Our newest sponsor: VMFarms

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It was at StartupDrinks or the StartupNorth Meetup when I was talking with Christopher and Hany at VMFarms about our hosting woes. StartupNorth.ca had been offline for about 24 hours, and we were in the dark as our previous hosting provider was trying to recover from a disk failure. Now we don’t have particularly complex hosting requirements, but one of the requirements is uptime. We’d like our services to be available to entrepreneurs 24x7x365. Mind you we’re not willing to pay for 99.999% uptime (learn more about high availability). I would have been ecstatic with “three nines” aka 99.9% or 8.76 hours of downtime per year. But we had failed to meet that requirement at we were approaching 99.5% uptime and without a foreseeable solution we could hit “two nines” (99% uptime) if something wasn’t done by us or the hosting provider.

We have been very lucky. We had been able to host StartupNorth.ca on a shared hosting solution that allows us to operate our WordPress installation, StartupNorth.ca, a custom Django application, StartupIndex.ca, and some custom development (stay tuned) built in PHP5 + MySQL + Apache2 for $20/month. Cheap if you compare it to what we could be paying. It worked for a long time but I was in the dark and I couldn’t see a light indicating there would be a path to salvation.

I had met Christopher and Hany a few months before. I personally love the business. In fact, I think I pitch Scott Pelton (@spelton) a similar idea back in the summer of 2010. With Christopher and Hany there is a core team of experienced developer operations and network operations professionals that have cut their chops deploying and supporting high availability leading edge web applications at Avid Life Media (PHP, Rails, Django, etc.). At StartupNorth, we are big proponents of supporting our local ecosystem. We use:

There was no reason other than cost that we should have our server applications hosted with a non-local provider.

I approached Christopher and Hany with a proposition. The should sponsor StartupNorth, the sponsorship is an in-kind sponsorship. They provide hosting and support on their infrastructure. We add their logo to StartupNorth web site and page footers, plus we give them the opportunity to write a few posts. The posts aren’t meant to be marketing fluff. I’ve ask the VM Farms team to talk about their real-world experiences including:

  • their experience using different cloud services;
  • network architecture and application hosting for advanced web & mobile applications (think application server, MongoDB or Hadoop clusters plus relational datastores);
  • when/how startups should evaluate the different performance vs cost trade-offs in advanced applications (there’s nothing wrong with choosing AWS but when should you look for alternatives)

We are incredibly picky about our sponsors. We are even more picky about the posts and authors we ask to join us. We take our reputation and the commentary we provide about the Canadian startup ecosystem very seriously. We’re hoping that we can help educate entrepreneurs about advanced network infrastructure decisions and the impact these decisions can have on costs, performance and growth. And with the team at VMFarms, we have some partners that are experienced and capable of providing a unique 3rd party view of AWS, Rackspace, GoGrid, Azure, Linode, etc. and traditional hosting environments.

We’ve been on VMFarms for about 30 days now. We have had 2 outages in those 30 days. Both outages have been my fault. Hany and Christopher have been on the ball and responsive to help me diagnose, identify and fix the issues.

  1. Upgrading WordPress 3.1 to 3.1.1 – the Unix user permissions and file access settings I configured on the web directory do not allow the FTP user to write to the web directory. WordPress automatic upgrade requires an FTP user (though we connect using FTP-SSL). I ssh’d to the server, wget the update and “tar -xvzf” to the wordpress directory. This overwrote the .htaccess file and broke the Apache rewrite rules. Resolution time: approximately 15 minutes (because I insisted on doing it myself).
  2. StartupNorth.ca unavailable on April 19, 2011 – turns out we let our DNS registration expire due to an expired credit card. It was identified by 2 users (thank you William and Scott (@scotthom). Hany debugged in about 15 seconds and it required Jevon (@jevon) to renew the DNS registration.

The team at VMFarms have been fantastic. They are helping StartupNorth immensely. I’m really looking forward to some additional discussion about developer operations in startups (should be interesting given my network infrastructure does not yet include VMFarms – we’re github, Heroku and AWS EC2 + S3).  I’m wondering what John Philip Green (@johnphilipgreen) uses at CommunityLend, Pete Forde (@peteforde) at BuzzData, Daniel Debow (@ddebow) at Rypple, David Ossip (@dossip) at Dayforce, Chris Sukornyk (@sukornyk) uses at Chango, and Mike McDerment (@MikeMcDerment) at FreshBooks use to host their different application layers.

Because Startups Need Each Other

“Because startup entrepreneurs need each other.”

The Philly Startup Leaders have published a manifesto for startups. The manifesto embraces the call for community. It reminds me of the passionate call that Jevon led with "How Startups will save Venture Capital in Canada” and “I love my city, and so should you”. It is about enabling entrepreneurs! And more importantly, it is about the realization that we are a community, we need to support each other.

Starting a company can be a long and lonely journey.

Each milestone is a small miracle—from idea to prototype, from first employee to first customer, from first revenues to first profits and eventually to a thriving, successful business.  Most startups fail along the way.

To survive this journey, startup entrepreneurs need many things. They need access to funding and talent.  They need support from their government and their community.  They need opportunities to educate themselves and their team.

But more than anything else, startup entrepreneurs need each other.

Toronto, Waterloo, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Calgary, Halifax. We’re all very lucky. We have growing, thriving communities of entrepreneurs. We’re connected to each other. It is our responsibility to help each other. To make the connections. To build the fabric. To call bullshit. To build the next great thing.

This is beyond just casual connections. We have a lot of disparate resources and individuals. I’m not suggesting that we need “one ring to rule them all” but that we need to do a better job helping entrepreneurs connect with each other. And this will requires a personal commitment to an open, creative community and conversation. We need to build something like the PSL Values.

Philly Startup Leaders Values

  1. We know our niche: startup entrepreneurs.
    Our focus is our advantage.
  2. We are a community.
    Starting a company alone is painful.  Along the way, our greatest need is the company and support of entrepreneurs like ourselves.
  3. Our community depends on deep, open and frequent communication.
    This kind of communication is essential for our members to get to know and trust each other.  As an organization, we earn the trust and loyalty of our members by communicating with them in the same way.
  4. We believe in lean and flexible leadership.
    Bureaucracy and hierarchy tend to stifle entrepreneurs.
  5. We don’t replicate other organizations and events in our ecosystem.
    Instead, we support other organizations by partnering.  We produce only unique and complementary content.
  6. We encourage entrepreneurship within our organization.
    Any member can champion a cause they believe in.  When they do, they have access to the same resources the leaders do.
  7. We believe that entrepreneurs of all experience levels should mentor one another.
    We have all had great teachers, and it’s our responsibility to give back to our community.  This includes our fellow entrepreneurs and those who ought to be.
  8. We love our city and our region.
    We walk the same streets as Benjamin Franklin, an entrepreneur whose inventions and institutions have survived for generations.  We are inspired by our history and proud to be writing its next chapter.

What can I do?

  1. Participate.
    This is the very first step. Blog. Tweet. Comment on posts. Share links. Attend events. There are lot of events designed to help entrepreneurs connect with other entrepreneurs and others in the community. In Toronto, check out the YouSayYeah Community Calendar. In Vancouver, check out the Bootup Labs Events page. In Montreal, check out TechEntreprise. Use social media to connect with others. The reason we started StartupNorth was to make it easier to find out about Canadian startups.
  2. Patronage.
    It might sound a little like protectionism, but it’s about supporting your community. What was the last product or service you purchased from a startup? From a local startup? If you work for an established company, you should be looking for tools, people, companies, products that give you a competitive edge. Look for vitamins or painkillers, remember this is not a charity activity (though it often feels like it). We are all looking for competitive advantages, and there are lots of startups with new solutions to problem. Look at StartupIndex to find new startups. If you’re a startup, and you want some additional coverage, drop us a note (but check out previous stories iLoveRewards, GigPark, make it easy for us to write a story about why people care). 
  3. Provide feedback.
    When you find a startup, an entrepreneur or a product that only sort of fits what you are looking for, share the information back with the company. Help them build a better product by giving them customer or potential customer feedback. What were the key features that were missing? What was wrong with the pricing model? Why won’t it work in your corporate IT infrastructure? This is valuable information that a lot of young startups need to gather to iterate and improve their offering.
  4. Celebrate failure.
    Did you take a job working for an established company because your startup failed? Share your stories about what worked, what you did wrong, what you’d do differently if you could do it again. How? See # 1. Hire a failed entrepreneur (I know I appreciate the opportunity provided by Microsoft Canada to be startup guy in Canada running BizSpark). We’re all in this together, it feels like I’ve been working with and for startups since the beginning of time. And if I’m lucky, I’ll be doing this for many years in the future. And I know I’ll have a few great stories about what I did wrong.

It’s up to all of us to celebrate the startup successes and failures in Canada. Personally, if you’re a startup I’d love to hear what you think StartupNorth should do to help you.  Please comments with your suggestions for stories formats, events, site improvements, etc.