It all started with a holiday greeting card. An idea sparked by the Indigenous art Marie Delorme had ordered for that card incubated and grew to become a thriving national business. Twenty years later, The Imagination Group of Companies is comprised of four entities, all national in scope.
A Métis originally from Manitoba, Dr. Delorme’s journey is fundamentally based on building relationships that propel good practices while “paying it forward” to other emerging entrepreneurs.
While the business has experienced year-over-year exponential growth, the original values of respectful relationships inform all aspects of the business. The Imagination Group includes a national brand management company, a consulting practice, a ceremonial tobacco manufacturing company, and a philanthropic entity.
Serendipity still needs a plan
Although Delorme attributes her ‘little idea’ twenty years ago to serendipity – often how entrepreneurs get their start - she worked hard to turn the idea into a successful business. She spent nine months building a business plan and testing it with research and contacts in her network.
“I talked to a colleague on a board, a recently retired executive of a big bank, and asked him what he thought of my business idea. ‘Absolutely, do it” was his response.
“I asked other entrepreneurs about their journey. What was it like? What did they learn? I wanted to hear their stories.”
Her biggest mentor ended up being her son, Colby. Although in his late 20’s at the time, he had already been an entrepreneur for 8 years and had run two successful businesses. Looking to his expertise, Delorme realized her 26 years in a corporate environment had not prepared her to run her own business.
“In the big corporate world, you have zero skin in the game. You’re not dealing with your own money and the risk is enterprise-focused, not personal,” she says.
“You have a huge support system to help you with everything, a marketing team to do your marketing plan, a finance team to run analysis. Large corporations provide many helpful development opportunities but are not incubators for entrepreneurs.”
A catalyzing event
While developing her business plan Delorme was also dealing with what she calls a catalytic event. Her mother was gravely ill, and Delorme was travelling to Manitoba to visit her once a month.
“The plan was almost finished, and I was getting validation from almost everyone I talked to that this really was a good idea, I should embark on it. But I wasn’t certain if I was ready to leave, if I was ready to take that kind of risk,” Delorme says.
“One day I was sitting with my 81-year-old mother as she was sleeping, and I wondered if in her lucid moments she was reflecting on her life? What were her joys? What were her regrets? And I wondered how I would look back on my life when I am 81.”
She decided there were two choices. Stay comfortable in the corporate world with a corner office with all the perks or take a risk on an idea and make the leap.
“At that point, I decided that whatever it was going to be, I would have an interesting story to tell when I was 81, and that story would be about an idea. That’s what propelled me. And once I made the decision, I never looked back.”
Alberta’s diverse energy
Delorme believes diversity; of thinking, of ideas, and people, are the keys to success.
“Innovation is about two things: creating something new or doing something better. In order to do that you need different sets of eyes, and different perspectives on the issue or problem you are trying to solve,” Delorme says.
“How do you get that? Through diversity of experience, diversity of perspectives (gender-based, cultural, breadth of work and life experience) and when you pull all of those together, you don’t get that group-think mentality. With different people in the mix, it’s like looking at a shape from a multi-dimensional perspective. When you put all of that together, you just might have an ‘Ah-hah!’ moment, and new ways to recognize and address opportunities.”
Dr. Delorme observes that the Alberta people landscape is much more diverse then when she arrived in the province 33 years ago. The inevitable fluctuations in resource-based industry emphasizes the urgency of diversifying the provincial economy.
“We are an entrepreneurial province. There is an energy in Alberta, there is a strong spirit of volunteerism - the desire to give back”.
“We are rich in our cultural diversity, and that is exciting and a significant factor in defining who we are and what we can be. Embracing and capitalizing on that diversity is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do.”
Aspiring entrepreneurs occasionally ask Dr. Delorme for advice on starting their own business. Here’s what she tells them:
- Take the time to build a business plan. If you don’t know how to do that, find someone who can help you and provide the information you need.
- Do your research. Make sure there is a market for your proposed products and services. Talk to people and share your idea with those you trust and get their perspective.
- Do not underestimate the power of a network. Start with the people that you know and branch out from there. Ask for introductions and go to events. One of the best places to build a network is through volunteering. Philanthropic work gives you valuable experience; the people you meet will become part of your network for life. Build your network when you don’t need your network.
- Pay it forward. When you have any degree of success,look behind you and see all of those people who propelled you forward. They have made you who you are, and now you have a sacred responsibility to help others just as you were helped.
- Plan, plan, and plan some more. Make sure you have planned for the start-up phase and possible failure. Most companies fail in their first year. Anticipate that most elements of your business plan are going to cost more than you thought. It will also take longer than you think to build the business, to secure markets, and to realize your planned return on investment. Find a really good banker and a really good accountant. They can be lifesavers particularly in the early years.
Two things Marie Delorme would tell her younger self:
- You are going to have to learn how to take risks. You cannot be risk averse. As an entrepreneur you must be comfortable with taking informed risks.
- You will need to take a leap. It was daunting to leave the corporate world for the world of entrepreneurialism. If you are going to embark on an interesting and energizing journey, you will have to leave the safety of the shore.