Meet 3 entrepreneurial experts in our CORE program
From evolution: a podcast by entrepreneurship@UBC
evolution is a podcast shining light on our ecosystem’s stories of innovation, impact and hustle throughout their venture building journey. Join us as we build community and knowledge related to entrepreneurship during the course of COVID-19.
On this week’s episode of our podcast evolution, host and entrepreneurship@UBC’s Creative Specialist MJ Araujo speaks with 3 entrepreneurial experts in this special episode highlighting varying perspectives on building a tech and disruption-based venture in our CORE program. Hear from entrepreneurship@UBC’s Program Director Blair Simonte, Skylab Co-founder TJ Rak and longtime CORE Mentor, Kyle Cheriton, as they share their insights and experiences as entrepreneurs and members of our CORE community.
The CORE program is for ventures driving innovation through disruptive technologies, ideas and trends. Applications for CORE are open until August 10th. Apply now! The fall 2020 CORE venture building program will be held online.
About our Guests
Blair Simonite teaches entrepreneurship and innovation at the Sauder School of Business, and is Program Director of entrepreneurship@UBC, the university’s venture incubator/accelerator that helps UBC students, faculty, staff and alumni learn entrepreneurial skills and build successful new ventures. Blair has over 30 years of hands-on operating experience in a variety of technology businesses from startups to multinationals, and is an active advisor and board member for BC tech firms. At UBC he has helped more than 250 ventures to learn how to validate their markets and begin to build their businesses. Blair has a particular interest in ventures that aim to apply technology to create positive impact for people, society and the environment. Blair holds a Bachelor of Applied Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of British Columbia, a Master of Business Administration degree from Simon Fraser University, and is a registered Professional Engineer.
TJ Rak is a born entrepreneur who happened to enjoy the process, challenge and rewards of photography. Post Undergrad travels took him to Asia where he founded a photography production studio with the intention to finish off his degree and learn Mandarin. Following Asia came Silicon Valley where the idea of A.I. was implanted, leading TJ back to Vancouver. Now he is eager to seek out some support from the first business' and school that lit his entrepreneurial fire.
Skylab is a leader in A.I. portrait photo editing. They empower businesses, freelancers, and hobbyists to succeed in the digital age.
Kyle Cheriton has extensive international experience working for global companies including Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, The Walt Disney Company and United Airlines. He has also been involved in start-up companies including Rakuten Linkshare, Arista Networks and Martiniburger. His career and curiosity led him to live and work in Canada, California, Japan and throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Since moving to Vancouver he has served in a volunteer role as a mentor, advisor and investor at the University of British Columbia's entrepreneurship@UBC program.
To read a full transcript, see below:
MJ: Hi Blair, thank you for joining us. Can you give us an overview of what the CORE program is?
Blair: When I came out to UBC originally, I learned that there are many entrepreneurial people, and they come from various areas or segments of the university. So there is faculty and researchers, there are students and staff and there are alumni with CORE companies. We're spending most of our time helping them to figure out what's the problem they're going to solve? What's the issue that a set of customers have? Who are those customers? How do you build a business model and a revenue generating model that actually makes it sustainable? Oh, and by the way, does anyone actually care? You have a great idea, but do you find that there's a large enough group of customers that care in the first place. So that's the distinction with CORE. I’d say we have more companies coming through CORE than we do of any other type. So for most people, if they're not sure what they're working on, they'll probably come through CORE.
MJ: Who should apply to the CORE program?
Blair: The key to this is that when somebody does have to be UBC faculty, or UBC student, or UBC staff or an alumni up to five years, we're looking for people that clearly have an idea for a solution, people that actually have some understanding of a problem of some sort in the world that they would like to solve. And “problem” is a very widely defined thing...so it could be that somebody is working on a financial technology thing where they have experienced working with banks in a certain way, and they think that's terrible. And they think that there is a software way of doing this online that would improve the lives of everyone who deals with banks. Okay, awesome.
I'm far more interested in how compelling a problem is and how many people have it, then what the solution looks like. That's largely because smart people can almost always figure out a solution. But the bigger challenge is when you walk in with a solution and now we have to go find out if anybody cares. Is there actually a problem? An entrepreneur might come in and get started very rapidly...we're looking for a team of people that is committed to doing this. And a team can be two. But in much of what we do, there's an enormous amount of brainstorming and actual work going on and talking to real humans, potential customers...it's really hard to brainstorm by yourself. It's really hard to get all the work done if you're just a single person, which is why most startups have far more than a single person running them. So we're looking for people who are committed, and we're looking for a team that is willing to put the work in.
"I'm far more interested in how compelling a problem is and how many people have it, then what the solution looks like."
MJ: What do teams get from the CORE program?
Blair: I think that the first thing that ventures get is the opportunity to build a venture without making the mistakes that most ventures do. So my favourite statistics comes from research from CB insights...and this is supported by actual data: 42% of venture failures are because there was no market need. So out of every 100 ventures, 42 of them fail, because there was no market for what it was they were building. Now. Can you imagine putting a bunch of time, maybe money, maybe you borrowed money from your parents, your friends, your family? And you get part way along and find out nobody cared? So in this program, you get the opportunity to build your venture and avoid that...we would like you to come out as not one of those 42%, we would like you to be one of the 58% that at very least found a market need. And there's an enormous amount of discipline in what we do that goes into finding that.
I think the second thing is that this thing is pretty well tested by this point, as I mentioned earlier. Another thing that people get will be, again, a thing that I've learned the hard way and in my own world before UBC, and that's accessing a mentor network. So it's hard work and difficult to track down people to mentor. Well, we have a mentor network of over 200 people, new and these are experienced, really deeply experienced CEOs, ex entrepreneurs, many are current entrepreneurs, and they volunteer their time to help ventures get started. It is absolutely amazing. In fact, if there's no other reason to come and, and do some stuff via e@UBC, it's because the mentor network is just fantastic.
MJ: Thank you Blair. Now we have TJ Rak joining us. TJ, could you tell us about Skylab and about your journey as an entrepreneur? How did you get started?
TJ: I guess the story behind everything MJ was, as you know, I was at UBC and there's that path that you follow... you go through, you get your education, and then you go and take a job somewhere. And that was it. I just couldn't follow that path. That wasn't for me. And I looked at both paths and it was either go work for that big company or go do something on my own.
I left and went out to Asia and we started doing image editing, like Lightroom stuff, changing colours removing like pimples, you name it. And over the years, we've just been doing so many of these that we have now this dataset, this huge amount of before and after images. Then just recently, machine learning has come into the forefront and you're able to build a model that can recognize the differences and automatically apply this.
So that's a six minute process that you used to take a human to do this, but now it's happening instantaneously...a human quality in 1.2 seconds or less. So now we're taking that concept and building an entire business around it through the CORE program at UBC.
MJ: Awesome. What are some of the main things that you learn about and the skills that you acquired going through the program?
TJ: So everything is unfolding in front of us daily, but when you can take control of some of the aspects of your business, especially how you are approaching your clients, that takes a lot of guesswork out of everything, and then we can just focus on building the business. Second to that we've been given access to mentors that have been amazing. We've been able to make some mistakes in front of them, we've confided in them, and they've really been guiding us through the last couple of months.
"Second to that we've been given access to mentors that have been amazing. We've been able to make some mistakes in front of them, we've confided in them, and they've really been guiding us through the last couple of months."
MJ: Where do you think you would be if you hadn't gone through this program?
TJ: Yeah, I don't think we'd have such a solid foundation, the scale actually. I mean, I think we'd be making guesses and they'd be good ones, but they'd been anecdotal, they wouldn't really have a lot of concrete evidence behind them. I don't think we'd be moving at the pace that we are now because we've made just so many calls through Phase 1 and 2, that now we've got to actually continue that momentum.
MJ: How do you apply what you learn into your company and the real world?
TJ: So the main things we acquired was that there's no better time in this environment to reevaluate our business models, we can adapt now to a changing environment, make a play, wedge ourselves in there while people are really looking for solutions. One of the things that we really learned was you can come in with a project or an idea, and it's not about having a perfect idea. It's just about making it less wrong along the path. I think that's a mindset change that we've had. We've really applied that to our way of thinking, our way of building and our way of working together.
MJ: Thank you, TJ. It's awesome to hear more about your experience as a founder. Next up, we'll get a mentor's perspective. Today we have Kyle Cheriton joining us. Kyle has been a longtime mentor with the CORE program. Kyle, it's a pleasure to have you here. Could you tell us more about the CORE program and what's it like to be a mentor for it?
Kyle: There's a great deal of accomplishment, a sense of accomplishment, that comes from working as a mentor in the program. Seeing the teams learn, seeing the teams grow, seeing them pivot from time to time, because we understand what it's like to go through that journey. I think it's also important to understand that the mentors are part of the journey with the teams. They are not the driver. They are the navigator. The teams at all times remain in the driver seat.
We're providing ideas, suggestions, our own experiences, we use a lot of customer discovery and marketing fit tools and resources to help the teams understand the question, which is, Does anybody care about my idea and my vision? Are they willing to pay for it? How big is the problem?
MJ: What do you as a mentor look for in the ventures that come through the program?
Kyle: There are what I call the three C's for teams that should be in the program. The first one is coachability. We're looking for teams that will respect the process, teams that are open to learning. The second one is curiosity. You need to be curious. The program is not about teaching you how to go out how to sell your product from the start. It's about being curious about your customers and being curious about the market. During Phase 2, we ask the teams to do 15 to 20 interviews a week, that’s not easy. But you have to have that curious mind to be able to go out and sit down with people, getting the customers to give open feedback, learning and the process along the way. Very, very valuable. You have to be curious if you're going to learn how to solve a problem. And then finally, courage. Being an entrepreneur is not easy. If it was easy, more people would do it.
MJ: What do ventures get out of the mentorship provided?
Kyle: Certainly the teams and the ventures are getting years and years of experience from seasoned, experienced, bruised, battered, and very successful business leaders and entrepreneurs. I'm always amazed at the teams that I meet, their experience, their intelligence, their training, their insights, their view of the world around them. And yet the one thing that they tend to lack is what I call street smarts...that only comes with years of experience. And for a mentor it comes naturally as we've just been through it, we see a problem and we almost instinctively know how to react.
Mentors really strive to bring to the journey the mindset of what an investor is, and how they think. And that's ultimately what you need to get to, you need to be able to build a story about your vision about your product and about your service that is going to get investors, customers and potential team members involved in and really buying into what you want to achieve.
I'm also amazed at the scope and the size of the network that is available. I get questions all the time about whether we need to do financing or we're looking for a lawyer we're trying to set up a structure on how we're going to do shares for the founding members, it's all available right around you. If it's not the mentor you're working with, there are going to be 15 or so mentors also available, all you have to do is put up your hand and ask, I believe the person that you are looking for is only separated from you by one contact. The mentors bring a wealth of networks to these teams.
"And that's ultimately what you need to get to, you need to be able to build a story about your vision about your product and about your service that is going to get investors, customers and potential team members involved in and really buying into what you want to achieve."
MJ: Thank you so much for your time. Remember that applications for the CORE program are open until August 10th.
Thank you for joining us and we hope to see you next time. In the meantime, stay safe and stay healthy.