A100 members Elena Dumitrascu and Dan Giurescu are not your average co-founders

Posted by The A100 | October 3, 2019

Discover how co-founders and life partners Elena Dumitrascu and Dan Giurescu navigate trust, addiction to success, and barriers to innovation. 

Yours is such a wonderful journey — both as individuals and as co-founders. Tell me how you two started down this path. 

Elena: We started in different places, actually. Dan as a business major, and me in computer science. As co-founders, those different backgrounds ended up being incredibly complementary because we bounce ideas off of each other really well. And we were able to go from ideation to commercialization, just between the two of us. The first business we co-founded was a company called Caledonia Solutions. Dan loves to tell that story.

Dan: It was actually quite neat. A lot of people ask, “How do you come up with ideas” and “How do you know what you want to build?” Elena and another partner of ours in Caledonia were consulting with an energy company at the time, and so in this case, it was very much a challenge within an organization — looking for external opportunities of software to deploy and not finding something that actually fits the need of that specific challenge. Once they explored a little bit deeper they found that many companies had a similar problem that they were trying to solve. 

Our different backgrounds ended up being incredibly complementary because we bounce ideas off of each other really well.

So the two of them started on a quick journey of rapid prototype deployment to see how it actually fits and works in the field operation side. At the time, I was getting to know Elena personally and she was telling me about this idea. And I said, well, this is something that can definitely be scaled a lot further out, which I ended up helping with over the next six years. 

We went through quite a few of the typical startup journeys, where even writing the first written agreement was weird because we had never done one of those before for anybody else. It was quite interesting to discover how to create a setting that was very incentive driven. So that journey started back in 2009, and then the exit was 2016.

Elena: That was Dan’s fourth company, and it was my third. Dan’s strength is definitely in commercializing, taking to market and scaling up a company, whereas my strength complements that by looking after the solution and ensuring it’s as sound as possible.

You’re both coming at the entrepreneurial experience from different aptitudes but a similar motivation. Did you know right away — as soon as you got out of university, or even as kids — did you have your sights set on being your own boss from an early point in your life?

Elena: I actually had my first company in high school, and Dan’s was in university. My first company had nothing to do with tech. It was essentially a valet service. There wasn’t one in the town I lived and I hated destroying my shoes walking from parkades to a restaurant. So I said, you know, there have to be others like me who do not enjoy this experience. If you’re going out for a nice dinner, you should be able to valet if there’s no nearby parking. So I created a valet service when I was 17-years old. I had employees, I had insurance — the works. It was quite fun.

I can believe it. I bet there weren’t many of your friends in high school who had their own legitimate companies.

All my employees were men.  Demanding respect from them was quite challenging in the beginning.

Elena: No, there weren’t!  And it was really interesting because all my employees were men.  Demanding respect from them was quite challenging in the beginning. They wanted to go race these beautiful cars up and down the main street of our town. Obviously I wasn’t going to let that happen. Eventually I had somebody make me an offer and they bought that business — and the business continues to this day. 

That’s fantastic, I love that. And Dan, what was your company in university?

Dan: I started in computer science and then I completed my degree in business. I recognized pretty early on I was never going to be the software developer that some of my colleagues were going to be [laughs]

To be honest, the biggest challenge for me was affordability and accessibility to textbooks you needed in the classroom. So we designed a software that would take a cell phone video camera scan and — back then HTC phones were the ones with the highest strength cameras — we would read the ISBN numbers off the back of textbooks and through our proprietary search engine find the closest buyer. We really hustled. We would go down to every thrift shop that you could find and buy bookshelves worth of books, and then sell them at an average of $22.

Elena: They started with textbooks but then they went into old, rare books. There was no Amazon back then. So they created their own online store for their own pre-Amazon Amazon.

Dan: When Amazon opened up it was pretty neat, actually, because it was still open from a backend perspective. So we could then start doing things like analyzing sales of textbooks in certain jurisdictions, whether in Canada or the US, and seeing the average price and who buys what. And then it was kind of weird to walk into classrooms at the end of the semester and, with $5k in cash, just wait as people exited and ask them, hey, do you want to sell your book for cash? [laughs] 

Anyway, it was a beautiful experience. Actually, last year I was in Houston working with one of our oil and gas clients, and this student intern was talking about people selling books online and using a system like this. And I thought, well, isn’t that interesting? It’s 15 years or 20 years later, and the model still exists. It’s amazing. 

So given that both of you were accustomed to running your own show, what can you tell me about the adjustments or learnings that you made when you decided to be co-founders and to jointly run a business?

Even some investors who say they’ll never invest in a couple/co-founders, after working with us, they realize we are not your typical husband and wife, co-founder team. 

Elena: There was actually no adjustment for us. Dan and I have a relationship that allows us to complement each other. Don’t get me wrong, we do have differences of opinion on a number of things. But we come from a place of deep respect for each other, and that’s always prevented us from having issues, even as husband and wife and definitely as co-founders. So that’s never, ever happened which, to our other partners always comes as a surprise. Even some investors who say they’ll never invest in a couple/co-founders, after working with us, they realize we are not your typical husband and wife, co-founder team. 

So it’s never really impacted us. There was no adjustment in that sense. I’ve never been a solo-preneur, and neither has Dan. We’ve always had partners in our ventures. 

Dan: That is a big difference, isn’t it? 

Elena: Yeah. Even in Caledonia, I was working with a partner before Dan came in. In TerraHub there were three of us from the beginning, now there’s four. So we’ve always had partners. We recognize that although we complement each other really well, there are many hats you need to wear in a business. There’s no point in trying to do it all because you’ll end up doing a terrible job across the board.

That sounds like a piece of advice you’d share when you’re mentoring and advising other startups that are in a co-founders situation? 

Elena: Absolutely. We talk about making sure that you really know everything about your partner before getting in business. And once you know everything about your partner, it ultimately boils down to how much you respect that individual, because you’re going to constantly make mistakes. If you don’t come from a place of deep respect for your partner, those mistakes become an opportunity for fingerpointing, and then everything falls apart. 

A company is only as strong as the people in it. It’s as they say: if you have a great idea, then 10 other smart people are having that same idea at the same time. So whoever takes it further does so because of the people they’ve surrounded themselves with. If you don’t really know those people, and you don’t respect and trust those people, then it falls apart incredibly fast.

Speaking of working with startups, I’d like to have your perspective on how you see the A100 impacting Alberta’s startup entrepreneurs?

Elena: I’ve always felt that the A100 is a highly respected group that’s able to provide true thought leadership. All eyes are on us, and I think that’s a good thing. I think this gives us the opportunity to do some really good things for the province and the tech ecosystem. And it gives the tech ecosystem a safe place to come and learn and grow. Dan, what do you think?

It’s thinking about how to continue building trust amongst entrepreneurs and truly letting them know that you’re there to support them.

Dan: I completely agree with what you’re saying. One of the components of the A100 is that you have to place a lot of trust in the fact that the people you’re about to talk to are not looking to steal your business ideas — they’re genuinely they’re looking to help you. And I still believe that there’s a lot of fear out there. I see that so often these days with all the requests for NDAs or mutual NDAs.

However, it is always about wearing that non-disclosure hat and being respectful of somebody’s business and saying, hey, just to let you know, I do know of somebody else who’s doing something similar — maybe not in Calgary, but somewhere else around Canada, etc. It’s thinking about how to continue building trust amongst entrepreneurs and truly letting them know that you’re there to support them. 

And if they ever do have any additional interest to involve you in their business, you can be upfront and say if you’d like to discuss something further, like a Board role. But I think a lot of people are still not used to that level of openness, because they come from a place of keeping everything close to their chest and not saying anything at all at the risk of making a mistake. 

But the A100 has been phenomenal at opening up that portal and allowing people to start feeling confident to just have an open, transparent conversation. 

Let’s circle back to your own achievements. What have you learned from your successes as entrepreneurs?

Elena: I’ve learned that I don’t take enough time to celebrate them, which is a shame. Once you’re on a good path, you sometimes take it for granted. But I’ve also learned that the success gives you voice. And when you do things differently — like we have — you get a lot of naysayers who insist it will never work. But the minute you show some success, then your approach has a voice. 

You become addicted to the taste of success, and you want more and then you catch yourself going, hang on a minute, I need to just pause here because this is a really good place right now. I don’t need to push it further. 

I think that’s really important to entrepreneurship — that there isn’t one single way to make something happen. You can get creative — everything from marketing, to how your product works, to how you approach your customers. There are some proven techniques, but you can definitely get creative with how you run your company. And your success gives you the opportunity to showcase that. 

But probably the most important thing I’ve learned is that I need to pause and celebrate more and not just look for the next thing. I become a little thirsty for the next thing, yearning for more. You become addicted. You become addicted to the taste of success, and you want more and then you catch yourself going, hang on a minute, I need to just pause here because this is a really good place right now. I don’t need to push it further. 

Dan: Honestly, I’ve started learning in the last few companies — between Caledonia and Terrahub — how much success you can have if you pick the right Board. I mean, we all still learn with every new company. Having the right Board that reflects the company’s path that you’re looking to go to, to me has been an incredible lesson. 

But I couldn’t agree more with Elena about the fact that we all don’t celebrate enough. And we don’t celebrate enough the small wins. Because ultimately, when you make up a company, a big win is a culminating event of many, many small wins. So I find we’re often not celebrating enough of the small wins, and getting everybody excited about them. 

Elena: And you can’t have success without the people you surround yourself with. The Board is important, the partners are important, the team you hire is important.

Failures are nothing but the next step to success, to be honest.

Dan: Finding the right culture. We always talk about that, do you have the right DNA together? Do you mix and blend well together?

Elena: It’s that perfect recipe. So many people have these written recipes for how it can work. And people are people, you know? I’m sure you see it in your personal life with your friends, with you. You think you’re okay one minute and then, damn, you’re not because something else comes up. It’s the same in a company, except something else comes up constantly. So if you, your Board, your partners, your employees are not in sync, there’s no success. 

Maybe the number two thing I’ve learned from success is, as Dan said, knowing how to lean on on your team and keep them all in sync, keep yourself in sync with everybody else.

Dan: And that failure is an option. Failure is okay! Failure should be celebrated because you’ve just learned something. And everybody in your team has learned something about that event, or from that event. Everybody should be allowed to fail. Otherwise, you end up in this constant world of micromanagement of everything. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are critical points in time in your business where the last thing you want to do is fail today. But in your day-to-day environment, small failures are nothing but the next step to success, to be honest. It just has to be recognized appropriately, and understood how to be mitigated internally to the company.

Dan said failures are small steps to success. What else can you share about failure in terms of not only what you’ve learned, but what you might counsel others about coping with failures?

Elena: Don’t take it personally. It’s never about you as a person. It’s about a series of events that have resulted in this outcome. And often, you don’t have control over those events. The last thing you should do is to take it personally and say, I could have done something differently. Just continue to keep a constructive mind. And have a constructive conversation with your partners about it — keyword being constructive. Talk about the situation, not about Person A, B or C — don’t use names and keep it constructive and about the situation. Then remember that outcome and try not to do it again. But you know what? You will do it again, because sometimes you don’t have a choice, you’re human. 

Dan: That’s so true. You have to keep in mind that the same mistake can happen a number of times throughout the life of a company, but they’re always disguised differently as to how they get there. You think, damn, how did I do this again? Then when you retrace your steps, you see that there were other circumstances that led to that same kind of failure or mistake. Ultimately, that’s why I believe it’s important at a point in time in your company’s size and life, creating some corporate governance — understanding exactly how you got there. To be able to trace back, I think it’s really critical. 

Like a code review of your process.

Dan: Yeah, absolutely.

Elena: It’s part of operating a business, both success and failure, and having a risk mitigation plan in place is a good thing, which always provides you with a plan B. Startups don’t think about things like that, because they think you need to be a certain size to have that in place. I encourage startups to identify the top three things that could really destroy what they’re doing, and then make a plan around that. 

I’m going to shift into broader lessons. Is there a book you might recommend to others that you have found quite impactful?

We find ourselves in that moment in time right now where various groups outside the tech industry don’t understand what we’re trying to do. They’re too cautious, and it feels like they’re making it really difficult to invent and to innovate.

Dan: Actually, this was given to me by by somebody else that was working with me a little while ago, it was called “Radical Focus”. I’m the guy that goes out and looks at how many ways to Sunday you can make something happen. This book has the kind of stories you could read very quickly, but they’re meant to be focused stories. It was quite incredible to go through the journey of this book. What ended up helping me a lot is being able to narrow down the path of a specific target that I need to achieve — objectives and key results, even if I don’t hit 100%, I can hit up to 80%. And knowing when to pass it on to somebody else. That was really good for me.

How about you Elena?

Elena: “The Art of War.” 

Oh, go big or go home! 

Dan: Oh, my God [laughs]. 

Elena: But also, I have to say, “Atlas Shrugged.” Every time I read that book I get energized to work hard and push the values I believe in. But I know it’s more than just hard work to make an economy flourish [laughs]. But sometimes hard work and a bit of creativity is all it takes, especially in times like this when you really need to make an impact. 

Well, there’s a reason “Atlas Shrugged” is a classic. 

Elena: Exactly. I would really recommend those two books to entrepreneurs. 

Dan: Everything in “Atlas Shrugged” resonates with us a bit differently. We come from Romania, a former Communist regime. We look at the freedoms a democratic country provides and have deep respect for the opportunities it creates. 

Elena: It’s really understanding what working hard can do, and what it takes to get there. And I think we find ourselves in that moment in time right now where various groups outside the tech industry don’t understand what we’re trying to do. They’re too cautious, and it feels like they’re making it really difficult to invent and to innovate.

Dan: Well, no, you’re allowed to invent within this box [laughs].

Elena: You can’t invent within the box. You need to be as creative as possible. If we’re going to compete internationally, we need to be able to do that. Earlier this year in Asia, a new innovation fund was created — an AI tech innovation fund. Okay, what’s the value of this fund? Just guess.

I’m going say $10 billion.

Dan: It was $108 billion. And that was Fund II.

Elena: And over here we’re nervous about $20 million. That’s what I’m talking about when I say “Atlas Shrugged” and the lessons in that book, and how much more we need to do to help ourselves right now. 

Dan: Ultimately, sometimes there’s a reason why somebody gets up and says, that’s it, I’m going to cross the pond and access capital. You want to go raise $5M? No problem. It’s not even a blip on the radar in their organization. We have incredible talent, drive and creativity here in Alberta. Let’s put it to great use.

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