Takeaways from CIX 2017, a Toronto tech conference

CIX conference bills itself as:

a leading technology conference where investors, innovative companies, founders and facilitators converge to learn, network, and do deals

This was my first time attending. I’d attend again. Not only on account of the quality of the participants and content, but also the welcoming and supportive atmosphere.

For some reason I was immediately reminded of older Toronto tech conferences from ten or more years ago — for example, the then-exciting mesh conference (current ones might still be exciting but I haven’t attended in years) that had the tagline “Canada’s web conference.” What stands out, in contrast, is how Toronto’s startup tech industry has matured. That Wild West town with its single church has become a peaceful city of the world.

These takeaways won’t come as a surprise to anyone immersed in the tech Zeitgeist. But the frequency at which so many speakers, founders and investors repeated these same few existential ideas — presented as the difference between growth and death — was surprising.

Focus, focus, focus

Invariably your business is going to come to a crossroads: take the money or realize the vision. If your company’s main business is derived from a SaaS product, don’t deviate by building custom solutions for specific clients to help your cash flow along the way. Stay focused. If you just can’t pass up the ancillary opportunities, spin-off other companies.

Startup culture thinks differently

Startup culture is radically different and it manifests through the type of people you hire and the operational model employed. For instance, not paying sales reps commission — can you imagine? Or as a founder, taking less equity, even less than 51%, so that employees can be better aligned. Spending half of your time as CEO on recruitment and deeply thinking about the operational model. Not being afraid to think and operate differently.

Partnerships or death

Each already successful startup that presented had several partnerships with larger established companies. This gave the startup, among other things, necessary credibility at key junctures in their development. This is obvious in hindsight. Not so clear is how the partnerships came to be. Possibly the result of strategically selected board members and good sales staff. Possibly tenacity.

The future versus now

Have a separate team focused on R&D. Even if that team is one person. Especially in tech, don’t sacrifice the future for today.

Platforms and open source are eating the startup world

It was almost comical. Founder after founder: we’re not just x, we’re also a platform and the platform is powered by an open source API. It was a serious relief when a company dedicated to making better milk, SomaDetect, did not claim to also be building an open source platform. Very interesting company, by the way.

Surprisingly, I didn’t hear “we’re the Uber of x” once.

As for platforms, humour aside, this is clearly the path to growth. Allowing 3rd parties to develop for your platform directly is a beautiful thing.

Platforms interacting with other platforms with no human input or awareness is a little less beautiful. Your fridge detects you’re low on milk and connects to your grocery chain’s API, orders you more. The grocery chain connects to the delivery company’s API. Milk arrives at your door and the robot puts it in your fridge. Without you even knowing you were low on milk to begin with. Frightening and a little awesome.

AI + Machine Learning

Everything plus AI. I’ll take that Scotch on the rocks of AI, please. Definitely detected some fatigue with the overuse of the term. One of the founders talked about being careful to not over-promise or over-sell.

Nonetheless, extremely excited about the possibilities of AI and ML to transform our world for the better.

Data

This takeaway should have gone first. It’s all about data. Good data leads to good customer experiences and — due to rapidly changing customer expectations — that’s where it starts and ends.

One speaker put the importance of data into three pillars: simplicity, speed, and personalization.

We heard that a third of enterprise data is not used, sourced to a Forrester report. 99% not used if you’re in the retail industry.

Startups that stood out

  • GBatteries — tech that charges your batteries in minutes instead of hours
  • SomaDetect — tech that measures dairy quality from every cow at every milking
  • SecureKey and BioConnect — interesting approaches to identity security
  • Real Matters — services for the mortgage industry
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