How this free mentoring program is helping Victorian small business owners redo business plans and get a new perspective

Sabina Vitacca Meditate Now

Meditate Now owner Sabina Vitacca. Source: supplied.

Melbourne business owner Sabina Vitacca has a new business plan thanks, in part, to a free mentorship program being funded by the state government.

Vitacca is the owner of Meditate Now, which she has been running since 2008 as a sole trader. 

A mindfulness and meditation coach, speaker and facilitator, Vitacca is based in Moonee Ponds, where she runs virtual programs and offers one-on-one coaching for executives and professionals. 

But back in March, when the coronavirus took hold in Australia, Vitacca says her corporate workshops offering took a hit as would-be participants shifted their priorities, reduced spending and saw their workplaces change overnight with the move to remote work. 

“Some businesses migrated online, but I found this wasn’t at the same fast pace I’m used to, and instead decided to focus on supporting our community to build resilience, reduce overwhelm and lessen the impacts of isolation during this challenging period,” she explains. 

Some six months later, the Victorian government announced it would fund a new small business mentoring program for business owners like Vitacca.

The $10 million program is being delivered by the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) in a bid to help businesses find a way out of the current crisis.

According to figures provided to SmartCompany, more than 1,300 small businesses have applied for the program, which offers up to four, free two-hour mentoring sessions to eligible businesses over a period of three months. 

Of the more than 1,300 applicants, 209 have been matched with one of 90 mentors that are participating in the program. 

Vitacca is one of them, and is now halfway through the program. 

“I’ve found the whole experience to be excellent,” she tells SmartCompany

The program has a number of components, starting with an initial meeting between the business owner and their assigned mentor. 

The mentor then develops a “detailed action plan” for the business, and helps connect them with support services, including financial counselling and mental health support if needed.

The pair then meet again for three follow-up sessions over a period of three months, with the program structured to look at five key areas: business recovery; market transformation; digital literacy and engagement; market and supply chain diversification; and reskilling and retraining.

For Vitacca, the first two sessions with her mentor from Gippsland-based company Aerium have been an opportunity to go back to basics. 

Back in April, Vitacca created a free, five-day mindfulness program, which has been running twice a month, as a way to “continue to support our business community”. 

But having worked with her mentor, Vitacca has now decided to move from offering a free program to exploring a corporate sponsorship model, identifying an opportunity to help businesses offer a program to employees that helps “guide, support and enable them to use mindfulness tools and tricks”. 

“I think it’s important to take ideas on board from experts and pivot to create a more sustainable business,” she says. 

“I’ve reworked out a business plan, aligned to our changed environment, and have been supported to create my five-day mindfulness proposal plan to present to organisations.”

Bharat Sood Minuteman

Minuteman owner Bharat Sood. Source: supplied.

Making connections

Bharat Sood, owner of Minuteman Press in Essendon, has also completed his first session with a mentor from Aerium. 

Sood started his business in 2016 and currently has two employees. The printing franchise has been able to stay open even during Melbourne’s strict lockdown, although engagements with clients have been limited and Sood says he’s changed opening hours too. 

Sood says the first mentoring session was an opportunity for him to introduce the mentor to his business and help them build an “understanding of what my business is”, with the next three sessions to go into more detail, including on strategies to try and even potential plans to expand the business into different areas. 

This is why he was motivated to apply for the program, he tells SmartCompany

“To get a perspective on how we can go through these trying times, and what different things we can do,” he says. 

The mentoring program is demand-driven, which means there is no cap on the number of businesses that can participate. 

Registrations are still open for small businesses with fewer than 20 full-time employees. Sole traders are able to apply, as are companies and businesses that operate as a trust or partnership. 

Public companies and charities are excluded from the program, as are businesses that do not intend to continue operating in Victoria. 

Commenting on the program, Victorian Minister for Small Business Jaala Pulford said many small business owners do not necessarily have the chance to meet and form connections with mentors but “there could never be a better time to change that”. 

“This free program offers one-on-one sessions and produces an action plan, and I encourage businesses from across Victoria to consider if it could help them,” she said in comments to SmartCompany

“There is no handbook for a pandemic but there are experts that can help businesses adapt their strategies and operations.”

More information about the program is available here.

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