5 lessons from Startupfest 2019

Editor’s Note: More than just world-class content and a global attendee base, Startupfest is known for rethinking the standard event format. Crowned “a music festival for startups” by Reddit Founder Alexis Ohanian, there are tangible opportunities to make the connections you need, in one of the world’s most iconic festival cities.

This year, through the McGill Alumni Association, we had the opportunity to participate in private group discussions with awesome McGill alumni including Harley Finkelstein (co-founder, Shopify) and Andy Nulman. (co-founder, Just For Laughs) We had the 2019 cohort of the McGill X-1 Accelerator attend these discussions, joined by other McGill students.


“The only 2 things you should be doing in the early days of a startup are A) Talking to customers, and B) Building your product.” – Kat Manalac (Partner, YCombinator)

By talking to customers, she means carving out time to understand them. To avoid the elementary mistake of building something that nobody actually wants, you just need to know what they do want. In the early days, qualitative research can be your strongest asset because you won’t have a lot of data on how people are using your product. So what you want to be doing is the kind of research that doesn’t scale. That means in-person meetings, phone calls, and watching them use your beta. Surveys and user data won’t capture the components of communication that happen non-verbally — these are tools for later stages after you’ve done the groundwork of understanding your customer.

The types of questions you want to ask should revolve around understanding their pain points and exactly which problem you should be solving. You also want to understand the demographics and the psychology of the people that would be your ideal customers: How old are they? Where do they live? What are their hopes and dreams? What are their fears? How are they currently solving that problem? What issues are they facing?

By building your product, she means exactly that. If it’s a SaaS product, that means coding. If it’s a media company, that means creating content. If it’s a physical product, that means constructing the prototype. You should be integrating what you learn about your customers into the product you build.

“I’d add 2 things to that: go-to-market, and building a diverse team.” – Harley Finkelstein (Co-founder & COO, Shopify)

We had a private roundtable discussion with Harley Finkelstein about his experience building Shopify, and things that startups tend to do wrong. During the Q&A, we asked him what he would add to the lesson above from YCombinator. He said you need to spend time thinking about how you’re going to reach your audience and sell, because too many startups have the perfect product but die off because they weren’t able to capture a large enough market, quick enough to make it to the next round of funding before running out of cash. Of course, you should focus on finding product-market-fit first. He also says to build a diverse team because a monoculture of people who have the same cognitive tools produces weaker products and reflect the team’s biases.

“People will criticize you, yeah. And they might be right. When does it get better? It gets better when you win.” – Andy Nulman (Co-founder, Just For Laughs)

We also had a private roundtable discussion with Andy Nulman about his experience building Just For Laughs, a mobile media company, and a predictive gaming company. He was asked by one of the students how to deal with criticism and when it gets better. His response was, “It gets better when you win.” By win, he means succeed at whatever it is you’re trying to do. That idea generalizes across more than building a company – it applies to any personal endeavor.

Andy Nulman speaking to McGill students and the McGill X-1 Accelerator cohort.

“Spin weaknesses into strengths.” – Andy Nulman (Co-founder, Just for Laughs)

Here’s the real story of why the Just For Laughs Gags TV show had no dialogue. When they started brainstorming ideas, they originally intended to include dialogue. But through their research they realized that the cost of hiring an actor with even a few lines of dialogue was exponentially higher than hiring one with no dialogue. So they thought: “What might this show look like without any dialogue?” And they realized that it had potential. The interesting lesson comes from their marketing afterward: They never explained that the reason for no dialogue was because they wanted to save money. Instead, they positioned the show as “transcending language and universal to all” because with no speaking, people from every culture would be able to laugh at the gags since they were largely based on physical comedy. Emphasize the strengths of your product, and underplay the weaknesses.

Jonathan Lowenhar on stage.

“The biggest determinant of a successful fundraise is: evidence of a sustainable business.” – Jonathan Lowenhar (Founder & Managing Partner | ETW Advisors)

Jonathan had a mega-presentation where he ran through about 30 common questions you’ll get at VC fundraising meetings and how to answer them – or not answer them if that’s the best move. But he says that the most important thing when it comes to fundraising has nothing to do with fundraising. Ultimately, it will come down to whether or not your business is strong – fundraising is a lagging indicator. If you figure out the fundamentals of your business, everything else like PR and fundraising becomes easier or irrelevant.

Dobson Chronicles

Dobson Chronicles

The Dobson Chronicles is the official blog of the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship.