Lisa Grace Marr
The Hamilton Spectator
Matthew Gardner figures he caught the entrepreneurship bug back in high school.
Now the new grad from McMaster’s engineering faculty is well on his way, having launched a tech business with fellow Mac grad Jason Moore last year in Kitchener after being accepted into an accelerator program there.
Fourteen weeks ago, http://www.getvideostream.com/VideostreamEND released its product — an app that allows customers to download videos from a computer to a Smart TV. There’s a free version and monetization comes in the form of a $1.50/month subscription fee.
“We are already cash flow positive,” said Gardner.
Even more positive, the business has five full-time staff and is fully plugged into business networks in Hamilton and Kitchener — thanks in part, says Gardner, to the Mac program’s support of entrepreneurship as a career path, the work of the folks at Innovation Factory at McMaster Innovation Park.
“I find that everyone is very collaborative to everyone else. There’s just such great mentorship going on,” he said. “When we first started, we really didn’t know anything about how to run a business. It’s great to be able to call someone and say ‘We have to do payroll. How do you do that? How do you do taxes?”
Gardner is part of an overall North American trend of more small- to medium-sized business owners graduating from school and creating their own path rather than relying on big business.
Nationally, small- to medium-sized business owners are acquiring higher education levels, a 2010 Industry Canada report indicates.
In Hamilton, the last labour force survey found there were 266,195 people working, with 23,465 listed as self-employed — 8.8 per cent of the population compared to the national average of 5.5 per cent.
David Carter, executive director at Innovation Factory, said their clientele is from a broad range of backgrounds.
“We have partnerships with Mohawk and McMaster,” he said. “We are creating an accelerator with McMaster with desk space upstairs for youth under 29 who are doing a start up. Right now we are plugging in to the university but we see a lot of grey hair coming in, too. It’s an interesting career option if you’re working for a company that’s big and soft. You think ‘I can do this on my own.’”
He said IF hosts Innovation Nights with 10 entrepreneurs making pitches as a way to help businesses get off the ground, but also as a way to attract support for them in through the audience — sponsors, potential investors, clients and other business owners. This creates the possibility of “collisions” of thinkers and doers who will get businesses started. Last year it attracted 3,000 to its events.
FirstOntario Credit Union also runs another entrepreneurship contest, and in May granted three local businesses $125,000 in prizes including cash and in-kind services from sponsors who will provide marketing, advertising, legal, accounting and public relations assistance. This winner’s include Mezza Caffe, Fermata Music Therapy and Bay Area Research Logistics.
Carter said the Lion’s Lair competition (hosted this year in partnership with Hamilton Chamber of Commerce) provides a showcase of the variety, innovation and skill of local entrepreneurs.
But he said by no means is it an exhaustive list of talent.
“Lion’s Lair is a good publicity thing. A lot of the good ideas can’t be in Lion’s Lair because they can’t talk about their products. There are a lot of other companies who are past being in a competition,” he said.
Tonia Jahshan is the president of Steeped Tea (http://www.steepedtea.com/our-story/steepedtea.comEND) — a Hamilton-based direct selling company specializing in loose leaf tea and accessories, was ranked 27th on the list at PROFITguide.com last year and is on track to move up its rankings this year.
Jahshan said there’s a strong drive toward self-employment in Hamilton.
“I think we have a very strong culture of entrepreneurship,” she said.
Jahshan, who has received numerous awards also appeared on the Dragon’s Den and received an investment by two of the dragons.
This year the tables are turned and now she’s a Lion as a judge in the Lion’s Lair competition starting this fall.
She said the key ingredient she’ll be looking for among the 20 finalists is that passion.
“For me it was a passion for tea,” she said. “Then you’ve got to ask ‘is it viable? Does it appeal to the masses?’”
IF’s Carter had a software company that started in Burlington but was eventually purchased by a Boston-based U.S. firm.
For years he commuted between Boston and Burlington and, since coming to work in the Hamilton community, he noticed that although there are many entrepreneurs, innovators and inventors, there is one key element missing: Swagger.
“In Boston, they say I’m going to sell all of these pens online and they say it with so much swagger you believe it. Meanwhile in Hamilton, we’re still trying to convince ourselves we can do it. We have the people, super skills, great ideas, we need to get more swagger, attract more money, we are still getting investable companies. We are still in the shadow of Toronto and Communitech in Waterloo.
“We undersell ourselves.”
Still, there is one big strength the city has in its entrepreneurs.
“Our entrepreneurs here want to be local heroes. You hear all the time in Hamilton ‘and it would be good to do our manufacturing here.’ For an entrepreneur to already be thinking of what kind of impact they’re going to have in the city, that to me is why it’s exciting to be here.”
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