With a surge in B.C. companies reaching unicorn status over the past two years, Innovate BC partnered with the Vancouver Tech Journal to complete a study on B.C. companies reaching $1B valuation (through private investment, acquisition, or initial public offering).
Recently, we hosted a panel discussion presented by KPMG to hear from three of B.C.'s unicorn businesses. These seasoned entrepreneurs shared insights on the trajectory of their businesses—from their successes and challenges to lessons learned and more.
“If you don’t have grit and a little bit of arrogance then you probably shouldn’t start in the first place because it is really challenging.” – Anna Sainsbury
To reach this level of success, you have to boldly go for things without fully knowing what lies ahead. You also need to have a product or service that’s at the right time, right place, and right conditions.
One of the hardest parts, according to GeoComply’s Anna Sainsbury, is to develop strong relationships and trusted partnerships with your customers. She credits much of her success to having a customer experience team—not just a call centre. You need a group of customer success people who are entrepreneurs themselves, who can find ways to solve customer problems.
As markets change, staying relevant and innovative is key. Clio’s Jack Newton shared that you have to keep your ear close to the ground and understand what your customers want. If you keep solving their problems, they’re going to keep trusting you as a technology partner. And once you get to a certain scale, there’s a healthy balance of letting your customers guide your development and letting your vision of the future determine the other half of the product development roadmap.
Jack also noted that it’s important to remember that when there’s a decline in the economy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your company will suffer. A lot of companies need to adopt technology to survive shifts in the economy—just look what happened during the pandemic—so it’s not always a bad thing in the tech sector.
Finally, giving up and running of our cash are two leading causes of death for startups. To survive, says Jack, you need to manage your own psychology and surround yourself with people who can support you through a tough day.
Raising Capital + The Importance of Intellectual Property
“Focus on your vision and what got you there and try to tune out the outside world.” – Sam Gharegozlou.
When it comes to raising capital, it’s tempting to take whatever money you can get. Dapper Labs’ Sam Gharegozlou warns against that. He shared that he selected investors that were the best fit with his vision. It’s important to find investors who believe in your values and what you’re trying to accomplish. If you don’t stay true to that, it’s just not worth it, he says, as down the road there will be conflicts. You need to trust your investors, and they you. They need to be a part of your journey with you, so they must believe in you.
While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it’s not good for business. On intellectual property, Sam shared that firstly, you have to protect your customers and secondly your own interests. It is not good for your brand if your customers are getting duped by copycats, so you have to figure out a way to prevent that. IP does get complicated when we’re talking about global markets, as each country has different requirements and applications. It takes time and money to figure that out, which you don’t have when you’re just starting out. However, at the end of the day you have to do it to protect your customers.
Psst: not sure where to start with IP? Innovate BC offers support. Reach out to learn more.
Attracting + Nurturing Great Talent
“Attracting and retaining the best people in the world also means having an incredible culture.” – Jack Newton
One of the biggest roadblocks for companies to scale right now is hiring top quality talent and finding it fast enough. Clio’s Jack Newton shared some tips:
Think hard about where you headquarter your company.
Consider a flexible hybrid work policy.
Expect high performance and empower entry-level employees to get there.
Be clear about your mission and foster connection to that purpose.
Develop a strong company culture.
Anna Sainsbury added that a lot of international talent wants to come to Canada. Having faster and easier processes for getting people into Canada helps Canadian businesses grow. Working together makes companies stronger and innovate faster.
Growing + Scaling in B.C.
“We’re at a very interesting point now—it’s arguably the most exciting time to start a company in B.C.” – Marc Low
In British Columbia, entrepreneurs have access to a lot of government support—whether it’s for hiring talent and developing skills, adopting novel technologies, or mentorship and business coaching. There are also numerous tax and finance incentives to starting a company.
However, KPMG Canada’s Marc Low suggests that right now is the most exciting time to start a company in B.C. Why? Because the tech ecosystem has matured to the point where founders have exited and are now coming back and providing funding as well as mentoring the next generation of founders.
The way the tech and innovation ecosystem in B.C. is evolving and maturing makes it the place to really go big.