Building communities, not products

Photo by Lawrence Whittemore
Photo by Lawrence Whittemore

I’ve been feeling a little rusty this week. I received feedback that my focus of the past 5+ years on community and evangelism was not necessarily a benefit to an early-stage technology company. This came as a shock as I had to justify and rationalize the past 9 years that I’ve lived in Toronto and why I have been relentless about the need to build a stronger ecosystem and community in Toronto.

I moved to Toronto in November 2001. I had left Austin, TX in July 2001 after spending a great few years working at Trilogy Software and at Reactivity Inc. I had spent the previous years doing interaction design, presales, and product management for a sales force automation company and then for early-stage and pre-product clients at Reactivity (this was before the transition from startup accelerator to a product firm aka the XML firewall company that was sold to Cisco). I worked with more than 15 clients including, AllMyStuff,, Zaplet, MetalSite and others. It was a great time, I learned a lot about small teams, venture funding, and how to effectively build products for undefined markets, undefined customers, and undefined budgets.

When I moved to Toronto there was (and continues to be) a very strong agency culture. There were firms like Cyberplex, BlastRadius, Organic, JWT, ModemMedia, MacLaren McCann, Critical Mass and others. There was a hub for this community with Spadina Bus, TechSpace and AIMS. The problem was there wasn’t a strong Internet application or product culture. I wrote about my investigations looking for TO software companies part 1 & part 2.

As part of the return to Toronto, my spouse started her optometric practice. One of the requirements of the financing to get this off the ground was that I get a regular paying gig. And then strangely September 11, 2001 happened. I took a job working at CIBC in the Retail Markets group as the lead Usability Consultant. I lasted about 6 months at CIBC, big corporate culture was not an environment where I thrived. I found a gig at Ryerson University rolling out the self-service component of their Human Resources Management System. Turns out my first recommendation was to scrap the Oracle 8 Forms based application in favour of new HRMS selection and patching functionality in the existing system using web applications. It looks like the front end of the applicant tracking system I built is still running 5 years after I left (if you’re curious the system built using Fusebox 3.0 running on Coldfusion 6.x against Oracle 9i on Windows Server 2000/2k3). This was as close to product I got until about 2005.

In 2005, I decided I really wanted to be back in the startup game. There was a flurry of activity and events in Silicon Valley, Seattle and Boston that were attracting my attention. I thought I would benefit by replicating the ethos and DNA of these communities in Toronto — see my post on TorCamp. This was the beginning of DemoCamp, StartupNorth and my attempt to facilitate a community of like minded individuals in Toronto doing great things. Did you know that I met Jay Goldman, Jon Lax, Geoff Teehan, Leila Boujnane, Reg Braithwaite, Mike Beltzner, Mark Surman and others at the first BarCamp Toronto?). At the bar after the second day of presentations, hacking and meetups, Albert Lai and I hatched a plan to do a lighter weight monthly gathering modeled after DEMO where entrepreneurs and developers show what they’ve been working on, aka DemoCamp.

And I started thinking about the role that community plays as the framework for making Toronto a stronger ecosystem for software, Internet, mobile startups. I was trying to build my own future. I was trying to create a strong, dense community of companies where designers, developers and entrepreneurs can find employment, inspiration, a sense of belonging. Why? Well this is what I was missing. But it meant that I stepped back from representing a single company or a single product. My role was to build a stronger community. John Oxley and Mark Relph at Microsoft understood this mix of community, product, technology and rabble rousing.  They took a chance and hired me. This allowed me to focus on helping to enable a stronger community. And my particular focus has always been startups, early stage technology companies, etc. It required me to take a role in evangelism marketing. To continue to be a social media enabled and facing presence in the community. To host events and continue to identify, nurture and develop influencers particularly in the unfriendly to Microsoft community.

So it was funny this week to hear from someone in the industry that I respect deeply make comments that my product abilities are substandard and describe the focus of the past 10 years as counter productive to my career. It brought up a lot of personal turmoil about past decisions. And generally it has left me thinking about my role in the community versus my career as product builder. I started all of this community activity because I wanted to build emerging technology products in Toronto. There wasn’t a strong community of product builders and entrepreneurs (or I couldn’t find this community in Toronto). I think there is a much strong network of entrepreneurs, developers, designers, funders and others that have emerged. StartupNorth and TechVibes provide local coverage of events and activities. There are world-class startups like Dayforce, Rypple, Idee,, Kontagent, CiRBA and others.

But I think it’s time for me to focus on building a company and products again. To shake off the rust of the past 9 years. And go deep on the product management, design and customer development needed to design, build and ship a world-class product. It leaves me wondering about my pedigree which 9 years ago I thought was stellar: Waterloo, Carnegie Mellon, Trilogy, and Reactivity (an Accel funded startup with spinouts funded by Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia). I get it, this was a lifetime ago. But really have I gone from being an asset to a detriment? And what do I need to do to change this perception. Time to focus on my career and not the community for the time being.

19 thoughts on “Building communities, not products”

  1. Hey David,

    I think that “community” and “startup product” are very intertwined: Communities foster good environments for more startups/products to emerge, and more startups/products fosters a better community for entrepreneurs.

    Your last 9 years haven’t been in vain – you have helped build an environment in Toronto that encourages startups to come alive and grow.

    Product management is another skill which can be honed and refined – but it’s not totally independent of Community building. I suspect your experience with building communities and marketing is going to come in handy once your product starts to see good traction.

    Of course, I’m speaking from personal experience having started out my career with product centric thinking, but now moving towards marketing and building community relationships.

    Keep it up man, will be following your blog.

  2. hi david:
    i am sure the dude or dudette you spoke to is cool and all but to use a cliché, “be yourself no matter what they say” 🙂 ! Thanks for all the past, present and future awesomeness for all of Canada! Keep rockin’ it and can’t wait to see comes next!

  3. There’s no scenario where your efforts, knowledge, and experience over the past 9 years make you anything but an asset. However, I do get the perception that there’d be rust in the event your were looking to focus on product development. The only way to deal with this perception is to work on product, so go for it!

  4. I like you, David, and the fact that you’ve done more for Toronto’s startup community than anyone is inarguable. But on the flip side, what did you expect? It’s impossible to be both builder and booster. Throw in the fact that you can be something of a ‘recovering asshole’ (your words) and the perception some people will have of you is going to be that of flaneur and perhaps even mountebank.

    Build a great product and shut your critics up.

    1. Hi Trevor,

      I don’t think I’m a “recovering asshole”. I am an asshole. I’m a tyrant. I expect the best of people. And I can be unforgiving about it which is often interpreted as being an complete asshole.

    2. Hey Trevor,

      I don’t think I’ve said I’m a “recovering asshole”. I’m an asshole, and there’s no recovering from it. I expect the best from people and I often play the role of harbinger of brutal honest truth which casts me in the role of asshole.

      Agreed time to build great products.

  5. David,

    Speaking from our experience, you did an amazing job helping us build community and assisting in the early stages of our company’s development.

    For example, if it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t have quickly gained so many contacts into the rest of Canada’s UX community. Those contacts have helped us organize a Yukon tech conference, get sponsorship for events and get advice from some of our industry’s best and brightest. Those are huge advantages for those of us who live far away from the southern city centres.

    From our company perspective, you hooked us up with cheap or free development tools, which we’ve since used to not only build client work, but also produce marketable, commerical software.You also connected us with people inside Microsoft Canada who helped with communications and tech advice. Again, that’s been a big help for us to get started and be successful.

    So, don’t think for a second that your efforts weren’t appreciated or valued by some people. Those who say otherwise are probably just grumpy and jaded.

  6. A long list of testimonials is not the same thing as “I shipped something awesome”. But I’m guessing there are a large number of people that will say “Because of David’s input, we shipped something *better*”.

    Past decisions are past decisions. You enjoyed the frack out of the time in between, or at least surfed the highs and lows just like all of us.

    Going forward, you get to choose how to kick ass. And I’m betting that the reverse psychology of saying you suck is going to make you push yourself pretty damn hard.

    I know you’re going to bring it.

  7. As you know I joined the empire so that I could focus on creating products while still having some security for my family. I’ve become a better designer but other aspects of my skillset have suffered not to mention my career plans 🙂 but I have no regrets.

    You’re Irregular. That is a strength. I have no doubts that you will rise to any new challenges.

  8. It’s strange that some people will only remember what you’ve done in the past 3 years, and discount the other 12 as irrelevant, especially when the expectations are high for going forward. Only you can prove them wrong but doing well what you will do in the next 3 years. Then nobody can tell you anything.

  9. William + 1.

    Though there are always a select few that are quick to criticize people the first chance they get – keep in mind that what you’ve done for the past decade simply makes you that much better.

    You’ve obviously done a lot for the community here and motivated a lot of people (obviously myself included) to do things that couldn’t have been done otherwise. Ultimately, build the product to the best of your ability and prove them wrong – and let the product and its success do the talking!

    Thanks for everything 😉

  10. I am extremely supportive of this level of introspection, David. The great news is that entrepreneurs generally like the odds stacked against them. Looking at it, you can’t really ask for any greater motivation than this type of feedback.

  11. Dave,

    There’s no question your past nine years created a ton of value, not just for yourself but for the entire community. What you helped create here has served as an inflection point for many, myself included, and it was only a matter of time until you found your moment too.

    While it may not have kept your product building skills well lubed and ready to go, the knowledge & insight into the way of startups & community you’ve picked up along the way will prove to be invaluable going forward and I have no doubt your ‘rusty’ pedigree will come back to you quickly once you start flexing that muscle again.

    Best of luck with the new venture… looking forward to hearing more about it down the road. And if you need anything, there’s a great community here in Toronto that’s always happy to help boost & support a local startup. 😉


  12. But do not overdo the introspective. Yes lessons to learn but also lessons learned. The last 9 years are not rust. They are experience and validation of capability. When you can pull in 500 people to a democamp (with others but the point remains) that is validation of capability. Relax and enjoy the next phase.

  13. I’m late to the party here and like many of the others I can say that this post is very much appreciated. I guess the reality is that the post was in some ways necessary because it affects the community.

    How do you take a step back but also ensure Democamp continues to thrive?

    I’m certainly not the most active/connected member of the community here but I’m interested to see how everyone can be brought together to help you make some decisions/plan for the future of Democamp. Having said that, I do understand that you’ve had help.

    I’ve only been attending Democamp for the last year and have managed to bring along two new people since. It’s really how you scratch the surface in this community in Toronto. It’s important to the next person who wants to start to interact with the tech community in TO in an inviting, informative, and inspiring way.

  14. Dear David,

    As a former resident of VeloCity at UW and enterprising entrepreneur I believe that your efforts were not in vain. I believe you were taking a risk of sorts, but no risk no reward. Building social relationships take time and effort and that’s exactly what you put in. This is a very introspective post by you and without saying too much I will say this; though you may feel that you have gone from asset to detriment it is a necessary transition.

    Someone else needs to emerge to carry the torch you helped light.

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