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!

The Market for Credit and Supporting Entrepreneurs

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Over the last few years of growth in Accelerator or Incubator programs, the overall media coverage of early stage tech startups has increased in Canada. The lack of coverage before the programs existed made media coverage a metric of success. For any entrepreneur support program to be relevant there is a requirement to be mentioned in the media resulting in the Alumni Success Metric as a key metric used to identify success of any program.

I think we need to find a better way to measure these programs and the effect on the problem they are solving.

As more and more programs compete on this metric they spend more on marketing to rise above the others which results in an increase in the costs to deliver a program. I believe competing on this metric can foster animosity between programs and hurts collaboration between a large number of extremely talented people.

What is the problem?

Founders are taking advantage of everything offered to them (as they should) which results to this common scenario in Canada (not based on any particular company).

  • Founders went to University of Toronto (and/or Waterloo and/or Ryerson and/or WLU and/or insert school here) and worked out of Banting and Best (and/or the Garage and/or the DMZ and/or any coworking space).
  • Someone else on the team took a pre-accelerter or some other community education program.
  • They are clients of MaRS and Communitech and Halton Innovation and…
  • OCE has awarded them a grant., MaRS IAF will invest in them, IRAP might have had a role.
  • They might get into another accelerator program before they finally get a few key investors at the table and start to grow.

When they get VC funding or something big worth a media push, what happens? Up to 10 organizations want to be listed and each of them release a story about how proud they are. Few if any list the other organizations or programs or people that helped (because the list is huge).

How this may hurt entrepreneurs?

Funding and product announcements aren’t success, they are a milestone that is blown way up in the local media as a result of everyone getting excited (excitement is good, celebrate the good things). It is possible that the positioning of programs media releases could confuse the market that the company needs to reach.

That said, the media coverage froth is likely localized to Canadian media so it probably has no effect on where the companies market likely is: the United States.

This intense market for credit can be frustrating for everyone who delivers programs. In reality it takes a community to raise a startup. From funders that have done it before to programs designed to focus attention, lower the risks associated with getting started, and build peer groups. We should all celebrate the entrepreneur and collectively be excited there is so many people out there helping them.

The metric is good for something.

Where I think the Alumni Success Metric does work is that helps inspire new founders. Knowing that good things have happened for those that come before them in the same program is the same metric Higher Education uses to recruit undergraduate and graduate students.

How do we avoid the zero sum game around credit?

The metric is not useful for defining the success of any program as most of the support happens in parallel in accelerators or incubators. It is extremely difficult to know what helped and when and where or what made the difference. It creates something for programs to compete over when they should be collaborating.

The stories about companies growing shouldn’t be “x program’s y company has done z” but instead be about how the company achieved this milestone and all the people that helped along the way.

A metric needs to exist that can demonstrate how effective a program is without having each program battle it out with marketing.

Step #1 is that we have to stop thinking of service organizations or accelerators or incubators as startups. They aren’t. They are philanthropic organizations offering a support group and networking services for founders, funders, and service providers.

The main goal is not to build sustainable models around these organizations (how can most realistically generate revenue outside of an education or philanthropic model?) but build a sustainable ecosystem that doesn’t require the current level of philanthropic support. Every philanthropic organization should hope that one day the problem they are solving is no longer a problem. That should be no different with supporting entrepreneurs and everyone should work together to achieve that outcome.

Why I think Higher Education should experiment with an incubator model

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In Canada the rise of the incubator choices is quite noticeable. The success of the Y-Combinator (YC) model is hard to ignore, it seems to be the accepted way to grow young tech companies at the moment. However, it isn’t clear if the model works anywhere but YC and TechStars, these programs cost a lot of money to run so does the math hold up for everyone?

How many companies make it a big enough exit (assuming you need a $30 million exit per incubator) and in what time frame? In Canada there is a trend that shows some crazy growth in exits but how many are in that ‘big enough’ range or more that haven’t been around for 5-10 years or more? I think one maybe two. It isn’t just Canada though, how many exists are there in a year for any tech startup anywhere? Likely not enough to sustain the current number of incubators globally.

The talent pool is half empty

The limits on size, depth, and overall health of the talent pool is a problem for incubators if you assume that they simply tap the current talent base and help them be successful faster. If the number of exits isn’t currently there then you have to look at ratio of incubators to exits and figure out how many companies it takes to fill the gap (what is the current market and what do you have to create? Yup, it is basically a product you are creating). At a guess, the current level of incubators needs to create a lot of brand new entrepreneurs from those that would normally go work for someone.

There is talent out there but they aren’t being developed in any sort of formal educational process. A VC backed/run incubator might not be the best place for young guys and gals to receive this education for the first time. Not saying it couldn’t work, I think Y-Combinator was initially successful not because of the money or location but because an educator runs the program. In 2008, Mashable was claiming that “Y Combinator is the premier university of Internet startups.” I agree. What motivates YC though? Paul Graham’s comment on my post in StartupNorth offers a bit of insight as well (also with a bit more on why in his Why YC post).

When we started YC, the returns seemed completely unpredictable. (They still do actually.) What allowed us to do it was that we didn’t care if we made money.

An incubator that is about educated the ‘student’ is a lot like higher education and should not be about profit. That might be a values based statement but it is something I believe. If you are measured by the success of the student and not by the profit margin, the student has a better chance at success.

Herein lies the opportunity for Higher Education. Not unlike engineers or scientists, there is a demand for entrepreneurs (or if you are Richard Branson you want intrapreneurs). It isn’t good enough that students have the technical chops, they need to be creative and look at solutions to problems in a way that is willing to take more risks. This is soft skill development we are talking about — you can’t engineer an entrepreneurial process. Being entrepreneurial pretty much requires you laugh at the limitations or restrictions and find a way to succeed. You can engineer an education process that offers some perspective on that but that requires some entrepreneurial thinking to design and implement.

Higher Education needs to look outside of courses and modules, entrepreneurs shouldn’t be measured

Traditionally to address a skills gap in a student a course would be created and the student would receive a credit. This just increases the cost of education for students and if you have been paying attention, there is a bit of higher education bubble according to Peter Thiel. What I have seen from students is that they absolutely are against another course that is outside their specific discipline for various reasons. Enter the incubator model in higher education (or in VeloCity’s case the dormcubator).

Create an environment where innovation, networking, competition, and experience is shared as well as celebrated. Create it  outside of the traditional academic course model. Support it institutionally so the quality and knowledge is passed on (doesn’t disappear when students graduate). Then try to connect it back into the classroom. Leverage institutional Alumni networks for mentors and other forms of support. Don’t be afraid to fail a few times.

There is no set way to execute on this model but you need to try, iterate, and keep going. My belief that in order for higher education to remain relevant it needs to experiment with these different ways of learning. Students will not only appreciate it, I bet they will have a better experience and years later the institution will benefit by having them re-engaged.

Footnote: the incubator model

For those unfamiliar with an incubator or accelerator model, the easiest way to explain it: an incubator is where a group or individual provides resources (money, mentorship, space to work, expert services, a network of people) to an early stage company in exchange for equity or another arrangement. Generally it is always equity but in Canada we have publicly backed models (the Accelerator Centre for example) that charge rent for services or in the case of VeloCity you pay what you pay anyway to live in residence and it is a service offered to students.

The entire explanation of the VeloCity model is another post.

More on incubator in Higher Ed: To Be or Not To Be: University Incubators

Incubator Math thought

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Last week I had a guest post over on Startupnorth about trying to understand incubator math. It generated a bit of interest but most notably was on Hacker News where Paul Graham shared a comment:

As in startup investing generally, the expected value comes mainly from a small chance of a big hit, multiplied by lots of investments. You’re hoping that if you invest in 100 startups, one will be a Dropbox or Airbnb.

For this to work, you have to (a) invest in a lot of startups and (b) they have to be drawn from a pool that could include big winners.

The latter could actually be a problem, if you’re not founders’ first choice. If you lose the big winners, your returns might be orders of magnitude smaller, even if you get everyone else.

Yes, you do have to invest for years before you end up in the black, even if things go well. That’s also true for startup investing generally.

When we started YC, the returns seemed completely unpredictable. (They still do actually.) What allowed us to do it was that we didn’t care if we made money.

What I have been thinking all along is that beyond the obvious “good for the community” argument (which I think has more to do with highlighting activity then building real companies) an incubator is a numbers game. The most important thing might that although they should be about making money no one should start one thinking they will. Do it to have fun and see where it goes.

More thoughts to come…

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.

What is next for VeloCity?

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After the most awesome two months and a bit I have experienced in my professional career I have yet to sit down and take stock. There simply isn’t time to take a breath but I am going to take a moment and explain what is going on with my part of the universe. By now everyone knows we (at VeloCity) got some funding from, to many, was a very unlikely source. That funding was the missing piece — now we have the funds to give people a chance to try that may not have been able to as we can now clear the financial limitation.

The VeloCity program is going to be a full service incubator for students like none other.

What I mean by full service is that;

  • we will (and do) recruit best talent in the world,
  • inspire students that can do awesome stuff and have the passion but might have financial reasons blocking them to take a risk that can do awesome stuff,
  • provide an environment (build community) where ideas and entrepreneurs find their legs,
  • follow that up with a location to start to build a startup in an environment with just a bit more and way more experienced entrepreneurs and support one another,
  • then encourage (read: kick them out when they are ready) into the wild startup world (ideal) or into a job working for another startup (not bad for the community) or recommend one of the countless tech jobs in town (not everyone handles risk well).

At the end of it all, the student or alumni has the opportunity to try in an environment that gives them a big long term advantage over those not involved with VeloCity.

The plan for the next 4 months is to lay low and focus on: what we have learned so far, what we can do that is better (or figure out what not to do anymore), try out a couple things, hopefully staff up a little, and recharge. This means, I think, no conferences, very little travel, and fewer meetings. At least until some big outstanding tasks get tackled. I want to blog more as well. Writing helps focus thoughts and share the journey. Twitter is just too short.

It is going to be an exciting Spring term in Waterloo ;)

An insane young startup guy handed me a cheque for $1 million USD and…

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…life in Waterloo just got a lot more interesting. StartupNorth calls Ted insane in the best sort of way and I agree. He managed to build a great little startup, attracting some top tier VCs and then orchestrates a brilliant deal to not alienate some great investors. Then he does something nuts to pretty much everyone, he empties a big part of his bank account and asks me (and VeloCity) to do something awesome with it. I am blown away.

Talking with people today was really interesting. Students had a hard time getting their heads around the fact that Ted has no influence over that money once that cheque is cashed. He doesn’t get equity, we aren’t naming a room after him or a building, he doesn’t gain in any way that people seemed to think he would. He does, however, hope that what we can do at VeloCity is help fill a big gap in Waterloo (and Canada) for support, education, and risk taking funding to support young people as they really go for it.

Besides the cash part I think the most important thing here is that students get an entrepreneur to look up to that is:

  • just ahead of them in age
  • thinking really big, $1 million isn’t cool enough
  • a really nice guy willing to open up his newly established networks to his fellow Waterloo students

Over the next few weeks some big plans for VeloCity will start to take shape. So very exciting. Thanks Ted.

The road trip: San Francisco and Austin (sxswi) notes

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For a week in March I did my first big road trip in many years and headed to San Francisco on my way to Austin for SXSWi. With only 3 days in SF and 4 days in Austin I was expecting a pretty intense trip, I wasn’t let down. The goal? In SF it was to meet up with VeloCity alumni (there are around 14 of them I know of there) and find out if there is more VeloCity can do for our students. In Austin it was to purely network and take in all that SXSWi circus has to offer. Every type of marketing strategy is being executed at once by hundreds of different companies; from traditional brands trying new things to crazy useless apps trying to get my attention using the more traditional (but not so classy) booth babe strategy.

San Francisco and the valley

Oh my. I forget how sexy the city of San Francisco is for the entrepreneurial minded. Sure people fall out of love once they get to know it (or think they know it) but if you are wanting to bounce ideas around that is the place. You can meet dozens of different people in a day that will give you dozens of new ways to think about a problem. The weather there is like May in Waterloo without the crazy chance of snow storm so you can walk around comfortably dressed and spend a lot of time outside.

I met up with 10 VeloCity alumni (they have lived in VeloCity before) working for different startups or doing their own thing. Some are very well connected already as they are highly skilled and know their worth. Others are taking notes and plotting their own move. It was great to see them and it was even better to hear their perspectives in the context of the environment we were in.

Austin and SXSWi

What a circus. I booked in late January and the best hotel I could get was the Hampton out at the airport. Thankfully a friend offered up a room downtown which made my experience that much better. Getting around is a nightmare if you aren’t located downtown and you will be tempted to bring your laptop around with you. There is no point in doing that, the internet doesn’t work during the day — far too many people.

What you have in Austin is a great event for networking but don’t go for the talks unless you are there for a few specific ones and you can actually find them on time. I am entirely not sure if the marketing works for all the apps pushing hyper-local services but it is hugely entertaining for those of us there to observe and see all the different things that people try to gain attention. The conversations with people are priceless as well, the event attracts so many leading edge folks. If you are a new startup looking for some validation on what you are building that is the place to be. For more established brands or products like GM, they put on a great show. They even let me drive a Corvette.

It was very cool seeing Kik there as well — they have the most useful chat app but the network suck-age hurt them. I was a bit disappointed because there were a ton more people I wanted to meet and chat with but the best ‘twitter friend I had yet to meet in real life’ moment was bumping into Jonathan Snook in the elevator at the Hampton. How unlikely is that?

A short list of knowledge

The key bits of wisdom sticking in my head:

  • The Canadian Angel scene is totally messed up (not news to many) — there are some good angel investors but not nearly enough are spending the time to build relationships with entrepreneurs in Canada or willing to take risks. This is really clear to me now.
  • Better connections are needed in the valley for students — not to drive them down there, more to demystify the place and provide them with some solid connections. This could be accomplished through their peers or a group like the C100.
  • You never have to eat alone in San Francisco.
  • Austin is an awesome city that is totally overwhelmed by SXSW and you will love it.
  • If you have any dream to be a community manager or be in marketing you have to participate in the madness at least once but do not plan anything there unless you have been there already.
  • Waterloo students are everywhere. Randomly ran into Holden of CS Club fame playing foursquare at the foursquare location, talked with a returning VeloCity resident who is currently working for Foursquare as well.
  • VeloCity/Waterloo needs to do more relatively simple things to help our students — even use SXSW as a way to find new and exciting employers for our students on co-op. We can’t stay in Waterloo waiting for people to come to us.

As I plan to sit down over the next few months and pull together a grand strategy for the next little while at VeloCity I am full of crazy ideas. This is good!

Startup thinking featuring the 7cubedproject

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Tomorrow is the University of Waterloo IT conference, WatItis. I had planned on doing a talk on Startup thinking and how it relates to higher education using examples out of VeloCity but I had a conflict so decided to feature the best example of that thinking in the residence currently, the 7cubedproject. Why them? I think they are a perfect example of what I was going to talk about — build stuff quickly, get people to use it, move on to something else, be sure to be as open as you can with the process from end to end. That way people know what you are working on and why but also both yourself and those paying attention will learn from your experience.

How that could work in an institutional setting? That depends but to know you can build something and get it out their in a day should certainly work to change the current thinking/process that leaves things to committees that can take years to get something out the door.

On the final day of the 7cubedproject they found themselves on the front page of the local newspaper as well as giving a demo of their stuff to the Provincial Minister of Research and Innovation, Glen Murray. If you are curious as to why he thought he should sneak away from his announcement function at the Tannery in the Desire2Learn space to come talk to a bunch of University of Waterloo students come to the presentation tomorrow.

It will be in RCH 309 at 2:30pm, December 7.

The 7cubed project at the Hub

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During this week in November a team of seven University of Waterloo students (six live in VeloCity) are hacking away at building seven applications in seven days. They call themselves the 7cubedproject. To me, this is the most exciting thing to happen at the University of Waterloo since VeloCity was announced… why? Because seven students got together and planned out everything themselves. No company approached them, no one set their agenda, this is just pure passion for building stuff and on top of that they are even skipping classes for a week.

It isn’t that U of Waterloo students have done awesome things on the side that make this special in my mind, it is that they have built a bit of a public relations machine around their coding and thought to do that. They have reached out to companies like Facebook and Google for support, built a blog, video blog, live stream, IRC channel, tweeting, etc. They are conscious of the fact that people might find what they are doing to be interesting enough to watch with their market being schools in the US where they have connections (friends).

Is it a marvel to say uni students know how to use social media? Nope. Countless *experts* have raved about that for 10 years or more. What is remarkable is how well these folks work together and special to see Waterloo students broadcast this off campus experience to the world while beaming a little University of Waterloo pride in the process. For a school in Canada and particularly a school like Waterloo this is special as it isn’t students rallying against a logo or something else, its students building stuff and having fun that is pulling connections together.

It certainly inspires me to work away at more things and keep pushing VeloCity to do even more to build community.