Alright, so here’s my year in review post for 2013 (see 2011 and 2012 iterations). Before the holidays I posted an article on the top ten stories of 2013. In these review articles I try to summarize as best as I can what’s happened in our local industry and community over the last year, and I’ll also try to provide a look ahead too.
Let the good times roll
The Software Hamilton job board cracked 100 jobs in a single year for the first time, more than double 2012 numbers. It’s not a perfect measurement of the growth of our industry, but I do believe it’s highly indicative of a growth that is accelerating. The directory of firms is up from a few dozen at the start of 2011 to 154 by the end of 2013.
If there’s a trend in these jobs it’s web development work. Though our software startup culture may be in its nascent or “toddler years”, we have a strong agency culture here now for web development (and it really has been for years now). We have many web development and design firms handling work for clients inside the city, but increasingly for larger clients and clients outside the city too. Most of the job growth is coming from this area. One of the better ways product startups arise is through agency firms coming across a problem that multiple clients have and providing a solution in the form of a new product, and several local firms have either followed this path already or are following this path now.
If there’s another trend it’s that salaries are up. I can’t speak for every job in the city and I’ll admit this is more anecdotal than the above, but many firms have reported having to pay more and developers are almost universally reporting that they are getting more. This may be a metric to start tracking better now, perhaps with a survey done once a year. In particular knowing the gap between Hamilton and other cities may be interesting.
New community initiatives take flight
Over the last few years we’ve experienced a regularly occurring line-up of events in our community such as AppsForHealth, Startup Weekend, Innovation Night, StartupDrinks, CoderCamp, DemoCamp, and more.
Each year we tend to get a few more initiatives and/or events starting up.
This year we had more than a few start up! Check them out:
McMaster Game Development Association
McMaster Entrepreneurship Association
McMaster Software Outreach Progam
Mohawk College Artificial Intelligence Club
Ladies Learning Code (Hamilton Chapter)
Hacking Health Hamilton Cafe
Community events and initiatives tend to provide different types of value such as PR and awareness, recruiting, inspiration, education, connective / social, etc. Each one of these new initiatives provides a new type of value. For example we’ve had StartupDrinks for awhile now playing a connective / social role for the broader tech startup community, but a spin-off event like GameDev drinks can provide that same value for a more specific vertical. The cumulative effect of all these initiatives adds up as our community becomes larger, more connected and stronger than it has ever been before.
Whether within a non-profit organization or at the grassroots level, each one of these new initiatives was led by some sort of champion or champions, and we should do our best to support them however we can to continue what they have started in 2014 and beyond.
If we want to keep this momentum going, and to keep this community self-sustaining decades into the future, we’re going to need a hundred more champions to emerge. Champions who will recognize gaps where value can be created, champions who can create successful businesses, champions who support the growth of local businesses, and champions who will grow our community by pulling more people in. Champions who will lead new things and then help to support new champions themselves.
New champions are already stepping up in 2014. Alex Pineda (@alexpineda77) has created a new co-working get together called Hacker Saturdays occurring at Radius that started up this month – I was at the first and plan on attending more. TEDxHamilton will be taking place on March 2nd at the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts, a day of live talks with a day-long theme of “resiliency through innovation”.
Opportunities for new champions
So what are the existing gaps with opportunities to create value for the community? In my opinion…
Connecting founders to funders
We have GHVF and Angel ONE currently servicing Hamilton. However both groups physically meet in Halton, and there’s only one person on the board of Angel ONE from Hamilton. And while I’m not sure what the statistics are for GHVF, based on what is stated on the Angel ONE front page (38 investments, $28 million in equity) that would mean an average $737k investment.
It looks like Angel ONE is doing a fantastic job for the broader region, but from what I’ve been told few if any Hamilton startups are being funded by Angel ONE or similar groups. That level of funding is more akin to a super angel. What if you’re a first time entrepreneur that needs $20k – $100k to build a product, obtain sales, etc.? Because that’s what many founders are in Hamilton – promising idea, but they need more traditional angel funding ranges to get them through the early stages.
I know for a 100% fact we have people in Hamilton willing to take on a role closer to a traditional angel investor – $20k to $100k investment along with their mentorship, investing in the person as much as the idea, etc. I don’t think a big pitch event is the way to connect these people to founders though. Something smaller, something more relaxed and personal, something more exclusive too.
I know others are interested in this one so if you’re interested in this one either as a founder, funder or organizer, you can send me an e-mail.
Catalyze specific verticals
Initiatives like AppsForHealth, WordCamp, GameDev Drinks, and Etsy Me all targeted specific verticals (health tech, WordPress development, game development, e-commerce). By honing in on a specific area they are able to provide a different value than more broadly focused events like Startup Weekend, DemoCamp, etc. These are great areas to keep tackling in Hamilton. How about a game or e-commerce hackathon? What about other verticals like edtech, fintech, etc?
More specific / niche initiatives
Learn to code initiatives
The importance of this cannot be overstated. Though the community is growing, right now it’s a pretty small fraction of a 520K population city. We need to increase enrolment in computer science and related programs at all of our post-secondary institutions, and not just in the 10 year time frame by targeting younger children, but also in the shorter term time frame too by targeting teens unsure about their future careers and adults looking to retrain. There’s a lot of laid off manufacturing workers in this town that could start a great second career in ICT – I’ve got a few friends who have done exactly that. Mohawk College offers a particularly accessible option in terms of lower tuition and time requirements that’s also paired with great job and salary prospects afterward (disclaimer: I’m a professor at Mohawk).
There was more activity in this space than ever before with TechCamp, HelloWorld Camp, McMaster Outreach (1500+ children reached, amazing job here), CoderDojo, Ladies Learning Code and others.
We could use a whole lot more. Reaching a couple thousand people is amazing. But going forward we should be trying to reach tens of thousands of people, even hundreds of thousands of people. There’s basically an unlimited demand for the number of and types of these try coding, learn-to-code, after school and code club type initiatives. So find some space, find some others to partner with, hold an intro workshop, hold a hackjam, organize an after school program, or start a code club!
New business generation
Events like Startup Weekend sometimes take flack because the idea that a company can be formed in such a short time frame is unrealistic. While it’s true most startups formed at Startup Weekends breakup shortly after the event (and sometimes during the event), others like Walkbug keep going and launch products.
We need more than just Startup Weekend focused on creating new businesses. Given how connected the community has become, though networking is important for newcomers, regular networking for the sake of networking isn’t as valuable as it used to be (some would argue it’s not worth it at all, but I don’t think that’s the case). What’s become more valuable are events that attempt to create new businesses.
Maybe hackathon / startup events that are vertical specific? Events where teams create WordPress, HooteSuite or other types of plug-ins?
Whatever the format, it’s important to remember that the most critical form of champion in our community is the founder that builds a great business and creates new jobs in the process.
Aside from new champions pushing new initiatives, I can think of the following things looking ahead…
Figuring out what works well in Hamilton
Certain types of startups tend to work better in some cities rather than others. It’s not surprising that a financial centre like Toronto would spawn Freshbooks and Wave Accounting. Some startup communities seem to develop identities organically.
It’s important to consider because some startups are more or less likely to work in Hamilton compared to other regions for various reasons. We only have so much funding and so many developers. Even being in a region with Waterloo and Toronto right next to us, just purely due to reasons of capacity there are certain types of startups that are less likely than others here. If a startup requires in the short-term a hundred grad students, a thousand developers, or tens of millions in funding, that’s obviously going to be pretty difficult to do here.
That’s not to say we can’t do major league and/or global product stuff here. Mabel’s Labels, VIZIYA, WPTouch / BraveNewCode, CareGo are some counter-examples to that idea. It’s just that in the short-term capacity matters.
We also have Hamilton-specific strengths beyond lower operating costs, such as availability of warehouse space, a fairly large healthcare sector, a still fairly strong manufacturing base, a thriving arts community. CareGo fits right in with our manufacturing base, for example. E-commerce, niche SaaS, web platform plug-in development, certain forms of health tech, indie video games are all areas where Hamilton firms have done well and there’s no reason to expect more can’t in the future.
Time for a student accelerator?
There’s been talk at McMaster about a student-focused accelerator. A group of students and employees at McMaster recently toured Communitech (I was on the tour). Waterloo has Velocity and Toronto has Ryerson DMZ. Velocity has output some great startups like Buffer Box, Kik Messenger and Thalmic Labs. Those that have been through the program have spoken pretty highly of how it helped them.
We know students here can build great products based off of stories like Woof and Nix Sensor. It would be excellent to see student startups better supported.
Ignore pessimism, be optimistic and ambitious
Pessimism is such a yawn. I’ve heard it all over the last few years, “Hamilton can’t have a tech industry for x,y,z reasons”, “such and such effort is a waste of time”, “such and such thing has x,y,z flaws” and bla bla bla bla bla. If you’re not leading or following, then get the !@#% out of the way…
When pessimism is used to identify problems and it’s channeled into creating constructive solutions to those problems, sure go for it, otherwise it’s frankly just a crappy attitude that’s not providing much value to anyone at all. But to some people, especially newcomers in given areas, pessimism can be more than a yawn, it can discourage them enough to stop them from doing something great.
“Keep away from those who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you believe that you too can become great.” – Mark Twain
We have every reason to be optimistic. Our industry is growing on all fronts, whether it’s the number of companies, number of job openings, number of students enrolled in our post-secondary institutions, number of community activities, and on and on.
So don’t be afraid to be optimistic and ambitious.
You’re part of a growing local technology industry with a bright future. And you can make that future brighter!
Build something awesome this year, whether it’s a product or a company. Learn and discover new things. Champion something new. Support a champion. Help your peers do what they do better. Let hem help you too. Meet some new people in the community. Bring new people into the community by connecting them to others. Find something you love to do if you haven’t already. Don’t settle for anything but your best. Be great this year. And have fun doing it too!
We had a really good year in 2013. We can have an even better one in 2014, and every year after. And we will!