Design Sprints: Why Your Startup Needs One

The term “design sprint” seems to the buzzword of 2017 in the tech world. Everyone from startups to large corporations is talking about how to apply design thinking methodologies to validate ideas and move projects forward quickly. If you are like most people, you are probably thinking “what is a design sprint anyway?” Let’s unpack the hype and find out how this process can help you.

In it’s simplest form, a design sprint is the process of solving a problem by ensuring you have generated multiple ideas, considered each one carefully and prioritized your customer.

The process was inspired by IDEO’s Design Thinking philosophy and developed by Google Ventures (GV). IDEO, defined which steps were important for the design process to be successful and GV developed a five day routine to structure their implementation.

Recognizing the lack of accessible and affordable design talent for startups, the Accelerator Centre began running these sprints in 2017 through its Startup Studio program. Startup Studio sprints guide startups through a condensed, one day version of a GV Sprint to collaboratively develop solutions to marketing and design challenges.

Sprint processes don’t use any technology, but instead rely on the magic of sticky notes, markers, paper, whiteboards, conversation and most importantly quite space to reflect on ideas. A sprint rapidly brings entrepreneurs through cycle of generating ideas individually, sharing them with the team, and having constructive conversations to discover the most effective design solution. The combination of an entrepreneur’s passion for their product and customers and the designers expertise and creativity creates an environment where strategic solutions are developed to help the company better serve  future customers.

Our Startup Studio designers are students from the University of Waterloo’s Stratford Campus studying Global Business and Digital Arts and are led by experienced Accelerator Centre staff. The team’s wide range of skills in marketing, UX & UI design, video, entrepreneurship and branding prepare them to tackle the projects sent their way.

Book and sprint and let us help you solve your big marketing, design or brand challenges. 

3 Areas of Focus for Fostering Innovation in Growing Organizations

Last week, we heard from Jana Levene on how Google continues to support innovation and the importance of corporations finding a way to be create and implement new ideas – big and small.

Now, we are going to share 3 practical areas that growing organizations can focus on to shift their innovation strategies from reactive risk management to proactive leadership and continuing to support an entrepreneurial mindset. To reinforce some these areas Clinton Ball spoke with Loren Padelford, ‎VP & General Manager – Shopify Plus to discover ways to pursue innovation effectively:

Make sure your org structure isn’t in the way

Organizational structure and red tape is probably the number one reason innovative ideas die in growing organizations. How many layers of management does a frontline employee need to get through before they can share, develop, and implement an idea? Are their ideas met with a “yes” attitude or do risk, budget, and middle management stand in the way. Empower staff, below the C-suite, to pursue new ideas and accept risk without being micromanaged from above.   

What’s the biggest barrier to success in innovating in large companies?
“Bureaucracy. Too many people trying to protect the downside. Companies get risk averse when they achieve success, when they should become more risk oriented.”

How must organizations be structured in order to bring ideas through the pipeline?
“Flat – The fewer number of layers of approval the better. Decision making needs to be as close to the front line as possible. Managers tend to get in the way of innovation.”  

Is it necessary to run like a start-up in a large organization in order to be effective?
“I believe it is critical to think like a start-up. Be nimble, take risks, don’t get married to any idea, be willing to change strategy. Its thinking like a small company which matters, you may not be able to run like one.” 

Develop a space for new ideas

As a leader, do you regularly check in with your team to survey for new ideas? Do your staff know who to talk to if they have an idea? If not, it’s worth formalizing a time and place to talk about innovation with your team. Google dedicates a certain percentage of their staff’s time to working on new projects, others have quarterly “brainstorming” meetings or digital “suggestion boxes” for new ideas. Make creating this space a priority and commit the organization to following up on good ideas. (See point 1)

What’s the best way to build a buzz about innovation initiatives?
“Talk about them a lot. Talk about what is working, and what isn’t. Talk about what it will do for customers.” 

Create a culture that supports those ideas

After you’ve removed the barriers to collecting new ideas, you need to make sure your staff feel comfortable sharing those ideas. Innovation often cost money and usually comes with risk. Does your management team operate proactively and embrace the risk or do they shy away and fight to maintain the status quo so they don’t risk ‘failure” and being seen by the boss as not meeting business objectives?

Often the key to an innovative culture lives with middle management. Leaders can say they want new ideas, but if those ideas are met with negativity, skepticism, and fear managers will pass that message down. Actively seek, support and reward innovation and your team will deliver the ideas.

How do you bring new ideas through to implementation in large organizations? One key lesson.
“There needs to be a very strong stakeholder who is willing to fight the fights that will come with implementing anything new. People/orgs resist change, to get something done, you need someone with the will to move it forward.”

Incremental innovation- is it a mix of small and large initiatives?
”Yes, you have to be taking a lot of risks, placing a lot of bets of all sizes. Most will fail, but that is ok. You only need a small fraction to be home runs to make a huge impact.” 

Running like a start-up and thinking like a start-up are two different things. Embracing an entrepreneurial mindset, one focused on a continual strategy around  innovation is key. Embracing failure is a must, and a key component of staying relevant in a competitive environment. When organizations grow they need to retain a culture that understands and embraces bringing innovation through the pipleline from idea to implementation.

As new technologies continue to disrupt industries, it is becoming more and more important for large companies to embrace change through innovation. With a few shifts in thinking and leadership style, they can begin to lead that change. Whether it is through incremental improvements to products or business processes, or the creation of entirely new spin off companies, growing corporations can arm themselves for success by having a focus on supporting and fostering intrapreneurship.

About the Authors

Clinton Ball is the Director of Client Programs and Initiatives at the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo, Ontario.  As the co-founder of a small software company, Clinton can relate to those building out a technology company and is passionate about helping other entrepreneurs build and scale their companies. When he’s not designing or delivering Accelerator Centre Programming you can find Clinton reading up on the latest marketing, technology and entrepreneurship resources, exploring a new trail or coffee spot, or trying to get better at his swing on the golf course.

Tabatha Laverty is the Community Manager at the Accelerator Centre. As a passionate storyteller and digital marketer, she has worked with entrepreneurs, not-for-profits, and public service agencies for 5 years – helping them develop content, share their stories, and build their brands. When she isn’t writing or meeting new entrepreneurs, you can find her spending time with her husband and 2 young children.

Innovation is Not Just for Entrepreneurs. How Large Corporations Can Foster Innovation Too.

Too often, we associate innovation and industry disruption with startups – entrepreneurs with bootstrapped funds and big ideas. Startup culture is trendy, it’s sexy and for many up and coming engineers, designers, and business people, the idea of working in a “corporate” environment is not at all inspiring.

But the truth is, many of the most innovative, impactful ideas that have inspired startup founders to create innovative businesses were actually born out of large, corporate environments. The way we see it, industry has two choices: build a culture that fosters, encourages, and supports innovation and reap the benefits on their culture, talent retention, and profit margins or, resist change, fight against the expectations of their customers, and fall behind.

While the bureaucracy and risk aversion of traditional industry can stifle new ideas, it is possible for large corporations to build a culture that fosters innovation and for startups to maintain the “startup mentality” as they grow.

We asked Jana Levene, Business Development for Area120 at Google how she feels the tech giant creates a culture that not only supports but actively encourages innovation and how they’ve built startup culture into the Google identity.



How must organizations be structured in order to bring ideas through the pipeline?

Jana: At Google, we give employees the freedom to spend X% of their time on non-core job-related thinking – fresh ideas emerge when you’re given a chance to lift your head up and breathe.

It’s also critical to create an environment that accepts and even embraces failure and the learnings that come with it. Human behaviour is largely driven by incentives – so if you reward both success and timely failure, you will encourage employees to think big, get creative and take the necessary risks.

What are the essential ‘ingredients’ of a good innovation team?

Jana: The curiosity to ask a lot of questions and the guts to jump in and do something different, particularly when you’re an underdog.

Is it necessary for spin off companies to run like a start-up in a large organization in order to be effective?

Jana: Balancing the needs of your startup and the larger organization is key – cut out the overhead as much as you can to get your product out the door quickly, but do the necessary due diligence on the level of risk and complexity you are exposing the larger organization to.

Is it necessary to market innovation initiatives separately outside of the large organization?

Jana: It depends on your startup’s objectives and the level of risk you are exposing the larger organization to. Sometimes you can impact more users more meaningfully if you leverage the larger organization’s brand. Sometimes the larger organization’s brand introduces unnecessary complexity.

What’s the biggest barrier to success in innovating in large companies?

Jana: Overhead – decks, trackers, unecessary approvals processes and introducing too many cooks.

What kind of ideas are considered innovative at Google? Are they always big ideas or is there room for incremental innovation?

Jana: Innovation is a continuum. You can make incremental improvements to an existing product, you can launch a revolutionary product and you can do everything in between. All forms of innovation are important. If you want to do something transformative though, you should aim for a 10X improvement, as opposed to a 10% improvement.

Can you be financially conservative and still be innovative?

Jana: Scrappiness is key – resources need to be earned by demonstrating impact first. The fewer resources you have, the more creative you need to be in determining how to do more with less and the more effective you need to be at identifying and prioritizing what is truly important. When resources are scarce, the true entrepreneurs emerge.

What role does research and intellectual property play in your business?

Jana: Research is key, particularly in the ideation phase – ideas need to be vetted. It’s easy to fall into the trap of coming up with a cool idea that either doesn’t solve an actual problem, or doesn’t solve a big enough problem ie. you need to be able to impact at least millions of users.

Intellectual property is critical in protecting the idea and the company as you turn the idea into a product, then a business. But not all products need to be proprietary – sometimes you can have more impact on users and the ecosystem if you open source and encourage others to innovate with you. It’s important to stay focused on your product’s mission and be flexible about which mechanisms you use to get closer to achieving that mission.

Is the R&D budget a good reflection of the attention to innovation?

Jana: Money spent is not a proxy for success. The question is what you are doing both differently and impactfully per dollar spent.

How do you measure your return on investment (ROI) in Innovation?
Jana: You should look at ROI on innovation using a number of lenses. From a user standpoint, look at engagement metrics. From a business standpoint, look at your bottom line. From a mission standpoint, look at whether you’ve made the world a radically better place.

What’s your favorite example of innovation in a large company in the past 5 years?

Jana: SpaceX’s reusable rocket. Elon Musk believes this will enable the cost of access to space to be reduced by up to 100X. I can’t think of an example that better highlights the importance of both curiosity and guts in driving innovation. Revolutionizing access to space means getting closer to understanding humanity’s key unanswered question…what is life?


About the Authors

Clinton Ball is the Director of Client Programs and Initiatives at the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo, Ontario.  As the co-founder of a small software company, Clinton can relate to those building out a technology company and is passionate about helping other entrepreneurs build and scale their companies. When he’s not designing or delivering Accelerator Centre Programming you can find Clinton reading up on the latest marketing, technology and entrepreneurship resources, exploring a new trail or coffee spot, or trying to get better at his swing on the golf course.

Tabatha Laverty is the Community Manager at the Accelerator Centre. As a passionate storyteller and digital marketer, she has worked with entrepreneurs, not-for-profits, and public service agencies for 5 years – helping them develop content, share their stories, and build their brands. When she isn’t writing or meeting new entrepreneurs, you can find her spending time with her husband and 2 young children.

Turn Your Brand Stories Into Sales

We’ve covered the importance of brand development for startups and the role of storytelling in connecting with potential customers. Now we are going to turn it around and talk content marketing – how to turn your stories into sales.

The term “content” covers a lot of bases. It can be anything from a blog post, an ebook, a video, a case study, the list goes on and on. Developing a content strategy means figuring out how to deliver just the right amount of content to your prospective customers in just the right place, at just the right time.

For today’s consumers, with high expectation and short attention spans, getting content right is critical part building a business.

We sat down with Milestone Integrated Marketing Partner, Stacy Barr to learn how he feels about content marketing and how he recommends his client implement content into their overall strategy.

Clinton: How important do you feel is content generation for a business?

Stacy: Crucial. We live in a world of click bait, top 5 lists and such.  We are consuming content on an ongoing basis. Our appetite for content is increasing but the depth of the level which we want to engage with each piece of content is decreasing. No one wants to read a twenty-page white paper. What we are focusing on right now is a lot of content generation that is focused on quick two minute, three minute, four minute reads.  You get the story, you get the idea and then you’re out.

The days of twenty page white papers, fifteen page brochures and just shoving it down people’s throat at the start of their purchase journey or when they are just getting interested, are not only dead, they should have been dead a long time ago.

Clinton: Let’s talk about that.  In a digital journey it is probably not a good idea to try to bank on someone just reading your white paper and becoming a qualified lead, interested in your brand or your product.  So should startups design their content strategy and change what they deliver along the sales journey.

Stacy B:  The great thing about content is that it applies differently to different levels of the purchase chain. For example, If I just met you, I would never start telling you my most intimate details of who I am. I’d start at a high level. It’s the same as if you are trying to sell something to somebody.  At the top level of that purchase funnel, tell stories, give them that sixty second pitch. If they are interested take them on a journey, start feeding them specific content that matches their interest.  When I’m ready to purchase, the content you are going to give me is going to be different from when you’re just trying to get my interest, because my engagement with you as a brand is going to be totally different.

Also, if you are a young brand and you’re trying to get traction you don’t always have to create your own content but you can utilize existing content to go back and communicate your point of view. You can comment in an interesting, engaging way which starts to create conversations.  

Clinton: If I am a startup founder and I want to utilize existing content  or create my own, what’s most important

Stacy: I think personality is a key part of it. Look at Elon Musk, so, some of his ideas are absolutely, completely out there but he has a personality, he has an approach.  He’s trying to change the world and it makes him interesting. The last thing anybody in the world wants is a young startup, creating another white paper, another webinar, another boring approach, right?  Intrigue me, interest me, take your story and put a spin on it.  

Clinton B: That’s great. How about measuring success. I think a lot of start-ups spend a whole lot of time on gaining twitter followers but they’re not going into a sales funnel, they’re not becoming advocates or ambassadors. What’s the value in that?

Stacy B:  Nothing, right?  We have a lot of our clients who have in previous years focused on exactly that, those metrics of success; this idea that simply having followers on twitter or Facebook is a metric of success. But is it? With new algorithms, your followers may not even see your posts – especially on social platforms where advertising is their key revenue generator.

The problem is that even with SEO hopefully getting someone to your website.  You only get one chance to make a first impression. You’d better make sure it’s good, because that person has taken the time and energy and you could be a qualified lead or a qualified prospect.

I worked with a brand that had hundreds of thousands of followers and their sales were tanking.  Their followers only joined the social media channel to get a coupon. After that they didn’t care, so they were deaf to the message They didn’t even see it.  They joined to grab a coupon, they haven’t engaged with you since  

Clinton B: So, it comes down to your engagement?

Stacy:  Absolutely. An engagement for purpose.  At the end of the day we are all in business to promote our product or our service, so at the end of the day if you are not leading your followers  towards a sale, or an ongoing relationship that leads to continued sales, it’s probably a wasted opportunity.

3 Steps to Building an Authentic Startup Brand

As a startup founder, you know you need to develop a brand, but do you really understand what that means?

What exactly is brand? If you are like most people, you probably thought “logo” or maybe the words ‘reputation” or “target market” came to mind.

Brand, at least a good brand, is EVERYTHING. Mission, logo, messaging, stories, customer descriptions, employee’s, reputation, sales – all of it. Good branding encompasses everything that increases the value of your startup, inspires your team, and helps you get new customers.

Often times, entrepreneurs struggle to define themselves and carve out a brand in a space that might be new territory or worse overcrowded.

We spent some time with Milestone Integrated Marketing Partner, Stacy Barr, to discover what it takes to build an authentic brand as a startup company.

Prioritize Defining Who You Are Over Your Logo Design

Far too often, companies make logo design their number 1 brand priority. While logo design and defining your visual identity is important (and fun), it’s not a make or break element of your brand.

“Let me start with the biggest mistake a lot of companies make, Stacy explains. “The biggest mistake that a lot of companies make is they say, ‘The first thing I need to work on is my logo.’ No. That’s absolutely the wrong thing to do. I don’t care what your logo looks like. Do we think Budweiser’s logo is great?  I don’t know.  Do you think Coors Light, looks great?  What about IBM?  It doesn’t matter. Get a logo done as inexpensively and with the best quality that you can, but the first to focus on is to figure out who you are and find your voice.

To start defining who you are as a company, ask yourself:

  • What problem does your product solve
  • Who are your competitors (Don’t say “No one”. You have them. Think harder.)
  • What makes your product unique
  • Who are your customers – How do they speak, live, make purchasing decisions, etc.
  • Why would they choose your solution over another option

Learn to Tell Stories

Storytelling is essential for every brand – even B2B brands. Stories evoke emotion, emotion moves people to action, and people make purchasing decisions (not corporations). Whether it is for developing key messages or pitching a sale directly to a customer, learning to incorporate stories into your brand will strengthen it.

“I love the fact that you bring up storytelling because it’s absolutely crucial,” says Stacy. You’ve probably seen people say ‘I’m a B2B company so I speak this way because I speak to CEO’s or CIO’s’ or ‘I’m a B2C company and I speak this way because I speak to Mum’s or Kid’s or Dads’

But the problem with that is it puts people into these buckets. I’ve been in presentations with CEO’s and CIO’s and CFO’s and they are just people as well. Tell a good story. Speak human to human.”

Build Credibility Through Advocacy

So you’ve defined who you are and you have developed a bank of stories that support your message, now you need to help your customers trust you and your brand. With increased access to information, customers are increasingly aware of when they are being marketed to and are reluctant to make purchasing decisions based off of marketing campaigns alone. They are increasingly looking online for reviews from people who have already used the product. It’s important to find brand advocates early on, get their testimony, and use that to build early trust with the brand.

“We know that consumers are very wary of marketing. They can filter very easily. Even though they recognize that a lot of social media and Google reviews have been taken over by professionals, the idea of testimonial, of having someone else tell you something still carries weight,” Stacy explains. “It says ‘Look, someone else had tried it, someone else has tested it, someone else has gone through the process, that someone also thinks that it’s a great idea.’ It adds a ton of credibility.

With these pieces in place, you’ll be well on your way to building a strong brand for your startup that will resonate with your audience and be able to grow as your company does. 

Are you the right person to lead your startup?

In our last post, Common Attributes of Successful Startup Founders, we discussed the importance of curiosity, courage, patience, and resilience for startup founders. But we also believe that being a CEO of a startup requires a little something extra.

This is hard for a lot of entrepreneurs to accept, but the reality is, not every startup founder makes a good CEO – in fact, many don’t.

In the early days, founders manage all aspects of the business: product development, marketing, HR, finance, you name it! We call this type of CEO the Chief Everything Officer. But at some point the CEO must make the transition to a true Chief Executive Officer and the skills that helped you build your business might not be the right skills to help scale your business to global success.

Accelerator Centre mentor, Jackie Lauer builds conversations about leadership into her coaching with Accelerator Program clients early on. “Startup founders should think about their leadership team the same way they think about developing their product – there should be a strategy and a plan,” she explains. “Founders can hold leadership positions within an organization without being the CEO. A founder will always be a founder but what you need in a CEO might change overtime.”

Vidyard CEO, Michael Litt, recalls his founding team’s transition to an executive team.

“In our case, there were three people, so there was no CEO. There’s people who write code, and there are people who do everything else. As you grow, your needs for individuals in hyper-focused roles grow in certain areas, like sales, marketing, operations, and finance.

As we continued to bring people into our business, my role modified to manage the output to those people so that I could truly become a CEO. That allows you to become the chief our your executives, represent their interests to the board, and represent the boards interests back to them. When I think of a “true CEO”, I think of the importance on focusing in innovation, culture, does our business have enough money in our bank account to sustain itself.”

So what qualities do you actually need to be a true CEO?

Along with the attributes that make a good entrepreneur in general (remember our last post!), a good CEO is a systems thinker, interested in looking at the business as a whole. They are able to separate themselves from the love affair with the product and focus on growth, something technical founders usually find quite challenging.

Also, the CEO’s leadership is essential in developing your company’s culture. The CEO should embody the vision and values of the organization and has to be interested in leading people towards that vision.  

What to do if you decide you are not the choice

First, congrats! It takes a true leader to know when to play their strengths and when to look for support. Take some time to mentally process your decision and communicate it to your team.

Secondly, remember that organizational leadership should be a strategy. If you don’t have the right skills, experience, or network to be the CEO, make a list of the skills, experience and network you DO need.  

Finally, find a mentor or recruiting pro to help you find the right person. Take your time and don’t let outside factors influence your choice. Hiring a CEO is a challenge and you want to make sure you get it right!

About the Authors

Clinton Ball is the Director of Client Programs and Initiatives at the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo, Ontario.  As the co-founder of a small software company, Clinton can relate to those building out a technology company and is passionate about helping other entrepreneurs build and scale their companies. When he’s not designing or delivering Accelerator Centre Programming you can find Clinton reading up on the latest marketing, technology and entrepreneurship resources, exploring a new trail or coffee spot, or trying to get better at his swing on the golf course.

Tabatha Laverty is the Marketing and Community Manager at the Accelerator Centre. As a passionate storyteller and digital marketer, she has worked with entrepreneurs, not-for-profits, and public service agencies for 5 years – helping them develop content, share their stories, and build their brands. When she isn’t writing or meeting new entrepreneurs, you can find her spending time with her husband and 2 young children.

Common Attributes of Successful Startup Founders

Through our work at the Accelerator Centre, I’ve met hundreds of entrepreneurs. In those meetings, I often get asked what the Accelerator Centre looks for in a potential startup client. The answer always revolves around one thing: founder attributes – who is leading your team and do they have what it takes to make it in the long run?

Over the years, our team has gotten pretty good at spotting the founders that are the best fit for our programs and the ones most likely to succeed in the long-term. This isn’t because we have a crystal ball that tells us what ideas are great, where to find that magical unicorn, or who the next super-star CEO will be. It is because successful founders have many common traits.

There are no hard and fast rules, but in my experience, the most critical traits are the ones that are not always easy to spot – curiosity, patience, courage, and resilience.

I sat down with Larry Smith, Professor of Economics at the University of Waterloo, to discuss what personality traits make for a successful entrepreneur and how to practice and learn these skills if they don’t come naturally to you.

Curiosity – Curiosity is essential. It’s the trait that drives most founders to pursue entrepreneurship. They see a problem, they explore ways to fix it. The first idea doesn’t work? They explore the next and the next, until they find the solution.

Curiosity also extends to an openness to critique and criticism, and a willingness to learn. Whether it is from a mentor, co-founder, or your customer, great founders stay open to feedback and are prepared to take action on that feedback when appropriate.

Patience – I know…patience is not necessarily the most exciting trait you can practice, but it is critical. The stereotype we see in startup culture is usually evident in founders – charge full speed ahead, seize the moment, be restless and quick to action. But the truth is, starting a business can take time – a lot of time. The founders who fail to give their ideas time to produce results, through thoughtful action and patience, will ultimately become frustrated and fail. Larry describes the trait as one of the most difficult for founders to master.

Courage – Courage is the trait that is most recognized and respected in startup culture. It’s that special something that drives founders to take the risks that are necessary to push past the challenges and naysayers and lead their businesses to success. But courage isn’t just the drive to take risks. It’s also being ready to accept failure and knowing when to adjust, pivot, or scrap an idea altogether.

Resilience – What happens when you fail? With all that courage and all those risks, failure is almost guaranteed at some point. What really sets a great founder apart from the crowd is what happens after that learning experience. Great founders get up, dust off and try the next thing – until they get it right.

Resilience is another trait that doesn’t come naturally to people. Being an entrepreneur is difficult, stressful and often a lonely experience. We often don’t know how we will react to extreme stress until we are in it, but recognizing that the experience is normal and that failure is an important part of the process can help you develop the characteristic over time.

In our next post, we will be talking specifically about the attributes of a CEO and how good CEOs make the transition from a startup CEO (Chief Everything Officer) to a true Chief Executive Officer watch for “Are You the Right Person to Lead Your Startup?” soon!


About the Authors

Clinton Ball is the Director of Client Programs and Initiatives at the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo, Ontario.  As the co-founder of a small software company, Clinton can relate to those building out a technology company and is passionate about helping other entrepreneurs build and scale their companies. When he’s not designing or delivering Accelerator Centre Programming you can find Clinton reading up on the latest marketing, technology and entrepreneurship resources, exploring a new trail or coffee spot, or trying to get better at his swing on the golf course.

 

 

Tabatha Laverty is the Marketing and Community Manager at the Accelerator Centre. As a passionate storyteller and digital marketer, she has worked with entrepreneurs, not-for-profits, and public service agencies for 5 years – helping them develop content, share their stories, and build their brands. When she isn’t writing or meeting new entrepreneurs, you can find her spending time with her husband and 2 young children.

Startup Culture: Why Michael Litt says Vidyard will Always be a Startup

When does a startup stop being a startup? Is it at certain revenue earned, number of employees, after achieving a repeatable, scalable business model? According to Michael Litt, CEO at Vidyard, the answer is, hopefully, never.

There is much debate in the business world about when a startup loses the trendy label and transitions into a “regular company.” However, notable tech giant, Facebook, has been around for more than 10 years and employs over 1,000 people, and Airbnb has raised over $3 billion dollars to date, yet, both are still regularly acknowledged as startups. So that begs the question, what makes a startup a startup?

During our interviews for “Startup’s Guide to the Galaxy” we found one common theme among successful entrepreneurs. For them, the startup label is more than a stage of their business development, more than a metric that can be tracked and identified on a revenue statement – it’s a mindset and a culture, centred around innovation, customer experience, and continued improvement.  

We sat down with Michael to discuss Vidyard’s journey from bootstrapping to success and learn more about how Vidyard fosters a culture of continued innovation to ensure they will always be a startup.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Clinton Ball: So when is a startup no longer a startup?

Michael Litt: Good question. Startup-ism is a frame of mind. The feeling drives innovation, keeps the business fast-moving and fast-reacting. Companies that stop being startups are the ones that cease to the the most innovative and fastest-moving company in their category.

Vidyard will be a startup till the day I leave this company, because innovation and moving-fast are core mandates of mine in terms of how we retain a competitive advantage and stay ahead of the field.

Clinton Ball: That is interesting. Silicon Valley serial-entrepreneur Steve Blank says something along the lines of a startup is no longer a start up until it reaches its repeatable scalable business model, but it sounds like what you’re saying is that it’s more rooted in the culture.

Michael Litt: If you develop pockets of a repeatable, scalable business model, then that model is under threat by macro-economic things like competition or talent issues. If you’re constantly fixing these things, then that’s a big company problem.

I agree with him to a point, but businesses that get to a point when they just have one repeatable process that they manage and work on and focus on will get out innovated by new startups… so you have to keep that sense of urgency with business.

Clinton Ball: So at the level you are at now, how do you stay innovative and how do you make sure that you don’t fall into the trap of just of just being driven by business metrics and board objectives?

Michael Litt: Everyone at Vidyard is responsible for thinking creatively about new and innovative ways we can approach the market. To foster that development, we host company-wide quarterly events called “Pitch Yard” where the whole company breaks down into groups of ten or so that are cross-functionally aligned. They discuss ways Vidyard can improve our product and go to the market with something new, the present them in front of the whole company. The winning team is rewarded with a dinner anywhere they want!

The intent of Pitch Yard is to create new, inspirational ideas for how we can go and impact the market. It helps us constantly look at the field to see what the competition is doing, what companies are doing in the very early stages, and to see if there’s something that we missed in the market that someone else has picked up (and if we should focus on it too).

Clinton Ball: That’s great, so obviously a big part of it is a clear strategy around the people that you hire and how you attract them. What are some key principles that guide culture in your organization?

Michael Litt: Continued transparency is always on my mind within our business. We call this radical transparency because we communicate everything to everyone. If we expect people to be as creative as possible while making the best decisions for the business, we need to get them all the information they need to make the best decision. This is where cross-functional communication, exposure to market challenges that the company may be facing or more is vital. Whether it’s a customer service lead, a marketing rep, a sales professional, or a product developer, transparency inspires people to think creatively because everyone feels empowered to solve the problem. We hire so many problem-solvers, whether they’re makers, builders, or people with creative outlets on the side – they bring this type of thinking into the company. This is why transparency helps us collaboratively share a set of values that inspire creativity and critical thinking.

Want more pro advice from Michael? Check out “Passion vs.Purpose: Building a Startup Brand

Purpose vs. Passion: Building a Startup Brand

Passion: The powerful emotion that drives you to work for your own success.

Purpose: The why behind what you do. The impact you make on your customers, your community, the world.  

After years of working with startup founders, we’ve seen countless innovative products and services and a lot of passionate people along the way. But with so many passionate entrepreneurs, how do we select the best-of-the-best, those most likely to succeed in the AC’s Accelerator Program?

When we evaluate applications into the program, we weight founder attributes like curiosity, a willingness to continually learn, and having a clear purpose as primary criteria for admittance, and for good reason.

Passion alone is not enough. In the recipe for success, passion and purpose are needed in equal measure. If you are in it for the long haul, and you should be, passion and purpose feed into one another. Before you have an established brand, your purpose – the real problem you solve – is the first thing that helps you get customers. Your passion is what sells your customers on your ability to deliver on that purpose.

An excellent example balancing purpose and passion when building a startup is Waterloo tech company, Vidyard. We interviewed CEO, Michael Litt, to learn more about how they leveraged their purpose and passion to build the Vidyard brand.

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Clinton Ball: The first question is Purpose vs. passion, what have you learned as it relates to running your business today?

Michael Litt: I would say that…Purpose and passion should be aligned. When we started Vidyard, we identified our purpose as helping businesses put their videos online. Our purpose was plain and simple. We built a long-term vision around what that could become.

My passion was always for our customers. It was the only thing I could be passionate about, because when we built Vidyard, it was just a couple co-founders and I writing code – trying to throw ideas around and see what sticks.

The passion for the product came later once we saw it in our customer’s hands, providing them with value, and changing their careers. This inevitability lead to the development of our stakeholder list, which is what I’m passionate about. That list includes our customers, Vidyardians (our staff), shareholders, and our community. The stakeholders get me out of bed every morning.

Clinton Ball: What about storytelling. What is the purpose of telling a good story and around branding?

Michael Litt: Storytelling is absolutely essential. When you start your business, you have no customers and therefore no customer stories. The only reason someone would buy something from you is because you have purpose and you’re passionate about it. You need to have a story about why you have that purpose, and why you have passion to draw your buyers in.

At scale I don’t think that changes, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it, and that’s why both purpose and passion are both so important.

Our story was a video content production company. We made videos for businesses that didn’t know how to put them online. We built software to help them do that and then built software helped us analyze it. All of a sudden our customers realized there was huge value here, and that’s kind of when the journey started to scale. Our purpose inevitably drove our passion, and that story is what really aligned us with the first few customers.

Clinton Ball: For startups that are just starting out, what do you think is the best approach to marketing and getting that first customer? How do you sell when you don’t have a brand yet?

Michael Litt: When you’re getting started, you have to put yourself out there in front of people. It’s the only way to sell when you don’t have a brand and no one is visiting your website. When we got started, we built a crawler to scan the DMOZ for every business that had a video on their home page. That list extracted 80,000 companies. I’d spend the first few hours of every day sorting through that list, and prioritizing 100 companies that I would contact the next day. The next day, I’d contact those 100, and prioritize my list of 100 for the next day again. This happened over months.

When you have no brand, and no customers, the only way to communicate is to sell your vision, your purpose, and your passion by putting yourself out there in front of people. I’ve seen so many companies that build the digital site of their business, but they miss out on the sense of urgency to put themselves in front of the customers. Maybe they don’t have the experience, or they’re introverted so it’s scary – but it’s ultimately why the never moved into the next phase of their business.

Clinton Ball: Lean startup methodology vs. a design centric approach. In your opinion, do you think it’s a mix of both of those things, or do you prefer one over the other?

Michael Litt: Well Steve Jobs and Elon Musk both got their career started doing exactly what I just described. By the time you have the personal brand, by the time you’re Apple, by the time you’re Tesla, it’s a completely different story of design first and they will come. So we’re talking about 2 very different ecosystems. Any company story, like Nike, McDonald’s, Oakley, always has that essential starting point of like just grinding it out and putting stuff in front of people.

Clinton Ball: Speaking about first clients, how did you land them? Was it a product of many meetings, how long did it take to find someone that was willing to take the risk with Vidyard and believed in you and your vision?

Michael Litt: In the early stages of our business, we were making videos for companies, so we had a client list of those who trusted us and had bought from us. We built software to solve their problems. We were easily able to communicate what we were doing because that line of communication was already open. We were able to implement out Vidyard software in their business, and that was essential because it was a service-based sale. We were then able to talk to the customer and develop a feedback loop so that we could iterate our product accordingly.

Clinton Ball: Let’s talk about leveraging that feedback. How powerful do you think it is to leverage testimonials, and a positive customer experience in order to generate new sales?

Michael Litt: When you start your entrepreneurial journey, FOMO (fear of missing out) is a major driver for people. If you’re able to develop a relationship with someone who will be a reference for you, they’ll be able to communicate your passion and purpose about how you’ve changed the way they do business. Others will hear that, lean in, and start buying your product too. If you have someone who becomes that hook and is willing to make that commitment to you, it’s so important to hear their stories and keep the relationship strong so that you can leverage it for future buyers.

Want more pro advice from Michael? Check out part 2 of our interview with Michael “ Why Michael Litt says Vidyard will Always be a Startup.

The Startup’s Guide to the Galaxy: No BS Advice from Successful Entrepreneurs and Tech Leaders

Entrepreneurship is cool, it’s sexy, and if you live in an innovation district like Waterloo or Silicon Valley, it’s part of pop culture.

It seems everyone is a founder of something nowadays. Unicorns are no longer just for children and the lure of the “Be your own boss!” message is stronger than ever. But, just like the most pop culture phenomena, startup culture doesn’t show you the whole story.

The truth is starting a company, particularly a tech company, is harder than it seems. For every one winner there are nine losers. Entrepreneurship is a career choice that requires specific skill, instinct, resilience, and a passion for delivering value.

But, if you can pull it off, building a successful company is highly rewarding.

Through my experiences designing programming at a world-renowned startup incubator, I see the entrepreneur’s journey – successes and failures – every day. My goal is to give startup founders and intrapreneurs the truth about building out innovative products and services, and to provide them with answers to questions about entrepreneurship that are hard to ask and, sometimes, hard to get honest answers to. “The Startup’s Guide to the Galaxy” is a digital coffee date with dozens of high profile startup founders, intrapreneurs, and mentors, like Mike Litt from Vidyard, Loren Padelford from Shopify, and Jana Levene from Google.

The posts in this series are samples of the interviews from a publication currently in development. Over the next several months, we will share these leaders’ no BS stories of entrepreneurship and get their take on what it is really like to start a technology company. We hope that the series will inspire you to be smart, plan for your successes, learn from your failures, and be a successful, kick-ass entrepreneur.

About the Authors

Clinton Ball is the Director of Client Programs and Initiatives at the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo, Ontario.  As the co-founder of a small software company, Clinton can relate to those building out a technology company and is passionate about helping other entrepreneurs build and scale their companies. When he’s not designing or delivering Accelerator Centre Programming you can find Clinton reading up on the latest marketing, technology and entrepreneurship resources, exploring a new trail or coffee spot, or trying to get better at his swing on the golf course.

 

 

Tabatha Laverty is the Community Manager at the Accelerator Centre. As a passionate storyteller and digital marketer, she has worked with entrepreneurs, not-for-profits, and public service agencies for 5 years – helping them develop content, share their stories, and build their brands. When she isn’t writing or meeting new entrepreneurs, you can find her spending time with her husband and 2 young children.

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