Dragon’s Den with a twist

After five months of mentoring UTS M4 (Grade 10) student entrepreneurs Andrew and Caleb on their youth-run social media marketing start-up, Onova CEO Victor Li ’11 turned the tables and hired them.

“We’ll be BitMark Consulting’s very first customer, and also their test, so they can tweak things as I give them live feedback along the way,” said Victor, who planned to have the team analyzing competitors and writing optimized LinkedIn posts that drive website conversion for Onova, a consulting company he co-founded that uses tactics like innovation sprints and corporate incubators to drive innovation acceleration within Fortune 500 companies.

The BitMark Consulting team of M4 (Grade 10) students Caleb and Andrew learned entrepreneurial skills during the after-school Timeraiser Accelerator Program (before COVID-19).

Timeraiser Accelerator is Dragon’s Den with a twist

Victor’s mentorship of Caleb and Andrew began with the UTS Timeraiser Accelerator, a new after-school start-up program with a twist. “Instead of vying for venture capital investments in traditional Dragon’s Den style, four teams of aspiring student entrepreneurs pitched their tech and social innovation ideas for mentorship time from UTS alumni volunteers,” sais Dr. Cresencia Fong, who managed the Timeraiser Accelerator in 2019-20 as the Head of Teacher Learning, Technology and Research at UTS.   

Before you pitch, you must prepare. UTS brought in Educational Consultant and Entrepreneur Joseph Wilson, to share his wealth of expertise as the former education lead at MaRS Discovery District with students for the 2019-20 after-school program. “The theme that ran through all five monthly sessions is: ‘how do we test our ideas quickly and for as little money as possible?’ before we put time and money into them,” sais Joseph, who had the students interviewing potential customers to learn what they thought of the business and create prototypes to test with real people. “Investors don’t invest in ideas, they invest in projects that are already started, so you’ve got to start.”

UTS students taking part in the 2019-20 Timeraiser Accelerator learned from Educational Consultant and Entrepreneur Joseph Wilson, who shared his wealth of expertise as the former education lead at MaRS Discovery District to help them get ready for pitch day (before COVID-19).

Four student start-ups

Joseph had Andrew and Caleb cold-calling 70 businesses to help them refine their business proposal. “When I first tried to start BitMark on my own, I’d try to start a business, try to get a website running and contact people,” said Andrew. “What Joe helped with was systematic planning for the business and spending time with the research to see what businesses need from a youth-led marketing firm.”

The four student entrepreneur teams learned from each other as well: “There were a lot of really creative minds in one room where everyone had a similar mission in trying to improve their community,” Andrew said. “One group, Armol, was trying to develop a chemistry initializer software and while the Terra Collection (@theterracollections) was trying to help with environmentally sustainable clothing. Everyone in that room was really innovative.”

Pictured here are members of other initiatives in the Timeraiser Accelator, including the Terra Collection, who planned to give landfill-bound clothes a new life by selling upcycled clothes, and eko, who planned to partner with non-profits in India to help people upskill their credentials (before COVID-19).    

The fourth business was eko, which planned to partner with not-for-profits in the Dharavi district in Mumbai, India to develop talent in various fields by providing education to people looking to upskill their credentials.

Pitch day

Virtual pitch day! M4 (Grade 10) student Andrew delivers part of BitMark Consulting’s pitch, which won him and Caleb valuable mentorship time from volunteer UTS alumni mentors for their youth-led social media marketing firm.  

After months of preparation, Caleb and Andrew made their pitch to six successful UTS alumni volunteers with extensive entrepreneurial experience on April 27, with a focus on the idea that as youth and social media experts they can help business truly engage the younger generation through social media. Their value proposition: “BitMark Consulting provides bespoke social media solutions to attract younger customers, while saving time and money.” Their ask: 30 hours of mentorship time, broken down into 10 hours each for tech, marketing and sales mentoring.

After some live feedback from mentors, Caleb and Andrew won the crucial investment of mentorship time, from Victor and also Elvis Wong ’11, the founder and managing director of Innovate Financial Health, a national non-profit focused on advancing technology solutions to improve the financial lives of Canadians. With Victor, they effectively received two mentors in one, as it wasn’t long before they were also working with his co-founder and COO Helen Yin as well.

Mentorship opens doors

“One thing this experience has shown me is it’s really not easy to start your own business,” said Caleb. “You really have to work for it. You have to put together long lists of clients. You have put the hours in to cold call and cold email people.” Victor opened up so many doors for them, he says.

Andrew added that Victor also gave them “some really nice ways” to develop leads, such as doing free social media audits for customers that turn cold leads into warm leads, and really in-depth sales engagement. And then he offered to become their first client.

Expediting your career path

For Victor, mentoring was a chance to connect back with UTS, which he called an instrumental part of his development. “My entrepreneurship started maybe not so late in the grand scheme of things, but I definitely wish I was exposed to things at an earlier age, even at the high-school level. If I’d been exposed four or five years earlier, I think it would have helped expedite my own career path.”

He found that as a mentor you take as much as you put in: “Now I feel invested in seeing where their company goes.”