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.

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.

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

10 years of blogging: coder to dad to entreprenuer

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

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

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

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

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:


  • 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


  • 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

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.