An Apology to Laura Fitton

Last week, I hosted GrowTalks in Toronto, a conference for entrepreneurs focused on metrics, marketing and growth. The conference brought an amazing set of speakers to Toronto. And personally I was excited to finally get a chance to hang out with Brant Cooper, someone I have been connected to digitally, but until last week had never met in person.

Then something happened after the conference, that put Toronto, our community and our values as Canadians in a very negative light. I am hoping that there is lesson, perhaps a “teachable moment“, around treating folks with respect and what we should do when we mess up.

Laura was wearing a dress with her company’s logo on it when she gave her talk. This exchange happened on Twitter:


My goal is not to vilify the individual but to highlight the subtle interactions that often happen in the community that can make it more closed and less approachable (this is not the first time we’ve had a similar conversation). The goal isn’t to ostracize or vilify the individual, so please don’t start a witch hunt.

I know this interaction does not represent what my Toronto startup community is all about. My community is generally respectful of people. I believe we are great hosts when folks from out of town visit to share their time, expertise and insight with us. My community understands people like Laura and Brant are rare and valuable and have a choice in how they invest their time and when they choose to invest it in us, we’re grateful.

But I also believe a community is defined by how it reacts when folks do things that fall outside of what the community defines as acceptable. After seeing this interaction I worried that unless someone from Toronto made it clear that this isn’t what we’re about, our public silence would be seen as a statement that we think it’s OK to be disrespectful to conference speakers (or heck, anyone, for that matter). I’d like Laura (and anyone else watching from the sidelines) to understand that we noticed, and we are appalled.

Which brings me to the second part of this teachable moment. None of us are perfect. I personally have a colorful history of amazing screw-ups. Miraculously, people forgive me. I think they forgive me because I let them know I’m not TRYING to be a jerk, but sometimes I hurt people anyway and if given the chance I will try hard not to do it again. They forgive me because I’m trying to be better.

If you were the Tweeter in this particular incident there are things you could do to avoid the inevitable backlash caused by your poor behavior.  You could delete the Tweet. You could change your Twitter handle. You could remove your photo. But that doesn’t really convince anyone that you weren’t trying to be hurtful and it certainly doesn’t make Laura feel better. Apologizing does.

In the future I hope we treat our speakers with more respect and if we blow it, we have the good sense to say we’re sorry and try better next time.

The only model that matters: Founders First

Screen Shot 2013-02-22 at 8.55.58 AMThere are a lot of models that people throw around for how to build a strong startup community. There are a handful of types of players in each community, so there are many permutations of “who gets what” and how resources are moved around.

It gets complicated, fast.

So there is a model that I subscribe to. It can be a little myopic, it can be a little bit pigheaded, but it is always effective. It is the one metric that matters for startup communities and it is why we back the things we back and why we take exception to the things we do.

In Halifax there has been a recent discussion about a local angel group and their funding model, which we do not believe is founder friendly. Hopefully this post will clarify for some people as to why we see things in such a black and white contrast.

There is a litmus test that can get to the heart of many issues:

  • Does this help founders create more companies?
  • Does this help founders build better companies?

You need a Yes on either one of those, otherwise the effort isn’t worth it.

OK, there are more than just founders in the ecosystem, I know. The truth is however that Founders are the only ones who rely on everyone else in the ecosystem to be successful. Nobody else is so ecosystem dependant. Service providers can always find work elsewhere, investors can always squirrel their money in to safer places.

It is founders and founders only are the assemblers, allocators and creators of resources that make successful startups. It is those successful startups which are the only things that demonstrate the success of the community.

In early 2008 we started talking about how Startups Will Save Venture Capital in Canada. I believe that post and the thesis behind it has stood the test of time:

My thesis is simple: Startups just aren’t getting started in Canada nearly as often as they should. This isn’t about education levels, creativity or even for a lack of cash floating around this country. This is about ambition.

This is about hustle.

Most entrepreneurs have heard that things aren’t great for VCs right now. LPs are shaky, some funds are crashing, others are just throwing their hands up, and for a lot of startups it seems like no matter how many people you pitch, you aren’t getting anywhere. I tried to put some hard number behind that, and they paint a scary picture.

This goes two ways, and nobody wants to sit around while we all whine and moan that nobody can get funded. It’s time to build companies that are worth something.

We need to focus on building our local startup communities more than ever. Local communities are important because they are far easier for local Angels and Entrepreneurs to connect to, and they also act as a great filter to help find people who need national and international exposure.

(Read the rest . . .)

David Crow started this thinking in 2005/2006 when he built the thesis that Community is the framework. That approach has brought incredible success to many startup communities. Founders are the anchor of community. Every year or so we publish the Hot Shit List and we focus on profiling founders who are taking pushing our communities to the next level.

In an community it is the ability of founders to succeed through diligence, hard work and creative thinking that determines success. All encumbrances to founder success must be removed to achieve a sustainable model for growth.

There is no half way, there is no “maybe” there is no “but…” there are just founders. Founders who are picking investors, lawyers, accountants, marketers, developers, product managers, customers and markets. It is founders who develop vision and create early product.

It is only the founders who are tracking their cash, calculating runway and determining what is going to make their startup successful.

So the next time someone tells you that anyone or anything matters then tell them that you will not water down a founders-first approach. Not because someone else needs a little something, not for any reason.

Remember the great founders you know who have struggled against all odds to build incredible companies. Forget the rest and focus on what matters.

If not an Angel Network, then what?

back black swan shotDavid posted a pretty in-depth piece on the First Angel Network this week. This followed an awesome discussion on TechVibes about angel groups over the weekend. The structure and funding model for First Angel Network were a pretty big surprise to me when I moved to Halifax 3 years ago.

Frankly it is pretty easy for us to write a post like David’s because the facts really speak for themselves: Millions of dollars from government sources are flowing in to finance what appears to be the exclusive personal gain of two individuals.

$3000 + 8% is just not acceptable and what makes it even worse is that the 8% does not contribute to the growth or sustainability of the angel group in any way. ACOA and other agencies are the ones paying to maintain the group while the cream is skimmed off the top.

My guess is that the First Angel Network will tell you that their model is normal and that it is on par with what is happening elsewhere. Simply put: it isn’t. It is artificially sustained, it is egregious and the model needs to be wiped out.

Shortly after David’s post went live I had a call with one of the most active angel investors in Atlantic Canada. He’s someone I admire and who always seems to be a step or two ahead of my own thinking. When he speaks I try to listen (which means I have to stop talking. . .).

He doesn’t have much love for a model which skims off the top either, but he’s pragmatic too.

His question to me was: If not First Angel Network, then how do we keep money moving?

Angel groups are not an easy thing: There are large groups of willing but relatively unsophisticated investors out there. They have to be marketed to, rounded up, fed a decent meal (usually) and encouraged to focus while a startup pitches to them for an hour or so total. Not easy and it certainly doesn’t have obvious economics for the organizer. It is a tough model no matter which way you slice it. The question is valid and it is something we need to think about a lot.

The world of tech startups is, or should be at least, different in many ways however. I believe it HAS to be different.

Sophisticated tech angel investors are accessible and they are ready to do deals almost anywhere. Value-add investors will, by definition, be accessible to the network and available to look at deals. We have a significant opportunity here in Atlantic Canada as well because we have some of the best angels in the country living and working here.

The landscape is changing for seed investing in tech and I think we need to find new models which make more sense for a typical startup today.

  1. There are many individuals investing regularly in extremely early stage opportunities in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia
  2. There is far more information available to entrepreneurs about financing structures and models than there ever has been before
  3. 10s of Thousands of investors are accesible via AngelList and other sources
  4. The ecosystem is larger than just these few provinces– we are easily connected in to what is happening in other communities.
  5. Legal and other fees should be minimal. Startups should be able to get a round closed for $5k with a max of $10 for a complicated and priced round.
  6. Early stage capital IS flowing in this part of the country from more formal funds such as OMERS, Rho, Real, Version One Ventures and others.
  7. There is a new fund coming online here which will be leading deals and syndicating with outside investors.

Alternatives will emerge once there is a void to fill and I believe that capital will still flow to great opportunities, while we may have to watch some less awesome ones whither.

There is a loose syndicate of angels emerging in this part of the country and from what I have seen they are all extremely high quality. It is a group made up of exited founders, successful investors and quality operators. THAT is who should be seeing deals and they do far more than 4 deals a year– dozens are getting done.

In the end the challenge we have is not simply to tear down the old. The challenge is to take responsibility for building something that matters in the future and that will create more startups through a better model. I believe that First Angel Network’s model needs to change to become less predatory and more focused on creating value in the ecosystem, otherwise we need a new alternative to replace it.

That is our job here and that is what will really make a difference.

Right now we have the beginnings of an alternative:

These are all founder-friendly and accessible routes to getting access to early stage capital. None of them take 8%.

It’s not perfect, but we will get there.