When Tiia Planert joined the Waterloo Region Small Business Centre’s Summer Company program at age 19, her practical experience in the world of business was minimal.
“When I started the program, I had only taken a Grade 9 business program. That’s all I really knew about business,” said Planert.
“Through this program, I was taught how to interact with the public, and sell a product, and how to price things, and especially marketing. And even just starting a business bank account, which I had no idea you needed.”
All of this new information came in handy as Planert developed “Cupcakes! Cupcakes! Cupcakes!” – a business that is exactly what it sounds like. And, all of this information continues to come in handy, as her business is still running at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market.
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“The program allows for a real world experience in a bit of a protected environment,” explained Rob Clement, an advisor at the Small Business Centre’s Kitchener office who will be overseeing the program.
Start-up funds are provided by the provincial government, with up to $1,500 allotted to cover marketing, asset purchases, and other expenses (outlined in a business plan). The selected participants run their businesses throughout the summer, working 35 hours per week (eight weeks for high-schoolers, 12 for post-secondary), and participating in 12 hours of business training and biweekly mentoring sessions (featuring a panel of professionals from the area).
Planert found that the professional guidance helped her understand the importance of marketing for the first time. “You can start a business, but it’s all about selling your product. They really taught me how to get people excited about my product,” she said.
“From day-one, I had a Facebook page, I had a website, and was just talking to everyone I knew about it: ‘Hey, I have this new business, I love it, it’s a lot of fun and I think you should try it.’”
At the end of the summer, the entrepreneurs receive $1,500 from the Ontario government for their efforts (roughly equivalent to minimum wage). While Clement leads and generally oversees the program, the participants’ activities are mostly self-directed. While that means they get to keep any profits their businesses take in, it also means the full responsibility rests on their shoulders.
“They actually have to go out, get customers, and deal with the customers,” said Clement. “They have to open a bank account, they have to keep up their books, journalize everything. … Everything that a full, proper business owner has to do.”
In the past, students have started businesses in landscaping, grass-cutting, moving, cleaning, painting, cell phone repair, food preparation, photography, and computer repairs, among others. “It does have to be executable over the summer, and there has to be a reasonable expectation of revenue,” said Clement, but otherwise, applicants are able to pursue a wide range of business ideas.
While the program only lasts a summer, some entrepreneurs have parlayed their success into longer-lasting careers. Kitchener resident Ian Lochbihler, who joined the program in 2002 as an undergrad, hit upon a successful idea with Waterloo Networks Inc., a computer repair business that has been his full-time livelihood ever since. And Planert, of course, can still be found in her usual place at the St. Jacobs Market on Thursdays and Saturdays.
Inevitably, however, not all of the businesses will succeed. Figuring out why is not always easy.
“I’d like to think it’s that they just weren’t anticipating the gravity of the situation,” said Clement. “To think about it in the abstract is one thing; to get in on the ground floor is another thing entirely.
“We ask the students, ‘What do you think of the program?’ and the one I get most of the time is, ‘I understood it was 35 hours a week, but I didn’t understand what 35 hours a week really was.’”
Added Planert, “You kind of have to devote your life to it. I spent a lot of time on my business and trying to promote it. I’m an introvert, so it’s hard for me at first to get out there, and I find some people never get past that.”
Others, however, find they simply fall out of love with their business ideas, or discover that their talents lie elsewhere. All of this is understandable, explained Clement. “That’s kind of the purpose of the program: to give young people who are interested in entrepreneurship a chance to really try it, in a situation when they’re not really putting themselves in a position to damage themselves.”
There are 17 spaces for Summer Company 2013, with the application deadline on May 17. More information can be found at www.ontario.ca/summercompany.