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Catching up with Concept Coach: Ashley Keefner

A resource we launched in the Fall is a network of coaches that give University of Waterloo students directions on their entrepreneurial journey. We have a short blurb about each coach (there are currently 17!) and their expertise published on our website, but wouldn’t it be great to get to know them better? Well, look no further! Our Concept blogger sat down for a candid chat with Ashley to talk about her entrepreneurial experience and what being a Concept Coach is all about.

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Ashley Keefner

Interview with Ashley

This interview was conducted by Nicole Smedley. Some answers have been edited to be more concise.

You’ve got a pretty unique and interesting educational background combining science, business and arts, right?
Yeah! First, I did an Honours Bachelor of Arts and Science with majors in Physics & Philosophy and a minor in Mathematics at the University of Windsor. After that, I came to Waterloo and did my Masters and Ph.D. in Philosophy and a Grad Diploma in Cognitive Science. Then finally, I did my Masters of Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology (MBET), which is similar to an MBA, but instead of focusing on the “A” (administration), you focus on the “E” (entrepreneurship). It’s all about applied learning. You either bring a venture you’re working on to the program or you start one in the program. Everything you learn – finance, strategy, marketing – you apply directly to your company to build and grow it throughout your time in the program.

You were the co-founder and CEO of CataLight. Can you tell me a bit about that experience?

I started CataLight with my two co-founders during my MBET degree and our goal was to increase access to safe drinking water by developing a water filter for families in low-resource areas.  We worked on it as much as we could for the first year while we were still in school full-time. After graduation, we worked on the company full-time for about a year before I dissolved the company this past summer. That’s part of the cycle of startups. Everyone thinks of the cycle as “start, build, grow, exit”, and it’s great when that happens, but the cycle also often includes being able to make the call of when to shut things down. The reality is that starting a startup involves playing a game where the odds are stacked against you, and regardless of whether your startup becomes successful or fails, it’s really hard…but it’s also addictively rewarding!

With CataLight, we got to a point where I could see that we weren’t going to be able to build the solution our customers really needed. Of course, it was difficult to come to that conclusion because I was (and still am) super passionate about the problem we were trying to solve. Deciding to shut down was the best business decision I could have made, so I’m proud that I was able to come to that conclusion, even though it was difficult. The reality is most startups will fail. However, it’s still really important that entrepreneurs take risks and start new companies. There are going to be startups that succeed, and it’s also a process you can definitely learn and get better at. Going through a startup the first time has definitely taught me a lot and given me a lot of skills that I’ll use in my next startup.

How was Concept/Velocity involved with CataLight in its early stages?
While working on CataLight, my co-founders and I got connected to a business advisor at Velocity and we ended up joining Velocity Science (now evolved to a program called Concept Science). There we had access to lab space, but more importantly, we had access to business advisors who we met with on a regular basis. This was incredibly helpful in those early stages, as it gave us some more direction and guidance from people who really knew what they were doing, both on the science and business sides. After graduation, we went into the Velocity Garage (now called Velocity Incubator), where we worked on the company full-time until I dissolved the company.

Concept and Velocity offer so many resources to both students and early-stage startups, but in my opinion, the single best resource that they offer is being a member of their community. Having access to desk space, lab and workshop space, connections to experts, the advisors, etc. is all really helpful for early-stage startups, but for me, the biggest advantage is the ecosystem of other entrepreneurs. All of the founders are working on really cool and important problems and they’re all doing really impressive things! As a part of that community, you get to learn from founders around you, especially those who are a few steps ahead of you and have been through the same challenges that you’re facing, but who are still very familiar with where you’re at.  It’s awesome!

How did you get involved as a Concept coach? 
When Concept launched, I saw an opportunity for me to pass on my knowledge and experience to other early-stage founders and to students who may not yet be working on something, but are interested in entrepreneurship and not quite sure how to get started. From there it was a no-brainer because I know how helpful passing along that learning can be. I also genuinely enjoy jumping in and out of the different businesses and ideas UWaterloo students are working on – they’re doing incredible things.

How does a coaching session normally go?
It varies quite a bit. Some students know they’re interested in entrepreneurship, but they don’t know where they should start. And that’s great! I love having those conversations. We’ll dig a little bit more into their goals, talk about what they want to do, and provide a framework for the next steps. I also meet with students on the total opposite end of the spectrum. For example, someone might come in and say “Hey, I have an opportunity for my company to meet with this really important potential customer or strategic partner. How do I approach this?” and then we’ll spend the time going through how to prepare for that meeting. Anything related to entrepreneurship is fair game when booking a coaching session. I also tend to refer a lot of the students I meet with to book sessions with other coaches based on where I see a fit between a particular coaches’ background and what the student may be working on. That’s the beauty of Concept’s network of coaches – we all have startup experience, but we also offer our own unique perspective based on our individual backgrounds.

So now that you know a bit more about Ashley and coaching sessions in general, why not book one for yourself and see what all the fuss is about?! Our network of Concept coaches is extensive and they have a wealth of experience they love to share. Whether you need advice on your startup idea, some guidance on next steps, pitch coaching, or just general inquiries about how to get your foot in the entrepreneurial door, they can help!