Getting an entrepreneurial head start

Last month the Ontario government announced it is providing more than 200 students, aged 15 to 29, with first-hand experience running their own summer businesses. Through the Summer Company program, enterprising students receive hands-on business training and mentoring, awards of up to $3,000, as well as other assistance needed to start and grow their business.

ComputerWorld Canada’s Patricia Pickett spoke with two students who have opened tech-related businesses this summer. Below are short profiles of the students and their companies, as well as comments from each student about what they have learned by participating in the program.

Shayan Zahedi

Age: 20

Educational background: Third-year computer engineering student, University of Toronto.

Business: Operand Technologies (, an IT consulting firm targeting small and medium accounting, legal and engineering firms.

How did you find out about Summer Company?

I saw an ad in the campus newspaper. Unfortunately this was during exam time, and I was really busy. When I called in, I found out I had one day to finish everything.

What was the application process like?

There was a formal procedure to get involved, a business plan (and) proposal with all the necessary financial statements like cash flow and income forecast. You have to pick a business centre … based on where you want to operate. I chose the Vaughn Enterprise Business Centre. After you submit (your business plan), some applicants are chosen, and after that there is an extensive interview you have to go through. Mine took about an hour.

What does the program provide and what are you responsible for?

So far I’ve received the first of two instalments of the cash award to cover startup costs. You get the second instalment upon completion (of the program). There are liability issues: if don’t follow the guidelines, you may have to pay (the cash award) back. It’s like running a real business — you’ve got to follow the exact forecast that you predicted. You have to document everything in a journal, which is for your own benefit. But your mentors can analyze it and see where you might be falling short.

How does the mentorship component work?

We have bi-weekly meetings with mentors that are top members of the business community. We are not each assigned a mentor per se, but we attend meetings and they concentrate on each business individually. We each get business input, marketing ideas and constructive criticism.

What’s one of the most valuable things you’ve gathered from your sessions with the mentors?

One of the most important things we’ve learned is how to introduce ourselves in a meeting (with customers) and how to explain what we do. For example, when I said I do IT consulting, one of the mentors told me that you can’t be too specific but can’t be too general either. That’s when I decided to target certain sectors — there’s too much competition to be general. You also can’t be too technical. When I prepared some slides and mentioned all my services, I was told my presentation was too technically oriented. You have to know how to simplify technical concepts and explain the benefits of doing things a certain way. You can’t just blurt out a bunch of technical details and expect (your customers) to understand.

How have you benefited from the program so far?

I am quite familiar with the technology side — that’s what I’m good at. But I haven’t had that kind of business training before. The courses (in computer engineering) are mostly technology-oriented. (Through the program) you get hands-on business training in a controlled environment, and chances are that if you follow the guidelines, you will be successful.

How has participating in the program affected your educational and career goals?

I’m interested in working on open source development for distributed computing — I’m doing that for my thesis for fourth year. In these projects people typically have the technology know-how but there’s no business approach to it, so this is great experience. In the long run I want to have my own business (in this area).

Any concluding thoughts?

I would say that with this program, anyone can be the next Bill Gates. It’s just a matter of having the necessary tools. Programs like this that offer mentorships send you off in the right way and get you familiar with the business world.

Meghan Massong

Age: 19

Educational background: Finished her first year of the two-year multimedia design and production diploma program at Fanshawe College, London, Ont.

Business: meghamedia designs (, a Web development company that targets small businesses.

How did you get interested in Web design and development?

I’ve actually been making Web sites for the past five years — I’m self-taught, plus I’ve taken things like graphic and Web design as well as Flash in college.

How did you get involved in the Summer Company program?

I don’t remember where I heard about it, but I went to the Web site and applied for the program online. I’m at the Windsor-Essex Small Business Enterprise Centre (in Windsor, Ont.).

What was the most challenging part of the program for you?

The business plan was probably hardest part — it took a lot of research. You have to fill out everything about your business, such as whether you need insurance, where your business will be located, what you will charge. You basically make up a cash flow and determine all the startup costs you’d need. You have to do an estimate of how much in sales you would make per month.

How did you crunch all of those numbers?

I researched other businesses and found out what they charge for Web design and altered my prices accordingly — I would charge less than bigger businesses. And I guessed how many clients I would have per month.

How is your business going so far?

Things are pretty good. At first it was a little slow. It took a while to get my name out there, but now things are going well. Right now I have five or six customers, and there are a couple more that I am waiting to get final approval of. They’re mostly small businesses in Essex, Ont. One of my customers is a handmade candle business, another one is a home counselling business, and I’ve got a few little stores around Essex as customers as well.

What does your job involve?

I basically design and put together (the customer’s) Web site, and if they want updates, I maintain the site for them for the rest of the year. I use Dreamweaver and Front Page, and for graphics design and layout I use Adobe Photoshop. Sometimes they want animations so I use Flash and Fireworks.

What have you learned from the program?

I’ve learned about the many aspects of starting a business — mostly business plans, startup needs and advertising. I’ve been able to expand my knowledge of domain registration and Web hosting, all aspects of running a Web development business.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

I would like to finish school for this. If I’m not still working on this business when I’m done, I would definitely like to be in the same field as this.

What advice would you give to someone interested in participating in the program?

I would tell them that once they have the business, be patient. It takes a while to get your name out there and known. Also, don’t underprice your services because you’re trying to make sales. As well, I would probably tell them it’s important to network with other companies because it usually gets you a lot of other business.

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