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Diana Goodwin

The Globe and Mail

Business is going swimmingly well for AquaMobile Inc.

After finishing 2014 with about $500,000 in revenue, the Toronto-based learn-at-home swim school – which serves Toronto and parts of Florida, California, Arizona and Texas – brought in more than seven figures last year and is on track to "at least double or possibly triple" its revenue this year, says founder Diana Goodwin.

Three new employees have joined the team to help with marketing and recruiting, and the company's roster of swimming instructors has grown to about 1,000 from about 750 last year.

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"We're about to launch in B.C. and several new states as well," says Ms. Goodwin, who launched AquaMobile more than 12 years ago while attending university.

What's driving this growth spurt is Ms. Goodwin's vision to build AquaMobile into North America's largest learn-at-home swim school. That and a $100,000 windfall.

Last September, AquaMobile won the Small Business Challenge Contest, a national competition sponsored by The Globe and Mail and Telus Corp. The contest asks small businesses across the country to share their biggest business challenge and explain how they would use the $100,000 cash prize to solve the problem. AquaMobile beat out the more than 3,000 businesses that entered the contest last year.

"Winning that money has allowed us to push through with our expansion plans," says Ms. Goodwin. "Of the three new people we hired, two are getting paid from that prize and we're planning to use the rest of the $100,000 for advertising."

This year, Canadian small businesses will get another chance to vie for a similar windfall. The Challenge Contest is running again, launching on March 21 and closing May 31. The winner will receive a $100,000 cash prize, while four semi-finalists each get $10,000 plus a business prize package that includes three technology devices with customer support, a one-year subscription to Globe Unlimited, and mentoring with a business expert. In addition, the three "most promising startups" will receive $5,000 worth of advertising and marketing services from Toronto-based Agency59 Response Ltd.

Now in its sixth year, the Challenge Contest will also award three business devices to each of the 10 Regional Recognition winners from the country's Atlantic, north, west and central regions.

"Canada's small-business community is the backbone of innovation and entrepreneurship in this country, and we're so thrilled to be putting the spotlight on them again this year," says Suzanne Trusdale, a Challenge contest judge who leads small business solutions at Telus. "Although they're small in size, these companies have such a huge impact on our economy, and we at Telus are passionate about supporting and helping them thrive."

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Joining Ms. Trusdale on the panel of judges are Steve Tustin, Sean Stanleigh and Sarah Efron from The Globe and Mail, Chris Griffiths of Fine Tune Consulting, Mandy Rennehan of Freshco, and Craig Thornton of Telus.

So what will the judges be looking for as they review this year's pool of contenders? Ms. Trusdale says she will be alert to stories of innovation, sustainability and social responsibility.

Mr. Thornton, vice-president of business mobility solutions at Telus, says he'll want to see a "clear value proposition" articulated in the contest submissions.

"Be very clear about the problem you're solving in your marketplace – essentially why people buy your product or service – and how your company makes money," he says. "Show us how you innovate, and by that I don't necessarily mean that you have to be building the next big widget or cloud application but rather that you have a very innovative way of approaching your market."

Personality and strong leadership will catch the eye of Mandy Rennehan, chief executive officer and founder of Freshco, a full-service retail maintenance and construction company based in Oakville, Ont.

"I want to see a personality that shows that they have the tenacity to take their business to the next level," she says. "And I'm looking for a strong leader, one who has what it takes to run with a good idea and bring it to market."

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The $100,000 prize money is intended to help take a growing business to the next level, says Ms. Trusdale. This means companies that intend to use the money to cover regular operating costs are unlikely to make the grade, she says.

The Challenge Contest is open to small businesses across the country, except in Quebec, that are owned by a legal resident of Canada and employ fewer than 100 people. Five semi-finalists will be announced on June 23, with the grand prize winner named in September.

"Give it a shot," says Ms. Goodwin at AquaMobile. "Even if you think you don't stand a chance, at the very least putting your submission together will help you think how you can best grow your business."

Click here to enter The 2016 Small Business Challenge Contest. 

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