Tips from Founder Summit: how to scale your startup

Forget the word ‘startup’ for a second. How do you scale up a business? Some of the city’s early entrepreneurial hopefuls mixed with seasoned founders and the VC crew from BlueRun Ventures at Vancouver Founder Summit. Hosted at Launch Academy, the event featured panels about how to fundraise, building an engineering team that stays a team as your company grows.

On the panel, experienced founders from Vancouver to Silicon Valley talked about what it’s like for Canadian tech companies to seek funding in the hottest VC market in the world, including Human API Founder and CEO Andrei Pop (who raised $6.6 million in funding in the Valley), and Better Company founder and CEO Tom Williams ($7.7 million in funding).

Canadians raising capital in the Valley

Whether you’re going after seed or A-round funding, you still need a big idea, because big investors aren’t interested in a pure local play, Pop said. “If capital is the constraint to growing your business, what we call the round doesn’t matter. Why is $5 million the amount that’s preventing you from doing what you say you can do?”

“It is a tremendous sacrifice to be building in Silicon Valley. I live in a tiny fucking shoebox.”

Founders need to be able to get into the weeds of how they’re going to spend that capital. “I had a friend who raised $20 million – but he was able to explain exactly how he was going to grow the company, so he got the investment,” Williams said.

Moving down to Silicon Valley to get funding and grow companies does come with a cost, though. “I miss Vancouver Island and wish I could be back there some days,” Williams said. “The cost of living is insane. It is a tremendous sacrifice to be building in Silicon Valley. From a cost of living perspective to quality of life, I live in a tiny fucking shoebox and pay three times the cost of my mortgage for that shoebox.”

But the benefits of being physically close to investors, and rubbing shoulders with them in a welcoming community, can outweigh that particular burden. “Any time a founder tries to get to me, there’s a spirit of helpfulness that exists in the Valley that exists nowhere else.”

Building a culture, not just a company

The next panel on Scaling Engineering included Banjo CEO Damien Patton, Chomp CEO Ben Keighran and Richard Wooldridge, COO of ATAP Google. Every startup could use a few more engineers – and if you’ve got some, you can always use more. But how do you scale up as fast as you need to?

“We added three senior engineers on our product team just today,” Patton said, pinpointing the fast pace of growth in his own firm. “The hardest thing to do in growing that fast is keeping the culture. It’s our greatest challenge to date.”

“Building something on your own, it’s hard to let go. I’ve now started to empower people to pass on our culture and hire.”

Patton argued that the trick is to empower people within your company. “Building something on your own, it’s hard to let go. I’ve now started to empower people to pass on our culture and hire. It’s the one thing I need to change about myself. I see it a lot in early founder startups.”

Keighran faced similar challenges, particularly in his first startup when he was an 18-year old CEO. “We scaled up very quickly. I hired anyone who looked like they could write code, basically. That was hugely problematic. I had an enormous team and a lot of problems on my hands. With my second team I was more careful and when we realized we had a bad hire, we fired fast.”

“In a startup you want everything yesterday,” he added. “How do you do that on scale and still maintain that quality? You’ll make mistakes.”

Many companies are attempting to scale while using remote teams of engineers to get the job done – but this panel at least didn’t see that as a preferred option. “Being together is something important,” Patton says. “We have multiple offices, with engineers spread over multiple locations. We’ve been innovative in communication so that the culture is the same across offices. If I had my druthers, I would build it all in one place.”

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.