Do Great Work, Repeat

The title is from Greg Story‘s article The Future of the Digital Design Agency in the United States.

I have been thinking about design firms.We can call them agencies, studios, evolutionary consultancies, or whatever. They are the firms that have unique skills, competencies and perspectives that it is difficult to capture or justify inside a company. Sometimes the value or impact is so important that it is better to have the resources in house. We are seeing this tension between agencies and in-house design being played out. Capital One acquired Adaptive Path. TeehanLax shutting down and the principals joined Facebook. SmartDesign shutting down. The misconceptions of working in-house.  This is compared to a bright future for design firms to compete on mindset. To build a new operating model to evolve at least as fast as the world around them.

The design firm is not going anywhere. The design firm, like a startup, has speed as their advantage. Being able to evolve the practice, the processes, the mindset, the tools, the outputs faster than the market while still doing great work is what defines the firms and people.

But there is something in the back of my mind that makes me think the business model is broken. This is most likely just a hangover from my >15 years of thinking about startups, venture capital and growth as the narrative of impact and success. The conversation to me is reminiscent of conversations I have with product companies and founders. It is probably just co-incidence.

Six months to two years of cash on hand is when the “studio is the VC for the org”. This is eerily reminiscent of funding for emerging companies. And it triggers a lot of questions for me:

How should design firms invest their profits? Should they invest in growth? Culture? New companies? Should the new companies come from inside the design firm, i.e., growth by attrition? Is the role for the design firm on that is like a General Partner (GP) at a venture fund? Is it one that is closer to a  Limited Partner (LP) that invests in funds managed by others? Are the skills and people that are capable of growing a design firm that is capable of having both growth and 2 years of operations in profits the same people to build emerging companies? Do skunk works and labs projects generate new businesses or new insights that can be incorporated into client work? Are their alternative monetization strategies and business models for design firms?

For design firms it is clear. Do great work, repeat.

UW VeloCity Evolving

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December 31, 2011 marked the end of my reign as the Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EiR) at UW VeloCity. The VeloCity residence announced a new leadership team before Christmas Holiday. I’m still affiliated, I’m still an alumni and I’m still an avid supporter.

I was lucky enough to spend 6 months with the students and their companies in Waterloo. I made the trek down the 401 to Waterloo almost every Tuesday night for dinner. The dinners were modelled after the YCombinator dinners. We brought in our friends and acquaintances from the world of high tech entrepreneurship to talk to the students. To share their experiences starting companies, raising funding, working with cofounders, etc. The goal was to provide a social, educational experience for the students and hopefully teach them something about the industry and software culture.

I was an undergraduate back in the early 90s. I wrote Objective-C on NeXTSTEP boxes. But no one at Waterloo really promoted starting a software company as a career path, maybe I’m just an idiot, but I never thought that I could start a company and sell the software I was writing. There were a few startups (MKS, RIM, Maplesoft) but this wasn’t a career path that was promoted. You could argue may this was because I was in the Kinesiology department. But spent a significant portion of my time in CS and SYSDE (SYSDE142, 342, 542 and others). The closest was a class about database management in the department of Management Sciences but it definitely wasn’t about entrepreneurship (how much do I still hate Access).

It wasn’t that hadn’t been exposed to entrepreneurship. I grew up in an entrepreneurial household, my Dad had left Clarkson Gordon to start his own small business accounting and consulting firm in the early 1980s. And my first real job was with a small usability consulitng firm, but I thought that I would get a job at CIBC or IBM or maybe Delrina. I was never provided the skills, the experience or even the awareness that entrepreneurship (software entrepreneurship) was a career path. I went to CMU for graduate work, and I was exposed to founders from MIT, CMU, Stanford and other places. My first job after grad school, I did research at UIUC and was exposed to things like early Netscape. But it wasn’t until I started working at Trilogy Software with a bunch of Stanford graduates did it become clear that I could start a software company. I always wished that someone had shown me entrepreneurship (beyond consulting) as a career path.

My view about VeloCity comes back to my own experiences at UWaterloo. And the role that VeloCity needs to play in exposing and educating UW students about high-tech entrepreneurship. It will be great to see the evolution with Mike Kirkup (LinkedIn, @mikekirkup) and Brett Shellhammer (LinkedIn, @bashome). VeloCity represents something that wasn’t available to me when I was a UW student. For me, VeloCity represents the next stage of evolution for the University of Waterloo cooperative education program:

” the solution was not just classroom instruction but “the co-operative program,” which offered students alternating terms of paid work in industry to get practical experience.”

Velocity feels like a starting ground for the next set of education at Waterloo. With the launch of MITx in addition to Open Courseware, MIT is attempting to change the face of higher education. There is inspiration and direction from TED, TEDx, and SingularityU. There is also the rise of self-learning platforms like Codeacademy, Khan Academy and others. It is time that UWaterloo explored evolving the cooperative education program beyond the constraints of the existing program. For me VeloCity represents the start of a new academic experience.

I can’t wait to be a part of what is next.


Apps for Heatlh

Apps for Health 2011I am not a huge fan of design contests as a motivator or educational tool. However they seem to work, there are business plan competitions like Moot Corp, SIFE Student Entrepreneur Competition, MIT $100K, among others. They do define external criteria, timelines and rewards help structure the process. That aside there is a new competition happening at Mohawk College in Hamilton focused on building “technological solutions to real-world challenges sponsored by health care organizations”.

Ever since I had a heart attack at DemoCampToronto6 I have had a renewed interest in personal health technologies. This shouldn’t be a surprise given that my undergraduate degree in Kinesiology in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences (ask me about how a 17 year old makes decisions about educational programs, and I did seriously want to be an orthopedic surgeon until I realized I’d have to work with sick people). I’ve been interested in reimagining personal health technology:

I have friends at BodyMedia, Massive Health and other organizations that are doing some amazing things. I am fascinated with the change in delivery and practice engagement that Canadian companies like HelloHealth and Myca. So I am impressed to see  Apps for Health that presents a series of challenges:

Teams are then required to do the necessary research, design and iteration to build a presentation. You can think about this as the initial pitch session whether for funding, recruiting, customer development, etc. Teams create a 10 minute presentation that “demos” the solution.  The goal is to concisely present your idea and demonstrate:

  • Must demonstrate a thorough understanding of the health care problem
  • Must be clinically useful in the health care environment
  • Must be created by team for purpose of the competition
  • Must be technologically feasible
  • Degree of completion
  • Cohesive presentation

What’s the best way to present this? Technical details? Screen shots? Demos? Simulators? etc. Up to each team. You need to demonstrate impact and win hearts and minds. I think I’ll look at forking out the $50 to attend including the drive to Hamilton.


Goodbye Microsoft, so long and thanks for all the bits

Photo by
Photo by Stuck in Customs

Can you believe that it has been 1230 days since I announced I was joining Microsoft? I’m guessing a lot of people lost out on that one in the over/under pool. Well, it has been a fantastic 3 years, 4 months and 7 days so far, unfortunately there are only 4 days left until it’s over for me. Effective Friday, September 24, 2010 I will be leaving Microsoft Canada.

I’m heading back into the fray. Or as John so eloquently puts it, I will be starting on a new path, with some old friends and the plan is actually quite simple:
Have fun and try to take over the world responsibly. I’ve spent the past 3+ years talking to entrepreneurs about programs like BizSpark and trying to help them build on the emerging Microsoft technologies and platform. I’m looking forward to getting back in the trenches and using customer development to build and ship products.

I’m not alone. There are a few of the folks that I’ve worked with or been lucky enough to call a friend that have also left Microsoft in the past year including: Don Dodge, Adam Kinney, Scott Barnes and others. This didn’t impact my decision to leave, it’s more just a curious observation.

As a sidenote, I’m pretty sure that John will be looking for a ISV DE (in non-Microsoft acronym speak: a developer evangelist focused on independent software vendors). What does an ISV DE do? Here’s the ISV DE job description from Belgium.

The ISV Developer Evangelist mission is to drive platform adoption and revenue growth with depth and breadth ISVs. The ISV Developer Evangelist is focused on winning ISV adoption of Microsoft platform technologies by working with ISV senior technology decision makers within these organizations. This is accomplished by collaborating with the ISV PAM (Partner Account Manager) to build a well-managed, mutually beneficial alliance that drives revenue growth and expands the reach of strategic Microsoft products within the partner’s solution portfolio.

It was a great time to be a part of the Developer & Platform Evangelism team at Microsoft Canada. And if I’d consider working with John Oxley (@joxley), Mark Relph (@mrelph) and the team again in the future. If you’re looking for a fun gig working with ISVs including startups and emerging companies, make sure you follow up with John.

Twitter as a protocol

Friend Wheel

Mathew Ingram asks “Does the World Need More Than One Twitter?“. Can you imagine if e-mail was only run by one company? How weird would it have been if we’d all been stuck with a CompuServe email address? It’s interesting to see companies like Status.Net build an open source microblogging platform that can serve as the basis for an alternate real-time micromessaging communication protocol.

Mathew also mentions one of my other favourite companies, StockTwits, founded by StartupEmpire speaker Howard Lindzon. Howard is well versed in the Twitter ecosystem having invested in StockTwits, Disqus and other Twitter based apps. Howard has a great post about what would happen to StockTwits minus Twitter. StockTwits is something like Bloomberg built on top of a micromessaging platform that can publish and subscribe to Twitter. Twitter is a great public micromessaging platform, but it is a platform that is continuing to evolve. We’re starting to see the emergence of different protocols including XMPPPubSubHubBub and other protocols. There is a great opportunity to think about the opportunities beyond Twitter. And make sure you check out both Status.Net and StockTwits, they’re awesome.

What’s missing?

It’s been more than 4 years since I first blogged about hosting BarCamp in Toronto. And it’s been a crazy 4 years.

And the thing that I’m most proud of are the dozens of derivative events (like ChangeCamp, CaseCamp, StartupDrinks, eCommerceCamp, and the entire *Camp scene). And the ever increasing number of new people and the connections between individuals. There are fantastic social events like Ignite Toronto and PowerPoint Karaoke. There are mobile events like MEIC, Mobile Innovation Week, MEF, MoMoTO. There are events focused on Generation Y – #genYTO (make us GenXers even more bitter). There are opportunities to connect with others in Toronto. There are parties and fundraisers (#hohoTO, #twestivalTO).

There’s something happening here, and what it is ain’t exactly clear

Guess what? There’s a scene! There are events. There are investors. There are startups. There are parties. There are fund raisers.

Why does this matter? It makes it easier to find others that share your interests and may have shared values. It is easier to find the nodes in the network and then exchange value.  It makes it easier to find potential employees. It makes it easy to identify the funders, the mentors, the serial entrepreneurs. The goal was to build a hub, to enable people to come together, to share and connect. It’s up to every participant to identify who might be interesting to them, to build a trust network and to determine how to participate. Hopefully everyone figures out a way to add more value to the network than they extract.

What’s missing?

Well funding. It’s not that there is a lack of funding, there is funding. Venture capital in Canada is an industry that is changing. But the shortage over the past 10 years has created a unique environment. It has pillaged the talent pool. It has left a talent gap. Hear me out. Companies like Microsoft started hiring away  the  best in the early to mid 90s, “228 grads in 1993, 219 in 1994, 283 in 1995, 233 in 1996” . Sure there were others, but Microsoft, Trilogy, Yahoo, Google, Facebook and others are fantastic training grounds for young entrepreneurs. The secondary effect of hiring out of university is that your young talent is free to move about the country. They are unencumbered by mortgages and small children. They tend to work hard, develop mad skills, grow the company, and then settle in and raise a family. Then they stay.

They don’t come back. Why because the companies have grown, they have vested options, nice pay cheques and the prospects in Toronto are weak at best. There are not enough well funded and executing startups to move back and take a senior level role that pays near market rate. Why take a paying gig? Well you’ve got kids. You need to move back. You haven’t spent 10 years in Toronto building a personal/professional network. You know that in Silicon Valley, Boston, Seattle you can garner a base of $150,000 at a funded startup.  You compare that to startups that think that stock options are incentive compensation (seriously, there’s a vesting schedule you give execs a big grant to incent them to work, if things don’t work out you terminate before the vesting date, sign).

Jumping the Gap

What’s missing? It’s the 25-35 year old up and coming development executive/entrepreneur. It’s the individual that goes from employee to early employee to founder. That experiences the successes and failures of building, launching, selling products in a compressed incubator. We individuals that could be in these roles, but they often get frustrated and leave many of the larger organizations to start agencies and consultancies. They learn the skills of being a time-and-materials junkie (which as previously discussed is not a bad skill set), it’s just different from building a massively adopted product. The lack of funding has meant many of the startups that could hire these individuals can’t because they can’t compete against the base salaries and lifestyles that have been adopted. It doesn’t mean that you VP of Sales should drive an Aston Martin (if that’s part of your compensation package, call me, I’m available for all Aston Martin driving gigs), but it does mean that you need to attract and retain the best available talent locally and around the globe that will enable your company. The chronic underfunding of Canadian companies has hamstrung startups to relying on whoever is willing or able to work for cut rate salaries or those that have the deep passion for the startup culture.

We need to:

Entrepreneur Week – Founders & Funders Social

Founders and Funders

I’m heading to Waterloo tomorrow afternoon to attend Founders & Funders Waterloo as. Iain Klugman and the Communitech mafia have done a great job on Entrepreneur Week. And I think Entrepreneur Week and the Waterloo scene is a great thing. I’m really excited to be participating in the social aspects. It’s also making me feel really guilty about my efforts in the Toronto community. It has been almost 18 months since the last Founders & Funders in Toronto (stay tuned or watch Founders & Funders or StartupNorth for updates).


I’ll be heading back to Waterloo in early December to view the Velocity Startup Day. Velocity seriously kicks ass. What a great opportunity for students to spend a term or two deeply immersed in entrepreneurship and technology. Velocity Startup is a great opportunity to:

  • Connect with VeloCity students displaying current business projects
  • Interact with other UW entrepreneurial students representing their projects at our exhibition
  • Inform students about your company/services
  • Talk to students who may be interested in working for your organization

Any startup should be heading for the day to find talent. Funders should be heading to see if there are any opportunities.


What: VeloCity Start-up Day
When:Tuesday, December 1, 2009 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM
Where:Student Life Centre
200 University Ave West
Waterloo, ON   Canada

Bright lights, big names

Win7 Employee Event

I’ve been thinking about Toronto. It’s almost 4 years since TorCamp and the first DemoCamp. The tech scene has changed significantly since I first posted BarCamp Toronto in September 2005. People are paying attention to Toronto. Just look at the past few weeks, we’ve had Dave McClure, Steve Ballmer, Hugh MacLeod, First Round Capital, Dharmesh Shah, Joel Spolsky, Yossi Vardi and others all in Toronto. There something going on here.

There are startups. They are raising money. They are hiring. They are doing great work. Have you checked out:

There are a ton of startups in Toronto. We have new corporate venture funds, there are incubator programs, there is something in the water. The best part is that there are great companies in Montreal, Vancouver, Waterloo, Ottawa (all across the country really, I’m looking at you Radian6 in Fredericton). It’s be a great four years since the start of this community thing in Toronto. Canada has always been a great place to live. Now it’s starting to be a great place to be a tech entrepreneur.

Impact National Conference & Impact Ventures

Cross posted on StartupNorth.

Impact Entrepreneurship GroupImpact_blog_redlogo started life as a student group designed to help promote entrepreneurship as a career path. It was started by Kunal Gupta, now the founder & CEO of Polar Mobile. It started as a conference for students, “a one-day event in Kitchener, Ontario attracting 150 delegates”. It is still primarily a conference/event machine for student entrepreneurs. However, with the creation of Impact Consulting and now Impact Ventures (see below) this is changing very quickly.

The next INC_logoImpact National Conference is happening November 20-21, 2009 at the Westin Harbour Castle on Queens Quay in Toronto. The conference features some interesting speakers including some familiar faces: Andy Nulman, Sunjay Nath, Ali Asaria, Jordan Banks, Saul Colt, Austin Hill, Mike McDerment and others. It looks to be a great conference with a great list of speakers in Toronto.


What is most interesting to me is the announcement of the Impact 2010 Programs, including Impact Ventures.

Many talented youth with innovative ideas steer away from an entrepreneurial path due to the numerous challenges, including funding and guidance, which they inevitably face; Impact Ventures was created to remove these obstacles. Impact Ventures strives to provide youth entrepreneurs with the seed funding, advisory services, workspace tools, and strategic resources they need at the crucial idea stage to create a successful business. Based on the successful Y Combinator model used in Silicon Valley to bring the next generation of ideas to life, Impact Ventures will help propel new startups to achieve their business objectives.

The selection process consists of an application form and an interview; there is no business plan required. During the pilot, three to four ventures showing the most opportunity for growth and long term sustainability will be chosen for the first batch. This three-month program will bring these budding entrepreneurs to Waterloo, the technology hub of Canada, to present them with all the components each entrepreneur needs to help build their venture.

Components for each selected Venture:

  • $15,000 in seed funding for an average of 6% stake in the company
  • Mentors available for hands-on help as well as advise
  • Advisory services including Legal, Accounting, Banking and more
  • Office Space in Waterloo to create an environment of collaboration
  • Themed weeks where experts related to starting a business will provide their insights and advice
  • Consultants to help a new company fill gaps in its initial organization

Impact Ventures is dedicated to the implementation of the entrepreneurial spirit amongst Canadian youth and values the independence of each entrepreneur. We are not interested in controlling the direction of the company as we trust in the entrepreneurs to make the best decision for their company. We believe in a non-regimented and friendly atmosphere where you are allowed to develop your startup with little interference, numerous resources and advice when you need it. Impact Ventures is set to revolutionize the startup industry by giving entrepreneurs an excellent spring board that will launch them to their success.

I’ve been talking with members of team creating Impact Ventures including Taimur Mohammad and Ray Cao since my post "Incubators, accelerators and ignition” back in April 2009. It looks like the Impact team has taken up the challenge and will be using their network of advisors, past members to help guide and mentor new companies. It also looks like they’ll be providing funding and consulting services to help kick start these early ventures.  There is a Waterloo residency requirement, which potential a detractor for many students actually enables students in the VeloCity program a formalized incubation phase beyond their residence. For many non-University of Waterloo students this provides students access to the ridiculous support network available in Waterloo (I’m looking at you TechCapital and Communitech and BarCampWaterloo). This is something that is definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Compared to others

Reposting my StartupNorth post.

“With the proper level of ambition, talent, and opportunity, even a small, islolated company can turn the world into its market” – Michael Cusumano, Dealing with the Venture Capital Crisis

I’m reading Michael Cusumano’s Dealing with the Venture Capital Crisis in the October 2009 issue of Communications of the ACM, I’m struck by the idea that our geographical proximity to the US, advanced economy, good universities and strong intellectual property rights might be the spawning ground for new ventures, sources of wealth, social welfare and employment. The article proposed 4 markets that meet these requirements including:

  • Israel
    Estimated 2009 Population: 7.4 million
    2008 Venture: 483 investments totaling US$2.08B, $780M from local VCs (Cdn$2.54B/Cdn$904.84M)  (IVA
    Investment-to-GDP: 0.0125/0.0045
  • Finland
    Estimated 2009 Population: 5.3 million
    2008 Venture: 406 investments totaling 360M euros (Cdn$620.55M) (FVCA)
    Investment-to-GDP: 0.0032
  • Ireland
    Estimated 2009 Population: 4.9 million
    2008 Venture: 160 investments totaling 243M euros (Cdn$418.87M) (IVCA)
    Investment-to-GDP: 0.0022
  • New Zealand
    Estimated 2009 Population: 4.3 million
    2008 Venture: 52 investments totaling NZ$66.1M (Cdn$46.81M) (NZVCA)
    Investment-to-GDP: 0.0004

Well these are great numbers, how does this compare to Canada?

  • Canada
    Estimated 2009 Population: 33.8 million
    2008 Venture: 371 investments totaling Cdn$1.3B (CVCA)
    Investment-to-GDP: 0.001

When compared to the US and Israel, Canada looks like a poor third cousin. What is the appropriate measure here? Investment as a percentage of GDP? Well we fall somewhere between New Zealand and Ireland. Maybe things aren’t as bad as we’d like to think. We have more venture money than New Zealand. We’re closer to a larger market. Maybe we should start to look at the positive factors and exploit the constraints to build opportunities.

  • Advanced economies
  • Sophisticated customers
  • Good universities
  • Strong intellectual property rights
  • Favorable tax laws
  • Vibrant entrepreneurial cultures

What’s an entrepreneur to do?

In my opinion, there are only 2 items on the above list that are directly impacted and influenced by entrepreneurs: Sophisticated customers; and Vibrant entrepreneurial cultures. Sure, the net result of a more positive entrepreneurial environment is a advanced economy that produces good universities. We can lobby politicians for strong intellectual property rights (and consumer freedoms) and favorable tax laws. But there are advocacy groups like the National Angel Capital Organization and the Canadian Venture Capital Association that more directly benefit and are better funded to act on the behalf of entrepreneurial financing. This is not some that necessarily deserve any additional attention than you currently dedicate to the political process. I’m arguing the entrepreneurs should build companies and leave this to the pundits, advocates, policy wonks and politicians.

Sophisticated customers

For entrepreneurs,we need to work on helping develop sophisticated customers. Often these customers are located near where the entrepreneur is building their product or service offering. However, this is not a requirement. Entrepreneur should look for sophisticated customers around the globe. Including customers in your product design and development process is key to creating products that meet customer needs and to develop more sophisticated customers. Steve Blank and Eric Reis have proposed the Customer Development Manifesto and Lean Startup as ways for founders to engage customers in the earliest work. All startups should read these posts.

Vibrant entrepreneurial cultures

Isn’t this what we’re trying to do? Read our thoughts on:

Part of the reason that we are luck enough to have Dave McClure in Toronto (and he had a great time). First Round Capital had office hours with Chris Fralic and Phin Barnes. We continue to see folks from Atlas Ventures, General Catalyst, and Microsoft (Don Dodge presented at StartupEmpire and will be presenting at CIX). This is a result of your participation. Canadian cities have a lot of buzz and attention based on the things that are going on.

It’s cumulative!

It is the force of a thousands of butterflies flapping their wings. All of the blogging, twittering, attending conferences, showing up to events, participating online. It’s about the DemoCamps, Launch Parties, StartupDrinks, Social Media Breakfasts, Third Tuesdays, Founders & Funders, NEWTECH, SproutUps, Meshes, and everything else.  It is a cumulative effect. It doesn’t take a lot of extra effort, but it adds up to the rest of the world paying attention to the noise.

We have great spokespersons like Saul Colt, Mathew Ingram, Mike Lee, Michael McDerment, Leila Boujnane, Brian Sharwood, Sarah Prevette, Pema Hagen, Bryan Watson, Anand Agarawala and others running around the world telling their stories of being a startup and the reasons they are doing it in Toronto. In Vancouver there’s Robert Scales, Kris Krug, Boris Mann, BootupLabs, Boris Wertz, Andre Charland, amd others. In Montreal it’s Austin Hill, Heri Rakotomalala, John Stokes, George Favvas, Ben Yoskovitz, Fred Ngo, Pinny Gniwisch, Ray Luk and others. Let’s not forget Social Media Breakfast, StartupOttawa, Scott Lake, Allan Isfan, Jacqui Murphy, and everyone that I’ve missed (it’s on purpose, because I don’t like you any more and I hate your startups).

But it is up to us to make noise. It’s up to us to build successful companies. It’s up to us to make Canada a better place for startups. No one is going to walk in and make it easier. We all have to participate and build a vibrant entrepreneurial culture. We need to talk about entrepreneurship as a career path. We need to talk to politicians about policy decisions.

So the first rule of being an entrepreneur is to reach out. Invite a friend. Make a connection. Tell a customer. Most of all, do the things that make the ecosystem better for you.