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Business Victoria CEO Ken Stratford talks with a client in front of his office in downtown Victoria. (CHAD HIPOLITO/FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Business Victoria CEO Ken Stratford talks with a client in front of his office in downtown Victoria. (CHAD HIPOLITO/FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

GROWTH

Victoria's micro-companies dominate landscape Add to ...

In British Columbia, small business is big news.

In 2009, there were about 396,000 small companies operating in B.C., accounting for 98 per cent of all businesses.

About 82 per cent were considered micro-businesses – those with four or fewer employees, including the owner, according to B.C. Stats Small Business Profile, 2010.

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In Greater Victoria, around 75 per cent of the region's companies have four or fewer employees; a figure significantly higher than the national average of 55 per cent, according to Statistics Canada numbers for 2009.

It appears those companies aren't consumed with taking their micro-businesses into macro territory.

“I call it the West Coast lotus-eaters lifestyle,” said Ken Stratford, chief executive officer of Business Victoria.

With golf courses beckoning year-round and the ocean outside the door, small business owners are less interested in becoming the next J. Crew of Canada and more focused on enjoying life on the West Coast, Mr. Stratford notes.

Notwithstanding the R&R mentality driven by a highly educated work force and a healthy 6-per-cent unemployment rate, there are businesses that have survived those rough first three to four years and are ready to grow.

Mr. Stratford offers a proven system.

After 12 years with Business Victoria, where he and his 14 employees helped launch more than 2,500 companies, he points to StartupInteractive.com, an Internet business education system offering business templates, spreadsheets, webinars, online coaches and peer assistance.

Taking two years to build, at a cost of $200,000, the online tool has packaged more than a decade's worth of experience in what it takes to successfully grow a business and cultivate employees. It covers every topic a small-business owner needs to know, and the beauty is customers use it when and where they want.

“If you won't come to us, we'll come to you,” said Mr. Stratford, formerly a senior manager with BC Ferries and BC Transit. The user cost is $5 per month, or $59 a year.

When it comes to growth beyond four employees, University of Victoria entrepreneurship professor Brent Mainprize cautioned that there isn't a “magic bullet” for targeted hiring.

There’s a necessary psychological shift: When a company has two or three employees, the boss likely works alongside staff. When new faces arrive, the boss may suddenly be off the floor.

“Psychologically, it can be difficult to flip from working ‘in’ the business to ‘on’ the business,” Dr. Mainprize noted.

The boss must have confidence that whoever is hired can replace the head honcho, something driven entrepreneurs may have trouble accepting.

Often bosses like to hire mirror images of themselves. That's not a good move, Dr. Mainprize said.

Instead, company owners should determine what their weaknesses are and then hire someone who excels at what the boss can't do.

Appropriate systems – any process or procedure that makes the business more efficient and, in some cases, more attractive – are also crucial

When it comes to attracting staff, having a stock option or profit-sharing plan are enticements that motivate employees to work like an owner, Dr. Mainprize said.

“An owner may have to give up 80 per cent of their company, but if it grows 20-fold, it's worth it.”

Growth is expensive, so undercapitalization is a death knell.

Raise or have on hand more than the minimum dollars before hiring new workers, Dr. Mainprize advised.

If angel investors aren't hovering, there's always the federal government. It has instituted a temporary hiring credit for small business, which provides a one-time credit of up to $1,000 against a small firm’s increase in its 2011 Employment Insurance premiums over those paid in 2010, according to Industry Canada spokesperson Stefanie Power.

One valuable option is the university and college co-op program.

“It's a great opportunity to try before you buy,” Dr. Mainprize said.

One further prized program, noted Dr. Mainprize, is through Export Development Canada.

If a small company gets a big order, it may not have cash on hand to fulfill the order. Banks won't provide financing. The program will finance needed inventory, including more staff, to meet the demand from another country, Dr. Mainprize says.

HIRING HELP THROUGHOUT CANADA

At Enterprise Greater Moncton, CEO John Thompson touts his agency’s loan program.

Employers can borrow up to $20,000 in seed money that can be used for staffing.

In Sarnia-Lambton, the Business Enterprise Centre offers free, one-on-one business consulting for any company keen to hire more employees.

At the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission, development officer Ron Humphreys notes that a lot of his clients accessing the BEC’s individual counselling are one- and two-person businesses poised for growth.

In Edmonton, it’s a tight labour market, especially in the life science, advanced technology, and energy sectors, making staff acquisition challenging.

When micro-businesses in those fields want to add workers, the Edmonton Research Park, an arm of Edmonton’s EDC, is the place to go.

Business seminars, referral advice, and other services are all available, notes EDC spokesperson Renee Worrell.

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