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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)


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.

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.

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