Lessons in entrepreneurship from the Startup Canada launch

By Alexandra Reid 

“A million people walk into a bar in Silicon Valley. Nobody buys anything. The bar is declared a huge success.”

Harley Finkelstein, CPO of Shopify, shared that illuminating joke during the panel discussion atStartup Canada. It seemed to resonate with the audience because, aside from it being funny, it identified a serious problem in the way many entrepreneurs run their new companies.

The lesson is that startups will fail if they can’t see past the hype and generate sales consistently. Yet there is a common perception that if a new company garners attention, whether that is through media, word-of-mouth, or otherwise, it will automatically be successful.

While attention and success can support one another, this isn’t a business model on which startups should bet their livelihoods. The focus of attention must always be the needs of the customer.

“Need is the mother of all invention,” declared serial entrepreneur Sir Terry Matthews during his speech. It is identifying need and positioning a product to solve it that enables startups to go to market quickly, beat out any competition and ultimately be successful.

And what a need there was to launch Startup Canada. As a startup itself, it’s nice to see the organization drinking its own medicine. Startup Canada’s success can be accredited to the fact that it is solving a serious need not just in Canada, but in the global economy as a whole. There is a need at home and abroad to support entrepreneurship as a way of creating jobs, improving quality of life and ultimately helping our national and global economies come out of the slump and prosper. And the movement isn’t just about the hype. The leaders behind Startup Canada want to see a return on investment for their efforts not only in the growth of new companies, but in the generation and accumulation of information that can be used to further the entrepreneurship agenda in Canada.

“Entrepreneurs can be the solution to the problems entrepreneurs face,” said Victoria Lennox, co-founder of Startup Canada.

“Nothing like it has ever before existed in the country — a grassroots national movement to celebrate and promote entrepreneurship in Canada,” MC Andrea Mandel-Campbell said to the Startup Canada launch crowd. “If we want our economy to grow and prosper it is going to be through supporting entrepreneurs like each and every one of you here.”

The reception hall was packed tight with entrepreneurs and Startup Canada supporters. As Mandel-Campbell pointed out during her speech, everyone in the room could be classified as an entrepreneur because they took a chance and came to an event to support an organization that has no track record and was created out of the minds of a few ambitious and determined individuals. Fueling that entrepreneurial passion is a goal of Startup Canada, and the palpable enthusiasm in the room was a clear indicator of its immediate success.

Entrepreneurship is a viable career choice

A goal of Startup Canada is to give confidence to young people that they can choose entrepreneurship as a career path. Lennox explained during the panel discussion that Canada’s education system must be set up to inform young people about entrepreneurship. Other panelists explained that starting up a company while you are young and in school can be a good idea. Furthermore, supporting young talent in Canada is vital to retaining it.

Brad LeBlanc, founder and CEO of Momentum Group, said that simply telling young people that they can start their own business is transformational. Passion should be fostered through validation, he said. Simply acknowledging a young entrepreneur in a school newspaper can provide enough encouragement for that young person to push forward with his or her idea. Giving them accessibility to programs that are there to support young entrepreneurs is also crucial.

Sarah Prevette, founder and CEO of Sprouter, suggested that university and college alumni can be the perfect mentors for young entrepreneurial students.

Finkelstein agreed and furthered Prevette’s point. “Starting a business as a student is a great thing to do,” he said. “You have classmates to test your idea, professors who act as your informal board of directors, and you can get recognized in the school paper. And if it doesn’t work, you can just go back to class!”

“The great thing about being young is that you have enthusiasm, great ideas and the ability to think big,” said Garry Zeigler, founder and CEO of eThor.

And, thanks to organizations like Startup Canada, we are starting to move past the idea that entrepreneurship is something you do if you can’t find a job.

“In this country, it’s becoming more celebrated and recognized as a real growth engine behind jobs,” saidBruce Lazenby, president and CEO of Invest Ottawa. “Talent is going to be key and talent is mobile. It is incumbent for us in Canada and Ottawa to express that we are an attractive place to stay.”

Focus on championing entrepreneurs, not the institutions

The entrepreneurs on the panel agreed that one of Startup Canada’s efforts must be to shift the focus from the organizations supporting entrepreneurs to the entrepreneurs themselves. By giving attention to the individual and personal efforts of entrepreneurs, we will impassion them and give them the courage to think big, take risks, feel proud of their work and then give back to the startup ecosystem which they helped to build.

“Startup Canada has a very simple purpose and that is to celebrate entrepreneurship and to make entrepreneurship a much bigger piece of our economy going into the future. We need all of your help to spread that word, to spread the message,” said Dr Adam Chowaniec, chairman of Startup Canada, during his speech. “We need a little bit of your time to connect with the people around you, to connect with the vision and to help us deliver a unified message across the country in terms of what entrepreneurialism is, what it means to succeed and how we can do it better.”

“Ottawa relies on institutions to help us do entrepreneurial things, but institutions get in the way,” saidScott Annan, founder and CEO of Startup Plays. “Doing a startup is like riding a bike. You don’t go to bike school to study. You just get on it.”

Failing is okay

Our Francis Moran will be the first to tell you that it’s a (too prevalent) ludicrous notion that Canadians don’t know how to take risks. But taking risks is never comfortable, unless perhaps you are Evel Knievel. We must teach young entrepreneurs that taking risks is okay, and have the support mechanisms in place to catch them when they fall.

“Canadians are starting to realize that failing gracefully and failing fast should be regarded as a badge of honour,” said Finkelstein.

“We are cushy and comfy in Canada and we don’t want to lose that. To step outside of those bounds is risky,” said Tara Hunt, founder and CEO of Buyosphere. “But perhaps there is some sort of attitude we can instill in the Canadian population that it’s okay to step outside of that comfort zone and take risk.”

Give ownership to your team

We’ve written about the importance of giving your team ownership before, and so it was nice to see that idea given credence by Sir Matthews last night.

“Give the team ownership. Don’t deal with employees, deal with owners,” he said. “New grads have no baggage. They have razor-sharp focus. They work seven days a week when they are given ownership.”

Focus on your brand

Bringing technology to market requires marketing — there is no simpler way of putting it.

“The image is incredibly important,” said Sir Matthews. ”It’s the image, the marketing and the brand. This is something that universities across the country forget. If you don’t have sales you will die. It’s about the brand. It’s about the image.”

Have fun

After starting up nearly 100 companies, Sir Matthews accredited his perseverance to simply “having fun.”

“It’s fun to have a team, it’s fun to go out and grow the business, watch the sales grow, talk to the team members every quarter about what’s going on, and have them participate,” he said.

On that note, why don’t you have some fun, venture out into your community and see what’s happening locally to support entrepreneurship? Better yet, see how you can get involved. Who knows — the people you meet and the information you learn might just spark your passion for entrepreneurship and empower you to startup your own company.

Attendees, what did you take away from the Startup Canada launch?

Francis Moran
Francis Moran
Francis Moran is principal of Francis Moran & Associates, a consultancy that provides business-to-business technology ventures with the strategic counsel required to make their innovations successful in a highly competitive marketplace. Francis can be reached at [email protected].

Would you recommend this article?


Thanks for taking the time to let us know what you think of this article!
We'd love to hear your opinion about this or any other story you read in our publication.

Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

Featured Download

Latest Blogs

ITB in your inbox

Our experienced team of journalists and bloggers bring you engaging in-depth interviews, videos and content targeted to IT professionals and line-of-business executives.