SilkStart is a Victoria, BC-based startup focused on simplifying member management for organizations of all sizes. SilkStart’s tools include solutions to manage members, memberships, event tickets, donations, jobs, invoicing, payments, communication, as well as web-based software to create modern, mobile-friendly websites.
SilkStart aims to disrupt the multi-billion dollar association management vertical in North America, and is fast becoming a leader in cloud software for member-based organizations.
We recently chatted with SilkStart’s CEO Shaun Jamieson about where the business idea came from, SilkStart’s culture, what he looks for when hiring, his tips for bouncing back in tough times, the founders he admires, and the lessons he learned from his past ventures.
Where did the idea for SilkStart come from?
SilkStart was born out of a desire to help non-profit associations. These small businesses needed tools to operate in the modern world: a website, database, the ability to send newsletters, accept online payments, event tickets, etc. Pretty basic stuff really, yet the market lacked a truly great product that did all these things in a connected platform at a reasonable price. That’s where we come in.
How did you come up with the name?
I didn’t come up with the name myself, but it came from the idea of The Silk Road, the historical trade route or network that linked people together. The goal in founding SilkStart was to provide a network or platform that linked members of an association together.
How would you describe your culture?
We work and play as a team and we’re all determined to make SilkStart succeed. We respect one another. Everyone is important and valued and there isn’t a log of ego. We value diversity knowing it makes us stronger. We’re constantly trying to improve our product, our service, and ourselves. We all want work/life balance, so we offer flexible schedules.
People are encouraged people to run with things. If you see something that can be improved, just go do it. We also don’t blame people for bringing forward bad news. Everyone is a part-owner and is encouraged to think like an owner. We also spend casual time together: sharing a meal, a drink, or playing board games — lots of board games.
What do you look for when hiring?
I look for quite a lot when hiring. I look for people who are smart and have a great attitude first and foremost. In a small team, they also need to fit our culture: good person, minimal ego, wants to roll up their sleeves, work hard, and make a difference… you know, someone who gets shit done.
I also want people who are superstars along some dimension and have upside growth potential (so they can grow as the company grows). I often ask the team in interview debriefs, “How are we better as a company with this person on board?”, “What will we learn from them?” and “Along what dimension are they a superstar?” If we can’t answer these questions with strong answers, then we pass on the candidate.
Who are the entrepreneurs that inspire you?
I’m mostly inspired by other startup entrepreneurs who are still at early stage. Yes, Elon Musk definitely inspires me, but not in the same way as other entrepreneurs. I guess I like the people in the trenches making it happen — they’re closer to where we are, maybe just around the corner, and I find that inspiring.
Aside from that, if I had to name a name it would be Boris Wertz. I loved working for Boris at AbeBooks, and I’m grateful to have him as an investor in SilkStart. He inspires me because he is constantly upping his game. You’d think founding a startup, growing it and eventually selling it to Amazon would be enough, but that was just the start of his career. He moved on to become an angel investor, have his own fund, then a bigger fund, and he’s probably still just getting started.
Entrepreneurship comes with ups and downs. How do you motivate yourself in tough times?
As with life, entrepreneurship comes with lots of ups and downs. Whenever I’m feeling low I reflect on the progress I’ve already made. I think about each stage in the past where the way forward was particularly difficult or uncertain. I then think about how I overcame those challenges despite how difficult they seemed at the time. Remembering that helps me bounce back and face my next challenge.
Have you ever experienced failure?
Anyone who hasn’t failed, hasn’t tried very hard in life. I’m always failing forward. It’s a big part of how you learn and grow and get better. I read once that “success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” That sounds about right.
What has been your biggest challenge to date?
There are so many challenges to starting and operating a startup that I’m not sure if one stands out. As you get bigger, the challenges get bigger, so the ‘next’ challenge is usually my biggest one. Getting started was a big challenge, as was hiring a team, raising money, building software, finding customers, getting traction, building a company and a culture. All big challenges! That’s kind of what a startup is all about though: going from one big challenge to the next and getting better along the way.
What about your biggest win?
Our biggest win was when a large customer we signed in late 2014 on-boarded early this year. Until then we weren’t sure we could really make them happy with our product. There were definitely some bumps in the the road but we worked through them and are on a good track. It proved to us all we could win a big customer, and that we could keep them — and keep them happy. It was a huge win for the entire team.
What were the most important lessons you learned from building AbeBooks and FillZ?
I learned so much from Abe, FillZ, and Amazon. I learned:
- The value of hard work. Just like in a startup, working really hard was par for the course.
- You could be the little guy, and be smarter, and win.
- That focussing on the customer made a big difference and set you apart.
- Frugality. We bootstrapped our growth at FillZ, self-funding the team’s expansion at every stage.
- The value of having good metrics, and using them to help you make business decisions.
- That you need to build features but you also need to pay down technical debt.
- You must balance what your system needs to look like in two years against the resources you have to build it out today. This is where an experienced CTO really helps.
- The skills that got you into a position weren’t sufficient to keep you there. Everyone in a startup must constantly learn, develop and grow or they will get left behind.
- How to think big! I couldn’t propose an idea at Amazon unless it was at least a $1B market opportunity. That helped when I brought SilkStart to investors as I was used to pitching big ideas.
How would you describe the Victoria startup ecosystem?
It’s a beautiful city in an amazing location so its a wonderful place to build a business. It’s also a very entrepreneurial town by necessity. There aren’t a lot of other options so people start their own business. There’s a supportive community, with lots of meetups, networking events and co-working spaces. There’s a handful of really active local Angels and companies are getting funded at various stages. Also, there’s Viatec, a very active local tech association there to support and strengthen the community.
What’s the most impactful advice you’ve received?
It’s not advice per se, but one thing that really stuck with me was in Ben Horowitz’s book ‘The Hard Thing About Hard Things’ when he said something to the effect of: Remember that there are no silver bullets. Most, if not all of the time, you have to build your product the hard way, one step at a time. There is no other way.
Startups are a struggle, but the struggle is where greatness comes from. It’s refreshing to read something like that when you’re already trying to build a business the hard way.
Describe your company in 10 words or less
Open, collaborative, respectful, hardworking, fun, nerdy boardgame playing awesomeness.
What are you focussed on now?
We’re pushing forward on many fronts. We’re listening to customers, and through that improving our platform features and usability. We’re also building process everywhere to help us run faster and scale further, especially in our sales funnel, onboarding and support processes. Plus we’re focussed on adding customers and revenue and generating real traction. It’s a lot to do, but it’s what you have to do.
About Shaun Jamieson
Since graduating from BCIT’s Entrepreneurship program, Shaun has collected over 10 years of progressive experience across multiple verticals including telecom, industrial supply, E-commerce, and software as a service (SaaS). Shaun is a Canadian technology industry veteran, previously holding senior leadership roles at AbeBooks (acquired by Amazon), and FillZ (acquired by AbeBooks). Shaun is currently the CEO of SilkStart.