I am thrilled to say that the Startup Canada Town Hall in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was a huge success. We had many great discussions across the 100+ entrepreneurs, academics, business leaders, and community support groups that were engaged, and these discussion culminated in six core ideas to startup Canada and secure our entrepreneurial future by working together.
(1) Develop Online Mentorship Programs
One of the key issues that was addressed, is that every entrepreneur who is starting up their first company, could really benefit from the advice and guidance of a mentor – but that geographic limitations can often stop you from getting the advice and help you need to grow your business. One group came up with the idea to encourage successful entrepreneurs to come online, and engage through an open discussion forum where questions could be asked by budding entrepreneurs, and responded to by those more seasoned and experienced to help to begin to share stories and experiences of success, and how real challenges were overcome. Of course, the mentorship relationship could move far beyond the question and answer model, and could developed in such a way that experienced entrepreneurs could develop longer term relationships with firms needing a hand, to help them succeed. The bottom line however, was that we need to provide an online forum for entrepreneurs to share ideas, challenges, and solutions with each other, and where knowledgeable experts can connect to the community to help them overcome challenges that have already been faced and tackled successfully
A slightly different take on the connect and share issue was taken by another group, which identified that although an online platform can be highly beneficial to share entrepreneurial experiences, there is no substitute for the direct face to face engagement, idea sharing, and mentorship that a physical space can provide. It was suggested and reinforced through group discussion that entrepreneurs really do need a space where they can bump into each other, meet other entrepreneurs face to face, and create personal relationship and knowledge/experience sharing groups that create a real sense of immediate and present community. Although not directly articulated, it was felt that something special exists where real people can connect together in person to identify and discuss common challenges, and work together to develop solutions to solve them. The direct application of this idea was that more space like Halifax HUB, for example, should be created as engagement zones of locales for entrepreneurs to connect and come together. Incubators were also suggested as viable options for these types of connection activities, by the idea of an informal space, that anyone can come to and connect, and that is affordable for all levels of entrepreneurs, would be the ideal solution to the physical spaces and places challenge.
A powerful message which emerged from the town hall, and which was unanimously supported by all groups in attendance, was that we need to do a lot more to get our youth engaged in entrepreneurship. Several groups were concerned that we have positioned entrepreneurship as a career of last resort, or as a unsavoury fall back option if everything else doesn’t work out for you. As a country/education system, we are not positioning entrepreneurship as we should be – a mechanism to define your own future and set your own career and financial path. Several suggestions were made that we should begin to get entrepreneurs talking in schools, sharing their stories of success in business with young students to inspire them to consider entrepreneurship as a path to future financial sustainability. Suggestions were also made that we should develop after school programs that connect young would be entrepreneurs to local advisors and mentors from the business community who would be willing to work with them to start small ventures, and give them feedback on how to improve, and make their ideas and visions a business reality. One incredibly interesting project, which is already underway in the US, was noted as a possible model to engage young Canadian entrepreneurs. In this model, classes with students as young as grade two (seven years old) are given $100 dollars and one instruction – make it grow by the end of the year. They are not restricted in any way with what they can do with this money, and are encouraged to great creative with ideas that generate value, create profit, and help to grow their initial investment. It would appear that preliminary result from this type of activity is the creation of students who emerge empowered by the concepts of entrepreneurship, and who often go on to found their own businesses, some of which end up being wildly successful ventures.
An incredibly important idea that was raised by one group, was that we need to mindful of the fact that entrepreneurs have to live a real life, just like the rest of us. Entrepreneurs have to buy food, buy clothes, rent an apartment, visit the dentist, cover their medical expenses, but the apparent lack of security provided by an entrepreneurial lifestyle, may limit it as an option for some Canadian who have particular physical or health challenges. A great example that was given, was of a young individual who had all of the signs and potential to be a great entrepreneur, but because of substantial health challenges, and associated costs, felt like they were forced to seek out and commit to a more stable career path, so that many of the financial hurdles or barriers, introduced by their medical condition, could be managed. It was suggested that if some form of scholarship, bursary, or grant could be developed for would be entrepreneurs with significant health challenges that would enable them to offset these costs for a two year period while they make a real go at a business of their own, we could really empower a new breed of entrepreneurs to enter the game. We could put entrepreneurship on an equal playing field for all Canadians, regardless of how good your health coverage is, at least for the 1-2 years in which you would take a real shot at creating your own entrepreneurial future – a real application of the principle that entrepreneurship can empower everyone. And of course, it was noted that these types of awards, could be delivered based on the merit of the business proposal of the individual, combined with a needs based assessment, to ensure that this type of support is getting in to the hands of those who most need it, and who simultaneously have some truly great business ideas.
(5) Create a Media Space that Tells Great Stories of Entrepreneurship
One group opened their presentation with a great question that sparked a lively discussion amongst the town hall contributors, “Can you name three new companies that started up in Canada this year that you didn’t hear about through Dragon’s Den?” This group was advocating for the idea that we need to do so much more to celebrate and raise awareness of entrepreneurship in Canada, and recognize those entrepreneurial activities that are happening in our local communities. We need to know when a new firm starts up, and what they are all about, so we can spread the word to others about the new products and services that they are offering. We need to know when a new firm starts up, so that we can direct skilled human resources towards them in areas where they have a real need. We need to know when a new firm starts up, so we can let other entrepreneurs in a similar space know that it is possible to build a business out a related idea, and encourage them to do the same (you never know where convergent overlaps may exist). And we need to know when a new firm starts up so that local support groups can begin to direct tailored solutions, mentorship, guidance, and resources towards them, that are directly aligned to their needs and challenges. It was suggested that taking better advantage of online media platforms would be one great way to keep the community apprised of new entrepreneurial developments, and that we need to constantly be hearing about new business creation, growth, and success to inspire the movement across Canada. It was also suggested that a clear incentive structure may need to be articulated to newly formed companies, so that they understand the importance of stepping forward and being recognized by their entire local communities (as in, beyond the natural target markets for their particular product or service) and instead have the whole community celebrate and help to support their growth and development.
(5) Affordable Spaces for Entrepreneurs to Startup and Grow
The final issue raised in the town hall discussion was focused on the concept that many entrepreneurs don’t have a space to start their business. It was noted that for many tech oriented groups, and physical space to sell your product is not always required, any you startup from your garage for basement. However, for other groups like those providing locally grown foods, or clothing stores, or restaurants, you often need a physical space to sell product to your clients, and these spaces are becoming harder and harder to come by as large chain stores begin to take over. It was suggested that if we could begin to channel some government money into the creation of shared spaces where entrepreneur could setup commercial ventures at reduced costs, that this would significantly improve the growth of local entrepreneurial communities and businesses. It was expressed by one group that it would appear that checks (written by local politicians) are often written to attract large anchor firms to an area, and that although this may work for highly tech intensive industries, there may be an entirely different reality facing non tech firms that is going unaddressed. Non tech firms need small amounts of money and investment that help them to offset their startup costs, much of which is associated with a place to do business from. If we could do more to invest in these commercial business startup spaces, where entrepreneurs could offset substantial setup costs at the outset, we might see many more small firms popping up taking a shot at a business venture.
Overall, the town hall was wildly successful. Many treat ideas emerged from the discussions and brainstorming sessions, and we at Startup Canada are excited to see how these ideas will begin to merge and grow as the tour travels throughout the rest of Nova Scotia. Ideas will continue to build on ideas – so things can only get better from where we are now. And where we are now is great!
Click here to see the first roll of photos. More coming this weekend.