Switching the gears to self-employment

When transitioning from being an IT employee to starting one’s own business, mindset is just as important as skill and ambition. That’s a lesson Avinash Singh said he has learned over the last few years while running his own IT infrastructure services company, Relevate.

Singh, an aerospace engineering graduate from Ryerson University, said computers were always his passion. In 1998 he flew down to San Francisco to visit relatives and received several job offers while he was there. His first IT job was with Sapient Corp., a business consulting and technology services firm, where he became one of the global project managers for the IT department.

Like many companies, Sapient went through some tough economic times. Up until that point, “internally the company had a very strategic IT outlook, with a focus on long-term strategies,” Singh explained. “But it’s one of those luxuries companies have when times are good.” And when it was time to tighten its belt, Sapient decided it had to move its internal IT operations into “fire-fighting mode,” shifting the focus of the IT department to central services to “hold the ship together,” he said.

This wasn’t the direction in which Singh felt the company should go. Meanwhile, he knew there was a round of layoffs coming up. “Basically it signalled a time for me to move . . . and I got a severance package.”

Singh said he could have easily hopped back into the job stream again. He was networking with contacts and received a few job offers, but he said going back to being an IT manager for a company just didn’t feel right. “My gut was telling me otherwise so I decided to take a hard look at my options.” He saw his severance pay as the “golden parachute” that could help him realize the dream of owning his own business.

Singh’s wanted to start an IT consulting company that targets what he said is a neglected market: small and medium businesses. He felt he already had strong business acumen because of his previous work experience; he had also gained entrepreneurial skills “through osmosis” from his father, who also owned his own business. However, Singh said he still wanted some business training and access to a forum where he could bounce ideas off of experienced business people.

“Typically to get that, you go through an MBA program, but . . . I wanted to move on my ideas and I didn’t want to spend a couple of years in school. I wanted a crash course in MBA.”

One of his acquaintances directed him to Social and Enterprise Development Innovations (SEDI), a Toronto-based non-profit organization, which through its Self-Employment Employment Benefits (SEB) program, provides unemployed Canadians with income support and business development services to assist them in starting their own businesses.

Funded by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and delivered by community development organizations, the program is designed for people on employment insurance, lasts one year and is free to all participants.

Singh noted that the SEB application process is “very extensive.” It starts with a general orientation meeting where SEDI explains how the program functions. Participants must then submit a business proposal detailing their idea, skills and how they would benefit from the program.

SEDI whittles the number of applicants down to a small group who are interviewed to determine whether the business idea is viable and whether the applicant is the right person to head up the business, he added.

After submitting and resubmitting proposals, applicants pitch their idea in a presentation to the selection committee, which then makes the final decision about whether to accept the applicant into the program.

When Singh started his training in 2002, he already had clients. “That was the real appeal to me, to run a business concurrently and learn as I go. I could take what I learned in a course and implement it immediately.”

The SEDI program benefited Singh in ways he didn’t expect.

For example, Singh said he learned to see everything as an opportunity. “As an employee you have the tendency of looking at opportunities confined in very tight spaces. You focus on ‘What roles can I play in the organization, what value can I add?’ But as an employer, you spin it a little bit: ‘What business problems does this company have that I can solve, how can I take this company to the next level, what are the inhibiting factors that are holding them back and how can I unchain them?’ You learn to see things on a little bit of a grander scale.”

Although he has traded his 50-hour work week for a 100-hour one, Singh said owning his own business has brought a sense of fulfillment he was previously lacking. “(As an employee), no matter how much value you have provided, there is always a sense of detachment — you don’t feel like you have ownership in the company. I didn’t feel like I was contributing enough and wished that I could contribute more. Now, that longing is gone.”

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