#BDCSeries panel says founders need to let go to scale their startups

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It’s always funny to me when founders of companies “get real” with you during panels. These are smart people, to be sure, sharing how they overcame multiple challenges, their insights on the world, and their company journey. Many, however, can fall into the trap of universalization – the idea that because it was their path, it must be “the” path.

Thankfully, the latest event in Venture for Canada’s Scale Up series, hosted with BDC Capital, didn’t have that issue.

Moderated by Ben Bergen of the Canadian Council of Innovators, the panel was at once unassuming yet forceful in the impassioned beliefs of the three founders on the panel. None, however, claimed their way was the right way – merely the path they took based on their own circumstances and beliefs.

The panel, featuring Bianca Lopes, founder of BioConnect; Steven Uster, CEO of FundThrough; and Heather Payne, founder of Ladies Learning Code and HackerYou, was focused on scaling up. The founders touched on the more human and business process elements, giving the audience a thought-provoking discussion with practical ideas.

Scaling yourself

“Being a founder can be lonely at times,” lamented Uster. “You can’t share every decision you have to make with your team…you can’t share the anxieties of it all.”

Far from complaining without a solution, however, he suggested all entrepreneurs find three types of non-overlapping mentors. Business mentors for overall process and founder-related questions, industry-specific mentors to ‘talk shop,’ and personal mentors to act as your “confidential personal board of advisors.” The combination of the three will allow you to grow, to learn, and to vent; a powerful mix when you are building a company.

Payne agreed with the idea of needing mentors, but shied away from the idea that a mentor must be hyper-successful and more experienced. Payne said she has a hard time relating to the advice of some mentors who are “light years ahead” of where she is right now in her business.

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While she does maintain many relationships with wildly successful entrepreneurs, counting Hubba founder Ben Zifkin among them, Payne finds the advice of folks who are “six months to a year” ahead of her helpful because they will have just gone through similar challenges, and the solution is fresh in their minds.

When it came to the crutch of personal growth, Lopes says it’s based in self-awareness. “I knew we were a scale-up when I didn’t have to do everything,” she recalls. “But knowing where to act versus when to step back came from a realization of my limitations. It can be scary [to identify your own shortcomings], but it’s necessary for business growth.” Payne chimed in on this point, noting that the most painful aspect of growing HackerYou was declining other creative endeavors as she focused on what HackerYou needed.

“You have to be okay with letting interesting things fall to the side as you focus on your business.”

Scaling a business

Moving away from the founder mindset of hustle and disrupt, a scale-up requires a focus on process and protocol. It’s necessary to “play way above your weight,” says Lopes.

“We had a situation with a potentially huge client who was asking for very specific and detailed information. I had it all in my head, but we had to protocol and document it all in order to inspire confidence in that client.”

This type of challenge is why it remains crucial for anyone in a growing company to recognize that they cannot – and should not – be making every possible decision. This is painful, says Lopes, when you are concerned that a staff member might have a limitation in a certain area but you cannot step in every time to fix the problem. Instead, as a leader, it becomes your job to continually be aware of your strengths and limitations, stepping in, and stepping back accordingly. You also have to keep an eye for the strengths and limitations of your staff, moving them around as needed or as they suggest themselves in order to best achieve your required outcomes.

Similar to a mindset of process and protocol, Payne noted that-scale ups cannot be penny-pinchers, but instead realize that spending is necessary for growth. She used to question every dollar that went out in the early days of HackerYou, but now she now is far more relaxed with necessary business spending in categories rather than approving specific individual expenses line by line.

Further, she doesn’t even touch all the business decisions anymore. Payne said that another part of growing isn’t just letting the reins a bit more loose on the money, it’s trusting someone else to spend parts of that money without you even knowing – and that’s okay.

Scaling the ecosystem

“You can be successful in any geography,” said Uster. “But in order to make a real impact you have to look beyond Canada.”

This statement, however, does not mean that starting and scaling in Canada is not a good idea.

Our costs of living are lower and our population is comparatively more educated on average than the United States. Given changes in the US, UK, and Europe, our immigration system could be taking in the brightest talent in the world.

But a few things are missing.

We need a mentality of buying Canadian, says Lopes. Buying Canadian does not mean shunning the rest of the world, nor does it mean Canadian companies can’t go international, but it’s nearly impossible for Canadian companies to grow into global powerhouses without support from Canadian customers.

“Founders must be vulnerable, able to ask for help, and be willing to give up on other things in order to focus on the growth of their business.”

From a regulatory perspective, Uster suggests a “passport” system and standardized regulations in industries like financial services or education. That way, a company can become properly regulated in one region, using their “passport” to help them expedite the process in other regions where they want to do business. As regulatory burdens can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up in each region, a standardization process will automatically make the process far more competitive for startups and more attractive for investors.

When it comes to talent, the conversation abounds with talk of bringing in skilled immigrants – and the government is responding. However, this is only one pillar of three that are necessary to build an ecosystem, say Payne and Lopes.

You have to bring in skilled immigrants, surely, but you also have to train and grow the talent already here, and focus on retention. This ensures that our current bout of international luck doesn’t dry up the moment another country becomes more immigrant-friendly, stealing both immigrants to Canada and Canadians themselves.

Scaling founders

When it comes to founders of companies, “they believe they can do anything,” says Lopes. “That belief helps us put up with the crap so we can come out the other side alive. But we are not infallible.”

Founders must be vulnerable, able to ask for help, and be willing to give up on other things in order to focus on the growth of their business.

When it works, it’s brilliant. When it fails, it’s a great learning experience. Without self-awareness and acknowledging your own limitations, however, the rest of it doesn’t matter.

Photo via Twitter

Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a Nova Scotia-based entrepreneur and writer passionate about the people behind tech. He's interviewed over 200 entrepreneurs on topics like management, scaling, diversity and inclusion, and sharing their personal stories. Follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios.

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