Being an entrepreneur can be risky business, but the City of Markham is trying to make it less so. Markham will once again be working with the next generation of entrepreneurs, aged 15 to 29, to get their business ideas off the ground through mentorship, support and grants of up to $3,000.
The opportunity comes courtesy of the Ontario government’s Summer Company program, which the Markham Small Business Centre (MSBC) is responsible for facilitating locally. By giving student entrepreneurs a start-up grant of up to $1,500, matched by a completion grant, MSBC manager Don De Los Santos said people who might otherwise not be confident or experienced enough to launch a business have a bit of a “security blanket.”
“What’s great about Summer Company is that it eliminates the downside—risk—of entrepreneurship while providing all of the upside—opportunity,” De Los Santos said. “We’ve got a lot of examples where students have been successful and generated profit over the summer and all of it is theirs to keep. But it mitigates the risk while giving them all of that opportunity for profit.”
The success stories are plenty: from a student whose backyard swimming lesson business turned, several years later, into a public swimming pool employing more than 60 instructors, to one high school student who launched a business-to-business search engine optimization company that turned $30,000 of revenue in two months. The opportunity has proven valuable.
But De Los Santos said these exceptional examples shouldn’t take away from the more conventional stories where students have successfully run business ranging from lawn care to selling jewelry while attaining modest profits and valuable real-world experience.
The start-up costs—which can be used for anything from setting up a website to buying flyers to acquiring equipment—are a key part of the program, but so too is the mentorship.
In order to be approved for funding, students must complete a business plan, complete with cash-flow projections, to prove they have a solid enough idea that can be leveraged into a business.
While this can be daunting for people who have never done it, De Los Santos said the MSBC is there to help with the application process. Candidates will then participate in an interview. The program is open to both high school and post-secondary students.
“We want them to go through that thought process with the rigour that this is going to be a real business,” he said. “The program wants applicants who are not only interested in an idea, but are serious enough to commit to working on a thorough business plan and following through on it.”
Students are expected to put at least 35 hours a week into their business. In order to receive the completion grant, the business doesn’t need to have been profitable, but students do need to demonstrate they put all their effort into making it so. Of more than 100 applications last year, only 14 students were accepted into the program, for which the provincial government determines the overall number of spots.
De Los Santos said the mentorship component is key, noting there are lots of students who may be skilled at delivering a product but might not know how to sell it, or entrepreneurs who have never had to deal with book keeping and the more administrative sides of business.
“It’s about connecting them with actual business owners, giving them that opportunity to get feedback from people and professionals who have gone through these processes, who can share their experiences with these first time entrepreneurs,” he said.
Those interested in the Summer Company program can find more information at markham.ca or by contacting the Markham Small Business Centre.
Photo: YiYi Liang of Markham poses outside her food stand, ii’s Kitchen. Liang was part of the Summer Company program in 2015. Summer Company Yearbook / Ontario.ca photo