To say that starting a business is hard is a massive understatement. The global pandemic has made it that much harder: trends have accelerated, supply chain issues multiplied and customer demands have shifted (and continue to shift constantly). Plus, there’s no in-person networking, and founders are needing to pivot an ever-changing “new normal.”

Gray Graffam, the founding director of the University of Toronto Scarborough’s startup incubator, The Hub, is well versed in the challenges of early entrepreneurship. Under his direction, more than 180 startups have launched in a variety of sectors: healthcare, environmental science, transportation and the arts (notable alumni include Roll Technologies Inc., Genecis and Stage Keep.) Open to all students at UofT, The Hub helps early to middle-stage entrepreneurs at the university develop their idea into a startup.

Here, Graffam shares his insights on how the pandemic has changed startup culture and what it takes to start a successful business.

What’s helpful for entrepreneurs to know before starting a business?

One of the key steps is to understand why you want to start the business. What does it mean to you? What is your passion and why are you passionate about it? This is something that you’ll be doing for years, so you better care about it a lot.

Another is to surround yourself with people who can mentor you. You can do this through a formal process, which is something that The Hub, or what any of the other incubators in Ontario or Canada, offer. Or you can do this privately through networking. But you need people who can, through their own expertise as entrepreneurs and business professionals, lead you through what these early steps are going to entail.

What pitfalls do you see early-stage entrepreneurs falling into again and again?

Confidence can be truly valuable, but it can also be misleading if you don’t validate your assumptions. Some people like to keep things really close and don’t come out with what they’re doing. They think that by revealing it too early, it would allow others to know too much. But, in that early stage, you can become overconfident that you have the answer. What’s needed to avoid the pitfall is to validate with the people you intend to sell to. Reach out to a few potential customers or clients and have a conversation. And maybe say, “I could use your help”, or “I could use your advice.” People respond to wanting to give help.

The other major pitfall is failure to launch. You get comfortable, you have a team, you’re enjoying the experience, you’re learning, you’re connecting with others. And then you realize that you have to get on the other side of the fence to where you’re getting revenue. As you get closer and closer [to launch], you get more stressed and fearful. It’s like the fear of taking your final exam. But the final exam always comes. With entrepreneurship, you can delay it. And the pandemic has given people a reason to wait it out, so people have gone into over-developing their product and they’re in the build phase maybe a little too long.

How has the pandemic affected entrepreneurship in Toronto?

It’s odd to talk about how the pandemic has provided, in some way, an opportunity. E-commerce, for example, has really taken off.

But in terms of the negatives, we’ve been so isolated. It’s harder for us to network. It’s harder for us to meet others who we want to work with or to fill a job. A lot of how we relate during the pandemic has become virtual and with that, there’s a lot of competition over screen time. And it’s hard to get people’s screen time. The casual networking opportunities, popping into a coffee shop for example, disappear.

What are some trends in startups that have popped up during the pandemic?

There are trends in mental health and some of them are being brought to the public at large, others to a particular segment of the population that people want to help, like healthcare workers. Many of the people who are wanting to do this, are coming from psychology or health and they want to contribute in a meaningful way—it comes from the heart. The difficulty, of course, is that there’ll be a bit of a glut. As with anything that becomes trendy, there’ll be a few that succeed, and there’ll be others that have to pivot.

What’s exciting about this next generation of entrepreneurs?

This generation of entrepreneurs has learned what it’s like to adapt quickly and how to become successful under very, very extreme conditions which is invaluable. When you get hit with a hammer this early on in your career, you’ve learned a lesson at a very early stage that will last for the rest of your career. As an entrepreneur, you will know what it’s like to face a dramatic need to change quickly.

What have you learned from the students at The Hub?

During the pandemic, I called up one of the entrepreneurs from the Hub. Her name is Syilvia Chan, and she’s built a business called Creative Genius Artistry where she hires teachers to teach art to kids. I called her up about three months into the pandemic, totally expecting to hear about how everything had collapsed. The learning for me was how I could be absolutely so wrong. I called Sylvia and she said, “my business just exploded. It’s going through the roof.” Turns out, she was offering online classes and shipping art packages to people’s homes, and parents are so desperate to do stuff with their kids that it’s been successful. They jumped on a new opportunity and are doing better than ever. She’s doing it in Toronto but she’s also just opened up in New York City.

This comes back to the resiliency of entrepreneurs who understand the need to seize opportunities to make things work through a new medium. Sylvia jumped on this moment incredibly quickly. The whole experience was humbling. She taught me to never assume that any of these entrepreneurs haven’t figured something out. My last piece of advice is for anybody who’s in this space, even for someone who has been in the space for a while like I have, it pays to be humble. Don’t assume you know everything.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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