A good mentor can help lift any entrepreneur out of hardship to overcome hurdles with confidence. For four established Canadian entrepreneurs, the plunge into new businesses and raising funds, didn’t come easy. They reveal the guidance that helped them overcome adversity to build successful businesses.
BE BIGGER AND LOUDER
Mandy Potter, founder, Jane Technologies
Founded: January 2019
THE SITUATION: I had heard that it’s a white cis male world in Silicon Valley, but I didn’t fully understand until I moved there in 2017 and started my company Cleanify.
I would be ignored in business and investor meetings with my co-founder and I was having a hard time taking up the space I deserved. I’m female and queer—I have short hair, I’m tattooed, and I dress androgynously. As the only person from an underrepresented group, I was recognized as lesser than my male co-founder at the time, who is a white male. He would be spoken to directly, while I was ignored. When I’d speak up, I’d be talked over. The men in the room would only look at my co-founder.
I was tired of being overlooked in these situations. I reached out to my mentor at the time, who is 20 years older, queer, and female, to get advice about how to deal with these situations.
THE ADVICE: She said to take up space: to be louder and bigger in a room and demand the attention and space I deserved. If someone was only looking at and speaking to my male co-founder, she said to demand eye contact and speak louder. I was told to answer questions quickly, so they were forced to give me recognition by having to direct follow-up questions to me.
THE OUTCOME: My confidence has grown with practice. I deserve what I work hard for. I have a talk called, Secrets From The Lesbian Who’s Raised $4M, [sic], which is aligned with my motto: ask for what you want. I speak about the secrets to navigating Silicon Valley as a minority.
After selling my first company, I started Jane Technologies and decided to hire a female team; we are successful because of the diverse backgrounds of our team to solve consumer problems efficiently. We were on a $3M run rate, after a few months of starting the company.
TAKE THE RISK, BUT AT THE RIGHT TIME
Joshua Wong, president and CEO, Opus One Solutions
THE SITUATION: When I left my past job with Toronto Hydro to start Opus One, I needed to learn what it means to be an entrepreneur; I needed to immerse myself in the right networks. The journey would be a long and difficult one, working with energy, utilities, and governments; I needed all the ammo I could get.
THE ADVICE: My supervisor with Toronto Hydro told me: find a large problem worth solving and take the risk of leaving your stable job to become an entrepreneur. As a first-generation immigrant from Hong Kong, I was bullied like many other newcomers during elementary school; my father lost his parents at a young age and my mother is disabled from polio. With these difficulties we found it hard to root ourselves in the Canadian market. Against these challenges and being the only person in my family with a university education, it wasn’t an easy decision to take the risk, but it was my conviction in the business that drove me.
THE OUTCOME: I made the leap into entrepreneurship with no business education. With only a purpose and mission to drive me, business models and technology were discovered along the way, not planned in a neatly bound business plan. The market was transforming, the game was changing, and I needed to position Opus One at the right place, at the right time, with the right solution. We now have a platform business model, with a product that creates a digital twin of the energy grid to support real-time operations, planning, and transactive energy markets. Our product model is expandable as well, encompassing tech-enabled services, licenses, SaaS and PaaS (platform as a service).
When I started the company, I was single, lived at home, had no debt, and saved up money to take the dive. Now with two young boys and a third coming along the way, I wouldn’t take the same level of risk as I had. Timing is key.
PUT PEOPLE FIRST
Roxana Zaman, co-founder and COO, Maple
Founded: July 2015
THE SITUATION: We were raising our fourth round of financing and the demand for our services was growing quickly, but the size of our team had to stay the same. We couldn’t hire or make significant changes until the financing was secure. The negotiation phase took longer than expected and our team quickly became tired in the face of growing, never-ending demands.
THE ADVICE: Founders in my network recommended I read, The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Entrepreneur Ben Horowitz. Getting exposure to someone else’s experiences helped me make meaning of the chaos around me, so that I could see the glass half full instead of half empty — problems and challenges are opportunities to set yourself apart. “Take care of the people, the products, and the profits— in that order and “embrace the struggle” from Horowitz’s book, are the most important guiding principles I now live by as an entrepreneur.
When you’re growing quickly, it’s easy to get carried away by different things, including chasing sales and profits. But if you create a positive and caring work environment focused on people, then all the right things will follow.
THE OUTCOME: We decided to take a people-first approach in all of our internal communications regarding the status of the deal — the good, the bad, and the ugly. We decided to be transparent with the team about the entire process, including the day we were expecting to run out of cash, if the deal didn’t go through. The honest discussions brought everyone closer. We relied on each other to make better decisions and to keep our finances stable. We did more with less amidst the pressure and the struggle. We achieved excellent business results in that timeframe, growing sales by nearly 500 per cent year-over-year, which helped move the deal along.
DON'T DISMISS NEGATIVE FEEDBACK
Bobbie Jo Racette, founder, Virtual Gurus
Founded: September 2016
THE SITUATION: I’d been trying to raise funds for more than a year. We were generating revenue, but we needed to stop and solidify our process. I went through six months of every investor saying no. All I could think about when I got the 70th no: failure. I started taking responses personally and at one point I said, “let’s stop. We’re not going anywhere. I’m setting myself up for failure.”
THE ADVICE: A member on my board, an active shareholder of my company said, “Don’t dismiss negative feedback, but also don’t take it personally.” I realized I needed to do exactly what he said. Once I opened my mind, I was more receptive to making improvements. I started to make a list of investors and their feedback and listened to the feedback. I asked, “why? What would make them invest?” Some said we weren’t scalable. I had to ignore that feedback, because I knew with our growth trajectory, we were doing great. In January 2019, I got out of Calgary and visited Canadian and American cities to start raising my round again.
THE OUTCOME: I started to implement the feedback to create momentum in our growth and products and services. I also proved our differentiator from other virtual assistant businesses.
I had to get uncomfortable and think about what makes us different. We don’t offshore our services. Some of the people we employ are of minority or marginalized groups. I started looking within the company to learn more about the people we were hiring, like the single stay-at-home mom who said to me, “thank you. I was able to put food on the table this week.” Our people kept me going and this realization changed the vision of Virtual Gurus. We’ve been scaling since. I grew our revenue more than 100 per cent year-over-year. We were only going to raise $1M, and we closed at $1.25M.
What guidance helped you become a better entrepreneur?