Clearco Co-Founder and CEO Michele Romanow isn’t just a serial entrepreneur, she is a visionary. Starting six companies before the age of 35, she became an entrepreneur because she thought it was the biggest way to make an impact. Her journey began with a caviar fishery, honing her business skills in university. In 2015, she became one of the founders of Clearco – a company that achieved unicorn status (a valuation of over $1 billion USD). The e-commerce merchant financing company specializes in providing capital for ecommerce, mobile apps and SaaS (Software as a service) founders.
In addition to her day job, she also became the youngest “Dragon” on CBC’s hit show, “Dragons’ Den”. If anyone knows about hustle culture, it’s Michele Romanow. According to a new survey commissioned by Heineken Canada, more than half of working Canadians blame the phenomenon known as “hustle culture” for their lack of work-life balance, saying they feel burnt out. Romanow and Heineken Canada recently teamed up on an innovative and engaging new device called The Closer: a high-tech bottle opener that shuts down work applications when users open a bottle of Heineken with it.
“As an entrepreneur in Canada, I’ve seen too many people burn out in the pursuit of professional goals,” said Romanow, “We can all understand the value of hard work, but too many of us undervalue the need to unwind, disconnect, and prioritize our personal lives and own wellbeing.”
We recently had a chance to speak with Michele Romanow to find out her secrets to success, how she dealt with failure and how she carves out time for herself. Learn more now in our latest #WomenInspiringWomen:
You have been named in the top 20 “Millennials on a Mission”. What do you think your mission is?
My goal is to support as many founders as possible on their entrepreneurial journeys. Being an entrepreneur is hard and incredibly lonely. If I can provide a path, advice or just a sounding board to founders who are pouring out their blood, sweat and tears on a daily basis, many of them who don’t have a support system, I’ll know I’m making a difference and using my platform to help others.
Early on in your career, how did you land on Evandale Caviar as a viable business idea?
My co-founders and I realized that the worldwide supply of sturgeon caviar was down over 90% because of overfishing in the Caspian Sea, so we saw a business opportunity and set out to change that. We secured some seed funding from a university pitch competition and created a commercial supply chain on the East Coast. We set up operations in New Brunswick and learned how to run a company, everything from being knee-deep in caviar to cold-calling restaurants. It was hard work but it was obvious we were on to something, sales were good.
Then the downturn of 2008 hit and that’s when I realized the world really owes you nothing. Here I was left selling one of the world’s most unnecessary luxury products in the middle of a global recession. Evandale taught me to be resilient and bounce back in the face of adversity but also how to be decisive and understand when something just isn’t working.
You have accomplished so much in your career. You have launched successful businesses. You are on “Dragons’ Den”. It seems like you have the magic touch, and you still have years ahead of you. What does failure look like to you and what have you learned from it?
I wish I had the “magic touch” but the truth is, I’ve failed countless times and that’s made me a stronger entrepreneur, much more than any of my successes. You have to have the capacity to endure an enormous amount of failure in this industry without it getting to you. Those failures help me make clearer, more sound decisions and gives me the experience necessary to push through when all the cards are stacked against you.
Conversely, what does success look like now versus when you were just starting out?
It actually doesn’t look all that different. Yes, we’ve scaled incredibly, advancing over 5B to 10,000+ founders but success looks very similar as day one. It’s about showing up for our team and our founders on a daily basis. It’s about ensuring people understand the mission and vision of what we’re building at Clearco. I still get so energized sitting with our engineering or sales or product teams as we’re solving hard challenges so no, success doesn’t always have to be a huge funding round, or a high valuation, for me it’s still building a great product, shipping it to consumers and seeing consumers use and love your product.
You recently partnered with Heineken on a new device called The Closer. Why did you decide on this partnership? How have you been able to enjoy the success that you have had without the burnout often associated with it?
I’ve always loved Heineken. When they approached me it was a perfect fit because the campaign made so much sense (I work too much!) and I’ve been using my Closer to remind myself to shut off during this holiday season! Work-life balance as an entrepreneur is extremely difficult, I know I’m never going to have 8 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep and personal time for 8 hours, instead, I look at work-life balance over the course of a year not a day. In a year did I travel enough, did I see my family enough, did I have great meals with my friends? That allows me to stave off the burnout that is so often associated with this industry.
You once mentioned that when you started on “Dragons’ Den” that you felt insecure because you were the youngest, poorest person on the panel. You are someone who young women look up to. What advice do you have for young women with big ideas who may not know where to start?
The number one thing is simply to have a thick skin. Undoubtedly you’ll be told no countless times and that only rises if you’re young and a woman. Understand that these “no’s” are just temporary and instead of letting it hold you back, use it as motivation to succeed. When we were pitching Clearco for the first time, 100 people told us no, I had people tell me “ma’am you don’t understand credit” and to look where we are today just shows that success is not always linear and sometimes starts with a no.
What is next for you?
I’m just getting started! We’re well on our way to funding 1M founders and I’m excited for the future!
Who inspires you?
The 10,000 founders we’ve backed who everyday wake up and live, eat and breathe their brands. They’re the ones who are putting it all out there and taking the risks. I always tell people, the hardest part of being an entrepreneur is taking the leap and diving right in. There’s never a good time, so to have the conviction in an idea and to do that when we’re in an economic downturn truly inspires me to keep going and building for our founders.