This Veterans’ Week we spoke to five Operation Entrepreneur boot camp alumni about their business, what inspires them and how the skills they built in the Canadian Armed Forces help them as entrepreneurs.
After serving for 15 years in the Canadian Armed Forces and sustaining an injury in Afghanistan, Ryan Pagnacco decided to go back to school to study mechanical engineering. He worked in the defense industry for a few years, but he wanted to find a career that was more rewarding and considered starting his own engineering firm.
He credits Prince’s Trust Canada’s Operation Entrepreneur boot camp with helping him develop his business plan, saying, “It was a pivotal experience. It helped me decide what direction to go, how to set up the company, and how to build it up.” Before the training program, he had thought about starting something as a side gig “because I didn’t know the ins and outs of how to run a business.” But after he built his business plan, and learned the foundations of marketing, sales and finance, he decided to pivot into creating his own business: Enable Innovation Product Development.
Enable Innovation Product Development is an engineering firm that works with clients to help
them prepare for the manufacturing of their initial prototypes, as well as for mass production. Put simply, said Ryan, they help their clients turn their ideas into physical products that can go to market.
For Ryan, the autonomy of choosing the direction of his business and running things the way he wants is rewarding, but he admits there’s a learning curve to entrepreneurship. In addition to figuring out things like payroll, taxes and legal liabilities, there are other challenges, including uncertainty. He said, “There’s nobody to tell you the right way to do things. You have no kind of oversight direction, other than what’s out there in the world. You don’t have a sergeant yelling at you to tell you to do something, there’s no orders. You have to make them up as you go.” He said it’s a bit of a “culture shock” and believes that having to adapt to this reality is something that affects almost anybody who transfers from the military to the civilian world and tries to be an entrepreneur.
To make the transition smoother and to respond to uncertainty, Ryan relies on his leadership skills. He says that almost every soldier in the Canadian Armed Forces learns about the principles of leadership in some capacity.
“I have a little card that I keep on my desk and the principles of leadership are on there, specifically for military application, but there’s a lot of crossover with anything outside of the military as well. And it’s kind of like a guiding path that I try to stick to,” said Ryan.
Leadership, for Ryan, involves things like clarifying objectives and intent, solving problems, making timely decisions, directing and motivating by persuasion and example. He said this approach works “very, very well” in the military, and works equally well in business and even in his personal life.
In addition to leadership, Ryan draws on a number of skills he developed in the military to run and grow his business. He believes for most Veteran entrepreneurs, it’s less about the hard skills and more about the soft skills. The military teaches you self-discipline, resilience and persistence, all things that are necessary for an entrepreneur. He said, “It’s something that every soldier learns somewhere along the line. You know you have to endure the terrible times and soldier on through the hard parts. And then when you get past them, you have good stories, good memories, and learning experiences.”
As small businesses navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic, Ryan’s priority is to survive the economic downturn and keep himself and his team healthy. Beyond that, “My goal has always been to expand the company to grow as much as humanly possible.”
Ryan said that producing their own concepts, designs, or products is an important goal for Enable Innovation and he’s excited to be launching a new product in the upcoming months. He knows there are a lot of uncertainties in the world right now, but that “In the next two years, I hope to double my team. At least in the next five years, I’m hoping that we have to find a new building, because I would love to have a team of at least 30 by then.”
In July 2017, Ryan attended the Operation Entrepreneur business boot camp at Memorial University. During the week-long intensive training, he received in-class instruction from business school faculty, participated in mentoring forums and networking events, received one-on-one coaching and worked on a plan to take his business to the next level.
For more information on Enable Innovation Product Development, located in Waterloo, ON, visit www.enableinnovation.ca/