Shoes of Prey co-founder Mike Knapp on why startups can’t afford to “wait for things to be perfect”

Shoes of prey, River City Labs

Mike Knapp, River City Labs chief executive Peta Ellis, accelerator facilitator Gemma Lindeman, and Llew Jury. Source: Supplied

Startup founders can increase their chances of success by focusing on “getting in front of customers”, even if their product or service is not yet perfect, says Mike Knapp, co-founder and ex-chief technology officer of online retailer Shoes of Prey.

E-commerce platform Shoes of Prey has become an Australian startup success story, having established headquarters in Los Angeles, inked major deals with retail giant Nordstrom and secured millions in funding from local and international investors. Knapp stepped away from the startup in February this year to launch Mottle, an “experimental” social networking app designed to spark real-world connections.

Leveraging his experience building these startups, Knapp has now taken the position of technical entrepreneur-in-residence for River City Labs’ third accelerator program, which is supported by Telstra’s innovation arm Muru-D. Knapp will be joined by Llew Jury of online-marketing startup Reload Media, who will be the business development entrepreneur-in-residence.

The accelerator kicks off on October 16 and will be based out of Brisbane, bringing Knapp back to his childhood city after 12 years.

Knapp says he was “so blown away” by the Queensland government-backed startup precinct that houses River City Labs that he was convinced to take the appointment in Brisbane, even though he’d only planned to stay in the city “for a few weeks”.

“[Brisbane] has changed a lot since I last lived here … when we started Shoes of Prey in 2009 nothing like that existed,” he says.

Back then, he says, “being an entrepreneur was a bit of a weird concept”. Today, however, there’s more education programs, support systems and community hubs available than ever before.

“Now everyone has an idea for a business, everyone is getting educated. It’s awesome to see that amount of energy, and the government getting behind it [the startup ecosystem] has had a really positive impact,” he says.  

“Don’t wait for things to be perfect”

In his role as entrepreneur-in-residence, Knapp will be advising the accelerator cohort about the best ways to take their startups to the next level, build out a technical platform and hone their product vision.

But his best advice for startups looking to do the same is simple: do it now.

“Get started as soon as you can — don’t wait for things to be perfect,” Knapp says.

“[At Shoes of Prey] we started selling at the Bondi markets very early on — we didn’t have it polished, but we got out there and gave it a go.” 

Knapp advises founders to not concern themselves with branding and visuals in their early stages and instead focus on developing their product ideas and gaining traction.

“A lot of founders are obsessed over what colours their business card should be — it’s not important. What’s important is moving forward with your idea and getting in front of customers,” Knapp says. 

Listen and learn from others

Listening to advice from trusted sources and learning from others’ mistakes is crucial to developing a startup that is forward-focused, rather than one that is retroactively preoccupied with fixing problems, according to Knapp.

“We’ve made so many mistakes along the way in creating Shoes of Prey because we weren’t listening to advice,” he says. 

While forging your own path and subverting traditional industry models can be key to startups looking to become industry disruptors, Knapp advises entrepreneurs to still listen to those who have led the way before them.

“You need the naivety and enthusiasm to tackle something big, but you also need to learn from those that have come before you so you don’t repeat those same mistakes,” Knapp says. 

Leverage the ecosystem

Knapp says he wishes there was an accelerator program on offer when starting Shoes of Prey, because it would have given the team contacts, guidance and support from the startup ecosystem.  

“Getting perspective from others rather than waiting for something to break in your business and going into crisis mode to fix that is invaluable,” he says.

To further bolster Australia’s startup ecosystem, Knapp believes Australia needs to hear about more  “big, local successes”, nominating Atlassian, Canva and SafetyCulture as examples. Building an ecosytem doesn’t happen overnight, but Knapp says he “can see it’s already happening”. 

“It’s still early stages, but it can turn into something really amazing,” Knapp says.

“I’ve met quite a few people who have been living over in the US and moved back to Brisbane. America is not necessarily a place I want to spend the rest of my life — I think Australia is a great place to live,” Knapp says, adding that it would be “amazing to start luring back some of the [Australian] talent that was lost to the US”.

Knapp hopes that this River City Labs accelerator will further bolster the Australian startup ecosystem, and says he would like to see more diversity in this year’s cohort. With applications opening on August 3, Knapp is hoping to see more females founders apply this time around and into the future so startup accelerators no longer have just “one or two token teams including women”.

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