TAKING FIVE

5 key lessons from startup fest

Ottawa Business Journal - Techopia - - Front Page - BY JACOB SEREBRIN

The Mon­treal In­ter­na­tional Startup Fes­ti­val is now one of the top events for as­pir­ing and proven Cana­dian tech en­trepreneurs, at­tract­ing about 2,000 peo­ple ev­ery year.

For the hun­dreds of startup founders who at­tend the event, it’s a chance to net­work, learn some lessons from suc­cess­ful en­trepreneurs and maybe meet po­ten­tial in­vestors.

As its name sug­gests, the event, which takes place out­side in Mon­treal’s Old Port, has a fes­ti­val at­mos­phere. It’s a lit­tle more ca­sual than your av­er­age busi­ness con­fer­ence, but it’s se­ri­ous when it comes to the con­tent.

Here are some of the key take­aways from the fes­ti­val:

1. BE­ING A STARTUP ISN’T ABOUT SIZE — IT’S ABOUT MINDSET

“I think a startup is ac­tu­ally much more of a men­tal­ity than it is a num­ber of peo­ple thing, or how much rev­enue you have,” says Har­ley Finkel­stein, the COO of Ottawa-based Shopify.

He says Shopify still has a startup men­tal­ity even though it’s a pub­licly traded com­pany that dates back a decade.

“One of our core philoso­phies is ‘Act like own­ers,’” Finkel­stein says. “If ev­ery­one feels like Shopify is their baby and ev­ery­one feels like they’re the founder of Shopify, even though we have more than 1,000 peo­ple, we get the best re­sult.”

A big part of that, he says, is stay­ing “scrappy.”

“We’re a group of guys and girls who re­ally spend their time ex­per­i­ment­ing with things. Stuff that works, we scale and stuff that doesn’t, we shut it down,” he says.

One way Shopify main­tains that “scrap­pi­ness” is by hold­ing quar­terly “hack days,” where em­ploy­ees can work on any project they want – pro­vided it could help the com­pany – for two days.

It’s a way for the com­pany to ex­per­i­ment with new and some­times out­side of the box ideas, while boost­ing morale and giv­ing em­ploy­ees a chance to work with new col­leagues.

2. THERE’S ONLY ONE SILICON VALLEY

“I don’t un­der­stand the ob­ses­sion with try­ing to be­come Silicon Valley – I think that’s silly,” Shopify CEO To­bias Lutke told the au­di­ence dur­ing his talk on the fes­ti­val’s main stage.

He says there is only one Silicon Valley and that startup ecosys­tems in other places should fo­cus on their own strengths – be­cause if they try to be some­thing they’re not, they’ll just be a poor im­i­ta­tion of the orig­i­nal.

His col­league Finkel­stein says he sees that hap­pen­ing.

“I think what Cana­di­ans have started do­ing is, rather than look­ing at all the rea­sons that their par­tic­u­lar cities aren’t good, they’re look­ing at what they have that no one else has,” Finkel­stein says. “I have a re­la­tion­ship with a group of am­bas­sadors that can in­tro­duce me to any­one I need in any coun­try be­cause I live in Ottawa.”

While Finkel­stein says he sees a tech re­nais­sance hap­pen­ing across Canada, it’s par­tic­u­larly no­table in Ottawa be­cause the city was hit so hard when the dot-com bub­ble burst in 2001.

Still, Lütke says Silicon Valley might be worth the oc­ca­sional visit. It can be a good place to think big, he says.

3. EVEN IN THE MOD­ERN WORLD, THE TECH BUSI­NESS IS STILL ABOUT PEO­PLE

Tech­nol­ogy may be able to con­nect peo­ple like never be­fore. A lot of the star­tups at the fes­ti­val are taking ad­van­tage of that with their prod­ucts, but meet­ing peo­ple in-per­son is still im­por­tant.

“When you come to a place like this, the big­gest thing you’re get­ting is you’re re­con­nect­ing with folks you al­ready know and de­vel­op­ing new con­tacts. Busi­ness is all about ran­dom col­li­sions,” says Manu Sharma, the co-founder of Ottawa-based AirLoop, which of­fers a loy­alty pro­gram for small busi­nesses.

I think a startup is ac­tu­ally much more of a men­tal­ity than it is a num­ber of peo­ple thing, or how much rev­enue you have. HAR­LEY FINKEL­STEIN COO, SHOPIFY

A ca­sual meet­ing can “sud­denly turn into a pos­si­bil­ity, an op­por­tu­nity,” he says. “It’s the con­nec­tions, the peo­ple you meet and there’s al­ways some­thing to learn from peo­ple shar­ing their wis­dom.”

Net­work­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties are also what drew Felipe Izquierdo, founder of Ot­tawabased Welbi, to the fes­ti­val.

“It re­ally is all about the peo­ple that I meet, the con­nec­tions that you build, the net­work, that’s def­i­nitely the No. 1 rea­son that I’m here,” says Izquierdo whose startup de­vel­ops soft­ware that turns ex­ist­ing wear­able de­vices into health­mon­i­tor­ing tools.

4. DON’T BE AFRAID TO COM­PETE — EVEN IF THE ODDS SEEM LONG

Shaun MacLel­lan, a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Man­age­ment, says he wasn’t sure what he would get out of the Mon­treal fes­ti­val. In fact, he didn’t de­cide to go un­til the last minute.

It ended up pay­ing off for MacLel­lan, the founder of YouCol­lab, a startup that con­nects YouTube con­tent cre­ators. His startup ended up com­ing third in the fes­ti­val’s main pitch con­test. It re­ceived a $35,000 in­vest­ment and an in­vi­ta­tion to the at­tend the Next 36, a men­tor­ship and net­work­ing pro­gram for young en­trepreneurs.

Still, it wasn’t easy. MacLel­lan says he was around the 120th en­tre­pre­neur – out of more than 200 – to pitch the judges.

5. IN­VESTORS WANT TO SEE REAL PROD­UCTS AND REAL TRACTION

“In gen­eral what we’re look­ing for is func­tional prod­uct, early cus­tomer us­age and rev­enue, hope­fully some sem­blance of a team,” Dave McClure, the founder of 500 Star­tups, a Silicon Val­ley­based ven­ture cap­i­tal fund and startup ac­cel­er­a­tor, told the au­di­ence dur­ing a talk at the fes­ti­val.

He says his firm, which has more than US$200 mil­lion in as­sets un­der man­age­ment and has in­vested in 1,300 star­tups, wants to see real met­rics be­fore it makes in­vest­ments.

“I don’t want to know that you or your mom think your prod­uct is awe­some, I want to know that your cus­tomers think your prod­uct is awe­some and the ob­jec­tive ev­i­dence of that is that they’re us­ing and pay­ing for it,” he says.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED

THE MON­TREAL IN­TER­NA­TIONAL STARTUP FES­TI­VAL HAS BE­COME A TOP DESTINATION FOR AS­PIR­ING EN­TREPRENEURS.

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