Small business transformation through digital acceleration

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Communitech sign on building

By: Krista Henry

Small-and-medium-sized businesses reap the benefits of digital transformation from tech-savvy young talent. Through the Digital Main Street program, students assist businesses with digital tools to help them transform.

Working with Communitech, Arts and Math students from the University of Waterloo find creative solutions to help businesses stay competitive in a virtual world. “Communitech focuses on supporting and growing the tech ecosystem,” says Stacie Dunlop, head of people and culture, Communitech. “We use Waterloo Arts and Math students as the foundation for creativity for everything from design to software development.”

People listening to speaker at Communitech eventStudents work in teams that consist of a digital marketer, copywriter, UX/UI web designer, graphic designer, web developer and business analyst. The projects take place over four weeks with businesses such as retail shops, independent restaurants and cultural organizations.

In under a year, the Digital Main Street program (primarily 
ShopHERE and Future Proof programs), have supported more than 5,000 of these businesses. Students have spent half a million hours in the program being coached by experienced team leads.

These talented co-op students play a key role in transforming revenues, strategy and online presence. 
“Our students have reached new and existing customer bases through digital channels which helps grow revenue,” said Mustafa Nabelsi, DMS program manager, student operations at Communitech. “They refined business models, created marketing strategies and enhanced digital assets.”

 "We were blessed to be partnered with such a dynamic and wickedly-smart team of young professionals. They were a pleasure to work with and kindly dealt with our lack of digital literacy. They rebuilt our website and helped us with SEO issues. They produced assets that will take us to a new level, helped us promote our not-for-profit in a professional way and, without doubt, helped increase awareness and donations."

- CHERYL COTTRIL, co-chair of Huron Shores Hospice 

Skills for business growth

Communitech values the incredible analytical and technical skills of these students as well as their creativity and agility. “We work with hundreds of different businesses and each one has its own set of challenges. The students’ ability to understand the problem and contribute to the solution is a major benefit,” Nabelsi said.

“The businesses each have different levels of digital maturity which requires the teams to be creative. They bring fresh perspectives that the business owners wouldn’t have considered,” Nabelsi added.

For example, Arts student Dana Grace MacMillan brought new ideas when she both worked as a graphic designer to re-brand a music store and then helped to promote and refine a sugaring hair removal business. As a web designer, Math student Devin Zhou transitioned a music shop’s website to accommodate online sales. He also worked with a wellness coach to optimize her social media channels.

For Descendants of Beer and Beverage Co, a Digital Mainstreet participant, the students have been great to work with. "I am so grateful for the work they completed, the research they provided and the effort they put into it. With the pandemic we had to lay off most of our staff, so it felt amazing to have a team to bring this project to life and to have other people to help me make decisions and offer guidance,” attests Bonnie Nethery, general manager, Descendants Beer and Beverage Co.

“The team listened to our business needs and brought their expertise to help our business. They took our content and ideas and presented them to customers in new ways I never would have thought of,” she added.
Since Fall 2020, Communitech has hired approximately 80 University of Waterloo co-op students for three-month contracts, some of which are being extended due to their high-tier skills and talent.

Tips for digital transformation

As Generation Z enters the workforce, they bring communication, technical skills and marketing talent that will drive further change in the digital space. Here are four tips our co-op students learned about managing transformation:

1. Try a variety of platforms

“I worked with a photographer who wanted to promote her business online. We tried a variety of tools to introduce her business on a new social media platform. After watching a few TED Talks on similar businesses, we tried Tik Tok - a growing social media platform. She was able to give lessons on how to take photos using her work samples.”

 - Justin Chik, digital marketer and Economics student.


2. Authenticity is key in reaching audiences

“For an auto shop we worked with, we focused mainly on Google ads as most people look for recommendations from others. We encouraged customers to give their feedback and leave a Google review so other potential clients could see that this was a trustworthy business.”

- Justin Chik, digital marketer and Economics student.


3. Leverage data and research for stakeholder engagement 

Devin Zhou headshot

“Before presenting to the client, we were able to analyze their data and the information they provided. We built our buyer personas for their business – that is who is buying
 their products, their age group, and what’s happening
in the industry. That way, we can create a plan that is dedicated to reaching their audience.”

 - Devin Zhou, web designer and Math student.


4. Teamwork and delegation drive projects forward

Dana Grace MacMillan headshot

“We recognized early on that we had mini experts in each area of the team who could come together to make these projects work. You have to recognize the skill set of others, learn from each other and let each person take charge of what they are best at.” 

- Dana Grace MacMillan, graphic designer and Arts student.

Read more about the students’ perspective of working on this project in this feature from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Toronto’s newsletter.

emily headshot

We can help you find the right talent. Get in touch with Emily!  

Emily is a Business Developer for the University of Waterloo's co-operative education program.
She can provide you with guidance and answer questions you may have about hiring from Waterloo.
Phone: (226) 220-1766