10 years of blogging: coder to dad to entreprenuer

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In April 2004 I started blogging. When it started, I wrote about things that I would have posted on uw.general (the wild west of amazing backchannel at U of Waterloo once upon a time) – status updates on the main web page, standards, and other interesting things. That evolved into an interesting timeline of life events over the years. In looking back I can see my transition from a coder working away at web stuff to a dad and entrepreneur. What I learned going back over my blog’s 10 years:

  • Writing more means I have become a better writer or expect more from my writing which means I blog less.
  • Going through my old posts reminded me that startups need community more than anything – that is what gave me the confidence to build one.
  • It is fun to build things. I don’t want to ever stop doing that.
  • I need to shift back to a balance of sharing life events and writing about things I am passionate about.

This is my current top 10 in the last 10 years.

  1. Back then I was really excited about web development, this is when I first started thinking about Ruby on Rails in January 2005.
  2. It wasn’t until the summer of 2006 when I really got excited about development — that summer was a big with the development of some interesting things on rails.
  3. January 2007 my first son was born (and it was mentioned in the Daily Bulletin at the bottom!) – I posted about the next 3 kids but this one was the first.
  4. January 2007 started the mobile project that became VeloCity. As part of that project we built a twitter clone, UW Chatter. It didn’t go anywhere but it was cool.
  5. I started a new job in with the Special Projects Group and I was President of the University of Waterloo Staff Association – that work inspired TribeHR for me.
  6. StartupCampWaterloo was launched. It was small. In early 2008 we hosted the second one at it was big, over 100 people attended including the infamous David Crow and future CDL G7 member Jevon MacDonald. Then in the fall of 2008 we got really excited about the Startup Community in Waterloo at StartupCampWaterloo3 even though the economy was falling apart.
  7. TribeHR was unveiled at DemoCampGuelph - that demo had a bad connection to the projector, lots of laughing, and 4 years later it was acquired by Netsuite.
  8. IgniteWaterloo started and I did the opening presentation as a last minute stand in!
  9. The moment I truly felt VeloCity was successful and the startup community in Waterloo is heading to an awesome place with the amazing 7cubedproject.
  10. I learned how important things like fishing with kids are.

In 2013 and 2014 so far my posts have almost been entirely focused on the work I am doing. The last 2 years have seen a big shift in my focus to family but that doesn’t come out in my blog at all. I will work on that.

The next 10 years are going to be fun!

Waterloo Region’s LRT: the debate that won’t end

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The Region of Waterloo is undergoing a major public works project that will place Light Rail Transit along the core of two of the major municipalities in the Region: Kitchener and Waterloo. This ambitious project is being sold as an important infrastructure project for the future of a rapidly growing and exciting place to live. I support the idea of it. I see the long term benefits and I think it will help build a better city.

Sadly, even after a decision was made the debate goes on. It will be a highlight of the upcoming municipal election which I fear could get some people elected based on the public’s feeling on a particular issue that will be oversimplified and placed into sound bites. LRT is so much bigger than an election cycle or two.

I think there is complex set of reasons why this argument will not end but these are my three big ones:

  1. Population density and how/why people use their cars is a big risk that is being brushed over. The “field of dreams” argument (build it and they will come) can not be a suitable response! Explain it to people in how they get around now and how it will be better. If you can’t there is a problem! Figure out how to manage the problem.
  2. If you oppose it or question it openly you are shouted down as being against “the future.” When a young community leader spoke up at council they tried to discredit him instead of discussing his main point that people won’t switch to transit from cars. What are they so worried about? Engage these people and their different views. Adapt! It will make it better.
  3. A very dynamic and flexible leadership group is needed to ensure the plan can adapt to future realities. One example, it might make more sense to place the GO train in Cambridge. The LRT doesn’t get there and a transportation hub is planned for Kitchener — what if you can’t likely have a 1 hour train on that line for 20 years but you can next year in Cambridge?

There needs to be less storytelling and more practicality in the discussions. Good leadership tells it like it is and deals with issues head on. This community needs to take on the issues like the crippled transportation infrastructure with Toronto and not sweep potential risks out of view with idealistic statements of what they hope will happen. Also, there needs to be a larger theme of a walkable city that isn’t just about tech startups but involves the future of recreation, manufacturing jobs (because the discussion can’t ignore the largest employment sector in the region), research, and retail. Make this future more inclusive.

Lets talk big. Talk positive. Include the young leaders and diverse economy into the discussion!

Otherwise, I fear, something that could be so positive for the Region, the Province, and the country might not become a reality.

 

The “Tech Cluster” discussion must include Hamilton

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There is no doubt in my mind that when we are talking about tech in Canada and the future of the economy, Toronto and Waterloo will play a big role. It is one big ecosystem and it’s growing. There are some limitations to this growth and the big scary one is the relative lack of transportation infrastructure west of the Halton Region. This problem is making people choose between communities which isn’t good for growth.

A recent Huffington Post article where I was featured highlights the problem for technology (and just about any sector really) jobs. For myself I work in Toronto where there is a much larger concentration of research (17 000 grad students, $1.2B in research at UofT alone) which is important for me as I am constantly looking for founders with the potential to build scalable companies. With four kids the quality of life that I would like for my kids would be hard to provide in Toronto.

The quality of life issue is something that can be overcome by living in a lot of different communities outside of Toronto. You can have better access to and from Toronto to areas that have a similar quality of life as Waterloo in almost every direction away from Toronto but not west of Halton Region. Those other communities are 45-60 min train ride which is just another 15-30 min over the average commute if you live in Toronto.

The discussion on tech ecosystems has shifted from Waterloo or Toronto to a larger technology cluster of Toronto AND Waterloo — which is great! The problem, I think, is that only talking about Waterloo and Toronto for technology is limiting the stories being told of the amazing technology companies that exist in a broader cluster around Toronto.

If you are going to talk about a Technology cluster in Ontario it can’t be just about Waterloo, it must include the QEW corridor down to Niagara and it should put more emphasis on Hamilton. This area includes the regional municipalities of Halton, Hamilton, and Niagara (could also include Woodstock, Brant county, and Brantford). Combined they account for roughly 1.6 million people — nearly half the population is in Hamilton and it has the largest urban centre outside of Toronto in the south of the province. 

The conversation has to expand as I think it limits the economic growth by cutting off the story telling in the broader ‘technology’ sector. If all we talk about is Waterloo or Toronto we are distracting people from all the opportunity in a very broad area. Research, Software, and Hardware will be sprinkled around seeding growth everywhere. We also need to talk about and support the next evolution of technology manufacturing otherwise this resource rich country will keep exporting raw materials and be reliant on other countries to build our products.

This is not a zero-sum game.

Founders, do not apply to that accelerator

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It is that time of year again when all the accelerators start recruiting heavily for their new cohorts. Out they go looking for some great founders that ideally have some momentum already and the accelerator can take 5-10% of your company for $25-50k. They will market you, they will promote you, you will meet dozens of well intentioned people trying to help, and they will make you feel special.

But here’s the thing the accelerators won’t tell you… you can get all of that for free. What you have to do: build your company, focus on growth, and earn access to a trusted network that can apprentice under along your journey.

It will take 2-5 years to build your company.

You will hate it and love it.

It’s lonely building something even though you are surrounded by passionate people.

You don’t think you can do that on your own? You don’t know where to start? Start with customers. Start with reaching out to founders of similar companies that have exited or are doing something else. Don’t ask for money, ask for their time. Prove to them you can be coached and can move. Amazing things will happen next.

Only apply to an accelerator if it is a strategic move. It is crazy to give up that much equity unless you are absolutely sure you will get a return on that investment.

Remember: getting funded is not validation, getting accepted to an accelerator is not validation, and winning some prize is not validation. There is a lot to be said for natural growth. Customers paying for your product or service are. Focus on that instead of all the applications that will be tempting you over the next 6 months.

The transit isolation of Waterloo Region

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The Waterloo Region (Guelph too) have had huge gains economically and in population in the last 20 years but it is still a region relatively isolated from the main economic driver of the province, Toronto. I think this isolation has allowed the region to build it’s own identity but as the 401 becomes slower and slower the option for two income families to stay in the region will no longer exist.

The lack of viable commuter options to and from the Waterloo Region also discourages people that enjoy being connected to and more likely live in the increasingly vibrant and young downtown (labeled Creative Class but if you don’t like the label, I think it is the next generation of professional people/families) core of a city like Toronto. Those people are of the professional class companies in the Region desperately need to keep being successful or even grow past the startup stage. This isolation limits the success of the region and I would go so far as to say provides an opportunity for Hamilton to be the place to start and grow a company (and a family) over the longer term (20 years or so) where there are constantly improving and robust transit system (and easy access to Buffalo airport).

Public transit is a big issue to some in Canada at the moment. Rail is just a part of it but the rail system mess in Waterloo Region is a symptom of the larger problem. Something as simple as reliable, cost effective, frequent, and fast (same time as driving or better) should not be that difficult given it exists in Brantford.

The rail system that isn’t as good as Brantford

The communities of Waterloo Region and Brantford + Brant County offer a fairly good comparison:

  • Waterloo Region is roughly a 110 km drive to downtown Toronto, Google maps says it is a 1hr 24min drive but I don’t know a time during daylight hours that it is possible in under 2 hrs.
    • Population of the Waterloo Region is closing on 520k
  • Brantford is roughly a 105 km drive to downtown Toronto, Google maps says it is a 1hr 20min drive
    • Population of Brant County + Brantford is roughly 130k

These two places are basically the same distance with the big difference being Waterloo Region’s economy and population. Both are West of Toronto and Brantford sits in the bottom left corner of a map between Waterloo Region and Hamilton Region. Related is this research on Canada and how suburban it is, very cool maps and information to gain some perspective. When we look at rail access to Toronto though there are huge differences.

For example, Monday November 12th, 2012 as the travel date:

Waterloo

  • VIA Rail’s trains take 1hr 40min
    • leave at 9am
    • return trip leaves Toronto at 5:40pm
    • Commuter pass works out to just under $30 a round trip
  • GO train takes 2 hrs <- 2 HOURS!
    • leaves KW at 5:50am and 7am
    • return trip leaves Toronto at 4:45 and 5:45 pm (so no evening events for you!)
    • just under $30 a round trip

Brantford

  • VIA Rail’s trains take 1hr 10min
    • leave at 7:30am and 8:50am
    • return trip leaves Toronto at 4:30, 5:30, 6:30, or 7pm
    • Commuter pass works out to just over $30 a round trip
  • No GO service

To cover roughly the same amount of ground takes 30 min longer from Waterloo Region. Round trip that is 1hr more out of your day but VIA has recently cancelled the commuter train from Waterloo Region along with the late train. They put GO train on their site as an alternative, it takes nearly an additional 30 min longer to get back on seats not designed for that length of time. That adds almost 2 hrs of commuting time in one day from Kitchener over Brantford which are the same distance to downtown Toronto by road!

Both places lack flexibility for commuters to the Region from the east and returning in the later evening if you were to just go in for a dinner/date night or need to come back later from work. The workaround for commuters in both Waterloo (63km drive, 1hr drive) and Brantford (46km drive, 30 min drive) is Aldershot Station ($16 return GO train ride). The difference in drive times makes it not much of an option for Waterloo folks unless it is a daily commute. There is no workaround for those going to the region of Waterloo from the east.

The 401 is an ever increasing mess and that isn’t going to change

It is no secret that Toronto has a traffic problem. Transit is starting to improve but even Toronto politicians seem incapable of planning for the future around transit despite the continued suburbanization of the city. This exacerbates the issue for Waterloo as it puts pressure on the professionals that are couples (or not) to choose downtown living or living near rail corridors in order to avoid the carmageddon on the highways. My bet is that Waterloo Region is not an option for most of them at the moment.

Waterloo needs to fix its growing islotion from Toronto (both downtown and Pearson airport) that will become an increasingly dire problem for economic growth. I don’t believe that the traffic problems in Toronto will drive employers out of the core of the city to the suburbs, I think it will move them to the core of another city that has an increasingly active airport, is closer to the border with the US (and Buffalo Airport), and tight transit corridor with Toronto – Hamilton.

The train issues shouldn’t be issues but they are because there is no political champion in Waterloo Region that seems to be legitimately concerned that it can take 3-6 hours out of someone’s day to pick someone up at the airport never mind go downtown Toronto for a meeting.

Step 1 is simple, get a train service that is at least on par with a small town just south of the region. The only people that can do it are our politicians, someone needs to show some leadership.

Best day fishing so far this year for the kids

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Thursday was the first rainy and cloudy day in Southern Ontario for a long while. After a conversation the day before with Tim Ellis at the Accelerator Centre I had fishing on my mind. After I cleared out my tasks for the day I packed up Thing 1 and Thing 2 in the truck and headed down to Long Point for a late afternoon search for the little fish and some fun. We had a good day.

 

After starting off a bit slow, as soon as the rain started to fall there appeared a ton of little perch in the harbour. There may have been bigger ones with them but we didn’t find them… but the kids did care. When every cast grabs you a fish of any size it is a good day.

Harbour fishing for fun

What I do is because my kids are all under 6 I have two main goals when it comes to fishing: 1) catch lots of anything 2) make sure they have fun. We are lucky to have lots of options for that around Waterloo. From kettle lakes to old farmer ponds to the Grand River, it is easy to find a spot to drop a worm in the water and pick up a bass or something.

But I like Arbor hot dogs and fries as well as hitting the beach when the fish aren’t biting so we head down highway 24 to Lake Erie. Between Long Point and Port Dover there are a series of little harbours that we drop some worms in the water to see what we get. Sometimes it is nothing but most of the time there are a ton of little fish that make the kids happy but I have a found there is a bit of a trick to it even for the aggressive little fish.

This is obvious to those that fish all the time so this is for those that want to take their kids fishing and don’t know how to start:

  • This is an obvious one, heavy traffic in the harbour kills the fishing. Don’t waste your time if there is heavy boat traffic but look for a spot just off to the side.
  • Change up the depth of the worm with the bobber. I have found that just 6 inches down works some times but dropping the worm to the bottom is required for other days. If something doesn’t hit in 5 mins, start changing the depth.
  • Change the size of the worm. Smaller/larger worm chunks makes a differences depending on the mood of the little fish.
  • Time of day doesn’t matter in harbours unless you want the bigger fish that might sneak in at night for a snack. You will have to be there at sun rise to get them but they are there.
  • Use ultralight gear if you have a choice but don’t waste your money on plastic kids fishing reels because they break… smaller fish + smaller rods = a lot more fun.

What I like about harbours with kids is that even when the fish aren’t biting the kids get to see boats, we are close to marina washrooms, and I don’t have to worry so much about Ticks or other insect bites. Sure there are still bugs that bite but not like if you are stomping around a river bank or pond with a ton of vegetation around.

Looking back at 2011, ahead to 2012

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If 2012 is anything like 2011 for me I better get ready for a wild ride. The year started off with a pilgrimage to Lambeau Field to see the Packers defeat the Bears and enter the playoffs (thanks @tsand), then lots of good things:

None of the above list would have been possible without my family, the people in the community – startup and otherwise, and the amazing people I have had the pleasure to work with. Thank you all for the awesome year.

The oddest thing that happened was when a car leapt off of the road and tried to enter my dining room only to flip over and land on my friends Jeep. The pictures are just crazy.

A sad point was leaving the University of Waterloo after just over 10 years there (started there the end of May 2001 in the Information and Public Affairs department) and recognizing just how burned out the last year or so has left me. After all that time in one place (go back to 1997 if you count my student time with a short break working with small businesses and the web in 2000) it will likely be more difficult than I think it will to mentally break away from that identity but it is a healthy thing for me to do.

2011 was a year of learning, change, and growth… 2012 will be about my family and what to do with all the knowledge and experience I have gained personally and professionally. Specific goal of the year: be happy.

In closing… the fun part of having a blog for a long time is the old posts. A look back 5 years ago brings back a lot of good memories.

Understanding burnout

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Something I believe all entrepreneurs must face every day as they push to build something from nothing is the spectre of burnout. Put simply, burnout is physical and/or/as-a-result of mental exhaustion. Everyone can suffer from it from athletes to stay at home parents to big company executives. People want to do the best they can at whatever they are doing but at some point they hit a wall.

The idea of burnout is not something far from people’s minds as we enter the final push before the holidays. This is a stressful time of year where people joke about shopping or family fatigue. That makes burnout particularly newsworthy this month as well. For example:

What makes the problem a very complicated one is that Doctors don’t think they can diagnose burnout. It could be the diversity in how burnout shows itself that leads to the inability to recognize it in themselves or others. Upon some self-reflection I believe I might have some personal experience to offer that may help others.

Recognizing burnout in myself

Over the last 4 months I have struggled to come to terms with why I was so unhappy given I have so many positive things in my life. In general I could see some odd things that I didn’t like about myself:

  • I didn’t remember the last time I had a dream that I could remember. I was sleeping so badly that I don’t think I did dream.
  • Short tempered.
  • I didn’t take care of my house – I really use to enjoy working around the house, keeping the back yard clean, growing tomatoes, etc.
  • I didn’t go fishing hardly at all last summer, I haven’t been snowboarding in years!
  • I never felt like I was getting anything done even though I managed to attract some significant capital to the two projects close to my heart and see steady growth in both.
  • I didn’t believe anyone thought what I was doing mattered or that anyone cared.
  • Overall I was a grump.
What disguised it is that I had a creative outlet that I was able to find joy in and focus. The downside was that I used any recharge time I had towards it.

I knew something was up in August of this year but I struggled to find a way to deal with it. My first thought was to just step back a little, look forward to bringing on some amazing new staff, and try to start a new term with a new attitude. What I failed to realize was that I was circling around the total burnout toilet bowl.

The first self-realization moment of things needing to change was when my son started hockey; he couldn’t skate and he didn’t want to learn. As a Canadian and a parent I felt like I failed my son as I didn’t take the time to teach him how to skate and have fun while doing it. I decided there and then to buy skates, helmet, and a stick. I then found any open ice time I could and took him out. My kids had to be more important than any work I felt I needed to do. The boy now loves hockey and the fun we have on Saturday mornings at the rink is something I truly cherish.

Around the same time something happened to a good friend and my co-founder (startup spouse): his wife gave birth to his son at 26 weeks in San Jose while on a business trip. At first it had an impact but then in mid-October I went down to see how they were doing and see if I could help. At that point nothing else mattered but the health of that tiny baby that was fighting to some day face burnout himself. He is doing really well now.

Those situations, along with my family and a number of conversations with people I deeply respect helped me start to realign my priorities and thinking. It wasn’t an instant fix. It is something I need to work on. I am lucky though, I didn’t collapse and hit a debilitating stage of burnout.

Looking back and times of high stress

In the last 10 years I can think of three different occasions when I was in a similar situation. The first time I started doing my Msc to find value and purpose in my work. The second time I had a very different kind of manager that recognized the signs early and did something about it. I also had a ton of positive re-enforcement from my family and the community to bounce back. This third time though, I let myself be isolated from coworkers and others for close to the last year. I thought that if I stopped doing the things I enjoyed but were time-consuming (like participating in the community) it would help, it didn’t. It made it far worse.

Next time (and there could be a next time although I am going to put more effort in to avoid it), I need to keep my perspective and make sure I find joy in what I am doing. I also need to take more time for the people in both my personal and professional life. Throwing myself at my work does result in achieving amazing things but at the same time, balance is needed in order to enjoy those accomplishments.

In trying to understand burnout my message to entrepreneurs is that you need to recognize when your behaviour or attitude changes. No one is immune to it and just because you haven’t hit physical exhaustion yet you might be reaching the point of mental exhaustion. Encourage feedback from your friends and family just like you would from customers or advisors on your startup. Listen, adjust based on the feedback, and grow.

Further reading

How to avoid or deal with burnout, collection of articles that are worth a read.

The Daily Bulletin Editor that changed the University of Waterloo web

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On Tuesday November 8th, 2011, Chris Redmond let everyone know (at the bottom) he is no longer the editor of the University of Waterloo’s daily news publication — the Daily Bulletin. He covers some the history of the Bulletin:

I have been editing the Daily Bulletin through more than 4,500 issues now since it was created in the spring of 1993. Originally the Daily Bulletin was distributed by “gopher”. In the spring of 1995 the first Web versions of the Daily Bulletin were tried out. In 1998, the “Link of the Day” was introduced; in 1999, the use of photos became a regular occurrence. The “When and Where” events listings began in 2003, and the present graphic design dates mostly from 2006.

What he leaves out is the role that he, along with Roger Watt and Carol Vogt, played with getting “UWinfo” online and to the staff, students, and faculty at the University of Waterloo.

When I started at the University of Waterloo in 2001, hired as the campus’ first Web Developer, I was interviewed in Chris’s office atop Needles Hall. That was the first time I actually met him. I heard about this UWinfo group that was two techies and a writer that learned HTML. That writer provided the content that grew into a very rich University of Waterloo web space.

Every business day Chris published an editorial on what is happening on campus. It was easily one of the first blogs in the world, never mind campus. The difference was that before there were commenting systems the uw.general newsgroup is where the ‘discussions’ happened about stories in the Bulletin. This engaged people in the publication at an early time. This is long before they were called blogs and sure comments never found their way into the Bulletin but I don’t think that is a negative thing.

Chris’s work on the Bulletin and what became the University of Waterloo ‘home page’ (something he “edited” daily until sometime after 2007) gave the University of Waterloo a template of content rich web pages. I believe everyone emulated his content focus in the early days and still influences how the web presence will evolve in the future. He saw the value of the web early and worked to use it for good to the best of his ability.

With Carol Vogt retiring a few years back (and sadly passed away shortly thereafter), Roger Watt retiring, the last of Waterloo’s web content pioneers has left his publication that defines the university web space for so many. It’s a big deal in my mind. Yes there are a few other folks that shaped those early days still around but to me the “UWinfo” group was the web… and if I missed anyone that deserves credit for that, sorry. I can update the post.

Good luck in retirement Chris (which isn’t for a few months at least), I look forward to all the content you have yet to create!

Edit: Hat tip to @garywill — almost forgot about Simon the troll

Director of Student Innovation and VeloCity at the University of Waterloo

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It is now official, I can drop the “interim” part of my job and take on a new and exciting title of Director of Student Innovation at the University of Waterloo. I am really excited about all the positive change that is happening at the University of Waterloo and especially the Student Success Office lead by Sean Van Koughnett. Sean started VeloCity with just a crazy idea and a mandate to do something good for students. In only a year it had it first residents and less than three years later a 23-year-old donated $1 Million back to the program. That is success.

Now under the Student Success office with the mandate of “Student Innovation” I feel like the bar just got raised some more. There is a lot to do in regards to first identifying current innovation (which includes VeloCity) and doing the right (or best guess) things to help interesting things happen more often. We will start this fall, it will be a lot of fun.

I am really excited by the team Sean has put together and double excited to work again with Virginia Young who was once an Associate Director with me at VeloCity. She is taking over the Communications and Research role under Student Success. Pam Charbonneau is going to lead Student Experience and Heather Westmorland is leading Learning Services. It won’t be a quiet summer. More in the Daily Bulletin.