If you’re interested in entrepreneurship, Toronto is full of opportunities. However, many would-be entrepreneurs don’t know where to start. Entrepreneurship 100: Conversations offer a stepping stone. Organized by the Impact Centre, it is a series in which panels of early-career entrepreneurs discuss their experiences and take questions from the audience. A networking event follows the panel discussion, giving attendees the opportunity to continue the conversation and meet fellow budding entrepreneurs. The events are geared towards those who are interested in entrepreneurship but have little to no business knowledge or experience.
I had the pleasure of attending one of the three Entrepreneurship 100 events held this fall. The panel was composed of Christina Cai, co-founder of Knowtions, a translation service that employs both translation experts and machine learning; Hammad Naseem, co-founder of Flarian, which specializes in producing business cards with built-in USB drives; and Foteini Agrafioti, co-founder of Nymi, which specializes in biometric authentication technology. Each company has been operating for five years or less. The panelists answered questions from both the moderator and members of the audience, who were able to send in questions via text message.
Despite their differences in specialization, the panelists shared some strikingly common experiences. For example, all three worked from home in the earliest stages of developing their enterprises, and all three built their first prototype for less than $10 000. Each company secured more financing as they continued to develop their product. A key point that came up in the discussion was that a product has to work and serve a purpose at each stage of development. Cai used the skateboard/car analogy – a startup doesn’t start out by assembling the parts of a car; they may first build a skateboard, then a scooter, and only then scale up to build something more sophisticated.
The panelists also discussed the importance of having the right business partner. All agreed that being able to get along was far more important than technical skills. In terms of resources, Agrafioti cited the Creative Destruction Lab at Rotman and said that her experience at The Next 36 made her believe that she could “build a billion-dollar company”. Naseem recalled seeking feedback from customers and friends during Flarian’s earliest days.
For those in academia who worry that a lack of sales experience will put them at a disadvantage, Agrafioti offered a different perspective saying, “We’ve all convinced people to do things for us.” Naseem added that he never thought of his sales pitches as “sales”, but as a conversation. When he talks about his product to people it’s because he thinks that “it could really help them”.
In response to the question, “What are you most proud of?” the panelists talked about persevering in the face of uncertainty and seeing their research applied to creating “a product in people’s hands”. They also talked about the rewarding aspect of building a great team. “Some days I get up and go to the office because my team is there,” said Cai.
Entrepreneurship 100: Conversations is organized by the Impact Centre, an independent institute affiliated with the University of Toronto. The Impact Centre specializes in converting scientific findings produced by university research into products and services that benefit society. It provides a number of services for startups in the natural sciences and engineering.
The next series of Entrepreneurship 100 is starting in March 2017 (click here for dates).