Paul Singh brings tough love to Edmonton’s startup community

Paul Singh is a well-known entrepreneur, investor, and speaker based in Washington, DC. For the last few years, Singh and his partner Dana Duncan have travelled around North America visiting startup communities “that other investors weren’t visiting.” Along the way they’ve interacted with thousands of founders, investors, community leaders, and elected officials, and have seen first-hand what nearly 100 cities are doing to try to grow their startup ecosystems.

ScaleUp YEG brought Singh’s North American Tech Tour to Edmonton this week. He participated in a number of events on Thursday and Friday in addition to one-on-one meetings with local entrepreneurs to provide “mentoring and support” (and presumably to look for investment opportunities). I saw him speak on Thursday afternoon at the Edmonton Innovation Ecosystem Community (EIEC) meeting hosted by EEDC.

Paul Singh

“It’s not better anywhere else,” Singh told the room. “We could pick this room up and put it down in any other city and we’d have the same conversations.” Entrepreneurs would complain that there’s not enough money, investors would complain that there aren’t enough quality companies, and bureaucrats would complain that they’re being overlooked compared to others.

Singh lamented the fact that entrepreneurs see investors as individuals with power that need to be won over, referencing Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank tendency to focus the camera on the investors as the popular reinforcement of this idea. He suggested investors are just like entrepreneurs, with a business to grow. Still, he didn’t hold back when it came to his advice for the entrepreneurs in the room.

“If you cannot build a business in Edmonton, moving is not going to help you,” he said. “The internet has made place less relevant.” Singh argued that because the barriers to entry are so much lower now, it’s most often entrepreneurs themselves that get in the way of success. “Most entrepreneurs underestimate the value of just getting started,” he said. “We have a lot of wantrapreneurs.”

When asked which cities he has come across that are successfully building startup communities, Singh cited Kelowna, BC and Lincoln, Nebraska. But he quickly turned back to Edmonton. “I feel like Edmonton’s worst enemy is the people that already live in Edmonton,” Singh observed. “You guys are awful to yourselves.” He noted that in today’s world, ambition and access to information are both fairly evenly distributed. “It’s visibility that is not equally distributed,” he said. And that’s what Edmonton should focus on.

“If you want to make Edmonton better, you don’t need collaboration,” he said. Instead, entrepreneurs need to pick up the phone 200 times a day and sell, investors need to just focus on making more money (wherever it comes from), and government officials need to drive visibility.

“The only thing stopping more billion dollar companies from being here in Edmonton is the entrepreneurs not doing it,” Singh said.

Controversial criticism

One of the other events that Singh participated in during ScaleUp YEG was a session called Customer vs Investor Presentation: Knowing How to Pitch to Your Audience:

“Local ScaleUp dealcloser will share their sales and investor presentation for feedback from our experts Carey Houston, Paul Singh, & Kristina Milke on what makes for a good presentation for each audience. You’ll leave understanding the differences between a sales and investor presentation, what makes a good pitch, and understanding the needs and motivations of your audience.”

Amir Reshef, co-founder and CEO at dealcloser, gave the two presentations on stage in front of a crowd and received feedback from Singh, Houston, and Milke. I was not at the event, but understand that Singh did not hold back in his criticism and that Reshef, while expecting constructive feedback, was taken aback at the approach that Singh took. This led Alex Putici, founder of Work Nicer, to write a blog post explaining that Singh would not be welcome to participate in upcoming events at the coworking space. He wrote:

“A community member was participating in a pitch event and was thereafter “roasted” and “humiliated”. Tough truths, direct feedback, and criticism is important. But it must be delivered respectfully while helping the individual and encouraging the community around them. This balance can be tricky, but it’s culture setting.”

Both Singh and Reshef have since responded on Facebook.

“I apologize for making you feel roasted and humiliated — I’m sorry,” wrote Singh. “My understanding of that particular event’s goal was clearly incorrect, I believe the organizer has conveyed that to you.” He said that he and his partners enjoyed their time here in Edmonton, adding that “we’ll be doing our best to invest more of our time and money in promising entrepreneurs here.”

“Overall, it was not a fun experience and while I do not begrudge Paul giving honest and blunt feedback, I would have preferred not to be the person at the receiving end of that feedback in such a public manner,” wrote Reshef. “When the organizer of ScaleUp YEG asked me to present, I was told it would be a very positive and friendly presentation. It did not pan out that way.”

I understand that Singh, Reshef, and Putici have all spoken with one another and are ready to move on.

My Thoughts

So why mention the controversy at all? Two reasons.

First, I think it is a reminder that people are generally making good faith efforts toward a common goal and that they really do care. Singh was not out to get anyone, the organizers did not intentionally mislead anyone about the intent of the session, Reshef did not complain or ask for the removal of Singh from Work Nicer, and Putici was acting in the best interests of the community he’s responsible for. I believe they all genuinely want to see Edmonton’s startup community succeed. The fact that they care so much is what makes incidents like this seem bigger than they are.

Second, it does present an opportunity for everyone in the local startup community to reflect on the type of community we’d like to have. If we want a respectful, constructive, and accountable community then we need to be intentional about building it that way.

Paul Singh

I really enjoyed Singh’s talk. Though I am sure he has delivered the exact same message to countless other cities on his tour, he seemed genuinely interested in Edmonton’s startup community and attempts to improve it. I appreciated his reminder that often the grass is not greener on the other side, as well as his observation that Edmontonians spend too much time worrying about how we’re doing rather than just getting on with it.

A little perspective goes a long way.

UPDATE: The pitch event took place at the Edmonton Convention Centre not at Work Nicer Beaver House as originally stated.

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 44

Edmonton’s 44th DemoCamp took place on Tuesday night at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus. It was the first DemoCamp of 2019. You can see my recap of DemoCamp Edmonton 43 here.

DemoCamp Edmonton 44

If you’re new to DemoCamp, here’s what it’s all about:

“DemoCamp brings together developers, creatives, entrepreneurs and investors to share what they’ve been working on and to find others in the community interested in similar topics. For presenters, it’s a great way to get feedback on what you’re building from peers and the community, all in an informal setting. Started back in 2008, DemoCamp Edmonton has steadily grown into one of the largest in the country, with over 200 people attending each event. The rules for DemoCamp are simple: 7 minutes to demo real, working products, followed by a few minutes for questions, and no slides allowed.”

Here’s my Twitter thread for the event. We had six demos, in order of appearance:

CleanNow is aiming to be the Uber for house cleaning. They launched in early December and now have more than 400 active customers over the last 30 days. CleanNow is trying to solve the problem of finding a reliable house cleaner, so they demoed some of the features that support that. The backend is written in Code Igniter and they have a PHP API. Payments are done in-app with Stripe. CleanNow is launching next in Calgary, hopefully in March.

The World’s Opinion, or two for short, was inspired by election polls and how inaccurate they can be. “Everyone has a phone so why can’t we get a sense of what people are thinking?” Noah said. The app is currently iOS only (built in Swift from scratch) and allows users to vote on questions by swiping left or right, to ignore or skip questions by swiping up, and to save a question for later by swiping down. The question editor looks like the Instagram story interface and allows for thumbs up/down or two-choice questions. Everyone can see the breakdown of responses for a question, including some basic demographics like gender. The backend uses Google Firebase, and Noah said he’ll probably do an Android version at some point.

Sparkshot is an art discovery platform with a twist. Artists create artwork, upload it to the site, and behind the scenes Sparkshot will cover it in black pixels. Users can then purchase pixels (using Bitcoin micropayments) to reveal the art over time (price per pixel is set by the artist). Each piece looks a bit like a jigsaw puzzle until it is fully revealed. Once finally revealed, anyone can see and share the png file as well as all of the messages the buyers posted along the way. Because it uses Bitcoin, there’s no need to know who is buying the pixels, so there’s no account to create. Jarret and Dean demoed Forkdrop.io at DemoCamp Edmonton 42, another Bitcoin-related project.

I remember participating in hackathons and it seemed like an achievement to get the entire team setup in source control and have a simple website built. How things have changed! Eric and Mark showed us their hackathon project, which is a gesture controlled robotic arm. They built a wristband with eight pressure sensors to measure muscle movement that sends data to an Arduino micrcontroller and on to a computer with a classifier to convert the muscle movement into four different motions for the robotic arm. They told us they currently measure 200 data points for each position. In the future they’d like to make the wristband wireless and they also talked about prototyping their own microcontroller boards to speed up signal processing. Amazing.

Next up was RevonTech with Animus, which is a small device that can power a string of up to 150 LEDs in sync with music. They 3D printed the case and designed the board themselves to ensure that power consumption was kept to a minimum (it can run continuously for over 6 hours). Animus can control the lights based on frequency and also does some beat detection. Using the mobile app, users can choose from a collection of patterns. Patrick told us they wanted it to be a plug-and-play kind of device, for people who don’t know all the tech, but want to take advantage of it at a concert. We also learned the hardware supports far more than they have been able to implement in software thus far. Animus is about to launch in beta!

The final demo of the night was VSS-30, which Matthew explained is an attempt to emulate those electronic keyboards you probably played with as a kid. He modeled the keyboard in Blender and it took about 15 hours. VSS-30 runs entirely in the browser using WebGL and features all the effects, synthesizers, and recording that you could hope for. “Is there a way to save your creations out of this?” someone asked. “Absolutely not!” was the response. Matthew said it’s about recreating the toy experience. “Go in, making something cool, and then let go of it.”

I really enjoyed all of the demos! It was my favorite kind of DemoCamp: a nice mix of software and hardware.

DemoCamp Edmonton 44

Here are the events and other announcements that were mentioned in-between demos:

  • Student DevCon is coming up on March 23, 2019 at the Edmonton Convention Centre. Tickets are just $35 and include all sessions, swag, breakfast, and lunch.
  • Business Model 101 is Startup Edmonton’s most popular workshop. It is running twice per month for the next few months, and new for 2019, you can attend in Riverbend or Meadows, so you don’t need to travel downtown.
  • There are plenty of upcoming community meetups listed at the Startup Edmonton meetup site.
  • DemoCamp Edmonton 45 is scheduled to take place on March 12, 2019.

You can also check out the Tech Roundup for the latest headlines & happenings in Edmonton’s technology community every Tuesday. Here’s the latest edition.

If you’ve got something to show, apply to demo at a future event.

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 45!

Cyber Summit 2018: How to Fix the Future

Andrew Keen was the keynote speaker on the first day of the Cyber Summit last month, an annual technology conference organized by Cybera. They were gracious enough to host me this year as a guest. The theme for 2018’s event was “Mind the Gap: Surviving (and Thriving) in the Age of Disruption”. That’s exactly where Keen began.

“We are living through the age of disruption,” he said.

Andrew Keen

Keen is an entrepreneur who founded Audiocafe.com back in 1995, but he’s best known as an author and critic of Internet culture. I remember reading his first book, The Cult of the Amateur, shortly after it was published in 2007. As an entrepreneur myself (in podcasting) not to mention an early and enthusiastic adopter of Twitter, I remember strongly disagreeing with his critique of Web 2.0 and user generated content. It made me angry. I had read James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds around the same time and I couldn’t believe how different Keen’s perspective was. Why couldn’t he see?!

So, it’s no surprise that I started reading Keen’s latest book, How to Fix the Future, with some hesitation. Would it rankle me as well? I hadn’t finished it by the time the keynote rolled around, but I had read enough to have an idea of what to expect. And I was looking forward to it.

“Is technology shaping us or are we shaping it?” he asked. Keen spoke about Marshall McLuhan, lamenting that technology was supposed to create a global village. “We were promised that the new business models were truly revolutionary,” he said. We’d have greater cultural understanding, more jobs, and more equality. But, “something has gone wrong” and that promise “for the most part, has not been realized.” There have been other unforeseen effects too. He thought McLuhan would be “amused by the unintended consequences of technology.”

“I’m not a Luddite,” Keen protested. “I’m not suggesting there aren’t benefits of technology, that’s self-evident.” He also knows that there’s no going back. “Digital is the reality, for better or worse, and we need to make it work,” he said.

Not only has the promise of a better future not been realized, we’ve found ourselves with new problems to deal with. Inequality, the demise of expertise, the echo chamber, and privacy are all among the concerns Keen raised. “The inequality in economic terms is astonishing,” he said, predicting that there is a great jobs crisis on the horizon. Describing “surveillance capitalism” Keen suggested that “privacy itself is a potentially fundamental casualty.”

So, what to do about it? “We’ve been through this before” with the industrial revolution, he said. “We break the future and then we fix it; that’s what we do.”

In his keynote as in his book, Keen spoke about Utopia, written by Thomas More in 1516. It was “a call to arms, to make the world a better place,” he told us. It’s a useful way to frame his argument that each of us has a responsibility to be a part of the solution. “We have to be careful not to fall into the utopian discourse of the first generation of web tech,” he warned.

Keen suggests we have five tools with which to fix the future: regulation, competitive innovation, worker and consumer choice, social responsibility, and education. He only spent a few minutes on these in his keynote, but elaborates on each in the book.

The section on regulation stood out for me. He compares the current state of technology to that of the automobile in the 1960s when the lack of safety regulations resulted in high numbers of auto-related deaths and injuries. He shared the story of how Ralph Nader’s bestselling book Unsafe at Any Speed brought the issue of traffic safety into the national discourse and led to the passage of seat-belt laws and other traffic safety measures.

Could something similar happen in tech today? I don’t know what the digital equivalent of the seat-belt might be, but I do know that not a day has gone by since I read the book that some sort of big tech-related problem hasn’t been in the news. New privacy breaches, new abuses of power, and new unintended consequences seem to dominate Techmeme these days, usually in reference to Facebook and Google.

“There’s no app to fix the future,” Keen told the audience. “The only way we fix the future is in a human way.” In the book he says, “technology doesn’t solve technological problems; people do.” It won’t happen overnight, and Keen was upfront about that. “It will take a generation or two, just like it did for the industrial revolution,” he said. “But we have to begin to address it now.”

Andrew Keen

I have since finished reading How to Fix the Future and would recommend it. I think Keen raises some important issues and does indeed provide some thoughtful commentary on potential solutions.

Many in the audience found Keen’s keynote to be a downer, and there were plenty of comments about it being a pessimistic start to the conference. He certainly prompted a lot of discussion among attendees, which is all you can really ask for from a keynote.

But I found myself on common ground. Maybe in the decade since I read his first book I’d become more critical of technology, or at least more aware of the possible negative consequences. Maybe Keen had mellowed somewhat, adopting a more pragmatic approach in the hopes of effecting change. Or maybe, it was a bit of both!

Thank you to Cybera for hosting me at Cyber Summit 2018!

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 43

Edmonton’s 43rd DemoCamp took place last night at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus. It was the final DemoCamp of 2018. You can see my recap of DemoCamp Edmonton 42 here.

DemoCamp Edmonton 43

If you’re new to DemoCamp, here’s what it’s all about:

“DemoCamp brings together developers, creatives, entrepreneurs and investors to share what they’ve been working on and to find others in the community interested in similar topics. For presenters, it’s a great way to get feedback on what you’re building from peers and the community, all in an informal setting. Started back in 2008, DemoCamp Edmonton has steadily grown into one of the largest in the country, with over 200 people attending each event. The rules for DemoCamp are simple: 7 minutes to demo real, working products, followed by a few minutes for questions, and no slides allowed.”

Here’s my Twitter thread for the event. We had six demos, in order of appearance:

Xpertz is a Slack app catered toward large teams that lets you showcase your skillset right within Slack. Everything is done using slash commands, and the flagship features include “search by expertise” (so you can find the Android developers in your company, for instance) and “high-five” (which is a way to validate someone’s expertise). Xpertz reminds me a little of the skills on LinkedIn that you can give and receive, but within Slack, and with emoji. Brandon is working on a dashboard with analytics next.

Alex, a NAIT student, showed us Digiplay which lets you play PC games right in the browser. He explained that the high cost associated with PC games combined with the new capabilities of WebAssembly make it possible to play games like Tomb Raider and Quake right inside the browser. Currently desktop-only, Alex would like to add mobile in the future, and is looking at licensing games from smaller studios. He’s also got some original games like Foxtrot, which he demoed. The gaming industry seems to be betting on streaming, but Alex thinks the lag and latency associated with that will ultimately prevent it from working effectively. Next up for Digiplay is a custom compiled interface which would add controller support, and taking advantage of streaming compliation once the browsers support it, which would enable larger games.

I love a good hardware demo and OmniVelos delivered. “We’re not reinventing the wheel,” joked Nick! OmniVelos is a bit of hardware you add to an ordinary bicycle to turn it into an electric bike. The hardware is light and doesn’t interfere with the normal riding of the bicycle. The battery has a range of 20 km, depending on how fast you accelerate, and it can easily be removed and recharged. They’re looking at incorporating regenerative braking in the future. “Do you have any idea about pricing?” asked someone in the audience. “It’s DemoCamp,” responded Jay, to laughter from the audience. (At DemoCamp if you ask someone about their business model you owe them a beer.)

Next up we had two demos from the University of Alberta CompE Club’s HackED Beta hackathon, which took place recently.

The first team, made up of five high school students, showed us Habit Creator, which is a fun web app for reinforcing your habits. As you complete habits you earn rewards that allow your environment to level-up, represented visually as a picture of nature (so as you level up, flowers and other foliage appears). The team had to learn everything in 24 hours! Habit Creator includes a progress report to show a day-by-day breakdown, but currently uses browser storage.

The second team showed us Guba Rush which is an interactive, motion-sensing game featuring the University of Alberta team mascot. One of the team members wore a vest and fanny pack that contained accelerometers, gyros, and an Arduino. As he moved, the data was transmitted to the game to control the character on-screen. The idea is to physically move in order to dodge or jump over obstacles on the screen. Think of it like a Kinect, but with a vest you have to wear.

DemoCamp Edmonton 43

The final demo of the night was from Dan who showed us HonestDoor. He realized when buying real estate that greater transparency would be helpful, so he started tinkering with HonestDoor and realized others found it useful too. The web app can show you the last sold date and price for a given property, and in some cases can also provide an analysis of what HonestDoor thinks it might be worth. The data comes from third parties, including land titles, but was fairly incomplete in the demo. There’s clearly demand for this type of app, given the popularity of Zillow south of the border.

Here are the events and other announcements that were mentioned in-between demos:

You can also check out the Tech Roundup for the latest headlines & happenings in Edmonton’s technology community every Tuesday. Here’s the latest edition.

If you’ve got something to show, apply to demo at a future event.

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 44!

Amii brings Edmonton’s AI community together with new meetups

The Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (better known as Amii) held its first AI Meetup at Startup Edmonton on September 10. The organization has been hosting “Tea Time Talks” and other small events at the University of Alberta for a while now, but the new AI Meetup is an attempt to reach a broader audience. Judging by the turnout to the first event, they’re on to something!

AI Meetup

Melissa Woghiren, an Amii grad student, was one of two speakers at the packed event. She spoke about her work using machine learning to assist physicians in the timely diagnosis of stroke. “No one cares about the algorithms,” she said. “They care about the ML tools, generally speaking.” Melissa dazzled the crowd with details on what AI can do now to detect stroke and heard attacks, but also discussed the risks of algorithmic bias. Her take home points were that AI can be useful in medicine, we care more about the ‘what’ than the ‘how’, and the goal is not to replace doctors but to assist them.

Jobber co-founder Forrest Zeisler was the second speaker. He focused on “Applied AI Myths and Misconceptions”, a topic that really seemed to resonate with the crowd. The biggest myth is that most of a machine learning project involves machine learning – it doesn’t, he said. The bulk of the work is planning, infrastructure, UX, training, etc. Forrest also dispelled the myth that you need a research lab to do AI. “That’s like hiring people for your restaurant who can build new microwaves,” he said. Instead, use an off-the-shelf model and “you can have a pretty big impact.”

AI Meetup

After the talks, there was an opportunity for questions as well as a DemoCamp-style call for anyone in the room who is hiring.

The next AI Meetup is coming up on October 10 at Startup Edmonton from 5:15pm to 7:15pm:

“Discuss the latest topics in AI and machine learning, learn about the latest tools and techniques in machine learning, discover how companies are using AI to drive value, and network with thought leaders from Amii, local AI companies, service providers, and corporate labs.”

Register for the free event here.

Machine Learning 101

Just a few days later Amii held a Machine Learning 101 meetup at Startup Edmonton and once again the event was standing room only. Geoff Kliza, a Project Manager at Amii, delivered a modified version of an ML101 talk he has given to dozens of organizations recently. Here’s my Twitter thread from the event.

Machine Learning 101

“You don’t have to work with our 14 world-leading researchers” to use ML and to do it well, he started. Geoff talked about how the cost of prediction is getting cheaper thanks to cheaper computing power and storage, and more efficient algorithms. A common question that comes up is how AI relates to ML, data science, and other terms, and he showed a great Venn diagram to help explain it. He also defined some common terms in AI such as unsupervised learning (learning about your data), supervised learning (learning from examples), deep learning (neural networks), reinforcement learning (learning via experience), and transfer learning (learning from analogous situations).

Geoff also shared 8 key takeaways reinforcing similar points made at the AI Meetup, including that machine intelligence projects often involve very little ML, that data changes destroy models, that no one cares about your algorithm only what it can do, and that machine intelligence and humans work best together.

On that last point he shared the example of metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. Doctors are about 96.6% accurate and machines are about 92.5% accurate, Geoff said. But together, they are 99.5% accurate, which is an 85% decrease in the human error rate. That’s the power of working together.

Machine Learning 101

The next Machine Learning 101 event is coming up on October 17 at Startup Edmonton from 4-5pm:

“Heralded by many as the fourth industrial revolution, artificial intelligence has inspired countless news articles, novels, and films. With this deluge of information comes hopes and aspirations, fears and misconceptions – some justified and others not. How can we make sense of it all? “

Register for the free event here.

For the latest local AI and other tech news, subscribe to Taproot Edmonton’s Tech Roundup.

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 42

Edmonton’s 42nd DemoCamp took place last night at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus. You can see my recap of DemoCamp Edmonton 41 here.

DemoCamp Edmonton 42

If you’re new to DemoCamp, here’s what it’s all about:

“DemoCamp brings together developers, creatives, entrepreneurs and investors to share what they’ve been working on and to find others in the community interested in similar topics. For presenters, it’s a great way to get feedback on what you’re building from peers and the community, all in an informal setting. Started back in 2008, DemoCamp Edmonton has steadily grown into one of the largest in the country, with over 200 people attending each event. The rules for DemoCamp are simple: 7 minutes to demo real, working products, followed by a few minutes for questions, and no slides allowed.”

Here’s my Twitter thread for the event. We had six demos, in order of appearance:

The first demo of the evening was from the team at Gabbi. Sherman and Bryan showed us the app which helps real estate agents organize their messages and collaborate with their team. Like the rest of us, real estate agents are always on their phones and Gabbi can help them respond to messages, transfer conversations between agents, and more. Building on top of that foundation is an AI assistant, to “get the agents to the next level.” Gabbi uses Microsoft’s LUIS behind-the-scenes for understanding intent. Essentially, they’re building an AI-assisted CRM for real estate agents. Neat!

Next up was Permit Tool, which is a Microsoft Power BI-based data crunching tool that can help you visualize and understand development permits in the City of Edmonton. Brandon wanted to build the tool to help him apply for a job in the commercial real estate industry, and once he found the data available in the Open Data Catalogue, he was off and running. “There’s so much interesting information that we didn’t even know existed!” During the demo, Brandon used the tool to filter for people that had applied for permits to build hot tubs. “Go make friends with these people,” he joked. In addition to being a useful tool, his approach worked: he got the job!

Our third demo was from the team at What’s The Deal?, a web app that tells you about happy hour deals nearby. The site lets you view deals by day, or you can use the search feature to filter by characteristics like whether or not there’s a patio or free Wi-Fi. The website is built on WordPress but is really more of a proof-of-concept; they’re planning to launch a native mobile application next month. Currently the team manually curates all the data, but they hope to have restaurants take on that role themselves in the future.

Next up was Brendan who shared yegsecrets.ca. He got the idea for the site after participating in a Reddit discussion about the hidden gems in our city. “It really bugs me when people say Edmonton is boring or ugly or Deadmonton!” The site is basically a big map full of pins that represent interesting locations. You can click on a pin to see a brief description and photos of the location. There are no plans to add businesses to the site, because there’s already a lot of places to find those. The idea is to showcase great views, inspiring art, that sort of thing. Brendan, who took part in Startup Edmonton’s Summer Student Program, has seeded the locations based on input from others, and there is a suggest feature if you know of a hidden gem.

DemoCamp Edmonton 42

Our fifth demo was from Dean who showed off Forkdrop.io, which is an information and educational resource for Bitcoin holders. And specifically, forks or projects that give value to holders of Bitcoin in the form of newly created coins. The site contains a giant table with the latest information on all of the different projects, but also features in-depth guides for people to follow. Since launching the site has attracted about 28,000 users and has received a bunch of press in the Bitcoin industry. It’s all open source too.

The final demo of the evening was from Dana who showed us Tadum.app, a new app that helps you have more effective meetings. The name “Tadum” works two ways: it sounds like the noise a to-do list might make when you complete a task, and it’s an acronym for the key features of the app: To-Dos, Actions, Discussions, Updates, and Metrics. Dana said his experience has shown that the best meetings follow a routine, have a structure, and have forced accountability, so those are all aspects of the way Tadum works. It will work best if you buy into the process. Dana and the team have focused on ensuring the agenda experience is great, but have plans to add integrations in the future.

All of the demos went fairly smoothly! As an Edmonton fan myself, I love the spirit of yegsecrets.ca, and as someone who has had my share of bad meetings, I’m intrigued by what Tadum offers. And yes, I’m always interested to see how others are using open data, so I found Permit Tool pretty cool as well.

Here are the events and other announcements that were mentioned in-between demos:

  • You can now pre-order Nathan Youngman’s new book, Get Programming with Go. He had a couple of signed copies to show off last night. Congratulations Nathan!
  • Preflight is Startup Edmonton’s flagship program and it helps entrepreneurs “reach a global market, harness your ambition, and structure your business to grow right from the start.” New sessions are starting in October and November.
  • Edmonton Startup Week takes place October 15-19. Launch Party Edmonton 9 will take place on October 18.
  • If you’re a student, be sure to check out the free Student Membership from Startup Edmonton.
  • Save the date for the Student Development Conference, taking place March 23, 2019 at the Shaw Conference Centre.
  • There are plenty of other upcoming community meetups listed at the Startup Edmonton meetup site.

You can also check out the Tech Roundup for the latest headlines & happenings in Edmonton’s technology community every Tuesday. Here’s the latest edition.

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 43!

#yeg turns ten

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the #yeg hashtag on Twitter. Here is the first #yeg tweet:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

That’s probably the only time I have used #Edmonton! Ever since then, it has been nothing but #yeg. Here’s what I wrote about that tweet back in 2009:

“If I remember correctly, I found about the #yyc hashtag while I was in Calgary for BarCampCalgary2 on June 14th, 2008. I learned from @wintr that a few Calgarians had started using the hashtag to tweet about things related to their city. I thought it might be a good idea to do something similar here in Edmonton.”

Timing counts for a lot, and my Twitter story is no different. I was in the right place at the right time and joined Twitter early, on July 14, 2006. It was a fun and frustrating time (remember the fail whale) to be on Twitter. I convinced Sharon to join Twitter fairly early on, in October 2006. Her first tweet, fittingly, was about food. (Her second tweet the next day was an attempt to turn off Twitter, which at the time worked via text message).

Being one of the first people in the world on Twitter meant I was one of the few people to follow when others joined. It also probably meant I was just statistically more likely to be the one to post the first #yeg tweet, though looking back now it is kind of amazing to me that it took two years to do so. On the other hand, it wasn’t until August 2007 that Chris Messina suggested using the # symbol for groups on Twitter and posted the first hashtag in a tweet. Tagging was popular on the web already at that point but the word “hashtag” was new. Its use grew so much that it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014.

EdmontonTweetup
That’s me speaking at the first EdmontonTweetup in May 2008

On the fifth anniversary of the #yeg hashtag in 2013 I wrote:

“People from other cities often comment on how connected and tight-knit the online community in Edmonton seems to be, and I think the #yeg hashtag is really at the heart of that. We’ve used it to make new friends, to share the news, to raise money for important charitable causes, and for thousands of other interesting and important reasons.”

It didn’t take long for Edmonton’s Twitter community to grow beyond simply #yeg. Now people use all kinds of tags that start with #yeg like the ever-popular #yegfood. It used to surprise me to see #yeg used in places outside Twitter. Now, for better or worse, it’s part of the social fabric of our city.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Still, it wouldn’t be the hashtag (and community) it is today without all of the people that have worked to support and grow it over the years. Especially Brittney, Adam, Jerry, Tamara, Linda, and Kathleen, to name just a few.

Oh, and it’s pronounced y-egg not why-e-gee. 🙂

Here’s to the next ten years of #yeg!

Recap: PodSummit 2018

I was really glad to have had the opportunity to attend PodSummit 2018 on Saturday, May 5 at CKUA in downtown Edmonton. About 100 “podcasters and the podcast-curious” attended the event to learn about starting a podcast, making it sound amazing, growing an audience, and creating content that listeners will love. Organized by Ernest Barbaric, the sold out event featured six sessions punctuated by ice-breakers and other fun activities. Every single talk was interesting and informative, so well done to the organizers and speakers on knocking it out of the park!

PodSummit

Before I share some of my notes from the day, you might be wondering why I (as primarily a blogger) would attend an event about podcasting!

My podcasting story

I started a podcast in 2013 with Graham Hicks called Mack & Cheese. We published 59 episodes before calling it quits and moving on to other projects. But my history with podcasting goes back much further, to 2004 when I launched a podcast called Blogosphere Radio before we even called them podcasts (we just called it a show). That helped me to see an opportunity, and in 2006 I launched Podcast Spot, a hosting service for podcasters. We ended up shutting it down a couple of years later.

Reflecting in October 2008 on what I might have done differently, I wrote:

“There’s a ton of things I might have done differently, but two things in particular: I would have avoided using the word “podcast” in the name of our service; and, I would have focused on sharing audio and video for a specific niche.”

At the time, podcasts were very associated with the iPod, and they were fairly difficult to work with. You still had to plug your device into a computer to sync the audio files! It was far from certain that podcasting would take off. Today it seems almost silly to question the success of podcasting, given the popularity of podcasts like Serial and The Daily, the latter of which apparently averages about 1 million listeners a day (and I am one of them).

Here’s what we learned at PodSummit

PodSummit reflected the current state of podcasting with a much more diverse audience than the geeks and old white guys that were common a decade ago. There was a good mix of podcasting vets and newbies.

The day started with Rob Greenlee‘s State of the Podcasting Union. He noted there has been “steady growth” but thanks to media coverage there’s “a perception that things are exploding.” Rob cited The Infinite Dial Canada, a new study of consumer behavior and media consumption, and noted that 61% of Canadians 18+ are familiar with the term podcast. There are something like 525,000 podcasts in existence, about half of which are active, with maybe 2,000 new ones added each month. The number of listeners for all of those podcasts could get much bigger in the months ahead as both Google and Spotify are ramping up their activities in the space. Rob finished by suggesting that dynamic ad insertion will be a big thing for podcasting in the year ahead.

PodSummit

Next up was Roger Kingkade who shared tips on how to design a successful podcast. “People will listen,” he said, noting that both David Letterman and Howard Stern amassed large audiences even though their topics don’t at first seem that interesting. “You are what will connect with the audience.” Here are his tips for podcasting success:

  • Your topic should be about someone else’s problem or interest. Start from a place of servitude, and know you’re filling a gap in your listener’s life.
  • You can find an existing community and learn about their wants and needs, then answer their questions on your podcast.
  • Make a perspective statement, and run every episode through it, to ensure that you stay on track.
  • Think about your approach: will be you be the Jedi teacher, the explorer, or the guide?
  • Ask your audience for ratings and reviews – they’re much more likely to do it if you ask!
  • You need to be consistent. Roger recommends recording a bunch of episodes before you launch, and publish the first three right away, to help develop a rapport with your audience.

Topic, Audience, and Perspective form the golden triangle for your podcast, he said. Roger suggested planning your podcast (one tool you could use is Karen’s Podcast Canvas) to ensure you focus on answering the right questions.

PodSummit

The final session of the morning was from Andrea Beça, who shared her tips on growth & promotion strategies. She echoed the importance of fulfilling a need or solving a problem with your podcast. “Podcasts are not an ‘if you build it they will come’ kind of thing,” she told us. It takes work, and you will put “way too many” hours into creating your podcast! Building your community is key to building your podcast, and Andrea shared a number of useful suggestions like choosing the right social media channels for your audience, thinking about visuals to help promote your work, and keeping tabs on previous guests to support them (and have them support you back). Speaking of guests, Andrea said to choose them wisely, and noted that the first 40 listeners will do more for you than your next 400, so honor them! She also said it is ok to reference past episodes, something that too many people are surprisingly reluctant to do. “Don’t let your content die,” she said.

PodSummit

I skipped lunch, but I understand that Ernest himself gave a great talk on how to start a podcast.

After lunch we heard from Mike Russell, who gave a masterclass on editing and production. His tool of choice is Adobe Audition, so that’s what he used to illustrate his tips:

  • Don’t edit out every pause or breath, otherwise it’ll sound unnatural.
  • Start with good audio – you can’t fix a terrible recording!
  • Don’t worry about mistakes: just be you.
  • You can make a voice sound better using the parametric equalizer tool.
  • You can also compress a voice a little, which will even out the loud and quiet parts of your voice.
  • You can add a noise gate to help get rid of background noises.
  • Use ripple deletes to trip an edit without leaving a gap.
  • If you’re interviewing someone via Skype, adaptive noise reduction can be very useful.

Mike was a great presenter, and I loved the approach he used, handing off to his pre-recorded self to demo things.

PodSummit

Next up was Andreas Schwabe who spoke about the art of podcasting. He’s a former teacher at NAIT and was the Director of Digital Media for the Oilers. He had some fantastic tips and suggestions:

  • Sound like you mean it!
  • Planning ahead is key. Reinforce the three phases: what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then recap it.
  • Writing for the ear is a different thing than normal writing. You can find this out by recording yourself and then transcribing the audio.
  • Keep it short using declarative sentences.
  • Avoid cliches like Monday soup. (Because the Friday leftovers go into the Monday soup!)
  • Play with turns of phrase. “You can lead a chicken to ice but you can’t make it skate.”
  • Sound provides a lot of information, including location, speed, material, mass, and density.
  • You can convey a lot with your voice through pacing, tension, etc.
  • Talk to an audience of one, not many.
  • Refer to events rather than dates or times, and rough figures rather than exact numbers (unless you need to be specific for a reason).
  • Identify your crutches like “so” or “ok” or “um” and work to reduce them.
  • Listen to lots of podcasts to find out what you hate about them so you can avoid that in your own podcast!
  • Remember that no one sets out to make a bad podcast.

Such a fantastic talk.

PodSummit

The final session of the day was a monetization campfire chat featuring Andrea Beça, Erika Ensign, and Karen Unland. It was a great chat on the three legs of the podcast monetization stool: sponsorship/ads, listener support, and feeding your business. They noted the chances are good that while you might earn enough to cover your costs, earning enough to cover your time is a whole other thing. The fact is, many podcasts are labors of love.

Wrap-up

As mentioned there were some great activities throughout the day, like Podcast Bingo. It was a fun way to move around the room meeting other people and learning a thing or two about them or their podcast. I also liked the Pitch It Forward activity that Karen from the Alberta Podcast Network hosted, which got people to pitch other people’s podcasts!

It’s really encouraging to see such a strong podcast community here in Edmonton. If you’re pod-curious, I encourage you to check out the Edmonton Podcasting Meetup. And if you’re looking for some great local podcasts to listen to, be sure to read the Alberta Podcast Network’s regular roundups.

PodSummit

Congratulations to Ernest, his wife, their adorable daughter, and all of the other volunteers on hosting such a useful and successful event!

You can see the rest of my photos here.

Recap: AccelerateAB 2018

AccelerateAB 2018 took place in Edmonton on April 24. The sold-out conference explored the theme of artificial intelligence and machine learning. As A100 Executive Director Cynthia van Sundert said in her message to attendees:

“Our province is home to some of the world’s leading thinking, research, and startups around A.I. It is fortuitous that this year’s event is being held in Edmonton, where the world famous Alberta Machine Learning Institute (Amii) – the global academic leader in A.I. – is located within the University of Alberta.”

The annual conference alternates between Edmonton and Calgary, and always draws an interesting mix of leaders, investors, influencers, and entrepreneurs. The 450-ish in attendance at the Shaw Conference Centre this year were treated to an opening keynote from Scott Penberthy, Google’s Director of Applied AI, a series of AI-related panels, and a closing keynote with Dr. Richard Sutton, a Research Scientists with DeepMind at the University of Alberta.

AccelerateAB 2018
Photo by Pinstripe Productions

EEDC’s Cheryll Watson brought opening remarks, and encouraged everyone to “think of ways for Edmonton and Calgary to work together.” She spoke about having “an Alberta mindset” to be more competitive globally than just thinking about the two cities independently.

Rise of Software 2.0

Scott Penberthy opened his talk with some personal history, telling us how he was inspired by Marvin Minsky and Richard Stallman. It wasn’t long though until he was talking about scalars, vectors, tensors, matrices, and more. It was a bit technical for some in the audience I’m sure, but it served as a nice setup to the central premise of his talk: what if you could do math on thought?

“Artificial intelligence is an over-hyped but under-appreciated change,” he told the crowd. Noting that computing power has improved by a billion-fold since 1958, Penberthy highlighted some of the key advances in AI in recent years, including beating humans at image recognition in 2012 and winning at Go in 2016. He cited Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns to help illustrate why further advances in AI will come more rapidly (and mentioned this video about a rock). Penberthy talked about AutoML, which is basically AI creating AI, as one such advance. He also showed some charts from the popular and accessible Wait But Why series on AI to really drive home the possibilities before us.

AccelerateAB 2018
Photo by Pinstripe Productions

“AI is going to be like having a database,” he said. “Soon every business will have this.” Penberthy devoted a good chunk of his time to explaining how AI will help businesses to be more competitive. He touched on TensorFlow, Google’s open source library for dataflow programming, and encouraged the audience to just start playing with the great tools that are now available. “Don’t build it from scratch, leverage existing AI technologies so you can focus on your differentiation,” he said. Kaggle is a good place to start, he suggested.

I appreciated Penberthy’s overview of AI, and also that he called out the success we’ve had here in Alberta in the field. “Canada saw it when no one else saw it.”

Key Takeaways: Panel Sessions

There were two AI-themed panels throughout the day: The Fundamentals of Artificial Intelligence and An Entrepreneurial Journey with Artificial Intelligence. Here are some key takeaways I noted:

  • AI is a very broad term, and machine learning is just one technique.
  • AI is at the nexus of many disciplines and fields, and provides us with techniques for intelligently making decisions using data.
  • Machine learning is useful when it is impossible to hard code a decision or when things are constantly changing, like in the real world.
  • Machine learning will find patterns in your data, but you can’t make inferences about the data that you don’t have.
  • You need to know why the data is important for the decision you’re trying to make.
  • Successful AI projects need both a well-defined problem and data in a usable format.
  • Opportunities include biomedical advances and personalized medicine, automation of boring, repetitive, and dangerous jobs, and ways for humans and machines to work better together.
  • The reason we have so much opportunity is because of the hardware – we simply didn’t have the power in the past.
  • Edmonton is the best place in the world to start a machine learning company!

AccelerateAB 2018
Photo by Pinstripe Productions

In the afternoon, the always popular Scaling Eff-Ups panel took place. Some key takeaways from that session:

  • Building a business is one of the most intense things you can do.
  • If you’re not making mistakes then you’re not reaching high enough.
  • Every industry is surrounded by patents so you need to do your homework.
  • Pay attention to the people around you and take action, but know that loyalty can be good too.

Much of the insight from the final panel could actually be boiled down to team selection. Many of the “eff-ups” the entrepreneurs discussed involved a member of the team who was selected hastily or who otherwise was not a good fit for the business.

Startup Pitches

The afternoon featured the startup pitch competition, a staple at the conference. There were pitches from 8 startups this year:

  • Fitset: “Experience fitness freedom with easy access to just about every studio & gym in Edmonton with Fitset.”
  • IronSight: “A service-hailing technology that strengthens the link between B2C through data-driven dispatching.”
  • MicroMech: “Redefining the auto service industry by sending auto mechanics directly to a customer’s door.”
  • Mikata Health: “Built a system sing machine learning that helps doctors and their administration teams to eliminate 1-2 hours of data entry each day.”
  • Paytickr: “A cloud-based service for small business that has combined time tracking and payroll distribution services into one platform.”
  • Skillpics: “A rich networking community where students can showcase their experience, portfolios, resumes and skills to potential employers.”
  • Symend: “A FinTech company that is successfully implementing recovery strategy by combining workflow and campaign automation with proven approaches in behavioural science.”
  • ShareSmart: “Mitigating costly healthcare data breaches with a system that allows healthcare professionals to take and share patient information securely.”

Each entrepreneur had a few minutes to deliver their elevator pitch, followed by a few minutes for questions from the three judges: James Keirstead, Kristina Milke, and Peter Calverley.

AccelerateAB 2018
Photo by Pinstripe Productions

Congratulations to ShareSmart on being named the winner! They took home more than $15,000 in cash and prizes, including a $10,000 micro-voucher from Alberta Innovates.

Wrap-up

I previously wrote about Dr. Richard Sutton’s closing keynote on how Edmonton is a world leader in the science of artificial intelligence. You can also check out this Twitter thread on his talk fro Alex Kearney.

Our city’s leadership position in the field (and indeed, Alberta’s) is a key strength that we need to be proud of, and to leverage. It was great to see AccelerateAB shine a light on this. You can find out more about Edmonton’s AI pedigree at Edmonton.AI, a community-driven group with the goal of creating 100 AI and ML companies and projects.

AccelerateAB 2019 will be taking place in Calgary. Follow them on Twitter for updates!

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 41

Edmonton’s 41st DemoCamp took place last night at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus. You can see my recap of DemoCamp Edmonton 41 here.

Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science

If you’re new to DemoCamp, here’s what it’s all about:

“DemoCamp brings together developers, creatives, entrepreneurs and investors to share what they’ve been working on and to find others in the community interested in similar topics. For presenters, it’s a great way to get feedback on what you’re building from peers and the community, all in an informal setting. Started back in 2008, DemoCamp Edmonton has steadily grown into one of the largest in the country, with over 200 people attending each event. The rules for DemoCamp are simple: 7 minutes to demo real, working products, followed by a few minutes for questions, and no slides allowed.”

It was one of the quickest DemoCamps in recent memory – I guess everyone wanted to get to drinks! We had five demos, in order of appearance:

Paulie Blart is a Raspberry Pi-based robot that was built for the SF Hacks hackathon in just 24 hours – and it won! The robot uses IBM’s Watson services to do facial recognition and when an intruder is detected, it can send you a text that includes a picture of the intruder. The robot can also be controlled by sending it a “start” or “stop” text message. Cool stuff! In his post about the win, Megnath wrote: “A special thanks to the talented and vibrant Edmonton tech community (Startup Edmonton, UofA CompE Club, etc) for organizing local hackathons and encouraging students like me to aim bigger.”

The Bylaw Infraction Dashboard uses open data from the City of Edmonton’s open data catalogue to visualize bylaw infractions. The dashboard includes a number of visualizations and they’re connected – so you can slice and dice the data by clicking on one visualization and seeing the rest update. It reminds me a lot of the way that Power BI can work. I enjoyed Michael’s story about seeing other data visualizations and getting inspired to build his own. Whether he realized it or not, his demo was a good commercial for the open data catalogue too!

Go With the Flow is a fun project that controls an LED light strip based on the audio coming from your computer. Each LED represents a single frequency, so as the sound changes, the lights get brighter or dimmer, and the color changes. Curtis demoed it with some music and also the Avengers Infinity War trailer. Always fun when we get to turn the lights down at DemoCamp.

DemoCamp Edmonton 41

IdyaFlow is software for peer-to-peer marketplaces. It’s not another place to list your couch for rent, but it can help you build the site on which you might do that. If you have a community of buyers and suppliers, then IdyaFlow can provide the technology to help you connect them. It has a focus on real-time messaging to help facilitate those community interactions. At first I was wondering if there’s actually a market for this, but when you think about it, there are hundreds of “Uber for X” type businesses, and they all have more or less the same technical requirements/features. So building a generic backend that can service them all just might work.

I think Rewardful has a lot of potential, and I am eager to see how it evolves. The service provides “a simple way for SaaS companies to setup affiliate and referral programs with Stripe.” Currently it supports a commission-based approach, but there are plans to add other possibilities like extending an existing subscription or flat referral fees. There are some companies in this space already, but if Rewardful can keep it simple and developer-friendly (like Stripe itself) I think there’s plenty of opportunity.

I always enjoy when there are a mix of hardware and software demos, and also experiments or “for fun” projects vs. actual businesses.

Here are some upcoming events to note that were mentioned in-between demos:

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 42 in September!