From Tinder to White Star Capital, my journey as a young VC in Canada 🇨🇦
After 3 incredible years spent as an active member of the Canadian tech ecosystem, I am moving to London with White Star Capital to focus on investments in the UK, France, and the Nordics. Exciting stuff ahead!
One may criticize my taste in weather, but what can you do. It’s been a fantastic experience working with startups here in Canada, the ecosystem has grown tremendously over the last couple of years. Going from operator to VC has taught me a lot: here’s a look back at my recent journey and lessons.
It all began in September 2013, serendipitously meeting Tinder’s co-founder, Justin Mateen. I was inspired by his vision, the project and fascinated by the virality that the product had generated in the US. I got involved launching the app in Canada, starting with Montreal: a perfect city given the company’s early focus on the student population.
Montreal is home to 248,000 post-secondary students, making it the city with the largest density of students in North America.
Six months into our marketing efforts, the app had already broken into the top 5 ranking on iOs in Canada. After a year into the role, I switched my focus to help launch the app’s ground marketing operations in a series of countries worldwide, splitting my time between Montreal and our HQs in LA.
It was 2+ years of non-stop learning experiences, in a job with extremely quick feedback loops, working alongside exceptionally talented people.
In my conversations with entrepreneurs today, I still learn in retrospect from all the mistakes, challenges and successes that came along the way.
In parallel, I had gotten increasingly involved in the growing tech ecosystem in Montreal, mentoring companies at McGill’s Dobson Centre and meeting founders who were building startups in a wide variety of sectors. The energy was visible and I could sense that Canada was at an inflection point.
White Star Capital
One individual I had gotten closer to, JF Marcoux, was however instrumental in how I started thinking about my next career move. So much that when I heard about the Analyst opening at his VC firm White Star Capital, it became an obvious next step for multiple reasons:
- The opportunity to work and learn directly from JF — a successful entrepreneur who was a former banker — was unique.
- A focus on internationalizing early stage companies, with a strong thesis on mobile. The continuity with my previous experience was extremely attractive.
- Becoming White Star’s first employee in Canada, and being part of a new ambitious project.
- Working with a small team again, composed of 7 experienced investors between New York, London, and Montreal (only JF + his future Analyst).
- Learning and geeking out on new tech trends on a daily basis, non-stop, for a living.
…and so many other reasons, from combining my interests in finance and technology, to making a day job out of being helpful to entrepreneurs.
My adventure at White Star therefore started in January 2016, and it’s hard to imagine how I could have made a better choice. I am really grateful for all the trust that’s been given to me by JF and the partnership in this role; attending 50+ events to represent the fund, meeting with hundreds of founders, and leading due diligence on two Series A transactions — Salesfloor and IMMUNIO.
The question I get asked most often is “how does it feel to transition from a startup to a VC?”
The truth is, it hasn’t changed much in how it “feels”. White Star is a three year old company that’s raised an initial round of $70m, operating in the tech industry and with ambitions to grow really fast. A lot of processes are yet to be built and we all wear many hats.
The biggest challenge has been balancing between the inevitable excitement that comes with constantly learning about new businesses, and the need to keep a distance with the entrepreneur and be extremely analytical (not taking any information at face value). When you filter through hundreds of decks every month, the founders you end up meeting usually have a pretty solid pitch ready (at the Series A level), and my natural reaction in the first few weeks was to quickly jump into the company’s product roadmap and brainstorm on growth hacks.
Although this is great to spark a relationship with founders, you’ll only get so far by playing good cop — and you’re not actually being helpful. A good VC will manage to:
- Balance that with his experience on startup struggles in order t0 dig into the company’s biggest challenges.
- Stay humble and keep in mind that you won’t know more about their business than the person pitching you — and if you do, it’s probably not the right team to back.
- Ask the right questions, and be a great listener.
- Give feedback to founders on which milestones they should hit to raise their round.
- Make intros (using double opt-in) if it is mutually beneficial to both the entrepreneur and the person in your network.
And more, which I think is brilliantly covered in this piece. I learned how to say “no” (about 99% of the time), how to challenge and always ask “why” (thank you Lylan), how to reflect on my experiences and give useful feedback , how to build relationships intelligently (thank you Alex), how to quadruple check my work (thank you JF), and so much more in just over a year.
In my mind you need to have the right combination of analytical, a passion for tech, and people skills. Most junior VCs will be good at any two of those things, and try to strengthen the third.
2016 was such an exciting year to be a VC in Canada:
- People are generally starting to realize that you don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to build a $B company
- More capital available for startups, with Canadian VCs raising larger funds and several new highly relevant players emerging (Georgian, OMERS, iNovia, Portag3, and Diagram)
- Government support for startups, such as the highly competitive R&D tax credits (SR&D and IRAP are popular examples), the plan for government spending in AI and encouraging the youth to study computer science
- Canada is inclusive by nature and the tech community is strongly benefiting from diversity
- And of course the AI boom in Canada — which has been widely documented (FT, WIRED, NYT) — led by University of Montreal’s Yoshua Bengio: a worldwide known figure in AI academics and considered to be one of the godfathers of Deep Learning.
Unlike other regions like the US and Asia, which saw both quarterly deals and dollars decline vs 2015, Canada ended Q4'2016 with a 27% increase in deals and 49% spike in funding from the previous quarter. In its 2016 full year report, here’s what the CVCA features as highlights (all figures in CAD):
- A record breaking year: At $3.2B, 2016 VC investment exceeded 2015 by 41% ($2.3B) and is the highest on record since 2001.
- Increasing round sizes as the startups mature: The average deal size was $6.1M, the highest since 1999 and 44% higher than 2015 ($4.2M).
- More late stage rounds: Eleven $50M+ deals totalled $1B dollars, compared to only five $50M+ deals in 2015 totalling $335M
- Trends are being led by ICT: with almost $2B invested in 330 deals, with six of the top ten 2016 deals being in this sector.
- Early stage companies received $1.6B (half of all VC investments) over 261 deals, up 29% from last year’s $1.2B.
In very Canadian fashion, people in the community are collaborative and always willing to help. A symbol of that is the MaRs District in Toronto as well as the Espace CDPQ (where we moved offices) in Montreal located just under WeWork, where the majority of VCs have their offices. This is important because it shows everyone’s willingness to collaborate on deals and to push in the same direction. Entrepreneurs, academics and corporates alike can also be found in what has become the epicenters of innovation in Canada, with an aim to catalyze serendipity amongst all layers of the ecosystem.
The sense of community is extremely strong and everyone wants to give back. It’s a mix of Canadians’ natural qualities and a common realization of the opportunity that lies ahead to reshape the economy.
White Star was bullish on Canada from Day 1 for all those reasons, and it’s now become one of our comparative advantages when talking to foreign entrepreneurs, VCs, and LPs.
It is with a heavy heart that I part ways with my beloved Canada. Beyond the lifestyle, food, and amazing weather that Canadians benefit from 😉, it is above all the people that I was lucky enough to work with that I will miss the most. I’ve said my goodbyes in person and you know who you are, thank you again for everything.
It’s now time to go home, or at least somewhat (I’m from Switzerland). Europe is small and the opportunity to come back closer to my friends and family was tempting. I will now be working (and learning) alongside Christian Hernandez and Nick Stocks. While the former is essentially one of the most influential people in European tech, having led Facebook in EMEA and co-founding White Star, the latter has worked on 30+ VC transactions (at GFC), with previous experiences building/operating startups, and working in corporate development and TMT banking. Talk about mentors…
I will be splitting my time between London and other cities such as Stockholm and Paris, sourcing deals and building our relationships with all relevant stakeholders. If you’re building or investing in companies in FinTech, Disruptive Commerce, IoT, or AI in the cities above, please do get in touch by email here: firstname.lastname@example.org
To all my Canadian friends, keep up the amazing work and hustle — I will be back soon.