Toronto is broken

Editor’s Note: This is a cross post from Zak Homuth (LinkedIn, @zakhomuth) originally published August 7, 2012.


Image by John Cavacas link

I’ve got bad news. And I don’t really know a better way to say it, so I’m just going to tear the bandaid off, one motion, no fucking around. Here goes…

Toronto is broken.

Ugly right? We’re the 4th most active startup ecosystem in the world. We’re the largest ecosystem in Canada. And were the best non-US city for funding.

But there are some very serious problems under the covers.

Toronto is a young startup ecosystem, largely because it wasn’t always possible to run a startup here. This has 2 effects as far as I can tell. The first is that most of the entrepreneurs here in Toronto are very young, the average age is definitely lower than the Startup Genome Project average of 33. And the second is that almost all of us aren’t tied to Toronto. We have all been somewhere else, worked somewhere else, and got money somewhere else.

Weak Founder Network

Being young & unconstrained means we don’t brag about or lean on our native networks in Toronto. We brag about our investors and mentors in the valley (like we all haven’t been), we try to impress our Toronto network instead of learning from them, and we don’t trust our peers here to help us succeed. Its ok. And its pretty normal from what I’ve seen in other fledgling startup communities.

BUT until we can trust and work with our peers here in Toronto the community will continue to flounder. We will continue to leave (not necessarily a bad thing). We will continue to NEED other networks. And getting together will continue to be about bragging instead of helping and learning.

Small Ideas

I’m not sure if this is because the ecosystem is so young. Or because our service providers think they run startups. Or because we’re a largely Canadian club. But our ideas on average aren’t world changing. We dream of things that already exist. We dream of parts of other company’s visions. We dream of features. We dream of being an Instagram for Instagram rather than Facebook, Go instead of Google, CRM instead of Salesforce.

This is a theme across the startup galaxy right now. But we aren’t helping. Why not be the place big ideas come from? Why not be known for dreaming bigger? Lets be frighteningly ambitious. Lets change something. Fuck the $25MM Google acquisition. Can we please do a little bit more than building another feature for Salesforce?

Crossing The Scale Gap

We have almost zero entrepreneurs and early employees experienced at scaling. It might even be the real reason for the pre-scale acquisitions lately. We can’t cross the gap. Who are you going to hire to scale your marketing? What about sales & bd? Or support? Or product management? Have they ever done it at a startup before? Better still, will they – without a question – give you an unfair advantage because of how awesome and repeatable they are at it? I doubt the list is any longer than a few names for each – and I bet most of them are running their own startups or have retired.

There is a huge void here that doesn’t exist in SF or even NYC. We have very, very few startups that have achieved scale, cycled, and produced experienced founders or employees that want to go back out and do it again. This is why so many of our startups open offices in San Francisco or Palo Alto. Will you? Does it bother you that you have to split up your team, or move? You need to move if thats how you win – but could we ever help each other to do it here at scale?

Mentorship

Its pretty weak in Toronto. Its a side effect of the same lack of experience. The same lack of cycling. And there just isn’t the same kind of culture of free giving that exists in the valley. We have this sort of East Coast I work to get paid mentality that doesn’t jive so well with mentorship. All that being said I can’t fix this. This is a huge problem that has cultural roots, a lack of raw material, and well all be dead (or at least our startups will be) by the time it gets fixed.

My advice: Get a mentor in the valley, and figure out how to use skype.

Capital

Don’t waste your time raising in Toronto. If you can and do raise elsewhere Toronto will pay attention. If you can’t, they still wont. And the best part is you don’t need permission to be in Toronto anymore if this is the right place to run your business.

My advice: Raise the money where you can, run your business where you need to, and get the fuck back to work.

But…

There still are some pretty great things about Toronto. Hell, I haven’t left yet. The talent here is A+, the money goes further, the government helps, its one of the biggest economies in North America (ie. fuck loads of customers), and you can build a first class startup culture of first class talent that has worked at startups in the valley and abroad.

So lets fix the broken parts. I think its still worth it.

Too much words? In picture form!

Problems I’m trying to fix:

  • Build a stronger founder network
  • Encourage and enable bigger ideas
  • Fill-in or otherwise enable companies to cross the scale talent gap

Things I’m NOT trying to fix:

  • More and better mentorship
  • More and better capital

About Me

Upverter is my 3rd startup. I dropped out of highschool, and then university, both times to run startups. I’ve worked in Ottawa, Waterloo, Stuttgart, Bangalore, and Mountain View. I have never lived in Toronto before, so it’s a first for me, but we’re here because it’s where our team wanted to be. And I’m not ok sitting back and letting this opportunity – to make Toronto kick more ass – pass me by.

Wanna join the cause?

Shoot me an email ([email protected])

Looking for a direct line to Silicon Valley

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Mark Silva (LinkedIn, @marksilva), SVP Emerging Platforms at Anthem Worldwide. He was in attendance at GrowConf 2011. 

CC-BY-20 Some rights reserved by JD Hancock
Attribution Some rights reserved by JD Hancock

There’s a different business DNA here in Silicon Valley and there’s no other start-up ecosystem like it anywhere in the world.  We are the descendants of miners, pioneers, and manifest destiny. We’re comfortable crafting real value from the clay of chaos. In the 49er days you weren’t a failure if your mine went dry, only if you quit and that attitude persists here today. I always tell startups, if they’re serious, they need to come to Silicon Valley.  It’s tough enough to start a business. Why not start with an unfair advantage and remove some of those obstacles you face with an ecosystem that can help solve your biggest and smallest issues?

GrowConf Aug 22-24, 2012 in VancouverThat being said, you’re not doomed if you decide to start a business somewhere else.  Events like the GROW Conference in Vancouver have made the Silicon Valley ecosystem mobile and if only for a few days, you can have the Valley brought to you.  Between the speakers, mentors, investors, companies, and accelerators, GROW Week is like a high speed rail to Silicon Valley with exclusive access to the right players.

As we all know, there’s a serious echo chamber in Silicon Valley, and the chance to get out of our caves and be in new places is healthy and promotes good ideas.  I find that when I attend a good conference or event, I end up having more in depth conversations over the course of a few days with people I care about than I do in any other situation.

Some of the highlights for me from GROW last year were getting to know Vy Le, CEO of Rudy’s Barbershop, spending time with top Silicon Valley VCs like Chris Redlitz, Jeff Clavier and Rob Hayes, and networking with fellow mentors like Matt Galligan and Lane Becker from Get Satisfaction.  How awesome is that!?

GROW is the closest thing to a “Valley” experience outside of the Valley, and Vancouver is one of the most beautiful backdrops to inspire collaboration, discussion and innovation. I’ve never met a Canadian I didn’t like, and I’ll put that challenge to the test when I return to GROW in August!

Join Mark Silva, Julia Hartz, Sean Ellis, Dave McClure, David Cancel and others at GROW August 22-24th in Vancouver, BC

Register for GROW with a $100 discount using the promotional code “SN” at http://growconf.eventbrite.com/

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Mark Silva (LinkedIn, @marksilva), SVP Emerging Platforms at Anthem Worldwide. He was in attendance at GrowConf 2011. 

Looking to get hired by a startup? 10 ways to stand out

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Bruce Dorland (LinkedIn, @brucedorland). Bruce is the Managing Director & Recruiter at Grossman Dorland Recruiting. gdR recruits for permanent and contract positions at all levels, from roles for talented young professionals to accomplished executives. Prior to founding gdR, Bruce spent time at Brightspark, Tucows shipping products that have been used by over 3MM users.

CC-BY-NC-ND-20  Some rights reserved by Candid-Moments
AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Candid-Moments

Occasionally I interview a developer that really impresses me with their ability to make their profile come to life beyond their resume.

Want to know what makes these developers stand out? Here are my top ten tips for making a big impression. Many of these tips work for both a resume and, once that stellar resume gets you in the door, a job interview.

I think developers looking for a new job can have it tough. Many, if not most, job descriptions aren’t great at describing the actual nature of the role. Traditional resume formats can be flat. Interviewers don’t always ask effective questions, and HR departments that rely heavily on keyword matching can’t differentiate you qualitatively from other candidates.

The result: unless you do something different, the odds of standing out are stacked against you. But if you’re trying to get into a startup or midsize tech company that is truly looking to build a top-notch team, it’s essential that you learn to make your mark. Here’s how:

Tip #1: Show me your side projects

Small and midsize companies increasingly value a well-rounded candidate with a passion for technology and a dedication to growing their technical skillset. For confidentially reasons it can be hard to show people the code you’ve been working on at your job, but side projects are a great way to show how you design and implement code. In my opinion, side projects are also a surefire sign of your passion for the craft.

A great tool for this is a code sharing and publishing platform like GitHub. The site gives you a place to contribute to open source projects and build a public reputation for your work since the community is quite transparent. For instance, if a patch you submit is accepted, you get credit for it and it shows up in your profile. The site acts like a resume that helps the maintainer of a project determine your reputation.

Tip #2: Have a relevant and up-to-date portfolio site

While it’s common for certain types of developers to have a portfolio site, UI developers in particular, I’ve found that many create a site early on in their career but don’t keep it up to date.

Most employers who refer to your portfolio site won’t necessarily have the time or patience to fill in any blanks or realize is something is out of date. It’s up to you to make sure that your site accurately reflects where your skill level is today, that sites that aren’t live anymore are removed, that screenshots are illustrative and relevant, and that you give the context of why your work was original or important at that time.

Tip #3: Form your own opinions on technology

What are the topics of the day within your company? What technologies have they chosen to use and why? Form an opinion about your current company’s choices of tools and have an opinion about where things might be going in the future (of course, you’ll want to make sure you’re observing confidentiality requirements if you intend to share this information in an interview).

In addition, know the big discussions happening in tech today. What are the latest thoughts on Continuous Integration and Deployment options? Javascript MVC frameworks? Big data? Be knowledgeable and you’ll always be ready if asked for your thoughts on the trends shaping your field.

Tip #4: Understand the users and business behind your product

Many developers are used to only describing their products from a tech perspective out, rather than a user perspective in.

To make yourself stand out from the crowd, be able to articulate who the users of your product are and the solution it provides for them, and more generally, the business side of the product.

Go into an interview from this angle in mind and a company will be confident that you always do your work with the user in mind.

Tip #5: Whiteboard your work

Many developers aren’t used to talking about themselves, their product architecture, what they’ve accomplished, or how to best articulate the technical challenges they faced. This is why whiteboarding your work is so important.

When I say whiteboarding, I mean mapping out the architecture of your product, the modules your were responsible for and the technological challenges you faced. It’s about taking all this information and putting it into words so that you can talk about it during an interview.

This might also literally mean drawing this all out on a whiteboard, as I often ask candidates to do during an interview. You can’t lie to yourself or anyone else in front of that whiteboard – either you can map out and explain your work, or you can’t.

If you can bring sample documents to reinforce your whiteboard map without breaking confidentiality agreements, that helps too.

Tip #6: Make it interactive – demo your work!

In an interview, I’m always much more engaged if a developer can demo their product for me. This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how seldom I’m asked if I want a live tour of the product they’ve been working on.

If you worked for a SaaS company, for example, and you still have an account, offer to log in and show me around. Tell me which modules you were responsible for. This is always much more visual and stimulating than a written summary of your work.

Tip #7: Be articulate, simple & concise.

Once you’ve prepared your whiteboard, be prepared to articulate all this information (your skills, your current responsibilities and your product) in a simple, concise manner. Start with less detail and drill down where appropriate. If you don’t know how deep to go, just ask the interviewer if they want to know more.

Be prepared to guide some of the questioning so you know the interviewer is getting all the information that makes you an appealing candidate. An interview is an interactive process, after all.

Tip #8: Tell me what you find exciting in tech today.

Even if you haven’t been working for the sexiest company, products or applications, always be prepared to talk about what you DO admire and why.

Please do me a favour – don’t say Apple or Google (and definitely don’t say Microsoft!). Come up with unique ideas that reflect your professional opinions on what makes a product or service shine.

Tip #9: Get to know the company you’re interviewing for.

Obvious, right? But it can speak volumes if a candidate isn’t informed, which happens a lot.

Find out what technology stack the company uses and review their FAQs, support forums, training guides and blog. If they have a free trial account of their product, sign up for an account and give it a test drive. The more you know, the more enthusiastic you’ll appear and the better and more useful your own questions will be.

Tip #10: Come to the interview with great questions.

Hopefully after having done all the research I’ve suggested, you’ll have some original questions to ask that not only show that you’ve come prepared, but that will also help you make a decision about how the company, product, technology and team fit your overall career goals.