Connecting with clients, cultivating talent, developing a corporate culture, listening to good counsel, and holding regular team conferences – those are the secrets to success.
These essential ingredients cooking up a hot tech property were revealed by two founders of successful Canadian startups in the mobile and gaming fields and the head of an investment firm that backs various technology companies.
Funding of course is all important. However, entrepreneurs need to come up with something more than cash if their startup is to survive.
Albert Lai, co-founder and CEO of Big Viking Games and social analytics firm Kontagent; Kunal Gupta, CEO of Toronto -based mobile app company Polar Mobile; and Sir Terry Matthews, founder and chairman of Wesley Clover International Corp., revealed some of the secrets of their success at the Ontario Centres of excellence – Discovery 2012 conference in Toronto last week.
Give workers stock options
Lai says local companies are competing with larger or U.S. based companies that lure away Canadian technology professionals. “I probably spend close to 80 per cent of my time scouting for talent. I am in various employment fares, conferences and university events most of the time,” Lai said.
To get prospective employees to stay in Ontario rather than fly away to some distant location, Lai plays up the career challenges and opportunities that working for Big Viking or Kontagent has to offer. He also emphasizes the diversity, growing tech scene and excellent quality of life of living in the province.
Another great come on, he said, is to give workers a chance to own part of the company. “Offer them stock options. This is something that’s widely offered in the U.S. but not very well known in Canada,” Lai said. “Before heading here I just spent about an hour educating some employees about the value of owning a stock in the company.”
Reading from the same book
Some 40 years ago Matthews parlayed a $4,000 bank loan and a partnership with Michael Cowpland to build Mitel Networks Corp. Since then, he has either founded or funded over 80 companies including Newbridge Networks, a company he founded in 1986 and which became a leader in the global data networking industry.
For Matthews getting everyone on the team to know the game plan is critical.
He believes regular meetings and conferences with various department members is vital in achieving this. “Make top level reports every quarter available to all your team members. By doing this you get everyone on the same book.”
If department heads, managers and their staff are aware of the main goals, Matthews said, they can effectively adjust their plans and activities to meet their targets as far as their area is concerned. “Point the people to the direction you want them to take and then step back and let them do what they’re good at,” he said.
What do you do when people prefer to remain silent during meetings and conferences?
Matthew employs a tactic he calls “seeding”. He feeds some managers questions to ask during the meeting. “This helps get the ball rolling and encourage other people to ask their own questions.”
Then he makes it fun by giving small gifts away to people who ask questions.
Capitalize on counsel from mentors
Matthews was also the older of the three founders, so it’s understandable that he would gun for this one. “Mentors can tell you how to go about running your business and how to deal with many tricky situations because they have been through all that – perhaps several times already,” said Matthews.
But the Wesley Clover founder is not talking about getting sage counsel for your elders. Matthews views the presence of a respectable mentor on the board of a startup as a reassuring factor for many would be investors. “Older, mature people on the board seem to attract investors.”
Cultivating the corporate culture
It was about just a couple of years ago when Polar Mobile started getting known in the industry as one of the most innovative firms to go to when looking for someone to help you deliver advertising content to mobile phones.
To keep the growing Polar Mobile team together, Gupta said it is essential that members buy in to the set of values that the company has developed over the years.
It’s not that employees need to walk around like zombies and toeing the line on the company group think. “Every company has its own corporate culture or values. People you hire just need to be comfortable working with the value your company has,” Gupta explained.
Corporate culture can also evolve over time depending on the workers, the leadership and the business situation. For example, Gupta said, when he and his colleagues were setting up Polar Mobile they were almost working around the clock.
Today, five of the company’s early employees have children that they need to spend time with as well. “So this reality dictates our culture. We develop corporate values that also consider our workers’ families and our workers’ responsibility to them,” Gupta said.
Connecting with clients
This is something that all three experts agree on.
For Mathews of Wesley Clover it’s not just about developing a product or service, but also being able to find a buyer for it. “You need to be able to sell it. Without a sale, you have nothing.”
To achieve this, Lai makes sure that he has a pulse on the game developing market so that Bing Viking is able to crank out products that its customers want.
He is also on the look out for other opportunities and technologies that can support business ventures. For example the analytics platform Kontagent works directly with the Facebook API to provide users with social data visualization and analysis
Even before Big Viking and Kontagent, Lai founded BubbleShare, a photo-sharing site which he sold to Kaboose/Disney in 2007 for more than $2.25 million. But Lai actually sold his first company in his teens when he sold off MyDesktopNetwork in 1997 for seven figures, making himself a millionaire before his 20th birthday.
Gupta says having a clear vision of what your client wants is extremely vital for any business. “Sometimes you might have to do several pivots before you hit the jackpot.”
He said Polar Mobile made the mistake of putting the cart before the horse when they developed their mobile app.
“When we finally developed our product we were so excited and we started making cold calls and showing it off to prospective clients,” he said. “And we were told ‘Looks great. How do you put ads on it?”
“We never thought about ads before. But that’s when we realized where we should take the business,” said Gupta.