Notes from Last Night’s Ottawa Girl Geek Dinner (May 11, 2011)

Geek girl dinner ottawa

The Ottawa chapter of Geek Girl Dinners took place last night at Vittoria Trattoria in ByWard Market. Although I am not a geek girl, I was present as the representative of Shopify, who sponsored the event with some prizes (the winners of the raffle took home a much-coveted Shopify T-shirt and six months’ worth of free online store) and to get in touch with Ottawa’s women techies and designers. There were about 50 people present, filling the Vittoria Trattoria’s upstairs room.

The Geek Girl Dinners are get-togethers of women in business, tech and design over dinner, where they can get to meet their peers, share ideas and hear presentations delivered by women with some particular expertise on a given topic. They usually have a theme, and last night’s was entrepreneurship. Here’s their description of the theme:

Have you ever thought, “Why work for somebody else when I can work for myself?”

Easier said than done, but anything’s possible! From flowers to clothing, to writing and painting, entrepreneurship opens the doors to anyone with a dream and a passion.

On Wednesday May 11th, please join us for an interactive discussion about the entrepreneurial journey of three Ottawa women who have turned their business dreams into realities.

If you’re a woman in the Ottawa area with geeky tendencies and you’re looking to meet others like you, have a nice meal and see some interesting presentations, you should keep an eye on the Geek Girl Dinners Ottawa site, watch for their hashtag on Twitter (#ggdottawa) and come out to one of their events!

My thanks to the organizers, Kelly Rusk, Veronica Giggey, Melany Gallant and Samantha Hartley for putting on a great event!

My Notes

I took notes and photos during last night’s presentations and present them below. If there are any inaccuracies, they’re mine; I was furiously scribbling them into a Moleskine as they were delivered. Free free to copy them and use them however you wish!

Vivian Cheng, Blend Creations

Screenshot of the Blend Creations site

Vivian’s Bio

Vivian Cheng is an industrial designer and one-half of the creative force behind Blend Creations. She and her husband, Eric Jean-Louis (a graphic designer) combine their divergent design approaches to create a contemporary jewelry line that is clean and modern in aesthetic, yet also blends their respective cultures in East meeting West.

Vivian Cheng makes her presentation

Presentation Notes

  • Trained as an industrial designer
  • "Didn’t want a ‘real’ job" after graduation
  • Started company in September 2005 with her husband, Eric
  • It was a bare-bones site, especially by today’s standards, hand-coded with PayPal buttons and a very basic shopping cart
  • She sells her jewellery almost exclusively online
  • Online store tips:
    • Look at other online stores and learn from them
    • Find out who your competition is
    • Take a look at Etsy and find out whether it’s for you, and why (or why not)
    • Etsy started after Blend Creations, and they decided not to go with it because they didn’t want to be a "stall" in a sea of thousands of stores; they wanted to be their own store
  • Their jewellery is a blend of modern and traditional, industrial and organic — steel with mahjong tiles, bamboo or coral
  • The jewellery is handmade, by them
  • They bootstrapped the business with less that $5000
  • The mandate:
    • Eric, then a full-time graphic designer, would continue at his job and pitch in
    • If the business went well, they’d continue on this path
    • If it didn’t, she’s have to get that ‘real’ job
  • If 2006, they were contacted by Real Simple magazine to have their jewellery featured on a full page
  • Had they tried to take out a full page ad in Real Simple, it would’ve cost about $60K
  • Real Simple found out about them via a design blog
  • To be featured on the page, they had to offer a special deal on a necklace to Real Simple readers
  • Real Simple asked "Can you handle 1,000 orders?"; the only answer was "Yes!"
    • (She was 7 months pregnant at the time)
  • The money resulting from the Real Simple deal allowed them to buy better equipment: a CNC router [here’s a link one that routs wood] and a laser cutter
    • "We could cut circles now!"
  • They continued with magazine ads
    • Good, but during a recession, they’re not as effective
    • Magazine ads have a 4-month lead time
    • Problematic in 2008, during the econopocalypse
    • Generated only a handful of sales, what with the belt-tightening
  • During the economic crisis of ’08, the US was hit hard, and 98% of their customers were American
  • They had to refocus and hit more local markets
  • They couldn’t just do print ads
  • Their first foray into social media was Facebook
    • Their first activity on Facebook: a giveaway
    • She tries to say something on Facebook every day
  • They have a monthly give-away on their blog
    • Facebook’s rules make it difficult to do a monthly giveaway on their site
  • She initially didn’t "get" Twitter (they’re @blendcreations)
    • Discovered that Twitter is all about the interactions
    • She even designed jewellery specifically for their Twitter followers (such as one shaped like an @ sign; jewellery with your Twitter handle on it)
    • Her husband, Eric, doesn’t get the appeal of "The Twitters"
  • The thing about any design is that people either love it or hate it
    • The important thing is to get people talking about it, love or hate
    • If you offer a service, make it a service so good that people talk about it
    • If you offer a product, keep innovating with it
  • "With social media, you have to do something, even if it’s small"
    • "Blogs are the new magazines"
    • They’re the source of many customers
  • Their customer breakdown by region:
    • 60% US
    • 40% Canada and the rest of the world (mostly Canada)
  • Why did I go into jewellery?
    • "I’m an industrial designer, we’re trained to make things"
    • Went with jewellery because of higher perceived value
    • That can be a problem in hard times
  • She and her husband’s design backgrounds let them "do it all":
    • Product design
    • Product photos
    • Ads
    • Site design

Vivian Cheng makes her presentation

Hana Abaza, Wedding Republic

Screenshot of Wedding Republic site

Hana’s Bio

Hana Abaza is the co-founder and CEO of Wedding Republic, an Ottawa based start up allowing couples to set up an online, cash, wedding registry in a way that works for them and their guests. With an incredibly diverse background, Hana has pulled together her broad skill set in order to navigate the start up world. When she’s not in front of her laptop with armed with a large cup of coffee, she can usually be found teaching a kickboxing class. Self described as slightly ‘type a’ with a dose of ADD, although some say it’s just an unrelenting curiosity.

Hanna Abaza makes her presentation

Presentation Notes

  • Wedding Republic is a cash gift registry for people getting married
  • A couple getting married may want stuff, but sometimes, they’d much rather have the cash
  • The idea came to her and her business partner in 2008 while they were watching the Superbowl
    • James (her business partner) has a sister who was getting married
    • Always a stressful situation
    • Online registries for gifts were still few and far between
    • There was no way to register online to give a cash gift
    • The original idea was for a big general wedding registry; it got refined over time
  • Questions you need to ask when starting an entrepreneurial project:
    • Who is your target market? Who will use your product?
    • Does your product fulfill a need? Or a want?
    • What are the current alternatives to your product exist? What are the options?
      • What are the pain points for these alternatives and options
  • They talked to all sorts of people: couples, couples getting married, wedding guests to get more info
  • They hired a developer and were able to take advantage of government programs to help fund the project
  • Advice:
    • Surround yourself with the right people; people who are smarter than you are
    • You can’t do it on your own; make sure you have a support system
  • Wedding Republic went beta in February 2010
  • It was a stressful time
    • Once you’ve opened to the public, you get feedback, opinions, suggestions, complaints about issues
    • But opening to the public gives you a customer validation process
  • You have to listen to your customers, but:
    • You have to know what to ignore
    • You have to know what to take to heart
    • Focus on what you’re good at, and don’t get derailed by customer feedback
  • They were contacted by Saatchi and Saatchi
    • Someone at Saatchi and Saatchi saw their site
    • They were intrigued by the idea of Wedding Republic and invited them for a meeting in their Toronto office
    • They offered to do a rebrand
    • On big companies working with small companies:
      • They may be bigger than you, but once you’re working together, you’re on par
      • Meet as equals. Don’t bed over backwards just to please them
  • There’s a lot of back-and-forth between Saatchi and Saatchi and the developers; she "translates" between the two
  • Relaunched in January 2011
  • More advice:
    • Keep yourself in check (having a business partner will help)
    • Execute! Many people don’t think they can do something, so they don’t try.
  • One challenge with this business: few (if any) repeat customers
    • Considering expanding the concept to baby registries
  • How they make money:
    • The couple getting married doesn’t pay anything
    • The guests pay a transaction fee
    • That’s not bad, considering the 7% markup for registries at The Bay
    • People pay for services that save effort: "I’d gladly pay $5 to not leave my couch"
  • Possibility of expanding outside North America:
    • Looking at it, but wedding customs vary all over the world
    • For example, in China, cash gifts come in red envelopes. Can’t do that with a cash registry.

Hanna Abaza makes her presentation

Amy Yee, Eventbots

Screenshot of the Eventbots site

Amy’s Bio

Amy Yee is an entrepreneur and strategy consultant specializing in technology, engagement and collaboration at start-up and high growth companies. Among a wide variety of projects, Amy is currently the CEO at the second company she has co-founded: EventBots – an award-winning technology solution for public engagement. Amy has a Bachelor’s of Electrical Engineering from Carleton University.

Amy Yee makes her presentation

  • Eventbots are devices that can record video or photo messages at events
  • [Showed video of people who recorded messages at the Mesh conference]
  • Think of it as being similar to the "Speakers Corner" at CityTV in Toronto
  • How they got started:
    • They had friends who were getting married
    • Had heard of some Toronto-based service where they set up devices where people could record messages
    • Her husband was an industrial designer: "I could build that"
    • He built the machine, she turned it into a business
  • The current, sleeker version is version 2
  • The first version was bulkier and made of wood
  • The device has to fit into their car, a Mini Cooper
  • They’ve taken the eventbot to events in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal
    • They can only serve areas within a reasonable drive of Ottawa
  • The sales process is online
  • Even if an eventbot gets only 5 video recordings at an event, there’s still always one that stands out as head and shoulders abover the others
  • Their current eventbot was so slick that a Japanese ambassador insisted that the device was from Japan
  • People call them "iPodzillas"
  • Advice:
    • Don’t fear change; change is a competitive advantage
    • Don’t worry if you have to modify your idea
    • Bet on the team, not the idea
    • Community support is important!

Amy Yee making her presentation

This article also appears in The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.


Scenes from MinneBar 2011

Minnebar logo

Note: This is a looong article — you might want to get a beverage!

Last Saturday, North America’s largest BarCamp ever took place in Minneapolis: the 6th editon of MinneBar. MinneBar is organized by Minne*, a group of Minnesota-based techies and designers who’ve come together to hold events and build a community. Their mission is to ensure that Minnesota continues to be a great place to have a tech- and/or design-based business.

And the BarCamp Tour is here to help them.

The 2011 BarCamp Tour

Barcamp tour logo

MinneBar is the second city on the 2011 BarCamp Tour, a North America-spanning tour where five entrepreneur-focused startups — Batchblue, Grasshopper, MailChimp, Shopify and Wufoo — travel far and wide to sponsor BarCamps. As our site says, we aren’t your typical sponsors; we don’t simply just write a cheque and paste our logos on the walls: we dive in and help out. Sure, we provide funding, but in order to make the event even better, we help out in all sorts of ways, from leading panel discussions to actively participating in sessions to helping move boxes and haul stuff around and even providing accordion backup for the band at the pre-party! We’re also there to meet people: developers, designers and business types in various cities’ entrepreneur communities.

Barcamp tour sponsors

As Shopify’s representative on the tour (all of us are in the picture above), I’ve been to BarCamp Boston (see my earlier writeup for that city) and now, MinneBar. Our next cities on the BarCamp Tour are Portland, Oregon (May 20 – 21) and Seattle (June 25 – 26). There are more coming up after that, and the cities we’ll be visiting next will be determined by you! As we say on the BarCamp Tour site:

We can help your city’s BarCamp. We encourage you to apply to be a part of the BarCamp Tour. Sell us on why your entrepreneurial community is bursting at the seams and we’ll get back to you. If selected, we help you as the BarCamp organizer with some of your biggest pain points, like funding and promotion. We want to help you take your BarCamp to the next level. Oh… did we mention we throw really amazing after parties?

Go ahead, apply! We’d love to come to your city and help make your BarCamp awesome.

Minnebar Pre-Party

The pre-party took place on Friday night at Old Arizona and featured free local draft and the Como Avenue Jug Band, who invited me to join them on accordion. I had my hands full either playing or chatting, so these were the only photos I managed to get:

Jug band 1

Jug band 2

Jug band 3

Minnebar Begins

I was stunned when I heard that 1,200 people had registered for Minnebar. Luckily, there’s a venue in the Minneapolis area that’s capable of handling that many people, when gathered en masse or when they break off into different sessions: the corporate headquarters of geeky mega-retailer Best Buy, located in Richfield.

Alas, it’s a place where you can’t pack heat:

Best buy bans gun in these premises

It takes a good while to get over 1,000 people into a place, confirm they’re registered and give them their “Hello, my name is…” sticker, unconference schedule and T-shirt:

00 line

In spite of the large number of people they had to process on the way in, the volunteer staff did so cheerfully, and the intake went rather smoothly.

01 line

It’s not a tech event without a T-shirt, and MinneBar was most certainly a tech event. The “Early 1960s Pop” look of the design might’ve been something that Don Draper would’ve approved, and it’s got a certain hipster appeal:

04 barcamp t shirt design

A quick point of information: there is no BarCamp Tour bus, in spite of what the graphics on our site, stickers and the sign below say:

02 barcamp sign

It’s a symbolic bus; we’re not living together on a bus travelling from BarCamp to BarCamp, MTV reality-show style, amusing as that might be (if it ever becomes the case, I want to be our answer to “The Situation“). Between BarCamps, we’re back in our respective cities working away at our jobs.

Hello, Minnesota!

Pictured below are Rob Stephens, CTO of Best Buy (and creator of Geek Squad), and Luke Francl, one of the three people who organized MinneBar. Rob deserves our thanks for opening up Best Buy’s HQ on a Saturday to over a thousand random nerds.

03 rob stephens and luke francl

With the lion’s share of the attendees registered, it was time to get the conference rolling with a quick set of opening announcements. They were made by the organizers: Luke, Ben Edwards and Adrienne Pierce:

Adrienne ben luke

[Creative Commons photo by Jamie Thingelstad]

Everyone gathered for the opening session at Sandy’s Place, the name of the dining hall at Best Buy HQ. Hanging above the tables are a number of postcards in the “Greetings from” style showing the names of various cities, including Original Accordion City:

05 greetings from toronto sign

Adrienne, Ben and Luke were kind enough to thank all the sponsors, both in their opening remarks as well as on the big screen behind them:

06 barcamp tour on big screen

The Sessions

MinneBar deviated from the standard BarCamp formula: all sessions were determined in advance, with pre-specified speakers and topics. This arrangement is closer in spirit to a more standard conference, but the speakers either left plenty of room in their presentations for dialogue or made their sessions more like workshops or open discussions, allowing for more back-and-forth exchanges. People were also free to claim any unused space and start their own sessions, although I didn’t see any central schedule board where people could find out where and when such sessions were taking place.

Since MinneBar took place in a single day and the process of suggesting, vetting and scheduling sessions in a unconference takes the better part of the morning, the decision to use a more standard conference format probably helped buy more time for sessions. The number of people involved may also have been a factor. Still, it would’ve been nice to have some slots open for more unconference-style ad hoc sessions, and Luke said that he’d like to see that at next year’s event.

I spent my time bouncing between sessions in order to get photos as well as a better feel for what this particular city’s BarCamps were like.

One of the first sessions of the day was Six Reasons to Open an “Offline” Store (Especially if You Sell Online) and How to Do It Right, led by Daniel Kent:

07 offline store session

Here are my notes from that session:

  1. Perceived Risk
    • Landlords are giving lots of money to prospective tenants to open physical stores
    • And there’s no giving up of ownership to raise funds
    • This doesn’t happen online — getting money always means handing over some ownership
  2. Perceived Barrier to Entry
    • The perception is that it’s easy for anyone to set up a site
    • It seems to be tougher to set up a physical store
  3. Competition Management
    • You know who your competition is
  4. Supply Costs
    • The more product you move, the lower your costs and the higher your margin
    • The Nerdery: online, but they have a robust physical location
      • Lets them identify talented people (lower cost and increase results from recruiting)
    • Refactor: Recruiting and B2B opportunities
  5. Different Type of Customer Feedback
    • With a site, you can do analytics (doesn’t capture everything) and surveys (low return rate, doesn’t capture everything)
    • Offline offers a glimpse into customer reactions that you can’t get online
  6. Opportunity for Margin
    • When I want something online, I don’t care about how pretty the site is; I care only about price
    • Offline, it’s not all about price: ambiance, convenient location, condition of goods, harder to leave
  • How do you build a relationship with your customers?
    • If it’s just tube socks, I’ll go to Amazon and go for price
    • If it’s my tea shop, I can do more
  • Steepr doesn’t even have a site up yet, but they’ve got 40 people signed up
    • Thanks to their Mall of America store
    • Potential for using the online store as a way to find locations to own physical stores
  • Their model: the place where people want to go
    • They have DJs on Friday and Saturday nights
    • The 16 – 24 crowd loves to hang out there
  • Brick and mortar vs online
    • Does having an online presence affect your banking deal?
      • Banks see that the site hasn’t made money yet (in progress), cut different deals

The next session I caught was Startup Tools, a review and discussion of software tools that are both free (or relatively cheap) and indispensable to startups, led by Colin Tuggle:

08 free apps session

The third session I caught was a panel discussion featuring some of my fellow BarCamp Tour bus-mates (and remember, it’s a symbolic bus) — Amy Ellis, Stephanie Bullis and Michelle Riggle-Ransom, talking about brands in BrandCamp @ BarCamp: Bootstrapping Your Brand

09 branding session

My notes from this session:

  • Michelle:
    • I wanted to start a family-friendly work/life balance company
    • Brand attributes: authentic, transparent, helpful, engaged
  • Stephanie:
    • There’s no point to stating that trust and reliability are your core values: that should already be built in!
    • These are our core values:
      • Go above and beyond
      • Always be entrepreneurial
      • Radically passionate
      • Your team
  • Amy:
    • In the beginning: our brand was based around our mascot, “Freddy von Chimpenheiser” [I had no idea the MailChimp mascot had a name! — Joey]
    • Challenge with mascot — many “professional” companies don’t like cute mascots
      • Created “Party Pooper Mode”, which turns off the mascot for humour-impaired corporations
  • Stephanie:
    • Original name of the company was Vmail
    • Had to spell it out; everyone thought we were saying “female”
    • The “Got Vmail?” slogan was misheard as “Got female?” — sounded like an escort service
    • Changed to Grasshopper in 2009
    • Sent chocolate-covered Grasshoppers to top 500 influencers, from Chris Brogan to P. Diddy [Joey’s note to Stephanie: He’s called Diddy Dirty Money now.]
  • Michelle:
    • Thinking up a name for the company:
      • BatchBlue comes from batch processing
      • From Rhode Island – nice tech community – blue is the ocean
      • Similar names caused confusion: BatchBook is the product, BatchBlue is the company
      • Rolling out a new product without the word “Batch” in it
  • Amy:
    • Strongly recommend open API; it’s MailChimp’s strength
    • They have no outgoing sales department
    • Instead, they increase customer base by integrating well with other applications
    • Instead of stacking your sales team, build a great API (85% of app functionality is available via their API)!
  • Michelle:
    • Get all the names: not just the URLs, but also misspelled URLs, Twitter handles, etc.
  • Stephanie:
    • Even if your idea is in its infancy, get those names before someone else does
  • Amy:
    • Got malechimp, mailchimpsucks, etc.
  • Stephanie:
    • To track your brand, you should set up Google alerts
    • Not just for your name, but also misspellings!
  • Q: Abstract branding vs. clear naming?
    • Abstract does not commit you to a market
    • “Salesforce? You shouldn’t have to force someone into a sale.”
    • Me: “Apple is not about fruit, Microsoft is not about erectile dysfunction”
    • Guy: GISrangers: Not many people know what GIS is, and they end up asking “What’s a jizz-ranger?”
  • Amy:
    • You need a good product to back up your brand
    • A brand is more of a feeling…and a hug
  • Q: Core Values
    • Are you going to have to start worrying about who your customers are? Say, the Klan?
    • Amy: Another reason we don’t have a sales team
      • Email between members of the KKK — okay, that’s free speech
      • Spamming or propagation of hate speech — out
  • Q: Casual Brands
    • Amy: Our brand worked for the sort of customers we were seeking when we we starting out
      • Our tech was better for small companies, not suited for large ones
      • That’s changed
      • If our company culture doesn’t match what you want, it happens — we’re not the best solution for everyone
      • Founders: consultant — hated being reliant on an 80% client and having to compromise their values
  • Q: Iterating – easy with tech, harder with a brand
    • Stephanie: Sleeker logo – not different
      • Based on what they believe their customers will respond to
      • Once you get a core base, you can play with the look and feel
    • Michelle
      • When you make a change, everybody freaks out, then they forget about it
      • Don’t be afraid to evolve your brand
      • Amy: It’s an opportunity
      • Getting customer buy-in helps — let them have sneak peeks
      • Have brand evangelists!
      • Happy customers are our best sales force
      • Putting in a customer rewards program
      • Handwritten thank-yous, gifts [thank you economy]
      • Make them feel that their input is valuable
  • Q: Tactic to make yourself snowball?
    • Michelle: Buy coffee for your local chamber of commerce
      • Donate time or free product
      • Take advantage of the smaller networking opportunities
    • Stephanie: Traditional marketing was about reaching out to many to reach one; now you reach out to one to reach many
      • Take them out for coffee
      • Go out on Twitter: “There’s people out there, and they want to give their opinion”
      • You never know where that one conversation will lead
    • Amy: Like building the biggest BarCamp, it’s a slow and steady process
      • It takes time and legwork, don’t get discouraged
      • Ben would buy customers coffee
      • Provide value! To customers, to the community
      • You can’t hop on Twitter and get thousands of followers
      • Work on your product
  • Q: Biggest mistakes?
    • Michelle: The name thing
      • Reined in fights with competitors on Twitter
    • Stephanie: Chargify – pricing fiasco with freemium model change: got bad press
      • Founder replied with “We messed up”
      • Very human about it, explained decision: “No way to be profitable using our current model”
      • Got better customers in the end; ditched the free riders
      • Lesson learned: don’t do what we did
    • Amy: Launched SocialPro last year
      • Did not forsee WSJ article on Facebook exposing data (also visible via SocialPro)
      • Be human – don’t be defensive, don’t put up a wall
      • People like it when you fess up to a mistake
  • Q: Employees who project brand?
    • Me: Shopify spiel
    • Stephanie: 
      • Hire for fit, train for skill
      • Happy people are productive people
    • Audience: Company culture at Disney
    • Amy:
  • Q: Company brand vs Product brand?
    • Michelle: You have more than one product
    • Stephanie: Product brand: tangible
      • Company brand: More about empowering entrepreneurship
  • Q: Transition to bigger clients – internal changes? It terrifies us
    • Amy: We’re not going from DIY to enterprise
      • We do have large companies interested in using us
      • Have to tell customers we don’t have account reps, phone support, etc
      • Finding larger companies who are willing to do those things themselves
  • Q: What was the biggest success with your branding?
    • Michelle: Selling to small business web
      • Having Google call us and sponsor a panel at SxSW
    • Amy: Open, robust, well-documented API
    • Stephanie: Support for entrepreneurs
      • Got Obama to support National Entrepreneur’s Day

10 branding session

When one of the audience members asked about creating a culture that supports the brand, I stepped in and brought up a couple of points:

  • Follow Zappos’ example. At the end of Microsoft’s MIX Conference in March, the Windows Phone 7 “Champs” team (of which I was a member) went to Zappos headquarters for their legendary tour as well as a culture consultation. We started with the tour, which was run by the very enthusiastic members of their culture team, where we saw the day-to-day operations and dynamic. They’re very clearly a group of people who enjoy what they do and care about customer service. Afterwards, we were gathered into a boardroom for a presentation and discussion of starting a great company culture. I told the group that they should pick up Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness, and if possible, go to Zappos HQ and get the tour and culture consultation.
  • Provide guides. I pointed to the US Air Force’s rules of engagement for social media and Shopify’s employee handbook (pictured here); both are great examples of documents that help shape an organization’s culture. (I’m going to write about the Shopify book in an upcoming post.)

11 branding session

Some of the sessions were in meeting rooms designed for a dozen or so people; others took place in larger amphitheatre-style rooms:

15 theatre

In my last job as a developer evangelist for Microsoft Canada, I did a lot of work promoting Windows Phone 7 to developers, so it’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. Besides, I have the only Windows Phone 7-branded accordion in existence! So I made it a point to catch Scott K. Davis’ sesson, Windows Phone 7 – What You Should Know.

17 wp7 session

Bonus: we had a Microsoftie in the audience — she works on the testing team for Expression.

16 wp7 session

I’ve been in the blogging game for nearly ten years (the 10th anniversary of The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century is in November), so I couldn’t resist Joseph Reuter’s session, Why Don’t You Blog More?

18 blogging session

My notes from this session:

  • See Clay Shirky’s talk on cognitive surplus — blogging is one such outlet for that surplus
  • Publishing has been democratized
    • It’s amazing: tons of huge success stories
    • Publishing combines content and distribution
      • Content: idea and creation (draft, edit, approve)
      • Distribution: print and non-print
    • In the publishing world, there are editors
    • Editors provide, through their vetting, a sense of confidence
  • What is blogging for?
    • Shooting from the hip – catharisis? “No one’s going to read it, anyway”
    • Professional aims
    • News releases
    • Brand building
    • Journaling
    • Fun
  • No one seems to have been taught how to write
  • Content strategy vs. Confidence strategy
    • What are you looking to get from blogging?
      • Without an aim, it’s likely that you will succumb to your perception of what other people want from you.
      • Therefore, successful blogs have a content strategy, or put another way, a confidence strategy
      • That strategy may or may not be explicit
  • In blogging, sequence does not denote importance
  • Bloggers have an edge
    • They have access to:
      • Information
      • Perspective
  • Q: People who try blogging and get turned off because it’s just writing?
    • Example of Gary Vaynerchuk and video
  • Improve the system?
    • Problems with distribution:
      • Audience size limited by blog visits
      • Audience size limited by number of interested visitors who also understand RSS and reading behaviour
    • Problems with motivation satisfaction:
      • Need others to see what you’re doing
      • Dan Ariely: Books, stories and recognition
    • Problems with rhythm
      • We watch a lot of TV and read news but as an aggregate population, we don’t write
      • Hence we don’t have rhythm or tricks or confidence to write
    • Problem with time
      • Our perception: if we have something to say, it takes too much time to make a blog post bullerproof or ready for public consumption
  • Solutions
    • Twitter:
      • Problem: Blog posts are too long and hard to write
        • Solution: Posts are 140 characters, max
      • Problem: Jumping around to blofa is hard for readers
        • Solution: Twitter has a built-in reader and follower counts
    • Posterous:
      • Problem: The process of making a post is too hard
        • Solution: Posterous championed mailing it in
  • Few people willing write for no readers
  • Ways forward:
    • We read and have opinions – find ways to share them
    • We care what other people think – Have a content/confidence strategy
    • We care that our work is recognized – find a way to get others to share what they’re thinking when they read your content. Find good analytics software.
    • Structure ways to how they are engaging with your content in a way that is meaningful to you. Get those metrics automatically delivered
  • Hawthorne effect and blogging
  • The single best way to engage with Facebook:
    • Comment on other’s people stuff
    • Creators need to be commenters, commenters need to be creators

19 blogging session

Joseph ended his session with the slide in the photo above: “Who is this guy? What’s his story? Unless he writes it down, we’ll never know.”

The final session I caught was Jeff Lin’s The Missing Web Curriculum: What Every Web Professional Should Have Learned, in which he talked about addressing the disconnect between higher education and real-world web development:

22 curriculum session

A couple of Jeff’s observations that stuck out for me were:

  • “Instead of spending 80 bucks on an outdated textbook, I had the students spend 10 bucks registering a domain name.”
  • A poke at Dreamweaver and similar web design tools: “WYSIWYG is short for ‘WhY don’t you juSt learn to write code and stop Wasting Your enerGy on learning bad tools?'”


At the end of the day, we reconvened in Sandy’s Place for closing remarks and copious quantities of Surly Beer. I also worked the room, talking to people about their work, and telling them about having recently joined Shopify.

The organizers decided to get together with some of their friends at Bryant-Lake Bowl and invited me along. That place is many things: hipster diner, bowling alley, fringe theatre and all-round fun place:

24 bryant lane bowl

We had dinner (that’s a Walleye Po’ Boy pictured below):

Po boy

Of course, we went bowling:

26 group

Sharp! Perhaps I should get a pair of these, just for walkin’ around:

25 bowling shoes

Here I am, on my way to a killer spare:

27 9 pins

After bowling, I joined Casey Allen and some of his local entrepreneur friends for tasty beverages:


There’s something about whiskey and entrepreneurship — they go together like peanut butter and chocolate, or bacon and everything.

Other Takes on MinneBar

When it comes to tech and design, Minnesota punches well above its weight class, and thus I wasn’t the only one chronicling Minnebar.

A number of sessions were recorded — you’ll find these recordings at The Uptake.

Here are the blog entries and articles on Minnebar that I could find. If you know of one that isn’t in the list below, let me know in the comments and I’ll update it!


David Crow Answers 5 Questions and Visits Vancouver

Who is David Crow?

David Crow

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).

Collage of DemoCamp photos: "Without David, none of this would've happened."

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!

5 Questions

TechVibes logoDavid is my coworker at Microsoft Canada’s Developer and Platform Evangelism team and also one of the Windows Phone 7 Champs. Karim Kanji caught up with him and did a quick “5 Questions” interview, featuring these questions:

  1. What motivates you to do what you do on a daily basis?
  2. Do you have any success start-up tips for people wanting to create a name for themselves in your industry?
  3. In your opinion why is Toronto a hotbed for cool tech start-ups?
  4. What’s your favourite tech toy and social media site and why?
  5. Who would you say are Toronto’s social media/tech stars and why?

Check out the article at TechVibes!

David’s in Vancouver This Coming Week

Vancouver: Downtown Vancouver as seen from the Granville Street Bridge

grow2010-logoDavid’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.”

bootup labsHe’s going to be in the downtown area and available to meet up in the earlier part of the week. If you want to find out more about BizSpark, pick his brain about startups and product/market fit, you can catch up with him at Bootup Labs (where he’ll be working from). To find out more his trip to Vancouver and how to catch up with him, check out this blog entry.

Vancouver photo taken by JamesZ_Flickr and licenced under Creative Commons.

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.


VeloCity Project Exhibition

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?

The Exhibition

View From Above 2

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.

Project Description
Grocerus A location-aware web application that helps users create grocery lists and find the best prices for items on that list in their area.
Gruup A web application that lets its users do group purchases of items for volume discounts.
Sparknav A mobile navigation application with a twist: it’s for finding your way around indoor or enclosed spaces, such as malls, airports, university campuses and amusement parks.
Emoshion A mobile app that provides “location-based high-end fashion news”.
Find It Off Campus A web application that helps University of Waterloo students find off-campus housing.
Szello Mobile A consultancy that does mobile UI design and provides a mobile UI development kit.
Fading Hearts / Magical Aces 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.
Ufansi A web application that connects charities with donors, keeps donors apprised of their charities’ activities and helps to lower charities’ administrative costs.
Giftah A web application that creates a marketplace for retailers’ gift certificates and gift cards.
ClassAlbum A web application for managing class schedules and finding vacant classrooms.
Comic Battle A multiplayer Flash-based online fighting game.
My Story 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.
CashIn 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.
inPulse 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.
Threadband A 2-D casual game for the iPhone.
Metacast 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:

  • inPulse
  • Sparknav
  • My Story

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?”

Perfect your pitches

Pitching is considered a “soft” skill, which is the sort of thing that techies tend to discount. Even businesspeople sometimes consider it unimportant: at the recent Startup Empire, VC Austin Hill said that he’s seen CEOs who couldn’t pitch their way out of a paper bag. This is a mistake: no matter how good or cool your technology is, no one will care unless you can tell a story about it, and tell it well.

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.

One key point to remember is the point of pitching is not to go over your product’s feature set, but about its market and the needs that it will fill. Remember, people don’t really buy drills, they buy holes.

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.



David Cohen at Startup Empire: Boulder and TechStars


startup_empireAnother 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:

Boulder, Colorado

  • 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
  • I’m based in Boulder, Colorado
    • Two of my companies are ZOLL Data Systems, Earfeeder
    • One of my startups failed, but there’s no evidence on the net that it ever existed
    • What’s Boulder known for?
      • Mork and Mindy
      • “4:20”
      • Nearby skiing
      • University of Colorado
    • It’s northwest of Denver and has a population of 125,000 – with students! Denver has about 1 million people

VC in Boulder vs. VC in Toronto

  • VC in boulder
    • $311 million in Q1 2008 in Boulder County
    • Taking into account its population of 125,000, that makes for about $2,500 in venture capital for each person in Boulder
  • VC in Toronto
    • $130 million in Q1 2008
    • Taking into account its population of 5.5 million, that makes for about $23 in venture capital for each person in the Toronto area
  • Toronto has a chicken-and-egg problem
  • We learned in Boulder, VC follows innovation
  • A UFO didn’t land in Boulder and drop off VCs
  • There was a strong telecom industry that grew up there (Colorado is the home of telecom and storage)
  • People who got rich off those industries stayed in Boulder and asked "What can I do with this money?"
  • 2nd- and 3rd-time entrepreneurs decided to become angels
  • Most angels are driven by more than just the money
  • Companies in Boulder: Lijit and Newsgator to name a few
  • The VC followed

The TechStars Concept

  • Along with me, other people mentoring at TechStars are:
  • TechStars is a mentorship-driven seed stage investment fund
  • It’s been referred to as "Incubator 2.0, boot camp for entrepreneurs", but to me it’s mentorship-driven
  • The big benefit for companies in the Techstars program is not small amount of money we provide, but the people we surround you with
  • At Techstars, you share ideas early, get the feedback
  • 10 teams of typically young entrepreneurs come to Boulder for the summer
  • If you get in, you get this incredible mentorship experience
  • Mentors spend time with the 10 companies
  • Atmosphere of camaraderie between the companies
  • Companies get integrated into the tech scene
  • Our “New Tech Meetups” are the 2nd largest in US, after NYC
  • We make our companies uncomfortable – we make them pitch often
  • First month: we ask them not to work on their product so much; it’s laregly about learning
  • At the end of program, they get just enough funding to get them to the next point
  • Techstar’s progress so far:
    • 2 summers = 20 companies
    • Only 1 of the 20 companies is now defunct
    • 2 of the 20 companies experienced positive exits (SocialThing, IntenseDebate)
    • 13 of them have acquired angel or VC funding
    • All told, we’ve invested under $600K in 2 years — positive ROI
  • Benefits
    • 40 jobs in Colorado created (probably 40 more elsewhere)
    • AOL set up an office in Boulder after SocialThing acquisition
    • 9 of the 20 companies have stayed in Boulder


  • Try not to focus to much on VC. Focus on product and customers
  • Your community can be more powerful than you imagine if it works together
  • Promote your community when you promote your company
  • Mentorship is the scarce resource that matters

Rick Segal’s Advice at Startup Empire


“Never ever take the title of CEO,” said Rick Segal between speakers at yesterday’s Startup Empire conference. “We fire CEOs all the time. Be a founder instead.”


Howard Lindzon at Startup Empire: Why Now is a Good Time to Start Your Startup


startup_empireLater 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

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
  • It’s also a bad time to base products on:
  • Sometimes you have to shelf your ideas for when the times are more suitable for them
  • The headlines are all doom and gloom these days:
    • "Financial Ice Age" – BusinessWeek
    • Startup Depression – Calacanis (I’m not a fan)
  • You must remember that even during good times, 80 to 90% of businesses fail
  • The VC model isn’t broken

Social Leverage

  • Financial leverage has come home to roost
  • We’re in a period of deleveraging: there is no bottom, because we don’t know what everyone owns
  • P/E ratios — it’s all about expectation, people expect less
  • You can’t get what you got six months ago
  • Expectations are in "this ratchet-down mode"
  • I also think that "we’re going into a depression" is crazy talk
  • I’m anti-financial leverage
  • Social leverage is all-powerful
    • Nothing you do in social leverage will haunt you
    • It’s a gift from the likes of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter
    • Perhaps you shouldn’t start building social leverage with a blog unless your passion is for writing
    • Start small: work with people
    • Be mindful of the etiquette of social networking tools
    • The time to ask people for something is when they’re least expecting it

Too Small to Fail

  • Wall Street was all about "too big to fail"
  • I’m not seeing signs from the presidents about being small – they seem too concerned with conglomerations and unwilling to bust up things
  • Bailouts just prolong the process
  • This is not a headline, it’s a state of being
  • It’s a great time to start a web-based business
  • If you’ve ever played the board game “Risk”, you know:
    • If you’re starting all your armies in Europe, you’re screwed
    • Start off in New Guinea
  • Consider one of my projects,
    • I like to stay in businesses I know
    • Started in Twitter — thought it was dumb in the beginning
    • Guys, this should be about ideas
    • Wrote post about how there should be a message board for stocks using the reputation model in Twitter
    • Twitter allows you some sort of reputation — everything you say is there for people to see
    • Stocktwits — one employee, $30K to start
    • Twitter offers possibilities: dating, betting — supports an ecosytem
  • Be careful in whom you trust
  • Embrace social leverage
  • Be too small to fail: do the one thing you do very well
  • Take as little money as you need; things will get better
  • Ignore the people saying that this is “a new Ice Age” – they’re idiots


  • Zig while others zag
  • Take a look at this graph, in which the pink line is the Vicks index and the blue is RRSPs: 


  • From 2003 – 2005:
    • Fear level low
    • Calacanis’s company, TechCrunch and other stupid tech businesses wree founded when fear was low
  • It’s always a good time to start a web business
    • The truth is that it’s never a good time to start any business
    • Successful business can be started anytime
    • 80 – 90% of businesses fail anytime

Why businesses fail

  • It’s important to have structure right from the beginning
  • Mistakes made at start can come back to haunt you
  • Sometimes partners fight, so rules and agreements at made at the the start are valuable
  • The keys: Structure, funding and realistic valuation
  • When it comes to spreadsheets and plans, keep in mind that it’s important to do one thing, do it well and get that customer – this is far more important than the spreadsheets
  • Make sure you’re fishing where the fish are
    • “Swim near the shark”
    • Be around certain ecosystems

My Advice

  • Social leverage: good
  • Financial leverage: bad
  • Be an expert at something
    • For good or bad: mine is finance
    • "I don’t really like the people in my industry"
    • Applications of my expertise:
  • Investing: more art than science

      Q & A

      How do you balance your day?

      • StockTwits is the only thing I run
      • Knightsbridge pays me to be on the road
      • I’m usually up at 5am
      • Private equity: long hours, long weekends

      How do you make use of social leverage?

      • One example: Fred Wilson
      • Two months invested in reading his blog
      • I found out that Fred was a basketball fan and took him to a Phoenix Suns game
      • We talked business
      • Fred just happened to be friends with Jim Cramer
      • Through Fred, I  met everybody else — I counts it as my “real day 1 “
      • “You make your own luck”

      What are you looking for with companies?

      • I’m more of an angel and a scrapper
      • I want to to be early
      • I want to see a finished product