(Note: The contest is now closed for 2015.)
Andrew Shepherd knew from the start that the sea salt business he started five years ago would take off eventually and that his brand, Vancouver Island Salt Co., would someday become a recognizable name in Canada and beyond.
It's all happening sooner than he had expected. Over the past six months, revenue picked up dramatically and the company is about to enter the U.S. market – a major step that will have a significant impact on the bottom line.
"We are on track to double sales in 2015 over 2014," says Mr. Shepherd, who shares ownership of his company with his business partner, Scott Gibson. "As well, we are expecting to go from about 200 regular clients to over 500 by the end of the year."
Vancouver Island Salt's accelerated development can be traced back to last September, when the company won the Small Business Challenge Contest, a national competition sponsored by The Globe and Mail and Telus Corp.
Through the contest, small businesses across the country share their biggest business challenge and explain how they would use the $100,000 cash prize to solve the problem. More than 1,000 entered the contest last year.
"Winning the Challenge has made our brand recognizable across the country and opened new markets for us, including the very important U.S. market, where we now have a new distributor setting up to take our products all over the U.S. this spring," Mr. Shepherd says.
The Challenge Contest is running again this year, launching on March 23 and ending June 1. Once again, the winning company gets $100,000 while four semi-finalists each receive $10,000 and a business prize package that includes $2,000 worth of Telus services or devices, a one-year subscription to Globe Unlimited, and mentorship from a business expert.
Ten businesses from the country's Atlantic, North, West and central regions will also receive Regional Recognition prizes of three business devices each.
The Challenge Contest turns five years old in 2015, and extra prizes have been added to mark this milestone. On top of the $100,000 grand prize, the winner will receive $10,000 to donate to a favourite charity.
Three businesses will be named Most Promising Startups, and each will be given a prize package of services, worth an estimated $5,000, from the Toronto advertising firm Agency59 Response Ltd. Fifty companies will also be given honourable mentions.
"We are so excited to be celebrating five years of the Challenge Contest," says Suzanne Trusdale, who leads small business solutions at Telus. "But most of all, we're thrilled to once again shine the spotlight on the small business community – the backbone of innovation and entrepreneurship in Canada."
Ms. Trusdale is part of the contest's panel of judges, which also includes Katherine Scarrow, Steve Tustin and Sean Stanleigh from The Globe and Mail, David Fuller from Telus, Chris Griffiths at Fine Tune Consulting, and Ami Richter from Lug Canada Inc.
"I'll be looking for stories of innovation, and of companies that are committed to sustainability and social responsibility," Ms. Trusdale says. "I also want to see a strategy as well as a clear idea of how the $100,000 cash prize is going to move the business forward."
Ms. Scarrow, small-business editor at the Globe, advises applicants to provide specifics about the barriers preventing their business from advancing to the next level. She also reminds contestants that the prize money is intended as a strategic investment and not as funding for standard operational expenses such as office administration or payroll for existing employees.
For instance, Vancouver Island Salt stated in its application that it would use the money to hire additional staff and buy more equipment to increase salt production, and to retain marketing expertise for building a brand presence in markets outside Canada. The company has fulfilled these goals since it won the contest last year.
"We hired a full saunier – or salt harvester – and purchased some new equipment, most notably a high-pressure jet pump, which saves us multiple hours of time per day," Mr. Shepherd says. "We also invested in a marketing company to improve our branding and help us get ready for international markets. As well, we had a new booth made for trade shows and attended our first big trade show in January, where we got ourselves a big-time American distributor."
Another piece of advice from Ms. Scarrow: Let your personality shine through in the application.
"We want to get a sense of who you are, because ultimately we want to align with someone we believe in," she says. "The Challenge Contest is your chance to show off your personality and tell us who you are as individuals and as a company."
Ms. Richter at Lug Canada agrees. Founders with an interesting story are likely to catch her attention, she says.
"As a business founder myself, I'll be looking for entrepreneur experiences with some heart behind it," she says. "I want to see founders who are confident, passionate and who have a clear purpose beyond just making money."
Semi-finalists and winners will be announced on the following dates: five semi-finalists on June 25, the grand prize winner on Sept. 17, three Most Promising Startups on Sept. 23, and regional winners and 50 honourable mentions on Oct. 14.
The Challenge Contest is open to small businesses across the country, except Quebec, that are owned by a legal resident of Canada and employ fewer than 100 workers.
Ms. Trusdale says she hopes to see applications from businesses built on great ideas, even if their revenues are still relatively low.
"Don't let low sales figures stop you from applying, because everybody starts small," she says. "If you think of the best companies in Canada, they really started with someone's great idea."