Tech entrepreneurs might as well be martians when compared to those working in other business cultures. And a recent conference in Calgary illustrated the differences.
There's the dress code. Wall Street certainly remembers how Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, at the age of 28, pitched his gargantuan IPO in 2012 to investors dressed in jeans, running shoes and a hoodie.
So they're younger and dress for the playground. But they were also raised in part by high-tech appliances, under disparate sociological circumstances and with differentiated ethical sensibilities.
They believe in collaboration, transparency, generosity, egalitarianism, diversity, social causes, eccentricity and in having fun. They also, however, believe in enterprise and risk-taking.
All of these, and more, were on display at AcceleratorAB, an initiative of C100 and A100, non-profit organizations run by successful tech stars dedicated to accelerating Canadian entrepreneurs.
The conference hosted a roster of fascinating speakers, mentors and start-up candidates, including a Dragon's Den contest (offering free ink to the winner) as well as a "Suitcase Pitch."
Three entrepreneurs delivered five-minute presentations to four important investors in front of the audience of 570 registrants. Albertan entrepreneur Stephen Guppy of software start-up GNS3, won. He was immediately taken by limousine to the airport for a flight to San Francisco, given $1,500 in cash for hotels and handed a one-week schedule of meetings with important Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs. His business is a B2B (business-to-business) opportunity.
"We are another tool in the software belt," explained Guppy in his exceptional pitch. "We simply network simulations and have giants like Cisco trying to compete with us."
The company needs investors and partners to take their simulation model to the next stage of commercialization. Right now, clients have been approaching them as a result of the software's successful adoption by five of the world's top computer science universities.
The next contest was the Dragon's Den and the contest prize was publicity from the media judges on the panel. Their task was to pitch their story for press coverage and my winner (whose reward from me is the following paragraphs) was a nifty little outfit called poppybarley.com run by Kendal and Justine Barber. It's a B2C (business to consumer) model and was the overall favorite.
Poppybarley is a wonderful online shopping site where women can measure their feet and legs and order custom-make boots and shoes. As any female knows, shoes are mass manufactured but one-size-never-fits-all. The Barber sisters have devised an online measurement system and ordering system which provides the world's first "bespoke" footwear at half the price. It's brilliant and the business is coming in.
"We were approached by the St. Louis Rams and another NFL team to do the boots for their cheerleaders," said Kendall Barber.
To boot, the sisters have created a virtuous supply chain: Their footwear is made in Mexico by suppliers paying good wages and within 36 kilometers of one another, thus restricting the company's environmental footprint.
The event also included cocktail parties and a network luncheon (having fun is important too) and pulled a record attendance even during Stampede Week. Sessions involved panels who gave advice, start-ups who have created "non-traditional tech companies (medical, wireless and oil service outfits)" and keynote addresses.
The kickoff speaker was University of Calgary alumni, Gary Kovacs, now of Mozilla Corporation and owner of Firefox, the world's third biggest browser. Mozilla began in 2006 competing against Internet Explorer with 99 per cent market share and unlimited cash. "Mozilla had zero cash, zero market share and 12 people. They did it."
Kovacs joined the company three and a half years ago, lives in Silicon Valley and runs a company with 550 million users worldwide (24 per cent marketshare), 1,300 employees and 5,000 "community members" who write 50 per cent of its source code as volunteers.
His message was messianic and monumental: "We are on the edge of the biggest inflection point in our lives, bigger than the internet. It's not coming, we're in it. People are moving from desktop to mobile. Another two billion will join the internet in five years, a doubling."
"67 per cent of the next two billion will come from developing countries and 100 per cent will connect through mobile first. Most will skip PCs for the smart phone. Some 50 per cent of users will be below poverty line in their countries ($100/month). This will be bigger, in economic terms, than energy, agriculture and education. This is an incredible business opportunity."
He said one of his research teams went to a Brazilian flavella, or slum, where there was no water, power in only 10 per cent of dwellings but where everyone owned a smart phone charged by paying a fee to a battery vendor.
He talked about a Vodaphone project in Kenya that allowed farmers to find customers willing to pay the highest prices, eliminating speculative journeys to find buyers and then to get paid by electronic phone deposits to avoid being robbed by pirates.
Another example was about a Venezuelan who had to commute long distances to villages to sell her purses. She set up a virtual store on her smart phone that allowed her to contact vendors and customers in order to accept customized orders and reduce travel. In a few months, she had increased sales from 10 purses per month to 300 and eliminated inventory risk.
His message about the new mobile age embraced the spirit of the tech entrepreneur: Enterprise, sharing, volunteerism, transparency and doing well by doing good.
"This [mobile] will change how we think, and can provide solutions for societal problems and connect us all," said Kovacs. "We have huge world problems to be solved and huge money to be made while solving those problems."
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