Originally published in the summer 2019 issue of Business Class magazine.
Entrepreneurs: ever wondered what it’s like to take part in a start-up accelerator? Stuart Kinnear, BMus ’09, MBA ’11, traveled to Oslo, Norway last fall to participate in Techstars’ energy-industry start-up accelerator. Over three months, he and team members from his Calgary-based company Interface Fluidics had the chance to network, find mentors, pitch, iterate, fail, pivot and ultimately leave with new inspiration—and investors. Interface Fluidics, which Kinnear co-founded in 2016, offers chemical analysis of oil reservoirs to make extraction via hydraulic fracturing more efficient, and in the process, aims to minimize the fresh water needed to extract resources.
Business Class: What was the outcome of your experience in Oslo?
Stuart Kinnear: Techstars’ model is “give first.” I think it really is a great mentality for every entrepreneur to have. When it comes to what are we useful for as entrepreneurs, it is our willingness to work hard, our great ideas and our network. And that network is built by helping others, by building that social capital that we all trade in.
BC: Did Techstars change how you do business at all?
SK: I have a lot more confidence now. The specific brand of confidence is that I know I’m doing something important, I want to help other entrepreneurs and I don’t have time to wait: “We are doing something important, you are doing something important, let’s do it together.” I don’t worry so much about being super polite.
BC: What do you think you brought to Techstars that others needed or didn’t have?
SK: I come from a background of working at gigantic companies. I was at Canadian Natural Resources Limited for five years doing contracts. I’m not a lawyer but I have an ability to look at a commercial agreement and understand where the risks and benefits are and how to write one that is acceptable for both parties. Interface Fluidics now has this superpower: the ability to sell to corporates with very little friction. Most of Interface’s customers recently are billion dollar companies. At Techstars, I saw myself as a bit of a mentor for people who had never sold to a big company before. If you’ve never sold to gigantic companies before and you don’t know what’s on the receiving end of what you are trying to pitch, then it’s really impenetrable and difficult to work with.
BC: Any other takeaways from Oslo that fellow entrepreneurs might be interested in?
SK: The importance of reporting to stakeholders on outcomes. While you are in Techstars, you send a weekly update to every stakeholder. Weekly updates might be overkill for most people, but founders often don’t keep their stakeholders informed enough. And it’s not about putting on the rose-coloured shades and saying “these are all the good things and it’s great over here,” it’s saying “it’s good, but this and this and this are really bad; it’s a real problem and how can we solve it?” Learning to ask for help transparently will get you so much further than only showing the traction you’ve had.
BC: How do you know if you’re listening to the right people?
SK: It takes a certain amount of crazy to quit your job and start a company. You have to believe in your ability to think critically. When I’m seeking advice, I ask for very specific feedback on one problem and I’ll probably get 10 completely conflicting pieces of advice. But then I can use my own thought to say, “I think this person was onto something here, and this person there,” and then I can synthesize it into my own solution for the problem. Nobody has perfect advice. You have to be confident in yourself and your ability to process that advice and take it forward.