Make stuff

Maker Faire

I’m really looking forward to Maker Faire Toronto. It is happening Saturday and Sunday, September 21-22, 2013 at the Wychwood Barns. This is an amazing opportunity to celebrate the Maker Movement. I’m excited to see the inventions, the creativity, the resourcefulness of people to solve problems, to inspire. To be proud of the things they’ve built.

“That is, no matter what the thing is you’re building, it’s deeply gratifying and incredibly educational to perform the act of creating something, anything.” — Christopher O’Brien

I am really excited about the opportunity to bring my kids. I’m excited to teach them about entrepreneurship. But even more importantly, I’m excited to provide them access to learn and to explore technology. My friends Tara Brown and Sean Bonner opened LA Makerspace focused on providing a kid-friendly space. My kids have asked me about building robots, making candy and taking apart their toys.  The eldest is now 6 years old, and her problem solving skills and attention are developing where this will be a transformational experience.

“We are making the tools for passion. When I look around, I don’t see any apathy here.” — Nolan Bushnell

Much of the DIY culture emerged out of the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley. And while not directly responsible for the success of many of the companies that emerged, it seeded a culture and the connections between folks that started Apple Computer, Osbourne Computer and others. This is the ground floor, the Mechatronics department at UWaterloo accepted their first class in 2003.  Bufferbox was started in 2011 and sold to Google in 2012. This is a very interesting space if you look at the emergence of other area startups like InteraXon, Thalmic LabsUpverterMatterform, Bionym and others. 

Bring your kids. These are very interesting times indeed.

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.]

A Perspective on Investor/Mentor Whiplash

CC-BY-NC-ND AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by nocklebeast
AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by nocklebeast

The other day Fred Wilson posted an opinion and some tips on Investor/Mentor Whiplash. He took the position that that is a big problem for accelerators as well as early stage and seed environments. Brad Feld took this as a bit of a misunderstanding on accelerators, he insists that TechStars creates an environment where early stage companies can learn to manage the whiplash. Brad Feld states:

I disagree with Fred. It’s not a big problem. It’s the essence of one of things an accelerator program is trying to teach the entrepreneurs going through it. Specifically, building muscle around processing data and feedback, and making your own decisions.

On the surface this seems correct. A problem (one of many) new founders face is the overwhelming barrage of mentorship (good and bad) and information mixed with the inability to filter. An accelerator should be able to provide the environment where a strong group of peers with some guidance can help to build the “muscle around processing data and feedback.” In the last 6 years I have noticed that is a common problem founders face and their ability to manage it is important to their success. It wasn’t until I experienced the whiplash myself a 2nd and 3rd time that I fully appreciated the damage it can do even if you are prepared for it.

Generally what I tell early stage founders:

  • Only talk to customers once you have something to show them — but that shouldn’t take you a long time, don’t go heads down for months. Asking people what they want and not focusing on something specific they can touch/feel is a path to busy work and infinite sadness.
  • Avoid the mentor parties/socialization. Find two (or three) good people with opposing views and bounce specific data off them but only when you have done something that requires fresh eyes to advise you how to interpret the results.
  • Focus on what isn’t working when getting feedback from mentors. Founders need to be positive but you need to focus on the bad things when talking to your close mentors that have been through it already. If they can’t help you with the tough stuff why are you spending a lot of time with them?
  • Don’t expect a direct answer. Experienced mentors know you are the best person to run your company, not them, and they have developed a way of not telling you what or how to do things but instead challenge you to figure it out in a positive way.

Whiplash from mentors doesn’t just happen in startups, it happens everywhere people are giving you advice or have something to gain by influencing the decisions you are about to make or the opinion you develop on something.

Being prepared and learning to manage the whiplash isn’t just the essence of accelerator programs, it is the essence of education that culminates in the top level you can achieve to filter information – a phd program. At the phd level the filter muscle is almost too strong but that is a topic of a whole other blog post.

The scary thing for entrepreneurs is that accelerator programs are too often run by people that don’t know how to effectively educate people and/or they have something to gain financially by the decisions founders make.

I think this *is* a big problem in accelerators. I wonder if the ability to teach that skill to founders (or select founders that already have that skill) is the difference between a successful accelerator (which is really only TechStars and YC) and one that isn’t (pretty much everyone else)?

[Editor's note: This post was originally posted on Jesse Rodgers' Who You Calling a Jesse blog on July 31, 2013.]