When you work around startups, you sometimes get the chance to go to an event in a far-flung city. So when Roger Power of Startup Newfoundland and Labrador invited me to be a pitch mentor at a Startup Weekend in St. John’s in June, I decided that it would be hard to stop me and that I’d take a few weeks to check the place out.
St. John’s is the eastern-most point of North America. In fact, once you head east out of St. John’s harbour, the next place you’ll land is the Blasket Islands off the coast of Kerry.
I had heard Newfoundland’s culture was heavily influenced by the influx of Irish migrants as early as the 1600s. I certainly found those Irish influences. The “unofficial” Newfoundland flag is similar to the Irish, only green white and pink. And the accent is at times nearly unbelievably Irish. I’ve described it as sounding like an Irish person trying to put on a fake Canadian accent.
In my two weeks there, I found a city that fits my own personality. I experienced a sea voyage in search of whales and icebergs (we found neither in the 15-foot seas), found a great deal through AirBNB, and learned the strengths of developing a startup community in a small, remote city.
For example, the Startup Weekend in St. John’s was obviously a smaller affair than what we’d seen in Dublin. But the smaller events are more intimate, less stressful, yet still manage to achieve everything that needs to be achieved. Ultimately the deserved winner was an idea pitched by Robert Byrne (pretty Irish name) called “Du Jour” that aimed to take the hassle out of recipe discovery.
“My father and grandfather had their own businesses and I grew up watching the hard work they put in and the freedom and happiness it allowed them,” said Byrne.
Two days after the infamous boat ride, I met up with Sarah Murphy (pretty Irish name), Co-Founder of Sentinel Alert. The business specialises in worker safety solutions and has the very humane goal of “helping bring workers home safe”.
Sarah stated what I had heard frequently, that the bedrock of the ecosystem was the vibrant and growing community of about 250 people. “Our startup community is new, growing and starting to take off,” she said. “We regularly pack the house at startup mixers.”
One problem that startups the world over face is a war for tech talent, especially when you’re 6,000-plus kilometres from San Francisco, with the hub cities like Toronto hoovering up most of the regional talent. For startups in smaller cities like St. John’s this means they have to adopt a more flexible approach.
The first part of Murphy’s approach to finding talent is to proactively look for it.
“Ask about the people you meet, get to know their passions and offer to help them out. It takes some patience and time. There are basement warriors in every small place, but they want to get to know you. If they commit to jumping in they’re betting on you, the person, not the business.”
Part two of her approach is to realise that in a lot of cases, having everyone under the same roof just isn’t necessary: “We’ll build a remote team (from around the world!). It’s important to be open to that in small/remote places.”
It seems like literally every person I speak to who is doing something interesting has arrived at that point through a series of events that could never really have been planned in advance. Mark Kennedy (pretty Irish name) of Celtx exemplifies this point well.
A former chemistry students and lawyer, he was won over by the challenge of creating a big business solving a big problem. Celtx is that aspiring big business and it’s worked with some household name TV production companies.
“Newfoundland is where I’m from, and you get a lot of personal strength from this place,” he said.
Rather than upping roots and moving to TV production hubs like New York or Los Angeles, Kennedy is determined to make his business a success from St. John’s. “Living in a remote place is not the impediment it once was,” he said.
According to Kennedy the main challenges faced by startups are 1) distribution, 2) finance and 3) a need for talent.
Distribution is relatively easy: “If you’re building an export oriented business selling ones and zeroes, which we are, then the Internet solves the distribution problem for you.”
Finance was admittedly tough to come by, but Mark and Co. have managed to raise a strong round from investors in the nearby city of Halifax. And as for talent?
“We ignored the prevailing wisdom on what an employer was supposed to do,” he said. He was advised to pay on the low side because St. John’s wasn’t a competitive landscape for hires, to look for talent close to home, not to grant options because no one understood what they were.
“We, instead, decided to act as if we were in a war for talent,” he said. “We pay at the top of the scale. We looked far and wide for developers. And we made sure everyone knew they would share in any success.”
Mark and Celtx look to have a really bright future, and I love the fact they are bucking normal conventions and doing it all from home.
Roger Power (pretty Irish name), and Startup Newfoundland and Labrador aim to be a catalyst for the relatively new and (until now) fragmented startup scene in the region.
“StartupNL grew out of a need for the new generation of startups to connect with one another and share their talent, knowledge and experiences. “Call it a community, group or tribe, it is just people connecting with the currency of ideas and action.”
Roger and his Startup NL partner in crime, Jason Janes, certainly have the passion. So much so that they organized an entire “startup week” as well as the Startup Weekend.
“You know, it wasn’t tough at all,” said Power. “Like many other startup communities and groups, we treat this as a startup and if you don’t do what the market wants and quickly then that’s a missed opportunity. I hate missing opportunities.”
Power believes there are great synergies to be had in the startup communities found either side of the Atlantic and he has a great vision for a “North Atlantic Startup Arc” made up of Newfoundland and Labrador, Iceland and Ireland.
“Something amazing happens when the startup tribe gets together. We get excited and that is infectious. Ed, you’ve been in NL and I’ve been in Ireland. I’m sure we see the greater potential. Now as we do more together, the community takes on a different character. It is bigger, bolder and anxious to get to work to take advantage of new connections. Just as no founder should be working in isolation, nor should a startup tribe.”
I loved my time in St. John’s and I’ll be back in the near future, there’s no doubt about that. And I’m really glad I spent a good chunk of time to check out the city properly. The next time you’re heading to an event, consider turning up early, or staying late, even if it’s just a day or half a day, it’s too easy to fall into the “airport to conference center” trap of going somewhere, but never really being there.