The Best of Startupfest
From July 12th to 15th, a rainstorm of advice and knowledge regarding life, business and people inundated the individuals lucky enough to find themselves in the downpour of insight at Montreal Startupfest. Speakers turned heads and raised eyebrows with discussions of survivorship bias, the recognition of luck, the importance of rest and advantages held by Canadian startups in the global market. Most importantly, these powerful innovators inspired constructive discussion and provoked productive questions, fanning the flames of entrepreneurial spirit into a blaze of excitement for the future endeavours of startups everywhere.
The dynamics within a startup are arguably just as critical as the interaction of a startup with the external world; certainly, the atmosphere within the team can be subtly woven into pitches, media representations and the actual product/service. With this in mind, the way the members of a startup are organized has a massive influence on the way the company functions. This was exemplified by a discussion of the importance of a “Fight Club-like mentality” within a core team — the ability to have far-reaching, often frictional discussions with co-workers, yet be able to separate these clashes and enjoy a drink after work as friends. Essentially, it is important to nurse and consistently maintain a comfortable environment where creative differences can be effectively debated, but a base level of respect and friendliness is established. This is particularly important to keep in mind in startups, which are often relatively small groups of hard-working individuals with their own ideas, feeling the pressure of the competitive business world.
Another crucial aspect of startup success was delved into by Zack Onisko, CEO of Dribbble: design. In particular, the design of a website factors heavily into the initial judgement of credibility of an organization. This is a vital first impression made in 1/20th of a second, and it influences customer experience from that point on. This speaker also focused on design starting with empathy for a user, focusing on ease of use and meeting the needs of a user, regardless of the rationality of these needs. The design of an app, website or media page for a startup is equivalent to its first handshake with a user; and one learns a lot from a handshake, consciously and unconsciously.
In the first few instants of meeting a person, you often make assumptions and evaluate traits such as trustworthiness, interest, and uniqueness. This first impression can dictate your future interactions with the person: Do you feel relaxed and safe, or overwhelmed and suspicious? Are you intrigued by a remarkable trait or will you have to mine for an interesting conversation? Is their attention even attainable or do you already feel disconnected? All of these social nuances are analogous to the subtleties of design in a startup’s public representation. According to Onisko, the designer to engineer ratio at IBM has gone from 1:72 to 1:8 in the last five years. In a rapidly changing world overflowing with information, advertising and innumerable sources clamouring for attention, a well-planned design can be the difference between a hook-and-stay and a look-and-walk-away.
Additionally, a repeated theme of several speakers at Startup Fest involved the role of luck in success; as David McRaney of You Are Not So Smart Blog discussed, survivorship bias is rampant in the startup world. The most common pattern seen in clusters of successful businesses is luck, but these successes often forget or gloss over the role that fortune played in getting them to where they are today. McRaney also delved into the idea of the apple orchard collection strategy, where “lucky” people tend to try different trees and thus have more variety in their collections than “unlucky” people who visit the same tree and consistently receive the same results. In this sense, he proposed that unlucky people/businesses tend to be focused on a goal to the point of ignoring seemingly irrelevant information in the environment which could propel them in the direction of success if considered. This concept of luck as the result of more “open-minded” personalities is intuitive, and has relevance on the scale of individuals as well as entire companies.
However, with the great energy required to manage a startup comes a need for corresponding rest and reflection; one can only burn so brightly for so long before inward collapse or at least, a need to lower the flames. An interesting recurring motif mentioned by various speakers was the importance of rest and the impact of sleep on optimal functioning. David Brown, Founder and CEO of Techstars, outlined the value of sleep in terms of better decision making during the daytime; John K. Bates, CEO of Executive Speaking Success, vividly described the negative effects of stress and lack of sleep on his health, triggering an autoimmune disease and an obvious need for reflection and re-evaluation.
Bates went on to share, in his experience, the immeasurable value of tribulation as a way to connect with others: “people connect with your messes and not your successes”. This message of viewing misfortune as an opportunity to understand and relate to people is a powerful aphorism for the startup community who, along with the rest of the population, will inevitably fail and struggle up mountains only to find themselves caught in an avalanche back to the bottom. It is how we react to instances of setback and challenge which defines how we are perceived by others and provides an opportunity to resonate with the masses. Viewing an obstacle as an occasion to prove one’s mettle is key in surviving competitive environments.
Harley Finkelstein, COO of Shopify, praised Canada as a desirable breeding ground for companies able to succeed on a global scale due to its innate multi-cultural profile, involvement in global business and immigration policies. He presented an interesting concept of “geographically agnostic” business in today’s world, which allows for the creation of companies within Canada able to succeed on a global scale previously not possible.
However, in order for this to be true for a startup, multi-culturalism must be considered in the product/service implementation and appropriately used to garner an understanding of different cultures in relevance for the company. A benefit of such a diverse audience could be the potential to gain traction globally through word-of-mouth, the most effective form of advertising. In addition to this, feedback from a multi-cultural market also provides insight into modifications and considerations which should be made before launching efforts in foreign countries with varying values and customs. In short, diversity in the Canadian population is a gift to startups in the country, and this should be understood by entrepreneurs who can use it to improve their businesses.
Another intriguing perspective was offered by Alistair Croll, Founder of Solve for Interesting, who spoke about the digital revolution as an “extinction-level event”; the significance of this unprecedented spike in technological innovation cannot be understated. The digital revolution has resulted in significant alterations in predictions made for product lifespans and societal needs to be met. Analogously, he discussed the fear wafting around in the late 1800s that cities would be submerged under horse manure without any way to clear it effectively. This prediction / fear ended up irrelevant due to the subsequent advent of motorized cars, which was completely foreign to much of the public and unaccounted for in their predictions. Croll described human prediction of the changing world as generally terrible; his focus is on the perverse and unintended consequences of change. For example, the governance of AI will become extremely important in the coming years, and the consequences of ushering in an era of “knowledge we cannot explain” must be considered and the implications for the scientific community.
According to Croll, we often mis-predict the future due to the suddenness of innovation and the blinders of our current worldview blocking more insightful considerations. Instead, we should focus on more peripheral unintended consequences of actions, and how innovations will impact abundance, scarcity and demand. For example, in the case of a spike in AI products in the near future, it may be that compassion and human connection will become the scarce commodity, lost among a tsunami of AI applications with a focus on problem-solving and almost certainly not emotional intuition. This thoughtful and unusual view of the world is both interesting and valuable in how it can be applied as a lens for a new startup; considering not only long-term predictions based on current worldviews but also constantly evaluating global changes which could influence the success of a business is crucial to be able to react nimbly to sudden changes in this fast-paced world.
It is an incredible advantage for a small company to be agile enough to alter its course according to fluctuations in global demand, interest and innovation. Essentially, it is almost impossible to control or predict the future of the volatile external world, and thus it is beneficial to create a startup which is malleable and adaptable in its application, yet consistently relevant in its fundamental purpose.
All in all, Startup Fest 2017 was a brilliant amalgamation of advice, ideas and inspiration. From thoughtful notions about design to bold statements about fortune, we absorbed countless pieces of wisdom which we hope will strengthen the foundations of our endeavours. In summarizing some of these profound ideas, we hope to stimulate productive thought and contribute to a community of entrepreneurship with great acumen and strength to reach heights of which we have yet to dream.