by Sarita Harbour | illustration by Andrew Hall
Despite what my friends and family back in Ontario may think, Yellowknife is not the ends of the earth. As it turns out, Yellowknife is both home and headquarters for solopreneurs with a global market.
I love it here. When I arrived last summer from Burlington, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and my new home up the Ingraham Trail was private, serene, and a perfect place to carry on working.
I make my living as a writer for business and financial websites around the world. I produce blog posts, articles, and slideshows on topics ranging from mortgage preapprovals to what to do with your old beer caps (they make really neat floors). And one day, as I was sitting on my back deck, tapping on my laptop while listening to the waves on Prelude Lake, the thought crossed my mind that there must be others around like me. People who, because of the internet, can work with clients all over the world while based in Yellowknife. As it turns out, I was right.
I began freelance writing almost four years ago. What started out as a simple online recipe project and desire to learn how to use WordPress soon turned into contributing articles to web-traffic-based revenue sites, where I could earn (literally) a few cents each day. That, coupled with my banking background, led to writing about money and business for a couple of American content agencies. Soon I had private small business and tech clients. At one time I wrote regularly for three web design sites, based in Scotland, England, and Ukraine. Today, I write for clients based in New York City, Boston, and all around the Silicon Valley area in California. I correspond almost daily with editors who also work from homes in California, New York City, and Montreal.
Until recently, I haven’t had a business connection to anyone local, but I began to wonder about other solopreneurs in the area. How do they get their clients or customers? Did they already have the business in place before getting here, or is it possible for one person to start and successfully build a Yellowknife-based business catering to an international market?
I began to ask around, and soon met two other business people who serve clients and customers far beyond Yellowknife’s city limits.
David Malcolm owns Malcolm & Associates, a Yellowknife-based management consulting and engineering business. He specializes in design engineering for renewable and alternative energy, and has been dealing with global clients for many years.
“I’ve been working internationally since 1979,” he says.
Like me, Malcolm runs a service business which he’d established prior to coming to the North, and long before the internet was a common household service.
However, while I write from the comfort of my home, Malcolm delivers his engineering and management consulting skills on location. “Egypt, Greece, Kenya, Somalia, Dominica, Jamaica, Barbados, Southeast Asia, and Malaysia,” he rattles off when I ask where his clients have been. Hmm. I’m noticing an interesting climate pattern here. And how did he get these warm-weather engineering jobs, I ask?
Malcolm credits Canada-wide business connections with helping him discover opportunities outside Yellowknife. “Mostly through word of mouth from clients, as well as contacts through other engineering firms in cities like Calgary and Ottawa,” he says. “You see, I’m part of a network of small companies throughout Canada. Through them, I hear about projects.”
Malcolm says the internet has been critical to his management consulting work, and to his developing writing career and entrepreneurial sustainability web site. “Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I had a Telex machine, then a fax,” he recalls. “It would take three or four hours to send a report, but I did it!”
Malcolm says one tricky bit of running a global business from Yellowknife is establishing a relationship with decision-makers based elsewhere.
“The big challenge for me, I suppose, is that for most overseas projects you need to work in partnership with other firms,” he says, adding that the big engineering firms he wants to partner with do not have head offices here in Yellowknife – they’re in places like Toronto or Edmonton. Malcolm says building a network of peers outside of Yellowknife who may refer business his way is one way he’s tried to deal with this issue.
Mark Brown is another Yellowknife entrepreneur whose clients spread far beyond Yellowknife’s city limits.
Brown is a claim holder of the Acasta Gneiss River rock, one of the oldest known rocks on the planet at 4.3 billion years, according to the United States Geological Society. Brown sells the rock as decorative pieces and jewellery from his website, Rock of Ages NWT.
While not everyone may agree with the commercialization of the ancient rock, one thing is certain, the market for Brown’s products extends far beyond Yellowknife. “I’ve sold to people in Australia, Japan, Russia, Thailand, South Africa,” he tells me. “Oh – and Scandinavia. The Scandinavians love it for some reason.” After a moment Brown adds Norway, Sweden, and the States to his list. “Yeah, a lot in the States.”
Brown says he finds that there’s little interest “around here” for his rock, despite local and national media coverage when he filed his claim, and even an appearance on the Canadian entrepreneurial reality show Dragon’s Den. Brown has, however, found various ways to market his products using the Internet, including posting videos on YouTube and Vimeo. The Internet marketing seems to be having some success, attracting the interest of academic and cultural institutions.
“I’ve even sold pieces to museums and universities, like Berkeley in California,” says Brown. “And The University of Tokyo has a piece on display, too, and the Smithsonian in Washington.”
Want to Take Your Yellowknife Business International?
Malcolm, Brown and I have similar advice for entrepreneurs who want to launch or expand a business beyond Yellowknife. Network and get online.
I’ve found networking online a great way to connect with clients. My membership in two online professional development groups led to international work, and clients have also found me through my LinkedIn profile.
Malcolm says to get a business buddy. “Find a partner, either elsewhere in Canada or in the country targeted, to increase your product/service delivery capacity,” says Malcolm. “Canada’s trade staff at Canadian embassies overseas can be very helpful in this regard.”
And Brown’s advice to budding Yellowknife entrepreneurs looking for a global audience? “You absolutely have to have a website and strong marketing skills,” he says. “But if you’re an entrepreneur, you’ll believe. That will keep you going.”
Sarita Harbour is a freelance writer and owner of harbouronlinewritingservices.com.