On Values

A friend of mine, who just finished his time after helping grow a startup very quickly, said this to me tonight:

A company has 3 sets of values: the ones they want people to think (what a corporation engraves in their lobby), what management believes is important (policies and stated benefits), and finally the values demonstrated by the people who succeed. The first is bullshit, the second is throwing money at the symptoms, and the last one is the only thing that matters.

It’s a great observation (along the lines of the Netflix culture deck) but it is also a challenge.

As founders, employees and even investors our values translate in to very real things for our employees and customers.

Which values do you live?

What you need to know about starting a startup in Atlantic Canada

Building a product and growing a startup is a different experience no matter where you live. In many ways every startup experience is completely unique and totally predictable all at the same time. The goals, struggles, opportunities and outcomes are each different and geography is one other thing that can be thrown in the mix.

Building a startup in Atlantic Canada IS different, for better and for worse, than Toronto, Austin, San Francisco or anywhere else.

IF you want to build a competitive, scalable, high-potential startup in Atlantic Canada then here are some of the most basic things I think every entrepreneur here needs to learn:

Get your butt on a plane

It is hard to understate this. Your customers aren’t here. Your partners aren’t here. Your investors might not be here. It is the nature of the place and you need to accept it.

Get on a plane and go see the people who are going to make your business, and you personally, successful. Every startup has different needs but it is best to err on the side of caution. If you are building an enterprise tech startup then you need to be in San Francisco. If you are building a media company then you had better be ready to spend time in New York. If you are selling to brands then I hope you like Atlanta and Minneapolis.

If you are fundraising then this is even more important. I’ve seen entrepreneurs lose a financing round because of a single bad phone call. It sucks but body language and a few dinner tables can make all the difference. Get out there, the world wants to meet you.

Government support doesn’t matter to the customer or your competitors

There are some really great programs available to support tech startups around here. Non-dilutive and relatively flexible IRAP, ACOA and other agencies really can be a great option. The fact is though that you are competing against world class startups who aren’t waiting for an application to get approved and who don’t need their SR&ED credits to make their next hire. Your competitors are moving at a lightening pace and you can’t afford to sit around.

You should be moving so quickly that you can hardly manage to get an application in for a project before you find yourself completing it. Government financing should be strictly secondary to acceleration capital which is going to help speed your execution.

You don’t need to compromise

Startups in Atlantic Canada should not compromise on anything. We don’t have to so we shouldn’t. We have been telling entrepreneurs not to put up with bad terms from local angel groups but the issue runs even more deeply than that. Focus on attracting the best investors and don’t put up with bad deals.

There is a tendency to confuse “we are different” with “we deserve different” here and while it’s ok to BE different we don’t deserve anything less than the best.

The talent pool is world class so you should hire world class

I have hired in a lot of talent rich places and I can say without exception that we have some phenomenal talent in Atlantic Canada. Like recruiting anywhere it can be gruelling. I got lucky: I hired Ben Yoskovitz. I didn’t hire him as a recruiter but he does it in his sleep and it has helped us scale without compromise.

Be picky and only hire those developers, designers, product owners and anyone else who you could drop in to a room in San Francisco, New York, Tokyo or Taipei and not have to worry about how awesome they will be. They are right here in your backyard to start looking and never hire less than awesome again. 

… and finally

You are expected to take on the world

We do not need more me-toos and I’m not talking about lifestyle businesses here. Choosing to live and work in Atlantic Canada is not the easy road and it was never meant to be. We have built many world class companies here and we expect no less from you and your startup.

Making a dent in the universe is not only doable, it’s what you should be striving for. We should be leading the country and globally as a place that punches far above its weight. There is no reason to hold back, because the alternative isn’t a lot of fun.

Do not compromise on the size of your vision or the ferociousness of your execution. You should be audacious in your dreams because building a startup in Atlantic Canada is not about being in Atlantic Canada it is about being FROM Atlantic Canada, and that is a big difference.

These are just a few thoughts, but many of you have built startups here and in other places. What’s your experience and what are your tips for the next generation of startups we are seeing emerge now?

An Apology to Laura Fitton

Last week, I hosted GrowTalks in Toronto, a conference for entrepreneurs focused on metrics, marketing and growth. The conference brought an amazing set of speakers to Toronto. And personally I was excited to finally get a chance to hang out with Brant Cooper, someone I have been connected to digitally, but until last week had never met in person.

Then something happened after the conference, that put Toronto, our community and our values as Canadians in a very negative light. I am hoping that there is lesson, perhaps a “teachable moment“, around treating folks with respect and what we should do when we mess up.

Laura was wearing a dress with her company’s logo on it when she gave her talk. This exchange happened on Twitter:


My goal is not to vilify the individual but to highlight the subtle interactions that often happen in the community that can make it more closed and less approachable (this is not the first time we’ve had a similar conversation). The goal isn’t to ostracize or vilify the individual, so please don’t start a witch hunt.

I know this interaction does not represent what my Toronto startup community is all about. My community is generally respectful of people. I believe we are great hosts when folks from out of town visit to share their time, expertise and insight with us. My community understands people like Laura and Brant are rare and valuable and have a choice in how they invest their time and when they choose to invest it in us, we’re grateful.

But I also believe a community is defined by how it reacts when folks do things that fall outside of what the community defines as acceptable. After seeing this interaction I worried that unless someone from Toronto made it clear that this isn’t what we’re about, our public silence would be seen as a statement that we think it’s OK to be disrespectful to conference speakers (or heck, anyone, for that matter). I’d like Laura (and anyone else watching from the sidelines) to understand that we noticed, and we are appalled.

Which brings me to the second part of this teachable moment. None of us are perfect. I personally have a colorful history of amazing screw-ups. Miraculously, people forgive me. I think they forgive me because I let them know I’m not TRYING to be a jerk, but sometimes I hurt people anyway and if given the chance I will try hard not to do it again. They forgive me because I’m trying to be better.

If you were the Tweeter in this particular incident there are things you could do to avoid the inevitable backlash caused by your poor behavior.  You could delete the Tweet. You could change your Twitter handle. You could remove your photo. But that doesn’t really convince anyone that you weren’t trying to be hurtful and it certainly doesn’t make Laura feel better. Apologizing does.

In the future I hope we treat our speakers with more respect and if we blow it, we have the good sense to say we’re sorry and try better next time.