Buddy, how the heck do I build a business?

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By Leo Valiquette

What does it take to build a successful business from scratch without selling your soul to the venture capitalists? Pretty much what it takes to turn any vision into reality – persistence, optimism and thinking first about qualifying the market demand for what you want to offer.

Last night at the Marshes Golf Club, six local entrepreneurs, a couple fresh out of school, the rest somewhat grayer, manned a panel to discuss how they developed their individual businesses without the aid of venture capital dollars. The event was called Buddy keep your Million – but buy my product! To my mind, their insights are key to the success of any venture regardless of who is filling your bank account.

First up was the energetic Aydin Mirzaee, founder of bOK Systems Corp. and Chide.it. For him it’s all about persistence. He told the story of how Col. Sanders, a retiree not so keen about living on a fixed income, hit the road with his family chicken recipe and endured over 1,000 rejections before finding a restaurant willing to pay him royalties.

Next came the equally young and enterprising Kareem Sultan of RaceDV. The right mentor made all the difference for him. In this case, an employer who encouraged him to use his downtime at work to pursue his interests and to “go out and learn something.”  When things began to move along, his employer continued to help him incubate his idea, and, most importantly, allowed him to retain full ownership of his intellectual property.

Moving down the line came a more seasoned entrepreneur, Scott Lake, founder of Jaded Pixel and Shopify. With his focus on open-source software development, he puts a high premium on cultivating a passionate community following around a product to generate word of mouth and provide user feedback. But in addition to that, it must be an interactive communication, in which your developers have a dialogue with this community. It’s all about harnessing the power of social media.

Next up was Paul Slaby. His latest role is CEO of Kaben Wireless, but he has a long track record in Ottawa, with start-ups that include ATMOS and VoIPShield. What he found when he arrived at Kaben was a very strong engineering culture that needed to refocus on sales and marketing. Customer money is the best money to have he said, and one of the most effective ways to get it is to develop the services side of your business early. For him, that has translated into joint ventures on product development and providing that partner with outsourced R&D services with a running royalty arrangement.

For the next speaker, Wael Aggan of TradeMerit, one truth has been self-evident since his first venture in Egypt more than 30 years ago—define a market niche first, figure out how you will engineer a product to fill that need second. His preference is always to define a niche and dominate it, rather than pursue a broader market opportunity where there might already be established incumbents or too much open playing field for “me too” rivals to muscle in.

Lastly, Rob Lane of Overlay.TV discussed how it was the right choice for his company to secure venture capital financing. For the market his company is trying to tackle and the big incumbents that are already there, an infusion of VC cash was the only way for his company to generate adequate market momentum. However, his message is that each individual must first define what success means for them. Is it a $1-million venture, a $10-million venture, or a $1-billion one? (And of course, VCs won’t bother with anything that doesn’t have the potential to become at least a $100-million enterprise). He also stressed the importance of global networking thanks to the dramatic impact of social media.

/// COMMENTS

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  • Paul Slaby

    May 30, 2008 3:03 pm

    Good summary, Leo. It was an interesting evening and I was particularly pleased with a long line up of folks from the audience that stayed to ask a lot of questions. We need more of this type of events that inspire and help people start and grow businesses organically rather than await scarce and loaded with issues VC funding.

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