Feature: Top 5 takeaways from Montreal startup festival

The Montreal International Startup Festival is now one of the top events for aspiring and proven Canadian tech entrepreneurs, attracting about 2,000 people every year.

For the hundreds of startup founders who attend the event, it’s a chance to network, learn some lessons from successful entrepreneurs and maybe meet potential investors.

As its name suggests, the event, which takes place outside in Montreal’s Old Port, has a festival atmosphere. It’s a little more casual than your average business conference, but it’s serious when it comes to the content.

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Here are some of the key takeaways from the festival:

1. Being a startup isn’t about size — it’s about mindset

“I think a startup is actually much more of a mentality than it is a number of people thing, or how much revenue you have,” says Harley Finkelstein, the COO of Ottawa-based Shopify.

He says Shopify still has a startup mentality even though it’s a publicly traded company that dates back a decade.

“One of our core philosophies is ‘Act like owners,’” Finkelstein says. “If everyone feels like Shopify is their baby and everyone feels like they’re the founder of Shopify, even though we have more than 1,000 people, we get the best result.”

A big part of that, he says, is staying “scrappy.”

“We’re a group of guys and girls who really spend their time experimenting with things. Stuff that works, we scale and stuff that doesn’t, we shut it down,” he says.

One way Shopify maintains that “scrappiness” is by holding quarterly “hack days,” where employees can work on any project they want – provided it could help the company – for two days.

It’s a way for the company to experiment with new and sometimes outside of the box ideas, while boosting morale and giving employees a chance to work with new colleagues.

2. There’s only one Silicon Valley

“I don’t understand the obsession with trying to become Silicon Valley – I think that’s silly,” Shopify CEO Tobias Lutke told the audience during his talk on the festival’s main stage.

He says there is only one Silicon Valley and that startup ecosystems in other places should focus on their own strengths – because if they try to be something they’re not, they’ll just be a poor imitation of the original.

His colleague Finkelstein says he sees that happening.

“I think what Canadians have started doing is, rather than looking at all the reasons that their particular cities aren’t good, they’re looking at what they have that no one else has,” Finkelstein says. “I have a relationship with a group of ambassadors that can introduce me to anyone I need in any country because I live in Ottawa.”

While Finkelstein says he sees a tech renaissance happening across Canada, it’s particularly notable in Ottawa because the city was hit so hard when the dot-com bubble burst in 2001.

Still, Lütke says Silicon Valley might be worth the occasional visit. It can be a good place to think big, he says.

3. Even in the modern world, the tech business is still about people

Technology may be able to connect people like never before. A lot of the startups at the festival are taking advantage of that with their products, but meeting people in-person is still important.

“When you come to a place like this, the biggest thing you’re getting is you’re reconnecting with folks you already know and developing new contacts. Business is all about random collisions,” says Manu Sharma, the co-founder of Ottawa-based AirLoop, which offers a loyalty program for small businesses.

A casual meeting can “suddenly turn into a possibility, an opportunity,” he says. “It’s the connections, the people you meet and there’s always something to learn from people sharing their wisdom.”

Networking opportunities are also what drew Felipe Izquierdo, founder of Ottawa-based Welbi, to the festival.

“It really is all about the people that I meet, the connections that you build, the network, that’s definitely the No. 1 reason that I’m here,” says Izquierdo whose startup develops software that turns existing wearable devices into health-monitoring tools.

4. Don’t be afraid to compete — even if the odds seem long

Shaun MacLellan, a student at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management, says he wasn’t sure what he would get out of the Montreal festival. In fact, he didn’t decide to go until the last minute.

It ended up paying off for MacLellan, the founder of YouCollab, a startup that connects YouTube content creators. His startup ended up coming third in the festival’s main pitch contest. It received a $35,000 investment and an invitation to the attend the Next 36, a mentorship and networking program for young entrepreneurs.

Still, it wasn’t easy. MacLellan says he was around the 120th entrepreneur – out of more than 200 – to pitch the judges.

5. Investors want to see real products and real traction

“In general what we’re looking for is functional product, early customer usage and revenue, hopefully some semblance of a team,” Dave McClure, the founder of 500 Startups, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital fund and startup accelerator, told the audience during a talk at the festival.

He says his firm, which has more than US$200 million in assets under management and has invested in 1,300 startups, wants to see real metrics before it makes investments.

“I don’t want to know that you or your mom think your product is awesome, I want to know that your customers think your product is awesome and the objective evidence of that is that they’re using and paying for it,” he says.

I think a startup is actually much more of a mentality than it is a number of people thing, or how much revenue you have. — Harley Finkelstein, COO, Shopify

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