Canadian Startups Share Stories of Success and Failure at Mesh 2012

Yesterday marked Day 2 of the Mesh12 Conference in Toronto, Ontario. There were some inspiring and passionate presentations during the morning session, with speakers like Rebecca MacKinnon, author of The Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom, Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa where he holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, David Weinberger, co-author of Too Big to Know and The Cluetrain Manifesto, and Canadian Dr. Michael Evans, founder of the New Health Design Lab.

Mesh12 Conference organizers Mark Evans and Stuart MacDonald moderated an afternoon breakout Q&A session entitled “Tales from the Trenches. Stories from Startups” which boasted an impressive list of Canadian startup founder speakers including: Aliza Pulver, Andy YangEvgeny Tchebotarev, Dups Wijayawardhana and Heather Payne.

Below are their stories – from getting started to surviving the twists and turns of running a business:

Taking a leap of faith

Aliza Pulver, founder of told Mesh delegates that she took her leap from corporate life just after she had her first child. Unlike some entrepreneurs who start their own businesses to have more flexibility, Pulver said that what she was really looking for was freedom. “And with that freedom are both risks and rewards. It was just a now or never situation for me,” said Pulver.

Should you go it alone or partner with someone else?

The speakers all gave conflicting answers with regard to this question. Evgeny Tchebotarev, co-founder of the online photo community 500px argued that it is always best to work with a team – with different functions (i.e. tech, marketing and finance) being handled by skilled individuals. “It can result in a lot of yelling but you need to have a team that works equally hard to get a product out,” said Tchebotarev.

Heather Payne, founder of Ladies Learning Code told Mesh 2012 attendees that she prefers to be the sole founder of her organization, but working with a team. “I find I can make decisions a lot quicker that way,” said Payne.

The best model for a killer startup team

Andy Yang, chief innovation hunter at Extreme Startups explained that that the best teams that his Toronto-based accelerator has invested in have been teams of three founders – where there is a hierarchy in the ranks. “There needs to be one neck to choke. That person must be business-savvy and have a market and product vision,” said Yang. He explained that the other two team members could be more technical in function.

Dups Wijayawardhana, co-founder at Edmonton-based startup Empire Avenue agreed with Yang and explained that the hierarchical model of three co-founders is exactly how his startup operated from the very beginning. “We all knew each other for about 20 years and got along really well but we realized early on that we couldn’t make decisions without a hierarchy,” said Wijayawardhana.

How to deal with direct competitors and those who clone your idea

During the Q&A portion of the discussion, an audience member asked Dubs Wijayawardhana from Empire Avenue to share his reaction to a US startup called SocialStock that was profiled at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference a few days ago. Wijayawardhana said that “ideas are a dime a dozen. So, it’s important to focus on execution and community – those will be the deciding factors on which product is better.”

Evgeny Tchebotarev of 500px agreed with Wijayawardhana, explaining that “neglect of a community can inevitably lead to the decline of a product.”

Commercialization: How to take an idea and turn it into a business

The speakers agreed that testing a product concept out with family and friends is a good place to start. Aliza Pulver from HomeSav said that her team bootstrapped their business for a year before they started to gain traction. From there, they built a business plan and then started reaching out to investors. She suggested that new startups try out products like Launch Rock, which “enable you to put up a landing page as a ‘feeler program’ and then start collecting e-mails and feedback as you build a database prior to launching your product.”

Advice for surviving the highs and lows of startup life

Heather Payne from Ladies Learning Code emphasized the need to “follow your passion. The days that are shitty are really shitty. So, you need to love what you’re doing so that you stick with it.”

Others argued the importance of really good people – to help pull you through the tough times and celebrate the good ones. Wijayawardhana of Empire Avenue suggested that before starting a new venture, you should “get your all of affairs in order while you still have an income.” Once you get started, be prepared to be a little lonely and live on less. “My co-founders actually fed me for a while when they still had jobs,” said Wijayawardhana.