The Real Side to Starting Your Own Business: Stories from One of Montreal's First Social Accelerator Programs
“When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: you haven't.” - Thomas Edison
Before starting the District 3 (D3) Validation Program this last May, I understood this statement theoretically. But it is only after the last three months of exhilarating yet grueling work, that I actually believe it.
This is not an article about startup success, this is an article about being comfortable, really comfortable, with the reality of failure. Because only in being comfortable with your own disappointment, can you find the resilience and courage to persevere for what you want the most.
I went into the D3 program convinced that after 3 months, I would have a clearly defined roadmap for making my company fully operational and profitable within 2- 3 years. Little did I realize that ultimately this would not be the take-away of the program for me.
Simon Sinek has a famous TED talk on finding the “why” of your work, in other words, your purpose in doing the things you do. My “why” is to provide people with the tools to empower themselves to generate real sustainable impact for their communities. I want to help transform nonprofits, civil society agents, into the most effective, impact-driven social good service providers.
I saw the D3 program as a vehicle for transforming this dream into a reality. For creating a company that would help nonprofits with impact assessment of their projects through data analytics to optimize the allocation of their resources.
The format of the D3 program operates like a startup accelerator program, with 12 weeks to go from an idea to an operating startup in a competitive framework. It is also designed for social entrepreneurs to incorporate social and environmental considerations into product design and revenue modelling.
I don’t particularly enjoy engaging with competitive frameworks, mostly because they shift my behavior to being more self-centered, in survival mode, rather than purpose-driven. My insecurities thrive in a competitive environment. However, I was so glad to discover that the other teams in the program ended up becoming friends and allies, and not competitors. If anything, the other teams inspired me to focus on my objectives and feel supported throughout the process. I have found a community of like-minded individuals who truly want to help each other grow.
I'm very excited about the work that this community is doing. Here is an excerpt of my interviews with some of the other teams about their entrepreneurial drive to start a business.
What is the business you want to develop as a solution to a social issue that is important to you?
Khashayar Toodehfallah (co-founder of Termelo) : We want to make a measurable difference in the degree of sustainability of people's diets in as many places as possible. Also, to create a zero emission cricket breeding technology. We turn water into protein using a facility that grows greens and breeds crickets. The cricket waste becomes fertilizer for the plants and the plants in turn feed the crickets.
Carlos Roumi (co-founder of Termelo): Termelo is a sustainable Agri-Tech company that produces local, and organic food, while harvesting data for other urban agriculturalists to use in the future. The desired goal or dream I have in mind for Termelo would be to have farm projects all over the world, not only specializing in vegetables. Soon we plan to move into the insect industry, and in the future we would love to get involved in other sectors in agriculture in the future. We harvest and analyze data about urban farming so that future urban farmers can use our data for a "perfect growing recipe," enabling future generations to join, and innovate the agriculture industry. We would love to see more urban farms be created in the future, when it comes to a global social issue, there is no competition, only collaboration!
Valentin Kravtchenko (co-founder of Greybox): Our company is about making computer labs as portable, affordable and accessible as possible in remote areas where electricity and internet connection are not available for nonprofits. Internet allows me to connect to so many educational resources- it’s an unlimited experience. But this access is not provided to everyone right now.
Marianne Lorthiois (co-founder of Livetracks): I wanted to reconnect with the arts, and share my passion for the diversity of music. I consider myself lucky to have been raised in an art-driven environment and family, and later on, I was able to connect to québécois culture through the arts, mostly with music and theater. Giving access to local culture is my way to contribute and give back. We're building a web and mobile platform that makes it easy for anyone to explore local music scenes and go to shows they wouldn't have heard of otherwise. We want to gather an international community of music explorers, contributing to the platform and supporting the independent bands, venues, and festivals that make our cities and regions a better place to live in!
What is your personal driver, in other words, the “why” behind starting your business?
Toodehfallah: I've seen entrepreneurship in my family a lot, growing up, which made me think of it as the most viable path when I reached a certain age. Also, because I have strong views about how business should be and thought by doing it myself, I could apply my beliefs in practice and not just in theory. I believe food security will soon be a global crisis, that is if we decide to continue producing and consuming as we are currently.
Roumi: I decided to be an entrepreneur because I felt that was the most direct, and most meaningful way for me to make an impact on the world on my own terms. While money may lead to many of the world’s evils, it can also be a great vehicle for change, and can actually be a good incentive in some cases. Being raised in between Montreal, a city where fresh local food isn’t so possible to produce by traditional agricultural means year round, and Dubai, where the same is true, really made me question the future of our species in relation to food. Being raised in two extreme weather locations really helped me narrow in on the issue of food security, which in turn gave me the idea to create Termelo!
Kravtchenko: I don’t have the typical entrepreneur personality. But I am a future-oriented person, and at a certain point, I understood that I work better on my own. However, it’s more efficient and fulfilling to work long-term with people working towards a large goal. I understood that access to internet is a privilege that I had and wanted to bring to more people.
Lorthiois: I do not think it was ever a conscious decision for me to become an entrepreneur. I've always been very passionate when it comes to starting projects. I tried to settle in a regular 9-5 job but it was not for me. To me, being an entrepreneur means being autonomous and creative, and this is what I want, no matter the project.
What’s the best advice you have ever received?
Toodehfallah: Do or die, there's no giving up.
Roumi: The best advice I have ever gotten is to start young. I grew up surrounded by older people, and all successful people from older generations have valuable insights. They told me to start working and get involved in what you want to do at a young age. The sooner you learn, make mistakes, take falls, and get back up, the sooner you get to early growth, which will pay off in the long run!
Kravtchenko: If you meet a teacher who can be replaced by a machine, well then replace them by a machine or a computer because he/she doesn’t bring anything more. But if you find a teacher who can’t be replaced, definitely replace them. This is to say that we should have all hands on deck to get the best teachers replicated and eventually replaced to make room for improvement.
In terms of entrepreneurship, I like to remember that everything starts with the human side. You are usually in charge of managing people and it’s really easy to micromanage. But when you are trying to mount a team as an entrepreneur, it’s important to understand your human assets. So many of your resources will be freed up if you think about this and learn to delegate important tasks and empower your colleagues and employees.
In regards to the program we went through, I got good advice about questioning my assumptions. A lot of them survived and still hold true but it wasn’t the case for all our ideas. It’s important to take apart your project and make sure all the components are still useful. It’s a painful iterative process because you want to think that everything is going to work but it takes time and determination for validating your services and product.
Lorthiois: Change yourself if you want to change the world. It might sound cheesy and obvious but there's no way you can positively impact this world if you don't start by helping the ones closest to you, making peace with yourself, and sharing the love. I am excited to keep learning! The journey matters more than the destination. I have already evolved and met inspiring people who also love to learn continuously, and I want it to keep going.
I am so excited to see what these teams are going to do next. We all agreed that the program was extremely valuable in forcing us to be obsessively thorough in our interviews of potential customer segments, in keeping us receptive to critical feedback, and in guiding us through the necessary self-awareness to accept our own pitfalls, be patient with uncontrollable variables, and stay authentic throughout the process.
My team did not become an operational business by the end of the program. Yet, what we did gain is a much deeper understanding of the nonprofit sector, an insider perspective on the Montreal startup community, and the tools to pursue our project with a more informed and comprehensive approach. I am so grateful for all the help from the D3 coaches and experts. I know they will continue to be there for us in our struggles and to help us celebrate our accomplishments.
The validation program has truly been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life.
Maybe my team's project will never become a full-fledged startup and perhaps the impact we hope to have will take a different form than the one we expect. Whatever the “how”, as long as we stay true to our vision, remembering the “why” of our projects and listening to the communities we want to ally with, the rest will figure itself out.
This article was written and edited by Jessica Newfield.