Paul Spence is a business advisor and programme presenter with ThincLab at the University of Canterbury Business School.
What do an image stylist and a home handyman have in common? The answer is that they were both among a group of diverse and highly motivated Work and Income clients looking to improve their situation by setting up in business for the first time. Start Me Up is a pilot programme sponsored by ChristchurchNZ and Ministry of Social Development aimed at supporting their ambitions.
The driver for Start Me Up lay in the sharp jump in unemployment rate after the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown period. With commerce in the service sector grinding to a halt for months, unemployment figures jumped 30–40% in some regions of the country and Canterbury was no exception. Now in 2021 careful management of the public health situation has enabled a surprisingly robust recovery. So with business reopening, we wanted to validate the hypothesis that some of those recently unemployed people might be interested in learning about starting their own business. In startup parlance we call it “eating your own dog food”.
Fast forward to March this year and we had over 100 eager students turning up to a weekly online show presented by myself and Geoff Brash from ThincLab and Kit Hindin from Te Ōhaka. Topics covered included entrepreneur well-being, validation of problem / customer / solution, revenue streams and market channels, all interwoven with personal anecdotes and learnings from the actual prior business experience of the tutors. Then from the original 100 or so, a group of 25 was selected to join an in-person accelerator programme running two hours per week for two months with the original presenters and additionally supported by business performance coach Karl Waretini.
Start Me Up student Vanessa had just begun work as a trainee tour guide when Covid hit. Instead of chatting to customers off international cruise ships, like many others in the tourism sector, she suddenly found it necessary to sign up for a benefit in order to support herself and her ten year old child. But Vanessa had a secret skill, having trained previously in makeup artistry. Through being inspired by working with cancer patient models at a charity fashion event, she wondered if that skill could be repurposed to help other women via an image consulting business. The business course led her to a pivot, whilst emboldening her her to push ahead.
“Without the knowledge Start Me Up has given me, I do not believe my business would have been as viable as I first thought and I would have struggled financially to make it a success,” she explains.
Tradesman Joseph suffered a serious injury that prevented him doing heavy duty work on building sites. During his recovery he began to research the idea of doing light maintenance tasks for property owners instead. With the construction industry flat out delivering the Canterbury rebuild, he realised that it was becoming quite a mission to find tradespeople to take care of small maintenance jobs.
“I enjoy meeting exceptional humans and solving the problems that they are facing with home ownership,” he said.
In particular Joseph enjoys working with elderly folk who need a bit of a hand around the home. Joseph observed that the Start Me Up programme had only strengthened his views on adaptability and persistence. He said he quite liked the analogy used by the tutors that starting up a business venture is a bit like rebuilding the engine whilst still flying the aeroplane. You have to adapt, pivot and constantly assess where your market is heading.
Start Me Up is delivered through a partnership with the Ministry of Social Development and ChristchurchNZ, and facilitated by startup hub Ministry of Awesome, ThincLab at the University of Canterbury’s Business School, and Prosper Professional Coaching.
The programme also receives backing from Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce, Te Puni Kōkiri, Ashburton District Council, Selwyn District Council, Business Mentors NZ and Westpac.