What Do You Mean There is No Roadmap? Lessons Learned While Building My First Start-up

Alex Hodgson, Managing Director and Founder, 1DegreeBIO

I’ll admit, you have to be somewhat of an adventurer to begin/join a start up. Everything is uncertain. Money may come, but never as much or as fast as you initially expect. The hours are long. Your friends and family often will forget what you look like, especially during the early stages. Caffeine turns into a bona fide food group. 8-hours of sleep becomes your vacation. Sounds fun right? Well when I sit back and think of the road taken to where I am today, my incredible team, the energy that pulsates from the four walls of our offices, an enthusiasm and optimism that permeates all  conversations, and creating a product that helps scientists spend less time sourcing items and more time doing great research… I can confidently say, I have the best job in the world. 

Like every start up, we’ve had our hard times, but each has taught me something different. While everyone’s path is unique, each will face similar hurdles. Here are just a handful of some of the things, I learned in founding my first start-up:

There is never a perfect moment to take a leap and start a new business.

Everyone thought I was crazy when I turned down a couple seemingly great opportunities after completing my MBA and announcing I was creating 1DegreeBio. Student loans? Yep. Was the economy a mess? It was. Had funding globally slowed down to a trickle? Sure did. 

But sometimes an opportunity appears before you that makes it worth taking the leap first and developing wings on the way down.

It will always take longer and cost more than expected.

I started 1DegreeBio the day after graduation from business school. And I’ll admit, I was a bit overly optimistic. I thought it would be 4-6 months until we got some seed investment. Well, we just closed funding last week, which is just shy of 2 years from our start date, so we were ever so slightly off on that projection. Having that said, in retrospect, although very stressful at times, the road forced us to be lean, scrappy and more creative.

Entrepreneurship is a Bipolar existence.

There are going to be days where you feel like you’re building an online empire, and other days you feel like a spiralling out of control. This is completely normal. Wins, Losses, Mistakes, Opportunities. All of these things will shape you, your team and your product and is a very important part of the process. Cop up to mistakes made and learn from them. Don’t just celebrate wins but evaluate why things worked out.

Focus. Focus. Focus.

The best feedback I ever received was to focus on one thing. Get it working, get customers, then move to the next. Otherwise you end up overextending yourself, your team and your resources and accomplishing nothing.

Remember, if you can’t tell people what you do in a single sentence, you aren’t focused enough.

Stand firm, but know when to pivot.

1DegreeBio has gone through so many changes from our initial vision and so will your business. Your drawing on a napkin will never be the final outcome. Know which aspects are deal breakers, items on which you refuse to budge. For us it is remaining open access to the research community and being independent (therefore no ads). However, the way in which you execute it will surely evolve. Don’t get stuck on a certain mental picture, let it develop. We don’t look the same today as we did when we were born or when we were going through our awkward teen years, and neither will your business.

It’s OK to be the only one at the party in a costume. Own it.

Sometimes a revenue model that works great for one market is the kiss of death in another. 1DegreeBio’s unique business model was not always met with open arms because it didn’t fit the popular models out there. We’d done our research. We knew our model was the right fit. Had we listened to people telling us to just put ads all over the site, or to place fees for users to access the site, we never would have gotten out the door. 

Always listen to feedback and really think about what they are saying, but don’t get crazy trying to mold yourself to fit an investor.  Instead, find an investor that fits your company. For us, the tech world thought we were to science-y; the science world thought we were too tech-y, so we kept looking and found our current investment partners, Digital Science.

From Left to Right: Ron Yeung - Director of Tech., Cameron Todd – Developer, Alex Hodgson - Managing Director. Sarah Gonsalves – Intern Alan Wei – Developer, Sean Siford - Visual Designer. Elliott de Launay - Marketing and Sales, Wei Zhang – Intern, Olga Volkova - Development Team Lead

Your team is your second family.

Your team is the most important factor to your success. You could have the most disruptive, game-changing technology under your belt, but being a one-person show is not scalable and competitors who know this will pass you by.

When it comes to hiring,  while having the required technical skills is important,  you need to look at the person behind the CV. They could be the best candidate on paper, but it won’t matter if when things get a bit crazy and they end up crawling into the fetal position in the middle of the office. You want to know that the candidate can bring their A-game when everything has hit the fan, fit into the company culture  and have a passion in what your business does.

Once you find your team, treat them with respect. You have to be brutally honest about how things are going because remember, these people are following you into the fire, and have leapt off the cliff with you so they deserve to hear the good, bad and ugly. 

Every great company started off with a single idea where someone took a deep breath and made that first step.  Never let yourself believe that you can’t do something or that something is impossible. If there is no door where you want one to be,  build one.


Categories: Health Technology Tags: , ,

The opinions posted in this blog are not those of the Ontario government nor its staff, but those of the guest blogger.

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