Innovation City: Why LiON’S LAIR matters

By Andrew J. Holden, Chief Experience Officer, Weever Apps. Weever Apps was the grand prize winner of our first-ever LiON’S LAIR competition in 2011. 

“If someone really wants to do something, they will find a way of doing it.”

While a wonderful philosophy in an ideal world, I don’t agree. The fact is that odds are stacked against new businesses: more than 30% of Canadian companies fail in the first two years.1 The problem is that it’s easy to generate ideas and passion, but creating a sustainable business funded by real customers who find your product valuable is incredibly difficult. Lots of new businesses need help getting to this point.

This March 30, Hamilton’s own LiON’S LAIR competition begins accepting applications. The annual competition – presented by Innovation Factory and the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce – provides ten qualifying companies the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a panel of the city’s top business experts, the “Lions,” for a chance to win over $100,000 in cash and in-kind resources.

IF_LionsLair1014_172The awards night brings Hamilton’s business community together for a celebration of innovation where the audience hears each pitch and cheers on their personal favourite. The grand prize is huge and the winning teams are ecstatic. But, after the celebration is over, why should anyone outside of Hamilton’s business community care about LiON’s LAIR winners?

The answer is simple: the event is a statement about what’s possible, and what’s already happening, right here in Hamilton.

I know the excitement and potential of LiON’S LAIR well. My company Weever Apps won the inaugural LiON’S LAIR competition in 2011. In early 2010, however, we found the idea of pitching our startup both silly and daunting. We weren’t part of the “as seen on TV” business world where people have all the time, resources, and connections in easy reach to follow their dreams.

We thought we were on our own. But we encountered a community of people who wanted to help us, insisted on doing so, and did so generously. As one of two early technology founders on my team, I met with Innovation Factory (iF) on their first week in operation. We had been referred to iF by Hamilton’s Economic Development department, who were eager to see what kinds of new companies would emerge from this new initiative.

As iF’s first clients, we were a good match. Weever Apps had a “big idea” (a new kind of mobile technology), but we also listened, were coachable and committed. We had already proven our dedication to innovation by working every spare hour with no pay for almost a year to create our prototype.

Technology proof-of-concept aside, we came to iF lacking most of the ingredients needed to make an idea a success: business experience, connections, funding, advisors, a team, etc. When Innovation Factory explained that they would take us on as client and advise us, I said thanks but explained that there was zero chance we could afford their services. Then they told us that all of their help was free.

The idea of free business advisory services wasn’t in my vocabulary, as a fledgling business owner and new Canadian. But understanding the magnitude of the offer in front of us, we signed on with iF, and a short while later were accepted to LiON’S LAIR.

LL training2The few minutes of a LiON’S LAIR finalist’s pitch represents weeks of hard work, feedback, pitch revisions, practice, and critical thinking. We were forced to consider the crucial question: Why would anyone, including investors and customers, care about our product? It’s in such moments that LiON’S LAIR really shines—it provides contestants the opportunity to make hard decisions and to learn from the mistakes of those entrepreneurs who have gone before them. The competition uniquely offers contestants the opportunity to make their first business errors on paper instead of in practice.

As a public event, LiON’S LAIR is a one-night celebration of entrepreneurship. However, it’s what happens behind the scenes in the preceding weeks that matters most; the learning and support I received were undoubtedly the most valuable rewards of the competition.

Those of us who live and work in Hamilton care about the city and its people; we recognize that positive, sustainable economic change is necessary. And we are seeing a transformation. Due to the longstanding support of local sponsors, LiON’S LAIR has become a regular event and iF is bustling with new clients. In the past two years, additional resources have entered the scene: McMaster’s Spectrum offers an entrepreneurial path to students, and campus-linked accelerator The Forge provides a dedicated working space and mentorship to qualifying startups.

The true innovation of Hamilton is happening behind the scenes—it’s the tireless work of our support networks who cheers us on, along with the often unrecognized efforts of volunteers and mentors from the business community who strive to improve Hamilton by helping individuals make their big ideas a reality.

“Entrepreneurial culture” doesn’t have to mean flashy suits and million dollar smiles. Here in Hamilton, it means something different: it’s an opportunity for all of us – from McMaster student to new Canadian – to succeed. The LiON’S LAIR event is this September 30th. I hope to see you there cheering Hamilton on.

– Andrew J. Holden

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