Working with SRI International

I can’t tell you how excited I am that tomorrow will be my first day working at SRI International as an Entrepreneur in Residence.  It does mean that Tim and I have stopped working on Zenlike.  That sucks.  We worked long and hard at it.  But working with SRI represents an incredibly unique opportunity to build a *cliche alert* game changing business by partnering with some of the worlds best researchers and technologists.  In particular experts in the field of artificial intelligence – speech recognition, natural language processing and virtual personal assistant technology.

What I’ll be doing as an EIR is 3 sided.

  • I’ll be working with SRI researchers and executives like Norman Winarsky (founder of Apple’s Siri and current VP Ventures at SRI)  to understand the research and assets SRI owns, and lessons they’ve learned about commercialization.
  • I’ll be studying and iterating with the market to identify its needs.
  • And finally I’ll be iterating with investors and other industry thought leaders to help identify patterns and opportunities within the market.

Combined, the goal is to find opportunities to massage SRI technology and research into a company that can build products servicing this market need using SRI technology as a starting point.

SRI is one of, if not THE most successful research and development centers in the world.  Originally “Stanford Research Institute”, they invented, among other things, the MRI, HDTV, Siri, ultrasound imaging,  stealth technology, remote surgery, and much more.  A good list of some of their inventions is here: http://techcrunch.com/2011/03/06/coolest-tech-tour-sri-human-condition/

They’re amazing at building and researching this technology, but what they often ask for help with, is how to turn these core technologies into extremely profitable ventures.  That’s essentially my job.  A big challenge, but given my passion as a computer scientist for building amazing technology products and my passion understand what the market really want to pay for, is something I’m stoked to do.

From a logistics standpoint, I’ll be splitting my time between Menlo Park in California, and Edmonton Alberta where my family resides.

Why Startups Should Choose Canada Over Silicon Valley

* This post originally appeared as a guest post on Techvibes.

Recently, there’s been a lot made about the advantages for starting technology companies in Canada, as well as the optimism for the Canadian Startup Visa.

But to me, it’s always felt slightly disingenuine and self-promotional. Canadians trying desperately to convince themselves that they’ve arrived on the tech startup map. In a global market, would anyone with experience, connections, and residence in Silicon Valley, actually choose to start a company in Canada?

Yes. I did.

I’m a Canadian citizen who sold my last startup Attassa in 2010 to Silicon Valley’s Yousendit. I also led mobile Product at Zecter, a Y-Combinator company that was later sold to Motorola/Google.

In the last five years in the Bay area, I’ve built a healthy Rolodex of Silicon valley connections. But in January 2013, I moved back and incorporated my new company Zenlike.me in Canada; and not because of SR&ED, not because of IRAP, not because of soaring engineering costs in Silicon Valley, not even because of the US’s luddite immigration policy which makes it difficult for foreigners to start companies in the US.

I did it largely because of the incestuous bubble of false positives that pervades Silicon Valley.

The valley is an amazing place, and in a lot of ways, I’d say there’s no better place to start a company. If it weren’t for the fact that I have a strong network there, allowing me to leverage what the valley is amazing at (capital, marketing, business development), I might not feel as strongly about starting in Canada.

But for all the positives of the Bay Area, there’s one downside that few talk about which can kill startups: false positives. False positives lead to premature scaling. And premature scaling leads to startup’s death.

It’s well known that startups, new products, and taking risks are all deeply ingrained in the Bay Area culture. But what’s not talked about is the downside to this.

Ideas often succeed there—but nowhere else. In the Bay Area, investors, friends, and early adopters are so embracing and supportive of new ideas that startups get funded, apps get downloaded, and ideas get thumbs up, even if they won’t scale.

All too often these startups hit a wall when they try to scale, after having spent way too long on a vision that doesn’t scale. I love Zaarly, believe in the team, and vision, but I can’t help but wonder if they would have changed directions earlier had they been based out of Vancouver or Edmonton, where they could have better validated their business, instead of being based out of San Francisco, and raising money on (literally) day one from Ashton Kutcher.

It’s not all upside for Canadian startups. People are less risk averse so recruiting is hard. But it’s hard anywhere. I’d argue it’s harder in the Bay area, where instead of competing with RBC, Atco, and Telus, you’re competing against Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter.

Fundraising is possibly a bit harder in Canada. But Canadian firms I’ve interacted with—namely iNovia, BDC, Version One, and Real Ventures—are great. Furthermore, a 2010 change in tax laws has essentially removed all the barriers for foreign investment in Canada.

The real challenge, in my opinion, is to constantly be striving for a massive vision in an environment where few peers are doing the same. In the valley, you’re crazy if you’re not shooting for the moon. In Canada, you’re crazy if you are. It’s easy to settle for status quo in Canada.

At the end of the day, my advice to Canadian startups is to stay in Canada, but build connections and spend real time in the valley focusing on business development and marketing. And finally to surround yourself with other local startups shooting for the moon.

CTO dinner in Vancouver

For all it’s current acclaim, Silicon Valley has a problem.  While an abundance of capital, ideas, energy, and motivation is obvious, there’s also a growing shortage of engineering and design talent.  The Valley is becoming increasingly overfunded, but increasingly under-resourced – a condition which represents huge opportunity for Canadian cities.

This was why on Nov. 1st, we organized a CTO dinner in Vancouver.  Short flights to the Bay area, a high desire of Canadians and foreigners to live in Vancouver, leading technology institutes,  and an already existing and growing startup ecosystem all prime Vancouver to take it’s spot as a natural extension to Silicon Valley, and a consumer technology hub … and if that happens, it’ll be lead by designers and engineers … not MBA’s.

One challenges in achieving this vision is often not talked about:  Establishing a network of technology leaders / CTO’s  with experience building and scaling technology and teams.  CTO’s, unlike their CEO peers, don’t always have networking and socializing baked into their DNA’s.  This is obviously a hugely exaggerated stereotype, but they’re often builders, spending most of their current time, and certainly their past, hacking away building amazing product and technology.  Sharing war stories about scaling their technology and teams benefits the whole … experienced leaders, home brewed leaders, and new comers alike.  It’s something you see in the valley all the time … but not in Canada.  Hopefully we see more of this to come in Canada.

Please do celebrate fundraising

Not that long ago a tweet went viral that annoyed me to no end:

“Congratulating an entrepreneur for raising money is like congratulating a chef for buying ingredients.”

A blog post has been on the tip of my tongue since then, and recently, Mark Solon pushed out this beauty of a post which nicely summarizes the sentiments I was feeling.  http://towriteistothink.com/2012/09/18/celebrate-and-then-get-back-to-work/

I think the analogy of a chef (and the overall sentiment that raising money is insignificant) completely minimizes the significance of raising money.  Yes … I totally get it … raising money is only the beginning.  It’s a long journey, for which, raising money is only a small part.  But comparing it to buy ingredients … something that anyone can do with great ease … is misleading … and  is self serving to the person making the comment.  It’s what kids do in the playground when they name call.

Despite the impression people get from reading techrunch, convincing skeptical investors who are subjected to hundreds of pitches is hard …  damn hard.  Unless you’re a serial entrepreneur raising money on a deck (which rarely if ever happens), it represents many months, or years of sacrifice, hard work, iteration, and commitment, and if you are a serial entrepreneur, it still represents the hard work from the past bearing fruit.

In addition to the small validation you get for your effort by investors, there’s other reasons to celebrate and for congratulations.  Being able to tell your family that you’re working your tail off, making personal sacrifices, but at least not doing it for $0 is not insignificant.  Not having to lay off awesome, productive members of your team, that feel like they’ve become family is pretty awesome too.

Look, I get it,  You haven’t accomplished much yet.  You’ve just hit a single home run in the bottom of the first inning.  There’s a long way to go. I also get it that people want to discourage celebration because they want to discourage complacency.  I just don’t think that happens.  I’ve never met an entrepreneur that settles after raising money.  I think if anything its served as a motivator.  It’s added pressure and responsibility (in a good way).  You feel a personal obligation to return money to the individual investors.  I know that was the case with Attassa as I wrote about here.

So in parting … go dancing with your family, get a massage, drink wine with your partner, go to a movie, go go-karting with the team, and then as Mark says, get back to work.

Startups should look for pain … not a nail

One thing we absolutely got correct when starting our company – we started by identifying a pain, and looked to fix it.  In particular we realized that email as a collaboration tool was broken, especially for collaborating over documents.  We set out to fix that high level pain rather than to find a problem that we could solve with our technical areas of expertise.

“Look to solve pain” is not novel advice to anyone looking to start a company, but still, all too often, you see people trying to think of startup ideas that will leverage their technical expertise.  While it obviously doesn’t’ hurt being an iPhone expert if you’re building a mobile company, there’s no reason you need to limit your options to just mobile iPhone apps.   Any programmer is capable of ramping up *enough* in an area such as mobile, web, desktop to build out a minimum viable product.  You can always bring in help latter once you’ve found product market fit.