Ontario Expands Program to Help Main Street Small Businesses Go Digital

Digital Main Street provides grants, advice through BIAs, creates ecosystems
October 15, 2018 Updated: October 15, 2018

OTTAWA—After succeeding in Toronto, Digital Main Street (DMS) is rolling out to the rest of the province, the Ontario Business Improvement Area Association (OBIAA) announced at Shopify’s headquarters on Oct. 15.

It’s Small Business Month in Canada and through a partnership between the Province of Ontario and the OBIAA, DMS will provide grants of $8 million over two years and advise eligible main street businesses on improving online promotion, selling, and operations. It aims to make small business more competitive in today’s digital era.

“Historic main streets are truly the backbone of Ontario,” said Kay Matthews, the OBIAA’s executive director.

Like tech has its thriving ecosystem, main street is developing one too, with business improvement areas (BIAs) and soon-to-be-formed digital service squads. These squads consist of digital tech specialists who will deliver one-on-one assistance to main street businesses.

The province-wide rollout has been a year in the making, said Matthews.

“The most exciting thing about the project is that it is all unique based on what their needs are because not one business is the same as another,” Matthews said in an interview.

In two years, over 6,000 businesses have been come through DMS in Toronto. In his experience, John Kiru, executive director of the Toronto Association of BIAs, said 20 percent of main street businesses have no clue on how to digitize their operations. Another 20 percent really get it and need no help, and 60 percent make up the “mushy middle”—brick-and-mortar firms that need some help moving into the digital era.

Given how the smartphone has changed the way people shop, bank, and travel, main street business has to change how it caters to them.

The last thing a small business wants to see happen is what fate the Swiss watch industry, Sears, and Kodak—to name a few—suffered. They did not change with the times.

Kiru said the goal is to “create educated individuals in the small business world … make sound decisions of who, how, what to purchase on their digital transition—and to stay in business.”

Getting Going

Eligible small businesses will do an assessment that identifies their strengths and weaknesses as a digital operation. They then create a digital transformation plan, undertake eight training modules, and can apply for a grant.

Small businesses can get a $2,500 grant to offset the costs of website design, hardware, and additional training.

BIAs and municipalities can apply for a $10,000 grant to train and implement digital service squads, to work with their local small businesses.

The OBIAA is working with BIAs and municipalities to create partnership clusters. The BIAs can vet service providers for small businesses. In Toronto, students can even get academic credits for working on digital service squads, thus gaining valuable real-world work experience.

The program is a big vote of confidence from the province for BIAs, which have been around since 1970. They are set up by geography, representing the local main street as a community and closely tied to the municipality. Ottawa has 18 of them and Toronto has 83.

“This project will have some longevity. We’ll be able to add up the metrics and show how our businesses have improved through their reporting with these grants,” Matthews said. “So we’re also going to be able to say look at how much this project has actually helped our small businesses increase the economy of the province.”

Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETBiz

Follow Rahul on Twitter: @RV_ETBiz