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Accelerator Making Windsor Entrepreneurial Launch (And Landing) Pad

Monday, May 01, 2017


Published on: May 1, 2017 | Last Updated: May 1, 2017 10:40 PM EDT

A little over a year after moving his one-person startup out of his in-laws’ basement and into a rented desk and chair at the Downtown Windsor Business Accelerator, Usman Mughal was helping his rapidly growing staff unpack and set up at their new Ottawa Street digs.

Witeck Solutions, an Internet sales and marketing company, grew from Mughal, working solo at a bare-bones desk in the Accelerator into a full-time workforce of 22, with a Toronto sales office and plans to expand into Detroit this summer. Last week, Witeck was honoured as New Business of the Year at the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce 27th annual Business Excellence Awards.

The idea and the young man’s confidence were there already, but until he stepped into Windsor’s Accelerator at 720 Ouellette Ave., in January 2016, Witeck’s founder said he didn’t have a clue about how to start, operate or grow a business nor whether there was even a market for what he wanted to do to make his living.

“It was perfect. I got a place to sit, an Internet connection and a professional address,” Mughal said of his first “hotdesk” next to the Accelerator’s reception desk, in an open room next to others with their own great business ideas but no money.

It wasn’t the physical space, he said, but the people surrounding him who made the difference and helped launch Witeck on its entrepreneurial path to success.

“This is a creative hub — different people with different ideas interacting with each other in a business ecosystem,” said Arthur Barbut, the Accelerator’s managing director.

Mughal said he felt overwhelmed thinking about all the little things needed to get his business established, from registering the company and trademarking a licence to marketing, advertising, getting help with financing and growing to meet client demands.

All of that can be handled at the Accelerator, a one-stop shop for getting a business launched from scratch — “anything you need to start up,” said Barbut.

“My mindset changed with the networking. … Everyone helped guide me,” said Mughal. That included attending regular workplace gatherings — including Bootstrappers Breakfasts where problems and solutions are shared — networking with others and bouncing questions off established business owners eager to share advice.

“The most important thing we’re doing for Windsor is changing the culture and the way people think — ‘Yes, you can do it,'” said Barbut. Some of the most successful business people in the area serve on the Accelerator’s board and as mentors.

Last year, the 21 companies hosted by the Downtown Windsor Business Accelerator who responded to a recent survey reported generating about 50 direct new jobs in the city. That’s on top of the more than 500 jobs and $10 million in regional economic impact the Accelerator estimates it generated in its first five years.

Conservatively, Barbut said new tech positions have at least a triple multiplier effect in generating new jobs in the community.

In its six years, the Accelerator has graduated about 20 companies, with 30 others currently still based at the Ouellette Avenue location. “Half of those, I don’t think they’d be in business without the Accelerator,” said Barbut.

Mughal started simple. A well-paid white-collar worker with Irving Oil, he did a little tinkering on the side, creating web pages for the pizza business next door and for a children’s play business run by a friend.

Dreaming of the possibilities being his own boss, he was soon at the Accelerator and a $75-a-month hotdesk. Within a month, he had five projects on the go and had graduated to a shared “open desk” with a Mac system and $180-per-person rent. It didn’t take long to move up to his own office, getting help along the way in the form of St. Clair College graphic design interns.

“You see the potential, and your ideas and your dreams grow. It was a really, really good learning curve,” he said. Despite its new Ottawa Street location, Witeck retains a presence at the Accelerator, and, as with those who helped him, he remains a member and said he’ll now be a mentor to others. 

“People see Usman and ask, ‘How can I do that?’ People with an idea hear about us and now have a place to go,” said Barbut.

Windsor almost lost that place to go. In December 2015, the Accelerator folks, barely surviving on a shoestring budget, sought a $90,000 investment from city council to help pay the rent and expand. They were rejected, with Coun. Paul Borrelli even suggesting they go get help from their families. An Indiegogo fundraising campaign helped keep the doors open.

“We didn’t die, and now we’re at capacity, and we did it at zero marketing budget,” said Barbut. But city hall’s apparent lack of interest left a mark.

“I will not ask the city for money again,” he added.

Just down Highway 401, London saw it differently, and that city’s tech sector, barely a thought a decade ago, has since ballooned into an economic juggernaut.

“It’s the fasted-growing employment sector in London, and tech is now the fifth-largest sector of our economy,” Mayor Matt Brown said.

“It’s one of my favourite topics. … It’s an amazing success story,” Brown said of the so-called digital-creative sector. He said many of London’s approximately 300 startup companies began the same small way: “a couple of people working in their basement.”, begun as a husband and wife team in 2004, recently moved its more than 100 employees to a new world headquarters in downtown London. With more than 1,000 new tech jobs added last year, Brown said his city is now home to about 11,000 in the sector, double the figure of just five years ago.

“These jobs are well-paying and attracting young people,” said Brown, adding the tech boom addresses two issues, with London’s population older than the Ontario average and with Londoner salaries lower than the provincial average.

Brown said his city has been investing to make its core a more attractive and inviting place to live and work. The tech sector is now being credited with helping revitalize London’s centre.

While Windsor “doesn’t have that ecosystem yet,” Barbut said the city has the same potential to transform into a hub of innovation, especially given its location directly across the river from Metro Detroit, now home to almost 5o business incubators (which help with business startups) and accelerators (which help with quickly growing those startups) working to develop entrepreneurs.

Barbut said his organization has been reaching out across Canada and the United States and is preparing to launch a “game changer” to grow businesses and jobs in the local tech sector by partnering with innovation hubs outside the region.

The A2X Project would see the Downtown Windsor Business Accelerator act as a “landing pad” for American companies seeking to expand into Canada, and as a “launching pad” for companies on this side of the border looking to expand into the American market.

With close ties to what’s happening in Detroit, Barbut said Windsor is the perfect staging point for such companies, with instant access to a network of binational services, everything from angel investors, lawyers and accountants to marketers, programmers, software developers and social media experts.

“I’m getting calls already from Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal — companies looking for a Windsor landing to launch into the U.S. … It’s happening already,” said Barbut.

Mughal said he would have liked to have started his venture years ago but didn’t know how.

“What changed? The ecosystem — I discovered the Accelerator,” he said.

Mughal laughs when asked what’s best about working for himself.

“It’s a myth that you’re going to work on your own. You’re working for an employer or for the client,” he said.