Sunny Verma is used to tossing ideas around with other would-be CEOs over drinks at a local bar, but a new 10-week boot camp for startups recently had him dining at the Bridle Path mansion of a Canadian trucking tycoon.
The home is owned by Lorne Swartz, who founded Gallop Logistics Corp. and built it into a refrigerated trucking conglomerate that transported over half a billion dollars in goods per year before it was acquired by a U.S. firm in 2006. Verma, 27, was invited to dinner there along with nine other lucky participants in the Young Entrepreneurs’ Club (YEC), a 10-week program that pairs 10 aspiring CEOs with 10 successful businesspeople for – you guessed it – 10 weeks.
“The range of advice we’re getting is unbelievable,” says Verma, who was impressed by Swartz’s swanky digs in Toronto’s exclusive Bridle Path neighbourhood, where the average house went for $4.6 million in 2007 and whose residents have included singers Prince and Celine Dion and media barons Conrad Black and Moses Znaimer.
Even more valuable for Verma, however, was the chance to get personal access to such a successful entrepreneur in an incredibly intimate setting.
“(It’s) having the opportunity to speak to them in a one-to-one setting and even follow up with conversations afterward (so) they can give guidance to people,” says Verma, founder and president of the educational tutoring company TutorBright.
Dinner chez Swartz was — so far — the most extravagant of the 10-week sessions in the YEC program, where most have featured guest speakers at a pub just west of Toronto’s theatre district. The program wraps on Aug. 24 when all 10 entrepreneurs under 30 pitch their business plans to a panel of venture capitalists and angel investors. About five investors are lined up for the panel but organizers are still trying to nail down a total of about 10 for that night.
It’s the first year for YEC, which was launched by four Toronto entrepreneurs who, like the 10 YEC participants, are all under 30. The final 10 were whittled down from about 45 applicants, with some of the final 10 participants trekking to Toronto each week from Waterloo, Ont. and Kingston, Ont. for the program. Since interest in YEC has come from as far as Vancouver, Manitoba and the U.S., in future the program may include a digital distance learning aspect or actually expand to other cities, says organizer Jennifer Turliuk.
While there are similar programs already out there, from business plan competitions to pitch contests, this one tries to be unique in being open to young entrepreneurs from any industry (not just tech), and in offering ongoing one-on-one sessions rather than just a one-time event, Turliuk says.
“We’ve found some of our participants are involved in other support programs but also joined ours because they felt something was missing from theirs,” says Turliuk. “And we noticed a lot of (entrepreneurial) talent in Canada was defecting to either corporations or the States when they noticed a lot of their peers weren’t pursuing entrepreneurship in Canada. So we want to show it’s possible to do it (in Canada).”
Besides Swartz, other speakers and mentors at this year’s inaugural YEC camp include branding whiz Jamie Salter (the matchmaker behind Lady Gaga’s celebrity endorsement deal with Polaroid Corp. and Sarah Jessica Parker’s teaming with fashion label Halston), and Michele Romanow, co-founder of the group buying site Buytopia.
YEC features sessions on everything from marketing to Web development to “romantic relationships and how to balance those as an entrepreneur,” Turliuk says. Verma has actually shifted his business plan after advice from one of the YEC mentors, who told him not to expand too quickly through a recent deal to franchise TutorBright, which started in 2008 and now has 80 employees.
“They said ‘You’re going to be cannibalizing yourself, you’re growing a little too quickly and that can (need) overhauling.’ And that really re-evaluated everything for us. So we’re taking a lot slower and methodological approach,” Verma explains.
Even if he walks away after 10 weeks with no money from angel investors on Aug. 24, Verma feels he’s already learned a lesson that’s even more valuable.
“Make sure it’s the right strategic partner. Make sure they’re not just a source of capital but a right fit,” Verma cautions. “Money means nothing at the end of the day if you don’t have the right person assisting you.”