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small business challenge

AquaMobile Inc. is one of the five semi-finalists in the Small Business Challenge Contest, sponsored by The Globe and Mail and Telus Corp. (Check out the other four here.) Diana Goodwin’s Toronto-based business offers teach-at-home swimming lessons. She wants it to be “North America’s largest at-home learn-to-swim school.”JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

Shortly after she was picked as one of five semi-finalists in The Globe and Mail's Small Business Challenge contest, Diana Goodwin explained to the judges how much more her company, Toronto-based AquaMobile Inc., could grow if she were to use the contest's $100,000 grand prize to hire two employees and boost her marketing efforts.

She clearly built a strong business case. AquaMobile, a learn-at-home swimming school that Ms. Goodwin started 12 years ago when she was a university student, has won this year's Challenge contest, beating out more than 3,300 entries. In addition to the $100,000 grand prize, Ms. Goodwin also will receive $10,000 to donate to her favourite charity.

"I'm very excited to hear that we won," says Ms. Goodwin, who delivered her winning presentation last June during a live pitch session, which is part of the annual contest sponsored by Telus Corp. and The Globe and Mail. "As soon as I found out, I started posting for the jobs I need to fill in order to advance my strategy."

AquaMobile offers swimming lessons to customers – mostly children but also including adults – in their own pool. The company has 750 instructors serving Toronto and parts of Florida, California, Arizona and Texas. A couple of AquaMobile's instructors are former Olympians, and the company's services include helping athletes train for an event such as a triathlon.

"I would like to congratulate AquaMobile for being the clear-cut winner in the Challenge contest," says Ami Richter, a Challenge judge who is founder and creative director at Lug Canada Inc., which makes luggage and travel accessories. "Diana came completely prepared and had a clear and concise plan for how she would utilize the prize money."

Suzanne Trusdale, another Challenge judge and vice-president of small business solutions at Telus Corp., says AquaMobile was a unanimous choice.

"We were all so impressed by how clearly Diana articulated how she would make use of the $100,000 grand prize," she says. "The story was clear in her mind and she supported it with proof points."

AquaMobile did come up against stiff competition in the final round of the Challenge contest, namely pizza oven box maker BakerStone International, memorial album and video creator MyBabbo, pathology software developer PathCore Inc., and video game optimizer WTFast.

The field was also larger by one player; instead of four semi-finalists, this year five were chosen to mark the competition's fifth year.

"It was a very strong field, with consistency across all five semi-finalists," Ms. Trusdale says. "And when they told their stories in person, you could clearly see the passion and commitment from these five entrepreneurs, who each in their different way embodied visionary leadership."

Ms. Goodwin's goal – and challenge – is to build AquaMobile into North America's largest learn-at-home school. The company, which posted revenue last year of about $500,000, has built an edge over its competitors by using an online booking platform to match customers with instructors.

Ms. Trusdale says Ms. Goodwin has a clear path to success.

"She is really committed to her core values, mission and business plan," Ms. Trusdale says. "It's also clear that she's really mindful of what her competitors are doing, because she was able to articulate that during her presentation."

With the grand prize winner announced, Ms. Trusdale is already looking forward to next year's Challenge contest. She hopes to see even more small businesses applying next year and encourages past contest participants to throw their name into the hat again.

"If you applied before and didn't make it through, get feedback from other people to see how you can resonate better," Ms. Trusdale says.

"Small business owners are natural risk takers. I encourage them to take another chance on themselves and tell us their story in next year's Challenge contest."

Advice for the winner

Two of the contest's judges offer words of wisdom for the winner.

Soup up the website: AquaMobile should upgrade its website with a reviews-and-ratings feature so visitors can read about customers' experience with the service. "Just as Yelp, Airbnb and other b2c [business to consumer] companies all rely heavily on reviews and community feedback, it would be great if this was an added feature in the next generation of AquaMobile's website," says Ami Richter at Lug Canada. "The more people are talking about AquaMobile, the more customers will be jumping into the pool."

Keep listening and improving: Suzanne Trusdale at Telus Corp. says Ms. Goodwin understands she has a great product that really fills a need in a niche market. As she works to expand her business, she needs to continue listening to her customers and team members. "Allow the feedback from your customers and staff to shape how you evolve your business," Ms. Trusdale advises.

Build on the Challenge buzz: The Challenge contest shines a bright and far-reaching spotlight on its semi-finalists and winners. Ms. Richter urges AquaMobile to use buzz from the Challenge to open up other publicity opportunities. "I would recommend that Diana leverage the PR as much as she can and utilize it as an entry for other direct editorial opportunities to further her credibility and brand awareness," Ms. Richter says. "It will go a long way, especially in the new territories she is trying to establish."

About the contest

Now in its fifth year, The Globe and Mail's Small Business Challenge Contest received a record-breaking 3,000-plus entries in 2015. Five semifinalists and the winner were chosen by a panel of judges that included The Globe and Mail's Katherine Scarrow, Steve Tustin and Sean Stanleigh, Dave Fuller and Suzanne Trusdale from Telus, Ami Richter of Lug Canada and Chris Griffiths of Fine Tune Consulting. The grand prize winner gets $100,000 cash from Telus while all five semi-finalists 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 mentoring from a business expert. The Challenge is also giving Regional Recognition prizes of three business devices each to 10 businesses from the country's Atlantic, North, West and Central regions; winners will be announced in October. Also recognized will be three Most Promising Startups and 50 Honourable Mentions.

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