Growing the Startup Ecosystem in Your City


Building a Great Startup Ecosystem - Where to Start?

This post is one of the requirements of my final Founder Institute assignment, and while it is meant to be about growing the startup system in Montreal, I’m going to use it to talk about some of the lessons I’ve learned from those who have built Montreal’s now thriving startup ecosystem, and how they might be applicable to my home province of Nova Scotia, and the Maritimes in general.

There has always been debate about how to grow a great startup ecosystem.  One great piece was written by Paul Graham in 2006.  He suggests several things required to build a great startup city: great university(ies), a city with great personality so investors and nerds/hackers alike want to live there (particularly young nerds and aggressive investors), and time.

LP Maurice, one of the directors of The Founder Institute here in Montreal, and one of the major players in turning Montreal into the thriving startup ecosystem it is today, has written both about peer-to-peer support from entrepreneurs being key to growing a startup ecosystem, and how cities attract top talent.  He concludes that investment – time and mentorship, as well as financing – from other entrepreneurs is key to developing new entrepreneurial talent, and that creating a city which supports talent means attracting immigrants and supporting top graduates, both in keeping them in the city to develop, and if they make the decision to return home.

I agree with most of the points each suggest.  However, there are some elements to build a startup ecosystem that can be changed relatively rapidly, and some which can’t.

Cities for a Startup Ecosystem

Creating a city like the ones that Paul Graham suggests – liberal cities with vibrant downtowns, culture, and history - isn’t easy, unless most of those things already exist.  Here in Montreal, the blend of English and French language, the influence of European culture, and the extensive history of the city creates a great atmosphere.

Montreal has historically been a very liberal city, and the abundance of quirky shops and restaurants, among many other things, make it attractive for rich investors and talented young graduates alike.

So why has Montreal’s startup ecosystem boomed in the last five years?

I believe the key elements are all related to the entrepreneurial support LP mentioned when talking about peer-to-peer entrepreneurship, and can be broken down roughly into three categories: entrepreneurs, companies, and investors.

Building Around Entrepreneurs

Great entrepreneurs are essential.  They are the ones who have the courage to build companies from scratch, and ultimately create the jobs and economic value that every city desires.  So how do you attract great entrepreneurs?  Well, as I mentioned, start with a great city.  If you don’t have one, things are going to be much harder.  However, if we’re looking at Nova Scotia, I think Halifax satisfies most criteria; the city is beautiful and has a rich history, and the North End is booming with trendy restaurants and shops while downtown is busy and new living space continues to be built.  Even Lunenburg, my home town, has lots of quirky shops, awesome restaurants, and a great downtown – the school, tennis courts, swimming pool, rink, golf course and main restaurants are all within walking distance.

Universities are another way to kickstart innovation.  Talented and ambitious researchers will often create new technology that can be commercialized.  Nova Scotia has roughly the same proportion of students to overall population as Ontario, and only about half a percent less than Quebec. Halifax itself is home to six universities, and Dalhousie was ranked 7th in Canada last year by Macleans in the Medical-Doctoral category, while Saint Mary’s was 5th in the Primarily Undergraduate category.  Other Maritime universities, like Acadia, UNB and Mount Allison rated highly as well.

Personally, I came to McGill for a few reasons, but was originally attracted because it’s the top university in Canada (we can debate specific departments, but overall I do believe McGill is the top university in Canada).  Many other students come here for the same reason.  I also love Montreal, for all the reasons I mentioned before.

How else can you kickstart entrepreneurship?  Immigrants.  Various sources show that immigrants are more likely to be entrepreneurs than those born in North America (the Kauffman Foundation, for example, claims immigrants are 2x more likely to become entrepreneurs than US-born Americans).

Unfortunately, the solution to increasing immigration relies partially on the government.  However, universities can help improve immigration by encouraging international students – Dalhousie currently has 14% international students; by contrast, McGill had 24.1% as of Fall 2014.  Immigrants also bring with them diversity in food, culture and language, which enhances the overall culture of a city, and therefore the startup ecosystem.

So what happens once you attract great entrepreneurs?  They build great companies.

Startup Ecosystems Require Great Companies

Great companies are critical.  The term ‘Silicon Valley’ originates from some of the early companies in the valley being involved in making of semiconductors.  But the real contribution of these companies was the successful, entrepreneurial talent they created who bred spinoff companies and created an entrepreneurial atmosphere that has grown to what we know as Silicon Valley today.

Last spring, I attended a talk given by John Ruffalo, the head of OMERS Ventures, who I would currently consider the biggest player in the Canadian VC industry.  He spoke about growing the entrepreneurial communities and startup ecosystems across Canada, and attributed the growth in areas like Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver to the ascension of huge startup successes like Shopify, Hootsuite and Lightspeed.  Companies like these, who become huge successes, bring wealth and experience to a huge number of employees who subsequently become entrepreneurs.  He called these hotspots ‘nodes’, and said the key to growing the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Canada is connecting these nodes so that great entrepreneurs get together and talk about ideas, and eventually form companies.  On a smaller scale, connecting the communities in Nova Scotia, or the Maritimes in general, is key.  And as for companies, well if we again look at Lunenburg, HB Studios, which was founded in 2000, now boasts a staff of around 80, and produces some of the top video game titles in the world.  With support, companies like these could spawn a wave of new startups.

Investors Are Necessary Too

The creation of great companies also attracts capital.  When great companies get funded, other VC firms pay attention.  In a recent chat with a prominent Montreal-based VC, he said there have been many cases where inexperienced VCs will offer to investment to companies their firm is looking at, simply because they believe if they’re looking at them, they must be a good opportunity.  So once a great entrepreneur creates a great company, in a great city, investors will show up.

The critical step, and the one which I think is lacking most in Atlantic Canada, is the conscious, public effort from successful entrepreneurs and investors to give back their time and expertise to their startup ecosystem by mentoring new startups and entrepreneurs.  I don’t mean to knock anyone that is doing this – there are lots of great mentors and entrepreneurs giving their time and energy back in the Maritimes - there just needs to be a broader, more organized, and more advertised, effort.

There have been some awesome exits in Atlantic Canada – just look at Q1 Labs and Radian6, which both sold for hundreds of millions to IBM and, respectively.

But I believe what is lacking is the widespread organization and initiative from successful entrepreneurs and investors in the area to educate and mentor those new, talented graduates to become entrepreneurs and stay in Atlantic Canada.

As LP Maurice mentions, to see why Montreal has been so successful in recent years, we need look no further than:

“…the 100+ mentor-entrepreneurs who give their time on a pro-bono basis to support the young entrepreneurs of the start-up accelerator FounderFuel led by Real Ventures, or 50+ mentors who now support the accelerator Founder Institute Montreal co-led by Sergio Escobar. We can also observe this in the willingness of experienced entrepreneurs to give their time as part of mentoring activities or programs through organizations such as the Réseau M, the École d’Entrepreneurship de BeauceNext 36Startup Next, the JCCM and Défi Montréal, amongst others.”

Formal programs like Founder Institute or FounderFuel are essential – many of those who are brought on to mentor end up becoming formal advisors or angel investors, and realize how much they enjoy giving back their knowledge and time.  Investors enjoy a closer, longer-term relationship with startups, and become happier and more confident with their investment.

The keys to building a great startup city, or province, are not simple.  But the results of combining many of the elements are being borne out here in Montreal; now we just need to convince entrepreneurs and investors in Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada to follow suit.

(PS. The featured image is my colleague Marc Boscher, CEO of Unito - check out his business here).

My Founder Institute Experience


Founder Institute Experience

I think the first time I went to a Founder Institute (FI) information session was in the spring of 2014.  I had just started a company with a friend from McGill, and we had gotten as far as competing in a couple of pitch competitions and creating a business plan.  Founder Institute sounded interesting, but, to be honest, it wasn’t going to fit my schedule.  I’d already made plans to go back home for the summer and work with the Coast Guard for the fourth summer in a row.  But, my cofounder applied, and I helped him a bit with the application process.  He didn’t get in.

That was about the last I had heard of it, until the fall came around, when I had made the decision not to attend graduate school, and instead pursue the venture we had started in January.  I was back in Montreal, and attending just about every networking event I could, one of which was a Founder Institute informal drinks meetup, where there would be some previous founders and the program directors.

I decided to apply, and got my application in nice and early, including the optional short video.

Fast forward a couple months, and I’d also applied to The Next 36, a summer entrepreneurial program in Toronto targeted specifically at undergraduates.  I’d been selected to attend Selection Weekend, for the second time (I wasn’t selected the first year).  I spent quite a bit of time during December and January networking with others going to Selection Weekend.  Sometime in mid-January, I received notification that I’d been accepted to Founder Institute.  It was nice, but I didn’t think much about it at the time.

Well, the outcome of Selection Weekend for The Next 36 (at the end of January) was about the same as the year before – a great weekend, and great people - but I wasn’t one of the ones selected.  So Founder Institute it was.

Until that point, I hadn’t really researched Founder Institute a whole lot – I did this during the few weeks leading up to the program start instead, and I began to be more and more intrigued.  The program is targeted at professionals who have work experience; it now has chapters in over 40 cities worldwide; the attrition rate is around 60-80%.  As we got closer to the start date, it was revealed that this cohort of the Founder Institute had received the most applications of any cohort, worldwide, ever.  Things were getting interesting.

After being read the riot act by the program’s director, Sergio Escobar, on the first night, I wrote down my goals for the program, as I do with most things, professionally or personally.

They were as follows:

  • impress mentors with work ethic

  • be one of few to make it through program

  • establish relationship with some top entrepreneurs

  • gain network that could lead to jobs with their startups or others

  • jump start new business

  • gain network of potential co-founders

All pretty reasonable I think.  I thought that this would be a quick jump into the entrepreneurial scene in Montreal, and perhaps address one of the biggest problems I was facing as a young, new, entrepreneur – finding good cofounders.  I was also seeking some structure, after spending four or five months living in Montreal making completely my own schedule, and doing the things I thought best to move the company forward, without any real experience.

As it turns out, the Founder Institute was all that and more, and if I sat down now to consider the goals I should have set at the beginning of the program, they would be much different.  More on that later.


My first few business ventures, have been, without a doubt, failures.  I was going to say ‘complete failure’, but if that’s the view you have on any failure, then it actually was a waste of time – mine certainly haven’t been.

The attrition rate for Founder Institute is usually mentioned at being somewhere around 60-80%.  I know for our cohort, we started with over 50, and we are now down to 14.  So it’s not an exaggeration.

So why do so many people fail to reach the end of the program?

The first reason: it’s hard.

Some assignments seem initially impossible, unreasonable, foolish even.  A large number of dropouts will rationalize dropping out because of them, saying things like “well, this isn’t the best thing for my business right now”, or “I should be spending my time on other aspects of the business”.  The analogous situation for me growing up was the guy on every sports team I ever played on that always seemed to have an injury – he couldn’t play that day because of a hip flexor, the next because of a knee tweak, and he didn’t want to make it worse; you really knew that he was just looking for a rationalization not to face something tough.

The solution: find a way to get things done, no matter what, and be conscious of rationalizing your decision to get out.

The second reason: life gets in the way.

I hated to see some of the founders in this cohort drop out.  They were great people, with great ideas and the skills to execute them.  I probably would have invested in their company (if I had the money, or the time to follow up).  But the Founder Institute is not a part-time commitment.  I think they bill it as a 30-hour-per-week commitment; that’s just not true.  If you have a full-time job, expect to work less on that than on your Founder Institute work.  If you have kids, prepare and plan to schedule time with them, likewise for a spouse or girlfriend.

Out of 14 founders about to graduate the program, only a few still have full-time jobs, and of those, I don’t think any have a family, and most, as far as I know, are single.

Solution: if you want to finish Founder Institute, you had better be ready to commit full-time to your company, and the program, before the end.  The old “quick, cheap, fast: pick two” cliché could be applied here in a new form: “FI, family/social life, full-time job: pick two”.

The third reason: your idea isn’t good.

This is probably the most difficult obstacle to overcome.  In theory, you should be able to figure this out in the first few weeks – the program is set up so that you actually start with three ideas, and through talking to potential customers you figure out which one is interesting.  But what happens if none of them are interesting?  Then you’re behind.  And you have to come up with new ideas, and complete the customer validation again, and still keep up with the assignments, and then re-do the assignments once you find a new idea, and then finish the special assignment you got because you’re behind, and…you get the point.  Once you get behind in the program, it’s a struggle to get back in front.  The upside of this happening?  You’ll be able to re-enroll in the program next time, and until then, you’ll have a ton of time to think up new ideas, and test them.

Solution: spend time prior to the Founder Institute coming up with ideas, and research customer development methods to try and get some feedback.  Ask for a coffee with the directors to chat about ideas – usually their intuition for idea quality is valuable.

Completing Founder Institute

So why do I think I was successful in completing the program (bar an improbable exit in the next two weeks)?

Most of it has to do with the few points on why people failed.

First of all, I have a chronic fear of being someone who leaves things unfinished; it’s probably unhealthy actually.  I’m still hoping to finish, this summer, the remote-control sailboat I started building 7 years ago.  But it is going to be the best damn remote control boat around; and the best part – next time I build one it will only take me a tenth of the time, and probably a tenth of the money too.

The result of this fear is that I will do whatever it takes to finish something that I’ve started and committed time to.  I also have a competitive streak, so when they told us the first night that 60-80% of people drop out, I took that as a challenge.  The combination meant that I never saw an assignment as impossible, and I found a way to get everything done.  Sometimes entrepreneurship is about finding a more clever way of doing things – cynics would perhaps sometimes call this cheating – but finding a way to get things done is what entrepreneurship is all about.

Second, I didn’t let life get in the way.  Going into the Founder Institute I put all my focus on completing the program.  I ended the previous startup I was working on.  I traveled home and then didn’t plan any significant trips in the near future.  I sorted out my living situation for the next few months, and I accepted the fact that I might not see my friends as much.

Now, I’m in a pretty fortunate situation to not have any commitments that can’t be shoved aside – good friends, and soon-to-be-graduates in the Founder Institute have wives and/or multiple children – you can’t just sit them down one day and say “right, well, I’ll be back in four months”.  But they’ve still had chats with their partners and kids about what they are undertaking and why, and have their support.  They make a conscious effort to schedule time to spend with them, and I do the same with my family and friends.  But you have to be ready for that.

Third, I spent a lot of time prior to FI coming up with, and evaluating, ideas.  I’d like to think my nose for good ideas is getting better – I don’t think I’ve experienced a steeper learning curve than the past 10 months, part of which is related to idea evaluation – and I managed to come up with some good ideas before heading into Founder Institute.

How do you get good ideas?  That’s a topic for another post, but quickly, my guidelines would be try and stick within your areas of interest or passion, think about emerging markets, and most of all, get outside input.  I sat down multiple times with friends, other entrepreneurs and family to brainstorm and evaluate ideas.

Founder Institute Benefits

Now that I’m at the end of the program, I can reflect a bit about what the program gave me, and whether or not my goals at the beginning of the program made sense.

Some did: there is no doubt that the program gives you relationships with top entrepreneurs, a great network in which you could definitely find a startup job, and a network of potential cofounders, as well as the places to find them.

But it also gives you so much more.  Instead of just relationships with top entrepreneurs, I now have relationships with top entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, angels, bankers and lawyers from the top firms in Montreal, and further, even Silicon Valley.  If I don’t, I probably know someone who does.

I no longer want a startup job – I believe it’s totally possible to build my own company.  If I did take a startup job, it would be because I believed very strongly in the company or product, and I’d want to play an important role.

The value of the network of like-minded individuals and entrepreneurs is huge.  I can’t overstate how important it is to surround yourself with great peers, and that’s become so much more evident over the past four months.  The days when you feel overwhelmed, someone else just closed a sale, or added a new hotshot mentor, or released a beautiful product revamp, and all of a sudden, your motivation is back and you figure things out.  And vice versa.  And at the end of those brutal days, you can all go get a beer, or a whiskey, or maybe a few tequila shots if it was a really bad day, and laugh about all the dumb things you’ve all done so far, and once the hangover goes away, you’ll feel much better.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the program, however, is raised expectations.  Personally, professionally, from your peers – everything is higher.  I’m no longer thinking about whether building a successful company is possible – I wonder whether we can build it to a hundred million or a billion.  I wonder if we are going to raise a million or more for our seed round.  I wonder about which person in the cohort is going to be the first to get acquired, or go public.

And even if we don’t manage to raise a million dollars, or we do fail, I know that one day I will reach those milestones.  After all, if the Founder Institute taught me anything, it’s that persistence, above all else, will create success.

Writing and Stuff


I’m pretty excited to be writing the first post for my blog, and while it won’t be about a specific topic, it will explain the purpose and motivation behind the blog itself. I’ve been thinking about starting a blog for a while, but never really knew what to write about.  I generally haven’t spent much time writing since high school, aside from assignments in university, and lately anything related to the businesses I’ve been starting.  Certainly nothing for pleasure.

I maintain a journal, but entries in that are few and far between, and certainly not my best writing.

I don’t read as much as I would like, but what I do currently read tends to be blog posts, or articles written by individuals who originally wrote them as blog posts.  I’m a huge fan of Pocket, and use a few other services as well, including Feedly, Medium and Instapaper.

I read all sorts of things, but most are focused on entrepreneurship, productivity, travel, science, engineering and design, and often a combination of all of the above (digital nomads anyone?).

What I’ve certainly missed, and wish I had in university, was someone writing about what it’s like to become an entrepreneur, with no previous experience.  Most people tend to write about that phase of entrepreneurship after they’ve become successful.  While that definitely offers value (hindsight is 20/20), I’m hoping to bring a different perspective.

While entrepreneurship will be the focus, I’ll be writing about all sorts of related topics which I find interesting – productivity, travel, sports, health, fitness, and whatever else on which I think I have something valuable to say.

I’m open to suggestions as well, so let me know if you’re interested in hearing from me on a particular topic.

I hope you enjoy reading, and that the blog brings you value.