2011: Year of the Entrepreneur; Government Vanity or Simple Truth?

500px, a world-wide photo sharing web service, is one of the many start-ups from the Ryerson Digital Media Zone that has flourished in the past year.

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[T]here has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur in the world than today, and tomorrow should be even better.

Next Wednesday, the 25th of January, marks the one year anniversary of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Year of the Entrepreneur” announcement, so consider this an anniversary audit; has Canada reached the high water mark for growth in small business entrepreneurs after a 2011 full of progress?

First, get rid of the notion that any one year could be the “Year of the Entrepreneur,” says young entrepreneur Rohan Sharma, co-founder of the Ryerson Entrepreneur Institute.

“I don’t think this was the first ‘Year of the Entrepreneur’ and I certainly don’t think it will be the last. It is a nice branding way of saying the government is putting all this investment out there.”

Truth be told, every year is a year of the entrepreneur, because without sustained small business growth Canada’s economy would fail.

This was made all too clear by the responses of the Harper and Obama administrations during the recession. Where big banks have limited their lending and investment for young start-ups, government programs and grants, like the Federal Development Fund for Southern Ontario, have stepped in to support the growth of Canadian small businesses.

“Universities have been doing it on their own, venture capitalists have been doing it on their own, but when the government puts money on the table, people are going to respond,” says Sharma. “They are going to take it as an opportunity to enhance what they’re doing or fund the risk of moving in a new direction.”

In Toronto there is a push to move away from the Silicon Valley North title it has been trying to achieve, and institutions are finding ways to make a name for themselves in different areas. The University of Toronto recently led a costly extension of MaRS, Ryerson has the Digital Media Zone, and Waterloo has Velocity – all three organizations are for the commercialization of innovation, and promoting strong connections between entrepreneurs.

Valerie Fox is the Director of the DMZ, and says while it was wonderful to hear that the Harper government recognized the time is right to really give entrepreneurs a leg up, the rise of the start-up was going to happen anyway.

“I think there is a real recognition by our students and alumni that the ingredients are there for starting up companies, especially in digital media.”

Technology has shrunk the world, making starting a business more appealing now than ever before. Sharing ideas and innovations is faster and easier than ever, and there are more and more support organizations like the Canadian Youth Business Foundation (CYBF), which offer strong partnerships between entrepreneurs.

The simple fact that a start-up can be developed and run from a Starbucks means entrepreneurs can do away with the expensive office leases. Yet, where people like Sharma and Fox are seeing the greatest impact is in the globalization of the market through technology, allowing small businesses to access a global market from the get-go.

Evgeny Tchebotarev is the creator of photo sharing site 500px, which benefits greatly from being able to have a global presence. However, he warns that such accessibility does present challenges, because there are so many applications and tech start-ups, it is increasingly harder and harder to get it right and become noticed on the market.

Tchebotarev says new technologies have also given way to new types of entrepreneurs – people not unlike himself, who can develop for platforms that didn’t even exist a few years ago.

Encouraging innovation in entrepreneurs will not only revitalize the economy, it is fundamentally shifting how people think about starting a business.

There has been a philosophical about-face in the value proposition for starting a business. No longer are innovators and researchers plugging away at their work in dark seclusion, hiding their creations for fear of ideas being stolen or improved upon. Says Fox, “It is mind-boggling and fantastic that people are open to sharing their technologies and clustering their ideas to create stronger innovation, because you didn’t see that ten years ago.”

One area the DMZ was not expecting interest from, and a sure sign of the growth of entrepreneurship in Canada, are professionals leaving the workplace to become entrepreneurs. Says Fox, “Because the DMZ is for youth-driven innovation, we hadn’t really thought that we would have that interest. We are starting to get that kind of interest, and are thinking of ways to help them.”

While individual success is certainly not guaranteed, more and more people are choosing to become entrepreneurs, because all the ingredients are there, and they are there now.

The philosophical shift toward collaboration, the intellect, the technology, the idea of being open, and the absolute wonder of being truly worldwide in your connections – it all makes for the perfect soil to grow new businesses.

So was 2011 really the “Year of the Entrepreneur”? Yes. But expect 2012 to be even better.

chrisbabic@ryersonfolio.com