Summer can be a rough time for entrepreneurs. While all the other little boys and girls are swimming at the beach and roasting marshmallows over a fire, startups are grinding away in the garage, sending emails across their network only to be reminded of the fun they’re missing by automatic out-of-office replies.
For entrepreneurs in desperate need of an escape, but who can’t tear themselves away from startup life, there’s a conference offering a solution.
Fireside Conference, held two hours outside of Ottawa at Camp Walden in Bancroft, Ontario, encourages participants to “disconnect to connect,” merging the modern networking conference with the nostalgia of summer camp.
An all-inclusive ticket to the conference, held this year from Sept. 8-10, gives the 400-some attendees full rein over the weekend’s programming. It ranges from the more business-minded keynotes and market discussions to informal networking such as waterskiing, campfire songs and kayaking. (In some cases, the workshops may actually take place in canoes.)
The conference’s two founders, Toronto-based lawyers Dan Levine and Steven Pulver, both attended Camp Walden in their youths. A decade after meeting each other there, they reconnected in the Toronto startup scene. After discovering their mutual passions for entrepreneurship and the camping environment, the two set about bringing these disparate worlds together; the collision produced a spark, and Fireside Conference was born.
Levine says their camp solves a frustration he and Pulver were finding with modern conferences in the city: The formulaic, formal setting of conferences rarely led to deeper connections other than exchanging business cards.
“We were feeling like we weren’t getting that relationship out of it, where we could really get to know the people in the community on a personal level,” he says.
Reflecting on childhood summer camps, Levine says there’s a phenomenon about being in nature, separate from technology and the world’s anxieties that helps people connect. If it works for kids, why not for entrepreneurs?
“When you’re up at camp, it’s just this magical thing where you can form relationships that are totally fast-tracked; I always say it’s like a shot of adrenaline in a relationship,” Levine says.
“We wanted to bring that environment to our network in the business, tech, entrepreneurship and startup world.”
Fireside began in 2015 with 70 people. Levine and Pulver didn’t know what to expect, or what their creation would become, but the overwhelmingly positive response led to a surge in demand in 2016. That year, they took on 285 people. This year, after receiving more than 1,500 applications, the number of spots is up to 400, with a bit of space still remaining.
The two founders could perhaps find a bigger location and scale up to make a few dollars, but Levine says they’re not looking for profit with Fireside. The conference is run on a break-even basis, more as a community-building program than a money-making one.
Levine says it’s important that the number of participants is kept low and the experience is kept intimate, and so prospective attendees must apply for an invitation. There are a few qualities in particular that Levine says they’re looking for in their campers.
First and foremost, you have to buy in to the idea of disconnecting ‒ leave the laptop at home, Levine says.
Fireside is seeking entrepreneurs who believe in the value of mindfulness and personal well-being while running a startup, and those hoping to send off a few emails or sneak in a Skype session likely aren’t the sort that would contribute to the camp’s culture.
Additionally, the organizers are seeking a diversity of attendees. First-time founders, big money investors and pre-IPO startups should all be represented, as well as campers from all spectrums of Canada. To that end, the conference has launched an “inclusion scholarship” this year to help bring in disadvantaged individuals who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to attend.
“By design, we’re looking for as diverse and eclectic of a group as we can. You can only go so far if you have a bunch of billionaires in a room; you can only go so far if you have a bunch of first-time founders in a room.”
The result, Levine says, is an informal, easy networking experience not often found in modern conferences where attendees and speakers are kept separate, donning name tags of different colours and prestige. Not so, at Fireside.
“You could be sitting next to someone whose company is valued at $10 billion, and they’re sitting in their sweatpants.”
Levine is proud of the culture forged in Fireside, which includes themes of giving back: Attendees have championed various causes over the course of the weekend, supporting and raising donations for charities such as Stopgap, Ladies Learning Code and the Upside Foundation.
With Fireside, the two founders seem to have accomplished a true rarity: In an industry dominated by technology, they’ve convinced hundreds to set the out-of-office reply, drive hours from the city and look up from their phones for a full weekend.
“You literally couldn’t live tweet if you want – there’s no internet connection!”