GTA Startups need more Radical Generosity

Thanks to a new generation of successful founders, people like Ariel Garten of Toronto-based InteraXon, there’s a change in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) startup community. There’s a new sense of optimism. A sense that it’s a real option to choose to scale your business in the GTA without moving away to the Bay Area.

Garten told a full house at the Toronto Startup Grind meeting in February that the GTA has come a long way since 2007. That’s when she and co-founders Chris Aimone and Trevor Coleman launched InteraXon. It’s now one of the top three companies in the world making hardware for the billion-dollar meditation market.

While Garten has seen big changes in the GTA startup ecosystem since then – in good directions – she believes we still have work to do. On the positive side, albino giraffes were once more common than female CEOs of tech startups. Now a female CEO is a highly desirable attribute.

Being Canadian is also now an attribute, not a detriment. Garten says “Silicon Valley is now looking north of the border thinking ‘there’s tons of deal flow up there. There’s amazing entrepreneurs. You guys get SR&ED credits. There’s amazing engineers and developers. Incredible schools. We want some of that.’”

What needs to change? Culture. In the GTA startup ecosystem, there’s a lack of generosity.

From mentors she met in Boston and the Bay Area, Garten learned “the radical generosity that makes ecosystems work. The radical generosity of supporting those around you so you can all be elevated together. It’s a habit I’ve taken up and try to do here. We’re not quite as good at it here but I think we could be.

”Whenever somebody needs something and it’s yours to give, you give it. Whether you think they’re a competitor or not. All your businesses are going to change so much over the course of the ebb and flow. Somebody who was a competitor one day will be your best buddy tomorrow. So rather, look at all (as) shared resources and elevate.”

Radical generosity extends to investors who show respect to founders. When Garton went to the Valley to pitch she was startled by the enthusiasm of VCs. “Everybody said ‘what you do is amazing, how can I help?’” And then the VCs sent emails to their competitors. Imagine giving a potential hot deal to your competitor? But that’s what happened. The VCs introduced Garten to their competitors and suggested that they meet with her to learn more about her hot startup. This kind of word of mouth buzz is an absolutely critical part of raising money.

The interesting thing is that we have a made-in-Canada model of radical generosity right here already.

Have a look at Waterloo, Ontario. The community has institutionalized radical generosity in the structure and operations of Communitech. Every company that succeeds is expected to mentor the founders of next-generation startups. Is it radical generosity exactly as practiced in the Bay Area? No – it’s a unique Canadian expression. And this notion of helping those who come after you is a key element in Waterloo’s rise to a leading position on the world stage.

Could Waterloo’s approach to radical generosity take hold throughout the GTA? Do we dare?

Geoff Foulds
Geoff Foulds
What fascinates me are the edges. And nowhere are the edges edgier… the stakes higher… than startups. There are plenty of sources of friction, compression and tension among founders and financiers, engineers and marketeers. How do you mesh all the edges so they transmit power even when loads are heavy? That’s what I write about.

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