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12 Tips for Starting a Business in Calgary

So you’re ready to start a business in Calgary? Good for you! It’s a giant leap. Calgary has for years been reputed as Canada’s most entrepreneurial city. As a business owner myself, and having helped hundreds of other entrepreneurs get started, I thought I’d give you a few tips on how business is done in Calgary.

1. Work at getting an original name – and head straight to a registry to get it reserved. The registry services are all over town here in Calgary – and they’re independent businesses too – so they’re easily accessible. Also, while you’re there, check out their little books on how to start businesses – lots have all sorts of forms and sample proposals/contracts to get you going.

2. Get the right address. Calgary has lots of business centres where you can use their business addresses, boardrooms, and telephone answering. If you want to, you can also rent individual offices. Search for “secretarial services” or “virtual offices” and you’ll find many options.  For $100 – $500 a month (depending on whether you include phone answering – and yes, they can answer calls and then forward the caller on to your cell), your business can appear much more well-established than if you use a home address on your cards. If you really want to focus on oil and gas, downtown is the place to be; many people walk to meetings all day, and being there makes you part of the clique.

3. Get a real graphic/web designer to create your logo, cards, website, and digital letterhead that you can open within Word (our designers can provide this.) A first impression counts. Get a good writer to edit all the material you write. Spelling errors are fatal.

4. Don’t undercut. Decide whether you’re as good as your closest competitor. If your quality beats theirs, price a little higher than they do. If you’re still learning, price a little lower. If you price too low coming out of the gate (more than 15% lower), your clients won’t take you seriously. In Calgary, a higher price generally means you have a better offering, and there plenty of wealthy people here willing to pay for the best.

5. Don’t copy the competition. People in Calgary shop – usually using the web. So if you lift text and content off a competitors’ web site, you’re just going to be found out – and that’ll make you look like a “me too” business instead of something original.

6. Don’t think that because you’re small and new, you can only chase small businesses. Go ahead and go after the best possible clients based on the areas and industries you know best. Sometimes small business clients are harder to deal with than larger companies. Go with whichever segment will appreciate your value.

7. Don’t hire unless you really need to. Best to build up a steady stream of work first. Remember, many tasks can be outsourced – warehousing, delivery, specific parts of your process. You don’t necessarily need to hire. There are plenty of small businesses in Calgary that price low enough that you can make a little money even if you subcontract and mark-up their services. And some of them will offer you volume discounts for ongoing work. Add some value to the package and it can work very smoothly.

8. Be honest, and keep your reputation CLEAN! The Calgary business community is a small network of people who know each other. Most of the industries here seem to have evolved something like this: There’s an industry leader, and there’s a runner-up generally started by people who left the leader, and then there are many other competitors who have been trained by the larger players, or are from other places. There is no room for burning a bridge…word just spreads around too fast. If you have to walk away from some money to keep your reputation, it is probably worth it. When selling, it’s fine to say how you are different, but do not bad-mouth your competitors. If people come to me saying they had a bad experience with another marketing firm, I’m actually more likely to suspect there is something wrong with the client than with the other marketing firm.

9. That said, it is just as important to treat your vendors well – as well as your clients. Sometimes vendors are even more important than clients. Pay them on time and treat them well. It can take years to cultivate a vendor relationship to the point where they will work until dawn for you without charging you rush fees…but it is worth having the relationship there when you need it. I’ve found price to be one of the least important factors in choosing a vendor. Yet still I see businesses choose cheaper vendors, and flip vendors constantly, forgetting that the best-reputed vendor would have been the one to actually help them out of a jam.

10. There are amazing resources online if you want the lay of the land in Calgary, the best one being the City’s website. If you would like the rundown of the demographics, community by community, CLICK HERE and scroll down on the page.

11. NEVER WEAR BUSINESS ATTIRE DURING STAMPEDE. (You’ll look like you’re from Toronto, which gets many Calgarians’ backs up!) That’s the spirit of this town. The beauty is that all the business people “seem to disappear” because they all look like cowboys and rodeo queens. Even just blue jeans and boots will do the job; but if you really want to impress, get an authentic western shirt, a Smithbilt cowboy hat and a nice belt buckle.  Do it right. There are tons of places in Calgary to get good Western Wear (even the thrift shops!). Don’t talk too much serious business during Stampede week, just go party with your clients and make them LIKE you! And don’t book a meeting downtown on parade day (The first Friday morning), because you won’t make it anyway – downtown gets shut right down!

12. Be prepared for the swings. People here make a ton of money when petroleum pricing is high, and then crash when things get low. Make sure you save during the high times, and prepare to deplete your savings when the low points hit. Resist hiring in favour of contracting wherever you can. Or, work to diversify outside the province so that your client base isn’t completely dependent on the economic swings.

Will you succeed and get rich in Calgary? Perhaps -the odds here are great! But remember the first few years you are generally learning, and not making much money. So if you give up within the first 3 – 5 years, you’ve probably have taken only the hard part of what your business had to offer, and given up just before things got profitable. In Calgary, you can succeed in any business. It just matters how keen you are, and how long you can stay keen. You can out-do others based on a higher commitment, and doing a better job. There’s not a lot of “who you know” here – it’s how hard you work to make it happen; if you want to know someone, call them right up and impress them. Word will get around, and soon you’ll know all the right people.

All the best in starting your new venture! Please give us a call to learn more about how we can help you.  If you’re already doing business in Calgary, or have tried in the past, and want to add your thoughts and tips, drop us a line.

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Jacqueline Drew
About the Author - Jacqueline Drew
Jacqueline M. Drew, BComm MBA is CEO of Tenato Strategy Inc., a Calgary-based marketing research and strategy firm. She loves to use her superpowers "to help the good guys win" and is also an energetic supermom, bandleader and songwriter.

9 thoughts on “12 Tips for Starting a Business in Calgary

  1. wow, these are realy an open mind tips,thank you for sharing this with everyone !

    I guess to get success in business is not so easy after all,but it won’t be so hard if you do it right.

  2. I came from Winnipeg not only because the Oil Money here but because the Rockyes (im original from Colombia) and we were really missing this particular. It looks like Calgarian´s are very diverse (Oriental, Asiatics; Etc) however all of them are ready to close a deal within a minute of conversation but if they reply to your offer saying “I call you later” is because something goes wrong in the conversation they never get back to you so be ready to sell your service/product in the first 30 seconds.

    1. Yes, sometimes Calgarians are in too much of a hurry to have a good first conversation when you meet them. You need to be able to describe what you do clearly and quickly — but they won’t really be able to close a deal in 30 seconds of meeting you. They usually just want to exchange a business card — and then if you’re interested in selling them something, visit their websites, think through how you can help, and then call/email them and ask for a meeting where you’ll have time to get into a more in-depth discussion. Most people, because they are so busy, do forget to call even if they say “I call you later” — so make sure you consider the follow up YOUR job.

  3. This is an excellent article Jacquie. As an entrepreneur trying to make it in online marketing, and having a retail website as well. I am considering putting together an actual store front, and office space to further increase my business connections here in the city. Thank you for these great tips!!

  4. Great article Jacquie! Very informative and practical advice. I have a developed business plan for a unique, service-related business targeting seniors. I’m from Red Deer but I think I’ll slide down to Calgary to start it as the market is just so much larger.
    Do you have a network of angel investors and/or V.C. firms in Calgary? I’ll read your site a little more and see where I think we could work together in the future!

    Kind regards,

    Bryan Burry

    1. Thanks Bryan! Sorry it took so long to reply to your note–we get a lot of spam through the blog so sometimes the good comments get buried! I know a couple of angel/VC people, but not closely. Getting capital in place through VC/grants isn’t so much my specialty — but sometimes I can help do the planning such that all you’d really need is a bank to finance.

  5. Heya! I realize this is somewhat off-topic but I had to ask.
    Does operating a well-established website like yours take a large amount of
    work? I am brand new to writing a blog however I do write
    in my journal on a daily basis. I’d like to start a blog so I can easily share my experience and feelings online.
    Please let me know if you have any kind of recommendations or tips
    for new aspiring blog owners. Appreciate it!

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