Finding new talent, connecting with clients among the benefits, writes Rick Spence
The Vancouver Sun
In the startup world, it’s not all foosball and beer fridges.
The next generation of business leaders is incubating in gritty thirdfloor walk-ups, 19th-century offices with worn wooden floors and the wind whistling through bare brick, or glossy pens with rows of tables where T-shirted workers stare at their laptops and dream of cubicles. For the lucky few that make it big, there will be modern offices with open kitchens, PlayStations, rooftop patios and possibly nap rooms.
Who cares what goes inside Canada’s startups? Let’s see: jobseekers, disaffected employees from other companies, starry-eyed students, curious competitors, potential partners and investors, and forward-thinking customers looking for the next new thing.
All these types of people have fuelled the success of Startup Open House, a growing national movement designed to bring new people face-to-face with the startup world. Founded in Montreal in 2013, Open Houses will take place in six cities this year, with plans for more in future.
The action starts Thursday, Sept. 22 in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Startups in Waterloo, Ont., will open their doors Oct. 4, and Ottawa and Quebec City are looking at dates in November. Some 400 companies, incubators and co-working spaces have already signed up to participate this year, says Kara Sheppard-Jones, a project manager with Montreal-based Credo Productions, a startup that runs Open House and other innovative startup/social projects. She says companies are still signing up, and expects activity this year to easily beat 2015, when 500 startups in five cities welcomed 8,000 visitors.
Sheppard-Jones says the first open house started as the brainchild of a few founders looking for talent, as a kind of reverse career fair. But it’s grown since as a way for all kinds of companies to meet their communities and demonstrate what they do.
“We have the biggest names in the startup space, as well as smaller startups looking for visibility and exposure,” she says.
The website StartupOpenHouse. com identifies participating companies in each city and the timing (usually 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.). You can also use its PathFinder tool to plan your itinerary. Attendance is free, thanks to the event sponsors, but you need to reserve a ticket online.
Open House exemplifies the inclusive values of tech startups, so the founders in Montreal weren’t surprised to learn Silicon Valley has held similar events for years. But Credo may be the first to export the notion. In April, it helped a Canadian entrepreneur in London launch the U.K.’s first startup open house. With 35 companies attracting 800 visitors, SheppardJones believes this too will become an annual event.
Are open houses worth the effort for companies putting out welcome mats? Sheppard-Jones says the evidence is anecdotal, but positive. Last year, the Open Houses generated at least 700 applications for jobs the participating startups were hiring for. A professor at Humber College who took his class to Toronto’s open houses says three students found jobs, and others got project work that helped advance their studies. In London, an entrepreneur signed one of his biggest clients after the head of business development for Britain’s largest grocery chain poked his head through the open door.
Credo encourages companies to put on a good show, by offering tours, presentations, demos and/ or food and drink. But each startup runs its own event, so standards will vary. Sheppard-Jones’s efforts to upgrade the program are complicated by startups’ tendency to do everything last-minute. Participation is usually free, but this year Credo imposed a $50 fee for applications submitted in the last month.
“When everyone registers late, it’s difficult for visitors to get a sense of who’s participating,” Sheppard-Jones says, adding that the incentive fee worked. “We’ve never had so many startups register so early.”
(If your company is interested in registering this month in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver, tell them you read about it in the Financial Post. They’ll waive your fee.)
Project Spaces, a five-year-old Toronto company that rents coworking spaces, will participate this month in its third Open House. Co-founder Neil Martin says it’s a way to stay in touch with old friends as well as meet new ones.
“As the company grows, it’s interesting to bring people back each year to see how things have changed,” he says.
With 140 member companies, Martin says a dozen firms in each of their two spaces usually participate in open house, actively wooing developers and designers, or new users for their apps. He says Project Spaces itself will likely offer one-week free trials to visitors — in addition to bringing in snacks and two kegs of beer for entertaining drop-ins at each location.
Martin sees Open House as costeffective promotion. Five new members joined last year. And one member who signed up as a lone founder after Open House 2014 now has five employees working alongside him.
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