Category Archives: Canada

The Unicorn Awards

The Unicorn Awards 2013

Our friends over at TechVibes have posted a call for nominations for 2013 Canadian Startup Awards. This just screams that we also need an Ig Nobels/Darwin Awards equivalent.

  • Zombie Startup of the Year Award – Recognizing a Canadian startup that continues to live on the brains of its’ founders, but not customers.
  • The Snapchat Award – Recognizing a Canadian startup that won’t sell to Facebook, even if the offer was for more than $4B.
  • Stop the Gravy Train Award – Recognizing sketchiest use of tax payer money in our burgeoning startup ecosystem.
  • The Twerk It Award – Recognizing the media accomplishments of an exemplanary Canadian entrepreneur, who is getting as much coverage  as Miley Cyrus in 2013.
  • Keeping up with the Kanadians Award – Recognizing the startup that has watched previous episodes of startup reality TV but failed to comprehend the complex plot lines.

We’ll be announcing the awards before Christmas…And we need your help. Send us a tweet, leave a comment, or just drop us an email with a suggestion for the awards. Or just leave an anonymous nomination.

Risk Tolerance

If there is one thing in Canadian startup land I have heard repeatedly since moving back from California it is in regards to the lack of ‘risk tolerance’ of VCs here. When I was on the operational side of things I didn’t know many Canadian VCs so I couldn’t really comment, but I heard the stories. In fact, I will be completely honest that the idea of joining a Canadian VC fund was the furthest thing from my mind.

risk and rewardBefore I share my thoughts on risk tolerance let me start with a few points. First, I think that we can all agree the landscape is improving. There is a new generation of  entrepreneurs, investors and community leaders emerging. I am blown away at how different things are now compared to five years ago.

Second, we need to once again state that Canada is NOT the Silicon Valley. It is a silly comparison even from a geographical perspective as comparing a small region with critical mass to one of the largest countries in the world is insane. Vancouver, Toronto and Montréal are not the Silicon Valley in the same way that Boston, Austin, New York and Des Moines are not either. Anyone who sees Canada as its own insulated eco-system is completely out-of-tune with reality. Capital and technology knows no borders. Mark nailed this earlier this week.

Lastly, there is a level of talent, experience and excellence in the Silicon Valley that can’t be found anywhere else. There is a reason Facebook moved to Palo Alto in its early days. There were entrepreneurs and investors who had been exploring the potential of a social web for almost a decade beforehand. No where else in North America could you find this. Pinterest moved from Kansas City to San Francisco for the same reason. One of iNovia’s portfolio companies, AppDirect, started in the Silicon Valley as the founders (Canadian btw!) knew that the talent they needed to build a large-scale enterprise platform was there.

So what can Canada, or anywhere outside of the Silicon Valley for that matter, do well. I can both observe and predict to answer this question. In recent years it has become apparent that B2B SaaS companies can be built anywhere. Look at the thriving companies across Canada – HootSuite, Shopify, Freshbooks, Lightspeed, etc. All SaaS companies. This is not unique to Canada either. ExactTarget was built in Indianapolis. MailChimp in Atlanta. eCommerce companies have similar characteristics. Amazon is in Seattle. Wayfair is in Boston. Groupon is in Chicago. Beyond the Rack is in Montréal. However, it is hard to name large consumer Internet, enterprise platform, networking or hardware companies outside of the Silicon Valley. Of course, there are a few outliers – Tumblr in NYC for example.

The other thing that Canada, or any region, can do well is build critical mass in a brand new and emerging market. RIM (BlackBerry) did this in the Waterloo region by leading the emergence of smartphones. Calgary has been the hub of most stock photography and graphics companies over the last 20 years. Route 128 in Boston dominated the minicomputer industry back in the 70s and 80s.

All of this results in the eco-system we find ourselves in and behaviour of investors. It is less likely that a consumer application with no traction will get funded in Canada because there are not funds big enough to make a long bet on it and there isn’t the talent that improves the chance of success.  We also lack senior management talent, especially in sales and marketing, as it generally resides were the majority of customers – in the US. This is why many Canadian startups build its sales and marketing teams in the States. We often proactively syndicate larger Canadian investments with US funds as they bring complimentary resources to the table and can significantly mitigate future financing risk as they have deeper pockets. All of these factors results in the eco-system we find ourselves in. Blame the system, not the players as David Crow would say.

One last factor in determining risk tolerance is rarely discussed and it is simple numbers. Investing very early in a company with no traction does require incredible intelligence, it requires incredible conviction. Savvy entrepreneurs know that to find the investor that has that conviction is going to be tough so the best approach is as a pure numbers game. This means they talk to a ton of funds. Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora, said that he had over 300 VC pitch meetings before getting funding. 300! In Canada there are not a lot of VCs, lets say 10. There are very high odds that you can talk to every fund in Canada and not find the conviction you are looking for in any of them. It is simple math – if you are looking for a needle in a haystack do you have better odds looking in 10 places or 300? Unfortunately, this is then chalked up to an issue with ‘risk tolerance.’ I can’t speak for every VC across the country, but I can report that approximately half of our initial investments are made before there is a dollar of revenue in the company.

My advice to entrepreneurs would be to start local as you may find the investor that has the same convictions you hold. They may be able to connect you to US investors to put a strong syndicate together as well. What you shouldn’t do is talk to the local VCs and then complain about risk tolerance – even if there is truth to it. The successful entrepreneurs get on their horse and find ways to get in front of investors from the Valley, New York and even overseas. Ryan found his first investors in the US. Yona found his first angel investor in Europe! Jack and Rian found their first investor in Germany!

We have seen a ton of US-led investments in Canada recently and this is great news. Often this is perceived as a problem in Canada. I disagree – it is great. In many of those cases local VCs passed or perhaps they lost out as the deal became competitive. That is completely fine as well. In the past Canadian investors were forced to be generalists, but I hope this recent trend drives more domain focus within Canadian VCs. As much as we need world-class entrepreneurs and startups we also need, to a lesser extent, world-class funds and investors. This is why I went against my initial instincts and joined a VC fund in Canada – the team was focused on becoming a leading North American fund and was actively investing in the US. I believed that this was the right approach and the only way we are going to be able to compete in the long run as capital becomes even more fluent across borders. Canada is a small player on the global tech stage and as a friend of mine used to always say “What’s so great about being the best hockey player in Kuwait?”

Lets all aim higher.

[Ed. note: This originally appeared on Kevin Swan's Once A Beekeeper on August 12, 2013, it is republished with permission.]

The Tough Call on Startup Conferences

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A great dialog recently broke out on Twitter after this tweet from Debbie Landa calling out Alberta and Quebec startups to step up and have a presence at the upcoming GROW conference in Vancouver. Having my home in Alberta I immediately put the call out to a number of the great startups currently in the province. The consensus reply I got back was ‘too busy building and getting customers!’

We all know those entrepreneurs and investors (probably the worst offenders!) who find a conference to attend every week. I often wonder how they actually build a company when they devote so much time to the conference circuit. Even in my own life I have recently been making attempts to limit the number of conferences and events I attend as they can really get in the way of work and family. However, there are some that you just can’t miss. I would definitely put GROW into that bucket, but should startups as well?

GROW is unique as it has quickly become the top startup conference in Canada and almost half of attendees are from the US. This provides a great opportunity for entrepreneurs to connect, learn and move their companies forward. So why are some startups not taking advantage of this opportunity? Probably not a single answer to this question, but I want to share a few theories.

First, lets quickly review why an entrepreneur should attend a conference:

  • Customers! Obviously if there is a conference that brings together the majority of your target customers you need to be there.
  • Fundraising. Don’t expect to go to a conference, meet an investor and get a check. However, it is an opportunity to gain visibility for your company, initiate relationships with potential investors (or better yet, with the entrepreneurs they have invested in) and show them why they need to follow-up.
  • Recruitment. Startup conferences attract a lot of talent and it can be a great opportunity for your company to gain visibility for the purpose of recruiting.
  • Partnerships. Many conferences attract execs and corp dev people from large tech companies. This provides a great opportunity to meet with them and pursue that partnership that can take your company to the next level.
  • Influencers. I have already mentioned the visibility a conference can give to your company. To compound this, there will likely be many bloggers, journalists and influencers present that may write about your company after the event.
  • Learnings. Technically this isn’t a real word, but I love using it. Good conferences will have thought leaders speaking that will challenge your understanding of the market, technology and building a company. These experiences can be priceless.
  • Community. There is nothing quite like the energy and camaraderie that an entrepreneur can experience at a great conference. Entrepreneurship is hard, can be depressive and often lonely. Being surrounded by peers rallying around defying the odds and building a successful company is sometimes needed to push through the hard times.
  • What have I missed?!?

For a more general conference like GROW that are not focused on a particular industry – compare this to Debbie’s other hugely successful conference, Under the Radar, that focuses on the enterprise and attracts many top CIOs and CMOs – it is hard to justify attending to connect with customers unless you are a consumer company. If you fall into this category then you need to attend conferences like GROW to reach the influencers that can provide social proof for your product and provide quality feedback.

So, back to the original question. Why wouldn’t a company attend GROW?  If you are a seed company it may be a financial issue. Debbie pointed this out as well. If you have raised a Series A finances should not be the issue. Travel time may be though. Canada is a big place. Coming from Quebec would require two additional days to travel plus the time for the conference. This is the similar challenge New York startups face in attending conferences in the Silicon Valley.

I believe a key factor in all this is the vertically-focused nature of many Canadian startups. I have long been of the belief that there are certain companies you just can’t build anywhere other than the Silicon Valley. They may start somewhere else, but need to end up there. Case in point, Pinterest, which started in Kansas City, but quickly moved to San Francisco. In Canada, it is a great place to build SaaS companies, specifically vertical SaaS companies. This includes great companies like Wave, Shopify, Clio, Hootsuite, Jobber, Top Hat, Freshbooks, TribeHR, Unbounce and the list goes on.

Lets quickly fly through my above list in the context of many of these SaaS companies:

  • Customers. Very unlikely that Clio will find lawyers or Jobber find landscapers at GROW.
  • Fundraising. These companies all have great investors behind them already.
  • Recruitment. For local Vancouver companies this item makes a lot of sense. Tough for startups anywhere else in Canada though.
  • Partnerships. Vertically-focused SaaS companies need to partner with industry specific organizations and companies (legal, accounting, transportation, etc.). Unlikely they will be attending a startup conference.
  • Influencers. Unlikely that a big blog hit from Robert Scoble is going to reach SMB owners.
  • Learnings. This is valuable, but not just for the CEO. My suggestion to the CEOs with companies farther along is to send someone from your management team if you can’t attend.
  • Community. Definitely still a factor, but if you are a Series A company or beyond you may not be able to prioritize for this as much.

In conclusion, it appears that a vertically-focused SaaS company from outside of Vancouver would have to work harder to prioritize attending a conference like GROW. Personally, I think that there is a balance here and if these companies are going to attend at least one conference for the learnings and community it should be GROW. Or, as I mentioned above, at least send someone from your company.

Selfishly, I am a fan of what Debbie has built in GROW and it would be great to see every startup across the country there in addition to the many from the Pacific Northwest and California that attend. However, founders are faced with tough prioritization items everyday and I don’t feel it is my place to push them if they feel their time is better spent heads-down with their team building the company. What do you think the balance is?

Regardless, GROW is going to be a great event with a ton of top entrepreneurs, investors and startup people!

[Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on Kevin's Once A Beekeeper blog on June 30, 2013]