Decades of ups and downs, helping others start companies, starting my own companies (and sometimes failing) has taught me the power of pattern recognition. It is key to both innovation and entrepreneurship because it is also at the core of being an early adopter and a connector.
That was how I began: as an early adopter. I was involved in mobile-web technology—that’s the Internet on your phone—in 1999. I saw how huge mobile was going to be, and I’m proud of how I was able to pick up on trends like that, though there is such a thing as being too early.
My first venture-backed startup failed for this reason, but I learned a lot about marketing, eventually enough to become a consultant. I helped many companies between Ottawa, Los Angeles, and further afield to grow and to connect with new clients and new partners.
After one of the companies I helped launch as a consultant was sold to J2 for over $220 million, I thought it was time to try again as an entrepreneur. I had known how to recognize patterns, but now I understood a new facet of that skill. If seeing connections was at the heart of recognizing patterns, then I’d learned the power of connecting people.
I decided to launch one of the first consumer genomics companies called DNA11. This was before 23andMe, and it wasn’t about analysis, it was about art; we’d take people’s cheek swabs and turn them into modern artwork. We bootstrapped that company to over $1 million in a little over a year. We did so using the power of PR and the power of earned media—press, exposure, word of mouth; whatever you want to call it.
You could also call it connecting people or connecting with people, because earned media is exactly that: earning a client’s trust, a journalist’s, an editor’s. The marketing worked because I had learned to connect people through what each of them was searching for. It worked so well that we expanded to create another company called CanvasPop, which we bootstrapped and took to eight figures—again, with no venture backing and through leveraging earned media.
Through all of that, I recognized a pattern in myself: I wanted to position myself as a connector, an advisor, an investor—and even an author—to help other entrepreneurs accelerate their own progress by leveraging my experience. Today, I see myself as someone who connects people and who connects people to opportunities, in Ottawa and globally. There is nothing more meaningful to me than being known as a connector and specifically one who supports entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurship is one of the most important elements in society in the way it creates innovation. Entrepreneurs are the ones out there competing and using technology and seeking out talent; they are the ones making changes. The amazing thing about serving as a connector is that I get to be out there, too, talking to real entrepreneurs, getting real data, looking behind the scenes, and when you’re looking for great ideas, what could be more powerful?
From what I’ve experienced, Ottawa is a great place to be an entrepreneur; we have spawned so many incredible companies. That’s partly due to our ecosystem (as you’ll see in the pages that follow) and mostly to do with how many amazing, smart yet humble entrepreneurs we have here, because they make up that network of support. I’m proud to consider myself part of that network; it’s what I’m all about.
As someone who’s always monitoring the pulse of the innovation ecosystem in Ottawa, I can tell you there’s never been a better time to start a company here. Tenacity is important—that’s true anywhere—but while Ottawa has no shortage of technologically minded people, thanks to our being an engineering town, what we need more of is marketing and business-minded people, and entrepreneurs who are in it for the long haul.
I think of my friend Tobi Lütke, who emigrated from Germany, founded Shopify, and instead of selling the company, as he had many opportunities to do, he built a multi-billion dollar enterprise from Ottawa. We’re in a position to see more entrepreneurs do more of that; we have the local resources for them to leverage in order to make a global difference—to shine on a global stage.
The magic happens when different cultures and mindsets—diverse people, and not just in terms of race or gender, but in ideas—all come together. That’s what Ottawa provides. It’s like an artist’s palate; creatives, engineers, artists, business people, marketers—they are all here. If the world is a canvas, let Ottawa be our masterpiece.