The Importance of Learning: Random Musings from a Coffee Shop

We all know that continuing to learn new things over time is important.

I arrived a few minutes early to a coffee meeting this morning I had booked with a fellow entrepreneur, and found myself with a few extra minutes to look out the window at Balzac’s on Ryerson University campus.

There have been few times in my life that I’ve had an opportunity just to sit and watch the movement and body language patterns of people about a university campus. Looking outside at the students walking to their first classes of the day, it’s interesting to see the sense of urgency in some and the casual pace of others, carefully balancing the need to go to class and their hangover from the weekend; a loose metaphor for outcomes in life.

What’s amazing is that each person holds almost infinite potential to change the world in some way. The problem is, many of them don’t know (or realize) and/or believe that they have the capacities and capabilities to do so. Some people attend a university because they think it’s the right thing to do without knowing why, some think it will help them get better jobs yet are following the continuum of life rather purposefully, and then there are the small few who see it as an opportunity to soak up as much knowledge as possible and use that knowledge to do something truly transformational.

I wish more people were part of this last category. Like this person sitting at the table next to me at this coffee shop, working on a document. As he alternates looking down at his document and up at the ceiling, I can see his intense will to create, solve, improve – or whatever he is doing – as if trying to infuse and inspire his mind with answers from his surroundings. The look in his is eyes was almost ferocious, suggesting strong drive – a key trait of many successful entrepreneurs.

It’s amazing. Virtually 100% of university students start out at the bottoms of their industries, and need to learn as much or more than their current industry counterparts to be competitive enough to get jobs, succeed, and then surpass those already in industry for decades. No small feat. Yet it happens daily. Those are the fruits of hard work, drive and commitment to a purpose.

Or is it simply that others have become more comfortable in their jobs and became okay, over time, with delivering mediocrity?

Largely, I think the cycle works because most people don’t bother continuing to learn with the same tenacity as freshly minted students. As a result, they become lackluster at delivering results as industries, businesses and technologies change, and their contributory value to their employer or industry declines proportionately. This inability of most to remain at the cutting edge of their industry fuels the opportunity for the next generation.

This is why large companies constantly infuse themselves with fresh, young talent (yes, they are also typically cheaper hires too). An analogous, yet more “proven” approach to attract the smartest young talent commonly seen in the tech industry is acqui-hiring, which Marissa Mayer is now all too well known for using. In addition to Yahoo!, the largest performer of talent acquisitions are Facebook, Twitter and Google.

If you’re not ready to throw in the towel, keep learning and growing. Don’t assume all you’ve learned today will carry you forwarded indefinitely. Go to a university campus, and have a cup of coffee and look out the window… think about each student as somebody looking to take your job in just a few short years, and you’ll be reminded of the essential need to keep learning; heck, it might even energize you.

Photo credit (above): Temple University.

  • Share/Bookmark

Guardly: The First 300 Days

Originally posted on the Guardblog at: http://blog.guardly.com/guardblog/2011/06/28/the-first-300-days/

Guardly has transformed from an idea to a best-in-class application that helps people stay safe everyday. There’s an exciting story behind our journey, and it has only just begun. I already have many people to thank for getting us this far so quickly – so, let’s get started!

Litmus testing.

Great concept, but will it work? That was the enigma facing Extreme Venture Partners’ Amar Varma, when I first pitched Guardly to him in its early days. He wasn’t sure if Guardly would be successful, but he liked the market opportunity and that we were solving a real world problem. So, Amar (and Farhan) let me squat alongside the Xtreme Labs team, fellow portfolio companies and Xtreme University startups. That gave me an opportunity to connect with other bright minds, leverage some of their resources and build my team within of the best startup-culture environments I’ve yet to see in Toronto. Even for technology startups, sometimes Location, Location, Location is everything. Thanks Amar and the Xtreme family for helping to raise young Guardly.

These times have been recorded in the Guardly Culture Book and it will be a time to remember: working at random desks, storage areas and even the floor, at times; taking important phone calls in closets, stairwells and every meeting room or abandoned office. Two to a desk all other times – it was a team bonding experience.

Toronto’s startup community and a bit of luck!

I’d like to personally thank all the organizers and facilitators that run events and bring the Toronto startup community together – namely David Crow (and Albert Lai) for DemoCamp, Sarah Prevette and Erin Bury for SproutUp, and Bryan Watson for Startup Drinks. You all make Toronto a better place to launch and run a technology venture. It was at a Startup Drinks that I first met Nolan Dubeau (now Guardly’s VP Product Engineering) through a mutual friend – Steve Dixon (now at Wave Accounting – another very cool Toronto startup). Only a few weeks later, I would be introduced to Mark Pavlidis (Lead Mobile Engineer at Guardly) and Bretton MacLean (UI/UX Designer at Guardly) through Ken Seto, who runs Massive Damage (previously EndloopX) out of YearOne Labs.  Thanks Steve and Ken! In October 2010, Guardly grew its team by 300% in 2 short weeks. And then we were four.

Government programs, university incubators and industry organizations.

In fall 2010, Guardly was awarded a FedDev Advanced Research and Commercialization (ARC) grant and access into OCAD’s Mobile Experience Innovation Center (MEIC) incubator. We owe a big thank you to Michele Perras, who listened to Guardly’s mission and vision, and decided to support us in our grant and incubator proposals. The FedDev ARC grant has led to Guardly’s development on Android (still in progress) and the MEIC incubator was home to Guardly for just over 5 months, when Guardly grew from 4 to 6 FTEs + a few interns. Welcome Robert Lendvai and Kamran Shafi! We have fond memories of the incubator, starting our Guardly BINGO square and our domination of every whiteboard in our immediate vicinity. Thanks Michele, OCAD, MEIC and FedDev for the opportunity to take our next step.

In early winter 2011, I learned of a great program run by the Ontario Centre’s of Excellence (OCE) called – the First Job Program. It’s a fantastic grant that startups can apply for and redeem up to 80% of a recent grads first-year salary. In just a few days work, with the help of Martin Lord at OCE, we put together a winning application and were awarded one of only a few grants during this granting period. Thanks Martin – you’ve been an instrumental help during Guardly’s early days.

Closing the seed round.

Any startup founders that have had to raise money can attest to the time and dedication it takes to convince other people to part with their money to back your vision. Before starting Guardly, I had the opportunity to work in venture capital, on the other side of the table, as an Analyst at RBC Venture Partners and the BlackBerry Partners Fund.

In that role, I had the chance to work with some extremely intelligent folks and learn more about how the mind of the typical VC works, the attributes that make businesses exciting and the dynamics that lead to making deals happen. By understanding the economics that VCs look to achieve and bringing that mindset to the table, it makes the funding conversation much easier. I’d like to thank Kevin Talbot for bringing me onto the team as well as Matt Golden, Rob Antoniades, Dave Unsworth, Alex Baker, JD Begin, Jeannette Wiltse and the JLA Ventures crew who all contributed to my learning experiences.

Even with this hyper-focused entrepreneurial education, as I sometimes refer to my VC Analyst days, I still had to have approximately 70 conversations with family, friends, angels and VCs before I was able to find the right group of investors and close the seed round. Ultimately, Guardly ended up with a fantastic mix of investors that includes employee’s family members (so they could increase their ownership), friends, angels and VCs, including Extreme Venture Partners and Bryker Capital. Most importantly, we have patient investors that care about our success and are aligned with our vision of success. Thank you to all our early investors, for taking this early-stage risk and for believing in our ability to execute and build a strong, sustainable company.

DEMO Spring 2011.

Neil Silverman (DEMO organizer) and Matt Marshall (Editor-In-Chief at VentureBeat) came through Toronto to screen companies to invite to launch on the DEMO stage. We applied (~50 applications) and Guardly was selected (1 of 10 companies) to pitch to Neil, Matt and the Rogers Ventures crew; shortly thereafter, we received an invitation to launch at DEMO Spring 2011.

It was a fantastic opportunity for Guardly. The whole team flew down to Palm Desert, California to take part in this historic unveiling. It was an all-hands-on-deck type experience. We worked around the clock perfecting our demo application, the demo script, selling at the pavilion and networking at the bar! While traveling to the conference, a number of us pushed code from the plane (Virgin WiFi, YYZ to LAX) en route to DEMO; more interesting, one final tweak was made to our server-side code-base during on-stage setup, just 2 hours before the demo. A single flaw would have been devastating, with an eager crowd of 600 media, VCs and technology professionals watching – faces behind laptops and various Twitter clients – and waiting to see how Guardly works.

Fortunately, the demo went off without a hitch. Soon, you should be able to see the full-story behind Guardly’s DEMO experience since Microsoft commissioned a documentary and we were selected as 1 of 2 startups to participate from over 50 demoing companies. Daryll McDade at Microsoft was awesome to work with and the film crew at Ten100 made “acting” loads of fun. The feature-length documentary, called “Inventing The Future”, is set to complete editing this summer. Details to follow.

Guardly for iPhone

Of all the early accomplishments we had as a company, launching Guardly on iPhone has been the most rewarding for me (and hopefully for the team as well). It was the culmination of everything we had been working towards for the 6 months prior.

I want to thank all our employees for the hard work and dedication they’ve shown, working long days and nights to make sure Guardly would fulfill its mission – to help people stay safe. You guys rock!

When a product is built, most people only see the finished product, but don’t have an opportunity to see all the attempts, failures, redesigns and thoughts that go into making a product. One of the things that I love about the Guardly team is their attention detail and their passion for making sure that each component of the Guardly service is as good as it can be for our customers. Their collective creativity, resourcefulness and teamwork have already led to a number of post-launch product iterations that better address customer needs, recommendations and feedback. Improvements continue today.

And beyond…

Since we live in a poly-smartphone world, we’ve been busy bringing Guardly to BlackBerry, Windows Phone and Android. Sign up to be notified when Guardly becomes available for your device.

We are also building a platform for the educational sector, which will disintermediate the way the college and university campus emergency phones work to connect students and campus security. Today, most post-educational institutions have emergency poles on campus (sometimes called “Code Blue” phones). Unfortunately, emergency phones are relatively hard to find, predators can avoid them, they require maintenance and most importantly, they are fixed and not mobile during an emergency. Guardly works to make student and faculty phones into emergency poles that are location-aware; further, Guardly would let students reach campus security by phone or instant-message. Today, campus security can only be reached by phone. We are looking to work with universities and colleges that are innovative and forward thinking – please contact us and ask how you can become an early partner.

Advisors: The supporting cast.

Any early-stage management team is only as good as the people that surround it. Guardly has been fortunate to have a group of strong, responsive and caring advisors.

Our earliest advisors included Matt Golden and Mark Ruddock. I had the pleasure of working closely with Matt on three investment transactions at the BlackBerry Partners Fund. He brings a wealth of knowledge in operations, building teams, business development and securing financing. Mark and I first got to know each other around a similar timeframe, back when he was CEO of Viigo and I was an Analyst at RBC Venture Partners (Viigo was our portfolio company). Mark has been helpful in vetting early hires, providing insight into contracts and negotiations and acting as a great sounding board for several key decisions made in our early days.

As we’ve grown, we’ve added April Dunford and Louis Toromoreno to our advisors. April is a local marketing maven, who has given us some extremely insightful advice on the D2C and B2B marketing fronts; she’s super responsive and extremely thoughtful in her suggestions and recommendations. Louis manages campus security at OCAD University and sits on the Board of the Ontario Association of College and University Security Administrators. He is active in thinking about how Guardly can be continuously improved to suit the needs of post-secondary institutions.

Guardly is also a MaRS client. We’ve been lucky to have not just one, but three advisors that have taken interest in Guardly and have provided useful feedback and a number of introductions to relevant people in our space. Big thanks to Mark Zimmerman, Peter Evans and Sue McGill for constantly offering your help and support to our team.

The next 300 days.

Guardly’s future is bright and boasts a number of exciting opportunities to pursue. We’ll be launching a number of new products and programs.

If you’d like to contribute to the Guardly story somehow, here’s a few ways that you can get involved:

  • If you’ve used Guardly, please help us improve by giving us feedback.

  • Work at or attend a college or university? Mention Guardly to your IT/Security department or contact us and we can help.

  • Want to join our amazing team? Apply to a job opening.

  • Do you mentor, advise or invest in other startups? We are always open and eager to work with great people – so please reach out and see if there’s a good potential fit.

  • If you like our story and would like to cover Guardly on your blog, newsletter or podcast, or would like to feature our story in more conventional news outlets, please check out our press kit and send us a note.

  • Share/Bookmark

Toronto Startup Digest

I am proud to announce that I’ve recently become a co-curator of the Toronto [Startup Digest], joining Will Lam in curating a weekly list of the highest quality tech/startup events in Toronto. [Startup Digest] has spread like wildfire from Silicon Valley to locations around the world and I’m excited to be joining the team.

As a long-standing recipient of the Silicon Valley [Startup Digest], I was always pleased with the quality of events that were mentioned in the curated list emailed once each week. The Toronto [Startup Digest] will maintain this quality and will include and highlight the top tech and entrepreneurship events in the Greater Toronto Area (and Waterloo). We won’t cover all of the events, only the best ones!

Here are 5 things that [Startup Digest] will accomplish:

1. We want to promote the entrepreneurial lifestyle and the culture of DOING, to help change the world into a better place.

2. We want to strengthen the pre-existing entrepreneurial communities no matter how small or large they currently are

3. We want to create stronger bonds between entrepreneurs through relevant events where the startup community physically meets each other.

4. We want to promote the cross-pollination of ideas and people that would not otherwise interact.

5. We want to empower the leaders in these startup communities and give them the tools and inspiration to create a huge difference.

(view source)

If you would like to subscribe to the weekly [Startup Digest], please register online.

Otherwise, if you are running an event in Toronto (GTA) or Waterloo, please leave the details in a comment below, email me or contact me on twitter. If the event is targeting rock stars, it’ll get on the list!

  • Share/Bookmark

DemoCamp 25 Toronto Roundup

DemoCamp is a concept that started 4 years ago in the Bubbleshare office boardroom. It is a forum for startups to share ideas, code and development tips at a “safe” venue within the community. Now at DemoCamp 25, audiences topped 450 people as they filled up an entire auditorium-style classroom at Ryerson University – pretty impressive. Check out the Flickr photos.

The theme of this DemoCamp was social gaming, with a few other social applications thrown into the mix. All the presentations were very interesting, but I have selected a few that stood out in my mind:

Gurbaksh Chahal (gWallet)

Gurbaksh gave an inspirational talk on entrepreneurship to the crowd, basing the majority on his life story and how he sold his first two companies for $40 million and then $300 million respectively. CEOs, take a look at his 9 entrepreneurship lessons. His new venture, gWallet, provides the next generation virtual currency platform for social media including social gaming, virtual worlds, mobile platforms, abandoned shopping carts and microtransaction environments. Essentially, it is another offer network that is looking to diversify itself from the realms of OfferPal and the like. It was great to see gWallet in action in one of the subsequent demos during the evening.

Albert Lai (Kontagent)

It’s always good to see Albert. I’ve had a beat on Kontagent for a while now, and I still love what they are doing. If you’re developing a social Facebook app, there is no excuse for not using Kontagent, unless of course you have no desire to really know what your users are doing and how best to improve the growth and distribution of your application across the social network. Kontagent really drives down to better understanding the Life-Time Value (“LTV”) of a user based on your Average Revenue Per User (“ARPU”) less the cost of acquiring an individual user – and Kontagent gets very granular so that you, the developer, can determine which sources of traffic tend to monetize well across your social application. If you haven’t heard of Kontagent, check it out.

Greg Thomson (Tall Tree Games)

Greg seemed to be in fine form last night. He demoed their latest game called FishWorld, which was a stellar rip of Zynga’s (and other) aquarium-based games. It was stellar not because Zynga does it to everyone else, but because it went above and beyond other aquarium-style games. Greg and the company really thought through the game mechanics and the game player’s psychology to maximize revenue-making opportunities. One of the best quotes that he said during his presentation was to “Create a problem for your users and sell them back a solution.” For example, in FishWorld the tanks constantly get dirty, but the game offers a suckerfish for $2 that will keep your tank clean and will prevent you from having to do maintenance on the fish tank to keep it clean. Another very smart move was to sell a shark, a premium and monetizable fish that people think are “cool” to have in their tank, but the shark eats other fish that users will then have to replace through coins or credits. In short, great game mechanics. Check it out! You will learn a lot by studying this game.

Greg Balajewicz (Realm of Empires)

Realm of Empires looks like a pretty engaging game where users can build relationships with each other, strategize, and plan their schemes of “virtual world domination”. They have build the company without many game mechanics for increasing monetization, as that did not seem to be their motivating force; these nice guys actually created a “fair” game where users can genuinely compete on skill and strategy – you are not able to buy your way to the top. While very refreshing from a user game-play point of view, it will be interesting to see how this pans out from a business operations standpoint. I think there is lots of potential for growing revenues in this company and that a great business mind could join this team and together they can really cash-in.

There were a few other demos by Oz Solomon (Social Gaming Studios), Joel Auge (HitGrab), Mark Zohar (Scenecaster) and Roy Pereira (ShinyAds.com), and while interesting, they weren’t inherently social games, which I set out to cover in this post. Feel free to check out my reviews from DemoCamp 21 (July 2009).

If you’d like a more in-depth review of your game or game mechanics, flip me a note and I’d be glad to take the time chat, understand your game / mechanics and review it in a subsequent post.

  • Share/Bookmark