The Birth of Venture Deli
I can’t believe that it has been a full year since we started Venture Deli. I also can’t believe that it has taken us this long to get our website up! In the vein of lean development, we’ve soldiered on with our version of a “minimum viable” website. A good start I think.
I thought I’d start my blogging debut with a quick story about why we founded VDeli (an aside – our first corporate decision was to never use our actual acronym, for somewhat obvious reasons!). The romantic answer was that we heard the sweet siren’s song of entrepreneurship and went running full steam towards it, casting side our economic stability (and mental sanity) for the adventure of our lives. The real answer – we were frustrated and didn’t know what else to do but start our own company!
I need to put some caveats around the term “frustrated”. Before I even conceived of the idea of Venture Deli (I’ll explain the name in a second), I was working in one of the coolest buildings in the city – the MaRS Discovery District. I was a “social entrepreneur-in-residence” – a fancy title for an advisor to socially/environmentally minded entrepreneurs, most of whom were just starting out on their own entrepreneurial path. I considered it the best job I ever had. My average work day consisted of meeting several company/nonprofit founders, listening to them pitch their business venture, and then strategizing with them and helping them, with the tremendous assets at my disposal at MaRS, to advance their business. It didn’t hurt that every one of them dreamt of making the world a better place. It made for a great day at the office.
Though the work was great, the outcomes often weren’t as great. For those of you that have also heard the siren’s song (or at least know the origin of the term), the romanticism of entrepreneurship quickly dissipates, and the cold reality of starting up a business sets in. My understatement of the year: it isn’t easy to start a business. I could offer entrepreneurs some new ideas, talk through strategic issues, and make a few connections for them, but I couldn’t interpret the market for them, or build their product/service, or even source the often significant capital that their business ideas required – all of those are activities that the entrepreneur needed to work through. Some entrepreneurs actually broke out in tears in front of me (I tell myself that it wasn’t because I was a mean guy!). Their frustration became my frustration. With a workload fit for 50 people and a team of 5 or less, many entrepreneurial teams just can’t leap over those first few hurdles.
This experience planted VDeli’s first seed. Luckily enough (or unluckily, depending on your view), two colleagues of mine also felt a similar frustration. The first was Karim Harji, at the time Senior Manager with Social Capital Partners. He and I met several times in the summer of 2010 to plan out our syllabus for a social entrepreneurship course we co-taught at the Schulich School of Business. Karim and I met 3 years earlier when we were both consultants at Aperio, a really cool company in its own right, devoted to helping charities launch social enterprises. Karim launched a few online businesses/websites of his own (most notably socialfinance.ca (http://socialfinance NULL.ca/)) and he and I had passively talked about starting our own business for years before the Schulich course.
The Schulich course planted the second seed. As we were assembling the slide decks, assembling our speaker list and just figuring out how to “teach” entrepreneurship, we came face to face with the issues dogging both of us – how do we impart the lessons we learned launching our own enterprises and advising others, and do so in a way that will tangibly help these young, budding entrepreneurs to succeed? The course was like a blank canvas. We went back to the fundamentals, and spent a lot of time reflecting on the practical challenges that entrepreneurs deal with on a daily basis. In a way, we learned as much during that course as (we hope) our students did. And by all reasonable measures, the course was a fantastic success. It was a clear signal to us that there was something in how we taught the topic that really resonated with people. We knew we had something, but didn’t really know what…
The third seed came in the form of Assaf Weisz, co-founder of the Young Social Entrepreneurs of Canada. Assaf was a client of mine at Aperio and MaRS, and Karim was on his advisory team. His energy and passion for entrepreneurship was contagious. He had what one of my colleagues once called the “entrepreneurial zeal” – something about his disposition and approach to work and life that just screamed success. Attracting Assaf to our nascent idea of a business was almost like how the cast of Monty Python convinced the BBC to air their show – they didn’t have a name, they didn’t have a script, they didn’t have any semblance of anything really…and the BBC gave them 12 episodes! (for the novice Python fans out there, google “Almost the Truth – the Lawyer’s Cut” and enjoy).
By the late fall of 2010, we had a great team, some semblance of an idea, and a great market opportunity. A few serendipitous encounters/Aroma ‘big breakfasts”/shots of Courvoisier later, and here we are! I’ll save our “VDeli – Year 1″ story for a separate blog. Stay tuned!
One last thing…the origin of our name. I was sitting in a Second Cup waiting on a lunch meeting, and there was a Druxy’s Deli across the hall. Our first business model was focused on offering a suite of services to entrepreneurs, a “menu” if you will where they can pick and choose how they could work with us. That, combined with my insatiable appetite for sandwiches, made the name an obvious one! We’ve pivoted several times since those early days, but the name still applies. It also puts a smile on my face every time I say it…