From the outside looking in—Bernie Li | Building Blocks 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 Brendan Herjavec of the Building Blocks Podcast on a recent episode, and sheds some light on his entrepreneurship path, the concept of the “power rule” in investing, the founder mentality, and what it means to truly be a “good” founder.

antler-canada

Antler in Canada

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

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 Brendan Herjavec of the Building Blocks Podcast on a recent episode, and sheds some light on his entrepreneurship path, the concept of the “power rule” in investing, the founder mentality, and what it means to truly be a “good” founder.

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.

Venturing Into Venture

Bernie has had many chapters of his career, including private equity and consulting. The venture chapter of his story, however, began in New York, in 2001, and then Montreal a few years later, where he first experienced the joys of founding. He had started initially in the energy sector, seeing great success in Ontario and the United States. He experienced every part of the “curve” with this startup; the founding, the funding, the executing, and then finally the exiting. Having grown a keen interest in the investment aspect of startups, Bernie took on some smaller-scale angel investing of his own. This change in role granted him a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Canadian economy as a whole, and the ways in which it is or isn’t conducive to the world of entrepreneurship. 

Today, having spent many years chasing that passion and interest, Bernie is a GP at Antler Canada, where he wholeheartedly strives to serve the mission of scaling startups and introducing them to the exact types of resources and networks that can help them reach their maximum levels of potential. 

“Antler has a mission to service exceptional people that are looking to find the next generation of highly ambitious companies - VC scale companies.”

The Right Place And The Right Time

The conversation kicks off with a discussion on Canada, and how it has become an increasingly appealing investment destination for all sorts of industries. Bernie addresses this shift by referencing the “evolution of the Canadian innovation system”. With paradigm shifts in the mentalities of both investors and innovators themselves, the investment landscape becomes ripe with opportunities for both players to engage in deals that are both meaningful to them, and are able to create high levels of value for customers, thereby satisfying every involved party. The emergence of unicorn companies in Canada further delivers conclusive answers on the direction in which Canadian business is headed; gone are the days where Blackberry and Nortel were the only headlining names. Within the last five years, about 15 or so new companies have been created that are able to compete with the legacy left behind by these giants. 

“Instead of saying “Hey I’m just gonna go buy a cottage and go retire and live the good northern life”, they’re coming back in and building a second or third company.”

Bernie further introduces the idea of second or third time entrepreneurs who choose to re-enter the startup space, that have experienced “hypergrowth” in the traditional investment-friendly areas, such as the Bay area or New York. They enter the environment where they bring their pre-existing expertise and comfort with the process, and proceed to accomplish something significant, thereby changing the face of investment in Canada altogether. 

A Welcome Surprise

Bernie reveals that after working in venture for 9 years without having founded a company, that he thought he had a strong sense of what he was getting into, and had learned what he needed to through stories. He then immediately admits that it “went away after day 3”. However, despite the general unfamiliarity from the opposite end of an investment table, Bernie found that there were a few pleasant surprises, as certain aspects remained simpler than he initially anticipated. The fundraising transaction process, for instance, was smoother given his prior experience as a VC. There is certainly no loss of difficulties when it comes to finding complex, herculean tasks as a founder, but not all of it has to be a difficult experience. 

An Open Mind

An important aspect of entrepreneurship is to be able to consider circumstances and facts, and use them to try to anticipate future conditions to the best of one’s ability. As such, the careful management of expectations becomes key, which is something that Bernie can speak to, as someone who coaches entrepreneurs to optimize this precise skill set. He proposes that all aspects need to be taken into consideration when shaping a formal “vision”;  are goals aligned with what suppliers can promise? Is the regulatory regime feasible to continue forth with? Learning and problem solving skills must be honed, as they will be employed on the go, always, as an entrepreneur.

With regards to founder mentality itself, Bernie calls upon his experience with Antler cohorts, who he believes in providing the most recent information with respect to how easy or difficult it truly is to secure funding in the grand scope of a macro environment. In the current market environment, VCs tend to take a longer time to make decisions. Company valuations continue to be a contentious area, with a number being considered as “reasonable” or “unreasonable” changing at the drop of a hat. As such, it is important to remain fluid and with the times; an entrepreneur must be flexible, adaptable, and open minded to grow their business in such climates.

Scaling Up And Growing Up

Bernie sheds some light on what the differences are between a “business” and a “venture scale business”, which he credits as a foundational differentiation factor for founders to make. He also expands upon the concept of the “power rule”, explaining that a common investment model is to put eggs in multiple different baskets, invest in a variety of companies, and use the successful investments to offset the losses incurred by the unsuccessful ones–with a surplus remaining at the end, of course. The highest performing investments from an investor perspective are the ones at the far tail end of the “success” side of the distribution; those truly remarkable startups that are so exceedingly rare, with outstanding potential to go big.

From an Antler perspective, the most “investable” part of a startup are the founders themselves. As such, certain characteristics are an absolute must when it comes to entrepreneurs: complete commitment to their work, a sharp and keen sense of intelligence, and the “hustle” mindset driven by passion, among others, stand out. However, while these traits do indicate promise and potential, where a founder is in their own personal life also is imperative to consider. Are they able to dedicate themselves to their startup? Are they in a place where they can join forces with a co-founder and work collaboratively towards a shared vision? These are all important questions to ask–and answer–when investing in people.

“Finding that right person who has great talent but also is at the right stage of their life? That part is so hard to solve for.”

Bernie goes on to draw a parallel between strong entrepreneurship and certainty. He suggests that since there is so much risk and ambiguity when founding a company, the process of growing a startup is the process of building increasing levels of certainty for yourself. As such, there may be some people who are better suited for the founder path quite naturally, whereas others may prefer a more risk-averse approach. Moreover, an important extrapolation to make is that there is no cohesive, accurate answer to “What does a good entrepreneur look like?”, as that title is earned entirely through personality and individual characteristics. Removing bias is a necessary initial step to take when deciding who is “good” at being a founder.

Hindsight Powers Foresight

Bernie admits it freely; there is no one trick to being humble if you’ve seen a lot of success. 

He does, however, propose carrying forward the “day 0 mindset” with you, regardless of what stage you may be with your startup, and to always perceive situations and happenstances as opportunities to learn, and experiences to inform future decisions with. Bernie also offers a reminder of the weight of luck and timing in deciding upon an outcome. While preparedness and action have direct and positive correlation to success, and constitute as musts for any founder, ultimately they are not guarantees of any sort of future. Everyone remains, ultimately, at the mercy of forces that they cannot control, and there is no way to know if they were in or out of the favor of a founder until after a startup has been launched.

“I personally don’t take the view that I know it all–in fact, the older you get, the more you realize how little you know.”

While arrogance is likely to lead to a downfall, a small streak of crazy might be quite necessary indeed–any entrepreneur can only back their ideas confidently if they feel like they have an idea that might change the world, or parts of it. In the spirit of this passion, Bernie declares it is best practice to “have strong views, but weakly held”, meaning that being passionate and taking stances are qualities to be celebrated, but it is equally as important to be able to change your own mind if you encounter data or life experiences that suggest a mindframe contradictory to your original one. The ability to change is arguably one of the biggest strengths one can have, regardless of whether they are a founder or not.

One trait that Bernie chooses to emphasize in particular, however, if the propensity to learn firsthand. Heuristic experiences are the best sort, and “doers” tend to outpace people who are only “ideators” - at any point of the founder journey, it is important to be a doer.

Finding A Founder

Typically someone who is looking for a co-founder will enter the field with a laundry list of skills that someone must possess in order to offset areas that they might not have expertise in. While this is a strategic approach to finding a co-founder, the first conversation should likely be about some of the more “intangible” aspects of human connections–ideals, values, morals. This stage should consist of exploring each others’ “why” when it comes to all things entrepreneurship. Why are you looking to start a business–to enjoy a founder journey, or is does it come from a burning urge to solve a problem? When these aspects don’t align, you run the risk of discovering opinion-altering differences years down the line that can considerably change the sort of relationship shared with the co-founder. 

“First of all, you’ve got to ask–do you actually understand yourself?”

 

According to Bernie, experiential exploration is a possible way, outside of conversations, to get to know prospective co-founders. Small day-long activities or challenges done together can give valuable insight on commonalities and differences with regards to thought process, work styles and habits, communication tendencies, etc., which all come together to serve as the base of any strong co-founder relationship. 

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.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get the latest news and views from Antler’s global community

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Must-read articles from Antler

Browse our collection of founder stories, industry insights and latest startup successes from Antler Australia

See articles
Insights
5 min read
Introducing Canada's Next Big Thing: A blueprint for future entrepreneurs

Exciting news for entrepreneurs ready to leave their mark: We've launched a pivotal initiative that spotlights the diverse opportunities within Canada's thriving industries.

Our report curates pivotal problem statements from Canada's leading tech visionaries, founders, and VCs, offering aspiring entrepreneurs a pathway to impactful innovation.

Discover 20+ big opportunities pinpointed by top Canadian minds, spread across six fast-growing industries. Each challenge is an invitation to create and innovate—leading the way to the future.

We hope it will serve as a roadmap for aspiring founders ready to build tomorrow's solutions today.

Insights
5 min read
Invest in women: fast-track progress

Making progress a certainty—our north star goal at Antler—can’t happen if driven and visionary people aren’t firing at all cylinders with the support they need to tackle the pressing problems of our time. We’re marking International Women’s Day by asking women founders and team members in Antler’s global community why women are essential to progress.

Insights
5 min read
How to secure venture capital as an underrepresented founder

There is growing recognition that diverse founders and diverse teams generate more innovative solutions, ultimately building stronger businesses in the long run. Read Antler in the UK portfolio director Sarah Finegan's recent article in Startups Magazine, offering 10 tips on securing venture capital as an underrepresented founder.

Insights
5 min read
From day zero to greatness: Magnus Grimeland on the Capital Allocators podcast

How can the world tackle the increasingly complex problems of our time? With a new global infrastructure backing the most driven founders. Listen to Antler founder and CEO Magnus Grimeland discuss this—and why we're building Antler—on the Capital Allocators podcast.

News
5 min read
Antler expands into Queensland, Australia

Antler is charting a new course for innovation by expanding our presence in Australia. We are launching in Queensland and partnering with the Queensland Investment Corporation (QIC).

Supported by the Queensland Government's Queensland Venture Capital Development Fund (QVCDF), the partnership is poised to transform the state's innovation sector. With a focus on bridging the early-stage funding gap, Antler and QIC are committed to attracting and nurturing the nation's top talent, driving forward Queensland's position on the global innovation stage.

Insights
5 min read
Bridging startups and industry leaders to drive purposeful innovation

As Jeff Bezos once said: “What’s dangerous is to not evolve.” While most business leaders understand that stagnation is fatal, for a host of reasons established companies often struggle to innovate—purposefully and powerfully.

Antler’s Business Development and Collaborations Group helps global corporates drive innovation excellence through high value-generating collaborations with Antler’s 1,000+ (and growing) global startup portfolio. In our collaboration with Investa, a leading Australian real estate investment manager and developer, we are connecting them to our global community of founders and the cutting-edge solutions they are building.

Read more about the powerful outcomes that happen when ambitious startups and industry leaders come together.

Insights
5 min read
The next wave of innovation: 27 industry trends set to define 2024

What will innovation look like as we move deeper into 2024? What are the biggest industry trends that will define the coming year?

We asked our global network of Antler Operators—founders, sector leaders, CxOs, and VPs from companies including Roblox, Airtable, Shopify, Spotify, Affirm, DoorDash, Uber, Hubspot, and more, who offer 1:1 advice to Antler portfolio companies, giving them extra firepower to help fast-track their growth.

News
5 min read
Antler leads $5.1M pre-seed funding for 37 startups across Southeast Asia

This marks the highest number of pre-seed deals completed in a single round in the region.