Curiosity as a guide
As part of the series, founders at EigenSpace are sharing our personal stories. None of us are that comfortable with doing that but as Nigel puts it, “it is fair for people to know something about the person they are dealing with.” Here is my life story (so far) with a focus on building stuff.
I was born in Hamilton, Ontario. My dad is the only child of a single parent and my mom is the oldest daughter of Polish and English immigrant parents. Both my parents had careers focused on helping people and because my dad started his career in government, we moved a few times.
When I just started school, we moved to Thunder Bay, Ontario and later to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. When we moved to the Soo the city was just entering a bust cycle (boom/bust cycles were different than now) but it was a bustling town with amazing food, on the border with Michigan, and the Great Lakes literally at your doorstep. A lot of factors contributed to that over the years but being in a part of Canada where your TV is from the US, the border is just a toll bridge, one of the largest steel mills in Canada is nearly one third of the city, and a B-52 base is just 20 miles away… you develop a bit of a different perspective.
Education was a challenge
Everyone around me aspired to turn 16 and collect welfare. There were no opportunities or prospects for work and the next town was 3 hours away. School was just something that happened during the day.
I was motivated to work and build things. I started working at age 14 and by 16 I was landscaping and by 17 being paid to ski patrol at the local ski hill. I was around entrepreneurial people, and they would talk to me about ideas and opportunities. I found my way to the University of Waterloo in the latter half of the 90s.
University was a challenge – I never felt I fit in -- but I learned so much being around friends in physics, computer science, and engineering. Near the end of my extended undergrad, I figured out that few students at the University of Waterloo really feel like they fit in. Odd, in that the campus feeling was one of constantly seeking opportunity and excitement for what is next.
Finding my passion in software
After graduating I went back up north to make a tourism focused web site that had an online map of snowmobile trails (way before Google maps) where I took my GIS course experience and learned to code in JS, Perl, ActionScript. But then I decided to head back to Waterloo.
In some odd combination of luck and timing I ended up working at the University of Waterloo where I had full control over the main web site, led a web redesign (committees!), and I got to work just down the hall from the Right Honorable David Johnston, (Canada’s former Governor General but at the time the current University President).
Over the years I learned about tracking web traffic, coding, A/B testing, and how to hire talented co-op students that could do awesome things. I had a bunch of roles where I ended up leading huge policy committees and navigating the massive institution. The University taught me way more as an employee than it did as a student and it gave me a lot of room to experiment.
Enter the start-up community
That lead to leading community events and exploring the Startup community in 2005. I would host StartupCampWaterloo with Simon Woodside and Mic Berman with Larry Borsato and Garry Will (who shared wild stories about the early tech days in Waterloo). We used any venue we could find but relied heavily on the Accelerator Centre board rooms. Tim Ellis and Jacqui Murphy ensured we had space and pizza.
It was through this exploration that I met David Crow who was part of a group of outspoken tech community folks that started StartupNorth and hosted DemoCampToronto.
The Waterloo Startup community was in its infancy up until 2011. Few to no students were around, founders were expected to wear suits, and everything felt corporate. The community work I did along with founding TribeHR coincided with building the Velocity Program. I took my experience and modified what was a ‘mobile media incubator’ into a world class environment that inspired students and connected them to the Waterloo area.
Students went on to co-op in the valley, worked for start-ups, but they had no support in Waterloo. I changed that with the help of the people at Communitech. We created a culture of hoodie wearing rebels that didn’t fit a Canadian mold…. they ended up recasting the mold.
David Crow was a big help in doing that. He white boarded enough knowledge into my brain that when Joseph Fung and I decided to raise capital and use the recently launched AngelList to get around the local Angel Investor experience. David made sure we didn’t overlook our best connection with Matrix Partners and David Skok in Boston to raise capital.
When I look at my last 20 years, there is a 24-month period where things were both amazing and terrible. The path I chose and how I grew could have been quite different. From late 2010 to late 2012 I went from running an ambitious program in Waterloo to bringing in a $1M cheque to Velocity (matched by government), a $1M investment from a Boston VC to my SaaS company, a third child arrived and a fourth! I burned myself out, found my feet and I founded the Creative Destruction Lab. Which lead to meeting Nigel Stokes.
Building a network and growing up (a little)
With Professor Ajay Agrawal, some of the best grad students I have ever met, and the people in and around the Rotman School of Management (including Nigel) the Creative Destruction Lab started by looking for really smart people solving really hard problems. We then helped them engage with highly successful people that built big companies by solving hard problems. The formula developed then turned out to be highly repeatable in different cities and countries across the world.
As that grew, I jumped at the opportunity to join a software focused team in Waterloo. It was rewarding to be around developers, UX folks, and building software products for people. It reminded me that software teams are special and creative. Software products are really hard. But there is a passion in the creation of a product and an opportunity to build just about anything.
After a period of time, I was recruited to Halifax, NS, to build an ecosystem hub similar to what exists in Waterloo. My family moved out east for four years as Volta became one of the largest innovation hubs in Canada. We built a little fund, a strong team, and built a space. But Waterloo and family called us back.
Next chapter begins
In early 2021 I reconnected with Nigel and David to launch EigenSpace. With the goal of helping you, the founder, own your path to success. Over the years I have built organizations that continue to help founders find success and this time I wanted to create something that was even better aligned with founder success. Focus on the smart people who are solving the hard problems.
I am very excited to be working with this founding team and this next step in my adventure.