#TechVAN speakers share lessons on getting through early-stage startup hurdles

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Converging at the offices of Mobify in downtown Vancouver, nearly 200 of the west coast’s technorati came out at the close of January to hear from the startup doers, makers, and shakers at TechVancouver.

Once again, we were on the scene to get some of that useful advice promptly out and onto the interwebs.

The connecting thread from all of the speakers introduced by Pindie Dhaliwal of Skyrocket: there’s a reason some clichés about the tech business (or other kinds of business) become clichés: they’re effective.

Find good people and build a culture

Back when Tradable Bits co-founder and CEO Darshan Kaler was first thinking about creating a startup, his first hurdle was how to start. “Just start doing it,” he said with a smile, explaining that a prospective entrepreneur can always find an excuse to keep planning.

On moving forward, his next challenge was getting the team together. “I had to find the right partner,” Kaler said. “You want to find someone smarter than you, who can keep you on your toes. You need someone who is different from you, so they can fill the gaps where you’re weak. And you need someone who works harder than you,” – so that they can always push you harder by example.

As the company scaled up, Kaler and his executive team made the decision to stay in a cozy, undersized workspace, to take advantage of what he called the watercooler effect. Just being in close proximity for informal conversations spontaneously boosted collaboration. “We were able to innovate at a rapid pace thanks to that, compared to a kind of company that has 100 or more people.”

Persistence is great, but pivot when necessary

Jean Lozano, CTO of MediaValet, built a successful brand that provided full-service photography to the biggest hotels in the world. But as technology changed, this creative company faced a huge challenge: digital photography was booming and quality photos got ever-bigger in size, so how could they offer easy access to those photos to their clients? Ultimately, they had to pivot from a photography company into a company that manages digital assets, dealing with many terabytes of content.

“When you find your niche, you’ve got to bet on it. This is the hill you’ve got to be willing to die on.”

Building a successful company didn’t happen overnight, or without the odd unforced error. Their first mistake, as their hotel clients requested the ability to access their digital files in a self-serve manner? Buying an inexpensive piece of digital software that seemed to do the job, without seeing if it was scalable. It wasn’t.

The first client that tested out the software loved the features being offered – but ultimately, when their entire marketing team tried to access their digital assets, the software crashed.

MediaValet switched gears, buying an enterprise solution based off of extraordinary performance claims from salespeople – but ultimately, the technical team implementing the solution put a stop to that (“Our salespeople said the software could do whaaaaaat?”). Lozano got a refund, but they were no further ahead in solving their clients’ problem.

Their next strategy was to build a SaaS solution themselves, in the cloud — and there, they’ve found success. The lesson? All companies make mistakes, but the key is to pivot fast when something isn’t working.

Find your niche

ResponseTek‘s startup days are long behind them and they now have a large company that manages a global customer base, providing an end-to-end customer experience management solution.

Thinking back to his early days with the company, ResponseTek VP of client services Chris Randall explained that finding your niche is harder than you might think.

Sure, that target market might be clearly stated from the founder from day one, and even written into the business plan. But in three, four, or five months, your target customer can easily become whoever will pick up that phone and not hang up right away.

A stint providing real-time feedback (long before today’s social tech was on the scene) for the Vancouver Canucks started out promisingly enough, but it wasn’t a really good fit. “When you’ve got a bunch of ‘customers’ and all they have is ideas about how to get Gretzky out of retirement – well, we were out the door,” Randall said.

The company went through a number of rises and falls before finally hitting on the true nature of their target customer: “We needed complex organizations, which care (or should care) about what people are saying. You want that to be everyone, but it’s not…that landed us in mortgages, financial insurance, and telecommunications companies.”

That was the sweet spot that led to bigger success. “When you find your niche, you’ve got to bet on it,” Randall said. “This is the hill you’ve got to be willing to die on, where you say, we have a solution for this problem and if we can’t sell it, that’s on us. You’ve got to build industry expertise fast and spend your marketing budget in one spot…place fewer, but larger bets.”

As your customer’s problems grow, you need to be able to scale up as well

The business of eliminating food waste could be a big business. Jessica Pautsch, co-founder and CEO of Mesh Food Exchange, found this out as her company researched the opportunity for six months. For all the trouble we go through in producing the stuff we eat, we waste 40 percent of it. That’s not just bad for the environment, but also bad for the companies that can’t sell the product they’ve got.

Mesh is an intelligent match-making e-distribution platform for surplus food. They started with big ideas and enthusiasm to match, but “when planning something and then operating it, you’ll encounter humbling lessons,” Pautsch explained. “We realized quickly that the problem was even bigger than anticipated.”

As an example, she pointed to a large food manufacturer that was having trouble getting rid of the ends of cheese logs, which weren’t marketable. It seemed like a perfect fit – but the solution Mesh offered wasn’t yet a complete solution. Their platform could connect that company with dozens of non-profits to take away the product. “But the manufacturer didn’t want to deal with 50 non-profits picking it up. They just wanted to deal with one.”

They soon realized they had to go beyond their matchmaking platform to become a logistics platform as well, involving transportation and storage. “Now we’re pivoting,” she said. “The lesson: be clear on the problem you’re trying to solve…you want to stay true to your vision without drifting into opportunities.”

The next TechVancouver event is scheduled for Tuesday, February 28 at Amazon Vancouver.

Jonathon Narvey

Jonathon Narvey

Jonathon Narvey is a content marketing strategist and BetaKit Senior Editor. Living and working in the heart of downtown Vancouver, he's watched this city's tech hub grow and start to compete on a world-class level. He has learned most of what he knows about tech startups and entrepreneurial spirit by interviewing some of the most innovative thought leaders here and abroad. He's always up for learning something new about the startups, leaders and technologies that are changing our world.