Dog Yogurt or Why angel invest in Toronto

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[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Chris Maeda LinkedIn . Full disclosure, Chris as he mentions in the article, was an investor in Influitive, a company I co-founded. Chris is the CEO of Brick Street Software and an active angel investor. He’s looking for deal flow and we will be hosting a series of Founders & Funders in Toronto, Halifax, Vancouver and a few other cities to connect those that start high tech, high potential growth companies with those that fund them. Subscribe to Founders & Funder$ notification list for updates. If you’re looking to connect with Chris, my advice, is to reach out to him on AngelList, but hey, it worked for me and I’m a sucker for patterns.]

I’ve been an angel investor in Toronto since 2011.  Towards the end of the days, I traded my SOMA loft for a New Hampshire cottage, partly as a by-product of some public company M&A transactions.  I began investing with a New Hampshire angel group in the mid-aughts.  I like living in NH, but the deal flow you see there is quirky.  There weren’t very many software deals, and New Hampshire has a lot of trees and cows, so the angel group ended up looking at non-software deals, like online wood pellet distributors and dog yogurt manufacturers.  When I was hearing the dog yogurt pitch, I had a what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here moment of clarity and quit the angel group.

Then two things happened.  First, my company, Brick Street Software, decided to set up a customer support center in Toronto so I started coming to Toronto for business on a regular basis.  Second, Influitive was advertising a round on AngelList.  I met the Influitive founders (Mark Organ and David Crow) and, after verifying that they were not planning to enter the dairy products business [Ed. Note: I have a dairy allergy so I’m kind of anti-dairy], I invested in their pre-venture rounds and joined their board.  I recently invested in a second Toronto company and am working on a third.  I’m starting to see patterns for why Toronto is great place to invest.

  1. Activity, talent pool, and competition:
    As I tell my American friends, Toronto is the New York and Los Angeles of Canada.  So almost everything that happens, happens in Toronto.  I’m sure I just ticked off a bunch of people outside of the GTA, but this is reality when viewed from the US.  The software talent pool is pretty good; there are lots of startups but everyone complains about a shortage of capital.  So this forces Canadian entrepreneurs to have a bootstrap mentality and means that valuations are not outrageous.  The seed funding bubble has come to Canada but its not as gassy as the US.
  2. Lots of public money and assistance:
    the US does not have SR&ED credits, IRAP grants, refundable HST, or the network of publicly-funded innovation centers that you find in Ontario.  A Toronto company that I’ve invested in has probably raised as much money in grants as it has from investors.  This means the Canadian government is reducing my dilution and (hopefully) goosing my investment returns.  Thanks, guys.
  3. Corporate customers are nearby:
    Many of the large corporate buyers are headquartered in Toronto.  I rode along on a sales call to a large Canadian company.  I usually have to get on an airplane for something like this; in Toronto I can take a cab.   I can even take transit if I’m not in a hurry.
  4. Better for international business:
    There are a number of little things that make Canada a good place for an international business hub.  For a variety of reasons, Canadian employees are less expensive than Americans, and the NAFTA treaty makes it easy for Canadian companies to expand into the US with minimal US headcount.  You can have bank accounts in foreign currencies (e.g. US Dollars and Euros). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Canadian market is so small that startups have to plan for international expansion from day 1.

The Pending Talent Wars


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Did you know that accelerators are heading for a shake out? We’ve talked a lot incubators, accelerators and cyclotrons. And the proliferation of the accelerator model is generally positive, it started me thinking about a possibility for slightly different model. One that Kevin Swan posted an insightful comment on the talent shortage for Canadian startups. I don’t think I’m the first to propose this, but it starts to make sense. Incubators/accelerators don’t need to only hasten the formation, creation and ideation of companies. They are fertile grounds to accelerate people. And it’s not just incubators and accelerators, companies participate in HackDays to find talent.

Need proof?

Vuru acquired by Wave Accounting

Vuru founders Cameron Howieson and Yoseph West reached out to the Wave Accounting team for advice on building a free, web-based financial services tool. Over time, the two companies traded notes as Wave took on a an informal advisory role, and that led to a sense that Vuru’s talent and direction were something that would be well suited to the Wave Accounting mission. — Darrell Ethrington, Aug 21, 2012 in BetaKit

Vuru was a 2 cofounder team in the FounderFuel (full disclosure: I am mentor in FounderFuel and I now employed by Wave Accounting investor OMERS Ventures). They were building a “investment tracking tools aimed at managing personal finance, which is not something Wave currently offer[ed]”. It was a great fit, a team that had the entrepreneurial culture to make a difference at Wave and a product that filled a known product roadmap gap.

Algo Anyhere acquired by 500px

Ok, before Zach Aysan slaps me for being totally incorrect. AlgoAnywhere was not in an incubator or accelerator program. But they had raised a seed round and were building very interesting technology.

The 500px founders met Algo Anywhere at their Pixel Hack Day last year, and were impressed by what the team brought to the table. Algo Anywhere’s tech was originally intended to be sold on an SaaS basis, providing companies with the data crunching power of sophisticated recommendation algorithms, without the need for those to be developed in-house or hosted on a company’s own servers – Darrell Ethrington, July 9, 2012 in BetaKit

The interesting point here isn’t about incubators or accelerators. It’s about founders of early-stage companies looking for relationships and gaps in the market left by other players.

Pulpfingers acquired by 500px

It seems that 500px has been strategically acquiring companies. It looks like both Pulpfingers and Algo Anywhere were part of the PixelHackDay (see photo from TechCrunch). Which gives 500px access to see designers, developers working in their domain space. It’s a great way to round out the product roadmap, Pulpfingers was a iOS discovery application. And they aren’t alone. Hootsuite acquired Seesmic and Swift.

Built to Last versus Built to Flip

I’m not arguing that founders should be looking to build companies to flip. There is lots of conversation about building lasting value. I’m arguing that companies that have raised capital to scale are looking for alternative methods to acquire talent. Get access to the API, build a meaningful service, acquire shared customers and go forward, it’s Biz Dev 2.0 (as Caterina described back in 2006). What’s new to the game for Canada (well Canadian startups) is that for the first time since RIM we are starting to have web startups that are reaching scale and are able to acquire talent, teams and companies. The goal isn’t to look for a acqui-hire or a manquisition, but to look at where working with an existing company or API gives you immediate access to distribution or monetization that you might have to work harder to build on your own.

I’m betting that companies like Wave Accounting, 500px, Influitive, Hootsuite, Shopify,Freshbooks, Top Hat Monocle, WattpadUpverter, Chango, FixmoDesire2Learn, Lightspeed are all actively looking for teams that are building on their APIs or filling product gaps (it becomes a buy versus build decision).

If I was a developer or looking to get into an incubator program, I’d start looking at the hackathons and APIs that are aligned with my vision where I could accelerate customer adoption.


APIs and Developer Starting Points

Find an API (be it local or otherwise) that aligns with your vertical, figure out if you can solve one of your immediate challenges (like distribution and customer acquisition). Maybe strike up a conversation with the product teams at shop. But build something that delights customers and users! Go! Now!

Who has something built on one of the above APIs?