By Joseph Mathieu
Photos by Chris Roussakis
On the final day of the gruelling entrepreneurial initiative Startup Weekend Ottawa, Frank O’Dea gave a keynote speech to more than 100 student entrepreneurs at Carleton University.
Best known as the co-founder of Second Cup, O’Dea was homeless in his early 20s but went on to become a serial entrepreneur, a celebrated philanthropist and an officer of the Order of Canada.
“Someone once asked me: ‘How much does it cost you to start a business?’ Everything you got,” he answered. He took many questions – about his current businesses, his failures, the biggest challenges in operating a business. The more he answered, the more hands went up.
“The three words every entrepreneur needs to know to succeed are hope, vision and action.”
When Second Cup launched in 1975, coffee shops were very different places than they are today. They were tiny operations that catered to people who bought specialty blends of beans, to be brewed at home or in restaurants.
Second Cup decided to differentiate its business with brewed coffee, allowing people to sample the blends, and charging more money than competitors. Today, there are 400 Second Cup shops around the world, despite many challenges, tough times and detractors.
At 21, O’Dea’s father kicked him out of his Montreal West home. Wrecked cars, bounced cheques, and many wrong decisions plagued the young man as he took up a sales job in Toronto. Alcoholism cost him that job, then others, and he found himself living in a flophouse.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t go any further,” he said. “I was trading off every value that my parents ever taught me. It felt like I traded off my entire soul.”
In 1971, on the corner of King and Yonge Streets, O’Dea’s life literally changed on a dime. A man handed him a dime that he decided to use to call an alcoholism support group. “You could say I built my whole life on that dime,” he said. The 26-year-old O’Dea left behind his lonely existence on the street and returned to working in sales. He met his business partner Tom Culligan when they both worked on a federal Liberal election campaign in Scarborough.
“You never know where you’ll find a partner. You find them by sharing ideas and talking to people,” he advised. “Find someone who agrees with what you’re doing. Others will pull you down, they won’t want you take the risk, but just keep telling your story until you find the right people.”
After O’Dea’s speech, five teams of entrepreneurs that formed over the weekend presented their progress on their products and business models to examine how each could compete in the marketplace.
The weekend was organized by Hatch, Carleton’s incubator program for student entrepreneurs, and Techstars, a network designed to help entrepreneurs bring their new technologies to market with funding and mentorship.
“The weekend was amazing,” said Rayhan Memon, one of Hatch’s programming directors. “What’s pretty incredible is to put about 45 people in one room and just let them work, make friends and come up with random ideas. It’s quite insane what they can accomplish.”