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Entrepreneurs are by nature a carve-your-own path kind of breed, choosing to pursue their own dream, idea or calling rather than follow someone else's vision. At this month's TechTO, the presenting start-up founders were no different.

Beyond forging their own trail, these founders forged it in their own unique way. Whether it was starting, growing or raising funds, this month’s presenters shared how their approach was informed by intuition, purpose and often by just what felt right.

Caitlin MacGregor on Shifting Targets

Caitlin MacGregor, CEO and co-founder of Plum was the first to speak. Plum’s mission is to match the right people to the right roles, and Caitlin shared five lessons she wished she’d known sooner along her journey.

  1. Don’t Waste Time Going after SMBs. Start-ups and small businesses are attractive to service-based companies who see an opportunity to help them run better. What Caitlin realized, however, is that these businesses have little money to spend on services, despite the more than 100 weekly emails they receive from companies itching to help. Competition for mindshare is high, and actual cash value is low. “Enterprise is the answer,” Caitlin said, explaining that there are huge expansion possibilities, fewer start-ups to compete against, breakout success will be more obvious, and there is the potential for multi-year contracts when you shift to this client base.
  2. Go Where the Competition Can’t Follow. Originally in talent acquisition, Plum pivoted to talent management, repurposing their company to an underserved market. There was too much noise and competition in their original space.
  3. Show Your Enterprise Partners the Proof They’re Looking For. In the enterprise B2B space, your customers are looking for certain proof points: Repeatability, how you’re beating out your competition, pricing, pipeline conversion rates, adoption and expansion, and year over year growth rate.
  4. Understand Series A Milestones. In 2010, the average Series A was $6.7 million. In 2019 the average is sitting at $20.7 million. While there are always going to be exceptions, if you’re trying to be inside the box, you’ll have to have $4 million in annual recurring revenue to raise a Series A.
  5. It’s Simple Math: Bigger Funds Need to Write Bigger Cheques. It’s therefore important to understand there is lots of funding in your category – you just have to find it.

Clinton Robinson on Listening to the Right Advice

Clinton Robinson is CEO and founder of Lane, which changes the way people interact with the places they work with. Clinton is a serial entrepreneur, but Lane is his first venture-backed company. Following over a decade of start-up experience, he shared three of his learnings.

  1. Taking Advice. “When you’re starting out, you go through mentor madness,” Clinton explained. “You meet 80 mentors every month — founders, Venture Capitalists, really intelligent people. You have 20 minutes to pitch them, during which they tear your pitch apart. You learn you don’t know how to pitch … and what makes you cry.” Lane took all the advice they received, looked at it, and realized how much conflicting advice there was. “Everyone has advice for start-ups, so be sure you know who is giving you the advice. If what they’ve done hasn’t mapped to your industry or they don’t understand your technology, maybe it’s not great advice,” he explained. Stressing the importance of taking advice with a grain of salt, he admitted that they would have quit on Day Two if they had taken everyone’s advice.
  2. Taking Venture Capital. There are two camps when it comes to taking venture capital, Clinton explained. The first feels that venture capitalists are just going to tell you how to run your business. The other camp thinks of it in a slightly different way, believing, “Hey, there’s a group of super smart people who have scaled all these companies and they’re going to come in and tell me how to run my business. That’s amazing!” This camp understands that smart VC’s are there to help you — they’re not going to invest in a business and then tear it apart.
  3. Building a Team. “You have to build a team of the most amazing people to work for you,” Clinton explained. “How do you convince all these people they don’t want to work for Shopify? How do you convince them to work for your start-up?” He explained that you need to always be hiring — otherwise, how are you going to scale from four to 10 to 35?

Joanna Griffiths on Going with Your Gut

This month’s raise of the month featured Joanna Griffiths, founder of Knix. Established in 2013, Knix has been on a mission to empower women to be unapologetically free. “We do things a bit differently at Knix,” Joanna began. “Including how to fundraise a company.”

Read more about Joanna Griffiths' success story.

Joanna admitted that she walked away from $5 million in 2017 because she had a bad feeling. In 2018, she walked away from $12 million, but, she recently closed an undisclosed Series A. Joanna shared how to create FOMO in your investors:

  • Date First. Spend time with investors before raising money. That way when you’re ready, you’re going to your favourite people, and you can get a better sense if it’s the right match.
  • Be Ready. With your deck, dataroom and determination. Find other founders who have invested money in order to get feedback, share, and anticipate questions.
  • Introductions are Key. By the right person; to the right person. The higher you can go, the better — an intro to a partner is key, and an intro from another founder is the best way to go.
  • Own the Timeline. “The only time I was successful in getting multiple term sheets was when I was methodical about the timeline,” Joanna shared.
  • Understand the Terms. And share with a lawyer. One term sheet she was initially very excited about was filled with so many bogeys that she only discovered them when a lawyer picked through it.
  • Pick the Best Partner, not the Prettiest Ring. Working with a VC is a marriage. You need to make sure you’re going with best partner, not the best valuation.
  • Walk Away If It Doesn’t Feel Right. If you have a great business, perseverance, and are willing to keep fighting, you’ll always be considered.

Ryan Marien on Building Science Literacy

Ryan Marien, co-founder BioRender started his talk by asking what it would be like to discover an industry stuck in the middle ages.

“Imagine you have a great idea, you want to share it with the world, but you’re stuck in the Middle Ages. What do you do? You’re illiterate so you have to find someone to write it down for you,” Ryan opened cryptically.

Ryan had eureka moment when looking at science visuals on the internet. Realizing that many looked like toddlers drew them — even those in published research papers — he recognized the incredible opportunity in creating a standard visual language for biology. Especially because there are 30 science illustrators trained per year to service eight million life scientists.

“Imagine you’re a life scientist and have a great idea and want to share it with the world. You need to sit down with a science illustrator to draw it for you. This is how I realized that life science is stuck in the middle ages.”

Ryan has assembled “an amazing team of the best science illustrators on earth.” He has since added developers and people who liked to solve problems, and together they have created a 30,000 image library that scientists around the world can use.

With an aim to improving science literacy, Ryan said, “We are contributing to a renaissance to follow the middle ages.”

Read more about Ron Spreeuwenberg's success story.

Ron Spreeuwenberg on Leading with a Purpose

Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder of HiMama was the final speaker. Passionate about his business that connects childcare workers to parents, he is also passionate about leading with a purpose.

He started by providing some context. “Let’s look at ourselves in the mirror as a tech sector,” he opened. “Scary things are happening.” He referenced the negative PR some of the largest tech giants out there are experiencing, including the Uber scandals, the suicides in Apple’s Chinese iPhone manufacturing facilities, and the infamous Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. “Tech leaders used to be known as well-meaning, hoodie-wearing developers who are doing great things. That image has given way to ‘capitalist shark.'”

So why should business owners care, he asked? Because Millennials are the engine behind growth, yet are cynical on business ethics. Ron pointed out a few staggering stats:

  • Fewer than 50% of Millennials believe that business leaders behave ethically, or are committed to helping improve society.1
  • Fewer than 40% of Millennials believe business leaders make a positive impact on the world.1
  • Over 80% of Millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause.2
  • Over 70% of Millennials are not engaged or are actively disengaged at work.3
  • Over 70% of Millennials who know what their company stands for plan to stay for at least a year.3

In his company today, Ron lives and works by three core values:

  1. Be a good person.
  2. Work hard and win.
  3. Own positive change.

Ron relayed that in 1970, Milton Friedman — one of biggest proponents of the free market capitalist system — was quoted as saying that corporate social responsibility is a zero sum game. He felt a company’s only corporate responsibility was to grow revenue and profits.

“In 2019 that has changed,” Ron said. “Today, you can absolutely both drive profits and drive social responsibility. In fact, I would argue that you have to as a business.”

“When we sit in a boardroom and look at making a decision about something, we are thinking about revenue and profits. But we are also thinking about our community, our team of people, our customers and our environment. This leads us to make best decisions possible for company. We have also invested a lot in our team, professional growth and culture — all of these things Friedman would argue take away from revenue and profits.”

This approach has worked for HiMama, Ron said. They have tremendous growth, have exceptional ratings, and created an amazing culture because of the genuine, authentic people who like their business and believe in their core values.

Ron closed by encouraging everyone to find their business’s authentic purpose, and to make it official so that your customers, employees and investors are all on board.

The next TechTO is all set for September 16, 2019. Be there to get the inside scoop on what's happening in the tech community, network with other like-minded individuals and hear from tech leaders who have wisdom and experience to share.

Sources:
1. Deloitte, Global Millennial Survey, 2019
2. Cone Communications, Millennial CSR Study, 2015; You need a purpose – without one, you will fall astray.
3. Gallup, How Millennials Want to Work and Live, 2016