How young entrepreneurs build their networks from scratch

Entrepreneurs Gimmy Chu and Jessica Ching talk about how new entrepreneurs can establish the early relationships that will propel their companies higher

Nanoleaf CEO and cofounder Gimmy Chu

Nanoleaf CEO and cofounder Gimmy Chu with the company’s flagship product. (Nanoleaf)

One of the hardest expenses to manage for a young startup? Rent money. A clean, cheap office was what entrepreneurs Gimmy Chu and Jessica Ching were both searching for when they turned to Craigslist a year ago. Chu is co-founder of Nanoleaf, a company which creates incredibly efficient LED light bulbs; Ching is co-founder of Eve Medical, which is creating the first DIY pap smear STI test for women. When they found a bright, spacious office space on Queen Street in Toronto, it only made sense to set up shop next to one another. Now, the two young entrepreneurs rely on one another for community, peer-mentorship, and quality time with Chu’s office dog.

(Both Ching and Chu are part of the Connected Entrepreneur project, an initiative of the MaRS Data Catalyst. Its goal is to create an interactive map of Ontario’s “entrepreneurial ecosystem.” 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.)

It can be hard to start building a network as a young entrepreneur—Chu and Ching sat down with us to discuss how they did just that.

When you both started out, you had no entrepreneurial experience—just your partners and your idea. How did you go about building a network?

Jessica Ching: I think for me, there were sort of different network buckets. Coming out of school, I had zero network—it was me, my friends, and my professors. I think what was most important, in the end, was connecting with different experts in the space. Early on what we tried to do was identify community leaders and tried to pick their brains as much as possible; we wanted to find out where our idea would fit into the grand scheme of things. It was a lot of cold calling—we would find people, call them up and just say, “Hello, we’re a new startup, and this is what we’re trying to accomplish.” People are surprisingly willing to offer up their time to help you, if they think your idea is worthwhile.

Gimmy Chu: For us, it was a little different. The three of us, the founders of the company, we met at U of T. Before I went to school my dad told me, “Network, because your peers are going to grow up to be leaders in society.” And I thought to myself, “What, these guys? They’re a bunch of idiots.” But now, about ten years later, there’s a lot of other CEOs out there, other VPs, that kind of thing.

How did you begin to draw attention to your company? How did you try to get your message out there?

JC: I think it’s about telling your story all the time, anywhere you can. You never really know who you’re going to meet, or who they could connect you with. I really hate the word evangelist, it’s very overused, but I do think that talking about what you do and why it’s important is key.

GC: I’m more introverted, but being in the position I am now, as a founder of a company, you’ve got to be able to talk about it—about the company, about the product, because, like Jessica says, no one’s going to know about it. As we’ve started growing Nanoleaf as a brand, I’ve been going out and talking about it more.

What was a pivotal moment for your companies?

GC: I think the first pivotal moment for us was when our CTO Tom quit his job—we had just designed our first lightbulb, and he quit his job to move to China to work with one of our founders, Christian. That allowed us to really focus on the development of that product. The second pivotal moment was when we launched our first light bulb on Kickstarter—we set a goal of $30,000, and we ended up raising over $200,000. It was very successful, and it gave us the momentum we needed to start to scale. We met out first venture capitalists a year later, and secured our first round of funding. Those three moments were each pivotal for us, I think.

JC: I think one of the earlier pivotal points for us was when we managed to win the Martin Walmsley Fellowship for Technological Entrepreneurship, which is essentially a scholarship for entrepreneurs. One of our biggest problems at the time was that we were applying for grants, and they were all project-based. So you could spend the money on R&D, or product development, but you couldn’t actually pay yourself with it. That meant we didn’t have the money to quit our jobs and go full-time—the fellowship allowed us to do that. It gave us the ability to concentrate on our business, and I do think that in the early stages that is one of the main constraints for entrepreneurs—it’s the difference between doing the work in your spare time and doing it full-time is enormous.

How do you develop a good elevator pitch?

JC: I think just the more you talk about it, and the more you do it, you can figure out what works and what doesn’t, in terms of how people respond.

So what did and didn’t work for you, when you were first starting out?

JC: I actually think it really depends on who I’m talking to. So if I’m talking to someone with a science background, the way that I talk about the project is different. You do have to target your audience, and be prepared for the different questions you’re going to get. People will respond differently depending on their background.

GC: I’ve always been a strong believer in being truthful and honest in what you’re communicating. You need an original idea—if you have that you’ll be fine, but if you don’t, it doesn’t matter how polished your 30-second pitch is.

JC: I think the other thing too, that no one talks about very much, is that half of your elevator pitch is establishing a rapport with the person you’re speaking with. So, you can have a very refined elevator pitch, but if there’s no back-and-forth, and no human element to it, you’re not building trust with the other party, you’re not developing a sense of buy-in, and I do think that that’s really important when you tell your story.

Has your working relationship, being in the same office space, been an asset to you?

GC: I think we mentor each other.

JC: I think that having a peer-CEO, being able to share similar experiences, is extremely valuable, and I do think we engage in a mutual-mentoring of each other.