Tech entrepreneur and UTSC alumnus Andrew Peek on the importance of failure
Being an entrepreneur is challenging even at the best of times. To be one in a rapidly evolving industry like digital technology involves its own unique set of challenges.
Entrepreneur and UTSC alumnus Andrew Peek, who received his BA in 2006, has already accomplished much in his young career. Along with two other UTSC alumni, Peek co-founded Jet Cooper, one of Canada’s top software design companies. He also founded Pilot, an idea collaboration software company that was acquired along with Jet Cooper by Shopify in 2013.
Peek, who delivered the keynote address at U of T Scarborough’s Entrepreneur Expo January 29, spoke with writer Don Campbell about his thoughts on what it means to be a technology entrepreneur and some of the lessons he’s learned along the way.
I started my first business, a music production company, when I was 15 with a friend who was a singer-songwriter. We worked with 40 different bands at one point and started booking them into venues along Queen Street in Toronto. It was my first taste of owning a business and I never looked back. Even when I did co-op placements with large companies it was with the intention of honing my skills as an entrepreneur.
From my experience I think most entrepreneurs are resilient people. You have to be resilient to handle riding the highs and lows of starting, owning and running a business.
You need to rise to the occasion when confronted with failure. There’s a bit of masochism that comes along with that because entrepreneurs are so strong-willed and determined they will often try to make something work when others would have packed it in. I also think there’s an inherent curiosity with the world, which is to say looking at the way the world works and coming up with ways to make it better.
Your startups involve digital technology. What unique set of challenges exists in that industry and how do you cope with a business landscape that changes at a blistering pace?
There are many factors to consider. On the one hand you’re talking about bringing technology to old industries that may be slow to adopt new trends. You also have a situation where cutting edge products are being introduced all the time.
I think it’s important to not treat each situation the same way. There may be some really cool, very futuristic products that cause a stir when they’re introduced but you need to determine whether you think a market for these products will exist in the near future. So you need to maintain your business acumen and not get caught up in the hype. A litmus test I like to use is taking a look at ordinary people and ask how this product or service will improve their life.
How did you come up with the idea for Pilot and what market potential did you see for the product?
We wanted to develop a digital tool that would help companies innovate. The idea for Pilot was to build a platform that would nurture creative ideas by bringing together people digitally. It’s a tough business to crack because companies are often narrowly focused on driving revenues and they often put innovation on the back burner.
What is your definition of success?
It’s multi-faceted. I feel really strongly about always trying to be a better person, whether that’s developing new interests, building and maintaining healthy relationships, volunteering or trying to develop business ideas that I think will improve people’s lives.
I like using the wheel metaphor. There are many spokes in a wheel, and each have to be healthy and strong in order for it to turn. It’s a great metaphor for life. You need to have balance.
Can you think back to a failure in your professional life and how you were able to learn from it?
I learned a valuable lesson with my first business. After three successful shows we decided to jump to a much larger venue. It was a disaster. We weren’t even close to covering the bar tab, that’s how few people turned up. We were kicked off Queen Street after that but we didn’t quit. It was great to build confidence early on but also instructive when things didn’t work out. I think the most important thing I learned is that despite it not working out failure is not a statement about you as a person. How you handle that failure by remaining positive and persistent is far more important.
What advice can you give to budding student entrepreneurs?
To not be intimidated. Too often people focus on the end product without considering the process. Many think ‘wow, that company’s blueprint was so genius that it’s beyond us to even try to come up with something that incredible.’ It’s such a debilitating thought. Being an entrepreneur is a process of discovery, of being curious with the world, interacting with people at all levels and working through the small projects.