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.

Moving mountains

techdays-2008Mark and the Community Team at Microsoft Canada have been working hard on TechDays.This is the first attempt to move beyond a marketing event. Though you might not get that from the web site. It is a shift from Microsoft speakers standing on the stage with new product announcements and walkthroughs to sharing the stage with non-Microsoft employees showing examples of solutions they’ve built to solve problems (in big companies, small companies, as individuals, etc.).

What is TechDays?

TechDays is a career-development event for developers, IT professionals and IT managers with a focus on the Microsoft platform.

It’s hard out here…

This event is a big change for Microsoft. It represents a shift from marketing and product launch events to a focus on software development and IT as a profession. The goal is to focus on career development of professional and practical developers. To give real-world developers an opportunity to share their stories and experiences with attendees. To provide a public forum to celebrate the people making a difference to their companies, to their communities and to people.

techdays-speakersThe biggest change is that the content is not going to be Microsoft presenters doing Microsoft demos and product launches. It’s probably not obvious from looking at the speakers page, but 90% of the content is being delivered by non-Microsoft employees. The first seven people listed on the Speakers page are all Microsoft Canada employees. 

Once you scroll past the usual suspects, you’ll find a group of Microsoft friendly people from other companies. Consultancies. Big corporations. Smaller companies. Client side. It includes MVPs like Colin Bowern, Mark Arteaga, Laurent Duveau, and Barry Gervin. And others like Robert Burke and Ken Cox. Sure lots of these speakers are MVPs, it means that they are “exceptional technical community leaders”. They are experts. They write books. They blog. They consult. They build things in the real world.

Baby steps

I think it is courageous of the team to take a chance, they are having to battle internal forces that are resistant to change. They are making a bet that developers and IT professionals in Canada on the Microsoft stack want something more than canned demos and pitches. The bet is that professional development involves hearing from others in the community. About sharing their stories of the trials, tribulations and learnings to make help make others better developers. Yes, it’s about the Microsoft developers.

It is a step in the right direction. I hope that people will support the changes, because it will make the next set of changes easier to get support for.

If you are a Microsoft developer, IT professional or IT manager, then TechDays is attempting to bring the best of Canadian Microsoft community to you in 7 different locations including Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Halifax and Winnipeg. Check out the Mark Relph’s Letter to your Manager if you need help generating support.

Galvanize the Empire

Jevon beat me to the punch. We have added a great group of speakers to the StartupEmpire program including:

don_dodge Don Dodge – Don is a Director of Business Development for Microsoft’s Emerging Business Team and was recently a panelist at the TechCrunch50 conference (check out his summary of TC50 launches: investor services & tools; social networks & collaboration; advertising & commerce; enterprise software). Don calls Microsoft “the biggest start-up in the world” and his job is to work with VC’s and start-ups to help them build great companies

hugh_macleod Hugh MacLeod – Hugh is an inspiration to many of us building companies and brands with limited resources. His work with English Cut and Stormhoek are some of the earliest and best examples of using social media to connect and engage people. To build community and evangelists as part of the marketing strategies laid out. And he draws cartoons.

david_cohen David Cohen – David is the founder and CEO of TechStars in Boulder, Colorado. TechStars is one of the most successful seed stage funds in the world. Don Dodge provided his summary of the TechStars 2008 Demo Day.

The Rest of the Schedule

startupempire We are working diligently to finalize a schedule for StartupEmpire. There have been a lot of great speaker submissions, and it has been making more work for me. We really want to provide something that you will find valuable. The feedback has been that we need to have sessions that deliver hands-on, actionable advice with takeaways. We are working to build a program that is more than just people talking. We’re hoping that after each session that entrepreneurs will have tangible bits, e.g., cashflow statements, business plan, sample pitch decks, draft legal agreements, etc. We’re working on finding ways that entrepreneurs can be involved in the program including demonstration opportunities; pitch feedback sessions; and more. If you think we’re missing something, drop me a note. I’m happy to see what we can do to find an appropriate speaker to fill any gaps.

You still have a chance to submit your proposal in the next few days, and we will still take a look for anything that we think we need to get on the program.


Thanks for all your support, we are working hard to create something you will find valuable. We have received a lot of support from our lead sponsors Microsoft and High Road Communications. Mark Relph puts up with me at Microsoft and has been incredibly supportive of the efforts to engage start-ups in Toronto. Martin Hofmann didn’t hesitate when I approached him for help. We’ve had some fantastic open conversations about social media and start-ups for the past 3 years.

Don’t forget to get your ticket before the early bird deadline, or ASAP before we sell out. The venue is small and we can’t really add more seats.

StartupEmpire is the new black

Image by Balakov Leave it to two knuckleheads, who tend to just do things rather than planning. The result is often something other than what was expected, sometimes you get bitten on the ass for your actions. Jevon and I both jumped the gun, showing you why entrepreneurs need help with logistics, legals and trademarks. Apparently there was a trademark registered with the previous name of our conference. We loved the name. While we’ve been in informed that our use does not infringe on the existing trademark, we decided it was just easier to change the name of the conference.

We bounced around ideas including:The League of Extraordinary Startups; StartupUnion; Her Majesty’s Canadian Startup; among others. Ultimately we’ve settled on StartupEmpire!

It’s a little audacious. Entrepreneurs need to start thinking big.

We’re working on planning the very hands on workshops. The goal is to provide entrepreneurs an extremely practical content around starting a company, building a product and growing a business. Participants can expect to leave the conference with example term sheets, example shareholders agreements, practical advice to dealing with cease-and-desist letters, marketing plans, example pitches, sample budgets and cashflows. All learnings from entrepreneurs and experts about in workshop format. We’re also open to suggestions and ideas for sessions. We want to make this valuable to attendees. We need a stronger, louder voice to build awe inspiring companies. Drop me a note about what you find valuable in a conference like StartupEmpire.

The battle for local

Lost Remote has a great description of the pending battle for local attention and advertising. It’s a great summary of the challenges and opportunities for each media outlet.

  • Television
  • Newspapers
  • Radio
  • “GYM” aka Google/Yahoo/Microsoft et al.
  • Craigslist and paid classifieds
  • Pure play locals
  • City guides
  • Yellow pages and other directories
  • Alt weeklies and local magazines
  • Outdoor

The local market is a huge opportunity. Just evaluating a single player in Canada shows the potential of building a strong advertising business based on helping people find things in their neighbourhood. The Yellow Pages Income Fund reported just over $879.9 million in gross operating profit in 2007 (that’s a total net income of over $527.7 million). The commitment to local focus has seen YPG re-zone their Toronto Yellow Pages to smaller areas to “improve searching and finding both locally and more broadly such as the addition of maps for high traffic retail areas”. YPG has done a great job building partnerships and relationships with regional phone companies and has a circulation of over 30 million copies of their phone directories with approximately 420,000 unique advertisers. There is a huge opportunity to continue to refine the space and services needed by local businesses.

Y Combinator has identified areas like: 12. Fix Advertsing; 20. Shopping Guides and 25. A Craigslist competitor, that they’d be interested in funding. It’s no surprise then to see a plethora of local startups that fit in a variety of the above categories:

I’d love to see an equivalent of EveryBlock for Canada. But until then the recommendations provided by GigPark are enough to help me find services in my neighbourhood.

Happiness as Your Business Model

Patrick points to a presentation by Tara Hunt. I can’t wait for Tara’s new book. This is a fun evolution in thinking about people, communities, and building a better place.

There is the opportunity to make $$ making people happy – Tara Hunt

The Universals of Happiness

  • autonomy
  • competence
  • relatedness
  • self-esteem

The Powers Working Against Happiness

  • fear
  • confusion
  • loneliness
  • lack of control
  • struggle for survival

This is a presentation that should be a must read for entrepreneurs, designers, developers, and marketers. What are you doing to help your customers achieve autonomy? competence? relatedness? self-esteem? Or are you working to promote the powers working against happiness. Tara does a great job evaluating:

  • Zipcar
  • Southwest
  • Skype
  • Zappos
  • Twitter
  • WordPress

These are all great examples working to grow happiness. Thanks Tara!

Congratulations Bryce

Bryce JohnsonWow, Bryce and W.R. and Veronica and Sadie are all moving to Seattle. Bryce announed yesterday his big, exciting news. Bryce is joining the Microsoft Dynamics team as a User Experience Designer. This is phenominal and sad. As a Microsoft shareholder, the value of the company has increased. Bryce has done fantastic user experience design for enterprise software deployments for many years at Navantis. He has helped solve complex business rules and software conditions for clients like the City of Hamilton, Microsoft Canada, and others.Bryce will join a contingent of Canadians in Redmond including:

However, it is also a sad day. Bryce is leaving Toronto (Toron-o, watch the video for details). Bryce was one of the driving forces behind InteractionCamp and EnterpriseCampToronto. He is a co-conspirator with Kaleem, Matthew, Audrey, and me for the UXIrregulars.  Bryce has been a tireless support of the community efforts and a great friend to have a bourbon or two with.

Congratulations Bryce! Microsoft is lucky to have a designer of your calibre in their cadre.


Today is my 1 year anniversary at Microsoft Canada. I’m guessing there are a lot of unhappy gamblers in the pool. It’s been a fun year. May and June are always full of surprises and changes, fortunately this year the changes were much less scary and exciting. Less scary.  Anybody remember DemoCampToronto6? Unfortunately I don’t, it has been 2 years since the infamous BarCampER where I had the misfortune of having a heart attack. So I look forward to making it through May without any surprises.

And it’s been 1 year since I joined Microsoft. Can you believe it? Hopefully you didn’t loose too much money on the pool.

The Year in Review

SxSW 2008 - 148

I attended a lot of conferences and events this past year. It felt like I was on the road a lot.I had a great time meeting people, hearing about what you were building and your mixed reactions to Microsoft. Some very positive. Others much more negative. I shouldn’t be surprised at the distribution of reactions and responses, but I think I was most surprised by the positive. I hadn’t really expected to become the public face of Microsoft Canada at many of the events. And I’m pretty sure that providing real-time bourbon-fueled support wasn’t in my employment contract, but apparently if you buy me bourbon I’ll provide substandard support. I haven’t spent a lot of time in the Microsoft ecosystem but I’ve been introduced to great people like John Bristowe, Mack Male, Derek Hatchard, Colin Bowern, Mark Arteaga and others across Canada. I continued to meet folks in the *Camp sphere including Vincent & Phillipe, Patrick Lor, Cam Linke and others. And best of all, I keep getting to see my friends and acquaintances around the country (you know who you are).

Places to Go, People to See

Community Participation

Jon Udell asked that we hold off evaluating his joining Microsoft:

Wait until the evidence is in, then decide for yourself. I’ve been in this game for a long time. I think my record of pragmatism and agnosticism speaks for itself…

Well it’s now been a year. And I want to know what you think? Good? Bad? Otherwise?

What can I do to make the next year awesome for you? the community?

Status is better than cash

The Whuffie Factor by Tara Hunt

Scientific American is reporting a study that shows “that money and social values are processed in the same brain region, providing insight into how we make choices”. Whuffie might be significantly more important factor in how people make decisions than cash rewards.

“Although we intuitively know that a good reputation makes us feel good, the idea that a good reputation is a ‘reward’ had long been just an assumption without scientific proof,” says Norihiro Sadato

The research performed an fMRI of participants brains while performing 2 different tasks. The first task was a card game where volunteers choose one of three kids with the chance of winning a cash reward. The second task included a computer game where they were given a chance to earn both monetary rewards and social status. The same sections of their brains became “just as animated” when given a chance to improve social standing as an opportunity to win money.

“It’s hugely influential even [when we’re not] in direct competition with someone else.” – Caroline Zink

It’s looking more and more that social status, and therefore social capital is a real motivator for people. We’re still a long way from having a social capital based currency like whuffie as described in Doctorow’s excellent Down and Out in the Magic Kindom. But social capital is a major motivational reward, and the work of Kathy Sierra and Tara Hunt about reputation and reward in communities is being supported by neuroscience.

The Adoption Funnel & Evangelism Marketing

Cross posted on

Evangelism is…

It was used more in the evangelistic sense of preaching, pounding on the pavement, getting the job done, taking the battle to the customer – all that stuff. And that’s the sense. It was kind of a good way of saying that this is a real intellectual sales and marketing kind of hype job (laughs). – Guy Kawasaki

Evangelism is a sales and marketing kind of hype job. It really says it all. It’s all very simple, it’s about instilling a strong sense of loyalty amongst employees and/or customers such that they want to talk about your products. You get people to believe and they in turn get more people to believe. The difference is between sales and evangelism is between who is doing the preaching.

Sales is rooted in what’s good for me. Evangelism is rooted in what’s good for you. – Guy Kawasaki

Ulimately, evangelism is about “bringing good news” based on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Associations Ambassadors program. Fortunately, this has been digested and broken down into a marketing program. Jackie Huba and Ben McConnell have a great blog and 2 great books:

Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force
by Ben McConnell, Jackie Huba

Read more about this book…

Citizen Marketers: When People Are the Message
by Ben McConnell, Jackie Huba

Read more about this book…

Jackie and Ben present a framework where “the ultimate goal is to create communities of influencers who drive sales or membership for your company or organization”.

  1. Customer plus-delta: Continuously gather customer feedback.
  2. Napsterize knowledge: Make it a point to share knowledge freely.
  3. Build the buzz: Expertly build word-of-mouth networks.
  4. Create community: Encourage communities of customers to meet and share.
  5. Make bite-size chunks: Devise specialized, smaller offerings to get customers to bite.
  6. Create a cause: Focus on making the world, or your industry, better.

We’re talking about using evangelism techniques to build community and drive revenue. This is very different than the altruistic ideals behind my involvement with BarCamp, DemoCamp and other.

Is there a difference between evangelism marketing and community evangelism?