Local tech success stories from Calgary

By Lloyed Lobo, Partner, Boast Capital

Do you wonder what it takes to be a successful technology company in Calgary?

Last Wednesday I had the privilege of attending TechRev Innovators:  Local Success Stories, hosted by TechRev and the Calgary Council for Advanced Technology (CCAT). Four Calgary tech entrepreneurs discussed how they achieved success, the challenges they faced, and lessons learned along the way.

In my last blog, I talked about how Calgary has the highest number of tech startups per capita, so it is always great to celebrate the success of our entrepreneurs (and learn about the journey that brought them to where they are).

The evening's panel was comprised of:

  • Tara Kelly, CEO and Founder of Splice Software, which provides novel voice messaging and interactive solutions to companies who regularly communicate with their customers.
  • Brendon Cook, CEO and Co-Founder of Blackline GPS, a wireless location company that builds and markets tools for worker safety monitoring, covert tracking, and consumer applications.
  • Stephen Cooke, President, CTO and Founder of Genesis Technical Systems, creator of the DSL Rings® technology, which reportedly enables customers to increase their commercial Internet bandwidth by up to twenty times (up to 400 Mb/s).
  • Dr. Hussam Kinawi, Chief Scientist and Co-Founder of Wedge Networks, a high performance, network-based, web security provider.

The moderator for the event was Pam Boytinck, Executive Director of Techrev, who did a fantastic job of keeping the conversation flowing and collecting some great insights from the entrepreneurs. 

Here is a sample of some of the questions and answers:

What has been the most challenging part of your journey thus far?

Dr. Kinawi said commercializing his company was complex, but access to capital has by far been his greatest challenge. He believes that Calgary needs a strong venture capitalist community, as most funding programs (such as Scientific Research and Experimental Development, and Industrial Research Assistance Program) only seem to support development. Kinawi argued that the government should provide incentives to hire and relocate commercialization talent to Alberta, as it is hard to find local people experienced with developing a company from startup to exit.

How do we crack the funding code?

Tara Kelly recommended that entrepreneurs reach out to their local tech community, as well as look within their own circles to find investors. Her company raised its money in increments, each at a higher valuation as it met new milestones.

Family and friends were the initial funders of Brendon Cook's company, who added that he and his co-founders did not bring home a salary for the first three years of operation. After raising $2 million from Alberta sources, Blackline GPS went public and has since racked up a further $15 million.

Stephen Cooke argued that it was easier to get funding from venture capitalists 5-10 years ago. "Your heart better be in it," he advised, adding that start-ups should be prepared to work long and hard to gain success.

Dr Kinawi took a more clinical viewpoint. "Just like in any sales job, you need to identify target investors, share your plan, and constantly demonstrate progress," he said. He also advised working with someone who is experienced in helping early stage companies raise money.

How are tech entrepreneurs different from others?

Kelly believes that tech entrepreneurs are typically not motivated by money, capital, or monetization, but rather by trying to change the world. "We love it when people use our product, even if it is for free," she said.

Cooke added that true tech entrepreneur view success as an "unattainable target." Innovators in this field are constantly looking to improve upon their products or services.

How important is a roadmap?

"People don't just show up for a paycheck and free water," said Kelly. "You need to give them a mission and a sense of purpose, which is impossible without a roadmap."

Kinawi said his company takes customer feedback very seriously, and every feature of its product roadmap is customer-driven: "Developing something cool just for the sake of it is like creating a solution that is looking for a problem."

Any suggestions for budding entrepreneurs?

Brendon Cook: "Find a partner with complimentary skillsets. You will burn out quickly if you try to do it all by yourself."

Tara Kelly: "There is a strong startup ecosystem in Calgary (including A100, Innovate Calgary and Startup Calgary). Reach out to these organizations and get connected with mentors who have been through the ringer and can coach you on your pitch, suggest valuable connections, and even help you raise money."

Stephen Cooke: "Focus on your goals, but also be innovative and adapt to hurdles as they come along."

Dr. Kinawi: "Improve your social and public speaking skills. 'Techies' often lack social skills, but when you're the founder of a startup it is imperative to be able to articulate how your company is different from the rest."

Overall, it was a fantastic event with plenty of actionable advice for young startups.

A big thank you to TechRev and CCAT for putting the event together. TechRev is an initiative of Innovate Calgary with a mandate to increase awareness of, and investment activity in, Calgary's technology sector. Each year, TechRev recognizes 10 of the most promising local tech ventures.  Please take a moment to nominate a tech company that you feel is working on something that could potentially change the world '€“ the deadline is March 31st.

Lloyed Lobo is a partner at Boast Capital, a firm that helps tech companies access the Canadian government's annual $7 billion funding pool to advance innovation under programs such as Scientific Research and Experimental Development.