Kory Arsenault was something of a lone wolf when he founded eSchedule, a web-based employee scheduling service, back in 2005. At the time, eSchedule was a one-man operation and Arsenault logged long hours at his computer, building a system that managers could use to co-ordinate staff shifts. Despite those solitary hours, Arsenault is out to prove the life of a small business owner doesn’t need to be a lonely one.
“I’m always looking for ways to interact with other startup companies,” Arsenault says. In 2010, he started hosting monthly beer nights intended specifically for founders of small, high-tech companies in Calgary. The idea, called Startup Drinks, began in the United States and spread to Canada. On the last Wednesday of every month, high-tech company founders from Austin to Montreal meet in bars and pubs to network in their individual cities. Arsenault wanted in. “There were a lot of official organizations,” Arsenault says of Calgary’s tech scene, “but nothing that was unofficial, where you could go out, grab a couple of beers and bitch about your day and about the challenges of being an entrepreneur.”
Montreal was the first place in Canada to host a Startup Drinks event. Organizer Raymond Luk, who is also managing director of Montreal’s Year One Labs business incubator, says he picked casual pubs where beer was cheap, rather than expensive martini bars where startup founders couldn’t afford the drinks. That first event was two years ago and 75 people showed up. It then spread to Toronto, where it’s now regularly attended by as many as 200 people, and has continued to expand across the country. “What Startup Drinks has done is provide a second meeting,” Luk says. “If you meet someone at a conference, you don’t need to wait a year to see them again.”
Ambitious organizers in Calgary and Edmonton hoped to create a similarly consistent networking opportunity (including Kory Arsenault) and brought the monthly drink nights to Alberta last winter. While only nine people attended the first event in Calgary at Bottlescrew Bill’s, a pub on the southern fringe of Calgary’s downtown core, it more than served its intended purpose for Arsenault. While blowing off a bit of steam over a couple pints with Cale White, Arsenault shared some of the challenges he faced with eSchedule. White realized that he both enjoyed Arsenault’s company and could help him solve some of his problems with eSchedule. The two now work together.
Startup Drinks is the equivalent of an informal CEO club, where business people – tech entrepreneurs, in this case – discuss their challenges and learn from their peers. By meeting each month, they are able to establish a community of startup-stage companies. Tech investor Henry Kutarna, who leads a group of 300 angel investors, thinks these sorts of events are great places to trade business-building strategies. “This kind of conversation beats the learning curve,” he says. “These entrepreneurs learn faster from each other than they could experience by themselves.”
In fact, Kutarna believes in the peer-to-peer model so much that he runs a similar forum through Innovate Calgary that brings together larger companies. Kutarna, the southern Alberta manager for Alberta Deal Generator, has overseen a “CEO round table” of 12 high-tech companies with annual revenues between $500,000 and $4 million for the last year. The round table, he says, takes a similar approach as Startup Drinks by enabling entrepreneurs to discuss their problems in business and in life.
Scott Pickard, CEO of veterinary software maker Business Infusions, has participated in the round table since it was first created. “I wanted to have a loosely titled group that would help each other out,” he says. And why does he attend? “The biggest thing,” he says, “is a trusted group of peers that are living the same pains as you [and] trade experiences so you can make your own decisions about what you need to do.”
In the past year, Business Infusions started marketing its product in the United Kingdom. Establishing and interacting with a board of directors, Pickard says, was one of the challenges that the CEO round table helped him address over the past year. He also says the group helped him develop partners in selling his product to new markets. “When I get back to my round-table group,” he says, “my burning issue will be channel development, because we made some good progress since we had our last meeting in June.”
Christian MacLean first met Arsenault at a packed Startup Drinks event at The District, another pub in Calgary’s Beltline area. MacLean is on the advisory board to Startup Calgary and CEO of Cardinal, a music-sharing startup company. Like Arsenault, he attends drink nights to meet other founders. “It shows that there’s a heartbeat in the startup community,” MacLean says, “and that’s the difference-maker.”
That community helps give entrepreneurs more opportunities to meet and interact with larger companies and investors than they would connect with alone. As Arsenault says, “We struggle because there’s a level of access that’s available to a certain size of company with a set number of customers, but if you’re under that number, then you fit somewhere in this void and I know that everybody who has started a company knows the void.”
But Startup Drinks and events like it (MacLean also hosts Powerpoint Karaoke) are helping to close that void by giving startup founders access to people like Alberta Enterprise CEO Rod Charko, who oversees $100 million in provincial money that he directs into venture capital funds. “I absolutely go to these things,” he says. “Deal flow is all about networking, and it’s about finding things that aren’t immediately obvious. A lot of interesting deals come out from under rocks.” Kutarna and his angel investors feel the same way. “When you are investing in technology companies at the early stage, you want to see deal flow,” he says. “Investors go and they want to meet the entrepreneur, they want to understand what the market is telling them, and these places are often great for that.”
In Montreal, says Luk, the growth of Startup Drinks as an event has led to meetings between investors and founders of all stripes. In fact, Luk says, “Even if you’re not raising money, you can have a beer with a venture capitalist,” he says, adding that for many company founders, “it’s not just about pitching ideas, it’s about getting to know the investors.”
When tech-company founders get together in Alberta, for beer or coffee, at some point the conversation naturally shifts to the challenges associated with raising money. But while there’s a widely held perception that finding capital in Alberta is almost impossible for companies that do business outside the oil and gas industry, some of the province’s tech entrepreneurs see things differently.
“We’re just beginning to dip our feet into fundraising and trying to get our first round of investment. I’m really passionate that we try and raise at least part of it locally,” MacLean says. That will make Cardinal an example to other startups, he says, as well as a counterpoint to the idea that it’s impossible to raise money if you’re not drilling for oil. “This notion that there’s no startup money in Alberta is a load of crap.”
Pickard agrees. “I’m astounded by how much goes on in the tech space,” he says. “But you have to look for it. Don’t just stay in the early startup circles where nobody knows that each other exists.” He points to his own CEO roundtable as evidence of this. Initially, he says, he thought it would be difficult to find 12 high-tech CEOs with revenues between $500,000 and $4 million. But now, he says, there’s already a push among other high-tech CEOs in Alberta to form a similar group at the next stage: companies with revenues around the $5 million mark. When the Startup Drinks network is factored in, Pickard says, “There are three tiers of opportunity there.”
And as for the perception that tech investment is difficult – if not impossible – to find in Alberta? Business Infusions raised $3 million in private funding from both angel investors and venture capital funds. “There are angel investors who are available for the right opportunities and for the right people,” Pickard says. “It’s hard to find, and it’s going to be through a network that you’ll have access to that money.” One of the best places to start might be over a drink with a few fellow entrepreneurs.