I’ve recently started a new youth entrepreneurial program for a Startup idea I have in the gaming sector. Don’t laugh – were it not for having a March birthday, I would “easily” be within the cut-off age. The program is wonderful, it’s called “Business in the Streets” and is run by a not-for-profit organisation in Toronto. I highly recommend checking it out, it’s one of the best I’ve participated in.
I’ve participated in a surprising number of these types of programs by now. I suppose that makes me (depending on your opinion) a dreamer, a serial entrepreneur, really dumb since it doesn’t seem to stick, or obsessive. The actual truth is just that this is an absolute passion of mine. As much as I love being entrepreneurial, I almost enjoy learning about it even more. I want to learn, so I can help others along their way too.
To date, I have completed a Bachelor of Business Administration program; a Student Summer Startup program offered by the Canadian Government; a Student Startup Bootcamp (in Estonia); a few Garage48 and Lift99 events (also in Estonia); Entrepreneurship 101 by MaRS; and the Business in the Streets Bootcamp. I’ve also recently learned about another one that focuses on not-for-profits by the Groundswell Alternative Business School, that looks very interesting!
I’ve also read quite a few books on the subject, and one of these books in particular: Perform – The Unsexy Truth About (Startup) Success by Stoyan Yankov & Cristobal Alonso from Estonia’s Startup Wise Guys, really got me thinking about the differences between how Estonia and Canada do Startups.
Amazingly, I think it can actually be summed up in a sentence, but I will offer a more descriptive answer as well.
In a sentence: In Estonia, to be an Entrepreneur means to be a part of the founding team. In North America, it means to be a person with an idea.
What do I mean by this? Well, here is a bit of a run down of my typical Canadian and Estonian Startup experiences:
In Canadian Startup events and programs, and even in the business hubs – which I have also experienced, the only people participating, and really the only people invited, are the people with an idea. You are taught how to build your idea, probably over a few weeks to months, introduced to mentors, told how to find external people, given a great community of other business leaders to mentor you, and are surrounded by other people who are trying to build their business as well. So you will likely get tons of leads on where to hire people, where to find the cheapest logos, and how to build an MVP. But you will essentially still be surrounded by people like you, and really doing it alone. A pitch comes at the end, or maybe at the beginning when you give a rough idea of what you want to do on your application.
You are given 48 hours, literally straight, or sometimes stretched out over 5 days, to create an entire company and MVP. You start by pitching your idea to 20-100 people or more. In this group are programmers, designers, people with ideas, and people who just want to take part in a Startup or hone their skills. If, after your pitch, you don’t get enough people to build your team, you take your skills and you join another person’s team with the expertise you have to offer.
In the Canadian version, everyone who is in the program gets taught things like: what an MVP is, how to make a business canvas, how to make a customer profile, and how to pitch. In the Estonian version, the idea person and possibly the business minded person learn those things, and they bring this information back to their team and explain it, divvy out priorities and tasks, and all try to get the MVP up and running from scratch.
The ideas don’t need to be serious, a friend of mine took part in a program where he made an app with the url “Placebo.works” which was just a fun way of making you feel better on a down day. It’s less about the end result, and more about the process and learning how these things are done. The crazy part, though, is that so many Estonian businesses start out here.
In the Canadian model, idea people are the most essential, in the Estonian model, I’d say programmers are the most essential, but really the most essential part is the mix.
In my opinion, the Estonian way is the way forward for all Startups, and the fact that no one but Estonia has fully understood this yet, except maybe Silicon Valley – but I’ve never been, is why Estonia has so many Startups, and so MANY successful ones.
The closest I’ve experienced to the Estonian method here in Canada was in my final year during my business degree. We had to create a movement as part of our final project. I didn’t have an idea back then, and I didn’t have the confidence to offer much expertise, but the concept was right on the money. In many ways, that professor was ahead of his time, but the idea suffered from the fact that we all came from the same major, which made our mixture of skills rather poor.
This idea of a mixture of skills is what I find so crucial and lacking in the Canadian Startup experience. The book I mentioned earlier, Perform – The Unsexy Truth About (Startup) Success, highlights the importance of co-founders, someone to complement the skills you yourself don’t have: “Not a single person has all the necessary skills to get a venture going. Solo founders need to take many shortcuts.” (p. 77)
In Canada however, having taken so many different courses, I feel as though “co-founders” are equally magical and incredibly dangerous. A co-founder is something that, apparently, just happens because none of my Canadian courses have ever covered the legal or practical aspects of co-founders, and could be considered to be seen as a negative – because then you have to *shocked gasp* share in your glory. In Canada, it feels like you have to go it alone. You may be surrounded by mentors, but you’re still generally the only one moving the effort forward.
I think this idea of creating something together though, even if it’s not with a co-founder, but in a more diverse platform of people coming together, is the secret to being successful. I also think it’s probably the best part of the experience I’ve had in the Estonian programs. In the Business in the Street program, we get this a little bit with our cohorts as they work on their own ideas, and is one of the reasons that it is the best Canadian program I’ve done so far.
I’m fairly convinced, however, that until we in Canada learn to be less siloed in our areas of expertise or in our understanding of what “entrepreneurship” means and how it is represented, we will never reach the same kind of Startup success Estonia has.
What do I think we can do about it here? Well, I’d love to start running Estonian style Startup sessions in Canadian schools, but in truth they might have to be run in high schools! I feel like we become quite narrowly focused by the time we declare our majors, and it would be great to start building a change.
I also think we could start by inviting more people into the business / Startup hubs we have in Canada. While I was visiting the Canadian ones, they were often guarded fortresses where only the interviewed and accepted could work and create in peace. In Estonia, they were hubs of excitement. People were working and taking seminars, and you could rent desks and come up to visit. People would sit there working on their own projects, talk to the person in the next desk and start working on ideas together. Most everyone I knew in Estonia who tried to get a Startup up and running went to these spaces, because it’s where the programmers would be. In Canada, the only people here (in my experience) are the ideas people.
So what’s next? Am I looking for my own co-founder? Quite possibly, my tech skills are not exactly top notch, and I’m doing a tech-based service. My Startup, MapTavern, was actually started in one of the Estonian Startup programs, and while it’s taken me a long while to get it going again properly – thanks to completing a Master’s, COVID, moving, and a whole second business (www.robynlaider.com)! – much of what is making my current Canadian projects successful though is what was learned in those Estonian trials by fire.
I’ll let you know how it goes.