The C100 recently held its annual Accelerate Toronto event. These events, which take place across the country, celebrate and showcase technology entrepreneurship and innovation. This year's theme was about scaling from anywhere, and as co-chair of the C100, I've had firsthand exposure to what it takes to successfully grow a technology company.
While every entrepreneur needs to think about product, market, customer acquisition and – in many cases – financing, it's the talent and support from the ecosystem that are truly essential to scaling a tech company.
1. Think about your management team early and often. Most entrepreneurs realize the importance of building a product or platform to scale from day one. But scaling a team is often a more challenging proposition. The smart, scrappy team that can get a company off the ground doesn't necessarily have the relevant expertise to get that company to IPO.
Adding an executive layer to a company can be difficult, especially for those entrepreneurs who are doing it for the first time. These founders may not know what an experienced executive in certain functional areas looks like in action, so don't necessarily know when to hire for the role, what to look for, and how much positive change the role can effect.
Entrepreneurs often resist this move because they don't want to bring someone in above the employees who were there from the start, and stuck around through the tough times. There's also a tendency to just not want to 'disrupt' a company as it is growing.
It's important to recognize when 'what got you here won't get you there' and make the tough executive hiring calls when they are needed. Change can be challenging, but it's necessary to continue to efficiently scale your company. Adding the right skill set to your management team will help to establish the processes, high quality team building and best practices needed to avoid the common land mines a company will face as it grows. And if you're feeling stuck about what level to hire for, a good way to think about it is to hire for the skill set that you need to grow your company over the next few years.
After much angst and procrastination, an entrepreneur I work with recently hired a chief operations officer for his company. He told me: "I had no idea what I was missing. Having this COO on board is already helping me more than I imagined he would, and the positive impact on the business has been remarkable." The process of onboarding a new executive has to be managed thoughtfully, but once in place, the benefits are significant.
It's usually obvious when it's the right time to hire at the executive level, and you will likely have a gut-level feeling when a particular functional area needs to be upgraded. Milestones will be missed, or progress will be slower than planned, or the team will feel overwhelmed due to lack of proper structure, systems or processes. This is also when it is important to surround yourself with experienced advisers and board members who have seen the movie before and can help to assess when any particular functional area of the company is weaker than it should be. They can be a great resource to help you both vet and sell a candidate as needed.
Recruiting and hiring skilled executives is a major challenge for any startup. With a smaller pool of skilled talent in key functional areas in Canada, the process may be time- consuming and costly if you have to start looking outside of the country's borders. A robust network can certainly help here, as well as hiring a recruiter that is tapped into the ecosystems where you are most likely to find executives for your target functional area. It's worth it when you find the right fit.
2. Build your network before you need it. The team you build outside of your company is also critical to your success and can make or break the company at pivotal moments. Dan Martell, a Canadian who built and sold Flowtown in San Francisco and is now building Clarity in Moncton, New Brunswick, has hustled more than anyone I know to build an incredible network over the years. He schedules a trip every seven weeks to NYC, San Francisco and Toronto to make new connections and maintain old contacts. The way Dan sees it is that "it's probably the best ROI on $6,000 (in flights) that I get in a year."
Porter Gale, former vice-president of marketing for Virgin America, states explicitly that, "your network is your net worth". Evangelizing and networking to build an ecosystem around your company is one of the key ways to build value – just be sure that you are building something of substance for the ecosystem to get excited about – go after big, unique opportunities and build the best in class company you can.
As you build out an ecosystem around your company, keep a sharp eye out for the people who can provide real substantive advice. Ask yourself: have they been involved with a company in a similar vertical to yours before, have they operated at the same level of scale that your company is at, etc. Organizations like the C100 can be a great resource by offering a bridge between Canada and Silicon Valley — a resource for startups to connect with experienced executives, investors and successful entrepreneurs.
Whenever you have the chance to draw from your network, be open to listening to advisers and be aware of what you don't know. The best entrepreneurs I work with are bold, but they listen – they're like sponges who take all the data they can from the market and from trusted sources, synthesize that information and then make the best decisions they can based on the information they have at hand. They build a solid executive team as the company scales and build a strong, supportive ecosystem around them to help propel their company forward.
With the entrepreneurial technology ecosystem continuing to flourish in Canada, I look forward to seeing many Canadian tech startups show that they know what it takes to scale to a billion dollar company and beyond.
Katherine Barr is a general partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures and a co-chair of the C100, the leading Canadian technology entrepreneur association in North America. Follow Katherine and the C100 on Twitter, @kbmdv and @theC100.