Entrepreneurship is difficult and it tore me apart
We sat down with founder and CEO of Wriber, John Zupancic, to discuss his entrepreneurial journey. John has been through some major turbulence over the last 4 years but is ascending to a higher and clearer altitude.
Wriber is a Canadian-based startup located in the heart of Canada’s Technology Triangle that is changing the way people write. They are housed in the Velocity Garage, one of Canada’s top software incubators.
What is Wriber about?
John (J): In a nutshell, we help companies create a lot of really awesome content while being more efficient and consistent. We'll suggest a lot of ideas on what somebody is writing based on the key words that they are giving Wriber. As somebody's writing their content we show them how to tweak the content to be more engaging and consistent for their audiences, the brands and any medium they are writing for.
This is not something every young man aspires to build, what inspired you to do it?
J: I was writing a report for school and it just wasn't happening. I was staring at the screen and then an hour later, I was still starting at the screen and thought “ah f*ck,” I wish this thing would just write itself. I started thinking, what if it could?
That was the initial spark.
Content marketing has blown up and there is a lot of investment in systems to syndicate and measure content. That's where we saw our fit, when it comes to creating content there is really no other way to do it right now. You are either hiring more people or outsourcing. Since there was no scalable way to do it, we built content creation software that a marketing department or agency can come on and produce more content with speed and efficiency.
Take a position of vulnerability and tell us about your lowest moments while building Wriber.
J: The world had told us here in Waterloo that we were attempting to build a very difficult product. Many advisers told us not to actually build it just for that reason. They would say,
I remember going to some of those early pitches. In particular I remember going to a professor here at the University of Waterloo, he just tore my idea to shreds. It sucked as he was a person I respected a lot. It felt like he tore the idea right out of my heart, stomped on it as hard as he could and sliced my confidence with a knife.
Asking other people for feedback was tough as well. There was an incubator program run by Communitech and I went there and got torn apart by the judges just as bad. It sucked. "Burning up in flames” is an understatement of what I went through. I went in there, gave my best spiel and they asked questions that I couldn't answer. They cut me off several times. I always remember that I was ready for the financial questions. I spent nights building this really complex Excel model so if the financial question ever came up, I would be able to pull up this amazing spreadsheet that would just "wow" them. The financial question finally did come up, as I reached to grab it I got cut off (again) and was told, "we don't care about that, just explain it." I just wasn't prepared for it.
Now the National Business and Technology Conference (NBTC) was another one of these epic failed pitches. The judges tore everything apart, everything. It wasn't even called Wriber at the time it was called "Write-Insight." They actually gave us the score sheets at the end of the competition and every judge that we had gave us a mark below 50%!
I won’t ever forget the NBTC pitch, it really got to me. I was pretty bummed out about it. I remember getting all this negative feedback, failing everything in every possible way. Walking through the building, there are all these escalators in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and they are really long. So while we're going down this escalator it felt like I was going downhill with this idea and the metaphor there was crystal clear, I remember it vividly. It hurt.
After hitting the bottom we took the feedback and just kept working, working and working. We finally started breaking a little ground and saw a little bit of light. A full year goes by and the NBTC competition comes up again. It was one of these competitions that was personal to me because I remember after we bombed it so bad feeling the world was over in a way. I went into it constantly wondering how we would do the second time around.
We ended up finishing in second place! We also won an IP award there from Sabeta IP in Toronto. Finished first for that and they gave us some in kind services and we've been using them ever since.
The feeling was amazing. You fail the worst you can one year and then you work at it for a full year and finish second place. It was a lot more refined this time. The problem is when entrepreneurs go and pitch really early, things are simply not clear. If everything were clear then it wouldn't be a startup I suppose.
One of our investors was actually in the crowd at the second NBTC pitch. He hadn't invested yet and was impressed. That's how we actually got the first investment. He told us we were ready. We didn't actually seek it out ourselves, it approached us. It was pretty sweet, probably one of the best victories I’ve had on this emotional roller-coaster of a journey.
What were the top two (2) things you learned from all the pitch's you have made?
J: The value of persistence. You are in charge of your own results. The power of your own will to do things has value, my will is probably one of the biggest things that I am known for. You know this business that when we started everyone said was impossible? Well 3.5 years later we have 4 patents filed and it’s working.
I don't want to give the advice of just blindly persisting because a lot of people persist and good things don't happen. You have to be logical about it. There is value in that you are willing to see things through and go at it until it's definitely impossible but you need to recognize when to call it quits before you invest too much time, heart and money.
Strike a balance. You should always listen to people's feedback but you don't necessarily need to do everything they recommend. The problem is people don't listen, you need to listen but it doesn't mean you need to act. Ultimately you have to make the decision based on what is best for your business and personal tolerance.
As an aspiring entrepreneur what were your pains of going through a traditional school system?
J: I barely made it through Laurier and almost was kicked out of both programs at certain points (John completed a double degree in Business and Computer Science).
In first year I got an F in calculus and then I basically went and begged the professor as I actually legitimately went to class and asked a lot of questions. I ended up with a D- in calculus. I remember the professor advised that I never take another calculus class again and then you know, I had to take two more levels of it to get my double degree. FML.
Even on the business side, I had to retake first year business in the summer time. I barely met the average requirements, I was on academic probation for a bit. I struggled through all of it. I don't know if I was really cut out for that to be honest. I can think big picture, lead people on my vision and if there is a way to fix something I am usually tactical about finding a solution.
I ended up finishing the Laurier double degree with an entrepreneurship concentration and then I found out about the Master of Business, Entrepreneurship & Technology (MBET) program at the University of Waterloo. My attitude, not in an arrogant way, was that, "I have a BBA and CS degree what do I need this for?" I was told that this was a program dedicated to starting your business, not necessarily running it. Laurier was more about running things vs. coming up with an idea and getting it off the ground.
Business school in general teaches you how to be a good employee. Agree?
J: Yeah (pauses and thinks), Yeah! (laughs out loud).
Did you ever question if entrepreneurship was really for you?
J: Well no, I went to Laurier with the full intention of starting a business.
I was culture shocked at the very beginning, it really screwed me up a little bit. Most people wanted to be a finance or marketing manager or an accountant. Maybe just because no one in my family was really in that corporate business type world I was so surprised. I thought Laurier is where everyone went to start a business so when I got there I thought WTF is this?
I didn’t realize people went to business school to actually be those things (corporate middle management). Maybe it seems obvious to everyone else but to me it wasn't because of my upbringing.
You're incubated in the Velocity Garage in Kitchener, how would you describe the experience?
J: It’s incredible. The mentors have been very helpful. I have had a lot of support and everyone has been good. It's not just the business support, it’s the moral support as well.
When did you pull the trigger and start working on Wriber full time?
J: When we raised our first round. I said "OK," I’m going to stop my extracurricular roles at the school and work on my business full time. There was a point prior to going full time where I was teaching 2-3 classes as a teaching assistant plus acting as an Enterprise Co-op Coordinator at the University of Waterloo and then working on Wriber on the side. Working on Wriber full time has been more work than all three of these roles combined.
Who did you raise the first few rounds of financing from and is it enough to get by?
J: I raised it from some local angels. To date I have raised two rounds of financing. The first round was $25K and it also came with a grant of $25K. The next round was just over $100K. So far I have been able to modestly live off this. I still pay my co-op students more than I pay myself.
I think my parents are going to get impatient sooner or later but they love me so I’m very lucky.
How did it feel to close your first sale after 3.5 years on the tech startup grind?
J: When you are working on this for as long as I have and you finally get that, it just feels good. I think when you don’t have any sales, you are wondering if this is a viable venture or not. There is a lot of uncertainty and then you finally get it, the expression that comes to mind is “F*ck Yeah!”
We have had a lot of people see value in it. Our challenge has always been, can you build this impossible product? There has been a lot of upfront research and development challenges, now we’re moving more into the sales challenge.
What motivates you?
J: I'm here to build a billion dollar company. I appreciate disruptive and breakthrough technologies that can have a huge impact on people.
We are not just building another app, we’re building something that can change the way the world writes. Whether that sounds crazy or not I don't know but that's my intention with this. I want to build the next Google. I don't know how to say this without getting philosophical, you have one life so you either do something incredible with it or you join the masses. I am here to build a world class technology company.
You've got to be a little f*cking "insane" to achieve that, don't you think?
J: I think the problem is that there are a lot of people that are under pressure. What I'm trying to get at is I do this because it's what I want to do, it's what I enjoy. I wouldn't be doing it unless I actually enjoyed it.
There are aspects of the business that are not as fun but ultimately I look at this as my dream and just want to follow it at all costs. I'll go through with it until complete failure. You still need to have that logical part of you. You should be somewhat emotionally attached to your business but also you shouldn't be blinded by it either. So yes, you can say I'm a bit off the traditional societal train tracks.
Do you have a mentor and if so do you think every entrepreneur or person for that matter should have one?
J: Yes. You should definitely have mentors, I have several. The Velocity garage has a ton of really experienced mentors, both the director and head coaches here are f*cking fantastic. My investors are also great. My lead investor is the one that really believes in me. From the get go, when the world said no, he was the one that was there. These are entrepreneurial journey or business mentors, then you need to have specific mentors such as marketing, technology, sales etc.
The challenge happens when your mentors sometimes tell you conflicting things. It's is up to you in the end to take in the advice and act on your gut instinct.
Do you think you can scale the business here in Kitchener/Waterloo vs. Silicon Valley, the Mecca of tech startups?
J: My plan is to grow this company in Kitchener Waterloo area. I can see us doing stints in some American locations such as San Francisco and doing a Y Combinator semester. I want to grow it here, there is a lot of engineering help and support from the government.
The US is typically better at commercializing things. Waterloo has a stigma that people here can't sell. Canadian investors tend to be more conservative, where the US are more "cowboy-ish" for a lack of a better word. There is more tolerance for unpredictability in the US, that's my impression. Evaluations are usually better in the US too. Here in Canada you are dealing with more conservative types that want to see more set things, that's just people being Canadian I guess. I think you can do it here, there are a lot of companies that go to the US and end up coming back. Just in the Kitchener/Waterloo region, both Vidyard and Thalmic Labs are Y Combinator companies that came back here.
What do you wish you knew better when you first started down the path of entrepreneurship?
J: There is a lot of hard work, the list never ends. I think you get to a point where nothing surprises you anymore. The amount of different things you are going to do can change at the snap of your fingers. We spent a lot of time in the beginning building the technology when we should have been more customer oriented. You miss a lot of things, I don't get to spend as much time with my friends and family.
Do you have any regrets?
J: No, everything is a learning experience. When things go wrong, don’t take it so personally. I'm a pretty emotionally stable guy but I actually do put my heart and soul into my business. If something goes wrong it’s not just, "oh Wriber f*cked up here," I feel like I did something wrong personally.
At the end of the day I wouldn't change anything. Obviously you will make a shit ton of mistakes, if you don’t you're not doing it right in my opinion.
What do you want your legacy to be?
J: That's a tough question. My legacy...(thinking)...I want people to remember me as someone that actually followed what I wanted to do with my life and ended up getting it because I went through with it. That's the important thing, no matter what happens I want people to know I put my heart into it, ended up doing what I wanted to do and didn’t cave in.
All my friends that I graduated with make a lot more money than I do right now. I've spoken to some, they hate their life what they do and wish that they were doing what I was doing.
You need to figure out what you want to do with your life and go after it. It's easy to go and take the safe route on things but you have one life so you might as well make it a life worth living.