By Francis Moran and Leo Valiquette
“Nothing disheartens me more than meeting an entrepreneur in B.C. who says his ambition is to one day conquer the Ontario market,” Anthony Lee, general partner at Altos Ventures and co-founder of theC100, told us in an interview a few months back.
While building a globally competitive company may not be the right objective for everyone, Lee makes a key point. For any venture to succeed, its founders must have a vision that will stretch the boundaries of what they know and challenge what they believe is attainable.
But there is more to this business of entrepreneurship than being able to see, and seize, opportunity. Once a technology innovation worthy of exploitation has been identified, an entrepreneur’s success or failure will depend largely on how ready they are to take counsel and challenge their own assumptions and deeply held beliefs. In other words, are they coachable?
Later in this series, we will test the stereotype that there are different “cultures of risk” from one country to another – for example, between Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. – that impact entrepreneurial success. But in this installment, we will focus on entrepreneurs themselves. It’s about who they see staring back when they look in the mirror each morning, rather than the environment in which they find themselves operating when they walk out the door.
In a past post, John Stokes, a partner at Montreal-based Real Ventures, talked about the difference between “convergent” and “divergent” thinking. Research often tends to be about convergence – having a problem to solve or premise to challenge. Divergence, on the other hand, is looking at all the avenues that could be taken to an objective. According to Stokes, a “good” entrepreneur needs a commercial mindset that is a balance of both to create innovative solutions to existing problems.
Entreprenuers should be ready to question their own assumptions and be prepared to welcome counsel from other experts.
Getting technology to market, after all, is an exercise in sweating blood. Even the most strategic thinker can become lost in the minutiae of the daily grind, caught up in stomping out one brush-fire or another. But from a marketing and product-development standpoint, successful entrepreneurs and nascent management teams must be able to step back on a regular basis and ask the hard questions to ensure they are still in tune with their target market and getting the timing right.
“It is always a good time to bring something to market if you time it right,” he said.
Levering mentor capital
Getting it right is a far less painful and pitfall-ridden process if one seeks out the sage advice and sound wisdom of those who have proven, through their own successes and failures, that what they have to say is worthy of consideration. While PerspecSys’s founders were already experienced in launching a new venture and getting technology to market, they still saw the merits of getting plugged in with organizations that could provide the access to additional expertise, insight and counsel, not to mention sources of potential funding, such as Communitech and the C100.
For Nicole Glaros, a general manager with Tech Stars, a mentor-driven seed-stage investment program that operates in various U.S. cities, this “mentor capital” is often a more valuable resource for a startup than cold hard cash and the best insurance against avoiding the missteps that typically cause a startup to stumble.
“When we see companies at an early stage work with mentors, all those problems end up cut off,” she said. “Talk to as many people as you can possibly humanly talk to … The more people you will talk to, the less pitfalls you will fall into.”
This, of course, also applies to what is happening around the water cooler and within the board room. Much has been written on the subject of how diversity, be it in terms of gender, ethnicity, industry experience or skillset, is crucial to building a strong, dynamic management team.
Having a good balance is very important,” said Campbell. “You need a healthy debate with a diverse team of people who are right and left of center.”
‘Get out there and fail fast’
Success is never guaranteed. Failure, in some measure, is inevitable. In a recent column published by TechCrunch, academic, writer, researcher and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa talked about what makes the culture of Silicon Valley so unique and so supportive of entrepreneurship. While his comments were not intended to define what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur, much of what he said could just as easily be used to describe some of the winning characteristics anyone engaged in bringing technology to market would be well advised to cultivate within themselves.
“In the Valley, techies are far less secretive and are generally helpful to one another,” he said. “Silicon Valley cherishes failure — because people understand that building a technology company requires experimentation; that it takes trial and error to perfect a technology and business model; and that you learn from failure.”
Entrepreneurs must be accepting of their own failures and have the courage to recognize when something has failed or is at risk of doing so. If being coachable is one of the most valuable characteristics of a “true” entrepreneur, then it goes to reason that the most important coach is sometimes your gut, which is often too easily ignored.
It takes grit to step back, take stock and admit that all your time and effort to date may be taking you and your company in the wrong direction, then to regroup and get back to the drawing board without getting discouraged. Failure should be seen as an opportunity for growth.
“Get out there and fail fast,” said Lee.
How has challenging yourself and learning from failure helped you to successfully bring technology to market?
In our next installment, we will collate some words of wisdom that have emerged from our interviews for this series.
This is the seventh article in a continuing series that examines the state of the ecosystem necessary to successfully bring technology to market. Based on dozens of interviews with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, angel investors, business leaders, academics, tech-transfer experts and policy makers, this series looks at what is working and what can be improved in the go-to-market ecosystem in the United States, Canada and Britain. We invite your feedback.