Chris Shipley, consistently one of the more thoughtful speakers at International Startup Festival, implored entrepreneurs to do something worthwhile rather than trivial. (Image: Francis Moran).
Chris Shipley, consistently one of the more thoughtful speakers at International Startup Festival, implored entrepreneurs to do something worthwhile rather than trivial. (Image: Francis Moran).

I go to a lot of events for startups and entrepreneurs, including, for the fourth year running, the International Startup Festival. It took place in Montreal a few weeks ago and is consistently one of my favourite startup happenings.

There are a lot of reasons I enjoy the Startup Festival so much. I meet up with a lot of friends and colleagues that I might not see many other places throughout the year. It’s Montreal, on the St. Lawrence River waterfront, in the summer – what’s not to like? (It’s really a three-day summer camp for startup nerds.)

The companies selected to pitch are generally of the highest calibre, and I love hearing from young companies with great new ideas.

It’s a phenomenal source of content for my Twitter feed. (I can boast that I have been on the top 10 most active tweeters list at every Startup Festival, but frankly that has little to do with my fast thumbs and everything to do with the quality of what I’m hearing.)

Most of all, though, Startup Festival and its organizers present some of the best content available anywhere, and this year was no exception. In fact, although festival impresario Phil Telio insisted — and I believe him — that it was just a continuation of his team’s usual efforts, I thought this year’s lineup of speakers and topics genuinely elevated the conversation around startups and entrepreneurship to a degree I have not seen before.

And, more to the point, it elevated the conversation to a level that is as sorely required as it is generally lacking at events of this sort.

Sure, there were all the usual workaday sessions on building teams, accelerating growth, pitching VCs, term sheets, exits, valuations and all the other mechanics of starting and succeeding with a new venture. A large number of the speakers, however, made the point that there needs to be more to this startup and entrepreneurship thing than simply chasing business objectives and profitable exits. And I couldn’t agree more.

I think Chris Shipley came closest to summarizing what I felt was the zeitgeist of this year’s festival. Shipley, who has been a standard feature of all four Startup Festivals so far and is consistently one of the more thoughtful of its speakers, was open and honest — dare I say vulnerable? — when she told us she thinks Silicon Valley “isn’t an ecosystem, it’s a religion,” and that she isn’t much of a believer any more.

Now, Shipley is no Johnny-come-lately to either startups or the valley. She was executive producer of the groundbreaking DEMO conference for more than a dozen years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a position that gives her privileged insight into how the Valley operates. It was when she was reading what she called “the nth business plan for the Airbnb of something” that she threw up her hands and started to ask herself serious questions about what she was doing and whether she could continue at it.

Succeeding at any kind of entrepreneurial venture is extraordinarily difficult, Shipley said, adding that she has lost her appetite for working with teams addressing the trivial rather than the genuinely worthwhile. “I was not going to spend my life working with kids whose objective was (no greater than) to get bought by Google,” she said.

The grandmothers' tent is always one of the most popular destinations for entrepreneurs at the International Startup Festival. Based on the premise that your investment pitch should be straightforward enough that your grandmother could understand it, entrepreneurs vie to persuade the panel of grandmothers that their idea is the best they'll hear.
The grandmothers’ tent is always one of the most popular destinations for entrepreneurs at the International Startup Festival. Based on the premise that your investment pitch should be straightforward enough that your grandmother could understand it, entrepreneurs vie to persuade the panel of grandmothers that their idea is the best they’ll hear. (Image: Francis Moran)

The idea that entrepreneurs should strive to accomplish something socially redeeming as well as financially profitable was also raised by Matthew Bishop, New York bureau chief for The Economist who advocates for something he calls “philanthrocapitalism.” Entrepreneurs and the investors who back them need to focus more on innovations that can have a huge impact on the lives and wellbeing of as many people as possible. Such impact investing “is not about philanthropy,” he said. It’s about accessing profit-driven capital to achieve the scale necessary to have a real impact.

The best news, Bishop said, for entrepreneurs who want to embed a social mission in their startup is that the opportunities are massive.

The theme of this year’s festival was startups and the city, and the first speaker was Colin Harrison who, after a distinguished career working at places like CERN, EMI Central Research Laboratories and IBM Corp., now spends much of his time thinking and writing about how to make cities more resilient.

Cities just might be the greatest of human innovations, Harrison said. They require less infrastructure and generate greater GDP relative to their population. And even when the move is to the slums of Nairobi, people move to cities to improve their lives. Cities work so well because people “bump into each other. And those bumps create innovation,” both good and bad, he said.

“But we have a problem,” he cautioned; cities are becoming unsustainable. “Implicitly, we are assuming we will innovate our ways out of this problem” but there is no guarantee of that. In fact, he suggested, the steadily declining number of inventions over the past four decades suggests that the “wave of innovation that transformed the world over the past century (may have) fizzled out.”

His challenge to his audience? “Ladies and gentlemen of the Startup community…we have work to do!”

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