Author Archive: Qasim Virjee

July 7, 2015

All Aboard The SoftLayer Startup Train!

This year, SoftLayer partnered with ThreeFortyNine, a co-working space in Guelph, Ontario, to offer founders, funders, and anyone else heading to Montreal’s International Startup Festival an amazing first class ride on the SoftLayer Startup Train.

I sat down with Brydon Gilliss, the founder of ThreeFortyNine, to learn more about the experience.

Now in its fourth year, the Startup Train is quickly becoming an institution for entrepreneurs, funders, and professionals traveling from Toronto to the International Startup Festival. What was the impetus behind creating this experience?
The travel time to conferences is often wasted time. We wanted to try and make better use of it. Also, it can be lonely when you return from an exciting conference but don't have anyone to connect with after who had that shared experience with you. Having a group of people from your city who you travel and share the experience with creates a longer-term alumni effect in your community.

The International Startup Festival in Montreal draws one of the largest audiences of tech entrepreneurs out of any event in Canada. What do you think makes it so popular?
The city, for one. Montreal is one of the best cities to visit in the summer. There is always an attraction; a reason to make the time. The festival venue is completely different ... right on the water in Old Montreal. The festival-atmosphere makes it a unique and an enjoyable experience.

How has the Startup Train experience changed over the past 4 years?
Startup Train alumni know what to expect. There are always new people to meet and learn from, and we don’t complicate the experience with too much programming. There is enough to keep your business-busy if that’s your goal, but it’s also easy to relax, enjoy the service and views while meeting and chatting with people with a cocktail in hand. This year, VIA Rail, is doing us a favor and giving us one of their cool dome cars typically used for the longer-haul cross-Canada trips.

We’re really excited to do some speed mentorship on the observation deck of the train this year. What else can attendees expect to experience on the SoftLayer Startup Train this year?
There are plenty of people to discuss your ideas with. You can take advantage of the networking with like-minded startups, running your ideas past some of the old hats on the train, or getting some quality advice from the mentors on-board.

The train experience attracts people from around Ontario, not just Torontonians. What do you think gels the Ontario tech community, and how does this play out each year at the Festival in Montreal?
I'm not sure I know the answer. Certainly the train, as with other events in our community, is a gel point in itself. In Canada, in general, we're working to find our way quickly in this fast moving startup world. Events like the train and Startup Festival, are important ways for our lonely entrepreneurs to come together and build our energy; share battle stories; etc.

With around 2,000 people attending the International Startup Festival in Montreal it can get pretty hectic at the venue and in the Old Port in general. What are some tips you can give founders traveling, on or off the train, to Montreal for the Festival?
Getting to Montreal is half the battle. Those choosing Startup Train travel can expect to exert minimum effort with the payoff of maximum enjoyment. Train travel is so easy especially when compared to flying. To fly these days (we won’t even get into the 401 or driving in Montreal), travelers need to be hours early in order to be processed and searched. You have to deal with luggage hassles. You end up losing valuable time in an irritating environment. The actual flying experience itself isn’t an event compared to the romance and fun of train travel. From the moment you get to VIA Rail’s first class lounge prior to leisurely boarding, the actual experience itself is so relaxing. In a plane you’re not likely to get a view, but on a train, that’s all you have. It’s easy to meet and make authentic connections with people on the train right away, so that by the time you arrive in Montreal, you’ve already got some necessary work done. Near the Festival site, you’ve got plenty of social options in the city (walking distance and otherwise). It’s easy to sneak off and grab a beer on a cobblestone street in Old Montreal with startup train passengers if you need a break from the Festival.

For anyone interested in riding the SoftLayer Startup Train, please visit http://ibm.co/1HHV2QZ. If you are a member of our Catalyst Startup Program and would like to travel to the Festival on us, please email me ASAP.

-Qasim

July 1, 2015

Canada’s Funding Roadshow Recap

Fundica helps accelerate the online funding search for entrepreneurs in Canada. Once a year they take their mission offline and organize the country's only Funding Roadshow. In 2015, the SoftLayer Catalyst startup program partnered with Fundica to take the Roadshow to 11 cities across the country where they listened to over 200 entrepreneurs pitch their tech startups to panels of funders.

I recently sat down with Lana Tayara from the Funding Roadshow.

So, tell us about the purpose behind organizing the Funding Roadshow.
The mission of the event is to better facilitate connections between entrepreneurs, funders from private and public sectors, and startup community leaders across Canada. The event aims to fulfill its purpose though a series of events, planned in 11 cities across Canada, by providing educational content designed to help early-stage technology based companies either start and/or grow their business. The one-day event is split into two streams throughout the course of the day. The first one allows up to 20 selected tech companies to present their business in a private room to a panel of investors, mentors, and service providers and get candid feedback to help them validate their business model. The second stream is open to all participants, comprised of all company stages, community developers, investors, and services providers, to listen to great presentations provided by industry leaders that will cover a wide range of topics designed to help them succeed with their business.

To maximize engagement in each city, the Funding Roadshow collaborates with local pro-entrepreneurship groups (accelerators, incubators, universities). In turn, this allows us to better connect our national partners with the local entrepreneurial community and its facilitators. Our national partners get the opportunity to network with each community, gain visibility nationally in the startup scene, and raise awareness about the resources they can offer to Canadian businesses.

What were your 2015 Funding Roadshow goals?
The goals of the 2015 Funding Roadshow were to establish new partnerships with key players of the entrepreneurial community across Canada that would engage participants in each city to generate relevant connections, opportunities, and resources to each person present in the event.

In the 2015 Funding Roadshow, based on a follow-up survey conducted three months later, 31.6 percent of entrepreneurs were offered funding and 33.3 percent of funders funded entrepreneurs. With respect to the funding aspect of our event, our selection criteria for pitching companies were stricter, and presentation guidelines were shared with companies as to increase the quality of pitches and funding probability for 2015.

Lastly, we also offered a wider range of educational topics such as funding, growth models, legal guidance, bookkeeping, storytelling, and other resources available to help startups with their success. We would like to share the value with business owners using technology such as financial management software, online banking, cloud hosting, and secure cloud-based document storage, which can help increase efficiency and productivity within their organization.

What do you think the 2015 Funding Roadshow accomplished?
The 2015 Funding Roadshow travelled through 11 cities from Halifax to Victoria. In each city, up to 20 selected technology-based companies pitched to a panel of eight funders. The initiative was put together with 59 partners, and provided over 96 educational presentations, and engaged 1,147 participants coast-to-coast. The Funding Roadshow was very proud to be able to form new partnerships with two of the most influential hubs in Canada, MaRS and Ryerson DMZ, both of which welcomed the event into their space as exclusive hosting partners in downtown Toronto.

Based on on-site feedback forms we collected from participants across Canada, we received excellent responses:

  • 100 percent of participants who took the survey (funders, pitchers, community members, and general attendees) would participate in the next Funding Roadshow. (Based on a 19 percent participation response.)
  • 94 percent of all participants who answered the survey were satisfied to very satisfied.

We are already in talks with returning sponsors who have reached out to express interest in the next edition of the Funding Roadshow.

Please relate some highlights from across this year's Roadshow. Any themes which emerged amongst all the pitching and networking?

  1. Canadian VCs (venture capitalists) are investing more in early-stage companies.
  2. There is an increase in interest from U.S. investors in mid to later stage companies.
  3. Angel investment in technology companies has increased in comparison to previous years.
  4. Emerging accelerators and collaboration between them.
  5. Government funding varies significantly between provinces.
  6. Early stage companies are still struggling with funding identification.

Overall the Funding Roadshow was a great success, and we can’t wait for 2016. SoftLayer will be there. Will you?

-Qasim

March 23, 2015

Redefining the Startup Accelerator Business Model: An Interview with HIGHLINE’S Marcus Daniels

In this interview, SoftLayer’s community development lead in Canada, Qasim Virjee, sits down with Marcus Daniels, the co-founder and CEO of HIGHLINE, a venture-backed accelerator based in Vancouver and Toronto.

QV: Y Combinator has become an assumed standard for accelerators by creating its own business model. What do you think is both good and bad about this?

MD: Y Combinator (YC) not only created a new model for funding tech startups, but it also evolved the whole category. Historically, I like to think that Bill Gross's Idealab represented accelerator/incubator 1.0 and YC evolved that to 2.0 over the past decade, resulting in a hit parade of meaningful startups that are changing the world.

The good is that YC has created a “high quality” bar and led the standardization of micro-seed investment docs for the betterment of the whole startup ecosystem. It proved the model and has helped hundreds of amazing founders with venture profile businesses that are changing the world.

The bad is that there are now thousands of accelerators/incubators globally running generic programs that don't help founders much. More than half have a horrible rate helping startups raise follow-on capital and almost all never had a single exit from a startup they invested in.

HIGHLINE has a strong track record in our short history and now sees a big opportunity to be amongst the leaders in the evolution of the accelerator industry.

QV: Many accelerators focus on streamlining a program to process cohorts of companies at regular intervals throughout the year, every year. Often, the high throughput these programs expect means they must select companies from applications, rather than the approach you seem to be taking. Can you explain how HIGHLINE is sourcing companies for investment?

MD: HIGHLINE gets over 800 applications a year and targets about 20–30 investments during that time. Out of our last 12 investments, all had either come from referral partners or the team hunting the best founders to be part of our portfolio. Over the years, we have moved from the ideation stage, which comprises the majority of inbound applications, to the MVP in market stage, which is our sweet spot now. We will also focus on low-volume, high-touch advisory support, which is why a lot of time is spent building relationships with founders and adding value to MVP-stage startups before investing helps curate better deals.

QV: Traditionally, investment vehicles (such as VC firms and accelerator programs) have been run by financial industry types, but it seems that you are taking a more entrepreneurial approach with HIGHLINE and constantly evolving your business model. What can you tell me about this?

MD: The best accelerator leaders globally are past entrepreneurs who have some investment experience given how hands-on you have to be with the companies. Without the experience of starting and growing ventures, it is really hard to help tech founders navigate the daily challenges. Also, the best founders get to choose, and they want to work with other top founders in a long-term mentor/advisory/coaching relationship.

QV: How does being “VC-backed” differentiate HIGHLINE from other accelerators?

MD: Having several VCs as investors, such as the BDC and Relay Ventures, gives us an edge in several ways. Firstly, they are not only a great quality referral network for deals, but also a huge help in getting our companies venture-ready—even if they may not invest directly. Secondly, they allow us to internally focus on a specialization in helping venture profile businesses raise follow-on capital, as opposed to the glut of programs that are optimized for entrepreneurial education and lifestyle job creation. Lastly, they put big pressure on the whole HIGHLINE team to both get results for shareholders and build something unique that can be a category leader over the next decade.

QV: Our country is physically large and this seems to have created differentiated tech startup scenes between its cities. How does HIGHLINE collapse the geographic divide by having a physical presence in both Vancouver and Toronto?

MD: HIGHLINE tries to curate and unite the best digital founders, institutional investors, and ecosystem partners across Canada. We position our offices in both Vancouver and Toronto as portfolio hubs for founders who want to be headquartered in Canada, but want to take on the world. Most importantly, we spend time in all major Canadian startup ecosystems and have plans for unique events to bring our curated community closer together.

- Qasim

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