I've written the main feature in this week's Pique, something I love to do because when you crank out 2,000-plus words you can really explore a subject and be a little more creative with the writing.
I wrote about a business incubator plan for Whistler. Essentially, business incubators are safety nets for new small business owners, to give them whatever support and information they may need to make their venture successful.
Those running the incubator share their knowledge, experience and facilities with the start-ups. Sometimes they share money. They provide security every step of the way, usually for a set period like a year or even up to three years.
And this has led to a high success rate for Canadian companies using them — 80 per cent of start-ups given the support an incubator provides are still in business after five years.
In the incubators I've encountered, the companies pay small fees for the services, something like a couple of hundred dollars a month. For that they get office or workshop space, equipment, technical expertise and sound business advice from people who have already been through building a business.
Some business incubators are non-profit, which means they are funded by government agencies or social service/business-oriented organizations. Some are for-profit; successful entrepreneurs invest venture capital along with the rest of the practical support in exchange for a stake in the new company or product.
I've been writing about them for years; this started when I was assigned stories on a few in Ontario, Alberta and B.C. for The Globe and Mail's Report on Business.
As I learned more about business incubators, I thought they would be perfect for places like Whistler and the Sea to Sky region, especially after hearing about the experience of the non-profit Haliburton Creative Business Incubator in rural Ontario in 2010.
In Haliburton County, 230 km north of Toronto, they had originally aimed to create an incubator to promote craftsmen or artists. Three out of the four original companies were lured there from outside the region. When they opened, participants paid $182 per month for 190 square feet and $319 per month for 425 square feet with Wi-Fi, copier/fax, audio-visual equipment included. Training seminars covering everything from management to accounting to marketing were free.
Former director of the Halliburton incubator, Mike Jaycock, told me it cost $50,000 to set up the incubator in the first year.
I could get into that because I'm an arts nerd and living here I am aware of the disconnect between people who craft things and struggle to find markets outside the largest cities. I thought there was good potential in this united concept.
When I called Haliburton for an update for this feature, I discovered that in order to survive they had to broaden their mandate to help various types of small businesses. Being mainly a one-season holidaying hotspot (in the summer), they had trouble sustaining the artistic inclination of the business incubator year round. So they adapted and good on them. They have now entered their fourth year.
In another interview, Peter Haubrich of the Okanagan Research & Innovation Centre, now known as Accelerate Okanagan, told me they had estimated that for every dollar spent on business incubators, $30 is returned to the local economy in wages, taxes, sales and services.
Here in Whistler, it looks like our first business incubator will be set up soon to support software engineers and their business concepts, thanks to the efforts of Mike Stephenson of Payroll Hero and Jack Crompton of ridebooker.ca (and Resort Municipality of Whistler councillor). Software engineering is a good industry to try the concept out with because the market for such products is the wide, wide world, the lifestyle at the resort is an attraction for talented engineers, and the software industry is not getting any smaller. Added bonus, perhaps, is that the software companies of Whistler are not in direct competition with each other.
I encourage others to explore this option in the Sea to Sky region.
Support could come from the three chambers of commerce from Squamish to Pemberton, local government, educational institutions encouraging students to develop their ideas into business, or other potential private investors. I can imagine a cooperative approach to this being as successful here as much as an entrepreneurial one, so long as it is well planned.
I've lived here since 2006 and in all that time the struggle to grow business in some areas and diversify the economy has been an underlying current, made harder by the 2008 financial collapse and slow regrowth.
The RMOW struck an education task force in order to look at the options of diversifying the local economy through teaching students who would pay to learn and enjoy what the resort has to offer. Education could easily be a million-dollar industry here; you can argue it already is with institutions like language schools and foreign students paying to attend grade school here.
It would be great if the RMOW struck a task force for business incubators, too.