Highlights from Red Herring Canada 08

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By Francis Moran

I already wrote a post at Dangletech.com, where I try to contribute weekly, about the most fascinating highlight the Red Herring Canada 08 conference held earlier this week at Mont Tremblant. For my money, the best entertainment was the riveting behaviour of Red Herring publisher and CEO Alex Vieux who dominated the event with his bewildering mix of brilliant observation, insightful analysis and boorish, insulting and condescending treatment of those who paid big bucks to attend.

But there was, fortunately, more of value beyond Vieux’s theatrics and here, in no particular order other than how they appear in my notebook, are some of the better gems from nearly two days of presentations, round tables and corridor chitchat at an event focused on technology startups and the venture capitalists they pursue for funding.

Miranda Technology Inc. chairman Brian Edwards said there is a “liquidity crisis in Canada,” leading many funds-seeking companies to consider going the capital pool company route on the TSX-Venture Exchange. “That’s pretty scary to me.” And while he applauded that lots of government money is going into research in Canadian universities, he said there is “very little management of that money. … We need to bet on the creation” of new companies.

Jacques Bernier, senior vice-president at Fonds de solidarit√© FTQ, was equally skeptical of the temptations of an early or inadequate IPO. “We won’t touch” a company that goes public on the venture exchange for its first million dollars or so and then comes to his firm looking for more. Being public “puts the focus entirely on the wrong place,” he said.

Mike Grandinetti, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, said too many companies looking for funding have “an unhealthy focus on not wanting to dilute” the founders’ ownership. If you’re in it to win, he said, retaining less than 50% ownership — sometimes much less — should not be an issue. As for the view that markets are too unsettled or times are too tough, “turbulence creates opportunity,” he said.

RBC Venture Partners managing director Robert Antoniades agreed with Grandinetti on founders accepting lower stakes in their companies, saying, “You can be a very successful entrepreneur with 10% ownership.” He cautioned founders not to try to remake a “VC process (that) is well understood.”

The critical role marketing plays in the early development and revenue growth of a young company was emphasized by Yahoo Canada general manager Kerry Munro. He encouraged companies to boost their marketing spend when the economy turns sour. “Marketing is the first thing you cut in times of trouble,” he said. “It should be the first thing you invest in in times of opportunity.”

The challenge, he added, is to see marketing in a new light. “Most companies in Canada look at it as a cost and not as an investment.”

One Ottawa CEO who successfully found venture backing earlier this year told the conference he did not share any belief that money is not available, so long as the idea being pitched is worthy. “If you want to raise VC money, you’d better come up with an idea that’s VC-fundable,” said OverlayTV’s Rob Lane, something he defined as having the potential of being worth $100 million some day.

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