What drives entrepreneurs? What caused them to start their first startup, and what pushes them to keep going? To find out, we ask some of Canada’s most successful serial entrepreneurs 7 Questions.
In this instalment, we talk to Shafin Kanji. Kanji is CEO of Kanvi Homes, an Edmonton home building company, and KV Capital, a mortgage financing and investment firm. Kanvi ranked #83 on the PROFIT500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest Growing Companies in 2014, and the company has nominated in five categories at the at the 2015 Excellence in Housing Awards for the Edmonton region.
Prior to founding Kanvi and KV with business partner Farhan Virani in 2006, Kanji spent over two decades in the financial sector, working for major corporations like KPMG and SAP. He also served as CFO at Matrikon, a industrial software firm that was acquired by Honeywell for $145 million. We asked Kanji to explain what makes his entrepreneurial life so rewarding.
Question 1: When did you know you wanted to become an entrepreneur?
At a really young age—13—I had the opportunity to lead a volunteer organization within my community, and it made me realize that I had the ability to lead people. At that point I was leading people that were significantly older than me, and was able to lead them to get a lot of work done. Subsequent to that, I was in a pretty senior position for a private company that I took public. I’d made the owner a lot of money, but only saw a fairly small fraction of it! That gave me a lot of confidence, and I realized I had he appetite for risk that an entrepreneur needs to have. At that point I decided to leave and work for myself.
Question 2: Who is your entrepreneurial role model, and why?
Nizar Somji, the CEO of Matrikon, is probably the smartest person that I’ve known to date. I learned a tremendous amount from him. When I first started with the company I was 30 years old, and the CFO. The first week, I went to him and said, “We’ve got these issues.” And he said, “Why do I pay you? I pay you to solve my problems, not bring them to me.” That was a big mindset change for me, because I realized he wanted me to make decisions and solve problems for him.
He was an amazing motivator, and knew how to leverage people and resources to really get results. When you sent him an email or if you phoned him, he’d always get back to you immediately, and that was throughout the organization—at that point it was an organization of 110 people, but every one of those people felt they were Number One on his priority list. A lot of the things I do today I learned from him. I’m very cognizant of people’s time, no matter who they are within the organization. If you give your employees that time and importance, they will move mountains for you.
Question 3: What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started your business?
When I started the business that I had a good nest egg saved up. As an accountant, I’m generally risk-averse, and I knew when I started the business that even if I made nothing over the following two years I’d be fine. The best time to start a business is when you don’t need the money that’s generating from it, because that way you can reinvest it and you make better long-term decisions. If you’re living on the money that your business is generating, you don’t have the money to reinvest, and sometimes the stress alone can cause you to make poor decisions.
Question 4: What is the hardest thing you’ve had to do as a business leader?
At the PROFIT 500 CEO Summit two years ago, John Wilson, the founder of CEO Global Network, said, “It’s lonely at the top.” What he meant by that is as CEO you have no one to discuss difficult business problems with. You can’t tell your wife, because you don’t want to stress her out. You can’t tell your employees, because you could create a mass exodus from your organization. You can’t speak to anyone, you end up having to solve the problem yourself. But in the last few years I’ve met a lot of people in senior and CEO positions that I can call and bounce things off if I need to—a peer group.
Question 5: How do you prioritize your time?
There’s no magic formula—I wish there were! There’s a lot of things that are important to me, including work and the people at the company. But my wife and kids take priority over everyone. I’ve also been a volunteer coordinator for the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada and the World Partnership Walk, where we raise significant money for third-world development. I enjoy volunteering my time, because that’s where I feel I can make a real difference.
Question 6: How do you define success?
When we started in 2006, nobody knew who we were. Fast forward nine years, and nine out of 10 people I meet know Kanvi Homes and KV Capital.
The main thing is that they recognize not just that we’re smart people, but we’re also honest and fair people. Those two things you can’t put a price tag on. As a home builder it’s very important to me that if I run into my client, I don’t have to hide from them. A lot of people have horror stories of builder who aren’t coming to fix their problems. We’re available when clients need anything—whether you bought a house 10 years ago or yesterday. It helps with new clients, because when they ask for a reference we can say, “We’ll give you our entire database; call whomever you want.”
Question 7: What excites you most about your company’s future?
We have only scratched the surface in the areas we do business. There is so much more business we can obtain in niche areas, and that’s very exciting.
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Have you recently reached a big milestone in your entrepreneurial career? Would you like to answer our 7 Questions? Email us your pitch.