Looking back on the last five years working to ignite Edmonton’s startup community and the story of Startup Edmonton.
As we gear up for the first ever Edmonton Startup Week and the fifth edition of Launch Party this week, I put together this graphic reflecting on how our startup/tech community has grown in the last five years:
It’s amazing to see how much things have changed in a relatively short period. Ask any tech entrepreneur who was grinding it out prior to this and they’d say (myself included) that it was challenging to choose to grow a tech startup in Edmonton. Yes we had ‘made in Edmonton’ successes like BioWare, Swype, Investopedia, Intuit Canada, and AddictingGames to name a few. But many of the programs and incubators available to entrepreneurs were focused on company creation and growth — pitching and raising capital, commercializing technology, etc. All good things to be focused on, but only a small percentage of the tech/startup community could really take advantage of these opportunities based on the stage they were actually at.
What was missing underneath all this was community.
DemoCamp 1 in 2008 was the catalyst community event that would start to change this. Because the focus wasn’t about who the best, most investable companies in town were. Instead, the focus of DemoCamp was community and building/hacking. That year, four DemoCamps were organized, one BarCamp, one Code Camp, several Tweetups and tech meetups formed.
It was 2009 when I was connected with Cam Linke (who instigated DemoCamp while he was working at a local startup). I was working on my second company along with leading other community initiatives like Digital Alberta and artsScene Edmonton. It was clear we were on the same page when we found ourselves arguing over beers with another friend about the provincial government’s (in)ability to develop entrepreneurs, and how we (fiercely) believed that it was entrepreneurs who needed to lead the charge starting in our community.
Cam and I agreed that day to join forces, and we recruited our friends in tech like Mark Donovan, Sam Jenkins and Mack Male, and formed a new grassroots society called Startup Edmonton. Bootstrapped with our credit cards, we started organizing community events under the Startup Edmonton banner — DemoCamp, Startup Weekend, Startup Drinks, Hackathons, and the first Launch Party in 2010.
Taking the long-term view
In 2011, we saw momentum start to build, not only with Startup Edmonton, but all around us in the city. Other groups like Edmonton NextGen, InterVivos, artsScene, TEDxEdmonton, and JCI were hard at work on community building, and together we were engaging with thousands of Edmontonians, young and old, to think a little bit bigger around what they’re working on and what our city could be.
We could have kept organizing event after event. But we believed that to really move the needle, we needed to think bigger ourselves. Which meant we needed to think longer term about what we were building: How could we support what was happening in between events? How could we provide a place where creative, smart minds could gather on a regular basis to support each other, collaborate, and build companies from the ground up? How could we activate a talent pipeline capable of outputting wave after wave of smart creatives needed to start and grow companies 10–20 years from now?
Brad Feld, one of the co-founders of TechStars in Boulder, Colorado, and author of Startup Communities suggests that, “Most companies are 5–10–15–20-year builds. The startup community needs that kind of 20-year time horizon.” He knows first hand from his experience as a community leader and instigator in Boulder, and seeing the startup community develop there over the last 10–15 years.
We began putting the pieces together around a new downtown space at the Mercer Warehouse and ramped up the new Startup Edmonton into a fully-fledged machine built to attack this next set of challenges. From idea to funding to opening (in May 2012) took less than 8 months, thanks to a swell of support we received from business and community leaders of all generations.
The rising tide mentality
Since then, Startup Edmonton has grown to over 160 resident members, 45+ companies, 20+ meetup groups, and a staff of 5. We’ve seen companies like Poppy Barley and Localize grow from 1–2 founders to teams of 8+ people; Alieo Games and Mover evolve from hackathon projects into fully fledged companies; Student startup hubs open up on campuses; and, Launch Party startups like Granify, Jobber, Login Radius, Yardstick, and Showbie, crack into scale up mode backed by venture funding and real customers. All building up in Edmonton.
There’s a lot of momentum building in Edmonton and it doesn’t just have to do with the economy and mega building projects. It has everything to do with a “rising tide” mentality that we have a community capable of building amazing products and companies. If companies succeed, that’s awesome for the community. If companies fail, we support those entrepreneurs as a community so they can start to build something new.
Community can’t be a zero sum game, where one group rules over others, or fighting about who owns entrepreneurship. No one can own community. It’s also not just about collaboration — we should challenge each other to raise the game around what we’re each doing, and join forces when it makes sense. If we’re not adding more value to the community than what we’re getting from it, then that’s a problem.
We all benefit as a community when we don’t play for winners and losers, and play to win as a community. That means investing in each other with resources, time and mentorship. That means we don’t fight for talent, but rather focus on increasing and improving more talent for everyone. Thinking about a deeper talent and capital pool in Edmonton is thinking long-term about our startup community.
Startup Week is all about community
Edmonton’s startup community isn’t about Startup Edmonton. What’s exciting for us today is that more community leaders are stepping up, organizing initiatives and building spaces like Unit B (Lisa Hagen), YEGRB (Mark Bennett, Michael Deering), Ladies Learning Code (Bree Emmerson, Dana DiTomaso), GameCamp (Logan Foster, Dave Chan), eHUB at the University of Alberta (Qasim Rasi, Tony Briggs, Michael Lounsbury, Matthew Grimes), Hatch at NAIT (Sandra Spencer), Makerspace at the Edmonton Public Library, and so much to come.
This week’s inaugural Edmonton Startup Week is a way for us to capture and share everything that’s going right across our community. Startup Week is the best of everything we’ve done over the last five years as a startup community and then some. We see it growing like the great Startup Weeks happening in “great, not big” startup communities like Boulder and Austin.
So I hope you’ll join us to celebrate what we’ve all built together so far at Edmonton Startup Week this week (get your tickets here). If you thought the last five years were exciting, just wait and see how the next 10–15 years play out for Edmonton’s startup community.