How Canada can produce more ’unicorns’ and dominate the tech world

Wilfrid Laurier University’s business school has a program to help Canadian start-ups take on world markets—and win. And it’s free.
Bernadette Butler of StoryTap at a ScaleUp workshop, part of the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. (Cole Burston/Wilfred Laurier University)

Most successful entrepreneurs have an “a-ha” moment to tell. Bernadette Butler has a “holy crap!” moment instead.

Butler, a former advertising executive at Bell, founded her Vancouver-based start-up StoryTap in 2018 to catch the video wave. “I could see the future of marketing involved video, and it seemed like the best way to create content was to go straight to the source—customers—and get them to tell their stories,” says Butler. But what stories exactly? And how?

Keen to use video testimonials as a way to promote products and services, Butler experimented with numerous ways to get customers to upload their stories to a website. Polite requests didn’t work. Neither did various incentives. She changed tack and tried to get people to focus on family experiences rather than product descriptions. No luck again. While YouTube may overflow with people offering excruciating details about their lives, “the market just wasn’t there” for product-related personal videos, she says.

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Then came a bolt of lightning from the sky. A chance comment led Butler to realize that the ideal niche for the short, homemade videos that her technology was designed to produce was the location of written product reviews on retailer websites. Customers were already used to providing written reviews, which have a ready-made demand. “My co-founder and I just looked at ourselves, and we both said: ‘Holy crap!’”

Butler had discovered the solution to the great authenticity question of written online product reviews: were they posted by actual users or shills paid to talk it up? Or worse, robots? She’d also found a way to overcome the great reluctance of many customers to sharing their product experiences via video when so many people already eagerly participate in online rating systems. Butler immediately repurposed StoryTap’s technology so verified customers could create and post short video reviews from their phones and attach a familiar five-star rating.

“Whether they like the product or not, the result is always absolutely convincing,” says Butler, whose young firm boasts a growing clientele list that includes Canadian Tire, RE/MAX and vitamin seller NaturesPlus.

StoryTap has built a better mousetrap for customer-generated product reviews. Unfortunately, there’s more to success in the competitive and uncertain world of technology start-ups than simply disrupting a tired old business model: org charts, mission statements, finance, website design, HR and global growth. “I thought I knew everything after spending 20 years in marketing,” says Butler with a sigh. “But it’s tough being a start-up.”

Such struggles explain Butler’s decision to participate in a novel program offered by the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

The Lazaridis ScaleUp Program operates as a kind of gifted class for Canada’s most-promising tech entrepreneurs. Each cohort (Butler is a member of the 2019 group) consists of 10 technology companies that have been selected from across the country for their growth potential and that have moved past the initial start-up phase. What these firms need now is expert support and advice to get them to the next level. The program prepares them for global competition with a series of weekend sessions in major cities throughout North America. Over six months, founders meet with seasoned managers and other professionals from major tech firms including Apple, Facebook and LinkedIn. The program also offers the founders a customized array of mentors, networking opportunities and advice tailored to their specific needs—all in the hope that our brilliant home-grown companies will keep their roots in Canada as they grow to dominate world markets.

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While this country has long been rich in bright ideas and eager entrepreneurs, we still struggle to turn start-ups into the globally dominant technology firms known as unicorns—high-growth, privately held, internationally competitive tech firms valued at US$1 billion or more. According to a recent University of Toronto study, Canada has just one legitimate unicorn (social media firm Kik Interactive), while the United States boasts 150, China 83 and South Korea five. It’s a worrisome gap for a country with global high-tech ambitions.

“Canada suffers from a serious shortage of executives with the knowledge and experience to successfully scale up a company to be globally competitive,” says Micheál Kelly, dean of the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics. “Creating dominant players requires more than just world-class technology, engineers and scientists. It also requires a high level of management sophistication to deal with the many operational and organizational challenges that companies face when they grow and enter international markets.”

To overcome this unicorn gap problem, Kelly helped convince noted Canadian tech pioneer and philanthropist Mike Lazaridis to establish the Lazaridis ScaleUp Program at Laurier in 2016. Matching funds also came from the Ontario government. The goal: to ensure Butler’s “holy crap!” moment reaches its full world-beating potential.

Unlike standard high-tech accelerators or other start-up-focused booster programs, the Lazaridis ScaleUp Program doesn’t charge fees or demand an equity slice in any firm. It is completely free to participants—thanks to its generous benefactors. “We didn’t want to limit ourselves to companies with the cash flow to pay for this sort of help,” says Kim Morouney, managing director of the program and Lazaridis professor of executive development at Laurier. To date, four cohorts have passed through the program. Notable graduates include Terramera, a rapidly growing biopesticide firm based in Vancouver, Tulip Retail, a company that makes a mobile app used by retail store associates that recently raised $50 million in financing, and Unata, an online grocery-buying platform that was acquired last year for US$65 million by industry leader Instacart.

Access to the specially selected mentors is often cited by participants as one of the greatest benefits of the ScaleUp Program. StoryTap’s Butler was paired with Goly Anvary, former head of online marketing and creative at the Gap. “Goly was pointing out benefits to our technology that even I didn’t see,” she says. “She showed us how to sell solutions rather than features—like how we can address return issues for online retailers with our video reviews. It was an incredible insight.” Eli Schwartz, former director of growth at SurveyMonkey, helped Butler’s co-founder fix an underlying algorithm problem in less than an hour. These connections also deliver other networking opportunities. “As a small Canadian company, I would never have access to this kind of advice. But here I am having dinner and getting help from industry-leading experts. It’s amazing,” says Butler.

Butler’s group is also the first to focus exclusively on the needs and experiences of female entrepreneurs. All 10 of the firms in the 2019 cohort either are founded by women or have a substantial female presence on the executive team. “We’ve always known that women are a clear minority in the tech field,” says Morouney. “In our first year, I think we had one woman founder out of 10. Then the next year we had a couple more, and a couple more after that. So we decided to take advantage of the opportunity by creating an entire female cohort so we could learn more about the issues they face.” This year’s group covers pursuits that range from polling to sports statistics to tech-enabled leggings manufacturing.

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Audrey Mascarenhas may be considered the elder stateswoman of the current cohort. She’s CEO of Questor Technology, a publicly traded firm based in Calgary with annual revenue of $23 million. While her firm is far more established than those of most cohort participants, Mascarenhas sought out the program because she’s changing the firm from an oil-patch service provider to a clean-tech-focused emissions data firm. “One of the attractions to this program for me was the chance to meet some of these young founders who are experts in the data field,” Mascarenhas says. She’s also been soaking up advice from Lazaridis ScaleUp experts to change the leadership structure of Questor as the company focuses more on technology and becomes globally ambitious. And she knows all about being the only woman in the room. “My leadership team is all-male, and all of them are over six-foot-two,” Mascarenhas remarks wryly. “That’s just the oil patch.”

One of the key obstacles identified by Morouney before launching the distaff cohort concerned venture capital. “Female-led companies can be different in many ways, but one of the commonalities they all share is a negative experience around fundraising,” she notes. According to research by Dana Kanze of the Columbia Business School, female entrepreneurs own approximately 38 per cent of businesses but receive only two per cent of all venture funding. A potential cause for this gap, Kanze writes in the Harvard Business Review, is that “venture capitalists pose different types of questions to male and female entrepreneurs.” Men are generally asked questions that focus on their potential for gains while women are far more likely to be grilled about downside risks. Different questions put women on the defensive when they ask for money by forcing them to discuss undesirable outcomes and potential losses, but allow men to blue-sky their vision of the future by dwelling on the positives. Mascarenhas says she encounters these scenarios all the time. “There are extra biases we face as female entrepreneurs trying to establish credibility. The bar is higher,” she adds.

The Lazaridis ScaleUp Program dedicated one of its sessions to providing female entrepreneurs with corrective approaches to this form of discrimination. One in particular teaches women to take negative fundraising questions and reply with positive answers, something Morouney calls verbal jiu-jitsu. Butler appreciates the advice. “They showed us how to overcome obstacles that we may face as women entrepreneurs and how to move forward and just crush it,” she says. The roster of mentors assembled for this year’s cohort also features more women than usual; they hope to build a stronger peer network for Canadian female entrepreneurs in the future.

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Beyond arming select young Canadian tech firms with the customized knowledge they need to succeed, the program also aims to create a mutual support network and pool of experienced, talented managers among current and past cohorts to allow future generations of Canadian tech entrepreneurs to resist the pull of Silicon Valley. In this way, the unicorn gap eventually could become a thing of the past.

Erin Kelly is CEO of the futuristic polling firm Advanced Symbolics (and no relation to Laurier’s Micheál Kelly). Her company, now three years old, uses artificial intelligence and social media, rather than old-school phone calls, to gauge the public mood and predict outcomes. In 2016, her techniques caught everyone’s attention when they successfully predicted both the election of U.S. President Donald Trump and the leave vote in Brexit, two events most traditional polling firms got very wrong.

Kelly is learning how handling rapid growth at a small firm can be even more difficult than figuring out where voters are headed. “As we get bigger, managing the team gets more complicated,” she says. She is soaking up plenty of HR and leadership advice from the Lazaridis ScaleUp Program, but she also recognizes the bigger importance of giving growing Canadian technology firms the ability to succeed at home. “Too often the inclination from venture capital investors is to bring in professional management to help run the company. But if you bring someone up from San Francisco, you run the risk of eventually shipping the whole company down to the States. I prefer the idea of building that talent in Canada—because we’re here to stay.”

Over time, program graduates such as Kelly will ensure Canada’s future start-up entrepreneurs can grow into maple-leaf-wearing unicorns. “The networking and mentorship opportunities [in the Lazaridis ScaleUp Program] have been inspiring,” says Kelly. “As a woman and a mother, [I’ll be] able to take this knowledge and pay it forward. I think this is going to pay huge dividends for Canada in 20 years. The effects are going to be long-lasting.”

This article appears in print in the 2020 University Rankings issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “An answer to the ‘unicorn gap.’” Order a copy of the issue here. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.