Canada gets a conference for startups: Startup Nation

Early this morning Jevon MacDonald at StartupNorth announced Startup Nation, a conference for startups in Canada. The two-day event will take place in Toronto on November 13th and 14th and features a number of high profile speakers, including Howard Lindzon, Lane Becker, Leila Boujnane, and Canadian participants in the YCombinator Summer ’08 class. Here’s how the conference is described:

StartupNorth is Canada’s only grassroots conference for startups. Created for entrepreneurs and by entrepreneurs, StartupNorth aims to educate and inspire by connecting you with other entrepreneurs, mentors and the ecosystem of support needed to create and operate a successful startup in Canada and the world.

Yes, they seem to be conflicted about what to call it. Some pages and images say “Startup Nation” while others say “Startup North”. The URL is http://startupnation.ca.

I think this type of event is great for Canada. The more opportunities we have to get people face-to-face meeting one another, sharing knowledge and ideas, the better. That said, there’s something about this conference that rubs me the wrong way.

At first I was put off by the fact that it takes place in Toronto, yet is called “Canada’s conference for startups.” I guess you can’t really hold that against them though – you’ve got to start somewhere, and Toronto is as good a place as any. Other conferences such as Mesh and Northern Voice are similar in this regard.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my problem with the conference is the price. A regular ticket costs $355 CDN, with early bird tickets running $295 CDN (before October 12th). What was that about grassroots and such in the description?

I am kind of surprised at the price. Even if the conference wasn’t completely free, it seems expensive compared to something like Northern Voice which only costs about $50. They are able to do that with the help of sponsors – surely Startup North could have signed up enough sponsor support.

I was further put off by Jevon’s comments on his post when others asked about the price. He seemed to take a very defensive approach. Furthermore, he listed Red Herring Canada and TechCrunch50 as examples of more expensive events. Sorry Jevon, I hope the conference is a success, but you’re not TC50.

There is a lot of talk about connecting, and networking, and meeting with some really smart people. Thing is, many of them are fairly accessible already – no $400 fee required. So what does Startup Nation offer beyond that? Can the workshops and training make up for the steep entry fee? I’m not convinced you can learn that much in a day or two.

What do you think? Would you pay $400 on top of travel and accommodations to attend Startup Nation?

Talking Twitter & Social Media on SmibsTV

smibstv A few weeks ago, local entrepreneur Peter Urban invited me to take part in one of his newest projects – an Internet TV show for small businesses called SmibsTV. Specifically he wanted to explore how small businesses can use Twitter to help themselves grow. I thought it was a great idea and jumped at the opportunity! The episode went live today.

Here’s what Cam wrote about Smibs on Techvibes a couple months ago:

Peter Urban, the company’s founder and President, said that Smibs was conceived out of years of consulting SMBs and finding a common small business frustration: the difficult balancing act of staying in touch with your network and on top of your sales activities, while working on projects that pay the bills. Urban’s solution to that challenge is Smibs and their first extension: Doorbell, a web-based sales software application for “non-sales people”.

You might recall that I gave Smibs my “demo of the evening” at the first Edmonton DemoCamp. It was my first exposure to the company, and I’ve been continually impressed ever since. Peter and his team use social media very effectively, so it was a treat to talk to him about it.

Check out the episode at SmibsTV and let me know what you think!

TEC VenturePrize 2008

tec ventureprizeLike last year, I was once again lucky enough to attend the VenturePrize Awards Luncheon today with Dickson, and Chris, Don and their team from ProTraining. I hadn’t paid the competition much attention this year until recently, but it was good to see some familiar faces and meet new ones at today’s event. I’m also really happy it was once again in Hall D, easily one of our city’s nicest venues.

The grand prize winner for 2008 was DataGardens, a company that hopes to help companies manage their IT infrastructure more effectively. At first glance, they strike me as somewhat similar to one of last year’s finalists, Nirix. I wrote a bit more about the event (and the new TEC VenturePrize branding) at Techvibes, so check that out if you’re interested.

The event was once again hosted by Citytv’s Paul Mennier, and he did a great job. The guest speaker was Jim Carroll, a futurist and trends & innovation expert. He’s a great speaker and kept my attention throughout his presentation, but I have to say I didn’t enjoy him as much as Leonard Brody last year. Jim also got a few things wrong – he described Guitar Hero as a Nintendo innovation, and he claimed that we’re insulated from the rising energy prices here in Alberta. The latter remark was made off-the-cuff (“Hey, I’m in Alberta, let’s make it relevant”), and I think he probably feels pretty embarrassed about it now.

Lunch was similar to last year, though I don’t think I enjoyed it as much this time around. We started with Romaine Lettuce and Spinach Leaves with Grapefruit Dressing. The main course was Seared Thai Chicken Breast served with Tomato-Chili Jam, Coconut Rice, and Seasonal Vegetables. Dessert was Lime Meringue Pie with Fresh Berries and Raspberry Coulis.

The competitor videos this year all rocked, in my opinion, so kudos to whichever company helped to put those together. The music they played as the winners were announced was just a bit odd, though. Something to improve upon for next year!

Thanks again Chris & Don!

Fortune fires up the photocopier for PayPal story

Fortune published an article today about "the hyperintelligent, superconnected pack of serial entrepreneurs" who left PayPal for bigger and better things; a group of individuals they have dubbed "the PayPal mafia". Founded in 1998, PayPal itself is fairly interesting, but the people behind it are downright fascinating!

As I was reading the article, I had the strangest sense of déjà vu. It was like I had read the article already! A quick search revealed that I had, over a year ago, at the New York Times. I just gave it a quick re-read, and it’s really amazing how similar the Fortune article is to the one that appeared in the Times last October.

Here are a couple examples. From the New York Times article:

Since 2002, when dozens of employees left PayPal after it was bought by eBay for $1.5 billion, those workers have gone on to start or join a new generation of Internet companies and other ventures. They have remained a tight-knit group, attending each other’s parties, helping to shape each other’s business plans, backing each other’s companies and recruiting each other for new projects.

Silicon Valley was largely built by networks of people and companies whose interlocking relationships help to spawn new start-ups. But the PayPal alumni have been unusually prolific…

And from the Fortune article:

Most of PayPal’s key employees left eBay, but they stayed in touch. They even have a name for themselves: the PayPal mafia. And the mafiosi have been busy.

During the past five years they’ve been furiously building things – investment firms, philanthropies, solar-power companies, an electric-car maker, a firm that aims to colonize Mars, and of course a slew of Internet companies. It’s amazing how many hot web properties can trace their ancestries to PayPal.

Again, from the New York Times article:

The company was losing millions each month. It was besieged by hackers who used technological trickery to siphon off huge sums from the company’s coffers.

And the Fortune article:

Meanwhile, PayPal losses were multiplying. It battled Russian fraudsters who were filching millions by cribbing credit card numbers.

See what I mean? Both stories follow the exact same formula, and touch on the exact same points. Of course this happens all the time in the media, but over a year apart? Seems kind of strange to me. Granted, the Fortune article does go into a bit more detail, but still.

It’s an interesting story, even if it has been written twice now. I was going to pull out the list of companies that former PayPalers have been involved with, but it has already been done at Wikipedia, of course. Facebook and YouTube are the heavy-hitters.

Both articles do a good job of detailing the tightly-knit group of individuals behind PayPal and many other startups. The topic I wish they’d follow-up on? How to break into that group.

Read: Fortune

Do you really need a business plan?

Twitter announced a round of funding last Thursday, from Union Square Ventures and a few others. Michael Arrington did some digging and is fairly certain the amount was $5 million on a $20 million pre-money valuation. That’s not too bad, especially when you consider that Twitter is perhaps most famous for not having a business plan.

No business plan?! It’s true. At least no formal business plan. Biz Stone tried to assure everyone last week that the company has in fact thought about a business model, but I am not sure how many people bought it. The investment started a small “you don’t need a business plan” meme in the blogosphere, and it really got me thinking…do you need a business plan or not?

Paul Kedrosky says you don’t need one, and thinks that “business plans are overrated, and profits perhaps even more so.” Don Dodge says that “investors invest in people not business plans.” Fred Wilson, one of the investors, admits that they “don’t know yet” what the business model will be for Twitter. He claims they have time to figure that out. Charles Hudson says the meme is “crazy talk” and thinks it is worth writing some ideas down. Robert Scoble says that “if you REALLY think you can get funded without having a business plan you’re probably smoking something illegal.”

After reading dozens of these posts, and looking back at what I learned from the business plan competitions we competed in last year, I’ve come to the following conclusion: I think business plans are useful for internal use, and mostly a waste of time otherwise.

I think what Charles says in his post makes a lot of sense. There are certain questions that entrepreneurs should answer and write down. Really though, no one needs to see those pieces of paper. When it comes time to market your business or your idea to someone else, you’ve got to tune your message. And you’ve got to market yourself more than anything else. That’s why it’s a waste of time to have a complete, polished business plan (unless you’re in a competition I guess). If no one is really going to read it but you, does it matter what it looks like?

I think the trick is to remember that investors are people too. You need to relate to them, and you need to excite them. A heavy, thick document is probably not the best way to do that.

We haven’t really updated our business plan since the competitions in 2006. That’s partly due to the fact that it’s tedious, and partly due to the fact that we haven’t had a need to. A smaller executive overview, a quick slide deck, or an actual conversation are far more useful.

There’s a difference between a business plan and a business model, however. I still think it’s important to have some ideas about how you are going to monetize your product or service. And it’s important to know that there really is someone out there willing to pay for whatever it is you’ve created. Even better if you know who that someone is.

The realization that a traditional business plan is useless simply reinforces the idea that getting face time with investors is important. And for technology, that generally means the United States. Or perhaps BC or Ontario, but definitely not Alberta.

Anyway, just some thoughts. Congrats to Twitter on the funding!

Read: Twitter

An Exit Strategy is a Good Thing!

Post ImageAs I mentioned in a previous post, I learned a lot in 2006. One of the things I learned is that having an exit strategy for your business is a good thing. Ben Yoskovitz has a great post about this at startupspark.com:

To some an exit strategy sounds negative. Or, you might think you’ll never exit because that’s not the point of the business. That’s fine, you don’t have to give up the business (although eventually we all give it up) but thinking in terms of an exit strategy will help crystallize that goal nonetheless.

One thing I’d like to add to Ben’s post is that once you’ve spent the time and effort to come up with an exit strategy, you’ll find you feel much better about yourself and your business. Like Ben says, an exit strategy is a goal. Once you’ve defined it, you can stop worrying about it, and start working to achieve it.

Another benefit: having an exit strategy in mind will help you as you make business decisions along the way.

Read: startupspark.com

Edmonton Technology Startups

Post ImageWhen it comes to technology startups, it seems as though Edmonton can’t hold a candle to Toronto, Vancouver, or even Ottawa. Very rarely in my travels, physical or virtual, do I hear about really interesting tech things happening in Alberta’s capital city. Yet I know there must be. I mean, surely we aren’t the only ones, right? Nah, there’s others…we just need to help each other become more visible.

So the first step is to identify all the interesting tech startups (or established but relatively small companies) based in Edmonton. I’ve started tagging some, such as Zigtag, Nexopia, and ProExams, at del.icio.us using the tag edmontontech. I encourage you to do the same! Or, if you’re not into the social bookmarking/tagging thing, leave me a comment or email me with your Edmonton-based tech companies.

I suppose step two would be getting together with some of the companies to see what kind of interest there is in making our neck of the woods more visible to the rest of the world. I’d like to start changing Edmonton’s image with respect to tech startups. We have a great economy, relatively low living expenses, and lots of smart people. We’re just not regarded as all that great a place to start a tech company.

But first, step one. What Edmonton-based tech startups do you know about?

Startups don't need to be ruthless

Post ImageGreg Linden asked a very interesting question today: Is ruthlessness the key to success for Web 2.0 startups? He cites examples of Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and others using spam, porn, or other “ruthless” means to become successful. While the idea might be intriguing, I think it is far too simple.

First of all, being “ruthless” is relative, right? What’s ruthless to me might not be ruthless to you. More importantly, I’m pretty sure Facebook and the others did a bunch of other things that contributed to their success. Saying they became huge by “spamming Harvard students” makes for an entertaining article, but probably avoids the more boring reality of why they are popular.

Secondly, the idea doesn’t hold true in all Web 2.0 startups. As was suggested in the comments on Greg’s post, there a bunch of other companies that did not rely on such ruthlessness to make it big – Flickr, del.icio.us, and 37signals, just to name a few.

It’s pretty common to hear that you need to be ruthless to succeed in business, but I don’t think it’s the kind of ruthlessness that Greg is suggesting. Perhaps instead of porn and spam making them ruthless and thus successful, it’s working long hours, making sacrifices, cutting costs, and being creative that made them “ruthless” in the pursuit of their ideas.

Read: Greg Linden