Business accelerator backed by ex-Dragon helps small businesses rev their engines
Arlene Dickinson aims to help entrepreneurs scale up their business
Sisters-in-law Pippa and Neige Blair of Calgary are about to launch their natural deodorant into the massive market south of the border. But a bold expansion into the U.S. is coming much faster than the business partners ever expected.
After all, it was just last September that they doubled the distribution of their "Routine" brand across Canada — from 150 stores to 300.
"We're not so aggressive," says Pippa, "We're more of an organic marketing company. We want to have steady growth but not have our sales so high that we can't fulfil orders and have good relations with our distributors."
The next level
So what explains the aggressive growth? It's a result of the two entrepreneurs' involvement with District Ventures, an "accelerator" for businesses looking to become successful faster.
Participants get access to advisers of all types, from finances to packaging to strategy. They are also matched with mentors. "We had no experience with the American market and our mentors have a lot of experience with the U.S.," Pippa explains.
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"Expansion can make or break a business, but our mentors told us about mistakes they had made, and we can learn from that. That's given us more confidence."
She says she saw a gap in the market.
"There's a lot of help in Canada for startups, but there isn't much help for early stage businesses that have started to get some traction in the marketplace," Dickinson told CBC News. "They've started to make some money, and they need to grow in scale quickly. There really is nothing in the market for that in Canada."
Another unique aspect about District Ventures is that most accelerators focus on technology or energy startups. The focus on consumer and packaged goods makes this accelerator the first of its kind in Canada. "There's a real trend in consumerism, around making sure what we eat and drink is good for our health and our well-being," says Dickinson, who left Dragons' Den in 2014 after eight seasons on the program.
"Because of that trend, I knew that there was an opportunity in the marketplace to help entrepreneurs who were focused on that."
Dickinson also sees her initiative as a way to help boost the economy in Alberta. "Everybody says 'Oh, diversify, diversify,' but you have to put your money where your mouth is, so that's why I opened it in Calgary," she says.
Participants in the accelerator stay for six months. Those in the program now will leave by November and a new cohort will enter. Entrepreneurs from all over Canada can apply. Past participants have come from Winnipeg, Vancouver, Toronto and Whitby, Ont. They pay $550 a month for access to office space and conference rooms, and can attend presentations on subjects such as sales, marketing, packaging and financial structuring.
Dickinson herself is investing money with some of the entrepreneurs to enter the accelerator, but facility itself is a non-profit. "This is not an organization that I'm looking to capitalize on," she explains. "This is a way to try and help these businesses by giving them the supports and services they need so they can build their businesses effectively."
'I'm with my people!'
Another entrepreneur who got a boost from District Ventures is Jill Hawker of Calgary. Her Peas in a Pod line of products for babies and moms-to-be has seen a 68 per cent increase in sales after her mentor at the accelerator introduced her to a distributor.
"It was fantastic," says Hawker. "I had a nice big purchase order within a week." Hawker also appreciated the community aspect of the accelerator. "I have staff, but there's no other like-minded entrepreneur to bounce ideas off," she explains.
"It can get a bit lonely. So whenever I would go in there, I would feel like, 'I'm with my people!'"
Dickinson understands that her latest venture can't necessarily replace the jobs that have been lost in Alberta's oil and gas sector. But she's optimistic.
"We focus too much in Canada on big business, and really, small to medium-sized business is the backbone of our economy. So maybe these companies aren't going to employ tens of thousands of people each, but they could easily employ hundreds and thousands of people each, and when they do that they grow the economy in a different way."
Pippa Blair and her partner Neige think their small business could eventually become a large one, especially if those American sales take off. "We were just contacted last week by a U.S. retailer that would be doing high volumes," she says. "You can see from those numbers that it truly is a different game."
The partners have contracted a cosmetics manufacturer in Calgary to produce their natural deodorant, and if sales keeping growing, so could employment in Alberta.