When tech giants move next door

A slew of international tech companies – Google, Uber, Samsung, Microsoft, Amazon – have committed to or expressed interest in setting up shop in Toronto. If you’re a homegrown startup or scaleup you can’t help but think about the implications of having these giants in your backyard.

Companies often expand their footprint to lower costs, access specialized talent or for a host of other reasons. It’s not new. They aren’t the first international companies who want to set up shop in Toronto, and won’t be the last.

And why not? Toronto is a world-class city with some of the best universities in the world producing some of the finest technical and business talents. We’re home to an incredibly diverse community who have the perspective and understanding to solve global issues and build products and services that work for the world.  

Colleagues and friends have recently been asking me for my take on these moves. Are they helpful or harmful to the city and the local tech ecosystem?

In my opinion, we should welcome these moves – but be wary of them.

When a few foreign companies decide to move to a burgeoning city, they can help build a critical mass that directly supports homegrown companies by spurring interest in the region. They attract high caliber talent and then provide opportunities for these employees to hone their skills and learn new ones so they can further develop into well-rounded and in-demand workers.

But too many foreign companies in a single locale can make it seem like they’ve colonized the area, leaving little room for local businesses. It gets too difficult to compete, too expensive to stay in your backyard. Think about this: If data is the new oil, do you really want all the ‘oil companies’ to be foreign-owned?

So it’s not a choice of either-or. Having zero international companies who operate locally won’t stimulate the ecosystem. With too many foreign companies, locals lose the ability to control their our own destiny,  and eventually, ideas and innovation become stifled.

For now, I welcome these new companies into our backyard but make no mistake, it can never replace building our own homegrown giants. I’m certain that the incredible Toronto tech ecosystem will continue to make waves regardless of who moves next door.

The End of 8-Hour Days

Both my parents used to work for a bank. For them, the work day started at nine in the morning and ended at 5:00 pm sharp. Day in and day out, this was their routine. They never understood the concept of flexible hours. They questioned why I would bring “work” home. On the other hand, they were always amused that I never needed to take time off work to see the doctor or get the car fixed during office hours.

“Am I expected to work an 8-hour day?” I get this question from employees from time to time, but I believe this is the wrong question to ask. Employees are expected to get their work done, deliver on OKRs and contribute to a positive workplace culture. For the most part, I don’t (and neither should their direct manager) care where or how the work gets done. Of course, it goes without saying (but I’ll still say it), flexible work hours should never impact collaboration or attendance at critical meetings.

Startups are fast-paced, ever-changing environments filled with bright employees. They’re solving complex and fascinating problems and it’s all very exciting. Being a disruptor and part of a paradigm shift is thrilling and the work itself should compel employees to give 100%. Offering flexible hours instills trust in your team and gives employees a sense of ownership to execute on projects in the way that works for them.

That’s not to say there will be no instances when burning the midnight oil for a specific project or tight deadline is required. Make no mistake, there will be times when a critical security issue needs to be addressed after-hours or a client has an urgent need on the weekend. But there should also be opportunities to take it easy and spend a few weeks out of the country or deal with a family or health issue. It’s about flexibility.

Most startups offer flexible hours, and it makes sense. After all, tech is a creative industry unlike working at a bank or factory. As people head back to work after their relaxing summer vacations, my advice to founders and startup execs? Measure productivity by outcomes and results, not timecards.

Your Next Summer Challenge: A Digital Detox

I love gadgets. They surround me everywhere – in the office, in the car, at home. I’m always connected … except when I go completely off the grid.

Twice a year I unplug for 2-3 weeks. I turn off my data. I don’t reply to email. I stay off social media. I take a break from being an entrepreneur and focus on being a husband and a dad.

It’s during these weeks when I’m unplugged that I have an opportunity to reflect on the past challenges and think about future opportunities. Going off the grid gives me a sense of clarity and enables a freedom of thinking I can’t achieve when I’m constantly pulled in multiple digital directions.

Case in point: I recently spent three weeks in Asia with my family. While I’ve traveled throughout the region extensively for work, this was the first time I could experience cities like Taipei and Shanghai as a tourist. I got to enjoy a ride on the fastest train in the world, eat the most delicious food, and shop like the locals do. I observed, indulged and enjoyed without the need to constantly check my devices. And while I was technically off-the-grid and not working, my offline experiences provided me with inspirations I will take back to the office.   

Building a business is hard. Entrepreneurs have infinite to-do lists. They are constantly pushing ahead through one challenge to seize the next opportunity. While the line between work and personal life is becoming more blurry (especially when you’re scaling a startup), it’s critical that entrepreneurs carve time out of their hectic schedules and go offline. A digital detox – even for a short period of time – yields tremendous business and personal benefits.  

If you still have a summer vacation planned,  I challenge you to use your time to explore, discover and connect IRL.

The Evolution of an Entrepreneur

Years ago, a summer job gave me one of the most valuable lessons in entrepreneurship.

I needed tuition money for university so I got a job at a factory printing t-shirts. I witnessed firsthand how the owner juggled multiple and often diverse tasks in order to operate a successful business. Looking back, I was naive to think that a t-shirt printing company was just about printing t-shirts.

If you look at the journey of an entrepreneur, it all starts with an idea. But an idea is just that – a thought. Without execution, an idea is as good as yesterday’s newspaper. Only when execution follows an idea, can you determine if there’s product-market fit. If you achieve product-market fit – congratulations, that’s a major accomplishment! You can start a company to further iterate on the idea and cement your place in the market. But once you start a company, you have to turn it into a business.

I’ve personally gone through this journey three times. My first business failed, I sold the second one, and the third has become one of Canada’s most successful startups. My experiences failing and succeeding as an entrepreneur reinforced the lesson I learned that summer many years ago: As an entrepreneur, the best product you can build is yourself.

You will wear many hats throughout the entrepreneur journey. As your company grows, you play different roles in the company and you can expect to change ‘jobs’ every few months. Each new job requires a different skill set. You may start as the product designer, but soon you’ll lead a team as a manager, and then eventually you transition into a leadership role.  I have yet to meet a single person who, at the launch of their company, has every required skill. So welcome continuous learning and crave self-improvement.

Taking the time to build yourself as a well-rounded entrepreneur will pay dividends.

Welcome to Allen’s Thoughts

I’m Allen and I’m a serial entrepreneur, angel investor and a champion of the Canadian startup ecosystem. Welcome to my new blog where I plan to share my ideas, insights and inspirations.

I like to write. Over the years I’ve probably shared in excess of 300,000 words. I’ve contributed to media outlets like Inc. and Entrepreneur. My previous blog, Making Things Out of Nothing, covered technology trends, my latest investments and company milestones. For several years, I’ve also maintained an internal blog to communicate with 100+ employees around the world. This private blog encompasses everything from company strategy to technology shifts to management advice. Through my internal blog, I created a lot of content that’s applicable to many people, but discoverable by few.

My hope is that this new blog changes that and becomes a central place for me to share the things I’m passionate about more broadly. And yes, of course, there will be a ton of new content as well. I know there is no shortage of business and tech insights available on the internet, but I believe I can offer a different perspective – from a scale-up or Canadian lens, for example – that sometimes can be difficult to find.

So what am I passionate about?

I’m passionate about entrepreneurship. I’ve launched three companies; the first one failed, I sold the second one, and the third, Wattpad, has grown from a reading and writing app, to a global entertainment powerhouse with a vision to entertain and connect the world through stories (and is well on its way). Both failures and successes have taught me valuable lessons and I’m excited to share these lessons with others – it’s my way to pay it forward so others can avoid (and learn from) the mistakes I’ve made.

I’m a believer in the power of the innovation economy to transform the world by creating a virtuous cycle of disruption and innovation. As both an entrepreneur and investor, I’ve seen some incredible ideas that will dramatically change the way we work, live and play.

As a proud Canadian and as an immigrant myself, I am certain that diversity is a strength, especially in the workplace. It’s no vanity metric either, I can cite numerous examples where diversity powered progress and drove real business results.

So what can you expect from this new blog? In a nutshell, I’ll share my experiences, ideas and even advice about the things that matter to me – entrepreneurship, startups, tech and innovation, leadership, diversity and a whole lot more.

Welcome to Allen’s Thoughts. I’m excited to have you here!