Business incubator takes rural focus

Andrew Button started Mashup Lab in 2014 to unleash the rural potential he saw in maritime communities. | Supplied photo

Mashup Lab, which began in Nova Scotia as a way to help rural entrepreneurs, recently offered a course on the Prairies

It worked in Nova Scotia, so why not try it on the Prairies?

That’s the idea behind a business crash course from a Nova Scotia entrepreneur who has helped harness the power of rural innovators across the Maritimes.

“A lot of people have great ideas, but they just get overwhelmed by the process of having to do a business plan, spread sheets and everything else that goes with it,” said Andrew Button, founder of Mashup Lab, which is responsible for helping more than 120 companies get started in Nova Scotia in the last 24 months.

Button spent 15 years in economic development and realized that rural entrepreneurs needed something different than what they were able to access on their own. While community development funding and advice was available, it often didn’t reach far enough down the learning curve to meet budding rural entrepreneurs where they were at.

In 2014, Button decided to take his economic development experience directly out to rural Nova Scotians wanting to start or grow a business.

“I wanted to focus on inspiring people in rural places to pursue their dreams, develop their full potential and lead communities to thrive,” said Button, whose Mashup Lab company now offers entrepreneurial events, rural co-working offices and a virtual business incubation program in various maritime communities.

The latter initiative was what caught the attention of Community Futures leaders in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta. Seeing the success of Mashup Lab in helping to initiate and grow so many businesses in Eastern Canada, the organizations decided to partner to fund a virtual Mashup Lab business incubator program for the West.

“Mashup Lab focuses on unleashing rural potential and business incubation, which matches well with Community Futures as a supporter of rural entrepreneurship,” said Susan Bater of Community Futures Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Some of the participants in the business incubator program communicate with Button, top left, during the final class. | Christalee Froese photo

“Due to the pandemic, in-person training was not available for entrepreneurs so being able to provide this training via webinar worked very well.”

The first Mashup Lab virtual business incubator program was offered in a six-week-session format free of charge this past April and May. The goal of the course, said Button, has always been to have participants leave knowing what their next business step will be.

“My fundamental hypothesis has always been, every idea deserves a shot,” said Button, adding that the incubator program works because it shows entrepreneurs how to evaluate their idea in practical terms.

“For me, success can also be someone going through the six-week process and deciding their idea isn’t going to work because I just saved that person thousands of hours of their life, thousands of dollars and thousands of dollars of other people’s money,” said Button, whose own business is based in the rural New Scotia community of Bridgewater, population 8,500.

Of the hundreds of rural maritime entrepreneurs who have taken the course, many have started or expanded businesses, including Button’s most successful example — a video game tech company in Mahone Bay that sold for US$375 million. He also points to a rural mother of an autistic child who started a float tank business to help her own family while at the same time capitalizing on the area’s need for the service.

The first-ever Mashup Lab prairie program wrapped up on May 4 with the 15 free spots being filled by a variety of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta entrepreneurs.

“We had such an eclectic mix of entrepreneurs offering everything from commercial real estate to indigenous tourist experiences to digitizing photos and videos,” said Button.

Summer Heide, who grain farms with her husband and three children near Moosomin, Sask., took the course and left feeling more confident in her idea to start an on-farm greenhouse business, with homemade preserves and a cut-flower operation.

Summer Heide, who grain farms with her husband and three children near Moosomin, Sask., took the prairie course this spring and left feeling more confident in her idea to start an on-farm greenhouse business, with homemade preserves and a cut-flower operation. | Christalee Froes photo

“I have the skills to grow all of this, but had no idea as far as creating a business and branding myself to build a business on,” said Heide, adding that the greatest take-away was a sense of belief in her business future.

“The program really gave me more confidence in starting a business. It helped me see parts of my business I hadn’t even thought about yet.”

Two of the most beneficial elements of the program, said Button, are the one-on-one coaching offered to all participants during the six weeks of their program, as well as the connections created among the diverse set of entrepreneurs who have the same goal: to grow their businesses and also their rural communities.

“I’ve seen what’s possible and I believe with a little bit of focus on the process of starting a business, there’s the possibility of a better future for everybody,” added Button.

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