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Call me boss: Youth entrepreneurs forge their own paths to self-employment

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After playing with race cars and tinkering with toys as a young boy, Chris Bacik has channelled inspiration from his childhood pastimes into a bankable business.

The 22-year-old is owner and operator of Sky Eye Media, a remote-controlled helicopter system that captures aerial photos and video. Images and footage collected are sought by clients like real estate agents and golf courses for promotional use.

And thanks to a $5,000 prize awarded through a business pitch competition for student startups, the Barrie, Ont., resident plans to use the cash infusion to create an enhanced system that will require two people to manoeuvre.

"I'll be flying the helicopter and a secondary operator will be controlling the camera on the helicopter; but they'll be able to essentially pivot the camera around 360 degrees," said Bacik, who recently completed study in mechanical engineering and business at Western University in London, Ont.

Since his business took flight, Bacik hasn't had to sift through want ads or scan through job sites looking for work: for the past two summers, he's been his own boss.

He was a one-man marketing machine, taking his Sea-Doo around the lakes in the Muskoka area, north of Toronto, and tying flyers to people's docks.

"I didn't really know what I wanted to do in the first few years of school, but then after I built this, I realized there's a lot of opportunities," he said.

"I wanted to do something different. I didn't want to be stuck in the stream of what everyone else was doing. Especially coming out of school, there is potential to do something big by yourself."

Bacik said he was able to recoup his initial $3,000 investment within four weeks of his first summer on the job. With his undergrad studies complete, he plans to focus on his company full-time for at least the next two years.

He won the Seed Your Startup competition hosted by Western's Student Success Centre and BizInc, a student business incubator located at Western and Fanshawe College campuses.

While anticipating only a handful of proposals, more than 60 were submitted, said BizInc marketing and communications co-ordinator Samantha Laliberte.

Although not all have translated into profitable businesses, Laliberte said BizInc has seen its share of successes since opening last May. One startup made more than $10,000 last summer selling neon promotional hats at concerts and festivals.

Canadian Youth Business Foundation CEO Vivian Prokop said while young entrepreneurs may have ideas, they don't always have a holistic view of the business skills needed to make them reality — and successful, at that. Financial planning, forecasting, the ability to control inventory and developing a customer base are among such skills, she noted.

"It goes far beyond the idea, right into 'How do you run a business?' and 'How do you always stay ahead of the curve and deliver to the customer what they don't even think that they need?'" said Prokop, whose organization has put 5,000 entrepreneurs through its program.

Laliberte said it's also key for budding entrepreneurs to know their competition and to set themselves apart from the pack.

"Try to figure out what your unique value proposition can be. So how can you differentiate yourself?"

In March, the Canadian economy saw its largest surge in employment since before the last recession with the addition of 82,300 people to the labour force. But it's been a less-than-rosy employment picture for teens and young adults looking for work.

A paper released in March from TD Bank economist Francis Fong revealed that employment for youth 15 to 24 is still 250,000 below pre-recession levels. In comparison, all other age groups have more than recovered from the overall 430,000 job losses of the 2008-09 slump.

Regardless of the economic climate, finding meaningful work is always a challenge, said Lauren Friese, founder of TalentEgg, a homegrown job site and career resource for students and new grads.

That said, Friese doesn't necessarily see self-employment as a cure-all solution.

"Starting your own business is something you should do because you are naturally entrepreneurial, because you have an appetite for it, because you really, really want it," said Friese. "If you're doing it for some other reason — for example, to avoid unemployment — then you are likely to fail.

"It's like saying, 'You know what? I can't find a job so I'm going to be a rocket scientist.' Or 'I can't find a job so I'm going to be a doctor' or anything that requires some sort of specific skill set or aptitude," she added.

"You can lose so much from running a business if it's not right for you."

Friese said students need to look at their own education and understand how their time in school fits into their future careers. That involves doing the legwork to explore chances of being successful within their field, and gaining relevant experience to distinguish themselves in a competitive market.

Prokop says she is finding that many people — particularly 25- to 35-year-olds — are pursuing entrepreneurship as a way to fulfil a dual role: doing work they love that also allows them autonomy.

Yet for those considering self-employment due to financial necessity, Prokop said it is "definitely a tougher slug."

She would encourage youth who fall into that category to find an existing business owner who could be a potential adviser and offer insight into life as an entrepreneur.

Prokop also suggests young people seek out local economic development agencies in their communities to see if there are programs available to explore entrepreneurship. Existing programs such as Advancing Canadian Entrepreneurship (ACE) and Impact are also focused on cultivating entrepreneurial skills among youth, she noted.

"Entrepreneurs end up having to be everything from the strategist to the salesperson to the bookkeeper to the janitor. When they're starting a business they're doing it all," said Prokop.

"As they become successful, obviously, they're going to start hiring people. But at the beginning it's a lot of hard work, and you have to have a lot of passion and really believe in yourself."

———

Online:

BizInc: http://bizinc.ca

Canadian Youth Business Foundation: www.cybf.ca

Sky Eye Media: www.skyeyemedia.com

TalentEgg: www.talentegg.ca

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