Ottawa startups pound pavement in San Francisco to pitch, hustle

In May, about a dozen Ottawa entrepreneurs gathered in a rental house in San Francisco to rehearse pitches, set up meetings with venture capitalists and pound the pavement. Here's what happened.

No one left the room with a big cheque, but entrepreneurs say experience was valuable

Ottawa entrepreneur George Borovec, CEO and co-founder of Treasure Chest Marketplace, at Plug & Play in Sunnyvale, CA. Plug & Play is an incubator for young startups to get business advice, pitch to investors and grow their company. Both Pay Pal and Dropbox got their start here. (George Borovec)

It's a three-bedroom home, perched on a hill in San Francisco's foggy Twin Peaks neighbourhood. And if you didn't know any better, you would think it was a regular family home.

But for three weeks in May, it was ground zero for a group of Ottawa startups.

Last month, about a dozen Ottawa entrepreneurs gathered in this rental house to rehearse their pitches, set up meetings with venture capitalists and pound the pavement. The trip was organized with the help of Invest Ottawa.

"You can't build a company without networking. But it's often, [startups] don't leave as a community to go networking together, which is what this experiment is all about. As an individual, you're kind of a little bit shy, and not too sure. Some people aren't good at networking and some people are. As a group ... it's a lot more natural to then embed yourself inside these groups," said Jonathan Milne, VP of marketing and communications at Invest Ottawa.

One of the entrepreneurs on the trip was George Borovec, CEO and co-founder of Treasure Chest Marketplace. He describes his company as "Kijiji marries Facebook."

You can't build a company without networking.- Jonathan Milne, Invest Ottawa

"Essentially what were looking to do is disrupt the online classifieds industry, and we want to do that by putting in a reward system for everybody in the process, and creating a social network that's much safer for everybody to exchange their goods," he said.

This is Borovec's second time in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. He joined the trip to meet investors and meet other startups, with the hopes of launching his company in San Francisco one day.

For these Ottawa startups, a trip to Silicon Valley is seen as good timing. It comes off the heels of Ottawa's e-commerce startup Shopify releasing its IPO earlier this spring. And last year, Ottawa startups joined the ranks of other up-and-coming companies at two of the Valley's most prestigious tech accelerators, Y Combinator and 500 Startups.

But some say it's easy to get caught up in the hype, especially if you're in a young startup. It's something Parm Gill often sees. He's an tech entrepreneur who's invested in several Canadian startups. He's also currently the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Invest Ottawa, and was in San Francisco last month with the group.

"I've seen companies come down here and get dragged around by people who are potentially going to invest in them, and it goes nowhere. And they spend a lot of time and effort on that. But you've got to be realistic about it. Odds are you're not going to land that one," said Gill.

Ottawa startups pitch ideas at Plug & Play

After two weeks of startup conferences, investor meetings over coffee and a quick trip over the Golden Gate Bridge, a few brave entrepreneurs were preparing for an important pitch in the heart of Silicon Valley.

The group set off in a rental car to Sunnyvale, California, about an hour away from San Francisco's core, where technology incubator Plug & Play is located.

It's a place where young startups can go to get business advice, pitch to investors and grow their company. It's the same incubator where Tesla CEO Elon Musk got his start with Paypal.

The pitch is five minutes maximum, per group. Powerpoint presentations are encouraged. And if your idea is good enough, it could mean a follow-up meeting with an investor; or better yet, a commitment to invest.

But at the end of the pitch session that day, no one left the room with a fat cheque. And when investors asked the companies follow up questions, they didn't hold back on doling out criticism. But Ottawa-based entrepreneur Masha Krol, who pitched her company Travelabulous to the room of investors, still found the experience valuable.

"I think their feedback was really valid, and interestingly I was expecting them to be meaner. I thought that the feedback that they gave was really valid and really candid. This was really useful," Krol said.

Sacrifices of the start-up life

Back in Ottawa, Borovec is already thinking about his next trip to the tech mecca.

"I'm full of hope, with all of the stuff that happened there," he said. "How do I line everything up back home and make my way back to the Valley?"

Since his trip to the Valley, Borovec now has promising leads on partnerships with other companies, including a San Francisco consignment startup and a media company in India. 

But for Borovec, being back in Ottawa also means it's back to reality. He said that while the start-up life can seem glamorous, it is far from it. It can be exhausting and full of sacrifices.

"It's the hardest thing I've ever done. [I came] from a sort of a cushy consulting gig. And I keep telling people I used to be a good looking guy, with no grey hair, and in shape. You have to give up everything. You hear about all the amazing startups that make it but then there are the 99 per cent that have to tough it out."


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