How I got into startups

This started as a vanilla company blog post, but I found myself writing more and more. Here it is in full:

In high school, two friends and I started a business importing knock-off shoes from China and selling them to students. We made around five hundred dollars each in two months, after which our parents shut us down - something about it being illegal.

It wasn’t my idea – I was pretty boring growing up. My parents drive under the speed limit, and bolt the doors entering the house. Some of that washed off on me, so when I went to university, the plan was to maintain a good average and graduate to the promised land. If someone had told me then to do or join a start-up, I wouldn’t have given it much thought. Sure, it would be cool, but I had no big idea, no money, no clue where to even begin.

It was by chance that I heard about uWaterloo’s [VeloCity] ( residence, a university backed incubator that encourages students to work on start-ups. My first impression was that people were very active learners. To give an example, when I tell an average stranger what I do, they just want the summary. The residents of VeloCity wanted details – what do you use for your work? How does this process function? They seemed more conscious of the world around them.

The first week of that term, we brainstormed start-up ideas. My group came up with “indoor mapping and GPS,” and a few of us decided to hack something together. A week later, we had a prototype and a name – [MappedIn]( Other teams had all made awesome demos too. Since it was a school term, we worked on our projects in our spare time and caught up on each other’s progress everyday in the halls. There was no award for “best project,” though there was a sense of competition – we each wanted to make something cool, and cool was relative.

The term after that, I was at a networking event hosted by [Communitech]( at their new venue, “The Hub.” Someone I bumped into told me the operations manager was at the event, so I decided to try and pitch him MappedIn for The Hub. I was pretty nervous, but happily he liked the idea and told me to contact him the next day. A week later we made our first installation and got our first check. I guess they must have liked us too, because they offered their client services, which included access to lawyers, accountants, events, and a bi-weekly meeting with an experienced advisor. It was around this point where we realized MappedIn was becoming a real business. We had a working product, real customers, and the support of the VeloCity network, Communitech, and affiliated groups like the Canadian Digital Media Network. Spurred on by this, we incorporated the company and turned down job offers to work on MappedIn for the summer term.

It wasn’t smooth sailing from here. There were weeks of non-stop coding and progress, followed by periods where nothing happened. What kept me going was the vested interest that others placed in our success. Friends and advisors had given us their time and lent us their reputation to help us along. Of course, I wanted MappedIn to succeed, but if it didn’t, I didn’t want it to be because I slacked off.

The best thing about the start-up community is the mutual support of other people. Everyone remembers the difficulties of their own start-up experiences, and is always willing to help others going through the process. Through Communitech, we were referred to several other contracts, including our latest – [Conestoga Mall]( Even casual conversations in the halls of The Hub would often lead to breakthroughs on some front. Finally, we had our mentors who knew when to push us, and when to push harder.

Looking back, we’re pretty lucky to be where we are today. Our skills and persistence made it happen, no doubt, but things beyond our control played a big role as well. I’m glad they did. We’re a bit more organized now. Our plan for 2012 is rock solid and we have the ability to execute.

Y-Combinator’s Paul Graham recently wrote that

being in a place where startups are the cool thing to do, and chance
meetings with people who can help you” are key to creating a successful

Paul is, of course, talking about Silicon Valley. It’s the first place that comes to mind, and cities everywhere are trying to emulate it. I haven’t lived in the valley yet. I plan to at some point. For now, I’m lucky to be in another place that might be just as good, though sadly not as warm.


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