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.

On Asking Questions

The power of the internet belongs to those who have mastered the art of asking good questions.

What, then, constitutes a good question? What’s the difference between a good question and a bad one? In today’s world, our ability to find information often dictates productivity. How then can we purposefully strive to form better questions?

It is a bit of a paradoxical situation We ask questions to discover something we do not already know – we only know what we want to know, and so we can only describe what we want to know in terms of what we know of it already. Which – when you think about it – is a serious limitation.

All new information we glean through self-directed learning (ie. Googling), is an extension of what we already know. (and everything we come to learn is a platform from which to build future understandings). So in order to learn new things, we must ask questions based on ‘old things’. In a world where keyword based discovery reigns king, not knowing the jargon of ‘new things’ can cause considerable delay in acquiring new concepts.

The context surrounding new concepts must be built first. We must ask ourselves, “What terms do people who are already familiar with these concepts use to describe them?”

‘Google Instant’, the feature that autosuggests what you might be looking for based on what you’ve already entered into the search box,  is an attempt to aid you in discovering the context surrounding what you’re looking for – though you still must know enough of what you’re looking for to employ at least one instance of jargon, from which Google can extrapolate related jargon.

So back to our root question: “How do you search for something when you lack context?” Currently, the answer seems to be hoping that someone else also lacked context and attempted to describe what they were trying to learn the same way you did. This can break down fairly easily as the material to be learned becomes more specialized; as the material to be learned requires more prerequisite knowledge.

A concrete example: A few days ago I was trying to learn the syntax for writing arrays in python. There was surprisingly little available information on Google (compared to the number of results a normal query would have returned), and the material I did find was obviously not official python documentation. The context I was lacking is that python does not have arrays, and the jargon I was looking for was ‘tuples’, ‘dictionaries’ and ‘lists’ – data types that offer similar functionality of what I knew as ‘arrays’.

It seems that our ability to ask good questions is directly related to our ability to build context around what we want to know. How do we build context surrounding what we want to know? We start with what we already know and generalize what we want to know. As we build context and associated jargon, we gain the ability to increase the specificity of our query – and the likelihood of finding experts who are discussing what we want to know -  because you now are using the same jargon they are.

So how do we become more efficient at learning? And how, when our productivity depends much on our ability to learn, how do we increase productivity? Learn to build context fast.

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

Ken Robinson on Education: Visually

I wish I could take every educator and politician in the country, stick them in a room (lock the doors, of course), and make them watch this. Half of them won’t agree and never will agree, but it would be a start…

Check out ted.com and search for Ken Robinson if you’re interested in more of what he has to say. I’m fairly certain he wrote a book as well.

OMNI Night

The following is an account of events that actually took place, and is part II in a series of posts on our Grade 12 adventures. In the words of Charlie Wilson, “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world…” (well, this didn’t really change the world, or even our high school, really, in this case – but it was fun…).

In the fall of 2010, the group I shall dub the KCS Student Leadership Team Diaspora (KCSLTD) – as we were simply a loosely coupled group of people who once were involved with a formal leadership program several grades earlier that was no longer – decided to build on the previous years’ successful school movie nights by creating ‘Outdoor Movie Night’. The evening was a wonderful success, with a good number of people showing up, a profit to contribute to the graduation fund, and no major catastrophes (that is, if you don’t count the weather nearly gracing everyone with frostbite and our slight omission to remind moviegoers to bring lawn chairs…the second movie that night was compassionately shown inside.)

Not unlike how World War II was simply a continuation of the Great War, so did the genesis of OMNI Night spawn out of a desire to improve on Outdoor Movie Night. And since, well, we were graduating and wouldn’t soon likely get another chance, we took the opportunity to go the extra mile.

We envisioned much more than an event centred around a movie, but rather regressed to the underlying purpose of the fall Outdoor Movie Night – bringing together the KCS community – and expanded the vision under that mission. OMNI Night would be everything we could imagine that would bring together the diverse interests of our school; it would consist of food and sports, of indoor and outdoor movies, of a dunk tank and bounce castles; fireworks and light shows, trivia and music. It would be executed to the finest detail – illuminated fencing to guide crowds at night, integrated power distribution systems, volunteer identification cards, neighbouring light pollution control, cable management, first aid – and to the highest level of professionalism. Professional audio, lighting, and pyrotechnics, and integrated guerrilla marketing campaigns were all employed.

It would be directed entirely by the KSLTD, with the support of an amazing school administration that truly understood the value of student leadership and exploration.

As with any large project, there were significant hurdles to navigate around – but it is truly amazing how many hurdles are involved with setting off a few measly explosives. Yes – I’m aware we were trying to do this at a school; yes – I now realize how amazing it is that it happened at all. Original designs called for the pyrotechnics to be launched from the school roof, as one would expect to see of any televised New Year’s celebration. The insurance company quickly rendered that implementation a non-starter, and ultimately further imposed restraints on the location of the pyrotechnics. C’est la vie, we moved on.

Next up: the fire department. Apparently you need permission to set off fireworks inside city limits (I know, I know…), especially when considering the aforementioned insurance company. And so began the liaising with the Kelowna Fire Department. A childhood spent dealing with technical support teams turned out to be excellent training for the seemingly endless transferring that ensured. Finally, we were told that the commissioner whose authorization we required was imminently leaving on vacation. The paperwork had little chance of being processed before he left. But perhaps it would, so wait. Until Monday. “And we’ll get back to you.”

These types of situations are horrible for planning purposes and introduce all sorts of dependency and contingency issues. Lesson: uncertainty always introduces overhead. In this case, authorization did come through in time – the process significantly hastened once the department learned of the ridiculously small amount of pyrotechnics actually acquired.

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When Friday, May 7th finally arrived it was cloudy threatening rain. Chalk up other one for uncertainty. We had contingency plans, of course, but the scope of the event would have to be significantly reduced. Considering the significant amount of electronics deployed outside to support the event, it was a bit risky to even begin. But we took a leap of faith and – right after our morning physics class – rushed across the school to the Multipurpose Room, which had been accumulating a significant amount of supplies and equipment for the better part of a week.

There’s little as exciting as finally implementing a collective vision which became a plan which is becoming reality before your eyes.

Out came the scaffolding, out came “Black Mamba” – the hundred-plus foot long 220 volt cable and power distribution centre, out came 2000 watts of professional audio gear, out came the tent pegs to keep cables secure in the ground, out came sandbags, theatrical lighting, and thousands of feet of assorted power and data cables. A convoy of equipment and materials made its way out the exterior doors to the field awaiting conversion.

OMNI night wiring layout

One of my most favourite metal states is to be faced with a project-threatening problem that simply must be solved (preferably with a time constraint). Such situations are a green field for creativity; a launchpad for resourcefulness. Normal roadblocks fall by the wayside as the urgency of the situation at hand becomes ever more real. The system we cobbled together to hoist lighting and effects too large to fit through the roof access hatch was with all certainty a thing of beauty.

Lesson: many roadblocks exist to prevent people and teams that don’t really know what they’re doing from hurting themselves or others. Therefore, many roadblocks can be avoided by working with the best people in a field.

Our resident polymath, Daniel Mandryk, was the pyrotech responsible for all things explosive and made quick work of setting up a perimeter around the goods – but not before lending a significant hand to lighting world, getting much of that system up and running. Once he started with pyro, however, no one went in. No one got close.

Dan Mandryk, pyrotechnician

The dunk tank turned out to be a surprisingly positive feature of the evening. KCSLTD became aware somewhat after signing on several teachers to participate that dunk tanks had fallen out of fashion due to the potentially nefarious motives of those aiming for the target. This became evident when the dilapidated contraption we borrowed from a local church (who fairly warned us it hadn’t been used in a while) rolled up. It is a testament to the teachers and their confidence in the community to so willingly participate (especially considering the water wasn’t heated in any way…sorry about that). The poor condition of the apparatus required repairs, which consequently delayed filling it with water. Three of us on the KCSLTD happened to be in Calculus that term (our calc teacher also happened to be one of the up to be dunked), and while we anxiously waited on several garden hoses to bring the tank to operational state as the ground became increasingly soggy from the tank’s various leaks, it occurred to one of us that we were observing a real-world related rates problem! For me, few things are more beautiful than applying theory – especially theory with little daily application – towards implementing a vision. We momentarily considered calculating how long we would have to wait for the tank to fill before coming to our senses: no amount of calculating would effect the end result. Knowing we could find the time was certainly satisfying enough.

Lesson: don’t worry too much over what you have no control of, especially when there are other fires that need putting out.

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“A tank of water in the shape of a cone is leaking water at a constant rate of…”

Much more happened at OMNI Night that now escapes me, now over a year later. If there’s anything that lives on in your memory, definitely leave it in the comments. A closing sentiment could not be more beautifully expressed than by the character of one Hannibal Smith: “I love it when a plan comes together.”

God Bless Andria

This post is a testament to the existence of those people who consciously decide to place others before themselves; with no conditions – not of prior meeting, not of reciprocating a good deed – nothing. They exist.

Well, I’m sick. Not one week into University in Waterloo, Ontario – thousands of kilometers away from home – and I’m sick. The flu or something; chills, fever, cough, nose – the works. I follow the logical ‘sick-mode’ steps and procedures; drink lots of water, get lots of sleep, take vitamin C tablets, become an ultra-paranoid hand washer… Unfortunately, the get lots of sleep part doesn’t really work with a six-course class schedule, which might be the major reason I slept into 1:30 PM today – which is great, when you think the Walk-in Clinic is open until 5:00. Well, it’s not. Apparently around here, doctors wind down weekend operations at 3:00, IF you’re lucky. The first clinic I called said, “Yes, officially we’re open until three – but there were no patients, so the doctors left.” Several minutes of cross-country collaboration with my dear and patient mother resulted in two other locations that were open to an astonishing…3:00. One didn’t pick up the phone. That left some office on “Fairway Dr.” as the only option. By now, it’s thoroughly past 2:00. More cross country collaboration; mom recommends a cab company. So after phoning the taxi service and requesting a hire to meet me at the Tim Horton’s on campus, I start walking in that general direction. Just as the Tim Horton’s appears around the corner, a taxi pulls away. So now I’m running. And sick (did I mention I was sick?) – chasing a cab. Lucky for me, there was traffic and a generous allocation of stop signs.  Unlucky for me, the first thing he said when I mentioned the destination was, “Ooohh. That’s quite a drive.” What’s that supposed to mean? By this time we were already moving, and he was eagerly chatting about his 50 acre property near Nelson, BC, so I didn’t implore him for details. Gruesome details like a $30.00 cab fare a whole five minutes before 3:00. Yes, the doctor’s office was more in Kitchener than Waterloo.

Of course immediately upon entering the facility I’m reminded by the people in waiting room holding out their health cards that I in fact do not have a care card on me. My whole assortment of cards and mess of a wallet has been gleefully replaced by one single solitary “WatCard” that does everything in my bubble of the world. On the university campus (and even off) this card can be used as ID, Buss Pass, for the Meal Plan, to buy things, Laundry, and room access – hey, I even paid for my Cab fare with it (which, if you think about it, is not exactly an easy task for those who had to implement this functionality). This card, however, is not recognized as covering my doctor’s visit. A sign informed me I would have to pay $40.00 for my little memory lapse.

The second thing I noticed – which in retrospect I’m surprised I had not noticed until now – was a much larger sign that boldly read “Registrations no longer accepted.” Fearing it was what I imagined it only could be, I asked the somewhat disinterested receptionist if that meant they no longer accepted patients today. She confirmed, as though I should have been able to infer that from the sign, and informed me they reopened Monday. Apparently, they stopped accepting patients before closing time to ensure they could get out by closing time.  I tried a last ditch effort: “I just paid $30.00 for a cab fare to get here, is there any way you could check…” The response came with a hint of empathy: “I’m sorry, they’ve asked me not to accept any more.” I’ve now accepted my situation and resigned myself to a rather unproductive afternoon.

I’m sure Andria isn’t her real name – it was the first name that came to mind after reflecting upon the events that unfolded in the span of a few seconds in that doctor’s office waiting room. She never told me, I never asked – and I’ll most likely never know. But what she did tell me was this: as I walked towards the door,  my back turned to her, she called out “Hey, you can have my place. I’m just in for a checkup, I can come back. I’m next in line.”

The rest of that conversation I do not cohesively remember. I’m sure I stood there a little awestruck, perhaps like a deer about to be run down by a semi. I’m sure I thanked her and smiled. When they called her, she motioned for me to get up and proceeded to inform the receptionist that I was to take her spot. When I turned around she was already halfway across the room, headed for the door. The receptionist demanded my attention, obviously not overjoyed at having to fill out more paperwork.

The thought crossed my mind as I was paying for the visit with debit (which I chose to bring in a last minute split-second decision before heading out of my room) that I would ask if they offered ‘Cash Back’ and try to offer the woman a gratuity for her trouble, but the notable lack of a cash register or the advertisement of any such services – combined with the big sign that read, “It’s against our policy to give out any patient information” and the receptionist’s facial expression – discouraged any such idea.

I will likely return to that area however – what with several big box retailers and a convenient bus terminal – and when I do I will return with a letter of appreciation, which I will insist –  on pain of not leaving -the receptionist include with Andria’s file, waiting for her next visit.

Should she be Christian or not – the bottom line is that her actions embody becoming the hands and feet of Christ, placing others before ourselves with no restrictions – just selfless love rooted in Jesus. As Christians, it serves as a reminder to the power of selflessness and to the importance and possibilities of acting on our faith.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Philippians 2:3 (NIV)

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.

The Story of 50 Sheets of Paper

The following is an instruction given by a teacher to a class working on a project in a school Library:

“OK grade nines – listen carefully. There’s about five minutes to the bell, and you’re not going to have enough time to finish. We’ll work on it again on Monday – save you’re work to a USB key or save it to My Documents if you don’t have one. Make sure you print off a copy as there’s no guarantee it will be here on Monday. Are you listening? Make sure…”

The end result was at lease 50 sheets of paper (not to mention ink) consumed as each Grade 9 student printed off their multi-page-in-progress essays. The problem here lies not in the teacher’s actions. The teacher is responding to a set of circumstances which have forced her to recommend printing hard copies of work – namely, the lack of a secure place provided for each student to store work. Students cannot be expected to remember to bring USB memory drives to class each day.

If we hope to one day reduce our reliance on physical copies of digital documents, I would argue a school is the first place to start entrenching these values.