With the launch of Venturepark this past year, it’s been an exciting time for the growth ecosystem, which included welcoming back Mike McNeil as the VP of Venturepark Labs.
In 2015, he joined what was previously known as District Ventures and played an integral role in jumpstarting its accelerator program. After taking some time away to grow an alumni company, he made his return in a new role within the ecosystem where he could apply his expertise and guide other aspiring entrepreneurs.
With applications going live for the next cohort of our accelerator program, it seemed like a perfect time to hear more from Mike as he shares what his journey has been like at the Park, as well as his top recommended tips for entrepreneurs who are ready to push their potential.
V: What is your role within the Venturepark ecosystem?
MM: My role is to lead Venturepark Labs, which offers support for very early-stage food & beverage entrepreneurs through our kitchen and incubator programs (formally District Ventures Kitchen), and our national accelerator program (formally District Ventures Accelerator). It helps consumer-packed goods companies scale into national brands. Annually, it helps over 85 consumer product entrepreneurs grow.
V: How long have you been with the company?
MM: I was one of the first members of the Venturepark ecosystem. Back in 2015, I moved across the country to help start our accelerator program. I joined one of our alumni companies and experienced the demands of scaling into a national brand firsthand. After that, I served as the Executive Director of the Alberta Small Brewers Association, but returned to Venturepark to support our programs and entrepreneurs through the pandemic. I really wanted to integrate what I learned while I was away from the park into our programs.
V: Over the years, what has been the most rewarding part of working with early-stage entrepreneurs?
MM: The change in mindset that entrepreneurs undertake in our programs. When you're starting a product-based business, oftentimes your primary focus is surviving. But our programs encourage each entrepreneur to think bigger – to understand what it takes to become a large brand in Canada. It's about creating a vision for growth in their company and then working with our team of experts to understand what needs accomplishing to make it a reality. Setting the vision is the first step towards growing your company – and often, that process requires an intensive growth experience for the entrepreneur. When that happens, it's always rewarding to me because now I know they are on the path towards achieving something special.
V: Let's talk more about product exploration and development. What got you into it?
MM: I'm drawn to it because I love the excitement behind a new product idea, but as I've gained more experience, I know that the product is just part of the equation. Over the last couple of years, we integrated a shared kitchen in Toronto and launched our Concept to Market Sprint and Incubator program, allowing for more product exploration and development within Venturepark Labs. It’s exciting because it’s provided the opportunity to work with more entrepreneurs, supporting innovation more directly. Our incubator and accelerator programs are critical in helping entrepreneurs who are looking for commercialization and growth with their product-based business.
V: What would say are the top 3 skills needed to be a successful CPG entrepreneur?
Leadership - The core of leadership for an entrepreneur is setting the vision and ensuring its executed. When scaling a CPG business, you're going to have a variety of people that need to understand and believe in your vision – that includes your employees, investors, brokers, etc. It's your job as a leader to inspire them with your vision and let them help you to execute it. Companies without a culture of accountability won't move forward unless the founders ensure that everyone on the team pushes towards the vision. It’s easy for founders and their partners to get lost in the day-to-day demands of putting out fires, fulfilling orders, production – you name it. So my advice for early-stage entrepreneurs is to block out time at the beginning of your week to work on the business, understand what tasks are needed to meet your quarterly/annual goals, and schedule them accordingly.
Problem-solving - Because entrepreneurship can seem so daunting, I try to simplify it as much as possible. I often come back to the thought that being an entrepreneur is just solving a series of problems. You're solving a problem with your product, but you're also solving the problem of sustainable cash flow, supply-chains, sales – among other things. Looking at it that way cuts out all the noise that often surrounds entrepreneurs, like the frequent claims: people are born entrepreneurs, do they have the determination to succeed, etc. My advice is to ignore all of that. Instead, remember that you're solving a problem. Use trial and error until it works. PRO tip: have a regular meeting with your team to identify the issues holding your company back from executing your vision. And dedicate your team to solving these problems.
Watch the self-talk - I'm drawn to entrepreneurship because it's so intertwined with personal development. To create a product, sell it, and ask for other people's capital is an intensely vulnerable experience – and when it doesn't go well, it can be deeply wounding. On the other hand, some people are very confident – and can bounce back from those experiences and move onto the next one – which is an amazing skill that's celebrated in the business community and perhaps a bit exaggerated. I think it's more common that entrepreneurs struggle with those experiences, but unfortunately, they come with the territory of setting a lofty vision and making it a reality. I think a key skill for an entrepreneur is to observe your self-talk. Don't back away from uncomfortable experiences and manage your self-talk to personalize things less. Try and remember that whatever happens, you will handle it. It's just another problem that needs solving. That approach will help you manage the highs and lows of entrepreneurship.
V: What innovation or trend is exciting to you currently in the industry?
MM: I think the pandemic has further inspired our desire to support local businesses, and that's important. I love seeing the work that Sobeys is doing to make it easier for customers to identify local products and give them a try. It’s a huge opportunity for those brands to get on the store shelves of a major retailer and prove they belong there.
Beyond that, I’ve seen an increase of importance for brands to be environmentally conscious. I'm proud of the sustainability commitments several of our alumni are taking on. For example, all Things Jill (cohort one) has launched a refillary in Calgary, Alberta, to reduce packaging. This summer has really shown the impact that climate change is having, especissally in Western Canada. We all need to do better.
V: If you had one piece of advice for someone who is in the beginning stage of their own business venture, what would it be?
M: Well, if you're a food entrepreneur, that's easy: sign up for From Concept to Market Sprint!
At the beginning stages of your business, it's important to move fast, but at the same time, be careful not to overinvest in your product. The cliché – measure twice and cut once – does apply here. Before spending lots of money on the fun stuff – the logo, the website, the packaging (well, at least, I think that's the fun stuff) – work hard to validate the product. Sell at markets, send out surveys to friends and family that meet your criteria for a target customer, and test assumptions. Do the homework first, and then when it's ready, don't hold back.