At the Metabridge conference in Kelowna this month, 15 startups pitched their businesses and connected with investors, mentors and VCs from Silicon Valley. Throughout the event, there were plenty of insights into the tech community. But the behind-the-scenes activities, breakout sessions, and networking events were where some of the deeper learning happened.
So what did we find out? Leave your ego at the door, because a lot of good things come from asking others for help. Just make sure you don’t ask VCs for their advice.
Collaborate and share knowledge
One lesson Silicon Valley has already learned is that marching toward success is best done together. As an entrepreneur, you can’t be expected to know all aspects of your business, so bringing in people to collaborate with is vital to your business surviving its first year. It can also be lonely as you’re starting out, so it’s important that you build a network of supporters and mentors.
“It’s not about pitching on stage and getting VCs to write you cheques,” said Metabridge founder Steve Wandler. “It’s about building up your network and finding people that will support you and your business.”
It’s something that Sage CMO Santiago Solanas is extremely passionate about. He explained that companies that start up with advisors have a survival rate three times higher than companies that don’t have support. He emphasizes that successful people are usually willing to help.
“People don’t think they can access the right advisors, but often the people that have been there and done that are willing to give their time and are willing to give back,” says Solanas. “You don’t have to be tied to them forever, sometimes at the beginning, it’s people that provide you with support. The people who you need to help you scale are not the people who started at the beginning. It’s about knowing when a friend goes back to being a friend.”
Help comes from surprising places
The government isn’t the first resource that comes to mind for startup support. But Minister of Technology, Innovation and Citizen Services Amrik Virk, giving an overview of the rise of the local technology scene in a location most people associate with wineries, tourism and agriculture, aimed to change the perception that the government isn’t a valuable resource.
“We are the one economy in the country and in North America that have shielded ourselves from economic recessions because we diversified our economy, and tech was one of those areas where we made the strongest diversification,” says Minister of Technology, Innovation and Citizen Services, Amrit Virk. “We formed a tech ministry, and we listened to the sector. We made sure that every new degree in the tech area had to have a co-op education, and we’re one of three jurisdictions in the world that introduced coding for K-12.”
The BC Government is putting its money where its mouth is — it’s currently funding a new building, the Okanagan Centre for Innovation (OCI) in downtown Kelowna, to support local businesses. The state-of-the-art building — currently in development — aims to bring the community together and attract and retain talent in the region. The OCI will include retail and dining space on the first floor, and the second floor will be occupied by Accelerate Okanagan, Okanagan College, and will house entrepreneurs and government funded not-for-profits with spaces for meetings and networking.
Be clear about what you want
Results Junkies’ Paul Singh said if you want free advice, there are two ways to get it. One is to start a company — or to have a kid. When you do either of those things, everyone wants to talk to you about it. The trick, he urges, is not to ask for advice, but to ask crisp questions.
“I think the default state of every company is failure, and the only people that can turn it around is the founding team. What I also mean by that is that I can’t step in your business and fix it. This is why I also believe — don’t ask for advice. Everybody’s got advice,” said Singh. “A lot of your people will tell you that you shouldn’t do that and you shouldn’t do this. It’s like asking, ‘What are you going to do?’ versus what you shouldn’t be doing.”
It’s key to be clear about what you want to know, both to yourself and others, and be methodical about the way you ask your questions. Everyone has opinions, so you’ll need to learn to steer your advisors back to the point, firmly if you need to.
Build for the future
Being innovative is about having to courage to try something new and “crush the notion of mediocrity” according to The Alacrity Foundation co-founder Owen Matthews. But being successful is about thinking ahead and this area is where you’re going need the biggest help.
“If you’re trying to prove to a bunch of people you were right, you shouldn’t be a CEO,” said Matthews. “Knuckling down to prove it is a terrible thing to do. What you need is traction. Learn from the market and grow and change.”
Solanas also stressed the importance of investing in a company’s infrastructure early on. “Many companies download a free CRM, or a free accounting system as a small company and they think they can get away with that,” said Solanas. “The problem is that when you start to grow, you don’t have time to worry about the supporting systems, you need to be paying attention to growing the business. You don’t want to be tied down to tax issues and legal issues, you need to invest time in the idea and being with the customers.”
Once you have a product, sales is the most important part of your business, said Singh. “A fatal mistake is running out of money. Every quarter, look at your hiring plan. Try to cut the number of new hires in engineering and reallocate them to your sales team.”
One insight we can all take away? “Say no more than you say yes,” said Singh. “Start from a position of no. What are you good at? Do that, say no to everything else. Features, meetings. You should be attending ten industry events to every one networking event.”
Metabridge’s organizers are already looking forward to next year to help the next batch of winners who get to rub elbows with the American VC crowd: “Just apply. You won’t regret it!”