Computer-savvy Montreal students looking for a leg up in starting a high-tech business will be pleased to hear that Startupifier, a fledgling student-run group, is starting to take off.
The group played host to around 40 interested parties last Wednesday at Notman House for a workshop on Software as a service, or SaaS, metrics.
Notman, which gives the community access to free Wi-Fi in their downstairs “cafe” area while also doubling as office space for startups and event venue, is the type of place where you take off your shoes at the door. Once inside the building, situated on the corner of Sherbrooke Street and Clarke Street, you are greeted by a long hallway leading to winding stairs at the other end. Besides the rows of shoes at the entrance, the only other object in the hall is a Red Bull vending machine, plugged in but with empty shelves.
The clattering of fingers on computer keys emanating from the two rooms on either side of the hallway temporarily ceased for the course of the workshop, taught by serial entrepreneur turned investor Mark MacLeod, who has been a partner at seed fund Real Ventures for the past year.
Founded two years ago, the organization has only in the past year or so started hosting events geared towards providing young entrepreneurs with the connections and the know-how to start their own company.
Startupifier offers four services to students: an academy, an internship program, hackathons, and a garage (also described as an “incubator without money”). The group mostly reaches out to students through its online mailing list, Facebook group, and Twitter account.
Jordan Choo, a Concordia economics student with a penchant for technology, is part of the second generation of Startupifier members; he’s in charge of organizing the workshops.
Nine people are listed as the group’s founders on its website, while five more, including Choo, constitute its “2011 crew.” Choo specified the number of people involved is closer to 20 at the moment.
Both Choo and co-founder Karel Ledru-MathÃ© expressed a firm belief that what they were doing isn’t taught in post-secondary institutions.
“Universities and companies are two disconnected words in Montreal,” Ledru-MathÃ© said.
Ledru-MathÃ© was a business student at HEC when he met co-founder Riku SeppÃ¤lÃ¤ at a startup networking event two years ago.
“I was at school [at the time,] working on some ideas to connect students with companies, so I just loved the idea of organizing events for startups among students,” Ledru-MathÃ©, now a web developer, explained.
“The main thing we’ve been doing is organizing events that show students that it is pretty easy to start something, to do something, and to do it out of school, so don’t only spend your time studying but you can also have a project of your own on the side,” he added.
Startupifier fills a gap in the knowledge necessary for students to become successful entrepreneurs, Choo said.
“We are taught how big companies are run [at school],” Choo explained. “A high-tech startup is run totally differently compared to big organizations, from a cultural level to programming, to just running the business in general, so we are trying to fill that gap so that if a student does decide to start their own company, they are not in the middle of nowhere not knowing what to do.”
He pointed to Stanford University, in the United States, as a model example for how universities should be structuring their classes.
“Computer science students have a course where they build an iPhone app and they are graded on how well it does,” he said. “That, to me, is amazing, and we’re not doing anything like that here. It’s all textbook, it’s all theoretical, so all of the best entrepreneurs that we back are soft top and it would be great if the schools could do more.”
Nonetheless, MacLeod said a university degree does provide “a baseline and set of skills and also gives you a set of relationships.”
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Three tips for student entrepreneurs, courtesy of investor Mark MacLeod:
– Learn on somebody else’s dime first. “I didn’t start with founding my own startup, I joined others before doing that,” MacLeod explained.
– Find a mentor and advisor. “I find that actually the most successful entrepreneurs, not just young ones, any age, even folks who have done this three times, have their own personal mentors and advisers.”
– Don’t go at it alone. “It is actually a rule [at Real Ventures that we] don’t fund companies with single founders,” MacLeod said, “so get a co-founder, and if that co-founder has some experience that you lack, that’s gonna help.”