Last Wednesday I had the privilege of attending TechRev Innovators: Local Success Stories, hosted by TechRev and CCAT, where four Calgarian tech entrepreneurs discussed how they achieved success, the challenges they faced, and the lessons they learned along the way.
In our last article we talked about how Calgary has the highest number of tech startups per capita, so it is always great to celebrate the success of our entrepreneurs (and learn about the journey that brought them to where they are).
The morning’s panel was comprised of:
Tara Kelly, CEO & Founder of Splice Software, a global leader in providing human voice messaging and interactive voice solutions across virtually any industry group that communicates regularly with its customer base.
Brendon Cook, CEO & Co-Founder of Blackline GPS, a wireless location leader that develops, manufactures, and markets products and services for worker safety monitoring, covert tracking, and consumer applications.
Stephen Cooke, President, CTO & Founder of Genesis Technical Systems, innovator of the ground breaking DSL Rings® technology that provides high speed internet bandwidth, more than twenty times the current DSL speed, or up to 400 Mb/s over the existing copper infrastructure.
Dr. Hussam Kinawi, Chief Scientist & Co-Founder of Wedge Networks, provider of high performance network based web security solutions to enterprises and service providers worldwide to protect against new and emerging web based threats that traditional scanning methods have difficulty intercepting and controlling.
Pam Boytinck, Executive Director of Techrev, did a fantastic job of keeping the conversation flowing and collecting some great insights from the entrepreneurs.
Here is a sample of some of the questions and answers:
What has been the most challenging part of your journey thus far?
Dr Kinawi: Commercialization and Capital have been the two biggest challenges, but access to capital has been the most challenging by far. Calgary needs a strong VC community as most of the funding programs like SR&ED, IRAP etc. only support development; however, it can be an uphill battle to get funding for commercialization. The government should also provide incentives to hire and relocate commercialization talent to Alberta, as it is very difficult to find people who have seen companies through from startup to exit as in Silicon Valley.
How do we crack the funding code?
Tara Kelly: reach out to the local tech community and look within your circle to find investors or others who can connect you to investors. We raised money in increments, each at a higher valuation as we met milestones and made progress.
Brendon Cook: we initially raised a million from family and friends. Our developers took sweat equity and as founders we didn’t take a salary for 3 years. We raised $2 million from Alberta sources, then went public and raised more money for a total of $17 million thus far.
Stephen Cooke: 5-10 years ago it was easier to go to VCs and get a few million to fund your company. It doesn’t happen anymore. Your heart better be in it; make sure you can demonstrate you’re in it for the long haul and even if there are hurdles you’ll never stop and let your investors down.
Dr Kinawi: fund raising is not an exact science… you’re essentially trying to sell a part of your company. Just like in any sales job, you need to identify target investors, share your plan, and constantly demonstrate progress. Work with someone who is experienced in helping early stage companies raise money.
How are tech entrepreneurs different from other entrepreneurs?
Tara Kelly: tech entrepreneurs are typically not motivated by money, capital, or monetization, but rather by trying to change the world. We love it when people use our product, even if it is for free.
Stephen Cooke: success is a misnomer, an unattainable target. We’re always looking to improve and make things better.
How important is a roadmap?
Tara Kelly: people don’t just show up for a paycheck and free water. You need to give them a mission, a sense of purpose, which is impossible without a roadmap.
Dr. Kinawi: we take customer feedback very seriously; every feature on our product roadmap is customer awaited. Developing something cool just for the sake of it is like creating a solution looking for a problem.
Any suggestions for budding entrepreneurs?
Brendon Cook: find a partner with complimentary skillsets. You can get burnt out easily if you try to do it all by yourself.
Tara Kelly: there is a strong startup ecosystem in Calgary… A100, Innovate Calgary,Startup Calgary. Reach out to these organizations and they will connect you with mentors who have been through the ringer and who can coach you on your pitch, make valuable connections for you, and even help you raise money.
Stephen Cooke: be focused on your goals, but also be innovative and learn to adapt to hurdles as they come along.
Dr. Kinawi: improve your social and public speaking skills. Techies typically lack social skills, but when you’re the founder of a startup it is imperative to be able to articulate how you’re different from the rest.
Overall, it was a fantastic event with plenty of actionable advice for young startups.
A big thank you to TechRev and CCAT for putting the event together. TechRev is an initiative of Innovate Calgary with a mandate to increase awareness of, and investment activity in, Calgary’s technology sector. Each year, TechRev recognizes 10 of the most promising local tech ventures. Please take a moment to nominate a tech company that you feel is working on something that could potentially change the world – the deadline is March 31st.