David Crow is probably the most recognizable face in the Toronto startup tech scene, and rightfully so. Without the effort he’s put into events like DemoCamp and other gatherings where techies, entrepreneurs, social media types and anyone else who wants to build “World 2.0”, we wouldn’t have anywhere near as active or as interesting a tech scene as we do (and not just in Toronto, but across Canada as well).
My current job at Microsoft, as well as the previous two, grew out of opportunities created by David’s hard work, either directly or indirectly. I suppose I owe him a couple of drinks!
David’s going to be in Vancouver from Monday, August 16th, through Friday, August 20th to attend the Grow Conference on Thursday and Friday, which is aimed at startup techies, entrepreneurs, idea people and investors. “If you’re a startup, an investor or a service provider in Canada,” wrote David, “you should be at this event.”
What do you get with WebsiteSpark? I put together a little graphic that explains it pretty quickly:
Visibility: By being showcased in the WebsiteSpark marketplace as well as through opportunities creating through The Empire’s marketing and business networking programs.
Support: You’ll get hooked up with an entire ecosystem of Microsoft support, network and hosting partners, and web developers and designers so you have a wide range of technical and business resources.
Tools: Full-on access to full versions of current Microsoft web tools and technologies, such as the goodies listed below:
What You Get
What It Is
Silverlight For building rich internet applications that can do multimedia, access data from the web and can also be run on the desktop.
Expression A suite of tools for building websites, user interfaces for Silverlight and desktop applications, making web and application graphics, encoding video and building prototype applications in a hurry. You get: – 1 user licence for Expression Studio – Up to 2 user licences for Expression Web
SQL Server Web Edition Microsoft’s database platform for data needs of all sizes, from the simplest web form to full-on enterprise applications. You get a 4-processor licence of SQL Server 2008 Web Edition.
Windows Server 2008 (and 2008 R2 when it becomes available) A server that’s both powerful and easy to maintain, featuring the IIS 7 web server and the Web Platform Installer, which makes it easy to install and upgrade popular web applications. You get a 4-processor licence of Windows Server 2008 (and for 2008 R2 when it comes out).
Visual Studio Professional The IDE (integrated development environment) that has it all. You get up to 3 user licences of Visual Studio Pro.
Are You Eligible to Join WebsiteSpark? Answer These 2 Questions.
If you can answer “yes” to the two questions below, you are!
Is your company a professional service firm whose primary business is providing Web development and design services for its clients?
Does your company have 10 or fewer people, including owners and employees?
Once you join WebsiteSpark, there’s a simple obligation: in order to continue participating in WebsiteSpark, you must deploy a new public, internet-accessible website developed using the tools and tech given to you by WebsiteSpark within 6 months of joining.
You can stay in WebsiteSpark for up to 3 years. On the first and second anniversary of your initial enrollment, you must update it – that is, confirm your company hasn’t gone public or its ownership hasn’t changed.
I Don’t Have a Fee-For-Service Web Shop, I Have a Startup. Can I Get in on This?
No, but we have a program for you – it’s called BizSpark.
I’m a Student and Have Limited Money, and It’s for Books and Beer. Can I Get in on This?
Dude, we have something just for you! It’s called DreamSpark.
How Do You Find Out More?
The details about the program are at the WebsiteSpark site. Check it out, and if it’s right for you, sign up!
At the end of 1992, when the marriages of her children, Prince Charles, Prince Andrew and Princess Anne all dissolved and Windsor Castle caught fire, Queen Elizabeth II alluded to the title of John Dryden’s poem Annus Mirabilis (“Year of Miracles”) and referred to the year as an annus horribilis(“horrible year”).
As H.R.H. the Queen of England riffed on Dryden’s coinage, so shall I riff upon hers. If I had to summarize the year between 2008 in a quick soundbite, I would use the pseudo-Latin coinage Annus Assrocketis, as in “Year of Assrockets”.
Assrockets and Opportunities
A little bit over a year ago, I wrote an article titled Assrockets and Opportunities explaining why I was leaving my job as Tucows’ Technical Evangelist, a relatively safe, secure and cushy job – one that its CEO Elliot Noss said “fit me like a glove” — for a startup in the rather iffy social software space.
I had been feeling a little bit restless for a little while, but that restlessness alone wasn’t enough to make me take the leap. Strangely enough, it took a video of a guy sticking a bottle rocket up his butt and an observation made by Charles Follymacher in the blog The War on Folly. Assrockets and Opportunities summarized how the video and Follymacher’s blog entry inspired me to change jobs.
As a quick refresher, here’s the video. Be advised that it may not be safe to view at your workplace, as it shows a young man’s bare bottom and a bottle rocket stick being inserted into said bottom. It also has a lot of crude vernacular that young men are wont to use. That being said, I still think it’s one of the funniest internet home videos of all time and it still makes me laugh out loud, even after hundreds of viewings:
Still the funniest video of all time.
In response to this video, Follymacher, a person of colour (I myself prefer the term “force of darkness” – it has a little more oomph) wrote a hilarious and insightful observation titled why White people rule this age. The relevant excerpts appear below:
…I’m once again reminded why White people rule the globe. It’s not a new idea, just feeling compelled to state it once more, this time without feeling: they run the world because they have a much (much) higher percentage of folk who will do absolutely *anything.* any bloody, assinine [sic] thing at all. if you can name it, guaranteed it will be tried, if it hasn’t been already.
it is out of these absolutely stark, raving, barking mad experiments that new discoveries are made, which in turn lead to a fresh new batch of shit to fuck with. new answers urge new questions and all that, right?
us colored peoples of the world tend to leave well enough alone a lot more, not much for forcing Mother Nature’s hand. our ancient sciences are lost. that’s our bad. who knew? we didn’t ask. and now it may be too late to churn up that kind of insatiable hunger for knowledge.
a lot of White folk die off in these quests to discover and experience the unknowns, large or wtf. but some small percentage do manage to live to tell the tale and, wherever possible, wreak [sic] the profits.
I read the article in mid-October of last year and decided that it was high time I stuck a rocket up my ass, at least in the figurative sense. I put out a few feelers into the local tech job market.
Soon after that, I ran across an announcement of an open position at a startup looking for Ruby on Rails developers. The salary offered was a good deal better than my then-current one, and the opportunity to get back to writing code was very tempting. In five weeks, I went from replying to the offer to my first day on the job, the Monday after American Thanksgiving 2007.
Since that time, I have had three jobs.
The First Job (November 2007 – March 2008)
The startup I left Tucows to join – I don’t even like mentioning their name; you can look it up in this blog’s archives if you really must know – was building a Facebook-like web app for fraternities and sororities (“So you’re telling me that it’s like Facebook, but for students,” Cory Doctorow would say much later).
It might’ve stood a chance if it had these three missing ingredients:
A business plan. The original plan was to make money by advertising. The sales guy came up with a much better plan – selling that app as a way for fraternity and sorority chapters to collect dues and charging them on a per-member basis — but it was too little, too late. It wouldn’t have hurt for the founder to have actually written down his business plan, even his lame-o first one.
A product plan. The app was the result of “wouldn’t it be neat if this existed?” pipe-dreaming, and there wasn’t much thought or research put into it after that.
A CEO who wasn’t just in love with the idea of running his own “Web 2.0” business and the associated trappings. He was hooked on the idea of creating office spaces with cool custom furniture like Joel Spolsky’s Bionic Office, “20% projects” like Google’s and “Hero Training”, in which we’d take a full day off work to do personal development. He also had some kind of fanatical belief in Ruby on Rails’ ability to solve any problem, from rapid development to world peace, curing cancer and fixing erectile dysfunction.
Truth be told, having missing ingredient number 3 might’ve given us missing ingredients number 1 and 2.
Click the montage to see the Flickr photoset.
Perhaps I’ll write about it at length someday, but for now a quick summary of what happened to this startup will have to suffice. They burned through money irresponsibly in many ways, including:
Renting office space in a pricey office building in a posh boutique district of town. We were located between the Mont Blanc and Ports International stores and across the street from the downtown Four Seasons.
Hiring an interior decorator to do a custom design of the office space, with custom furniture. I’d have kept the decent chairs, but we would’ve been just as productive with folding tables as we were with the custom desks.
Purchasing two large flat-screen TVs, neither of which were ever used for business purposes. They were pretty great for Wii and Xbox 360 games, though.
The ice sculpture and oyster shucker at the office-warming party. The party was black tie optional for some reason that still eludes me. At least they scaled down their ice sculpture purchase; they originally wanted the Chrysler Building, but settled for the less complex (and less expensive) company logo instead.
The ice sculpture at the office-warming party.
Alarmed at the company’s burn rate and lack of income, the source of the startup’s funding threatened to cut off the money. We were then informed by the CEO that unless we accelerated the schedule unreasonably, we’d all have to take a 20% pay cut. He went on vacation to Hawaii with his girlfriend a couple of days after that because he always went on vacation to Hawaii with his girlfriend at that time of year, crisis at his own company be damned.
While he was away, the entire senior developer team, of which I was part, started circulating their resumes and putting out the word that they were looking for new jobs. Within six weeks, the senior team had left the company. Within six months, the company had all but vanished. The website for the software no longer works, and the website for the company is now a single page showing the startup logo and nothing more.
My job at the startup, which had gone from dream to nightmare, lasted three months and a few days. The name of the startup still gets mentioned from time to time at local geek gatherings, sometimes as a cautionary tale, sometimes as a joke.
The Second Job (March 2008 – September 2008)
While searching around for jobs, I noticed that b5media was looking for a technical project manager. “b5”, as they’re often called, is a local startup success story, having grown from a small core of five bloggers and an office in Mark Evans’ garage to a network of over 300 blogs. I also knew that they’d landed funding thanks to meeting VC Rick Segal at DemoCamp, a semi-regular “show and tell” event for the Toronto tech community that I help host.
I showed up at b5media for an interview at 11:00 a.m. on one cold day in February, expecting a one-hour interview. It turned into a seven-hour series of multiple interviews with various people at the company, mostly testing me for how well I fit in with the office’s culture. I pretty much landed the job that day, and a couple of weeks later, I had my first day on the job, which involved flying down to Austin, Texas to attend the South by Southwest Interactive Festival for a week. I’d have to say that it was the best first week on the job I’ve ever had.
Regular readers of this blog know what happened in the end: changes in the market and at the company left me with nearly nothing to do, and they let me go…on the day of my wedding anniversary (they didn’t know that, but their timing still left something to be desired). I hold no ill will towards them; paying me to warm a chair does neither b5 nor me any good. It was the right thing to do, and they treated me quite well during the process.
Still, I felt like this:
The Job Search
I decided to treat my getting laid off as an opportunity in disguise, a chance to explore all my options and do a little long-term career planning. At the same time, watching my old schoolmate Ali Velshi on CNN talking about the credit crunch and dealing with a worried wife meant that I should try to secure some income as quickly as I could.
I had one big thing working in my favour: nearly seven years’ worth of tech evangelism and seven years’ worth of blogging meant that I had a lot of what VC Howard Lindzon calls “social capital” in the bank. I did not have to go looking for job openings; they came looking for me. A number of people called, emailed, instant-messaged and tweeted me, asking if I’d be interested in working for their company and if I could make some time to meet them for an interview. The jobs ran the gamut from doing some development for an adult entertainment site to doing tech evangelism for some pretty high-profile companies. I did interviews with just about everyone who called me, which meant that I was actually busier as an unemployed man that I was during my last weeks at b5.
I even got a call from an editor at a very reputable book publisher in New York asking if I’d ever given any thought to writing a book. The answer, by the way, is “yes”, and as soon as an idea comes to me, I plan to fly down to Manhattan in a nice suit and do a pitch over cocktails, which if Mad Men is not lying to me, is how these things go.
Most of the companies who called were the type I’d always worked for: either startups or small operations where I’d have the ability to wear many hats, make a significant contribution and have a great degree of freedom. Medium to large companies were completely off my radar, but I’d have to say that it was mostly because I’d grown accustomed to thinking of myself as a small company man.
As a result, it seemed unreal when I got a number of calls from different people from the same organization, all asking variations on the same question:
“Have you ever considered joining The Empire?“
I’ll be honest: I had some qualms about joining Microsoft.
Fear of “selling out” and working for a big company wasn’t even a factor. It probably should matter at 21, but not at 41. To borrow a saying often misattributed to Churchill: if you’re not at least a little liberal at 21, you have no heart; if you’re not at least a little conservative at 41, you have no brain.
There’s also the standing order from The Missus: “No more working for fucking under-30 CEOs!”
Finally, consider the great truth expressed in the comic below:
My qualms didn’t arise out of loyalty to Apple; they make some really nice machines and an excellent OS, but I’m not really one of those “It’s Apple or nothing” types. They also didn’t come from an “open source forever, Microsoft never!” feeling either. Open source has resulting in some great things happening, but once again, I’m not a “F/OSS or nothing” kind of guy, either.
My qualms came from the feeling that Microsoft had little to offer to me as a developer. Once upon a time, back when my friend Adam Smith and I had a little software development constancy, Microsoft was my friend. From the mid-1990s to the release of .NET 1.0, it felt as if they were constantly reaching out to developers. Then somewhere along the way, at around the same time as the rise of web applications, Apache, PHP and later things like Rails and Django, something happened. Microsoft had apparently switched their focus away from developers and towards the suits – the decision-makers who approved the tech purchases, rather than the people who actually had to live with the decisions. I’m sure that many developers felt the same way I did: Microsoft slowly faded from my radar because it seemed as if I’d faded from theirs.
I think that my friend Danny O’Brien expressed this best when he wrote:
One of my big bones with MS stuff is that it always makes me feel like I’m eating out of the trash bins outside a cubicle farm. All of their software is designed to help busy executives plan their lives. Everyone I know uses it to try and write birthday cards and chat with their friends. When people use Microsoft Office they use it anywhere but in an office. Microsoft knows this – but it also knows that the money comes from their corporate clients, so there’s a limit to how much it can bend its software toward a wider customer base. Ultimately when you use MS software, you’re not the end user MS perceives at all: we’re just living off the scraps Microsoft leaves out after feeding its big customers.
One thing that convinced me to join Microsoft was a small-seeming but important sense of a “sea change” at Microsoft.
Perhaps it was their hiring of some people I’d never expect:David Crow (I’ll admit that I was ready to bet some good money on his leaving within six months, saying “It’ll either end in tears…or gunfire”), Bryce Johnson, John Lam and Danah Boyd.
It might have been their willingness to even consider talking to me after my posting this graphic on my blog:
It might have been some very lengthy conversations I had with friends who worked at Microsoft.
What probably convinced me most was the opportunity to work for a couple of great people who believed in me, Mark Relph and John Oxley. They offered the combination of a lot of support and a great deal of latitude, the ability to work largely from the home office and most importantly, the freedom to inject my own personal style into the work I’d do. I think Mark’s line, “We enter as friends, we leave as friends”, struck a chord with me.
At the end of my sixth(!) interview, John said “We’d like to take you on. Are you interested?”
I replied “To quote Homer Simpson, I have only two questions: ‘How much?’ and ‘Give it to me!’”
In the end, I was unemployed for a grand total of three weeks. Considered the economic collapse taking place all ‘round, that’s not bad at all.
Fry-Kirk Syndrome (or: The Third Job; October 2008 – Present)
At the dawn of 2009, just over a year after leaving my tech evangelist job, I have escaped from one imploding company, been laid off from a downsizing one and finally ended up at a job that fits me like a glove. After this journey, I have become…a tech evangelist.
I feel like “Fry” from Space Pilot 3000, the premiere episode of Futurama. Fry, a p[izza delivery boy in 1999, is frozen on New Year’s Eve 1999 and revived a thousand ears later. In the year 3000, a computer determines that he is best-suited to being a delivery boy, and he spends much of the episode trying to escape this fate. In the end, he cheers as he finds work with a distant relative…as a delivery boy.
Captain Kirk had a similar experience: he always returned to his first, best destiny – being captain of the Enterprise. I feel that I’ve managed to do the same, and with the added bonus of not having a court martial, blowing up the ship, losing my son and getting demoted from Admiral.
Like the young man in the “Bottle Rocket” video near the start of this essay, I took some risks and got a little singed in the process. But as Charles Follymacher also pointed out, sometimes you “manage to live to tell the tale and, wherever possible, wreak [sic] the profits,” and that’s what happened to me in the end.
As any decent poker player will tell you, winning isn’t in the cards you’re dealt, but how you play them. In spite of all the craziness this year, I did quite well.
Yesterday, I (along with David Crow and Barnaby Jeans, my colleagues at Microsoft Canada’s Developer and Platform Evangelism Team) went to the University of Waterloo to see the projects on display at the exhibition of a new initiative at the university called VeloCity.
VeloCity has been described as a “dorm for entrepreneurs”; I’ve also heard it referred to as a “dormcubator”. Taking a cue from successful businesses such as Dell, Facebook, Google, RIM and Yahoo!, which were started by students working in their dorm rooms, the VeloCity project aims to create an atmosphere that will encourage and enable Waterloo’s students to sharpen their technical and entrepreneurial skills, and perhaps even come up with “the next big thing”.
The university converted its Minota Hagey residence from a standard dorm into a place where its residents would have access to a boardroom, a mobile device lab, high-bandwidth wifi, large flatscreens, workstations, programmable lighting and other goodies that you might find at a high-tech company’s campus. Students in the VeloCity program live and work on their projects there; they also attend professional development workshops for entrepreneurs at the nearby Accelerator Centre.
The VeloCity projects are currently treated as extracurricular activity – they’re done in addition to their regular courseload. Adding to the challenge is the short timeline: they’ve only been working on their projects since the start of the school year in September.
Why wasn’t something like this around when I was in university?
Yesterday’s exhibition was the VeloCity students’ first chance to show off their projects in their current state. Each project team set up a booth science-fair style in the foyer of Waterloo’s Davis Centre and did presentations to attendees and passers-by; they also had to do a three-minute pitch presentation onstage.
Extreme Venture Partners were there to judge the projects. They would provide $1000 to fund the project they deemed most worthy.
The projects participating in the exhibition are listed below.
Two projects: Fading Hearts is an anime-style multimedia “choose your own adventure” story-game. Magical Aces is a 2-D vertical shooter arcade game (in the style of Raiden) with manga-inspired story elements.
An “online platform where authors can share their creativity”. Authors can publish their stories, add media elements such as background music or voice-overs, get constructive feedback from their readers and even collect money for their stories.
A wallet with an electronic component that acts as a financial advisor, tracking your spending and warning your spending is threatening to break your budget.
A watch interface that acts as a secondary display for your mobile phone, allowing you to see caller ID, email and SMS messages or your calendar without having to fish your phone from your pocket or its holster.
A web application that combs the internet for video, places them into category-specific channels which can be viewed in a TV-like fashion.
Before announcing the winner, the judges told the audience who their top three picks were:
Of these three, they picked Sparknav.
VeloCity will be holding another exhibition in March. It will be interesting to see how far these project (and the people behind them) progress in the interim.
Suggestions and Observations
Startups vs. Lifestyle Businesses
There is a difference between a startup and what Austin Hill referred to as a “lifestyle business” at the recent Startup Empire conference.
A lifestyle business is a service or consultancy that addresses the needs of a small or localized market. What it doesn’t do is make a product nor does it change the market it’s in or define a new one. There’s nothing wrong with these businesses; they meet certain needs and give their owners some money, ranging from discretionary income to enough to support a pool of small employees. Some notable lifestyle businesses include small development shops like 37signals and Toronto’s own Unspace, popular money-making sites like the Dooce and I Can Has Cheezburger? and applications like 37signals’ BaseCamp, Remember the Milk, Delicious Library and Hampton Catlin’s iPedia. While they are entrepreneurial and even fun to run (I’ve done one), they’re not the sort of thing that investors are looking to fund.
A startup is an attempt to create a new product that often creates a new market, or changes or becomes a big player in its market. It involves the creation of a new technology or the use of existing technology in a particularly novel way to solve a problem, often for a large market, if not the entire world. Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, eBay and – to cite a Canadian example –- RIM are particularly big examples of startups. They are the sort of venture that investors are looking to fund.
The line between startups and lifestyle businesses can be fuzzy. A lifestyle business can sometimes grow into something startup-like or even a true startup because it defines a new market or changes the one it’s in. Craigslist falls under this category. Flickr and Blogger are examples of startup-like companies that grew out of side projects and were later acquired. Facebook started off as a lifestyle business but turned into a startup.
I believe that while VeloCity is trying to encourage tech entrepreneurialism in general, what they’re really trying to do is encourage students to become startup entrepreneurs. I think that the VeloCity participants should be mindful of the difference between startups and lifestyle businesses and steer towards projects that are more startup-like in nature.
Look Beyond the Consumer Market
A lot of people come up with product ideas for the consumer market because they’re graspable: they’re easy to think up and easy to implement. There’s a world of problems beyond consumer applications, and sometimes even a small solution can make a big difference. Think of the big issues that are on people’s minds today: the economy, the environment and healthcare, for starters.
Beware of Living Off Advertising
Once again, I’ll take a quote from Austin Hill: Advertising is not a business model. A business model is something that answers the question “How can I get customers no one else will get?”
In “The Valley”, pitches are so important that they agonize over them. Countless blog posts, articles and books have been written on the art of pitching, and there are regular workshops where they work on their pitches.
Half of what makes a pitch is its content; the other half is its delivery. Your pitch needs to cover what your product is, what kind of problems it solves and why it’s the basis of a viable business. You also have to be able to make your case in two to three minutes, with delivery that engages the audience. You need to practice your pitch to the point that you can do it in your sleep.
The best pitch of the bunch was delivered by Eric of inPulse, who started with the problem he was trying to solve, presented his “smart watch” phone interface as a solution, and then explained why inPulse was viable as a technology and a business. He quickly explained what the current state of the project was, what his expecting timelines were, his technology partners and what the goal was. His delivery was good, and he had some memorable lines in his pitch, most notably “We want to be the industry leader of smart watches in 2010” and “If you have any question, send an email…directly to my watch!” (David Crow groaned at that line, but I liked it. More importantly, we’ll both remember it.)
Honourable mention for good pitch goes to Caleb, Dane and Eric from CashIn, who also had a good presentation style and structure.
Another afternoon presenter at yesterday’s Startup Empire was David Cohen, founder and Executive Director of TechStars, which provides a unique opportunity for early-stage startups. Here are my notes from his presentation:
Why did I come here today? Because I’m hearing more about Toronto every day
I started out in development
Did three startups
Then went to the dark side: angel investing
Started all kinds of companies in all different ways
Later on in the afternoon at yesterday’s Startup Empire conference, Howard Lindzon took the stage. Howard manages a hedge fund and is the creator of the finance news humour site Wallstrip, which he sold to CBS in May 2007. He also has a very popular financial blog at HowardLindzon.com.
I shot some video asking Howard about his idea of “social leverage”; I’ll post it a litter later on. In the meantime, here are my notes from his presentation, Why Now is a Great Time to Start Your Startup.
The Current Situation
Capital, which was so plentiful, is now gone
Reminiscent of the real estate bubble in Phoenix (where I live half the time)
Really important right now to shut out the noise
From 2002 – 2006, it was fun to read Valleywag, TechCrunch and make "me too" products. You can’t do that anymore