A few months ago my business partner Larry mentioned to me that we should think about attending an upcoming tech conference in Canada called Startupfest in Montreal. My question was “Why?” and his retort was “Because it’s really expletive cool and we are going to have a great time.” My initial thought was that Montreal seemed like an odd place to go from San Francisco’s tech scene and I wondered how much we might actually get out of it. Well, I was very, very wrong. Startupfest is an amazing tech conference that all tech startups should consider attending, and in the end it proved to be one of the most valuable experiences for HelloMD this year.
Startupfest Montreal came into existence several years ago after organizer Phil Telio had started having meetups with startups and then “felt like we needed to let the rest of the world in as well and create a link between Montréal and innovators or investors from afar.” Since then it has become hugely popular tech festival welcoming over 3,000 attendees, speakers, investors among others from across the globe. It offers compelling, inspirational industry talks as well as numerous pitching opportunities to attending startups, including a grand cash prize. This year’s Startupfest had many sub events as well including Acceleratorfest, Scaleupfest, Fundfest and Angelfest, as well as a 24-hour hackathon called Hackerfest. Pretty much something for everyone.
The feeling you get at Startupfest is a cross between an outdoor festival, a tech conference and a fun party. The atmosphere is relaxed and fun, there are Karibu bean bag chairs and hammocks amidst the shady trees and conversations happening between parties in colored adirondack chairs. Large shipping containers have modernistic lounge areas, colored lighting and swings. Great DJ music plays throughout the grounds along the St Lawrence River and you are even invited to participate in fun interactive art installations. It’s pretty obvious from the moment you enter the grounds that a lot of attention has been paid to the overall atmosphere and attention to detail, such as handing out free popsicles on a hot day to the mouthwash outside the bathroom (serious kudos to that!). I also noticed that the people who work the conference actually have a real family vibe, they care and extend themselves to you. But ultimately I found the relaxed, summery, modern vibe of the event is unlike any other conference I have attended, and it led me to want to hang out there into the evening, rather than run back to my hotel. You really get the sense that people are having a good time and as a result everyone engages with each other, which is really the whole point of a conference.
From the minute we entered the festival we started meeting and networking with other startups, investors, media, successful entrepreneurs and ‘community players’ (I’m still not sure what that means, but they were cool). My cardinal rule when attending a conference is to always wear my corporate t-shirt. Always, even if you feel like a big dork (which I often do), because people will come to us. As we were one of the only cannabis companies in attendance and the back of my t-shirt said, ‘Ask me about the $20B cannabis industry’, people did find me and I love that! Multiple investors approached me, other startups and young students who wanted advice as to how to create their own cannabis company from their nascent ideas.
Amazing Startups Go
It was hugely interesting meeting the wide range of startups in attendance such as Hanibel from NYC who founded Shiftwear which adds your video to custom high tops or Michael from Wishpad, a new real estate app that has its own custom algorithms to help people find the right home from them. Many of the startups were just out of the gate and others had big traction and compelling stories to tell. All in all everyone was approachable and I spent an enormous amount of time sharing with these startups and loving every minute of it. The festival has enormous value on this front alone.
Industry Leaders & Pitch Opportunities
There were many areas across the campus where insightful industry talks occurred from the likes of Alexis Oshanin, the founder of Reddit to Tim O’Reilly, the media mogul who founded O’Reilly Media. However, what caught most startup’s attention was surely the numerous opportunities to pitch to a variety of investors for multiple prizes. There were no less than seven opportunities to pitch your business which is great for a new startup. As any startup knows, honing your message and story around your company and receiving constructive feedback is critical to moving forward. From the Grand Prize that was $200K to the Grandmother’s Choice award, it was exciting to prepare unique pitches and put our best foot forward.
HelloMD Goes for Gold
We felt fortunate that HelloMD was offered the opportunity to be one of twelve companies to pitch on the main stage for the prize of Best Pitch. We also chose to do the Grandmother’s Choice pitch, where we pitched to a group of Grannys which is arguably one of the most coveted prizes of the festival. Lastly, we competed for the Grand Prize, which is a cash award, which is open to everyone in attendance, which I think is an amazing opportunity to offer to companies in various stages.
To start off our first day, I pitched as one of the twelve on the main stage for Best Pitch and got flustered by some technical difficulties so, well, that one, not so great. That said, I was super happy to have had that experience, because even though I am a Founder, my other Co Founder typically does the pitching, so the experience was amazing and invaluable to me. I know what I need to work on now. I realized how different pitching on stage is to giving a talk to a group of people, which is definitely more my comfort zone and a more attuned skill. As an entrepreneur you always need to figure out where you lack and find opportunities to improve, and this was it for me. I now plan to seek out more opportunities to hone the ‘pitch’ craft.
Next up, we pitched the Granny’s Choice tent, which was a group of Grannys listening and questioning us on our business, our revenue and where we planned to take the company. I was very happy after this pitch, I felt we did very well in an intimate setting with these switched on ladies. They understood our vision and I felt we laid a very compelling story around our passion regarding medicinal marijuana and the hope it offers to millions of people across the globe. Lastly, we pitched for the Grand Prize to a group of investors, which was a unique opportunity to line up amidst every other company and pitch a small group in a white tent in a close knit setting. My business partner Larry and I were given a minute and a half to tell our story, which fortunately for us stretched into 9 minutes. I punched Larry afterwards saying ‘Larry, they let us speak for 9 minutes, that is a good sign!’ He was less enthused but I felt good!
So how did we do? From a media standpoint we scored exceptionally well. I was asked to be interviewed by Rob Kinedi who does a popular Canadian podcast called Small Rooms. We had a blast together and as a result he introduced me to Derrell Etherington from TechCrunch who wrote an amazing article about HelloMD. I don’t think anyone could argue that such an article is worth its weight in gold. By the end of the second day we received an email that said we were shortlisted for the investor’s Grand Prize and were one of fourteen companies that would need to do one final pitch the next morning. Time to start preparing…again!
The final morning of the festival, Larry and I had a time allotment and we hung around with the other fourteen companies. These were some serious bad ass, cool, innovative folks and I loved getting the opportunity to chat and learn about their businesses. To share and compare notes was so much fun. On top of this, we were all very supportive and encouraging, which I think is a sign of a great group of people. Larry and I did our pitch and by this point we had reached a rhythm and cadence to our story, which was also invaluable to us as a team. We had worked tirelessly for hours on this and when the time came, we delivered. I am happy to say, that at the closing ceremonies we were a winner of the Grand Prize and not only received a cash prize but a seriously cool trophy which I now sleep with (sort of kidding). To say I was in shock is an understatement. I am incredibly grateful to Startupfest for the entire experience they gave us. If you decide to attend, which you should, my advice to you is to give it your all, really, seriously go all out with the hussle, talk to everyone and squeeze every last bit out of it you can, because it delivers. Also, Montreal, are you kidding me? What an amazing city! Thank you Startupfest!