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This Canadian balanced college, two businesses and the Youth Olympics

March 2, 2011

Callum Ng (Credit: Ami Sanyal)

Here’s the best way to sum up Callum Ng: If your girlfriend cheated on you with Callum, you’d pretty much have to just say “That’s understandable” and move on.

A former member of the Canadian National Swim Team, Callum majored in philosophy at the University of British Columbia and owns two profitable businesses at the age of 25: Green Grads, an environmentally friendly exterior cleaning service, and NG Farrell Marketing, a sports marketing agency. He recently earned a master’s degree in business management, was named Canada’s Young Ambassador to Singapore for the 2010 Youth Olympic Games and taught Justin Bieber how to mack. That last part is a complete guess, but I suppose it’s possible.

Today, I asked Callum how he started his first business and why everything he touches turns to gold.

How did you get the idea to launch Green Grads, your first business?

Basically, I was a varsity athlete in university and I was training a lot in the summer and couldn’t get a [full-time] job. So I said I’ve got to do something for myself. We had a couple buckets, a ladder and an old Volkswagen, and that’s how we kinda started. At first, it was just me and another swimmer [from UBC’s varsity team], Thomas Senecal.

The business was such a low start-up cost, and there were a lot of one-man shows going on. We thought there was kind of an opportunity there.

What do you wish you knew then that you know now?

The key is understanding client expectation. What you’re telling people and what they’re expecting, getting that aligned. Then just the nitty-gritty stuff, going through the incorporation process. Filing a tax return, covering insurance, and then there’s the business planning aspect – projecting cash flows.

I did that myself for Green Grads. It’s funny, after I did all that and went to business school, I found out that how I did it the first few years is just hilarious compared to how you’re supposed to do it. But it worked.

How did you learn what it takes to run a business? Were you on the Internet all the time?

The best thing about running a business is that it’s very straightforward. And the funniest thing about being an entrepreneur is that you’re one almost because you don’t have a particular skill or talent, but you have the have the ability to figure things out and use common sense.

For example, “How much money do I have to make in a week to pay my employees and cover my fixed costs and keep up an advertising budget?” You just kinda work on it, and you look at what you did last month, and you make an adjustment. It’s not too difficult if it’s what you’re good at.

When did you start hiring actual employees?

When we were first working together, it started as a general partnership. The first year we literally did it all ourselves, and then the second year we started to hire. It’s a service-based business, and that means as long as we have business, we shouldn’t be losing money.

Callum Ng founded Green Grads as a way to make some money between summer swim practices.

Were you raised in the wilderness by a pack of entrepreneurs?

My mom is a career administrator and my dad is an accountant. I don’t have many entrepreneurial family members, at least immediate family members.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of starting a business?

Obviously [money is] one of the incentives, but the major thing is creating something and building something that’s really special and you can see growing year after year. The health of your business and how many employees you have and what markets you’re entering. That’s what’s so interesting to me.

And we’re still growing. We’re all around the lower mainland, which is a market of about 3 or 4 million people. Once you get to a tipping point, everything begins to move faster and obviously we’re looking to do that in the next couple years.

What’s your advice to college students who want to turn an idea into a business?

Be passionate about it. Find something that you really want to do. You have to believe in it and you have to know that you’re an entrepreneur and this is what you want to do.

There’s going to be some hard times, but if you have some good planning and you believe in your idea, you’re going to be successful as long as you can kind of weather the storm. You have to be resilient; you have to be tough — and ultimately passionate about who you are as an individual and what you do. If you do that, then it’ll work out.

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