When Founders Become Leaders

Last week, we celebrated as four founders and two longstanding companies left the nest to grow in their new offices.

In the spring of 2012, we received an application for our inaugural Preflight course at Startup Edmonton. I emailed my co-founder Cam Linke and went back and forth about whether or not we could help this founder. After all, we were two guys who didn’t know a thing about the women’s fashion and footwear business. But we thought the basics of customer and product development surely applied here too. That founder, Justine Barber, came to our Preflight course ready from day one to take this made-to-measure boots startup idea to the next stage. With early customer validation, Justine and her sister Kendall left their jobs, and Poppy Barley made their public debut at Launch Party 3. Today, thousands of women (and now men) proudly wear Poppy Barleys. Justine and Kendall continue to be two of the smartest, hardest-working founders I’ve worked with, and I love how they’re inspiring legions of new fashion/tech entrepreneurs in our community and beyond.

Justine & Kendall Barber, Nikki Leonardis and Fouad El-Masri

Another co-founder duo that joined our community in the early days were Nikki Leonardis and Fouad El-Masri. They had recently graduated from the business school at the University of Alberta, and were working on a new startup idea at Nikki’s kitchen table. Her grandmother had cut out an article about our Startup Edmonton grand opening event and suggested they come check us out. Charismatic, bold, and just downright awesome, Nikki and Fouad were hustlers in every sense — but with the perfect mix of humility and coach-ability. They joined the third cohort of Preflight and refined their analytics-based advertising startup Visio Media, and were featured at Launch Party 4. Since then, they’ve grown to a team of 11, with their product in condo/retail properties across several major cities.

The best part of my job is watching first-time founders grow and develop as entrepreneurial leaders during their time with us. I get to see them go through the range of emotions that come with the highs and lows of first customers, sluggish sales, building a team, raising capital, and the crushing stress watching the cash run out. Through it all, I get to join their journey as mentor, peer, pitch coach, hard-ass, friend (and drinking buddy).

Startups are really hard. 80% of the teams that come to us fail and fizzle out — with 1/3 trying a new startup, 1/3 stalling in zombie startup mode, and 1/3 disappearing into the ether. The top 20% of teams that emerge from the mayhem share something in common. They’re led by founders who’ve learned to balance listening and doing, can embrace uncertainty, and stay focused on proof over hype. They’ve learned that resiliency and leadership is key to overcoming the never-ending high/low cycle that comes with building a company. Only a few of the top 20% make it to the next growth stages. But the ones in this group who fail now have the hunger and skills to go for it once again.

When I think about what we do at Startup Edmonton, it’s simple: we provide a place and platform in our community where wide-eyed founders have the opportunity to: a) learn to build the right products, and b) transform into entrepreneurial leaders who can go from startup to scale-up.

But you need the right founders to truly go for it.

Like Justine, Kendall, Nikki and Fouad.

I’m incredibly proud and thankful these four founders decided to make us part of the Poppy Barley and Visio Media story. We’ll be cheering them on as their next chapters unfold.