Doing a startup is hard but there are so many support groups, community meet-ups, programs, associations, conferences and accelerators to help you.
During the pandemic for numerous reasons many have decided to start their own business – for many its an extension of what they are already doing, but for others it’s a dream they need help realizing.
That’s where Founder Institute comes in.
This global network that originated in Silicon Valley, has a chapter that represents Western Canada and I am a newly appointed director for the program based in Vancouver. Success stories out of the program include Udemy and Zirtual. There is a ton of information on the FI site and YouTube channel but I wanted to distill it down to potential founders here in Vancouver.
As I type this we are halfway through my first cohort but and now that I have seen how effective it is for first-time founders, I thought for this column it was a good time to bring in Todd Embley, the Director Head of Founder Institute Western Canada on to answer some questions.
I’ve known Todd from our tours of duty in the China startup scene. Todd was running ChinaAccelerator in Shanghai when I met him. He’s back in BC and is channeling a lot of what he learned there about growing and scaling companies into “creating industrial strength founders in Canada.”
We are opening up applications for the Spring 2021 cohort (register link) and I thought it would be good to get some insights from Todd directly to see if its a fit for you or someone you know looking to build the next big global startup from Western Canada.
Casey: What are some of the mistakes you see first time founders make when applying for Founder Institute?
Todd: I think one of the biggest mistakes founders make when applying to FI for the first time is not filling out the questionnaire in full. A completed application is important for two reasons – it’s your first impression and gives the admissions team a chance to get as much information as possible to make their decision from, as well as an understanding of how committed you are not just to your company but also to the road ahead if chosen to participate in the FI program.
They should also make sure that accompanying information sources, such as links to a landing page, deck, or founder’s LinkedIn page, should all be working properly and that all the information there is up to date. Like most investors and accelerators, we get a ton of deal flow (applications) and are looking for reasons to thin the field; don’t give us any reason to do so when we come to assessing your application. I would also add that I don’t think enough applicants have done their homework on exactly what FI is, how much it costs, how much time it’s going to take, how long the program is etc. All the information is on the interwebbythingy, go find it. If you can’t gather readily available information about the program, it raises serious doubts about your ability to do so for your company.
Casey: Ok, so make sure all the forms are properly filled and links are working and some research is done. What kind of startup would you not allow in?
Todd: FI is definitely geared towards scalable businesses.
If you’re launching a food truck or perhaps a Shopify drop-shipping store then it’s unlikely you’ll get the full value from the program. That said, the learnings involved are mostly sector agnostic. We’re not looking for great ideas, because when talking about building a company there are none.
There is, however, great execution and incredibly hard work done by talented people who care about solving a problem. That is what we look for because we believe there is a repeatable process that can help refine that horsepower, a structure that can focus it towards the right big hairy audacious goal, and a network of amazing individuals that can socratically guide one along the way.
We build great entrepreneurs; great entrepreneurs build great companies.
Casey: How important is a mentor network in a startups success? What kind of mentors does Founder Institute Western Canada have?
Todd: Having an active mentor network at your disposal is an essential part of building a successful startup.
Every successful entrepreneur will tell you that it takes a village. A mentor provides so much more than just advice, whether it’s opening up their rolodex and making introductions to key hires or partners, keeping us accountable, or just being a shoulder to cry on when we need it (and we always do).
At FI we pride ourselves on being able to offer more than introductions to great mentors; we’ve put in the work to cultivate relationships with each and every one of them, built on reciprocity and value creation. Knowing that as our entrepreneurs pass through our programs and continue on their journeys our mentors will remain there with us on the front lines of grassroots venture building makes it vital that we invest heavily in maintaining great relationships with them and striving to return value to them in kind for their contributions.
Our mentors span the gamut of attributes, from CEOs who have raised hundreds of millions of dollars, to the Angel and VC investors who have invested in hundreds of startups for decades as the fuel driving our startup ecosystem.
As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”
Casey: The majority of teams for Western Canada are coming from Vancouver where would you like to see teams come from in WC that you think have something to offer?
Todd: We, like many companies nowadays, are starting to realize the potential of working in this digital-only environment, here in the midst of our first fully-remote program. And, like many others, are realizing that the benefits outweigh the cons. One of the benefits, other than saving on pants, is the opportunity to take our program to the far reaches of Western Canada, and even beyond. It is incredibly satisfying to be able to tie together mentors and entrepreneurs from Nelson to Nunavut and watch magic happen. Many areas of Canada simply don’t have startup communities or startup hubs to access, and despite a plethora of information and online courses there lacks a sense of togetherness, of familiarity, and of being understood.
I can tell you from years of running programs for startups that the real magic happens when you put a bunch of smart, willful and hustling entrepreneurs in a 3-month pressure cooker together and watch as they begin to support and champion each other forward. Sprinkle in some milestones, great mentorship and blunt advice along the way and you have a recipe for success.
Casey: Since you’ve been in Shanghai and San Francisco, What is the one thing if you could change/missing about the Vancouver startup ecosystem?
Todd: I still suffer from PTSD due to the reverse culture shock. I went from communist to capitalist to socialist in a very short amount of time, and each has it’s pros and cons. In my humble opinion I believe Canada as a whole needs to get out of its own way and stop funding organizations and grants etc. designed to support the ecosystem because that support is artificial at best simply delaying the inevitable.
Herein lies the rub: the funding support by the governments is in fact the poison, and failing early and often is the antidote. Entrepreneurship is Darwinian by nature, and not only do the strong survive, they are the only ones who should survive. We are wasting millions if not billions supporting organizations that have little to no actual impact. Founders need to understand that if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product being sold. The faster startups are allowed to fail, the faster they can learn from their mistakes and pivot or iterate to give it another go, all the more tough and wise. Many would answer this question pointing to the lack of available private capital; however, it is my firm belief that money goes where money grows, so let’s cultivate a landscape focused on engineering great entrepreneurs and you’ll see what comes next.
Casey: Thanks Todd, there is definitely some tough love in these answers and I think it’s an honest portrayal of what to expect inside the FI program.
I hope this gives you some insight into what FI is all about, we are doing a free introduction Zoom event on December 8th that will also features guests I will interview about fundraising in Western Canada – so you can listen in and ask questions on what the program is about and how it not only extends and interacts with the rest of Canada but globally as well.
One of the best examples of FI I just saw in this current cohort, and echoes Todd’s answers above: a founder has a well-paying full time job, but she has an idea, she has many questions but the key one is: is it viable or is she just dreaming? Actually the question is, as it is for most founders that dream of doing a startup: how much do you want it? FI will help you to discover that answer, quickly and efficiently and prepare you to get up and try again if needed.