Member Spotlight: Sara Phelan

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Well, I was a corporate trainer in sales and leadership before I ever went into entrepreneurship. 

I opened my dream business in 2005. And at that time I was living the life, I was loving my business. It was everything I ever dreamed it would be…but life changes. 

And somewhere in there, I went from having a child to having a partner that worked away, and then to major competitors moving into my space. As you know, life and business don’t always run parallel, and it can be very frustrating and heartbreaking. 

But I decided that I was going to refocus, and I reached out to a business brokerage to figure out what my exit might look like. Do I have anything to sell? Is what I have worth anything? 

I didn’t know, but I was an award winning entrepreneur, I thought I was doing everything right. And yet there were still so many things that I didn’t know. 

Through that process I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to have anything to sell because of the major competitors in my space. So I took my losses and lessons learned. I learned so much.

By marrying my corporate training, background and entrepreneurship, I thought, “Okay, what’s next for me?”…and then the brokerage offered me a role working with them selling small to medium sized businesses. 

I got to see the ins and outs and under-the-hoods of a whole lot of different types of businesses. And I hated it, it was heartbreaking. Nobody calls a business broker when things are good, they call a business broker when there’s trouble or when they know they want out of their business. 

By this point I was into my third business. I had also become a certified business and executive coach. It suited me; I loved the idea of marketing the potential of the businesses instead of ripping it apart. 

I had to come up with a really quick framework on how to get to the skeletons in the closet and where the potential was for the business and what they had. 

It’s kind of like selling a house – if there’s a big hole in the roof, we have to disclose it. So I had to figure out really quickly how to build that out. And since I didn’t like being a broker so much as I loved their potential, I started doing a lot more growth strategy. 

Well, what’s an achievement that you’re very proud of?

The thing that fills my bucket the most is the aha moments that the entrepreneurs have that I get to talk to. They look at me, and they say, I wish I had known that six months ago, I wish I’d known that six years ago, I would have made different decisions. 

When I see that light bulb go off for other people, that fills me up,

What’s a piece of advice you could offer to others who would like to follow in your path?

I think the biggest piece of advice I would have for others is really to do the planning. 

Banks require you to have a two-page business plan with financials to support getting a loan, but that doesn’t tell you how to be successful. 

If someone had given me a recipe 17 years ago and said, here’s what you need to do Sara, I would have been so grateful, because I remember days where I was sitting in my office, looking at my computer and thinking, I wish someone would just tell me what to do.

What kept you feeling driven and motivated, during those particularly hard parts of entrepreneurship?

I think it’s just pure grit. You know, just sitting down and saying, this is where I am, I’m invested in this, I’ve put my blood sweat and tears into this, and I’m just going to keep going. 

But “keeping going” kept evolving, it kept changing shape. I’ve now been a solopreneur for 17 years. Five of those were in my own small business and 12 of those now supporting other entrepreneurs. 

It’s not for the faint of heart. And I have two children, so I want them to see that they can accomplish whatever they want.

What made you decide to pursue your business?

Having gone through the process of the exit with my first business, I learned so many things. It was where I had my aha moment. 

When somebody asked me the questions, and I couldn’t answer. I thought I knew my business inside out. Like I said, I was winning awards. I was doing all the things that I thought were the right things. But I didn’t see the whole picture. 

I find that a lot of the entrepreneurs that I work with feel the same way. So really, for me, getting into coaching and being a business strategist was helping other entrepreneurs like me to have those moments and look at the bigger picture and figure out what they really need.

Is there a message you’d like to share with other women entrepreneurs,

Just keep going. Talk about it, learn what you don’t know, find out where you really stand in your business. And then take that next step about talking to somebody else about it. I feel like my mission is to get people talking. If you do nothing else, you’ll learn something from somebody else. 

So you take out of it what you can, and then, you know, figure out your own lessons and share with other people. 

I started a women’s network in my local community at one time. And I built it for the people that I worked with in my community and the other owners of stores. But none of them showed up. I was so devastated. 

But all of a sudden, there were 30, 40, 50. Now there’s 200+ other women entrepreneurs that jumped in, and who also wanted to have conversations and learn things from each other. 

What made you join or sign up for the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce?

The networking. We’re all behind screens now, where it’s so hard to meet people, and the networking has really stopped. You know, I’m on a number of different boards, including our local chamber of commerce. 

But at the same time, I sort of feel like we’ve we’ve missed the the larger collective, we’ve all started to become so insulated in our own spaces that I really wanted to look at how I can get my message out and how I can help other people and how I can meet other people that are doing the same.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

Connect with Sara Phelan:

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