Archives for posts with tag: 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.

 

I have seen a number of articles and blogs lately where the authors attempt to persuade readers that Vancouver is the place to be when it comes to the next great startup capital after the Valley. Of course, my choice of reading material is selective and my contacts and connections lead me disproportionately to the material about Vancouver. I read and like many of the articles without thinking too much about them. I might have left it there, but something bothered me about these articles.

6 Reasons Vancouver is Hot for Start-up” is a typical example. Among other things, the author talks about the travel time to Silicon Valley and the fact that Vancouver is ranked as a great place to live. While these are certainly true, there is a part of me that remains skeptical and bothered by the gist of these articles. They all appear to be written by folks who are based in Vancouver already. As such, they appear biased and lack credibility. (Full disclosure: The subtext of my own blog’s theme too could be subject to such a critique. I am certainly based in Vancouver and don’t want to have to move to take my career in technology to the next level.)

The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of cities that claim to be in line to become the next Silicon Valley, and Vancouver is pretty far down the list. Vancouver remains pretty much in the middle of the pack for startup cities even though external forces are driving changes.

Some charge that it is simply a reflection of Canadian modesty that Vancouver remains pretty average. However, I don’t think that it is the Canadian habit of not tooting your own horn enough. Instead, I think that it is simply just not high on the list for venture capital and entrepreneurial investments because it has yet to reach the scale and diversity of companies needed to create the talent pool based here with enough experience, credibility, and cojones. Each time those of us in the Vancouver entrepreneurial community believe that this is changing, we lose another ambitious young person to California (or you name the place where they might go).

It reminds me of a lesson in population science. If birth and death rates are equal, then nothing changes.  If the growth of another new Vancouver venture represents the potential ‘birth’ of a new set of soon-to-be-experienced founders and the move of another experienced entrepreneur out of the area represents a ‘death,’ then Vancouver might at best be just treading water. If the birth rate equals the death rate, then we are not gaining momentum. This conclusion is, of course, not a conclusion at all, but only an intuitive guess based on my conversations with individuals within the community.

What needs to change? As they say in time management classes, we need to ‘work smarter, not harder.’ I believe that Vancouver can overcome this stagnation by analyzing and celebrating the successes that we have had in the area of intelligent startup management practices. By this, I mean Lean Startup and Design Thinking practices that Eric Ries and others have argued are central to making startups work better. We need to learn faster, and over the coming weeks and months, I intend to document how the Vancouver startup community is learning these practices.