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Eight Ways Toronto Mayor John Tory Can Support Startups

As Toronto’s new mayor, John Tory has a long list of things to tackle – gridlock, development, the growing rich-poor divide, infrastructure development, and the list goes on.

When he eventually comes up for air, I would boldly suggest an important task is putting together a plan for Toronto (the city) to better support the fast-growing start-up ecosystem. Other than David Soknacki, start-ups were not discussed during the recent election but if Toronto wants to drive economic growth, it should get engaged quickly.

John ToryAs a “public service”, here are eight ways that Mayor Tory can easily change how Toronto supports start-ups – something that isn’t currently happening.

1. Wave the flag about how Toronto has a world-class start-up ecosystem. We have a really, really good thing happening but it’s difficult to find anyone at city hall talking about start-ups. By simply putting the spotlight on the sector’s growth, people and companies, it would shape the conversation differently.

Truth be told, Toronto should promote its start-up ecosystem as enthusiastically as other cities – e.g. San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas and Vancouver. Heck, even places such as St. Louis and Detroit are excited about start-ups.

2. Host a Start-Up Summit that brings together government leaders and entrepreneurs to exchange ideas about how to accelerate the ecosystem’s growth. As well, create a partnership to create a start-up conference and showcase. There’s no reason Toronto can’t have a Web Summit-like event in Toronto.

3. Create tax incentives for start-ups to set up shop and expand in Toronto, including tools to create business zones that could benefit from job creation opportunities. The city should also provide start-ups with incentives to hire young people to help address the troubling youth unemployment issue. A model to explore is how San Francisco provided start-ups with tax incentives to open downtown offices.

4. Explore partnerships with start-ups that can offer innovative products and services. This would give startups a major boost financially, while the city would benefit from tapping into new and leading-edge technology. You have to believe, for example, a startup could have built a new e-commerce Website for island ferry for less than the four-year $588,000 contract that the city signed.

5. Follow San Francisco’s lead by launching an Entrepreneurship-in-Residence program. San Francisco’s program is a 16-week program that brings together the private sector and city departments to look at different ways to lower costs, increase revenue and drive productivity. You have to believe startups could deliver better ways for the city to offer online services.

6. Reach out to municipal leaders in Kitchener-Waterloo to create a cohesive plan to nurture and promote a “tech corridor”. There is huge potential to develop better connections and synergies with Kitchener-Waterloo. Right now, the two communities operate in quasi-silos. It’s a classic case of 1+1=3.

7. Get Enterprise Toronto and Build Toronto to really embrace start-ups. Both agencies have a mandate to support Toronto’s economic development, so why not get them to help the start-up community take it to the next level. It’s good to see Waterfront Toronto’s plans for a high-speed network but more programs are needed.

8. Form a start-up advisory council to come up with ways to drive the growth of Toronto’s ecosystem. There are lots of smart entrepreneurs who have the ideas, experience and energy to offer valuable guidance and insight to support start-ups in the right way.

More: For a snapshot of how Toronto’s startup ecosystem is doing, check out this report card.

For start-ups and fast-growing companies looking to jump-start their marketing, I offer strategic planning, core messaging, product marketing and content development.

A Report Card on Toronto’s Startup Ecosystem

toronto startups

Toronto’s startup ecosystem is thriving – according to the Startup Genome Project, the city ranks within the top-10 globally.

Within the last five years, Toronto has evolved from a place where many people talked about creating or working for startups to a city where people are launching startups.

In other words, we’re walking the walk.

And there’s no lack of excitement. The Digital Media Zone’s Vicky Liu recently proclaimed Toronto as the best place in the world to launch a startup. This is probably an exaggeration but it reflects the growing amount of enthusiasm.

But let’s take a step back from the bubbly optimism to have a critical look at Toronto’s startup ecosystem. What are the city’s strengths and weaknesses, and how can it become a place where startups and entrepreneurs can thrive?

Entrepreneurs: The number of talented and well-educated entrepreneurs creating startups is Toronto’s biggest strength. The city is oozing with startups, which is a great sign that good things are happening. As someone who has been around the startup scene since the original dot-com boom, the amount of activity is really encouraging because it boosts the chances of successful, world-class companies emerging. Grade: A

Community: While there are lots of active entrepreneurs, Toronto still has work to do to create a cohesive startup community. One of the challenges is the city’s geographic spread, which has startups located in Markham, Liberty Village, King/Spadina and Yonge/Eglinton. And the spread will likely become exacerbated as real estate and office rental prices continue to climb.

Toronto needs events (how about a version of Startup Empire?) to bring the startup community together – something the city of Toronto (see below) should embrace to be an engaged catalyst. Grade: B-

Money: It’s getting better but there is still room for improvement when it comes to providing startups with capital to develop ideas and accelerate growth. With VCs such as Mantella Venture Partners, BDC, Klass Capital and OMERS, for example, there is money for startups that demonstrates strong growth potential. And there is more good news on the horizon with iNovia opening an office in Waterloo, and Real Ventures expanding its operations in Ontario. Grade: B

Serial Entrepreneurs: A key part of an ecosystem’s growth are serial entrepreneurs who leverage their experience and wealth. There are serial entrepreneurs such as Dan Debow, Mark Organ and David Ossip but I would argue there isn’t critical mass….not yet. This will change, however, as startup entrepreneurs create new businesses after enjoying success. In this regard, keep an eye on people such as Ariel Garten (Interaxon), Ben Baldwin (Clearfit), Kanal Gupta (Polar) and Mike Silagadze (Top Hat Monocle). Grade: C

Incubators/Accelerators: If there is a “growth business” within the startup ecosystem, it’s the number of accelerators and incubators. This includes the Digital Media Zone (DMZ), Jolt, HIGHLINE (formerly Extreme Startups), 111 Richmond and InCubes. Some of the business models have evolved but there are plenty of options for entrepreneurs looking for places to nurture their ideas. Grade: B+

Media: Not that media coverage makes or breaks a startup but it lets startups bask in the spotlight as opposed to operating anonymously.

While outlets such as BetaKit and Techvibes provide solid coverage, overall media coverage is, at best, modest. The national newspapers don’t seem to have an appetite for startups, aside from Small Business Week, and traditional media only pays attention when a major deal happens. At the very least, we need more blogs focused on startups. Grade: C-.

Government: There are people such as Douglas Bergeron who believe government should not be provide financial support to startups, but government needs to play a role until there is more private capital, which includes institutional investors. The federal and Ontario governments are providing capital for startups (although it seems to flow slowly into the system), that will, hopefully, drive the ecosystem’s growth. Grade: B-

The weak link within government is Toronto, which has surprisingly paid little attention to startups.

While Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson and Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi actively promote their city’s startup ecosystem, Rob Ford showed no indication there was a startup ecosystem in Toronto. At the same time, there are no city councillors acting as startup evangelists. And the only mayoralty candidate to talk about startups was David Soknacki. From what I can tell, the “biggest” startup program to emerge from city hall is a low-key directory of business incubators. Tip: Maybe the city should hire someone like David Crow as a startup ambassador. Grade: C-

Suppliers/Vendors: If anything, there is no lack of people and businesses happy to provide startups with services and advice. As someone who’s part of this thriving club, there are plenty of options for startups that needs sales, marketing, legal and operational help. If there were more capital within the ecosystem, even more suppliers would appear on the scene. Grade: A

Schools: At the core of a vibrant startup community are schools that create top-notch startup talent. In that sense, Toronto is well positioned with the University of Toronto and Ryerson University acting as strong talent sources. As well, colleges such as Seneca, Sheridan and Centennial have well-respected programs within speciality areas such as design and video games.  Grade: B+

Other thoughts: JF Marcoux looks at Canada’s startup ecosystem has evolved, while MIT’s Fiona Murray discusses successful “innovation ecosystems around the world. You should also check out this article how Zappos founder Tony Hsieh is creating a startup ecosystem in downtown Las Vegas.

 For start-ups and fast-growing companies looking to jump-start their marketing, I offer strategic planning, core messaging, product marketing and content development.

Seven Ways Start-Ups Can Drive Their Marketing

In my last post, I talked why start-ups need to focus on marketing activity that drives the sales funnel. It’s all about doing these that make an impact with target audiences, as opposed to keeping themselves busy.

I did a presentation (embedded below) at HIGHLINE yesterday looking at seven things that a start-up needs in their marketing portfolio. There is nothing terribly surprising on the list but it’s surprising to see start-up drop the marketing ball by not following best practices.

The biggest takeaway within the presentation is the importance of being customer-centric. It means marketing that talks to the needs and interests of customers, rather than what a start-up wants to say about its product.

It is a subtle, but important, difference that needs to be reflected within messaging, Websites, case studies, sales sheets, etc.

The Key to Startup Marketing is Focus, Not Being Busy

The headline read: “Startup Marketing on a $0 Budget.

As someone who does marketing for startups and fast-growing companies, I had to check it out. Imagine that, marketing with spending a dime!

The list compiled Ashwin Ramesh includes activities such as answering questions on Quora, leaving comments on blogs, participating in forums, blogging, building a free tool , and monitoring mentions of competitors on Twitter.

At first glance, most of the items either struck me as busy-work or non-marketing activity. Building a free tool, for example, is a wonderful idea but it’s not really marketing. The same goes for monitoring social media activity. Is that “marketing”?

There are many, many things that startups can do to wave the flag but what falls into the marketing bucket?

One of the biggest challenges for many startups is marketing is, in some ways, a nebulous activity for them. With expertise in engineering and development, marketing is a strange creature that uses a different language. And, even worse, marketers are slick-talking beasts that promise the world….at a price.

For startups, this is a confusing landscape. It’s like going to the Mandarin for dinner with a buffet featuring dozens of choices. Everything looks good but what do you pick to eat?

For startups, marketing is everything and anything. The options listed by Ramesh are, in theory, marketing because they can spread the word.

But the key question that startups must answer is whether marketing is going to move the sales needle. At the end of the day, marketing has a job to do: raise awareness to consumers move into the sales funnel.

If a marketing activity isn’t doing that, it’s not worth doing.

While there are some items on Ramesh’s list that have good marketing potential (e.g. blogging), I would argue there are many items that will not deliver a return on investment for the time and effort required. They will keep a startup busy but that’s about it.

Instead, startup marketing is about focusing on things that resonate, even if means have a limited marketing program. For example, I would much rather see a startup focus on having an active, insight blog that drives thought leadership and brand awareness, rather than trying to multiple marketing tactics.

In other words, you are looking for bang for the buck. As a startup with limited resources (time, people, money), it’s about marketing that matters.

In many cases, it’s a quality versus quantity equation, or less being more. Startups can get more awareness and traction by doing well at a few things as opposed to mediocre at many things.

The most important consideration about startup marketing is having a strategic plan, regardless of whether a startup is bootstrapped or well-financed. It’s about knowing your target audiences, and then aligning strategy, tactics and resources to connect with them.

This is a better approach than doing this, that and everything. From the outside looking in, it looks like a startup is actively marketing, but they really doing is spinning their wheels by spending time on things that have no ROI.

 For start-ups and fast-growing companies looking to jump-start their marketing, I offer strategic planning, core messaging, product marketing and content development.

Forget About To-Do Apps; Use a Moleskine Planner

Is it me, or does a new “to-do” app launch every day. They claim to make it easier to create and manage “to-do” lists. But after checking out a bunch of them, I think they create as much work as they purportedly save.

My recommendation: Forget about digital “to-do” apps. The best, easiest and most user-friendly “to-do” list “app” is a Moleskine. They’re easy to access and, as important, provide a tangible, visceral connection to the things you need to get done.


For start-ups and fast-growing companies looking to jump-start their marketing, I offer strategic planning, core messaging, product marketing and content development.

Bad Idea? No Problem for New Startups!

Just before the global economy melted down in 2008, I read a story in the New York Times about a bank extending a huge mortgage to a couple in Los Angeles that were barely making ends meet. Looking back, the alarm bells should have started ringing.

For the last few months, I have been uneasy about the exuberance for startups. It seems everyone is doing one given the barriers to entry are so, so low.

But I think there are strong signals that startups have jumped the shark with the launch of a new startup, Morning Person. (I discovered it on Product Hunt, so it must be real, right?)

Morning PersonMorning Person is a service that has a “real person” call you in the morning, go through your schedule, and hold you accountable for yesterday’s to-do list. It costs $20/month for non- native speaker and $30/month. But if you sign up now, there is a 20% discount!

This startup must be someone’s idea of a joke because the service seems so unbelievable, it can’t be the real deal. If it is a joke, I say “Well played!” as it does a great job of illustrating the increasingly bizarre world of startups.

I’m a big fan of startups, entrepreneurship and innovation but not every idea should spawn a startup. Simply because your idea is vaguely plausible or, frankly, implausible doesn’t mean it should come to life.

But startups are irresistible creatures because the barriers to entry are minimal. Armed with an idea, you can hire a developer and a designer, and launch a service in no time.

That’s the easy part. The hard part is attracting customers (always a good thing!) and having people pay for your service (also a good thing!).

But getting customers and generating revenue are entrepreneurial after-thoughts these days because it is more fun to create something to become join the startup community.

We’re definitely living in interesting times given global economic volatility is a fact of life. Startups provide people with hope, motivation and goals. And trying something – even if it has absolutely no chance of success – can provide valuable experience.

In that regard, there is an upside to the tsunami of silly startups being created. A positive from the carnage of bad, half-ass and stupid ideas are entrepreneurs with battle scars and hard-earned lessons. Some of these entrepreneurs will hopefully embrace better ideas, and have valuable experience to enjoy more success.

In the meantime, we will continue to see startups that are doomed to fail from the time they appear on the scene. Unfortunately, there is no startup “governor” to throttle or regulate activity, which means Product Hunt will have lots of content for months to come.

For start-ups and fast-growing companies looking to jump-start their marketing, I offer strategic planning, core messaging, product marketing and content development.