We sat down with the Founder and Managing Partner of CTRS, Aaron Cruikshank, to deep dive into who he is as a person and as a business owner. This interview style blog post explores his career thus far, entrepreneurship, and includes lots of tidbits that highlight Aaron’s iconic personality, which is very fitting for someone with an iconic red beard.

What’s your educational background? 

Aaron: Well it’s a bit all over the map. I did a Bachelor’s in Communications for my undergrad degree and somehow fell into this odd niche of technology commercialization policy while I was there. After working as a public servant in technology commercialization policy for a while, I decided to do a Master’s in Public Policy. That was a hairy year because I quit my cushy government job to do this business and it was about six months before I started grad school. I also had my first child that year and bought my first home, so kind of a nutty year! 

Right now I’m actually completing my Executive MBA with a specialization in Social Enterprise Leadership, both to learn how to run the business more effectively and to get the credentials that I need to start teaching market intelligence at the post secondary level.

What experiences did you have that made you want to open your own business?

Aaron: Well I had a few. I grew up watching my dad who had an amazing work ethic be taken advantage of by his employer and it taught me that most employers aren’t looking out for your best interests, they’re just looking out for themselves. So I was never under the illusion that any employer was going to take care of me, so I needed to take care of myself. That line of thinking led me to entrepreneurship. 

At some point I thought  “an employer can fire you tomorrow on a whim and derail your whole life but if you have your own business and a bunch of customers, the odds of all of those customers dropping you at the same time are slim to none”. It  just seemed like better odds to me. 

I also felt like I wasn’t a very good employee. I’m pretty outspoken and sometimes I wouldn’t fit in with the company culture. Now, I get to lead the company culture and support an environment where people can speak up, share their ideas and bring forward their expertise and unique point of views. 

Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

Aaron: Oh no not not at all. I totally fell into it. Even with the financial uncertainty you experience when you’re a new business owner, it felt like the best decision for me once I realized what a terrible employee I was. I adapted to what worked best for me and that meant entrepreneurship. 

I did have to shut down CTRS for a few years after the economic downturn and then I had a couple of good work experiences that helped me re-launch CTRS. It really reinforced for me that I’m more content when I’m running my own business. But no, this was never the plan. 

I didn’t dream of being a business owner when I was 12, I think I wanted to be a roboticist or an astronaut or something like that. What little boy doesn’t dream of working with robots? I mean I was a huge sci-fi fan. 

How do you define leadership?


Aaron: Well there are many types of leadership. I’m actually taking a course on leadership theory right now at the University of Fredericton as part of my Executive MBA program. It’s interesting stuff and I’m learning lots about myself and seeing areas for improvement in my own management practice. 

That said, my personal definition of leadership aligns closely with the idea of servant leadership. I came across this idea when I was looking into the great place to work program. I  read “A Great Place to Work For All” which is a book written by the CEO Michael Bush. It talks a lot about how one of the most common features of the highest rank companies on their list is that the leaders are servant leaders. That really stuck with me and when I dug into it a bit, it 100 percent aligns with the kind of leader I want to be. 

If you’re not familiar with the term, a servant leader is one who turns team members into leaders helping them develop their potential rather than using a leadership position to control or limit people. So servant leadership is about helping those you lead become the absolute best versions of themselves so that they can thrive and when everyone thrives the company thrives and our customers are well served. That’s why it lands really well with me and so I think there’s lots of different ways to lead and lots of different definitions of leadership, but the one that’s most significant to me and the one that really speaks to my heart is this idea of being a servant leader. 

What does success look like to you?


Aaron: That’s an interesting question. I  think a lot of folks define success financially. When you ask people in the business community, “are you having a good year?” a lot of folks I have talked to talk about the money side of things and that’s just not me. 

To me, success is reaching a point where you can make decisions about what you want to do with your time and resources without the fear of losing everything.

On the road to success we sometimes have to take on work that we don’t like or don’t want to do because making ends meet for your family is the most important consideration. But being able to say no to things and yes to others is a real gift that success brings. I also think that the best success is shared success. If everyone in my company is doing well financially and mentally, I feel really successful. 

What gave you the idea for your company and how did it start?


Aaron: I started out more like a freelancer than a real company. I was working for a government agency that lost most of its funding. I still had a job but a big part of my job was helping improve funding for technology startups and we didn’t have any money to distribute any more so I spent about six months in the early 2000s driving my boss crazy with proposals. 

After six months I got the idea to call some of the organizations we  had been working with before the funding cut and asked them if they would be willing to hire me as a consultant. A bunch of them said yes. My wife also said she was cool with it so I made the leap! I didn’t actually try growing it into a real company with employees until more like 2007, when I was getting more work than I could handle on our own.

Did you always know that you wanted to work in market intelligence?


Aaron: No, I started out more as a generalist consultant and then in 2018 decided to focus on market intelligence exclusively because it was the most interesting and in-demand work that we were already doing. It was one thing amongst many that we did focus on and it was one of the best things we ever did. 

Why do you think it’s one of the best things you ever did?

Aaron: It gave us a way to differentiate ourselves from other consultants that were out there. It gave us an opportunity to speak about our work in a focused way and educate people as opposed to trying to look like many of the consulting groups out there, such as  Mckinsey or Boston Consulting Group. By focusing on market intelligence, we are specialists in this field. It makes it really clear when people reach out to us that we’re the best ones to be talking to so that’s why I’m glad we created that focus.

What is your vision for CTRS?


Aaron: Well I’m not that old but I would love for CTRS to have a legacy when I retire. I’d love for it to be an employee owned business and for it to grow over the next five to ten years. In the next few years I’m not going to retire but I’m going to start preparing for the next generation to take over running the business. I think you gotta look at lots of lead time for that so I got about twenty years of work left in me in this field I think and I want to make sure that CTRS outlives me and continues to do great work by having a significant community impact. 

My vision is that CTRS will live on well past me and really keep doing the good work, providing meaningful employment for curious hard working folks, and doing that impact work in the community.

What makes the industry of business and consulting rewarding?


Aaron: Being a business owner is rewarding in that you have so much control over your destiny. Now that’s a double edged sword because you can make bad decisions too but if you work hard and make smart decisions you can see results from your hard work. That’s rewarding because when we have just a job, sometimes it’s hard to see the big picture and see how your work contributed to a big outcome. You can feel like a bit of a cog in the machine.

Consulting as a type of business is rewarding because we’re giving businesses and business owners the tools they need to succeed, grow, and prosper.

What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned through the course of your career?


Aaron: Most people learn by getting burnt. The number one lesson for me is always get it in writing. I like to trust people until they give me a reason not to, but written verification is the best policy in my opinion.

What advice would you give to others aspiring to be an entrepreneur?


Aaron: Just be very aware of your own risk tolerance. If you need a guaranteed income each month at a certain amount, being an entrepreneur might not be for you. In the long run, you can make more than you would at a standard job but there are going to be ups and downs along the way. 

Being an entrepreneur is not an easy way to make a living. I think some people are under the illusion that it is and that everything is smiles and roses and everything is going to go smoothly. But it very rarely does. It’s probably one of the hardest ways to make money, it just has the biggest potential upside if that’s what you’re worried about. 

What advice would you give your younger self?


Aaron: I would definitely tell younger me to learn the financial side of the business first and make sure that you’re actually breaking even or turning a profit. I think I lost a lot of money in the first half of the business because I wasn’t as good with the finances. I was charging too little and giving away too much, and not putting a margin on anybody’s time. I’ve learned that sometimes people don’t want to do business with you if they think you’re priced too low. It’s not that they think it’s a good deal but they go “what’s wrong with this picture here, this is way too cheap for what they’re talking about doing”. So definitely learning the financial side of the business is something I wish that I had done much earlier. I don’t have a background in business or finance and I’ve had to learn a lot of that stuff the hard way and with advice from people that I trust. But I wish I’d learned a lot more about that earlier.

What’s your favourite thing about your job?


Aaron: I get to learn new things all the time. I love learning and I think working in market intelligence is a great job for someone who loves learning, is curious, and loves exploring the world because that is what we do for a living which is awesome. You know I’m more of a business owner now than a consultant, so I’m learning how to be a better business owner.  It’s kind of like going back to school – I mean I’m literally going back to school – but even before that it was like being in school because there’s all this stuff you gotta learn and get better at. If you don’t improve as a business owner, it’s your employees that end up suffering. I don’t want that to happen, so I’m working hard to get better at that kind of stuff which is very exciting.

I also love to pass along what I’ve learned to people less experienced than me so they can learn new skills and get to experience some of the neat things I did when I was more involved in the work itself. 

One more thing I love is getting to know people and as the main guy responsible for selling projects these days, I get to spend a lot of my time talking to people, learning about what they do, and finding solutions for them. People are awesome and I love the chats that we have with folks. 

My wife loves to tell this story. When I was younger and not working in this business, I had the opportunity to meet Jeffrey Ballard. He is the guy behind Ballard Power Systems, which came up with one of the first hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles back in the day. I had a chance to meet him one time and I came home to my wife and she said if I had a tail it would have been wagging. I was so excited and said “guess who i met today! Jeffrey Ballard!” and she laughed. Here we are 25 years later and I still have days like that. 

I’ll be talking to someone that’s working on nuclear medicine and I get all jazzed up about it because it’s nerdy and exciting. It gets all the neurons firing in my brain in an exciting way. I love days like that when I get to talk to somebody about something really cool. I recently met somebody who is making fish leather and we met and she had this briefcase full of fish leather samples and I got to handle them and ask all these questions. I just love picking apart some of these things and learning how things work. I love learning and this job gives you lots of opportunities to learn new things every day.

How do you incorporate impact and purpose into your business?


Aaron: We’ve always had a triple bottom line approach at CTRS: people, planet, profit in that order. Becoming a B Corp in 2021 formalized a lot of what we were already doing and we’re still catching up but we’re making progress all the time. Impact is in our DNA – we’re always thinking about how our work can make people’s lives better,  so I don’t think you can separate CTRS from impact. 

Want to Chat with Aaron? 

Send Aaron a message on LinkedIn! As mentioned, he loves connecting with others and striking up conversations. Whenever we chat with Aaron, we always learn something new and have a few good belly laughs. What more could you ask for in a boss, mentor, and business partner?

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