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It was hands-down the best Tech TO of 2019. OK, so it was the first Tech TO of 2019, but that shouldn't take the shine off the fact that this event was one great way to kick off the new year.

With yet another standing-room-only crowd, the team at Tech TO again took a giant leap toward creating an amazing technology ecosystem in Toronto. By raising the level of awareness, the level of talent and the level of connectivity within the ecosystem, Tech TO is actively working to make Toronto one of the best tech hubs in the world. All this sprouts from a humble meeting in a basement 5 years ago where co-founders and co-hosts Alex Norman and Jason Goldlist wanted to create a space for entrepreneurs to share their lessons learned.

As the event has grown and evolved, so too has Tech TO’s ambitions. Aiming to help further strengthen the Toronto tech ecosystem, the team is inviting all to take a quick survey to get the voice of the community heard — so they can understand what is working and what is missing.

But wait, there’s more news! Tech TO is also offering memberships, which gives access to exclusive experiences, free tickets, surprise swag and discounts. As Goldlist said, “You love hanging out with us, and we love hanging out with you, so let’s make this official.” Launched just a few days ago, the goal is to reach 100,000 members within 5 years and support each one as they navigate the tech ecosystem.

A spirited Community Open Mic kicked things off , including announcements from students from the Full Stack program at U of T announcing their impending graduation, Tech Spark looking for donations after a recent funding cut, several interesting startup announcements and three high school students interested in AI, just looking for people to talk to. Needless to say, this was a smart, ambitious crowd.

Bringing an International Perspective to Toronto Tech

A number of the presenters of the January event brought a global context to this edition of Tech TO, proving that an external view can add a lot of value when it comes to seeing gaps and opportunities.

To start, Hassan Bhatti, co-founder of CryptoNumerics, has visited 37 countries since 2010. Originally from Pakistan, Bhatti was a professional cricket player and within three weeks of coming to Toronto seemed to know everyone. Hassan talked about the lessons he has learned while working in deep tech.

The first he learned while working at Iris Automation, building vision-based drones. His lesson here was that if you work in a regulated industry — such as aviation — it is critical to understand the regulations. As far as external factors go, understanding regulations is just as important as understanding your customers.

The second lesson was learned while building the world’s first QML incubator. While he helped build deep tech quantum companies, he learned that customers don’t care how the tech actually works. Rather, they care that it solves a problem. The lesson is to communicate the value proposition to your customers, rather than the intricacies of the technology.

Finally, Bhatti passed along the importance of understanding the industry in which you’re working and selling. He told us that selling deep tech is one of the hardest things — it’s really tough to convince a company to pay more than $100,000 to build something where there are no benchmarks, and something they don’t really understand. Rather, you need to be able to understand the industry and identify that you can change a company’s revenue from $10M to $100M — because that’s all they really care about.

Marcus Rader, founder of Hostaway was next to speak. Rader moved to Canada from Finland almost four years ago, not knowing what to do with his life. He came to Tech TO and saw all these brilliant people on stage, talking about their innovative companies and sharing lessons with others and thought, “Hmmmm, that could be a career for me.”

The thing is, he didn’t start his company here in Toronto. He felt the ecosystem wasn’t strong enough at the time. Instead, he went back to Helsinki, finding instead that Finland — home to Linux, Angry Birds and Nokia — was a far more mature tech scene.

Hostaway, an enterprise solution for vacation rentals, is one of the fastest growing companies in the industry. So what led to him starting it in Finland? Well for one, whenever he spoke with people in Toronto about building a big company, they’d say: “good for you.” Yet, when he spoke with people in Finland about it, their first question was: “how much is it going to be worth?” In Helsinki, he found, people knew what it meant to build a big company.

So the first lesson he learned was to really aim high. In fact, he wished people would have given him that advice when he was starting out, feeling he made the mistake of not aiming high enough. “If you know someone who is building a company, don’t let them stop at $10 million. Because if you aim there and stop there, you won’t have enough money to invest in other startups in Toronto.”

So what’s holding back the Toronto tech scene? “People here are too realistic,” he said. “They don’t dream enough or jump into the unknown. Here, people say they dream about it, but not enough people actually do it.” Having said that, Marcus acknowledged the incredible progress the Toronto tech ecosystem has made in just four short years.

Peggy Van de Plassche, Managing Partner of Roar Ventures, rounded out the international band of speakers of the evening. Originally from France, Peggy changes activities every two years and has gathered some important lessons as she has built a very long resume.

The first lesson is to pivot fast, but not too fast. She has started many businesses in her life and found that whenever she couldn’t get out of a problem, after thinking hard about it, she would pivot. While the decision to pivot was driven by her gut, there was also a bit of science involved in it. She also considered how her pivot could succeed without needing to scrap all the work she’d done up to that point.

The second lesson was to keep calm and carry on selling. A lot of focus is always put on product development, she acknowledged. The thing is, if you want to have clients, they need to be able to call your prior clients. So even if you’re just making small sales, it’s always important to prioritize selling.

Finally, Peggy imparted the importance of cash flow. More than anything, you need to make sure you have a solid financial backing. Managing your cash flow isn’t sexy, but it’s important to make sure you do it.

But the Local Contingent Had Some Awesome Things to Say Too

Aisha Adda of DriveHER led the demo of the month. A ride sharing community based in the GTA dedicated to women by women, Aisha was inspired to start the company based on a personal experience in a taxi that left her uncomfortable. Aisha took us through the app, which is embedded with empowering quotes, safety tips, a points system, an emergency button and real-time chat, and is poised to launch at the end of the month.

In the meantime? She’s looking for investors and developers.

Ben Walters of Feedback provided the perspective of an early stage founder (in Toronto) going through early stage challenges — such as attracting talent and paying himself less than his 12-year old cousin makes from shovelling driveways.

A mobile marketplace, Feedback uses smart pricing to offer exclusive prices and reduce food waste at our favourite restaurants in the city.

He started by talking about the paradox of focus in a startup. Every single advisor, he said, will tell a founder, “Make sure you remain laser focused.” It’s good advice, to be sure, as it’s hard enough to do one thing really well. Doing a few things well is therefore just not possible.

But a lot of start ups out there have managed to end up in a very different place than where they started (think, Amazon). “How did that happen if they were laser focused?” Ben asked. The key is to remain laser focused while also finding an impossible balance of experimentation and testing.

Ben proceeded to talk about two instances where he experimented with something new — one time it worked, and one time it didn’t.

The first one — the one that didn’t work — was called Feedback Connect, and aimed to donate the food that corporations didn’t use following a catered lunch. After six intensive weeks of work on the project, the team realized that it wasn’t scalable enough and didn’t add value to their core business. They immediately pulled the plug and sent the contacts to Second Harvest.

The second project — called Gravy — offers dynamic pricing to restaurants through their platform. It’s been so successful that the team is spending 80% of their efforts on Gravy, and 20% on Feedback. What was the difference? For one, building Gravy is making their core business better. It’s also closely aligned with their mission and offers great synergies.

With this experience behind him, Ben provided a few key pieces of advice when looking to experiment in your startup:

  1. Put objective KPIs in place ahead of time so that you can quickly see if what you’re doing is an appropriate endeavour or simply a distraction
  2. Be skeptical. For Ben’s part, he surrounds himself with “no” men who keep him in check and offer complementary perspectives.
  3. Be ready to make difficult decisions quickly — whether that’s pulling the plug on a project or pursuing something that’s different than what you started out to do.

“While you do need to stay focused,” Ben said, “You do need to be aware of what’s around you … so you don’t end up like Blockbuster.”

Jason Goldlist closed off the evening by plugging the other TO events that offer deeper conversations into specific sectors — from financial services, healthcare, travel and sales. “I like to think about Tech TO as a gateway drug. We’ve got you hooked and inspired. But you might be thinking, ‘I wish we could go deeper into fintech or healthcare. That’s why we’ve created nine different communities.” Check out the TechTO website for a line up of all the upcoming events.

If you’re charged up with Tech TO, the next event is February 11, 2019. Same time, same place. Buy your tickets — or sign up for a membership — to take part in some exciting ecosystem building.