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So You Want to Build a Startup?

10 tips from some of Canada’s top entrepreneurs

Only half of new Canadian companies survive past five years, and only a tiny percentage become global success stories.

Tiff Macklem, the dean of the Rotman School of Management, has been thinking and writing a lot about how to improve these odds. He doesn’t believe Canadians are lacking in education or innovative ideas. But he does think we have a problem converting ideas into products and services that people – lots of people – want.

Where is Canada’s answer to Spotify (the music streaming service first heard in Sweden) or Skype (founded in Estonia)? “The crux of our problem is commercialization and scale,” Macklem says. In his view, what Canadian startups are missing is great business judgment, which, as he points out, is not easy to acquire: “A new venture cannot simply go downtown and purchase a unit of business judgment,” he says.

To address this, the U of T Entrepreneurship network of incubators, accelerators and programs, including the Rotman School’s, are connecting fledgling companies with expert mentors to provide the kind of hands-on advice they’ll need to get through those perilous first few years – and, with any luck, eventually compete on a global scale. For this feature on startups, we asked several of U of T’s – and some of Canada’s – top entrepreneurs to share a lesson they learned on the path to success.

No. 1: As an entrepreneur, the best product you can build is yourself

Headshot of Allen Lau

Allen Lau (BASc 1991, MASc 1992) is the CEO and co-founder of Wattpad, an online story-sharing community with 45 million monthly users. 

In the early days of Wattpad, Allen Lau had everything under control. He and co-founder Ivan Yuen had come up with the idea, developed the technology and written the code. They now waited for readers and writers to flock to it and advertising revenue to pour in. It took a while. That first year, 2006, Wattpad had barely a thousand users.

Over the next couple of years, however, interest grew and so did the company. But Lau discovered that while he was proficient on the technology side, in other skills – marketing and publicity, raising capital – he was less competent. Or as he puts it, “I was horrible! I realized that if I wanted to scale the company, I had to scale myself.” In other words, quickly acquire new skills with each phase of the company’s growth.

Illustration of three women, the leftmost one wearing a hardhat and rolled up papersWhen Wattpad needed more employees, Lau suddenly had to learn through trial and error how to hire people, then how to delegate. When the company required more than one engineer or marketer, he needed to hire team leaders, which meant he had to become a leader himself. “And that’s a very different skill set.”

Approaching investors required different expertise again. “When I approached 40 potential investors, 39 said no,” Lau says. “It wasn’t because the idea wasn’t good but because I failed to communicate it.” With practice, his pitch kept improving.

As Wattpad grew, Lau’s job shifted to communications and strategy. Now with a staff of 130 and with 45 million monthly users (even CanLit star Margaret Atwood has published new work on the site), Wattpad has moved toward becoming a global entertainment company, partnering to co-produce original Wattpad stories for movies and TV.

“It’s almost like every year I’m getting a new job, which can be very daunting if you’re not good at self-learning,” Lau says. — Marcia Kaye

No. 2: Find a business idea you feel passionate about

Headshot of Cynthia Goh
Cynthia Goh is the academic director of University of Toronto Entrepreneurship and the founding director of U of T’s Impact Centre, a business incubator. A serial entrepreneur herself, she has assisted at the births of 136 startups.

From her unique perspective as a serial entrepreneur and a mentor, Cynthia Goh looks for a certain special enthusiasm as a major predictor of success. “The most important thing is passion. Not for making money, but for the idea.” No matter how awesome your business concept, she says, if you don’t believe in it strongly enough you’ll give up at the first obstacle. “Being an entrepreneur can be a tough road, so you’ve got to be fuelled by passion.”

She cites a recent U of T success story. Adrenalease sells performance clothing that realigns posture, and Goh credits the infectious enthusiasm of founder and president Noureddin Chahrour, a kinesiology grad, for the company’s early achievements. “He is obsessed with muscles and how they function,” Goh says. In 2015, that passion helped persuade four of the five venture capitalists on CBC-TV’s Dragons’ Den to offer him deals. — Marcia Kaye

No. 3: Get an advanced degree, and set audacious goals

Headshot of Kristjan Sigurdson
Kristjan Sigurdson (MA 2013) is the associate director of the Creative Destruction Lab and a PhD candidate at the Rotman School of Management. Launched in 2012, the Creative Destruction Lab’s nine-month program pairs startup founders with experienced technology entrepreneurs and investors. The program, based at U of T’s Rotman School, is designed for early-stage, science-based technology companies.

Having an advanced degree and setting audacious goals for your startup gives you three important advantages, says Kristjan Sigurdson. First, your deep expertise gives you the credibility to go into a meeting with investors, teach them something about the future of science or technology and convince them that you can meet your goals. “If you do that successfully, they’re probably going to want to take another meeting with you.”

Second, it enables you to hire others with deep expertise in your field. If you have an MBA but no experience in quantum physics, it’s difficult to recruit someone with a PhD in quantum physics, Sigurdson observes. “It’s easier to learn how to run a company than it is to become a leading expert in a field.”

Illustration of a paper degree on top of a graph of an arrowed line showing growthThird, when your company trajectory invariably changes – because of an obstacle you couldn’t anticipate – it’s easier to adapt if you have a deep well of knowledge to draw from and a network of like-minded experts to help you.

Sigurdson offers the example of a founder working with the Creative Destruction Lab whose audacious goal is to build a next-generation quantum computer that uses off-the-shelf components and works at room temperature (most quantum computing research is conducted at low temperatures). The founder has a PhD in quantum information theory and a large network of collaborators in multiple countries. “If he just had an undergraduate degree in physics and a faculty adviser – or an MBA and a business plan – he wouldn’t have lasted long in a room with investors,” says Sigurdson. “And the audacious goal will help him to attract the top-notch talent he’ll need to succeed.” — Scott Anderson

No. 4: Accept that sometimes you’ll be unlucky, and move on

Headshot of Daniel DebowDaniel Debow (MBA/JD 2000) is a serial entrepreneur and an adjunct professor of law at U of T. A member of the teams that founded Workbrain and Rypple, Debow and his partners sold Rypple to Salesforce in 2012, but Debow stayed on for three years to oversee emerging technologies. He is currently building a new startup,

“One of the most important lessons I learned,” says Daniel Debow, “was from David Ossip (the founder of Workbrain). It was the power of the word ‘unlucky.’”

Early in his career, Debow collaborated with Ossip (BA 1988 UTSC) on Workbrain – a workforce-management software system for companies with a large number of hourly staff. After 18 months of development, they’d finally landed British Airways as a customer and Ossip was planning to attend an airline conference in order to pitch new clients. But the day he was scheduled to travel was Sept. 11, 2001. He never got to the conference, and the terrorist attacks sent the aviation industry into a years-long tailspin. No one was buying new systems.

“David just said, ‘unlucky,’ and we went off and built another plan.” The point, Debow says, is that entrepreneurs like Ossip don’t dwell on unforeseen disasters; nor do they spend time obsessing over what went wrong. “I learned you have to take the world as it is, not as you wish it to be,” reflects Debow. “Stuff happens. You have to respond.” — John Lorinc

No. 5: Spend at least one day a week cultivating relationships with investors

Headshot of Anthony LacaveraAnthony Lacavera (BASc 1997) is the founder and chairman of the Globalive Group. He also founded Wind Mobile, which was sold in 2015 to Shaw Communications for $1.6 billion.

“It doesn’t matter how good your technology or your team is,” says Anthony Lacavera, who, in the past 20 years, has founded a dozen startups – mostly in telecommunications and software. “If you have no capital, someone with technology or a team that’s not as good but who has capital will beat you 10 times out of 10.”

Lacavera advises entrepreneurs to continually build relationships with investors by talking to their existing ones, asking for referrals to new ones and cold-calling potential ones. He’s done that for years, and that’s why he was able to raise $700 million to start Wind Mobile in 2008. “Wind succeeded not because I’m a great salesperson or had an unbelievable business. It’s because I was able to raise the capital,” he says. — Marcia Kaye

No. 6: Test out your ideas in the real world. Don’t get caught in analysis paralysis

Headshot of Toni AllenToni Allen (BA 1998 UTM) is the founding partner of R3VE Business Design Inc., which specializes in user experience and business innovation.

For entrepreneurs pushing themselves to create a unique product, there’s always a powerful temptation to devote too much time to perfecting a solution, and not enough to getting it out the door. The lesson, according to Toni Allen: “You lose opportunities. You have to get out there and test your ideas.”

Allen’s five-year-old firm, R3VE, provides user experience, service design and business model innovation to large corporate clients, including banks. Early on, Allen recounts, she was developing a product geared at a specific retailer. Allen had identified the right person to pitch and had created a proposal, but waited too long before making her approach, and the ship sailed.

Illustration of post-it notes with scribbles, in front of a sign with the words "make it HAPPEN"This habit of mind – overplanning – came from her days working in a large bank, where she’d sought to convince her colleagues that they needed to focus on the way design and technology overlap in the delivery of financial services. In that setting, she recalls, “I didn’t know how to pitch ideas and make a business case.”

Those early instincts about the opportunity for leveraging design thinking and user experience principles in the financial services market proved to be correct and provided the impetus for R3VE. But her insights only became a viable business when she got herself in front of customers: “When you have an idea, you need to try it and test it. Don’t get caught in analysis paralysis.” — John Lorinc

No. 7: Choose your business partners carefully and communicate openly and honestly with each other

Headshot of Sonya AminSonya Amin (BSc 1999, MScBMC 2003) is the director, client services, of AXS Studio, which she co-founded in 2004 with Eddy Xuan (MScBMC 2003) and Jason Sharpe (MScBMC 2003). With 15 employees at its downtown Toronto office, the company creates visuals for teaching science and life sciences, including illustrations, animations and interactive applications.

In hindsight, says Sonya Amin, she was lucky. She and her two business partners share the same goals for AXS Studio and their individual strengths complement each other. But they didn’t spend much time planning it that way, she admits. “We went into it as a dream that three classmates shared when they were in school.”

What they did have was trust in each other – crucial for a relationship that, like a marriage, will be sorely tested at times, says Amin. “If you don’t trust your partner with your life then you shouldn’t be getting into business together.”

Amin says the ability to speak openly and honestly with each other is paramount – a lesson the AXS Studio founders learned when it became apparent that they were not aligned on how they defined growth for their company. “We had to have a candid conversation, and managed to get to the heart of the matter: AXS’s goals needed to be aligned with our rarely discussed personal goals.”

This realization prompted the partners to emphasize open and clear communication with their employees as well. “When we hear of anyone talking vaguely, or if we suspect that people might be working at cross-purposes, we stop and look at it more closely,” she says. “This has helped in lots of different areas from human resources to day-to-day production.”

Amin credits the U of T biomedical communications program with enabling students like her, with an aptitude for both art and science, to make a career out of their dual loves. The program is also very practical, she says, adding that staff recommended clients when she and her co-founders launched AXS Studio. “They’re amazingly supportive of their students.” — Scott Anderson

No. 8: Don’t mistake expressions of interest from potential customers as evidence that you’ve tapped into a viable market

Headshot of Karl MartinKarl Martin (BASc 2001, MASc 2003, PhD 2011) is the co-founder and chief technology officer for Nymi, a tech company that allows users to gain access to their devices by wearing a wristband that detects their unique heart pattern.

Throughout 2015, executives for Nymi, a Toronto firm that’s developed a wristband security device, were doing the rounds, talking up their technology to potential customers. At meeting after meeting, recalls Nymi’s co-founder Karl Martin, they’d hear the same thing: we love your technology, which allows wearers to log onto a range of computer devices by detecting unique heartbeat patterns, but we need more features and capabilities.

As Martin recounts, he and his team were energized by all that interest, but they had big challenges taking the next step, which was to really figure out how to hone the positioning of their device to fit the needs of specific users. Indeed, says Martin, it was only after Nymi started getting orders from pharmaceutical manufacturers that he realized what the stumbling block had been. In ordinary office settings, there was no way to compel employees to wear the wristbands. But in the controlled environment of a manufacturing facility, where workers are required to wear sterile and protective gear, that problem evaporated. And so did the sales roadblock.

The lesson, Martin observes, is that many entrepreneurs whose startups are transitioning from research and development to marketing glom onto the slightest spark of interest from potential customers as evidence that the firm is ready to lift off. “Recognize that you usually think you have a product-­market fit before you actually do.” — John Lorinc

No. 9: Be prepared to act quickly when faced with a big challenge

Headshot of Kim ShannonKim Shannon (BSc 1980 Victoria, BA 1986 Victoria, MBA 1993) is the founder, president and co-chief investment officer of Sionna Investment Managers, which has assets of $5 billion.

As Sionna Investment Managers has grown over the past 15 years, says Kim Shannon, so has her need to be adaptable. “You have to keep nimble as issues emerge because you never know what’s around the corner.” One of the most significant challenges happened when her biggest client – a fund company representing 90 per cent of her business – asked her to lower her rates for them. “We fired them,” Shannon says. A risky move indeed, but she knew that working with a difficult or controlling client didn’t fit with her long-term goals for the company.

It was a tense time, but a brief one. Soon other interested companies began approaching Sionna. “Before, those companies hadn’t wanted to be secondary clients,” she explains. “But once the big one was gone, we had people coming to us. They actually admired us for what we’d done.” Sionna quickly diversified its client base and expanded the business. Ultimately, Shannon mended relations with the big client and she now includes the company’s stock in Sionna’s portfolios.

While she was a student at U of T, Shannon served on student council, launched a women’s newspaper and started a peer-counselling program. She credits her volunteer activities for building her skills in organization, leadership and collaboration. “If you have volunteer experience, your career progress will be much faster,” she says. “Many successful people I see in business were once student leaders.” — Marcia Kaye

No. 10: Skate to where the puck is going

Headshot of Michael SerbinisMichael Serbinis (MASc 2001) is the founder and CEO of League, a digital health insurance platform. Previously, he co-founded Kobo, the e-reader service.

When League CEO Michael Serbinis thinks about the long-term goals for his company, he envisions a trillion-dollar global market. “Our goal,” he says “is to disrupt an age-old insurance industry with a new philosophy focused on empowering people to be healthy every day.”

As the head of a startup, though, Serbinis needs to balance his long-term ambitions with the smaller challenges he and his team face every day. As with all startups, League staff are building product, hiring and firing staff, landing the next customer, making payroll, meeting investors and more. “It never stops,” says Serbinis, “and it is pretty easy to get caught up in the short term.

“But you have to keep your eye on the prize. I do that by having very clear long-term objectives that I repeat over and over to myself and the team. We regularly review our plans and brainstorm: What’s it going to take to meet our long-term goals? What are the risks and what are the opportunities?”

Illustration of a woman's face on the bottom-left looking up, and three dotted straight lines in different colours above, running upward from left to right and ending in arrowsSerbinis says it’s important to make bets on the future. “As CEO, you cannot be consumed by today. You need to be putting in place the infrastructure that is going to help you scale. You need to be setting up enablers that will help your team three, six, nine and 12 months out.”

Reflecting on his time as a grad student at U of T, Serbinis says his supervisor was Joseph Paradi, an engineer turned entrepreneur who built Dataline, one of the first digital stock-quote platforms in Canada. “He was my mentor at a time when I had no money and I didn’t know what being an entrepreneur meant or how to lead or manage teams,” says Serbinis. “He inspired me and we still keep in touch to this day.” — Staff

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  1. One Response to “ So You Want to Build a Startup? ”

  2. Paulette Dennis says:

    This edition of entrepreneurial dos and don't is most timely. I have recently switched from the medical illustration profession that I have worked in since graduating in '95 to illustrating stories with my paintings. My husband and I have combined our talents and have produced a book about our travels in Costa Rica. We are learning as fast as we can about self-publishing and marketing. Thank you.