Return on Community

Reflecting on the adventure building Startup Edmonton, challenges for our community, and thinking about what’s next.

A few weeks ago during Startup Week, I quietly tendered my resignation as the CEO of Startup Edmonton and Director of Entrepreneurship at Edmonton Economic Development. After eighteen months since our acquisition, I came to realize that it was the right time to leave Startup Edmonton in a place where it could continue to be a platform to grow our community beyond my leadership.

As I look back over the last five-plus years on this journey to grow Edmonton’s startup community, it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come. Back in 2009, a post by my friend Mack Male, “Taking Edmonton’s Technology Community to the Next Level”, ignited an engaging conversation about moving forward by building community as much as we were building institutions. As tech founders ourselves, we used this post as a call to arms that kickstarted Startup Edmonton later that year.

Top left: We assembled so much IKEA over the years.

Since then, what we’ve been building has become a case study for startup community building from the ground up. No business plan, no playbook, no competitions — simply create value for our peers by creating platforms to build together as a community. That sparked events/programs like DemoCamp, Hackathons, Startup Weekend, Startup Drinks, Launch Party, Preflight, and Startup Week. We opened the first campus for co-working and community at the Mercer Warehouse, that has become a platform to organize, meet and gather for over thirty-five groups including Exchange JS, GameCamp, Ladies Learning Code, Edmonton.py, Open Hardware Meetup, Social Media Breakfast, Robotics Meetup, and Lunchalytics. Our membership has grown to over three hundred and over sixty companies. We helped get student startup spaces up and running on campuses, attracted tech companies to set up nearby like Granify, Showbie, Jobber, Mitre, Login Radius, and Localize, and engaged tent pole companies like Intuit, BioWare, and TELUS to be active players in the community.

We started with community and look where it’s taken us.

City building is up to everyone, including governments, universities, corporations, startups and citizens. Citizen-founded initiatives like Startup Edmonton and Make Something Edmonton, while they live on within institutions, are shaped and driven by you, the community. Built on the backs of a thriving community base of founders, builders, investors, mentors, and organizers, they are critical platforms for our city to realize its’ potential. And yet, the challenge remains how (and if) we grow them so they don’t become the kind of slow moving institutions we set out to overcome in the first place.

Startup culture, entrepreneurial leadership, and data-driven experimentation is what drives innovation in cities. Technology continues to reshape the way we live, move, grow, and trade. True “smart cities” involve both citizens and technologies to shape how communities can work better, instead of focusing on the number of apps, patents and jobs as outputs. Despite this, most governments and institutions aren’t evolving quick enough to keep pace.

Governments and institutions have a role to build platforms for citizens to build the city we can all thrive in. However, the world they operate in is run to minimize risk, not to maximize freedom and speed. I got to see some of these challenges first hand from the inside — hierarchies of middle management, perennial reorganizations, and incentives that discourage teams to take risks and innovate. Many large size organizations and corporations face the same challenges. In Edmonton, we’re fortunate to have more leaders at the helm of our public institutions who are fully committed to change things. Culture change and shaping policy just takes time.

But the bigger challenge has everything to do with time.

Around the world, cities that focus on people-centered innovation are the communities where the most talented founders will want to build from. Until we crack this thinking within our public institutions, innovation can’t truly thrive in our city no matter what we call the strategy or bylaw.

As the twin drivers of innovation, talent and technology ensures that our city plays a key global role in the future. In a world where a third of the six hundred cities that drive sixty-five percent of global GDP will be replaced by emerging cities, what good are entrepreneurial rankings, tax incentives, and economic impact metrics if we can’t mobilize our city’s pool of talent and leaders to build and grow here in Edmonton today?

The many faces of founders and volunteers that make our community great.

Measuring return on community has to do with the mobilization and concentration of human capital in a city. Focusing on peer connections that come from mentorship, inspiration, investment, serial entrepreneurship, and former employee spinouts in a city measures the richness of a community. These are all byproducts of community and yet we still rely on metrics and allocate resources that work in opposition to scaling up citizen-driven entrepreneurship initiatives. It remains a challenge for startup community leaders all around the world.

Startup Edmonton has been my mission for a good part of my thirties(!), so I have mixed emotions about moving on. We’ve got momentum as a community, but still much to do. We now have a new wave of funded companies growing from ten to fifty people, so a tech talent pipeline is key to help them grow to a hundred plus. We need more flexible leasable space for hackers, artists and entrepreneurs to prototype and scale. We still lack local seed stage and venture capital funds that align to the way we build companies today. These are the things I’ll continue to obsess about and attack in some way or another. But this whole experience has given me much to think about in terms of how to truly democratize city building across communities.

For now, I’m thankful to have been given the opportunity to make a meaningful impact in my home town, and for all the supporters, members, and founders who joined me on this journey. I’m thankful for city and council leadership and support led by Mayor Don Iveson and Mayor Stephen Mandel, our previous board led by Chris LaBossiere, and Brad Ferguson, Derek Hudson and JoAnn Kirkland at EEDC for welcoming Startup Edmonton into the family. I’m looking forward to continuing to collaborate with them as an ally and advisor.

The best team in the business.

Most of all, I’ll miss working day-to-day with my Startup Edmonton “wolf pack” — Cam Linke, Tiffany Linke-Boyko, Stephanie Enders, Lauren Briske and Warren Johnston — in my mind, the best team in the business of supporting entrepreneurs and product builders in our city. I’m proud of what we built together and look forward to seeing where they’ll push next.

As for what’s next for me, I’m open to exploring new projects, doing some writing, investing through Flightpath Ventures, and itching for the thrill of being in a company. Getting back to building products, growing teams, solving problems, working with customers, and all the ups, downs, and uncertainty that comes with life inside a startup.

After all, it’s what makes the path of entrepreneurship truly fulfilling.