Roundtable on business growth

Douglas brings together five Victoria business mentors to discuss what early stage entrepreneurs need most to succeed.

Harsh Rathod-Credit Armando Tura
Harsh Rathod, CEO of Niricson Technologies and one of the 2021 Douglas 10 to Watch winners (see page 45), experimenting with drones while working out of the Innovation Centre at UVic. Photo by Armando Tura.

Launching a business can be thrilling, overwhelming, compelling, lonely… you name it; it’s been felt. But whatever the individual experience, rest assured, you’re not the first or the last to feel that way.

Victoria is host to a growing ecosystem of business-support networks that include incubators, accelerators, venture capitalists, micro-lenders, skill-based courses, recovery programs and then some. Most importantly, it’s home to a lot of people who want to nurture innovation and who are sowing the seeds of Victoria’s future economy. The goal is locally grown companies that thrive at all sizes and scales, expanding sectors we know and forming ones that are only beginning to reveal themselves.

Why do they do it?

“It’s important for retaining businesses here,” says Richard Egli, whose motivation as managing director of Alacrity Canada includes building a healthy and sustainable ecosystem for business in Victoria. “If they feel like they have a really good support community, they’re gonna set up shop, start manufacturing here and stay here.”

Why Incubate?

Getting off to the right start can make or break a business. Packed with ideas and ready to explode, eager and green entrepreneurs often risk spreading themselves too thin early in the game. Jill Doucette, founder of Synergy Enterprises, which includes the circular economy incubator, Project Zero, says entrepreneurs need help setting priorities, paring back the ideas and writing the business plan.

“They’ve got 100 Lego blocks,” Doucette says of what entrepreneurs are juggling. “They only need eight of those blocks [to make a viable business]. You have to pare it down by helping them focus, so they don’t burn their energy with a scattershot approach.”

All of the panelists that Douglas convened to discuss this topic agreed that entrepreneurs need to be prepared to see their idea evolve. The iterations and the subsequent business plan needs to be customer focused and demand driven.

“Companies that become very successful, never come out with the exact same idea that they started with,” says Egli.

Working through the rigorous processes to get feedback, fine tune and repeat can elevate a good idea to a great plan, ready to become a minimum viable product. Without doing an MBA, the guidance on market research and product positioning alone are good reasons to incubate in that early phase.

It’s not always about getting the idea off the ground. Developing the person to help them reach their full potential overtime is a long term goal for Christina Clarke, CEO of the Songhees Development Corporation.

“We’re looking to support businesses that may not succeed, but that leave a legacy with that business person — it is the individual that we’re developing,” says Clarke. “Businesses will come and go, but if you develop that person and their passion, and provide them with the skills they can come up with new business ideas when other ones fail.”

The landscape for a company debut has changed, post-pandemic. Where launches were events, they are now webinars; where lunches were in person, they may now mean eating the same meal on either side of the screen. One thing that remains consistent, if not more significant, is the role media can play.

“Media is just fascinated with the circular economy and very hungry to understand it,” says Doucette. “As soon as they’re ready for the exposure, we make sure that they get published, that the media knows about them.”

You can have whatever assumptions, hypotheses you want; you can have whatever crazy idea. But you’ve got to validate that with customers. — Rob Bennett, VIATEC[/caption]

The Secret Ingredient

Networking is a loaded word, spawning a whole sector of training — books, courses, mentors and coaches — and a whole gamut of reactions. While intimidating for some and instinctive for others, it’s something any entrepreneur has to grapple with in a way that works for them.

That’s where an incubator or program has so much value.

“It’s really about helping them connect into the business community — once you’re in, you’re very supported, but sometimes you’re not sure how to break into it,” says Egli.

Clarke agrees, acknowledging the complexities that Indigenous entrepreneurs face are navigated best with guidance.

“It is connections — connections to other parts of the ecosystem — but the nuance in an Indigenous context is related to whether or not the business is operating on- or off-reserve, or whether the entrepreneur themselves lives on- or off-reserve,” says Clarke. “Helping them navigate jurisdictional challenges is the number one thing. It’s hard enough for an entrepreneur to start a business. But when you’re working within a reserve system, and laws that apply or don’t apply on reserve, it’s very challenging.”

When it comes down to it, peer support is king. During exit interviews Rob Bennett, COO and program director at VIATEC, says it is consistently noted as “the highest value” they received from programs.

It’s those peer groups that allow entrepreneurs to open up and be very honest with each other, something they can’t do publicly. They establish a network that can grow as they do — more friends than colleagues — people they will be able to access easily at later stages in their careers, when they have less time to invest in community building.

They will be there to hold a mirror up to each other when they need it. Egli thinks that “entrepreneurs find that accountability mentorship as the most important part because it helps them go through that journey.”

Harsh Rathod, CEO of Niricson and one of this year’s 10 to Watch winners (see page 45), experimenting with drones while working out of the Innovation Centre at UVic.[/caption]

Show Me the Money

With the exception of Alacrity, who has built a bit of a war chest thanks to founding equity and some successful exits, none of the participants have capital to issue. Alacrity’s savings aren’t generally invested in their companies, but go into their programs. The panelists all agree that building financial literacy and the capability to communicate with investors and handle capital is a top priority.

“The most important thing is to be able to prepare entrepreneurs for funding,”says Jerome Etwaroo, associate director of UVic’s Coast Capital Savings Innovation Centre.

“And help them discover the way to communicate that to investors,” adds Bennett. “What most investors are looking for, either at the angel level, or subsequent financing rounds, is that repeatable revenue model — to what extent has it been proven?” Preparing entrepreneurs to meet and prove those expectations is a big part of the job.

UVic’s partnership with Coast Capital enables entrepreneurs to access capital for prototypes. There are unique benefits to exploring entrepreneurship while still a student, like new business co-op pathways and scholarship support. ProjectZero’s partnership with Vancity has representatives speak to entrepreneurs about lending options and loan applications. Doucette encourages her cohort to take out micro-loans with the aim of building credit. Clarke works to make connections for businesses with existing Indigenous funding streams.

Individuals approach their startup ideas from a myriad of financial starting points. Some might be carrying a student debt, have little to no personal access to financial resources or potential investors, while others might come to it with enough to bootstrap the first year.

Victoria’s healthy investing environment has heated up more recently; Etwaroo has seen more investments in the past two years than he had in the previous ten years. Egli observes COVID -19 had the opposite effect of expectations that investments would “go dormant and flat.”

“With interest rates bottoming out and getting even lower, there’s been no way for bigger investors and institutional investors to find yield,” says Egli. “They’ve actually doubled down on their inter-alternative investment stack[venture capital, angel investing] because people are trying to find some kind of rate of return. They’re willing to take more risk in things like startups to find that yield.”

The Songhees Innovation Centre is a collaborative co-working space (pictured pre-COVID) for Indigenous entrepreneurs from any Nation and in any line of work[/caption]

Opportunity Knocks

Doucette and Clarke saw COVID-19 shift focus, favourably, to the potential for businesses to counter global challenges through values-based approaches and business models. The green economy is being lauded by the federal government as a core component of economic recovery and the Build Back Better movement is bringing a strong emphasis on innovation, rebuilding the economy while reducing emissions and regenerating the ecosystem.

“I wouldn’t want to say COVID has been good for us, but with the stimulus funding and the slow down, that gave us an opportunity to really focus on developing a strong foundation, especially for tourism,” says Clarke.

Forecasters are predicting a significant increase in young leisure travellers looking for sustainable options.

“The demand for Indigenous tourism is so high, we were just holding people back at the gates while we tried to develop a product,” she says.

While “pivot” was the business buzzword of 2020, it wasn’t an act reserved for entrepreneurs and business owners. VIATEC and Alacrity rolled out programs to allocate federal and provincial funds specifically for digital improvements. With other partners, UVic and VIATEC co-launched, W Venture, an incubator for women entrepreneurs.

“We have seen a lot of our startup companies pivot or leverage their existing technology to products and services able to focus on overcoming some of the challenges of COVID,” says Etwaroo, who thinks those actions speak highly of the innovative entrepreneurial mindset in the region.

“We’re going to see a ton of gaps,” predicts Doucette. “I am already seeing them. I’m going to try to do a project somewhere, there’s not a company to do it, or there’s not a service provider there. So I think there’s just going to be a world of opportunity for those who want to start a business in the next few years.”

Grants & Funding

The pandemic has significantly increased available funding to support innovative economic recovery for old and new businesses alike. Funding from the federal and provincial governments is available through programs that are administered by different bodies, like VIATEC and Alacrity, among others.

Small Business BC is a great resource to start; its Starting a Small Business Guide is available online and the site provides information about government, private and venture capital sources of funding.

The Canada Small Business Financing Program makes it easier for small businesses to get loans from financial institutions.

Futurpreneur Canada provides youth age 18-39 with startup financing (loans up to $45,000) and mentorship to help launch and sustain successful businesses.

Women’s Enterprise Centre provides business loans up to $150,000 to women in B.C. who own a business or are thinking of starting or buying a business.

The Investment Capital offers to help small businesses gain access to investment capital, from those just starting out to those wanting extra capital to compete in global markets.

Local Community Futures British Columbia offers business advice for people who live in rural B.C.

For sector specific financing, the Innovate B.C. Ignite program will fund up to $300,000 for innovation projects in the areas of natural resources, applied sciences and/or engineering.

Alacrity’s Cleantech program supports the scale-up of clean technology companies to drive export revenue and growth capital from select foreign markets. Financing research and skill development is another strategy for early-stage businesses to grow.

Innovate BC’s grants for hiring co-op students include the Tech Co-op Grants Program and the Innovator Skills Initiative. Private and venture capital investment can be accessed directly or through connections that are most easily made through incubators, mentors and business development support.

Non-profit community investment groups such as the Capital Investment Network provide entrepreneurs an opportunity to connect with angel investors, access local resources and increase a business’s visibility.

Women’s Equity Lab is Canada’s first all-female group of early-stage angel investors and are currently in their third round of funding in Victoria.

Raven Indigenous Capital Partners funds early and growth-stage Indigenous social enterprises from $250,000 to $2,000,000.

Tiny Capital buys and invests in tech companies through a quick and efficient process that lets the companies continue to operate with autonomy

Incubators & Accelerators

The Coast Capital Innovation Centre at UVic is a free (for students) on-campus incubator supporting all types of startups, including social innovation. The program supported several of this year’s 10 to Watch winners in the early stages of their businesses: Katie Gamble of Nature Bee Wraps, Jayesh Vekariya of get joni and Harsh Rathod of Niricson. Rathod was able to research the integration of robotics and artificial intelligence while Gamble says she still benefits from the network, receiving updates on grants and funding opportunities.

The Innovation Centre’s services include one-on-one mentorship, in which executives/entrepreneurs-in-residence (EIR) serve as mentors; access to funding opportunities; free workspace; pitch and business plan competitions; access to fast prototyping facilities; software and to UVic’s researchers and labs.

Project Zero is a seven month incubator program created by the Synergy Foundation. Applications are open annually (from October to January) for entrepreneurs with business ideas or early startups operating in the circular economy. Those selected have the opportunity to create their business plans, learn business operation fundamentals and entrepreneurial skills, connect with mentors, and develop pitches for their business ideas. Jill Doucette, founder of the Synergy Foundation, looks for applicants that have a “grip on the project and a willingness to learn.” She says the program will “teach you the basic skills to make this business a success. It is very much open to businesses at the idea stage, where they want to generate a business plan so that they can turn this into a real project and launch after our program.”

With a huge variety of programs to support innovations in tech, VIATEC supports business development at many different stages of the game. It was founded by entrepreneurs in 1989 with the idea of sharing challenges, opportunities and solutions to encourage and support growth. Today VIATEC offers a huge variety of programs, events, news and a job board for companies at every stage.

Most noteworthy is the VIATEC Accelerator Program (VAP) that offers structured venture development, coaching and guidance for early-stage tech entrepreneurs. The Accelerator Program has been designated as an eligible program for the government’s Start-up Visa Program for founders or key employees of international companies looking to build a head office in Victoria. Another VIATEC program is WCEO, an ongoing monthly course fostering a community of influential women leaders support around leadership development, recruitment and networking.

For the last decade Alacrity Canada has been starting and incubating companies through its nine-to-12 month entrepreneurship program. What is unique about its approach is that through its own market research it presents entrepreneurs with problems that need to be solved. The program provides office space, accounting and administrative services and mentorship.

More recently Alacrity’s offerings have expanded to include programs specifically centred around clean tech and AI. Its eight-week Digital Marketing Bootcamp has been a huge success, reaching over 2,500 entrepreneurs across B.C. For Richard Egli, managing director at Alacrity Canada, “It’s almost all community driven. When new people come to town, there’s a lot of introductions and people get to know everyone quite quickly. That’s how we’ve met some of the best partners and mentors that we’ve been able to work with.”

The Songhees Development Corporation addresses the Songhees Nation’s strategic priorities for economic development, striving to be financially self-reliant and prosperous, and to participate fully in the regional economy. Part of that plan, says Christina Clarke, CEO of the Songhees Development Corporation, is “promoting entrepreneurs, developing our own successful businesses and contributing to the regional economy. Integrating an Indigenous economy into the regional economy is my focus.” Some of the businesses and services the Songhees Development Corporation offers include the Songhees Seafood & Steam food truck, the Songhees Innovation Centre (a coworking space for Indigenous entrepreneurs), Songhees Tours and the Songhees Nation Investment Corporation.

More reading:

How Project Zero creates a circular economy

Songhees Innovation Centre is a hub for Indigenous entrepreneurs

B.C.’s cleantech takes on world challenges