2012 review: increased success and potential identity

Last year I wrote an article summarizing activity in the community and taking a look at the year ahead. If 2011 was a year when Hamilton’s nascent software community was revealed, 2012 has been a year of continued and increased success, and maybe even the beginnings of an identity. I’ll review 2012 in this post and take a look ahead at 2013 in an article over the next week or so.

In 2012 the software industry in Hamilton continued to grow; for example Weever Apps doubled the size of its workforce and business in three months and companies like LinxSmart expanded into new offices. Companies like Snakehead Games, REfficient, ISIS and Net6 settled in and made Hamilton their home. We also saw an important surge in student-led startups, for example Nervu Ninja, Groupnotes, OverAir. In 2011 I was really only aware of 2 students that were building startups or products, so it’s been great to see this change. When you see stories like BufferBox coming out of Waterloo next door it’s hard not to see the potential for Hamilton.

This growing industry has spurred demand for new startups spaces. In 2012 we saw Innovation Factory launch their Factory Floor space and Joe Accardi launch Platform 302 (@Platform302). Places like these matter. It’s not just space; it’s space next to other young and growing companies. This has a motivational, educational and synergistic effect as companies can pool resources, share knowledge and inspire one another. It’s why spaces like these exist in startup hotspots all over the world. I hope that Platform 302, Factory Floor and other spaces like it continue to pop up all over the city and serve as economic hubs.

Mohawk College hosted another very successful edition of Apps For Health in 2012. The conference drew in about 200 attendees and participants and included a traditional conference component as well as a student app design competition. The event drew participants from all over Southern Ontario and established itself as an important event beyond just Hamilton but more broadly in Ontario. Mohawk College is establishing itself as a force in eHealth, with the announcement earlier this year of the two million dollar Mobile and Electronic Health Development and Innovation Centre (MEDIC). Duane Bender (@duane_bender) said in the CBC article announcing the centre that “writing software for medical applications really is its own art”, and that’s exactly the case. You can’t just make some of these eHealth applications in a garage or a dorm room and release them like some other startups, there’s a lack of equipment, safety issues, and political or procedural hoops. This sort of infrastructure is critical if successful eHealth companies are going to be built in Hamilton. As a side note it was great to see the video below produced by Double Barrel Studios (@DoubleBarrel_) that recognized the potential for Hamilton in this area. Sometimes it’s hard to see the potential until somebody puts it all together like this:

 

 

Innovation Factory continued to offer a myriad of events and support for Hamilton startups. The ideas being pitched at their Innovation Nights seemed better than ever in 2012. They ran a very successful vote-driven Start Off contest which highlighted local startups and gave them a chance to win prize packages containing different services. Lion’s Lair is my favourite thing by far that Innovation Factory does (in conjunction with the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce). Lion’s Lair 2012 saw REfficient and Nervu Ninja win the 2nd and 3rd prizes respectively, which included cash and services worth $35,000 and $15,000. To me it shows to the outside world that Hamilton as a community is ready to support our entrepreneurs. But perhaps more importantly events like Lion’s Lair are particularly successful at engaging with the broader community in Hamilton. In the week after Lion’s Lair friends and family would come up to me saying things like “such and such startup should have won” or “I’ve got this idea…”. There is over 500,000 people in Hamilton. Even if it’s only at the level of awareness, engaging all of them is critical to building an entrepreneurial culture. With competitions like Start Off and events like Lion’s Lair, Innovation Factory is doing exactly that.

I love to see student startups. I believe it is one of Hamilton’s best chances for growing a stronger software industry. I’ve seen firsthand during my own time at McMaster that our programs produce talent that is second to none in the world. New courses and entrepreneurial programs at McMaster like software entrepreneurship and XCEEi are helping to spur this activity. That’s why it’s great to say that Hamilton-area students made some serious noise in 2012. First off, Mohawk College students Jerad Godreault (@JeradGodreault) and Leo Godreault (@LeoGodreault) took first place in the national eHealth competition for their SmartMed app, and fellow student Rahulbai Patel took third for his MyPCS app. Then later in the year McMaster students Matt Gardner (@ThatMattGardner) and Jason Moore (@jmooreit) won Startup Weekend Toronto and went on to win the global startup battle against 138 teams from around the world. When our students are winning national and global competitions, there shouldn’t be concern about Hamilton lacking talent. The talent for a stronger software industry is right here. Though many of us realize that talent always has been here, winning these competitions and making noise can help remove the doubt of outsiders who may perhaps be looking to invest or move in to Hamilton.

Another big event in 2012 was Startup Weekend Hamilton 2 which took place at Mohawk College. The 2nd event drew in just over 100 participants and the teams did an excellent job building startups in a single weekend. Check out the winning pitch at the end of the event from StartupsN:

 

 

Startup Weekend Hamilton is perhaps most important for the “co-founder dating” role that it plays. Everyone that shows up at these events is interested in working on or for a startup, but are often looking for people they can work with. Maybe they have an idea and they need developers, or maybe they can build a product but need help building a sales funnel. There’s no better way to see how well you work with different people than by working with them. The relationships that form at these events have gone on into the future as people choose to work with one another again, perhaps not always on the startups that formed that weekend, but on other projects.

On the grassroots community side, DemoCampHamilton continued in 2012, with 5 events taking place over the year at Mohawk College, McMaster University and The Art Gallery of Hamilton. We had keynotes from local experts like Ryan McGreal (@RyanMcGreal), Anand Sinha (@AnandSHamilton), Julie Cole (@juliecole), and Justin Hogeterp as well as regional experts like Carol Leaman (@CarolLeaman) and Joel Augé (@JoelAuge). Attendance surged over the course of the year, with well over 200 taking in the most recent DemoCampHamilton9 at McMaster. The demos were diverse in terms of coming from startups, products, non-profits and students. The unofficial award for demo of the year goes to Nick Tomkin (@ntomkin) and Synxer. Skip a few minutes in to the video below to see why:

 

 

StartupDrinks took place every month in 2012, and I’ve been happy with the more social role that it’s been playing relative to other events in the community. You can really get to know somebody over an hour and a drink as opposed to exchanging business cards at other events. I’ve been co-organizing new event CoderCamp in response to demand for a smaller monthly event that’s specific to software developers, and though the event is still finding itself I’ve enjoyed meeting other developers and seeing what they do.

Other groups like the Hamilton Linux User Group, Open Hamilton, and Joomla User Group of Southwestern Ontario continued to actively community build. It was great to see student groups at McMaster continue to be active, and to see new clubs like McMaster AIS led by President Alycia Mazepa (@alycia_m26) startup as well. One group in particular that I think deserves mention is CIPS-GH. The group runs consistently occurring monthly events for the IT community which tend to be high on educational content. CIPS-GH event organizer Pat Gaudet has been quietly organizing these events for years now and I think it’s great what she’s done and is continuing to do. Our neighbours Silicon Halton (@siliconhalton) kept doing their good work, and we gained new neighbours in Software Niagara (@softwareniagara).

My favourite thing about 2012 on the community-side of things was Michael Canton’s TechTalk4HamOnt (@TechTalk4HamOnt) web series. Michael is at every single tech event in the city with his camera recording content for the series. This guy has serious passion, energy and genuinely cares about the community. The show has progressively improved in quality over the year to the point where I really think it’s on par with anything else out there. Just compare the latest segment containing an interview with Gavin Schulz with this recent interview from XConnecTO (a Toronto web series). It’s not a competition, XConnecTO is excellent, but I just love to see Hamilton having something like this that’s now on par with what other communities have. Events like DemoCamp might let us showcase what we’re doing to one another, but with TechTalk4HamOnt we can showcase what Hamilton is doing to the outside world. As a related side project Michael is building a grassroots Hamilton Web Series Community that meets up regularly. There is a quote by Robert Townsend that I really like – “a leader is not an administrator who loves to run others, but someone who carries water for his people so that they can get on with their jobs”. Michael is carrying a camera for Hamilton instead of water, but make no mistake that he is being a leader in the best sense of the word. We could use more people like him in Hamilton.

When you look at the community there’s many, many unsung heroes who make contributions that aren’t as recognized as others but who really deserve to be. Colin Ferguson of Snakehead Games came out to share his experience by giving talks to McMaster and Mohawk students this year, and he’s at many Startup Drinks events explaining the realities of the business to the rest of us. Alex Ross of Gowlings similarly comes out and shares insights about IP law that the rest of us can learn from and use to protect ourselves. I also think entrepreneur bloggers like Stephanie McLarty (@REStepMcL) that share their journey and their thoughts on blogs like Talk Sustainability play the same role. It’s difficult to quantify the value of any talk given or any piece of advice that’s dolled out, but the cumulative effect for the community does matter. I hope people in the community continue to give freely in 2013 and beyond. Those who pay it forward like this tend to get it all back and then some, in ways that they might not expect.

As I ranted about in this post last week, as much as community may matter as a catalyst, the success, sustainability and long-term growth of the entire ecosystem ultimately flows from the creation of great companies, products and jobs. Hamilton pushed forward on this front in a big way in 2012. Local firms built great products. One example would be Brave New Code and their WPTouch Pro product demoed at DemoCampHamilton7; the WordPress plug-in powers the mobile version of over 25 million websites (including CNN Tech Fortune). That’s not small potatoes. That’s more websites than the population of Australia. The success of products has led to the most critical piece of the puzzle for Hamilton more broadly speaking: job creation. In 2011 there were only ten local job postings on Software Hamilton, but in 2012 there were over forty. I can’t definitively say how accurate of a measure that is for the local jobs picture, but I do believe that a 400% increase in job postings is reflective of a growing software industry. It’s not just hype. The momentum in Hamilton is real.

Which makes you wonder just what a software industry in Hamilton is going to grow into being. Hamilton has had agency-type software firms developing products and offering consulting services for larger players on a contract basis for many years. But it’s really only been over the last 10, and especially the last 2-5 years, that we’ve seen a real surge in the number of software startups that are developing and releasing their own products. The software industry in each city tends to naturally skew towards hometown strengths. University of Waterloo’s highly regarded engineering, system and software programs have led to companies like RIM that actually build a layer of technology themselves (as opposed to solving a problem by building some software). Toronto is a financial center with the accompanying corporate headquarter and marketing strengths, so it’s not surprising to see accounting related startups like Freshbooks or Wave Accounting sprout up, or marketing automation SaaS company Eloqua succeed there. Maybe I’m off but I tend to see patterns where cities organically specialize in what they can do better than other places.

In Hamilton perhaps the most obvious area of specialization is eHealth. McMaster has a world class medical school. Mohawk College is making a big push into the area with Apps For Health and MEDIC. There are several eHealth related firms in the area like ISIS. I suspect healthcare software can be a big thing for Hamilton going forward.

But what about other areas? To me one of the more exciting things about Hamilton has been the broader creative and cultural awakening. Art crawls, galleries, design, paintings, sculptures, stage plays, live music, etc. At the same time, two of the bigger areas for software in Hamilton at present are e-commerce and video games. Both areas can potentially enhance and be enhanced by this broader creative revival. Two of our biggest firms are in e-commerce – Trip Central and Mabel’s Label. E-commerce has potential ties with the creative sector in terms of selling specialized, hand-made and/or craft goods online. Hamilton also seems to offer advantages in terms of location and cheap, available space, amongst other reasons. We also have several video game producers like BattleGoat, Snakehead Games, Hard Circle and GreenPixel, along with a game design stream of the Software Engineering program at McMaster. A video game industry can be enhanced by and provide additional work for artists, designers and musicians. Just look at what a video game industry did for Montreal.

I sorted out the directory into different areas just to illustrate better what it does look like right now:

 

Video Games

Hamilton strengths: McMaster Software Engineering Game Design stream, obvious overlaps with the broader creative sector

 

E-Commerce

Hamilton strengths: See articles “Could e-Commerce be a Hamilton strength?” and “Opportunity for Hamilton art and tech” – cheap space has a pronounced effect, central location, strong web design and social media talent, McMaster eBusiness Research Centre, lower startup capital requirements, potential to sell unique creative goods online

 

Health

Hamilton strengths: Apps For Health, Mohawk eHealth Development and Innovation Centre (MEDIC), McMaster’s Medical School

 

Web / Mobile / Hardware product firms

Hamilton strengths: Innovation Factory, Angel One Network, Golden Horseshoe Venture Forum, I’d also include for-profit service providers such as KPMG (Hamilton office), VA Partners and Gowlings that are active in contributing to the community

 

Web / Branding / SEO / Social Media / Design agency firms

Hamilton strengths: Strong creative sector overall (see Cobalt Connects)

 

IT

Hamilton strengths: Central Southern Ontario location, cheap space

 

Scientific Computing / Analytics / Research-intensive firms

Hamilton strengths: McMaster

 

There are others that are extra difficult to place in a category, like video game consulting firm E / D&P Games or Peregrine FX, and Dan Zen’s creations. There’s also non-profit “good citizen” work like Bus Ticker. All together though there’s over 100 firms that do some form of software development. And that’s not counting work done in-house by large companies like Dofasco or the public sector institutions like McMaster.

I think we’ll see other areas sprout up in the years ahead. Maybe between Weever Apps, Nervu and OverAir mobile marketing can become an area of strength? I’m completely biased because it’s an area that I’m working on and researching myself, but if you look at the above list, we have ISIS, Orbis Communications, Campus Social, Campus Helper, ilearnulearn and Groupnotes all doing education software. We also have a highly acclaimed teacher’s college present in town with Brock University. Maybe educational software can be an area of strength? Disruptive changes in technologies and in industries tend to come from the bottom-up, so these things are hard to predict. Often times it’s best not to try to control or direct the sparks but to simply provide fuel for them to grow and the space for them to gather up and become a fire.

All in all 2012 has been a great year for software in Hamilton. The industry grew, the community became larger and more active, and you can even start to see the beginnings of an identity for Hamilton software. I’ll post an article soon taking a look at what lies ahead in 2013 and beyond.

 

  • http://www.getsnappay.com/ Jim Rudnick

    WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    What a great piece on the newly developing strengths of our #HamOnt community!
    Great job, Kevin….so nice to see our city expanding and gaining new skills/talents/knowledge at the same time!

    :-)Jim

  • Carolynn Reid

    Excellent summary Kevin!  2012 was a great year for Hamilton’s software community and 2013 will be even better thanks to our community partners like Software Hamilton.

  • Philip Papadopoulos

    What a great list of companies / organizations!