ShapeTrace Labs wins 2015 MaRS Upstart competition

(re-published from the MaRS Blog, June 4, 2015) 

On May 20, Entrepreneurship 101 held its ninth annual Up-Start! Competition. Eight companies from the 2014/2015 Entrepreneurship 101 series pitched for a chance to win $15,000 to support their budding startups. We asked this year’s winner, Ernest Yap, co-founder of ShapeTrace Labs, to share his journey with us.

I would like to recognize my fellow finalists who participated in MaRS’ 2015 Up-Start! Competition, along with the 70 groups who submitted applications. We are all at the beginning of our startup marathon, and it takes a lot of courage to plunge into entrepreneurship. It will take even more to persevere and venture into the unknown to change the status quo. To those who want to start any kind of initiative, I say, “Do it NOW,”  because you will learn just how strong, capable and resilient you are in the face of uncertainty.

For the longest time, I had dreamt of starting a business. I wanted to make a contribution to help people on my own terms, including building the best team and work culture, providing the best customer experience and developing an awesome product. Yet growing up, I falsely conditioned myself to believe that I wasn’t entrepreneur material. After all, I thought you had to have the “right background” to be a founder, as if it was something you were born with.

In 2012, something changed. 

At the time, I was a jet-setting, global salesman working for the largest tech company in my industry. I was promoted young, armed with an engineering degree, and recognized as an up-and-coming domain expert. However, I was frustrated and bored, and this was slowly rotting my performance from the inside out.

While searching the web one day, I stumbled on MaRS and its Entrepreneurship 101 (E101) program. I thought, “Wow, there’s a community resource dedicated to starting tech businesses? And they offer an introductory series of weekly classes dedicated to founding companies?” Best of all, it was free and had real entrepreneurs coming in to tell their stories. I enrolled immediately.

I have a vivid memory of one of my first E101 sessions when we were introduced to the lean canvas process. I thought, “You mean there are alternatives to a business plan?” For years in my corporate job, any forward-thinking ideas I had were met with a “write me a business plan and we’ll consider it”-response. With E101, it was extremely refreshing to learn that there was a process to quickly test your business hypothesis without breaking the bank. The idea of rapid iteration and agility was eye-opening, especially with the acceptance of failures as part of the learning process. However, it takes time to undo years of pre-conditioning.

I was still waiting for the “right time” to start up.

Over Christmas in 2013, with the support of my wife and our families, I took the plunge into entrepreneurship. Knowing that a founder’s chances of success increase dramatically when you have mentors, guidance and support, I sought an aggressive accelerator. I found the Toronto chapter of the Founder Institute.

The Founder Institute is an early-stage tech accelerator with regional chapters around the world and it implements the no-holds-barred startup style of Silicon Valley. Its main objective is for you to intensely validate your business idea through a “fail fast, fail often” methodology. If you survive the program, you come out with a customer-validated foundation of a company, a network of CEO founders, and most importantly, a close-knit cohort of founders to lean on. The Founder Institute served as the springboard for the next stage of my business by forcing me out of my comfort zone and pushing me to levels I didn’t know I could reach.

It was at this point that I returned to E101.

This time, the information presented was more meaningful as it served to enhance what I already knew. When I heard about the Up-Start! competition, I thought it would be a great experience to get feedback on my business and to practice my pitching skills. So I applied. At the Founder Institute, we had performed one- and three-minute pitches, but the challenge with the Up-Start! Competition was to draw out the right information to 10 minutes while keeping the story compelling.

Pitching to the judges at the 2015 Up-Start! Competition at MaRS

For this, I was thankful to have the help of Shelley Kirkbride, my MaRS advisor. As a founder, you are often stuck in the details of your business, but Shelley was able to pull me out of the weeds, talk at a higher level and guide me to appeal to my audience. She took the time to review my performance, and to be available when I needed help. A big part of our competition success can be attributed to Shelley. I also followed the Artful Science of Pitching framework by Frank Erschen, who was a guest lecturer at E101 and at the Founder Institute. His format and transitions on pitching made a lot of sense because they enabled a really great story while hitting the points that investors are looking for.

So what’s next for us after winning the Up-Start! Competition? 

My team and I are still an early-stage startup so the road ahead is uncertain, but we have the confidence to know that we’re moving in the right direction. We have a prototype and potential clients, so we want to iterate very quickly and take our product to beta within the next six months. The cash and in-kind prizes will buy us more time for more product iterations. Of course, the ultimate win for our company will be to find product-market fit and to get validation through increasing sales. This way, we can continue to build our contribution to the world and hire the smartest and most creative people to join our team.

To those who are thinking of starting up, there is no such thing as the right background or right time. Simply get started and get validation because in the process you’ll learn what you’re capable of. You’ll surprise even yourself.