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This ain't the Dragon's Den: BizStart helps young Toronto entrepreneurs kick start their companies

Glass Designer & Artist, Sally McCubbin
Glass Designer & Artist, Sally McCubbin - Tanja Tiziana

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Ever since she was 16, Sally McCubbin knew she wanted to work with glass; in its melted state, it reminded her of the dramatic beauty of volcanic lava.

She enrolled in the three-year Craft and Design program at Sheridan College, where she learned how to draw her imaginings, produce them and photograph them. Although the program's semester of business training didn't strike her as particularly helpful, on graduation, she found herself setting up her own glass business.

"Well, I called it that, but it wasn't," says McCubbin, 29. "Anything that was money-related was a mess. I just didn't think of myself as a business person. I knew I couldn't sustain what I was doing."

At first she was skeptical when a textile artist acquaintance pointed her in the direction of Youth Employment Services' BizStart Entrepreneurship program -- what could it teach her that college couldn't? But looking at the daunting task of making a living, McCubbin decided to apply and less than a year later, she completed the full-time program last spring. She learned everything from accounting and marketing to taxes and managing web-based sales. But most importantly, she learned to be more confident. Her business may be called Timid but she's now anything but.

"Just being able to speak to other people about what I do is something I had difficultly with before," says McCubbin, who runs Timid with partner Aaron Oussoren. They produce everything from bowls to public art installations. "When I make proposals now, I realize they're listening to my creative proposal but they're also looking at my numbers so I can cover both sides."

Targeted at people under 30 -- 18 of them annually -- BizStart attracts entrepreneurs with all kinds of ideas, from financial services to event planning to food importing. But an extraordinarily high percent of participants fall on the artsy-fartsy side of things: fashion designers, craftspeople, painters, musicians and photographers. These right-brain people aspire to make a living at what they do best. But the passion and energy they devote to their creative side often comes at a cost of being more analytical and aware of fiscal realities. BizStart aims to remove the intimidation factor by giving them marketplace skills.

"Everything here is very hands on. You don't dream up a company for a class project, you create one for yourself," says Donovan Dill, manager of entrepreneurship programs at Youth Employment Services (Y.E.S.). Founded in 1968, Y.E.S. opened its youth business centre in 1998 and provides Skills Link programs like BizStart on behalf of Service Canada. Dill, who has been with the program since 2008, also runs his own promotional incentives business, which makes him an ideal mentor. "When a new group starts each year, I ask them, 'Why haven't you done this? What's holding you back?' and that's what we deal with."

Participants are paid a minimum wage based on a 30-hour work week while they're in the program and are given office space, a phone, a computer and all the office supplies they could need. Guest speakers give them tips but they also learn from each other, meeting at 10am for their daily "board of trade" meeting where they give updates on their progress. For creative types, pricing is one of the biggest stumbling blocks. Some artists just make up prices, says Dill. Some get caught up in giving themselves a basic hourly rate -- usually quite low -- rather than channeling their inner capitalist and letting the market tell them what to charge. Dill remembers one painter who sheepishly asked $900 for a commission when the client was ready to offer $1,500.

"When you look at her now, she's getting $5,000 in commissions a month, that's $50,000 a year," says Dill. "She's come a long way."

BizStart creates a climate where unusual entrepreneur aspirations are given the room to grow, surrounded by encouraging voices rather than judgmental ones. Natalie Petrova arrived in Canada from Russia three years ago, knowing barely a word of English. After studying fine art in Siberia, she set up as a real estate agent in Moscow, a business that failed, she says, because she didn't have a good grip on taxes and managing employees. Trying to get started in a new country almost overwhelmed her.

"Here in Canada, everything is completely different, completely," says Petrova, 28.

Petrova had an idea for a Russian-style spa but wasn't sure where to start or how to woo the capital she'd need to get Fox Union Spa and Wellness Centre off the ground. A friend mentioned BizStart and, five months into the program, Petrova's putting the finishing touches on her business plan and signing an exclusive agreement with a line of beauty products that will give her establishment cache. The peer support that comes with the shared office space and group sessions has contributed to her business skills.

"I thought it would be difficult to connect with other people in my group, but we're all like-minded people," says Petrova. The program has also helped her discover other resources, like the Canadian Youth Business Foundation, which can provide start-up funding, helped her get up to speed on the legal ins and outs of running a business in Canada and helped her practice her English.

As much as McCubbin learned with BizStart, at the end of her 11 months, she was glad to go back to her studio and to teaching gigs she has picked up at Sheridan College. As she got up to speed on taxes and cash flow, she felt she was losing her creativity. It came back, but McCubbin learned one last, important lesson.

 "There's no way I could work in an office environment," she says. "I just couldn't do it." Self-employment, she's figured out, where her future lies.

Paul Gallant is a Toronto-based freelance writer who lives in the emerging Brockton Triangle neighbourhood.

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