Lots of great business advice and learning from successful entrepreneurs were on offer at The Art of Entrepreneurship conference, held in early October. I noted three strategies emerging from various speakers that speak directly to scaling a business in any sector, including tech companies.
1. Start with culture
“Start with culture — you can copy everything, but you can’t copy our culture” according to Eric Ryan, CEO of Method, the #cleanhappy people. Why? Because it’s who they are, and it’s also what makes them successful. They have what he calls a “speed bump” in their hiring process where they give candidates a homework assignment that not only pertains to the specific job they are applying for, the homework assignment also includes a question about “How will you keep Method weird?.” That’s inviting a level of individual authenticity, and creating a quirky workplace culture that brings out the best in people — creating a high performance team. And that can’t be copied.
As a business grows, the leader’s focus is “shifting from marketing and sales, to leadership and culture building,” according to Gary Vaynerchuk, founder and CEO of his own social media brand consultancy and long-time entrepreneur. Of his online wine retail business, he says “I built a family, the relationships and ties are still there.” Having such a team frees him to speak and write, sharing his learning with business audiences. “How do you create family members? You learn everything about them, what makes them tick, what they want. Are you willing to listen and give 51 per cent of the relationship to them?”
From the local panel perspective, Drew Greene of Shop.ca, says the e-commerce software firm don’t hire “employees,” it hires “partners,” explaining “we take very seriously that we’re making a long term commitment to do the work to get the right people to create the culture we want for our business.”
All three speakers speak to a focus and purposefulness about culture that is rare in entrepreneurial and small businesses. Given their business success, culture is an aspect of business worth paying more attention to.
2. Embrace your mistakes
According to Debbie Travis, CEO of Debbie Travis’ various enterprises and a true entrepreneur in the home decor products and media sector, the “best ideas come from making mistakes. Success comes from solving those mistakes.” Her advice is to “learn and take advice from other people you meet along the way to find those solutions.” As a household name and one of the most recognizable personal brands in Canadian business, clearly she’s learned from and moved well beyond mistakes.
Michael McLay, CEO of Rockport Networks in Ottawa, and a member of the Entrepreneur panel at the launch of Dell’s new program for Canadian entrepreneurs (see more about it below), says about his experience in growing, scaling and pivoting to further scale his company which enables enterprise data center networks to become massively scalable. His advice: “Step through it, keep moving. You’re going to have doubt. Allow yourself to fail and pivot. Don’t stop.”
From a technology business perspective, one of the more entertaining and insightful speakers was Alexis Ohanian, Co-Founder of Reddit, one of the first class of companies at Y-combinator and one of Tech’s Top 50 companies. As an investor now in a portfolio of more than 80 companies he advised a company who recognized their “mistake” in limited thinking and pivoted to get to where “They thought of themselves as a tech company, not just a ‘service’ or ‘product’ company and began to ask “how can we make this business grow using software?” A mindset shift I also addressed in a previous post on entrepreneurship.
And although not aimed at learning from failure, but on preventing it Ohanian is clear: “The second you start paying attention to your competition, is the second you stop innovating and start copying.” He says what’s important is to “Focus on your product. Build something that people want. Build a real relationship with real customers. The most important thing is writing code, creating product, creating a service — and actually doing it. Not ‘playing house’ with brand, funding etc.” Having the wrong focus, now that would be a mistake.
3. Engage big partners
Drew Greene of Shop.ca had very big goals when he start his Canadian retail shopping platform. He told the audience that it was “bold to walk into IBM to build something uniquely Canadian,” but that has been part of his philosophy of partnership – only to partner “up” with businesses that have been very successful. In addition to IBM, he spoke to his partnerships with KPMG, as one of his most important decisions, and the value of partnerships with key players Aimia (aeroplan) and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE). Such partnerships “can save you years, millions of dollars” in scaling your business.
Also on the Toronto entrepreneur panel, Catherine Graham, CEO of commonsku.com says her partnership with Dell, and in particular the Dell Women Entrepreneurs Network (DWEN), has been valuable in scaling her software business, which grew out of her promotional products company Rightsleeve. Building on her partnership with Dell, Graham joined the Canadian Dell Advisory Council for Entrepreneurs and lent support to the launch of Dell for Entrepreneurs at the conference.
Kevin Peesker, president of Dell Canada says “entrepreneurship takes the determination to do things a better way. We believe that innovation is a critical component of growing a thriving business.” Through a dedicated microsite, Dell.ca/Entrepreneurs, the new program supports entrepreneurs to scale their businesses with resources in four main areas: learning events and programs; access to technology; access to business networks and for qualifying businesses, access to Capital. “We’re committed to supporting start-up businesses that leverage technology to fast track growth.”
Taking the partnership strategy even further, the Dell Founders 50 program is now available to Canadian entrepreneurs for CEOs and founders who are game changers in their sectors. The exclusive two year program brings together 50 companies in each spring and fall cohort, to accelerate business through technology and global networks, including a concierge service from Dell to provide high level access to the Dell team and business partner networks to massively scale businesses.
As evidenced by the conference sponsorship, more than ever, large companies are seeing the potential in the entrepreneurial sector. Aligning with and taking advantage of those companies’ offerings for entrepreneurs is a key business strategy for scaling a small technology business.