by Jared Zamzow
I first heard of AccelerateAB back when I started my first company, Rhynopack. It was billed as a 2-day conference, bringing together ambitious young founders, seasoned investors, government funding officers, creative agencies, and the entire gamut of Alberta startup stakeholders. At the time, I was in the nascent stages of launching my former business, and the more I learned about the event, the more I knew I had to attend. I ponied up for the price of the ticket, packed my bags, and made my way down to beautiful YYC.
In my first year attending, AccelerateAB was an inclusive, welcoming and unique conference, and in many ways, felt atypical from the majority of extra curricular events I’d been to up to that point. Where corporate speak and suits and ties would typically be found, I found myself immersed in the culture of startup talk, Chuck Taylors and bowties. For a young millennial looking to start a company and forge his own path, AccelerateAB felt like the place for me.
The following year, AccelerateAB was hosted here in Edmonton at the University of Alberta. Year one was a good time, but year two was a blast. I felt like I was a veteran. My business was more established. My moxie was continuing to grow. I was surrounding myself as much as I could with established and ambitious individuals, people who had successfully launched and sold businesses, and AccelerateAB was the perfect place to be.
Fast forward three years, I’m no longer running a business. Instead, I’m investing my time at a growing energy service firm. From an external macro perspective, there have been a few changes as well, like the eHub’s recent growth, the formation of the VA Angels, and the Oilers making their way back to the playoffs. Things have changed. But not AccelerateAB – it’s still Alberta’s premier technology, innovation and entrepreneurship conference.
This is the story of how I won my way into the conference and parlayed that into my first freelance writing assignment.
It all begins, like most classic tales do, on Twitter! Last month, while browsing the interwebs, I came across a tweet from AccelerateAB that caught my eye:
Now, being an opportunist, I quickly checked the hashtag to get a sense of the number of people who were responding to the contest. Only finding half a dozen responders, I figured I had a decent shot of winning a ticket if I could say something that was sincere and catch their attention. So I came up with this:
Short and sweet, to-the-point. When you considered the character count of the hashtags they required, there wasn’t a lot of real estate to play with, so I knew I needed to be genuine. I would occasionally check back to see if people were engaging, and they were. To make things worse, I was sad to find that everyone else’s responses were better than mine! They were more original, more creative, more hip! I started to lose hope.
But then, to my great surprise, AccelerateAB slid into my DM’s with the news that I had been selected as one of this year’s winners! I felt like Charlie winning the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory! Nothing beats seeing the pieces fall into place.
A few months prior, I was introduced to The Wanderer and pitched the concept of covering the entrepreneurship and technology scene here in Edmonton. Being a city and province full of builders, I thought it was a no brainer. People might not associate Edmonton with tech, but there’s a long list of very successful companies here who have made waves in the tech space over the last fifteen years. From Investopedia to BioWare to Granify (and let’s not forget Nexopia!), Edmonton has a long history of growing significant companies (I’ve long wondered what makes Edmonton special, and I wrote about that here.).
When I won the ticket to the sold-out conference, the dots connected and I saw that the time had come: I was now on my way to becoming a freelance journalist.
I had first attended AccelerateAB as a wide-eyed student, and now, six years later, I was back – a grizzled veteran in the startup scene, and a freelance journalist. With a Red Bull in hand, I hopped in the taxi and shuttled off to the BMO Conference Center. I quickly turned on my conference mode. Twitter, speeches, connecting, and chatting with people in the common spaces. Everywhere I went, I’d ask people to share their thoughts on “what they loved about the Alberta tech scene?”
A few breakout sessions and brown-bag lunch later, the conference had flown by, but I didn’t yet feel like I had truly challenged myself to overcome my fear of rejection. I’d mostly spoken with people I had already known before the conference. I hadn’t heard “no” yet, but I hadn’t taken any risks. I wanted to approach the people I saw pitching their company to the entire audience, founders who were right in the middle of the startup dream.
On my last trip through the halls, I finally got my chance to get the answers I was looking for.
KRISTINA MILKE, President, VA Angels: I have had the good fortune of working for both Intuit Canada and Investopedia who are both successful tech companies started in Edmonton by locals. As a reminder to today’s entrepreneurs who are ambitious, tenacious, and hopeful, both of these companies started as an idea then grew to a small business before becoming acquired and recognized as household names.
Edmonton and Alberta has a strong cohort of people who are willing to help support and share their time with the entrepreneurs who demonstrate the capacity to learn and grow. Not everyone gets funding but the aim is to help as much as the ecosystem can sustain and those of us in the ecosystem continue to work towards finding more resources to add to the mix.
CONNOR, CEO, Leara eLearning: Alberta is the perfect choice for three reasons: talent, drive and balance. There are so many talented Albertans in every area – from programming and design to investing and enterprise building. These individuals are incredibly driven because they know that our province needs smart economic diversification and they’ve all seen the power of tech innovation to transform.
Thinking back to all the answers I received, it’s clear that the defining characteristic of what makes Alberta tech space so special is the people. Alberta is a province full of builders, dreamers, doers. The pioneers who settled this land did so out of necessity, driven from their countries through famine or war, who travelled across the Atlantic in wooden ships, hoping to make a new life in a new land. It took a special type of person, someone with a certain type of tenacity and grit not often found today to make it work. Someone who could do things themselves, a jack of all trades, and someone connected to the community, who shared responsibilities with their neighbours.
It’s these same characteristics that define the Alberta tech space and the people who are leading it today. Tenacious, collaborative and eager to help, Albertans have always been willing to work with their neighbours. Think of the decades of transfer payments. The men and women who’ve developed our energy resources, generated wealth and created better lives for their families and successive generations. It’s the same story in the tech space. Bold pioneers forging their own paths, blazing new trails and breaking new ground.
POST CONFERENCE TAKEAWAYS
Have an idea? Odds are, someone has done something related to what you’re thinking about, and they’re only an introduction away from offering up their perspective, their resources, their network. I love that we’re a province of builders and dreamers. I left AccelerateAB moved and inspired in particular by Alexander Manus and Cathy Han. Manus spoke about how the internet is not a technology but rather a behaviour and how technology cannot be monetized, only behaviour can. When you think about it that way, you realize just how much of tech success is based on human psychology. Cathy Han warned us not to mistake activity for growth and that we need to be careful to not avoid challenging ourselves. In order to succeed, we need to first be uncomfortable.
Here are a few more answers from the day – What’s the best part about Alberta’s tech space?
IRFAAN PREMJI, Founder, Gifty: I think it’s access to experienced tech minds; people who are not only seasoned entrepreneurs (with many successes and many failures), but seem eager to assist and make connections. In the end, it’s up to you, but they are there to encourage and support you (and challenge you!).
STACY RICHTER, Director of Marketing, Oro: Alberta has always been entrepreneurial. I was born and raised in Alberta and have seen many changes. I have lived through multiple governments and recessions. The one thing that remains constant is how innovative the culture is within Alberta. Most of the innovation that comes out of this province does not make major headlines and is only heralded in private circles among the oil and gas elite.
That is why Alberta is a great place to build a tech company. The culture of innovation that percolates here rivals that of Silicon Valley, Washington State or Singapore. Innovation is more than an event. It is a mindset; the same mindset that has made Silicon Valley world renowned for its development. The same mindset resides here. It was born here.
RILEY KEARL, VP & Co-founder, CMO4Hire: There is a lot of support from various organizations and the mentorship scene is amazing. From mentor roundtables and pitch events ,to experienced entrepreneurs willing to sit down to offer suggestions and guidance, it’s not hard to find great advice from someone who has “been there, done that”
Photography courtesy of AccelerateAB.