Vanstone

Sherry Shannon-Vanstone is a serial entrepreneur, mathematician, innovator, philanthropist, and mentor. Passionate about STEM, business, and philanthropy, Sherry is the Founder and CEO of Profound Impact Corporation, a social engagement and interaction platform that helps universities, colleges, research institutions, and social impact organizations increase connectivity, collaboration, and measure their impact. Additionally, Sherry is the co-founder and co-chair of the Waterloo Region chapter of Women in Communications and Technology (WCT-WR), and co-chair of Perimeter Institute’s Emmy Noether Council.

 

How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?

As the pandemic progressed, factors related to our socioeconomic systems shifted, forcing businesses to change their traditional models and adapt. Many small businesses and startups were disproportionately impacted due to a lack of cash reserves and borrowing power to sustain operations. Like many others, Profound Impact focused on reevaluating our current position and trajectory so we could further understand exactly what we needed to do as a business to continue to scale.

When managing our own finances throughout the pandemic, it was crucial to remain informed and ask important questions. Some of these included: How can we ensure sustainable financing and stable cash reserves? How can we adapt our business model to reduce costs, both in the short and medium term? How can we best invest in our team to keep our momentum?

Our team operated under the terms that we can always run leaner. When focused on scaling, you’re not always focused on efficiency. The pandemic forced us to reevaluate every area of spend and every contract to achieve better terms, find savings, or determine where to cut altogether.

We did take on an operating line of credit to ensure that we have the cash flow required to add functionalities and features to the digital community platform, and also expanded our product offering, including our recently launched career trajectory solution and a soon-to-be announced research/researcher matching solution.  

Prior to COVID, we decided to maintain a virtual office with rented meeting space at locations across North America. Because we did not have the overhead of an office space and because the majority of our staff are contractors, we did not participate in any of the COVID wage subsidy or rent relief programs.

Has your approach to sales and marketing changed? 

Profound Impact officially launched its next-generation social network and interaction platform during the pandemic — a time where the capacity for in-person interactions was very limited. We leveraged this in our sales and marketing approach to position our platform as a solution during and post-pandemic. To connect with customers, we refined our messaging and positioned our platform as an inclusive digital community used to connect people and empower collaboration — two of the primary challenges that our customer base were facing as a result of the pandemic. 

We focused our sales and marketing on providing solutions to our customers within the changing technological landscape. This involved adapting our marketing strategy to expand our approaches and develop new channels for connecting with our clients. We placed an increased emphasis on social media and content marketing, exploring new ways to connect with our audiences. Profound Impact hosted a variety of webinars over the last year and conducted research to understand what pain points our customers are talking about, what challenges they are facing, and how we can provide a solution. 

As in-person events and networking shifted in 2020, emphasizing the importance and value of online digital communities became a key message in much of our marketing. As the world shifted to virtual workplaces and classrooms, people have been spending more time online than ever. The focus of online engagement, through tools such as webinars, surveys, and engaging social media content, have been essential to our marketing strategy and growth. 

Through trial and error, we’ve gained an understanding of the interests of our target audience and use that in our marketing and communications on social media and other owned channels. Ensuring the content is relatable and engaging has been crucial while doing this, emphasizing the human and relationship building aspect of our platform. For example, instead of looking at our platform as a way to grow your network, we emphasize it is a place where like minded people can foster long-term and meaningful connections. Ensuring that our messaging aligns with the needs of our customers and the current socio-economic landscape has been crucial to helping us reach our audience and grow organically while pushing towards profitability. 

How has technology played a role in your business during this time? 

Technology has played an integral role in our ability to reach our target audiences and build relationships with stakeholders. At the height of the pandemic, in-person events and meetings were not an option for us to connect — whether that be internally or with our customers. Like many other organizations, we had to adapt to a completely remote environment. We not only utilized video conferencing platforms for internal and external meetings, but also seamlessly integrated it into our Profound Impact platform so that our customers can engage in more robust virtual experiences. In addition to integrating several other third-party applications, we continued our own development of features such as discussion boards, LinkedIn sign-on, and automatic uploading of profile data using PDF and other formats.

With a virtual, tech-enabled workforce, the Profound Impact team was set up for success using multiple platforms to keep close on the information that mattered. All team meetings are done virtually and synchronously at this time. 

The acceleration of digital during the COVID-19 pandemic influenced additional product offerings. We invested heavily in tech, data, processes, and people, allowing us to deploy digital strategies such as leveraging data analytics and AI, investing in privacy and security, and integrating the scalability of our product offerings at rapid speed. 

When it came to connecting externally with customers and stakeholders, our marketing approach and business model transformed to account for remote sales and marketing. To do so, we utilized our Profound Impact platform to host webinars and other virtual events. Understanding that digital communities are one of the most important tools that businesses can leverage to continue innovating, scaling, and strengthening as we come out of the pandemic, our team capitalized on building our Profound Impact digital community while leveraging our online channels and placing a heavier focus on digital marketing. 

How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?

It is incredibly important to remain positive when scaling a business, especially during times of uncertainty. Looking back at the past 18 months, the pandemic not only made us stronger, but I can confidently say it also made us better. Remaining agile, resilient, and purposeful during times of change will help shape a positive mindset.  

Managing a team during times of crisis has proven to be a rewarding challenge. It sounds simple, but those who believe in your mission, bring an internal sense of gratitude to your company, and are willing to see the hurdles through with you make all the difference. With that said, putting employee well-being above all else is of utmost importance. Your people are your greatest asset. Putting the health and safety of employees first, emphasizing support, and managing team morale in your organization is crucial. Some ways we’ve been able to achieve this at Profound Impact are: Our monthly all hands meeting; highlighting and matching team members’ volunteer and philanthropic donations; providing professional development programs; and timely communications. 

Some of my best tricks for staying positive would be to try to find a silver lining in every situation and ensure you set boundaries. Many of us are working from home or hybrid — and do not have a distinct boundary between work and home life. It is important to set boundaries (this can include anything from turning off email notifications, putting your phone on do not disturb, etc.) at specific times to ensure that you have dedicated time to unwind and decompress. 

On that note, prioritizing time for yourself and for your family and friends is important. Life is all about balance — and boundary setting is key to achieving that balance. This is something we encourage every team member to embody.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?

The one piece of advice I’d give to all entrepreneurs is to think about the true impact your business can make on society. Businesses can be profitable and purposeful at the same time. I grew up in a time when not many girls studied Mathematics and it has always been important to me to open everyone’s eyes to what’s possible in STEM. I am able to align this societal impact with my business as an important element of how we make decisions, how we build team engagement, and how we support the next generation of tech-skilled workers. All entrepreneurs (big and small) can start early in identifying their purpose and how it will positively impact society.