Entrepreneur navigates red tape, cultural hurdles to set up homeopathic business in Surrey

Anurag Aggarwal at his Surrey clinic, Aggarwal Health and Wellness Centre. Aggarwal, who came to Canada in 2008 from India, benefited greatly from a mentor while starting his homeopathic business.
Photograph by: Jason Payne, VANCOUVER SUN

Loan, mentor provided by Canadian Youth Business Foundation helped Anurag Aggarwal

Anurag Aggarwal almost gurgles with laughter as he describes his first job in Canada.

“They used to send me all over the Lower Mainland — banks and parking lots. It was mostly night work, then some regular shifts.”

Did the new immigrant have any idea how to be a security guard?

“No, actually,” said Aggarwal, 33, whose candid good humour must endear him to everyone he encounters. “I’m 5-foot-4. I don’t look like a security guard.

“They hired me because they liked my educational background and I was good at talking.”

Aggarwal is a homeopath who owned his own clinic in India and arrived in Canada during the 2008 recession. Unable to get work in his field, he took a job as a security guard, studied English, and accelerated his plans to start a business in Canada. He began a vigorous campaign to adapt to local business customs and opened Aggarwal Health and Wellness Centre in Surrey within six months.

In retrospect, one of Aggarwal’s best moves was applying for financing from the Canadian Youth Business Foundation’s Newcomer Program and taking to heart advice from Jatinder Gulati, a volunteer mentor CYBF assigned him when they approved his loan.

Gulati started with the same advice he gives everyone: “I tell them, what would you think back home in India? Just think the opposite.”

Going to the bank, for instance, requires a counterintuitive conversational style.

“Back home, you say, ‘This is my business. I want a bank loan,’ ” said Gulati, a certified international trade professional who came to B.C. in 2003, started out with a Subway franchise but now runs an export consulting business, ThinkExport.com. “In Canada, you should say ‘This is my business, is it eligible for a bank loan?’ ”

An open-ended question is crucial for entering into a conversation and that in turn yields useful information, Gulati said. In India, “sometimes we are very upfront,” he said. In Canada, “start with the weather, and slowly, slowly you get to the point.”

One of Aggarwal’s biggest surprises was discovering that while homoeopathy is a respected mainstream profession in India, it’s somewhat marginal in Canada. “I thought I would get some good jobs and start the business after a year,” he said. Instead, “I spent six months fighting for my daily bread and butter.”

Starting his own clinic brought all the challenges of working within an unfamiliar system. The paperwork around business licences, criminal record checks and building permits took six months as opposed to the half-day that Aggarwal expected. “In India, I can just rent a space and do whatever I want to,” he said. “I don’t have to get permission from everybody.”

And there were a multitude of unexpected small expenses — “Alarms. We don’t use alarms over there,” Aggarwal said. Nevertheless, Aggarwal likes the Canadian system. “It’s so definite,” he said. “They have infrastructure. They have guidelines. I like this thing, that people follow the guidelines.”

Marketing was a notably new experience. Aggarwal was used to casually printing leaflets and getting exposure in local newspapers. In India, most small business owners simply don’t need to do market research, but Canada’s smaller population means entrepreneurs must differentiate or die, Gulati said. Aggarwal determined he needed to expand his offerings and fast, so he quickly signed up for a series of local training courses so he could expand into herbal remedies, weight loss, detox and live blood analysis.

“If you’re not doing the right thing, you are spending too much time, and time is money here,” Gulati said. “Back home, the tangible product has more value than intangible products like time. Here, intangible products like time or the services we render carry more value. Products are cheap here. What we most fear is the time we spend.”

The CYBF assistance was a turning point, Aggarwal said. Their $15,000 in financing allowed him to buy equipment, expand, differentiate and therefore charge more for his services. And Gulati’s mentorship helped him quickly understand important intangibles such as “how things get done” in Canada.

While Aggarwal initially catered to the local Indian community who were already comfortable and familiar with homoeopathy, he’s now preparing to reach out to Langley, White Rock and Vancouver. His two-year-old business broke even soon after his first year and is now three times larger than his original clinic in Bilaspur, Himachal Pradesh.

Aggarwal’s “primary target market was people within his own community, which was very wide. He understood it, connected to it, used it,” said David Day, a CYBF business manager in Surrey who worked on Aggarwal’s file. “He was ideally positioned to provide a service that was lacking,” Day said. “He fulfilled his educational requirements, recognized a need in the marketplace and reached out for the assistance he needed to be successful. That’s a rare combination.”

Over a year later, Aggarwal is still astonished at the CYBF’s efficient assistance and free mentorship program. CYBF’s newcomer program assists entrepreneurs new to Canada, aged 18 to 39. CYBF will consider financing entrepreneurs who don’t yet have a Canadian credit history.

“When I went to CYBF, they told me to get a business plan done and apply and that’s it,” said Aggarwal, who learned about the CYBF through Progressive Intercultural Community Services, another non-profit organization. “I got the money in two or three days. I was amazed. They even gave me a counsellor free of charge. They are actually interested in helping me.”

Aggarwal doesn’t dwell on the difficulties of his first few years as a Canadian entrepreneur, but his advice to others reflects lessons learned. Do lots of preparation before leaving home, he urges. Complete educational prerequisites, get credentials evaluated, research market conditions, figure out start-up costs, and contact loan and support institutions all before you leave your homeland. You can save a lot of time, he said.

Today, Aggarwal has a business partner and one employee.

“The mixture of clientele is not big enough, but I am OK. I think I can do much better. It takes time,” says Aggarwal, a man whose views on time and relationships bridge two cultures.

Aggarwal continues to work 16 hours a week as a security guard.

And the security firm manager has become an Aggarwal Health and Wellness Centre client.

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