Score another victory for a Vancouver startup. The talented Romanian duo from Summify and their dev crew were acquired by Twitter and relocated to the Valley. While I couldn’t be happier for Cristian and Mircea (the stars of Startup Supernova2) there appears to be a pattern emmerging for the ‘successful’ Vancouver startup:
- Formulate and develop great product (Summify, PhoneGap etc.)
- Achieve product/market fit
- Accumulate thousands or millions of users
- Get acquired
- Relocate all or part of the team to the Valley
There are two different problems here:
1. “How do we get companies to the stage where there is interest from acquirers?”
2. “How do we get those companies to stay?”
How can we breed more Hootsuites?
You can not overestimate the challenge that Ryan at Hootsuite is taking on by being the flagship startup for Vancouver. With Hootsuite’s level of market penetration and traction, there has likely been an acquisition offer that hurts feelings. Yet Ryan maintains a commitment to becoming Vancouver’s first billion dollar startup and building a legacy in this community. I sincerely hope that he suceeds and is the Don of Vancouver’s version of the ‘Pay Pal Mafia’.
But what comes next? How can we grow beyond Mafiosa and turn:
It takes talent to grow.
Talent is the chicken that lays the product eggs. Investment and accelerators help to incubate those eggs and hatch some into chickens that go to market for a payday and/or lay their own eggs.
In sport terms: Owners, general managers, and coaches are important, but there is not a league in the world that can exist without the talent of its players.
Why else are athletes paid such salaries?
Community is Fabric
Overly dramatic tip of the hat to Collin Vine
An idea is a weight.
An individual is a thread.
An individual tries to hold weight alone. It snaps.
Band together dozens of individuals. This is string.
String breaks under heavy weight.
Weave together dozens of strings. This is fabric.
The bigger and stronger fabric, the larger the weight it can support.
Tighter string makes stronger fabric.
Community is fabric.
We are only limited by our capacity to work together and weave ourselves with the threads, strings and patches of fabric around us.
How do we get them to stay?
In 2011, I helped organize over 40 tech events in Vancouver that were attended by over 1600 people. During those events I had a lot of conversations with a lot of entrepreneurs. Here are a couple of ideas that are aggregations of those conversations:
1. Bridge the Gap
Not completely on topic, but…. one of the most embarrassing stories of my university career and trust me, there are plenty:
One day in my Global Business class our esteemed professor Ralph H. asked our class of 70+ students why Silicon Valley was located in the Bay Area. As I put together my answer, my mind made several shaky leaps of logic.
Having never been to the Bay Area, I thought the primary purpose of Silicon Valley was to produce silicon chips. I had recently read that parts of silicon chips where made of glass and I had recently seen a show about how sand could be blown into glass. I knew there were lots of beaches (with sand!) in California. Dot A connected to Dot B which lead me to terrible Answer C. I put up my hand and asked “Is is because of the beaches in California?”.
I am not exactly sure how to describe the look on Ralph’s face.
Here is a man who had spent most of his professional career working at the World Bank and now was faced with my notable level of idiocracy. Ralph cocked his head a bit in case he had misheard me, then slowly shook his head with something approaching confusion in his eyes, “Silicon Valley is there because the schools are there. Stanford is there, Berkeley is there. Beaches are everywhere.”
To me, the difference between Silicon Valley and the Fraser Valley is that the folks in Silicon have figured out a way to effectively bridge the gap between education and industry. The ties between the universities and tech companies are deeply rooted. Google was born at Stanford. Google hires extensively from Stanford. Top talent is attracted to Stanford because they know the connections and opportunities that will be available to them upon graduation. Stanford and industry have figured out a way to build a symbiotic relationship that fuels the Valley.
Lots of people are trying (4D Labs, e@ programs, et al.) but its time for some fresh inputs and ideas as well. Walkabouts (NYC Version) and more student focused events will help. But we need original approaches on how to tighten the relationship between educational institutions and the tech community.
This is a problem and certainly not my area of expertise… remember, I went with beaches.
It still blows my mind how many people I talk to in Vancouver in the digital media space that have no idea Hootsuite is a Vancouver-based company. This number should be 0. Most local ‘techie’ people are at a loss to name even a handful of our local startups. Worse still, they don’t even know where to find that info.
Its time that we created a community wiki that showcased our people, companies and successes to Vancouver and the world at large a la WeAreNyTech. I am stoked to be talking with Joyce Lam and Jon Chui about this project. If you are interested in contributing in some way, please get in touch with any one of us.
3. Hack Hut
This is a big one. Out of everything I learned in 2011, this is the one single thing that will have the biggest impact on building grassroots startups in Vancouver in 2012.
There are literally 10s of millions of dollars being invested every year by government agencies in the technology communities of British Columbia. If we were to imagine ourselves as portfolio managers and approach the technology community as an investment portfolio, we would quickly realize that we have not taken the high risk/high reward ‘flyers’ that a successful technology community itself is built upon.
We openly lament that few in the community take risks and think big, and yet the programs tailored to support our local entrepreneurs are themselves structured to play it safe. Its in the DNA.
In sport terms, it feels like we are playing not to lose. Instead of trusting our Quarterback to risk that electrifying deep throw over the middle to break the game open, we are playing the investment equivalent of small ball. Conservatively trying to get a runner on base and then inch them closer to home.
Moneyball dictates that focusing on on-base percentage is a prudent strategy. That strategy has won games, even division titles for the Oakland A’s. But that strategy has yet to win a championship. And you can’t use the 2007 Red Sox. Their payroll was hardly prudent.
More importantly, the Moneyball strategy does not win the battle between sports. We are not just competing with other tech companies for talent…
Think back to the last 15 years in baseball. Which memory sticks out to you personally…
Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s fielding a consistently good team?
Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa crushing baseballs into adjacent timezones ?
Like it or not, home runs consistently lead-off sport highlight shows, put fans in seats and add zeros to the end of network tv deals. The end result is a growth in the sport and a growth in the economy surrounding that sport.
I am not saying we should forget about batting averages and on base percentages and start recommending steroids for all. Nor am I negating the efforts of the incredible people involved in existing programs. What I am saying is “lets open the playbook a bit and look at some alternatives”. Instead of launching yet another e@ program, lets take a page out of successful co-working spaces in San Francisco and New York and infuse our portfolio with a few novel investments.
I have joined with Ray Walia and Roger Patterson to help get one such alternative off the ground. The Hack Hut is a collaborative workspace for Hackers and Founders to share knowledge, insights and connections that further the tech community in the Lower Mainland. It is by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs. With the best programming and mentors in the Vancouver tech industry. We are going to be doing a Hack Hut info night on Feb 21st . If you are interested, come check it out.
Enough from me… What do you see that will make Vancouver a better tech community in 2012?