I got a $5K government grant, but the real treasure was the friends I made along the way
Free money! It’s the oldest trick in the book. But the thing about free money - just like a complimentary lunch - is that it doesn’t exist. Well, not in the way I thought it would, anyway.
When I started my consultancy last year, I was keen to take advantage of government financing programs to support small businesses (and thankfully, there are a lot of them). Through my research, I discovered the Starter Company Plus (SCP) program, a cohort-based training program designed for Ontario entrepreneurs building businesses that are early-stage.
And what really caught my eye about the program was the free money, i.e. a $5K grant from the provincial government.
“$5K! For free? They’re just going to give me $5000 to spend on whatever I want. Sweet! Sign me up.”
I submitted my application and found out a few weeks later I had been accepted into the program. I thought that was it and sat patiently holding out my hands for that sweet stack of cash.
I told everyone I knew that I had received a grant for my business.
I thought that was it.
Money can’t buy business savvy
But I was a naive little entrepreneurial fledgling, desperately trying to get my business off the ground and grab some financial support along the way. I learned pretty quickly, however, that grant funding does not get handed to you in a sack with a dollar sign on it (though that would be pretty cool).
What followed was four months of intensive workshops, training, mentorship, business planning, financial forecasting and grant expenditure paperwork.
At our introductory session, our program leader said: “The money will be nice, but I promise you, it will not be the most valuable thing about this program.”
And I’ll tell ya, she was right.
Getting busy with business planning
When I first started my consultancy, and I’ll be frank here, I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing. I had freelanced before, but this time it was different. I had a brand, a website, and a client list. This time it felt legitimate. But I felt illegitimate. I felt like I had no business being in business. I didn’t really know anything about accounting and bookkeeping, expenses tracking, legal contracts, and really the list goes on and on.
Thankfully, one of the first things we did when we started the SCP program was to put together a proper, grown-up business plan.
Who was your target customer? What is the current state of your industry? Can you define your business operations? What is your growth strategy? What is your pricing structure? What are your short- and long-term goals (by far the scariest question)? How will you market your business? What is the financial plan for your business (OK, this one was probably the scariest)?
We also had to look at risks and contingencies: what if COVID-19 decimates your business? How will you respond?
We were told the first draft of our business plan would be ripped to shreds (and by god, was it ever). Every assumption was questioned. Every statement required sources. Everything you wrote needed to be validated and justified.
I felt like I was back at university.
There were so many instances where I just wanted to say, ‘I don’t know,’ but that was never good enough. I really had to push myself to defend the existence of my business, and it was exhausting.
I began to eat, sleep and breathe business planning. I became obsessed. After spending nights and weekends fine-tuning it, I turned in my 7,000-word opus and prayed to god it was all over.
Getting real about finances
Oh, did I forget to mention the financial forecast? Yes, we had to create a financial forecast. That is, predict how your business will perform over the next 12 months. I had to look at expenses, contractors, my salary, money lost when I took time off, etc. I set myself a financial goal for my first full calendar year in business and then worked backwards, looking at how many projects and hours I would have to work each month to achieve it. Again, it required a ton of forethought and planning and it was a tough old slog.
So was I done yet? Hell, no.
Like Dragon’s Den, but you’re sitting in your basement wearing PJs
We then had to defend our business plan in front of the Grant Committee. This committee included mentors in the program: local established business owners and professionals including lawyers, accountants, marketing and branding specialists, etc. It was nerve-wracking but also necessary, especially if I ever wanted to seek out funding from investors in the future.
Finally, I was approved for my grant and four additional months of training. This training covered everything from bookkeeping, marketing and social media, legal support, and the list goes on.
We also had mentoring sessions with Grant Committee members where we could ask questions and get their professional expertise on everything from legal contracts to Quickbooks. I found these sessions so helpful, especially because in the real world, you’d probably have to pay a pretty penny to get a lot of this advice.
Virtual networking like a champ
I went through this program during the pandemic (we were the first cohort to do the entire program virtually), so I’m sure the experience wasn’t as personable and engaging as it would have been in-person in pre-COVID times. Even though I never met any of the people in this program - applicants or mentors - the organizers did an amazing job and managed to ‘pivot’ (ugh) the program to run smoothly and effectively online.
There were about 20 other Hamiltonians in my cohort, and I became close with two other applicants who were also writers. We supported each other through the whole experience, which, given the lack of actual human interaction, was sorely needed.
Every day is a school day
I finished the program at the end of March, and it has taught me so much about running a business. Thinking strategically about why I’m doing what I’m doing and how to do it. Taking a considered approach to the financials of the business. Getting a REALLY good accountant and a REALLY good lawyer.
Based on my mentoring sessions, I also decided to incorporate my business, which I did in February of this year. That decision in and of itself will likely save me thousands of dollars in taxes over the lifetime of the business. So, like I was told, that $5K really wasn’t the most valuable part of the program.
For me, being in this grant program and being held accountable for deadlines and deliverables kept me honest. If I hadn’t been forced to do these things, they would still be on my to-do list next to ‘Join Clubhouse’ and ‘Buy company-branded sweatpants’.
If you need a kick up the ass, are over 18 and a resident of Canada, and work on your business full time (and you’re in your first two years of business), I highly recommend signing up for this program. Every region runs their own version of SCP, so check out your local business centre to find out more about the program in your area. Sure, the money is great, but you will get so much more value from this program than the grant itself.
Does your sweet little start-up need marketing support? You know what to do. Get in touch or book a meeting with a fellow entrepreneur who knows what’s up because she wrote her OWN business plan.