Anatomy of a mentorship start-up gone sideways
This issue, we turn our journalistic eye on ourselves in an attempt to understand why Atlantic Business Magazine’s special mentorship program for young entrepreneurs in the region, which began with high hopes and great promise, was a bust. Was it something we did? Something we didn’t? What does it suggest about us as business facilitators and supporters? What, if anything, does it reveal about the state of entrepreneurship in Atlantic Canada?
The Plan: Birth of a notion
It was, if she did say so herself, utterly brilliant. At least, to Atlantic Business Magazine’s editor-in-chief Dawn Chafe last fall, it looked great on paper. Question: How should the longest-publishing regional business magazine on the East Coast celebrate its 25th anniversary? Answer: Recruit 25 corporate sponsors to mentor 25 aspiring entrepreneurs and promote the heck out of it. “Genius, I thought, pure genius,” she says today.
Indeed, what could go wrong? Right off the bat, she reckoned, the idea was superior to any which she and others at the magazine had originally conjured for the January festivities. They planned on hosting three concurrent luncheon parties on the publication date of the January 2014 issue: one in each of Moncton, St. John’s and Halifax. Says Chafe: “Atlantic Business Magazine staff would be in attendance, along with clients, associates and family. These would be catered affairs with finger food and fancy gourmet cakes. We wanted people to circulate, to network. Not only would we be celebrating our 25th anniversary, but we would also be introducing our rebrand with a new logo, revamped design and revised content.”
Still, she recognized the celebrations would have limited appeal to all but employees and friends of the magazine. A slice of cake wouldn’t cut it. What would command broad attention? What would be the big draw?
How about a Super Start-up program (as she called it)? It would speak to the magazine’s mission to promote business activity across the region. Apart from that, she says, “it would give people outside the magazine a reason to attend the events, and it might even capture the attention of other media, which would raise our regional profile. All win-wins, for sure. Ultimately, though, we are, ourselves, a very entrepreneurial operation. So, in the big picture, this program seemed like a great fit in so many ways.”
The devil, of course, is never in the big picture; it’s in the details.
The Execution: Adventures in promotion
Initially, the simplicity of the plan seemed to bode well for its eventual success. Over the span of 25 years, Atlantic Business Magazine’s owners Hubert and Edwina Hutton had built formidable connections with and networks among the region’s commercial and political movers and shakers. Finding 25 corporate sponsors shouldn’t have posed much of a problem. As it happened, it didn’t.
“We had anticipated that would be the hardest part of the exercise,” Chafe says. “But we were able to recruit our first mentor before we even officially launched the program. I sent out an email about the project to our Top 50 CEOs and Hall of Famers on the morning of November 22, and we had 11 corporate partners in place before the end of that day. We had another six signed up by November 28. We had all but two of our corporate partners in place before Christmas.”
“In the end, we actually recruited 27 companies who were all very supportive of the notion,” Chafe says. “These mentors each agreed to contribute $2,500 and 25 hours of their time to successful applicants.”
The key now was to get the word out to the right figures in the entrepreneurship development community – individuals who could reach young people who might want to apply. Certainly, the solicitation was clear enough.
“In keeping with Atlantic Business Magazine’s mission of promoting business activity throughout the region,” the letter began, “we’re celebrating our 25th anniversary by launching a Super Start- Up program… To apply, applicants must submit a copy of their business plan along with a cover letter detailing: how this Super Start-Up fund will advance his/her business; knowledge/advisory assistance they hope to receive from their prospective mentor; and the applicant’s top three picks from the list of 25 corporate partners, explaining why you feel you are a good match for these particular companies.”
Meanwhile, as the quality of the match between mentor and protégé was crucial to the efficacy of the relationship, each sponsor was asked to provide a brief description of what they had to offer (skills, knowledge, expertise). Once the applications were in hand, the identified mentors would have the final selection of entrepreneurs.
With an application deadline of February 21 established, Chafe posted the press release and backgrounder to the magazine’s website and sent both to all news outlets in the region. She also contacted universities and colleges, Junior Achievement organizations and deployed social media – including Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook – to generate buzz. And she invited the program’s corporate sponsors to do the same.
“We used our internal resources extensively to promote the program,” Chafe says. “We put a prominent ad on our website. We used our e-newsletter. We emailed people directly. I personally contacted university presidents and the Association of Atlantic Universities, as well as every Junior Achievement office in the region… We really thought we had covered the bases.”
The Results: Trouble in paradise
Bases were, indeed, covered. But trouble brewed on the applicant side of the equation almost from the get-go. Says Chafe: “The first cause for concern was the day of the anniversary parties in mid-January. We had prepared a region-wide press release about this to go out via Canada News Wire. Curiously, only one media outlet in Atlantic Canada picked up on it.”
As for the social media response, well, likewise… nada. “There were no emailed responses and social sharing was sparse,” Chafe confesses. “It was almost as if the project didn’t exist, which was quite unnerving.”
Meanwhile, as the original deadline for applications passed, Chafe extended the date by a week, hoping, as she says, “to drum up interest at the last minute.” In fact, she confirms, “There were so few applicants that not all of the sponsors were listed as preferred mentors. And of those who were listed, only a few of them found applicants they wanted to mentor.”
And the final result?
“We received a grand total of 11 applicants,” Chafe says. “Yes, just 11. And as of today, there are only four matches.”
So, then, what went wrong?
Sitting in her office in downtown St. John’s, Atlantic Business Magazine’s executive editor still has difficulty answering that question. “I honestly don’t know,” she says. “How do you measure response from nonrespondents? Are there so many supports in place for entrepreneurs that they didn’t need this? Did the application requirement of submitting a business plan turn off potential applicants who didn’t want to share their ideas? Is there a paucity of entrepreneurs in Atlantic Canada? What does it say about the state of innovation and entrepreneurial activity in the region that only 11 applicants wanted what was being offered? Or, was it a simple matter of people not knowing about it? In an age when ‘going viral’ is the gold standard for marketing campaigns, we were a dud. But why?”
The Take-aways:The kids are alright… mostly
Naval gazing is an unsettling, oftentimes, dangerous exercise. But it can also be useful, especially to those who seek a better understanding of the business environment in which they operate. In this case – the Super Startup – that environment is the enormously complex, fluid and dynamic one that hosts Atlantic Canada’s entrepreneurs. To many, it can be frankly perplexing, even frustrating.
“I was selected three times in this little adventure, but, even after I matched and selected one mentee, they have not contacted me,” says Robert Zed, president of Halifax-Based Triangle Strategies and recipient of the 2013 Canadian Mentorship Award. “I am left wondering is it me, or do the entrepreneurs simply not know what they’ve signed up for? I cannot imagine not following up with a contact that one of my parents or one of my mentors had made for me back in the day. Just like we have reduced social graces through social media, perhaps we have lost some of the delicate art of management and manners.”
Jim Mills, CEO of Halifax-based Office Interiors, a program sponsor who was not matched, recounts an eerily similar experience three years ago when he launched a campaign, in honour of his company’s 20th anniversary, to provide qualified entrepreneurs with $10,000 worth of furniture, office equipment and mentoring advice. “We promoted it reasonably well – in print, on radio, in interviews, through social media,” he says. “We were offering to do this for 20 companies and we got five applicants, only three of whom qualified. I was shocked. I think Atlantic Business Magazine did a better job than I did in promoting the program. The only conclusion that I can draw is that we don’t have that many start-up companies. To some degree, it’s got to speak to the fact that there are just not that many qualifying companies.”
Another sponsor who didn’t obtain a match, Don Mills of Halifax’s Corporate Research Associates, thinks a variety of factors likely contributed to the low response rate. Still, having reviewed all applications, he suggests the process, itself, might have played a role in suppressing interest among some of the more earnest entrepreneurial aspirants in the region. “There was quite a difference in the way applicants approached the request,” he observes. “Some took it, I thought, more seriously than others. Some were just putting it in because I think they thought they could get a little cash. So, I think the rigor of the application process is one that, if you’re going to do it again, you might have a higher standard. You know, people are offering something of value. It’s not just the cash. The free consulting is worth a lot of money.”
As for the applicants, themselves, attitudes about the Super Start-up program range broadly.
Sean Stack, representing 100 Men Who Give A Damn (based in St. John’s), found a sponsor and couldn’t be happier about his experiences. “From my perspective, entrepreneurship in the region is strong and self-reinforcing,” he says. “Our biggest supporters have been local entrepreneurs who know they can bring something to the table and want to give back to the community in a positive way. Our goal is to build awareness for, and provide financial support to, charities that are doing great work in our community. The Super Start-up program has been a great platform for us as we build awareness of our brand. From here, how successful we are and how much we accomplish is dependent upon the entrepreneurial and charitable spirit of those who stand up for their community and say ‘I give a Damn!'”
Jane MacDougald of The Dart Gallery (based in Dartmouth) wasn’t matched, yet she still echoes Stack’s sentiments with certain caveats: “It would have been helpful to have a notification that my application wasn’t successful. As well, the selection process could have been clarified a little. I think there are often hiccups in any program in the initial implementation, but it’s good to recognize these as once they are rectified the program will be stronger. In any event, I think the program is absolutely brilliant and I would’ve loved to participate. Of course, any new entrepreneur is going to appreciate a cash investment in his or her business, but what excited me more about the program was the opportunity for mentorship. More often than not, and particularly in the Atlantic region, I believe collaborative communication and working together benefits everyone; by bringing new and experienced entrepreneurs together, opportunities for growth and success multiply.”
Another applicant, who requested anonymity, was less generous in his/her assessment, though no less instructive than his/her peers: “The Super Startup program was a good concept – 25 hours of mentorship plus $2,500. That can be extremely valuable for a start-up venture. Especially for young, aspiring entrepreneurs like myself. So why didn’t more people take advantage of the program? The application process was simple, a copy of the business plan plus a cover letter listing preferred mentors, so it wasn’t because of that. The start-up community in Atlantic Canada is thriving, so I don’t believe it is because of that.
“Perhaps the biggest mistake was failure to connect with start-up groups and communities within each province. I can only speak about Newfoundland on this, but when I was talking to members and organizers with Startup St. John’s, StartupNL, and CommonGround, nobody had even heard of the Super Startup program. My work and education background is in marketing. Approaching these groups would have been the first thing I would have done to promote the event to potential applicants. They are all well connected to those trying to start their own business and are always supporting programs such as this. It’s worth noting, the only reason I was aware of the program was because my business partner works at one of the companies who volunteered to mentor.”
From the outside looking in, Julia Deans, CEO of Futurepreneur Inc. (formerly Canadian Youth Business Foundation) doesn’t think the problem rests with the entrepreneurial community in the region. Her organization, which runs mentoring programs right across the country for young people seeking to establish a business, has helped more than 6,500 entrepreneurs create over 5,000 companies and more than 26,000 jobs. “Our impression is that there are a lot of young entrepreneurs in Atlantic Canada and like their counterparts right across the country, they are very keen for mentors. What we find is that it is an extremely well-connected community of organizations that support entrepreneurs in Atlantic Canada.”
In fact, this may be the real root of the issue. The ecosystem, such as it is, for entrepreneurship support in the region is crowded. In fact, Chafe’s notion of a mentorship project for young entrepreneurs had plenty of precedents across Canada.
Over the past 15 years, entrepreneurial enterprises have consistently outperformed their larger counterparts in the economy. According to Industry Canada research, “small businesses account for more than 98 per cent of all firms in Canada and proportionally play a large role in net job creation, creating 77.7 per cent of all private jobs from 2002 to 2012. In total, small businesses created a little over 100,000 jobs each year on average. Medium-sized and large businesses, which account for 1.6 per cent and 0.1 per cent of all firms, respectively, created 12.5 per cent and 9.8 per cent of net new jobs over the same period, representing about 17,000 and 11,800 jobs each year on average.”
Moreover, the number of people who declare their intention to someday own and operate their own businesses has been rising steadily since the turn of the century, notwithstanding financial meltdowns and global recessions. This is especially true in Atlantic Canada, where entrepreneurs currently create eight of every 10 jobs.
In this context, the so-called “mentorship” industry has exploded to meet the demand for advice, training, capital and plain, old moral support from hopeful, novice enterprisers. The Entrepreneurs’ Forum (EF), for example, is one of dozens of organizations in Atlantic Canada, alone, that effectively brokers advice and resources between those who have and those who have less. Its statement of principle – to “provide access to a network of advisors, hand-picked business leaders, who are there to advise entrepreneurs at all stages of business development” – while unique, is also typical of the field, in general.
In addition to Futurepreneur and the Entrepreneurs Forum, there’s the Centre for Entrepreneurship Education and Development, the Mentra Cooperative Ltd., Launch36, and 21inc. Between February 18 and April, Nova Scotia companies participated in LeaderConnect 2014 by applying online to be matched for a one-to-one meeting with a ConnectNS leader. Nearly 50 members of the ConnectNS leadership consortium joined to help.
Deans agrees the field is cluttered, but it is also competitive. “Our main program is our start-up program,” she explains. “We can provide financing without collateral. We can provide up to $15,000 and the Business Development Bank will piggy-back up to $30,000 on the same applications. We match successful candidates with a mentor for two years. We have over 3,000 volunteer mentors we work with across Canada. We train them, and we prepare the entrepreneur. We don’t give the money to the entrepreneur until he has met with the mentor and gone through an orientation. We monitor both sides for two years. Once they have their business plans, their money and their mentor, we provide resources for networking opportunities and entrepreneurs-in-residence. And if things start to go wrong for the entrepreneurs, we work with them, to help them pull through.”
Under these circumstances, a new program like Super Start-up – whose $2,500 per-applicant offer, while not insubstantial, can’t compare to, say, Futurepreneur’s $15,000-plus package – can be drowned out, especially as parts of the well-connected, established community of advisers and mentors are in constant risk of breaking apart. It’s a complaint Deans hears frequently. “We used to stage these roundtables across Canada, and we have heard from entrepreneurs,” she says. “They just can’t stand that the organizations that are trying to help them are fragmented and not coordinated. Actually, in Yellowknife, one guy actually said, ‘you guys are all fragmented, and that makes us feel that we are fragmented too.'”
Deans says (reiterating anonymous’s point), “I think what happened with the Super Start-Up is that it didn’t get connected with organizations within that (entrepreneurial support) network. And there are organizations within that network, like ours, that are really well known for mentoring, and have invested a lot of time and energy building the support for mentoring. . . Our Atlantic director had not heard of this program (Super Start-Up) through her social media. And that tells me something. She would have jumped all over it. She would have loved to get involved with it.”
In the end, the consensus holds that Atlantic Business Magazine’s Super Start-up program was, and remains, a great idea – a worthy contribution to the mentoring fi eld. But just as entrepreneurship, itself, is all about networking and building relationships with the right people at the right times, so, too, is entrepreneurship support. And that’s a lesson that even an award-winning business journal with 25 years of hard-fought experience can learn from time to time.