Day 33: Isaac Souweine on Product Development

March 25, 2015 at 4:55 pm

lean canvas

Isaac Souweine, head of Product Management at Frank & Oak, stopped by the FounderFuel offices to chat to the teams about Product Development for Early Stage Companies. 

We’ve written before about lean analytics. The lean startup movement revolves around the idea of a constant iteration cycle of building, measuring and learning. In other words, in building a startup, your job is to build a product, see how people respond to it, gain insight on those responses, then circle back to do it all over again. 

Isaac places importance on a piece of this process that he believes to be too often missing: promotion. You build, promote, measure and learn. And then repeat. If you build, they may not come. Unless you tell them about it. 

In terms of iteration, here are some conceptual ideas for how to go about it:
i. Know your metrics (computable, accessible, intuitive)
ii. Make it happen (“move fast because you have to”)
iii. Practise Upaya (be skillful – dont overbuild, dont underbuild, understand significance, trust your instinct)

The lean canvas (pictured above) is, in Isaac’s opinion, a helpful tool that can also act as a one page business plan. You’re meant to fill in the canvas with hypotheses. At the earlier stages, you should only be able to partially fill in the canvas. Your total focus should be on product, solution and channels.  

Isaac closes by further discussing the importance of high velocity. He believes that the best predictor of success of a startup is whether or not the people behind it are always doing something

Thanks to Isaac for stopping by! 

Spoil, Reinventing Gifting

March 23, 2015 at 2:14 pm

[This is the third part in a series of profiles on Canadian co-founders making waves in the States. Here's part one and part two.] 

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Y Combinator-backed Spoil was born out of the frustration associated with the inefficiency of the gifting process. As a personalized gift concierge service, Spoil aims to make it as easy as possible for the consumer to give or receive a kind gesture. Spoil presents a win-win-win situation: the giver can brighten a persons day, the receiver is sent a curated and personalized gift, and companies that team up with Spoil are able to test products and receive consumer feedback.

We sat down with Charles-Eric Gascon, co-founder and CEO of Spoil. Charles-Eric was looking to break out of the commercial side of the service market and into the tech industry. He reached out to Concordia University in Montreal, QC, to ask for introductions to strong potential cofounders. He bugged professors until receiving a response; one cold email to the dean of software computing resulted in a successful introduction to Mikhail Levkovsky, CMO at Spoil. From there they teamed up with their third co-founder, Cristian Asenjo, CTO, and the rest is history.

Charles-Eric, Mikhail and Cristian started out by launching Airborne: a startup dedicated to providing curated lists of new spots to explore within your city. When Airborne’s growth lagged, they decided to rethink their strategy and attack an entirely different market. In discussing some of life’s frustrations they realized that to purchase a gift for a special occasion, they would describe their loved one to a salesperson and purchase whatever was suggested. This is how the idea for Spoil emerged.

They tested out the waters by starting with a $25 price range. Due to demand, gifts were introduced incrementally, with a range now starting from $50 and going all the way up to $500. Making their way up the price ladder, Spoil is looking to expand extensively into their pricier gift offerings. Starting out at a low price point made it difficult to maintain a consistent level of personalization. So, they’re currently sourcing out goods to have the most unique items possible. Even further, they’re looking to expand into the experiential gift marketplace.

For Spoil, personalization from start to finish is a key part of their business. They work with a network of curators, many of which are influential bloggers with their finger on the pulse within different markets. In placing an order, you give a quick description of the receiver of the gift and Spoil redirects the request to a blogger that can adequately address that market segment. If they’re looking for a gift for a fashionable man, they reach out to someone from GQ, for example. The site curator or blogger then makes that selection for them. They also target larger companies who are willing to team up to release products. Spoil is perfect for companies looking for customer feedback, and it’s ideal for consumers looking for access to new items not yet publicly available.

Overall, Spoil seems to really stick to their core vision: delivering happiness to people in a simple way. This is why they ensure that their end user is satisfied, exemplified in their full year return policy and in their promise of a free gift in cases of dissatisfaction. Yet, it’s tough to deny that they’re onto something: while the average e-commerce site receives 22% to 28% returns, Spoil receives just 5%. Spoil is gaining traction and they’re excited to see the next chapter unfold.

Say tuned for next week’s profile on Gymtrack, the creators of the future of fitness. 

-Ella Sibio 

Founder Talk with Stephane Marceau

March 20, 2015 at 3:54 pm

Stephane Marceau sat down with FounderFuel (on his twenty year marriage anniversary, no less!) to chat with the teams about his and OMsignal’s journey. 

Stephane is Co-Founder and CEO of OMsignal, the world’s leading smart clothing platform, built on bio-sensing apparel that connects seamlessly with mobile devices. Coming from strategy consulting, Stephane believes he got into the startup game “way too late.” He was looking for more elbow room to create, but hesitated over the lack of predictability. His keen interest in wearables won out, especially when he was confronted with the frustrating experience of a sick friend receiving four different diagnoses from four seperate doctors. Stephane and the remaining OMsignal founders – Frederic Chanay, CPO and Stephane Menard, CSO – realized the emerging importance of smart clothing.

Stephane touched upon OMsignal’s constant R&D whilst simultaneously building out core product. At the same time as they’re pushing out V1, they’re working on V2 and V3. OMsignal is always focused on staying at the forefront of their market. Hence OMlabs: an innovation team separate from their core. 

In building their company, the founders wanted to create and own their narrative from the beginning. They occupied the PR space early on by writing for publications such as VentureBeat. Three key things fell out of doing this: they reached an additional level of company clarity, they began receiving invitations to speak at large conferences and they sparked, for the reader, further interest in their product. The latter was big due to the visceral nature of clothing; just hearing about a shirt isn’t enough to get the full experience of the piece. 

From writing extensive pieces about their mission came OMsignal’s three core values: clarity, speed (“a continuous sense of urgency”) and intensity (regardless of the importance of a work/life balance you “make it work”). In looking for individuals who fit their company values, they have to go with their gut feeling: does this person seem to have an almost naive sense of inspiration? Are they looking to create a meaningful impact? Do they want to be a part of building something bigger than themselves? If a person is naturally attracted to the mission – finding you, rather than the other way around – they’re more likely to be a successful member of your team. 

Stephane closes by telling the teams that failure is the worst case scenario – yet, value lies in failure as well as in success. The skills that you acquire just going through the entrepreneurial process is “the new Harvard MBA.” In working on a startup, you’re “immersed in a profound experience,” finding less distance between coworkers due to a lack of process and politics, being constantly confronted with yourself and always seeking self development. “If the goal in life is to become who you are,” Stephane says, “then you should seek, for both your personal life and for your company, true authenticity.”

Thanks to Stephane Marceau for stopping by! 

Next week Mohannad El-Barachi from SweetIQ will be visiting us. Stay tuned! 

Day 28: Thoughts on Demo Day

March 18, 2015 at 12:01 pm


Ticket’s are open, the Rialto Theatre has been booked and the teams are hard at work. Demo day is fast approaching!

Today we thought we’d chat with the teams about how they’re feeling gearing up towards the big day. Here’s what they had to say:

“How am I feeling about Demo Day? I’ve purchased 15 tickets, that’s how I’m feeling.”
“Uh oh…”
“I have 12 meetings today – is it okay to say that I’m too busy to think about it right now?”
“We keep coming back to our pitch deck, fine tuning our message.”
“We’ve been meeting up with other teams weekly to get extra practise in.”

From aquafarming to 3D Printing, this Demo Day promises to be an exciting one! Get your tickets here.  

Vanhawks, Creators of the Bike of the Future

March 16, 2015 at 3:51 pm

[This is the second part in a series of profiles on Canadian co-founders making waves in the States. Here's part one.] 

Vanhawks is a rare beast: at just one year of age, it’s been accelerated by FounderFuel, is in the current Y Combinator batch, and has recently raised 1.6 million dollars.

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The startup’s evolution began with a carbon fibre hockey stick. Sohaib Zahid, co-founder and Chief Designer at Vanhawks, was in sports medicine when he designed the tech that mimics the human bone: virtually weightless yet difficult to break. It was after having developed the hockey stick that they asked themselves what could be done next. They decided to disrupt the biking industry, which they felt had been sitting in the past. From there they created the software layer to build the world’s first connected carbon fibre bicycle.

Their first bike, to be shipped this Spring, is called Valour. Valour is a connected bike for the urban commuter. It’s long list of features include app-connectedness, turn by turn navigation, blind spot navigation and ride tracking (recording metrics such as speed, distance, calories and time). Perhaps most noteworthy is the interconnected commuter network. In cases of theft, the Valour community is notified to look out for your bike. Furthermore, the more often you ride, the better informed others will be of road conditions in your area. It’s been speculated that the commuter information – rather than the hardware – will end up being the real product. While the team does see the powerful nature of this info, whether or not this is the real value of Vanhawks is, in their opinion, yet to be determined.

After building up a team of fifteen, setting up shop in downtown Toronto, and raising 8x their goal through a Kickstarter campaign (the most successful in Canada), the startup applied to Y-Combinator. Ali Zahid, co-founder and COO of Vanhawks, describes Y-Combinator and FounderFuel as representative of two entirely different niches. Ali credits a lot of Vanhawks’ success to FounderFuel, saying that they “would be nothing and nowhere without FF.” The team had moved from Ontario into the same apartment in Montreal to eat, sleep and breathe Vanhawks. FF, for Ali, was a family. While it teaches the fundamentals of entrepreneurship, YC has more of a hand’s off focus on constant growth. Further, YC’s vast network has been invaluable to Vanhawks. Ultimately, Ali describes Vanhawks in Montreal as feeling like a big fish in a small pond. In San Francisco, on the other hand, they’re just getting started in a huge body of water. 

When asked about the difference in living and working in San Francisco versus downtown Toronto, Ali describes two very distinct lifestyles. Tech employees in the valley work 16-18 hours per day; they exercise, eat every meal and do their laundry at work. On the other hand, Torontonians in tech find more of a work/life balance. Ali maintains that Toronto has a “secret sauce that these guys just don’t have.” While they wish to maintain very close ties in SF, they don’t plan on leaving TO any time soon.

One ingredient in the Vanhawks secret sauce is company culture. In looking to create something that outlives them, the team wants never to stray from their core values. As they evolve – bringing in more personalities and more ideas – they place importance on always remembering the consumer. The community of people seem to be what makes up Vanhawks, exemplified in the fact that two of the four co-founders are brothers. This is further exemplified in the friendship that runs throughout the four person co-founding team. The remaining two co-founders are Niv Yahel, CTO and Adil Aftab Iqbal, CMO. Niv is the brains behind the tech, working behind the scenes to both produce the best product possible and to create a successful (and growing) tech team. Adil has been running manufacturing since day one, spending most of his time abroad to ensure smooth operation from the first prototype to the shipping of the product. With this in mind, their greatest challenge to date has been finding the right people for their company. They’re constantly looking for passionate, dedicated and intelligent individuals who are flexible and willing to take risks. They only hire the best of the best – those who would follow both their product and their consumer to the end of the world.

Although the team is proud of the intensity of their growth, they want to move faster. With no regrets – because “the everyday mistakes are necessary in order to learn” – they’re looking towards the future. Up next is shipping out Valour, prepping for YC’s Demo Day, and getting back into the Toronto community by hosting events. When starting at YC, Paul Graham told the team that someone has to do what they’re doing – the question is whether that someone will be Vanhawks. They realize the power of what they’re building and “believe in it like crazy.” The Vanhawks team is hustling to create something massive and it’s safe to say that they’re well on their way.  

Stay tuned for next week’s profile on Spoil, a personalized gift concierge service. 

-Ella Sibio 

Day 24 – Do you know how to acquire users??

March 12, 2015 at 11:42 am

 ”A startup is a company designed to grow fast…the only essential thing is growth. Everything else we associate with startups follows from growth” – Paul Graham

This week we had Ian Jeffrey, VP Product Marketing at PasswordBox come in to talk to the teams about User Acquisition. The talk started off with a big laugh as Ian asked, “how does one acquire users? I honestly have no idea…”. He then clarified by saying that it’s different for every business out there, there’s no set formula. It’s all about A/B testing to find out what works for you. 

However, there are 6 KPIs that you can measure to see if the techniques you are using are working. 

1-  Retention: How long does the user tay?
2- Engagement: How active is the user?
3- Activation: This is different for every business, you need to find which metric is yours. What is it that a user needs to do to be considered an active user?
4- Acquisition: How many users can you get?
5- Revenues: How many users are paying?
6- Referrals: How many of my users are bringing in new users?

One key lesson that Ian shared was not to pay for advertising until you’ve figured out your KPIs, otherwise it’s just money down the drain. Once you know how to keep your users, then you can start buying ads. However, just because you don’t have the money to spend or you aren’t ready to buy ads, there are still PLENTY of ways to scale. You just need to find some kind of trick or exploit that is free. Look at some of these, now famous, examples. 

1- Airbnb used Craigslist 
2- Zynga used Facebook
3- PayPal used Ebay
4- Slideshare used LinkedIn

But before we go any further, let’s get back to the basics. What exactly is product marketing? According to Ian, it means “getting the largest amount of people to experience the core value of your product as quickly as possible”.  And this doesn’t mean saying that you’re going “to go viral”. Viral marketing is not a strategy, it’s a result of doing a great job.

At the end of the day, the best way to market your product is to have an amazing product. If you solve a real need, and do it well, then you’ll drive value and users will flock to you. Take Dropbox as an example. It adds storage space to your computer, by doing so it solves a real need and drives value to the user. They have a clear USP (Unique Selling Proposition), if you have that, then you have everything you need to grow. Great marketing should be indistinguishable from magic. 

Check-out some of the articles Ian suggested be read as a follow-up to his talk.

1- From 0 to $1B – Slack’s Founder Shares Their Epic Launch Strategy 

2- Real Engines Of Growth Have Nothing To Do With Growth Hacking

3-  Stealing Traction: How Youtube, Paypal, StumbleUpon and AirBnB Grew Through Piggybacking

4- The One Metric That Matters

5- The Scalable Startup Test: Bumps vs. Engines

6-  Growth Hacker is the new VP Marketing

Day 23: Advisor Equity

March 11, 2015 at 4:39 pm

It’s no secret that many young startups give too much, too early and to the wrong people. In fact, “aside from not having a technical co-founder, the most common mistake that we see is a skewed list of investors,” explains Alan MacIntosh, a partner at Real Ventures.

In building a startup, there will most likely be a certain point in time when you’ll realize that no one in your entourage is able to take you to the next level. This is the point at which you should “seek out someone historical with whom you have no pre-existing ties to but think could be a champion for your business,” says Alan.

Deciding how to adequately compensate advisors is tough – exacerbated for the FounderFuel company’s by the fact that they’re given free access to a strong mentorship network throughout the program.

So you’ve built a startup and reached the point of needing help to get to the next step: how and when do you compensate the right advisors?

Although it may seem intuitive, it’s important to stress the necessity of getting to know a potential advisor prior to working with them. Liking a person often comes before liking an opportunity that they present. A relationship with an advisor should be one of good chemistry, commitment, and mutual talent.

This is important for many reasons, one of the most important being that, unfortunately, it’s common for mentors to be extremely enthusiastic for the first week, and then become difficult to get ahold of. Really knowing the person that you’re working with ensures that you do not enter into a relationship with a disappearing act.

Onto numbers. Alan’s rule of thumb, after having been at this for quite a while, is single digits, low percentages and options rather than pay. The more rigorous you are in the process of bringing on a mentor, the better. This will most likely look like a one or two page agreement between the two parties. 

Here’s a list of great articles that go into more detail about equity for advisors: 
Free Startup Docs: How Much Equity Should Advisors Get? 
Everything you ever wanted to know about Advisors, Part 1 
Everything you ever wanted to know about Advisors, Part 2 

Day 22: The rumblings are true! We’ve opened up Demo Day tickets!

March 10, 2015 at 10:27 am

Yesterday, with 60 days to go, we opened up Demo Day tickets. That means just 60 days left to perfect value prop, put together a list of beta testers, get their product into the market, hit those milestones, fix those bugs, scale, hire team members, open up in new cities, close pre-seed rounds, and the list goes on and on. Basically, the teams are busy and the pressure is on! But man are they cranking away. 

We’ve got an amazing group of companies this Cohort, and I know we say it every time, but this one might just be the most impressive yet! From 3D printing to media to transportation to education, we’re covering all the bases. 

Join us on May 7th and watch the 7 companies from our 7th Cohort graduate on stage. It will also be a milestone because these 7 companies will bring our alumni base to a whopping 60 companies! And that is something to celebrate. 

Widget not working on your browser? Get your tickets here.

 And now there’s just 59 days left…Will you be there?

 59 days

Hope to see you all there!

- Emma


Kickback, The Future of Gaming

March 9, 2015 at 2:18 pm

[This is the first in a series of profiles on Canadian co-founders making waves in the States]

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“Do you play Counter-Strike?”

This was the question that started it all. True to their Canadian roots, two twelve year old boys met stuck on a chairlift one hour north of Toronto. Strapped into snowboards, they fought over which of the two knew more about video games. Little did they know that eight years later the pair would move to the States to be among the youngest chosen to join Y-Combinator, Silicon Valley’s prestigious tech accelerator. The rest, as they say, is history.  

After meeting on the slopes, Mark Prokoudine and Vlad Nov exchanged ICQ numbers (these were the days before 12 year olds had smartphones) and maintained a friendship playing games online. Unknown to one another, both were applying to The Country Day School: a close knit and academically rigorous private school in King City, Ontario. They would go on to study there together from the ages of 13 through 18.  

During high school, Mark learned to code by reverse engineering games. He built Volt-Host; a server hosting company with 15,000 paid monthly users. At the same time, Vlad was busy trying out everything from telemarketing to selling apparel to celebrities online. “We often helped each other, but didn’t really work on any serious projects” says Vlad, who now runs operations at the company. While he pursued his interest in business at Queen’s Commerce, Mark dove into machine learning, math and computer science at McGill. The pair reconnected in San Francisco last summer while working for separate startups.

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This was when they decided to create Kickback: a casual e-sports platform that lets anyone make money playing video games. Sites like Twitch boast 100 million monthly users. There, gamers make money by creating content or competing in professional e-sports tournaments. Top players are frequently granted visas into the US as professional athletes to train with local teams. However, if you’re not a celebrity streamer or professional gamer, there is almost nowhere to compete or win money. Enter Kickback, the platform that’s providing 230 million monthly gamers a way to feel like the pros and earn their keep.

The platform works by letting players wager real money in matches. Using advanced matchmaking and anti-cheat technology, Kickback is a safe and trusted platform for gamers to put their skills to the test. After launching for Minecraft last week, thousands of people have tried Kickback. The team of 10 plans on expanding to games like Dota 2 and Counter-Strike this summer. For now, users can play Minecraft either for cash or bragging rights; the latter a key part of the e-sports culture. Despite many hurdles, the young company is gaining recognition from big names in the gaming industry.

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For now, the Kickback gentlemen are sticking to the idea that “the right startup idea violently rips you away from what you do today”. When asked what they would have done differently in their journey to date, the guys responded that, instead of saving capital by living on air mattresses for four months, they should have bought beds. With work being their main focus, they’re looking to grow Kickback as fast as possible while supporting Canadian talent.

The most helpful part of Y-Combinator for the Kickback team has been, undoubtedly, the mentorship. When asked to comment on why that’s the case, Mark responded that while the gaming industry is wild and complicated, the partners at YC understand the users, problems and how to help. Reasons for staying in San Francisco extend beyond YC: no matter where they go, they always find someone in tech, and of course, they love the weather.

To check out Kickback, click here. Look out for part two of this series next week, where we sit down with Vanhawks, creators of the bike of the future.

- Ella Sibio

The Art (and science) of the Pitch

March 7, 2015 at 12:48 pm

Talk by Sylvain today at the John Molson Startup Conference at Concordia University.

Think your team has what it takes?