Athgo Global Innovation Forum: Day 2

I am participating in the ATHGO Innovation forum, hosted at the World Bank in DC from August 13-15. This short series is an account of what occurred; of reflections and takeaways.

My first full day in DC begins with the usual stroll past the IMF, and down the (apparently) famed Pennsylvania Avenue towards World Bank HQ. Queue security; check ID; “Step right through”, and we’re finally inside.

Today’s opening panel on team building and networking is quite lively. John Shegerian of Electronic Recyclers International is moderating, with Ivo Ivanovski (Minister of Information Society, Macedonia), William Saito (Intecur), and Navneet Singh Narula (nBrilliance) as panellists.

John has a long history of building companies, though most recently took on the formidable task of turning Electronic Recyclers International around in the early 2000s. It was a task and a half, but today ERI is the largest electronics recycling firm in the US. John had much to say about entrepreneurship and his experiences, here are some of those sentiments:

“I didn’t want to do any more businesses just for money – I knew I had to make a profit, but everything I do has to have bottom line social value… You have to make a profit – have to have a sustainable business model – before you can go out and change the world.”

“Build it and they will come” is field-of-dreams entrepreneurship. It doesn’t work that way.” (surmised)

“Technology has democratized the world like never before, but face to face is now even more important…I remind our sales team: ‘You close [deals] nose-to-nose’.”

“Everyone can be great because everyone can serve” – Dr. King

This was perhaps the first time the larger idea of “constructive’ entrepreneurship came into focus at the forum. The idea of not just building another iPhone app or launching a new web service, but of solving real, core societal needs. Essentially, directing human effort towards problems of great concern. (Dustin Walper over at myplanetdigital wrote a related piece a few months ago describing Canada’s current position in tech entrepreneurship and where we need to go.)

William’s mission over the last six years has been to “appeal to the younger generation to be more entrepreneurial,” though, before that he developed technology critical to bio-authentication devices (such as fingerprint readers) and proceeded to count Microsoft amongst its numerous licensees. Currently teaching at three Japanese universities and aiding the Japanese government, I can’t help but liken him to Steve Blank. Some insights from William:

“To succeed in life you really need to do what you’re passionate about”

“It’s not about the money – if it were about the money, there are many, many easier ways of making money”

“The opposite of success is not failure, it’s not trying”

“Spend time out of your comfort zone”

“It’s not the plan that’s so important, but that person’s passion. You may not eat that day, but will you get back up and try again?”

“Half of the world lives on less than $2 per day, but it’s doubled in five years”

“Most successful entrepreneurial organizations are started with multiple people”

“Universities tend to be focused on very specific disciplines, and in countries like Japan it’s worse. Diversity of background and diversity of skills are essential”

“[Only] when you come so close to failure, you know what your weaknesses are”

“Everyone should have 500-1000 dollars in the stock market, if for no other reason to understand your own emotional response to risk” and thus be better prepared to handle a situation when significant risks are on the table.

ATHGO Global Innovation Forum: Day 1

I am participating in the ATHGO Global Innovation forum, hosted at the World Bank in DC from August 13-15. This short series is an account of what occurred; of reflections, and takeaways.

I arrived into DC this morning with less than 2 hours of sleep under my belt, having left for Toronto Pearson Airport at 3:20 AM and – through an inexorable tendency to underestimate packing time – turned in seemingly mere minutes before. I suppose a first reflection would be our amazing ability to adequately function on minute resources.

(Side note: one convenience present in Washington soon to come to Toronto is light rail interfacing the airport with the entire Metro system, releasing one from ever having to acquire the services of a taxi to travel to Pearson).

Walking through the more peripheral streets of Washington, en route to our venue from the nearest Metro station, one can’t help but notice an incredible assortment of world-recognized organizations. I would walk by the International Monetary Fund and marvel simply that I was nonchalantly striding by a group key to 20th century stability we so extensively discussed in History 12.

The World Bank was a bit of a pandora at first: what was it exactly? I reconstructed a fuzzy image from History class – was it a UN aid group? A political manipulation tool borne out of the cold war? A US agency? Eventual inquiry led my current understanding: it is a bank funded by the financially capable nations of the world, whose purpose is to lend money  – for the purposes of development  – to economically emerging nations in the interests of international stability (My, my – back to Keynes again). Yes, it was used as a Cold War political tool, and apparently had a dubious ethical track record at some point.

I soon learned one rarely enters a building in Washington without undergoing the common airport ritual of depleting pockets and person of all electric and metallic objects and submitting them to an XRAY machine;  yourself to a metal detector, and the World Bank went the extra mile to issue barcoded photo identification.

Inside, the complex was a for all purposes a habitat missing only sleeping quarters – it was a small city, with a vast, open indoor atrium and a formidable suite of cafés, restaurants, and a cafeteria. The restaurants were closed for the summer, though the ‘cafeteria’ more than made up for any perceived loss when it became apparent there were no less than 15 different genres of food portals, from, of course, all over the world. My notion of what a Cafeteria could be was certainly extended.

After checking in at the Preston Auditorium, I arrived in time for the 2:00 afternoon panel. Being somewhat of a last minute applicant, flight availability required that I miss the morning introduction and group discussion. After selecting a seat near what I suspected to be floor mounted power receptacles, an Australian student directly to my left greeted me and brought me up to cruising speed on the morning’s overview. The forum was constructed around three pillars, based on the research of Dr. Armed Orujyan, Athgo’s founder; Innovation, Network, and Resource. These pillars would play an important role throughout, as various concepts were explored in this context.

The first panel assembled, consisting of Mr. John White (CEERT), Mr. Paul Manson (Sea Breeze Power), and Mr. Jonathan Blitz (Utility Scale Solar) and moderated by Mr. Jeff Werner (Daimier) – they were to discuss solutions to problems in renewable energy.

Paul Manson and his wind power generation company happen to be based out of BC, with several installations on northern Vancouver Island and the central interior. They’ve installed BC’s first HVDC transmission line – connecting Vancouver Island with Washington State, opening up the Global Innovation Forum Day 1green energy to the US market. As of last month, the northern Vancouver Island farm is generating 98 MW of energy. He made some comments on entrepreneurship, considering perseverance to be the most important attribute of an entrepreneur and an incredible team the most important asset.

At the conclusion of the panel, approximately half an hour was slotted for informal discussion with additional presenters. I stood with the group surrounding Mr. Evan Bailyn of Good Media Co, who spoke extensively on organic search engine optimization and social media marketing strategies. Evan has created and sold several companies built from his ability to rise in search rankings, and recently wrote a book,  Outsmarting Google, that I plan to read if I ever get through my current book-backlog.

Five O’Clock marked the beginning of our first development session, where I met with our assigned team members to begin brainstorming ideas for the project we were to present in 48 hours time. We identify an area where there seems to be potential (designing for kids to encourage positive eco-behaviour, solving a specific problem, and making it fun), and with the framework in place proceed to the busses at six o’clock that will shuttle us to the finnish embassy for the evening’s reception.

The embassy was not an incredibly new building, yet was LEED Gold certified. A metal exoskeleton separated by 3 feet from the structure itself composing of interwoven vines shielded the building from direct sunlight, and automatic systems controlled window shades to optimize HVAC. Of course, the typical security ritual is performed flawlessly as all hundred-plus of us march through screening. We are greeted with booklets of information on Finland gracing a table, and I take one.  My Australian friend pointed out that the opening paragraph contained an explicit reference to Knowledge Integration being of vital importance to Finland’s current and future green economy – this being the first time I’ve heard the specific term be referenced outside the context of the KI program at UW, I rounded up another copy to bring back to CKI for posterity. The reception offered the opportunity to talk at length with Paul Manson, where we exchanged stories and he explained more of Sea Breeze’s operations.

In a day of such pace – in a day where effort is required simply to keep abreast of the the current happenings (certainly not aided by a lack of sleep) – it can be difficult or near impossible to maintain a reflective perspective; to consider the implications of the past while processing the moment.

It would seem there are two subtle purposes underpinning such events as Athgo’s Global Innovation Forum: primarily, it’s to allow us the opportunity to develop a net-benefit peer and mentor network. Like Shad (though to a decidedly lesser extent, three days versus a month), the forum brings together students of similar passions and exposes them to each other. Second, it allows us to exercise the brainstorming-to-product process, refining and improving with each iteration.

Moving from Prototype to Production

Why do projects rarely turn into products?

Living at VeloCity for the past term, and being involved with a few side projects myself (for the record, inflo is not a side project, it’s a startup), I’ve noticed a general trend: lots of stuff gets built, very little is ever used.

Projects often remain just that – projects – built for the joy and satisfaction of building something. Which is fine – I can say with confidence, at least in my experience, that the most effective way to learn something is often to dive in and immerse yourself – to get in way under your head, and then crawl your way back to the surface with the support of others. If learning is the objective, it’s a great approach. If building something useful is the objective, it’s backwards.

The mentality is multi-fold:

  • To build something useful requires you  to solve a problem people actually care about. It’s fairly unlikely that this is the case if you never consulted your target audience in designing the prototype, as hypothesis of what people want are almost never entirely correct. Projects are often spawned out of people wanting to build stuff for their own use.
  • Turning prototype code into production code is hard and boring. Sure, building something that works is one thing. Building something that’s secure, bug-free, looks nice, and will scale well is entirely something else, and  just isn’t glamorous. Features and flashy are much more exciting.
  • “Patience is a virtue, posses it if you can. Seldom found in women, and never found in man.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Facebook or Google. Just because something doesn’t gain traction in a few days doesn’t mean it’s time to move onto the next thing. Sure, iteration is key, but give the thing a chance at life by at least spending as much time buzz-generating and blogging as building.

I am most interested in building things to solve real world problems – to bring something valuable to others. To do so requires a 180 degree shift in the way we typically approach building things: it starts with the customer.

On Entrepreneurship

The following is slated for publication in the premiere issue of Effect Magazine, based out of Niagra. I was asked by a good friend, Yashvi Shah, to write on the expansive topic of Entrepreneurship.

When I was asked to write about Entrepreneurship, innovation and how it has affected to my life – I thought it only fair to preface the story with the observation that entrepreneurship itself is not one single thing, nor is it the same thing necessary to every person. It is a dynamic term, vaguely defined and very broad. Though I believe for most people, tech entrepreneurship is the opportunity to build something incredible, improve people’s lives by solving real problems, and work with amazing people.

Entrepreneurship is an umbrella term: it describes a set of attributes and personality traits – a mindset of optimism and childlike wonder, a willingness and capacity to see opportunity in nearly everything – that concisely describes a group of people empowered by the thought that they can change the world. It is not so much something I do but who I am. It is not a job to be started and stopped, but rather a concept to describe the continual sub-activities of my life. Sub-activities I consumed myself with far before they were ever labelled entrepreneurial.

For as far as I can remember I’ve loved building things – out of wood, out of metal, of lego and sand – often held together by excessive quantities of hot-glue and bent over nails. As a child I could often be found in the summer months hammering away at plywood and two-by-fours, integrating a ‘pool’ into our wooden patio (Oh! My poor mother) or creating yet another extension to the tree fort.

Though the fun wasn’t just in building for me – it was in seeing people use what I built. Fortunately, I have two daring younger brothers who joyfully took on the role of beta-testing everything from the ‘high-diving board’ (a ladder with a few modifications) to the ‘inter-treefort-transfer-system’ (something resembling a zipline). There was just something mesmerizing about creating something large and audacious – and then seeing people use and enjoy it.

Somewhere around grade two I began to think computers were really cool (mostly because I could print (seemingly) endless quantities of advertisements for the aforementioned creations). This was also around the time where powerpoint was becoming mainstream and digital video editing was cutting edge – these trends, in combination with some really incredible teachers at my elementary school, cast computers within the same context as ‘creating something large and audacious’. I became interested in production technology (sound mixing, etc.), and by extension, theatre.

So: desire to build something big + computer technology + spectacle creation + lack of stage fright = the ingredients that built my Tech Entrepreneurship foundation.

Words are powerful, and I cannot think of a better case as when I truly discovered the word ‘entrepreneur’. What was previously disparate clusters of interests and abilities could now be repackaged and presented concisely. I now had a brand. I now knew what to ‘search for’ – so to speak (see On asking questions for commentary on the importance of context) – in seeking out a community of people who shared many of the same hard-to-define passions.

This was a big deal – there are other people like me! Put a talented group of like-minded people passionate about the same thing – be it hockey, soccer, music, academics, cars, and yes, even entrepreneurship – together in the same room and things will happen (Shad taught me that). So entrepreneurship – as a concept or term – more than anything else has enabled me to connect with a community who share something in common. One commentator wrote down several of these commonalities he saw as fundamental to entrepreneurship, qualities I agree can be found in most entrepreneurs I’ve met.

- Not very status-oriented
- Doesn’t follow rules very well and questions authority
- Can handle high degrees of ambiguity or uncertainty
- Can handle rejection, being told ‘no’ often and yet still have the confidence in your idea
- Very decisive.  A bias toward making decisions even when only right 70% of the time, moving forward & correcting what doesn’t work
- A high level of confidence in your own ideas and ability to execute
- Not highly susceptible to stress
- Have a high risk tolerance
- Not scared or ashamed of failure
- Can handle long hours, travel, lack of sleep and the trade-offs of having less time for hobbies & other stuff

The startup I’m building with an incredible group of people (spanning four provinces and five timezones – from BC, to Newfoundland), inflo, would not be where its at today without this community of mutual support. The effect is net-positive – that is, everyone builds and receives value from and for everyone else, the result being that everyone ends up with more than they could have done by themselves. It is a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts,

Considering inflo’s sole product – photofloTV - is a community building tool, it is incredibly useful to reflect on the nature of community to better understand how we can improve the lives of our grandparents and seniors. photofloTV enables families to seamlessly share photos and other media with their grandparents and elderly loved ones by allowing you send this content directly to channel four of their TV in a constantly updating slideshow. It integrates into the ways you already use technology by interfacing with Facebook, flickr, youtube, etc. as well as integrating with technology your grandparents are familiar with, their TVs.

Having a core understanding of community has allowed us to take what I’ve just described to a new level: aspiring to deliver an integrated community building system to retirement homes.

Entrepreneurship is empowering. At its core is the idea that a small group – or even an individual – can create something that will have a positive effect on lives of a disproportionately large number of people. To build something from nothing – to create value that otherwise will not exist – to turn a mere idea into something tangible, is to me incredibly alluring.

Impact Entrepreneurship: National Conference

I recently attended Impact Entrepreneurship’s National Conference in Toronto, which upon reflection I can confidently say has been a formative experience for me. The conference is a forum for 300 selected delegates from High Schools and Universities across Canada to gather for two days of esteemed keynotes, interesting workshops and valuable networking. I met Cameron Herold (Co-Founder of 1-800-GOT-JUNK),  Anthony Lacavera (CEO of WIND Mobile),  Mark Rudock (most recently of Viigo), Razor Suleman (of I Love Rewards) and Albert Lai (of Kontagent) among countless others.

I also had the privilege of eating dinner at the Saturday evening gala with the founder of ShapeCollage, Vincent Chung. Vincent has created one of those products which solves a simple problem, and solves it really well. His company’s software creates professional-quality photo collages (like the name suggests) in forms of various shapes which have been used worldwide in everything from published books to (much to my surprise) KCS’s missions page.

Jonathan Kay, as the “Ambassador of Buzz” at Grashopper Group held a particularly interesting workshop on ‘New Marketing,’ leveraging the virility of the Internet and focusing on creating relationships with customers and would-be customers through modern communications tools.

An interesting side note is that this man was chiefly responsible for the wild popularity of a video on entrepreneurship that Grashopper created which hit the Internet in early 2009 – a video I watched probably due to his efforts in employing the new ideas, concepts and techniques he discussed in that workshop. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s below:

Grasshopper also recently launched a successful petition to Barak Obama to name November 19 (the last day of Global Entrepreneurship Week) as National Entrepreneurs’ Day in the US.

The importance of networking and creating a passionate, motivated team with good culture stand as themes which rang throughout Impact National Conference. I believe every keynote speaker touched on at least one aspect of these themes, some developing extensively their respective importance.

A few highlights from the Keynotes (click on the images for full articles):

Cameron Herod’s “Emotional Rollercoaster of Startups”

Mark Ruddock’s “What VCs Want”

Impact was founded by Kunal Gupta, a Shad Valley alumni and Waterloo Software Engineering graduate and founder of Polar Mobile. If you’ve used the TIME, Macleans, NBC, CBS, and a host of other Apps on your mobile device, you’ve used Polar’s platform.

The conference reminded me of a somewhat suppressed passion I have in entrepreneurship; in it’s true form. Perhaps unwittingly, it has always been my goal. Impact has brought that goal into sharper focus; it is this which I refer to as a formative experience. The ramifications will be lifelong.

Chance favours the connected mind. – Steven Johnson, TED

Software Design Philosophy

This quite nicely sums up the difference between Apple and Microsoft. Although somewhat brash at times, this keynote speaker summarizes much of my personal approach to project management, especially as it pertains to software.

Work Experience: Week 5

When I arrived at REDACTED on Friday, REDACTED recommended I shift my immediate focus to the wall-mount case that would hold REDACTEDand the REDACTED,Learning Is Experience as the time required to get the expenses surrounding this item and fabrication lead time would be the restricting factor.  So I put REDACTED on hold and proceeded to calculate the minute dimensional details involved with designingREDACTED. The distance between every component must be accounted for; the framework must adequately support the mass of the finished product as well as individual components; mounting points and fasteners must be accounted for. It’s detail work…and I love it. On Monday I will be meeting with someone who can take my REDACTED and turn it intoREDACTED using Solid Works – this will allow the fabricator to load the file onto his / her computer, outputting the design directly to a robotic CNC machine.

Telecoms sans Frontières

In any major natural disaster, the state of critical infrastructure such as roads, electricity, and communications will play a crucial role in aiding or hindering rescue operations. State of infrastructure was one of the major differentiators between the 1989 San Francisco earthquake and last week’s Haiti disaster.

The UN organization Telecoms Sans Frontieres is prepared and equipped to respond to such disasters within three hours. Within three hours they can be on the ground anywhere in the world restoring vital communications, immediately enabling rescue teams to coordinate operations. They later provide free telephone service – stating their goal is to entitle everyone to a three minute phone call.

Telecoms sans Frontières lies at an intersection; it is a cross between my passion for communications and my desire to give where I can be of assistance. It is something I hope one day I can assist.

Killing Innovation Made Easy

“Bureaucracies, task forces, org charts, and formal processes do not breed innovation. They kill it.”

Jeff Jarvis, from his excellent book What Would Google Do? (p. 112, 113) This quotation is unfair to the purpose of the book, as the above statement is a mere subset of the overarching theme regarding the paradigm shift in marketing  thought we are undergoing largely as a result of the internet and social media. Highly recommended reading.