Launch And Scale With YSpace’s Services For Startups
Situated in Downtown Markham, Ontario, YSpace is York University’s newest community innovation hub. YSpace helps startups build great companies by connecting them with the resources they need to go to market and scale.
Considering this, it’s interesting that YSpace itself is much like a startup says its Entrepreneurship Manager, David Kwok. It’s the first innovation hub that York University has established offsite and within the community. As a result, it’s had to establish its own proof of concept to scale its operations.
Proof Of Concept
YSpace is nearing the two-year mark since it opened its doors, and supports about 30 startups to date, including Kimp. The incubator has a growing roster of entrepreneurs in residence, workshops, and hosts a wide range of local and international guests.
They do all this with a lean but dedicated team, that wears many hats, says David. His days, for example, can range from advising startups, to establishing partnerships, to rolling up his sleeves to make sure the space looks good for its steady stream of visitors.
YSpace has also recently launched the YSpace Food Accelerator. The initiative will help innovative consumer-packaged goods ventures build their strategy, grow their network, and scale their business to enter mass retail or get ready to export.
“There’s lot of growth and capacity in the food and beverage niche. And it’s not getting the attention it deserves. Being able to support that is fantastic. Especially since there’s a lot of investment taking place from the Government in the tech involved.”
As we chatted about the different milestones YSpace has achieved and is gearing up towards, David shared some of his own insights. He’s gathered quite a few in his years of working with startups and having founded his own. Below are a few of the highlights:
Striking A Balance Or Striking Out
Before taking on his role at YSpace, David worked at Ryerson University’s well-known incubator DMZ, co-founded his own startup, and helped to launch two non-profit organizations – SAGE Canada and ZerotoStartup which engage youth with entrepreneurship.
He grew up in a family that encouraged pursuing a career in a profession like law or medicine. Options beyond that were a bit of a mystery. So David became passionate about helping others learn about entrepreneurship once he discovered it. Well, formally discovered it while in school.
As a kid, he didn’t have a name for what he was doing when he bought things from the dollar store, painted them, and sold them for a higher price. It was just instinctive. And it was fun.
“I love the hustle and bustle of working with startups. Some people enjoy having a typical workday and being able to disconnect themselves after. That’s not me. It’s exciting being in the middle of all this. I like being able to say give me a call or text any time.”
Whether the youth and entrepreneurs he works with decide to stay the course, or not, David tries to empower them to make informed decisions.
Part of this he feels rests on the importance of achieving balance. His exit from his own startup, after 2 years, was the result of a lack of it. Knowing the high-levels of stress and exhaustion that running your own business can cause, he started focusing on the importance of mental health amongst entrepreneurs. Today one of the very first things he assesses about a startup is whether they have the grit to withstand the grind they are heading toward.
“It’s important to find out whether they are personally, mentally and financially ready.”
Your Founding Team Can Make Or Break You
Asked if there are certain factors that are more important than others to a startup’s success, David emphasized the role of the founding team. Having the right skillsets around the table is one of the most important investments a startup can make.
A founding team should be well balanced. For instance, if you’ve got two co-founders than having one who focuses on your tech and has an in-depth understanding of your product is key. Your other co-founder meanwhile should be your hustler – literally kicking a$$ and taking names as they make deals, build key relationships, and drive sales.
It’s not enough to have this division of responsibilities, though. Each has to be fully embraced to make sure that your business can grow strategically and sustainably.
Another factor David has seen play a huge role in a company’s success is inspiration. If a founder speaks about their startup in a way that shows they don’t seem to be personally, or professionally, invested it usually makes him a bit skeptical.
To go the distance with launching and scaling, a team has to be driven by the problem they are trying to solve. AND by the solution they are building, or have built. This plays a large role in motivating themselves, their team, their investors, other stakeholders, and of course, their customers.
Hindsight is 20/20 – Clear Up Your Blind Spots
Startups that are about to hit the market often have some of the same questions for David. These tend to center around what’s normal. With all of the anticipation and anxiety about launching they want to know if it’s normal to have a certain volume of leads, sales, or to struggle with certain issues.
No two days are the same in this period and so he encourages companies to look for opportunities to gather data and insights to validate their ideas and learn. All too often startups are looking to their own thought processes rather than their target audiences’ for validation. And this can lead to the trap of trying to perfect a product or service before launching.
“Let your customers tell you what they need and want and be willing to adapt accordingly.”
Of companies looking to scale, David said that they’re often focused on making decisions around hiring, team culture, pricing strategy and improving sales processes. Part of what’s driving them at this stage can be that they’ve hit a plateau in a particular area and aren’t sure of how to break past of it.
He sees a lot of assumptions made at this point around funding as the solution. But fundraising for the sake of fundraising can be ill-advised. This is especially true when it means giving up a higher stake in your company just for the sake of validation or credibility from an investor. So David pushes entrepreneurs to tell him exactly how they will use the funding they’re seeking. In turn, he helps them identify if they actually require it or if they can reach their milestones through different approaches.
Invest Strategically And Grow Exponentially
For new businesses, and cash-strapped startups, David recommends focusing on establishing their mission, vision, and values as soon as possible. These three things can be easily overlooked as they create intangible benefits. But without them in place, you leave your company’s growth and culture to chance.
Your mission, vision, and values can help keep you grounded and make strategic decisions. They can also distinguish you from your competitors and help you position yourselves to your customers and investors.
While many companies overlook their mission, vision, and values they’re often quick to spend on the marketing which depends on them. In early days David suggests holding back on investing hefty sums on time-consuming branding, social media, and website projects. Instead, experiment with what engages your target audience. And get involved in the process.
If you’re hiring someone to do your design work, write your own creative briefs. Do some A/B testing with different options and see what your customers respond to. Going through the creative process will help you figure out what works and doesn’t through trial and error. And it will also help you figure out how to get some traction first. You can use the insights you’ll gain from this to get you a higher return.