The 2015 review. A goal for 2016.

Looking back at 2015 it was a bit of a personal and professional growth year as I went outside of my comfort zone and tried some new things:

  • Kicked off the year moving to a totally new role (to me) of “Business Development” at Boltmade. Jumping back into the software development world with the best team I could imagine has been awesome. In some ways it is familiar but it in so many other ways I am in a position where I am learning every day.
  • I started teaching a course at the University of Toronto – course development and execution is one heck of a learning experience. Plus it is a lot of fun!
  • Made the transition from Assistant Coach in hockey to a Head Coach of a rep baseball team and a girls house league hockey team. The number of courses a volunteer needs to take in order to coach (and they are sport specific – hockey and baseball have their own) is surprising. The experience even more so.

Overall it was a good year and I feel really lucky to have had the opportunity to move away from ‘startup everything’ thinking to try different things. I put a lot of emphasis on developing my coaching skills and it has been hugely rewarding.

The year was bookended with the loss of two really important “old guys” in my life: my grandpa, and my uncle Don. My Grandpa (the only one I knew) passed away nearly a year ago. It was extra tough because my oldest son and daughter (8 + 6 yrs old) knew him and experienced a loss.

A fresh reminder that life has a time constraint and that one must enjoy the time they have now and do as much good as you can while you are here.

For 2016 I am looking forward to building on the last year. Family wise we hit a few big milestones (big birthdays, the 4th kid goes to school in the fall) which are going to change some things.

My goal for 2016 is do as much good as I can.

Focusing on activities over results


What the critics and supporters of any accelerator or incubator program often discuss are activities backed by some calculation of ‘results.’ It makes it difficult to talk about the good things (and the bad things that are actually bad) because often the activity is seen as the result to some people and to others it’s not.

To complicate this some more the public funding often asked for metrics that are tied to activities and celebrates them (e.g., funding events, number of people attending an event). This isn’t just in the accelubation space, pretty much all government funding for any agency or service wants to see numbers that are tied to activities that reach the highest number of people over a few people that do very well. The public likes those numbers and can understand those numbers.

Think about health care. The media constantly points towards ‘wait times’ in the ER and number of beds in hospitals. The real results we would like to see would be something like the percentage of successful diagnoses, treatment success, and some number on the quality of life after treatment.

If wait times in ER are down to 5 min by giving everyone a placebo would that be better? Maybe? But a lot of people would probably be a lot worse off. Thankfully doctors and nurses take the time to provide proper care to everyone. They look for efficiencies while working inside regulations and maintaining (and improving) the overall quality of care. The numbers that speak to the meaningful results are hard for the public to consume as they all require a deep dive to fully understand them.

With accelerators and incubators there is a similar difference between what the public can consume and the numbers that point towards growing more successful companies. There is an expectation to report on the number of companies, demos, number of jobs, and the number of people expressing interest in ‘tech’ by attending events.

To drive those numbers you can just run a big events company that pack event spaces and generate media attention. That might help produce energy but it also creates noise and consumes people’s time. The numbers that would be more interesting are company growth numbers, the time it takes to grow, can these companies find the right people (how long are jobs posted before they are filled and do they stay filled), are local investors investing, etc. The interesting metrics are a long list but it takes a deep dive to fully understand, evaluate, and act on them.

Metrics are just numbers. They require context.

Success looks different for each community. What is a result and what is an activity depends on what you are trying to achieve. If the success is simply getting 50 people in a room to talk about startups, then that is what it is. There is underlying expectation that events lead to a connection that leads to a company that has 20 employees.

The trick (or the art) is to focus on achieving the metrics your stakeholders care about (number of people for example) and the important result that will help you make a difference (company meets key funder at a small event).

The events and the energy is important but what will add the most value to improve quality is something else. That something else boils down to something simple but there is a distillation process (activity) that is necessary in order to get there…

Connecting the right people at the right time.

My favourite example of this is my own experience with Communitech. There were two key ‘moments’ that gave my company a chance it would not have had otherwise.

  • The first moment – an EIR hosting a brainstorming event that allowed my cofounder and I to meet at the right time in the right context. This happened in January 2009.
  • The second moment – An EIR that just started pulled up our company profile and sat down with the founding team. We were trying to figure out if we had something real. From that inspirational conversation he became an invaluable advisor/investor and board member right until the exit. This happened over the period of January 2011-November 2013.

There were lots of other things – events, services, etc – that support meeting the right people at the right time. I don’t feel like those two key moments were ‘chance’ collisions. They were indirectly designed.

Connections like that aren’t random enough in the wider business community outside of places like the Valley (although even there you kiss a lot of frogs). There still lacks the concentration and that is where accelerators, incubators, and the larger organizations become essential community ‘distilleries.’

Over the last 10 years I have seen key ‘moments’ or a series of those moments for many founders. Sometimes the timing is off or the personalities don’t match. You just keep trying as things find a way to work themselves out.

You can’t just expect to have events and have those chance connections happen and turn into something valuable. The event is the activity, the result is relationships that are forged and what happens next. The activity can be measured on the short term but the results are measured over a much longer term. The big results take time!

Activities and their metrics are the health check but everyone needs to keep focused on the results they want to achieve. We spend a lot of time discussing how we are pushing the car out of the snowbank. The important thing is the car gets out of the snowbank.


What if accelerators and incubators went away?


Accelerator and incubators have popped up in almost every city in Canada that is supporting its ‘innovation ecosystem.’ This economic development strategy gained interest after the stock market crash in 2008. But it wasn’t until around 2012 that this strategy has gained popularity as more startups find success.

If you updated this data collected by MaRS in 2013 I would bet more than 50% would be 2012/2014 ‘founded’ years.

There is a increased profile for young entrepreneurs today as a result of the market for credit that these organizations compete in. There are also many companies that have grown with significant VC investment or had lucrative exists that were more than just paying back the investors. The challenge is that little is known on what specific role incubators or accelerators have played in these companies success.

What did they do that helped? What has changed since that company was in the program? What has changed in the larger community?

With a new government in Canada there is now a focus on an election promise that was directed at this economic development strategy – funding accelerators, incubators, and research. Recently published articles written by Marcus Daniels along with features on Jim Balsillie and John Ruffolo’s lobbying efforts to provide a ‘voice’ for technology startups focus on the need for change in the accelerator and incubator landscape in the country

Marcus sums an observation and challenge shared by many.

Across Canada there is too much duplication and isolation at the accelerator level. Solving this problem begins by recognizing that the needs of founders in both tech and other high-growth areas have changed.

While some some accelerators have evolved, many have failed to adapt and are creating initiatives that keep the lights on, as opposed to new programs to incentivize the best entrepreneurs on the planet to build their ventures in Canada.

I think the key message  from Marcus is that accelerators have failed to adapt to the things that have a meaningful impact on building companies in Canada. Instead, they focus on the activities that provide them the funding they need to keep the lights on.

Balsillie’s quote from his article focuses a lot more on building a set of business metrics for accelerators and incubators:

“If you’re going to give more to incubation, create an accountability framework that’s based on real business output,” Balsillie said.

“We’ve never had any performance metrics — there’s a lot of spin and hype. Which part of it is real outcome and which part is pixie dust?”

Great! A call for metrics that matter — but what are they? I tried to figure that out with post on startupnorth but those assume they operate as a business with a focus on profit. I posted a more detailed look at metrics that matter as well.

What we are talking about are government funded programs that are tasked to ‘hack the market’ and give early stage companies a better chance than they would have normally in Canada to grow.

The challenge, as I see it, is that it is much harder (and simpler) than most people have generally estimated. It is also a longer term commitment to the founders than most organizations are currently tooled for.

The programs are all increasing in size as they try and tackle any and all activities that might help build an ecosystem. The hard part is understanding or believing that it is much simpler to help founders (see note at the end). There are just a few key activities or opportunities that an early stage founder can use and not find themselves. But for each and every founder it takes the care and understanding to deliver personalized services/support.

Balancing services is hard and only a few have figured out how to do this well.

Helping companies exist, grow, and be successful is an Art not a Science.

The challenging in understanding this Art of building companies is likely rooted in a misunderstanding of startup ecosystems and what/who/where/how they can be manipulated.  That is where metrics for programs can get messy.

For fun, read this post on ecosystems for a perspective from Europe.

‘Ecosystem’: the problem is that the very term has become a bit of a cliché. Everyone uses it. For most people, its meaning has been lost along the way. It has become irritating to hear everyone talking about the damned ‘ecosystem’, all the more so because in reality it’s often not an ecosystem but a toxic environment for startups.

The emphasis of the post that follows the above quote is the that ecosystem is forged by entrepreneurs that are out there building companies. That is something that Brad Feld states in his Boulder Thesis as well.

Can ecosystems be forged by accelerators and incubators or by the entrepreneurs participating in them? Do those entrepreneurs require those programs? Do they slow things down or speed things up? Do they make businesses better than they would have been without the program?

No one knows with any certainty and I don’t think it will be easy to figure out because founders enrol in everything that is available. All the programs will promote their success but it is challenging to find out what is really going on because 2+ programs will be promoting the same success. Read The Market for Credit and Supporting Entrepreneurs.

Over time successful entrepreneurs will give back to the community (funding, advice, connections) but unless we know what is currently working (and not working) then it makes it possible for critics and point out the burning money.

What would happen if all the programs stopped? Would any of the entrepreneurs that will find success notice? If the truly successful programs are indeed successful should they not now be obsolete given that there is now a successful group of founders re-investing time and expertise?

My guess is that if all the government backed programs shut down the following things would happen:

  • Venture Capital firms would fund a few (1-3) as a way to optimize their lead generation.
  • Higher Education would continue to develop programs and tie them in tighter with education and their overall fundraising initiatives. But many schools might not try which I think would hurt students.
  • Less people would attend startup events and conferences in Canada (which is actually a bad thing).

In Canada we are not at a stage were shutting down programs is a wise course of action. But I think with the next phase of investment there are a few things that should be discussed or changed:

  1. Give government funded programs the goal to be obsolete in 5-10 years. How do they achieve that (it is not that they have to be)? That would help them identify what success looks like.
  2. Enlist a research group from the Rotman School of Management (or a collaboration of top notch research driven business schools) to collect, clean up, analyze, and report on the data across all programs. Graduate students are designed to do this better than anyone. Then everyone is better informed on what works and we can do more of that.
  3. Fund co-operative education for all undergraduates across the country. That experience creates entrepreneurs, open students up to products/customers, and builds global networks all young people can use to be successful.

Note: The Creative Destruction Lab is demonstrating how a program can operate on a shoe string budget and have a significant role in educating students. Metrics wise it has ~36 Alumni companies that have collectively achieved ~$200M in value in a few short years. No program in Canada comes close to that but many other programs in Canada are connected to those companies. EDIT: No program should take credit for a company’s success but they should celebrate it. Also, I had the wrong value for CDL.

Another note: This post isn’t about organizations that have a longer term vision and are trying to solve bigger problems. They may have accelerator or incubator programs as part of their larger offering but overall they are something different.


Missing a laptop…

For the first time in 15 years of having a Macbook (started with a TiBook with OS 9) I have had one stolen. It was a 4 yr old MacBook Air that was covered in stickers, its power adapter slot needed some trickery to get it to charge, the video output was failing, and I couldn’t stand using much more than a browser for email and everything else.

I re-installed the OS in May and totally wiped the drive. There weren’t any files on there but I told iCloud to wipe the HD when it appears online… if it ever appears online. I think, from kijijji it is worth $200… maybe.

If you see a Macbook Air around Waterloo with a Kik, Boltmade, TribeHR, a small tinker bell sticker, and a couple other stickers on it let me know. I don’t think there are many with that combo around 😉

Short-cuts, Unicorns, and Startup Culture


In a post by Mark Suster entitled “Why I Fucking Hate Unicorns and the Culture They Breed,” there is a message for everyone in startup land that isn’t just about the rise of Unicorns… its about believing in short cuts. The ballooning valuations that are set by investors and not the larger market encourage a gaming mentality to take over startup culture in a more intense way than normal. Founders think the game they are playing is measured in raising money and valuations.

It’s not about being on stage at a Demo Day or featured in an article in TechCrunch or closing a $20 million round. It’s about continually shipping code. It’s about putting our menacing bugs. It’s about a 6:15am flight to a customer in Detroit in Winter for a $200k deal to hit your budget for the quarter.

I would argue the “lean” everything movement along with accelerators desperately looking for positive returns (or PR in the market for credit) contribute to this. They glorify the ‘Unicorn’ and try to ‘hack the system’ to get bigger/better results faster than what is ‘normal’ with hard work.

There is no repeatable process for building a company that is specific enough to be a step by step manual to success. There is no short cut to building a great product or team! StartupWeekends, accelerators, incubators, courses, workshops, and Lean X get you on the path but you still need to spend the time to learn things.

I always tell new founders it takes 2 years to get started, 5 years to know if you have anything. There is nothing I have seen in the 10 years I have paid a lot of attention to startups that makes me think my generalization isn’t accurate 4/5 times 😉

Suster’s posts are almost always good to read – this one is great because he pulls together a commentary on politicians behaviour and a guy with a broken heart. Read it and be reminded that hard work is the only way to get real results.

Accelerators and incubators are not growth companies

More than a few accelerator or incubator programs have quietly wound down their operations or merged with other programs over the last 6-12 months. This isn’t a surprise. Even with what are essentially successful programs to most, they have a hard time maintaining momentum let alone generate any revenue to sustain themselves. The math is hard to make work.

The upside for all the people involved simply isn’t there in most cases. It takes a huge amount of effort and resources to make a program successful.

I think this highlights two potential issues that many of the organizations that support startups could have.

  1. The program operators start to think like the startups around them and they think they need to grow or scale to help more companies. As a result the things they do are focused on the good of the accelerator instead of the companies in the program.
  2. Incentives are not aligned. Program operators/coaches do not share in the upside of the successful companies. They are instead rewarded for the popularity of a particular program.

They grow. They generate PR. They position themselves as experts on early stage companies. They do all the things they know you should do to build a successful company. When you are around startups all the time there is a tendency to see the world through the lens of the startup – growth, lean, pivots, MVPs, agile, metrics, etc. What they don’t focus on is the companies they are trying to help. All those other things tie up a lot resources.

Achieving optimal effectiveness of a program

I have a theory that the optimal effectiveness (cost vs return) of an accelerator or incubator is at a very small scale. They should provide a service that benefits the founders and the company without PR/Marketing/Events/Space. There is one exception, Y-Combinator. Its scale is huge but I would argue its allowing a lot of waste because the returns are so big and there is a lot of inherent value in the alumni base that offers a ‘fraternity’ type social network.

…and YC started really small. It didn’t have a marketing or communications team. It doesn’t appear to have sought out PR to recruit or host big parties.

There are things that do scale (space to work, creating a big club house full of energy and people, etc) but the effectiveness to truly ‘accelerate’ a business is limited in terms of the ability of the organization to help companies grow faster than they would have without the program. What a program that does space and events may help is to create an ecosystem that is more accessible. It creates an environment were peer mentorship can happen. It is impossible to say whether that would happen naturally or not.

In many cases the community needs a kick start so its great accelerator programs do that.

In all cases the founders need a personal and professional kick start that only very focused coaching can provide. Each founder/company is different as well. There are some general things that can help but nothing is as effective as knowing the people, situations, and having credibility in a given founder/funder network.

Space, club houses, and events are a different business model — it isn’t company acceleration, it is community building.

How to combat this tendency to operate on a growth trajectory is to separate the business operations (space, etc) from the support directly offered to the companies. Keep something totally focused on the companies but don’t hang the success of the business operations on the success of the companies.

What a startup community needs for long term sustainability are local investors that can add more value that just dollars plus are invested in the community. Along with a few other things according to the Boulder Thesis.

If you have a great community with mediocre slow growth companies its hard to argue the investment was anything more than a community development activity.

If you focus on building successful companies the returns will go into the community. That is the optimal return on investment where incentives become aligned – investors (accelerators) see a return, founders gain wins and become investors, early employees gain experience and opportunity.

I do not believe all accelerators should just stop all that other stuff but I think they should be very clear what value they are creating vs capturing (for self promotion). Accelerators should ensure they are on the side of creating value. They need to take the time to know the founders and that is hard to do if they are out promoting their program.

Boltmade – where great software and products are built in Waterloo

For the last 6 months I have been getting to know an exciting new world that is Boltmade — after 15 years in higher education building programs that helps educate entrepreneurs at two of the top schools in the country (U of Waterloo and U of Toronto) it was time to take a pause from higher ed.

Enter Boltmade. Back when TribeHR just received funding we shared a space with a small group of talented people that build high quality software and understand products. They kept growing and would become Boltmade. Over the last year a lot people I have a lot of respect for joined their team. I am excited to work with them!

What am I doing at Boltmade? Doing stuff like bringing back StartupCampWaterloo (next week!) and talking to awesome companies from all over that are looking to have great software built. We are building something really special at Boltmade in Waterloo — the people working on the project own it, we utilize both development and design best practices it takes to build holistic products. We also help you develop processes internally that will result in a long term ability to continue to develop software products inside your organization. We even can help you recruit your team!

That is my favourite part. I know from experience that building a high quality product and team takes a lot of time. At Boltmade we can help a lot of companies grow and succeed… and have a lot of fun doing it!

We are based in Waterloo but our purpose is to help companies inside and outside of the region build bigger badder things.

…and the Boltmade team is growing!


StartupCampWaterloo15 – vikings, bikes, baseball, and organizing your time!


It had almost been a year since StartupCampWaterloo14 and it felt like it was long overdue. The folks at Boltmade opened their office up to StartupCamp so we tried a different venue and stuck to our original format. It was a load of fun!

Thanks to everyone who attended StartupCampWaterloo15! You folks made it a great event. The following is info on who presented.

From my browser history we had:

Others on the whiteboard:

TheBIKEProject – Renish Kamal
Sharebubble – Lucas Cohen
FromTheseRoots – Mic Berman

Also, our new friend from Iceland via Halifax wrote a great post about the Toronto-Waterloo communities. Take a look:

Our next event will be in May. It will be warmer.

Goodbye Ralph Thili

Today I thought a lot about my grandpa, Ralph Thili. His parents were part of a generation that fled unrest in Europe (looming invasion of Poland). Born in Hamilton, he had to take on a lot of responsibility at a young age to help support his family. As with all people of his vintage he has had an interesting life full of challenges:

  • He farmed the land of what is now Burlington and somewhere in Flamborough (he could never tell me where) and had a story of how the Polish women (he was Polish) would just deliver babies in the farm field and keep working.
  • He was too young for WWII but joined the Canadian Navy to serve on the Maggie (HMCS Magnificent – didn’t know Canada had an aircraft carrier did you) and travel the world.
  • He met my grandmother on the shore leave in Halifax (so the story goes) when she was probably too young to run away with a sailor.
  • Sometime in there he was below decks on a war ship that had its engine blow up. He survived.
  • He drove a motorcycle in the 50s around Hamilton and Dundas and had “Lucky” in studs written on his leather coat.
  • He was an inventor, freakishly strong, stubborn, and knew way more about electronics than I probably ever will.
  • His company was Blue Arrow TV in Dundas. He fixed TVs and then got into computers.
  • He never went to University or finished High School I think…
  • He has 11 grandkids, 14 great grandkids.
  • He could dance and he had great hair.

My earliest memories are with him teaching me how to golf with cut off clubs and me walking around the Dundas Valley Golf Course. That is what we did together right up until fairly recently.

My Grandpa passed away today. It’s sad. I feel very lucky to have known him for nearly 40 years. It is tough to write something about him but I wanted to collect some thoughts since he was my only grandpa that I knew and the person that I got my entrepreneurial inspiration from. I will continue to be inspired by him, improve my golf game, and hope I get to see my grand kids grow into their 30s.

Update: Obituary for Grandpa

Creatively Destroying Higher Education: What have I learned?

The Creative Destruction Lab at Rotman, in just over 2 years, went from an idea to something that is having a very positive impact on students and founders in Canada. We focused at the broken market for judgement and how the mentorship structure or processes that existed were not optimized for either side of the market – the mentor/coach and the person being mentored.

It has made a difference in Toronto and Canada.

In the Fall I made a decision to leave the amazing folks at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. It was a really tough decision as my heart and soul went into building the program but with so many great people supporting it felt like the timing was right. As of January 2015 I am focused on teaching a course for Rotman Commerce and I decided to join the best software/product people I know, anywhere, at Boltmade (that is another post).

When I look back at my time at Rotman there are three big things I learned:

  • Mentorship needs to be managed closely, it isn’t good enough to just have people with successful jobs or titles or experience simply meet with people.
  • The University of Toronto is an important resource to the country, graduate students even more so.
  • There is no single model for supporting entreprenuers that works for every school/community.

Mentorship must be managed

When the CDL was started we looked at mentorship walls incubators and accelerators had (web pages that list dozens of mentors) as something we didn’t want to do. Instead we focused on the G7 Fellows being the only mentors that we were going to focus on because:

  • G7 fellows have built (and exited from) successful companies.
  • Everyone’s time is the limited resource.
  • We wanted to reduce mentor whiplash.

The first point, building successful companies (and exiting), is the qualification that we used to speak to the level of judgement that someone has experienced. Building a company is a roller coaster and reaching a certain milestone (exit) requires both luck and good judgement to win out over the bad. That perspective gained on the journey is invaluable.

The founders that are just starting out and those that have built a $100M+ company share a common constraint on their time. Respecting that constraint and optimizing how time is used is essential. That means keeping the volume of email down, writing specific emails, and having very specific requests. Managing time allows you to sharply focus on what is important.

On founder/mentor whiplash, that is something I have written about before. I strongly believe that my key point on the expertise it takes to educate people. Pretty much every program out there that isn’t directly tied to education likely lacks the expertise to effectively educate people. That doesn’t mean that they all get it wrong, if they are focused on education and apprenticeship they could be getting it right. If they are ignoring the importance of education and the expertise required then they might not be as good as they could be.

The University of Toronto is one of Canada’s most important resources

Quietly situated in the middle of North America’s 4th largest city, the University of Toronto’s St George campus houses over 90% of its ~18000 grad students. There is $1.1+ Billion in research annually. A large amount of that is medical research but what is left is still more research dollars than any 2 schools in the country that don’t have a medical school. It’s big and it is the top ranked school by all measures in the country.

What this means is that it attracts some of the best talent in the world. That talent has direct ties to major international cities and the campus educates globally minded students. This is huge. The people there aren’t trying to be the best in Canada. They are trying to the be the best at whatever they do. Anywhere.

Compared to almost all other schools in the country there is a huge number of graduate level students in science based research (Waterloo only has ~3000 grad students in total, 1/6th of UofT). Grad students in Canada are an untapped resource. Too many employers dismiss them as over educated or inexperienced in work. They find high paying work in other countries as a result (the whole internationally connected thing kicks in).

The opportunities for founders and anyone else:

  • You will find really skilled people with deep technology expertise and global connections.
  • There is a lot of research that looks like science fiction to enhance your product or build a product around it — you just need to look.
  • Your company can attract global talent to a city that has has a world class institution. A lot of the really talented people in the world have a partner that has some interested in research.

…and so much more.

There is no single model for supporting entrepreneurs — its art not science

Once upon a time there was just Y-Combinator. Then TechStars took a version of it and then everyone seemed to think there was a single model to rule them all. That model is essentially:

  • People apply and those applications are filtered/selected and a cohort is created.
  • That cohort runs for ~12 weeks where the founders work with mentors towards a due date.
  • Demo day happens and investors compete to invest in these newly minted companies.
  • Success follows!

My more detailed views are a post when I say there is just one model that works – Y-Combinator. I still believe that. If you are going to exchange equity for coaching/training and you have a certain type of company then YC is the only place you should go.

When it comes to supporting entrepreneurship in research based institutions there is no single way to do it. I don’t think there is a single program that could or should try and take on all the different ways to do it. Why? Organizations need to focus. You can provide a single service to a certain customer base but if you try and make everyone happy you inevitable be mediocre at everything.

University of Toronto is the only example I know of that has many different programs being delivered by many different ‘owners’ that have absolute control over how that program is run. That allows them to focus on their areas and deliver the best possible program. There may be some overlap and there may be some mistakes but no one really knows how this is done so the experiments are invaluable and should be watched by everyone interested in entrepreneur education/support.


I am really excited about the future of entrepreneurship in Canada. I don’t think anyone yet knows how or if there there is a common model to educate entrepreneurs in higher education. We do know many different ways that work and lots of others that don’t work as well. It is an exciting problem that I have worked on for nearly 10 years – I will continue to support entrepreneurship but in different ways.