Interview and article written by Charles Yu, @Jalin_Yu
We headed to JJ Bean across from Growlab soon after our weekly Startup Weekend Vancouver meetings. Most if not all the Startup Weekend Vancouver organizers were assigned a week where they would be responsible for posting an article on startups. Having the task of interviewing John Gray, a veteran within the Vancouver Startup scene, a fellow organizer of Startup Weekend Vancouver and a Co-Founder of Mentionmapp was a privilege. As we settled down with our respective cups of coffee, John began to pour his thoughts into my voice recorder….
Being disillusioned by the typical corporate culture where “innovation” was purely lip-service and status quo was the order of the day, he was ready for a big change. John’s first startup experience came when a close friend made the introduction with two tech developers, and everyone subsequently hit it off. Teaming up, the four were preparing to launch an online trading platform for players of MMORPG’s (specifically World of Warcraft) to purchase in-game gold with real currency. Having worked in sales, running his own neighborhood video store and worked cubicle jobs, it would be safe to assume there’s enough work experience to start a successful tech startup. Oh how very wrong that assumption turned out to be, as John found out that keeping a business running and running a startup are two completely different animals. Business plans turned out to be no more than time consuming mental exercises and Canadian investors were far more conservative than those down in the states. As well, strain had been building up within the team against the fourth company co-founder and a friend of John’s for over twelve years due to his contribution or lack thereof. The team ultimately voted him off the company and not surprisingly, they are friends no more..There was another problem, the typical MMO gold farms are located in China, and the localization challenges proved to a big hole in the plan. . Although the team tried to rework the business model, it ultimately proved unfeasible. That was startup #1, lessons learned, onto the next idea.
The rebound between one failed idea to moving on with a second or “tech purgatory” as John termed it, brought relationship problems both business and personal to light. His marriage which and been gnawing at his emotional well being started devouring it. His wife of 20 years end the marriage in July 2010. Now a single Dad with 2 young adults to care for, a month later he’s dealt the very unexpected business “body blow”, and one of his technical co-founder headed to the exit… IP ownership is still in question. If there was anything positive that he learned outside of how startups test relationships, it was to get shareholders agreement.
On the third go around, Mentionmapp came together in April 2011 with co-founders Travis Cote and Daniel McLaren. Mentionmapp is an Twitter application that maps conversations and connections. It was with Mentionmapp that John and his company found some recognition and a little acclaim. With a compelling video about the app, they topped over 60 other Startups to be one of the fortunate 15 companies to demo for Launch@GROW 2011. This chain of events helped lead the Mentionmapp team to an exit in October 2011. Not too shabby for a guy who entered the startup scene in his late forties
Looking back, his advice on finding success: Hustle and make a difference. Get out there and start talking to people, always be pitching your idea. Always be asking questions. It’s a perpetual quest for validation, and getting your idea to the point that they’ll either love it, or hate it. Mentor or counsel others using your own startup experience and contribute something to the startup community. This is why John became an organizer for Startup Weekend Vancouver, what participants take away from them every time is different. The sheer experience from pitching, forming, brainstorming, and working a “plan” is phenomenal, as each team will have to have a minimal viable product delivered within 54 hours hence the motto, “No Talk. All Action.” The August event will indeed be incredible.
Charles’ previous work and volunteer experience include being a Venture Partner of SIFE BCIT helping recruit green businesses to join Spring Living Fair, a contributing writer for Leaders of Tomorrow quarterly Newspaper established by the Vancouver Board of Trade and an Upper Technician at Mr.Lube