By Christine Wong
The tour is over but the journey is just getting started for Startup Canada.
At least, that’s what I’m hoping.
Startup Canada has accomplished a mindboggling milestone by visiting 36 cities in 10 provinces to host countless entrepreneurship events that drew 20,000 people from coast to coast over a six-month period. And this from a non-profit organization made up entirely of volunteers. Kudos.
Founder and executive director Victoria Lennox is certainly focused on keeping the momentum going and the ball rolling even though the whistle stop tour has finally come to a halt. She hosted conference calls with the group’s major partners (including yours truly, full disclosure) yesterday to debrief them on how things went and what’s next. Admirably never one to sit idle, Lennox is now focused on pulling together a set of recommendations based on what was learned during the tour, then releasing them publicly at the end of November.
Lennox is strategically referring to these recommendations as “actionable,” signaling her intention to ensure the whole tour results in actual change and action, not just a lot of frequent flyer miles and publicity.
Will Startup Canada amount to more than the latter? I hope so. But there will be some challenges to carefully navigate in getting there.
For one, it’s easy to get lost amid all the hype and headlines around startups right now. Seriously. Yes, there is so much buzz and coverage about startups now, and so many accelerators, incubators, events and networks have sprung forth that Startup Canada will have to compete with all of that noise to make its voice heard among the cacophony.
Next, there’s the danger that the surge in startup coverage may wear thin. Some could (and do) argue that Barack Obama jumped on the Startup America and crowdfunding bandwagon last year simply to gain another notch in his re-election campaign belt. But nary a word about startups or crowdfunding has been heard in the final months before the vote.
Now that equity crowdfunding has been legalized in the U.S., we’re all waiting for the Securities and Exchange Commission to issue its final enforcement parameters before startups can actually begin raising equity stakes online. The wait to legalize this in Canada could take even longer since it must be done on a province by province basis. The startup craze may lose some of its steam during this waiting game.
“B” is for bureaucracy
Finally, there’s everyone’s favourite stumbling block, Bureaucracy. If you think crisscrossing this massive country from one end to the other is a daunting logistical challenge, try weaving through the various levels of government. Just how much of a maze is it? In June, just a week after the feds asked for public input on how to allocate the $400 million it set aside for new VC funding in the budget, a survey found that just two per cent of Canadian SMBs were influenced to start their own businesses due to government incentives. The culprit? Confusion and lack of knowledge about which government programs are out there and how to tap into them. I guess ‘build it and they will come’ isn’t always a sure thing after all.
So that’s what Startup Canada is up against. Yet I remain hopeful. There’s a lot Startup Canada has going for it. One is leadership, including Lennox and a seasoned set of management and advisory boards she’s pulled together. They’ve actually walked the walk in the real world of entrepreneurship. Then there’s the social media community that has grown and now binds the startup scene together in this country, regardless of mainstream media coverage or political discourse dominating the headlines. It connects the Canadian startup scene, informs its members, and keeps them all going, both individually and collectively.
I do hope Startup Canada’s actionable recommendations will result in action rather than gather dust. I have no doubt the startup community will keep pushing for action. But the willingness of various levels of government (who are by no means the ultimate keepers of the keys to startup success but must play a crucial role) remains up in the air. Like starting a business, the odds of multiple levels of government coming together on this are a crapshoot.
No one can control that. The chances of change actually happening aren’t bad, though. I saw it with my own eyes when Stephen Harper stepped up to the plate and endorsed Startup Canada once the ball got rolling. He was late to the party. But at least he showed up. The ball is now rolling ever closer towards his court.