mo·men·tum: the strength or force that allows something to continue or to grow stronger or faster as time passes
Momentum is a wonderful, horrible thing. As investors, we are both tantalized and tormented by it. We cannot escape its wrath, nor reach out and grasp its true nature. We try to define it (see above), quantify it (ask a VC), reproduce it (check the portfolio) – or sometimes even destroy it (oops). We usually fail (#silence). Then we try again.
However, sometimes momentum takes you to a place that in retrospect seems obvious. There are usually a few twists and turns along the way, but by the end of the journey the only question left to ask is “what took so long?” Our circuitous path to opening up an office in Kitchener-Waterloo (K-W) is emblematic of this phenomenon. There is limited value in retracing each of those steps, but it remains worthwhile to point out a few of the signposts we saw along the way:
1. The University of Waterloo is consistently producing some of the best performing product teams in the world. I’m not just talking about local startups such as Kik, Vidyard, Clearpath Robotics, Thalmic Labs, etc. Check out the lineage of companies like Instacart, Pebble, ContextLogic, PagerDuty, A Thinking Ape, etc. Once you include the accomplishments of the UWaterloo alumni base at Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, etc. the numbers start to get staggering. There are maybe 5-10 schools in the entire world that can point to that sort of track record over the last few years.
2. Founders! Founders! Founders! If I were to channel my inner Steve Ballmer (http://youtu.be/8To-6VIJZRE) I would scream this mantra from the rooftop of the Tannery Building. There is a rich and storied history of great founders in the region; men and women who didn’t just build great companies, but revolutionized their industries. Val O’Donovan (COM DEV), Wes Graham (Watcom), Frank Tompa (OpenText) and Mike Lazaridis (RIM) were real pioneers in their fields, pushing the envelope further than rational expectations would have allowed. That tradition is alive and well in today’s generation of entrepreneurs, who have been ahead of their time in carving out leadership positions in markets such as mobile applications, online video, wearables, edtech, autonomous robotics, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotech and next generation interfaces. These are step function leaps forward, driven by young first-time founders who are too naïve to fail.
3. Organizations like Communitech did not magically appear without the fervent support of local executives and enterprises who were willing to put their time, money, and energy into institutionalizing the belief that there is value in building a broader support infrastructure for local (potentially competitive) startups. Experienced operators like Mike Stork, Jim Estill, Dennis Kavelman and Ted Hastings know what it takes to build a big business. Companies like RIM, Google, OpenText, Christie Digital, etc. are investing in their own disruption. It’s a beautiful thing.
We are obviously not alone in appreciating the strength and speed with which the ecosystem is developing. Some of the most well-respected voices in the industry have leant their voices to the growing chorus that sings the praises of K-W:
“Something is going on in Waterloo, because the applications we get from Waterloo students are better than those we get from students of any other university.” — Paul Graham, Y Combinator
“What’s happening in Waterloo is fantastic. If you look at the history of Silicon Valley, you’ll see that startup hubs grow because of the success and ultimate demise of tech companies. In a forest, the trees start as saplings and grow, and then a fire happens, and the forest is blighted, and from the ashes the forest grows even bigger and brighter.” — Fred Wilson, Union Square Ventures
“I think Waterloo is the most impressive up-and-coming startup city I’ve been to.” — Sam Altman, Y Combinator
I don’t think it’s hard to dig up a collection of platitudes for one particular ecosystem. Having said that, these are not idle compliments of passers-by. We know first hand that there IS something going on in K-W. Call it momentum, call it a renaissance, or call it disruption. It doesn’t matter what word you choose – just understand that it is happening now, it will be stronger tomorrow, and is moving faster towards the future. We’re happy to be here.