Unpacking entrepreneurship with U of T alumna and startup co-founder Christina Cai

Cai_1For Christina Cai, being an entrepreneur is like constantly shedding a layer of skin: it’s painstaking, it’s gruesome and it’s deliberate.

“Innovation is not accidental, it doesn’t matter how many stories say it is,” said Cai.

“Billion dollar unicorn companies don’t just happen because someone needed help paying the rent then boom: instant success. It doesn’t happen like that. There are iterations and iterations of painful and deliberate innovation.”

Cai and Anthony Lee are co-founders of Knowtions, a cloud-based platform that uses machine augmented human translation to translate highly complicated technical documents. The duo built their startup while completing their undergraduate degrees at U of T.

(Read more about Knowtions)

“We didn’t start out saying that we were going to innovate, or start with this great big idea,” recalls Cai. “We started out with a problem–technical translation–and slowly, every step that we took was a process of addressing different pain points for our clients.”

Cai spoke with writer Olivia Tomic and shared some insights about her entrepreneurial journey so far.

Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

There was no point where I decided to be a founder, or I decided to be an entrepreneur. It just kind of happened. But the analogy I like to make is entrepreneurship is like a muscle. When you’re in the startup game it’s like P90x 365 days a year. P90x is an intensive workout training program where in 90 days you’re supposed to become super fit. It’s incredibly intense and gruelling, and that’s what entrepreneurship is like except for your mind. It’s un-predictable and you’re always learning new things and changing. Our newest employee Alex Tomberg will tell you that since he started in December Knowtions has evolved so much in such a short span of time, and that’s what keeps me going. I know that I might not have the answers now, but in retrospect I will, and that’s what excites me about being an entrepreneur.

How did you balance completing your undergrad degree while running a startup?

If there’s one thing I’d like to emphasize it’s this: entrepreneurship is not a journey taken alone.

My co-founder Anthony and I were classmates during undergrad and throughout the process we were very open and collaborative when it came to balancing school and our startup. He understood when I needed to focus on one aspect of the equation, and vice-versa. You have to trust your co-founder with your life because essentially you’re trusting them with your career. Without Anthony, and now the rest of my team, I would not have been able to run a startup while finishing my undergrad. The team around you is why it’s all possible, there is nothing unless you have the right team.

What has been the greatest challenge you’ve faced as the co-founder of a startup?

Your greatest challenge is essentially yourself. You don’t really know what you’re doing and there’s no training manual for your job. On a day-to-day basis you give it your all and then some. There is no day where you can do the same thing you did a week ago and think that it’s good enough; it’s not. If you keep doing what you did last week, you’re not going fast enough.

What kind of support network do you have?

In terms of the business strategy, some of our best learning moments were the times that were also the most difficult. Advisors and investors pose really painful questions that sometimes you just don’t have the answer to. But those are the moments that make you look the hardest at yourself and your business. It’s a support network in the sense that they ask you the hard questions you need to advance your business.

But if you look in terms of the other support networks, U of T’s Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (BBCIE) is a great support network, the Department of Computer Science Innovation Lab (DCSIL) is another one, as well as the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE). The Toronto and Ontario innovation systems are able to connect you with resources so you have a bigger opportunity to innovate.

What advice do you have for fellow female entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurs face 100 times more challenges than average and odds are stacked against us by definition. For me, being a woman means sometimes we have to be 10 times more insistent when asking and 10 times more forceful when pitching. It’s not easy, but you have to believe you are just as capable as your male counterparts and you have to do what it takes to get it done. Awareness and change is happening, slowly but surely. At the end of the day, if you get the job done, then nobody will talk. You are being part of the change not just by saying, but by doing.