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Knowledge is power for young entrepreneurs

Maiku Wong had only a week's notice before a family emergency took him to Singapore in 2013. Wong had never actually visited the island city-state himself, and wanted an idea of what to expect.  "So, I did what our generation does, and looked it up on YouTube," Wong recalls.

He found a Singapore tourist's highlight reel that showed him how to make the most of a trip in just a few days. And once he arrived, Wong found a similar video programmed into his hotel room's television. The idea for VaycayTV--an insider’s guide to Toronto for tourists--was born.

Today, his company now has a team of 15 and videos showing in more than 6,000 guest rooms across 10 major downtown hotels: the Delta Chelsea, Sheraton, Thompson, Hyatt, Marriott, and Thompson, to name just a few. But while Wong had the idea, he didn’t build the business alone.

To turn his inspiration into reality, last November he turned to Enterprise Toronto’s Starter Company program. Run by the City of Toronto’s small business support hub, the year-old program aimed at millennials offers a $5,000 grant to qualifying startups. But more importantly, it offers expertise and mentorship, training young founders on the ins and outs of marketing, business plans, and legal incorporation.

Wong says the program gave him the tools to turn his idea into a viable business. Soon, Wong hopes that hotel guest rooms surrounding Pearson Airport will be showing his videos as well. If all goes according to plan, VaycayTV will hit the Big Apple in 2016.

Wong is one of 75 entrepreneurs to launch a small company with the Starter Company program’s help. Each is breaking the mould of what we typically associate with the word “startup” in their own way. Take, for instance, Matt Slaman, whose Enterprise Toronto-fostered theatre company Pirate Life is housed within a 45-foot pirate ship (repurposed from an older houseboat) that navigates the inner lagoon of the Toronto Island. Audience members get decked in pirate costumes and search for buried treasure because, as Slaman puts it, “who doesn’t want to be a pirate?”

Then there’s Marissa Gordon, co-founder of west-end makerspace, The Shop, which offers tools and studio space for its members to work on their own projects in. Though the business opened in April 2013, it was the $5,000 grant from Enterprise Toronto’s Starter Company program--and especially its corresponding mentorship--that made all the difference in taking the business to the next level.

"It's great to have someone to talk to and keep us in check," says Gordon.

Parminder Sarna is another recent graduate of the program. With two friends, he founded the digital marketing agency SocialBuzz in 2013. The company uses tools like Google AdWords and social media as well as website design, content design, and content marketing to boost brands. After meeting an Enterprise Toronto representative in 2014, Sarna began the Starter Company program in September of that year. Though SocialBuzz had already been around for nearly a year before, Sarna credits the information gleaned from the Enterprise Toronto program with making the business viable.

"What we learned is that providing a service or product is very different than having a business,” he explains. “Those should be seen as two different lines of attack."

The seven-month program offered a steep learning curve that gave Sarna a whole new outlook on business mechanisms. Business principles likes pricing, ongoing sales, networking, determining where to find a target market, and cashflow management were all things that Sarna and his colleagues didn’t have a solid grasp on when they started SocialBuzz. Afterwards, he says, the difference was unmistakeable.

"We began picking up clients 100% faster than before, spending the same amount of time as we were before [on strategy]," says Sarna. “I can’t recommend the program enough.”

Like other Starter Company alumni, Sarna says the mentorship component was particularly valuable. SocialBuzz’s two mentors, hand-chosen from the marketing sector, passed along insider insights that might have taken 10 or 15 years to gain on their own.

Having sense of somebody there to bounce ideas off of is helpful for framing solutions,” says Corey Diamond, a mentor with the Starter Company program who worked directly with The Shop from late-2014 to the spring of this year.

Diamond worked for 10 years for a social enterprise focused on helping businesses improve their environmental impact. That company was a tiny startup when he joined; during his decade there, it grew to three offices across Canada and over 60 employees. “We did everything by trial and error, and I learned a lot. I decided that if I was ever in a situation where I could help people looking to grow their business, I would.”

Like most mentors in the program, Diamond would meet with Gordon and her company co-founder once or twice a month for a couple of hours to discuss ways of introducing rigour and process to The Shop’s business structure. Since then, the company has received attention on Breakfast Television and from Tourism Toronto.

“I could bring a different perspective, Diamond explains. “Having gone through this, I have a way of seeing things a bit differently and can ask triggering questions that help them figure things out.”

It’s this process of facilitated knowledge sharing that sets Enterprise Toronto’s Starter Company program apart. Sarna, who technically finished the program in the spring, still meets with one of his mentors occasionally for information and advice. Through BizLaunch, he and his SocialBuzz partners also take the time to meet with even younger entrepreneurs to pass along what they’ve learned and, as Sarna puts it, to give back.

"There are so many entrepreneurs in Toronto,” he says. “If we each do our own little bit, we can make everything stronger.”
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