Image by Kristina Velan.

Image by Kristina Velan.

The International Startup Festival is a celebration of all things scalable. Local business consultant Philippe Telio launched the event three years ago and the festival has become an annual pilgrimage for entrepreneurs across Canada, the U.S. and beyond (Disclosure: Sparksheet Events was hired this year as Startupfest’s official content partner).

This year more than 50 speakers, including 500 Startups’ Dave McClure, HP exec Margaret Dawson and astronaut-politician Marc Garneau, regaled the crowd with their startup stories throughout the event’s four days.

In the afternoons, attendees networked, pitched and socialized in between workshops and roundtables on the Old Port lawn, nestled between Old Montreal and the St. Lawrence River. Despite growing each year, Startupfest still feels like a neighbourhood BBQ. The focus, though, is all business.

Attendees participating in an interactive art project in the festival's popular lounge tent. Image by Kristina Velan.

Attendees participating in an interactive art project in the festival’s lounge tent. Image by Kristina Velan.

The purpose-driven startup

It’s a trope in the startup world that you risk a lot to win a lot. Startup life isn’t glamorous, which might explain why so many of the keynotes skirted the line between offering business advice and self-help. But whether you’re in it for the money, or whether you’re doing it to make a difference, the consensus is passion is key.

In one of the most popular keynotes, serial entrepreneur Jeff Hoffman told an enthusiastic crowd that “we need to invest in humans as much as we do companies.”

For him and co-presenter Chris Shipley, entrepreneurs should put their personal values before their profit margins, not just because it’s good for the soul, but because values help business people make more creative and productive decisions. “Entrepreneurialism,” he explained, “is the shovel to help us dig to a brighter future.”

Chris Shipley delivering her keynote address on the second morning of Startupfest. Image by Kristina Velan.

Chris Shipley delivering her keynote address on the second morning of Startupfest. Image by Kristina Velan.

Hoffman wasn’t alone in calling for a balance between making money and doing good. In fact, during the question period following his talk, someone asked his opinion on “social startups.” Hoffman received vigorous applause after replying that it simply doesn’t make sense to make that distinction anymore – all startups should be socially conscious.


One crowdfunding startup in attendance,, seemed to take the lesson to heart. They launched a one-day campaign during the festival to raise money for the small Quebec town of Lac-Megantic whose downtown was flattened earlier this month by a deadly train explosion.


So what if you’re local? Think global.

One of Canada’s favourite pastimes is comparing itself to the U.S. When moderator Dave McClure asked which country had the best startups during an investment roundtable, BDC VP, Senia Rapisarda said point blank that it doesn’t matter where you come from, anymore, “as long as the returns are good.”

This place-agnostic perspective was also applied to finding new markets. The overwhelming consensus was that going global is always better than staying put.

BDC VP of Strategic Investments & Initiatives, Senia Rapisarda (far right) discussing the state of Canadian startups with Dave McClure (left) at an investment roundtable.

BDC VP of Strategic Investments & Initiatives, Senia Rapisarda (far right), discussing the state of Canadian startups with Dave McClure (far left, with bunny ears) at an investment roundtable.

During his workshop Big Fish, Huge Pond: Launching Globally, Hootesuite co-founder Dario Meli drove the point home with a Canadian example. After much time languishing in Toronto, social reading site Wattpad finally got its big break in Vietnam and the Philippines. Now it’s the biggest online source for user-generated fiction.

Meli explained that exploring markets in other countries is much less risky than startups often think. Social media makes it easy to establish cross-continental connections, and thanks to cheaply available measurement tools, it doesn’t take much to discover whether a market has potential.

“If you’re beating your head against the wall that is the U.S. and all of a sudden a window opens up in South Africa,” he said, “it might be worth sticking your head out.”

Stop being so undisruptive

It’s hard to underestimate how disruptive the web is. Keynotes, roundtables and workshops on topics ranging from retail to education to the music industry illustrated the myriad clever ways entrepreneurs are harnessing technology to become problem solvers – and disrupt industries in the process.

In his workshop, Rebooting the World, investor Michael Baum declared that “innovation is the key” to solving the massive U.S. youth unemployment rate.

His not-for-profit,, partners with leading U.S. colleges like Carnegie Melon and Berkeley to offer students with potentially “high impact” startups $100K of funding.

In the retail world, Fabian Pfortmüller, founder of eco-friendly clothing and print company Holstee, proved just how disruptive online retail paired with strong brand values can be by launching a highly successful startup that promises everything Amazon can’t.

For Pfortmüller, “the brands of this century will be defined by their genuine values.” His proof? Holstee’s manifesto became the company’s best-selling product after they printed it on greeting cards.

In the same workshop, online fashion boutique Frank & Oak co-founder Ethan Song explained that “people go to to buy a product they will use, but they choose online boutiques for brands they love.”

The rise of growth hacking

Ever heard the term “growth hacking”? It’s the younger, hipper alternative to “marketing,” and attendees and speakers alike made ample use of it during the festival. Whether or not marketing for startups deserves its own moniker, the challenges belong in a class of their own.

Greg Isenberg, founder of 5by, being interviewed in the media tent. In his talk about growth hacking, he likened internet marketing to "Tupperware on crack." Image by Kristina Velan.

Greg Isenberg, 5by founder and angel investor being interviewed at the Media tent. In his talk about growth hacking, he likened internet marketing to “Tupperware on crack.” Image by Kristina Velan.

It’s common, for instance, for early-stage startups to lack business models, or even products. If they do have products, they might not know who is buying them. Or else the rate of change is such that data is useless for marketers hoping to plan much in advance.

A lineup of festival goers waiting in line at Montreal's popular Grumman '78 food truck.

Festival goers wait in line for tacos from Montreal’s popular Grumman ’78 food truck.

That’s a disappointment for Joe Chernov, VP of marketing at cloud-computing service provider Kinvey. During his roundtable, Launching at Escape Velocity – Startup Marketing For Early Growth, he explained that as much as he wished it weren’t true, “when it comes to marketing, science trumps art.”

Finding ways to measure results, test hypotheses and (hopefully!) predict outcomes are sound marketing tactics applicable to any industry. Learning to do it quickly and creatively – that’s where the art comes in – is a lesson we could all learn from the startup crowd.