Montreal startup scene continues to rock

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By Francis Moran

My day yesterday? Twelve straight hours of startups, speakers, schmoozing and social media as I took in both FounderFuel’s second demo day and The C100′s AccelerateMTL. With what I am sure was more than a wee bit of coordination, one event followed the other in the beautiful and historic Monument-National theatre building at the very heart of this bustling city. The juxtaposition of a 120-year-old building with the youth and energy of the startup entrepreneurs was not the least bit jarring, although the canned pre-event PA announcement asking us all to turn off our pagers and cell phones was clearly meant far more for a theatre-going audience than for this crowd bent on tweeting every great line to the outside world.

And there were lots of great lines.

The day kicked off with the spring cohort from FounderFuel, an accelerator program that takes in about 10 young companies twice a year (There were 11 in this cohort.) and puts them through an intense three-month program of mentorship, tough love, presentations and long days of work all intended to make them investor-ready on demo day. That day dawned yesterday.

I have been a mentor at FounderFuel for both cohorts so far and was a bit more actively involved in this one. I saw all the companies in their far more raw state on mentor day in March, and spent a full day with them a couple of weeks later, talking about marketing strategy and counselling them on messaging and positioning. I continued to work with a couple of the companies as they honed their pitches heading into yesterday’s big event.

With only one clear exception, every company had changed its core messaging by yesterday. Some had changed their entire offering. In every instance, it was a change very much for the better, with most now much better at articulating how their application creates real value for identified customers or users rather than simply explaining what their app did and how cool that was.

Many of the FounderFuel companies will exit the program with a fresh injection of cash courtesy of a $150,000 convertible note from Business Development of Canada, and all were, of course, pitching the audience of investors for seed rounds of between $400,000 and $650,000.

The 11 companies are:

  • Appifier: Converts WordPress blogs into iPhone and iPad apps in less than a minute.
  • HealthAware: A booking engine that helps consumers find health professionals while delivering up new patient referrals to doctors, dentists and others.
  • ooomf: A marketing platform for app developers.
  • ShopAround: Lets shoppers browse the mall before leaving home.
  • Centerside: Creates personal web pages that adapt their content depending on who’s viewing it.
  • Live Rides: A community marketplace where drivers and passengers can find each other to share the cost of drives.
  • PayPhoneApp: A mobile wallet that gives merchants the data they need to engage better with their customers.
  • TenScores: An automated platform to let even small adwords users optimize their programs.
  • Epilogger: Aggregates social media feeds about events, creating powerful marketing and analytics offerings for event organizers.
  • NoteSolution: Crowd-sourced note-sharing for university students.
  • Prestopolis: Lets small and local retailers publish online catalogues to social media sites.

The afternoon session was the second Accelerate program brought to Montreal by The C100, a group that connects Canadian startups and entrepreneurs with Canadian ex-patriots working in technology companies in Silicon Valley. With a couple of keynotes, a panel of CEOs and a Q&A session, the program was thick with personal stories and great counsel.

My highlights:

  • Taleo founder Martin Ouellet shared hilarious anecdotes about starting his company in his living room “because I was not even rich enough to own a garage,” funding its earliest days with money that should have been paid in income taxes to Revenue Canada, and having to haul six friends in at short notice to fill office chairs because his first big potential customer, which had been told the company had eight employees, was coming by for a due-diligence visit.
  • Potentially topping Ouellet was Beyond the Rack co-founder Yona Shtern. Since no brands would let the startup company list their wares, the founders used to (with permission) plunder friends’ clothing stores overnight, photograph the merchandise, and get it back on the store racks by opening time. Then, every time they sold a piece online, they’d have to go to the store, buy that item off the rack and ship it. All went well until a piece they had just sold was being tried on by a customer when Shtern’s co-founder went to the store to buy it. Putting his company’s interests against his own wellbeing, the guy told the customer that the clothing item made her look a bit fat. She didn’t buy the dress so Beyond the Rack could fulfill for what was only their fourth or fifth customer.
  • I missed a fair bit of Zuora founder Shawn Price‘s keynote but did catch his emphasis on working only in companies with the potential to massively disrupt markets. Doing so is a bit of a high-wire act, he acknowledged, telling us, “Innovation = experimentation. Experimentation implies failure.”
  • Copious founder and former Facebook marketer Jonathan Ehrlich challenged us to question conventional wisdom. “You don’t need to be first. You don’t need experience. You don’t need to be in the Valley.” He also counselled entrepreneurs that no matter what they do, they’re going to be wrong. And so will their investors, advisors, mentors, bankers and board members. Be ready to be wrong, he said, and have a clear sense of your own vision. “If you don’t have a sense of what you want and where you’re going, everyone’s advice sounds good.” Finally, he said, every business has one dominant metric that means success. Find your “magic number,” he said, and then focus everything on achieving it.

I caught up for a few minutes towards the end of the day with Phil Telio, founder of the International Startup Festival which will have its second outing in a cruise ship terminal on Montreal’s historic Old Port from July 11 to 13. Phil reminded me there is a fantastic lineup of speakers, whose presentations will be divided between “inspirational” and “executional.” The festival has also bought out the entire house for one evening at Montreal’s world famous Just for Laughs festival so there will be mirth along with the business. (I’m going to hold you to that plus-one for my spouse, Phil! See you in July.)

All in all, a great day in Montreal, where there’s a lot more going on than student protests.

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