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Day 9: Mentor Day

September 12, 2014 at 2:00 pm

Yesterday was Mentor Day. Our full-day event where we bring in Mentors from across North America to give our teams feedback on their companies and progress. It’s a crucial day that exposes our teams to our vast Mentor network and helps them form relationships with people who will play a key role in the growth of their company. 

It was a very successful day and our companies took away several key learnings that they can apply as they grow.

Check out some of the pictures from the 5 à 7 at the end of the day. 

Day 57: Sneak Peek of the Teams

April 24, 2014 at 4:35 pm

Just kidding! 

We’re still 21 days away from publicly announcing the companies from the Spring 2014 cohort but we did offer a sneak peek of the teams to a select group of Investors yesterday evening. We invited about 40 Investors to come mingle with the CEOs and get to know the awesome companies that are about to pitch at Demo Day. 

VIP Event

Over a few hours, a few drinks and some great canapés the CEOs mingled with the Investors, pitched their visions and got some really constructive feedback on how to take their companies to the next level. 

We hope to see you at Demo Day on May 13th and finally get to show-off these amazing companies to the world!

 

Day 54: Show & Tell III

April 17, 2014 at 3:32 pm

One of the most stressful things we can say to the companies is “there are X number of days until Demo Day”. Today that number was 26. To highlight just how quickly Demo Day is approaching, we hosted Show & Tell III today. We invited a handful of Mentors to come in and watch the companies give their updates and most recent investor pitches. 

photo1

The results were mixed. Some companies still have a LONG way to go before Demo Day and some are roaring along and really impressing everyone.

As usual there were some great one liners. Here are some of the best:

“At the first Show & Tell all I wanted to know was how can I give you all my money. Today, I’m beyond relieved that I didn’t invest in you.”

“I’m really proud of you, this pitch is 1000% better than it was 1 month ago.”

“I think you thought you would be in a much different position today. As far as I can tell, you just keep getting worse and less impressive.”

“Why do you have a slide that depicts you staring lovingly at a 12 year old? That’s just weird.”

“I don’t think you succeeded in explaining where your company is going. In any way, shape or form. Do you even realize where you’re going??”

“I don’t think what you’re building is useful for 90% of the population. It’s cool, but it’s not useful.”

 

Day 53: Can The Companies Pitch?

April 16, 2014 at 3:20 pm

You can tell the program is coming to a close very soon because Show & Tell III is right around the corner. It’s tomorrow!

This is the last time for the companies to give their updates and present their almost finished Demo Day deck. One of the most challenging tasks for a CEO is to to take their whole business and condense it into a straightforward presentation in plain English. To help them achieve this, we set up a week of training sessions in anticipation of Show & Tell III.

pitch-your-ideas

In preparation for tomorrow the teams had a 5 hour pitch prep session with our lovely Mentor, Austin Hill. Austin gave the teams an in-depth look at various different kinds of pitches and went over the bad, the good and the great. He then listened as each CEO did their pitch and gave them some really honest but constructive feedback. 

To follow-up on yesterday’s session the companies each sat down for one-on-ones with our GM, Ian Jeffrey. In these sessions the final details of their decks were reviewed so that they’re fully prepared to pitch to a room of their peers and FounderFuel Mentors tomorrow afternoon. 

It’s been a hectic week but it should be fun tomorrow to see just how far the teams have come! 

Want to check the teams out for youself? Check them out at Demo Day on May 13th. Get your tickets here.

Day 40: Bringing Product Management to a Scaling Startup (Guest Post)

March 28, 2014 at 11:13 am

[This is a guest post by Isaac Souweine, Head of Product Management at Frank & Oak]

Isaac

Early stage startups don’t generally need a discrete product management function, a point I’ve made here. As startups scale, however, most do add product managers to help them deal with increased complexity. Like any major organizational change, the process of adding product management to a scaling startup is at once transformative and full of challenges.

At Frank & Oak, a Montreal-based e-tailer, we’ve recently gone through this exact transition. As Head of Product Management, I’ve worked with our Founders and Head of Technology to manage the change, focusing on four key areas: defining the product manager (PM) role, setting a weekly rhythm, establishing key operations, and solidifying our tools. The results are a work in progress, but I hope nonetheless worth sharing here.

PM ROLE

When introducing the PM role, it was important for us to communicate clearly but iteratively. Not everyone has the same idea of what a product manager does, so we tried to be specific about what tasks PMs could own while sharing a vision for what the role could accomplish. At the same time, we allowed the role definition to coalesce over a few rounds of coffee chats, emails and formal meetings. By taking an iterative approach, we were able to customize the PM role to the specific organizational and team context at Frank & Oak.

Introducing the PM role also meant managing its perceived downsides. The addition of product managers can feel disempowering: developers suddenly have less control over feature definition and priority, while stakeholders have less access to the developers who solve their problems. While these perceptions can be discussed, we found the best approach was to simply show the value of the role with great specs, clear prioritization, prompt action on bugs and so on. When it comes to selling the vision of product management, actions definitely speak loudest.

WEEKLY RHYTHM

In an office, a week is a meaningful block of time, with its own natural rhythms. This makes it an ideal vessel for building a product team culture. At Frank and Oak, we now start each week with a 30 minute Monday Morning Kickoff. The Monday Kickoff was especially useful during the first few weeks of our new organization as we were iterating on the PM role and product team relationships. It remains our forum of choice for addressing key process issues, maintaining cross-team communication, and setting a good tone for the week. To soften the blow of starting Monday morning with a meeting, we serve free breakfast. St. Viateur bagels make culture change much tastier.

The focal point of the Monday Kickoff is the No Fail Goal, a cultural element we borrowed from Pollenizer, an Australian startup studio where I worked prior to joining Frank & Oak. A No Fail Goal is a non trivial task or milestone that can be closed in one week’s time. The goal is announced on Monday and results are tracked the following Monday. It’s a simple process, great for clarifying priorities and motivating teams without a lot of process overhead. The practice was designed for Pollenizer’s 3-person startup pods, but it’s translated extremely well to the complexity of a scaling startup.

To close the week, we’ve adopted another Pollenizer specialty, Drinks and Demos. On Friday at 4 PM, we buy beer and chips and invite people to present their designs, feature launches, test results, data insights and so on. Originally created for the product team, the session now extends across functions and serves as a nice capstone for the week’s work. It’s also a good forum to introduce new hires and entertain guests.

KEY PROCESSES

PM’s spend a good deal of time creating processes that support the work of developers and designers. In a scaling startup, new process layers are a double edged sword. On the one hand, team members appreciate that business growth requires bureaucratization. On the other hand, no one really loves bureaucracy. Like the PM role itself, introducing process is ultimately about showing value. Simply put, process should make people’s lives better. Persistence is also crucial, as some processes take time to bear fruit.

One process area we looked at early in our reorganization was issue tracking. It may seem obvious that developer work should always be tracked, but in a fast moving startup many things “just get done”. Ensuring that user stories get written for all development work can therefore be a fundamental culture change. It’s well worth the effort of course, and in our case we found a few weeks were all it took until consistent issue tracking was second nature.

Another process area we have worked to solidify is release rhythm. With the exception of our mobile team, we have not introduced formal sprints, so our release process boils down to weekly backlog reviews, PM-driven QA, and code pushes as needed. This approach provides flexibility, low process overhead, and the gratification of getting code live quickly. It does lack the rigor of more formal approaches, a limitation we try to make up for in part with the weekly No Fail Goal.

As our basic development cycle has solidified, we have invested more time in building a product roadmap. To build co-ownership of our first roadmap, we held broad-based brainstorming sessions followed by regular communication as the plan took shape. Our first roadmap projected out for 3 quarters. It was a great exercise, but it did not produce a stable operating plan. We are now moving to a 90-day prioritization cycles as inspired by the process run at Pandora.

Tying in with our 2014 goal setting, we are also making a bigger push on metrics. Beyond solving technical problems like incomplete data instrumentation and non-unified data sources, we’ve found that becoming data driven is also mostly about cultural change. In an early stage startup, decisions happen quickly and are often based on intuition and authority. As our product team matures, we are working to make sure that proper data is available, understood and at the center of goal setting and decision making. One project we’re still working on is metrics screens around the office so that key statistics are visually present at all times.

TOOLS

Like any organization, our tools express and reinforce our team culture. Here’s a list of some of the key tools we’re using:

  • Issue Tracking – We use Pivotal Tracker for issue tracking. It’s a great piece of software, though the fit has been awkward at times since we are not running sprints or closely tracking velocity.

  • Wireframing – We use balsamiq for wireframing. It’s a fantastic tool with an easy learning curve. Our UX process is a mix of wireframing and direct design in Photoshop and Illustrator.

  • Analytics – Thanks to our amazing BI maestro, we’re currently transitioning our analytics from RJ Metrics, which is a great dashboarding tool, to Looker which is much more powerful for ad hoc analysis.

  • Documentation – We use google docs for just about everything. There’s still a few .ppt and .doc files that get passed around, but we’re on a mission to phase out all attachments that don’t end in .xls.

  • Testing – We use a mix of optimizely, in-house tools, and taplytics for mobile. We track all tests in a single archive and circulate results regularly via email and in meetings.

  • Group Chat – We use hipchat to foster communication. It’s been a big improvement over gchat and the price is competitive compared to some of the other solutions we looked at.

  • Archiving – We have been trying to crowdbase as an archiving tool, though with limited success. This has less to do with the tool and more to do with the challenges of implementing our documentation plan in a fast-growing company.

WHAT’S NEXT

In a fast growing startup, it’s hard to say what’s next. We have big plans though, so please stay tuned for another post in a few months with updates from Rue St. Viateur.

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Thanks to our content guru Kirsten Weisenburger for reading a draft of this article and to our PM team Eric Azran, Nima Gardideh and Jeff Talajic for their comments and for being awesome.

 

Day 37: The Substance of Silicon Valley

March 25, 2014 at 3:36 pm

The teams got a visit from today from the awesome Aron Solomon who came to talk to them about The Substance of Silicon Valley.

Aron

During his talk, he highlighted 10 key features of Silicon Valley that anyone wanting to do business there should understand.

Here are some of the key takeaways from his talk.

1. Innovation produces growth

2. The Valley is almost exclusively a knowledge economy

3. The pace of the Valley is faster than almost anywhere in the world and never stops (or sleeps!)

4. Everyone wants to fail fast and grow huge

What are your thoughts on the Valley? Leave them in the comments

 

Day 35: How did your board meeting go?

March 21, 2014 at 3:14 pm

This week was when the teams were supposed to hold their first formal meetings with their FounderFuel Board. We encouraged them to think outside the box and hold fun and creative meetings to really pull their board members in. As far as we can tell, these meetings were hugely successful.

make-company-meetings-successful

For this Friday’s “interview” with the teams, we decided to ask them their thoughts on how these meetings went.

“Amazing! They really responded well to our vision and our product”

“The lead-up was stressful but it was worth it in the end”

“We didn’t have ours yet, we had to postpone. Sadface”

“Stressful!!! But everyone responded really well!”

All in all, seems like a successful week for the teams!

Day 33: The One Metric That Matters at Accelerators

March 19, 2014 at 11:56 am

[This is a guest post by Alistair Croll, Founder at Solve For Interesting]

alistair

In Lean Analytics, we spend a lot of time talking about metrics. We claim there’s one metric that matters to businesses as they grow, which is a bit of a tease: the reality is that the metric changes based on the business model and the stage of growth.

The point is that there’s one metric. The most precious commodity in a startup is focus, and having one metric to optimize forces focus to happen.

YCombinator’s Paul Graham says that for a startup to do well, it has to be growing 5-10 percent a week. Pre-revenue, that means 5-10 percent more customers; post-revenue, that means money in the bank. The only way that a startup can achieve this pace is through focus.

One week, you focus on stickiness. The next, on conversion rates. The next, on cost of customer acquisition. But each of these metrics is in service of the overall goal of traction, measured by sustained, repeatable growth in the market. The time a startup spends in an accelerator is the most precious of all, because everything is magnified: Access to mentors; chances to pitch; tools and infrastructure; cross-pollination.

It’s easy to get distracted by all this, and lose focus. Knowing the one metric that drives the kind of growth your business model requires right at that moment will help you avoid such distraction.

Here’s a concrete example. A couple of years ago I taught at a startup event. Hanging out in the lobby before my talk began, an entrepreneur asked me a question. He ran a recruiting business, and had two agents in India who were trying to connect candidates with employers State-side.

“One of these guys is great,” he explained. “He closes a ton of candidates, nearly one a week. The other takes way longer. I think I’m going to have to fire him.”

I asked him how he monetized his business model. “We get a percentage of their salary every month for as long as they are employed,” he explained.

“Then you’re a subscription model, and you care about churn. What is the Residual Lifetime Value of a candidate? Assuming candidate salaries are around the same, the value of your recruiters is tied to how long they stay employed, as well as how many deals they close.”

His eyes got a far-away look. “The guy who closes four candidates a month, well, they only stick around for a month of two. The guy who closes more slowly, his are there for years…”

And then he left.

He literally left the conference to change his plans about who to fire. He’d forgotten to tie his business model (a recurring annuity from total retained candidates each month) to the behaviour of his team (closing new candidates.)

This is an uncomfortable experience. And in an accelerator, with so many things to do and so much to keep track of, it’s easy to misunderstand the fundamentals of the business model you’re in the process of building. The One Metric That Matters for companies in an accelerator cohort is focus, because distraction can be fatal.

@acroll

Blog: www.solveforinteresting.com

Book: www.leananalyticsbook.com

Day 32: Sales is everything!

March 18, 2014 at 11:40 am

Yesterday the cohort got a visit from one the newest additions to our Mentor family, Brett Patrontasch. Brett is the CEO of Coffee Entreprises and an expert in all things sales (and no, not in that slimy vacuum salesman kind of way).

Brett

Here are some of the main points that the teams took away from his presentation:

1. Sales is EVERYTHING. Every interaction you make with another individual is a sale. Either you convince them of your point, or they convince you on theirs.

2. In sales you set SMART goals – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely.

3. A purchasing decision is 80% emotional and 20% logical, a client must like you before they will buy from you.

4. To get clients to like you, you must enter their inner circle of trust. Entering the inner circle is called building rapport.

5. There are three types of communication: Verbal (the words you choose), Vocal (how you say those words), and Visual (your body language)

6. The most important of these are body language and tone. The words you choose are actually only 7% of the message you communicate.

7. People have different communication styles. You must determine what they are and adjust your approach accordingly. The same approach style will not work with all clients.

Have any sales techniques you want to share? Leave them in the comments section below.

Day 26: My CTA @ NYC Experience: 1 Year Later (Guest Post)

March 10, 2014 at 12:52 pm

[This is a guest post by LP Maurice Co-founder & CEO of Montreal-based travel startup Busbud. He participated in Group 5 of CTA@NYC program in early 2013.]

LPMaurice

Looking to grow your startup in the US?

For many Montreal-based businesses, New York City is a natural starting point due to its proximity and strong vertical markets in retail, fashion, finance, media, tourism and e-commerce. In the last 10 years, New York has also developed an increasingly vibrant startup ecosystem rivalling Silicon Valley’s hegemony.

The Canadian Technology Accelerator initiative in New York City (also known as CTA @ NYC) was established in 2012 by the Consulate General of Canada in New York to help Canadian digital media companies access key resources to accelerate their growth.

The CTA @ NYC is geared to supporting start-ups looking to achieve the following business objectives in the NYC market:

- Strengthening angel / VC investor networks
- Landing a marquee client / strategic partnership
- Exploring expansion of business development operations into NYC

Many Montreal startups have participated in the program so far, such as clothing e-tailer Frank & Oak and location-based marketing startup SweetIQ, as well as Datacratic, Guestful, Buyosphere and WhereCloud. Local startup entrepreneur and FounderFuel alum Charles Brun (Now In Store) is participating in the current cohort, alongside Claude Théorêt (Nexalogy).

MY EXPERIENCE AT CTA

Busbud was selected for CTA in early 2013. I participated in the program in Group 5 on behalf of Busbud and found it a very useful experience.

I worked for several months at the General Assembly co-working space, where I was able to connect with other US entrepreneurs and attend events at GA. (Note that the co-working space has changed to Grind this year, which is equally great). This was quite helpful to kickstart my network in the US. I was also able to attend many startup community events in NYC during my stay, such as NY Tech Day, Start conference by the f.ounders group, and NY Tech Meetup. During my time at CTA, we also attracted attention from US-focused media that resulted in some press coverage too. Our participation in CTA was also a catalyst to helping to raise our seed round with Canadian and NYC-based investors.

The program itself is well-structured and relevant. These panels, sessions and conferences have helped us refine our pitch in advance of CTA’s demo day (also a great venue to connect with potential investors) and generally better understand the NY ecosystem. Guests have included great entrepreneurs and investors such as Alexis Ohanian of Reddit & YCombinator and Jim Estill of CanRock Ventures. CTA also provides mentoring sessions, pitch clinics, business development support and legal/immigration help. More than anything, it was fun to meet startups from across Canada participating in the program. There was a definitely good vibes among peer entrepreneurs. The alumni network is also a huge value and I have regularly been in touch with a few other alum entrepreneurs.

TIPS AND TRICKS

A few useful points of clarification for interested entrepreneurs:

- Format: While the program is about 3-4 months, most activities are generally clustered over two 3-days periods approximately at the start and midway points, so it it definitely to participate while continuing to run your business as usual. (That’s the idea!)

- Living: You do not need to move to New York to participate in CTA, but I would say full immersion is the best way to get the most out of the experience. I lived in NYC for most of the duration of the program and felt it was helpful. There’s nothing like saying to a potential client/partner/investor: “Sure. I’ll be there in 1 hour”.

- Growth stage: Although the program does not have specific guidelines around startup stage, I would highly recommend to be post MVP and ideally at the seed round stage. Most if not all of the participants in my cohort had raised at least a seed round and some had raised an A round. You should have a solid production foundation and a good idea of how you want to leverage this experience to bring the business to the next level. Read about exact eligibility criteria on CTA’s website.

- Expenses: Living is NYC is notoriously expensive. One drawback of the program is that it does not re-imburses fees for participation. This can add up to a significant amount for those choosing to live in NYC full-time to maximize their experience. That said, the Canadian Digital Media Network (CDMN) does offer its Outbound soft-landing program to help cover costs for such displacements across the world. Personally, I applied to this CDMN program but was not able to recuperate any expenses (the competition is fierce for the available grants), so ultimately I chose to assume these costs out-of-pocket.

- Who to send: I would highly recommend that the CEO or a co-founder participate. In my cohort, all the participants were co-founders or CEOs. For teams with multiple co-founders that would like to participate, that may be possible, although the co-working membership is typically available for only one person. You should inquire directly to CTA about such questions.

WHAT NEXT?

What’s next for CTA? The CTA@NYC has so far helped 50+ companies! The plan now is to expand to other US cities and have program for various verticals. CTA Cleantech NYC and CTA Silicon Valley, as well as chapters for Boston, Denver and Philadelphia, are examples of current expansion efforts of the program. The larger CTA program has now helped 170+ companies!

What’s next for me? Building on many contacts made at CTA @ NYC, I’ve recently been selected for the Venture Fellows program earlier this year. Past participants of the program headed up successful US startups such as Foursquare, Etsy, CodeAcademy and Songza. So I’ll be again be sharing my time between New York and Montreal every month in 2014. If you’re in town, feel free to drop me a line to connect!

In closing, I’d like to give a special shout-out to Miriam Bekkouche and Irena Harris, who have worked tirelessly over the years to make this pioneering program happen for Canadian entrepreneurs, under the leadership of Consul General John Prato and Senior Trade Commissioner Allison Young. Good job to all of you! This is a great government-led initiative that will generate tangible for the Canada economy in the coming years.

Looking for an efficient way to break in to the US market? Look no further – CTA is it!

Applications for the next cohort (Group 9) are due March 23rd, 2014. For more information, check our their website or contact: ctanyc@international.gc.ca.

Follow LP on his blog Swell or find him on Twitter.

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