This year was my much-anticipated first year participating in the full lineup of Startupfest festivities. Over the past few years, I have expanded my network in Montreal’s entrepreneurship community through my work promoting cross-border trade at the U.S. Consulate in Montreal. This is where I caught my first glimpse of Montreal’s innovative and supportive startup ecosystem and decided I wanted to be a part of it. When I was hired as a new member of the Dynamo team whose focus is all about building relationships, I knew this event would be the perfect place to get started.
As the biggest startup event in Canada that has seen significant growth over the past six years, I was impressed to see that the festival has maintained the intimate vibe it is known for. After taking the time to digest after a busy week, I found there were three themes that really stuck with me.
1. The importance of onboarding new talent.
The first of my key takeways from Startupfest’s speaker lineup resonated with me as a recent addition to the Dynamo team who is currently experiencing firsthand the difference a thoughtfully designed onboarding process can make.
Flatbook’s VP of Product and former Head of Product Management at Frank & Oak, Isaac Souweine, led an interactive discussion on building hard culture in high growth startups. He kicked off the discussion with a differentiation between “soft culture” (surface level perks of the job such as office BBQs and ping pong), and “hard culture” (the norms of how a company operates at its core).
Ask any ping pong table manufacturer and they’ll tell you the same thing — startups are great at soft culture. But while fun workplaces are key to attracting and retaining talent, they are not sufficient to achieving business success. In order for startups to evolve into real companies, they need to build hard culture — value systems, communication protocols, meeting cadences and so much more.
A large part of the Q&A discussion focused on the importance of investing time into hiring the right people and taking the onboarding process seriously. I now understand from my own experience how essential both of these activities are for building and ensuring company-wide understanding of a strong set of values.
Before starting the job two months ago, I was greeted by welcome messages from each of my 32 new team members on a personalized Trello board. This set a tone of familiarity for my first day at what I would soon find out was a truly team-oriented and inclusive company. The board also listed what I should expect in the first days, weeks, and months on the job. I was assigned a mentor to help me navigate my new environment and to check in on me regularly.
Of course “soft culture” perks like weekly yoga, remote working, team retreats, an annual learning budget and dogs in the office were helpful selling points during the recruitment process (after my first week on the job I told my colleagues I felt like I was at camp). But this attention to formalizing the onboarding process was a demonstration of one of the key things that will keep me here in the long term– a “hard culture” that can’t be hacked. I know I’m working with a group of good people who are extremely competent at what they do, and who adhere to a core set of values that align with my own.
How are you ensuring that you are giving new talent a good understanding of who you are as a company, and where you are going? Which companies do you think do it best?
2. Pseudonymity creates genuine communities and can drive real change.
The first speaker in Thursday’s lineup also struck a chord with me, but for a much different reason. Alexis Ohanian, Co-Founder of Reddit, kicked-off day one with a talk entitled “How drag queens explain the internet”. The talk was based on the fact that Reddit had sponsored this year’s edition of DragCon in LA, where he learned that drag queens using Reddit were more attached to their pseudonyms than they were to their given names. If you have spent any time on Reddit, you’ll understand how pseudonyms allow users to truly be themselves and connect with people across the globe who share common interests without fear of judgement. Alexis asserts that using pseudonyms makes it possible to scale empathy and understanding, which can be the basis of real change.
We crave unfiltered content.
In his view (and I tend to agree) there is something anti-social about social networks where we present ourselves as the sum of our carefully curated posts. Using an alias or a pseudonym for identification removes the pressure to display an idealized image of ourselves, and instead encourages a community of strangers to interact in more genuine ways, like sharing tips to plan for the seemingly impossible task of paying off your debt and saving for retirement instead of boasting about your most recent accomplishments.
Alexis made the point that we are moving toward an age of authenticity, and we crave unfiltered content that wasn’t written by a publicist. This explains the rise of Snapchat and why the most popular “Ask me anything” demographic on Reddit is 65 and up. This demographic is used to telling it like it is, which makes their stories and advice all the more valuable. It is also one of the keys to the success of the grandmother judges at Startupfest — a panel of grandmothers with a wealth of experience across different domains and a proven track record of selecting the most successful companies from a lineup of pitches (including the 2012 award winners Onavo who were acquired less than two years later by Facebook for $150 million).
I believe that humility is another important condition needed to set the stage for meaningful, genuine online interactions. It is rare that human beings intentionally seek out information that disconfirms our existing beliefs, and this can cause serious polarization because of a confirmation bias, i.e. the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs. One of the few avenues that encourage this kind of discussion is a sub-Reddit called Change My View. The forum works because people participating in it have the humility to admit that they do not know everything, and the courage to ask to be proven wrong about their beliefs.
If you’re thinking about building a community-based app or adding a community component to your existing business, think about how you can create the optimal conditions for genuine interactions amongst users. Using a pseudonym as an identifier may not always make sense, but are there other ways to set the stage for humility, ensuring that people are really listening to each other?
3. Design technology to augment people, not to replace them.
An Artificial Intelligence panel made up of Melanie Warrick, Jana Eggers and Sam Molyneux assured us that the more you know about AI and economics, the less you’ll be afraid of computers taking over the world, which is always reassuring to hear. Tim O’Reilly, Founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, took an even more optimistic position, sharing his vision for new technology that will augment human skills so that we can do work that was previously impossible. Some tasks that were previously done by humans will become automated, but this will simply change the nature of our work, not obliterate it. In his view, we are entering a new chapter that we should look forward to instead of fearing for our demise, because machines and humans have historically achieved more together than humans could ever have achieved on our own, and we can make a conscious decision to continue moving in that direction.
If we let machines put us out of work, it will be because of a failure of imagination and the will to make a better future.
Restructuring industries and empowering people
One poignant example Tim used to demonstrate a successful application of the use of technology to empower people and restructure industries was the use of drones to deliver vaccines, medicine, and blood donations to Africa. This is a much quicker solution than building new roads, which is how humans traditionally would have solved this problem without the advancement of new technology.
What might we be astonished by if we have the courage to invest in the possibilities of a better future?
If you missed this talk, you’ll find Tim’s follow up blog post here. I found this discussion to be especially valuable because it is a proactive approach to the question of what the job market will look like for future generations. Instead of worrying about what might be, we’re better off designing the future the way we want it to turn out.
Thanks for reading! What were your favourite talks and themes at this year’s Startupfest?