Small Town Values: What My Family Business Has Taught Me About Growing a Startup

I grew up in Renfrew, Ontario – a small country town of only 8,000 people where fishing, farming and hunting were the preferred subjects of conversation.

Tech startups and bootstrapping a business were not even a blip on the radar for most of the people I grew up with. Regardless of this, my small hometown was where I learned some of the most valuable lessons I apply to business today, and I wasn’t even aware of it.

My family has owned a manufacturing and building supply business for over 70 years. We are not huge, but we have been built from the ground up and we are stable because the three generations before me – my father, grandfather and great-grandfather – successfully built on what had been left to them.

Now I live in Toronto, where it seems like everyone is involved in a startup (myself included). Though I’m currently in one of the most fertile places for businesses, a large part of what I have learned about business comes from my upbringing. Having been born into a “backyard” business, things operate a little differently.  What I came to view as normal isn’t always the case in big business. For example, in Renfrew you are technically never closed, even if the open sign is off and the gate is locked. You also wear many hats – I’ve been the secretary and the crane operator and the manager all in one shift. What felt so natural growing up gave me the chance to learn how to smoothly operate a business in a way that I don’t think I could have, had I grown up in a big city.


Running a business that is approachable, involved, and has a genuine interest in the community’s well being brought us great pride. For example, as a young boy I would be walking down the street or into the hockey rink and people from town would stop, call me by name, and ask how my family was and how the business was doing. I would always give them a friendly response and try so desperately to remember their names so that I could pass on the news to my parents. These type of interactions made me proud of what my family had built.

This sense of community carries over to my job today. It encourages me to build a relationship with all of our colleagues and clients, even with ones across the country that I haven’t met in person before. I’ve found that bringing a small town feel to our globalized economy is an undervalued approach. My company (Cave Social) emphasizes this with all of our clients. Building trust and strong relationships are key to our success as a business.

Leadership and Teamwork

Coming from a family who owns a small business that caters to the local community, we are set up exactly as you would expect with our home right next to our business. The close proximity meant that my brother, sister and I were always hanging around the yard whether we were wanted or not. At first sunlight my mom would make our breakfast “to-go” so that we could race down to the plant and supervise the ongoing work (obviously from a safe distance as we are a manufacturing company). Here I watched my Dad, the CEO of the company, start his morning. He worked alongside every one of his employees – from summer students to 20 year veterans, doing to same back breaking tasks. At the time, I knew that he was the boss and that everyone had to do what he said, so I didn’t understand why he chose to participate in the labor when he could have easily just went to the office.

It finally clicked when I was reading the Art of War by Sun Tzu. In the book, Sun Tzu describes a General that endures all the hardships that his soldiers must; he carries his own rations and tools, sleeps on the ground, and walks alongside them. Sun Tzu gains the respect of his peers not with fear, but by showing respect himself. This principle is actually a valuable lesson in business. If you show that you understand, respect and are willing to do whatever it takes for your team members, they are going to do the same for you no matter the positions held. This is a formula for success.

[su_quote cite=”JW Marriott”]If you take care of your people your people will take care of your customers and your business will take care of itself.[/su_quote]

Dealing with Mistakes

As I grew older I became more and more involved with our family business. I was young, excited, and truly enjoyed what I was doing. That being said, I was far from perfect. I made mistakes but usually nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a little elbow grease or by calling in a favor. The toughest part about my mistakes wasn’t the extra work that needed to be done to fix them, but rather explaining them to my boss (my Father). He never got mad and his first two questions were always, “Are you OK?” and, “How do you think that we should fix this?” His calm, cool demeanor in the face of what I thought would be the next Armageddon never ceased to amaze me.

Being able to look at a problem or mistake as a learning experience and not as the end of the world is very important, especially when you are a small workforce that can’t depend on outside support. Being able to remain calm and come up with an informed, level-headed solution beats flying off the handle every time.

While I have not moved on entirely from my family’s business, I have also gone on to explore other business ventures at the same time. I’m involved in a really cool startup with some very talented people. My new family is Cave Social, a group of guys that are all like-minded and have the passion and pride that it takes to build a brand, a company, and an environment that people want to engage with. In order for us to have grown into a stable business, we had to overcome many challenges. Taking on these obstacles as a unit and knowing that your teammate is giving their best for you really helps keep morale up when times are tough. I believe that as long as we continue to apply these simple yet integral lessons to each new branch of Cave, we will have no problem building a new family business.

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