WELLINGTON COUNTY – If there was ever a time for local entrepreneurs to reach out for free guidance and support in the ever-changing landscape of commerce, it’s now.
For 23 years, the Business Centre of Guelph-Wellington (BCGW) has been instrumental in helping entrepreneurs pursue their passion. Their commitment continues as they evolve alongside the businesses they serve.
“It’s critical work, especially right now as we sort of transition through COVID recovery,” said Kristel Manes, executive director of the Business Centre of Guelph-Wellington.
“We’re working with companies right now that are trying to move through COVID recovery and some of them are growing, some of them are expanding, some of them are just hanging on by the fingertips, and we’re trying to help them.”
Business Centre Guelph-Wellington is a one of the largest business hubs in Ontario, supported and funded through the County of Wellington, City of Guelph, the Province of Ontario and the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
Providing an entry point for entrepreneurs through the region, they provide free resources, advisory mentorships, programs and networking events for entrepreneurs at every stage of their business, supporting the growth and expansion, and even succession of small businesses here.
“Our resources are free of charge for our clients to use,” Manes said.
All services begin with a conversation.
“Clients can get a free one-hour consultation with one of our amazing business advisors,” Manes explains, noting these sessions are online.
“We use that hour with them to assess if they are a new business, or if they’re an existing business. The conversation is going to be different as to where they’re at.”
Some entrepreneurs are starting out, using the impact of the pandemic as an opportunity to venture out on a new career path or side hustle.
Others are looking to reinvent or expand their business, while some business owners are looking to succession plans so they can step back and ensure the business goes on under new leadership. The BCGW supports them all.
“We triage the client to say, okay, here’s where you’re at, here’s what you need,” Manes said. “Sometimes it’s a matter of saying, especially of our newer entrepreneurs, we will transition them or suggest that they take our programming, which is again, done purposefully, to sort of go at a pace so that entrepreneurs can get the information they need.”
Manes said all BCGW advisors are bound by confidentiality, creating a safe space for open communication and idea exchanges, which is important for clients seeking honest advice.
“You have that person that you can speak freely with and bounce ideas off of,” Manes said, noting their business advisory team is a diverse group of people with various specialities and experiences.
“I always say they know a little bit about a lot of things … and if they don’t know, they’ll refer you and tell you where the resources are, who to go talk to, and here’s what you need to know.”
The BCGW programs include Starter Company +, Momentum Business Mentor Program, and Bridges to Better Business: Grow and Thrive.
“We do this six-week course where we use a business model canvas with clients,” Manes said, explaining that the online course is a commitment of two hours a week for six weeks.
“So, for example, we’ll do a workshop on marketing, and we’ll spend two hours on marketing. The next week we’ll do one on operations, then one on financials. And so, the idea being as they’re working alongside with the business model canvas, filling it out, going through the process, at the end of the six weeks, then they can they can basically put together a business plan.”
Manes adds, “And this is good not only just for new businesses, but existing businesses because sometimes they might be in a position where they’re looking to do a growth strategy. There’s some pain point that they’re trying to work through,” she said.
“Again, working with the business model canvas, they can sort of isolate what they’re trying to do and build a business case to say yea or nay to go forward with it.”
The goal is to provide entrepreneurs with an understanding of the realities of entrepreneurship, of what will be involved, so they can determine if they are willing to invest more time and resources to pursue their goal.
But even if they were to decide to postpone their business idea, Manes believes these programs are worth their time.
“I can tell you, we have lots of people that graduate through that and then they’ll go through the next stage, or we have lots of people go holy smokes I had no idea this was so much work. Thank you, but no thank you. And still, it’s still marketable skills,” Manes said. “The fact that you have more knowledge about finance or operations or marketing, it’s those are transferable skills, right, so there’s a win-win for everybody.”
The BCGW is also a delivery partner for the Digital Main Street funding and training program, part of a partnership between federal and provincial governments.
The program supports brick and mortar businesses with training in digital platforms with grant funding of up to $2,500 to establish or expand their online presence.
“I have a team of two members of our squad that actually are out in Wellington County, as well as Guelph, servicing customers, helping them work through the application,” Manes said.
“So, if you need to update your website or if you need some help with your social media strategy, or you need a new marketing plan. Anything digitally related will qualify for this Digital Main Street program.”
Being a support to their clients through the challenges of the pandemic not only served to bolster the BCGW’s purpose, but also taught Mane’s team to evolve alongside their clients.
“When COVID hit, we didn’t stop working. We immediately transferred all of our services onto virtual platform,” Mane said, which included the use of their interactive website, Zoom conference technology and workshops recorded on YouTube.
“We’ve kept to that hybrid model because it does remove barriers for entrepreneurs, in that the time of day that they can see stuff because for example, they might be interested in one of our workshops, but maybe they’re still working full time and doing a side hustle. So, we have it on YouTube.”
Manes said the pandemic also taught the team at BCGW to “practice what we preach,” in terms of being agile, creative and being willing to step outside the box of their own business practices to better support clients.
“It taught us to be adaptable and being able to pivot and move, and shift as the world’s changing too,” Manes said.
Therein lies the joy of the work.
“We don’t get anything out of it other than the satisfaction of seeing these companies grow and thrive,” Manes said.
She notes that 40% of BCGW’s clients are from across Wellington County, in a diverse variety of business sectors. Now that in-person events are back, she’s hoping to add to networking events.
Elora restaurant The Friendly Society is hosting a Networking and Live Event on Oct. 27 at 3pm. The two-hour event will include a guest speaker and a celebration of the Starter Company + graduates.
On Oct. 29, BCGW will celebrate it’s one year anniversary of its relocation to Guelph City Hall with a live networking session in partnership with Invest Guelph. Both events are free, but pre-registration is required.
A complete list of events, courses and future networking sessions is available at guelphbusiness.com.
Manes hopes entrepreneurs from across Wellington County and Guelph will continue to seek out the BCGW’s programming and mentorship options, as the future of doing business evolves in exciting ways.
“All stages of business, from parties in the ideation stage versus, you know, a longtime entrepreneur; if you just need some help or somebody to talk to, we’re here for you.”