Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in business development but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Victor Li, Co-Founder and CEO of Onova, located in Toronto, ON, Canada.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
My name is Victor, and I'm the CEO of Onova. We are a 7-figure innovation consultancy that sells large-scale hackathons or "innovation sprints" to Fortune 500 companies. Our customers are the world's largest companies like McDonald's, HSBC, BMO, and Capgemini. We run innovation sprints of all sizes, from 8-hour single-day sessions to week-long marathons. And so far, we've had tens of thousands of employees from over 40 countries across the globe participate. These sprints aim to rapidly build new products, foster an innovation culture, and upskill employees on new technologies, all done at scale.
Over the years, we've since taken the profits of the consultancy and reinvested that into starting a micro venture fund investing in early-stage tech startups while also incubating a couple of software products of our own. One of those products is PokerGPT - the world's first AI poker coach. The other is a hackathon management and logistics platform that we often sell hand-in-hand with our innovation sprint services.
Tell us about yourself
My co-founder and I met each other in 2016 while working for a large global consulting firm, Capgemini. We started running community hackathons on the side and eventually saw the opportunity to take the model commercially to clients. We spent six months fundraising internally before raising enough money to turn the venture into our full-time jobs. A year and a half later, after running dozens of hackathons, we decided to spin it off as our own independent consultancy, which is what became Onova. We retained our clients and relationships from when we were operating within Capgemini. We are 100% independently owned and operated, and now Capgemini is both a client and partner in our business.
Our mission is to help foster an innovation culture within massive organizations so that they can build products that, in turn, impact millions of their customers. We do this by empowering and rewarding their top entrepreneurial employees through innovation sprints. We went through the journey ourselves as intrapreneurs in building Onova and have deep empathy for all the challenges that stunt innovation within huge organizations. It brings me a lot of joy to help corporate innovators find deep meaning and fulfillment in their work.
With us now investing and building multiple other ventures, our consultancy is evolving into a startup/venture studio model. This is incredibly fun as it's basically an entrepreneur's playground, testing and launching new ideas and seeing what sticks. It also ensures that we are keeping our own entrepreneurial muscles fresh as we continue to advise on and design innovation programs for clients.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
Since 2019, the business has been growing 50% YoY, and we just broke 7-figures last year! We've never done much sales; this growth was gained purely through referrals and reputation. I'm incredibly proud of the fact that our clients love working with us and champion our brand with their peers.
What's one of the hardest things that comes with being a business owner?
The hardest thing is the financial stress, uncertainty, and risk. We had a fairly smooth trajectory in the first four years of our business, but we had a tough start to the year when we lost 80% of our expected revenue, largely due to factors outside of our control. The team persevered, and we've managed to recover. Knowing that your business can decline significantly in any given year and maintaining a level head to power through and continue having conviction in what you're doing is not easy. Especially when you have employees dependent on you for their livelihood. Luckily, I've been a poker player most of my life, which has adequately prepared me for the swings of running a business. We manage this risk by maintaining a large amount of our overall financial portfolio in cash so that we have enough runway to survive the difficult periods. This strategy was especially prudent for us this year.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
- Just get started and put in the reps. My first startup failed after a year, and I made ALL the mistakes that countless peers and mentors advised against. There's no better way to learn than by doing the thing and falling flat on your face. The pain ensures the lesson is far more memorable. It took my 3rd attempt at starting a company before I had any level of success.
- Be customer-obsessed. Talk to customers, ask questions, do user interviews, and better yet, if you are a customer of your own product, you can have natural empathy for your customers. A great book on user interviews is "The Mom Test"; it helps you ask questions in a way that even your mom will give valuable insights!
- Find your tribe of peers, mentors, advisors, etc. I've had my co-founder, but outside of her, my journey in entrepreneurship has been quite lonely. Only now, over four years later, since the founding of Onova, do I feel like I have a more established group of peers who share my ambition and interests while also being a great sounding board.
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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