TechRev Calgary: Flying a Rocket without Fins

Jessica LivingstonI went to the TechRev event at the Palliser Hotel last night in Calgary. TechRev was formed by the City of Calgary (Calgary Economic Devleopment), AE&T (SAIT, UTI) and CTI and had private sponsorship by the Calgary Herald, William Joseph, Material Insight and Cambrian House.

The evening was extremely well attended … I counted around 225 people, which, again is a a reflection of Calgary’s simmering high-tech community. It’s a great thing to be a part of to tell you the truth. I recognized many faces from my travels / writing this blog for Techvibes, and the intimate scene feels like a bunch of family members all rooting for each other.

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Derek Ball (from the ever-mysterious started things off as the MC, and introduced Jessica Livingston of Y-Combinator (Silicon Valley) who shared insights from her book “Founders at Work” in which she interviewed many success entrepreneurs (Hotmail, Adobe, Apple, etc…) about their early days. After her presentation, she turned her interviewing techniques to two of Calgary’s successes: Geoff Lyon, CEO of Coolit Systems, and Michael Sikorsky, CEO of Cambrian House, and I’ll use some of their comments below as I describe what Jessica had to say about the common traits of being an entreprenuer:

  1. Uncertainty. No one has the answers when they get started. Steve Wozniak almost didn’t leave HP despite having already invented the personal computer in his garage.
  2. Rejection. Not everyone shares your crazy enthusiasm. Employers don’t like your idea because it’s never been done before. Yahoo rejected Hotmail because “why would anyone ever check email when they’re away from their work computer?” Geoff noted: “Don’t worry about the big companies … they’ve got so much going on they can’t pay attention to your idea.”
  3. Plans change. Flickr started out as an MMO game but it became clear their users loved the picture sharing element the most. Blogger started as a project management company. As Geoff said “Being an entrepreneur is like flying a rocket without fins.”
  4. Scratch your own itch. Founders are trying to solve their own problems, and typically, other people have the same issue. Geoff mentioned that “Coolit Systems was founded by a gamer who wanted to frag his buddies better … so he developed a cooling system.”
  5. Perseverance. Lack of determination is #1 reason of failure within first 6 months. Geoff noted: “Make something people want and don’t give up.” Michael added: “Just keep typing … it’s rare to die at the keyboard.” Derek said: “My wife said to me: If this doesn’t work, will you just go get a real job?” Jessica: “The biggest disadvantage may be in your head.”
  6. Flexible-mindedness. Things don’t always go your own way. Pay attention to what is going on around you and adapt.

Jessica Livingston and Mike SikorskyThe last bit of the night was a message to new start-ups:

  • Mike: “Just start!” “I thought: go to school, get a job, get your MBA, start your company. But, it’s really about just having a bias for action” “You’re not alone.”
  • Geoff: “Forward thinking comes from desperation.”

… and some messages to investors, which, coming from Jessica who is a partner in the highly successful Y-Combinator, is worth taking note:

  • Smart people start start-ups, investors bet on them
  • Write more checks, but smaller ones
  • Take risks! Have patience for failure … it’s through iteration that entrepeneurs get better
  • Founders may not know how to monetize early. That’s ok.
  • More investment = more money = more flourishing start-ups in Calgary

Jessica said that the start-up world is very “meritocratic” (I had to look that up) … respect is given to those because of their abilities, not of their wealth or lineage. That pretty well sums up the Calgary scene.