Editor’s Note: In this Spotlight, you’ll learn about how a business class he took in grade 11 pushed Management student Daniel Van Acker to join the team at CandyCutlery, which made it to the finals of the McGill Dobson Cup 2017. You’ll also learn about how to meet mentors, and some of the sacrifices you may have to make as an entrepreneur.
“It was one of those one weekend things, and they ended up winning the contest”, Daniel explains. “They mentioned they were looking for more people to join their team. So I approached them afterward and put them in contact with my sister, who’s involved with food and that’s exactly what they were looking for.”
In other words, Daniel approached the winning team and added value to their lives – THAT’s what natural networking looks like.
Here was the team’s pitch, back in 2016:
The company does exactly what it sounds like. They make candy spoons. And candy shot glasses. And they’re completely biodegradable.
“So you can munch on them, or throw them away and they’re gone within a few days. It’s a novelty item – it’s cool to eat with an edible utensil, it’s not something you do everyday.”, Daniel says. “And since it’s reducing the amount of plastic we use, it’s sustainable.”
The team is currently focusing on a few key markets as they build momentum: catering for corporate events, ice cream shops and dessert shops. “It’s a way to enhance your eating experience, whether you’re a kid or an adult”, Daniel points out. “People are surprised by how tough the spoon is. One of the first things people try to do is break the spoon, and it’s not easy.”
How to meet high-quality mentors that are relevant for you
Over the course of our conversation, I was intrigued by Daniel’s knowledge about the food industry. Considering he spends all his daytime hours studying management-related stuff, how does he learn about food?
Basically: by talking to people smarter than him, and by DOING.
“You learn a lot by doing, which is an inherent part of any business. But also, the mentors we have, and the food scientists on my team have been very helpful.”
And how did they meet their mentors?
“It’s often through connections and events like the McGill Dobson Cup, or even LinkedIn. You just have to approach them and ask – that’s the most important part”, Daniel explains. “Our CEO Lyn has always stressed this to us, and many of our most valued mentors are random people that we’ve messaged on LinkedIn with one or two mutual friends. It’s surprising how willing people are to help you if you just ask.”
His first 20 hours of entrepreneurship
If you’re familiar with Josh Kaufman’s (best-selling author of The Personal MBA) book, The First 20 Hours, you know that you can learn the bare basics of any skill in about 20 hours. Now let’s assume you believe (and correctly so) that any skill or set of skills can be learnt (as Anders Ericsson demonstrates in his book Peak), and that entrepreneurship is one of those sets of skills.
The next question becomes: How, when, and where did Daniel put in his first 20 hours of entrepreneurial skills practice, that allowed him to thrive at CandyCutlery? It was a low stakes environment perfect for deliberate practice: high school, where he learnt a major lesson about the real world.
You start to think you don’t need to do things with other people’s approval, and you don’t need to follow a strict path.”
Daniel went to a public high school in Guelph. And after an alum founded a business department there, he was able to choose from a selection of business courses including marketing and entrepreneurship.
“There was a class I took in grade 11 where you come up with an idea, then as a project you run a business throughout the semester”, Daniel explains.
“Mine wasn’t anything crazy – we made tie-dye socks and sold them at school events, but we made a profit at the end of the semester. It was interesting to see how it all worked and it made you think that if a class of grade 11s can make tie-dye socks and sell them for a profit, what else can you do?”
This is the exact pattern of thinking that we seek to encourage at the McGill Dobson Centre – once you run a few tests to understand what’s possible, your world begins to open up.
“You start to think you don’t need to do things with other people’s approval, and you don’t need to follow a strict path. You can just start doing things on your own and make things happen if you put in the effort.”
How to create time for your startup while in university
But where does a university student get the TIME to put in the effort?
How does student have time to run a business given all their other responsibilities? There’s no getting around it: you’re juggling a lot of balls. You’re expected to meet new people, adjust to a new city, learn to cook, get enough sleep, and do well in your courses.
And on this subject, Daniel says there are no shortcuts.
“You put your head down and you work. I’ve been fortunate enough to not have too many demanding classes at the same time, so I was able to ease in and continue to work on Candy Cutlery. I definitely don’t go out as much as some of my friends. And I try to take advantage of holidays to work.”