Pursuing Entrepreneurship on Your Own Terms

Entrepreneur to Entrepreneur Advice: Strong and Free CEO Denise Dow

When it comes to a local company or start-up making its mark nationally or internationally, some entrepreneurs say, there is no one answer or model to follow. Sometimes, it may just be a matter of following your passion and filling a need where something is missing. That’s what happened to Denise Dow, CEO of the Strong and Free Emblem company.

“Strong and Free was always something I always thought of doing. As a teenager, I used to visit my cousins in the US and I would always see the American eagle everywhere and I was always a proud Canadian and thought wouldn’t it be nice to have a similar symbol we could put on our home or wear to show we are proud to be Canadian.” says Dow.

But, as the years passed and her children grew, she noticed the concept was still missing.

“I kept expecting someone would come up with it and no one ever did.”

She got her teenage daughter and son to help her pick some maple leaves off a tree in her backyard, traced them, created a banner and The Strong and Free emblem eventually made it off of paper and into reality.

“It started out with a plaque, but then people were like, ‘okay, but we need belt buckles, pins, and auto decals,” says Dow.

Her on-line store now features Aitkens Pewter belt buckles, key chains and pins with the emblem, and Canadian Tire and Home Hardware stores across Canada carry decals. Dow also recently inked a deal with Stansfield for apparel.

“I always tell people, it takes 10 years to be an overnight success. I really thought it would take off a lot quicker than it did, but I still needed to put my kids through college and it’s not like I could drop everything, so Strong and Free was always something I was doing in addition to my full-time job.”

Dow adds that her licensing model and online business is what worked for her, but every entrepreneur’s journey is different.

“What makes it more palatable is that I’ve created a model that works with my lifestyle and being able to do things on-line and on the weekends, is the right thing for me. I think people need to be realistic. It’s about choices. For me, the right choices were focusing on a stable foundation for my family, but then also follow my passion,” adds Dow.

Her career in IT gave her that flexibility, and she admits diving in full-time into entrepreneurship is always another option. But, a few things don’t change, no matter how you venture into entrepreneurship.

“You have to have a lot of guts, a lot of tenacity to stick with it. It’s not something that you only do for the money or for recognition. It’s something you do because you’re passionate about doing it and it is part of something you believe in doing,” says Dow.

Ten years ago, Dow did a lot on her own to start her business. But, she recognizes that programs to help entrepreneurs, like those offered through Enterprise Saint John, are important to help create a solid foundation for success.

“Have you done the math? How many of these things do you need to sell to make a profit? You really need to understand your income potential and how much can you live on and what you are willing to sacrifice in between. There are decisions to be made, all the time,” warns Dow.

She is a proud Canadian and equally proud of being from Saint John, which is why she recently opened a storefront and headquarters at One Princess Street in the uptown area.

“We’ve grown from a handful of home hardware stores on a trial basis to now becoming a prime vendor in 50 stores across the country with plans for Fusioncast to launch a line of home and cottage plaques featuring Strong & Free. I feel like I’m in a place where things are starting to gather momentum,”

While Dow is excited to see her business continue to grow, she is also often reminded about why she started this business in the first place: a passion and pride for her country.

“I’ve had veterans come up to me, with tears in their eyes, putting their head on my shoulder and thanking me for the emblem, so that’s what keeps me going, it’s a great feeling.”

You can check out more on Dow’s products at www.strongandfreeemblem.com

Originally published in the Saint John Telegraph Journal, August 4, 2017