Against the Current

When we talk about business, it’s easy to fixate on the giants and overlook the little guys. But that’s a shame, especially in B.C., where 18.5 per cent of all workers are self-employed – the highest proportion in Canada. The drive to be your own boss, to live off ingenuity and to overcome adversity is part of B.C.’s pioneer culture.

For some entrepreneurs, however, that struggle against the odds is greater than others. The ability to overcome obstacles, whether it’s a harrowing climb out of poverty, addiction, injury, personal disaster or family tragedy, demonstrates the resilience of the human spirit.

A single small business with a handful of employees may not have much impact on B.C.’s economy, but these stories illustrate the transformative nature of business success – showing how it’s sometimes not just about making money, but also about changing lives.

Richard LorenzenDTES Pest Control Ltd.

Richard Lorenzen claims, half seriously, to have worked 500 jobs in his life. The First Nations man, who looks older than his 51 years, has a gentle, intelligent voice. “When you’re a drunk, you’re always bouncing from job to job to job,” he explains, sipping a root beer at a café in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Back in 2004, Lorenzen was homeless, he recalls, either couch surfing with friends or sleeping on the streets. He says he used to hang out at the Eastside Movement for Business and Economic Renewal Society (EMBERS) office – a non-profit employment services agency on East Pender Street – where he could sit and have a cup of coffee. Eventually, Lorenzen started working for a makeshift pest control business started by another couple of EMBERS clients, also “drunks.” It was a shabby affair, he explains with a chuckle. “They had a vehicle, but nobody could find it. This is how they ran things.” Soon creditors were at the door, looking for anything of value; they seized everything except the chemicals.

Lorenzen, however, had an itch to keep working – and so, at age 46, he decided to start his own business. Embarking on a one-man pest-control enterprise in the Downtown Eastside – a neighbourhood peppered with rundown hotels infested with bedbugs, cockroaches and rodents – might not sound like anybody’s ideal career, but Lorenzen says the downtown crawlies never bothered him. He jokingly refers to himself as a “small-game trapper.” He wasn’t making a lot of money, he says, but there was always plenty of work. And as he got busy, he had a pivotal moment.“I was standing in a bar at 10:30 on a Sunday morning, on my second pint of beer, when suddenly I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t drink today because I’ve got a lot of work tomorrow,’” he recalls. “It’s not that I hit bottom – I had money in my pocket, I had a place to stay, I could work – but I could see it all disappearing if I continued to drink . . . and this job I didn’t want to lose.” He decided to stop drinking for the Christmas holidays and, he says, he’s been on holidays ever since, but only from drinking.

These days his waking hours are filled to capacity hunting bugs for organizations such as Vancouver Coastal Health and the Portland Hotel Society, as well as for myriad developers, condo owners, churches and organizations in the Downtown Eastside. Lorenzen says that he pays himself $499 a month (any more and he’d begin losing his disability support for his bipolar condition), with all earnings above that amount going back into the company. Soon, he says, he hopes to buy a new car for the business and hire his first employee.

Looking back, Lorenzen credits his success to the people who helped him out: the Union Gospel Mission, for giving him some of his first big jobs; Vancouver City Savings Credit Union, for granting him a first, high-risk business loan; and EMBERS, for giving him somewhere to warm up. “If they’d just kicked me out the door that first day,” he says of EMBERS, “I wouldn’t be here.”[pagebreak]

Alan MorganOutside the Box Puzzles Inc.


Alan Morgan – a tall, wiry 55-year-old Delta resident – practically vibrates with energy. He fiddles constantly with the pens, business cards and note­paper in front of him as he tells the story of how he became a professional puzzler.

Morgan composes simple word games that are just the right size to fit snugly into a newspaper column or a cellphone screen. The business is the product of a busy mind and his childlike sense of fun, but it was also born of personal tragedy. In 1996 Morgan had been let go from BC Tel for “insubordination” – he’d pitched a business idea to the company chairman without his boss’s permission – so he started doing home-based marketing work for some local tech startups. Five years later, though, he learned that his wife had developed a brain tumour. “She had surgery, and they removed most of her tumour, but that just bought her some time,” he says. “It was tough. I was fortunate to be able to stay home and be near her.”

It was during this time, as he continued to work from home and care for his wife, that he started puzzling as a hobby. The inspiration had come from an old ’70s puzzle book he’d picked up at a garage sale; when he tried his own hand at writing puzzles, he discovered he had a knack for it. When his wife passed away in 2005, and with his marketing work quickly drying up, Morgan decided the time was right to put his hobby into the marketplace, and he launched Outside the Box Puzzles Inc. His first client was a small IT trade magazine called Network World Canada. He’d been a subscriber for years, so he sent the editor an email offering to help spice up the otherwise staid publication. As luck would have it, the magazine was looking for some levity for an upcoming redesign, and Morgan landed his first deal: he would provide three puzzles every two weeks for $1,000 a year.

Today Morgan’s puzzles are syndicated in 24 Hours, one of Vancouver’s free daily newspapers, and in three similar newspapers in Australia; they also appear in Tribute magazine’s email newsletter, a slew of trade magazines and a cellphone game produced by Digital Chocolate Inc., a new company by EA founder Trip Hawkins (Morgan’s cut is 20 per cent of sales with $30,000 up front). The puzzles have earned him between $20,000 and $25,000 a year in the past two years, Morgan says, and he expects that by the end of next year he’ll be able to survive on this business alone. There are countless small newspapers and trade mags in the world that might be able to pay a mere $2,000 for a year’s worth of puzzles, he notes, “and if I get 20 of those customers, I’m doing all right.”

As he describes the decision to pursue puzzles instead of looking for another sales job, Morgan’s chipper presentation starts to slip. He pauses, takes a breath, then continues in a more sombre tone. “The reason I have this, a big chunk of it, is because of my wife. She didn’t write these puzzles literally, but she allowed me to create them. She loaned me her mental capacity, while she was dying, to do it.”

Ana EspinozaRosebell Custom Sewing Boutique

There are still times when Ana Espinoza wonders if it was worth the effort to reopen her store. A June 2007 fire had destroyed her Rosebell Custom Sewing Boutique in downtown Penticton, with $500,000 worth of customers’ dresses, inventory and equipment gone within a matter of minutes. A year and a half later, there are still huge bills to pay, mounds of work to do and slim margins to be made. “I don’t know if it was a good idea to start again, but it’s something that I still enjoy doing.”Espinoza – who at age 51 still speaks with a heavy accent from her native El Salvador, two decades after arriving in Canada – opened her first sewing business in San Salvador at age 17, shortly after graduating from design school. But in 1988, as the 27-year-old civil war between left-wing guerrillas and the military-supported government intensified following the election of the right-wing National Republican Alliance, Espinoza and her husband decided to emigrate to Canada, arriving in 1990 after a short stay in the U.S. She doesn’t go into details about exactly why the family needed to move, simply saying it was to provide a more stable environment in which her kids could grow up.

When Espinoza arrived, people warned her against starting her own business because of her limited English, but after so many years working for herself, she felt confident she could pull it off, and opened her first shop in 1996. “I told them, ‘I don’t speak good English, but let me work for you and I can show you what I can do with my hands.’” Those first customers proved supportive and patient, she says, even if they had to provide their alteration instructions in writing and learn a few Spanish phrases. She quickly prospered, building up a loyal clientele and importing and sewing dresses for special events between steady alteration and drapery work. And then disaster struck.The 2007 blaze was reportedly caused by a gas explosion in another part of the commercial complex that housed her shop. Espinoza says she had no insurance. “I was standing in front of my store and everybody was coming and saying ‘sorry’ – like when someone dies,” she recalls. “But I didn’t care about the money at that point; I cared about the graduation.” The fire had hit just before high-school graduation, consuming dozens of prom dresses. The crisis provoked a community effort to get the girls outfitted for grad, Espinoza says, with women all over town donating dresses for the graduates, as well as for the summer brides who’d lost their gowns.

For a long time after the fire, facing steep bills to reimburse customers, Espinoza says it pained her just to look at a sewing machine. But she could not abandon her customers, and two months after the fire she was back at work, sewing and stitching from home. She secured a $25,000 loan from Community Futures (a program supported by the federal Western Economic Diversification Canada department), the same organization that loaned her money to start her original business, and opened again in January 2008. She estimates the business now has revenues of between $5,000 and $7,000 a month.

“I decided we had to go back because people needed us downtown,” she explains. “So here I am, working hard without much profit. I make enough to pay the bills. You pay to be independent, and I like to be independent. I cannot see myself working for someone else.”[pagebreak]


Xerxes SethnaDubble Exxpress Go


Some of Xerxes Sethna’s favourite Canadian moments involve standing knee deep in a frigid Fraser Valley river pulling on a fishing line at dawn. It’s a far cry from humid, bustling Mumbai, where he grew up. In 1997 Sethna made the move across the Pacific with his brother and mother – like so many other South Asians – looking for opportunity. But early on, the only “opportunity” he found was in jobs at call centres, gas stations and other low-end service jobs.The slight 39-year-old shakes his head as he contemplates the hurdles facing anyone trying to create a new life in a new country, even in a supposedly rich and labour-strapped region like B.C. “I know so many people who have a tough time speaking English and it just boggles my mind. I think, ‘How the hell do you guys survive over here?’”

Sethna, who came to Canada with excellent English, had a hard enough time without a language barrier. Back in India, Sethna had worked in electronics, repairing broken radios and VCRs, and he had first planned to do the same in Vancouver. “I applied to a lot of places, and they all asked me if I had any Canadian experience. I said, ‘No I don’t, but I’ve been doing this for the last eight years.’” After an unsuccessful attempt at running a repair business out of the West End bachelor apartment he shares with his brother, Sethna decided to get a job in telemarketing. Bored with that, he soon moved on to piecemeal work as a film extra, followed by a stint selling vacuums, then working at a gas station, a car dealership and finally a grocery store. When he was let go from the grocery store, Sethna had finally had enough of working for low wages and no job security and decided to start his own business.

His first step was hitting a franchise fair at BC Place in 2004, and it was there that he found his elusive opportunity – vending machines. The venture involved buying vending machines from a manufacturer, convincing office managers to install them in their office lunchrooms – at no cost – and then coming in once a week to refill product and collect the proceeds. With the help of a government-funded self-employment program and some cash borrowed from family, Sethna was able to come up with $10,000 to buy eight machines. He collected a list of large offices in Vancouver and, after a rough few months going door-to-door, he was able to find homes for them.Today Dubble Exxpress Go manages 15 machines around Vancouver and brings in about $100,000 in annual revenues, with 60 per cent of that profit. Sethna says he works four days a week keeping them stocked – which leaves plenty of time for fishing.

Troy McMillanPC Doctor Computer Services

When someone working above you drops a five-by-nine-foot sheet of melamine from 4½ metres up – when it hits you between the shoulder blades, tearing your back muscles – there are few positives to speak of. “I couldn’t get out of the way,” Troy McMillan says, recalling the day of the accident. He was 29 at the time, and had seven years’ experience as a saw operator with Kamloops-based Excel Industries. Suddenly, his life changed forever: “That was the end of my career in cabinetmaking.” And that, as it turns out, was a good thing.

Working with saws was not part of McMillan’s original plan. He had started a university-transfer program, but never finished – getting sidetracked when he met a woman, fell in love, got married and found himself needing a good-paying job. “Back then it was all about supporting the family.” But when the accident happened, it soon became clear that no amount of physio would be able to repair him sufficiently to take back his old job. So McMillan signed up for a government program to get retrained, which included funding for a two-year program in computer systems, operations and management at the local university, as well as a paid co-op placement.

By the end of the program, however, the economy had changed, and no one in town was hiring. With money running out, rent to pay, an old car to keep running and three kids to feed, McMillan was getting desperate. He didn’t want to move to a bigger city in search of work, as almost all his classmates had done, so he decided to go into business for himself, driving around town offering computer repairs and tech support. “It was tough all the way through,” he says, explaining that he relied heavily on word of mouth from friends and friends-of-friends in the initial months to muster enough business to support his family.

That was 14 years ago. Today McMillan and his wife – who also pursued a computer systems technician program to assist in the business – run PC Doctor from a 3,000-square-foot storefront in downtown Kamloops. Their shop offers software training, computer sales, in-house and on-call tech services, and an Internet café. Since launching, McMillan estimates that PC Doctor has gone from about $15,000 a year in revenue to about $300,000.

“When I was there at age 29,” he muses, “I was working with guys in their 50s doing the same job. And if I hadn’t been injured, I’d probably still be there, doing the same job.”