After helping more than a hundred First Nation Bands across Canada conduct a variety of mission-critical voting events including referendums and elections, one successful First Nations startup based in Victoria is providing safe and secure voting technology to professional associations across Canada.
Lawrence Lewis and his Victoria-based team behind the successful First Nations technology company OneFeather are getting ready to launch another new software product. SmartBallot is a voting registration and vote management tool that makes it easier for organizations to engage and communicate with membership, conduct mission critical voting events, carry out legitimate decision-making and reduce the costs and strain of administrative management.
In this interview, Lewis discusses some the lessons he's learned while building technology businesses on Vancouver Island.
How challenging has it been to launch a successful tech startup (OneFeather) on Vancouver Island?
Lawrence Lewis (LL): While OneFeather has been able to take advantage of a local Victoria accelerator program for startups, it has been very challenging. Compared to other tech startups, access to capital for First Nations early stage companies and young entrepreneaurs is essentially non existent.
Going out and raising capital is equally hard. This is because traditional VCs do not understand the First Nations space, and consequently cannot evaluate the very real opportunities that exist in this growing market.
On top of that, there are just not that many First Nations programmers or other highly qualified technical experts in emerging technologies or innovating new ones.
How has your team overcome these challenges?
LL: OneFeather’s approach has been to build our business one client at a time with a solid core product offering and value proposition. It takes a little longer to build up an inventory of clients, but by focusing on individual clients needs we have been able to develop trust and really strong word-of-mouth. We’ve built a service and product our clients will happily refer to others.
This approach has served OneFeather well, and has kept us lean and focussed on service and product development that truly matters to our clients.
You already have a successful career as an administrator and community leader. What made you decide to develop, commercialize and market your own software solution?
LL: At some point I had to make a choice. I had to decide: do I support, or do I lead?
Either choice makes sense, depending on who you are and what your goals are. But for me, running my own company and building a vision for something I believe in requires a certain fortitude and commitment. And it’s not for the faint of heart because there are a lot of ups-and-downs and mistakes along the way. You have to be prepared to learn and adjust all the time, and grow both as a person and as a company.
Building something new and disrupting elections, referendums and governance -- a space that has for the most part continued to oppressed First Nations people through its antiquated processes -- is something I am excited to tackle each and every day.
What has made your success so far possible?
Quite simply, building a company around aboriginal values and principles has made our success possible. We strive to lead with integrity. We speak the truth and stay solution focussed. These values not only ensure we provide a valuable service that facilitates sustainable governance and bringing communities together, but also helps us build a technology that customers trust so much they recommend to others.
What encouragement do you have for people with a First Nations or indigenous background who are considering an entrepreneurial path?
I am a big believer in hard work. Entrepreneurs must be focussed, and we must be determined.
Successful technology entrepreneurs must be smart about how we invest our precious, limited time. This means reading everything about the business you’re in, and surrounding yourself with good advisors and mentors.
We must also not be afraid to fail, which means we always need to be testing assumptions and what is regarded as “truth”.
Finally, we need to make sure that what we are working so hard toward is something that is inspiring, brings satisfaction and will leave the world or community a better place.
Lawrence Lewis, a technology entrepreneur based in Victoria, is the CEO of OneFeather. Lewis and his team will soon launch SmartBallot, a voting registration and vote management tool that makes it easier for organizations to engage and communicate with membership, conduct mission critical voting events, carry out legitimate decision-making and reduce the costs and strain of administrative management.