How and where to find help when launching your own business

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If you’re one of the many knowledge workers today who’ve got the boot due to “corporate restructuring” – the preferred euphemism for layoffs – there are a few options open to you.

One is to spruce up your resumé, revive your rusty networking skills, and begin pounding the pavement – virtually and actually – in the hope of landing another job soon.

Or you may decide it’s time sidestep the “9 – 5 rat race” altogether, be a little more adventurous, and launch your own small business.

If you’re an IT professional, you may want to use your knowledge and skills to develop a new software application, product or service that meets a real need.  

For all those thinking along these lines there’s great news.

Experts say it’s never been easier to launch your own start up, or even find a market for an innovative new product.

For one, social networking sites and tools are dramatically enhancing the profile and visibility of Canadian small businesses, says Sarah Prevette, CEO and founder of Toronto-based RedWire, an organization that fosters networking between entrepreneurs and members of the global business community.

Redwire is one of several networking forums entrepreneurs and small-business owners can take advantage of to promote their companies, discuss common issues, collaborate and do much more.

Prevette says being part of such an online community is a great way to meet with other business owners outside of your personal network.

RedWire, for instance, is set up so you can interact with others who are launching a business in a similar industry, trade ideas with them, and even collaborate on projects.

The site also advertises user-based offline events on a number of topics that offer entrepreneurs an opportunity to network in person and gain more practical advice.

Prevette urges anyone starting a business to first create an online presence.

She says this step – whether it involves starting a blog, a Web site, or joining a social network – “is necessary to build back links and interact with people who could help your business grow.”

Much online community support is local.

For instance, RedWire hosts events once a month for Torontonians, while  Communitech, a Waterloo, Ont.-based outfit focuses on providing similar opportunities to tech startups in that region.

One key event Communitech hosts is a week-long conference to foster communication between entrepreneurs in Waterloo, and provide support for their new initiatives. 

DemoCamp, a participant-generated social event for designers, developers and entrepreneurs, allows these groups to practice their pitch and receive honest feedback from experts.

Then there’s Founders and Funders  whose events held in Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and Waterloo bring entrepreneurs into contact with funders of new business ideas.

While opportunities abound, one industry insider sounds a note of caution.

Recently laid off IT professionals must carefully mull over a few things before embarking on an entrepreneurial venture, says Rick Segal, partner at JLA Ventures a private venture capital firm in Toronto.

First, he says, they must make sure they have a burning desire to succeed in the entrepreneurial world.  “If you don’t have passion, you may as well start working on your resumé.”   

The fact is 90 per cent of all startups fail, but Segal says the odds significantly favour passionate people, who are willing to mortgage their house, or live on burgers for a year, as they build up their business.

Entrepreneurs also need to offer a product or service that helps consumers enrich their lives, without expending a ton of time and money.

“If you provide a time-consuming service, it probably won’t work,” Segal says, “If your product costs a lot, it better be offering plenty of value. Filter your ideas into these buckets and figure out where to go from there.”

The good news is the cost of starting a Web-based product or service could be virtually nil.

Entrepreneurs, Segal said, can access free Web development tools from virtually anywhere – and these range from free Web hosting on Google to free open source software.

New business owners, he said, can also receive loads of free publicity through blogging, tagging blogs with keywords, using search engine optimization (SEO) techniques on Web pages, and sending out information to people on their own personal networks on Facebook or LinkedIn.   

“Virtually all an entrepreneur needs is access to the Internet and a computer. So if someone has passion, a good idea, and an infrastructure up and running online – they can get into the game.”

The growth of low-cost software and services is also a very welcome trend for entrepreneurs entering the market now, according to David Crow, Web evangelist at Microsoft Canada in Mississauga, Ont.

Crow spends most of his time working with entrepreneurs and looking at emerging technology trends and business models.

When interacting with new businesses, he seeks to discover what problem they want to solve, why they’re different from competitors,  how much value they bring, to whom, and their strategy for reaching customers.

There are Microsoft products specifically meant for entrepreneurs and small businesses, he said.

For instance, he cited BizSpark – a collection of free Web-based tools and support – that’s targeted at startups less than three years old and with revenues less than $1 million.

The program, he said, gives young companies a boost at a time when resources are scarce, and credit difficult to come by.  

Crow said BizSpark, launched last November, has already provided a much-need boost to several Canadian startups.

One of them is ParkVu Inc., a Waterloo-based messaging application development firm.

Co-founders Jeff Fedor and Terry Goertz approached Microsoft with a software application that allows users to consolidate their files from disparate devices on to a single client.

ParkVu would offer users a “personal cloud” to house all their files and data and access that information anywhere on whatever device they are using – desktops, laptops, an iPhone or Blackberry.

Fedor and Goertz say BizSpark gave them access to a tool kit which was great for getting their idea off the ground.

Prior to BizSpark, the duo relied on freely available tools, attended Communitech events, and used social media sites, such as Twitter to engage with as many people as possible.

“There’s definitely a lot of support out there right now to get you through the not-so-easy times,” Fedor said.

Given the economic climate, he said, entrepreneurs should try to get the product to their target market now, rather than focus on raising capital.

To accomplish this, he said, it helps to use free online tools as much as possible.

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