From MacGyver to Mars: #TechVAN’s speakers share startup war stories

He went on to share such lighthearted truths as “Anything Can Kill You”, “Help is Further Away than You Think”, and “You Can Survive on Less”, using dramatic stories from his own entrepreneurial journey to illustrate.

The Hootsuite office was at capacity on Tuesday evening for the August Tech Vancouver meetup, which provided an opportunity for entrepreneurs to network, talent and hiring companies to mingle, and founders to share war stories from the entrepreneurial path.

About 150 people attended the event, which followed the regular #TechVan format of drinks and networking, followed by a community open mic for 10-second pitches.

The feature of the night was the set of intimate stories told by four entrepreneurs in (more or less) five-minute TED-style presentations. Each opened the kimono to reveal the unique challenges and triumphs of growing a startup.

Anything can kill you, help is further away than you think, and you can survive on less. – Mike Gardner, CEO of Agreement Express

Lett founder Vicki Li opened the night, anchoring her talk around the Darwinistic theme of “Adapt or die”. Lett dubs itself a ‘relocation concierge’, a startup that provides relocation services and a home placement platform tailored for corporate relocators. Fueled by the belief that people can now choose to be professional nomads and live wherever suits their lifestyle, the team wants to reinvent the way people find their homes.

Li’s story was one of pivoting, failing, and rising again. She drew from her own experience, along with those from the highest profile tech entrepreneurs – Travis Kalanick and Elon Musk. She finished off with a motivational quote by Musk that can help to drive entrepreneurs through doubt: “If something is important enough, even if the odds are against you, you should still do it.”

Next, the charismatic Dave Savory, COO of Riipen, explained how to build a tech company without a technical team. Riipen provides a digital platform on which employers can present challenges or projects for students to take on, and aims to reduce graduate unemployment by connecting students with industry and eliminating the skills and experience gap between graduates’ abilities and the needs of business.

Savory’s story was one of grit and overcoming demoralizing difficulties you’d hardly believe weren’t taken from a script. For instance, one day after the founders and developers quit their regular jobs to go all-in on their entrepreneurial vision, the developers were offered and accepted new jobs while on the ferry travelling to Riipen’s first board meeting, leaving Savory with no technical team and a $900 bill for an empty Grouse Grind board room.

That may have been a blessing in disguise.  Realizing the belief in the vision hadn’t been diminished by the setback, the founders thought, “Maybe we can focus on the actual building the business around a platform instead of building a platform and hoping business comes out of that.”  What followed was a tremendous amount of, as Savory calls it, “MacGyver-ing” — tenacity, ingenuity, and making do with what was at hand as the situation called for it.

“We just started talking to as many people as possible, anyone who’d listen to us: deans, professors, career centre CEOs, small business owners, and students of course.”  It seems to have worked out.  Savory mentioned Riipen now has 50 schools across North America paying for their services.

Zac Cohen, GM at Trulioo, then stepped up to share startup lessons through an analogy with Crossfit.  For example, the “maniacal support” Crossfitters give to one another from the moment they walk through the door has a place at startups. Cohen said, “If we support our team members properly, down the road they’re not going to need as much support because they’re going to be able to perform at that level, and make those rational, logical decisions that more experienced people do. The types of support that we need to talk about are reinforcing proven historical successes.”

The final presentation of the night was the funny but riveting “Entrepreneurial Lessons from The Martian” by Mike Gardner, CEO of Agreement Express, a company that provides onboarding software for financial services firms. Gardner, a serial entrepreneur, explained that all the lessons you need to learn about being an entrepreneur you can learn from watching the film The Martian: anything can kill you, help is further away than you think, and you can survive on less.

“Everybody is rooting for you as a founder,” he says. “It’s everyone back on Earth saying, ‘maybe we can get that guy off Mars.’”

The next TechVancouver meetup is on September 27.  Early bird tickets are available now.

Jonathan Woods

Jonathan Woods

Jonathan Woods is a business and technology journalist, ghostwriter, and communications consultant in Vancouver. He has been a contributor to Techvibes, and has consulted on tech-related communications projects such as the British Columbia’s 2016 #BCTECH Strategy.