Entrepreneurial Thinking: What does it mean to be an entrepreneur in today’s world?
Adapted from Fall 2020’s entrepreneurship@UBC Immersion Week
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Curious to know what’s on the mind of an entrepreneur? In this episode of our evolution podcast, we present to you, Entrepreneurial Thinking: what does it mean to be an entrepreneur in today’s world? Adapted from our entrepreneurship@UBC immersion week. This roundtable discussion includes some of the brightest entrepreneurial minds in today's world, such as Emre Akkas, Co-founder of GlobalMe; Valerie Song, CEO and Co-founder of AVA Technologies; Harrison Brown, CEO and Co-founder of Headcheck Health; Kim Kaplan, CEO of Snack; Hanna Golota, Co-founder of GlobalMe; and moderated by Pieter Dorsman, Director of Angel Forum.
To read a full transcript, see below:
MJ: Hi everyone and welcome. Today's episode from a past entrepreneurship@UBC Immersion Week session features a discussion on entrepreneurial thinking. What does it mean to be an entrepreneur in today's world? Without further ado, here is Chang Han, Entrepreneur in Residence at entrepreneurship@UBC introducing our moderator, Pieter Dorsman, and the amazing panelists that share their experience with us.
Chang Han: Pieter is a seasoned advisor, investor, and mentor, is a director at E-fund, and an angel investment fund, as well as the director at Angel Forum. He's the chairman of Lambda solutions and the director of Interpodia and Vitamin labs. Pieter has been conducting workshops on term sheets, valuation, Angel funds across Canada and internationally. Before relocating to Vancouver, Pieter held a number of senior positions in the project and corporate finance divisions of UBS in Hong Kong. And before that, he started his career at Barclays Bank in London in the UK. Pieter graduated from the Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
Next, I present the first of our exceptional panel, Hanna Golota of GlobalMe. Hanna’s entrepreneurship journey started while she was completing her MBA at the University of Portland, and continued when she relocated to Vancouver, also in 2009, along with her partner Emre, she incorporated her company GlobalMe in British Columbia. And since then, they've enjoyed a 10-year roller coaster ride. During this time, GlobalMe grew from zero to 90 full-time staff, and made it into the profit 500 was acknowledged as one of the top 100 tech companies in BC for the last several years. Hanna has received the business Vancouver award for 40 under 40 in 2019. And that same year, GlobalMe was acquired, and how that exited the business just a few months ago. She's also expecting to add another member of a family shortly.
As the other co-founder of GlobalMe entrepreneurship runs in the family for Emre Akkas. After his MBA, he spent a few years at large enterprise jobs including Intel, before he joined Hanna and co-founded the GlobalMe. He has not looked back since, he's proud of the growth and success, and acquisition that GlobalMe has achieved, especially considering it's been fully bootstrapped. He is most proud of growing GlobalMe, with a diverse workforce that represents 28 nationalities and includes 50% female staff, including in management positions. Welcome both Emre and Hanna.
Next, I present Kim Kaplan. Kim was one of the earliest employees at the local tech success, Plenty of Fish. Kim was the only person responsible for product and revenue growth, leading Plenty of Fish’s product marketing, and revenue initiatives. These were focused on optimizing their core KPIs or key performance indicators to drive growth across their apps and web projects. This gives Kim an incomparable insight into the lifecycle of a startup, and especially what it takes to grow and emerge as a leader. At Plenty of Fish, she launched product initiatives that grew daily active users from 1 million to over 4 million, and she moved the revenue needle from 10 million to over $100 million. Kim was instrumental and the executive team that grew Plenty of Fish up to the time of their acquisition by match.com for $800 million in 2015. She is now an investor and advisor to various companies including sprocket, Apollo cover, photographer, and also mentors companies through CDL and TechStars, Seattle.
Next is Valerie Song. Valerie is one of our own entrepreneurship@UBC’s entrepreneurs and a BC 30 under 30 recipient. Valerie is the CEO of AVA, a venture that achieved an extensively long list of accomplishments as a startup is now growing still at an exciting pace. EvAVAa makes smart IoT connected growing devices by giving their customers an automated indoor garden to help people get growing. Valerie is a passionate and bold leader that loves growing plants as well as people. While working in branch management at Blue Chip consumer product companies, she found a passion for brand building, and she launched marketed products ranging from organic granola to craft beer. Under her leadership, AVA has filed three patents, raised $3 million in funding, and won 15 different awards for business and design. Valerie is also a proud advocate for diversity in STEM, and youth entrepreneurship.
Lastly, I know this is a long list, entrepreneurship@UBC alumni Harrison Brown. Harrison is Head Check Health’s leader and industry expert. He passionately drives the company towards their vision of becoming the de facto standard for sports teams to manage concussions. Harrison pursued both his Masters of Science and his Doctorate studies at UBC and has a bachelor of science from the University of Guelph. He has broad scientific research experience in sports-related concussions. This is your exceptional panel, and we look forward to your insights. Pieter, over to you.
Pieter Dorsman: Thank you. And good morning, everyone. So I will sort of moderate the panel and ask some questions and get some discussion going for the now over 100 attendees. I'm very excited about that. I'm coming at this from the investment angle. And if you look at it from an investment angle, investors get excited about technology, they get excited about certain markets. But for me, I always get most excited about the entrepreneur and more specifically, the person behind the entrepreneur. Where does he or she come from? What was their journey? What have they done? How have they overcome their problems and building relationships with entrepreneurs, the entrepreneurial spirit is key and no entrepreneur is like. So on that note, let's dive into that and start with Kim. Kim, how did you become an entrepreneur? What was the trigger that got you into this?
Kim Kaplan: Hi, everyone, I don't think there's one trigger, I think I always kind of had that entrepreneurial spirit earliest memory I have of being an entrepreneur is when I was about four years old and started selling rocks that I'd painted gold on the side of the road, I figured the ROI on them was better than a glass of lemonade. Throughout my career. I've always had these instances, even at four years old, where I wanted to kind of have my own thing and be in charge of my own thing. What I will say is I did my degree in geography and acting, I definitely did not come necessarily in the background that you'd expect to be an entrepreneur. And I think that's something that I want to make sure is shared here is that it doesn't matter what your background is if you have that passion and that desire to build something and go build it.
Pieter Dorsman: So I pick up a very important issue here and you say doing your own thing. Valerie, do you want to talk a little bit about how you got into being an entrepreneur?
Valerie Song: Yeah, hello, everyone. Thank you, Chang, for the introduction. I guess to add on to that, and to answer what my trigger was, I went to business school, I've been drinking the business school lemonade, all for a while and a lot of what they teach you in business school are really great fundamentals on how to think. There is an aspect of entrepreneurship that a lot is often overlooked, especially when it comes to pushing a lot of the big corporations, the fortune 500, versus what an actual startup or entrepreneurial thinking is like. And I remember I was going through all the programs and brand management like they tell you to do when you're a marketing student, and I felt very lost and out of place. Not that I wasn't doing well. But I felt a big piece of me was missing. I actually quit my last job, because I was really fed up with the corporate culture and the way that they would treat their employees and how the employees would really come through in their roles. And I thought, you know, there must be something better, there must be something I could do. Looking at the opportunity and looking at what bright sides could be coming from, you know, quitting a job instead of really worrying about what that was going to be like without having employment and not knowing what the next steps are. So that was the trigger for me facing a corporate workplace that I didn't enjoy and had to quit to realize that I wanted to become an entrepreneur.
Pieter Dorsman: Harrison, do you want to chime in?
Harrison Brown: Yeah, you guys. To be honest, this kind of happens. I wasn't planning on this. I was doing my master's degree and we developed some technology in my lab. And thought it'd be a cool idea to start a company and went to the School of Business at UBC. And at first, they wouldn't let me in. I wanted to take some classes to learn how to start a business. At first, they said your science background, you wouldn't be able to keep up in class, and you're just not meant for this. Obviously, having some entrepreneurial spirits, I didn't accept that. I kind of looked at my genius and hey, like, I'm not going to go take a four-year undergrad in business, take the one class that I actually need. Is there any way you can help me out? So he helped me get into the class that I needed and it was there that I met my co-founder and she's got a background in business. Now we connected with entrepreneurship@UBC and yeah, just kind of took off that way. But yeah, I guess the summary for me was It certainly wasn't something that was planned, the path that I went down to get there, I think was just one I wasn't aware of. There's not a single path to get you there. Every path is going to be different and you can't necessarily plan for the path that you end up on.
Pieter Dorsman: Yeah, so there's not a single best, there also is not a single background, you can come from many different backgrounds. Hanna do you want to talk a little bit about your journey and how it happened.
Hanna Golata: Similar to Harrison, I found myself into entrepreneurship by mistake, by chance, I would say. I can admit here that the loft took me there. I met this gentleman sitting with us here today and two months after he started his business, he asked me if I could help him out. I was doing my master's degree at that time, I was an international student in the US so had very limited resources to build my career or work outside of the university. I figured why not, at least I will get some experience. And soon after, I found myself hiring people, training people, talking to customers, and building infrastructure for the business that is successfully running today. And that was not something that I have expected and just happen on its own. I studied business, which helped me quite a bit in understanding how the economics of business operate. But my true passion was really in psychology, neuroscience, and teamwork. You might be thinking, it has nothing to do with business. But I did find quite a lot of it when I was growing GlobalMe with the limited resources we had. We were a self-funded company, we had to think about how we can motivate people. We had to build strong teams that could compete on the market with much larger players, and create a working environment that is engaging for people that were excited. I would say those things, is what was fueling me and made me come to work every day and hustle for 10 years and really be fueled by energy that was needed to keep going.
Pieter Dorsman: And Emre, you had started the business. So how did you get started, were you an entrepreneur from day one, or what happened?
Emre Akkas: Well, I was kind of born into it. My mom owned a pharmacy, my dad owned something like a grocery store, I grew up in Turkey. I have very early memories where I would go to my dad's store after daycare and play with the store stuff. I spent most of my weekends there helping my dad. When I was 16, my dad and my mom went on a two-month-long trip, and I was fully in charge of the store. And that was the first time where I tested for how it felt being fully responsible of a business and having really no one else to blame if you screw something up. And fast forward a few years, I moved to the US to go to grad school and discovered eBay during its golden days. This is like 15 years ago, very early days of online shopping. I would go to Nordstrom Rack, buy some brand shoes that are on sale, or sell them on eBay. That turned into quite an operation that essentially paid all my living expenses but obviously didn't become Zappos. So fast forward a few years after my MBA and serving some time at corporate America, I found GlobalMe. Shortly after that, I met with Hanna, the starting of GlobalMe was somewhat accidental in Portland, where I made an introduction between a business where I was working as a contractor to someone I knew. And the buyer side of the equation thought I was offering the services of that individual and asked me for a rate I played along, offered a rate they accepted. I understood the business the next day and that was the start of GlobalMe.
Pieter Dorsman: Thank you. So all from different backgrounds, but there are some similarities about some drive and wanting to do your own thing, and evolving through that process. What I've seen a lot with entrepreneurs is that especially in the early days, when you start a business, it's a pretty lonely journey, or you're in a very small team. And it comes down to a lot of problem-solving. So who wants to go first and talk a little bit about sort of the challenges and how that relates to sort of the person you are because you need certain personality traits to go through the dark times and solve problems. And Who wants to go first? Emre?
Emre Akkas: Yeah, I'll steal a definition here from my favorite definitions of entrepreneurship from Harvard professor Howard Stevenson. He describes entrepreneurship as the relentless pursuit of opportunity, regardless of how limited your current resources are. And had I experienced this, time after time, especially looking back now, where this relentless pursuit of opportunity could easily be seen almost as a personality disorder, if you looked at it from the outside, We have been on two projects responding to RFPs for potential clients, which were way beyond our capabilities on paper, our competitors had more people, more money, more technology more pretty much everything. Yet, when we wanted those contracts, we executed and delivered way better than our competitors and as a result of that, we won more contracts and signed up larger names. So the perception of opportunity in the absence of resources, which is what you were talking about, Pieter, helps explain the differentiation between the entrepreneurial leadership from the corporate administration. The emphasis is on the team rather than the hierarchy, fast decisions rather than deliberation, and most importantly, really equity rather than cash. So you basically have opportunities, the only real resource you have, and you need to keep going after that opportunity, no matter what happens. It's a very lonely journey. It's a rollercoaster ride ups and downs, ups and downs, but when I talk to new entrepreneurs and hear them say, well, I want to do this, but I lacked X, I want to build this but I lack Y, I immediately stop and tell them, the lack of the X and the lack of the Y is their strength. Because scarcity is what fuels passion, and scarcity allows you to build solutions that can help you compete with the larger guys, because they don't have that scarcity, they don't have that creativity.
Pieter Dorsman: I really like that one scarcity fueling the passion. Hanna do you want to talk a little bit about sort of how you dealt with scarcity and opportunity.
Hanna Golata: Oh, yeah, that was a constant, constant challenge for us, you know, when you grow a business from zero to 100. So from the very beginning, you really fill all the roles that need to be filled. I was one-day content writer, marketer, and another day recruiter, salesperson, project manager, I think I filled all these roles that were needed in the business at some point, and, that was a challenge. But what I kept in mind, and what guided me through all those years, and what I also passed to my team religiously through the value of onboarding for all the new employees, was to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable and just go for it. Nothing has to be perfect. You just go for it and be creative. As Emre was mentioning, we were competing with big companies, we were very small, and had little experience. GlobalMe was my very first job out of college, my first real job. We were very creative. We're entering big, big RFPs. And we weren't getting them. And I do remember the specific one that we believe we can do it, we kind of have an idea of how to do it. It involves doing a big international data collection. So we wrote an RFP, we submitted it to the customer, it was over a million dollars contract. And I come to the office one day and MLS says check your email and the email said you guys got it and how soon you can start it. My reaction was Oh shit, how are we going to do it? It's only like four of us in the company. And me and Emre being the most experienced. So those challenges were happening from day to day and feeling uncomfortable with them and going after them, and it was something I was trying to propose.
Pieter Dorsman: So Harrison, as I said, I'd like to quote scarcity, fueling opportunity. What forced you to sort of make the step because assume you had limited resources when you started your company? So what was the trigger? What happened in solving the problem?
Harrison Brown: Yeah, that's a great question. I think that scarcity will show up multiple times throughout the journey. Even for us, like being still at a very early stage, we've had situations where we've had to raise money where we've had to cut out all of our employees, because we ran out of money, and raised money again. And so I think like that, that is going to pop up a number of times, and there's going to be ups and downs and just to be prepared for that. I think when you first experience scarcity, maybe it does feel that opportunity, and you don't really know how you're gonna react and it might be an emotional reaction. You might get super excited about in a way of a contract or you might get super bummed out because you lost a contract or you've got to let an employee go, but I think having gone through that so many times the ups and downs, you just get to the point where you're like, this is just part of the job. And part of the job is learning how to deal with us. And so I think you get better over time of dealing with scarcity, whether it's money, whether it's bandwidth, whether it's balance in your life, whether it's positivity, whatever it is, you just get used to it. Now it's a, you know, however many years since we started, that's one of the biggest skills that you can learn, and you can only learn by going through it. I would say, if I was taking one thing away from the entire journey is that that skill sets in that experience, I can probably apply in other things that I'm doing that I think I wouldn't have learned otherwise. So as much as you want to be able to learn and prepare yourself for scarcity and opportunity, and ups and downs and all that, I think the biggest approach for me was just, I wasn't aware of it. I thought it was, you might experience it once and you know, then you take off or things go negative, and you can't turn around. And yeah, just be prepared, that it's gonna happen many, many times, and you'll be better off for it.
Pieter Dorsman: Valerie, what's your take? And you know, based on the answer so far, maybe you want to talk a bit about what were the points during the journey that you were close to giving up? Because AVA I'm sure it's gone through its ups and downs. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Valerie Song: Yeah, absolutely. And I really resonate with what Harrison was just saying, you know, it's such a roller coaster ride. Looking the way I do as a minority woman, I have a lot of other biases that I face all the time when I walk into a room. For instance, at a VC and it's my co-founder and I and having to sit quietly because they think someone else is there to do the conversation, or going to competitions and being looked down upon, like, there are so many things that happened and adversity every step of the way. There are also things for your business itself, and the way that you balance your mental stability because you're going through so many of that ups and downs. For instance, fundraising and keeping cash flow in the company, as a CEO and co-founder of the business, you're very much tied and responsible for that. And it is somewhat lonely because you can't really talk to your employees, you don't always want to update your investors about that. So sometimes you find that you have to talk to yourself about it. But the power of having a great network, such as entrepreneurship@UBC, or developing your own advisor network is you should talk to people and you should always reach out for help when you need it. And that's something that I'm trying to become a little bit better at over time. I would say the challenges will never stop. But it's about your mindset and how you combat those challenges. And I really believe that scarcity is a mindset. There are so many resources out there, it's just about how much you're willing to go through and persevere and reach out for those resources. One quote that I really love from Bruce Lee is knowing is not enough, we must apply and willing is not enough, we must do. So I think that really resonates with me in terms of taking action instead of being afraid and thinking through all the things that you can do to solve the problem instead of worrying about the problem itself.
Pieter Dorsman: Good, Kim.
Kim Kaplan: I think the thing that resonates for me, when you think about what everyone has said here is it really boils down to passion. And if you're ultimately really passionate about your idea, the project you're working on, you're going to be willing to push through all these challenges that come along the way. And I'll also second what Valerie was just saying around reaching out for help, as that's the biggest thing. I think people are worried about reaching out to people above and beyond their network even. Say it, because what do you have to lose? I've often reached out, I joke around like I stalk people on LinkedIn, but I reach out to random people on LinkedIn and ask for help. And I think that's a very underutilized resource that people don't go out of their comfort zone, to reach out to people that they might not be connected to, but might be able to help them solve a problem. So I think don't be afraid to reach out. And don't be afraid to ask for help from people, because you'd be surprised how many people are willing to help you and push you along and give you their time.
Pieter Dorsman: Yeah, and I think that brings up an important point. And that's what I always say to emerge intrapreneurs is like you're always you know, you can always contact me, talk to me, send questions, engage. Because you know, that way you start a discussion that may lead to an investment relationship. And if it doesn't, there's still lots of stuff that you can find out about yourself. So reaching out for help I totally agree. I'm a big champion of that. There's one thing before we go to Q&A. From each of you, maybe you want to talk a little bit about what was the hardest thing you faced and how you learned, and what sort of lesson came out of it. So think of one practice or one case or one situation that was so hard and that you got a solution. out of it that really served you well, in going forward. So let's do the reverse order. Again, Kim, I'll let you take that one. And then we'll let the rest follow.
Kim Kaplan: My biggest piece of advice is more of an overall piece of advice. I was once told, always talk about the positives, where it doesn't matter where you're at, in your point in time, doesn't matter what you're doing, think through what the positives are, and have that be your mantra. And when I first moved back to Vancouver, I finished my master's, I was waitressing. And I was trying to interview for roles. And I was really bummed about it. And this person who I looked up to, he said to me, what are the positives because you don't want to say these, like, I'm bummed about what I want to do. Nobody wants to hire a person that talks negatively about what they're currently doing. So I said, okay, great. I'm waitressing. I have lots of time during the day to go to interviews, I get to meet really interesting people like whoever I was talking to. And I work with a really great fun team. And it was actually through that restaurant job. And that mantra that ended up meeting someone and then getting that role with plenty of fish. So I'm a firm, firm believer in talking about the positives about where you're at, it doesn't matter what's going on, because that positivity breeds positivity, and people want to be around that.
Pieter Dorsman: Thank you. Valerie, can you point to one thing or one piece of advice that you want to share with the audience?
Valerie Song: Yeah, so one hardship that I went through, and I have a really hard time because I believe in everyone. And that's just I think, in my nature, I'm very much a cup-half full person. So when it comes to hiring and firing, it's very, very difficult for me to say no, and to tell someone bad news. But that meant it just kind of festered for a long time. And what I didn't realize was that it actually hurt the company a lot more, and actually did a lot of harm than just saying something to that person. So the advice I would have in that regard is actually something that someone told me, which is, you get what you tolerate. I know it sounds simple, but that actually had a lot for finding and building a really stellar team with a great corporate culture that advances everyone all together, instead of having, you know, one or two people that might not build a culture backup. So hard lessons learned for sure.
Pieter Dorsman: Good, Harrison.
Harrison Brown: Yeah, I go with what Valerie said about culture, just so incredibly important, especially at times like this when businesses are struggling to make payroll and stuff like that, it's so important to have a strong culture. But I would say my big piece of advice would be filtering. And I guess part of the journey, as I talked about earlier, is asking for help and asking for advice. It's generally a good practice to get that advice from many different areas so that you don't have any blind spots. The skill to learn is to filter down to what is appropriate and makes sense for you and your business and your priorities. I think there are definitely times in my past where I've received advice, or people have told me how to do something, and I just didn't feel that it was right. Checking that with a couple of other people that I respect and look up to it was, it was always a good thing to get a second opinion. Everybody will, you know, have a cup of coffee with you, everybody will return an email or a phone call. So you got to understand that you're going to get so much advice and so many opinions that you've got to really develop that skill to filter that down and take away the things that apply to you and have a little bit of business acumen to filter out things that may be tolerant.
Pieter Dorsman: Great. Thank you. Hello. One piece of advice or some lesson learned through the archers as an entrepreneur.
Hanna Golata: That's a hard one because I have to have her in my mind and some of the guys have already touched on it. One piece of advice I got from a friend of mine who grew his business, I asked him, what's the one thing you could tell me? And he said, hire fast fire fast. I hope there is no one from the employment department sitting in the audience because I know they won't like it, but that's the reality. You have to have a very strong team, you have to have people that are stronger than you in order to be a successful business. When you get the feeling that you made the wrong choice, and you will make lots of mistakes when hiring, that gut feeling is usually true. So the sooner the separation you will do, it's going to be better for the business you and for the other person. So what I would advise if you build your team, learn about interviewing and finding the people, hire for the values you want to grow in your company, and evolve brilliant assholes. Because it takes 1 billion assholes to destroy the entire team. So be mindful about it, because the people that you have in your business, it's going to be, I would say, the biggest jewel in growing a successful business.
Pieter Dorsman: Yeah, I could not agree more. Emre, I'm sure you have a parting shot of advice or a lesson learned.
Emre Akkas: There are a lot of people in the audience who are just getting started. So I'm going to say don't start a company for the wrong reasons. It takes many, many years to become an overnight success. And no matter what the discipline is whether you are running for local office Olympics, starting a company doesn't really matter. And the top two wrong reasons that I see are becoming rich and having lots of free time. Trust me on this one, no self-made entrepreneur would advocate for neither one of these, building a company and assuming full responsibility for everything is a lot of stressful work, a lot of sleepless nights. And money is the last thing that arises. So if you get into this for the wrong reasons, you're not going to be able to sustain it. If you get into this journey for the right reasons, it'll be a very rewarding experience, even though you will have a lot of sleepless nights. The right reason is to accept from the very beginning that there is no failure, there is no success, what you're going after, is the privilege to pursue your dreams. And that's what matters, right? So you get the ultimate responsibility of everything, which may be heavy, but that also gives you a lot of freedom to execute, to follow your passion, as everyone else said, and that's really what will allow you to sustain your lifestyle and the commitment that entrepreneurship requires.
Pieter Dorsman: Okay, so pursuing your dreams, be willing to prepare, deal with scarcity and hardship, drive your passion and do your own thing. And no matter your background, anyone can do it. But you need to sort of following these principles that are laid out. I really liked your last comment Emre about pursuing a lofty goal and don't think about money and having passion. These are very sort of important things and all the things that investors really look for, they try to understand what is driving you, they try to understand how you function through these challenges in building a company. I think the panel readings neatly summarized it and I may do a short blog post on this because I thought it was very well worded. And we've got some great life examples. So thank you very much. You can always reach out to any of the panel members. I didn't ask them this, but I assume they're more than willing to do some Q&A at some point in time or offer help, which is an important thing. And the same goes for me. I already see LinkedIn invites coming in. I'm more than happy to give some advice and help to entrepreneurs or anyone else on this call, who thinks that we want to do that. So thank you very much, Chang, I hand it over to you. Great.
Chang Han: Thank you, Pieter. Awesome discussion, the questions everybody. And as Pieter mentioned, first mentioned by Kim, don't hesitate to connect on LinkedIn and ask your questions directly as well. That wraps up today's session. A huge thank you again to Pieter and each of the panelists for joining us today and sharing your experience as entrepreneurs. You are incredible innovators in your field. And we are thrilled that you've been able to join us and share your journey with us and the wider community.
MJ: Thank you for joining us and we hope to see you next time. In the meantime, stay safe and stay healthy.