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EKA Innovations co-founder Aman Mann (Laura Leyshon FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
EKA Innovations co-founder Aman Mann (Laura Leyshon FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Networking

Cross-country tour exposes gaps for startups Add to ...

Aman Mann feels as though he's been on a rocket ride since attending a networking event for entrepreneurs in Vancouver in September.

“We had our first customer, but we had no idea of our next step,” said Mr. Mann, one of three schoolmates at the British Columbia Institute of Technology who last year founded purchasing management software company EKA Innovations Inc. in Vancouver.

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At an event sponsored by Startup Canada in mid-September, he met five other entrepreneurs who have faced similar growth issues, and also got a chance to pitch the company to venture-capital investors.

In the weeks that followed, he's kept up a dialogue with his new network, which has led to sales leads, and the partners have had promising meetings on financing.

“It feels like we were going at a 30 km [/h] pace and we've suddenly accelerated to 200 km [/h] since the event, and it's all thanks to making connections,” he said.

Experiences like this have been gratifying spinoffs of events that Startup Canada held this summer in 40 cities across Canada, said Victoria Lennox, co-founder of the non-governmental advocacy group.

The Startup events highlighted the fact that there's a confusing fragmentation of organizations and programs to help get entrepreneurs up and running, she said.

“When we asked the entrepreneurs what they'd like to see created to help them, a lot of the solutions they asked for already exist. They just didn't know how to find them.”

Many needed advice on their next steps. “They wanted to know things like: when's the best time to join a chamber of commerce and how do you find startup events and connect with them?” she said.

A gap in networking opportunities was clear across the country. “We asked the people at the meetings how many people in the room they knew. Invariably a lot of them had never met before,” Ms. Lennox noted.

The 40 town halls involved more than 15,000 entrepreneurs. “We found they come in all shapes and sizes, including artisans, farmers and those who own family restaurants,” Ms. Lennox said.

“Particularly outside the major cities, these discussions have been the first time entrepreneurs have been asked for their advice on how to create a more entrepreneurial culture,” she said. “In the past, discussions of stimulating startup growth have tended to focus mainly on political policy and included the usual suspects: government, academics and successful entrepreneurs in the tech sector.”

Startup collected thousands of ideas and recorded hundreds of hours of video that will have to be sifted through in the coming months, said Adam Chowaniec, founding chairman of Startup Canada.

The themes that were universal in all of the discussions were the need to improve ways to connect entrepreneurs to each other and to develop a forum for dialogue on next steps, Dr. Chowaniec said.

Another consistent theme was how to get mentoring and make it work better.” It was clear that mentoring has to be more than sitting down for a half-hour discussion; it has to develop into a relationship with someone who will work with you over a period of time.”

Dr. Chowaniec said he envisions an online portal almost like a matchmaking site, where people can list their needs, interact with potential mentors and get an impression of matches they think are most likely to work, he said. “You can't just pick someone from a list and expect it will be a relationship that will work.”

Innovations have come almost immediately from the Startup meetings. A group discussion at one of Startup's town halls in Ottawa in early September inspired Scott Annan, chief executive officer of tech accelerator Mercury Grove, to develop a private grant program to help students get entrepreneurial experience before they graduate.

“It was clear in the discussions that developing a unique idea, setting up a business plan and promoting are things that, in my experience, can't be taught from a book; they're learned from experience,” Mr. Annan explained.

He envisions a scholarship that would cover the equivalent of students' tuition. Their task would be to come up with something unique they could launch while they're studying.

The startup wouldn't necessarily have to be a for-profit business; it could be a service or a blog, but the student would learn to develop a unique idea, build an organization and find ways to promote it, Mr. Annan said.

This fall, he hopes to persuade individuals and corporations to pledge support to the Canadian Entrepreneur Fellowship so it can begin offering the stipends in 2013.

The next step for Startup Canada will be a meeting in Ottawa in late November that will include 15 entrepreneurial groups, Canadian government officials and representatives from startup groups in Britain, Chile and the United States. Keynote speeches will be by Jonathan Ortmans, president of Global Entrepreneurship Week and senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, and Alan Barrell, entrepreneur in residence at Cambridge University.

Meanwhile, Ms. Lennox hopes that the town halls will be the seed for a grassroots organizing of events across the country. “The questions they invariably asked at the end of our town halls was, ‘When can we get together again?' ” Ms. Lennox said.

Startup Canada's continued role would be to provide an apolitical way to get people around the table and share their stories and expertise, she said. “Ultimately, entrepreneurs are going to build companies with or without support, but with a spirit of collaboration in providing resources that add value, they will build them faster and better.”

PRIORITIES FOR ENTREPRENEURS ACROSS CANADA

Regional priorities that emerged from Startup Canada’s town hall meetings across the country:

Atlantic Canada: Empowering young entrepreneurs

The significant focus was on increasing awareness of entrepreneurship as a career option. Ideas included summer entrepreneurship camps, small business internship programs, entrepreneurs in residence in high schools and co-ordination of entrepreneur support activities on college and university campuses.

Quebec: Creating entrepreneurial communities

Ideas included “mash-up” networking events to connect tech entrepreneurs with start-ups from other fields, such as culture, design and marketing, developing a provincewide mentorship program and a network of student entrepreneurship clubs connecting local support communities.

Ontario: Celebrating entrepreneursThe focus was on giving entrepreneurship a higher profile. Ideas included developing national mainstream media attention, such as a “heritage moments” video campaign; and having entrepreneurs recognized on coins, stamps and in special exhibits in museums, libraries and malls.

Manitoba: Creating creative spaces

Ideas included developing a business incubator and co-working space for entrepreneurs in Winnipeg and pop-up shops to revitalize commercial spaces downtown.

Saskatchewan: Breaking down silos

A significant concern was the need to bring together the fragmented entrepreneurial community. Ideas included networking opportunities and online forums.

Alberta: Global connectivityA concern that local startups will need to look outside the borders for significant growth. Ideas included creating an online resource with information on global markets, development of links to funding by foreign capital and a fund for entrepreneurs to attend international trade shows.

British Columbia: Follow the entrepreneur

The province has many successful entrepreneurs who could provide valuable advice to startups. Suggestions included establishing entrepreneur advisory councils, a central virtual marketplace for entrepreneurs to exchange services to accelerate growth and entrepreneur shadowing programs for policy makers to better understand the experience of growing a business.

BEST PRACTICES:

Here are efforts identified by Startup Canada as having best practices:

Atlantic provinces

Youth Entrepreneurship Forum in Mill River, P.E.I.: High school students from across the province came together for a day to hear from island entrepreneurs about how they pursue their passions through entrepreneurship – from restaurant owners to fitness coaches

SIFE Memorial in St. John’s: University students are learning by doing by creating entrepreneurial solutions to real-world problems – i.e. business residential bootcamps for veterans.

Pond Deshpande Centre, Fredericton: Has developed a student entrepreneurship ambassador program wherein each university and college in the province will now have a supported student entrepreneurship ambassador mandated to cultivate student enterprise on campus.

Quebec

Startup Quebec: A newly formed organization in Quebec City that seeks to provide a supportive peer network across the city’s entrepreneurial tech community through networking events, mentorship and programming

The International Startup Festival, Montreal: The festival brings together Montreal’s entrepreneurs with those from across Canada and the world to learn from and connect with other entrepreneurs with some friendly competition and celebration of some of the world’s most exciting startups.

Notman House, Montreal: A new co-working space for Montreal’s entrepreneur community to come together to work, participate in events and programming. Working in a place together helps to create a central ‘home’ for entrepreneurship in the city.

Ontario

Discovery 2012, Toronto, Two-day event bringing together Ontario’s innovation community in one place to connect, celebrate entrepreneurship and showcase startups, innovations and entrepreneurs.

The Next 36, Toronto. Program invests in high-potential university students and supports them in developing startups that solve real world challenges; investing in the next generation of business leaders.

HyperDrive, Waterloo, Ont.: A new accelerator fund program backed by OMERS Ventures within Communitech that is investing in startups and helping them to scale and grow their ventures.

Windsor Scavenger Hunt,Windsor, Ont. City-wide scavenger hunt competition to encourage local residents to visit locally owned shops to encourage greater awareness of the vibrant local business community.

York Technology Awards, York Region, Ont.: Award ceremony promoting and recognizing some of the regions most innovative and big-thinking entrepreneurs.

Wine Down at the Hub, Ottawa,. Weekly Friday evening networking events at the Hub Ottawa co-working space welcoming the Ottawa community into a ‘cool’ social innovation co-working space in the heart of the city.

Manitoba

AssentWorks, Winnipeg: Space for entrepreneurs building products to build and work with other entrepreneurs.

Venture Challenge: A province-wide competition celebrating and showcasing the top entrepreneurs in the province.

Saskatchewan

MOSO, Saskatoon: Bringing together the tech entrepreneurial community across Saskatchewan to meet with organizations that support entrepreneurs and to connect with other entrepreneurs.

Kolo Saskatoon: A community of entrepreneurs and enterprise support professional.

Alberta

Accelerate, Edmonton: In partnership with the C100, hundreds of entrepreneurs embark upon the city to connect with entrepreneurs and investors from across Canada and the Valley and celebrate entrepreneurship in Alberta.

Startup Camp, Calgary. Pioneered by Boast Capital and in partnership with Silicon Valley’s Plug and Play, top companies in Alberta are being supported with funding, space and mentors to participate in an accelerated camp to ramp up their ventures.

TechConnect, Lethbridge: A new acceleration centre based in Lethbridge that provides high-growth innovative firms with space, mentors, access to funding, support and programs to help to leverage global markets and investors.

British Columbia

Accelerate Okanagan, Kelowna, BC: Spearheaded by entrepreneur Jeff Keen to create an ecosystem for tech entrepreneurs across the Okanagan leading to unprecedented results in its first 18 months.

The Mirimachi Vineyards Association, Penticton, B.C.: An entrepreneur-led association, independent of government stimulus that helped to transition the region from a cheap family vacationing destination to a agri-tourism hotspot attracting global, elite tourists to the region, opening up new markets and opportunities.

Launch Academy, Vancouver: Founded by entrepreneur and co-founder of GrowLab Mike Edwards, this program provides entrepreneurs with critical education while building their companies to prepare them for accelerator programs Motto: “Get Sh*t Done.”

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