329: Navigating a SaaS Startup, with Jordan McFarlen

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You have to admire startup founders. Creating. building, developing, and growing a SaaS Startup is not an easy feat.

SaaS Startup founders put everything on the line to drive forward with their dream of solving a problem, building a unicorn, or even employing 500 people.  Jordan McFarlen, Business Incubator Manager at Cultiavtor powered by Conexus, in our quest this week. He is currently working with key stakeholders, community members, and most importantly entrepreneurs to build out the strategy and design for a community hub, which inspires innovation and entrepreneurship. Jordan is the first to admit – because he sees it first hand – there are going to be struggles with developing SaaS solution. It starts with the educational piece and solving a problem. If there is no problem to be solved, the need to pivot is essential.

Jordan leads the charge at Cultivator, Canada’s 1st Credit Union-led incubator proudly powered by Conexus Credit Union in Saskatchewan. Jordan was responsible for the strategic planning and development of Cultivator from an idea to a highly-functioning tech incubator. Cultivator celebrated 1 year of programming in January 2020 by having incubated over 30 companies and helping them raise nearly $1.7m in private capital and create over 80 jobs for the local tech ecosystem. Jordan is laser-focused on creating one of Canada’s top tech incubators for software + hardware companies while helping to strengthen the Saskatchewan tech and entrepreneurial ecosystem.




George: It’s another edition of the Conquer Local Podcast. I have to tell you in the last eight years I’ve become enamored with startups. I’ve had the great fortune of being able to work inside a rocket ship startup over these last eight years. When I talk to startup founders, I get inspired. These people who put everything on the line to drive forward with their dream of solving a problem, building a unicorn, employing 500 people. Whatever their goal is underneath, or whatever the driving force is underneath. You have to admire startup founders. And that’s what our local economies have been built on around this planet. Is someone making a decision to hang their shingle outside and open up a shoe shine, or deciding that they’re going to open one of my favorite businesses, a restaurant. I think you all know how I feel about restaurants. 

George: It’s a struggle, and anybody that owns a restaurant, you should tap them on the back cause it’s a tough business. But what we’re finding is all local business is tough. And anytime you have a startup, there’s going to be struggles. So we had some people reach out to us saying, why don’t we get some people that understand startups? Because a lot of small agencies, and a lot of digital marketing companies are actually startups. And I happen to know a gentleman who has been running a business incubator program for the past year and a half. In fact, he’s asked me to come speak to his startup groups around sales, in how you know, when are you gonna hire your first sales leader? And how can you get more sales? And what are the things that you need to do to move a product from the stealth mode to the street, where you’re actually selling it? 

George: Jordan McFarland is going to join us. He is a business incubator manager at a thing called Cultivator. What Cultivator is, is an incubator for startups. That happens to be powered by a credit union. And this credit union is spread all over our province and its mandate is to help local businesses. And what better way to help the start ups? By giving them a space where they could incubate, where they don’t need to have everything the incubator can actually provide a few of the things. One of the things I know about Jordan and his team, and those 32 different companies that he has worked with in his first year, is that they are a very close knit group that are relying on each other for advice. I want to dig into that. We want to understand more with Jordan about the challenges that Cultivator has had in their first year, and the successes that they’ve had. We want to learn more about what type of companies they’re working, and what some of the struggles have been. 

George: I’m hoping at the end of this, all of you that are listening that are entrepreneurs and the salespeople that are listening know that I’ve said a number of times, “You own your own business,”you’re your own little startup. Even though you’re a salesperson working for another company, if you treat it as your own business, you will be more successful.” So we’re going to talk to Jordan, he knows a lot about the startup ecosystem. He’s been dealing with a number of these companies. He pretty much could talk about any aspect of the business than the things he’s been dealing with in the last year, and I think it’s going to be very, very valuable for you as we dig in to the startup mentality, and to start up businesses everywhere. Coming up next on The Conquer Local podcast.

George: We’ve had Jordan MacFarland on the line. Jordan is the business incubator manager at Cultivator, Powered by Conexus. Jordan, thanks for joining us on The Conquer Local podcast.

Jordan: Thanks George, super excited to be here today. And thanks for having me.

George: Well, one of the privileges that I have in being able to travel and meet folks is, I get to meet great folks like Jordan. A little over a year ago Jordan and I met in the beautiful city of Regina, Saskatchewan. Which is home to a very unique business incubator, and it’s called Cultivator. Which for those of you that are farmers or come from a farming background will know that that is a farm terminology. Regina is a just South of where we are, Saskatoon, where our studios are. Jordan is running this business incubator and why I wanted to bring him on the podcast is because, I don’t think there’s anyone I’ve met in the last couple of years that knows more about startups than Jordan. Because right now you have worked in your first year with 32 different startups at Cultivator. So can you give us an overview of a little bit of your background and a little bit around the vision of Cultivator, and how did this whole thing come about? And then, why is a credit union powering a business incubator? Just give us the 101 on the whole thing.


The 101 on Cultivator

Jordan: Yeah, definitely. I think just to start out, with my background a little bit. I actually came from the education sector and I was doing a ton of work around youth entrepreneurship. Just finding a lot of the top talent that we were producing here on the prairies, and coming out of the queen city. And Saskatoon was often at times going elsewhere and getting into the startups, small business and tech sectors. And it wasn’t always because they wanted to lead, but more so sometimes that they felt they needed to. So we noticed a gap in Regina, that there was no incubator-accelerator services. And as I got more involved in that, and I had learned from some trips down to San Fran and the Toronto Waterloo region, more about the accelerator and incubator models. At the same time, Conexus Credit Union was exploring the possibility of Canada’s first credit union led incubator. Timing just worked out well, where they were looking for somebody to lead the initiative and bring the business community, the technology community, government, founders, all together into one collaborative space. So I was fortunate enough to get the, the honor to bring this to life. And That’s sort of where we came to today. I really think from the Conexus perspective, it’s looking at the future of community investment, and how do we focus more on potential economic impact of job creation and allowing for founders to bring ideas and startups to life, and help them grow and scale, from right here in the prairies, while also still serving a global market and getting what they need to be successful. So, that’s just a kind of a quick 101, and we’ve had the privilege of completing our first year of programming here, supporting over 32 companies. We’ve learned just an absolute ton in this short period of time. So super excited to dig more into that today.

George: Well, big props to Eric Dillon. CEO of Conexus and the Board there for identifying this opportunity. I know it’s a very large initiative of that organization to help. It makes sense when you think about it, to help grow new businesses and have those incubators. Really looking to dig into your brain today Jordan, to learn more about these startups. The people that are listening to the Conquer Local podcast, some of them are agency owners, digital marketing agency owners of their own, where they are doing a startup. Or maybe they’re a SaaS startup, an independent software vendor that has found the podcast and they’re trying to learn tactics on how to sell. So we’re going to dig today into that whole startup ecosystem, and some of the lessons that you have learned in working with that group. It’s interesting to me that your background is in education, because I’ve watched you working in Cultivator, and there’s a lot of education going on with these new startups and helping them to navigate this space.

Jordan: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s been super helpful, just us coming from that learning focus, and making sure there’s that growth mindset, intuitive to all of our founders. And, it’s one of the things we look at when companies apply Cultivator is the coachability and willingness to learn. We’re fortunate to work with individuals such as yourself, with a breadth of industry experience and knowledge, and all of the mentors we’re bringing in, we really want to make sure that we have people that are willing to listen and learn, and to grow. Because, I think that that startup and founder journey is such a roller coaster, especially right now. And the ability to learn, adapt and know what you know, but know what you don’t know is super important. That’s been a key takeaway I think from the education background. Definitely.

What Mindset Do You Need to Start a Business?


George: Well, coming from a startup myself, over the last 10 years. It’s interesting because, there are days when you feel like you’re fighting this battle. Let’s talk about what sort of mindset you have to be in if you’re going to start up a business. What have you found are some of the… If you were to meet somebody you’re like, “Okay, they have the right stuff to be able to do that.”

Jordan: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think we’re seeing some commonalities here and obviously, we’re a little bit early in the game. But from what we’ve seen is really that ability to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I think that when we see the early stage companies, the founder or founding team, are often wearing a lot of hats. So that’s coming from sales, to marketing, to HR, to product manager, all of these different pieces. You’re really having that generalist perspective on how to cover the gaps, until you’ve got the sales and revenue or funding or capital to appropriately hire out the team. So I would say really that willingness to learn from others, being confident yet humble at the same time is super important. So we obviously know anybody who’s starting something new, they’re going to treat that like their baby. And sometimes you gotta be very sensitive to calling a baby ugly, and that’s always a touchy subject. So when mentors or advisors are given some of that tough feedback, we just need to make sure that people are taking that and seeing what they can learn from it. So that piece has been super key. The ability to handle feedback and coach ability is massive. And then I think the adaptability and ability to grow. Founders we see at the early stage, so pre-seed, seed stage companies, it’s really about them understanding that their skill set and the way they grow and manage from leading a team of one, to a team of 12, to a team of 20 is greatly gonna change, what their day to day looks like, and how they manage others. Hey, I can’t say enough about the growth mindset there.

George: So the founder mentality is that, we’ve figured out a problem that we want to solve, and in your stable there you’ve 90% of the businesses are software businesses, 10% are hardware, 80% are B2B, 20% are direct to consumer. So there’s a pretty good mix amongst the group, but that you gotta be able to push forward, but at the same time, keep your mind open to maybe there’s a better way to do this. Having that flexibility. But I’ve also heard that it’s really important to have that, “I’m going to make this thing work.” Because there’s a very high failure rate on startups. And by the way, there always has been in startup businesses.

Jordan: Yeah, totally, definitely. We’re very much aware that the high failure rates. So for us it’s kinda how do we decrease the failure rate or increase the success rate of the companies that we can connect with. And I think, one of the things is definitely you need that founder confidence. Because you’re gonna be going through a lot of uncertainty and that maintaining that belief in what you’re doing is obviously key. And for us, I think the biggest thing is especially in that early stage, when you’re looking at problem solution fit, is making sure that they do as much customer discovery as possible. So we try to get our founders out talking to customers, either in person or, in today’s day a little bit more virtual. And making sure that they’re constantly on the pulse of that. And I think also for us what’s key is helping to understand if their pre-markets are getting ready to sell, how do they get to that purchasing decision and understanding as soon as possible of, what’s really the pain-point for their customers in their market? And what is the solution that they’re willing to pay for. And what really solves that. So we always talk to our customers. Sorry, our founders about trying to create painkillers, not vitamins. And really making sure that they’re building products that people need. The amount of conversations with customers even once the product’s launched. We want to just really, really hammer that into the DNA of every company we work with.


What Are the Right Products?

George: If we listen back to other episodes of the Conquer Local podcast, Sam Jacobs, Mark Roberge were both on this podcast talking about one of the challenges that startups have is they don’t have the product right. They do not have product market fit. They started hiring a bunch of salespeople, they start going out and selling to customers, and they haven’t really come up with something that solves the problem. There’s a product problem. Do you see that happen?

Jordan: Yes, definitely. Definitely. I think what we’ve learned in our time here is that a lot of people will come with a solution. And so they’ll say, “Hey Jordan, “I’ve built this new software product.” Or, “We’ve got this hardware product. ” Or, “I have this mobile application.” And the first question that we’ll often ask is, “Well, what problem is this solving, “and who is it solving for?” So we try to ingrain that idea of, love the problem. And if you love the problem, and you know that customer or that market super, super well, you’ll then build the right solution. But we try to get past that innovator’s bias where we have such talented technical individuals, who build these amazing products but sometimes put the blinders on in terms of what the market actually wants and needs. So breaking down that and making sure the product and market sides of that operation are speaking together. So it’s making sure nobody… You gotta find a problem worth solving, life’s too short to build something nobody wants. So those are a couple of quotes that we like to throw out.

Pivoting Towards Needs


George: I think back to SaaS Podcast I was listening to and they were talking to the founder of Slack, who actually started out to make something and then discovered there was a bigger need for Slack. And you know, the rest is history. I’m simplifying what was probably not that simple of a journey, but started out with this one idea, started talking to some people, realized that there was a bigger need for this thing and made a pivot. Do you see that, would it be fair to say that most successful SaaS startups are good at pivoting?

Jordan: I would say most definitely. And I think that comes from your continual feedback loops with customers, or with the opportunities that are available. I think that adaptability. and really that agility is what’s key work. We’re seeing that a lot here with the companies we’re working with. And what they start off, or kind of their hypothesis number one, versus what hypothesis number five or six and the product actually ends up being, can often be fairly different or they just get to validate it further and further. So yeah, I think that’s one of the advantages to being a startup. The ability to move quickly and adapt. But also one of the challenges to find that sticking point of what’s really the trigger here for customers and what do they actually need?

George: I’ve had the privilege of speaking to a number of your startups at Cultivator over the last year or so. And I’d love for you to tell me what we have in our notes here. Producer Colleen calls your bad-ass story, about a startup that’s heading to New York city. Can you tell us about that?

Jordan: Yeah, so still some details to come, but we’ve had companies, I think realize that while we’re based here in the Queen city in Regina on the prairies of Saskatchewan. Groups have done an amazing job of recognizing where their market is, and they’ve got out and talked to that market. I think a really cool example of that is one of the construction tech companies that we’ve been fortunate to work with, myComply is doing some really amazing work in New York state and New York city right now. Just recognizing that there’s a larger construction market there and gaining some strong traction south of the border. So it’s great to see, and look at companies who understand that there’s an ability to serve markets no matter where you’re physically located, and really taken advantage of that. So I think for anybody listening from any mid sized markets, and I think Vendasta is an amazing example of that as well, is that there’s never been a better time to be able to serve individuals from anywhere, due to the technologies that we can use. So super excited about where that goes and what comes next?

George: Let’s talk about the beer startup. So you have a company that has built some technology to help this growing industry of craft breweries.

Jordan: Yeah, that’s a great… So BrewNinja, started by Shea Martin, a really, really cool example. So Shea’s got a really strong software background. He had moved to Regina and a good friend of his was running a micro brewery here in town, just getting it off the ground. And after a couple times of being being stood up for a Friday beer meeting by his friend who was running the brewery, Shea started to ask like, “Hey, what’s going on here? I’m tired of showing up to share pints and you’re not showing up.” And he just said, “Hey, we’re having a lot of challenges with our accounting and managing our sales and inventory.” The more Shea dug into it, he realized pretty quickly that he could build a software solution to solve that problem. So they started by actually serving District Brewing here, based out of Regina. Built a solution for them, Realized then that that was a business to business software as a service product that a lot of people needed. He’s been able to grow that from one microbrewery, to now serving over 20 breweries across Canada. And getting some early funnel action into South of the border here. So it’s really, really cool to see how the microbrewery industry and other beverage industries are growing. And Shea’s created that end to end solution from back of house, front of house microbrewery and tap room connections. So their traction’s been been super strong, and I think it’s allowing more and more of the microbreweries out there to have a more efficient operation, and allowing consumers like us to enjoy the product of these great local microbreweries and allowing them to better operate and be more sustainable businesses.

George: Well I love the top of this, how this all happened. So the founder was at his buddy’s brewery, and he was basically pissed off, cause he goes there a number of times and can’t talk to the guy, cause he’s busy running his business. Sound familiar? A lot of people have that challenge. And he came up with a way to solve that problem, to give him some of his time back. It’s a really interesting way to tie that all together, where you can come up with an idea for a great product, but if you could really fall in love with your potential customer’s problem, you’ve a way better chance of solving them. And he found a way to build a successful SaaS startup, with a little bit of hardware in there as well, from that problem that they were solving. So, it’s a great story around where startups are born. One question I wanted to ask for sure. Where do you see… Is there just one thing that you could say, “Here’s where most people fail?”

Always Talking To The Customer


Jordan: I’d say the one thing that would jump out to me George, I think is just not talking to the customer. So I think it’s making assumptions as to you knowing what the market needs and what the solution needs to be. I think if you do proper problem discovery, and customer discovery and really empathize with the potential and user, I think you’re going to get a lot further along, than those as assumptions.

George: So I

Jordan: So that I think would be number one…

George: Can I interrogate that a little bit? Because I have some experience in this.

Jordan: Yeah, please do.

George: So you have a product team and a development team that are dealing with some data and some research probably, to get to the point that they’re at. They’ve got very, very strong opinions of how they’re going to solve the problem. And then you have this feedback loop coming from the customer. So the reason I want to interrogate this is I think it’s really important to get very good reference customers to give you that feedback. Because if you just listened to one of them, or you just listened to the one that’s easy to talk to, you’re only going to get one lens. And it’s gonna be hard to scale that, and get a large market, is where I’m going to with this.

Jordan: Yeah. That’s a great… Glad you highlighted that. I think for us it’s really making sure that it’s not just listening to maybe that squeaky wheel, or that one off, or trying to build everything for everybody, but really balancing the customer discovery, and seeing what trends. So making sure your sample size is big. Any pre-revenue companies that we work with, if they’re really early stage, and maybe they’re early product or just MBP or pre-product, it’s at least 50 conversations with potential customers to really understand. And then they can take that and make a bit more of a data driven decision as to what’s happening over time. I think anybody that’s got a product, it’s like you said, looking at who’s actually… What are their actions actually saying and what are they actually buying, or purchasing or renewing, versus the conversation piece. So, I think that definitely making sure you’re strategic in how you’re utilizing that. Cause sometimes saying, just talk to customers is a pretty broad statement, so there’s definitely more layers to that piece for sure.

George: Yeah. And I found it’s really important to talk to a bunch of customers. And the other piece is, is that product folks sometimes don’t want to talk to the pissed off customer. I’ve tried to drive this agenda of, that might be a challenging customer and they’re very vocal about their problems. So, you gotta take everything with a bit of a grain of salt, but if you could solve that vocal customer’s problems, the one that doesn’t love you and isn’t a raving fan, I think that there’s a whole bunch of others that just aren’t going to do business with you because you haven’t thought deep enough about the problem. So it’s interesting around getting that right product mix, getting that right messaging, making sure that you have those feedback loops, are keys to success. The other thing that I’ve noticed is there are some times where actually it’s your team, will message me and say, “Well, Jordan’s at this event in Silicon Valley.” Or “he’s at this event in Montreal.” Or “he’s at this event in New York.” And I think I’m starting to dig in that one of your tactics to getting this best practices is having this network, that you can talk to of other incubators that are embedded in this space. How important has that been to your personal development, and then the development of this entire ecosystem that you’re building?

Jordan: Totally, yeah. I think that’s a great highlight. For us, the network and the ecosystem connections are huge. When I first started out the number one thing was trying to get connected to as many people as possible, who are far smarter than I am. So, I try to jam as much trusted and expert info as I can into my brain. And one of the early things that we’ve been fortunate to take part in is just, the Saskatchewan startup ecosystem as an early stage, and learning from individuals such as yourself, and those who know it and are living it on a daily basis through the Vendasta’s and other high-growth tech companies that are here, but then also the ecosystem across Canada. And for us that was early on connecting right away with both high growth companies and then also other incubators and accelerators. We’ve been fortunate to work with a variety of groups from across Canada, from your DMZ’s in Toronto, and your Communitech’s in Waterloo, out to your Accelerate Okanagan’s, on the West coast. And then further, we’ve been accepted into the global accelerator network. So what’s nice about that is that then opens us up and connects us to the tech stars and boom towns of the world. And seeing what’s going on internationally in Europe, South America, Africa, et cetera. Just to make sure that for us, we’re always looking at best practices there and making sure for us that we’re constantly connecting companies with the the chief revenue officers, the CEOs, the VPs of product, who are out there and learning on a daily basis to make sure that they’re getting the best knowledge possible. And then I think further for us in the ecosystem has been how do we realize what gaps exist here in a mid sized market like Saskatchewan, and what kind of talent and expertise can we bring in at times, to either host events, or utilize technology to bring some of those skill sets in. And so we run monthly community events, as well as an annual conference to try to tackle some of those pieces. But definitely making sure that the network is the focus and helping to spread as much learning as we can, to both the companies we’re serving. But also the individuals in the ecosystem who are maybe considering getting involved with a startup or can take away tips for their own businesses, as leaders or as employees as well.

George: So the goal today was to get someone that works with startups to share some of the lessons that you have, over the last year working with those 32 different startups. You’re working with them on a day to day basis, because a bunch of our listeners are startups. They started their own agency, started their own digital marketing company. And while they may not be building their own technology, they’re still dealing with a lot of the same trappings that a startup has. Access to capital, when do I decide to pour gas on the fire and grow the company? When do I have product market fit? But one of the things that we’d be crazy not to talk about, because it is The Conquer Local podcast, and it’s all to do with sales. I believe that really successful SaaS startups, they have a very good sales DNA built into them. Do you find that to be the case, or do we have people that are really good at building technology and solving a problem, but they couldn’t sell their way out of a wet paper bag? What does it look like?

SaaS Startup Identities 


Jordan: Yeah, I think for us, we see kind of a mixture of that. Anybody who’s got that built in, we think that’s super important. One of the biggest focuses for us is honestly when we can identify a company early on that’s got a good product and very product focused, but a little bit challenged or less skilled in the sales DNA side of things is, we try to get them connected as soon as possible. Just with some strong resources and supports and mentorship around that. Cause that’s where we see the biggest… The biggest challenges are built an amazing product, but yet not acquiring customers. You know, so we-

George: Can I… I hate to interrupt, but I’m going to anyways.

Jordan: No, please do.

George: I think this is what I heard you say, and I think there’s a bunch of other people that heard this too. Is that you can build a great product, but if you don’t know how to sell it and deliver the value to the customer, you’ve got a problem.

Jordan: Yeah, I would definitely agree with that. Yup, that’s a great summary.

George: So, how then do we overcome that from a startup standpoint? As a group of founders, do you say, “We need to find somebody and bring them into our founder group?” Is it easy to go find people as that sales resource?

Jordan: I think for us it’s making sure that the founder initially is doing those first sales. So for us it’s really making sure that the founder understands that on day one when that’s a small team of one, two, three, four or five, that’s really a founder responsibility. To lock in those early sales. And I think it just shows a lot of confidence into the company of their ability to sell and start that, and then to build the resourcing from there. And if that’s a complete gap that doesn’t exist, then how do we fill that? And I think we’ve been fortunate in the ecosystem. I think looking at the resources that exist around experienced sales individuals, really sharing some of the best practices and it’s just getting up as many reps as possible. So whether that’s demos, cold calls, whatever the strategy is. Kind of that idea of back that we started with being comfortable with being uncomfortable is how do we get you comfortable with the sales aspect of things early on? Because it’s likely an inevitability to get the company to that next stage.

George: So when it comes to the decision that a startup has to make of whether they’re going to sell direct or they’re going to use a channel, do you see them thinking that way? Because my background, I did direct sales for a long time, and then I arrived at a SaaS company that has been quite successful in accessing the channel. I think if you listened back over the last three years to episodes, I’ve said things like, “I love the channel, and I hate the channel at the same day.” But, when is that decision made as to, can I find someone else that I don’t have to pay a base or something like that, that I just have to pay when they kill. And I mean that in the nicest way. You know, when they get a close. Or I’m just gonna make the decision to go figure out my own direct sales piece. When does that come into the timeline?

Jordan: Yeah, I think pretty early on. I think when groups are open to what’s out there, they may start with that direct piece. Seeing how that goes and always being open to, thinking about how do we acquire customers, where do we acquire customers, and what’s the cost to acquiring those customers? And if there’s channels that they can use that are going to greatly lower that cost to acquire customer, or directly connect them. I think that provides a huge, huge benefit to those founders. So I think it’s a bit of a case by case basis, but early on founders need to be open to all of those potential opportunities, by making sure that they know early on that they’ve go the solution to the problem that they’re solving. And once they’ve got that, then it’s making the best decision around your own direct or channel from there. But lots of benefits definitely on both sides.

George: What’s one of the key takeaways Jordan, that you have from the past year or so that you’ve been involved in this? And I know it’s something you’re very passionate about. It’s pretty easy to see it, and you can hear it in your voice when you’re talking about it. And I’ve saw you speak a number of times. What’s one of just the best parts of the last year?

Jordan: I think just seeing the excitement. There’s so much activity here, just that founder energy of connecting with these very passionate CEOs, CTOs on a daily basis, who are adding real value to a variety of different markets all across North America and globally in some cases. It’s just that passionate determination of those early stage teams that are really celebrating some of those early, big wins of first enterprise client, or first sale in California, or the monthly recurring revenue milestone, the annual recurring revenue for sale. Whatever that is, just seeing the collaborative effort here it’s been a big focus. So we try share those wins together. So there’s been a couple of big gong moments here, and just having that idea of you’re not alone and the whole ecosystem’s behind you, has been awesome. So I think the culture and community that’s building has been definitely the most exciting part, and really excited to see what 2020 holds.

George: Well let me ask you this question. I’ve been to Cultivator a number of times and maybe you folks were just showing me the best side. I’m wondering every day that you go in there, everything’s great, everything’s going wonderful. There’s nobody that are tripping and they’re having problems. I’m baiting you a little bit, because I think back to a video that I saw of Gail Goodman, the ex-CEO of Constant Contact, talking about the long ramp of SaaS death. It’s like this crazy thing. It’s like, “Every day there’s a battle. And you think that you’re losing and then eventually you look back at 12 months, you’re like, Whoa, we grew, and we’re winning.” It really is a struggle, but you gotta be open to that. You said earlier, comfortable being uncomfortable. What’s the best advice you could give to somebody as they’re coming into a SaaS startup, or any sort of start up? Where they have their eyes wide open because I think that that might give them a better chance at winning.

How To Get The Best Chance at Winning as a SaaS Startup


Jordan: Yeah, I totally agree. I think the the highlights are definitely the gong hits and the cheering, but the reality is very much it’s tough slugging and I think that understanding that that’s part of the process and coming to grips with that, knowing that it’s not going to be an easy path, but having that determination is going to be key. So I think the biggest thing is just thinking about how you weather that storm, both the highs and the lows, cause we definitely see the roller coaster of emotions on a daily basis. So I think, how do you manage the team, the mindset and stay stable and calm during those high points, but also the inevitable low points. Because it takes a while to lock in that first customer, or those first 10 customers or expand to a new place or when you get your first aspect of churn, of losing a customer or some of the hiring or firing things that may inevitably exist. So I think just how you handle those low points are going to be of integral importance. And that’s honestly probably more where a lot of the support is needed. When things are going well, it’s a little bit easier for everybody. But yeah, the low point challenges are key. And I think that’s just the perseverance and the reliance on the values and just trying to problem solve, doing what needs to be done to stay alive and continue on.

George: I’m very bullish on this business incubator model, and again, props to Eric and the board at Conexus for putting the money up and making the investment. It’s a great idea for the community, and good on them for bringing you on board Jordan, because you need a good leadership around this. But just a couple of takeaways. I have been involved in some startups and here’s a couple of places where I wish that I would have been a little smarter or maybe a little more open to feedback. Number one; problems are gonna happen, and the sooner that you bring those to light, and talk to people that you trust to give you advice, the better, because you’re not gonna have all the answers. I think it’s important that you have that drive as a founder where you’re gonna push through, cause that’s going to save you in a lot of instances. But there’s also times where you might just come across a problem that you can’t solve on your own. And that’s why I love seeing this concept where you have the incubator where you can get a meeting with Jordan, and he’ll get, “Oh I know three people that have had that problem and they’ve solved it. Here’s their numbers, go talk to them. Or go talk to that guy, right over there. In his company, he had that six months ago.” Having that community that you can reach out to to get that feedback is really important. We think about how we learn, we either learn through trial and error, which is usually long and expensive and painful, or we can learn from people that have already been there, done that. And you’ve basically created a community inside this incubator, not only in the local territory that you’re in, or Province or State for those that are living there. But also in this greater community where you’ve now added these other resources. You talked about Techstars, and you talked about the folks you’re working with in the Valley, and in Waterloo and you can reach out to those people as well. So having that community is another way that you can be successful, by having those resources that you can access. And then, the other piece to this is I think you have to almost be a little suspect, all the time. So even if all the lights are green, and all the indicators are that things are going well, you have to have that, “I don’t believe it, and I want to make sure that that’s the case.” Always looking for that data. Have you saw that happen, where everything looked great and then it went to shit, and you’re like, “What the hell happened?” But, the leadership group wasn’t really digging deep enough into the information to find those early warning signs.

Jordan: Yeah. I think as we’ve seen in the first half of 2020, that’s Covid-19 and a lot of realities that are going on, I think it’s just a great example of that you just never know what’s what’s coming. Whether it’s a company about to close a fundraising round or about to close a big enterprise deal, you just never know what’s around the corner. And I think that advice of you always have to be a little suspect and prepare for how are you’re gonna get through, is more true and more applicable today than it’s ever been, from our perspective.

George: Pretty obvious that Jordan, you and I could probably go back and forth, and have more and more of these interviews and dig even deeper. What I was hoping to accomplish, I believe we have, which is to get that understanding of what it takes to start a business. Whether it’s SaaS or not, I think that there’s important lessons within any startup journey. I love reading books about startups. I love hearing the stories about PayPal back in the day when they couldn’t even pay some people one day cause they had a problem. And this one guy showed up at the door of the PayPal offices and Peter Thiel was there, with Elon Musk and Reid Hoffman. And you listen to these people that have started these. And I think it’s important to know that right now, we’re not all gonna build a Facebook, and we’re not all going to build a PayPal. That doesn’t mean that we can’t build something that is amazing, that can help a lot of people and can feed a lot of kids, and help support families. What do you think one of the most satisfying pieces of being a startup founder is?

Jordan: Yeah, I think one of the biggest things is just, adding value and knowing that they’ve built something and created something that’s employing others, solving a problem for companies and for businesses, or for clients and customers. And just knowing that they’ve created something essentially from scratch that without existing, that value or that pain point would be existing. We love to see that, which is with job creation and with the value added to the customers, both locally and around the globe. So I think that that’s a big thing that we always encourage founders to take a step back every once in a while, and just don’t rest too much on what they’ve done, but just make sure they’re enjoying the journey. Because it goes so fast, if you don’t stop and take a breath every once in a while, you’re gonna forget, and it all blends together into one massive sprint.



George: Well, thank you very much. Jordan McFarland, the Business Incubator Manager at Cultivator, Powered by Conexus. This one of a kind business incubator is helping grow businesses, 32 of them in the last 12 months. So Jordan, always a pleasure speaking to you, and exciting to hear about your success. Thanks for all the learnings today that you’ve brought us from the companies that you’ve been working with.

Jordan: Thanks so much, George. I really appreciate being on. We’re excited for everybody that could take some value from today’s episode. And I’m excited to see what the startups accomplish here in in the next year.

George: When I first met Jordan… He’s a teacher by background, and he is a motivator. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him without a smile on his face. He’s a force to be reckoned with because when he comes into the room, he’s got this infectious drive, and he’s a very caring person, and he has a lot of empathy when it comes to the people he’s working with. He cares about these companies and startups and founders very much. You could tell that by the way that he speaks so passionately about the space, and the things that they’re trying to accomplish inside Cultivator. He did validate something that you’ve heard from other guests on the Conquer Local podcast; that getting the product right, and I don’t mean 100% right. Cause I don’t know if 100% right is there ever. I think you’re constantly looking at ways to improve the product or service. But working towards that product market fit is a real key for a startup. And then also figure out what that problem is that you’re solving. We’ve talked about this before. 

George: Don’t fall in love with your product, fall in love with the problem that it solves. And you can see that that’s part of that culture and the mindset that they bring to Cultivator. The other thing that you’ll notice, I really pushed him on this. You can have a great product, but if you don’t have a way to sell it, most of those fail. So the good news for all of our listeners, far and wide of the Conquer Local podcast. We still have jobs because we still need salespeople to help articulate. And the other thing is the harder the problem you’re trying to solve, the more that you need to have that individual in the middle that connects the dots and shows the opportunity. It was interesting to hear where startups fail. And I don’t think that this is just startups that fail this way, because there are all sorts of businesses. And I think we’re seeing that right now. 

George: In the current economic conditions that we are in, it’s been interesting to watch certain logos, that were very, very prominent logos in our daily lives. And you look there and you go, “Where did they go? What happened to them?” So when we were talking to Jordan, and it was a few moments ago where we talked about “Where do these organizations fail?” It’s that they don’t talk to their customers, and they don’t do enough market discovery, or customer discovery. And I think that that’s something that never ends. And I think that you need to be very, very careful that you are responding to different economic conditions, and the ever changing landscape that we have. Digital transformation is overused as a term, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist and it won’t exist for quite some time. As long as there is technology involved and there’s more technology involved in everything that we do, there’s going to be more disruption, and we need to be on the cutting edge of that, and we need to be digging a little bit deeper to look under the hood so that we can find problems and solve them. 

George: The one thing that he reaffirmed that we have talked a lot about is the pivots. You need to continually pivot based upon what’s happening inside the marketplace. I think that startups and that mentality that a startup founder and the first 25, 35, 45 employees have, where they’re just gonna fail fast and they’re going to figure it out and they’re going to work with people and they’re going to listen. That mentality should be in business every single day. Even if you’ve been around for a hundred years, you should have that mentality. I think more businesses would be successful if they go back and channel their inner startup founders. So thank you very much to Jordan McFarland, the head of the business incubator known as Cultivator, for all of that knowledge from the past 16, 18 months that he has been running that new initiative, with all of those great energetic startups, that he gets to work with every day. My name is George Leith, I’ll see you when I see you.

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