Kevin Vincent knows all about sushi. He was making it for years at home and bringing it to parties to share with friends. Then a chance meeting with a grocery store owner turned his skills into a full-time gig.
“They were looking for someone to make sushi and so I said, ‘Why not? Let’s give it a try.’ So for three years I was making sushi for the people of Corner Brook,” he says. “I basically built the market.”
After a while Kevin realized there was even more potential to market his product on the west coast, outside of grocery stores, so he decided to open a restaurant called Newfound Sushi.
“No one else is offering it this side of St. John’s, so I took two years and wrote up a business plan with the help of Navigate,” he says. Navigate is a partnership between College of the North Atlantic and Grenfell Campus – Memorial University that provides venture coaching services to entrepreneurs.
Billy Newell heads up the service, which is funded by the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) and the provincial Department of Innovation, Business and Rural Development. CNA and Grenfell provide the office space as an in-kind contribution, and the service is available to students, staff and alumni.
“Most of our clients are not business students – there are a few but most of them come from other areas,” he says. “There are some really innovative ideas that have come through from the engineering faculties here at CNA and from the Adventure Tourism program – these people have some great ideas.”
When they bring those ideas to Billy, he helps them build a foundation that will get the business off the ground. “There is a high failure rate for new businesses,” he says. “Statistics show that entrepreneurs who have received mentorship or business coaching services have a much better chance at succeeding.”
He starts by identifying the entrepreneurial or business skills of the individual, helping them define their strengths and weaknesses, and then pointing them to other people or services that can help them overcome obstacles.
“I spend a good part of my days meeting with people and researching programs that apply to certain businesses,” he says. “For students to have access to that kind of information on campus is great. If they were to start something up they would have to run around to all kinds of departments and agencies looking for programming, but to have that one person here who can point them in that direction is really good for them.”
He also mentors them as they write their business plans and even helps build their balance sheets and cash flow statements, to demonstrate the viability of the potential business.
“Usually, if you’re going to start up a business and you approach someone for funding, they want to see some sort of business plan,” he explains. “It’s really hard, especially for a student, to walk in somewhere with just an idea and with no other real direction, and expect to get funding.” Market research is another area where Billy can be helpful.
“We have access to companies that post their research online,” he says. “I can go on there and get the information and provide it to these aspiring entrepreneurs. Sometimes I even help them write a survey to pass out in the local community so they can identify who their ideal customer is.”
Billy says the support doesn’t end once the business is off the ground.
“We’ll always provide ongoing support to them,” he says. “They might start a business out of their house and then want to hire someone and they don’t quite know how to do that. We can continue to offer advice as their business evolves.”
For entrepreneurs like Kevin Vincent, the advice and support that’s offered by Navigate is invaluable.
“They really helped me out with the numbers when I was doing the costing,” he says. “And then there are the things that you don’t think about. Have you got your insurance lined up? Are all your suppliers lined up? How much is it going to cost to get the supplies here? Little things like that.”
Kevin says the program also got him thinking ahead about how to expand his market.
“It gave me an opportunity to size up what I was doing and make a long term plan instead of a short term plan,” he says. “I’m going to eventually put it in the grocery stores and the food court at Memorial and I’m working out a deal with some caterers to supply my product as well.”
Since 2004, when the program was known as Gateway West, more than 40 businesses have taken advantage of the mentoring services offered by Navigate. Billy says there are still plenty of great ideas out there that can benefit from it.
“There are some really great innovative ideas here, especially at CNA,” he says. “I think we could push the students a bit more to see the potential of those ideas and to get the private sector to take advantage of some of them. I think there is definite room for improvement because the place is busting at the seams.”