On a snowy Wednesday in February, over 200 people braved the weather to hear three successful founders share their stories and offer words of wisdom to the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Moderated by Krista Jones, education innovation lead and senior advisor in the information technology, communications and entertainment (ICE) practice at MaRS, the panel included: Haroon Mirza of CognoVision (acquired by Intel), John Myers of Edsby (formerly Core Four) and Mike Silagadze of Top Hat Monocle.
The panellists spoke openly about the highs and lows of the startup lifestyle and gave tactical advice on how to face specific challenges and get the most out of opportunities when you’re getting your company off the ground.
If these successful founders could travel back in time and give advice to their younger selves, these are the top five lessons they would share.
1. Co-founders are critical!
Your co-founders can be your greatest source of support and strength—don’t go it alone. However, co-founder infighting can bring about the downfall of your company. When choosing a co-founder, find someone who can offset your skills. If you’re a hacker, pair up with a business brain. If you’re a visionary, find yourself a chief technology officer pronto! And “paper” everything—in other words, put legal contracts or agreements in place.
2. Learn to say no.
This will be one of the hardest lessons to learn, but if you don’t learn to say no your path to success will be long and winding. Entrepreneurs must focus and learn to step away from things that will distract them from achieving their goals. Often things that might seem like opportunities do not add value in the long run.
3. Hire the right people.
As you start to scale, you will need to add diverse skills to your company. At first you will be hiring from within your network, but once you pass the 15- to 20-person mark you will need to establish a systematic, methodical way of selecting the right talent. A bad hire is devastating to a growing company.
4. Build for your customer and your market, not yourself.
You might think that you are creating the best product out there, but if no one wants to buy it or use it then it’s simply not that great. To be successful, you have to identify a pain point in the market and build a high-quality, unique solution. Talk to your customers, ask for feedback, create a minimum viable product and—just to be extra sure—ask for the sale. If they’re not willing to give you a purchase order, you’re not there yet.
5. An idea is nothing without implementation.
Don’t be afraid to share your ideas. Many founders and entrepreneurs secretly guard their ideas, fearing that other people will “steal” them. The reality is, it’s not the idea that adds value, it’s the execution. Many people have ideas all of the time, but only a rare few decide to dedicate their lives to a startup. Also, be prepared for the fact that your idea will change! You will learn, adapt and iterate many times over before you land your first sale.
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