Brewing success with three budding entrepreneurs
Bitters, Memorial’s Graduate Students Union's pub on the St. John's campus, was overflowing recently, not just with the usual beverages normally on tap, but with people eager to hear from three savvy business leaders.
On the menu: Duleepa “Dups” Wijayawardhana, Wally Haas and Mark Kennedy, mentors of clients of the Genesis Centre, Memorial University’s business incubator for technology-based ventures with high-growth potential.
The three were on hand to serve up their best and worst tales of being an entrepreneur as part of Innovation Week in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Mr. Wijayawardhana is a former editor of Memorial’s student newspaper, The Muse, and a graduate with a master of arts in Southern African History from the Faculty of Arts at Memorial University. He co-founded Empire Avenue with Niall Brown and Dr. Michael Mannion, also graduates of Memorial. A social media tool, Empire Avenue lets you collect reward points through your social media channels to be used as currency in a social stock market game. In 2010 Empire Avenue became one of the top 1,000 websites in the world.
When the popularity of Empire Avenue blew up in Chile, Mr. Wijayawardhana and his team had to adapt rather quickly.
“One morning early in the product lifecycle, we woke up to find all the servers running full tilt," he said. "A blogger had written an article about us in Chile and CNN Chile had covered us. Mike set about immediately learning Spanish so we could support the thousands of Chileans who had just invaded the service."
Today, Mr. Wijayawardhana is the co-chief executive officer/chief technology officer at Green Elk, an online dating app that connects outdoorsy folks. He is also a mentor to Genesis client HeyOrca!, a company that developed a social media management tool for agencies. If that’s not enough, he also has a few other startups under wraps.
For Mr. Haas, who is a graduate from the University of Calgary with a bachelor of science in electrical engineering, the challenge of leading startups is simply believing in yourself and what your product can do, and disregarding those who don’t have the foresight to see your vision.
Mr. Haas started Avalon Microelectronics at the Genesis Centre in 2005 and grew it to 39 employees before it was acquired by San Jose-based Alterra in 2010.
Having the support of the Genesis Centre to kickstart his first venture opened a lot of doors and created significant opportunities to help the company realize its potential.
“They were very helpful in getting us going and adding credibility with the local funding agencies that gave us the capital we needed to grow. I sold the company in 2010 to Altera, and had a golden handcuff contract with them that ended in December. Since I had such a good experience the first time going through, I thought we would do it again with my new company.”
His latest gig is Avalon Holographics, which makes holographic display technology. He’s currently a second-time client of Genesis.
While he cites the acquisition of Avalon Microelectronics as an obvious career milestone, he said the highlight for him was enabling opportunities for people who really deserve it. His advice for those aspiring to build from the ground up with a startup was simply to fill in the blanks of what needs to be accomplished and to believe in yourself.
Mr. Kennedy, co-founder of Celtx Inc. and a graduate from Memorial’s faculties of science and education, echoed a similar sentiment.
He noted that it can be difficult to deal with the struggle and loneliness that often accompanies startups. He started Celtx with co-founder Chad Howse. Celtx is a local company that produces pre-production software for the film and video industries. It’s an all-in-one software tool that takes producers from the first draft of a script to the last shot of a film or video.
Currently, 96 per cent of the tool’s millions of users are outside of Canada, scattered literally all across the globe, including countries like the United States, Brazil and North Korea. Mr. Kennedy says watching the application become globally successful has been incredibly rewarding.
“The application is used all over the world. We get a real charge out of that. It wasn’t part of the plan – we were thinking much closer to home, but it ended up being a completely international play for us.”
There was such global interest in the tool that volunteers offered to translate the software into their own language. As rewarding as it is, it also poses unique challenges of working with clients in different time zones and languages.
“We’re still a fairly small team and when you’re trying to change the way an industry works on a global basis, you can get disillusioned from time to time,” he admitted.
Mr. Kennedy is currently mentoring four Genesis clients and part of that is assuring them that these feelings are completely normal. He credits the Genesis Centre for providing some of the much needed support startups require to stay grounded and motivated.
“I’ve jumped at the chance to mentor other companies,” he said, explaining that it helps to let others know what they’re going to feel like when they first get involved and that startups are often an emotional rollercoaster.
“It’s important to recognize when you’re successful and celebrate that success. Every now and then make note of when you’re moving that dial and recognize how far you’ve come.”