Desperately needed: mentors

August 22, 2013

Desperately needed: mentors

Matt Doak (left) and Dustin Refvik are among a wave of young business owners in Manitoba who have taken the advice of a mentor to help them along.
Matt Doak (left) and Dustin Refvik are among a wave of young business owners in Manitoba who have taken the advice of a mentor to help them along.

Organizations that support new businesses are facing a problem — but it’s a good problem to have.

A surge of new business startups is seriously tapping the resources of the federally funded Canadian Youth Business Foundation (CYBF). It’s running out of mentors.

There’s an almost unprecedented number of new businesses starting up in the province these days.

The province’s own Business Start loan program is likely to increase its loan guarantees this year by as much as 50 per cent.

The CYBF supports business start-ups for people between 18 and 39 years old and provides loans of up to $45,000.

Its mandate — and part of its impressive track record of successfully nurturing new businesses started by young people — calls for every loan recipient to work with a mentor for at least a year.

But the CYBF’s Manitoba office has been so successful it has exhausted its stable of mentors. Earlier this month, it sent out an emergency email to its contacts looking for more.

“I’m expecting 10 new businesses to start in September,” said Joelle Foster, the director of CYBF’s Manitoba, Nunavut and NWT division. “The number of new clients is unbelievable, but we can’t give them money without a mentor. We are going to exceed our targets and now we are going to need more mentors.”

Mitchell Krakower, the vice-president of operations at CYBF’s headquarters in Toronto, said business is up across the country, but there has been a noticeable spike in Manitoba.

He said the intake of new clients in Manitoba up to this point in the year is almost equal to all of last year — and its year end is not until March 31.

The increase in new business start-ups may not be exclusive to young entrepreneurs, but they are providing much of the new fuel.

The head of the province’s new business support program — administered by the newly formed special operating agency called Entrepreneurship Manitoba — said his program is on target to guarantee about $1.5 million in loans this year. Last year, the total was $800,000, and it’s rarely topped $1 million in the past. Each loan of up to $30,000 creates an average of three new jobs.

Tony Romeo, director of small business development programing for the province, said, “We’ve talked about it (the increase in business startups) and tried to figure out why. The economy is doing well… but we think the young generation is the most entrepreneurial we have ever seen. That’s the difference.”

Matt Doak and his partner Dustin Refvik, who are clients of CYBF, are a couple of cases in point.

Doak, 23, quit university after his second year to work on a start-up Refvik had going at the time.

A year ago, the two of them started an information technology company that uses a cloud-based system to automatically identify cancelled appointments for service companies using artificial intelligence to analyse how to best to fill that gap. (The business had been called Scheduleaide but recently changed its name to Reclaim IO.)

It now has six employees and is starting to make headway in its market.

“I get the sense from among my peers that there are a lot of new businesses starting up,” Doak said. “There’s much more going on now than there was before and it seems like a new environment is starting to kick in.”

And he said there is greater awareness among his cohorts about the value of having a mentor on board during the early years.

Doak said he and Refvik meet weekly with their CYBF mentor, Matthew Hudson, the CEO of Invenia Corp. an artificial intelligence company. Hudson was himself a client of the CYBF not so many years ago.

“The advice we get is invaluable,” Doak said. “It is amazing the stuff he comes up with. It is always something new.”

Recently, Hudson has been giving them tips on the ins and outs of applying for entry into a Silicon Valley business accelerator.

Hudson said he benefited from a business mentor when he was setting up his business that does sophisticated modelling of wind and solar-power generation for electrical utilities using patented pattern-recognition algorithms.

He believes independent advice is a good thing for businesses at any point in their life cycle. He’s just organized an energy markets advisory panel for his own company.

“I think it’s as true for the companies I work with as it is true for me that the first two or three pieces of feedback from an independent voice, especially from somebody with relevant experience, are always valuable,” Hudson said. “They are either things you have not thought about or are things that you need to pay more attention to.”

Foster said 95 per cent of the 79 businesses the CYBF has helped fund over the past three years are still operating.

It may not be all about the mentors, but it’s a key ingredient.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 21, 2013