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Startup adventures in St. John’s, NL

This is a guest post from Ed Fidgeon Kavanagh. The original post appeared on Medium.com

When you work in and around startups there are always loads of events you can attend, too many in fact.

Sometimes you’ll get the chance to go to an event in a far flung city, or if you’re being extra fancy you might attend an event in a different country, but in reality in most cases you never really get to experience what the city or country is really like. You’ll see the airport, the inside of a local taxi, the inside of a hotel room and then probably take a taxi to and from the venue and before you know it you’re back in the airport taking the red-eye flight back to Dublin airport.

So considering the above, when I was invited to come to Canada to be a pitch mentor at a Startup weekend by Roger Power of Startup Newfoundland & Labrador I decided that: A) It would be hard to stop me going and B) That if I was going, I was going to go for a week either side of the event to really check the place out.

Direct from Dublin to St. John’s

St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.

A few things you might not know about St. John’s:

It’s the eastern most point of North America, jutting way out into the Atlantic ocean. In fact once you head out of St. John’s harbour and head East, like really far East, the next place you’ll land is the Blasket Islands off the coast of Kerry.

Because it’s so close, getting there is fast. The (direct!) flight to St. John’s from Dublin was a mere 4hr 15mins, and on the way back it was even shorter clocking in at 3hr 50mins. Westjet fly direct from Dublin to St. John’s so there’s no messing about with transfers (which are the worst). So in summary… you can get to Canada in 4 hours, not bad really.

And Newfoundland doesn’t play by everyone elses rules. They operate on a timezone that is 3.5 hours behind GMT. Yep… three and a half hours… who signed off on that one?

Irish. Really Irish.

I had heard through various chats that Newfoundland’s culture was heavily influenced by the influx of Irish migrants that moved there in search of a better life starting from as early as the 1600s.

My initial strolls around the city made it very apparent that the place was indeed very Irish.

Irish flag on the left, “unofficial” Newfoundland flag on the right. Green white and pink.

On top of that the accent is at times nearly unbelievably Irish. I’ve described it to friends as sounding like an Irish person trying to put on a fake Canadian accent.

Startup Weekend (and week).

I think Startup Weekends are close to the perfect event, the mix of energy, enthusiasm and (unlike nearly all other events) pure and genuine goodwill make it a real winner.

I was there delivering pitch mentoring. Locals could barely hide their excitement after going through my “presentation on presentations”

The Startup Weekend in St. John’s was obviously a smaller affair than the sort of scale you’d see at a Startup Weekend in Dublin, but in some ways that’s a good thing. The smaller events are more intimate, less stressful (for literally all parties involved) yet still manage to achieve everything that needs to be achieved. You meet like minded people, you make new friends and you possibly start a business that could really go somewhere.

Ultimately the deserved winner was an idea pitched by Robert Byrne (pretty Irish name) called “Du Jour” that aimed to take the hastle out of recipe discovery.

The winning team at the Startup Weekend

What made him want to take part in the event? A desire to launch his own business just like his family member before him:

“My father and grandfather had their own businesses and I grew up watching the hard work they put in and the freedom and happiness it allowed them”

I could never be a fisherman.

As part of a great week of events laid on by the guys at Startup NL we took to the ocean in pursuit of whales and icebergs. Now, I haven’t been on the high seas all that frequently in my life so I suppose I didn’t know what to expect next. 1. There were no icebergs and no whales 2. There were 15 foot swells 3. I could never be a fisherman for a living.

I look happy, but I am feeling very, very sick here

At the time it seemed horrific. I had to relegate myself to sitting at the back of the boat, mouth shut, eyes focussed on the land in the distance (a tactic the more sturdy footed boat goers informed me would help my sea sickness). I recall the lady (in red) sitting beside me enquiring “If I pay you more, can you turn the boat around early”.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18-tI3aVRaI&w=560&h=315]

In hindsight it was great. I think I described it to Roger as “literally unforgettable”.

Plus, I was only out there for about 90 minutes. All of our ancestors who made the trip from Ireland across the ocean to Newfoundland, Boston, New York etc. would have endured conditions like that or worse for days or weeks, so ultimately I feel a bit guilty that I can complain about our comparative pleasure cruise.

Calm waters IN the harbour, not so much outside of the bay.

I’m a big fan.

After my first few days in St. John’s I was pretty much in love with the place, I’m not even sure exactly why, I think the city just fits with my personality really well.

Firstly, it’s a small city, which I really like, it would seem. I stayed in an Airbnb on the wonderful Gower St. which was about 3 mins from downtown, which in turn can be walked in it’s entirety in about 15 minutes max. For my $70 a night I got a huge 1 bedroom apartment. For price comparison, the last time I was in New York I paid the same amount for what essentially amounted to a prison cell in a hostel. But a really shitty prison cell.

The best seat in St. John’s

Secondly, the views on offer range from really nice to outrageously scenic. Take for example the photo below, taken at the mouth of St. John’s harbour, after a 45 minute hike during which I nearly fell into the ocean on no less than three occasions.

Yep… exactly where I should be!

I think it’s actually pretty rare that you have moments where you stop, look around, take a deep breath and feel “I’m exactly where I should be right now”, well it’s rare for me anyway, but as I sat there looking off along the glimmering coast and out across the blue ocean it definitely felt like one of those moments.

“But Ed, wasn’t this going to be a post about running a startup from a small city, not a love letter to a city”

Good point.

Starting a startup in a small city.

Two days after the infamous boat ride, once we had both recovered I met up with Sarah Murphy (pretty Irish name), a local startup founder.

She is co-founder of Sentinel Alert, a startup that came to life from a Startup Weekend held in St. John’s 2 years ago. The business specialises in worker safety solutions and has the very humane goal of “Helping bring workers home safe”.

Sarah reiterated what I had heard from countless entrepreneurs during my visit to Newfoundland, the bedrock of the ecosystem was that there was a vibrant, and growing, community.

Sarah Murphy of Sentinel Alert, and co-organiser of TedX St. John’s
“There are a couple of really cool things about this city. Firstly our startup community is new, growing & starting to take off (250+ strong!). It’s an exciting time to be part of this community! We regularly pack the house at startup mixers”

One of the problems that startups the world over face is a war for tech talent. Finding the right people ain’t easy, especially when you’re 6,000+ KM from San Francisco and 3,000+ KM from Dublin, with the hub cities like Toronto hoovering up most of the regional talent. For startups in smaller cities like St. John’s this means they have to adopt a more flexible approach.

The first part of Murphy’s approach to finding talent is to get out there and proactively look for it!

“Ask about the people you meet, get to know their passions & offer to help them out. It takes some patience & time. There are basement warriors in every small place, but they want to get to know you. If they commit to jumping in they’re betting on you, the person, not the business.”

Part two of her approach is to realise that in a lot of cases, having everyone under the same roof, in the same square footage just isn’t necessary:

“We’ll build a remote team (from around the world!). It’s important to be open to that in small/remote places”

Scaling a business in a small city.

It seems like literally every person I speak to who is doing something interesting has arrived at that point through a series of events that could never really have been planned in advance. Mark Kennedy (pretty Irish name) of Celtx exemplifies this point well.

He started studying chemistry in University, then changed tack and became a lawyer, only to later be won over by the challenge of creating a big business that was solving a big problem. Celtx is that aspiring big business and they’ve worked with some household name TV production companies.

“Newfoundland is where I’m from, and you get a lot of personal strength from this place”

Rather then upping roots and moving to TV production hubs like New York or Los Angeles, Kennedy is determined to make his business a success from St. John’s. Like Murphy, he doesn’t view the remote location as all that much of a hinderance.

“Living in a remote place is not the impediment it once was.”

According to Kennedy the main challenges faced by startups are 1) distribution, 2) finance and 3) a need for talent.

Distribution is relatively easy “If you’re building an export oriented business selling ones and zeroes, which we are, then the Internet solves the distribution problem for you.”

Finance was admittedly tough to come by, but Mark and co have managed to raise a strong round from investors in the nearby city of Halifax.

And as for talent?

“We ignored the prevailing wisdom on what an employer was supposed to do — how much employees should get paid (it was suggested we pay on the low side because it wasn’t as competitive a landscape for hires), where we should look for talent (people said look close to home), whether to grant options (not to, because no one understood what they were) etc. etc.
We, instead, decided to act as if we were in a war for talent. We pay at the top of the scale. We looked far and wide for developers. And we made sure everyone knew they would share in any success.”

Mark and Celtx look to have a really bright future, and I love the fact they are bucking normal conventions and doing it all from home.

Starting a community in a small city.

Roger Power (pretty Irish name), and his organisation Startup Newfoundland and Labrador aim to be a catalyst for the relatively new and (until now) fragmented startup scene in the region.

“StartupNL grew out of a need for the new generation of startups to connect with one another and share their talent, knowledge and experiences.”
“Call it a community, group or tribe, it is just people connecting with the currency of ideas and action”

The formal version of what they do is: “provide entrepreneur-led services that create a self-supporting, peer-to-peer community”, the casual translation of that being: “doing exciting and fun things like hackathons, Startup Weekends and pitch sessions”

I’ve always said that attending events is great fun, but organising them is the activity of a bunch of saints, I just don’t know how they do it (so thanks to the organisers of any events I’ve been to). I suppose it comes down to having genuine passion and a real interest in the bigger picture.

Roger and his Startup NL partner in crime, Jason Janes, certainly have that passion. So much so that not only did the guys organise the Startup Weekend, they organised a whole week of different events across the province back to back to make up a “startup week”. To me this Herculean effort seems like an act of madness. Not to Power:

“You know, it wasn’t tough at all. Like many other startup communities and groups, we treat this as a startup and if you don’t do what the market wants and quickly then that’s a missed opportunity. I hate missing opportunities. The skills, talent, engaging speakers, mentors, venues, food, ideas and all of those things are available — it’s just a matter of assembling them all in one place. Someone just needs to plant the flag in the ground and startup folks all seem to gather around. It’s like the Great Startup Reef”

Power also believes there are great synergies to be had been the startup communities found either side of the Atlantic and he has a great vision for a “North Atlantic Startup Arc” made up of Newfoundland & Labrador, Iceland and Ireland:

“Something amazing happens when the startup tribe gets together (I like ‘tribe’ now; I’m going to use it from now on!). We get excited and that is infectious. Ed, you’ve been in NL and I’ve been in Ireland. I’m sure we see the greater potential. Now as we do more together, the community, sorry, tribe, takes on a different character. It is bigger, bolder and anxious to get to work to take advantage of new connections. Just as no founder should be working in isolation, nor should a startup tribe.”

Just do it.

I loved my time in St. John’s and I’ll be back in the near future, there’s no doubt about that. And I’m really glad I spent a good chunk of time to check out the city properly. The next time you’re heading to an event, consider turning up early, or staying late, even if it’s just a day or half a day, it’s too easy to fall into the “airport to conference center” trap of going somewhere,but never really being there. (I’m aware that last line makes me sound like a cheesy motivational speaker)

I think what I learned from the startup scene in St. John’s is that location is not the strength or weakness it used to be. What I’ve seen is that it really does all start with community. Community is the glue that sticks all the fragmented pieces together and makes 1+1=3. And the key to get a community going in a small city is just to get started, today, even if it’s something small.

Wondering where to start? Well Sarah Murphy put it way better than I could!

“Just do it. Don’t worry about getting the right people in place to kick it off (mentors, backers, gov support) — YOU are the right person. Just find a bar or a coffee shop, pick an hour once a week/month/whatever, and make it a recurring meet & greet event. Put it out there on Facebook, Meetup.com, Twitter & tell everyone you meet leading up to it. You may get 2 people show up the first time, but the next time it will be 4. Then hustle. Enlist those first joiners to help you & ask everyone you know if they know someone who would love to come by. The right people will show up!”

The Shameless Plug.

I don’t always pose for photos beside boats, but when I do, I smile and look really cheesy.

I wasn’t going to include a shameless plug in this post until Roger Power told me I had to :-) I also needed an excuse to use the cheesiest photo that exists of me. So here we go:

I work with startups to make sure that they tell their story in a powerful effective way, and do this backed up by slides that kick ass. I’ve helped startups raise over $7m in the last 2 years, and during that time I’ve also mentored at 6 Startup Weekends (as I say… because they are the perfectevent). So if you need help raising money, or helping Startup Weekend teams kick ass be sure to get in touch.

You can get me at ed@clearpreso.com

I also tweet a lot, and not all of it is nonsense! You can find me HERE

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