When they were Nanotechnology Engineering students at the University of Waterloo, Derek and Andrew decided to pursue Suncayr as an E Co-op on their final co-op term. They began their lab work in May 2014 at Velocity Science, a lab and community for science startups on campus, developed in partnership with the Faculty of Science. In three years, a lot has happened for Suncayr, and Derek shared with us three important lessons learned while building their startup. The words below are his.
1. Be your customer
Everyone will tell you to do “market validation” before building a product, but what does that really mean? Typical answers are to conduct a survey, focus group, or get out there and talk to people. However, our experience will tell you that none of those answers actually helped us – you need to be your customer.
Suncayr’s first product was an ink pen that would tell you when your sunscreen was no longer working. Our ideal market was parents with young children – we are not parents with young children. We talked to parents, and hundreds of answers to surveys backed up our idea. However, when the product was ready to demo on children, we ended up being bombarded with new questions from parents once they had the product in hand: “Is your ink safe (yes!)? What happens if my kids start to draw other pens on themselves? Are other pens safe?” Until that point, we never truly understood the mindset of a parent or a child even though they told us the pen was cool. All this time, we should have been giving a fake pen to parents to truly understand how they would use it.
When we drew the ink from the pen on a sticker, the first question a parent would ask us is, “Can you make fun designs?” Instantly we can see that switching to SPOT stickers solved their questions using a better product design, and we’re super excited to launch this year.
2. Master your pitch
We’ve been very successful with pitch competitions, but that’s only because we’ve spent hundreds of hours watching pitches, pitching to strangers, getting feedback, and iterating. In fact, we’ve never used the same pitch deck twice.
It all started in late April when we met Alroy Almeida from fellow Velocity startup, Voltera. He showed us his own pitch (which was amazing!), and then showed us how he would have loved to make his own pitch better. It helped us learn how to critique. So after we showed him our pitch, to put it nicely, the delete key was the most useful editing tool used for us afterwards. We remade our slide deck from scratch, and had our first win in the E Co-op pitch competition a week later. We pitched every single week for the next 3 months so that when the Velocity Fund Finals came around, we would be ready to win. It paid off when we took home 2 of the (then) VFF 1K prizes in the Summer of 2014, and a $25K prize in the Winter of 2015.
Also, go to as many pitching events as you can, and try to sit beside someone who’s been around longer than you. Together, critique every deck and pitch that you see. After every event, go back to your deck and make it better by taking what worked for others, and discarding what’s old and overused from yours.
3. Love your team
Seriously, you should love the sh*t out of your team. Here’s an experiment – give your co-founders a hug. How did they react? Did it feel natural, or did it feel awkward?
We started researching Suncayr in September 2013 – so it’s been three and a half years since we formed a team. In that period of time, as a person you will go through a lot, and you’ll see your co-founders do the same. Whether it’s the highs of winning grants, becoming famous, making things work, and getting your first sales – or the lows of mental illness, family members passing away, and break-ups – you’re going to need the right people to support you through it. We’re no exception to the rule, and we have lost founders along the way.
The right team will let you drop everything if things go bad, but at the same time keep you grounded when momentum picks up. Someone can be a great hustler, and a hard-worker, but at the end of the day if you can’t share all the highs and the lows with them, they will never feel like family. Ensuring you and your founders feel like family is important when you think about how you rely on your real family. You’ll fight with your family just as much as you will laugh with them, but because they’re family you’ll always make it through whatever is facing you with their support. That’s why I asked you to hug your co-founders, because a hug from your family is always unconditional and it always feels natural.