My friend Peter Childs is asking some pretty fundamental questions about the Ottawa startup scene. Twenty months ago, Peter, Ross Macleod, Craig Fitzpatrick, and David Keys imported the BarCamp idea to Ottawa and set in motion a series of unconference events across the city, which ultimately knit the Ottawa startup scene together into a community. It was a great thing.
But as Peter points out, while we all know each other better, and are sharing more and better information among each other, Ottawa still faces challenges:
- Our local businesses are less likely to buy from startups. Let’s face it, the big Kahuna locally is the federal government. If your organization can’t (a) support a few hundred thousand customers in a demanding IT environment and (b) survive the RFP and competition process, then the Feds aren’t a good customer for you.
- A drought of venture financing. Ottawa’s early stage venture funds are mostly all defunct, and while angels are stepping in to fill the gaps, their pockets are simply not as large as institutional investors. Peter observes that this is a problem everywhere, not just Ottawa. It’s true.
We’re not Silicon Valley, despite the local conceit of describing ourselves as Silicon Valley North. Today we’re more like the Route 128 community than Silicon Valley. Route 128 was the heart of the American tech community in the 1960’s and 70’s, before the focus and money shifted to Silicon Valley. Now, with its rich history of innovation and abundant local tech talent, Route 128 is busy trying to reinvent itself. We have to do the same.
The Camp movement is a catalyst for that renewal. By bringing entrepreneurs together to share best practices it creates a nexus in the city where innovators can be found on a regular basis. That draws in all of the other players at the periphery. It’s working too! Our camps continue to draw ever larger crowds, and are starting to engage the local financial community, for example. I’ve seen Skypoint’s Leo Lax, and Ventures West’s Robin Axon at several of them. Moreover, the recent venture summit in Gatineau featured a camp event in the evening for the VC community. I’m also aware of one venture fund that has recently fully invested their first fund, and are looking to raise a second fund focused on the application space (where our camps have been focused), rather than network equipment.
This is a virtuous circle. More participation and a bigger community leads to more successful startups and more participation and a bigger community. As we grow, it leads to customers and a thriving financial community as well. What we need to do is to continue to network among ourselves and our compatriots in Toronto and Montreal, share best practices, and continue to build on what we’ve started. Things will change.
And on a personal note, I’ve been largely absent from the last few Ottawa camp events. Thank you Peter for your indirect kick in the pants. It reminds me that I need to spend a little more time outside my office and in my community this year.