Startups have never been more important to the economy, job creation and social change. But you don't need to be a version of Pied Piper, the firm at the centre of HBO'S Silicon Valley, to work like one.
The latest RBCDisruptors looked at the state of entrepreneurship, how companies big and small can be more entrepreneurial, and how leading corporates can work better with startups.
Our guests were Hubdoc co-founder Jamie Shulman, Goldmoney Network founder Darrell MacMullin , and Laura Buhler, executive director of the C100, a non-profit group linking entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and Canada. Here’s some of what they had to say:
1. Hire for Curiosity
Shulman built Hubdoc’s recruiting after taking stock of the characteristics of its most successful employees and looking for a common denominator.
“The one that popped up that we weren’t necessarily expecting was curiosity, being interesting and interested,” he said.
That led them to redesign their process in search of the most curious candidates.
The first round of their recruiting for sales staff is a simple sales call—but the potential employee has to call in and sell the company on their own product. The second round has nothing to do with sales: candidates have to come in and give a presentation about their passion, whether it’s fly fishing or the Dave Matthews Band.
2. Know Your Customer. Really Know Your Customer
The last stage of Hubdoc’s recruiting process focuses on something both Shulman and MacMullin said is key: knowing the customer.
Hubdoc asks new hires at all levels to spend a month doing customer support, to better understand their product and how the company works with customers.
“The biggest thing is they just learn how the customers and prospects are viewing our product, which is very different than how we were staring at it every day,” he said.
MacMullin said customer feedback is one of the most critical data sources for any business—and often the most underused. He gets a report every week about the top issues customers have reported. “We actually have someone that kind of straddles customer service and the product team that actually has a prioritized roadmap directly related to customer solutions.”
3. Be Ruthlessly Transparent
It’s no secret that communication is necessary condition for business success, and MacMullin said entrepreneurs have little room for error. “Most failures come down to misalignment of expectations or breakdown in communications.”
Goldmoney has had around three meetings in the last 12 months, MacMullin said, thanks to its use of the messaging software Slack for the majority of its internal communication. It’s efficient and helps people cut to the chase.
Shulman added, “Transparency often empowers people. People have a better sense of what they’re doing and what’s going on and how they can be a part of that.”
4. Boil Expectations, Not the Ocean
MacMullin said misaligned expectations come down to either timelines or resources, and can happen within a company or in a partnership between a small company and a big one.
“A lot of times, entrepreneurs are thinking, ‘oh I’m going to get a deal done with RBC and we’re going to be up and running and have a million customers in six months.’ Let’s be real here, that’s not going to happen.”
The challenge for hard-driving entrepreneurs, he said, is getting caught up in the final goal and not building the proper platform for success. It’s even more of a challenge when the product itself needs work to move from idea to execution.
“People tend to try and boil the ocean on a bigger project versus trying to figure out what the stages are,” he said.
5. Always Be Building Your Bench
The best organizations have accountable leaders, and the best startups identify and empower those people early on.
“There is a very clear level of accountability, a clear level of communication and a very real sense of urgency against the opportunity,” MacMullin said.
He said he tries to imitate a shared characteristic of all the best companies in any field: they not only seek out the best recruits, but they develop what they already have.
“That’s actually part of their culture is actually investing in their people, investing in their processes,” he said. “They’re always working on how they run meetings, how they get the right questions, how they get the right leaders to mentor the people on their teams.”
6. Time Is Money. Don’t Waste It
Shulman said dealing with slow-moving incumbents can be challenging for entrepreneurs.
“Large organizations often don’t appreciate the real resource constraints of entrepreneurial businesses,” Shulman said.
In one meeting, he said, so many people from a potential client showed up that the first 15 minutes was taken up with introductions.
“A large organization can send many people to several lengthy meetings over and over again, while entrepreneurs can barely sacrifice 30 minutes,” he said.
7. Build Fast, and Know When to Go Slow
MacMullin said that large organizations are great targets for entrepreneurs looking to score their first big client, but they can’t stake everything on a single source. He added that in the early going, many small businesses are still on their way from zero to one.
“Part of the balance is building your own value proposition,” he said. “It’s very difficult for a large company to actually see how they would implement that or justify a use case or meaningful proof of concept when you haven’t been able to do it yourself.”
It’s still important to reach out to established companies, he said, with the end goal of building relationships, rather than a one-time sale.
“We had the same type of thing,” he said, referring to Shulman’s story of the over-populated meeting. “But it wasn’t until we got to a certain stage, and the fact that we already nurtured and built that relationship over time, that was key.”
8. Tell Your Story (No One Else Will)
Buhler said there are lots of great stories of Canadian entrepreneurs changing the world, but the general public just doesn’t always hear about it.
“We think those stories need to be shared, because they inspire and help future entrepreneurs and they get the word out about the great things that are coming out of Canada,” she said.
The C100 is now capturing the many stories of Canadian entrepreneurs who have and continue to play key roles in the startup and venture community. One example is Geoff Lewis, who founded two companies before joining the US$3-billion Founders Fund venture capital group led by former PayPal CEO Peter Thiel.
“We have a thriving startup community, but we’re not always good at amplifying our stories,” she said. “We are hoping to change that so many more Canadian entrepreneurs can benefit from the knowledge and experience of others.”
John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada's leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization's research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. His latest book is Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future, which explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don't live here but exert their influence from afar.
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