Q&A with Professor Sean Wise: Is your business idea hot or not?

“For all the artsy students, the number one defining factor of startups in 2012 is design… This book is really about choosing which place to put your most scarce resource, and today, this resource is ourselves.”
Photograph by
Shanene Lau for Ryerson Folio.

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[F]or those of you who are unfamiliar with the entrepreneurial and business side of Ryerson University, you may also be unfamiliar with Sean Wise. To say the very least, he is an expert on venture capital, an industry adviser for CBC’s Dragons’ Den, a writer of three books (Wise Words: Lessons in Entrepreneurship & Venture Capital and How to be a Business Superhero), the founder of VenCorps.com, and a professor of entrepreneurship at Ryerson. His newest book has been released recently, and is called Hot or Not: How to Know if your Business Idea will Fly or Fail. It is being used by Ryerson students and is quickly circulating around to other universities. Wise, 42, talks about hot new trends in business, asking the right questions, and taking calculated but visionary risks, an essential element in entrepreneurship and life.

What made you interested in venture capital, and how would you define it for those unfamiliar?
Venture capital is about using money to grow high growth startups. I got into it because I was interested in entrepreneurship at a very young age. By the time I graduated university (Carleton University and the University of Ottawa), having studied engineering, economics, law and business, venture capital seemed to be a great opportunity for me to work with startups and not be stuck with one 24/7.

Why and how did you decide to become a professor at Ryerson?
I didn’t look into the job here. I was asked to be a judge at a business plan competition. During that competition, I leapt to my feet, took a white board marker, and tried to explain a concept that the presenter was getting completely wrong. Little did I know that in the audience were both the Associate Dean Neil Wolff and Professor David Schlanger, who looked at each other and apparently went “Hmm?” They invited me to be an instructor, and then pursue my PhD. As for why, Ryerson allows me to have all the upsides of employment but still be entrepreneurial and carry on venture capital practice. I love Ryerson; Ryerson is the entrepreneurship hub.

What do your parents do?
Neither of them went further than high school. My mother is a real estate broker, she runs a company of more than 100 real estate people, building it from nothing. My father is in car sales.

And did this have an impact on your career?
Absolutely. They have been entrepreneurs since the day I was born. If I wanted my allowance I would participate in business contests. I came up with an idea that my mother as a real estate agent would walk along Yonge Street and feed the parking meters where the cars were about to be fined. Then she would leave on their windshields a replica ticket, which on the back said a little poem that said “I came by, I saw that you were about to get a ticket, I put in a quarter for you, please use that quarter next time to call me if you need a house.” It was a huge success. Having to come up with these ideas was the foundation of my entrepreneurship.

Knowing your love for comic books, what would you say your superhero strength and weakness is?
I always tend to look at it like Stan Lee, the founder of Marvel Comics, and the creator of [many comic books including] X-Men, the Hulk and Spiderman. I had an opportunity to talk to him, and we did a whole piece on attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorders, learning disabilities, and whether those disabilities are really superpowers in disguise. I grew up with very severe learning disabilities, and it was very difficult to accomplish anything. But that also turned out to be my strength, because of my tenacity, perseverance, and because of the way I think being so different than the majority of people. I’ve been able to maximize that. I still have ADHD but now I have four jobs, instead of one. I have to be stimulated. I wrote the most recent book because six months ago my data for my PhD got delayed. I didn’t have anything to write, so I wrote this book.

Tell us about your new book. How would you get a different audience other than business-lovers to read it?
Everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. At least those who have an appetite for risk, and can tolerate even a little bit of risk. For all the artsy students, the number one defining factor of startups in 2012 is design. Apple’s whole innovative strength wasn’t on the technology, or even on the diversity of the technology, it was on the design. I find myself more and more integrating with designers and the more “artsy-types.” This book is really about choosing which place to put your most scarce resource, and today, this resource is ourselves. Our time, our energy. On Dragon’s Den, I got really tired of people getting upset because they were told the truth. This book is meant for you to ask yourself the right questions. Entrepreneurship is the third hardest job in the world. Why make it harder by backing a bad idea? It’s hard enough backing a good idea.

What’s the first and second hardest job?
The first is being a parent. The second, being a spouse. I’m just learning it now myself.

In today’s day and age, what do you think are some hot new startups or trends in business ideas?
I think we are still about democratizing the world through the Internet. I think we are still seeing whatever industries haven’t been revolutionized through the Internet now becoming there. For example, book publishing has gotten very hot again. We are moving from an industry where one or two people decide whose book gets published, to having everyone publish their own books and buyers will decide. I also still continue to believe in collective intelligence through the Internet. What will I learn through tweets? I continue to see a convergence between LBS (location based services) and social. Social says your friends like this book, and you might like this book. LBS says you are at the bookstore, and you should buy this book because your friends like it. As we move to handsets, location becomes more relevant.

What are the top three characteristics of bad pitches?
The top reason that bad pitches don’t work is because there is no competitive differential. There’s nothing different, there’s no reason why what you’re doing is really different than what’s already out there. iTunes was successful because it had ten times the speed that HMV or a record store would have. You want a song? You got a song. You want the most obscure “William Shatner sings the blues?” It’s on iTunes. Number two: there’s nothing more than an idea. Ideas are cheap; execution is hard. Finally, number three: they are solving a really small problem. I have no doubt that there is a market for hair extensions for dogs, but unless you’re doing it on the Internet, the market isn’t big enough to justify doing it.

Do you have any advice for your students or other students wanting to get into entrepreneurship?
A lot of people ask me what do I think of all those losers who watch Dragon’s Den with stupid ideas. I almost always say the same thing: I don’t think that they’re losers. I just think who is more of a loser, the person that tries and fails, or the person that never gets off the couch? You always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. People have to be willing, especially when they’re young when they don’t have outward fiscal responsibilities, to take the risks and dream big.

mmatsuda@ryersonfolio.com