Something happens when you’re in any industry for a while: you become, well, a bit jaded, and I’m no exception. So you attend conferences to reconnect with peers, to hopefully learn something new and to rejuvenate yourself. Unfortunately, what often happens is that you spend a lot of time in a dark conference centre, shuffling between claustrophobic rooms and listening to a lot of talk about a lot of subjects that you’ve heard a lot about before.
Festivals are meant to inspire, alight the senses and make you smile. There’s less pretense and more celebration. Thankfully, the team behind the International Startup Festival realized this and took their inspiration from Woodstock, the Toronto International Film Festival and Burning Man, rather than from other boring, cookie-cutter conferences.
Montreal is easily one of Canada’s most beautiful cities and housing the International Startup Fest site down at the Old Port was a perfect choice, instantly creating an environment that was open and inviting (and flip-flop friendly).
With its stunning historical architecture blended with newer elements, Montreal was a perfect metaphor for what startups need to be successful: the old-school skills and knowledge that come from experienced entrepreneurs, professionals and seasoned investors combined with new style sentiments on how to be disruptive and build new companies.
Inspiration comes in all sorts of different ways. Here are some of the speakers whose comments most clearly resonated with me:
Former Canadian astronaut and current MP Marc Garneau chatted with Brady Forrest to kick off the keynotes on Day 1. For me, this was the most compelling conversation of the morning, namely because Marc discussed the need for collaboration between seemingly disparate systems and players to create innovations that have impact. Through his unique Canadian perspective, coupled with his global experience, he also spoke about the need for long-term visioning (much like we do at MaRS with our cleantech and life sciences and healthcare practices). These kinds of companies aren’t going to turn around in a year or two. They’re going to take eight to 10 years or more to actually create the disruption that they’re targeting. Investing in them is how we build our future, now.
Dave McClure and his creepy, moving rabbit ears were clearly a fan favourite. His sessions were highly attended and he did not disappoint as both a keynote speaker and a facilitator in the roundtable tent. Nothing is a sacred cow with Dave and he expects people to actually stand behind what they say (or almost say). We need this kind of elephant hunting if we’re going to continue to create viable, successful companies that go beyond the first year of life.
Senia Rapisarda from BDC—who spoke about the venture capital experience here in Canada during the “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” roundtable with Dave McClure, Sam Teller, Roger Chabra and Renee DiResta—clearly resonated with the audience as well when she bravely applauded the “fantastic entrepreneurs” in Canada, but noted to lots of laughter and applause that “our VPs of sales suck.” It just goes to show the importance of building great teams and having people in place who know what they’re doing.
That same sentiment was shared by Ron Hirson, who has built relationships with Zynga, Facebook and major American telecom carriers, when he spoke about smart business development. With a lot of humour and honesty, Ron gave great advice about how to focus your efforts and resources on the right deals and about how to hire properly. When a question came from the audience asking how to develop people into good business development leads his answer was that you really can’t. You have to go find someone who is naturally good at connecting with people and not waste your time trying to develop someone into that role. It was clear, concise and honest advice. Priceless.
There were other speakers in the lineup who spoke about finding your passion and surrounding yourself with supporters, and who repeated the obligatory “entrepreneurship is hard” and “entrepreneurship is risky” mantras. While this may be old news for us pundits who have been in the mix for a while, what I appreciated about the curated lineup was that the Startup Festival didn’t forget that this event was all about the startups. The speakers, the supportive eco-system and the opportunity to mingle are where the real value is in these events: opportunities that startups don’t get on a regular basis.
After hearing from Harley Finkelstein from Shopify, Fabian Pfortmüller from Holstee and Ethan Song from Frank & Oak speaking about their values-based businesses and how they’re growing them with those ethics as part of their strategy, I was treated to my own moment of inspiration: I had a chance to personally thank Fabian, one of the creators of the Holstee Manifesto. You see, it was his team’s writings that encouraged me, years ago, to leave a long career in telecom and dedicate myself to supporting the startup community through MaRS full time.
It’s in those moments that you’re reminded why the startup community evokes such passion in people and how great things can happen when we open ourselves up to fête the reason why we’re all here in the first place.