Starting a new business can be a daunting endeavour. Questions of should I, can I, and where do I begin, are often at the forefront of the entrepreneur's mind.
For Kat Stephenson, the idea to start a dog obedience service sparked similar questions. The idea came out of her childhood passion for animals and a first love for farm dogs, which led Kat to pursue dog training as a hobby and become a qualified dog trainer through the Australian National Dog Trainers Federation (NDTF).
With a background running a retail business, and despite earning all the necessary canine training credentials, Kat felt uncertain about taking the leap of faith from the known into the unknown.
Friends and suppliers encouraged Kat to sign up for the Co Starters programme offered by Venture Centre – a charitable organisation dedicated to entrepreneurship support.
The nine-week programme brings together entrepreneurs to equip them with the insights, relationships, and tools needed to turn ideas into action. The workshops are facilitated by a local expert and include collaborative discussions, guest speakers, and the sharing of knowledge on topics such as business structures, accounting, customer analysis and growth plans.
Kat says the programme was a fantastic opportunity to test her thinking.
"It was step by step and made me think more in-depth about my value proposition, financials and what the costs might be. It also gave me the opportunity to meet other start-up business owners and to network with them in a no criticism environment.
"We were all coming from the same place, so feedback was constructive. Venture Centre have a wealth of connections and introduced me to others who would have honest but positive conversations with me."
Since graduating from Co Starters, Kat established Dogs Are Us (dogsareus.co.nz) and has grown a loyal customer base while pursuing her passion full-time and making a career out of it.
"Having a novel business idea like mine isn't easy, and there are lots of naysayers out there who say it will never work. But Venture Centre is different. If you want to test your business idea and you have limited connections, then Venture Centre fills that gap. And not only are they there for you at the beginning, but you can go back again and again to get the support, encouragement and feedback you need."
Venture Centre was established in 2014 after a study by the University of Waikato and Enterprise Angels saw a need for a supportive ecosystem for grassroot entrepreneurs in Tauranga.
The organisation provides mentoring, programmes, events and networking for people at the start of their entrepreneurial journey, helping them find the answers they need, the confidence they seek, and the networks that can help them grow.
Pascale Hyboud-Peron, Venture Centre Co-founder, says people are at the heart of what they do.
"There are multiple challenges compounding in our region all the time. If our fellow entrepreneurs can help solve the problems that matter to them, then the region will benefit. This is really the core of what we do – helping people make their way on their entrepreneurial journey.
"It is about creating more equality for people. Business skills are very much locked within certain confines of privilege. What matters to us is how we can unlock this fundamental right to stand something up and do it for yourself, your family and community."
Pascale says they do this through a unique support system that enables people to learn by doing.
"Those that come to Venture Centre are not sitting down to learn something theoretical or abstract. They are getting practical step-by-step support, as we help them flesh out and self-audit their idea.
"We are open to everyone, and meet people where they are at – walking with them, not for them. We build people so they are maybe ready to go to an accelerator, or raise investment for their idea, or write a business plan to get a loan. Many come in at a point where they don't even know what that looks like. People come in, go away and make progress, and then come back at that next stage for help – we are there along the way."
With an increasing desire for individuals and businesses to have more social impact through what they do, Pascale says more people are seeking support on how to adapt to meet this goal.
"Since Venture Centre was established, we have supported 2,800 entrepreneurs. Over half of these people are putting their purpose before profit. There are very few people that don't have a strong heart-driven reason to start the business in the first place, to have some impact on people or planet. We help them identify the true purpose of what they are doing – unpeeling the idea to get to the bottom so we can build it back up to be something meaningful."
Venture Centre sought TECT funding earlier this year to help cover their operating costs. Pascale says the $40,000 approved was a great recognition of their work.
"It's fantastic to know we aren't doing this alone, that the wider community and TECT is there with us. When you are working at the grassroots end of the spectrum, it's not easy, but we do it because we are passionate. It can be quite a struggle worrying about where the next dollar is going to come from as we aren't selling a service.
"The funding has been so helpful in allowing us to deliver more. We were able to redo our website for instance, and now have a front door that is more relevant – demonstrating what we provide and the impact we are having. We've had an influx of people coming through since Covid, and they are coming through the website. TECT's funding has not only helped us on a practical level, but it has also unlocked support from other funders. We are so grateful for that."
TECT Trustee Tina Jennen says Venture Centre's work is valuable for our region.
"An entrepreneur's journey often starts with an idea, and there are many steps and questions along the way before a final product or service can be produced and sold. Venture Centre helps entrepreneurs develop the mindset, toolkit, and network needed to grow purposeful ventures. This is incredibly valuable for our region and will have an intergenerational impact.
"We are so pleased to support the work of Venture Centre for the very first time. They are helping to bring ideas to life while also drawing an entrepreneur's awareness to their own impact – how entrepreneurship can change our community, and our world, for the better."