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More Canadians are working for themselves

Rick McVicar, owner of 2nd Wind at his oxygen bar in his home office in North Vancouver, BC, July 25, 2009.

Since launching his own company in December, Rick McVicar has come to appreciate the phrase "running your own business." Often, he says, it means being so busy you barely have time to catch your breath.

"I used to go out and play squash five days a week. Now I'm not doing that," says the 50-year-old from his home in Vancouver. Instead of playing sports, Mr. McVicar is busy trying to turn a profit with 2nd Wind Distributors, his oxygen-bar rental service, something that is not easy considering how entrepreneurs are constantly dealing with unforeseen challenges. "There's always things that you run into, especially when you don't have an endless supply of money," he says.

More people no doubt share Mr. McVicar's issues these days. The ranks of the self-employed have been growing in the recession. Self-employment rose by 37,000 last month and is up by 1.5 per cent since October, according to a labour-force survey released by Statistics Canada earlier this month.

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With more people turning to self-employment, entrepreneurs who have dreamed of being master of their own destinies are facing the harsh realities of being the boss, from trying to raise cash to navigating reams of paperwork and marketing their businesses.

"Some people recognize, 'Okay, this is what I'm in for and I'm going to see my way through it.' And others, it's just more than they've ever planned for," says Stewart Thornhill, executive director of the Pierre L. Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship at the University of Western Ontario.

There's no doubt some of those people have become entrepreneurs without fully understanding the hardships involved, especially those who have been forced into self-employment by the recession, Mr. Thornhill says.

"They think, 'Great, I'm going to be my own boss, I'm going to be knocking off at 2 in the afternoon every day to go and play golf, it's going to be a great life.' You can get there, but it's very, very rare for businesses to be profitable at all in the first couple years. Everything's on a shoestring, every day is a new crisis. It's not 24/7, but it's as much as you're awake."

It's no wonder the majority of startups go bust. Of all companies started, about one-third fail within a year and 80 per cent fail within three to five years, according to Canada Business, a government information service.

"In a lot of areas of life we have pretty high expectations, pretty high hopes, and things rarely work out that well. And that seems to be particularly true of entrepreneurship," says James Brander, former director of the Entrepreneurship Research Alliance at the University of British Columbia.

Still, he says, that optimism is necessary for companies to succeed.

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Katharina Mueller was working as an account manager at the Royal Bank prior to opening a bridal boutique earlier this year on Prince Edward Island.

"I just felt like I was really meant to be an entrepreneur," the 31-year-old says. In the months since opening her boutique, Ms. Mueller has struggled with a slew of challenges: building relationships with designers, finding funding and seeking out the right staff, not to mention juggling two young children.

"I relied a lot on my family and friends to kind of support me with my children," she says. "Time management was a huge thing for me."

A lack of experience, whether in running a business or within a particular industry, often handicaps new entrepreneurs, Mr. Brander says.

David Loan left his job as a legislative researcher and campaign manager in Ottawa to open a restaurant, Zen Kitchen, with his wife Caroline Ishii in June. While Ms. Ishii, a former business consultant who has run a catering company, brought a fair measure of experience to her work in the kitchen, Mr. Loan, who runs the front of the restaurant, has had to develop a whole new skill set.

"It's not something I had done before," he says. "A restaurant has a thousand small details every day, and realizing that I would have to be ready for those small details and ready to make decisions on them has been a challenge."

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Adds Ms. Ishii, "You need to be a jack of all trades." Neither of them would give up the thrill of being their own boss, however.

"It's scary and it's exciting," Ms. Ishii says. "It's a constant learning curve."

It is a sentiment shared by most entrepreneurs.

As for Mr. McVicar, he is currently paying the bills as a musician and doing part-time maintenance work at recreation centres. The idea for the oxygen-bar rental service was originally his girlfriend's. Although she has lost interest, Mr. McVicar believes there is a large market for the product waiting to be tapped. He has bought a new car to make his company more presentable. He has also sponsored several events to market the product.

Mr. McVicar is still waiting to turn a profit, however.

In the meantime, he is learning to deal with all the curveballs life can throw at an entrepreneur, and gradually adjusting to the difference between his hopes for the company and where it is at the moment.

"You never really know what's going to be coming up around the corner," he says.

"I have run into some challenges, that's for sure."

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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