Day Zero Founders—Bernie Li | Toronto Starts Podcast

Founding a startup can be an incredibly tough process for any entrepreneur, no matter the experience level. To provide some insight into the entrepreneurship process, Bernie Li, General Partner at Antler Canada speaks with Craig Major of Toronto Starts on his podcast, and sheds some light on his own journey, the concept of “founder empathy”, trials and tribulations on the path to success, and some helpful advice on how to get your startup started.



Antler Canada

Toronto is Antler’s Canada’s first location. Since launching in 2022, Antler Canada has supported over 100 founders who are creating the next generation of startups.

Meet Bernie

Bernie combines his experience as a founder and investor to support entrepreneurs. He co-founded a technology-based startup in the solar sector that grew from its home base in Toronto to over two hundred employees with an additional office in San Francisco, serving customers across the USA and Ontario. That company was VC backed and had a successful exit to an NYSE-listed acquirer. His experience as an investor includes working with premier VC funds, in addition to angel investing. Helping entrepreneurs think about value creation and building relationships with the capital markets are ways that Bernie enjoys working with founders.

Getting Involved

Bernie talks about his childhood experience as an immigrant to Canada, which contributed to his academic performance and appetite for success, resulting in him pursuing finance professionally and eventually working on Bay Street. It wasn’t until he worked in management consulting in New York City in 1999 that he felt the initial spark of the boom of the internet age.

“There’s an incredible rush of energy. Like I said before, how much can the world be transformed here?”

Conversations with close friends and the changing global climate eventually led to Bernie’s attention being turned toward venture capital roles - which he began to work at the beginning of 2001. Combining his interest in tech with the venture capital space, he eventually returned to Canada, where he continued to invest in tech. He developed a keen knowledge and interest in the investment process along the way. His earliest experience as an advisor in any capacity was when he spoke with an entrepreneur, who asked for his advice. 

“I didn’t feel that I had the right or was justified to tell them what I think that they should do. I could tell them from an investor perspective what I thought.”

And just like that, the seed was planted.

From that point onwards, the business ideas turned into practicing businesses. Bernie went on to co-found his first startup in the solar energy sector in Toronto called Pure Energies. The business saw explosive results, becoming a leader in not only Ontario but also expanding with great success into the United States. Pure Energies was also Bernie’s first formal exit; the company was eventually sold in a strategic acquisition.

Supporting The Talent Of Today

Bernie opens by declaring that the founder's journey had definitely made him a different person than he would’ve been if he hadn’t ever embarked on it, to begin with. He highlights having greater “founder empathy”, and viewing the entrepreneurship process through a more holistic lens that allows him to focus on the economic benefits and potential of a company, and also on the entrepreneur founding it themselves.

“Prior to actually going through the fire, the gauntlet of starting your own company, it would be more theoretical. Analytical. You look at it more as an investment case; does it generate returns? Is it a hot sector? Now doing this after the fact, yes some of those initial questions are still taken into consideration, but I can now see things through the operator’s lens.”

He briefly touches upon the foresight he has gained; having experienced the different stages and levels of entrepreneurship, he can be more understanding of the exact place a startup or an entrepreneur may be in their journey, and give tailored advice on what to expect, or how to overcome time-specific difficulties and challenges.

Antler Does It Different

Bernie talks about Antler’s decision to support and invest in day 0 founders, and his founding process with partner Naman Budhdeo when it came to bringing Antler to Canada. They have a very aligned vision on who they want to invest in; highly ambitious founders who have a strong sense of passion in their vision, and a keen intelligence that feel confident that creating a startup is their next step.

"There’s a wave of entrepreneurship and innovation being created across the world.”

He talks about how Antler can provide a community of like-minded individuals with the same drive, and also offer the potential ability to find a co-founder that can help elevate business ideas. There’s further discussion about the team available to help support entrepreneurs over a 10-week period, give feedback on ideas, and offer advice. The global nature of Antler further helps foster connections past borders and provides unique insights from both local and foreign perspectives.

“We like to leverage the visibility that we provide, given that we’re a global platform.”

Preferences for investment are varied across the world, but Bernie describes Antler Canada as a “generalist” investor, with the willingness to consider a wide breadth of industries in their decision-making process. As such Bernie firmly believes that, the parameters that comprise a “perfect entrepreneur” don't exist; rather, he finds that common traits such as persistence, intelligence, and demonstrated problem-solving abilities are far better indicators of a strong entrepreneur worth investing in.

“We think that there are talented people that can reside anywhere in the world. And they don’t necessarily need to have the prototypical look and feel of the startup founders from the past 10-15 years ago.”

Breaking The Mold

Bernie opens with an example of a past resident in the Antler program that experienced statelessness. The individual was very driven and determined, however, and went on to achieve excellent levels of education and varied experiences professionally. This demonstrated persistence and problem-solving - two things Bernie consistently sees in entrepreneurs.

He then goes on to describe “the traditional three” types of entrepreneurs that he tends to see most frequently, with the first being a “tech builder” that has a strong understanding of the technological aspects of a business and is quick to provide tech solutions for issues that may arise. He follows this with a description of the “Consummate Hustler”, who is a strong storyteller and communicator, with a good sense of creating opportunities by connecting with others. The final archetype is the “Domain Expert” who has had extensive industry experience or has a significant academic understanding of an industry. He acknowledges that these buckets are not encompassing and that falling into one of these roles does not indicate success or failure.

“Antler thinks of itself as a sandbox for people who really want to ideate and build and experiment. We tend to look for people with a good bias to action, and spend a chunk of their time actually going out there.”

Respecting Your Timeline

Bernie elaborates on the aforementioned “Day 0 founder” investment mentality at Antler, and confirms that sometimes an entrepreneur doesn’t need to know what they want to tackle; just that they very passionately want to tackle something. Entrepreneurs a little bit later in their business life cycle are also a part of the Antler system, who have begun to formulate ideas or even get some proof of concept through research.

“It all ranges from “Hey I don’t know my idea”, to “I’ve started working on my M.V.P”- we see it all.”

If companies have started to generate very meaningful revenues, it is possible that Antler might not be the best fit, and the intention is to support truly early-stage entrepreneurs and get ideas up and running. The terms of investment are simple –$150,000 for 10%, standardized for all of Antler Canada. Even if an investment doesn’t materialize, he emphasizes the value that is created from undergoing the 10-week process with Antler, where relationships are formed and concrete, tailored advice is given to help.

“We’ve had founders that have gone through the program and have not received investments from the committee, and fast forward a couple of months, actually joined other Antler teams that have.”

Committed To Success

“The Antler experience is a full-time experience”

Bernie opens with this simple philosophy, stating that the level of dedication an entrepreneur demonstrates is a clear sign of their commitment. In a full-time program, there's an expectation that an entrepreneur brings their dedicated attitude with them when they undergo the Antler experience, and they must plan accordingly. Currently, the PR or VISA process is not supported by Antler, and applicants must, therefore, be PRs upon application. Newcomers and new immigrants are warmly welcomed and encouraged to apply if they have the ambition and passion.

“Those first couple of weeks and months are so difficult because you’re building something from nothing.”

He acknowledges that it is very easy to be discouraged throughout the entrepreneurial process and suggests that this is one of the great benefits of the Antler program; when a full-time effort is made, the level of feedback and support provided can help combat these negative feelings, and instead “turbo-charge” innovation and creativity. It also helps individuals be in a climate with others just like them, who have experienced the same triumphs and downfalls for a complete sense of community and belonging.

Advising The Future Creators

Bernie acknowledges that investment processes have been slowing down, and the momentum is shifting to the investor side. As such, his words of wisdom are simple:

“What I would say for first-time founders would be to get very clear on what you’re trying to build. What is the “why?” for what you’re building?”

He takes the lens of a first-time founder going after VC investments and advises them to understand how a VC thinks, or how their business model works for best results. He elaborates on the strategy in an easy-to-understand way, simplifying the process to the prioritization of returns to the “power law”; the companies that do succeed need to provide a strong enough ROI to compensate for the non-profitable investments, as well as provide additional returns overtop. Having a holistic understanding of this investor's thought process is key to a successful pitch.

If you want to become a startup founder, find the perfect co-founder and create impactful companies to shape the future, apply now and begin your Antler journey.

Interested in listening to the podcast? Watch it on YouTube.

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