Startup tips from NAIT alum entrepreneurs

Advice from 8 grads who turned ideas into businesses

If Ashif Mawji (Computer Systems Technology ’92) had his way, schools would start teaching startup business fundaments in kindergarten – “just like math and English,” he says.

“Entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of the economy,” adds Mawji (pictured above). While that’s coming from a successful Edmonton-based entrepreneur, he’s got a point, considering the stats.

In 2015, small businesses created by Canada’s startup community employed more than 70% of the private-sector workforce. The year previous, those businesses accounted for 32% of Alberta’s GDP.

max frank, director, mawji centre for new venture and student entrepreneurship, nait, edmonton, polytechnic

That’s a big part of the reason behind his donation that established the Mawji Centre for New Venture and Student Entrepreneurship, which opened this fall at the polytechnic.

The centre provides programs and events designed to help students turn their ideas into startups. “We want to build a culture of entrepreneurship at NAIT, and that starts in the classroom,” says the centre’s director, Max Frank (pictured at right). “We want to hear the stories of each student and help them find their passions.”

That effort officially kicked off in November with a series of panel discussions featuring Mawji and 7 other grads who have become successful entrepreneurs. Here are a few lessons from those with their fingers on the pulse of the Canadian economy.

Be an authentic leader

“Authenticity is very important. Team members are looking for that in their leader – someone who’s authentic, who won’t compromise their values, and also who admits their mistakes.”

Ashif MawjiTrust Science, co-founder

kyle james, orbissports edmonton

Know the market

"The market doesn’t care about you – you need to care about the market and what it needs. It’s not easy to find that. You have to do research." 

Kyle James (Personal Fitness Trainer ’12, pictured at left), founder/owner of Orbissports

"Talking to different potential customers, existing customers, getting a diverse group of people giving you feedback is very important. Sometimes when you look at your own thoughts you’re just gazing at yourself and your answers may not be right. It’s good to hear from others." 

 Ashif Mawji

ken jurina, top draw, edmontonStay committed

"Especially when you’re starting out … there’s temptation to do something just to make money to get by. Really [think] out the business and the business model – [and] who’s the persona you really want to go after. Give it some serious soul searching." 

 Ken Jurina (Marketing ’95, pictured at right), CEO of Top Draw

Embrace failure

"We hear about celebrating your successes. I think it’s equally important to celebrate your failures … It’s [about] understanding what went wrong, why, and how to make it better." 

 Ashif Mawji

"If you’re in your early or mid-20s, fail as much as possible because no one is going to take you seriously until you’re 30 anyways. That’s your time to really screw up." 

 Matt Smith (Personal Fitness Trainer ’11, below), co-founder and co-owner of Modern Gravity

matt smith, modern gravity, float therapy, nait, personal fitness trainer

Gain clients and customers

"It really is a lot about networking. I think that people will always do business with people, not businesses."

 Alyson Hodson (Marketing ’00), president and CEO of Zag Creative

"My personal phone number is on my website. I want to be contacted. I think a lot of businesses don’t do that enough."

 Kyle Gagnon (Electrician ’16), founder and CEO of Inception VR

"Relationship building, being able to communicate, listen, connect with people. Without it, you can’t keep customers [or] get new customers"

 Matt Smith

Build your team

alyson Hodson, zag creative, edmonton

"Your people who build your business with you are everything. Make sure you really put your time, energy and attention there and foster those people."

 Alyson Hodson (pictured at right)

"[Serving] is not necessarily something people make a career out of. We’re trying to change that. One [way] is by spending on mental health. Our managers are entitled to a mental health spending account. We also are very aware that we cannot work people like dogs. And we focus on tip pooling. That’s helped us retain some really good people."

 Sylvia Cheverie (Marketing ’09), co-founder and co-owner of Chartier

Expect and accept risk

"Even now, I’m still fighting with [risk tolerance]. For example, we’re opening our new store in Windermere and they’re behind on construction. Suddenly I’m getting cold feet. I had a conversation with a friend about maybe it being too risky, but they were like, “That’s your job: taking risks.” It’s just making sure those risks are calculated."

 Kathy Leskow (Management ’96, pictured below in blue), owner of Confetti Sweets

kathy leskow, confetti sweets, and sylvia cheverie, chartier

"The biggest risk is not taking any risks. If you’re constantly playing it safe, chances are you’re not pushing hard enough."

 Sylvia Cheverie (pictured at left in lback)

Market effectively but inexpensively

"The best marketing dollars we can spend are on our guest experience. I’d rather spend $25 on a bottle of wine and circulate the room with glasses and make personal connections with people rather than spend thousands of dollars on an ad. People talk about their night out and they post about it [on social media]."

 Sylvia Cheverie

Find a variety of mentors

"I don’t have one person who was a mentor to me. There were multiple, and there still are, because I believe we’re learning all the time. One thing that’s really good about that is having people who are older than me, people who are younger than me, and people who are my age. I think people get caught up in the idea that a mentor has to be older than you. Some of the most valuable people that I’ve learned from are younger than me."

 Alyson Hodson

kyle gagnon Inception VR nait student edmontonDon't doubt yourself

"Don’t undervalue yourself. That’s something I struggled with. If you’ve already started your company, you already have value. You’re already unique."

 Kyle Gagnon (left)

"Just jump in and do it."

 Kathy Leskow

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