• by William Mougayar
    Venture advisor, 4x entrepreneur, marketer & strategist. I live in Toronto, curate a lot, blog a bit, and help startups.

A Vibrant Startup Ecosystem Needs a Stream of Activities, Not Just a Burst of Events

eventsOne of the signs of a vibrant ecosystem is the number and frequency of events and community activities that happen on the ground between all its participants, namely between entrepreneurs and investors, and especially between the entrepreneurs themselves.

And a healthy ecosystem will have a steady stream of the following type of variety and more:

  • Meetups
  • Speciality group events (e.g. Product Hunt, Bitcoin, Wearables, Internet of Things, 3D-printing, SaaS selling, Design, Lean, etc.)
  • Hackathons
  • Tech Conferences
  • Fireside chats with experts
  • Accelerator Demos
  • Investor/Startups networking sessions
  • Awards programs
  • Courses & seminars
  • Etc.

But there’s something interesting I’ve noticed in the Toronto ecosystem, and I’m going to draw an extrapolation that the same pattern is probably happening in other up-and-coming ecosystems.

Instead of seeing a steady stream of activities, the ecosystem witnesses a burst of events, centered around the typical sweet spot seasonal periods, i.e. September after Labor Day, November prior to Christmas and Thanksgiving (US), late May prior to the summer, and early April as start of Spring.

The logic that organizers use is that these are good periods to have events. But when they all think the same way, an event jam happens.

The negative impact of a multiplicity of events running within limited periods is they result in a high degree of overlap, which means less people will attend a given event, let alone feel event fatigue, if these events are too close to each other.

Case in point was last week in the Toronto-Waterloo region. That week was crazy good in terms of variety and quality of events, but there were some significant overlaps that were evident, and undoubtedly caused some divergence in attendance.

For example, Wednesday evening saw overlaps between the Venture North ending cocktail and the Techvibes Tech Fest. Thursday evening had multiple overlaps with the pre-CIX mixer at DMZ, a Fun in Funding venture dinner at Le Select, and a fund raiser and Spotlight Awards at Brassaii. And that same week, the Waterloo Innovation Summit overlapped with everything else happening in Toronto.

All these events were high quality events, but the overlaps put a damper on that burst of excellent activity.

I’m not sure what is the right way to evolve into a steady stream of activities, and away from optimizing for timing of event scheduling. Maybe it takes a full annual cycle to realize that it’s better to have events more spread out. Another thing I hear is that lower quality events suck the air out of an ecosystem, because they diverge the attention and limited availability that entrepreneurs have, and once they attend a “bad” event, it leaves them with a sour taste.

Even this week, Monday evening starts with another set of overlaps, namely one of my own fireside chat with Andy Sparks of Mattermark which overlaps with a handful of others on the same day.

Another “bad sign” is when the community gets split along similar topical events, and it creates a balkanization of attendance and attention. The end result is a lack of critical mass for any one event. Using Toronto as an example, its community already has 4 Bitcoin related regular event organizers, and that’s not a desirable thing. Contrast with We Are Wearables Wednesdays which is the single most import event/community for that segment, and nothing else competes with it. As a result, that event regularly see 450 attendees.

Continuing to pick on Toronto, I quickly compared the Startup Digest for Toronto vs. New York City and Silicon Valley’s, and found a comparable number of events in all 3 areas. The red flag goes to Toronto that has a much smaller ecosystem compared to the Valley or NYC, and that might indicate a near saturation in what the city can handle.

There is probably a happy ratio somewhere between the density of an ecosystem and the quantity of events that it can absorb. A focus on quality should be always a higher priority than quantity.

  • Ideally, it would be great if there was better coordination between events so they were spread out. As an ex-conference organizer (mesh, meshmarketing), a question I do have about Toronto’s startup ecosystem is whether there’s an appetite to pay for events – I’m talking about $100 to $500 as opposed to $10 or $5 tickets. It is difficult to put on a high-quality event, especially with out of town speakers, if people aren’t willing to buy tickets – unless you can convince sponsors to pony up.

    • True, and I’m also seeing same segment groups competing with each other instead of working together.

      Waterloo does a good job at spacing out their events to avoid event fatigue, but there there’s really one orchestrator and that’s Communitech.

  • Interesting thoughts, but requires a higher level of collaboration from event organizers themselves. I’m going out on a limb that most organizers (the super focused/educational ones anyway) don’t think at that level and just want to host a meetup that’s beneficial for their community whether it’s Analytics, Design, Docker, Android, Python, Ruby etc. They’re not looking at the bigger picture, selfishly looking at their own interests.

    Being an event organizer newbie myself and curating the digest, I understand the number of events at any given time in Toronto. My first thought was to pick a date that wasn’t drowned out by noise (bigger / more established events) and choosing a niche (Swift developers, not iOS developers) that is inclusive to all skill levels, but pulling favours to invite some of the best iOS developers in Toronto to speak, and leveraging the fuck out of the digest and other tech sites for exposure/distribution :)

    There is a wriggle of hope in that some events while not competing (such as DevTO and Hackernest) accomodate each other by timing so that they’re not cannibalizing each other’s audiences. There’s even some consolidation as well, Javascript Hack Night and Toronto Javascript folding into one.

    It’ll get better, sooner or later. I can feel it.

  • Jeremy O’Krafka

    There are some sparks of collaboration happening between the newer post-secondary incubators. Credit for this goes to Martin Croteau and the team at OCE who are the guiding hands (funders); and ventureLAB who host a weekly ecosystem partners meeting. This past weekend, Centennial College hosted an Entrepreneurship Conference & Hackathon (http://www.eventbrite.ca/e/accel-tech-meets-main-street-entrepreneurship-conference-tickets-18053352062) in collaboration with Seneca, Durham and YorkU. While the marketing for the event was dismal – the event itself showed a lot of promise for how the institutions can partner together.

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