Exclusive Interview with Boris Mann of Boot Up Labs

If you’re a Vancouverite, in the technology sector, you have a startup and/or have been involved in a startup, you’re a blogger, you’ve used Drupal and like food, you’ve probably heard of Boris Mann.  Amongst his many roles, READ: the list is long, he is one of the managing partners of Boot Up Labs, a startup accelerator and seed fund that helps founders build tech startups and takes them to their first round of funding over an eight-month period.  I’ve recently had the chance to catch up with Boris about new things happening at Boot Up Labs, new local startups to watch, and his thoughts about the Vancouver investment scene.

So what’s new with Bootup Labs? Are you loving the work?

I’ll answer the second part first.  Yes, I’m loving the work. I’ll speak for the rest of the team and say that we really enjoy coming into the office, sharing ideas, and diving into the next thing in front of us.  What’s new? Well, the main thing is that we knocked out the wall in our office and rented three more offices from WaterStreetProfile, and took in 3 new companies in our May 2009 cohort.

Our January companies, AdHack and Let’s Go For Dinner, are firing on all cylinders. AdHack has some great news with Macworld and a few other larger distribution partnerships in the pipeline, and Let’s Go For Dinner found a CTO and are in the midst of launching their new site.  Aside from the 5 Bootup portfolio companies, we’ve got a handful of “friends of Bootup” in the space – Jonathan Ehrlich is squatting in one little office working on *something* interesting, Strutta has been kicking ass powering contests all over the place and extending the platform, and QC Docs (that provides paperless bookkeeping for all our companies) now has a product for public companies, too.

We also “launched” the Bootup Labs Entrepreneurial Society (aka BLES) and have a new face in the office to go along with it – Sonia Ryan started this week as Coordinator. She was an intern with Strutta and we loved her work and having her energy in the office so we figured out a way to keep her around. Sonia is going to give us a bit more bandwidth to organize more events and marketing / pitching opportunities for startups in Vancouver – you can see her smiling face in the Launch Party Vancouver 7 contest video.

Somewhere along the way, we refreshed the main Bootup Labs site it needs more work, but I’m happy with the way we highlight important “News” items from the blog right on the front page, and how we’re aggregating what we call “Founder News” on the front page – blogs from all our portfolio companies plus some selected feeds as well as shared items that we think are of interest to the wider entrepreneurial community.  It feels like a critical mass of energy is in the air, which is a great environment to be working in.

The new companies being accelerated: Who are they, When and How did you make your choices to choose them?

The three new companies are:

  • Over Interactive Media – a multi disciplinary team, and our largest founder group to date with 4 people. DimeRocker is their portal for browser gaming focusing on the Unity 3D engine. They’ll be adding social APIs and some other cool web/game cross over features
  • 8.5 x 14 Media – like wikipedia for small business legal work; there’s lots more to it, I mainly want to highlight that founder Martin Ertl is our first more experienced entrepreneur – he’s one of the co-founders of Navarik; it was important to us that the Bootup program work for folks that have already taken a kick at the can and want to do it again
  • Layer Boom – Trevor O lived in our office for a big chunk of last year. He’s now back officially as CTO with a business minded co founder Howie Wu as CEO (and they even have employee #1, Josh). The tag line is “power efficient virtualization and cloud computing”

They’re all at slightly different stages and mixes of founding teams, so not much else to say at this point other than “stay tuned”.

These companies are part of our May intake. That means we’re meeting with founding teams most of the time, seeing what stage they are at and how that fits with the Bootup program. Once we’re at full operations and have our permanent office space to fit everyone, we’ll move to more of an open call system with applications on a regular basis. It still comes down to meeting the people and seeing if there is a fit – get a cofounder, make an executive summary, put up a prototype and show that you’re already executing.

Actually, let’s talk about the name change of incubating to accelerating.  Why the change and what does that mean?

This was never really a change – or rather, we’ve never labeled ourselves as an incubator. We could say something like Incubator 2.0, but that’s just terrible as well.

Basically, we are defining ourselves as different from early incubators – they’ve been around for decades – to indicate that the conditions of funding companies and building companies has changed. In the 90s, incubators in NYC would give a startup $1M or $2M, and they’d turn around and immediately spend up to half of that on servers and a data center. Today, with Amazon (and LayerBoom’s!) cloud computing options, you don’t have any of that up front cost.

We do think that physical space is important – it makes it easy for everyone to have water cooler conversations or quickly poke their head in the door of an office. It also concentrates the startup pheromones. But physical space used to be the main factor of an incubator. The promotional / marketing “bump” of being associated with a Techstars or a Bootup is arguably more valuable, with the personal connections with mentors being likely the most important part.

In short, we try and put the support infrastructure in place so that founding teams can focus on building their business and growing from prototype to traction. We accelerate.

What can a startup expect in the 8 month program?  At the end?

We strive to put everyone on the GSD program aka Get S*** Done. Founding teams can expect to be challenged and inspired. We try and break things down into Business, Marketing, and Technology. That’s obviously an over simplification, and it’s not like we have a big book of answers or templates for every situation. What we try and do is document, learn, and share from everything we come across. Some of it is public, and some of it is available internally (doing an event? Go sign up for Eventbrite, and then do X, Y, Z). Lastly, connections – if we don’t have the answer, let’s go find someone that can shed some light on it.

At the end, we hope to see a good majority of companies getting a large angel round or Series A funding. Much like Techstars, we’ll be presenting the companies we work with to investors and showcase how they have moved from prototype to traction, and how their first round will put them on the path to larger success.

What does moving in with Bootlabs really mean?

It means you really are quitting your day job, taking the leap, and giving it your best shot to make your startup idea a success. It means coffee, beer, bacon, tech, marketing, NHL on the XBox. It means riding the startup emotional rollercoaster. It means learning about Business, Marketing, and Technology and where your fit is within a team. Moving in with Bootup means that you’ve got 240 days to get your startup to traction, and yes, weekends count.

Do you own shares in the companies you accelerate?

Yes (and no). We take an equity stake in each company  – lots more details on the about page. The “no” is because the investment is structured as convertible debt – when the startup wins, that’s when we win. So we’re highly motivated and aligned with the founders.   If any of that sounds like gobbledygook, go do some research – we have to start getting more Canadian founders familiar with and educated about the language and instruments of business and investing. Venture Hacks is a good site that founders should be subscribed to.  The FAQ page has a few more tidbits that are probably useful.

Who else is involved? Investors, VC’s and potential future investment opportunities?

We’re currently closing a round of $2.5M, which so far includes a local VC and angels from Vancouver and Silicon Valley.  We’ll be announcing a great list of mentors in the coming weeks, which are an important component to help advise founders as well as introduce them to the world of their connections. Some will be local, but most will be industry figures from around the world, and will give them a chance to get exposed to the great community that we have here.  Lots of people, especially after Brad Feld’s inspiring talk, want to get involved in help. We see the BLES non-profit as being the backbone that can develop different programs and groups so that we can scale to help many individuals and companies in the local ecosystem. An example is Angela Baldonero, who is the “VP of People” at ReturnPath, a company that Brad Feld has invested in in the past. Angela has just moved to Vancouver from New York, attended the event, and asked how she could help. We’re asking her to help with our co-founder speed dating– and as it turns out, she helped organize Boulder.me and has done tons of these type of events.

How are you similar to Techstars?

Rather than a big compare and contrast (length of program, amount of money, people involved, etc. etc.) I’ll just say that we definitely started by looking at the Techstars program and feel most “spiritually aligned” with their model.  From there, we evolved the model looking at the strengths that Vancouver and Canada in general has – from company structure to government programs.

Brad Feld mentioned the startup environment of the valley as opposed to Colorado? How would you describe Vancouver’s environment? Advantages and disadvantages?

I think one of our main advantages is the cross over of the industries that we have here. We have a history in web tech that is under appreciated – and more particularly in open source. Hat tip to Dick Hardt and ActiveState for kicking off this open source concentration before *anyone* knew what that even meant.  I started with web tech, but our larger/more well known industries are film & television, gaming, and music. What these industries have in common is that they are converging and mingling, and that they’re filled with creative people. We have no excuses to not band together and kick ass.  We obviously focus on “digital media” (consumer Internet, mobile, gaming, and enterprise Internet), but there is strong local “hard tech” because of our local universities. Examples include research/business in fusion (General Fusion), quantum computing (D Wave), and non-carbon-fuel transportation (I think there are 3 or more electric car companies locally).