“Indigenous companies need to learn to be both an Indigenous company and a company that competes like everyone else.” - Ray Gerow
Why we wrote this:
Over the last few months, the Goat team has been asked more and more to quote on projects that connect with BC First Nations groups.
Small-to-medium businesses (SMBs) will always hold a special place in my heart. I want to see them succeed in the face of ever-growing corporate mergers and commoditization.
As someone with Métis heritage, having family whose careers are in Indigenous mentorship and business development, Indigenous entrepreneurship has always been a topic of interest for me.
I’m not an expert, just curious - and want to thank the many experts we interviewed for their time and insights.
Those experts were:
Ray Gerow, President, Eagle Spirit Community Solutions Inc.
Josh Callahan, the Co-Founder of OUTFRNT Consulting
Krystin Dubuc, Economic Development Professional in Northern BC
...with additional insights from other Indigenous voices.
As we work to better understand the unique business challenges facing First Nations groups and entrepreneurs, we’ve seen the gaps where some of Goat’s expertise - strategic marketing, storytelling, and brand - can address those unique business challenges. This article is an attempt to pass on that knowledge in the hopes that it creates better outcomes for those we wrote it for.
To start with, this article needs two disclaimers:
First, there is a risk of incorrect terminology making its way into the article. Should this happen, please let us know. We recognize that our good intentions don’t make us above correction. I can be emailed at bryce.lokken(at)meetgoat.com.
Throughout, we will use the term Indigenous, even though we are largely speaking about First Nations communities. The content feels applicable to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit entrepreneurs. We also recognize that Nations and Bands can be very different - from each other, and from other Nations or Bands. We use the term ‘community’ to broadly include both. We also use the word "Western" to mean "non-Indigenous".
Second, this article is informed by the geography and the experiences of the writer and those we interviewed. It is primarily written towards First Nations entrepreneurs living in smaller communities or northern urban centers. Our experts interviewed work in Northern BC, the Yukon, along the coast of BC, and in some smaller Southern BC communities. It won’t speak as much to the challenges of entrepreneurs in larger centers like Vancouver or Victoria, and there may be differences for Métis and Inuit entrepreneurs that we are blind to.
On unique challenges
It’s no secret that Indigenous entrepreneurs face their own set of challenges. Some of those challenges are well-known - if not swept under the carpet as to ignore some ugly realities. The Western world is generally aware that intergenerational trauma creates an uneven playing field through poverty and pain. We are aware of the stigma and stereotypes.
The Western world is also collectively aware - though sometimes through a lens of ignorance and misunderstanding - that Indigenous entrepreneurs have unique opportunities for funding.
But there are many challenges that even someone like myself - curious about Indigenous business, connected to many Indigenous funders and consultants, empathic - didn’t understand until we began researching this piece.
There are challenges of isolation. As we all collectively experience the toll that isolation and social distance takes on our brains and businesses, it becomes easier to imagine the struggles of an entrepreneur located on a reserve that’s hours and hours from any major population centres. Isolation means missed opportunities, less access to training, and more difficulty in finding a mentor that can help guide you. Krystin Dubuc explained how some funding agencies struggle to meet their outgoing funding goals because not enough Indigenous entrepreneurs know about the opportunities or have access.
There are challenges of systemic bias. Many Indigenous businesses are born out of a need in the community, and the desire to do social good. While social good is a virtuous and inspirational goal, it’s not a metric that moves the needle for a traditional bank. Social good will rarely get you approved for a business loan at Big 6 bank. One expert we interviewed noted that even some institutions with a mandate to serve Indigenous businesses can suffer from this bias.
There are challenges in the pace of business. A Western entrepreneur can walk into a bank or an investor’s pitch, present a profit-driven business plan to a single person or a handful of investors, and get on their way. An Indigenous entrepreneur, taking advantage of government, Nation, or Band funding opportunities, faces an uphill battle of organizational red tape and a need for democratic consensus from significantly more parties. Josh Callahan, a Yukon-based consultant we interviewed, noted that this can also frustrate partners who may not be used to an indigenous pace, causing frayed relationships and additional pressure.
However, the challenge we found the most fascinating, and the challenge we believe an agency like ours can speak to best, was the challenge of balancing culture and capitalism. Indigenous businesses are in an incredibly unique situation - their cultural roots actually create better initial outcomes compared to Western entrepreneurs. But those initial benefits can quickly become traps in their own right.
Early advantages become late-stage hurdles
The need for social good, cultural exposure, and community support can create early advantages for funding and customer acquisition that get a business off to a strong start.
In cases of non-traditional funding, there is a recognition that filling a community need and creating social good can have long-term positive impacts on that community. If a funding source is more aware of the challenges facing Indigenous groups, they can use this good to help move the funding forward.
Cultural exposure, especially where tourism is involved, is a powerful tool in a marketing toolkit, especially if a business can leverage the power of public relations.
Community support is a longstanding tradition for Indigenous groups. In my interview with Ray Gerow, he spoke to the community-driven attitudes on reserves and in Nations that helped these groups survive through dark periods - taking only what you need, and sharing with everyone else.
Communal resources. Communal success. A plumbing business started in or near an Indigenous community has a built-in customer base by virtue of the value placed on supporting each other first, with other factors second.
In our research interviews, it was pointed out that if two businesses - Western and Indigenous - create a business plan, secure funding, and start on the same day, the Indigenous business will statistically outlast the Western business. This is due, in part, to that built-in base of support.
An Indigenous entrepreneur that makes it through a slow funding process, issues of isolation, and the biases of a Western system to day 1 of the doors being open is in a relatively strong position - but unless they’re thinking strategically, that position can trap them and become a significant barrier to growing the business.
A fuel that burns fast
The driving force behind early-stage Indigenous business successes can create blindness to the potential harms the situation creates.
If a community is supportive of a business owner, but the community is small, the initial customer base could have their needs satisfied quickly, leaving a business without a proper revenue stream until the buying cycle repeats. This is especially true in consumer-facing businesses - there are only so many plumbing jobs to do or houses to paint. There’s only so much budget your customers have for eating at your restaurant, and eventually, they’ll probably want to eat something new to change it up.
Sales cycles can drag out. The impression that business is booming can create an (accidental) entrepreneurial laziness in filling and refilling a sales pipeline. Looking at your calendar to see that you’re booked for 6 months will often turn your brain from growth mode to maintenance mode. At the end of those 6 months, as the next 6 start to look more sparse, there is an inevitable scramble to sort the problem out.
Early support is a fuel that burns fast. This isn’t a problem unique to Indigenous entrepreneurs, but it’s unique here in the scale of the support and thus the scale of the blindness.
When the initial rush is over, or even when you’ve found a consistent workflow that generates business, it will be time to expand to new customers and new markets. This is the moment where your brand will be tested.
Your brand is many things. It’s often talked about as ‘the feeling of every experience someone has with your business’. Major components of a brand are their story, their tone, their visual identity, and their market position.
If your brand isn’t ready, it could cause your business to collapse in short order - because the further you get 'from home' - that initial support base, the more your brand needs to speak to people who don’t already know who you are. And that needs to happen without alienating your initial support base, the people who helped you start.
About brand balance
We can think about the balance of brand identity for Indigenous businesses as a spectrum.
On the left, we have culture as the sole brand identity.
It might sound like this: “We are an Indigenous business, and that’s why you should buy what we have to sell”.
It’s a natural default selling point, especially if your community and cultural background played a significant role in your early success. You want to stand proud in who you are and the positive impact your business has on your community.
On the right is pure unadulterated Western capitalism.
It might sound like this: “We provide our customers with optimal solutions that solve their problems.”
It is entirely focused on the benefit to the end user as a means of generating revenue. It doesn’t care about your community or social good, it cares about itself. It cares about bottom lines.
Neither of these extremes can carry an Indigenous business into long-term success.
One side doesn’t speak to people who don’t know who you are. It doesn’t help them see how you can solve their problems.
The other side ignores who you are for short-term gain. It could create a sense of abandonment in the people who supported you upfront. It doesn’t leverage the power of your stories.
Moving along the spectrum
In our interview with Ray Gerow, he told us how he challenges Indigenous entrepreneurs to think about this balance: “as you grow, you need to move further to the right”.
The further you get ‘from home’, the less your cultural ties will matter as part of a bidding or sales process.
This doesn’t mean you should gloss over your culture or community.
It means understanding how your personal and community story fits into your business’ brand story, leveraging different aspects of that brand story at different times.
Sorting this out the moment it becomes a problem is a bad idea. No good brand was ever born out of a knee-jerk reaction. Brands should speak truthfully to the different customers you serve. They’re researched, planned, and rolled out strategically.
Good brands and great communication come from a strategic approach and a deeper place.
The issue of ‘why’, ‘who’, and ‘what’
Simon Sinek is referenced in thousands of marketing articles and presentations. He’s the man who popularized the concept of your business operating from a ‘why’. Why do you do what you do? Beyond money, what drives you?
Who you are is important. What you do is important. How you do that thing better is important. But tying those all together with ‘why’ is crucial, especially when you have a culturally born story to tell.
Indigenous businesses have a leg up here: they’ll rarely struggle with the ‘why’. Their missions are typically rooted in a greater good or a deep purpose. This creates a fertile space for developing a great brand that can win customers wherever you are along the spectrum.
“We are an Indigenous business, and that’s why you should buy what we have to sell.” has no ‘why’.
“We provide our customers with optimal solutions that solve their problems.” has no ‘why’.
“Babine Plumbing was created to serve a need in my community and give those passionate about trades an opportunity to prove they can be among the best. We believe in treating every customer the same way we’d treat our families - putting the relationship ahead of the bottom line. As we expand, it’s this attitude that wins customers leads to our continued success.” has a 'why'.
This made-up elevator pitch dives into the cultural ‘why’ and doesn’t shy away, but it doesn’t stop there.
It ties a culturally-bound origin story into a positive business goal. It speaks to how culture and origin influence ways of doing business that can help win over any potential customer, no matter how ‘far from home’ you’re doing business.
It's an example of balance.
The opportunities created by a good brand balance
Not only does finding the right balance through story help navigate expansion while staying rooted in truth, but it can also open up other opportunities.
While social good or culture isn’t the primary driving force for capitalism, there is a slow-growing trend of valuing social good and supporting culture when all other things are equal.
If an Indigenous business and a non-Indigenous business submit the same proposal, but the Indigenous business can tell a story of how they create good in the world, it could be a significant advantage.
Plus: if an Indigenous business has unique experiences or approaches to operating, that can create interest which leads to people wanting to know more - allowing them to share their story or even generate press.
The conclusion, for now
A good brand story is honest, and in its honesty, it speaks to the people who need what you have to offer. Indigenous entrepreneurs who lean into their story while planning for the future can create vibrant, interesting brand stories that serve as an anchor to their communities and a catalyst for growth and further good.
There is a way to balance Indigenous culture and the realities of capitalism. It’s going to take some extra work up front, but it will pay off in the long run.
This topic is fascinating. I can’t imagine this will be the last time I write on the subject, but I do hope this first piece has at least sparked Indigenous entrepreneurs to think about this potential problem before it sneaks up on them. If we’ve done that, we’ve succeeded.
To that end, we will leave the Indigenous entrepreneurs reading with some key questions to think about in the hopes it helps them turn their minds to a brand story that can help them grow.
How does your cultural background affect the way you approach relationships in a way that’s different from others in your field?
What specific ways do you create social good where you live?
Where does your passion for your business, trade, or discipline come from?
What sparked you to do what you do?
What are the values you bring to the table that are relevant to your customers however far they are ‘from home’?
Which or those values are informed by your culture, your geography, or your experiences?