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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 19: 1 year later, Vanhawks is on a roll!

March 5, 2015 at 10:57 am

valour

We’re coming up on the 1 year anniversary of Vanhawks launching their Valour Kickstarter campaign, the most successful one in Canada, during their 3 month stint at FounderFuel. To celebrate this we couldn’t be more excited for the 2 major announcements Vanhawks made yesterday.

They announced through TechCrunch that:

- They have raised $1.6 million from Real VenturesOlympic triathlon gold medallist Simon Whitfield and Brenda Irwin of Relentless Pursuit Partners

- They joined the Winter 2015 Y Combinator class in San Francisco and have been making major strides there.

The future is limitless for Vanhawks. Co-Founder & COO Ali Zahid confirmed this in their TechCrunch article. “The vision is a lot bigger than just making bikes,” Zahid explains. “Think of us as the software layer for the bike industry of the future. Everyone says that software is eating the world, and we see that in the bike industry, too, which has been sitting in the past.”

We can’t wait to see what comes next for Vanhawks! 

Day 12: Culture, the PasswordBox Way

February 24, 2015 at 4:01 pm

passwordbox

Yesterday afternoon we had a visit from 4 core members of the PasswordBox team. They came to chat with the current Cohort about team culture, how you instill it and how you can maintain it through growth and acquisition by Intel Security. On the panel were Marc-Antoine Ross (Co-Founder & Director of Data Engineering), Greg Whiteside (Employee #1 & Director Engineering), Olivier Beaulieu (Employe #8 & Technical Team Lead) and Ian Jeffrey (Employee #32 & VP Product Marketing). 

Some of the key topics covered were:

1) Hiring
- Always hang-out with a potential employee before hiring them.  Would you want to have a beer with them on a Friday night after a long week of work? 
- Always hire people who are smarter than you. If you feel dumb in the interview, that’s a good sign!
- PasswordBox has instilled a culture of attracting great people to the company and spending time with them before hiring them.
- Everyone should have options. 

2) Transparency
- PasswordBox has a culture of transparency. This is key in building a strong culture. Every employee is always aware of everything going on, from potential investors to potential acquirers and deals on the table. 
- Set a weekly time to meet with the entire company, Monday works great because everyone is pumped up for the week. At PasswordBox they do all hands lunches every Monday where Dan gives the updates on the company and every team goes over what they’re working on. 

3) Firing
- If after one week you aren’t convinced about someone, you should let them go. After 1 week it gets harder and harder to fire someone.
- The biggest mistake is trying to keep someone who you know isn’t a good fit

Here are some of the tidbits shared with the Cohort:

“Invest in the culture of people, not in the space you work in”
“Dan comes in every morning and fist bumps every single employee, he did it when we were 3, 8 and now we’re 50+ and he still does it.”
“Culture creates retention.”
“When does culture start? It starts day 1, when you meet someone and want to work together and build something. From there, it grows organically.”
“Every morning when I show up to work, my colleagues are genuinely happy to see me and greet me with high-fives, it’s like one huge family.”
“We’re 50+ employees and I honestly can’t imagine PasswordBox without any of them. They’re all part of who we are. That’s when you know you have a strong culture.”

 

Day 4: Alumni Meet-up!

February 12, 2015 at 7:10 pm

 

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The room is silent as our Alumni Meet-up panel kicks off.

Ty Danco (Director at Techstars Boston), Thiago Da Costa (CEO at Lagoa) and Lee Silverstone (CEO at GymTrack) make up our panel on fundraising and acquisitions. The conversation quickly evolves into a candid discussion about all things startups.

Ty, Thiago and Lee touch on choosing investors wisely, the importance of delegation, what they would have done differently, the surprises involved in growing a business and even tips on maintaining personal relationships through the stresses of scaling a business.

While tonight is an amazing opportunity for our newest cohort to soak up open and honest advice, it’s also about much more. Tonight is a manifestation of one of the most important aspects of the FounderFuel program. We pride ourselves on the networks that we make available to each team that walks through our doors. This event is meant to introduce the newest additions of the FounderFuel family to an amazing network: our Alumni! 

Stay tuned for news on Show & Tell tomorrow!  

7 Startups for our 7th Cohort

February 6, 2015 at 4:10 pm

“Success is focusing the full power of all you are on what you have a burning desire to achieve.” 
- William Peterson

FounderFuel is gearing up to welcome its Spring 2015 cohort on Monday, February 9th. 7 companies will comprise our 7th batch of startups. This time around, we’re trying something new.

After a deep-dive re-evaluating the past 6 cohorts, we’ve altered the structure of the program in order to capitalize on our strengths and improve upon our weaknesses. We want to more accurately reflect our purpose: to offer an in-depth and mentor-driven acceleration of your startup.

This is why this cohort will see a refocusing of the program, oriented even more towards the specific needs of the entrepreneur, and towards providing them with what will satisfy those needs. We want to have a higher impact upon the outcome and success of each startup embarking on this journey with us.

Stay tuned for more changes to come.

To remain up-to-date on the progress of FounderFuel and the 7 companies within its 7th cohort, follow us here:

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Vote for Vanhawks as Accelerator Graduate of the Year!!

January 6, 2015 at 10:21 am

Startup Awards

The finalists for the 2014 Canadian Startup Awards have just been announced and our very own Vanhawks (Spring 2014) has been nominated as Accelerator Graduate of the Year! 

Vanhawks’s mission is to make connected bikes for the urban commuter to encourage bike rides for greener and less congested cities with the best experience possible. The Vanhawks Valour, is the first Bluetooth connected bike built from carbon fibre, giving riders safety,comfort and insight for every ride. 

Vanhawks came into the FounderFuel program with a big idea and were in the early stages of manufacturing their prototype. They then went one to raise the most amount of money in crowdfunding in Canada through Kickstarter which was 820k, have attracted major media attention, made key hires and have a lot more exciting news on the way!  2015 is going to be a big year for Vanhawks! Let’s start it off right by helping them win Accelerator Graduate of the Year! 

Vote here!  

And help us spread the word!

Meet the Fall 2014 Cohort

December 10, 2014 at 10:45 am

 

Elevator World Tour + FounderFuel

December 9, 2014 at 9:40 am

EWT

Next January 21st, one hundred of the most promising startups will be pitching a panel of investors and experts, hoping to secure fame and funding. But this isn’t your ordinary startup contest, because each entrepreneur has only the time it takes to ride the elevator at the Eiffel Tower to convince judges they’re the best. 

The Elevator World Tour™ Paris, will have the best startups delivering their elevator pitches — in the actual elevator of the Eiffel Tower — as they compete for several prizes including, a guaranteed spot in the FounderFuel Spring 2015 Cohort! 

“We’re thrilled that the first European stop on the Elevator World Tour is in one of the most exciting cities in the world, in the most iconic building in the world,” said Philippe Telio, the event’s founder. Jerome Masurel, co-founder and CEO of 50 Partners adds, “Holding the event at the Eiffel Tower is a reminder that some of the most ambitious projects were built by engineers and entrepreneurs, and that the world’s greatest companies start with a great vision and unstoppable founders.”

The contest is part of a worldwide startup contest known as the Elevator World Tour that runs literal elevator pitches in some of the world’s most iconic buildings. Other stops on the tour have included Toronto’s CN tower and the Azrieli Tower in Tel Aviv, with upcoming events being planned in New York, Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona, Berlin, and Santiago.

The Elevator World Tour Paris is being organized by the International Startup Festival and the French accelerator, 50 Partners and is being hosted by the Société d’Explotation de la Tour Eiffel.

See you in Paris!

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Check out the Fall 2014 Demo Day Pitches (VIDEO)

December 8, 2014 at 10:04 am

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