FounderFuel Mentor Spotlight: Atlee Clark

atlee clark 2Atlee Clark is the Head of App Store and Third Party Development at Shopify. She’s also an all-star FounderFuel mentor. We sat down to pick her brain about the C100, Shopify and building a startup in Canada versus Silicon Valley.

Atlee’s background is firmly rooted in politics. Armed with a Masters degree in US National Security, she worked in government, think-tanks and as a lobbyist for a number of years in Washington, DC and Calgary, AB. Though she found this work intellectually stimulating, something was missing. She was hungry for a faster paced environment, so pulled a career 180 to get it.

With just six months left on her working Visa, Atlee moved to San Francisco, “with hope, a dream, and no job prospects.” Fascinated by the idea of starting something from nothing, she thought SF would be the perfect place to get back to the drawing board. She was right. Soon after moving, Atlee was introduced to the newly-formed C100 team. A volunteer effort at the time, the C100 had recently been brought to life by a group of VC’s, entrepreneurs and execs. It’s original mission remains to this day; it’s a nonprofit, member driven association that provides a bridge between Canadian founders and the highly influential Silicon Valley network. As one might imagine, the folks volunteering their time to bring the C100 to life already had pretty packed schedules. So, Atlee convinced them that they needed someone to run their project, and that she would be the perfect person for the job. “The worst that could happen is that you don’t like me and I get deported,” she told them. She’s lived in SF ever since.

Atlee describes how fortunate she feels to have worked with amazing founders and investors while at the C100. Yet, when talking to her and her connections, you get the sense that they feel the same way about having worked with her. In her capacity as Executive Director, she advocated for Canadian tech entrepreneurs and excelled at making successful connections for them. One of those connections was between Tobi Lütke, the founder and CEO of Shopify, and a group of prominent investors. This was during her first ever event as C100 Executive Director, when Shopify had just raised its Series A. Atlee watched their success from the sidelines until being asked to join the team in 2014 at what would later become a rare Canadian success story.

Oftentimes, Canadian founders in FounderFuel (our seed-stage accelerator program) are unsure of how exactly to gain and leverage resources in the Valley. Given Atlee’s experience of both cultures, we asked for her advice. She describes the Valley as an open, welcoming and friendly place due to the amount of people coming from around the world in the hopes of building a successful company. For this reason, most are “willing to making friends, collaborate and openly talk about what they’re working on.” In Atlee’s experience, Canadian startups tend to be concerned with staying connected to the Valley, (regardless of whether or not they’re interested in moving there). She advises these startups to figure out a way to afford to spend five days in town every six weeks. “That way you stay connected but get to go home to escape the parts of SF that can be not-so-great,” she explains. Some of the not-so-great qualities include the price of living, the difficulty involved in keeping talent, and what Atlee refers to as the hype machine, alluding to the struggle in discerning which opportunities are real and which are not.

Atlee’s been a mentor at FounderFuel for three cohorts, so has seen her fair share of startups in the process of acceleration. When asked about what she would tell incoming teams, she had two pieces of advice to share. First and foremost, “if you’re smart enough to choose to go through an accelerator, you’re going to receive a lot of advice from a lot of different places – take it all in but never ignore your gut.” In Atlee’s experience, most successful startups find small groups of advisors, each with a different skill set.  Second, it’s more critical than many think to establish culture right off the bat. “Founders are often together 16 hours a day so don’t feel the need to talk about defining and communicating company values,” she explains. Though it might “feel corporate-y,” if you don’t verbalize culture among founders and first hires, “it’s easy to lose sight of when you’re living your values and when you’re not.” Shopify, for example, has created an internal tool that allows employees to recognize other colleagues for their work. Employees choose from a dropdown menu which values were exemplified in the act being described. This is one of the ways that Shopify has been able to reinforce culture even as the company scales. “It’s a science – not magic,” Atlee explains.

Despite living in the States, Atlee believes Montreal to be an amazing place to grow a company. The close-knit and supportive community benefits founders in that networks can be gained quickly and easily. The dots that connect mentors, investors and other entrepreneurs are compact, and the types of mentors readily available range in diversity from those who have ‘been there and done that’ to those who are newer to the game. Aside from the community, Atlee describes MTL as a hotbed of inspiration, with great music, food and art, constantly forcing founders out of their comfort zone. As Atlee explains, “Montreal is the perfect place for the founder who needs to usedifferent parts of their brain.”  

If you’re interested in becoming a FounderFuel mentor, we’d love to hear from you – reach out to info@founderfuel.com to tell us why. If you’d like to connect to Atlee, you can find her on Twitter as @atleeclark

Ella Sibio
ella@founderfuel.com
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