Start me up
For Atlantic Canadians outside of the region’s startup communities, it can be difficult to understand the range of opportunities available to help create and grow businesses and innovation here at home.
Adam Peabody is director of Planet Hatch, a cross-sector acceleration centre in Fredericton, N.B. He says part of the problem is the way we talk about things.
“A lot of people equate startup with tech, which couldn't be farther from the truth.”
A startup, in the most basic sense, is a company in its early stages. But for many, mistaken assumptions – fed, no doubt, by media and pop culture – about a need to be technically inclined and already in-the-know, are a barrier to getting involved.
“We can get distracted by the shiny object – often a tech or mainstream innovation play,” says Peabody. “But we can apply the same training, programming, and principles across any business.”
While Atlantic Canada has a strong technology base, he says, there are many non-tech opportunities where we could also have a real competitive edge, whether through new technologies used to transform traditional industries or the production of everyday consumer goods. Concerning economic development and job creation – often the goal – traditional business growth can increase demand along the supply chain, through the use of local supplies, local facilities, and working with local service providers.
A 2018 survey executed by SaltWire Network and the Bluteau DeVenney Consultancy Group found young professionals in Nova Scotia place a high value on innovation but don’t see enough happening at home. There was 70 per cent of the 371 surveyed who believe Nova Scotia trails other provinces, making them more likely to relocate in search of opportunities.
“One of the biggest challenges – and you know, this is so Canadian, certainly so Atlantic Canadian – we're not very good at telling our stories,” says Barry Bisson, CEO of Propel, a virtual accelerator serving the Atlantic region. “That's one thing I want our organization to do when we have good stories evolving from the work we're doing. We need to tell them because those are the stories that are going to inspire young professionals to say, ‘wow, that's interesting. Maybe I should consider doing something like this.’”
Peabody agrees we do a lousy job of telling good stories. He also thinks we're really good at beating ourselves up. And we talk about challenges – like urbanization – as if they’re unique to our region instead of a global phenomenon.
“That does not create the type of exciting, positive brand young people will want to latch onto, where they can see themselves fitting into the areas of opportunity that we actually have,” he says. “We need to celebrate successes. We need to talk about the challenges. But let’s think about what opportunities have opened up. And let's create a positive story.”
Finding your place
Once you have an idea, it can take a while to see where it fits.
When Laura Simpson, co-founder and CEO of side door access – an online event-booking platform and marketplace – realized the company needed to take the next step to keep growing, she started visiting the SMU Entrepreneurship Centre, the Centre for Women in Business, and hanging out at Volta. It was there she learned about an accelerator program seeking applicants. She applied and was accepted. The company’s full launch is later this month.
“There's a lot of good, free resources out there, but you have to figure out where your people are,” says Simpson. “I had to figure out where I could say my idea and, if I told 10 people, I needed at least three people's eyes to light up. If not, then they're not my people.”
For their part, institutions and organizations in Atlantic Canada’s startup ecosystem are aiming to make sure there’s an opportunity for everybody to have that experience of finding their people, but as with most things, there’s still work to do.
“How do we democratize opportunities for talented people to thrive? And how do we create those opportunities?” asks Jesse Rodgers, CEO of Halifax-based Volta, Canada’s largest innovation hub outside of the Toronto-Waterloo corridor.
When planning their new 6,000-square-feet space, it was essential to Volta they have street-level access – lobby access – so people can just walk in, come to an event, participate.
“You get more out of being around a diverse group of people,” says Rodgers. “I think that that's the cornerstone of a lot of startup ecosystems – that at their nature, they are inclusive and open, at least the good ones you want to be a part of. It doesn't matter who you are or what your background is. What matters is you're there, you're excited, you're energized to work.”
“I think everyone in the North American business community needs to do a better job being inclusive, and promoting gender equity and diversity,” says Peabody.
“I don't think that there's malice, but it's something we need to do. It needs to be constantly top of mind.”
Getting Started: Derrek Ord
When Derrek Ord came up with a twist on travel entertainment he wanted to pursue, he got serious about research. Then, after advice from a knowledgeable friend, he created a pitch deck explaining his idea and presented it to an investment team at Innovacorp.
“There are some valuable resources around if you look for them,” says Ord, who lives in Dartmouth, N.S., and works as a video editor. “It was surprisingly accessible. And the team provided valuable feedback on how to improve my pitch.”
Although he’s put the project on hold for now – editing keeps him too busy – Ord hopes to revisit it down the road.
For others looking to do the same, he recommends doing your research and getting feedback from as many people as you can.
“It isn't an easy path, and it's not supposed to be,” he says. “So run it past skeptical folks, bright folks, and experienced folks. Your idea needs to be tested; get all of the bugs out before you pitch. When they give you feedback, adjust and try again.”