Why it’s not 1997 any more. Talking to Sean Wise about being an entrepreneur in 2017

On January 25 LIFT Comox Valley hosts the annual #WeAreYQQ Winter Party. This year we’re featuring our (un)usual mix of fun, games, prizes – and music by DJ Adil. Thanks to support from Startup Canada we’re also hosting keynote speaker Dr. Sean Wise. Ryerson Professor of Entrepreneurship, Dr. Wise is also a Startup Canada Fellow. The following is an excerpt of our 25-minute interview. The full interview can be seen on the video (apologies for uneven sound quality).

HPM: Tell us a little about yourself

Dr. Sean Wise (SW): Professionally, I’m Professor of Entrepreneurship at Ryerson University. I was recently named Startup Canada’s National Fellow for Startup Communities. The fellowship is the umbrella for the national tour I’m on this coming year, including a stop in the Comox Valley.

HPM: What does a professor know about entrepreneurship?

SW: People ask me, can a university “teach” entrepreneurship. The answer is “No.” All I can do is facilitate the learning of entrepreneurship. Ryerson does a good job of giving students an environment where they can learn how to develop their interests in being entrepreneurs, and be successful.

On a personal note, I had my first startup at 13 when I was dissatisfied with what my employer at the time was doing with waste food. My mother said told me, “If you didn’t like it, don’t work for other people.” So, at an early age I was finding unmet market needs, then creating ways to address them.

I took my first startup public at 31. Since 1999 I’ve been a seed-stage venture capitalist, deploying about $2B. In the last 2 years, my fund Ryerson Futures, has supported 23 startups and funded 13.

I’ve also had five seasons with Dragons’ Den. I’ve crossed this country several times, and visited with more than 20 startup communities.  

HPM: Tell me about the Startup Canada tour. Why are you doing this? And, how can your tour help emerging entrepreneurs in places like the Comox Valley?

SW: As a tenured professor I earned a sabbatical. I’ve decided to spend this time working in startup communities to help inspire emerging or latent startup entrepreneurs. As part of that effort, I’m working with Startup Canada to deliver a keynote, “Why now is the greatest time to be an Entrepreneur,” across this great country.  

I’m also sharing a new tool for first founders, www.100Steps2Startup.com, which is an easy-to-follow program for people who want to build a successful startup. It’s based on the proven Lean Startup methodology, and includes 100 short instructional videos and 80 actionable worksheets designed to lead you step-by-step from initial idea to revenue generation with as little risk as possible.

HPM: What are the biggest challenges facing entrepreneurs in small town and rural Canada?

SW: 21st century entrepreneurship is driven by customer-centric innovation. This requires founders to be able to get face time with early adopters. This may be difficult if your early adopters don’t live in your small town. But with high-speed broadband and video conferencing it’s difficult but not impossible.

Similarly, finding co-founders, marketing to early adopters, etc has been greatly effected by the rise of connectivity. In the 21st Century you know longer have to move to Silicon Valley to launch a high-growth venture.

HPM: What is the 1 thing/ what are 3 things that small town / rural entrepreneurs need to do to get past these challenges?

SW: It’s not 1997 anymore. Small town and rural entrepreneurs need to embrace the startup leanings of the last two decades. Today the path to startup success has been discovered, quantified, and mapped. Today, you can learn from Uber, Tinder, and the like and leverage those learnings for your benefit.

To overcome challenges, not only do founders need high-speed internet access, they need to adopt the lean startup mindset, and combine it with extreme dedication.

HPM: Your keynote on January 25 is about “Why now is the greatest time to be an entrepreneur.” Is it the greatest time to be an entrepreneur in small town and rural Canada?

SW: Yes. Here are four reasons why:

  • 1) The cost to launch has dropped from $5M to $5K. Funding is no longer a barrier to starting a startup.
  • 2) There are more than 3 billion people online, all of them are buying something.
  • 3) All the tools you need are available regardless of location. Today, all you need is a smartphone and internet access.
  • 4) The path is known. Today, the path to startup success has been discovered, quantified, and mapped. Today, you can learn from businesses that have gone from zero to $1B in five years and leverage those learnings for your benefit.

HPM: Is there anything else you think is helpful for us here on Vancouver Island?

SW: Yes. We now have proven that there is a correlation between startup success and involvement in the local startup ecosystem. What’s called a “startup community.” Founders need to immerse themselves in the community and leverage all the benefits, networks, knowledge, and experience available.

Why? Because being a founder is hard. Don’t make it harder by:

  • 1) going it alone;
  • 2) reinventing the wheel;
  • 3) thinking your startup is different than all those that came before you.

Be part of your startup community.


Dr. Sean Wise’s keynote at #WeAreYQQ Winter Party is generously supported by Startup Canada. Proceeds from the event will go to support Startup Comox Valley. Tickets are available online via Picatic, a Canadian startup that’s having a global impact in the ticketing and event solutions space. Get yours today at WeAreYQQParty.ca.  

for LIFT Comox Valley
@hanspetermeyer on Twitter and Instagram