By Andrew Seale
If you can sell it in Winnipeg, you can sell it anywhere – it was advice freshly minted Western University MBA grad Greg Thompson took to heart, ditching London in favour of launching an early-Canadian reproduction furniture in the Manitoba capital.
It seemed like sound advice given that it had come from Phil Kives, the Winnipeg-born international business infomercial pioneer – who first coined the phrase “As Seen on TV” – and founder of K-Tel.
But it wasn’t, in fact Greg spent more time coming up with other business schemes to draw in money then he did selling furniture.
“I learned more about entrepreneurship in those first six weeks then I did during my time at the MBA school,” he recalls. But it kicked off Greg’s life as a career entrepreneur.
“I call this my entrepreneurial kamikaze phase – I was doing a (not-so-great) job at a lot of things but learning a lot,” he says. “I’m a big believer that you learn a lot more from your failures than you do from your triumphs… I was learning so many lessons at that time.”
While trying to make the furniture company work, Greg also signed on as a marketing manager for a film production company, ran a wooden garden planter company and took to consulting small Manitoban businesses. Next he headed to B.C. and worked his way up to the role of director of franchising for fast food chain A&W.
“In that role everybody I dealt with was an entrepreneur,” he recalls. “The really successful franchisees were the ones that 95 per cent of their energy was spent on executing the A&W program and five per cent was spent on thinking outside the box.”
He and his wife took his experience and opened a string of Mmmuffin franchises with another couple. Then there was the gamble he made on virtual reality pods, a new technology he thought might take off. It didn’t.
“I left a good job to take that on… it was a total unmitigated disaster,” he says with a chuckle. But it took him to England where he stumbled on Laser Quest eventually bringing the franchise to Canada and parts of the U.S.
Somewhere in there was a stint running an artist’s paint franchise, a string of arcades and plenty of other holdings until one day he realized he’d inadvertently become a mentor. It started with offer guidance to his friend’s entrepreneurial children but slowly he found himself becoming a go-to for Futurepreneur and Enterprise Toronto helping out fresh-faced startups looking to navigate the early stages of running a business.
“Our world has changed so much,” he says, pointing out that the path he took was deemed very unconventional 30 years ago compared to the way we work now. “There aren’t nearly as many progressive career paths available – it’s like in the olden days when everybody was in a band now everybody is developing swimsuits, sleepwear, stationary…I think it’s great.”
As for whether there is enough space for all the entrepreneurs who work their way through the Toronto ecosystem, Greg’s own path sends the most resounding message: make your own room.
“I think the real question is: will their entrepreneurial path enable them to accomplish what their other goals are or will their success be fleeting or will it grow some roots and be lasting because the world is changing so quickly…” he says. “The space is unlimited.”