[Speech] The Realities of Starting a Company

Speech I did for the University of Waterloo – Science and Business conference

I am honored to be speaking to you today. I hold this conference near and dear to my heart since I helped organize it awhile back. I was also on the founding team for the science and business ambassadors and am so proud to see that both the conference and the ambassadors are going strong. I am very proud of all of you.

How many of you want to start a company or be an entrepreneur?

We hear a lot about the successful people like Bill Gates and our golden child: RIM. We hear how successful they are and how much money they have accumulated. Which is all well and good, but it’s not reality and not something that we can really relate to. The majority of us will not drop out of school to start a company; you will get your honours science degree and most likely move back home and look for a job. What will separate you from the pack is having that passion and desire to be our own boss. But you will find that if you want to be an entrepreneur, and you decide to take a job working for someone, you may get into a bit of occasional trouble!

A lot of people see me as an entrepreneur, but I don’t think I am fully there yet mostly because I have come to the conclusion that in order to be successful at being your own boss you need three characteristics, especially in the start up phase. These are being able to take the risk and jumping in with two feet, having the hunger to succeed regardless of adversity and having that slight desperation to get that sale. It boils down to being a little crazy and a tad abnormal. I know I’m crazy, but not fully possessing these 3 characteristics, but I’m feeling change is a foot in my life so maybe soon enough!

The bulk of my talk today will be on 4 stories about how my company started. Although, it has only been two years, I feel like I have learned a lot of small things that I think will be helpful for those of you who want to start a company and eventually be an entrepreneur.

1. Luck, Serendipity & A Dust of Magic

I know it doesn’t sound very technical or scientific but it’s very true, you do need a bit of magic and luck on your side when you want to start a company. I am a firm believer that when you have an idea in your head, opportunities will come up that will allow you to pursue those ideas through action. The original idea was my brothers and he approached me with it to analyze the business side of it. I was doing MBET at the time so I told him I would do a few assignments on it and research to see if the idea was feasible at all. I first took the easy way out and told him that it wouldn’t work since it was a huge work to trust an unknown tailor in India with our money. I didn’t know the first thing on how to do business in India or even how we would put together a contract. There were a lot of questions that I wasn’t prepared to answer. I told him to let it go.

At the time, I was working with a robotics company as my practicum through MBET and we had just been invited to present our business plan at the Rice business plan competition in Houston, Texas. I went down and at the opening ceremonies, I watched the past winner speak of his technology and where it was today. I was very inspired by him and really wanted to meet him but was too shy, so I didn’t go talk to him. Later that day, I went out for drinks with a bunch of other students there and it turned out I had a mutual friend with the past winner! So he was out having drinks with us so I did get an opportunity to meet him after all. After a few drinks, I ended up telling him about my crazy business idea about making tailored suits in India. He was like, I have the same idea and have been wanting to start it with someone! Now, what are the odds of that?? It was total serendipity.

It turned out that he won the Fulbright scholarship and was going to be in India for a year, he was going to take a trip before that for 3 weeks to get set up. We used this trip as a way for us to test the market through finding 10 tailors in New Delhi and make suits for our friends and family who took a risk on us.

He was crucial in our business as he helped us push our idea forward through initially bearing the risk of it all. He made us realize that we could do anything we wanted, why couldn’t we fly to India to talk to as many tailors as possible and hope to find someone who could work with us. In the end, this first pilot test was a bit of a failure but the lesson was invaluable. It was our first step forward.

2. Networking & Finding your Guru

When I was learning about the industry through reading a ton of books and meeting a lot of people, I realized that I needed to find a Toronto men’s style industry leader that everyone respected. So basically if he said that it was right then everyone would have to agree with him. One of the books I was reading was called “Men’s Style” and it was an amazing well written book that covered everything from head to toe. I instantly respected the author. Through some digging, I found out he was a Torontonian who charged about $500 to speak at events on style. I was very intimidated, I knew that I couldn’t send him an email or try to call him and meekly tell him how I loved his book and wanted him to buy my suit. If this guy charged for his time, I needed to be a lot more creative. So I decided that I needed to stalk him. I did a lot more digging and I found out he was the editor of a fairly new men’s online magazine called xyyz.ca. So I subscribed and read everything possible and waited. I knew that eventually there had to be some sort of event or private party for subscribers of this magazine. Sure enough I was invited to a scotch tasting at a men’s store downtown where Russell was going to speak. I dressed my brother up in one of our best suits and we thought of a question we could ask him about his book to try to engage him in conversation. We practiced and I think we were ready. When I finally met him, he was this short lanky guy with an interesting handshake. I forgot everything and gushed about his book and his magazine and told him I was a big fan. He probably thought I was crazy. Anyway, my brother met him and we asked our question about what he thought about the quality of suits that were made overseas. He said he wasn’t really familiar with it and overall he didn’t think it was done well. My brother said well the suit he was wearing was made by a tailor in India, and this is what really got him. He was surprised and intrigued enough by us that he gave us his card and I promptly emailed him after 24 hours to set a date to meet. Since then he has mentioned us in his magazine, and we have been invited into his social circle. He introduced us to his friend and I still don’t’ know what this guy does for a living. This other friend has bought two suits from us so far and now wants to start a separate clothing line with us specializing in horses so riding jackets. That will be interesting.

So if anything this kind of demonstrates the power of tracking down a person you really want to meet and wowing them with your awesomeness.

The same goes with events, try to attend events in your industry that you know the people you want to meet will be in attendance. I do this during fashion weeks. I went to a party where I didn’t really know anyone but I did have a bit of an idea of who was going to be there. I sat at the bar with my brother trying to look as fashionable as possible and drinking again. After my third drink, I was frustrated with myself, there were obviously people around me that were in fashion I was just too shy to talk to them. But then I realized that I lived in Mississauga, we drove all the way downtown, dressed up and paid for drinks we damn well were going to meet fashion people! So then finally I worked up the nerve to talk to a few people that were close by. It turned out that one of them was an editor of an online fashion magazine and the other was a popular blogger, while a few others were event management entrepreneurs. It was an interesting mix of people that I bonded with instantly. It was awesome, because we had a little fashion week crew that I hung out with in the tents. So what is the worst that could happen?

If you don’t remember anything, remember this about networking:

–          Must be in a positive mood to network – I usually drink to get in the mood this is why I avoid breakfast networking; coffee doesn’t do it for me.

–          Meet as many people as you can, smile and be genuine

–          Most important point: SNEAK INTO VIP PARTIES/NETWORKING EVENTS – this is how I met my first real customer for Savillian, how I met Erin Davis (from CHFI) and how I got invited to an exclusive fashion show. They usually give free wine in the private rooms, just look like you belong.

3. Don’t spend money to make money

All you need is your product/service. It must be perfect and something you can stand behind with the utmost of confidence. I can honestly say that my suits are the best custom suits you can buy for the price point they are at and the fact that they are made overseas. This is all I need, I don’t need a sample or fancy showroom. I just need my passion, fire, hunger and desperation to sell people on the idea. Also, knowledge on your industry and competitors are crucial, because no one will know your product as intimately as you will.

I fell into the trap of spending a lot of money on an elaborate showroom (in my parent’s basement) at a time last year when we could afford it since we had sales in our back pocket. I regret that now especially since our whole basement flooded in December and so it was completely gutted along with our expensive Ralph Lauren paint and some things destroyed. Now everything sits in plastic as we sort it all out. This was an invaluable lesson.

Why did I think I needed to have an immaculate showroom, when I sold the initial pilot test customers on just an idea, we didn’t even have a sample to show them. Lately, I had no choice but to bring clients into my parent’s living room and use it as our personal client space. It doesn’t really matter where you sell, its just how, and if you get the sale then that’s all that matters.

We learned our lesson and made it a point to not spend anymore unnecessary money. At the most recent tradeshow we did, we used our revenue to pay for the tradeshow and then vowed to spend nothing else and we only had to spend about 10 dollars that day. It felt like our focus on not spending money had made the universe react and deliver to us what we needed. We used all of our existing furniture, found fabric in the garage that we cut up to make curtains and a tablecloth. I found old wedding party favours that we had taken too many of from a wedding I went to and switch them into giveaways. I did whatever I could through creativity. Also, my friend bought me lunch that day.

4. Fake it till you make it

Your degree doesn’t dictate what you will do in the future, it only teaches you how to think. You should be open to all opportunities that come your way regardless of if you don’t know how to do it, just be willing to learn. I was not very good at fashion nor was it a big interest of mine – I dressed horribly and was made fun of it from time to time up until university even! People in first year used to call me jogging pants jas. So to go into the fashion industry was very intimidating for me since I didn’t know anything about it. Fashion was never a passion, but its something that I have learned to love to the point of obsession. This is largely due to faking it.

So what does it mean to fake it? Well, you need to do your research and know what atleast in high level what you are talking about. You need to act and look the part by taking other’s opinions and transforming them into what your gut tells you works for you. Be willing to take the risks when you can! You need to just tell yourself that you love what you’re doing and that you have to love what you’re doing otherwise no one will believe your product is amazing. It’s hard at times when people think fashion is your passion and I can’t lie about that its not. It never was and I am truly a sci-biz nerd in a fashionable closet. I went to waterloo after all. Basically, you fake it until suddenly you wake up one day and realize that you don’t have to fake it anymore. That is kind of what happened to me.

So where does this leave me now? I am definitely at a tipping point in my career. Its time to make a jump forward deeper into entrepreneurship because the independence of making my own decisions and running the big picture is my true passion and I am hungry for it.

Delivering this speech tells me that I have come along way from my humble beginnings of wearing ugly shoes with jogging pants and now I am wearing amazing suits and have learned how to start a company. Its time for me to become a true entrepreneur.

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