When I walked into the Aviva Centre for the Tech and Tennis Day event hosted by Tennis Canada, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had never attended an event like this before! Whatever doubts I might have had soon dissipated as the event began. Sitting on the couches in front of the stage, the BETS and I had a great view and even got a shout-out from the host, Amber Mac! The speakers were eloquent and friendly, and the atmosphere was one of a pleasant conversation.
Humility, Hunger, and Canadian Ownership
The morning started with Kirstine Stewart, media executive and former head of Twitter Canada, currently working with Diply as Chief Strategy Officer. She started by talking about her background in the world of business, starting as a “Girl Friday” tasked with completing the office jobs that most people don’t want to do and using that experience to move up in the field.
One of her key points was about humility and hunger. In your career, you will face problems, and to move beyond those problems, you need to have perspective. As she says, the hunger to solve problems stems from a desire for lifelong learning. "Understand that you don’t know everything and [that’s a good thing]: challenge yourself.” You can only push yourself past your limits if you understand where your limits are and understand how to move beyond them. For example, if your limit is getting up at 5:30 AM, you have to understand that sometimes it is worth it!
My personal favourite insight from her speech, however, was somewhat of a tangent. When speaking about her role at the Canadian office of Twitter, she pointed out how there are too many “Canadian office of” in Canada and not enough Canadian companies. “We need ownership,” she said. “If the talent is here, the discovery is here, [we need to be] cultivating it here, and owning it here.”
As a University of Waterloo student working with startup companies, I completely agreed with her statement. The KW region has the second highest startup density in the world, falling just behind Silicon Valley. And it isn’t just this region: Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver are all hubs ranking within the top 25 places for startups by Business Insider. We, as Canadians, have an excellent position and if we continue to move forward and make it easier for our startups to evolve into bigger companies, we can be leaders in many emerging tech, science, and business fields.
Passion and Your “Raison D'être”
Following a session on sports analytics, the next panel took a break from business practices by talking about why people do business. The entrepreneurs and venture capitalists panel focused on their motivations for going into business, starting their companies, and continuing their companies despite setbacks and failures.
What I took away from the panel is this: It boils down to passion. Ignoring the naysayers, having a positive attitude, and believing in yourself and your idea. There is a place for you in the world; you might have to carve it out, but it exists. And if it doesn't, you will bring it into existence. The best entrepreneurs are the ones who are the most passionate, of course. Starting a company gives you a lot of freedom, but it’s demanding and challenging. If you don’t love what you do, how will keep up?
It wrapped up nicely with each panelist talking about their “raison d’être,” their purpose in life. The end goal of your business shouldn't be money, it should be fulfilling your raison d’être—and the money will follow.
Customer Relationships and Marketing are Changing
This was followed by a CRM and marketing panel, which made many interesting connections to the analytics panel. Both conversations touched on the need to gain actionable insights from your data. Namely, you need to be able to look at data from a marketing and revenue angle.
Marketing now is different from marketing in previous years—referrals are gaining more importance than traditional marketing, as customer and employee journeys change. Artificial intelligence and personalization plays a huge factor into this changing landscape. We can gain more data than ever before, but this can easily cross into personal territory and become creepy rather than thoughtful. To overcome that, businesses should build trust and transparency straight into their business models.
Entrepreneurship is about Execution and Iteration
The keynote speaker, Michele Romanow, starting by talking about her first business venture: moving to the east coast and opening a caviar business. It was something she and her co-founders planned extensively, resulting in an 80+ page book that laid out in detail every step they were going to take. The business, on the other hand, had plans of its own. It was unsuccessful, largely due to the recession, but this taught her that you learn through execution and iteration, not through planning.
Afterwards, she spoke of her time at Sears when it was leading e-commerce in Canada and her other ventures. For her second business, she attended a trade show with nothing to show except a JPEG image that had one functional “buy” button—and this JPEG was hugely successful as an MVP!
If you ask your development team to build a website that isn’t ready for the day you have to show it to the world, what else can you do? A larger, more developed company might not have responded the way Romanow did—but, as she said, “Entrepreneurship is not about 100%, it’s about executing at 60 or 70% but faster than everyone else.”
The JPEG image and the resulting initial website did not look at all like the current buytopia.ca. But this is another key aspect of startups and entrepreneurship: you iterate over your product and idea, and eventually, “iteration becomes innovation.”
The number one mistake budding entrepreneurs make is that they just don’t start.
Romanow also continued the discussion of Canada’s role in the rapidly changing tech and business field. Canadians have lots of genuinely excellent ideas for startups and the grit and passion to make them work – but to get funding from a bank, you almost “have to put our life on the line.” The struggle in Canada is to go from small startups to larger companies.
In the fields such as artificial intelligence, Canada has the potential to lead innovation, but we are still at risk of falling behind. While countries like China give their entire medical records to AI companies to improve their healthcare, we need to pick up our pace—not only to improve our standing in the tech world but also to improve the quality of life of our citizens.
From tech to tennis, hard work and grit are key
Studying engineering at Waterloo, I know that many of my classmates and fellow BETS hope to launch or work with startup companies in STEM areas and beyond. As a Conrad student, I can see and appreciate the challenges that small companies face in Canada: there is a lot of competition, a lot of talent, and it’s often hard to get ahead without stumbling across the border and be “acquired by” a US company.
However, events like these highlight the talent Canada and Canadians have and serve as a reminder: from tech to tennis, hard work, passion, and grit will lead to success. It might be a long road, but it’s worth the struggle.
Learn more about the BETS program!