Making connections is what turns good entrepreneurs into great ones

Two seasoned vets of the Canadian startup scene compare notes on their experience of building out their personal networks while building their companies

League founder Michael Serbinis, left, and Tapalytics founder Aaron Glazer

League founder Michael Serbinis, left, and Taplytics co-founder Aaron Glazer, right. (Ray Tang/Rex/CP; Aaron Glazer)

If you’re a young Canadian entrepreneur, the bad news is that a great idea and plenty of ambition will only get you so far. What you need—and what can often seem so elusive—are the right connections.

It’s with this thought in mind that MaRS Data Catalyst has launched the Connected Entrepreneur project. The goal is to create an interactive map of Ontario’s “entrepreneurial ecosystem,” based on information gained from a “who’s who” of Canadian tech. (Similar maps have already been created for cities like New York.) Established Canadian entrepreneurs have three months to fill out a survey asking about their networks, supports, and investors. The resulting map will give young entrepreneurs an idea of who to contact for funding and advice. MaRS, and its partners Endeavor Insight and Nesta, are hoping to map 15 cities this year alone.

Two prominent Canadian CEOs have already filled out the survey: Aaron Glazer, CEO of mobile A/B testing platform Taplytics,, has spent his fair share of time in both the American and Canadian startup scenes. His company is known for hosting private tech conferences, including #GrowSF and #GrowNYC. Mike Serbinis has made a name for himself as a successful serial entrepreneur, building up and selling companies like Kobo. He now heads up League, a digital health benefits company. Both entrepreneurs sat down with us to talk about their own networks, and how they helped shape their successful careers.

What was your experience filling out the survey?

Mike Serbinis: So I met with the crew yesterday, and I could have spent a couple hours doing it, because I’ve been doing this for awhile. Over the course of a number of different companies I’ve had dozens of different investors, hundreds of people that I’ve mentored, and I’ve had a number of mentors of my own over my career. What I found interesting about it was that, I have this slide that I present when I do talks to entrepreneurs that shows my map of connections, and I think that sometimes for a young entrepreneur, just having a story or an example of how different connections are made can be hugely helpful.

Aaron Glazer: I think that being an entrepreneur can be very lonely, and I think a project like this shows that there are a lot of connections, and a lot of people that are part of any individual entrepreneur’s journey.

Is there one mentor who had the greatest impact on your career?

MS: His name is Ken Nickerson—we met at NASA where I was talking about work I was doing on jet propulsion, and he was representing Microsoft. He offered me a job, I took it, and he later gave me great advice about working hard and doing something you have fun doing, without worrying about the money. That led me to take a job making zero dollars at a company that had no name, with Elon Musk in California. [Nickerson] later introduced me to my wife, he was on the board of my last three companies—so he’s a pretty good example of an important mentor.

AG: Well mine’s not nearly as epic, but I think one of the partners at the Y Combinator, a guy named Kevin Hale, is really well known for the company that he started called Wufoo. Wufoo’s approach to customers was quite unique, and I think that that approach to customers, in which you get very close to them, has really defined the way we at Taplytics build our product and bring it to market.

Was it a challenge to find the right people to connect with early on?

MS: Yes, all the time—getting an intro to a customer, an investor, to someone who would have valuable advice. I would say for me in particular, I lived in California for 10 years, and when I came back I didn’t really know anybody in the Canadian entrepreneurial community. Back then, there were no incubators or accelerators to speak of, so yeah, I had that challenge all the time.

How did you overcome it?

MS: Like any entrepreneur overcomes it—tenacious perseverance, and just continuing to believe that I could figure it out. It’s interesting—I have three daughters, and one of them is very different from the rest. She will always find the person she needs to talk to—and I think you need that kind of approach in order to succeed.

AG: Yeah, I think that if there’s someone you need to speak to you just have to go out and find them, and not give up until you do.

Mike, you mentioned that when you first came back to Canada it wasn’t how it is today—there weren’t accelerators, for instance. How has it improved as a scene when it comes to support?

MS: I mean, in the last five years it’s exponentially changed. You have the benefit of accelerators like the Creative Destruction Lab, where a bunch with us meet with entrepreneurs whose companies get selected. It’s funny, these guys are all going through the same kind of process. Inevitably, when you’re a young company and you’ve got an idea and a vision, you’re trying to do a hundred different things. Just having someone say, “I just want you to do three things for the next four weeks,” makes a world of difference—you’ll see that companies that follow that advice do in fact accelerate.

AG: I think one of the hardest parts of startups is knowing where to focus your time and your energy, and focusing on the right thing or the wrong thing. You may think, “these five things are the most important”—just sort of going through that thought process out loud with someone else can be so helpful.

In what other ways has the Canadian startup scene changed?

MS: I think there’s a lot more entrepreneurial systems that didn’t exist before. And there are examples of things, like the Creative Destruction Lab, that are excellent for what they do, and not just excellent in terms of Toronto, or Ontario, but excellent in that you have Berkeley, Harvard and MIT looking at doing something similar, because there is something world class about it. So it’s that kind of thing, and then you have the talent coming out of schools like Waterloo and U of T, which is world class.

How should entrepreneurs approach failure? Should they accept it as an inevitable reality?

MS: There’s going to be a ton of failure, so having a culture where failing is ok and even celebrated encourages people to take risks, and we want more of that.

How do you go about creating that culture?

MS: You have a sense of values about how you want to behave, and you have to enforce those values. One of the values that we talk about is “we trust you”—not babysitting new recruits, expecting them to take risks and be on their toes instead of leaning back. And knowing that when they do fail that we’ll pick them back up.

AG: For sure, and celebrating the small successes that come along as well. So there’s a lot of failure in startups—

MS: Sad, but true.

AG: —and a lot of people right now are taking massive risks to do what they’re doing, and I don’t think we celebrate them enough.