[Exclusive Interview] Being Part of Toronto’s Thriving Startup Community

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It’s being said that in the past decade, Toronto has become “the undisputed capital of Canadian innovation” with over 600 startups sprouting in the city as of 2013. Nestled in this thriving startup community is Bitmaker Labs, one of Canada’s largest web development and coding boot camp. Their Web Development class was invited to visit our WhatRunsWhere Toronto office last week!

Our co-founders Max Teitelbaum and Mike Cojanu talked all about technology, entrepreneurialism, and the challenges you’ll face when you first launch. After the talk, we sat down with Max, Mike, and Bitmaker Labs CEO, Craig Hunter, to pick their brains some more about how to launch (and maintain) a successful startup. Read on for the exclusive interview!

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Students from Bitmaker Labs’ Web Development Class visiting the WhatRunsWhere Toronto office.

Our Exclusive Interview

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Left to right: WhatRunsWhere Founders, Max Teitelbaum, Mike Cojanu; Bitmaker Labs CEO, Craig Hunter.

1. What are your thoughts on start-up culture in Toronto?

Max: Toronto has a vibrant startup culture. When you combine world-class talent, a great city to live in, and truly passionate people, you set up for great results. The key to our culture lies not only in the entrepreneurs but the talent that is available to startups, and how people power these new startups.

Mike:  I flew in from San Francisco specifically for this talk, but had some opportunities to explore Toronto’s tech startup scene with Max while in town. I am thoroughly impressed with Toronto’s startup culture. Its chock full of people with genuinely interesting ideas that have solid business models and real potential – the former being something that I feel a lot of [other] startup scenes neglect.

Craig: In Toronto, the startup scene is really starting to blast off. With some major raises in the last 12 months including Freshbooks, VarageSale, WealthSimple, and Shopify’s IPO this month. The tide is really on the rise locally.

[At Bitmaker Labs] We thrive off of this pace. Every nine weeks we’re watching over 30 grads start in new careers at really great companies – helping them get there is really rewarding. To watch high school graduates take our program, with no university or college background, and end up working at Shopify is a super cool thing to play a role in. We find ourselves hanging out with our grads on a regular basis, and we have hundreds of alumni that hang out in our space, working on new projects in their free time, and that’s something you don’t see in a traditional tech company. It’s a huge community.

2. What about startup culture worldwide in today’s day and age?

Max:  The web has really changed startup culture. Entrepreneurs from across the globe can connect, share issues and network in ways that we couldn’t imagine just a few short years ago. A lot of early stage startups share common issues, so being able to tap into other successful founders’ experiences really increases learning speed for new startups. Our ability to connect globally has helped to create amazing relationships between founders that may not have otherwise met.

Craig: As for the startup culture worldwide, I think we’re seeing the influence of startups reaching into more traditional industries and larger corporations realizing their need to innovate. While brand new tech innovations are great, I get really excited when I see how technology is breathing new life into century-old businesses.

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WhatRunsWhere Founders, Max Teitelbaum and Mike Cojanu, being introduced to visiting Bitmaker Labs students.

3. What do you think has inspired an entire generation of leaders, pushing the envelope in terms of business opportunities?

Max:  I think the fact that startup success is celebrated so publically has helped push founders forward. From feature news articles chronicling great startups and their success, to even movies like The Social Network, we celebrate entrepreneurship very publically. Its inspiring people everywhere to think outside the box, pursue their dreams, and start their own ventures.

Mike:   I believe necessity is also a large part of today’s startup culture. After the 2008 crisis, many young, educated, and intelligent people had difficulty finding jobs in their fields, despite being incredibly talented and qualified. Many of them took the lemons that they were given, and turned it into more than just lemonade.

Craig: At the heart of it, I think advances in technology have driven the surge of interest in entrepreneurship. The barriers to entry are at an all-time low; there has never been a more accessible time to start a business.

4. How important is technological, and especially digital, savviness for employers and employees today?

Max:  Critical. Not every startup or business is technical, but knowledge of base technologies and digital savviness can drive any business forward. We live in a digital age. Understanding this is essential to continued success moving forwards.

Mike: Technological savvy is incredibly important. Every time the world is brought closer together everything changes. It was true for the telegraph, it was true for the radio, it was true for the mobile phone, and it’s true now. Not being on top of technology today is removing the building blocks you’ll need to understand the next 50 years.

Craig: There has never been a better time to become a developer, designer, or marketer in the technology industry. If you’re looking to stand out in today’s job market and create endless career options for yourself, dive in and get technical. It’s really becoming essential. I would be hard pressed to point to a more rewarding career today, from either a financial or intellectual standpoint. As technology companies continue to grow, the demand is just going to increase. The best part is that anyone can learn these skills, you just need the right environment.

5. What essential piece of advice would you give to up and coming entrepreneurs for success?

Max: Take the leap. But make smart decisions. Starting a business can be a harrowing endeavor. There are a lot of risks involved, some that you can foresee and prepare for and others that you simply can’t. To lower your risks, vet your idea thoroughly and develop a clear vision and plan you can follow through on. Don’t forget to listen to criticism. There are moments when it’s important to stick to your guns and do what you believe is best for your business. But neglecting constructive criticism is going to doom you. Pick and choose the best advice and adapt accordingly. This way, when you take that leap, you’ve elevated your chances for success.

Mike: Find a problem that truly impacts you personally. Ask how many people have the same problem? Would they pay for a smart solution to this? If those 2 questions are answered with a resounding “Yes” and you can fix it, you’re probably onto something.

Craig: Deliver value before you ask for value back. It’s not as self-serving as it sounds, but if that’s your mantra in life you’ll find that people will always have your back. It’s something I see a lot of when I’m in Silicon Valley – people are just happy to help and excited about what everyone else is doing even if it’s not their own idea. At the heart of it, it’s much easier to ask for help from someone you’ve helped before whether it’s an intro, help with a product or just spreading the word. Toronto is starting to really make strides here and if any other city wants to tap into the magic that has happened in the Valley, it needs to emulate that piece first.

Thanks so much to Max, Mike and Craig for your insight. We hope readers have been inspired to reach out and grasp their dreams. Thank you also to the Web Development Spring Cohort of 2015 for visiting WhatRunsWhere to talk tech and startup culture. Best of luck and drop by again, any time. We’re always happy to take part in our local startup community.

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