Archives for category: Lean Startup

Laughter and Catharsis Second Social Entrepreneur Failure Wake

After having seen the first Failure Wake in September, I knew that it would hard to improve on the event. The emotional punch of the stories combined with the energy of the room to give the entrepreneurs just the right level of support and cheer.

Donalda Weaver. Photo by Julia Doro.

Donalda Weaver. Photo by Julia Doro.

Last Monday night, RADIUS held its second Social Entrepreneur Failure Wake, and it was just as good as the first. Although each speaker had a very different style and type of business, they each embodied the spirit of the Wake, sharing openly and candidly about their mistakes and lessons learned. They either had us in stitches and almost in tears—and sometimes both—as theirs stories unfolded on the stage before the crowd of 180 people.

Donalda Weaver was the first to go. She shared the story of how she and her sister started East of Main Café on East Georgia Street in Chinatown. The Café was intended to support their nonprofit Project Limelight, a very worthy cause that works with disadvantaged children on performing arts. Donalda shared how the Café overcame a series of hurtles just to open. Once open they faced new challenges with staffing and nearby construction on the street made it nearly impossible to get to their restaurant.

Despite their best attempts and much more time and resources sunk into it, they ultimately decided to close the Café when they concluded it was no longer helping to fund Project Limelight. They are currently looking for the right partner to take over the location.

Brieanna Ingram. Photo by Julia Doro.

Brieanna Ingram. Photo by Julia Doro.

Brieanna Ingram spoke next. Brieanna grew up very close to her younger sister, who she recognized as exceptionally gifted. When she learned that her sister had ADHD (or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder), Brieanna discovered her personal passion. She pursued a degree in special education and founded a tutoring company specializing in providing her customized curriculum to children with ADHD. Brieanna acknowledges that her strength in tutoring and working with children with ADHD was not matched by her strength with accounting. She was forced to close the business in April as her costs outweighed her income.

What I loved about Brieanna’s story was that she involved everyone in the room through simple and disarming activities. For example, she asked the audience to recount their day in 30 seconds in pairs, back to back. This was, in effect, a simulation of what it feels like to have ADHD. As she said, it should be called Attention Abundance Disorder because “everything is so interesting at the same time.” Ten to 12 percent of children are being diagnosed and nearly 30 percent of high school drop-outs have been diagnosed. Extrapolating that out, one can see the scale of the social problem if it is not addressed. While Brieanna’s business has failed, she has not. She has consulting work lined up and plans are under way for what the future holds for her to continue to work with children who have ADHD.

After the break, Preet Marhawa humbly took the microphone and recounted his story about why he started the food company Organic Lives. Preet’s story begins with his vision about how the world could be a better place through fairly traded, organic foods. Preet’s business gave quickly from a simple buy club for organic foods to a multimillion dollar business in just a few years. Yet, he admits when tragedy stuck, and his primary location burned in a fire, he could have been better prepared.

Preet Marwaha. Photo by Julia Doro.

Preet Marwaha. Photo by Julia Doro.

What struck me about Preet was his sincerity and vulnerability. He was not looking for excuses. He was not bitter that he had to live on borrowed money. Rather, he looked across the room and admitted that his own responsibility in the closing of his social business. In his particular lesson, I heard the general lesson for all of us: let us accept our responsibility for what can go wrong and yet, not be paralyzed by our fear. It’s a tricky, and yet, very important lesson for entrepreneurs and others alike.

Finally, Mike Tippett took the stage. He paused for a moment, looking like he might not know what to say and then he said that he did not know what to say. It was our first taste of his deadpan humor. Yet, Mike was not all jokes. Together with his founding team, he had dreamed of a mobile enabled service that would supercharge local economies through allowing anyone to request and find local products and service providers on their phones. They called it Ayoudo and in one 30-minute meeting with venture capitalists they were able to raise half a million dollars to fund their early exploration of the idea.

Mike Tippett. Photo by Julia Doro.

Mike Tippett. Photo by Julia Doro.

Mike and his team followed Lean Startup methods, researching their market, talking to customers, and eventually building out an early working prototype. At first, usage seemed positive, and then people just stopped using it. They would have to spend more time and money on research to understand their customers. They would need more VC money to fund this next stage of growth. And with each new round, they would have to argue that they would be worth even more money. Rather than dig a deeper hole, Mike and his team paused and reflected whether it would be worth it. To their credit, they knew when to call it a day.

Each speaker generously and graciously agreed to participate in the Social Entrepreneur Failure Wake. As he did in the first Failure Wake, Mike Rowlands, the MC, offered lyrical toasts to each of the speakers in his hilarious sometimes Irish, sometimes Scottish, and sometimes Newfie accent. It was a touching and fun way to put the past behind them and allow the speakers a way to move on to their next venture.



When I completed my MBA at UBC just two years ago, the entrepreneurship program looked different than it does today. The courses focused on the classic elements of entrepreneurship, like identifying a target customer segment and writing a business plan. The project work typically culminated in a mock presentation to a panel of Venture Capitalists. Classmates told tales of crushing embarrassment and humiliation before the VC judges.

Now, just two years later and the entrepreneurship program at UBC has changed. A lot. More impressive still is the pace of change at other schools and accelerator programs in the Lower Mainland. Almost everywhere I turn these days, I see the influence of Lean Startup, Lean Launchpad and Design Thinking on entrepreneurship education.

Paul Cubbon

UBC marketing professor Paul Cubbon likes to challenge the status quo. Upon reading Eric Ries and Steve Blank, Cubbon set out to implement their ideas in the new Sauder School of Business MBA ‘Innovation and Entrepreneurship’ track. The focus on lean practices in this entrepreneurship program adds significant rigor to the curriculum.

But Cubbon did not stop there. He took his enthusiasm out to the full university and joined up with the folks over at e@UBC, or Entrepreneurship at UBC. Their Lean LaunchPad Accelerator Program aims to teach alumni, faculty, and students how to commercialize their ideas using a crash course on lean. Participants learn lean entrepreneurship with regular ready-or-not presentations on what they have learned over the previous two weeks.

Their site explains what a typical week will look like: “you and your team will spend 20-30 hours/week between seminars conducting 20-30+ interviews as you progress through business hypothesis testing and customer discovery, mapping out the web of relationships in your industry ecosystem.” Clearly, this is not your grandmother’s entrepreneurship program, with such an emphasis on ‘getting out of the building’ and regular iteration of your ideas.

Meanwhile, over at Simon Fraser University, Design Thinking and Lean Startup are the cutting edge management practice that every participant must master when they sign up for the Radius Ventures programs (four- and six-month options available). Professors David Dunn and Shawn Smith use Design Thinking and Lean Startup practices as a core part of their curricula for social entrepreneurs.

And it is more than just the public universities that are making the shift to lean. The folks over at the Launch Academy have taken their best practices and guest speakers and compiled a new Lean Entrepreneur Program. Beginning next week, this eight week crash course has two tracks—business and technical—with a third design track in the works.

Spiced throughout their curriculum is an overarching emphasis on lean principals. Right in week 1 of the program, aspiring entrepreneurs are introduced to Lean practices, such as how to build a minimum viable product and how to measure their progress using innovation accounting.

These programs represent an exciting and welcome shift in the way that entrepreneurship is taught in Vancouver. My hope is that these new programs and curricula will start to generate the valuable and scalable enterprises that they are designed to help foment.

SFU’s Radius had a sold-out crowd at the Portside Pub in Gastown for their first ever Social Entrepreneur Failure Wake last night. When I first heard about it, I thought that the idea of sharing stories about failed social ventures would be a good source of leads for the blog. I had no idea how educational and inspiring it would be. It was also a lot of fun.

The idea was simple. They would take over a pub, sell tickets, get brand name sponsorship from Vancity, and find some entrepreneurs to tell their stories about how their social ventures had reached their untimely ends.

At the heart of the event was the idea to embrace failure and with it, the rich learning and practical experience that will bring later success. I felt that this mindset aligns well with the practices of Design Thinking and Lean Startup that I have been chronicling in this blog.

Everyone loves a good story and perhaps more than success, a story about failure makes a compelling tale. Tragedy, it seems, captures our attention, but also serves a larger point. The stories contained salient, often emotional, messages about wrong turns and missed opportunities.

First up was a story about Ecotrust Canada’s efforts to build the local economy on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Satnam Manhas told the story of how there was no shellfish processing facilities in the Clayoquot Sound area when Ecotrust began their project to get local processing of shellfish for area residents and resorts. New federal food safety rules resulted in additional expenses for the recently up and running facility, yet the original equity owners were not able to pitch in to cover the unforeseen costs. Other problems mounted and the plant had to close soon thereafter.

Chantelle Buffie and Sonam Swarup

Young entrepreneurs Chantelle Buffie and Sonam Swarup of Fusion Kitchen traded the microphone back and forth as they told their touching story of a classroom project turned social venture. Their idea was to create community and connections for recent immigrants through cooking classes. The cooking classes were a platform for immigrant women to gain work experience, develop their transferable skillsets, and build their self-confidence to increase their employment opportunities in Canada. They had a great series of lessons learned that I only wish I had a pen to note down.

Finally, Grace Sai, founder of Hub Singapore gave a talk about an early mistake she made in her choice of who to partner with. She also spoke movingly of the challenge of balancing vulnerability with showing strength in leadership. I had to laugh when she confessed to the audience that her therapist had asked her, ‘don’t you think that Obama cries sometimes?’

At the conclusion of each presentation, Mike Rowlands of Junxion Strategy threw an Irish accent and delivered elegant toasts as the speakers were offered Jameson Irish Whiskey. It was a playful, yet thoughtful, way to show appreciation to the entrepreneurs for their courage, passion, and reflection.

As I rode my bike home, surprisingly I felt full of inspiration—not despair. Here was a community that would support you, in both your successes and in your failures. What more could you ask for as a social entrepreneur?