Success Stories & Newsletter
Every year, Enterprise Toronto helps numerous entrepreneurs launch their businesses by providing workshops, training and support. Learn more about some of these success stories.
Have an interesting story about a Toronto start-up? Email your idea to Enterprise Toronto.
By Deena Douara
For Yogi Fit’s Jamie Mallais, yoga was never about Lululemon pants or getting toned to fit them. For Mallais, yoga was a way to temper anxiety. It was about learning to breath and regaining confidence.
It is this impact yoga has had on her life that she hopes to share with others through classes, private lessons, events, and especially by working with children and youth.
After discovering how yoga relieved her university-related stress, Mallais decided to train to be a yoga instructor herself. But not before she felt “emotionally ready” to lead.
She explains that she struggled with depression and anxiety since her early teens, and thought that doing presentations would be stressful. “Once I got deeper into my practice,” she says, “I thought it was too helpful to not share this with others.”
She had some “others” in mind already.
Mallais was working at a group home as a child and youth worker, a natural path for someone looking to help others. One of her long-standing goals is to develop programs that she can take into such homes on a regular basis to help youth most in need of relief from stress, anxiety and depression.
Mallais has started her helping practice by going into schools, where she says her impact is visible.
“Teachers usually come back and say the students are focusing a lot better,” she says.
“One student came up to me near the end of a 12-week session and said ‘Do you mind if I give you a hug? … You made me feel safe, made me feel better about myself.”
Mallais designed her school programs to deal with issues around bullying by exploring different emotions, inviting students to recognize particular feelings in themselves and in others, and exploring ways they can respond to such feelings.
Mallais also holds mother-daughter classes meant to facilitate dialogue, understanding and bonding.
Instruction always starts with proper breathing.
“It’s the top thing I learned and the first thing I teach. If you do nothing else in my yoga class, focus on your breath and you can notice right away you start to calm down.”
Affirmations are also a big part of her practice. She suggests to students that they record things they like about themselves — what makes them good people — when they are in a positive mood, and to post that somewhere accessible and visible. Speaking from experience, she says when dark moods arise, turning to those can be very helpful reminders.
While self-directed affirmations are Mallais’s focus in her yoga practice, she says that external affirmation certainly helped when it came to developing her business, citing Enterprise Toronto’s workshops, and the Rise Asset Development startup program hosted by the Rotman School of Management.
“You go through phases where you’re like, I got this, but then sometimes you need that boost.”
She says the City of Toronto’s Small Business Forum was particularly valuable in terms of networking and finding resources like Vistaprint.
“They’re so well priced, it’s not even funny,” she says. After ordering business cards, banners and labels through them, Mallais says “It’s helped me build my brand.”
“I went from looking like I’m just a yoga teacher to looking like I am my own business and I’m a professional. It changed how I feel about my business.”
A schedule of Mallais’s availability for yoga and fitness can be found on her website.
By Deena Douara
“A 95-year-old isn’t going into business trying to be the next mega millionaire.”
Andrea Armstrong describes her grandfather’s motivation for starting a line of casual “athleisure” wear as gratitude, above all else.
Most Happiness Is … shirts feature Canadian nature motifs — an iceberg, tree, mountain and sea — and all of them feature the brand as a prominent graphic. Which is sort of the point.
“When someone walks by with that emblazoned on their chest, don’t you read that and want to know what they’re happy for?”
Armstrong’s grandfather Gordon Carton created the line of T-shirts and sweatshirts to spread joy and gratitude for Canada, hoping it would be a contagious message for a proud populace.
And he has much to be grateful for. Carton survived World War II, but 95 classmates did not. That loss, says Armstrong, left an indelible mark, and the brand largely serves to honour their sacrifices. So patriotic is Carton that he once paid for an anonymous ad in the Globe and Mail newspaper to remind readers that it was Flag Day.
While Carton isn’t able to join the interview, his perspective is shared unfiltered through his blog on the brand website, and through Armstrong, who has long admired her sharp, atypical grandfather who has also served as a Member of Provincial Parliament, cabinet minister and businessman.
“How many times has he said, happiness is Canada,” notes Armstrong. “He started saying it over and over again…. We really have to be grateful for all these moments in our lives. Moments of happiness.”
The brand was sparked by an article on “the Canadian Dream” in a local magazine, which put into words what Carton had long felt: that Canada was not characterized by a homogenous or easily-definable culture or tradition, but that was something to celebrate.
“He gets so excited when newcomers become Canadians,” adds marketing head Minnow Hamilton, who feels part of the family. “He wants to share it.”
While they knew they were on the right track with their branding, it was important to get validation on their approach.
That’s why Enterprise Toronto’s Small Business Forum was so valuable, says Armstrong. They connected with similarly-minded entrepreneurs at the event, and resources like Vistaprint Canada, which printed their business and marketing cards. They were particularly struck by keynote speaker Jeremy Potvin – who they met with later and who provided general encouragement as well as specific guidance on useful tools and social media channels.
One decision that wasn’t solely about business was where to manufacture the clothes, which are produced entirely in Canada. And 10 per cent of proceeds are donated to Canadian non-profits — currently The Great Trail (previously the Trans Canada Trail).
“It was absolutely paramount to my grandfather that we give back to the land we love.”
It is little surprise, then, that the family behind Happiness finds their greatest happiness relaxing together near Algonquin Park.
“We’re utterly nuts about our cottage. We spend entire summers up there,” says Armstrong, who’s only skipped the cottage three summers of her life — even participating in a canoe regatta with her son two days after giving birth to her second child. “My son wanted me to be in it,” she explains nonchalantly.
“If there’s any moment we can be up there, we are.”
Looking back on her childhood years there, Armstrong recalls her grandfather making bacon and eggs breakfast for the family while sporting the “athleisure wear of the time.”
And that’s not a tradition they are about to change. Perhaps, however, they’ll swap the velour for some worn-in tees that will remind them of these moments long after.
Happiness Is … apparel is available for purchase online and at select retailers, including some Sporting Life locations.
By Deena Douara
” I love making people happy.”
That’s the only explanation Onem Osuoka can offer for her passion for event planning, which began many years ago with a high school alumni dinner, and then a 500-guest wedding just a couple years later.
“At the end of an event, the satisfaction you receive when a client says it was out of this world, it was really beautiful — that’s a high for me.”
Looking after details — ensuring a tasty meal, creative detailing, good music and ambience — means that hosts and guests can sit back and enjoy the day. “Most important though,” says Osuoka, “is creating opportunities for guests to meet and interact.”
Those key ingredients apply as much to a wedding as they do a product launch, award show or conference — just a few of the types of events Osuoka helps organize through her company, Em Avenue.
Large celebrations are in Osuoka’s blood. Growing up in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, she says events were magnified and multiplied versions of what’s celebrated here — birthdays, weddings, cultural ceremonies, religious ceremonies. “Even for funerals there’s a big affair with food, especially if the person was older.”
Having come from a different culture herself informs her planning for other people’s events, working with diverse clients to infuse uniqueness and personality into their celebrations. “I don’t use one lens for all my clients,” she says.
She also offers translation, travel and pickup services.
Most importantly though, Osuoka offers her full attention, something she says larger companies can neglect to do.
“I’m all in for it.… I treat you like you’re the only client that exists.”
One event Osuoka is particularly proud to have helped organize is the annual week-long African Experience Festival (AFEX) in Toronto, which brings together nearly 2,000 people to celebrate African food, film and culture with an exhibition, cooking classes and outdoor festival.
Osuoka is also in the midst of planning her own event, Chef’s Palate, which will feature MasterChef Canada finalists Terry Adido and Vince Spitale creating a special dining experience for a limited number of guests. That event is scheduled for April. (Check Em Avenue for details).
In addition to event management, Em Avenue also offers to provide event staffing and event training — courses that will be offered this summer across Toronto to help those looking to get into the industry.
While Osuoka is used to managing events big and small, managing her own business was not quite the same process. Early on, she recognized those areas she would need help with.
In doing her research, she says Enterprise Toronto resources and workshops saved her a lot of time and energy.
“Online, you have to go through loads of information and it takes a lot more time,” she says. “It also helped with the cost — sometimes you just need the opinion and advice of professionals.”
Through Enterprise Toronto workshops, some of those professionals advised on hiring, finances and what to expect, what to look for in a commercial lease, and what perks were available to entrepreneurs.
Another way she managed to save was by using Vistaprint, which she connected with at the City’s Small Business Forum. Using the online printer for business cards, banners and everything in between, she says she’s saved “loads and loads and loads of money,” taking full advantage of a business account and regular offers.
Osuoka says the forum was helpful in other ways too, meeting suppliers, accountants and even potential clients prepping for a product launch.
Whether for a product launch or otherwise, Osuoka shares three tips for a smooth event:
- Have a budget. “Some people spend as they go along — that never works.”
- Have a solid (but flexible) plan. Ask yourself what you want to create with the event, and
- Build the experience in your mind. Think of what people will do the moment they walk in the door — Will they be served drinks? Will they hear music? Will they know where to sit? — and write down every last detail.
By Deena Douara
Anca Vatavu did what many immigrants do — left behind family and friends to seek out better opportunities for herself and her children. But not a day goes by when she doesn’t think about that initial goodbye, 17 years ago in Romania, and since then a second goodbye, with her parents’ passing years later.
“I had regret in my mind, for not being with them until the end,” she says, emotional. “I’m still thinking about it.”
Vatavu has had a few careers — as a civil servant, a mortgage advisor and a sales entrepreneur — but this latest endeavor is perhaps the most personal. Silver Door Homecare provides professional care for the elderly, including both medical services and nonmedical services like bathing, food preparation, grocery shopping, and attending doctor appointments. A Registered Nurse first assesses clients’ needs and the service provider best suited to work with them.
In addition to individual client supports, Vatavu organizes a free social club open to all seniors.
“What seniors lack is a place to socialize, especially when they are living alone. They enjoy … celebrating their birthdays, or having a speaker come speak on a topic that’s of interest to them.”
She explains that families are increasingly stretched and in need of outside supports.
“It’s the sandwich generation. Professionals have to divide their time between their profession, their own kids and their aging parents. There is not enough time to do everything. It’s a very emotional period.”
Despite past experience in entrepreneurship, times have changed and necessitated new learning, with digital presence and outreach being one of the most important methods of gaining clients.
“Before starting this I took all the courses possible,” she says, including various courses in psychology, dementia and aging.
She also took extensive business training through the Province of Ontario and City of Toronto’s Starter Company program.
“Starting a business in a new country is something you have to learn,” she explains. “Different countries have different laws, different everything, so I was not able to rely on previous experience.”
One of the most valuable courses she took — so much so that she took it twice — was on Google and digital marketing. Now she says she’s confident with her WordPress site, SEO, Google ads and other methods of listing and advertising online.
“It was absolutely amazing. That was absolutely new to me.”
Also helping her get started was Vistaprint, which Vatavu uses for everything: banners, business cards, invitations, thank-you cards, flyers, brochures and displays. “It’s a very easy process,” she explained and an affordable avenue for marketing materials.
While Vistaprint and Enterprise Toronto both provided business tools and expertise, it was Vatavu’s family that inspired her business values.
“I got all the values from my parents and I’m trying to pass them on to my children,” she says. “Keep your promise. Your word means a lot, and if you cannot keep your word then do not make that promise. I also learned from them the meaning of ethics and that dedication is important.”
Silver Door Homecare is available across the GTA, with plans to expand across Ontario this year, before going national.
By Deena Douara
Simple country boy moves to Tuscany to learn how to be a butcher. City girl goes to Tuscany to prepare to open a Manhattan café. Boy meets girl at the rural villa they both train at. They fall in love, get married and have their first child together.
What could be a film synopsis is also the story behind Toronto’s Alimentari pasta.
Those days of fresh ingredients, a slower pace and communal meals on the farm — “a beautiful, simple life” spawned the artisanal pasta business the Terpstras created together, focusing on fresh, local, and above all else, delicious Italian food.
The “boy” here is Christopher Terpstra, who grew up between Regina, Toronto and Italy, traveling frequently with his historian father and absorbing the Mediterranean lifestyle. It was a way of life he appreciated, the way Italians ate and shopped, prioritizing fresh, quality ingredients. As young as 12 years old, he recalls going alone to the butcher shop in Siena to learn how to prepare cuts and then making them for the family.
“There’s something in Italy that’s not even just about the food but about the mealtime and time spent together,” says Christopher.
He began working in restaurants in Toronto, even helping to open the renowned Buca restaurant. Despite the restaurant’s success, though, he couldn’t shake his longing for a simpler, rustic life. So he went to Tuscany, where he had trained before, learning how to raise livestock and making salumi and prosciutto to sell at farmer’s markets.
Three weeks after returning to the farm years later, Sarah showed up.
Sarah was an American living in New York. She had studied nutrition and culinary arts and was working toward her goal of opening a Manhattan eatery.
Over many weeks of shared glasses of wine and family-style meals with staff of the agro-tourism hotel they stayed at, Sarah and Christopher opened up about what they sought out of life. Family ranked high for both, as well as wanting to be business owners.
“We wished we could bring this feeling of sharing and gathering real, simple food to a place like Toronto,” says Sarah. Despite their idyllic surroundings, Toronto was the natural place to start their lives together.
They would begin with pasta: “as local as possible” ingredients, including Amber durum wheat from Alberta and eggs from Ontario pastured chickens and ducks to produce offerings like tortelli di zucca, gnocchi sardi, duck egg bucatini, spinach malfadine and wild leek bavette to pair with their tomato and pesto sauces.
The pasta is fresh (not dehydrated), and is carefully extruded through special bronze and brass heads that leave pasta rough and absorbent. Alimentari also offers pasta made with alternative grains like red fife wheat, ancient durum, and buckwheat.
Most recently, after selling wholesale and at farmer’s markets, the pair decided to open their own Italian grocer that will host cooking classes and will sell pastas and sauces, sandwiches, prepared dishes and complementary products like anchovies and olives.
The Terpstras admit that starting a business while adjusting to life as new parents has been challenging and stressful, but Sarah says they have no regrets — at least they are in control of their own destiny. To lessen the stress, they turned to the Starter Company Program. Funded by the Province of Ontario and delivered by the City of Toronto, the program gave them an opportunity to work with a business mentor.
“Our advisor Andrew Patricio is super knowledgeable and really entertaining. I really liked learning from him,” says Sarah.
“He has so many stories of small business owners, people he’s worked with; he’s seen every type of entrepreneur in every type of industry.”
She says Patricio was always available and happy to advise, in or out of program hours.
Particularly beneficial were the templates, which helped produce financial forecasts and cashflow statements the pair hadn’t dealt with before. Sarah says specifics on hiring practices and even how to make meetings efficient and ensure staff feel heard are all going to be key as they begin hiring for their new storefront.
The Alimentari Italian grocery shop will open this season on Roncesvalles Avenue. Six-month-old Hugo may or may not be working opening day.
By Deena Douara Karim
On a scale of one to 10, how do you feel about this profile?
With Fetch, it would be that easy to provide feedback to help tailor future writeups.
Alas, the Shopify app is not currently set up for blogs, but rather commerce — e-commerce in particular.
Serial entrepreneur — at just 23 years old — Russell Silver was in Chicago for an entrepreneurial bootcamp when he received the oft-ignored hotel survey that would spark the idea for Fetch. This one, like most online surveys, was “too long, too complicated, and people have no incentive to do it,” he says.
“There’s a problem there.”
The solution was simple: one tap feedback, embedded right into the email.
Once a customer completes a checkout, they receive an email asking for feedback that can be recorded with one tap. Clients, most often web-based businesses, can determine when the question is sent and can ask a number of questions, though each customer sees just one.
“Would you rather have a lot of information from no one, or a little information from many?” Silver explains. After responding, Fetch directs customers to a customized landing page where brands can offer messages and incentives.
Silver sites reports showing that up to 98 per cent of recipients ignore typical customer surveys. Fetch, he says, is far more appealing because it’s simple and fast. It’s appealing for retailers too because they get more feedback and can follow up with disgruntled customers.
Silver gives the example of a jewelry retailer who was having a 20 per cent “detractor rate.” He says once they reached out to the customers who gave low ratings, the business realized there was a problem with misleading headers and navigation on the website and were able to take detractors down to just eight per cent the following month.
“It’s one of the first times ever,” says Silver, “that retail, whether brick and mortar or online, has been able to know exactly what their customer thinks of them, with as little friction as possible and be able to respond to them in whatever way they want.”
He says typical open rates for email marketing are in the low 20 per cent range, compared to 50 per cent with Fetch; and click-throughs are typically about 2.5 per cent, compared to Fetch’s mid-to-high 20s.
Silver gives more examples of how his clients from across four continents have benefitted. He says one online retailer changed the products they carried and how they shipped based on feedback suggesting international shipping rates were too high. Another beach apparel store posed the question: Would you buy flip-flops from us? “No,” was the resounding response — saving the business a lot of time, money and energy.
“Our product is 10 times better than anything else out there. We feel we’ve absolutely surpassed every other piece of technology on the market. We genuinely created the simplest way for brands to measure and improve their customer experience.”
For his own business, Silver sought out more comprehensive feedback from the City of Toronto and Province of Ontario’s Starter Company Program. Despite having studied business at the Ivey Business School, he says Starter Company was “absolutely fantastic.”
“You expect these things to be like ‘open to page six,’ but actually it was incredibly actionable stuff.”
He says program lead Andrew Patricio draws on a wealth of “real stories and examples to exemplify lessons.” One message that stuck with Silver was the idea that “all you need is one good year in business, and your entire life could change from there.” He says Patricio gave the example of James Dyson (billionaire vacuum cleaner inventor), who went through thousands of prototypes before having a good year.
“(Patricio) told me a lot of good tips, good avenues, great companies, and amazing industries that I could work with.”
Silver has connected with more of those industries, including large retailers, telecomm and hotels, showing the tech has potential beyond e-commerce, and has even started to receive some Fetch surveys following personal purchases.
“You couldn’t trade that for anything in the world; it’s an absolute rush,” he says.
“There’s no better feeling than getting up and being able to work on something that you know at the end of the day is your vision coming into the world.”
Fetch is available for purchase through the Shopify store.
By Deena Douara
Noah Maislin and Marko Lindhe don’t pretend to be passionate about minute-taking. But they are clearly passionate about good business.
“If we saw a niche for basket weaving in another city, we’d learn the ins and outs of that and sell baskets,” says Lindhe, co-founder of Minutes Solutions.
Maislin says he’s always had the spirit in him. From selling magazines at camp to his peers, shaving kids’ heads, and helping his uncle sell shoes at a flea market, he seemed destined to run his own company. Years later, his Dalhousie University professor would agree, nominating him for an entrepreneurship award, which he won.
The opportunity he eventually discovered was in minute-taking: primarily for condo board meetings, but also for non-profits, law firms, professional organizations and associations. “Every corporation needs to take and keep minutes, by law,” he says. More recently, Minutes Solutions has started offering meeting newsletters and summaries and will soon be offering training webinars as well.
Maislin explains that not having proper minutes can get boards into a lot of financial and legal trouble, and relying on a board member to take the notes introduces bias and essentially removes a contributing member of the team. “It’s easy to skew minutes and either forget to incorporate important items, or incorporate items that shouldn’t be included.”
While contracting out minute-taking is the norm in Toronto, Minutes Solutions is expanding into southern Florida, where they spotted a significant opportunity after visiting family there.
With the business growing rapidly, Maislin brought on his old friend Marko Lindhe, who he first met as a kid when they played hockey together. As linemates for the Toronto Colts, Maislin says Lindhe “always stood out to me as a natural leader.”
“You don’t remember a lot of kids at that age but he popped into my mind every once in a while because we shared a genuine bond.”
The two lost touch until a mutual friend reconnected them when they were both studying at Dalhousie, and they seemingly haven’t parted ways since.
The pair say they complement each other well. “We both have very similar mentalities. We don’t always agree on everything but we challenge each other,” says Maislin. “And we want to see each other succeed.”
The two acknowledge that they are not the typical type to start a minute-taking business and say they enjoy the reaction from other entrepreneurs at Enterprise Toronto and Government of Ontario’s Starter Company program.
“We consider our business a vehicle that allows us to create innovative ideas and put them into play right away. Our passion at end of the day is about developing and expanding business and being in control of our own destiny,” says Maislin.
Lindhe says he first noticed the Starter Company program for the grant associated with it. He noticed that mentorship was involved as well and says they were “open minded, open to criticism.” What they got out of it though exceeded their expectations. Learning something in theory in university was far different than learning something they “could literally learn in class and then go apply within an hour.”
They found a lot of “analogous references,” with their program peers and uncovered a lot of best practices they could replicate for their own industry. “It’s a huge tool for resources,” says Lindhe.
Just being able to ask other entrepreneurs about funding sources, accountant rates and recommendations, common speedbumps – “really puts you in a position to elevate yourself.”
“That’s the power of being in a room full of like-minded people.”
Additionally, they say Andrew Patricio, the Starter Company program’s leader, is knowledgeable, frank and fun to be around. “He inspires the people around him and ourselves to grow,” says Lindhe.
“They put us in a position to really push us to that next level.”
By Deena Douara
Stephen Wells’ career is one forged out of pain, struggle and ultimately, redemption. He is open about his own past alcohol abuse, which began after his father’s untimely death – a man who was also an alcoholic. Over the next nearly three decades, Wells would lose his job, his wife, his finances and his well-being, struggling with depression and mental health.
Today, he is a different man. He has been sober 12 years now and says he is not even tempted around alcohol. He has remarried. He’s launching a new business, Sober Elite. And he’s applying his own experience and his extensive training to help others emerge from substance abuse with hopeful, healthier outcomes.
Wells describes himself as a human systems interventionist (and has a Master’s degree in this discipline to prove it), meaning he approaches addictions issues in the context of family and relationships. That is not to suggest blame, and he is very clear on that. But he does examine what issues or hurts might be underlying substance abuse and what changes may aid long-term recovery.
His clients are typically affluent, who he says represent a “hidden vulnerable sector.” The sometimes-public fall from grace can be more problematic for the wealthy and Wells says that with private treatment centres starting at about $15,000, those who can afford it are often taken advantage of.
“Fast money is spent in addiction…. They need authentic advocates.” This is why Wells does not accept payment from treatment facilities and instead focuses on matching clients to the programs most likely to benefit them on a case-by-case basis.
Wells’ work really begins before that though – and long after, providing the “bookends” to treatment.
On the front side, he sets the stage for treatment options. While clients seeking treatment can contact Wells directly, he says most cases are actually family-initiated interventions — just not what you’ve seen on television.
“It’s not shame inducing. It’s trauma informed. I’m not going to do any more harm and there are no shame attacking conversations. You want to create safe environment.”
He adds that the conversations are not surprises either – the addicted member shows up because they have a lot to lose at that point, whether it’s the risk of being cut off financially, of charges being laid, or of losing access to home. “If they want a voice in what’s going to happen, they show up.”
Wells visits with the family for as long as it takes, then he helps match and deliver the individual to treatment. He also prepares the family and the home to support post-treatment recovery.
That is where the real tests occur. “Most people fall down when they leave,” he explains. That’s why Wells coaches individuals who have returned from treatment, to give them the supports they need to maintain momentum.
Wells says the triggers that lead to addiction are the same — “relational damage.”
“In my personal opinion, all addicts are struggling at some level with some kind of emotional pain,” he explains, like unresolved trauma around grief, loss or feelings of low self-worth. “The addiction is part of a mask, to deal with a challenge they don’t know how to deal with.”
Wells’ opinions stem from more than just his own experience with addiction. He credits his own recovery to his dedication to AA meetings — “200 meetings in 90 days,” and a private treatment program. Almost immediately, he recognized that he could apply his own background in facilitation towards addiction and began counseling soon after.
In the last 10 years he has worked in addiction counseling, headed a transitional living program, and has educated himself on fresh approaches and certifications, including professional coaching, and a Certified Addiction Counselor designation.
The only thing missing was business training, so he reached out to Enterprise Toronto to help set up the business entity, to plan, and to learn marketing and web design strategies.
Having someone I’m connected to, it’s like I’ve got a team behind me,” he says.
It is the support that bolsters the support Wells himself provides to families impacted by addiction across Canada.
“They gave me the shoes, and now I’m walking.”
By Deena Douara Karim
Elegantly-designed jars promise appetizing flavours within: vanilla brown butter, turmeric, Middle-Eastern spiced, maple, and spiced “chaga-prash.” The thick yellow substance is organic ghee – also known as clarified butter.
Behind Lee’s Ghee artisanal line is Lee Dares, a former model with a penchant for healthy food and a drive to follow her own path.
For the uninitiated, ghee is a thick, rich cooking agent traditionally used across South Asia and the Middle East in the same way butter and oils are used elsewhere.
Ghee has long been demonized for its high-fat content and relegated to large tin cans sold in “ethnic aisles” of select grocery stores. But recently clarified butter has been embraced by foodies and reframed as a healthy, low-lactose alternative to more-common options.
“For a long time people thought that butter and saturated fat caused heart disease and high cholesterol, but a lot of research now is showing that isn’t the case and that sugar is the real culprit,” says Lee. “Ghee contains fatty acids that protect against heart disease and can actually help you lose weight.”
Lee also touts ghee’s nutty, caramelized flavour, its ease of use and higher smoke point.
The entrepreneur and her company may be young, but it’s been a long journey, nevertheless.
Lee began modeling at age 14 and by the time she was 20, she was looking for more out of life. “I wasn’t happy at all,” she recalls.
“Having done things differently than my peers, I probably felt more entrepreneurial. I knew I wasn’t going to take a linear path and I felt freedom to do what I wanted to do after I quit modelling.
“I always knew I was on my path but other people didn’t necessarily see that. I had to constantly convince people that what I was doing was OK, that I was exploring, and that I would eventually settle down . . . but I knew I had to go on this journey.”
Lee’s interest in nutrition led her to study farming in Ontario and permaculture in the U.S. before heading to India to study organic farming practices under a prominent environmental activist. Lee says living in India allowed her to delve deeper into her interest in meditation, yoga and Ayurveda. While there, she made ghee with the local women.
She says what’s sold in stores here – large cans of it – is sometimes diluted, coloured and sourced from anywhere in the world. Lee’s Ghee, on the other hand, is made in smaller batches.
“I pay a lot of attention to quality, source of ingredients and method of preparation. I make my ghee over low heat and it takes a lot longer, so a small batch can take eight hours to reach completion. Then it’s cooled and packaged then mixed with spices and herbs… You can’t mass produce my ghee.”
There’s virtually no dish Lee can’t imagine ghee enhancing: a goat cheese and spinach omelet, a vegetable curry with coconut sauce, homemade banana bread — “it’s ridiculously delicious.”
Lee’s Ghee is sold at nearly 40 retailers and at farmer’s markets across Toronto. Those markets are more than a venue, they are community.
“It’s great to be in a place that’s so receptive to what I’m doing,” she says. “I’ve developed a sense of community here that I’ve never felt before, just from being in the food business. Everyone’s been so helpful and there’s an amazing community of local food entrepreneurs that I’m really grateful to be a part of.”
“The fact I’m in a city with so many health food stores and so many farmer’s markets is incredible.”
More formally, Lee received support from Futurpreneur and some training through Enterprise Toronto.
Expect Lee’s Ghee retailers to jump in number after an appearance on Dragon’s Den, airing early November.
By Deena Douara
“Timing is everything in life,” says Becca Moroney. It’s a theme that comes up often when speaking with the founders of Chaiwala. It means taking the time to travel and explore; taking the time to brew and enjoy a fragrant cup of tea, and taking the time to let a friendship evolve into a love story.
“If we had met any earlier in life we would have walked right by each other. The timing was right.”
Their story starts fairly conventionally, before a whirlwind of adventure would lead them to start their own chai production business, which is a South Asian black tea blend that is herbed and spiced and brewed with milk.
Moroney and Eamon Fitzgerald became friends at work – a Toronto marketing company – who would often talk about exploring the world. Along with a third mate, they finally decided to take the plunge. The next three years would see them traveling off and on through Asia, South America and Australia.
“We never had a place we had to go to; never had a night pre-booked,” explains Moroney.
While they say they were “ in denial” of their obvious chemistry, others would ask them how long they’d been married for. Their early “dating” experience then would be sweaty, ill, frugal and raw – “there’s nothing romantic about it but it’s so real,” says Moroney. It wasn’t long before they found themselves in love.
“If you can survive traveling with someone for that period of time, and still love each other, I think you’re in a good position.”
The three friends had planned to work professionally in Australia but after doing interviews, they realized businesses weren’t interested in hiring young folk who’d be moving on within the year.
So instead, Fitzgerald worked at a café in Melbourne as a busboy. He says he had a great relationship with the owner, an older Greek man who’d been perfecting his personal masala chai recipe for over a decade with feedback from South Asian staff as well as his customers. Gaining increasing responsibilities there, Fitzgerald eventually convinced George, the owner, to make him manager. Then Moroney came in and “really stepped it up.”
They say the shop’s chai sales were special – “a whole experience.” The experience included a strainer and a board, a jar to smell the aroma of the tea. Tourists would ask for shipments to be delivered to them.
Later the pair left for India and Nepal and learned more about the culture surrounding the tea. They spoke to “chaiwalas” (tea makers/servers) and observed the ritual of it. “It’s something to be enjoyed, cherished.”
“The whole campaign of what we’re doing with Chaiwala is about the experience,” explains Moroney.
Part of how they are doing that is educating servers in the process, giving cafes glass canisters to allow customers to see and smell what they’re getting and introducing steps into the business so that cafes serve their chai on a board with steamed milk and a strainer. “Chai is not for every café,” says Fitzgerald. “The establishment has to value that experience.”
Chaiwala uses a fresh blend of 10 spices that include fresh ginger, true Sri Lankan cinnamon, and honey from the Laurentian mountains. Moroney say it’s one of the healthiest teas you can drink, aiding digestion and detoxifying the body, while also slowly releasing energy throughout the day. They also rely on fair and direct trade with Indian farmers.
While falling in love with chai, and with each other, came easy, starting a business did not.
Moroney explains that before attending their first Starter Company class, they were struggling.
“We went in and Andrew Patricio says, ‘Welcome to this class, it’s a place where we can talk about things. Every person wakes up at two in the morning and thinks I gotta quit my business, let’s shut this thing down.’ We had literally just experienced that . . . It felt so therapeutic.”
She says the group was really a community: “You’re all supporting each other. . . It was so much therapy. We walk out newly energized and excited about everything.”
The pair says Patricio was “to-the-point and honest,” and so too are they grateful for their “amazing” mentor – “super successful, full of knowledge, any kind of issue you have he’s dealt with it.”
Chaiwala is served in over 75 independently operated cafes across the GTA and is also selling wholesale through the company’s website. Just make sure you set aside the time to enjoy it.
By Deena Douara
Growing up, it was Matthew Hoskins’s dad who watched over his bed making and room cleaning. The product of strict boarding schools, cleanliness and tidiness was of the utmost importance to him. “They ran a tight ship.”
Today, it’s Hoskins who steers a team of cleaners who take on the cluttered lives of Torontonians.
He’s confident SixMaids will do a better job than you do of cleaning your home – and he focuses on making the process simple and straightforward. The website allows users to indicate the number of rooms/bathrooms to be cleaned and any extra services requested and the site will let you know the total cost and availability.
Just don’t expect six different maids to show up – the name is drawn from a combination of servicing “the Six” (Toronto’s new moniker), and also cleaning with the power of six.
Hoskins acknowledges that there are enough cleaning companies or individuals to service the GTA area. What he found there was not enough of, though, was accountability.
So he focused on that – accountability, customer service, reliability. That means knowing exactly how much you’re going to pay for what services; not getting cancelled on due to inclement weather or personal reasons; facilitating clear communication; and providing some recourse for disappointing outcomes.
“In the cleaning industry it’s not always like that,” says Hoskins.
Hoskins has always been an idea man. “A hustler since birth,” he jokes, explaining he’d sell his siblings’ artwork at his mom’s workplace, sell lemonade and shovel snow when he was young.
When he was about ten, he had his first booming business – one that lasts until this day (under different leadership).
“I come from a devoutly religious family. Super Christian, from Jamaica. Every Sunday you go to church, that’s how it was. It was a very big church, very animated and because of all those things service would run long,” he says. “For a growing boy, I was hungry. Super hungry.”
Hoskins figured he likely wasn’t the only one. It wasn’t long before he was pitching to his “angel investors” for seed money and making trips to Costco. With the help of his siblings and permission from the church, they opened the “Snack Shack,” selling pop, chips and chocolate bars to the rest of the restless churchgoers (with profits going back to the church).
Running a cleaning operation as an adult is a different kind of gig, to be sure, but Hoskins said that feeling is what continues to motivate him.
“The true feeling that I got that continues with me till this day is being able to solve a problem and creating value for people.”
The value he sees being created today is not just in creating a more attractive, clean environment, but runs deeper than that.
“It’s how people feel after,” Hoskins explains. “A lot of people feel free, relaxed, like they’re able to take a deep breath, like a weight’s off their back. Living in messy space or if your space is cluttered, you tend to feel cluttered yourself and kind of constricted by that.
“I’ve had a lot of clients say ‘thank you for sending this team. I came home to a clean place and just felt great.’”
Needing a bit more than seed money for snacks, Hoskins turned to Enterprise Toronto and the Government of Ontario’s Starter Company Program to get his business off the ground. But beyond the grant, he says the Starter Company Program gave him solid advice for how to put systems in place and set clear expectations so that his own cleaning business wouldn’t face the same industry pitfalls he was trying to avoid.
The mentorship received from Andrew Patricio, Starter Company lead, as well as from peers facing similar challenges and opportunities, was invaluable.
“If I had to pay $5,000 instead of getting it, I’d still do the program,” he says. “It’s fantastic.”
By Deena Douara
If you catch yourself spilling secrets between squats and sun salutations, don’t fret – Amy Dryden has that effect on people. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this,’” they say. “People have always felt comfortable opening up to me.”
On paper, she’s a fitness coach, but in reality, Dryden explains that you have to deal with background noise before you can be truly healthy, energized and motivated. Working through those issues is an organic part of the Aim Fitness process.
“If you’re not addressing the job you hate or the boyfriend you need to get rid of or you say yes to everything, it’s hard to have everything else fall in line. When you address the other things first, the physical falls into place.”
Dryden has always been an athlete, but the holistic approach to health is more recent, prompted by an unexpected introduction to meditation and Buddhism in Nepal.
Growing up on a grain farm outside of Winnipeg, Dryden always played sports – competitive soccer, ringette, and broom ball, to name a few. She ran her first half-marathon in high school and is halfway towards her goal of completing six world marathons.
But all that was supposed to be fun side-gigs. At the time, she says, she was not exposed to fitness entrepreneurs and didn’t think of it as a sustainable, profitable vocation.
Unhappy with her start in teaching, a friend encouraged her to pursue what she truly loved.
And it made perfect sense, really. Dryden had already studied for a year to get certified in the difficult U.S.-based CSCS personal training program; she had worked with elite cyclists, triathletes and marathoners; she trained police and ran bootcamps.
“Yeah, that’s what makes me happy,” she thought. “That’s what I want to do.”
Her relationship brought her to Toronto and it seemed like the right time to pursue fitness as a career. That, and the fact it was nearly impossible to find teaching jobs in Toronto, Dryden admits – a reality she now sees as a blessing.
So, with the help of Enterprise Toronto and the Government of Ontario’s Starter Company program, she got started on Aim Fitness – conducting digital marketing, networking as well as introducing a new online subscription program and completing pilates certification. Most importantly though, she learned she was not alone.
“No one ever talks about how lonely business is,” says Dryden. “That was invaluable; we talked about that.” Since then she says she’s made an effort to connect with other entrepreneurs.
After all, a big component of Dryden’s work with her clients – mostly professional and overworked women looking to shed some weight – is internal, so it made sense that she too look after herself.
The importance of that internal work became apparent on a life-changing trip to Everest. She was not looking for a transformation; Eat, Pray, Love, it was not.
But due to an injury, yoga and meditation were all she could practice so she joined a retreat in Nepal. Then she began to notice the changes. Her mind was clear, she was decisive, efficient.
She continued meditating as she wound her way around the region. “I had never felt like that,” she says. “I was always a worrywart, was always trying to do a million things, was super indecisive. It just cleared by brain and I was able to hone in on what I wanted.”
Dryden knew it was important to integrate some of these practices into her training but admits she was nervous about it at first, unsure of the reaction she’d get from her Type-A clients. In September, she did a trial – challenging her clients to write what they loved about themselves for 21 days straight. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Clients told her it was the best five minutes of their day.
Since then, she’s integrated nutritional, emotional and physical challenges into her program in response to patterns she sees in her clients.
“Weekend detoxes are not addressing the main issues; I really emphasize addressing what needs to be addressed.
“When you embrace a lifestyle of health, everything else falls into place.”
By Deena Douara Karim
Vanessa Lee is a builder. It’s like she can’t help herself. It started with her 4th-year engineering project (later sold to Google) and led to her leaving a job with Microsoft.
The problem, she says, is that her projects weren’t always filling a real need. At least, that’s what she was told one year ago while interviewing to join Y Combinator’s prestigious incubator program in Silicon Valley.
While she and friend/business partner Lucas Lu were there interviewing, Lee’s grandfather was admitted for surgery. And then the pair stumbled onto a gaping, painful, exasperating need – one for reliable and affordable home care.
“That was one of the most uncertain and nerve-wracking times for me,” says Lee. The process post-surgery was “very intensive and not easy to coordinate – especially if don’t live close. In some cases it was more hassle than it was helpful.”
Private options were expensive and required a minimum number of hours.
She says the family ended up choosing government-funded homecare but the personal support worker arrived with no background on her grandfather’s situation. “It was a little bit alarming,” says Lee.
“What if he had dementia and couldn’t articulate his needs?”
To make matters worse, she says, there was little consistency. Different care workers were in and out so it was like starting from scratch each time, building trust anew.
Absent a reliable, affordable option, Lee’s own father went every day after work to Scarborough to help get his father to bed, then drove back home to Mississauga, arriving late into the night while he would otherwise have been planning out his retirement.
The family struggled to find a comfortable situation and Lee worried about the toll stressful caregiving could take on her grandmother and parents.
Meanwhile, her business partner’s mother was a personal support worker.
Lu says some of the problems he uncovered speaking to his mom and others was workers feeling isolated, not being sufficiently compensated, and not being treated as professionals.
Together, Lee and Lu, a product designer, set out to build a new business – one that met a need, and met their own needs.
Sage began operating in earnest about nine weeks ago and in that time has served over 400 hours of care. As we speak, we’re interrupted three times by incoming calls that Lee must take.
“Yeah, we’re basically on call all the time,” says Lee. While the pair know they’ll need to hire eventually, they say the personal contact has helped them learn about their customers. One key innovation that resulted, for example, was the use of text messages for communication, which families seemed to prefer.
“The whole point of bringing in homecare is to make it easy,” explains Lee.
Other ways Sage tries to improve on the experience: they offer consistency through the introduction of a team of service providers in a client’s area; equip staff with all the information they need so there are no surprises; provides family with summary emails; and plans are in the works to enhance the way Sage collaborates with practitioners to increase the experience of teamwork and involvement.
They strive to “treat them as the skilled professionals that they are.”
While Lee and Lu were both doers – there was one key hurdle they say Enterprise Toronto’s Starter Company and the Government of Ontario’s Starter Company program really helped with: sales.
“As an engineer, your biggest inclination is to just build it, but the hard part is to convince people to use it,” explains Lee.
They say their mentor and Starter Company lead Andrew Patricio really pushes businesses to get out there – events, conferences, networking sessions, because you never know. “And don’t get discouraged.”
Lu says the seminars also helped shape the way they think about hiring and retention (the industry has an abysmal turnover of 50-60 per cent). While Lee estimates they currently accept about the top two per cent of RMT and PSW candidates, they hope to find more passionate candidates through their partnership with George Brown’s digital media incubator. They are focusing on the GTA with sightlines toward U.S. expansion by next year.
Meanwhile, Lee’s grandfather is doing well and is very excited she’s finally working on a project they can all understand.
By Deena Douara Karim
As far as rock-band ambitions go, theirs is pretty humble:
“Our end goal is that this is what we do for a living, exclusively.”
It’s clear there is the potential for more – both from the distinctive sound Johnson Crook produces, as well as the seriousness with which the band approaches the business. And it is, of course, a business – but more on that later.
After some nudging, bassist Jared Craig reluctantly admits that a Juno would not be outside the realm of possibility, before both Craig and drummer Trevor Crook finally express the ultimate dream, to play Canada’s most prestigious music venue.
“Johnson Crook live at Massey Hall. That’s a good signifier that you’ve reached a certain plane.”
Johnson Crook is composed of two brothers and two other band mates, all from small towns in the U.S. and Canada, a fact they say has had a “huge influence,” both on their sound and on their camaraderie. They describe that sound as a sort of nostalgic Americana from afar. The Band, The Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, that sort of thing. Maybe a little more country, but without the twang.
Despite that bond, their fusion would appear to be an unlikely one.
Trevor and Nathan Crook entered the scene from Minnedosa, Man. outside of Winnipeg, and their first band was heavy rock, like Incubus or Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Craig, with a penchant for jazz, started out in Greensburg, Penn. where he picked up bass guitar in high school because “everybody played everything else already.” He embraced it and earned gigs with local theatre companies and a spot with the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony before studying classical bass performance.
Lead singer Noel Johnson grew up in Cochrane, Alberta and was more of an earnest singer-songwriter.
They all landed in Toronto to take their music to the next level, and coming together after meeting through other musicians and through Canada’s Music Incubator at Coalition Music, “felt so natural.”
“There was a weird connection between the four of us,” says Crook. “It was just easy.”
The band’s members take an egalitarian approach, splitting singing duties and songwriting credits, and pushing each other to develop diverse strengths.
“We always want to grow and progress in what we do,” explains Crook.
Craig adds that the members are all “mutually forming the identity of this band.”
As seasoned musicians, they had seen and heard enough to understand that talent was not enough. They would need to approach their art as a business if they really wanted to have an impact on the genre.
Craig says Canada’s Music Incubator, Coalition Music and the Government of Ontario’s Starter Company helped the band focus on what was really important to growing their audience and their brand, and to say no to peripheral things. “They prevented so many missteps,” says Craig, like focusing on merchandise too early or pursuing all venues equally.
They also helped the band develop a website, financing plan, business plan, social media strategy, and what was “incredibly beneficial,” lasting connections with key industry insiders. They praise Vel Omazic, executive director of Canada’s Music Incubator, who “really took us under his wing above and beyond the parameters of the program.”
“It’s 90 per cent a business, 10 per cent music,” explains Crook, joking about how he’s been forced to do the things he hated doing in high school that likely led him toward music in the first place.
He works now, though, not for high marks or promotion but to have the privilege of making a living making music on his own terms, alongside band mates that get each other.
Johnson Crook performs regularly at The Cameron House and Castro’s Lounge and periodically at The Horseshoe Tavern. Check their website for their schedule, including a performance at the Boots and Hearts Music Festival near Barrie in August.
By Deena Douara Karim
It’s pretty obvious that Phil Kluba would rather be promoting other people, bands and venues than promoting himself. “This is the most I’ve ever talked about myself,” he jokes, in his mild-mannered way.
Specifically, Kluba promotes Toronto-and-area bands through his newly-minted Live is Better entertainment collective, which encompasses music event promotion as well as his video production services (Press It). Because he’s entrenched in the music scene, Kluba explains that artists trust he’ll understand their vision and also the logistics of a studio or venue.
Since mid-March, the company has been hosting events at 3030 (3030 Dundas West), to be held regularly throughout the year in Toronto’s emerging Junction neighbourhood.
Live is Better promotes their brand for its own sake (via merchandising) and also as a way to promote the bands it works with, using Instagram, YouTube and other social media. The promoter also tries to do things differently and, well, better, by ensuring bands are paid upfront, for example.
Kluba’s aim aligns with the city’s push to promote its musical acts and boost its NXNE draw: “There’s a scene here waiting to be discovered,” he explains.
“I love Toronto. Toronto does have a great music scene, it’s just not advertised correctly. There are great bands in every venue – you can go out any night and find a great act.” Kluba himself prefers small venues and up-and-coming acts. He credits Ride the Tiger with turning him onto live music and also praises the performances of local acts the Rathburns, OL’ CD and Common Deer.
Music has been part of Kluba’s life since he was a kid. He was singing, writing and performing at 11-years old and later studied sound production at Metalworks Institute. He was even offered a development deal from a record company at 16 for his pop-punk band. He and his family declined the offer and surprisingly, Kluba says he has no regrets about it.
“It wasn’t a good idea…. I would’ve been in debt for a long time.”
While he may not have known that at the time, he’s become more business savvy by working in the industry and more recently, through receiving a FACTOR grant (a federal recording grant) and participating in Enterprise Toronto and Government of Ontario’s Starter Company program, where he gained confidence with client relations, tax structures, employment strategies and marketing.
“Little did I know this would actually shape the rest of my life,” he says.
Kluba jokes that he was advised to “forget about that passion thing, that’s not gonna pay your bills.” He clarifies that the program helped him focus and shape the things he was truly passionate about into a viable business.
“It taught me that you don’t just become successful – you have to build it up.”
Live is Better hosts primarily soul, funk, dance, folk, and rock acts – “anything that’s entertaining.” Their next event takes place May 28 at 3030.
By Deena Douara Karim
It’s easy to find locally-grown organic menus these days as consumers become more health-conscious and environmentally aware. Not so in the catering industry, however, where food is often frozen and efficiency is the name of the game.
Peter Harvey doesn’t buy into that. He wants PG Harvey Events to align with his values – local, seasonal, handmade food.
Born and raised in a fishing village near Sydney, Australia, Harvey was accustomed to eating his mom’s fresh seafood and dishes made with simple ingredients, locally grown or caught. “Just salt, pepper and lemon.”
He moved to Sydney to study culinary arts and said he changed locations often, learning about food production through restaurants, hotels, banquet halls and clubs.
Harvey says he always knew he would own his own business one day but he recognized he would first have to pay his dues. He came to Toronto in 2003 to be with his now-wife, who had a big impact on his current direction; he paid his dues for over a decade, increasingly with catering companies.
“If I was still in a restaurant I’d be divorced,” Harvey says, describing a very demanding career with long hours and late partying that “puts a strain on your body. Catering is more forgiving.”
The need for a more balanced lifestyle accompanied the growth of his two young boys; another wake up call occurred when his wife suffered a serious accident. Harvey began to back away from his background in rich French cuisine, opting instead for healthier “clean” cooking, which became important to his wife’s health and recovery.
That’s one advantage Harvey says he offers over larger companies – organic food that is made from scratch. He even has a personal relationship with farmers that supply his ingredients.
Another advantage is the attention to detail and customer service he’s able to offer: “The finer details, I think big companies miss,” he says.
“Every event, I treat it like my last.”
While his seasonal menus evolve, Harvey says some of his signature items include his lobster bisque with cognac cream, and his prized béarnaise sauce.
Through weddings, corporate galas, a private Valentine’s eight-course dinner and a children’s Christmas party, he says customizing a menu is one of the most enjoyable aspects of his work – a flexibility he says larger caterers often can’t indulge.
At home, though, the most-requested dish is Belgian waffles on Sundays and made-from-scratch pizza made with the kids. Homemade food and business sense are both values Harvey wants to instill in his sons, so he takes them along when he displays at the Withrow Park farmer’s market in the summer.
“People need to start eating better and I think it starts with where you get the (ingredients). That’s definitely going to be indented into my company.”
While Harvey has been a chef for many years, he hasn’t always been a businessman. For guidance, he joined the City of Toronto and Government of Ontario’s Food Venture Program, which covers goal-making, balance sheets and other essential skills.
“I think it’s an excellent program that all people planning to start a business in catering should experience,” says Harvey.
By Dianne Stott
When Richa Gupta hosted a dinner party of homemade Mexican fare, she never could have imagined that casual conversations and comments by her guests would ultimately lead her to start her own food business.
As a marketing manager for a food manufacturer at that time, Gupta had been growing frustrated with state of food marketing, feeling that it forced consumers to compromise between quality and convenience. When her guests pointed out that the dinner she created hadn’t used any of the foods her company sold, it occurred to her that better options were needed in the market.
Shortly thereafter, Gupta founded Good Food For Good, a company that produces a line of internationally inspired dips and simmer sauces that help people prepare healthy, high quality meals with minimal effort.
“I was feeling unfulfilled with my work,” she said, “and it took me a while to find my passion. I tried dance lessons, running, even chess. I found it with Good Food For Good.”
For the busy consumer who is looking for high quality, tasty, and minimally processed foods, Good Food For Good makes it easy to elevate an ordinary meal to a gourmet feast. Dips and simmer sauces can be added to any pasta or meat dish to complete the transformation.
“We make our foods with the highest quality fresh and organic ingredients and process them minimally to preserve the nutrients” said Gupta, “plus, with each purchase we donate a meal to help combat childhood hunger.”
While putting together her business plan, Gupta came across a seminar about starting a food business hosted by Enterprise Toronto and decided to attend. She found business planning advice, contacts, and networks that propelled the business forward.
“Enterprise Toronto helped us gain valuable knowledge about starting a food business and introduced and connected us to an array of resources such as the Toronto Food Business Incubator and the Futurepreneur (formerly CYBF) program. We were able to launch our business more quickly than anticipated as a result,” she said.
She has some advice for those starting a business — start small and scale up. One of the benefits she received by starting small was being able to make contacts in farmers markets who introduced her to a local organic farm able to provide her with the ingredients she needed to produce their dips and spreads.
She also advises to persevere — don’t give up at the first hurdle. Gupta had to contact a number of food suppliers before she found one willing to work with a small enterprise. If she had given up the first time a supplier turned her down, Good Food For Good would not exist.
Finally, she recommends surrounding yourself with a support network. Gupta works with the team at Good Food for Good who are all enthusiastic about the vision and goals of providing healthy food to consumers. But she also gets support from her customers who often email praise about her products, and she has a network of business mentors and personal connections. Not everyone will be supportive, but if you have more supporters than not, it helps on a day when things aren’t going well.
Now Good Food For Good supplies their dips and sauces to a number of shops and markets throughout Toronto. They also help combat childhood hunger through the sale of their food by contributing to local and international children’s charities that share the Good Food For Good values. Gupta and her team are excited about the future and are enjoying success along the way.
Dianne Stott is a writer with CanadaOne.com, an online small business resource website.
By Andrew Seale
If you ask Ryan Breen and Camilla Caban, they’re apt to tell you their innovative idea to connect real estate agents and their clients with big data comes from a place of lethargy.
Ryan, who had built a web hosting business when he was 16, and pursued a career in web development, programming and development ever since, was hired by one of Camilla’s real estate friends to build out a website for the agent.
As part of the site, the real estate agent wanted to include open data like local condo prices and schools in the area – the sort of questions house hunters usually have at the back of mind when they go into the process. But the volume of data and the process to get it on the site seemed onerous.
“I thought, sure, I can do it, go grab the data sets and pull it in but good programmers are lazy,” says Ryan with a laugh. “Instead, I started thinking, how can I systemize this process?”
Essentially, he wanted to make a funnel for real estate agents to allow average Joe/Jane homebuyers to connect to open data and derive additional insight from it.
Hence: Re-invent Realty – a startup the pair dreamed up to help create bespoke tools for the real estate industry that draw from real-time data like up-to-date floor plans from condos, school rankings and walkability scores, as well as neighbourhood insights.
“During 2014 we noticed there was a huge impact of tech in the States when it came to data for real estate agents,” says Camilla. “We saw it was something missing here in Canada.”
Ryan began developing the technology between January and March in 2014 and Re-Invent Realty was officially launched in March 2015.
“As soon as we realized we had something good with the data, we decided to Google small business grants and that’s how we found Enterprise Toronto and the Government of Ontario’s Starter Company Program,” says Camilla.
The pair sat down with the team and combed through their business plan.
“Enterprise Toronto saw value and immediately helped us,” recalls Ryan. “One of our biggest mistakes was not planning out the financials of our business model – they helped us narrow down a budget that made sense and wasn’t based on assumptions.”
The pair also landed a loan through Futurepreneur.
“It’s amazing these grants are available for a lot of small businesses because a lot of people who do want to start a business or have an idea, they really don’t know where to go with it,” adds Camilla.
Since launching in March, the pair has expanded into the U.S. market. They’ve also taken the technology beyond the real estate world under their parent company called Net-Critical.
“We just started a contract with the government of Ontario surrounding open data,” says Camilla. “It’s kind of exciting – both of us never thought that opportunity would come, but just putting the data out there for something else caught their interest.”
By Andrew Seale
Jacqueline Flaggiello came up with the idea for an inspired line of photography accessories while attending the esteemed ESMOD School of Fashion and Business in Paris. At Paris Fashion Week, the fashion design and communications student and photographer took note of how there were very few camera accessories designed with women in mind.
“I knew it was very niche but I couldn’t find what I was looking for anywhere,” says Jacqueline. “I was like ‘I can’t be the only female who wants something like this.’ ”
So, upon returning to Toronto last year, she launched Jolie Laide – a French term which translates to “pretty-ugly” but connotes a sort of unique beauty. The young entrepreneur loved the lyricism of the phrase.
“I got thinking, well why can’t I make it, I have pretty good taste,” she says.
Initially, she wanted to make camera bags, but after researching and consulting with fellow photographers and contacts in the industry, she realized elegant camera straps might be a better starting point.
“There was no competition and there are leather manufacturers right here in Toronto who are affordable and allow me to produce for wholesale,” she says. “I made a couple of prototypes and people thought they were cool, they’re more experimental than usual camera accessories.”
The straps which retail for $79 and have names like The Aztec Bone and The Classic Brandy – give off a handmade look and feel and are inspired by Jacqueline’s Italian, French and Ecuadorian roots; a collision echoed in the wanderlust-inspired brand.
“I applied for Enterprise Toronto and the Government of Ontario’s Starter Company Program because we really needed the funds to expand the staffing and expand our hours into brunch service,” she explains. She got the grant, fine-tune her business plan and received mentorship, as well. It was after joining the program that Gauravi started to attend the Enterprise Toronto meet-ups.
“The money is a great part of the program and really helpful,” says Jacqueline, “it allows you to take risks that you wouldn’t usually take and be more confident. But the seminars and even sometimes just being in the environment, it gives you a real boost having that community around you.”
Especially in the early stages for entrepreneurs when growing pains are par for the course.
“You realize you have options,” she says. “Knowing there is a community and a mentor, someone you can reach out to with a quick question, just knowing that is really encouraging.”
With that support Jacqueline has built her brand, boosting her line and retailing both through e-commerce platforms like Brika – a hub for the maker community – and Roncesvalles retailer Muttonhead. And while the allure of travel will continue to woo and inspire Jacqueline, the young entrepreneur says Toronto will continue to be Jolie Laide’s home base.
“I love Paris and other cities but Toronto is the best place to grow,” she says.
By Andrew Seale
For Gauravi Shah, cooking was just a hobby, something to do in the evenings to distract herself from the daily grind of working as a nuclear engineer in Pickering. That is, until she discovered she had a genuine knack for it.
“I went to George Brown College and got a culinary certificate and thought, hey, let me take the leap, I think I’ll open a restaurant,” says Gauravi.
We know what you’re thinking: sure, her and a hundred other budding restaurateurs hoping to capitalize on Toronto’s vibrant culinary community. Except for Gauravi, it worked. Shortly after beginning the search for a location to host her concept Tilde – a taquiera that experiments with cross-cultural flavours and hawks craft brews and cocktails – she found a spot on the Danforth, an area growing beyond its Greek routes to more diverse food offerings.
“I quit my job and the next week I had a location,” she says. “I was expecting it to be a long drawn out process.”
While Some of the quick thinking and analytical skills she carefully cultivated during her career as a nuclear engineer have proved helpful, but being a first time restaurateur comes with a whole new set of challenges.
“It’s not about being a chef, it’s about being a business owner,” says Gauravi “Staffing has been extremely challenging right now, the turnover in the industry is incredible.”
Gauravi was able to get some assistance from the Youth Employment Fund to hire some help. Shortly after, she heard from Enterprise Toronto about the resources there.
“I applied for Enterprise Toronto and the Government of Ontario’s Starter Company Program because we really needed the funds to expand the staffing and expand our hours into brunch service,” she explains. She got the grant, fine-tune her business plan and received mentorship, as well. It was after joining the program that Gauravi started to attend the Enterprise Toronto meet-ups.
“People from a couple other startups got together and (although) they were starting apps and techs companies and I was starting a brick and mortar place it was interesting to see the different perspectives,” she says. “Some were having issues with staffing and training so it was good to find that common ground even through our industries are completely different.”
Since completing the program the entrepreneur and foodie has added brunch to Tilde’s offerings.
“Enterprise Toronto really helped me to try to address a very challenging area in the industry,” says Gauravi.
It’s been an exciting transition for Gauravi, and it comes at an exciting time.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a little bit, but I have not found a city as diverse food-wise as Toronto is – you can literally pick up a pen, poke it on a world map and find that cuisine here in the city,” says the restaurateur. “It’s absolutely incredible to be here at this time, peoples’ ideas about food are changing, they’re more open-minded and willing to try interesting foods.”
By Andrew Seale
It wasn’t an a-ha moment that convinced Wendy Ha to strike out on her own, it was the culmination of 10 years in an industry she felt was sluggish to evolve and adapt.
“Accounting is very old school, there’s a lot of rules and governance and compliance,” she says, adding that it’s the kind of industry where detail-oriented personalities reign supreme but at the expense of taking risks.
“You’ll always hear, ‘Let’s see what other people out there are doing and then maybe change.’ But I’m very optimistic and entrepreneurial,” says Wendy. “So I resigned from my company and contracted myself out to them last year so that I could pursue my own accounting enterprise.”
But Wendy wasn’t just looking for her own clients; she was determined to design a whole, new accounting experience with her newly-minted AgileCPA.
“I want my business to make a difference by streamlining the process,” she explains. “Linking businesses with the accounting technology that’s out there and if the tools don’t exist then I’m looking to hire engineers who can create (bespoke) technology for my clients.”
Wendy’s target is Toronto’s burgeoning startup scene – she hopes to become the go-to firm for the next generation of tech success stories.
“I need people that are willing to accept change,” she says.
The notion of opening a hybrid accounting firm/consultancy practice isn’t all that foreign to Wendy; the entrepreneurial accountant spent 10 years working through the ranks at an accounting firm stockpiling enough insight to know what the back-end of her own business should look like.
But where her shortcoming is, is the marketing side of things. Luckily, when Wendy decided to register her business she reached out to Enterprise Toronto and was able to tap into the City’s resources.
“The first step was incorporating. They gave me a lot of resources to do that – it was fairly easy and after that they worked on the business plan with me,” says Wendy. “I’m in the stage of finalizing the sales and marketing strategy.”
Enterprise Toronto connected Wendy with a mentor who introduced her to the concept of digital marketing.
“I always thought marketing was advertisements through billboards and radio,” she says. “But after talking to them it opened me up to this whole digital marketing strategy I could use called inbound marketing – concepts like blogging and SEO,” she says.
As she puts her plan in place, Wendy admits the road ahead is apt to be arduous but she plans to enlist help through the Starter Company program.
“I just have to finalize the business plan then apply to get in,” she adds.
By Andrew Seale
Andrew Grella has done the unthinkable, he’s turned every teenagers worst nightmare into a business idea.
“On the morning of my grade twelve prom, I woke up with acne on my face and I didn’t know what to do, so I went to my mom,” he says. Like any knowing mother would, she dusted his face with makeup until his skin was rendered blemish free.
It dawned on him, why isn’t there make-up for men?
So, at 19, Andrew launched his first make-up company under the banner of Man Up.
“I ended up having to do something tangible for a project so I decided I might as well get a head start on (my business),” he says. “I started researching the marketplace, trying to figure out how and where to get the product, ingredients, quality.”
In university he studied commerce, building on his earlier entrepreneurial foundation. He caught the eye of Dragon’s Den, taking his product on the show in 2014.
“I went in with the idea that I just wanted the publicity,” he says, adding that although he signed an on-screen “television deal,” he ended up declining the funding and setting his sights on something else: Enterprise Toronto and the Government of Ontario’s Starter Company program.
“I met with Andrew from Bizlaunch and he gave me some mentorship,” says the cosmetics entrepreneur. “I also went to quite a few of the seminars, it was mix of business-oriented and very arts-oriented people all with the same general entrepreneurship drive.”
But for Andrew, the most valuable part was the funding. He used it to travel to South Korea to meet face-to-face with potential distributors for his product.
“Everyone globally goes there to see what’s up and what’s new in the skin care industry so if you are a new brand and you’re a Canadian brand (it’s) kind of like a sales play,” explains Andrew. “If you’re on the shelf there, you’re deemed better than everywhere else.”
Part of that comes from the stringent regulations and laws about what can be put in cosmetics and skin care. With Andrew’s company, re-dubbed Formen, he knew he could benefit from testing his products through that rigmarole.
So far it’s paid of. Formen completed their formulations last month.
“We have a line of six we want to bring to market, so we sent off samples to our potential distribution partners,” he says. “We could have a distributor for across Asia which would basically spearhead our initiative in North America.”
It’s part of a wider plan to get his male-focused cosmetics sold in Canada. He says that if it gets green lit in South Korea, it’ll be a huge step forward for Formen. But if it doesn’t he just plans to continue on, looking for new outlets for his products – it’s all part of an endless energy Andrew seems to exhume.
“Using my age to my advantage lets (potential partners) see my energetic drive and entrepreneurial ability,” he says. “It’s really helped me.”
By Andrew Seale
It came on like a quarter-life resolution, an epiphany of sorts: Matt Hortobagyi turned 28 and realized Astrodog Media, the video production company he’d founded half a decade earlier, was ready to go to the next level.
“I’d been running a business for five years and had never really explored any grant opportunities,” he says. “I knew that there was generally a cut-off when you’re 30 so I was looking for support at the time.”
It wasn’t that he was short on success. Matt and his team, which, up to that point, worked remotely and collaborated via tools like Google Chat, had developed a stable of clients including the live broadcast of Scotiabank’s Toronto Waterfront Marathon. They tirelessly moved around southwestern Ontario shooting high quality videos ranging from commercials and music videos to longer format documentaries and short films.
The entrepreneur felt it was time to refresh his toolkit when a friend mentioned Enterprise Toronto and the Government of Ontario’s Starter Company program – a crash-course in entrepreneurialism that blends mentorship, workshops and a grant. Matt reasoned it would be a good pick-me-up as he rounded the corner of his fifth year in business.
“I found it useful for filling in some gaps where my knowledge lagged, but for the most part it was nice to go in there and rub shoulders with other entrepreneurs and see what other people are doing,” he says.
Swapping advice with other budding business owners helped Matt realize the wealth of business knowledge he’d accumulated over the years. The program also opened his eyes to a whole new community.
“It’s difficult for me to have those types of conversations with the average person in my life or people in my network – they just can’t relate,” he says. Through Starter Company, Matt found a new tribe.
“What I keep coming back to is that you’re now part of a community and you’re going to have that support structure and any questions or problems you have at the time you can just bring up and talk to people and see how they’re solving the same issues,” says Matt. “There were other business-minded people that were willing to engage in that type of conversation – that’s really the most important part of the program, I think, the money is secondary.”
Since completing Starter Company, the biggest change for Matt and Astrodog has been a rebrand. The company also set up a new home base in Kitchener-Waterloo. It’s a bit of a drive for Matt who lives in the GTA but worth it for the chance to have his team in one place.
“It’s nice to have people working side-by-side,” he says. “We’ve built bigger relationships, we have more sales, we’re still working on expanding the live broadcast side of our business but it’s definitely something people are noticing.”
By Deena Douara Karim
In a nutshell: She was a top-of-her-class biomedical sciences student and athlete at Guelph University ready for a life in global health until she got a concussion that caused her to become hyperaware of others’ emotions and unable to concentrate before studying at Oxford, where she studied dance in Africa that led to her founding an NGO before deciding she needed to heal herself through Reiki, which is where she is now.
Let’s parse that, starting with her Reiki practice – a wellness method that transmits energy though a healer to promote physical, emotional and spiritual healing.
Shelly Burton launched her home studio last summer using instruments, rocks and crystals – she says they carry vibrations and energies useful in different situations – but most of her work is done with simple touch. Burton says Reiki is for anyone seeking balance and healing, though she focuses particularly on youth with concussions.
Off-site, Burton also incorporates horses into her process. She began riding when she was seven and was so good she actually “broke” horses (was the first to ride them) and retrained recalcitrant, sometimes abused horses. Her first aspiration was to become a veterinarian.
Though her injury made it nearly impossible to ride, she has since circled back. While many accept that animals can smell fear, Burton takes it a step further and suggests that horses mirror our emotions. “They reflect back to you how you’re feeling.” She describes “deep releases” among clients that participate in workshops held in partnership with Horse Spirit Connections in Tottenham, Ont.
Another pursuit of Burton’s is Rhythm of Change (ROC), a reimagining of a dance-inspired NGO she originally launched years ago. Today, ROC incorporates her one-on-one work, group sessions and also some of the original youth projects.
Taking a few steps back is useful here.
As a student, Burton was on track for success, in all its externally-defined glory. She was smart – a convocation award recipient, Rhodes Scholar finalist, and international research assistant. She was also athletic – a player on the varsity basketball team, a sport she says she didn’t even enjoy.
But a hit to the head while playing in her fourth year changed the course of her life.
“Everything seemed to be working, and then it came crashing down.”
“It was the most pain I’d ever felt in my life … like the volume in the world became excruciatingly loud.”
Still, she says concussions weren’t well understood then and she was encouraged to keep playing.
On her website she describes her state: “extreme sensitivity to noise and light, difficulty concentrating and reading, exhaustion, weakness, fogginess, and a constant headache.” She was forced to postpone her graduation.
She experienced other strange side effects as well: “I would feel in my body what others were feeling…. I would see people’s pain in their eyes; would feel what everyone else around me was feeling in class.”
Burton realized she felt better when she did things she authentically enjoyed and could no longer push herself toward pursuits that were externally motivated. That was the seed that helped start her transformation.
At Oxford University for her Master’s degree, circumstances and coincidences led her to research breakdancing and hip-hop in Uganda, which also led her to launch a promising and well-received NGO, Rhythm of Change. In a nutshell, ROC strove to build peace through dance. After two years though, she again had to pause and reevaluate.
“I am stretched to the max; I’m broken…. It clicked that I’m not in balance – this head injury still affects me and I really need to look at it.”
It wasn’t until seven years after the hit that Burton devoted herself wholeheartedly to the healing process.
A Reiki session helped but it was when she took the training herself that Burton found her calling. Suddenly the burden of great sensitivity had become a strength.
“I felt a tangible clearing.”
Burton eventually developed her very own “Samhara” Reiki, meaning involution – “evolution by going within.” Her goal is to empower people to evolve into “higher consciousness” and to be in harmony with themselves.
“I help people listen to themselves so they can create a life of balance.”
Her practice, she credits to a number of spiritual mentors and shamans.
The business, though, she credits in part to Enterprise Toronto and the Starter Company program, which provided her with advice, supports, tools and funding.
She says the business plan, which Enterprise Toronto helped her write, is why she “ended up here.”
“It is a big blessing and I’m so grateful.”
Burton will be holding her second full-moon ceremony on March 23. Expect dancing, drumming, “transmissions of wisdom,” and hands-on healing. Details can be found here.
By Andrew Seale
Curt Jaimungal has an irrational love for Toronto. The kind of love that makes him do strange, ambitious things like make the film I’m Okay, a peaen to his revered hometown.
And as if he’s not busy enough writing, acting and directing, Curt has launched an independent film festival, indiefilmTO and an associated resource for budding independent filmmakers looking to explore the business of their craft.
Yeah, Curt has a very special, very irrational love for his city.
“In I’m Okay Toronto is the backdrop and a character in itself – it’s an anti-romantic comedy about a couple at the end of their relationship instead of the beginning,” he says.
The film will screen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on February 16 and Curt has big ambitions for his labour of love made on a shoestring budget of $25,000.
“What Woody Allen did for New York, I’m going to do for Toronto,” he proclaims. “I’m going to make it iconic, make it so that when people come to Toronto and look at buildings they’ll say, ‘Hey! I saw that in that movie.’ ”
There’s a certain gall required to call yourself Toronto’s Woody Allen, a swagger that can only come from someone so utterly obsessed with putting Toronto on the map that his life quite literally revolves around it. He’s always been that way.
Born and raised in Toronto, Curt studied math and physics before pivoting towards the film industry.
“I founded University of Toronto Television,” says the independent filmmaker. The goal of the channel is to let students put together and showcase their own films or television shows. “It was the fastest growing club, we had 4,000 members within a year-and-a-half.”
Curt points out that while Hollywood is associated with big budget films, there’s no one location considered the hub of independent film. “I’m going to make Toronto that location,” he says. “And I’m going to do it via indiefilmTO, through helping other filmmakers get their movies made and seen.”
indiefilmTO received 150 submissions — Curt sees the fest as a kind of incubator: “We don’t produce films, we’re not producers, we just want to help you grow as a filmmaker,” he says adding that the primary platform is through articles and videos on the website.
Curt says success hinges on taking a page from the startup playbook.
“There’s a lot of great ideas that you can take from startup culture and implement into film,” he says. “You can streamline it and implement different ways and methods and structures to make movies inexpensively and efficiently.”
And Toronto provides lots of inspiration between its frothing startup culture and endless supply of people with stories; Curt says he wonders why it can’t be the hub of the independent film world.
“We’re one of the most multicultural places on Earth, you can’t tell all these niche little stories in Hollywood with million of dollars,” he says. “There’s this seething underbelly, independent film side of the city that’s going to boom really, really soon – and I’m going to help make that happen.”
By Deena Douara
Herb Communications is John Carson’s consulting business, through which he helps clients like The Country Day School and the Ontario Centres of Excellence with everything from editorial services to website redesigns to social media strategy to user experience. He also offers a niche service – helping organizations make their websites compliant with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
Carson credits much of his career to having the courage to ask for what he wants.
“A lot of people are too scared to ask for things these days – because they’re afraid of rejection,” he says. “It’s 50/50, they’re either gonna say no or yes and if they say yes, you might find somebody to help or might gain a client.”
“I don’t want to be sitting at home regretting not asking.”
This asking started early on. He shares the example of when he was studying journalism, back at home in the U.K., and he asked to watch a news broadcast, and also to shadow a renowned columnist at the Daily Mail, and was welcomed both times.
“People want to help you,” he says.
He takes the same attitude now in his consulting business. He approaches potential clients and proposes work he can do for them. He reaches out to people via LinkedIn and Twitter. And he shares insights and suggestions. Though he works with a range of clients, Carson gets particularly excited to work with startups, food industry professionals, and real estate agents – who he feels have largely underutilized social media.
Part of his work is simply recognizing the right questions. “Every website should have a purpose. What’s the aim?”
He shares some other good web guidelines as well:
Simple is better. It should be easy to find the links or content that you need right away. People want to find what they want to know as fast as they can.
- Be careful on social media, but also transparent. Remember that you’re talking to another human being on the other side of the screen.
- Tell a good story: “I believe if you tell a good story about a client, that’s what makes people read it. People love stories.”
- Content is still king, says Carson, regardless of other design or web trends.
Carson’s path has been a mostly natural progression. Aside from his stint as a 19-year-old junior stock broker, that is. What he saw on that floor were people who were already burnt out at a fairly young age.
He chose a different track – a divergent one, really. He hopped on a plane to Israel, lived on a kibbutz for two years and went home to write a book about it.
After studying journalism, he worked with a trade publication startup where he says he “got a taste for the entrepreneur world.”
Eventually, in 2000, Carson moved to Toronto to follow love — the woman who would later become his wife. He contacted companies he was keen on and just six months after arriving in town he landed a job with Rogers, his top choice. He’s since worked with other publications and organizations as well.
Herb Communications is the culmination of those 20 years.
But formalizing freelance work is not just about writing – it is also a business. Carson turned to Enterprise Toronto to better understand how to register his name, how to prepare for tax season, and how to brand.
“No one knows everything. There’s always someone who’s done more than you in certain areas and it’s good to try to connect with those people.”
He also regularly attends events hosted by Enterprise and others. “It’s good to be part of a network. (Entrepreneurship) is a lonely life – you want to get out and see human beings.”
By Deena Douara
Corporate, male, established, large, staid – a few words one might use to describe the hockey equipment industry.
Into this fray enters 26-year-old Emily Rudow with her company that is looking to challenge larger companies, one innovation at a time. Oneiric Hockey‘s first product is hockey base pants for children, which will further be developed into adult base pants before exploring other products.
Rudow grew up playing in and around Waterloo rinks. As a child she watched her older brother play and at eight, decided it was her turn to hold a stick.
“I haven’t stopped playing since,” she says. “Hockey is by far the sport I’m most passionate about. I really couldn’t picture my life without it.”
Her younger sister and brother also took to the ice and the entire family cheers on different NHL teams (Rudow herself is a Blackhawks fan).
It was perhaps natural then that when asked to develop a business concept for her fourth-year entrepreneurship course at Wilfrid Laurier University, Rudow’s mind went to hockey. What was less natural, and more hard work, was developing a plan that would receive her peers’ votes, and later, a small grant to help turn the ideas into reality upon graduation.
Rudow knew there was room in the market for a more efficient system. She says the layering on and off of protective gear – 14 pieces of equipment overall – can take up to 30 minutes and busy parents would likely appreciate anything that cut that down. But Rudow didn’t know how to sew, was terrible at drawing, and had no design experience.
She found a friend in fashion design to help her stitch together a prototype she could take to vendors and manufacturers. “It looked terrible but the concept was there,” Rudow says. They found a Hamilton apparel designer who was interested and then a reputable manufacturer in China.
After about four years of working on the product, Oneiric began selling in September by making the rounds in person. That way, Rudow says, she and her co-founder, Kayla Nezon, could hear the reactions and needs of parents and their hockey-playing kids. Their hard launch will take place in May.
Oneiric’s patent-pending base pant includes shin-pad pockets, a built-in pelvic protector, a cut-resistant ankle, and adds an extra layer of protection around the back of the leg. It shaves about 10 minutes off dressing time.
Once they’ve established their children’s line (with sizes for five to 13-year-olds), Rudow says Oneiric should be ready with adult sizes come spring.
When asked about being a woman in such a male-dominated sector, Rudow says – unsarcastically – “It’s not intimidating at all.”
“It’s an advantage, if anything…. It’s a driving force to really get into the game.”
Rudow says her leadership is not the only thing unique about Oneiric, which is a Greek word pertaining to dreams. She says the company wants to think differently about the business and industry. They focus on customers and direct sales before going the retail route; they want to leverage social media and online sales; and they want to “dabble in different strategies” as they look to innovate in a sector Rudow says has been pretty stale.
Some of those strategies have been learned through Enterprise Toronto and the Government of Ontario’s Starter Company program, which provided funds, a mentor and lessons on starting and growing a business. “It was a really amazing program,” says Rudow.
“I was blown away by how much I learned,” she says, despite her initial hesitation since she had graduated from a business program. She says lessons on networking, cashflow and identifying personal goals were instrumental. “It’s the most practical business advice you could get. It’s not theoretical, it’s so useful.”
Rudow says being an entrepreneur – while still working full-time – is “really hard, but it’s exhilarating; the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Ultimately though, she says she is driven by the fact she is making a change and helping players be safer.
“The most rewarding thing is seeing kids happy and making it easier for them to get dressed…. It’s human nature to want to help people. The look on their faces makes it all worth it.”
By Andrew Seale
When Shopify opened its new Toronto office, it made headlines.
And rightfully so, the gorgeous open-plan office, which opened in May, occupies part of a century old heritage building at King Street and Spadina Avenue. The space exemplifies the Ottawa-headquartered, e-commerce platform’s playful nature and entrepreneurial spirit.
It’s a perfect second home for a rapidly expanding company proud to make Toronto a part of its DNA, says Satish Kanwar, director of product at Shopify.
“Toronto is a fairly large part of our overall operations and continues to be one of our primary growth offices,” he says. “The talent pool in Toronto is extremely rich due to all the universities both technical and non-technical.”
And growth shows no sign of slowing. The company, which helps small and medium sized businesses run their retail operations online, in store and on social media, has 120 employees in Toronto.
“We’re completely full on the original 20,000 square feet we acquired and as a result we’ve taken on an additional 25,000 square feet and invested in expanding the building with a rooftop leisure space for employees,” says Kanwar.
But growth rarely comes without growing pains. As Shopify expanded its footprint in the building, the company negotiated with its landlord to add exterior signage.
“We worked very closely with the heritage committee to ensure the location of the signage and material and design choices were in compliance with the building,” he says, adding that the company also placed a public notice to ensure nearby residences were aware of its intentions.
Unfortunately, a provision in the Ward’s bylaws prevented Shopify from putting a sign between the second and tenth floors.
“We’re in such a dense neighbourhood and there’s already so much signage and so much usage of the zone,” says Kanwar, explaining that the provision was understandable. But with the company hoping to establish a stronger footprint in Toronto’s startup ecosystem Shopify decided it was worth asking the city to make an exception.
Shopify approached staff in the City of Toronto’s Economic Development and Culture (EDC) division to see if they could help. While EDC is part of the City’s bureaucracy, they are there to help businesses navigate internal processes and speed things up for businesses looking to expand in Toronto.
“First and foremost, Chris Rickett (Manager of Entrepreneurship Services, City of Toronto) educated us and gave us a lot if insight into the process we were experiencing,” says Kanwar. “Sometimes the policies and other methods of the City are intricate and with that not being our primary business and us not having a large legal team, we really used his insight to understand.”
Kanwar says Rickett and his team helped Shopify identify the right contacts to educate themselves on the elements at play in getting the signage approved.
“Chris and his team contributed a letter of support after they evaluated our story and our scenario suggesting that this is good for the City, good for our business and also, good for our neighbourhood,” he says. “That played a part in our application to get a variance of the bylaw and ultimately his team stayed close to the entire process with us.”
The end result was brand new signage befitting the neighbourhood, a major step in Shopify’s effort to further weave itself into the fabric of Toronto’s burgeoning startup ecosystem.
“Chris and the Economic Development and Culture team provided a supporting voice through the process so that we could continue to focus on our day-to-day business,” says Kanwar. “Most of the time in business, the process is more important than the outcome – I think what was most important to us is we felt like someone heard our case and assisted us in understanding how to navigate the approval process at the City.”
By Andrew Seale
When Mohamed Merali launched ATR Sports under its initial banner All That Racquets in 2008, he knew it was a gamble. The economy was peeking over the edge at a frothing recession and the young entrepreneur was intensely busy, studying full-time at Centennial College, working at Sport Chek and moonlighting as a technical rep for racquet companies, educating retailers on the product.
“A lot of people doubted me,” says Mohamed. “But the word spread – word of mouth was my greatest marketing tool, I didn’t have the budget so it really helped out big time.”
From the education component came racquet restringing gigs and the slow build towards a client base. And then Mohamed caught a break – a small shop was available at Royal York and Evans Avenue. He knew it would be a brutal commute from Centennial in Scarborough but he couldn’t resist opening his own store.
“That was the start for me, one thing lead to another and customers had a demand,” he says adding that last year he expanded into another retail shop, three times the size of his first. “I was basically starting from zero, but I had a clientele and it gave me an opportunity to work harder.”
Part of the struggle is competing with bigger companies like Sporting Life or Sport Chek but Mohamed has found his niche.
“Tennis, badminton, squash, footwear,” he says. “In the winter, I sell a lot of squash and badminton and in summer it’s a lot of tennis and the services associated with it – we also have a medical practitioner come onsite for assessments.”
But Mohamed’s business got an assessment of its own last fall, when a business coach referred him to Enterprise Toronto’s Starter Company program.
“I brought a portfolio, I showed them my store and my references and right during the interview they told me I was a great candidate because I had raw material,” he says.
He officially joined Starter Company at the beginning of 2015.
“The program is amazing,” he says. “The financial incentive is great but at the end of the day the mentorship has more value than the $5,000; the mentor will help you through those sales plateaus to $100,000, $200,000, to a $1 million.”
The questions he came across – how do you use your time and money wisely? How do you know when to stop and not invest in product anymore and keep it as a cash flow? – became regular conversation topics for Mohamed and his mentor to dissect.
“I think it’s a great initiative Enterprise Toronto has done and it’s helping us during this economy,” he says.
As for Mohamed’s horizon, the next big step will be expanding into the world of e-commerce.
“It wasn’t part of my milestones,” he says. “I passed all of my milestones.”
By Deena Douara
When done right, television hosts can create a special relationship with their audience. They can build trust and establish friendly authority. As viewers though, we forget that hosts are placed in quite unnatural arrangements: often there is no one to dialogue with or react to; they attempt to sound natural reading scrolling scripts written by others while looking into the cold lens of a camera.
“It’s the most counterintuitive place in the world,” says Peter Joseph, left, who has found himself, at age 68, establishing his media coaching expertise. He steps in when hosts – often experts in a field who’ve won television contracts – need a bit of warming.
You won’t get a formula out of him and he doesn’t have a checklist, per se. It’s a far more nuanced process that revolves around trust, a word he often repeats.
“I’m never hard on anybody. And I’m always passionate.”
Joseph sort of stumbled into this career path as he worked fulltime at a housing complex co-op, when a producer friend phoned him in need of some coaching for a new teen host.
Some background: Joseph was always involved in the theatre and came from a British working-class family that very much valued the arts. He admits he wasn’t particularly skilled at acting and preferred being behind the scenes, directing. In that capacity, he says he was always able to pull great performances out of actors.
“I always challenged people to be the best they can be in a role. I hated seeing people look stiff and stilted so I’d figure out ways to help them.”
Often, those ways were subtle. “Never ordering but giving ideas. They’d start to relax and they’d become more fluid.”
Later Joseph found opportunities in community television, earning awards and larger production contracts.
Fast forward to 1995, and it was an actor Joseph had directed, a friend, that looked to him to get more out of the young YTV host.
When Joseph received a token fee for the consultation, he says he was in “ninth heaven.”
“You’ll pay me to do this?!”
That was the start.
Now he spends time analyzing hosts’ tapes. He reads script with them to try to bring the words to life, to find meaningful connections and power words. He focuses on the clients’ energy, stance and posture. He also discusses the relationship between the camera, the screen and the viewer. “One to one, not one too many.” Joseph differentiates what he does from other media training, saying he works “organically” from the client.
“I can’t tell you how to move, how to sit, how to stand, but I can urge you to move and sit and stand with purpose.”
Among his clients have been Charlie Dobbin (One Garden Two Looks), Mike Chalut (Kim’s Rude Awakenings) and Sandra Rinomato (Property Virgins). Though hosts have been his primary focus, he has also helped businesspeople with speeches, and actors with voiceover roles.
One client told Joseph he changed his life. “People have said stuff like that over the years…. Sometimes the reaction of people, I get puzzled. I don’t realize the impact I have sometimes.”
Growing his business could not have occurred as randomly as his initiation did. Growing the business would take focus, business acumen and marketing. And that’s what Enterprise Toronto helped with.
“I love their workshops so I go to as many as I can,” he says. “And there always seems to be one that presents the exact thing I need to learn.” He began attending Enterprise seminars about three years ago, catching up on ever-evolving marketing, social media, and bookkeeping techniques.
He admits the greatest struggle though is “inside one’s own mind.”
It’s a bit of insecurity that may actually help him relate to his clients, who though powerful figures, can feel inadequate or fearful while stepping into a new role.
“I’ve had to cast aside the doubts…. You have to put that over there and pour your energy into the thing.”
Having the support of Enterprise behind him, as well as networking with other entrepreneurs, he developed the confidence to build his own business.
“If they can do it, I can do it.”
By Andrew Seale
Toronto entrepreneurs Brandon Moore and Juliana Dotta are delving into some sticky business – reinventing ice cream’s guilty pleasure reputation.
In February 2014, the pair launched Whey2Live, a high protein, natural, no-sugar added version of the sweet treat.
“My partner and I are healthy eaters and we were always looking for something that wasn’t available,” says Brandon. He says it was perplexing, given that there’s so much publicity around the negative effects of something like sugar.
“That’s where the idea came from, providing people with a healthy alternative to what’s already out there,” explains the entrepreneur.
The “guilt-free” ice cream is the product of a year and a half of research and development at Guelph University.
“We did eat a lot of ice cream, there were a lot of trials and a lot of flavours,” says Brandon. “Which was something I was definitely alright with.”
Ultimately, they settled on Vanilla and Chocolate with plans to expand the product line in the future. But coming up with flavours was just part of the challenge. The next step? Building a business from scratch.
“My first stop was Enterprise Toronto,” says Brandon, who had attended business school at Niagara College and has a bachelor’s in marketing from Brock University. “And it was pretty seamless from the start – I sat down then and pretty much registered the business the same day.”
Through Enterprise Toronto, Brandon and Juliana were connected with the Futurepreneur program, which helped them to clinch funding for their endeavor.
“At the time, there’s so many things happening that you’re trying to understand like ‘what should I do first, how should I go about doing this and if we need funding where do I go to get that?’ ” he recalls. “She walked us through the requirements and gave us a ton of resources right up front.”
Since then, Whey2Live has rolled out the product to health food stores like Noah’s and Fresh and Wild. They’ve also convinced Brandon’s alma mater, Brock University, to stock their guiltless ice cream concoction.
“We’re at the point where we’ve started looking at other universities because it’s gone so well,” he says.
In the meantime, Brandon has kept up with Enterprise Toronto and Futurepreneur’s networking events.
“(They’re) really invaluable because you’re meeting other people in the same situation as you – these are people that all generally have a creative mind and they share ideas,” he says.
The entrepreneurial duo has also used the networking events as a springboard to other groups in Toronto like the Centre for Social Innovation co-working space.
“It’s amazing, when you start looking into it you realize how many of these resources are available to you,” he says. “There are people everywhere in the city that are doing great things and great hubs and networks you can get involved in – it’s just a matter of getting out there.”
Taking principles he developed while working as an English instructor in Brazil, Jason Coombs developed a mobile platform that helps workers in various sectors recall and retain new information. Practicit sends out brief messages asking staffers about an aspect of training, and automatic feedback corrects responses and reinforces the lesson.
“We tend to forget things after we’re exposed to them – we think we don’t but we do,” says Coombs.
His software recognizes problem areas and repeats questions, but also lets managers know what lessons were not effectively communicated – perhaps prompting retraining of certain areas or individuals.
Coombs moved to Brazil in 2008 to study under a leader in learning methodology. He got a six-month visa knowing three words of Portuguese, and ended up staying seven years.
He taught English to professionals, eventually opening up his own school in São Paulo. Frustrated with how much of his lessons were forgotten, and observing how much time people spent on their phones, he began to send out reminders to his students. It wasn’t effective at first.
Then he switched to questions, sent throughout the day through text and email, which students would respond to and get feedback on.
It wasn’t until the messages stopped that he realized how dependent his students had become on them. Even those on vacation asked about their missing 9 a.m. message. “They said it really helped them learn…. The practical side of learning became a habit.”
Which is great. But the process was laborious. He was separately messaging and responding to 43 students at different times of day through various platforms – in all, about 600 messages, or about 14 hours of work daily spread out between 5 a.m and 10 p.m.
Fortunately for Coombs, one of his students was the president of South America’s largest industrial services company, who suggested they automate the service and turn it into a business that would benefit some of his own workers. Together the two invested significant funds and a year’s work to develop the first version of the product, before Coombs moved to Toronto to expand the business here.
What took him six months in Brazil – opening a business number – took Coombs about a day here, with the help of Enterprise Toronto. “Living in a city like Toronto, doing as much as it can for entrepreneurs, is fantastic.” He says he made use of Enterprise’s free consulting services and business plan review and was referred to programs to help fund Practicit’s Canadian launch.
While Coombs says he did have a plan before visiting – “on a napkin maybe” – Enterprise Toronto really helped force him to get organized and helped to navigate a wealth of relevant resources.
Since then, Practicit has constantly improved on the original 2013 software – which Coombs says looks “archaic” in comparison – and has plans for another five years of improvements and peripheral projects. Enterprise Toronto also connected Coombs with Futurpreneur, which provided $45,000 in financing. “There’s no way I would have gotten it on my own,” he says.
“The most important part of the Futurpreneur program – it wasn’t only about the loan but also about being hooked up with a mentor.”
Practicit currently has ten projects operating in Canada – ranging from a nanotechnology company using it to reinforce product knowledge; to a Windsor college using it for millwright training; to a psychotherapist using it to reinforce healing concepts in patients. His clients include ThyssenKrupp, University of Windsor, and Windsor Flying Club.
While the applications are nearly limitless, Coombs says his first six months were about finding focus, which is now on
“I really want Practicit to help as many people as possible remember and retain what’s going to make them successful. “
Coombs cites a quote he loves: “Amateurs will practice something to get it right once. Professionals will practice until they can’t get it wrong…. That’s what I want Practicit to do.”
By Andrew Seale
Eric Petersen’s foray into jewelry making was born out of a period in his life where the Scarborough-native lost his mother and several friends over the course of a few years.
“It was a profound time,” recalls Eric.
But the final straw was when he lost a friend in a motorcycle accident. At the time, Eric was working as a dental technician, having put his dreams of designing jewelry on the backburner. He and the friend he lost were supposed to go into business together.
“I decided, if this is how things are going to be, I cannot live in fear,” he said. “I cashed out everything I had, all my investments and savings and I just put it into my business, buying the tools and supplies I needed – sometimes it takes those things to just push you to go after something more.”
In 2011, he started working on his jewelry full-time and a few years later, inspired by a Rocawear poster, Eric got the idea to produce a handbag with wooden chains created in collaboration with a friend.
“I figured it couldn’t be that much different than jewelry,” he said. In sourcing materials and researching the process he realized his best bet would be producing his designs in Italy. He sat down with Enterprise Toronto but it wasn’t until after his first year producing that he enrolled in the Government of Ontario’s Starter Company.
“I went back to Italy with the help of the Starter Company grant and I was able to develop my first capsule collection of evening clutches,” says Eric. Despite the beauty of the clutches, there are hints of Eric’s experiences with loss over the past few years in there.
“Triumph over tragedy, or triumph through tragedy, however you want to put it,” he says.
It was something that was really personally and painful and I poured it into these little handbags – there’s an interesting story that goes with all them, right down to the colours that were used.”
In addition to using the grant to help fund his first capsule collection, Eric devoured the seminars and mentorship offered up via the program at Enterprise Toronto.
I found the seminars to be quite interesting,” says Eric, adding that despite the uniqueness of the fashion world, there was some catchall advice that helped him develop his entrepreneurial endeavor.
He’s still in the process of getting his clutches out there and sees Los Angeles as a logical next step in terms of getting that exposure.
“I had a clutch on the red carpet last year at TIFF – Al Pacino and his girlfriend commented on it,” says Eric. “So that was a thrill.”
As it stands, Eric knows there are a lot of different directions to go with his designs. While collaborations will no doubt continue, the current focus is finding that right luxury retailer to help him make a name for himself.
“Luxury takes a long time and I feel like I’m impatient and I don’t have that time,” he says. “At the same time I’m trying to give up control and go where things take me and when it’s meant to happen someone will jump on board – it’s an interesting game I got myself into.”
By Deena Douara
Mark Thomas, the 24-year-old entrepreneur behind Sequor Wellness, name-drops in the most humble way you can imagine.
Grandfather Raymond Thomas, teacher Mr. Neil Dalgarno, spinal health expert Stuart McGill, Uncle Stephen Quin, writer Victor Hugo …
“If you can give him a shout-out that’d be great.”
The people he mentions have all helped him, in one way or another, develop his health and fitness company. He says mentors like Eric Cressey and Jon Goodman influence his style of coaching – “My aspiration is to imitate what they’ve done,” he says, describing a welcoming, open and fun atmosphere. “If I could be half of who they are, I’d be very happy.”
The business focus is on running on-site fitness programs for corporations and individuals, and converting unused spaces into gyms. Thomas also runs Sequor Wellness Foundation, which provides seasonal bootcamp sessions across the GTA that are free for seniors, youth, and some unemployed individuals – about 25 to 50 classes a week. With enough funding and partners, his goal is to offer these free to all.
Thomas grew up in Scarborough and attended the socioeconomically diverse St. John Paul II where he was athlete of the year three out of four years, playing soccer, track, cross country, swimming … “the majority of sports.”
He continued his passion into university, studying kinesiology at the University of Toronto.
That’s where he started his first business – which “failed miserably,” but was also the greatest teacher of what not to do.
“I vowed never to start a business again.”
But then he had a product idea. After years of lifeguarding, it occurred to him that the chairs were poorly designed. With the help of family friends, he developed a prototype for a better seat. That was the origins of Sequor Wellness, established in 2013.
It was also how he connected with Enterprise Toronto, which was an accessible avenue for incorporation. Enterprise provided him with business fundamentals and since then, he’s regularly followed the newsletters and watched for networking opportunities.
Separately, Thomas’ parents asked him to develop a customized fitness program for them. Impressed with the binder he produced, they did some proselytizing on his behalf while he focused intently on social media, tweeting at city councilors and community events.
His activities landed him LinkedIn’s Toronto office as a client, where he facilitates the corporate wellness program and was able to participate in the Tough Mudder with 15 staff.
What’s not immediately obvious amid the overt passion for athleticism, is the social justice motivation behind it all. The Foundation was never an aside – it was the goal.
“I want to use fitness as a tool to provide more equality and to build resilient communities…. No matter what happens you are the master of yourself.” He describes a TEDx talk he hopes of giving on increasing bridges between the rich and the poor by linking hard-working at-risk youth with his corporate clients (which he contrasts with the more pervasive conversation around shrinking the gap). He’s already had a practice-run, giving a talk to Rotary Club on the topic in September.
“That’s the driving force behind growing the company.”
At least part of this drive originates with Thomas’ mother, who he describes as selfless and generous, a woman who spends Christmases distributing sleeping bags and food baskets to homeless people.
“My mom is a saint. She’s the biggest role model.”
Thomas himself says he spends “80 to 90 per cent of the time,” trying to make people smile or laugh. That was his response when fitness guru Mark Fisher asked audience members at a conference what they spend most of their week focusing on.
“My biggest thing that he said is always showing people unconditional positive regard. No matter what happens … you always have to be that rock for people that they can rely on.”
By Deena Douara
Phuong Uyen Luong, aka Betty, is the sort of person you root for. She describes obstacles with a smile on her face, is reluctant to compare her practice to others’, and does whatever it takes to pursue her passions.
“I knew what I wanted to do for a loooong time,” Betty tells me.
When she was 20, she literally had a dream about being in the spa business – before knowing what a spa even was.
That was in France, where esthetician training is more comprehensive. Her three-year degree included courses on business and biochemistry, along with frequent placements where she learned various types of massage (e.g. Moroccan, Swedish, Reflexology, Thai, Aroma).
Having an urge to learn about treatment practices in different parts of the world, she came to Oakville, where she had family.
She was under the impression everyone would speak French.
Though it’s hard to tell now, Betty says when she arrived in 2009, her English was poor. She spent five months studying the language – going to movies, studying the market, reading teen lit and watching TV – before seeking work, which she found not to be “just the right fit.” All the while she was taking notes that would advise her future business.
She sought to expand her knowledge of health and care practices through nursing school (in French) but found that she missed the relaxation element of massage.
She wanted to focus on well-being that put the customer first and the only way to realize her vision was to start her own business. She had ideas, but didn’t know if they were feasible. To answer all her partner’s questions, she gave him a 57-page plan, including goals, expenses, sketches and “how I’ll make clients love it.”
Her partner agreed it was a fine plan, but financing wouldn’t come easy. Banks would not loan her the money.
It was Service Ontario that connected Betty to Enterprise Toronto’s Canadian Youth Business Foundation $45,000 loan opportunity. She spent a month distilling and converting her “plan-to-convince-partner,” to a “business plan.”
“When I met Sandi (at Enterprise), all the doors opened from that time,” she says.
“Sandi had all the answers.”
A response came back in under 24 hours. She could have the loan by the end of the week.
If only it was that easy. Betty says 2014 was a year of “complications,” mostly to do with finding a location. After six months of searching, the place she was supposed to rent and was part of her loan application slipped through her fingers. “Everything was a mess.”
Finally she found a second location in Oakville to get excited over. Wanting to make certain she would be able to get the required zoning permits, she received another slap in the face. In Oakville, hers would be considered a “body rub parlour.”
“Deep inside I was insulted,” says Betty, explaining the humiliation and defeat she faced that day after three years of working towards a cosmetology degree, two years towards a nursing degree and many more years of working towards her ideal business.
“There was almost always a tear in my eye,” she says of that period.
The issue was that she was not an RMT, and hiring an RMT would raise costs not accounted for.
“I thought, don’t worry, this will make me stronger,” says Betty. “I won’t hire an RMT – I will be the RMT.”
To take the program in 10 months rather than two years, she would have to take another exam. She shows me the three-inch-deep text she reviewed to relearn anatomy in English.
Provided with 1.5 hours to finish the exam, she passed in 30 minutes.
Again, she started looking for a site six months in advance of completing the diploma and license.
“I was almost ready to give up,” she says of the fruitless search. There was one more place to look at – a place her partner had to push her to visit. She would do so “without any conviction or motivation.”
It was perfect. She could picture it. But there were a group of doctors also bidding for it.
“How could I compete with a group of doctors?” Her agent agreed, saying her chances were slim, even after eight weeks of negotiation.
“But something inside me said no, you can make it, you can make it, you can make it.”
The place was hers. She jokes that she doesn’t want to question how it happened.
Board exam, paint, board exam.
“There’s so much opportunity and good things Canada can provide if you’re a hard worker…. If you’re clear in your mind, the pathway will become clear.”
She opened in September of this year – soon after taking her citizenship oath – and business is growing due to referrals.
“Obstacles are like steps to make you get higher. They made me want it more,” she says, as we sit in her plant-filled Bett’y Holistic Day Spa, just south of Yonge and Eglinton.
“My journey in Canada is not finished.”
By Andrew Seale
It was during a seven-year stint in Japan that Thornhill-native Jess Mantell first tried Onigiri – a Japanese snack made of rice balls stuffed with pickled or salty ingredients, sometimes wrapped in seaweed and commonly sold at convenience stores and gas stations in the country.
As she prepared to come back to Toronto in August 2012, Jess started making plans to start a business when she returned.
“I was thinking, what are some great products that do well in Japan and we don’t have over here? Onigiri was the thing I decided to focus on,” she recalls. “The whole thing started from this very simple, very common Japanese food.”
She’d barely settled back into Toronto life, when a friend told her about a food business contest being held by Enterprise Toronto at the end of the month. She scrambled to pull together a plan.
“I ended up becoming a finalist and though I didn’t win because of the shelf life, it was a great experience,” says Jess. “It was a push – if I hadn’t been a part of this contest I might have just sat on the idea for six months longer.”
From the Enterprise Toronto event she met a few people who were interested in her product.
“There was one person who had a small business and wanted to sell onigiri, so I sold her some,” she says. “Without that contest, I don’t think it would have happened because every encounter since then has led to something else.”
The team at Enterprise Toronto also told Jess about the Toronto Board of Trade Business Excellence Awards that year.
“There was an Enterprise Toronto table so they invited me and a whole bunch of other people who were very early stage entrepreneurs to see great business people being presented with awards,” she says. It was a great experience that inspired Jess and got her thinking about the future.
By June 2013, she and her partner Fumi Tsukamoto, had incorporated their onigiri concoctions under Abokichi . At first they rented kitchens and sold through shops but eventually moved into the space at the Annex Hodgepodge, taking the shop over form the previous owner and adding onigiri to the existing menu. They’ve also developed a condiment called Okazu, a crunchy filling made of miso, sesame oil, garlic and chili that they often use to spice up their handmade triangular onigiri.
We’re hoping to build Abokichi out into a brand that’s much larger than these two Japanese food products,” explains Jess.
In the meantime, the pair is gradually sprucing up the menu at the Spadina and Dupont sandwich shop, using it as a testing ground for new products that fit the Aobokichi brand of healthy Japanese snacks. Jess says that although some specialty Japanese shops sell onigiri, she’s targeting a different demographic, one that’s unfamiliar with the convenience store snack.
“Probably the bigger market is the people we introduce to onigiri,” she says. “We really want to make it mainstream – slowly we’re turning Toronto into onigiri eaters.”
By Deena Douara
“Do without thinking.”
It’s not every day that you hear an entrepreneur give such advice, but for Kristina Apel it’s made all the difference.
“Learn about it and then do it. I don’t want to think about how hard it will be. Or that I am not able to do it.”
Apel opened Papilio Boutique in January 2015 – the first retailer of Papilio bridal and formal wear in North America. She also became the exclusive wholesaler across the continent. She says that in Asia and Europe – including her home country of Russia – the brand is well known for reasonable cost but good quality. They have 120 stores worldwide, but this is its first appearance in this market.
Though consumer ignorance of the name makes the work more challenging in ways, Apel says it makes the work more interesting and differentiates her business.
“We went around and found everyone was carrying the same types of dresses…. We thought, do we really wanna be just another bridal store in Toronto?”
Apel came to Canada over five years ago to continue her studies at George Brown. There she met Daria Naumenko, a fellow marketing specialist who was also from Russia, and they discussed their frustration at trying to buy nice evening wear that wasn’t “overpriced.”
They sensed a gap in the market – particularly in bridal. (Naumenko got married last year.)
What they had going for them was marketing expertise and mothers who were both steeped in the fashion industry, with Apel’s mother specifically in bridal.
She remembers sitting in on fashion shows and trying full wedding gowns on in her mother’s store as a 10-year-old.
Still, both women were new to Canada. “At the beginning it was a nightmare.”
They didn’t have connections; they didn’t have familiarity with business or tax regulations and they certainly didn’t know about importing and exporting.
But Enterprise Toronto did.
Between the two partners, they attended a small-business networking event and took various seminars, including email marketing, social media, and import/exporting. Their mentor had 25 years of experience in the latter.
“We couldn’t spend to go take courses, or spend on lawyers and consultants. We’d rather invest it in marketing.”
She says she always advises wanna-be entrepreneurs to check out Enterprise Toronto. “They have so much information for you. Tons of information.”
Apel gained the confidence to pursue the business from her experience as a brand manager for IP phones when they had first come out. Fresh out of university in Russia then, she says she was a fish out of water. “I had no idea about technology. I didn’t even know how to operate my remote,” she says, laughing.
“I learned nothing is impossible. You can always learn, you can always ask. Never be afraid to ask.”
Papilio Boutique carries gowns ranging in price from $850 to $3,500 that are produced in their entirety in Belarus, which Apel says accounts for the lower costs. They come in fine fabrics from Spain, Italy and France that contain a lot of hand-sewn embroidery and embellishments. “European style – sexy but not showing off.”
Papilio boutique is open by appointment.
By Andrew Seale
In an industry dominated by gimmicks and “as seen on TV” products that fail to deliver, weight-loss wearable developer Thin Ice knew they faced an uphill battle convincing the customers and investors the science was sound. To overcome the challenges, founder Adam Paulin tapped into the Government of Ontario’s Starter Company to fund a prototype and streamline its vision.
Adam Paulin knows the weight-loss industry can be oversaturated and gimmicky, which is why he’s focusing on the technology side.
“We have to be careful and distinguish ourselves with the science behind this,” says the founder and managing director of Thin Ice. But Adam knows the science is on point.
“My background is in neuroscience and psychology and I also have a long history of personal athletics in the fitness industry,” he says adding that his startup fits perfectly at the nexus of his interests and skills. “I tried to find a way to make the concept of using cold temperatures for weight loss really accessible for people – it can’t get much more accessible than wearing clothing.”
The concept behind Thin Ice is simple enough. Capitalizing on wearable technology trends, Adam has developed a product that integrates into whatever clothes you’re wearing via an insole or vest, or for the ambitious – both.
“It stimulates certain areas of your body with cold temperatures and forces a metabolic response,” he explains. “You burn calories to produce heat in your body to counteract the cold and the whole process helps you lose weight.”
After spending two months on his business plan at the start of 2015 and working aggressively to build it out over the following six months, Adam launched a crowd funding campaign. Within 10 days, the campaign raised US$280,000.
“We’re getting enough to fulfill the 1,700 orders and we have as pre-orders so far so we’ve got some momentum,” he says.
It’s given Thin Ice a chance to connect with the consumers.
“The beautiful thing about crowd-funding is that it accomplishes so many things at once – not only are you raising money to make the product or fulfill a big order, you’re also getting those customers, making sure your marketing is good and you’re getting feedback from customers as you get closer to doing a big launch,” he says. “It helps you refine your concept before going for it.”
But Adam admits he’d be nowhere without that initial $15,000 prototype he had developed with support from Enterprise Toronto and mentorship via the Starter Company program.
“I had a strong business plan but I didn’t have the finances to get a prototype made,” he says.
Using the $5,000 from Enterprise Toronto and additional funding from angel investors, Adam was able to get a physical version of his concept produced.
“The idea sounds too good to be true, it sounds like hocus pocus, so it’s really difficult to show people that it does work,” he says. “Without a prototype it was very difficult, so I feel like that initial grant money and advice was what was able to get me over that hump that every entrepreneur faces.”
He says working with his mentor also helped him tone-up his vision.
“Initially my mentor didn’t think I was a great fit for the program but I was able to convince him otherwise, and the relationship got really great from there,” says Adam adding that the straight-shooting relationship is ideal in the early stages.
“You need to be really confident in what you’re doing to keep going forward but sometimes you get so caught up in your own way of seeing things that you end up doing the wrong things unintentionally,” he adds. “It takes a mentor with a lot of experience to open your eyes, The program was very helpful in that sense.”
By Deena Douara
Pirates are understood in two ways: as free-spirited adventure seekers, and as pillaging, plundering ruffians.
Matt Slaman is no ruffian, but an independent free spirit? That seems to have always been with him.
“It’s freedom, it’s flexibility … I enjoy being in control of my own destiny.”
The founder of A Pirate’s Life studied International Relations in Ottawa. After working in tourism and then working his way up the rope ladder on a pirate-themed boat, he says he’d found his passion.
“I knew that this is what I wanted to do.”
While Ottawa and cities across the U.S. have pirate-themed excursions, Slaman found Toronto lacking. So he saw an opportunity.
The first thing he needed was an agreement with municipal authorities. He says the city’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation division showed interest and agreed to let him dock a ship at Centre Island.
Next, he needed a boat.
For that, he turned to Kijiji. He found what he needed and with his cousin Theo Slaman (they called themselves “two guys and a truck”) they stripped the ship down to its skeleton before engaging contractors to assist with the new design.
“It’s amazing. You have a sort of big end-goal vision that seems very daunting at first but you break it down into smaller parts and smaller tasks … month by month, to day, to hourly, to a series of to-do lists that you constantly cross things off of…. It’s such a rewarding experience to live that change.”
Finally, he hired actors – mostly students or recent grads – who sailed their maiden voyage on the Victoria Day long weekend.
Families with younger children (anywhere from three to 12 years old) and school groups come dressed up and acquire new nicknames, costume pieces, and face paint. Once on board, the ship sets sail for about an hour during which the staff teach the new crew members how to talk like pirates, fire (water) cannons and search for buried treasure.
Beyond seeing the project as simply a business enterprise, Slaman refers frequently to “purpose.”
“My high school drama classes were pretty monumental in terms of who I am today,” he explains. “They helped me to find a new level of comfort in being outgoing and creating and having fun with life. And that’s what Pirate Life is about – allowing people the opportunity to play, to create and imagine a world that only really exists in the imagination. That’s our most useful asset.”
Certainly the venture has required long hours and has had its share of challenges. It’s also been a one-man enterprise, although Slaman consistently refers to “we” to give credit to family, friends and mentors who have helped in various capacities.
Slaman says Enterprise Toronto and the Government of Ontario’s Starter Company program, as well as Futurpreneur Canada and its mentoring program – along with some much-needed funding – helped him enormously.
He noted in particular the moral and educational support received from fellow entrepreneurs and mentors.
“Entrepreneurs all face challenges, usually along similar lines… when you have other people all trying to figure out how to market their business and sell their product and how to hire and train a team … you can share best practices and have those people to bounce ideas off of.”
He advises other entrepreneurs to take their time and take the risk. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
“You have to have a greater purpose to what and why you’re doing it. It’s going to be the reason you wake up at six in the morning to start work and work until midnight for a couple years without getting paid.”
“It’s all worth it.”
By Deena Douara
Just over a year ago, Monica Reichel was working at Starbucks. Today, her office is in a well-preserved mansion on a tree-lined street in Toronto’s vibrant Annex neighbourhood.
Reichel and her good friend Lisa Marion are business partners in the rental management field. With combined experiences in marketing, short-term rentals, working with Airbnb, and with families in the real-estate industry, the two decided to launch H&P Properties (“H” for hyacinth, Reichel’s favourite flower, and “P” for peony, Lisa’s favourite flower.)
Marion was an early adopter of short-term rentals. When her roommate moved out in 2010, she thought it might be a nice change to enjoy the company of strangers from all over the world without the complications that come with long-term cohabitation.
It also covered her rent, and then some.
Marion became a “SuperHost” with Airbnb, earning special designation and privileges with the online marketplace company in recognition of her exemplary record in hosting. She eventually became employed with Airbnb when it was still a modest startup, as did Reichel. When the company shut down its Toronto operations, both women worked part-time jobs before coming together with their plan.
They figured they were uniquely situated to focus on short-term rentals (though they also do long-term management and consultation). They screen guests, prepare and maintain units, and advertise on their clients’ behalf. They say open and frequent communication is fundamental, compared to the “hands-off” approach they find so prevalent in property management.
“We try to make things easier for people,” says Marion.
She explains that a lot of people own unoccupied suites – whether they’re investment properties or are left vacant due to other circumstances. At the same time, there are visitors to the city looking for homey alternatives to a hotel. “Toronto is an untapped marketplace.”
The women express a lot of pride at where they are today. Particularly as they speak from an elegant settee in front of the high windows in one of the mansion’s available living areas.
“I still get goosebumps when I talk about the business,” says Reichel. She says her father had noted that he’d never seen her so passionate about work before.
It took a lot of effort though to get to the point where they could say they have a mansion at their disposal. It was a year’s worth of work before they even secured their first client.
What didn’t they know about starting and running their own business?
“Everything,” they both respond unequivocally.
It’s an exaggeration. Both women had complementary skills in customer service, marketing, advertising and accounting. And yet they refer to the education they received through Enterprise Toronto as foundational.
“I don’t think we’d be where we are today,” Marion explains. Now they manage 37 units and say business is “growing consistently.”
H&P Properties was one of the first groups to qualify for Enterprise Toronto and the Government of Ontario’s $5,000 Starter Company grant, providing much-needed funding as well mentorship and community.
At their first meeting with BizLaunch’s Andrew Patricio, the two argued in front of him. But they say Patricio was “amazing,” and helped them work through the disagreement in a way that continues to impact how they resolve issues. They note that communication, openness and “brutal honesty” is key to making a friendship survive a business partnership, and vice versa.
They also were taught structure, how to think like business owners, and the need to really know their numbers.
“The experience we got was so phenomenal,” says Reichel. “They helped shape our business … and gave us the proper tools.”
“It’s been amazing.”
By Deena Douara
Debora Mussiya thanks God a lot when you ask about her journey.
And it is an unusual one, to be sure.
Mussiya is working to grow Jatropha curcas plants in her native Democratic Republic of Congo and export them as biodiesel within Africa and to North America and the European Union.
She works on Biomuber every moment she can spare outside of her day job hours working in employee assistance and the time required as a single mother to care for her four children, who range in age between 2 and 13.
“Sometime I look back and I say to God I don’t know how I did that. He’s the one that guides me.”
Mussiya escaped the Congo in the late ‘90s due to the country’s civil war. She was set to become a physician there but didn’t finish studies due to financial restrictions, and then after losing contact with her parents she immigrated to Canada in 2000 when she was 25.
Once in Canada, she took courses to continue working towards a medical degree but had to put that ambition aside to take care of family.
The idea for the business spawned when she and a friend were discussing how to increase their income. She heard mention of biodiesel and began to research the field, talking to restaurants and searching online.
In Africa, she says, the Jatropha plant is used in many daily and domestic products like soaps and salves. Other countries though – India, U.S.A, China, Brazil, South Africa – use the tropical plant for energy. It’s even been successfully tested in airplanes and cars and is widely recognized as a source of high-quality fuel with some unique advantages. As an inedible plant, Mussiya explains that it avoids the food vs. fuel conflict, and can be intercropped. Additionally, after processing, the oil can still be used in products like cosmetics, toothpastes, soaps and fertilizers.
Her focus these days is on securing the land where she will grow her trees, and on securing investments. “I am knocking on doors everywhere,” she says.
It’s been difficult, but Mussiya does not shy away from difficulty.
“It’s been very challenging. But when you want something extra in your life, you have also to do something extra to get there. Whatever it takes.”
She doesn’t appear to let anything intimidate her. She recognizes the difficulty of running a company on her own but counters, “you will always need someone … But you will meet someone to help your need.”
One of the sources that’s helped meet her needs has been Enterprise Toronto, Mussiya says. She took business seminars and then met with a consultant who reviewed her business plan. After amending it, she says she’s received a lot more feedback and responses from prospective investors. She also attended courses on how to raise money and on importing and exporting. “I see the light,” she says.
She also acknowledges the impact her late mother had on her. In fact Biomuber is named in part after her, combining the “Mu” and “Ber” from her first and last name. “She always believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself,” Mussiya says with some emotion. Although they had little money, Mussiya’s mother would compare her to successful people she would one day be like.
Finally, she credits God for the will and drive to push forward. “God is my helper to tell you the truth. I am so grateful for everything.”
By Andrew Seale
To be an entrepreneur is to embrace the unusual and go with whatever comes your way. Ilana Ben-Ari learned this when she found herself thousands of miles from home, sleeves rolled up in a Shanghai shipping facility, packing her educational toys into kits with a motley crew of business professionals – all while the clock ticked closer to Chinese New Year.
It could be a movie montage, but this truth-is-better-than fiction experience is just one chapter in the story of her Twenty One Toys startup.
“It did feel like a reality TV show, but we did it… we did it in the last few hours,” says Ben-Ari, still jetlagged from her overseas jaunt.
The backstory is that this was a classic shipping error. The family-run Taiwanese facility that assembles the startup’s educational Empathy Toy – a blindfolded puzzle game that can only be solved when players learn to understand each other – is in the same city as the shipper. But as luck would have it, the products were accidentally sent to a city two days away.
“I flew there because we had a very strict deadline,” says the founder of the Toronto-based social startup and lead designer of the Empathy Toy. “We literally could not miss the boat.”
But the Shanghai shenanigans are simply a continuation of the strange saga of a toy that began as an industrial design thesis project while Ben-Ari was studying at Carleton University in Ottawa. It was there that she conceptualized the idea as a navigational aid for the blind.
After graduation and taking the idea to a few incubators and accelerators, Ben-Ari found her way in Toronto. But it wasn’t until launching Twenty One Toys in 2012 and producing a run of the game that she began to understand the scope of what she’d created.
“Our first year we made a hundred sets in the Junction [neighbourhood] in Toronto and shipped the toys to about 50 schools,” Ben-Ari recalls. She soon realized the toys weren’t just being used for anti-bullying or teamwork workshops as initially intended. They could be used to talk about education, design and literacy beyond schools, in boardrooms and workplaces everywhere.
Over the past few years the Empathy Toy and its manual has found its way to more than 800 schools in 35 countries – hence, the decision to move manufacturing overseas and scale up to runs of 1,000. With that growth has come a swath of accolades, from Futurpreneur to MaRS and the Centre for Social Innovation.
“It’s just insane the amount of support we’re getting,” adds Ben-Ari.
But Twenty One Toys latest honour – first place in startup-focused Multiplicity’s 3rd Annual Power Up Sales Challenge – will hopefully outfit the startup with a new toolset to meet the challenges that come their way as they grow.
The prize list is long, says Ben-Ari, from free consulting with Deloitte to a marketing audit with Digital Shift. Twenty One Toys will also get free legal advice from Cobalt Consulting (one of the sponsors of Multiplicity) and a one-year lounge membership at Workhaus, among other supports.
“We’re kind of at the crucial stage where we need to figure out what our next steps are,” says Ben-Ari. “I think of it as our first doctor’s visit – they’ll come in, take our blood pressure, run some scans and give us a diagnosis with some suggestions of how we can grow.”
By Deena Doura
You might find yourself in a job-hunting rut. Perhaps you’re overwhelmed by options. Or maybe you’ve moved to Toronto from abroad and are struggling to utilize your skills.
That’s where Jennifer Bouley steps in.
Boukey-Mak Consulting and Coaching works with clients searching for meaningful work for any number of reasons. Most often, Bouley says, clients are entering the workforce for the first time – newcomers and millennials. She advises them to create and recognize opportunities and to volunteer to get Canadian experience; she guides them to find ways to upgrade their education or to participate in bridging programs.
Others might be considering three or four career options and find themselves confused, unsure about which to pursue. Bouley guides them through activities and tough questions to uncover their personal sources of satisfaction.
She advises all her clients – who range in age from 18 to 60 – to figure out what they really want or don’t like about their workplace before moving on.
In addition to private clients, Bouley also works with companies and even teaches job skills online to a Chinese English school.
It was after years of helping others through social work, human resources and career counselling that Bouley decided to start her own business with support from her husband, who helps with operations, and Enterprise Toronto.
Clients come to her excited to reboot their efforts. “They are really determined to get a job they love.”
After working together over a period of about three months – taking career assessments, working on resumes, practicing interview and networking skills – she says her clients tell her they have gained a lot of direction, more ideas and more confidence.
“A lot of people, they go through high school, they go through college and then all of a sudden, it’s like, I’m done – I did what I was supposed to do but now what do I do?”
She says some clients may have gone to their school’s career counseling but wanted a more personalized approach.
Her consulting business all started with some side work – using Craigslist and Kijiji to offer resume-writing help. (The most common mistakes she sees are resumes that are too long and too wordy while also failing to mention transferable and relevant skills the applicant dismissed.)
After a while Bouley found that her “side gig” was taking up as much time as her full-time work in insurance. So she left that job and decided to focus on being an entrepreneur.
That’s when she discovered Enterprise Toronto and the Government of Ontario’s Starter Company program.
“Things really exploded from there. As soon as I signed up for the program, it took off so fast.”
“They lit a fire under me to get me going,” she says, warning her against taking too long to make decisions.
Just two weeks after getting involved in the program she had launched a website, developed a business plan and begun advertising online. And that was just the start – she continued to attend workshops where she learned about financing, advertising and funding.
Bouley has also found a way to channel her skills in another passion of hers – the fight against human trafficking.
Her interest in the issue was sparked by a guest speaker she heard while at Sheridan College. Since then, she’s volunteered with the cause and plans to go to Thailand for one month to develop a program that will help formerly trafficked youth find viable, sustainable employment.
There, and here, her mission ultimately is the same: “I want to provide personal ways to help people plan for what they love.”
By Deena Douara
If you’ve ever been in a collision, you know how invaluable the exercises prescribed by a physiotherapist can be. But if you’re being honest, how well did you adhere to them?
Chances are not well, according to physiotherapist Maggie Bergeron.
“Patients for the most part either don’t really follow instructions or don’t follow them correctly. Adherence level in the evidence is 30 to 50 per cent.”
Many practitioners share the frustration of wanting to help their clients while being limited by poor adherence to instructions – most of the work has to be done by the client on their own and out of sight.
While on a vacation, Bergeron says she had time to reflect on what was working and what wasn’t in her practice. She and her partner Elie Afif brainstormed ideas for how she and other clinicians – chiropractors, occupational therapists, osteopaths – could do it better.
They came up with the idea for HealthSwapp, a web portal for rehab practitioners and smartphone app for patients.
Fortuitously, Afif had recently acquired programming skills – an engineer who learned coding in a single month before working as a start-up developer.
Health practitioners can use the HealthSwapp smartphone app to deliver instructions that would normally be done with static paper and pen, via a more efficient, precise and customizable application.
“It seems like that (system) should have gone out 20 years ago,” says Bergeron. “(Patients) are like, ‘Wow, we can’t believe this hasn’t happened before!’”
And it hasn’t really – HealthSwapp is the first app of its kind in North America, its founders point out.
Clients pay a flat fee to access videos they’ve been assigned as part of their exercise program, with regular reminders sent to them as well. One interesting feature is that clients can rate their pain levels, and can therefore track progress even if they may still be hurting. “It’s good encouragement,” says Afif.
For their part, practitioners can select from existing exercise videos (from the app’s base library, or from those that other practitioners share) or create modified versions of their own. The pair is big on the personalized approach.
“There’s an art and a science to it,” explains Bergeron. “Each practitioner has their own unique way of practicing and typically patients are drawn to practitioners where their values align.” She explains that variances exist based on differences in education and training, as well as value placed on exercise, exertion and alternative health practices.
Bergeron and Afif sought help in developing their app early on. They discovered that Enterprise Toronto would review their business plan, so they set up an appointment that led to valuable feedback, as well as funding and “great mentorship” through Futurpreneur. “It’s been very validating,” says Bergeron of their mentorship with a marketing expert.
The two have also had to validate each other. It’s no secret that starting a business with a partner can be a risky proposition and they acknowledge that they must remain very honest with each other when it comes to the business.
“Having a cofounder that you really trust and can rely on is so crucial to building a fast-growing and successful company,” says Bergeron, relaying a point she recently heard another cofounder make. “Being able to rely on each other has been really important to our business.”
Both Afif and Bergeron say they are proud of how quickly they developed the company and the positive feedback they’ve received.
HealthSwapp is currently available in beta for Android and iOS.
By Deena Douara
When friends Leslie Roach and Shamere Gentles were growing up along Scarborough’s Agincourt basketball courts, they couldn’t afford to buy the hottest new NBA kicks (Jordans, obviously).
Now as adults with discretionary income – Roach a graphic designer and Gentles a product marketing specialist – they can buy the pricey re-releases of their old coveted shoes. But what to do with them?
“We thought it’d be pretty cool if we had something to actually display and store them in because they just come in a plain cardboard box.” Roach transitions seamlessly from that passing thought to: “We ended up sourcing a manufacturer.”
Shueboxx is a simple concept. But look for something similar, and you’ll see it’s still a novelty. A retractable drawer made of transparent Acrylic, Shueboxx’s owners also wanted to ensure customers could personalize their product with laser etchings or decals. Customized orders account for about 75 per cent of the business.
Roach educates me on “the sneaker world,” explaining that there’s a culture of enthusiasts that collect shoes the way sports fans once did baseball cards – often not wearing them but saving them as investments or proud displays. He tells me that some limited-edition pairs can be worth upwards of $3,000 to $4,000 due to limited supply, great interest and pitch-perfect marketing.
“They’re almost like pieces of artwork,” says Roach. “It’s the equivalent of wearing a Chanel bag for women.”
Roach estimates his own collection includes “only” 20 to 30 sneakers, including a vintage pair of Air Jordan 3s and a limited edition Transformers pair. He says Gentles is the greater enthusiast, with a large collection of valuable vintage shoes.
While Shueboxxes are mostly used for sneakers, Roach says he’s seen them used for wedding gifts, purses and jerseys and will soon be sold for jewelry, watches and ties as well. Perhaps the sweetest function he describes is the box in one customer’s office that displays his newborn’s shoes in a Shueboxx mini.
They track stories of their boxes with their Instagram account – “which has been an incredible tool” – using the hashtag #whatsinyourshueboxx.
Gentles and Roach have been friends since junior high where they were both serious basketball players and “big shoe nuts.” They stayed in touch intermittently over the years and bonded after having two sons each.
“We talked about doing something together and ended up reverting back to what we love.”
And business moved quickly. They began planning in August last year working 15-hour days. They registered their business in October and sold out their limited stock at the Sole Exchange convention in Oshawa last November.
“That demand right away was incredible, we’ve been very fortunate. That boom in the beginning really helps.… It’s a good motivator.”
“We were happy to sell one to somebody,” says Roach, laughing. So he beams when he tells me that in March, they sold out again at Mississauga’s Sole Exchange show and have filled orders from Alaska to L.A. to Texas and Minnesota (they’ve received requests from as far away as The Philippines but aren’t currently shipping abroad).
The two had much of the knowledge needed for the business but Roach emphasizes the importance of drafting a business plan first. “It’s rare you have the time to go back and do it.”
What they didn’t have was knowledge of the complicated world of importing.
Roach says they found support at Enterprise Toronto, where a small business consultant helped them tremendously by guiding them through set-up and the process involved in importing the boxes. “That pamphlet pretty much had all the steps laid out there for us.”
The business partners consult Enterprise Toronto’s YouTube channel and online workshops for guidance as well.
While they are currently operating at full-speed, part-time, Roach says the dream would be to turn this “hobby” into a full-time expansive business.
And to pass the business onto their children – ranging from three to 13 years old – would be something too. “In the back of your mind, you hope to leave them with something.”
“And they’re already into shoes. The genes are probably somewhere in them.”
By Andrew Seale
Even if you leave it, the freelance lifestyle is never really through with you.
That’s why Adam Booth, Brenton Mowforth and Dan Slater – the three co-founders of boutique advertising and production house West&SOCIAL – built it into their company culture.
“None of us want to be chained to a desk. Having a nine to five job doesn’t really appeal to us,” says Booth.
“We’re six a.m. to midnight,” offers Mowforth, spurring flashbacks of the countless early mornings and all-nighters they survived over the course of a half decade in the industry.
Slater shrugs it off, suggesting it’s just the nature of their industry and besides, each day is less conventional than the next.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” he adds.
Outside of their general demeanor, both the business model and all-over-the-map client list – which ranges from financial companies to restaurants and sports apparel – give a nod to the pseudo-freelance nature of West&Social.
For starters, aside from the core founding team, there’s no real staff. Instead, the ad firm keeps a steady stable of contractors to pull in on a project basis.
“Doing what we’re doing, we don’t have huge overheads – we offer the same quality as a more established company but at a fraction of the cost,” says Mowforth. “We don’t spend an arm and a leg on office space, as you can see.”
He’s talking about Project: Spaces and its RHINO co-working space on Bathurst Street, which the team currently occupies. The time-worn loft interior with exposed pipes and paint peeling bricks looks more like an abandoned industrial space than a budding creative epicenter. But the place has charm. And it’s on the edge of “Agency Row,” an area clustered around King Street West that’s home to some of Canada’s largest ad firms.
And there’s another Project: Spaces location with white walls and a more clean-cut vibe that the team can use for business meetings on an as-need basis.
“Having an office like this is a direct result of getting a grant,” he says, talking about the Starter Company program run by Enterprise Toronto and the Government of Ontario. The team found out about the mentorship program and $5,000 grant shortly after launching West&SOCIAL and incorporating in July 2014.
The process moved pretty quickly, admits Booth.
“We applied for Starter Company and a week later they called and we were in it,” he says. “The whole process was great. It was good to be around other people doing the same thing.”
“We had to build an entire business plan which we didn’t have at the time – we’d kind of just jumped into it,” says Slater. “It gave us a chance to catch up on stuff we didn’t do, stuff that probably would have come back on us.”
Mowforth in particular took the lead on the plan so it was his role to meet with Andrew Patricio, the trio’s mentor and founder of BizLaunch.
“That really got us into gear,” adds Mowforth. The Starter Company Program really helped us build the pieces we needed to grow our business.”
By Deena Douara
Go East, is the message that resonated with Kevin Dietz after doing some soul-searching around the oil fields of Edmonton. Oil was in his blood – parents, siblings, friends were all working in trades making good money from Alberta’s lucrative opportunities – but in his head and his heart was music.
Fast forward a few years and you find Dietz producing music in a top recording studio with Placebo or Alexisonfire, “elevating each other.”
Dietz went to an art school and played guitar in a band. The dream was to sell out shows, but an honest assessment of his talent deterred that particular pursuit. He enjoyed playing with the band, but found he was always wanting to “fiddle with knobs” and was “fascinated by recording gear.”
Dietz had one contact in the Edmonton music scene and would sometimes visit his studio to see what he could absorb, a mentorship he credits as pivotal.
“I had an epiphany. It was my quarter-life crisis,” he laughs. “Work got so busy that I kept cancelling practices, there was no time for creativity. But when something is intrinsic to who you are, you can’t fight that.”
“What am I really doing?” he probed. “I’m thinking about music all day – why am I not doing that?”
What followed was a move to Toronto nine years ago – his first time living away from home – with no guarantees and little security.
After taking a one-year hands-on course with the renowned Metalworks recording studio, he landed an unpaid internship that progressed to a hectic more-than-fulltime job as a studio assistant where he says he learned more than he ever could in a school setting. Eventually he became head sound engineer.
What he finds most gratifying about his work is collaborating with high-caliber professionals. “When you get that creative vibe, you get excited about what you’re building … about how we’re elevating the music.”
He’s worked with artists from Australia, the Philippines, Italy, the U.K. and even the U.S. “Toronto has a longstanding status in the music and arts scene,” Dietz explains. He credits the Ontario Music Fund as well as the dedication of those working to make Toronto a live music and production Mecca.
Dietz says that after years in the business, it was time to consider freelancing – the opportunity to be as selective, make as much money and work as hard as one chooses.
Although Dietz had considerable connections and obvious talent, skill alone does not make a successful business. That’s why he started doing Internet research a full eight months before taking the plunge into freelance work – and found that Enterprise Toronto offered the most comprehensive services. So he visited the office.
“I left with a stack of information to go over, resources, I left with an explanation of the different business types … the responsibilities, costs. There are many different ways to do it.”
Dietz says he will continue to take advantage of Enterprise Toronto’s seminars for entrepreneurs. “It’s all for naught if you don’t know how to handle your business.”
And he says he’s never been happier.
“It’s great. You’re in control of and responsible for your own schedule and time. It’s a lot busier but it’s all on me – both the responsibility and the advantages.”
By Deena Douara
The fact that he had no background in videography, tourism or marketing wasn’t really a concern for Maiku Wong.
After all, what is YouTube for?
Today, Wong’s Toronto tourism videos run in ten hotels – including the Sheraton Centre and the Chelsea Hotel – and he anticipates a five-fold growth in the run-up to the PanAm Games this summer.
The videos, Wong explains, are beneficial for everyone involved. Shops, restaurants and museums reach visitors; tourists get an overview of the city, and hotels get more access to their guests.
According to his research, only one per cent of guests typically watch more than a minute of the hotel channel. “It’s a dead medium.”
He explains that the numbers change drastically if the channel also churns out tourist-friendly info: “About 68 per cent of people are willing to watch a hotel tourism TV channel for up 22 to 26 minutes.”
Wong graduated with an International Relations degree from the University of Toronto in 2008 – an inopportune time to try to be a diplomat. Instead, he worked at a bank and at the Apple store.
Then he got a call that he would have to go to Singapore on three days’ notice for family reasons and wanted to make sure he saw some highlights while there.
“I really didn’t like the whole process of researching travel. There must be an easier way to do things…. Reading about stuff isn’t all that interesting.”
So he searched for videos and found “a crazy tourism video from the city of Singapore highlighting everything you needed to know about the city, the attractions, everything under the sun. Then when I got to Singapore, it was the same video in the hotel and I thought, ‘That’s odd. Why doesn’t anyone else do this?’”
He researched what cities had similar videos and was surprised at how many didn’t.
When he returned, he quit his job and got started on VaycayTV.
With no experience, he filmed a pilot with friends using his point-and-shoot. He was told by a Tourism Toronto executive that he wasn’t ready and admits the pilot was amateurish.
But he forged ahead anyway.
Using the same video, he got support from the City’s Economic Development & Culture Division as well as the Sheraton Centre and Chelsea hotels. He explains that one of his supporters intended to do the same thing 20 years ago and thus, really believed in the idea.
Wong takes a native advertising approach: he hired two hosts (after receiving “a thousand” applications) who experience the retailers or activities being highlighted. Occasionally he hires professional videographers and new compilations are produced each month.
After using his own wits to get by for the first year, Wong stumbled on the Starter Company program offered by Enterprise Toronto and the Government of Ontario while searching for grants.
When I ask Wong what information he lacked prior to the program, he laughs. “I was lacking in a lot of things.”
He says the greatest benefit has been the mentorship and he emphasizes their importance to entrepreneurs.
“Grab as many mentors as you can, experts in different roles…. There’s always going to be someone willing to help.”
“It’s been very, very helpful. It’s given me a clear idea of how to run a business versus making it up as you go along.”
He says he realized he was doing everything himself. “That’s not how a real business is run. You have to delegate, you have to build systems, you have to trust people.”
You can’t blame him though for thinking he could do it all himself. After all, Wong has no business partners and learned to do video and production by utilizing YouTube tutorials and the Apple store’s one-to-one program.
“We want to make sure everyone leaves Toronto thinking we’re 10 out of 10…. There’s so many wonderful things to do in the city, we just haven’t done a good job of promoting it.”
Despite his love for the city though, Wong’s ambitions don’t end with the Gardiner.
He’s aiming to be in New York City by the end of year.
“Ultimately we want to be in every city in North America with the goal of reaching Tokyo before the 2020 Olympics.”
By Deena Douara
“The approach of Motion Reflexion is about finding your comfort; recognizing the geometry of our body, symmetry, logic of form and finding harmony in our movement.”
It’s a bit easier to understand what Anne Sophie Roy means when you see her in action. In smooth movements evocative of Tai Chi, Roy waves her arms from a low angled position to a raised diagonal in one fell swoop.
The purpose of this move and others is to allow participants to self-heal – to realign the body and ease tension points that accumulate. She is careful not to call it therapy though, saying it’s too limiting, and instead refers to wellness.
“Therapy is about revisiting the past. Wellness is all about the moment, embracing the spirit and making positive happen.”
Roy grew up in Montreal with both classical piano and ballet in her life – two passions that culminated in multi-disciplinary studies at Concordia University on the interrelatedness of music and dance. While spending years in the creative field – composing, freelancing, creating music for the Toronto District School Board and working in advertising – she mulled over her idea of creating a wellness program based on music and dance.
Her first experience of Japanese Butoh dance while in university was transformational. “It’s moving to energy. It’s so advanced, it might be stillness. It’s like kinetic sculpture.”
And then while pregnant, her doctor, a great believer in both music and Roy, encouraged her to build something of her own with her expertise.
After years of thinking about it, she formalized her approach and termed it Motion Reflexion. She first started with a pilot program with physiotherapists at what was then Riverdale Hospital, and then worked with staff at Toronto East General Hospital.
Later she worked with a Greek community group (her ex-husband is Greek), which has grown from five participants in those first days five years ago, to 40 today. The participants, many of who are recovering from surgery, have told her the sessions were very important to them. She recalls a special moment when one elderly woman exclaimed proudly that she could jump again.
“They are just loving it.”
Just because her practice focuses on stress-reduction, it doesn’t mean her life has been stress-free. She explains that her life as an artist, raising two children on her own, has been challenging, and often financially so.
“I work with conviction, facing against the wind … and sometimes there’s resistance. But you work with your heart and that’s the only way to work, with your heart.”
Roy has high praise for the support she received from Enterprise Toronto in getting the business fundamentals in place to run her practice. She worked with one of their small business advisors to fine tune her business plan before presenting it to a bank, and also attended networking sessions.
She gave me great ideas,” says Roy of the advisor. “I felt very encouraged. She tapped into my originality… It’s more than encouragement.”
With her website newly launched, Roy intends to focus on corporate stress management and senior wellness, and while she currently performs on-site, she intends to train a number of instructors in Motion Reflexion. Opening a studio is next on the plan.
By Andrew Seale
Alex Glickman first saw a glint of the entrepreneurial spark while on a gap year.
Alex had been studying criminology at Concordia University in Montreal but was having second thoughts so he took a year off. During that time he decided to pursue his passion for cars, signing up for an automotive mechanic course.
That’s where he first found out about Plasti Dip – a rubber coating that could be sprayed on cars to tweak the look of the vehicle and protect the factory paint job from salt damage, corrosion or stone chips. The product was big in the United States but had yet to really break into the car detailing market north of the border.
“It became popular in Montreal first where they salt the roads a lot,” says Glickman, referring to the city’s harsh winters. “I did some research on it and found a void in the market here in Toronto.”
When his yearlong automotive course finished up, Glickman returned to Toronto.
“I got some of the product and did some trial and error stuff on my car and some friends’ and family’s cars,” he says.
It was just an experiment at first but slowly he started growing his portfolio to friends of friends and ultimately, bonafide clients. In May of 2013 he launched his business GTA Dip.
In the beginning he ran it based on his own entrepreneurial instincts but eventually he decided to meet with a small business advisor at Enterprise Toronto. He was also restarting his criminology studies, this time in Toronto.
“I showed the business advisor what I had and he gave me advice with regards to the business plan,” says Glickman. “He told me I’d be eligible for the Summer Company program.”
The Summer Company program, run by Enterprise Toronto, provides assistance to young entrepreneurs looking to test out the startup waters while on their summer break from high school or post-secondary education.
“As long as you’re a student and prove you’re going to attend school again after summer, you have a chance to get a $3,000 grant,” says Glickman.
Getting approval meant fine-tuning his business, taking seminars through Enterprise Toronto, and diligent bookkeeping, an aspect the young entrepreneur admits wasn’t his forte when he started out.
“The bookkeeping I was doing was adequate and I was keeping track of a lot of things but I didn’t actually log hours per job and what not to see how much time I was spending doing what,” he says.
Now, after finishing his second summer, he feels more confident in the business.
“Initially the goal this (past) summer was to make it one of the larger companies associated with dip in Toronto,” says Glickman. He’s set his sights on bolstering his dealership client base and building his reputation.
“If you go to a car dealership, they have a go-to guy for window tinting and really any externally-sourced aftermarket stuff done on the cars,” he says. “I want to be the go-to guy for dealerships for Plasti Dip work – I don’t think I’m there yet but ideally that’s what I’d like to do.”
By Andrew Seale
While Torontonians bask in the city’s foodie renaissance, Rinkee Ahmed hopes to satisfy another craving – culinary and winery tourism.
Or at least that’s the goal Ahmed set when she left her job as a travel consultant last year to launch Skymark Travel.
“I want to help bring tourists to see our wineries and know about our country,” says the entrepreneur, adding that she specializes in winery tours and culinary travel both domestically and overseas.
Born in India, Ahmed attended school in the U.S. That’s when she really caught the travel bug. She decided she wanted to know more about the world of travel and tourism so she signed up for courses from the American Airlines Training Center. After getting accredited as an American Airline travel agent, Ahmed worked in New York for a number of years before moving to Scarborough and taking a job at a global travel company.
“I was working with Thomas Cook and I thought ‘why couldn’t I use this experience to build up my own travel agency business?’” she says.
Ahmed had already registered the business Skymark Travel in 2004. And she was confident in her passion for travel. But she was lacking the business acumen to really get the agency off the ground.
“I didn’t have enough resources or know-how to run a business and I had no money for it,” she says. “In 2013, while I worked on opening (the business) up for myself, I took an entrepreneurship course at Centennial College.”
It was there that she found out about the sort of assistance offered by Enterprise Toronto. She started attending seminars, diligently educating herself on the various elements of running a business, like cash flow and business planning.
“I attended and learned from there. I’m really thankful to them,” she says.
When it came time to secure funding, Ahmed was armed with a rock solid business plan and clear focus for her travel business. When the banks wouldn’t offer her a bank loan she turned to the Access Community Capital Fund – a Canadian registered charity granting micro-loans for promising entrepreneurs held back by traditional lenders.
Ahmed used the $1,500 from the fund to purchase a computer and fax machine for her newly established office in Markham.
Skymark, it seems, had finally gotten off the ground.
But Ahmed realized that many wanderlusting Canadians yearn for more than just a visit to vineyards and gourmet gastronomy. They want adventure.
So she enlisted another entrepreneur to help her build out a website as a hub showcasing the full menu of escapades she offers – each customized to the specific tastes of the traveller.
“I think tourism is very important for any country,” she says.
It’s still the early days, and Ahmed knows there’s a long road ahead when it comes to building and running a successful business. But with the help of Enterprise Toronto and a sprawling local ecosystem that supports ambitious entrepreneurs with good ideas, she has faith Skymark Travel will succeed.
“I have a lot of love and enjoyment for my work,” says Ahmed. “If you focus on something, it’ll work out.”
By Andrew Seale
It started with frat parties. Well, kind of. Cory Rosenfield and Harris Maxwell ran a fraternity in university together and threw parties. But somewhere along the way they developed a sophisticated understanding of social media in its early days, using it to promote the parties and ultimately pivoting into a business, InfiniteSM, built around designing custom social media campaigns for companies like Ford, Energizer and Lego.
“We were very successful — 15 team members and a lot of really cool projects,” says Cory. “At the same time, it was a fee-for-service model, we were pulling our hair out feeling like we weren’t building anything of value.”
So they stepped away with the intention to start something fresh, a spin-off company built around projecting the effects and success of social media campaigns.
“We realized brands were spending hundred of thousands if not millions of dollars on all these digital campaigns we were running for them but they had no way to really measure and gauge success and compare themselves to the industry overall,” says Cory. “It was kind of like throwing darts blindfolded.”
In 2013, they created Qoints, which draws from a repository of live digital marketing data from campaigns of many of the world’s largest brands and uses that data to set truly objective campaign benchmarks.
The pair joined Toronto-based incubator INcubes and set to building out their company. Thye also started poking around for some funding to help get Qoints off the ground.
“We knew we weren’t going to see revenue too soon,” says Harris. “I heard about the Starter Company program through Bryan Watson who is one of the lead mentors at INcubes.”
While a lot of funding programs require entrepreneurs to match what they contribute, Enterprise Toronto’s Starter Company took a different approach.
“They do their own internal evaluation and work with you to make sure you’re creating value for the region and at the same time you don’t have to match those dollars,” says Cory.
It was helpful for the pair given that they’d self-funded the company and had burned through their reserves. Harris also started attending seminars and meet-ups hosted by Enterprise Toronto.
“I went to the get together around the holidays,” he recalls. “The range of companies they had participating was wider than any other gathering like that that I’ve been through – it goes to show there’s a ton of diversity in the city, not just in terms of population but also the types of businesses that are coming out of it.”
He says he found the community helpful.
“Talking to people running companies in different industries, you get interesting perspectives because they’re looking at the world through the lens of their industry,” he says. “You get perspectives that you wouldn’t come to on your own.”
Since graduating from Enterprise Toronto and the Government of Ontario’s Starter Company program, Qoints has continued to expand, opening an office in Buffalo and hiring the former head of advertising and online partnerships from Microsoft to lead the company’s strategy and business development team.
But as they expand beyond Toronto, Qoints has no intentions on leaving.
“Toronto is like no other city in the world – it has financial capital and the advertising and health capital all in the same market, everywhere else it’s spread out” says Cory. “We’ve got a really rich pool of people with which to build the team around here.”
By Andrew Seale
Marissa Maislin and Michelle Organ don’t really care what you make; they just want you to be able to make something.
Their value proposition, “Make / Learn / Sell,” is plain to see in the slogan scrawled across the wall at The Shop, the duo’s makerspace at Dufferin and College Street.
The space allows “makers” to use a range of woodworking tools, or fashion their ceramic and crafts ideas. All they need to bring is an idea and the materials.
“We’ll brainstorm ways to build your project with you,” says Maislin. “It’s all about promoting artists and helping people.”
Kindergarten friends Maislin and Organ got the idea last year while catching up over dinner. Organ, who has an industrial design background, was working freelance out of her house, using her basement as a cramped workspace. Maislin, who went to university for set design, had leapfrogged along through a series of uninspiring office jobs.
“I just realized this is not what I want to be doing, I just felt very uncreative and was frustrated that in Toronto there was nowhere that I could go to just cut some wood or be creative and do what I wanted to do,” says Maislin. “And Michelle was getting sick of working in her basement all alone.”
Inspired by successful makerspace and drop-in workshop models in the U.S., the pair decided to launch their own.
The walls at The Shop are meticulously lined with an unimaginable array of tools. Workbenches and larger equipment is placed throughout the workshop. On the one wall is a display called Shop the Shop, where local artisans can peddle the things they’ve created in the space.
“A lot of the people that come here live in small spaces, lots of condo people – you just can’t do stuff like this,” adds Maislin. “Even if you have the means to get the equipment there’s no room to use the equipment.”
But exuding creativity doesn’t necessarily transfer over to the business side of things. While the duo had a vision for the business, getting it off the ground has been a different story.
They received some early guidance from women-focused accelerator program SheEO but it was the startup costs – for rent and equipment – that proved to be one of their biggest hurdles. Maislin pegs these costs somewhere in the realm of $40,000.
“Because we’re a for-profit company it’s been really challenging to find grants,” says the entrepreneur.
So when she heard about Enterprise Toronto and the Government of Ontario’s Starter Company Program, they pounced on it.
“We did the whole application process and were lucky recipients,” she says. They also got access to a mentor with experience in social enterprises.
“We’re at a point right now where we’re meeting with him using Google Hangouts or in person once a week,” she says. “He’s awesome.”
They also received $15,000 from Futurpreneur, an organization geared towards young entrepreneurs.
“They gave us a loan really early on and helped us with our business plan,” she says, adding that it was vital given that neither of them have a business background. “It really helped us get our start.”
By Andrew Seale
The depths of winter can be drab and disheartening, but Polina Roufanova hopes to splash a bit of colour on the season.
That’s why the Russian-born, Richmond Hill-raised entrepreneur called her brand Love Winter.
If you look around, everyone is wearing black and everything is so grey, so my idea was to change that up and make it more exciting since it comes around every year anyways,” says Roufanova. “I want to inspire people to enjoy the small moments in the winter.”
The cornerstone of the brand – which retails online and at pop-up shops like Love The Design in Toronto’s Summerhill neighbourhood – is a cozy valenki boot modeled after the ones Roufanova fondly remembers wearing as a child.
“I moved here at a young age. The company and boots are both very connected to my personal story,” she says.
Of course, Love Winter’s boots aren’t the same as the clunky Siberian valenkis championed by Catherine the Great in the 18th Century. Roufanova has modernized them, contrasting the grey felt with vibrant-coloured galoshes – rubberized boots that can be removed from the bottom when worn indoors.
“When you walk, it makes a Love Winter imprint in the snow,” says Roufanova. It tends to draw a smile from anyone who sees the footprints, spreading the cheer during the coldest season.
The daughter of two entrepreneurs, Roufanova initially studied commerce at Ryerson University. After graduating she did a stint at high-profile fashion house Michael Kors before travelling to Hong Kong to attend university there.
But it was after working as an event planner and marketing specialist in Montenegro, on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, that Roufanova decided to create the brand.
To get Love Winter off the ground, Roufanova applied for and participated in Starter Company, a government of Ontario program run locally by Enterprise Toronto that provides mentorship and grants to young entrepreneurs.
It’s good for a startup company to receive any money – when you’re starting out there’s so many costs, the financial part is the most critical,” she says.
The young entrepreneur also received mentoring from Andrew Patricio, a serial entrepreneur and founder of BizLaunch.
“He was straight to the point and I think more mentors should be like that,” she says. “The best advice was don’t let other people waste your time because your time is all you have, especially in business. If something doesn’t work, change it and do something else. Don’t be afraid, be very conscious of how that time is used.”
It’s a mantra that has helped Roufanova catapult Love Winter into the spotlight. She’s only entering her second season and has already been featured in Flare, Canadian Living and Vogue Canada.
“We were also part of the Made in Canada Lounge by George Stroumboulopoulos last year,” she says.
Earlier this year, Roufanova was recognized in the Under 30 category at the Toronto Region Board of Trade’s 2014 Business Excellence Awards.
Love Winter is currently building out a kid’s line and plans to launch a few pop-up shops in New York.
“I’m also really trying to get into Hudson’s Bay Company – the products are very related as it’s the oldest company in Canada and the boots also have that history,” says Roufanova. “I think that would be the perfect match.”
By Deena Douara
When you’re going into the jewelry business, it helps if your creations draw attention from across the room.
“Vibrant, creative, versatile,” are a few words Marigrace Galura uses to describe her eclectic jewelry line. Marigrace’s accessories were never intended to become Marigrace Accessories – they were necklaces and earrings strewn together for personal wear. But then friends began asking about them and requesting their own. And then strangers started asking where she’d purchased them.
“I was still making jewelry for myself but when people were asking me where my jewelry was from I’d say I made it and they’d be surprised.”
One chance encounter in an Addition Elle store, in fact, helped launch what’s become her business after the manager overheard a compliment and invited Marigrace to promote her designs as contest prizes at the store.
“It felt great,” Marigrace says about being approached. “I like to share my talent and I like to make people feel happy.”
The hobby originated with a DIY jewelry guide in a fashion magazine. After workdays in the fashion industry, she began to get advice from bead stores and took workshops to learn to work with silver and semiprecious stones, just for the joy and relaxation it provided.
After over a year of casually selling to her network, Marigrace decided it was time to grow, plan and take action – so she sought out advice from Enterprise Toronto.
“When I first started it was overwhelming… As a creative person trying to turn my passion into a profit, you’ve got to have a plan to achieve those goals.”
At the Enterprise office she accessed books and articles on the industry and found information on relevant events, trade shows and workshops. She also received guidance on her business plan from a seasoned consultant.
“I was encouraged to keep doing what I’m doing,” says Marigrace. “It gave me the confidence to move forward.”
Marigrace uses a variety of materials in her work, including semi-precious stones, glass beads, silver and Swarovski crystals.
“I’m just trying to find my style as an artist and as a designer,” she admits, saying her style is evolving. And she takes inspiration from everything from nature to dance to crystals.
Looking back, Marigrace says that she had to overcome a creative block, personal tragedy and health issues that nearly discouraged her from continuing. What kept her going was friends’ inquiries and requests.
“Then when I started doing it again I realized how much joy it brought me… After putting my needs aside and taking care of other things I had forgotten what it was like.”
It was a death in the family that spurred Marigrace forward. “It made me realize life is too short. Live your dream, take action for your passion, create opportunities for yourself,” she says.
By Andrew Seale
When Andrew Darms left his position as senior manager of IT operations in the corporate world, he was burnt out.
“Over the years working in industry, I had found myself off-centre,” says Darms. “So I took a year off, a personal sabbatical.”
The former Fleming College instructor and IT manager filled his time with travelling, and buried his nose in personal development books like “What Color is Your Parachute?” – which asks the readers to catalogue their personal aspirations, strengths and desires to see what career they may be cut out for.
“That’s when I discovered Enterprise Toronto and the public library’s business courses and seminars,” says Darms.
He’d recently started getting back into hockey and found out about Gold in the Net, a B.C.-based goalie training franchise with an opportunity in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area territory. After researching the company and learning that they offered franchisees a lot of freedom, he promptly bought the territory.
“I thought, this is a perfect opportunity to build something the way I think it should be built. I’ve been involved in the corporate world and I saw things that were great and other things I thought could be improved on or done differently,” says Darms. “Things fell into place with meeting the right people and it just directed me towards this.”
A year later, he’d hired a contract staff of six and established goalie clinics and one-on-one training throughout the city. With the business acumen he gained through seminars and resources offered by Enterprise Toronto and an MBA certificate program from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Darms settled nicely into the small business owner life.
But there was one aspect of his new career he hadn’t anticipated – the isolation of being your own boss.
“When I was teaching, I’d be in and out of different offices, chatting with peers and students,” says Darms. “But when you’re home by yourself you feel isolated.”
Sure, he could join LinkedIn groups or attend webinars but it paled in comparison to working at a large business.
“You still don’t feel like you’re part of anything,” says Darms. “When you’re at a large corporation, you feel like you’re part of the department which is part of a larger team.”
Then, while attending Enterprise Toronto’s Small Business Forum, a light went on.
“When I went to that conference I felt like there were other people like me that were in the same boat,” says Darms. “There’s other people that are doing the same thing and being successful.”
He found camaraderie in the networking event, a reprieve from the solitary life of an entrepreneur. He also found new ideas in the keynote talks at the forum, the sort of methodologies he could take and apply to his own business.
These days, Darms couldn’t be happier. He is slowly ramping up his incarnation of Gold in the Net’s program and building out customized offerings.
When he thinks back on the personal development books he read during that year off, one thing really sticks with him – how some people wander through life disappointed in their jobs and waiting for Friday.
“Hockey is a seven day thing for me but I love it,” says Darms. “You’ve got to make your life so every day seems like a Friday.”
By Deena Douara
If you thought art collectors were intimidating professors with white sofas and inherited wealth, you haven’t met Amanda Dunn and Julia Wehkamp.
“There is a whole new generation of collectors. Whether they’re coming from emerging markets in the Middle East, Asia, or whether they’re young professionals looking to invest,” explains Wehkamp.
And with good reason. The art market is strong and growing as an investment option.
The pair – who have been best friends since bonding over horses on the first day of Grade 9 – have made it their mission to bring art collection to a chequebook near you. They are demystifying the process through talks and webinars that make global experts accessible to laypeople.
One Art Nation has accomplished a lot in just under a year.
They have hosted symposia at Art Miami, Art Southampton and Art Silicon Valley, built a comprehensive website and have developed partnerships with experts around the world to provide free webinars. Also on the site are event listings and marketplace news.
The pair’s journey has been a long one. Their original ambitions couldn’t contrast more with their work today: Dunn, to go to medical school and Wehkamp, to become a lawyer. Instead, Wehkamp completed an MBA in Germany and was working in Zurich in healthcare before moving to Toronto for love (it worked out).
Dunn, on the other hand, was recruited out of university with an ad agency that took her around the world, training her on marketing and sales. She spent five years in Dubai before moving to London to work with Christie’s Auction House as global marketing manager.
While at Christie’s, Dunn said she noticed that the art world was not speaking to the new generation of collectors. “They’re very intimidated to ask basic questions like ‘What should I be investing in right now? If I like a piece is it worth buying just ‘cause I like it? … Can I take a piece off the wall and try it in my house?’”
The pair met to brainstorm and two bottles of wine later, they were starting a business, applying a web platform Wehkamp was familiar with to art collection. Conscious of the impact a business could have on a friendship, they outlined expectations around time, financing, risk and exit strategies.
“We balance each other out,” says Wehkamp. “We’re friends for a reason; we have the same taste … we’re on the same page.”
Recognizing they could use help on developing their business plan, they visited Enterprise Toronto. They say their consultant, Sandi, was “very open, never intimidating…. She had a genuine interest.”
Sandi suggested they create two business plans – one for investors, one for grants – and helped “seal the deal” with a silent partner in Berlin. Dunn says they will likely continue to seek advice as they develop.
And how are the pair’s own collections coming along? They are inviting the public to find out, as they undergo the process of purchasing their very own, and their very first, art investment.
If they had it their way, Wehkamp’s would be a Lawren Harris and Dunn’s, a Kandinksy or Vlaminick.
Photo taken at Katzman Contemporary
In an age of celebrity startup entrepreneurs and sharkish investors looking for the next big thing, Gwen Lim-Brydson decided to bypass the buzz and go a less trendy, more traditional route to launch her business by calling on Enterprise Toronto.
“The choice of our generation’s startups is you either sell out early giving away equity (to investors) in exchange for funding or you bootstrap it,” says the founder of Motion and Still, a bespoke content agency that shoots high quality photos and videos for clients ranging from Google to Smoke’s Poutinerie.
“It’s very important to me that at no point does it skew to a side where the business is out of my control or I don’t own my company. I’m very cut and dry on that.”
Lim-Brydson’s enterprise is deeply embedded in the creative world, but her heels are firmly dug into the realities of running a business. When she speaks, it doesn’t take long to realize she’s no neophyte.
Before Lim-Brydson started shooting video and photos, she worked as a mergers and acquisition corporate finance executive at giant accounting firm BDO (formerly BDO Stoy Hayward) in the United Kingdom.
Needless to say, she’s spent enough time poking around corporations to gain a strong understanding of the ins and outs around building a business from the ground up. She’s also no stranger to humility and knows when she needs a team behind her.
“I spoke to a couple different startup advisors and looked into accelerators but I chose the more traditional method of going through Enterprise Toronto because they help you with paperwork, it’s more structured, the banks trust you more, and if I ever did want to go to equity, my initial offering will be higher,” says Lim-Brydson. “We also got a mentor who looked at our finances.”
Having her paperwork in order means she’ll have a strong framework if she goes elsewhere to look for funding in the future, she says. In the meantime, the loan through Futurepreneur that Enterprise Toronto helped her get has allowed her to hire an associate producer and build out a stable of 12 contract photographers and videographers to keep up with the steadily expanding workload.
In any given month, Motion and Still shoots five large gigs and anywhere from eight to 12 micro-gigs – 30-minute shoots for clients like Airbnb. Lim-Brydson and her associate producer then edit the videos or photos to their clients’ liking.
It’s a lean team when you consider the process but it has allowed the entrepreneur to expand her business in an organic way, a pace she hopes to keep.
“Some startups don’t follow what people are used to and just go guns blazing and have an amazing explosion but then fail just as fast,” says Lim-Brydson. “I’m not comfortable growing at an explosive pace. Motion and Still will be successful because there’s paperwork, there are mentors, and there’s structure.”
If you ask Tricia Lee, she became a filmmaker the second she set foot at Universal Studios as a wide-eyed kid devouring the sight of movies being made.
On paper, however, Lee’s career got going when she incorporated A Film Monkey Production in 2006, after graduating from York University’s film program and releasing her first short film.
In a creative industry where the first step on the professional ladder often involves snagging coffees for an assistant’s assistant, Lee wanted to take a more entrepreneurial approach.
“I made the decision to not work my way up through the job market in film partly because I didn’t want to get pigeonholed as a production assistant and then as a production manager who wanted to be a director and a producer,” says Lee. “Instead, I actually had to take jobs outside of the film industry to give myself time to work on the films.”
The strategy paid off.
Since 2006 Lee, president and CEO of A Film Monkey Production, and her partner Corey Brown, head of development, have honed their directing and writing chops by releasing nearly one short film a year and two feature length thrillers, Clean Break and Silent Retreat.
“For Silent Retreat, we won Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. That was awesome, it put us on the map,” says Lee, who directed and produced the film.
But it’s also created a left-brain, right-brain struggle for the filmmaker, which is where Enterprise Toronto comes in.
“I was at a Women in Film and Television business course and a lady named Sandi from Enterprise Toronto came to speak,” says Lee.
Hungry to learn more, the budding filmmaker set up a meeting with Enterprise Toronto.
“We talked about my plans, my goals and the steps that I was taking,” says Lee. “It was just very nice to be able to talk to somebody about the business side, somebody who had nothing to do with film.”
It helped her put on a business hat and start looking at Film Monkey through a new lens.
“I learned about business plans, pitches and investments and all the not so fun parts of filmmaking,” says Lee.
And it also helped her be more fluid in her vision for the production company.
“It takes me away from the creative process. I haven’t been on set since November 2012, but it comes with the territory,” says the entrepreneur. “Sure, my main focus is directing but I really want to make my own movies, and no one’s going to just give me money to do it. So I knew there’d come a point where I had to put my producing hat on and find money and find ways to be able to direct.”
Her reward has been watching her films play out on the big screen to adoring, wide-eyed fans – some of whom are as mesmerized as a young Lee observing behind-the-scenes action at Universal Studios.
And as with many movies, Lee’s story has a happy ending.
“I’ve created a business plan and pitch deck. I’ve actually been pitching to angel investors and I have a bunch interested in investing in my next film,” says Lee, admitting that it’s hard work. “But I get to do the stuff I want to do.”
By Andrew Seale
For Sherri Carlson and Nikki Francies, it felt like they almost had it made.
After spending four years building apparel production house CRW Design, their business was moving forward on its own momentum. They’d beaten the odds, producing made-in-Canada clothing for a variety of clients – from high-end garment designers to active wear companies – at a time when many small manufacturers were shuttering or moving their productions overseas.
Perhaps most impressively, they’d made it work with just the two of them.
“We saw there was a hole in the market for Canadian designers and thought we could fill it by acting as project managers,” says Carlson.
Clients would bring their ideas to CRW and Francies would help sculpt the designs. Carlson would source the fabric and then work with the sewing shops they partnered with to produce the product.
“All they had to do was give us their idea – fully designed or sketched out on a napkin – and we’d produce it,” says Carlson. “The client just has to open up the box and sell it.”
That is, until the duo was taken off guard last October when the main sewing shop they worked with unexpectedly closed it doors.
“(The owner) wanted to retire and we were partnered with her for about 90 per cent of our production,” laments Carlson. “So that meant we either bought it or she sold everything and that was it, we’d have to find someone else to work with.”
So they reached out to Enterprise Toronto for assistance in getting a loan from Futurpreneur Canada – a non-profit organization that provides young entrepreneurs with ﬁnancing and other support – with the goal of buying the sewing shop.
“Our contact at Enterprise Toronto was really helpful and pushed for us,” says Carlson. “She ended up helping us get the funding that we couldn’t have started the factory without.”
Just like that Carlson and Francies also became the owners of CRW Sewing, added seven staff members and pivoted the nature of their business.
“In the span of a month and a half we did the application, got approval, found the space and built up the space, put all the electrical in, moved everything, set everything up and were ready to go,” says Carlson.
They’ve been running the factory for a year now, using their half-decade on the design side to keep them tapped into customers’ expectations while taking on new challenges like managing staff and running a factory.
While the funds from Futurpreneur Canada helped them buy the equipment to launch the factory, their relationship with Enterprise Toronto and their mentor has helped them navigate the new realities and shocks of the freshly minted CRW Sewing.
“We have a mentor we work with which has been quite helpful in terms of keeping us on track and making us not be so caught up in the day-to-day stuff and helping to actually grow our business,” says Carlson. “It’s a lot more work on our end but it’ll get easier.”
By: Andrew Seale
Mentor explains that business growth doesn’t come at a cost of losing that one-to-one connection with clients
Before Megan Kozak connected with Enterprise Toronto, the former model and Registered Nurse had modest dreams of running a small-scale aesthetic injection business. Now she’s out to build her business endeavor, POUT, into a Botox empire.
“I had no background in business or marketing so I had no idea how far my business could grow,” says Kozak. “My goal is no longer to have this office – it’s to take over Canada with POUTs across the country.”
All it took was a few eye-opening chats with mentors from Enterprise Toronto and Futurpreneur to help Kozak realize the business was more than just that, it was a brand.
Kozak is hyper-conscious of her personal brand and what POUT will represent. Although the business is just her at the moment, she talks like a futurist, with time the only thing standing between her and a sprawling staff of chic, young, like-minded nurses. “Our nurses are fashionable and trendy. This is a fun brand. We know beauty inside and out,” says Kozak.
Her drive to rethink and rebrand the world of aesthetic injections like Botox and hyaluronic acid fillers stems from working in run of the mill spas and dermatologist offices where patients were funneled through.
“I would inject 20 patients in six hours – it’s terrible from a nurse-patient perspective because you don’t actually get time to sit with a patient and learn about them and consult,” she says. “It’s like a factory so you can make the quick buck. I really hated that.”
She grew weary of the medi-spas offering dirt-cheap $6 injections or sketchy shop fronts advertising Botox next to foot scrubs and saw the need for a specialized business focused on injections. “I would never get my face injected at the same place I get a pedicure,” she says. Kozak thrives off the one-to-one experience.
But her mentors at Enterprise Toronto weren’t going to let the drive to create that one-to-one experience stifle POUT’s growth.
“When you’re talking with someone so knowledgeable like our mentors, they put ideas in your head,” says Kozak. “Between January and now my growth personally from a business perspective has been exponential. I can’t even explain all the information that they’ve shared with us.”
She admits turning POUT into a reality has been arduous and a bit of a culture shock. Having spent years modeling and basking in the freedom of spending her steady paycheques as she saw fit, the entrepreneur muscles take time to form.
But building the brand is her path to liberation, the payoff for hard work and developing an astute business sense.
“Once I have built a team that works to my standards at other locations, that’ll give me more freedom,” says Kozak.
In the meantime, the young entrepreneur plans to grow organically with a little guidance from her mentor.
“The $15,000 loan [through Futurpreneur] was really helpful but more than that was the mentor,” says Kozak. “They’re only committed to two years but we’ve become friends so forever she’ll be a part of my life.”
By: Andrew Seale
How coaching from Enterprise Toronto helped a young chiropractor build his dream business
Dr. Shaun Lambrou is never going to be a scream-it-from-the-rooftops sort of guy. Simply put, the entrepreneurial chiropractor has an aversion to attention.
“Having all eyes on me has never been my style,” he says. “But you need that to be an entrepreneur. You need to not be scared to tell people what you do, who you are and what you have.”
Getting over that nagging fear was critical for launching his massage and chiropractic clinic, Massage Matters, so he connected with Enterprise Toronto.
For bootstrapped startups, marketing budgets are tight which means building organic traction by hitting the streets and handing out promo cards or taking to social media.
“My liaison at Enterprise Toronto definitely helped me with that stuff,” says Lambrou. “She’d give me little challenges to break that fear.”
He also was connected with a gem of a mentor through Enterprise Toronto and Futurepreneur Canada (formerly CYBF), Ember Chance, Marketing Manager of Wireless Acquisition at Rogers Communications.
“She taught us so much on branding and marketing and making sure that the customer experience is consistent and top notch,” says Lambrou. “I don’t think we would be where we are without her.”
Tucked in a heritage building in Toronto’s Corktown neighbourhood, Massage Matters has slowly grown its clientele list since it launched a few months ago. Built in 1871, the space is gorgeous, with exposed brick and beams hanging overhead invoking a perfect ambience for hot stone massages, spa-like offerings like peppermint foot scrubs and therapeutic chiropractic treatments. It’s the sort of place that makes the young chiropractor excited to go into work; a place to call his own.
After graduating from the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College in 2010, Lambrou spent some time working in different clinics. A lot of times when Sunday rolled around, he would be wishing for more weekend.
“I’d be like I don’t want to go to work tomorrow. I didn’t like the spaces I was in and I didn’t want to try to sell people certain products,” he says.
He toyed with the idea of starting his own business and began poking around the Enterprise Toronto and Futurepreneur sites. He found a host of tools dedicated to developing a business plan.
“At that point I was clueless,” says Lambrou. “You write a business plan in school but no one really takes it seriously.”
For five months he filled a notebook with ideas, slowly etching out the framework for Massage Matters.
“My contact at Enterprise Toronto looked it over and said ‘we need to improve here, improve there, do this, this, and this and make it better’,” says Lambrou. “She taught me where and how to get incorporated and save money on things like that.”
It was a stressful time for Lambrou, after all he was investing a fair chunk of his own money into following a dream. What if it didn’t pay off? Or what if he couldn’t get a handle on the marketing aspects? There were a lot of “ifs” which have a tendency to compound in the often-lonely world of entrepreneurship.
But his relationship with his mentor has grown over the past few months and with it, his confidence in his vision for Massage Matters.
“When you do your own thing there’s always a rollercoaster, you’re really high one day and then you’re really low the next,” says Lambrou. “But in the back of my mind knowing that I have Ember, my partner Megan and backup from Enterprise Toronto – I feel like I can’t fail.”
What makes a retired senior engineering executive beam? Developing a rudimentary website.
“I’m extremely proud that I created a website that got attention. Because this is one of my challenges … how to get attention.”
Robert Szasz retired from his role at MTS Allstream last year and decided to turn his passion for wine and travel into a niche business in a budding market.
Szasz, who is 66, went from being a leader in his company delivering presentations worldwide, to starting at the very bottom – learning about keywords, marketing and web traffic, and volunteering at a Coach terminal to learn about the city and tourists’ needs. Rather than feeling apprehensive, Szasz says he’s very excited.
“I’m at a moment in life, I’m not a newcomer, I’m not starting up a family so all these worries are behind me, and financially I am OK.”
For 20 years Szasz dreamed of being his own boss and creating something new. He’d always loved travel and had become a wine aficionado after tastings for his daughter’s wedding 12 years ago. He eventually took a wine appreciation course at George Brown College and now he and guest experts blog about wines on his revamped website.
Recognizing the growing interest in niche travel experiences, he researched tour operators that combined wine and travel and found just one U.K.-based site doing something similar. And so he launched Wine Region Rentals, a website that aims to educate travelers about wine regions and connect them with wineries, tours and accommodations worldwide.
While doing research to help his budding initiative Szasz discovered Enterprise Toronto’s Small Business Forum, which takes place at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre every year. He then attended a number of Enterprise Toronto seminars, learning about website development, market research, and direct mail marketing. Through these seminars he connected with consultants who helped hone his business plan. Later he was accepted into the Toronto Business Development Centre’s eight-week program where he says he received valuable advice on focus and on product pricing.
His greatest learnings relate to the roles of social media platforms. After having zero presence, he says he’s now active on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, where he’s expanded his network and affiliates by joining and participating in relevant groups.
Szasz’s company today is multi-faceted. While also conducting Niagara tours, he is focusing on his Toronto wine and brewery tours and city tours that include stops at St. Lawrence Market, Steam Whistle Brewery and the always-popular Distillery District – the largest art entertainment centre in all of Canada, he says, and the British Empire’s largest distillery for 150 years.
While Szasz’s priority is on Ontario wine, his intention is to have global reach so that anyone can go to his site and learn about wines and wineries in Tuscany, for example, and to book a tour directly.
He admits to certain challenges – increasing web traffic, being included on official tourism sites – but Szasz is constantly expanding and learning new skills. And after a lifetime as an employee, he’s learning them under nobody’s supervision but his own.
“I make ice cream sandwiches for a living,” Sanober Motiwala proudly states.
A few years ago, Motiwala left her office job for something a little more to her taste and created Sweet Sammies Ice Cream Sandwich Co., providing catering for weddings, corporate events and private parties. You can also find Sweet Sammies at different farmer’s markets throughout Toronto.
“The whole concept behind Sweet Sammies is to basically take the childhood memories we have of the ice cream sandwich… and we try to bring a twist to them and elevate them. Bring a more artisan gourmet take on it.”
But she doesn’t stop at ice cream sandwiches. Sweet Sammies makes ice cream pints, ice pops, custom ice cream cakes and various seasonal items. Everything, from the pastries to the ice cream, is made in-house with fresh local ingredients.
“I just got to the point where I felt that I’d learned so much from my previous career, I just wanted the next challenge for myself personally and professionally,” Motiwala says.
“It just so happened that it coincided with my growing interest in food and pastries.”
In 2011 she left her job and joined the chef school at George Brown College. She also graduated from the University of Guelph’s ice cream technology Course. Now Motiwala is enjoying the sweet taste of success.
Motiwala loves what she does, but becoming a business owner was a big change from being an employee.
“In the other jobs I had, even if you had a lot of responsibility you were in charge of certain pieces; you’re not really at the helm of anything,” Motiwala says.
“But at this business, it’s not just the making and the creating of the recipes… it was also figuring out the branding, how I was going to finance it, the business plan, all the financials, the budgeting stuff.”
Motiwala needed some direction. She found the prospect of starting her own business exciting, but a bit overwhelming. She says she was looking for a one-stop-shop to give her a crash course on starting a small business. For that, she turned to Enterprise Toronto.
“The very first thing I did was just to drop by the location at City Hall and just browse around,” she says.
“One of the staff approached me and helped me pick out brochures and handouts that had the information I would need to get started.”
Enterprise Toronto had exactly the resources she was looking for. Along with the more technical information, such as how to incorporate your business and how to apply for a loan from Futurpreneur, she was able to get a list of all the farmers markets happening in and around Toronto.
Initially, Motiwala had no intention of opening a storefront. She expected Sweet Sammies to be based on wholesale, catering, or a combination of the two. Connecting with farmers markets opened her business up to a new and unexpected level of exposure.
“One of the most gratifying aspects for me was getting that reaction from the customer when they take their first bite or when they try it and come back the next week just to buy the exact same flavor they had the week before.”
By Deena Douara
You might be forgiven for confusing the office space for 13AM Games with a computer-lined frat house. Young men fist-bump each other in the hall, joke about half-eaten burritos, ooh and ahh while watching each other play video games, and can’t stop talking about how much they like each other.
“I’ve never worked this well with a group before,” says Dave Proctor, 13AM Games’ producer and spokesperson. “It’s a very honest and respectful workplace.”
The nine founding members (yes, nine) met a year ago while pursuing the same Game Design postgraduate certificate at George Brown College. They committed to transitioning their collaborations into a company after the program completed in August. Now they work out of the Digital Media and Gaming incubator at George Brown that provides the team with space, software licenses, mentorship and support. And a defunct arcade near the windows.
“We wouldn’t have anywhere to make it [otherwise],” says Proctor.
They have been working on their first game, Runbow, for a mere six months, after an even shorter three-day creation period at a Global Game Jam in Toronto. Their goal is for the game to get onto both PCs and consoles.
Runbow uses retro graphics and a straightforward obstacle-avoidance concept reminiscent of Super Mario Brothers, with its own distinct aesthetic and frantic pace. While still in alpha stage, between prototype and beta, they won Best Game Design at the Level Up Showcase in April.
Before helping establish 13AM Games, Proctor, who is 28, was and still is a writer and publisher of a small company he created to publish his own work. Others on the team come from diverse backgrounds including a 15-year advertising professional and an engineering graduate.
While cumbersome nine-person teams are unheard of in the world of start-ups, it’s clear that this one, for now at least, is working. “Unfortunately, we really get along well.”
Proctor’s explanation is varied: egos are checked at the door; they respect each others’ roles and give freedom for experimentation; critiques are openly delivered and considered; they teach each other new skills so that multiple people can do multiple tasks as needed, and most of all, they all work in service of the game – not themselves.
“We’re all in it not because we wanted to start a gaming company; we wanted to start this gaming company.”
While a gaming career seems like enviable wish-fulfillment, the reality is “really, really, really hard work” and 40-hour weeks for no money and eventually, hopefully, a paycheque that will be split nine ways.
But when it’s finally time to test and Proctor and the team watch players laugh and scream and push each other, as they do in the background when we meet, “I cannot accurately describe the feeling,” he says, with a relaxed smile. “It’s like food for my soul. It makes every ounce of work worth it.”
13AM Games is planning for a June 2015 release date. During which there will be many fist bumps.
By Andrew Seale
Midway through our interview Zach Matlow’s cellphone starts vibrating incessantly. He answers and exchanges some small talk before hanging up and letting out a wistful exhale.
“There’s a tradeshow in two weeks,” explains the 23-year old founder of Dine and Comply – a real time task management and compliance tool for the restaurant industry. “I’ve basically got to decide today, which is why she called.”
He’s been delaying making a decision. On the one hand, it could offer a high profile debut for the tool he and his partner Jahangir Ahmad have been developing for the past year and a half.
But on the other hand, the tradeshow registration is $1,500 plus whatever he ends up paying for Wi-Fi and materials to fill his half-booth amongst a sea of food industry upstarts vying for similar attention.
It’s a calculated risk, but luckily the founder of Dine and Comply is finding himself flush with funds and support these days, having enrolled in Enterprise Toronto and Government of Ontario’s Starter Company program and secured a $45,000 loan from Futurepreneur and Business Development Bank of Canada.
Tradeshows are just the sort of business development opportunities the money is for, he says. But he’s pensive nonetheless. This might be a question to pose at the next bi-weekly Starter Company program meeting.
“It’s always different, sometimes the seminars are about taxes or that kind of stuff, other times it’s just an open table where we talk about how we’re doing,” says Matlow. “We learn about what’s going on with different companies and we try to help each other out.”
He admits it’s his first time in a collaborative environment. But Dine and Comply is actually the young entrepreneur’s second business.
While studying business with a major in finance at the University of Western Ontario, Matlow and a few friends started a hockey league with 250 kids, running it for a year and a half and acting as commissioner.
“We sold it and that’s how I travelled to Asia,” he says.
Inadvertently, it was while backpacking Asia that he came up with the idea for Dine and Comply.
“I was in Singapore and there was a screen in the bathroom and it said ‘rank the bathroom’s cleanliness – is it good, very good or poor’ and I was like okay, that’s a pretty unique concept we don’t have in our bathrooms back home,” says Matlow.
Initially, the idea was to bring restaurant establishments into the twenty-first century by digitizing the compliance process and making it easier to track the conditions of washrooms. But it wasn’t long before he started to see a bigger picture.
“Now it’s moved to operational things – little things like cleaning the grill, checking the fridge temperature at restaurants, that sort of things,” he says. “Businesses get successful by creating processes. If you have 4,000 locations how do you make sure everything runs the same way? You have checklists.”
And not just checklists, but checklists on the cloud that can be monitored in real time to ensure tasks are being done as needed.
At the moment, Toronto establishments Barque, What a Bagel and Gusto 101 have signed on, and Matlow is in talks with several chains across Canada.
“My next objective is getting a (big name) client to prove out the concept,” says Matlow. “If you can roll it out to 80 you can roll it out to 4,000.”