in Startups

If you want to change the ecosystem you need to build an amazing startup

At Founders and Funders this week we took some time to interview Dan Debow. It was a bit of a love-in I admit but that is just because I really love how much passion Dan has for helping those around him. He has made a big difference in a lot of people’s lives. I’ve benefitted from it and so have dozens of others in the Canadian startup community.

One thing that Dan said really struck me. A little context might help though.

A lot of folks have been working hard to build a startup ecosystem in Toronto. For over half a decade guys like Dan have been pouring energy in to helping anyone with an idea and a glimmer in their eye to start a startup. There are of course formal organizations that do this on behalf of the government, but the fact is that making Toronto a viable city for startups has been a mostly clandestine movement. People working on the fringes to do what they believe in.

Sometimes you hear complaints about the ecosystem. Whether it is Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver or Halifax you can find complainers.

How can we fix the local ecosystem?

Dan said it best this week and he was clearly passionate about it: You can’t fix your ecosystem. Just get out there and build something great. More accurately he said:


That’s your job. Your only job. Get out there and build something great.

You can stop being shy, coy and tepid about it. Everyone around you wants you to do something great. They just want you to step up a little and say you are going to do it.

I want you to do something great. I want you to put a ding in the fucking universe.

Take your vision and make it even hairier, bolder and broader. Take your product and get obsessed with it. Change the world for people around you and every single one of us will step in line and push behind you.

Dan did it and this week we got to shine the spotlight on him a bit. There are hundreds of folks out there pushing to do it. Stop worrying about the community. Go big and the community will be right there behind you.

The next time we plan a Founders and Funders I want it to be you that’s up there telling your story.

You can be next. JFDI


  1. I have fought with this for years. Back in 2005-2006, @suthakamal:disqus and i tried to take Ambient Vector/Nakama to the next level. And I felt called back to do “community development” which distracted from the corporate development. I was also incented at Microsoft to help grow and develop the local software economy/ecosystem. It was for the benefit of startups and early stage developers building on the Microsoft platform. Again this was about building community instead of building a company.

    I’m happy to hear successful entrepreneurs like @dossip:twitter @ddebow:twitter and @jevon:twitter explicitly summarizing what I have come to realize. You want to make this ecosystem successful, go build a successful company that attracts funding, customers, acquirers, etc. And the rest will follow. Be an entrepreneur and focus on your company. Build something great!

  2. Legendary quote, I love it.

    This accurately captures the way entrepreneurs can make the biggest impact.

    Curious – what’s people’s views on the VC side? Should VC’s focus 99% of their energy on direct value add to their portfolio companies (and looking at new companies to add to their portfolio) or should they be spending a decent amount of time doing ecosystem building activities – speaking, blogging, press etc etc? You can make the argument that these activities build profile and, thus, help with deal flow. But at the end of the day nothing should attract prospective entrepreneurs to a VC firm more than a huge success story in their portfolio that said VC had a meaningful impact in growing… 

  3. Right on the nose @rchabra – nothing like success to breed success! RE: @startupnorth Legendary quote, I love it. This accurately captures the way entrepreneurs can make the biggest im…

  4. I think some level of brand building is essential. I meet *many* entrepreneurs through my blog. So, spending time on that actually brings leverage to me, ironically allowing me to spend more time with companies. But the lion’s share of our time should be working with companies – especially for us at the seed stage. 

  5. I have worked with a few startup CEOs who deliberately did NO ecosystem development. They went to startup drinks to recruit. If they did anything it was because it was directly beneficial to their startup and its immediate needs. And guess what: small sample size but each of these CEOs sold their startup for big gains. Just sayin…

  6. Yup. It’s hard to do both. You have to “make it work for you”. That said a lot of the same type of startup CEO are the first people to step up behind the scenes to sponsor, attract a speaker, or encourage an event. The front-lines community stuff is exhausting. 

    We try to encourage busy startup CEOs to see Startupnorth as a channel or tool to help themselves. We know it works because we have seen that if we can get that type of individual in front of the community in any way, then it helps. We try to remove some of that friction.

  7. We have always wanted to create a system/community that would attract the best funders by giving them something of value. Ie: You support a democamp, encourage companies to present, and then actually show up and meet some founders. We hope that out of that you get higher quality/volume of dealflow. 

    It hasen’t always worked,. but sometimes it does. We’ve always tried to create an environment where everyone is free to be completely selfish and in a weird twist that has usually resulted in more focus on, and giving back to, the community.

  8. Dan’s comment has sparked a good debate to be had. I think we all have to do some ecosystem development (both VCs and entrepreneurs) if only just to get out there and encourage new entrepreneurs to start companies. Big company exits will of course do this type of encouragement but those can take years to build and we need to keep the encouragement going in between particularly in the down years. At the end of the day however, everyone’s primary focus needs to be on direct value add to their startup or portfolio of startups.

  9. I agree that building great startups supports the ecosystem but at the same time the ecosystem thrives when there’s a collective movement. One of the things that I find encouraging about Toronto’s startup ecosystem is how generous people are with their time and how supportive they are about other people’s efforts. 


  10. Very good points throughout, and one does get a lot of respect by building a company and making things happen, but that doesn’t automatically translate necessarily into a better local ecosystem. Dan has chosen to re-channel his energy back into the ecosystem, and that’s great. But we still need more of that kind of boomerang value to happen naturally. We should all be giving as much as we take from the ecosystem.

    The one thing that we have total control on is the community itself and how it works together. On-the-ground events are as important as behind-the-scenes activities, and it should happen naturally, and it should happen more often. 

    Translation: Let’s not wait another 2 years for an F&F, and let’s get these DemoCamps back to a regular tempo, and let’s get the media to write powerful stories about the startups that are sweating it and making it.

  11. Good point re: Boomerang value. There are so many folks I have met over the years who actually did really well in the late 90s and early 2000s but who just kind of went away. In terms of web startups I feel that folks like David Ossip, Ken Knickerson and others were some of the first to really stay involved and contributing in a big way. 

    Hopefully there is a better framework now that will make it easier for people to stay involved and to be that boomerang.

  12. You are right. We talk about allowing people to be selfish and to have their own motivations, but at the end of the day sometimes we do really need people who are willing to give a little just because it “feels right”. 

    I think you’ve been that guy many times Mark, and hopefully you get to be a little selfish sometimes too. Give and take. 

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