Sunjit Khamba was preparing for his end-of-year MBA exams at Wilfrid Laurier's School of Business and Economics when, like so many other young entrepreneurs with a sudden brainwave, he came up with the idea for a new Web-based company.
The concept, he said, was to play around with the donations to charities and non-profits by corporations as part of their social and environmental responsibility mandates. He would entice people to vote on how those funds should be distributed, in a process "kind of like American Idol," he said.
The business plan sat in a drawer for a few years until a year and half ago, when Mr. Khamba, 30, redesigned it as a Facebook application and garnered 3,500 users. He decided to expand that into an online company, I Am Mpowered.
"We were restricted with the Facebook environment and so we created a new app that could work with all the other social media and networking sites," he said. "What this allows us to do is not compete with all these sites, but sit on top of them and leverage their viral marketing capabilities."
Innovative enterprises that build on or transform existing Internet businesses are increasingly common in the heady world of consumer-based start-ups, both in Canada and around the world.
At JOLT, for example, an incubator dedicated to building Web and mobile businesses and part of the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, 80 per cent of applicants to the program intended to expand on, facilitate or introduce such new platforms.
"We've seen a whole slew of companies that have come in, trying to innovate on this whole Web online consumer base, extending into mobile," said program manager Sarah Katyal, herself the creator of a global online marketplace for emerging designers called Kumarii.
"Compared to even five years ago, it's so much easier for young entrepreneurs to launch companies, especially in the consumer Web and mobile space," she added.
The costs of devising, experimenting and launching new online companies are lower than ever, not only in financial terms but also in time and risk involved. "That's the big draw," Ms. Katyal said.
To build his start-up, Mr. Khamba has targeted larger firms with a focus on both corporate social responsibility and social media, he said. I Am Mpowered helps them select a pool of anywhere from three to five laudable projects and non-profits, and invites the public to plump for their choice. If a user would like to see more money go to environmental conservation, for example, he or she can click on that and vote.
Vote five times and the user wins an I Am Mpowered "social badge" that can be displayed on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other social media. The badge not only brings even more attention to the user's favourite project but also to the company putting up the funding. "It ties the user to the company and the cause they want to promote themselves," Mr. Khamba said. "At the same time the user is more engaged, wanting to find out the outcomes of that poll."
What's more, participating companies draw interest from people who might not even be aware of their products or services. "And that attention," Mr. Khamba pointed out, "has a monetary value for the corporate sponsor."
The Mississauga, Ont.-based company's revenue will come from the corporate sponsors themselves, who purchase a subscription and pay a half-cent fee for every vote. The service is free for charities and non-profits, and Mr. Khamba is planning to implement a "donate" banner as well, so users can support causes with a contribution of their own.
"We're actually combining the donation budget with the marketing budget and creating an efficiency," he said. "And we're increasing the donation capacity of the corporation. So we have the CSR executive and the marketing executive in the same room with us."
According to Ms. Katyal, young entrepreneurs are often adept "at finding all kinds of cool, creative ideas from all over the world and introducing them to new markets."
The challenge she added, is figuring out what will stick with the customer and remain relevant. That means focusing as well on aspects such as "customer experience and retention, and the ability to engage with users, while creating something that's really unique," she said.
"At the end of the day, the companies that have that expertise, and build it into their companies, or even the social components to it, are the ones that are lasting," she said.
Personal convictions and passions are driving the creativity of many of the new entrepreneurs with which she has worked.
In Mr. Khamba's case, as well, his Sikh faith had a lot to do with his coming up with a company that not only has the potential to be profitable "but one that's involved in some kind of social good," he said.
"It's one of our core beliefs," he said, "that no matter what you do, you have to have something in your life where you are giving back."