Category Archives: Canada

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]

Courting Advisors – A Guide for Founders

Editor’s Note: This article was written by Danny Robinson and Boris Mann. Danny is a founder of Perch and long-time entrepreneur who has built companies on both sides of the border. Boris Mann is a managing director at Full Stack, a napkin capital investment firm in Vancouver.  Both Danny and Boris are investors in Contractually .

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One of the great things about the tech industry is the generousity of people, who have ‘been there and done that’, to share their time with entrepreneurs. The energy of sharing, connecting, approachability and equality makes startups so attractive.

Lately, there is an increased demand for attention and engagement of advisors and mentors. And, in speaking with other advisors in the community, there is a feeling that some entrepreneurs are exploiting the system and taking advantage of the good will of others. It’s not necessarily intentional or deliberate. Entrepreneurs are trying to get meaningful advice to maximize the outcomes of their companies for the least cost.

There are increasing demands on advisors, and it is partially the role of the advisor to manage their workload and volunteer time. But it is also the responsibility of entrepreneurs to understand the circumstances of when to ask someone to join your advisory board and when not to.

A Quick Guide to Recruiting Advisors

When a founder feels like he/she could use advice from someone experienced in a certain area. Whether it’s getting go to market strategy, product design, fund raising, corporate structure, making introductions, or simply adding credibility to the company (though don’t overplay the advisory board when raising capital – see Mark Suster’s post). Getting an advisor to help you out with skills that you don’t have inside the company is a great way to move forward.

  • One of your early “asks” to anyone you meet is to help introduce you to a potential advisor
  • 1 – 3 official advisors is a good number to aim for initially

Finding an Advisor

It is the responsibility of a founder to source and reaches out to an advisor and asks to meet. There is no obligation for anyone to become an advisor. This is like a dating process. The goal is to build a relationship over time, where there is value for both the advisor and the founder in the role.

  • Leverage your existing personal and professional networks to connect with individuals that have shared interests
  • Use LinkedIn and Clarity.fm to identify and connect with potential advisors.
  • Attending local events, joining an incubator, and working at co-working spaces are additional ways to get introduced to potential advisors

Advisor Expectations

As an advisor:

  • You meet for coffee, get on the phone, and get to know the entrepreneur and how you can help. Maybe your personal skill set isn’t relevant, but you know someone else that would be a great advisor / investor / customer / channel / whatever.
  • You don’t expect compensation up front, you don’t lead with paid consulting offers (this is a huge red flag)
  • You show you can be helpful first in moving the startup forward.

There is no obligation to engage with a startup. You should not expect compensation and you should always create more value than you extract.

Standard Advisory Board Terms

But back on the founder side, here’s where it seems there is a bit of a problem in Canada: no follow through.

After accepting and otherwise being happy with the advisor’s help, you should reward them with an offer to officially join the advisory board.

Our guidelines for standard advisory terms are as follows:

  • 0.1% – 2% depending on the level of advisor.
    • The level depending on the advisors’ stature in the community, but also their level of involvement. 0.5% is a good level to think about starting from, and 2% is extremely rare unless the advisor is directly helping close customer deals or raise money.
  • Do not offer cash.
    • It’s extremely rare that there would be a cash component. If cash is requested from the advisor, walk away, and look for a more sophisticated advisor. For further clairty, if the advisor will be in putting multiple hours per week, they’re not an advisor, they’re a contractor, in which case, cash compensation may be appropriate (see Brad Feld’s Compensation for [Advisory] Board Members).
  • Options vest monthly over 2 year period.
  • Either can terminate upon 30 days written notice.
  • For pre Series A companies, the strike price is set to about 10%-20% that of the last round of financing, or pre-financed companies, the strike price should be about 10% of the estimated value of the company.
  • Advisor agrees to one phone call or in-person meeting per quarter.
    • But no need to dwell on the terms of what they will do for you. Your initial meeting should be representative of what you will get in return, so pay no attention to getting specific on the details here. If it’s not working out, you can both get out of the deal anytime.
  • Generally, you should expect your advisor to follow up on your meeting with thoughts and links and verify that he/she will make the introductions promissed and in general do what they said they would.

Assuming the advisor accepts, entering into an agreement like this will explicitly link your success to theirs, and add their credibility to yours. Vesting them in your company’s success spreads out your champions, and creates more winners for the community at large.

As a startup founder, you’re going on a long arduous journey and you’re going to need a lot of help along the way. Building a strong set of advisors will be one of your first “asks”. These are people that can complement your skillset and fill gaps on your team, and add credibility (sometimes called social proof or traction), especially for first time founders.

If anyone has helped you in a meaningful way, and you have simply not known the proper etiquette, I encourage you to retroactively offer up advisory board options. Let’s make sure that us friendly Canadians are known for our official follow through, as well as our friendliness.


We’ve worked with Contractually to host an Advisory Agreement template that we’ve used for years.

You can sign up for Contractually [Ed. note: Both Boris and Danny are investors in Contracutally] and use it directly with their free plan, or be old-school [Ed. note: at StartupNorth we prefer old skool] and use it manually.

Thanks to Fasken Martineau for making this template available.

Stop stressing about startup competitors

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A couple weeks ago I tossed and turned for hours, unable to sleep because of a TechCrunch article announcing the launch of a potential competitor.  This happens once every month or two, and I’m sure everyone can relate..  This occasion was particularly annoying.  A friend forwarded the techcrunch article to me which I opened while settling into bed for the evening.  An hour of research on my iPhone later, I’m back downstairs coffee in hand, still doing research.

The funny thing is that the logical part of me realizes that startups worrying about other startups is irrational.  But yet I can’t help myself from trying to find chinks in their armour and points of differentiation.

The good news is that I’ve gotten good at waking up the next day and realizing that a startup worrying about another startup competitor is like a 2 year old worrying about another 2 year old making the deans list instead of them.

It’s a war, not a battle, and chances are, both startups will evolve in a way that makes them no longer competitive.  Some will be competing for the deans list.  Some will be competing for the track team, but most will have dropped out.

But still … in my last startup, I can’t tell you how many hours of sleep I lost mulling over Xobni, Dropbox, Threadsy, reMail, ClearContext and others.  With the exception of Dropbox and maybe Xobni, have you heard of these others?  Probably not.  In hindsight, they’re actually really good examples of why you shouldn’t worry that much about startup competitors.

1.  They’re guessing … just like you

We were scared of Xobni, largely because of their uber connected and super alented team.  Specifically Jeff Bonforte.  But everyone’s guessing in Startups.  Everyone.  Including Jeff.  Cofounders backgrounds, vanity metrics, and techcrunch articles mean nothing.  Xobni was iterating like crazy at the same time we were.  In the end, it looks like they might be acquired by Yahoo in a deal that doesn’t represent a huge win for investors.  Everyone’s guessing.

2.  Some pivot

Threadsy was building an all one one messaging system – combining facebook, twitter, email, etc.  We thought it was genius … so much so that we were doing the same thing.  Turns out Threadsy (like us) couldn’t make a business out of it, started building social graph analytics, and eventually were acquired by Facebook.  Most times your competitor won’t be building what they’re currently building in another 6 months.  Most times, you won’t either.

3.  A lot die

Most competitors will die before they hit product market fit.  A lot of times, that has nothing to do with the product and everything to do with cofounder squabbles, life getting in the way, bad investors, and the million and one other things that can go wrong.

4.  Some acquired and stop innovating

We thought reMail and Gabor Cselle were onto something.  They were former google / former YC, so easily intimidated us.  We were building something similar called All My Mail and had visions of making the iPhone’s mail app not suck  Google eventually acquired reMail but didn’t exactly use the technology to innovate and several years later, it’s mailbox that’s innovating the mobile mail experience.

5.  Markets can support multiple players

Dropbox scared us.  Former YC (again), great founding team, great investors.  But our product (and I’d bet a half dozen others) was ahead of theirs.  But we got scared and pivoted away.  In hindsight, that market is massive, able to support more than one player.  Box.net has obviously proven that..

Competition in startups is an interesting thing.  It’s something we can’t help but stress about.  But it’s illogical.  Because in startups, there really are no Goliaths.  We’re all Davids, and the real fight that we have is with convincing users to change their existing habits.  Back in the day, our biggest competitor wasn’t dropbox.  It was email, and the people that used it to share documents, too lazy to change their habits.  That’s the case for most all startups.