Industry veterans share war stories, inspiring the next generation of technology talent and startups in Vancouver.

In the early 1990s, Ventures West co-founder Haig Farris ran a class at UBC for MBA students and engineering grad students. He was invited by the faculty to shepherd this class even though he wasn’t a professor. Sitting among the students, from the MBA side, was a 25-year-old who learned far more than entrepreneurship management theory. This particular class gave all the necessary inspiration for me to head into the nascent technology industry in Vancouver, and I am still here 18 years later.


There was no lecturing; Farris brought his friends and associates from the industry to share their experience in technology entrepreneurship. For example, I learned about writing software as a third party for a smart mobile device (Norm Francis, Pen Magic Software, at the time the largest third-party application developer for the Apple Newton); building a video game company for the emerging market of consoles (Don Mattrick, the 3DO Co., a massive U.S. joint venture aimed at unseating Japanese console makers); and a revolution in the printing industry brought about by innovation at a Burnaby startup (Ken Spencer, Creo, speaking mere months after the RR Donnelley order that sent the company on an explosive growth curve).


What inspired most in this class were the frank and intimate conversations with leading local successful entrepreneurs. They didn’t present as much as they engaged the small class. Some of these evenings are burned into my memory for life.


Vancouver technology conferences

A recent series of events in Vancouver has sparked a similar reaction. Late last summer, the Grow 2010 conference (run by Canadian expat Debbie Landa) was held at the Vancouver Convention Centre, followed by the B.C. Innovation Council’s Connect conference and finally a PricewaterhouseCoopers event at Electronic Arts called Interaction. What distinguished these three events was the level of global expertise, experience and pure industry knowledge brought by the key speakers. 


More importantly, these weren’t paid speakers coming to an event to pontificate and leave without interacting with the crowd. Local attendees heard from and met with senior executives from Groupon, Zynga, Linked­In, Club Penguin (Disney), 500 Startups, Nettwerk, Pandora, Zappos, Microsoft, RIM, Nokia and Google. I talked to all of them and I had no special access.


It was invaluable to have real in-the-trenches senior managers sit and share their war stories and then allow you to talk to them afterwards, just like Farris’s class in the early 1990s. Back then I was enthralled by Pen Magic and the Newton. Failure does happen, but some have the amazing clarity of vision to reinvent themselves. The Newton soon died, but two years later I sat in Norm Francis’s office looking at a sales force management tool called Pivotal, which has since gone down in local lore as one of Vancouver’s great tech successes.

 

The passing on of wisdom

At this year’s Grow conference, Ellen Levy of Linked­In shared the internal business plan for her company from 2005 and showed how it hit its one-year, three-year and five-year goals remarkably well. She claimed that intense focus and commitment leads to effective execution of the plan. It’s too easy, she said, to become distracted in all the noise. This is valuable to startups today. LinkedIn had a revenue plan from day one. It didn’t simply build an audience and then “figure it out.” I’m sure that somewhere in the audience, a 25-year-old was inspired by her story.


Here is another important fact about these three events: almost all of these speakers don’t work in Vancouver (although some formerly did). They arrived here, took part in these gatherings and left with contacts and business development. They now know that Vancouver is a technology hub and they will spread the word. This means more credibility for startups from Vancouver and B.C. It means more direct access to high-level contacts. This is exactly why we need more conferences like these where we attract the best and brightest – from both sides of the border.

Brent Holliday heads the technology practice for Capital West Partners, a Vancouver-based investment bank.