In January 2020, Phil & Sebastian, one of Calgary’s most prominent artisanal coffee roasters, announced plans to open a new café in Bridgeland. Then COVID-19 hit and, overnight, business prospects became uncertain. What were co-founders and UCalgary alumni Phil Robertson and Sebastian Sztabzyb, both BSc (Eng)’00, to do?
“We decided to go ahead with it,” recalls Robertson. “We said we’d start construction pretty soon, which was crazy during a pandemic. It took a lot of careful consideration of whether we should, and how we could, and how it all would look.”
Robertson is just one of countless entrepreneurs who are trying to decode unprecedented business practices in a world where all the historical data that was once relied on to plan for success has been wiped out by COVID-19.
How do you make long-term decisions when you just don’t know what information you can trust? How do you form an educated guess — and rely on project-recovery scenarios — in a complex new business landscape? How do you shift your mindset to not be overly pragmatic in such a situation?
“I’m looking for ways to create some sort of stability in all this volatility, and it is wacky,” says Robertson. “It reminds me a lot of starting the business.”
Talk about engineering adaptable solutions
On Sept. 24 at 8:30 a.m., Robertson will join two other Schulich School of Engineering alumni (and fellow entrepreneurs), Natasha Spokes, BSc (Eng)’05, and Jeff LaFrenz, BSc (Eng)’85, MSc (Eng)’88, along with Schulich dean Dr. Bill Rosehart, for Engineering Entrepreneurs, a free Zoom webinar. They will discuss how to do business in this new age of disruption and reinvention — and how engineering skills have helped them launch and grow their companies. It’s part of UCalgary’s Alumni Month and the Schulich Connects breakfast series.
“Engineering and entrepreneurship have long gone hand in hand because engineers are natural innovators,” says Rosehart, who will moderate the panel discussion. “They develop solutions to complex challenges or find new opportunities to better our communities. That ability to anticipate needs and opportunities, to create something new, to constantly improve and innovate, drives all of society forward.”
When the pandemic hit, Spokes had to shift her business model completely. As CEO and co-founder of Calgary-based tech company FarCloser Travel, her customers could no longer board planes for far-flung adventures, nor could they could connect with local family-run tour operators and create personal experiences.
“We wanted to be very transparent,” Spokes says. “So we flipped the business model to more of a membership-content play.” To bring FarCloser’s network together, Spokes built The Collective, a new off-of-social-media travel community.
In today’s marketplace, how do you build customer bonds and consumer confidence for now and for the future? How do you foster connections that can help overcome customer fear factors? How do you prepare for the unexpected — and get comfortable with change?
“It’s not a ‘Step 1, Step 2, Step 3’ process,” says Stokes, who will delve into all this with fellow panellists. “You have to have a mindset that says, ‘Yes, you have a goal,’ but all kinds of stuff can happen on the way to that goal, which, as an entrepreneur, you have to deal with or your business dies.”
For LaFrenz, president and CEO of VizworX, a software solutions and interactive data-visualization firm, mindset is half the battle. “We all face situations, products and services that are not ideal,” he says. “You can choose to perceive them as challenges or problems, or you can choose to look at them as opportunities to make things better. The latter is where entrepreneurs, and particularly those with an engineering background, focus.”
What do you do when products and services may no longer be as relevant as when they were designed? How do you respect the status quo, but not let it limit you? How do you dive in and do things — yet still maintain a good understanding of what direction to go in? These are just some more of the questions that LaFrenz, along with the other panellists, will address on Sept. 24.
Entering the entrepreneurial stream
To further foster the relationship between engineering and entrepreneurship, the Schulich School of Engineering has incorporated entrepreneurial experiences into its student programming. The Engineering Leadership Program teaches skills like effective communications and teamwork. A dual-degree program, offered in partnership with the Haskayne School of Business, allows students to pursue an engineering degree and a business degree simultaneously.
Engineering students’ final capstone projects also feature an entrepreneurial stream to allow them to develop their own products. And, most recently, Schulich has collaborated with the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking to create Launchpad, a student entrepreneurial experience.
“For our engineering graduates to succeed in their careers, we have opportunities both in and outside of classes for our students to develop their entrepreneurial thinking,” says Rosehart.
Alumni Month & Schulich Connects via Zoom runs Sept. 24 from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. Register for free.