If the people at Down to Earth Labs Inc. seem to be strutting these days, that’s because they are. Almost two years after the Lethbridge, Alta., soil- and feed-testing company won the Challenge Contest sponsored by The Globe and Mail and Telus Corp., managers and staff are still feeling the pride of working in a winning enterprise.
“The fact that we were chosen out of hundreds of contestants was so amazing – it gave everyone in the company this whole new confidence and energy,” says Angela Quinton, co-owner of Down to Earth Labs, formerly Sandberg Labs. “And of course, winning the $100,000 prize money has made a huge difference in our business.”
Now in its third year, the Challenge Contest is a call for small businesses across Canada to share the biggest challenge they face today and explain how a $100,000 cash infusion can help them overcome this problem. Last year’s contest attracted more than 1,200 entrants.
“Running a small business isn’t easy,” says Hugh Johnson, vice-president for small and medium businesses, Ontario, at Telus, and one of this year’s judges. “The Challenge gives small business owners a chance to really think about what’s holding them back from the next level of growth.”
The contest, which runs from March 18 to May 27, is open to small businesses across the country, except in Quebec. They must be owned by a legal resident of Canada and employ fewer than 150 workers.
Mr. Johnson will be joined on the judging panel by The Globe and Mail’s Sean Stanleigh, Steve Tustin and Terry Brodie, Jim Senko, vice-president for small and medium business marketing at Telus, Carolyn Lawrence from Women of Influence Inc., Donna Marie Antoniadis from ShesConnected Multimedia Corp., Sally J. Daub from ViXS Systems Inc., and Chris Griffiths of Fine Tune Consulting.
The judges will choose four semi-finalists in early June. In a new twist that’s being introduced this year, the four contenders will pitch the judges in person on June 27 at Telus House in Toronto. Globe readers will be able to watch videos of the pitches at www.globeandmail.com and vote online all summer for their favourite. The winning enterprise will be announced in early September.
So what will the judges be looking for?
Mr. Stanleigh, editor of The Globe’s Report on Small Business section, says the diverse judging panel means entries will be viewed through different lenses. From his perspective, entries that present a compelling story are likely the ones that will grab his attention. “I’m looking for interesting businesses – companies in industries and sectors that people want to read about,” he says.
He says he probably won’t be won over by businesses that want the money to bump up their marketing efforts or support current operations. His advice to small business owners planning to throw their hats into the ring?
“Don’t hold back – tell me everything,” he says. “Don’t worry about being proprietary, really throw everything on the wall that could affect my outlook of your business. Tell me your current revenue, your future revenue projections, who are your customers, who are your competitors, and most important of all, what is the biggest and most compelling challenge that is holding back your business?”
Ms. Lawrence, president of Women of Influence, which works to advance high-powered senior executive women, offers two words: passion and vision. “Have they dreamed big enough? Have they thought of a really great goal that they’re working toward?” she says. “I want to see their passion and vision and how they’re going to turn it into reality.”
Ms. Lawrence says she’ll also be keeping a close eye on how participants plan to use the $100,000 prize. “It’s important for them to explain how they’ll be using the money in a strategic way to get to the next level of growth,” she says.
Sally Daub, president and chief executive officer of ViXS, a Toronto company that provides technology for processing, managing and distributing high quality video and audio, says she’ll be looking for leadership and competitiveness among contestants.
Simplicity and innovation will be high on Mr. Johnson’s checklist of must-haves as he reviews the entries. He would like to see problems presented in a simple and crystal-clear manner, with solutions tied to how businesses innovate and drive engagement with their customers, employees and community. “I want to see contest participants creatively sharing their thoughts and ideas, and backing these up with facts and data.”
Some business owners may feel apprehensive about making a live pitch to the judges. The Globe’s Mr. Stanleigh says it’s important for entrepreneurs today to know how to sell themselves to investors, and the live pitch will be very much like a presentation to a boardroom of venture capitalists and angel investors.
“You need to make sure that you’re able to demonstrate the passion you have for your business, in writing and in person,” he says.
Ms. Antoniadis, co-founder of ShesConnected, a social network for women, says the prize money isn’t the only benefit from this contest. The process of preparing will stretch entrepreneurs to look beyond their current status, she says. “Entrepreneurs are often so caught up with the everyday tasks of running their business that they lose sight of their long-term vision.”
Back at Down to Earth Labs, Ms. Quinton and her husband used their prize money to buy new equipment and modernize their company’s facility. This allowed them to boost capacity and expand their services, says Ms. Quinton. The company is now on track to meet its goal of doubling annual revenue to $1-million by 2015.
Winning the Challenge Contest also made a big difference at Glassopolis Inc., a Toronto maker of specialty glass. General manager and co-owner Rob Botman says using last year’s prize money to upgrade the company’s equipment and facility has allowed Glassopolis to start making fire-resistant glass – an important safety feature for windows in building stairwell doors.
“Our goal is to achieve another quantum growth in our sales based on this new product,” he says. “I don’t think we would have been able to do this as quickly if we hadn’t won that $100,000.”