One of my role models is leaving IBM to explore the world of entrepreneurship. Jamie Alexander has a lot of development experience. He built a number of sites, including PassItAlong, an internal social learning system we use at IBM. He’d be the first to admit he needs help with the business side, though, and he’s looking forward to learning more about marketing and adoption. He’s applying to the Digital Media Zone incubator at Ryerson University, and will check out the local technology events.
What advice could help a new tech/web entrepreneur get started? Here are a few tips I picked up by osmosis from the Toronto technology scene. What do I know about it? I haven’t started a company yet. But this is what I’ve heard from lots of conversations and books, and it might be useful. I’m hoping people will pitch in with other ideas.
Learn from companies that have done it. There are a number of interesting local companies that you can learn from, like Idee, Freshbooks and LearnHub. How did they do it? How did they identify and go after their market? How did they bootstrap? Did they need investment, or did they self-fund their growth? What challenges did they encounter and how did they deal with them? There are lots of events that feature companies in different stages of evolution. Go to them and ask questions. Read blogs and news articles online, too. But don’t get too focused on how people have done things before – the world is always changing, and there’s no sure-fire recipe for success.
Connect with mentors and the community. There are a number of tech events for startups. Go. Meet people. Learn from others. Connect with potential mentors, investors, and partners. There are plenty of online networks, too. Don’t get stuck in the new media echo chamber – you’ll still need to actually make a product or service, and you still need to go out there and build or discover your audience – but connect with people who can share what they’ve learned. I just did a quick search for Toronto startup events and found http://toronto.startupweekend.org (Sept 24-26, 2010 at Ryerson). There’s always something going on.
Make it easy to keep in touch. “Do I have to use Twitter?” Jamie asked. If you’re starting a Toronto web startup, yes. It makes it easier for people to talk about you and your sites. Create a Twitter account and a blog, and use that to make it easy for people to find out more about you, interact with you, and refer to you. Reach out and connect with people. Share what you’re learning. Make it part of the way you work. You need that network. Why limit it to just the people you can regularly e-mail or have coffee with?
Collaborate. You don’t have to do everything yourself. Find people with complementary skills and who believe in your vision.
This is easier said than done. Where can you find business people if you’re a tech person? Startup events are one way to do it – you’ll find people of varying experience. Look for people who have succeeded before. Ask your mentors for referrals. Look for people who have failed before but know what they’re going to do differently next time. If you’re partnering with someone who’s also new to this, factor that into your planning, then hustle as much as you can. Don’t let an artificial tech/business division isolate you. You need to know your customers. You need to know the business side as well as the tech side.
Here’s a tip from entrepreneurs who have learned the hard way: get things in writing. You might be great friends now, but get your partnership on paper, and make sure you can live with the exit clauses. Sure, you probably won’t waste your time suing people, but it’s good to be clear about expectations and contingency plans.
Ship. Make something. Sell it to somebody. Seth Godin has lots of great insights on the value of shipping on his blog and in his recent book, “Linchpin.” Make something happen.
What else can help a new Toronto tech entrepreneur?