Refreshing Insights from AccelerateAB 2014

May 6, 2014 Kylie Toh

 

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AccelerateAB has quickly become Alberta’s premiere tech event of the year, a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit and startups in the province. This year, over 400 people converged on the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton. With a phenomenal speaker lineup, the program focused on helping bold entrepreneurs set high growth trajectory, gain traction, and build momentum as they go from startup to scale.

Matthew Prince, CEO & Co-founder of Cloudflare, kicked off the morning with a motivational presentation on the challenges faced by entrepreneurs and the best way to tackle them. He took audiences on a wild safari by referencing the recent post by Bill Gates on the deadliest animals.  Matthew outlined what it means for entrepreneurs to have shark, lion, and elephant problems. Often the focus is on the large intimidating creatures that look like sharks, but really, entrepreneurs need to be worried about the thousands of mosquitos that can kill your company.

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CloudFlare, a web performance and security company with a mission to build a better internet, is only three years old, but already has over 2 million customers. It has servers running internationally and over 1.5 trillion web requests. Matthew has first-hand experience growing a company and he had wise words of advice, for up-and-coming entrepreneurs:

“Spend your time focusing on the mosquitos. Elephant hunting looks cool, but it’s a distraction.”

Key Lesson: Have a laser focus on tackling the big, audacious problems and solve them by swatting one mosquito at a time.

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The afternoon kicked off with an honest fireside chat between Kevin Swan of iNovia Capital and Brian Heath, CEO of Drivewyze. Kevin asked some difficult questions, encouraging Brian to explore how he raised his first round, what he would have done differently, and what he could share with young entrepreneurs. Brian admitted that knowing which VCs to talk to was difficult because many have specific investment theses. 

“Reach out and speak to someone who can provide guidance for you, otherwise, it’s like a shot in the dark.”

On the topic of guidance, Brian also explored Board dynamics and the importance of building a board. There’s value in strategically developing your board of directors. Brian knew he wanted a local team, with industry knowledge, who had been operators, and who he got along with on a personal level. In his board of five today, he has all of those things.

“We are as demanding of our board members as we are of our team members. We will reach out and ask for help.”

Brian candidly answered the question, “What’s the most difficult part about working with VCs?” saying that misalignment of values between the entrepreneur and VCs can lead to conflict. To solve that, he relies on honest and transparent communication:

“Communication is at the heart of a productive relationship with your board.”

Key Lesson:

Raising venture capital is a two-way street. Just as an investor will evaluate whether you are a fit for their portfolio, an entrepreneur must also evaluate whether the investor is a fit for the company.  

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Lars Lofgren, Growth Manager of KISSmetrics took audiences through a tangible step-by-step process of how to integrate metrics to evaluate your business and ultimately, help you succeed.  He broke down data into tangible problems that startups can address:

1.     Is your data any good?

2.     Is your product good enough?

3.     Can you grow?

These questions provide the framework for constraints that form major business assumptions. Lars suggested selecting a single channel and focusing on it for three months. Target markets segment themselves into channels.

Lars also let audiences in on the best growth-hack for SaaS businesses: take whatever price you have in your head and double it. That came as a surprise to the audience, but his rationale was that for SaaS businesses, especially, we tend to undervalue the impact they provide. Pricing has the largest impact on your business, so it’s important you test it the most.

Key Lesson:

Data decays. It’s messy and complicated, but you don’t need to make it complicated. Google Analytics and an internal database will take you far because it doesn’t need to be perfect.

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Atlee Clark, Executive Director of the C100 led audiences through the narrative of raising early stage money from venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. The panel, which included included Geoff Lewis from Founders Fund, Shivon Zilis of Bloomberg Beta and Angela Tran Kingyens from Version One Ventures, opened a window to the world of venture capital.

There was a strong emphasis that venture capital is not the first step for an entrepreneur. Panelists encouraged founders to explore alternative sources of funding first, saying that VC isn’t the only type of money out there. Shivon noted that,

“Venture is a very constrained asset class. You really only qualify if you need massive amounts of funding to scale a very high risk business that has the potential to be a billion dollar company.”

The number of companies and pitch decks that VCs go through in a year is staggering. They may see up to 2,000 companies a year, and invest in 10-15. That means they only invest in approximately 1% of the companies they see.

But don’t get discouraged, if you still think VC is for you, the panel also had a lot of tips for new entrepreneurs.

Key Lessons:

  • Do your homework. Understand the unique investment thesis of each fund, research the partners and their interests. Follow them on Twitter, read their blogs, their LinkedIn profiles.

  • Network, network, network! The best introduction you can get to a VC is a warm recommendation from an entrepreneur in their portfolio or another VC they know.

  • Don’t waste the first slide of your pitch deck with something generic. That’s the first impression a VC will have of your company - use it to convey your vision.

 

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Harley Finkelstein, Chief Platform Officer at Shopify, closed AccelerateAB on a high note. He shared his journey of entrepreneurship, from humble beginnings, to becoming a lawyer, to landing at Shopify and dedicating himself to building and scaling the company. Harley touched on funding, saying that,

“Getting capital is like high school graduation. Then you have to get a job. It’s actually what happens afterwards that matters.”

He was also honest about the hardest thing he’s had to do at Shopify: take a step back and trust his team to perform. Admitting that he’s an entrepreneur at heart, the day Harley realized he couldn’t do everything was tough.

“If I am getting my hands dirty, it means I’m not scaling my team.”

Key Lesson:

The path of an entrepreneur is almost entirely unpredictable. You need to trust your instincts and constantly reinvent yourself as the company scales.


Special thanks to Startup Edmonton, the A100 and VCAA for hosting AccelerateAB, we're already looking forward to next year! 

Thank you to our AccelerateAB C100 partners

BMO, BDC, KPMG

Softlayer, Inovia 

 

 
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