The accelerated digital transformation brought on by the pandemic means that startups must in turn quickly pivot their business models to the new normal, but these challenges also open up opportunities for entrepreneurs to respond.

That’s a key message heard during a recent Canadian Club Toronto virtual panel focused on advice and best practices for Canadian startups and how to set women entrepreneurs up for success.

Five years worth of change has taken place in five months and the ability to pivot and be resilient is going to be important for the road ahead, said President and CEO of Tangerine Bank, Gillian Riley, who participated in the panel with Google Canada’s Vice-President and Country Manager Sabrina Geremia and moderator Arati Sharma, Director of Product Marketing at Shopify.

This pivot, which has had to take place in many aspects of our lives, can be complicated and scary, but it can also present an opportunity,” said Riley, who is also the Executive Sponsor of The Scotiabank Women Initiative™.

Virtual panel: Canadian start-ups - Advice and Best Practices
Video, Virtual panel: Canadian start-ups - Advice and Best Practices

“It really forces people to find new and compelling ways to create value for customers,” she said. “So, if you can find a niche that is somehow compelling, that could be a new thing or something that's reinvented, now is a great time. I think creative and innovative juices flow even more in these kinds of times.”

The way we all live and work has shifted and the opportunities to create new points of value will help innovation to thrive – a component which will be key as we navigate through the pandemic and build resiliency, Riley added.

“Resilient people immediately look at the problem and say what's the solution to that what is this trying to teach me,” she said, referring to a quote that resonates with her during these difficult times.

Image of Tangerine CEO Gillian Riley

Tangerine CEO Gillian Riley said five years worth of change has taken place in five months and the ability to pivot and be resilient is going to be important for the road ahead while participating at the panel.

It’s a challenging endeavour to get a start-up off the ground in general, but even more so during a pandemic. The coronavirus has also triggered an economic crisis that has disproportionately impacted industries where women are more prevalent, such as travel and tourism.  

However, Geremia said this could be “the best time ever” to start a business.

“The tea leaves are pretty clear on what are the sectors that are really booming and where there’s a lot of unmet opportunity… There are so many interesting areas that are emerging,” she told the panel.

She pointed to Airbnb and Uber, which were both born out of the 2008 financial crisis, as examples.

“What is so great about the time that we are in now as difficult as it is — and again I really want to emphasize that this is difficult for so many of you — is the barriers to starting a business have never ever been lower,” Geremia said.

For example, companies today can leverage infrastructure on the cloud or look to companies such as Shopify to set up a professional e-commerce platform, she noted.

Still, the fundamentals needed to start a business remain the same, Geremia added, which include an amazing strategy, a leadership vision and funding.

The leadership component is crucial to securing funding, said Riley, who founded The Scotiabank Women Initiative after seeing the various challenges faced by women-led businesses in securing capital. The initiative, which started in December 2018, committed to allocate $3-billion in funding for women-led businesses over its first three years and has to date deployed two-thirds of its commitment.

When making a pitch to potential funders, it’s key to outline who the people are who are going to make this vision happen and instill confidence that it will all come together, Riley said.

“To me, that’s the most critical in enabling a successful pitch. To get across your leadership and your ability to drive through to the end.”

Tangerine CEO Gillian Riley’s key pieces of advice for start-ups:

  • “Having very simple, straightforward, no jargon and transparent pitches that go through the information in a very succinct way is critical.”
  • “Being real about what are the risks that exist or what the risks are to success-being open about that is really important. And having good answers on how you mitigate those.”
  • “Bringing forward the confidence and the leadership to demonstrate that you as the business founder can drive and execute against what you’re saying… To me, that’s the most critical in enabling a successful pitch.”
  • “Do a practice run before you go for your pitch.”  
  •  “Don't get discouraged. Keep going.”