As a serial entrepreneur with a varied career history, Ariel Shlien largely credits his success to his focus on innovation. From an educational program company through to a family office, Shlien’s past businesses have crossed a wide range of industries. The aspect that connects them? The need to solve a problem.
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The first step towards creating a successful business is to give consumers an easy solution for a painful problem. Or at the very least, a solution that’s better than that of your competitor.
As Entrepreneur magazine puts it, “Google made search better. Amazon simplified online buying and selling. Netflix solved on-demand streaming media. Uber is trying to make on-demand car service better. What can you make smarter or better?”
The Beginning of the Entrepreneur
Whether you’re innovating within a company to transform it, or innovating within your own self, trying to transform yourself into a new stage or opportunity. [Innovation] is central to any transformational process.” – Ariel Shlien
Shlien learned this lesson very early. At the age of 15, he wanted to play with model rockets, but he lacked the money to do so. Although he had a paper route to earn some pocket money, he wasn’t able to spend it frivolously.
So, Shlien and his brother created a model rocket youth program at his local YMCA in Quebec, Canada. The program was hugely popular. It grew quickly until there were over 150 children on a waiting list for their 20 child-max programs.
In addition to being a source of income for Shlien, the program filled a need for parents. Getting their children to engage with scientific & mathematical concepts in a fun and immersive manner. “I got to have fun, I made a little money, and I got to fly rockets,” said Shlien.
A New Era, A New Challenge
Fast forward several years, and the model rocket program has grown into Mad Science. An educational-program business with 150 franchise locations in over 20 countries. Shlien himself was starting a family and discovering a new challenge. His home province of Quebec supports a socialised daycare system. While this has its benefits, it also meant there were lineups down the block for a limited number of spots.
This problem drove the entrepreneur to move into the daycare business. Founding Little Explorers, Shlien worked to become one of the largest daycare providers in the province. Eventually acquiring several competing businesses, Little Explorer’s continued to grow. At one point, the firm employed approximately 200 workers, caring for over 1000 children. Including Shlien’s own.
Entrepreneur to Innovating Investor
Shlien eventually sold the daycare business and used the capital to start a new entrepreneurial venture. A family office, which would become Surefire Capital.
Looking for new and interesting opportunities to invest in, Shlien sought to improve the typical method of finding top managers. To do so, Surefire Capital has built a highly effective “machine” that leverages the power of its proprietary network. They also put their money where their mouth is and invite others to join them in a perfectly aligned structure. Charging no management fees, Surefire takes risk, invests its own capital & generates returns for themselves as well as others.
“Many investment funds charge management fees which we feel is fundamentally misaligned with investors. We do not charge management fees and only charge if we make money for our investors. If we’re successful, we participate as we should, but if we’re not successful, we lose money,” explains Shlien.
The Role of the Network
The next problem Shlien faced was how to scale this family office and turn it into a growth engine. “The investment club came out of that,” shares Shlien. “ As the investment club grew, the opportunities grew with it. That’s how we plugged in Opportunity Network.”
With over 700 connections on his posted investment opportunities, Shlien uses the platform in parallel with his own private network.
“The investment club generates for us a very wide range of opportunities” explains Shlien. “We diligence everything at our expense and the best of the best, we find ways to realise.”
The New Challenge
Now, Shlien, and the rest of the world, are facing a new challenge. More than one-third of the world’s population is under lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Businesses both small and large are having to adjust to remote work and an unstable economy.
Mad Science, like many companies, has had to make major adjustments. “As you can imagine, having exposure in schools with children has far-reaching implications with respect to COVID-19,” shares Shlien. “There will be an impact on our business. At least until the point in time when schools reopen.”
But with kids out of school, Mad Science is helping parents keep them entertained and learning at home. Through virtual programs as well as products designed for at-home activities, Mad Science is adapting its programs to suit remote learning.
Surefire Capital, on the other hand, is well situated to weather this crisis. Already set up to be fully virtual, the family office has maintained a level of normalcy within day-to-day operations. “From a practical standpoint, all our staff are accessible and it’s business as usual for us,” says Shlien, “and we feel very fortunate to have such a great group of investors as a support base.”
Looking Towards the Future
Through Opportunity Network and the Investment Club, Shlien & his partners are able to continue sourcing new deals globally. Looking towards an uncertain post-COVID-19 world, the diversification opportunities that these networks present will provide vital resiliency for the entrepreneur in a possible economic fallout.
“We’ve become very good at finding uniquely exceptional managers,” Shlien says, referring to his company’s network. “I see us growing that machine, to be a much more active, aggressive as well as sophisticated platform. Finding fantastic, outperforming managers that are uncorrelated to the general markets. We’re investing our own capital, we’re helping others invest their capital with some vehicles that we’ve set up. Building that machine is something that I see us doing more and more actively.”
CEO at Surefire Capital & The MadScience Group