As Goldlist expanded, “We are giving you the superpowers to start your careers and your businesses. We’re helping you find business opportunities through structured serendipity, and aiming to make Toronto one of the best places to start a tech business.” With half the packed room new to the event this October, and the other half back for more, TechTO seems to be clearly delivering on its mission.
Measured Growth Through Patience, Realism and Failure
Fiona Lake Waslander, founder of Skylight, was the first to speak. With 15 years in tech startups behind her, she focused her presentation on early stage company building. Her talk: “Staying Small to Go Big” recounted how and why Skylight decided to stay deliberately small and focus on building their business.
“When you raise money, the pressure to grow quickly is huge,” Waslander began. “It’s very easy to spend money. What’s hard is actually building your business.”
The case for going slow
“The blunt truth is that early on in business you are going to make a lot of mistakes. You may choose the wrong service, product, sales approach, customers… If you have a small and nimble team you can shift easily — a large team is an inhibitor to early stage evolution.”
She explained that Skylight spent a year and a half with only three people, until they sought seed financing. They had to resist the pressure to grow quickly while they had money in the bank — and it wasn’t until they had a clear sightline to a Series A that they started to grow to their present size of 15 people.
Rather than starting out with a flash, they took a measured, three-phase approach to building:
- First phase: Focus on proving there was a market.
- Second phase: Figure out how to address the market.
- Third phase: Test the solution.
There’s Another Animal in the Tech Zoo: the Zebra
Tal Shalit, Founder & CEO of Betterez spoke next. Shalit spoke about his experience building his company, which was formed to solve the severely out-of-date bus industry.
“We had a massive vision, to disrupt an entire industry. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite pan out that way. As it turned out, we were not a unicorn. Chances are, you probably aren’t either.”
Similarly, most companies are not unicorns. So how do you define success early on?
“Plan for a zebra, not a unicorn,” Shalit stated.
Zebras typically generate $5 – 50 million in revenue. They focus on both profits and cause. They help each other, support each other and represent a plurality of winners, rather than single predatory power.
Shalit said he wished he had learned more about zebras early in his career (and clarified that he didn’t come up with the term Zebra — he just feels more founders should know about them).
Three Practical Tips for the Next Zebra Founders
- Focus on real business versus world domination. Have a real, sustainable plan, find the market need and serve it. While your pace of growth might be slower until you have money, you still have the opportunity to create value early on.
- Take a realistic approach to forecasting. Sales opportunities do not pay your bills
- Consistently create value in your community. Think about what you can do to give more to your community and the business there.
He concluded by saying, “Zebras are real, unicorns are not. Make a choice:What do you want to be?”
Raise of the Month: SnapTravel
The raise of the month featured SnapTravel — a messaging-based hotel booking service.
“Commerce should be as simple as chatting with a trusted friend,” said CEO and co-founder Hussein Fazal. “The same way you message a friend, you should message businesses and be able to buy something.”
Having raised over $20 million to date, Fazal shared seven tips for fundraising success:
- Your chart should always be up and to the right. Whether it’s customers, usage, etc., you need your most important metric to be building to the right.
- Look like you don’t need the money. The best way to do this, he says, is to actually not need the money. Rather, your approach should be, “This is what we’d do if we took the money.”
- Build relationships over time. You can’t expect to go from introduction to cheque in 30 days. Relationships are built over months, quarters, even years.
- Amount raised will determine the valuation. If you want to increase your valuation, ask for more money. Most firms want a percentage stake in the company, so if you ask for $1 million, they may value you at $4 million. Ask for $2 million they may value at $8 million.
- Start small, then go big. Don’t scare off investors. Take a measured approach, then build hype.
- Go straight to the partners. You want your time speaking to VC companies to be well-spent, so the sooner you can loop in a partner, even for 15 minutes, the better off you’ll be.
- Pick the right investors. You want people who can help your company and help the brand, and be supportive along the way
Making Something People Love
Joe Rideout, president of Perpetua spoke next about the importance of building something people want, drawing from his experience working on Google +.
“One of the big predictors of company success is team,” Rideout began. “Google + had an incredible team. Another predictor is product. Google + was a beautiful product with sophisticated technology and an immersive, high-resolution experience. The third predictor, which is the most important, is market. This is where we fell short. People already had Facebook and didn’t need another version of it .”
Five pieces of advice for building products people want
- Find pain in a great market. There are lots of potential customers who have some burning pain and your product should address that.
- Launch early and often. Don’t wait until have beautiful solution — you don’t need software. Perpetua’s first version was built in 24 hours and tested on real customers within 48 hours.
- Talk to customers. That’s how you get feedback. You’ve got to sit in on sales calls, visit customers, go to conferences, and build chat into your app for live feedback.
- Measure love. Don’t jut focus on top-level metrics. You really want to measure whether people are getting value from your product.
- Don’t ignore reality. If your love metrics aren’t there, you have to face it. Maybe you have to change your team, raise additional funding, move to a new market, etc.
How Failure is Necessary
Benjamin Sanders, co-founder of Proof, was the last speaker of the evening. Proof is a new company designed to help digitize government. “One thing that governments need to do better is embrace failure,” he began. “As a startup founder, you need to do that extremely well.”
“I’m a failure master,” said Sanders. “We have equated failure to something that isn’t good — but it’s actually inevitable, necessary, and you have to do it a certain number of times. So do it quickly.”
With his first company, he proposed menu-replacing tablets to Applebees. They said no, but gave robust feedback. “They told us 10 different things we did wrong. We went back again and again for three years and eventually won the deal to roll out tablets nationally across the U.S.”
Clearbanc was his second company. The idea was to help Uber drivers get access to capital faster — the problem was, they ran into too many people who were using it as a part time stop gap (so the service wasn’t all that necessary). They experienced a lot of failed experiments along the way but now Clearbanc employs over 160 people. The speed of experimentation and learning from failures has been key to that success.
The next TechTO is all set for Monday, November 18th, 2019.
He also ran in the last federal election and failed in that, too. “I learned a lot there. And that led to Proof.”
Three years later, Sanders is working with governments at all levels across the country. He has developed an ability to pivot quickly and effectively after disproving a hypothesis. “This is your only advantage over other companies,” he said.
The next TechTO is all set for Monday, November 18th, 2019. Whether you’re working in tech, starting a business or looking to break in, swing by to meet, learn and grow within a supportive tech ecosystem.
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