Sarah Kalnay-Watson, a Win Your Space winner in 2017, inside her Let Me Knot flower shop in August 2019. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
The final of Yellowknife’s Win Your Space contest, designed to promote new businesses in the city, has been scrapped amid low participation.
On Monday, a City spokesperson confirmed to Cabin Radio a grand final planned for City Hall on Thursday has been cancelled. Winners are still expected to be named, though it’s not clear when.
Just three contenders had fulfilled all the criteria to make it through to the final, the spokesperson said. In past years, at least three major prizes have been awarded.
Win Your Space was first held by the City in 2017. Last year, the contest had 13 semi-finalists and five finalists.
“It is not anticipated that a live finale will proceed for Win Your Space YK 2019,” said spokesperson Kerry Penney by email.
“This year, the competition saw four applicants attend workshops and networking events. With their newly acquired knowledge and resources, three participants created and submitted business proposals,” Penney wrote.
“The jury is currently evaluating the final business plans that were submitted. We will make formal announcements once the jury has made its final decisions.”
Penney did not say when that might be. The three remaining contenders are YZF Phone Repairs, Phage Therapy, and Fat Fish NWT.
“It was not necessary to proceed with a live finale as the jury indicated that it is able to make its decision based on the details included in the business plans submitted,” Penney said in a follow-up email on Tuesday.
Rob Warburton, a co-founder of real estate investment company Cloudworks, is a judge and sponsor of Win Your Space.
He attributed this year’s apparent drop in numbers to a “natural cycle.”
“It was super booming and big when it first ran,” said Warburton, using Sarah Kalnay-Watson’s entry – the flower shop and wedding planning consultancy Let Me Knot, which took second place in 2017 – as an example.
“But there are only so many places to incubate in town. So there’s going to be a cycle,” said Warburton. “Will they do it again? I don’t know, that’s a City question. But it’s been really good at incubating businesses so far.”
Winning entries get a year’s free leased space in downtown Yellowknife alongside a range of other incentives and freebies from sponsors. Contenders placing second and third get money toward their lease costs alongside other perks.
‘Not just a game’
Mayor Rebecca Alty said the City would now take time to study the progress of Win Your Space.
“We’ll have to do an evaluation to see if it’s an every-year program or maybe it’s every-other-year,” said Alty, suggesting future programs might offer more workshops in the evenings, as some would-be contenders had been unable to leave their jobs to attend daytime sessions.
“It’s not just a game,” said Alty. “Sometimes, I think we can think of it like that, but it’s basically a life-change to get into business.
“Sometimes people realize they are not ready yet. Making sure you are ready to launch a business is better than rushing into it.”
This year’s nine semi-finalists ranged from a children’s clothing boutique to a fish restaurant and a technology repair store.
However, one entrant not to reach the final was Makerspace YK, a group which pitched a space for Yellowknifers to come together, create, and innovate.
While Makerspace YK was listed among semi-finalists, the group told Cabin Radio it had since been removed from the contest by the City.
“We were initially told that being a non-profit was fine as long as we could put together a business plan,” Rylund Johnson, a Makerspace YK co-founder, told Cabin Radio by text.
“Then after going through the competition and taking place in all the workshops, we were told we didn’t qualify because we’re a non-profit. This is correct as per the competition rules. However, not what we were initially told.”
Johnson said Makerspace YK had even changed its corporate structure to try to meet the criteria, only to be told the group did not qualify.
Business plans ‘a lot of work’
Kalnay-Watson, interviewed at her Let Me Knot store on Monday, said her business had grown like “a whirlwind” since she took the second prize in Win Your Space two years ago. That earned her a $5,000 credit toward her leased space in Warburton’s Cloudworks building.
She remembered the creation of a business plan for the Win Your Space finale as a demanding, intensive process, and could understand why so few entrants might make it that far.
“When they’re talking about a business plan, they’re not talking about two to three pieces of paper,” said Kalnay-Watson. “It is doing your expenses, your projections for the year, where you want to be in five years, what your business ethics are, how are you going to run your business, what kind of machinery are you going to work with, what kind of suppliers you are going to work with.”
Her finished business plan ran to 27 pages with full financials and sales projections. “It was a lot of work,” she said, even though there had been support available – but the process was worth it.
“If you make it to those finals, that’s a lot of exposure within the city for you, so it’s kind-of like free marketing,” she said.
“Any money to help you with the start-up of your business is beneficial. Having my first month-and-a-bit paid for by my wonderful landlord and sponsor of the event, Cloudworks, that helped massively. Because then you’re not worrying about … how am I going to pay my rent?”
Kalnay-Watson, like Alty, suggested Win Your Space might fare better if held every two years rather than annually.
Warburton, meanwhile, said the contest’s struggle to reach its own finishing line this year did not necessarily mean a gloomy time for small businesses in general.
“There’s a … feeling in Yellowknife that things are kind-of on the down and business is hard and downtown is rough. And these things are all not untrue,” said Warburton.
“But there are a lot of people trying a lot of really interesting things and being very adaptable to whatever is happening.