City of Innovation

This week I had the privilege of witnessing some positive change happening in my home city of Hamilton, ON.

On Wednesday I toured the new coworking space, CoMotion.  A venture put together by local organizers–including Larrisa Drobot, and Tammy Hwang of the Hamilton Innovation Factory–CoMotion aims to be:

“an eco-system for the development of start-ups and existing small businesses, but also a testing ground to explore better ways of working together.” 1

I believe CoMotion will succeed as they have a prime downtown location, super fast internet, natural lighting, great food and culture nearby, and a beautiful, retrofitted building space.  I strongly recommend anyone looking for a great working space in Hamilton to visit CoMotion for a tour.

115 King Street E. – Google hasn’t recorded the new signs yet!

On Thursday I attended the launch party for another new downtown space, the FORGE, located at (address) on James St. South.  The FORGE is a local “accelerator” for startup companies.  I’ve had the good fortune to advise a few Forge startup teams including Start the Cycle and Thrive Games.  Similar to CoMotion, The Forge creates a space where hard working people can build new companies and opportunities together.

245 James St. North

Revitalizing Hamilton’s formerly vacant, dusty downtown spaces benefits the city as a whole.  When I arrived in Hamilton about a decade ago there wasn’t a “startup ecosystem” or anything resembling the sort of collective creative vibrancy that is so active in the city today. That’s changed.

Thanks to the hard work of forward-thinking people at the Innovation Factory, Hamilton Economic Development, OCE, Software Hamilton, McMaster University (and many more parties not named here), new startups have an ecosystem of experience, networks, and resources they can tap into.  It’s working – we’re now seeing a dream of a better Hamilton with new, good jobs being realized in practice.2

This weekend, the city sees the music / food truck / culture fair SuperCrawl return and on Monday, McMaster’s Spectrum student startup program launches their new season. Later this month, Lion’s Lair returns.

In short it’s a good time to be in Hamilton.

1. Interview on CoMotion at Software Hamilton.

2. I also like to believe that my company, Weever Apps, as an early successful startup, has played a key part in the new wave of Hamilton business development–“it can happen here”.

Startups in the city

This June I enjoyed guest judging at the Spectrum Summer Startup competition with Kevin Browne of Software Hamilton and Robyn Larsen of and Normative.

Meeting 20+ startup teams in in rapid succession was quite exhilarating!  One of my favourites (and the eventual competition winner) was “Clear Roots” a startup focused on gardening inside the home.  Their product takes inspiration from the popular urban ecology movement and IoT companies like Nest.

At Weever Apps our own “internet of things” protocol, IoTA, continues to grow. We recently leveraged IoTA to deploy a web app which connects to and instructs a popular home device.  I look forward to sharing this project later in the year.

Learning to ask the right questions

On April the 211st I had the privilege of speaking to graduate students in the Walter G. Booth School of Engineering Practice at McMaster University.

The venue was the impressive McMaster Engineering Technology building at McMaster University and my host was Dr. David Potter, a Xerox alumni, which seems fitting given Weever Apps’ recent Xerox partnership announcement.

I always enjoy learning about new student startups and sharing with them my experiences as a naive entrepreneur who made quite a few assumptions in my business plan – hopefully they can avoid the mistakes I’ve made and make better ones!

All dizzying photo credit due to the MMM Group.

Hamilton’s Spectrum and LiON’s Lair business competitions

I have a new guest post up with Hamilton’s Innovation Factory: “Innovation City: Why LiON’s Lair Matters”. My company, Weever Apps, won the inaugural LiON’s Lair competition in 2011. Mentioned here.

Tt was a privilege to see one of the new ventures I’m mentoring, Start the Cycle, pitch in the Spectrum Student Startup competition earlier this month. Advising new teams like Thrive Games and Take5 has been incredibly rewarding and I plan to continue those activities through the year.

Making products worth making

In a badly designed book, the letters mill and stand like starving horses in a field… In a well-made book… the letters are alive. They dance in their seats. Sometimes they rise and dance in the margins and aisles. (Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Style)

I’ve been enjoying a slow crawl through Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style. The book has both the poet’s charming ability to turn a phrase and an engaging continuous theme of what Brian Zmijewski terms progressive design.  In Elements, Bringhurst states the goal of typographic design is to represent written content accessibly and accurately1.  The principal tactic to achieve this goal is by designing from the “content out”:

Read the text before designing it… Discover the outer logic of the typography in the inner logic of the text.

In other words, Bringhurst argues that to make something well, you must first understand its core meaning, purpose and character (aka. “the text”). Only after this first step is taken should considerations like fonts, margins, and layout, come into consideration.

This is sage advice for any typographer; I think it applies to business too. Thousands of people make millions of new products every year. Staff are hired, plans drafted, monies spent and then most of these products fail.

So how does a company avoid making products that are not worth making at all? Budget excuses aside, a common element of unsuccessful products (and startups) is that they fail to deliver significant value to customers.  This is a good place to start! To illustrate the point of value, let me replace a few of Bringhurst’s wise words with my own:

Understand the customer before designing a solution… Discover the outer logic of the product in the inner logic of the customer.

“Reading the text” when creating a product, then, is the process by which we can better understand the inner logic of the customer,2 that is, to anticipate their wants and needs. Here are a few questions I’ve found useful:

  • What are some important motivations for the person(s) involved?
  • What job is the product being hired to do by each person involved?
  • What actions allow us to validate that the product/idea is significant3 in addressing those motivations with a minimum of effort?

In my experience if an entrepreneur addresses each of these questions, the processes of drafting a new product, a pitch, a startup company strategy, or a marketing campaign becomes much less challenging.

Ultimately we make products for other people. When we work directly, honestly and sympathetically to help others achieve their motivations, we’re more likely to create a product that, like a well-designed book, feels meaningful and alive.  These are the products that are worth making.  As Jason Fried of 37 Signals has put it:

“Here’s what our product can do” and “Here’s what you can do with our product” sound similar, but they are completely different approaches.

1. Bringhurst’s Elements tells us that the purpose of typography is “to honour and elucidate the character of the text”.

2. By “customer” I mean anyone who decides on an investment of time, effort or money.

3. A good way to measure the significance (value) of a product to a customer is by determining how much they will pay (to make it, to buy it, to rent it, to keep it, etc.)

The photo is of Jitterbug dancers in NYC by Alan Fisher in 1938. The dance was controversial in multiple contexts. Events featuring the Jitterbug filled seats and dance floors (and sometimes the aisles too). The coloration is anachronistic and entirely my fault.