Wanted: Partners willing to take a leap of faith

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This is the fourth article in a continuing series chronicling the growth path of CommentAir Technologies, a startup based in Ottawa, Canada. CommentAir is developing a wireless technology fans can use at sports venues to receive the same real-time commentary as fans watching from their televisions, a wireless technology that also creates a platform for targeted consumer interaction. We invite your feedback.

By Francis Moran and Leo Valiquette

In our last post, we spoke to Katie and Luke Hrycak, the sibling founders of CommentAir, about their challenges as technology entrepreneurs who do not have a background in technology. A process of self-education and aggressive networking to tap into the expertise of supportive advisors and mentors has been key.

The need to seek out external business and technical expertise of course extends to the team they must build to move CommentAir along. As a bootstrapped startup, they must not only find individuals who compliment their own strengths and weaknesses, but also share their passion and are willing to put in long hours without a regular pay cheque.

In this post, we take a closer look at what the siblings have learned about themselves, about building strong teams and how this must be applied to the business.

Who should be the next hire?

CommentAir took flight in early 2010. As we explored in the previous post, Zhu Li, a PhD candidate in wireless communication at Carleton, became Katie’s technical advisor and, now that he has returned home to Hong Kong, is on deck to serve as the company’s Chinese connection when the product is ready for mass production. (However, he has yet to join the company as a founder or employee.) CommentAir has also enjoyed the support of Carleton University professor Tony Bailetti and Ed Strange, coordinator of applied research and investigator of special projects at Algonquin College, who put together a student team with funding through Ontario’s FedDev program to work on CommentAir’s prototype.

While Luke and Katie have secured the support of a number of other advisors and mentors, their first true hire came this past summer, when they brought on board as chief designer and project manager Andrew Lowe.

“I went to go talk to him about manufacturing and plastics, and he liked the idea so we offered him equity in the company for his designs and knowledge on manufacturing and electronics,” Katie said.

For 2012, Katie and Luke are planning to add a technical cofounder as they work toward major field tests this summer.

“We need someone like this as soon as we start getting to either some major first tests or before a launch, because technical things are going to go wrong and it’s out of our knowledge base to fix them,” Katie said.

“I would like a telecom or electrical engineer, preferably someone who has many others to vouch for their work ethic and projects,” she added. “They have to also enjoy sports and understand why we are doing what we want to do. An entrepreneurial mentality isn’t a top priority, but definitely a creative mind that can work around unforeseen problems. It’s also important that it’s someone we can get along with.”

But there is a clear distinction between getting along with someone and always being in agreement with them.

“You won’t always see eye-to-eye with your team, and that’s a good thing,” Katie said. “Same goes with informal advisors and partners. It’s all about having different perspectives and taking them all into account. If you have anyone telling you the same thing as you’re thinking, that’s not good.”

“If they aren’t adding value, cut them loose,” Luke added. “Don’t wait and don’t look back. Trust your gut.”

What distinguishes a co-founder or partner from advisors, mentors?

“A partner is someone who is willing to get more involved in the day to day, and bring value beyond just advice,” Luke said. “They’re bringing a skill or trait that we lack, such as the technical know-how, or something to get us to the next stage.”

Or, to put it another way:

“Co-founders and team members are meant to cover each other’s butts when your reputation and product are on the line,” Katie said. “There are always people who will love your idea, but that doesn’t mean you should bring them on.”

But sometimes, an ideal team member may present themselves unexpectedly.

“Sometimes a team member will just fall into your lap, so always keep your eyes open and have in mind a checklist of what you want to add to your team,” she said. “If they believe in your idea and in you, they will come on for equity if you’re bootstrapping and not even question if there is a salary.”

Finding the right people depends on your qualities as much as theirs

Katie readily acknowledges that her greatest weakness as an entrepreneur is lack of life experience, something which cannot be acquired in a university lecture hall.

“Every single meeting or conversation I’ve had with a mentor has left me pretty much floored in just how much I don’t know but should, and how much work I have left to do,” she said. “In order to get over this, I’ve had to self-educate to become an expert in my areas of interest as well as in the business I want to run.”

On the other hand, she considers her greatest strength to be her people skills, which she has already used to her advantage to win advisors and mentors willing to share their expertise.

Luke, on the other hand, has come to realize that his biggest weakness is “assuming any obstacle can be overcome quickly, when in reality, it takes a while to overcome it. My strength is just the perseverance to keep at it over time.”

While they believe their strengths will serve to create a strong and close-knit culture in the business as it grows, they both agree that the best way to overcome their weaknesses is to seek out the input of others before making decisions.

“If we can do this bootstrapping and without having to take money from anyone, that’s the way we’re going to do it,” Katie said. “Keep it in the family and just build relationships with mentors to get the expert advice we need.”

Thinking about the future

While the expert advice they need may someday require bringing on board a savvy investor for a share of equity, Katie and Luke are not yet willing to give up that degree of control.

“It can obviously be beneficial to have someone hands on overlooking the entire operation,” Katie said. “I just don’t think we’re there yet so I haven’t put too much thought into who I would want to invest in us. Would I turn down money if the investor fit wasn’t right? We’ll cross that bridge if we get there!”

Meanwhile, the siblings are intent on building a business with the staying power to continue on without them.

“Some entrepreneurs just want to make big money and go retire on a beach, so they build their companies that way,” Luke said. “In our case, we want to build something that will continue on without us, but we will want to always have a hand in it. We want to take what we build and continue on to grow other businesses as well.”

In our next instalment, we will explore the challenges of paying the bills on a bootstrap budget.

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