You are supposed to break the rules

diving_lessons

Great entrepreneurs truly do not care about the rules.

If you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of rules.

Some come and go with the times, others never seem to go away:

  • You are supposed to dress a certain way
  • Finance your company this way
  • You pitch deck should look like THIS
  • You, in your industry, with your product, it’s not the way it’s done

And there are the big rules, the regulations:

Great companies are built by breaking rules. We call them ‘norms’ but they are rigid and they feel real until someone destroys our idea about ‘how it’s done’.

  • Marc Benioff decided to sell software as a service when everyone believed they had to install software on premise
  • Steve Jobs built expensive but beautiful machines when every other hardware company believed they had to be cheap.

and so many more.

And it’s happening, there are more great stories of breaking the rules and the amazing companies that result:

  • Figure1 is breaking the rules in Healthcare
  • Wattpad has done away with not only publishers, but with most of the old creative process

Who else comes to mind?

Sometimes a pure rethinking of technology can completely rewrite the rulebook. Bitcoin is readily looked at as an alternative to fiat currency, something that was unthinkable before a purely electronic currency was conceived.

Breaking the rules goes by many different names like ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ but they all start with someone rethinking an old way of doing business. When we look back on what they’ve accomplished we often like to call these rule breakers ‘clever’, ‘brilliant’ or ‘strategic’. The truth is that they didn’t get ahead by adding complexity, or navigating what existed. Most of the time they were able to get ahead by pushing aside the rules and focusing on the opportunity.

The rules almost always come to mind later.

As the world becomes more and more ‘wired’ I believe that startups will run in to regulatory hurdles more and more often. Like uber, AirBnB, Lyft and others, the rules sometimes represent a massive opportunity to create efficiencies in a place everyone else thought was off limits.

There are little rules, and there a big rules. No matter which stage a company is at, it’s the rule breakers who get noticed, they are the ones who crack a market open and feed off the the plump center.

Policy Wonking

Dan Managan and Bob Kronbauer - Hockey Day In Canada Photo by KrisKrug

Wojceich Gryc has an interesting post on the policies that he’d like to see the federal government implement to improve the startup ecosystem. The 5 key points are:

  1. Market Access Tax Credits
  2. Legal/Tax Advice for Market Access
  3. Sales-Oriented Startup Accelerators
  4. Global Benchmarks
  5. Global Branding

Not a bad list of things that could improve the startup ecosystem. However, I’m not sure they are not all necessarily things for consideration as governmental policy. Specifically, I have issues with 2, 3 and 4.

Legal/Tax Advice for Market Access

Entering new markets, particularly foreign markets, can be daunting. There are legal, regulatory, tax and other questions. And I would argue that the Canadian government already has a Crown corporation, Export Development Corporation, dedicated at lead to helping manage the financial risk of accessing new markets. Is there a step-by-step guide for emerging technology companies? (Let me know if you find one). There are access to the Trade Commissioners who continue to have a strong presence in the Bay area, New York and Austin, Texas.

The remaining advice and guidance about legal, regulatory and tax risks on entering new markets is provided by third-party services firms. I’ve worked with the teams at KPMGDeloitte, PwC and others on Canadian/US tax law and the implications for my firm. Also advice from Canadian and US counsel including BennettJones, CognitionLLP, LabergeWeinstein, Fenwick & West, Wilson Sonsini and others. You need to find lawyers and accountants that have experience with the risks and solutions and can provide you cost-effective advice.

Sales-Oriented Startup Accelerators

An accelerator feels like a red herring to me. Wojceich is 100% correct, companies should focus on focus on key traction metrics (see Getting Traction and Funding, Valuation and Accretive Milestones) including sales/revenue. But the idea that an accelubator is going to help you focus on driving realistic forecasts, and achieving milestones or traction feels lazy/wrong/not the right approach.

A startup is a temporary organization used to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. – Steve Blank

Depending on the type of business model, it can be okay to delay monetization. But if your business model is to sell software or software-as-a-service you need to determine if people are willing to pay you for it. I would argue rather than giving up 7% of company to an accelubator, you’re probably better to read David Skok’s Building a Sales & Marketing Machine and try to recruit an advisor that has experience selling to your idealized target segment. There are a lot of great sales advisors/board members including: John MacDonald, Howard Gwin, Andy Aicklen, etc. Most are accessible. Are they interested in working with you? On your business? Maybe, you need to convince them you’ve built something worth their time and social capital.

Global Benchmarks

Who gives a shit about where we fall on global benchmarks? It’s probably relevant as part of the next point, Global Branding, but I just can’t imagine that an understanding of the global startup benchmarks matters. Larger investment, more successful companies and exits probably have a larger impact on the overall startup ecosystem. It would be more interesting to see the creation of a Kaufmann Foundation with a focus on entrepreneurship.

“we develop and support programs that provide entrepreneurs with the education, tools, skills and connections they need to start and grow businesses. We also work to create a more entrepreneur-friendly environment, including lowering barriers to success and raising awareness of the important role entrepreneurs play in the economy” – Kaufmann Foundation

I’m unclear why federal, provincial or municipal policy should be based on a set of rankings provided by a private corporation. It just feels ill-informed view of the role of government and policy in managing the lives of citizens. But I am not a policy wonk and my understanding on the creation and execution of policy in the administrative branches of government approximates zero. (Take this free opinion for what it is worth, or at least what you paid for it).

The Greener Grass

It’s great to see entrepreneurs in the trenches think about the system and the support they need. It’s a honest view of the things that would help entrepreneurs improve their corporate performance, reduce their expenditures and risks.

I love the idea of a similar SR&ED tax credit for market access. Supporting companies as they experiment with distribution and monetization models is a great idea. Plus improving the Canadian brand through Startup Visa, Maple Syrup Mafia, The C100, and other activities is an amazing activity. It builds on the efforts that we as individual founders to support the ecosystem. Focusing on traction including customer acquisition, revenue growth and building a scalable business., I love that too. Using global metrics as a baseline to evaluate your business (see StartupCompass’ Navigating your Startup to Success) should quickly give entrepreneurs both the measures and the desired outcomes to compare against.

I don’t think it is going to be government policy changes, it is going to be founders and startups building successful companies that will ultimately improve the ecosystem.

Photo Credit: Photo by Kris Krug AttributionShareAlike Some rights reserved by kriskrug

The children are our future

CC-BY-20 LicenseAttribution Some rights reserved by regan76

We’ve been talking about how much support and infrastructure has changes for young entrepreneurs. When I graduated from the University of Waterloo, I did not know about startups. I looked at places like Interval Research Corporation, Xerox PARC, Advanced Technology Group as where new technology and innovative products were built and launched. When I thought about becoming an “entrepreneur”, it looked more like owning a sports store or being a consultant. I did not have role models or experiences that showed me the path to becoming an entrepreneur.

I have been lucky to be a part of the creation of UW VeloCity. VeloCity happened because of a generous donation by Ted Livingston, the vision of Bud Walker and  the leadership of Jesse Rodgers. For me, VeloCity was that thing I wish I had as an undergrad, beyond the cooperative education. The simplicity and support that high potential growth, technology companies were something that I could do (sure I had a degree in Kinesiology, but I was building software on NeXT machines). I did not have context or exposure to founders and the “startup” mindset.

It is great to see the support that IAF continues to offer Ontario entrepreneurs. The announcement of the Youth Investment Accelerator Fund is amazing. It was launched in 2013. We haven’t talked a lot about it as a funding source. But it is unique. The program invests up to $250,000 per company in technology-based startups founded by entrepreneurs under the age of 30.

The program has announced it first investments that include:

Go read Ian Hardy’s BetaKit piece for more details on the companies.

I continue to be surprised at the level of support for Canadian entrepreneurs with the government programs. There are conversations that need to be had about the efficacy of the direct versus indirect investing and services model. And it seems like this is happening at many levels from the Venture Capital Action Plan. (This is a conversation that needs much social lubricant – bring on the whisky).

I love seeing the changes and support of entrepreneurship as a career path with programs like UW VeloCity, Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone, UofT Creative Destruction Lab and others. The additional support of programs like the Youth IAF (and the IAF proper) where capital is deployed by real VCs to companies is fantastic.

Keep up the good work Barry, Michelle, Scott, Jared, Rob and the whole team.