Ottawa's Aydin Mirzaee shares five biggest takeaways from SaaS North

SaaS North
Aydin Y. Mirzaee, CEO of Fellow.app and Innovation Committee Board Member at Invest Ottawa, acted as MC for this year's SaaS North.

Last week, I had the pleasure of MCing the third edition of SaaS North, Canada’s largest SaaS conference for companies scaling up. Organized by Cube Business Media and co-founded with L-SPARK, the two-day event brought about 1,500 attendees to Ottawa’s Shaw Centre, showcasing some of the country’s finest tech innovation to date.

With a jam-packed agenda of expert speakers imparting tactical advice, startups making their pitches to investors, and strategic networking opportunities, there was a lot to take in. So, here are some of my most important takeaways from the event.

The best companies tackle big problems – and big markets

The event’s first keynote speaker was David Ossip, CEO of Ceridian, who helped take the company public earlier this year in what was Canada’s largest tech IPO ever. In describing Ceridian’s journey to a billion dollar company, Ossip shared a lesson from one of his early companies, explaining how that informed his approach for launching other businesses.

More specifically, he described how he literally ran out of market to pursue in an earlier venture, capping the company’s ultimate growth potential. With that in mind, it became very important to him to make sure he always targeted a large market that was also rapidly increasing in size for all new businesses he started thereafter.

Providing advice to other startups based on this experience, Ossip emphasized the importance of Canadian tech companies to tackle big problems in big markets with elegant and scalable solutions. He also advised that the companies should let go of and divest non-core businesses so they can pour everything they have into solving a single, large problem.

Building diversity and other values into a company’s DNA is not an afterthought

Another common theme that emerged in many of the conference talks involved company values, and the need to establish them as part of an organization’s DNA from the get-go. Speaker Michael Litt, co-founder and CEO of Vidyard, specifically called this out in his fireside chat, sharing that codifying company values early on allows a company to move fast and foster determination among its employees. He added that another benefit is that it helps organizations scale “feedback” by subtly permitting different people to give each other constructive feedback when they stray away from some of these core values.

Along these same lines, a number of conference speakers – which impressively represented a 50/50 ratio of men to women – mentioned the importance of making diversity one of these core company values. One panel dove into how diversity and inclusivity are paramount in scaling a product team; another panel gave tips for how to build these diverse teams at scale; and other speakers shared nuggets of wisdom about how to make diversity, inclusivity and belonging core values for organizations as well. During her keynote, Neha Khera, Partner at 500 Startups Canada, even shared the example of how her organization’s female-founded SaaS companies  outperformed the rest.

Product-led growth companies have higher margins and profits

Another keynote speaker, Tope Awotona, CEO of Calendly, introduced the interesting concept of product-led growth, a strategy through which companies rely on their products to drive customer acquisition and growth. The ultimate benefit, as he explained, is that this strategy allows companies to achieve higher margins and profits by reducing the need for larger sales teams.

Awotona shared the example from his own company of how Calendly uses a product-led growth strategy to give even free users the potential of bringing in paid customers. Drawing on this point, he explained that companies should work hard to create some form of virality into their products so that each customer who uses a product can draw in additional new users.

An entrepreneur’s journey is a winding path

No entrepreneur has the same journey – a point which Carol Leaman, co-founder and CEO of Axonify, gently reminded us in her keynote speech. Using her own experiences as thoughtful examples, she inspired the audience with the message that the path to success isn’t one dimensional. The key to success, she explained, is simply knowing the outcome that you want to achieve and focusing on that while not letting fear get in the way.

This same idea was clearly evident across the event’s diverse speaker list, too. More than 100 speakers took the stage over the course of the conference, each bringing their unique stories to the table and offering their own lessons to business leaders in the audience. Together, they demonstrated that no matter what challenges an entrepreneur faces, being open to change and believing in oneself is the only way to success.

CEOs have a dynamic role within their organizations

In much the same way that Carol Leaman describes the entrepreneur’s journey as a winding path, Dax Dasilva, Founder and CEO of Lightspeed HQ, shared on stage that throughout its lifetime, Lightspeed HQ has actually been six different companies. In line with this constant evolution, he explained how he has to be a new CEO every year in response to the different circumstances and situations he faces.

As such, his advice to entrepreneurs was to ask themselves each year what the company needs the most from them, and how they can maximize delivering on that. This may mean that founders will need to focus on new things and need to ensure that others can step in to take the lead on roles that the founder will no longer be able to occupy. Ultimately, his point was that CEOs have a dynamic role within their organizations, and that they must embrace this change wholeheartedly.

As the third annual SssS North conference has now reached its conclusion, it’s apparent that the event is here to stay. Having attracted top speakers and exceeded expectations year after year after year, there’s no doubt we can expect to see the conference grow in the coming years. The next edition will take place on Nov. 27-28, 2019, and is sure to be filled with more fun and lessons for the entrepreneurs who make up Canada’s blossoming tech ecosystem.

Aydin Mirzaee is the CEO of Fellow.app and founder of Fluidware.