Sunday, June 14, 2015

Thumbs up for RIM book "Losing the Signal"

A couple of weeks ago, I Tweeted some comments about the book Losing the Signal: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of BlackBerry by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff and wanted to have them in a more accessible form.

There's been a lot written about Losing the Signal and I won't duplicate what available elsewhere. I would definitely recommend the book. Whenever I read anything related to the Waterloo tech scene of the 1990s and 2000s, I expect to spend a lot of time rolling my eyes and muttering comments to myself, but that didn't happen here. (I have some minor quibbles, but you'll always have those.)

I followed RIM closely from about 1995 to 2010 and enjoyed that part of the book primarily for the retrospective quotes from people who were involved with the company—as insiders, partners, customers and others. And then I pretty much stopped following the company cold turkey in the fall of 2010, and continued to enjoy that part of the book for details I wasn't familiar with (beyond what you couldn't have missed in headlines), which tells me that you don't have to know a lot about RIM to appreciate the book.

You can't cover everything in a book, and I thought the authors made good choices about what to include. It focuses on the Mike Lazaridis-Jim Balsillie era (and relationship) and quickly goes over the subsequent Thorsten Heins period. You'll read about Barenaked Ladies and U2 but no mention of Alicia Keys.

I did think that Com Dev got short shrift. It's briefly mentioned in two out-of-sync spots, but Com Dev was RIM's largest shareholder for years—owned more of the company than Lazaridis. Com Dev's pre-IPO shareholders wisely kept ownership of their RIM shares when Com Dev went public in 1996 but ended up selling millions of dollars worth of shares—at a price nearly as low as RIM shares ever got—when Com Dev badly needed some cash. It was very controversial and I would have been interested to read current comments from surviving senior Com Dev execs about their relationship with RIM.

I was interested to read that RIM's infamous options backdating episode was a big deal to Lazaridis and added to the rift with Balsillie. I had a hard time seeing that whole incident as more than a dog-and-pony show ... which is easier to say from the comfort and safety of my office, but it all came across as regulatory theatre with Balsillie as the main sacrificial lamb. And even that didn't seem like much of a sacrifice. He received a hefty fine, but relative to net worth, it really wasn't that much (again, easy for me to say). But the book describes how the situation weighed heavily on Lazaridis in particular, and that was a surprise.

At the same time, I didn't think the backdating issue was well covered in the book. The authors write that "together, the CEOs and [CFO] Kavelman agreed to pay the [Ontario Securities] commission a combined $83 million", but that money was actually what they agreed to pay RIM (the additional fines were about $9 million, with Balsillie paying nearly two-thirds of the total). And the $83 million could be paid by forfeiting options—that was all part of the show. RIM and, by extension, its shareholders weren't the perpetrators of the backdating, they were the supposed victims.

You won't get a feel for how much of an outlier RIM was at its peak among Canadian tech companies, but that's more of a personal interest of mine than something that needed to be covered (as I've said before, a lot of government support for the tech business ecosystem in Canada over the last several years had its foundation in the quixotic expectation of finding "the next RIM" ... and now that it hasn't happened, that ecosystem is increasingly being seen as a failure).

What you do get is a respectful, but not fawning, portrait of Lazaridis and Balsillie (a previous book on the subject—which I never read—was said by some reviewers to be too adulatory ... which would be difficult to write in 2015, but not at all in 2010). And, from talking to former RIM employees over the years, it felt to me that the book did a good job of capturing how chaotic things could be behind the curtain.

Monday, March 02, 2015

A lesson Adam Chowaniec helped me to learn

This was going to be a set of tweets, but ended up being a little long.

I'd been reading observations and recommendations from Adam Chowaniec for over ten years when he died a couple of weeks ago. He was one of the leading figures in the Ottawa tech community and had spoken at at least a couple of Communitech events over the years.

He was always worth hearing, and at the same time, would occasionally say things that made me think we lived in alternate universes.

It was an important lesson to learn. Tech communities—even in the same province—have different experiences and priorities. Chowaniec was very Ottawa, very telecom. Ottawa and Waterloo collaborate a lot, and aren't that far apart in distance, but are also very different.

You have to be cautious when drawing conclusions for the province or the country based on your one region. You can't avoid it—most of us live in one place, and that shapes our experiences—but you can watch out for your own overgeneralizations.

(At the same time, the reverse problem may be even more dangerous: refusing to learn from other communities because they're not you. I've seen way too much of this over the last few years. But that sounds like a 2,000-word post that I'll thankfully never get around to writing.)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Zero to One: Some useful insights in a sea of dross

Many people have said good things about the Peter Thiel (with Blake Masters) book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, and there were several parts I found worthwhile, but I can't add it to the recommended reading list for startup founders.

There's nothing particularly objectionable about the major theme—have a bold vision and a plan to get there—but there's very little in Thiel's underpinning for that theme that's going to be of much value. It's heavy on personal ideology—which may be enjoyable to read if you share the same views—but not so useful as a guide for startups.

I'm sure I could pull a dozen good tweets from the book (and will do, below ... 10 of them, anyway), but I found the first half to be largely a waste of time. Thiel's recollections of the late 90s dot-com boom are very different from mine. He looks back with nostalgia at a golden era characterized by big visions that he rarely sees these days. I remember the period as being as much awash with triviality as any other era. It wasn't the visions that were big as much as the budgets, as pie-eyed investors provided millions of dollars to anyone who incorporated "online portal" into their elevator pitch.

I can't image that the "four big lessons" he claims Silicon Valley learned from the crash were actually anyone's main takeaways. If anything, "focus on product, not sales"—one of the lessons he claims—was a guiding principle of the dot-com boom. Who needed sales when you had investors lining up to give you cash? It was all about the product -- building the website and growing traffic. Revenue was something that would come in the future.

Thiel's characterization of the lean startup approach as having no plans—another of the claimed lessons—is every bit as inaccurate when he says it as when some lean proponents imply the same thing. I can't call it a strawman argument when there are self-identified lean supporters who make planning sound like some quaint artifact of an earlier time, but the lean approach really isn't anti-planning as much as an acknowledgement that—in the earliest stages—whatever your plans are, they're going to change as you start getting feedback from the market. It's about contingent planning rather than a rejection of planning—against carving plans in stone early on, when startups have little more than a vision and guesses. But Thiel doesn't appear to be a fan of contingent plans—it seems they're part of the feeble "indefinite" worldview that he criticizes in one of the chapters I didn't find very useful.

That was my view of his discussion of monopolies. If we define "monopoly" so loosely that it includes every successful business—as Thiel does—then it would also include every unsuccessful business too. If you're interested in learning about Thiel's ideology, then it might be worth a read. For building startups, though, I found little that was worthwhile, although Chapter 5—which continues the discussion of monopolies—would certainly be the source of some of those dozen good tweets.

Most of them, though, would be pulled from chapters 7 to 11—where it finally felt that the book was worth reading ... before it tailed off in the final four sections (last three chapters and the conclusion). There are a dozen other books I would suggest startup founders read ahead of this, but chapters 7 to 11 may very well be worth a read. (A minor point, but when Thiel says that "very few people take unorthodox ideas seriously today" I'm not sure he gets out of the house much—or goes on YouTube. Fluoridation, Wi-Fi, wind turbines, Illuminati, 9/11 truthers, Obama birthers, and dozens more come to mind. It may not be a majority of people, but it's definitely at cult levels, which Thiel says doesn't happen anymore.)

So here are 10 tweets I would take from the book. Not necessarily original ideas, but good ones to consider (I wouldn't take the last one as literally as he apparently does, but then again I haven't worn a suit in public since the 90s.):
  • Every startup should start with a very small market. Always err on the side of starting too small
  • Being the first mover doesn’t do you any good if someone else comes along and unseats you
  • Focus relentlessly on something you’re good at doing, but before that you must think hard about whether it will be valuable in the future
  • When you start something, the first and most crucial decision you make is whom to start it with
  • By far the worst you can do is to make your board extra large
  • As a general rule, everyone you involve with your company should be involved full-time. Sometimes you’ll have to break this rule
  • In no case should a CEO of an early-stage, venture-backed startup receive more than $150,000 per year in salary
  • The best thing I did as a manager at PayPal was to make every person in the company responsible for doing just one thing
  • The engineer’s grail is a product great enough that “it sells itself.” But anyone who would actually say this about a real product must be lying
  • Never invest in a tech CEO that wears a suit

Friday, March 07, 2014

London, Ontario and its 20 to 44-year-old population ... is it really so bad?

For its London X event this past weekend, Emerging Leaders republished some analysis from about a year ago of the 2011 Census that suggested London was doing a poor job of attracting and retaining people in the 20 to 44 age range when compared to other municipalities. At the time it was originally published, I looked it over and had some questions about whether London's numbers were really that bad, but didn't look into it more closely ... until now.

I'm going to use figures for the City of London rather than the London census metropolitan area (CMA), which includes eight municipalities, some of which are very different from London. London accounts for 77% of the population of the CMA, so there often isn't a big difference between the two, but the London CMA includes the farming-heavy communities of Adelaide Metcalfe and Southwold and the heavily working-class municipality of Strathroy-Caradoc, as well as St. Thomas. Looking at the CMA is worthwhile (and I have those numbers too), but if we're looking to draw conclusions about London, I'd rather focus on the data for London itself.

Looking at the 2011 Census numbers, for percentage of residents in the 20-44 age range, London ranks in the top five percent among all municipalities in Ontario. If we narrow that down to a somewhat arbitrarily chosen list of 58 larger municipalities and regions in the province, with a concentration on Southwestern Ontario, it looks like this:

(Some of these overlap—for example, Strathroy-Caradoc and Middlesex Centre are both part of Middlesex County. The "Essex" shown here is Essex County, not the Town of Essex.)

This is one of London's strengths. It's not in the elite 36%+ group with Toronto (37.6%), Kitchener (37.1%), Brampton (36.9%), Waterloo (36.4%) and Guelph (36.2%). But, at 34.6%, it's just slightly below Ottawa, Barrie and Kingston and ahead of a lot of Ontario's bigger cities, including Mississauga, Cambridge, Windsor, Oshawa, Hamilton, Brantford, Peterborough (which I didn't put on the chart), Burlington, and St. Catharines.

London clearly has a solid population base in the 20-44 age range, but what about growth rates? That was the focus of the Emerging Leaders analysis, and there's no question that the numbers aren't as favourable here. Still, London is far from being the worst performer and could probably be called middle-of-the-pack.

This is the change in the population aged 20-44 at the time of the 2011 Census from that at the time of the 2006 Census. London falls below the provincial average—which was pulled up by some good numbers in a few municipalities (the GTA and Waterloo Region had some strong performers). But ranking below London, you'll find Mississauga, Cambridge, Brantford, Hamilton, Barrie, Sudbury and even Waterloo, along with St. Catharines and Windsor.

Not a great result, but not notably bad either.

But there's another way to look at growth rates that I think is worthwhile. The Census is held every five years, and the number of residents is broken down into five-year age ranges. People in one age group in the 2006 Census would move into the next higher age group in the 2011 Census and the difference would come from deaths (more significant for older age ranges) and the net gains/losses from people in that age range moving in and out of the municipality. You can track those changes as that cohort moves along.

People aged 20-44 in 2011 would have been 15-39 in 2006. When you compare those two groups, you find that London actually had a gain of 2,285 people in that cohort between 2006 and 2011. That is, there were 2,285 more people aged 20-44 in London in 2011 than there were people aged 15 to 39 in 2006.

So London is attracting people in that age range, although most of the gains are in the 20-24 group. That's probably what you'd expect in a city with a university and a college. The top performers in 20-24 growth rates—Kingston, Toronto, Waterloo, Guelph, Ottawa, London—are all cities with universities. (And those same cities—with the exception of Ottawa—all place near the bottom in the growth rates for the cohort that was in their 30s in 2011. It looks like lots of people come for university and then lots of people leave over the next few years.)

A gain of 2,285 people sounds good, although it's still a middle-of-the-pack growth rate. In fact, Mississauga and Cambridge both leapfrog over London in this cohort growth ranking.

After you break it down further by age range, this is where you do find London near the bottom in some rankings. London's cohort-based growth rates for residents who went from being 25-34 in 2006 to 30-39 in 2011 were among the lowest of these selected municipalities. That would be consistent with the hypothesis that younger workers are hitting a wall in their career development and looking elsewhere, although there could be other factors involved. Waterloo's growth rates were even lower, as were Toronto's (for the group entering their late 30s, anyway), which surprised me, since I would think Toronto picks up a lot of people through immigration.

It's the suburbs that have the high growth rates for this cohort—Woolwich and Wilmot in Waterloo Region and Middlesex Centre in the London area are all at the top of the list. Middlesex County (which includes Middlesex Centre) has a strong growth rate for this cohort. That could be a useful topic for further research from Emerging Leaders.

Still, going back to the non-cohort view, even if you ignore residents in their early 20s—where London performs best—and just look at the 25-44 range, London still scores above the provincial average for its concentration of residents and just below the average for growth rate (see bar charts below).

There's certainly room for improvement. Other than Hamilton and Windsor, most of the municipalities that I think London would like to compare itself to place higher on one or both of these charts (just barely, in Waterloo's case), so it's worthwhile to look at ways to help make the numbers even stronger in 2016, 2021 and beyond. At the same time, there are plenty of municipalities in the province that would love to have London's numbers. They aren't great, but you could do a lot worse.

These charts and statistics are generated from spreadsheets that got increasingly complex as I went along, so there's always a possibility that I goofed up a formula along the way. I did some quick checks, but that's all I have time for. All the raw data for the 2006 and 2011 Censuses are available from the Statistics Canada website.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

IRAP Q3 contributions for 70 organizations across 12 regions in SWOntario

The quarter ended December 31 (Q3 FY2014) was huge for IRAP contributions across Southwestern Ontario—way too many to go through individually. The long list of recipients includes Snapsort, Miovision, Renix, Akira Systems, Ortech, Digital Extremes, TecVana, LifeLike Biotissue, Pulse Infoframe, Magnet Forensics, Thalmic, Sand Plains Aquaculture, Fehr Machine, and System-On-Chip Technologies. Communitech, Innovation Guelph and the Canadian Innovation Centre also received contributions.

A few of these actually happened in Q2 and were disclosed late, but even so, it was one of the most active periods you'll see—particularly in London, where 21 companies received contributions. As I've mentioned several times, IRAP has long been a leading supporter of the London tech community. But it wasn't just London—there were contributions in 12 different regions of Southwestern Ontario. There are innovative companies across the region in a wide range of sectors. The largest contribution was $291,076 for PEER Group in Kitchener, although it did not crack the top 50 across Canada.

Locations shown here are as listed in the IRAP disclosure.

Salt CanadaLondon$209,991
OCI Vacuum MicroengineeringLondon$88,240
Black Fly BeverageLondon$87,180
Barnes ElectricLondon$53,871
ProAble Hardware SpecialtiesLondon$50,000
Phoenix Interactive DesignLondon$50,000
Trac RailLondon$50,000
Hudson Boat WorksLondon$50,000
Akira SystemsLondon$50,000
DQE InstrumentsLondon$49,477
Ortech Data CentreLondon$46,500
Compudata SystemsLondon$41,600
Digital ExtremesLondon$39,999
HNH MachineLondon$37,080
Diagnostics Biochem CanadaLondon$30,000
LifeLike BiotissueLondon$30,000
Pulse InfoframeLondon$25,500
PEER GroupKitchener$291,076
Miovision TechnologiesKitchener$150,000
Accelerated SystemsWaterloo$119,000
Syrier PoultryElmira$96,376
Magnet ForensicsWaterloo$95,000
Thalmic LabsKitchener$50,000
System-On-Chip TechnologiesWaterloo$50,000
Deep TrekkerWaterloo$50,000
Canadian Innovation CentreWaterloo$46,000
Cambridge Metal ProductsAyr$32,000
DynamentAmherstburg  $132,000
Standard Tool & MoldWindsor$77,300
Lakeside ProduceLeamington$49,500
Policella FarmsKingsville$49,366
Sharbel GroupWindsor$48,816
Biobest CanadaLeamington$48,695
Sprucewood Shores Estate WineryAmherstburg$43,120
Strong DentalLeamington$41,781
Windsor MoldWindsor$40,300
1797472 OntarioLeamington$36,001
Brave Control SolutionsWindsor$30,000
iDream InteractiveWindsor$27,400
Hartmann CanadaBrantford$99,999
Gorilla Brake & ComponentsBrantford$50,000
Systems LogicBrantford$50,000
Rescraft Plastic ProductsParis$42,000
Gorilla Brake & ComponentsBrantford$36,000
Apogee Engineered CeramicsBrantford$29,000
RWDI AirGuelph$150,000
Innovation GuelphGuelph$95,000
Ontario Agri-Food TechnologiesGuelph$50,000
Creative Education Of CanadaSarnia$50,000
Roger H. WoodsWatford$49,800
Feher MachineSarnia$46,124
GCW Custom KitchensSt. Thomas$99,999
IGPC EthanolAylmer$50,000
Amino North AmericaSt. Thomas$50,000
Norfolk Fruit Growers' Association  Simcoe$75,585
Titan TrailersDelhi$35,065
Federal White CementEmbro$60,000
Sand Plains AquaCultureTillsonburg$47,353
AgraCity Crop & NutritionWallaceburg$44,000
Dashwood IndustriesCentralia$75,704
BTE AssemblyListowel$50,000

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

At first glance: Highlights of Budget 2014

Haven't read a lot of it yet, but these were some items that stood out from a innovation perspective ... and from a quasi-rural, living in Southwestern Ontario near the border perspective (a summary of my Tweets at the time):
  • Additional $40 million over four years to the Canada Accelerator and Incubator Program to help entrepreneurs create new companies
  • $305 million over five years to enhance access to high-speed broadband networks to a target speed of 5 Mb/s
  • Up to $30 million to IRAP to support youth internships in SMEs
  • Reallocation of $15 million annually within the Youth Employment Strategy to support up to 1,000 full-time internships at SMEs
  • $3 million over three years to the Canadian Digital Media Network for the creation of the Open Data Institute in Waterloo
  • $15 million over three years, starting in 2014–15, to support the Institute for Quantum Computing in Waterloo
  • Create the Canada First Research Excellence Fund with $1.5 billion in funding over the next decade
  • Additional $15 million per year to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council
  • Additional $500 million over two years to the Automotive Innovation Fund
  • $8 million over two years to Mitacs to expand its support for industrial research and training of postdoctoral fellows
  • $10 million over two years in support of social innovation research projects at colleges and polytechnics
  • A new Immigrant Investor Venture Capital Fund "will require immigrants to make a real and significant investment in the Canadian economy"
  • "A plan to introduce legislation to prohibit unjustified cross-border price discrimination"

Monday, December 16, 2013

Leamington`s challenge: bouncing back despite low educational attainment

There have been a lot of plant closures announced lately, including several in the food processing sector, which municipalities across Southwestern Ontario promote as one of their strengths.

Leamington was particularly hard hit by news that Heinz is shutting down its plant there, where it is both the largest employer and taxpayer. Although there are many places in Ontario that have more people working in the food processing/manufacturing sector, Leamington has—by far— the highest concentration of those workers (NHS 2011) and Heinz was the foundation of the local industry.

Leamington is also notable for having Ontario's lowest percentage of residents with any university or college degree, diploma or certificate, at least among the more populated parts of the province. And, again, it's by a noticeably wide margin:

(On the chart, "SSPerth" is the combined Stratford-St. Marys-Perth County area, "Big26" is the 26 most populated municipalities in Ontario, "SWO" is Southwestern Ontario, from Wellington County west, not including the Hamilton-Niagara region, "SCOR" is the South Central Ontario Region, comprised of Norfolk, Brant, Oxford, Middlesex and Elgin, "NotTorontoCMA" is all of Ontario outside of the Toronto CMA, "MiddlesexNR" and "LambtonNR" include the Native reserves in the areas. I think the rest are all clear.)

As the chart shows, while the City of Waterloo scores very well for post-secondary educational achievement, and Guelph and London/Middlesex Centre do okay, as do LaSalle and Tecumseh in the Windsor metro area, the other parts of Southwestern Ontario fall below the provincial average, and in many cases well below. My municipality—Strathroy-Caradoc—just misses the bottom ten (or the top 10, as shown in reverse order above).

But even among Southwestern Ontario municipalities, Leamington is at the bottom of the list, which will present some special challenges as the community rebounds from the Heinz closure.