The best time to start a business

By Francis Moran

To hear many of the speakers at last week’s International Startup Festival in Montréal tell it, there has rarely been as good a time as the present to start a new business. “Now is awesome,” said technology industry watcher Chris Shipley. “Resources for startups are raining down.” Dave McLure of 500 Startups agreed; resources are cheap and plentiful, he said.

This is not to say that either of these speakers believed that launching a startup would be a walk in the park. The tension and worry associated with doing so means that “Tums become a snack food,” Shipley said, while McLure, in trademark fashion, opened his remarks by saying to anyone present who wanted to be an entrepreneur, “You fucking idiots.”

Shipley went on to lament a new phenomenon, something she called “the startup industrial complex,” that sees exploitative individuals try to take advantage of the current enthusiasm for startups by “shoving programmers and Ramen noodles into a machine.”

McLure, for his part, cautioned that “you can’t build a brand around indifference,” that entrepreneurs must foster either love or hate for their product. “Both are good signals,” he said. And to help illustrate what he meant by expressing profound passion, he got the whole crowd to flip the bird at each. “Try that on the streets of Montréal tonight.”

Parenthetically, the one-two line-up of Shipley and McLure was an echo from last year’s inaugural Startup Festival where both also addressed the opening session. While both are passionate and inspirational entrepreneurs with sharp perspective, it is safe to say that the contrast between their personal styles could not be more acute. Shipley is calm, erudite and cerebral; McLure is loud, profane and immensely funny.

I was expecting an amazing two days of excellent speakers, promising startup pitches and tonnes of interesting conversation from Startup Festival and I was not disappointed. Some highlights:

  • Sean Ellis of user-feedback analytics firm CatchFree gave some fundamental lessons in how to solicit and evaluate customer feedback. One of the most useful questions to ask is, “How would you feel if you could no longer use this product?” If more than 40 percent of respondents say “very disappointed,” you may have a promising product.
  • Technology is still an adolescent. And just like teenagers don’t know the rules, we are still learning how to adjust to tech, said Deborah Schultz, who introduced me to her concept of “tummeler,” a catalyst for more human interaction.
  • Dan Bricklin, whose VisiCalc was one of the world’s first spreadsheet programs, said, “Innovation that lasts is taking place everywhere and all the time.” He also said a startup is solitary and self-propelled, like riding a bike, not like taking a limo. ”If you decide to ride a (startup) bike, ride it somewhere that matters.”
  • Serial entrepreneur Jamie Siminoff cautioned, “We’re building a lot of companies that are just a facade,” adding that you must be certain your customers care about what you’re doing.
  • One of my favourite marketers, Ottawa’s own April Dunford, made the case — something we plump for regularly on this blog — that marketing needs to be a systematic, planned and measured process. “Random acts of marketing are killing your startup,” she said.
  • In a similar vein, Mitch Joel of Twist Image said, “You need to understand that almost everything you do is marketing.” He encouraged entrepreneurs to forge direct relationships with customers so they can close the “f’ing impossible” chasm between having a business idea and making it happen.
  • Twilio‘s Rob Spectre highlighted some of the dangers of outsourcing and of distributed teams. The number of bugs in your application is directly proportional to the physical distance between your quality assurance team and your developers, he said.
  • And Lane Becker made the case for “controlled sloppiness.” Some of our greatest innovations came about from being messy, he said.

There were many other great speakers and worthy bons mot that, given the two-stream approach of the conference, I very much wanted to hear but did not.

Organiser Phil Telio, who closed last year’s version saying he wasn’t sure he was going to do it again, told this year’s crowd that he had no similar doubt there would be a third edition next year. In a brief interview after the festival that was constantly interrupted by well wishers, Philio told me his main highlight was “for sure, the people.” He expressed relief that a series of about a dozen themed tents outside the cruise ship terminal in which the festival was held were so well attended.

“It was a little bit of a risk we took,” he said. “We had no idea if people would be interested in hanging out in the tents. They were sitting in the sun; it was pretty hot out there in Montréal this week. But the number of people that were gravitating around the different themes was absolutely fabulous.”

Francis Moran
Francis Moran
Francis Moran is principal of Francis Moran & Associates, a consultancy that provides business-to-business technology ventures with the strategic counsel required to make their innovations successful in a highly competitive marketplace. Francis can be reached at [email protected].

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