Startup Festival Montreal 2015

In July, I went to the Startup Festival in Montreal. The combination of it glorious location on the Montreal harbour and the awesome list of speakers, it was the ideal event to inspire and motivate us to conquer the world.

Over the course of the two days, I was swept up in a whirlwind of conferences. All the usual topics were represented : unicorns, money, billions, VCs, billions again, and tips on how to become a billionnaire in less than 10 seconds… But those were not the truly important takeaways from this event. Underneath all the “entre-porn” of legendary startups and winning formulas lay a more important message. Something more powerful : be who you are and take the risk to do what you love. Entrepreneurship is about passion, humility, dedication and a lot of sweat (read sacrifice).

I’d like to share my experience of all the sessions I partook in that emphasized this theme. There was a lot of true wisdom shared that can help all of us be more successful in a very meaningful sense.

What is Success? Be who you are

Don’t Pivot, Persevere
by Adeo Ressi @founding

People have ideas all the time. You can pivot on ideas; you know, Lean Startup Style. But one thing you must never do : don’t pivot on your purpose in life. It’s easier to make money than being truly happy.

« You can’t have a good what if you don’t have a good why

Entrepreneurs are builders. But you can’t build something great if you don’t feel passionate about your reason for building it. Your purpose, your motivation and your destiny makes you who you are, and that must drive everything you do.

You have to reflect on and understand your life story, because your company fits your life story. They are not two separate things. You can pivot as many times as you want but if you don’t preserve what you are and why you do things, you won’t be successful. You will just be unhappy with a product which is heartless.

What kills a startup? The founder giving up.

So think about this.

What are your core skills? These skills will become your mission. And you can build on that. A company, a product, a team… You can only succeed when you know who you are and why you are here.

Adeo Rossi has a mission : inspire and assist the best people in the world.


What is Success? Do what you love

Getting new management without losing your soul
by David Segal

David Segal is the founder of David’s Tea. David’s Tea is obviously a huge success. He started with one store in Toronto in 2008. Now, he has 180 stores in Canada and in the US. But that’s not the point. His story is where the real gold lies.

David was an entrepreneur who loved tea. He struggled to find tea he likes in the stores in his neighborhood. He wanted to discover new teas and new tastes. So… why would he not spend his time finding the teas he likes, selling them and sharing them with other tea lovers in a friendly place?

But tea, at this time, was not cool. Tea was a boring beverage you drank it with granny Edna, in dainty china cups, sitting in dusty parlours at 5 o’clock. Cute and heartwarming, but not strongly appealing.

David had a vision : great tea from around the world, in a modern place and dynamic colors. For the record, at first, he was reluctant to use the name David’s Tea. One of his friends finally convinced him :

« It’s cool. It means taking the tea with you. »

David’s tea was born.

The reasons of David’s Tea success :

Hire amazing people

As the company grew, David needed new people. He found passionate, smart misfits on Craigslist. Why them? He valued life experiences over technical expertise.


He created a process, with his team, to do things efficiently and quickly. That way, it became easy to align the culture and get everyone rowing in the same direction. More importantly, they worked together to pull lots of feedback from their customers.

Stepping down as CEO

As the company was being bought by a bigger corporation, David decided to step down as CEO. He put his ego aside, and decided to learn from the best. It was not an easy decision but he felt it was right. Right for him and for his company.

Even though he stepped out of the CEO role, he stays involved in his business. He makes sure that the culture stays authentic and, as the brand evolves, he checks that the brand remains consistent with his values and his vision.

So… why does his company sell tea? Because it makes them happy.


What is Success? Have a great team

Better empathy, better teams, better products
by Dylan Richards @dylanr

Dylan Richard has the most epic beard I’ve ever seen. He is also famous for another reason :
he knows how to build a team. And not a boring team. He built the team for the Obama Campaign (2012). So he knows how important team building is for success.

To build a team, start with empathy. When you think about startups and especially about technology, many words comes to mind. Empathy is probably not even in the top 20, but in fact, empathy should come first.

Building a product is solving a problem, a user’s problem.
So their problem must be your problem!

Define the problem

First, you have to feel the pain you are trying to solve. You have to know your customer, what the problem is, and why it is so important for the user. Make their pain points your ultimate checklist : the « what we care about» list. It must be the most important thing for your team.

Diverse team

Once you are focued on your (user’s) problems, you need to find teammates who can help you solve it. But you don’t have only technical problems! Monocultural team don’t build great products. Your team must look like your user base : diverse. A team that brings varied views and experiences is most likely to be able to solve those problems.

The way to great products

  • Diversity in your team must be your core goal
  • Communication must be your central value
  • The user must be the reason for everything you do
  • Set only one goal : relieving user pain
  • Focus on learning and teaching
  • Seek simple solutions

The last but not least : Passion

A startup doesn’t work if people aren’t passionate about solving the problem, and passion springs from empathy.


What is Success? Have humor

Humor as a survival mechanism
by Harper Reed @harper

Everybody knows that working in a startup is not quite like a regular job. Your stress level is as high as your list of things to do. It never ends! Harper Reed was the CTO of the Obama Campaign, so when he speaks about stress, I truly believe him.

During his a peak of stress, he developed the Four-Step Plan to Have Fun in a Stressful Environment (TM). Because you know, stress doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, right?

Step 5 : You have to be really really good.

Get very good at what you do. Fun won’t get in the way when you are really good at what you do.

Step 4 : Bring your weird hobby to work and expose it to your co-workers.

We all know that other startup people like ourselves are all weirdos. You have to be to work in this sector! Weirdos have weird hobbies. Weird hobbies make for a good laugh. Trust me. This leads us to step 3.

Step 3 : Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Make sure everyone feels safe to joke and have fun, especially when a meeting is very tense, because of deadlines or other reasons… Even if you are changing the world, maintain the good humour to make fun of yourself.

Step 2 : Inclusion

When we make jokes, we often do it at someone’s expense. Not cool. Include yourself in the group that is the target of your humour. Try really hard to laugh with other people, not at them.

Step 1 : Don’t do it if it’s not fun

Always have fun. If you’re not having fun, something is wrong, and you might need to leave. Don’t do something that you feel obliged to do. Make sure you enjoy it. And work hard at that.

Humor brings everyone together and just helps the team to overcome all the problems.

Humor is a survival tool. I can’t agree more.


What is Success? Be open and enjoy the ride

Rana el Kaliouby @kaliouby
Bringing Emotional Intelligence to the Digital World

This session was my ABSOLUTE favourite. I’m not kidding.The technical performance was outstanding but what really caught my heart was the intelligence of the apps these people are building (and the humble lady behind all this awesomeness)… it was so awesome, I was in love.

It went like this : everything begins with a simple fact, humans emotions impact our lives. They govern our lives, our communications, our actions. Yet the technology we use every day, at every minute, has no understanding of our emotions. This understanding exists only in movies (Wall-e, Her, Ex-Machina).

Rana is a student at MIT and her thesis explored this issue : technology today has an impressive IQ but no EQ, so how can we teach machines to read our emotions? How can we give our devices emotional intelligence?

By focusing on the study of the emotions in our facial expressions (based on research by Paul Ekman), Rana trained machines to read facial features and understand the patterns of human emotions.



The study might have stopped there and remained a nice toy for scientists. But Rana had a broader mission to bring emotional intelligence into the digital world.

She began in the world of media and entertainment, focusing on brands. She wanted to know how brands can use emotional data to better understand their users and how people respond to their content and products?

As a designer and brand strategist, I was in a haze of pure delight at this point. In this world where there’s an ocean of content at our fingertips, content strategy is critical for branding success. Both users and brands win when increasingly personalized content can be adapted for the user. The application developed by Affectiva to do this is simply amazing!



When someone watches a movie, the application records and analyzes in real time these emotions according to several criteria: engagement, enjoyment, confusion, surprise and disgust. The app analyzes how the users respond to the content. That valuable data is an incredible tool for brands and it is acquired so easily. An example: for the United States, the most popular ads were the ones containing small cats and babies. By contrast, in Canada it was cereal ads.

Rana and her team were able, thanks to this application, to create the largest data repository of emotional data in the world. But beyond the application, Rana sees far ahead and is already working to advance affective computing on several fronts: media (Emotional Media Agency – collaboration with Hershey “Smile Sampler Machine”), culture (Twilight concert in Santa Monica), medicine (applications helping autistic understand the emotions of people around them and virtual therapist) and management (meeting analysis).

Rana going to change communication, the relationship between brands and users, and the world. Her advice to entrepreneurs:

Be both open and focused. A startup is a journey, whatever the destination is.

I’m sure to Rana will conquer the world!


What is Success? A song!

Yes, a song! you read well.

Creating the National Anthem for the Startup Fest to the sound of Eye of the Tiger, with the rockstar millionaire Andy Nulman, in less than 20 minutes was a kind of kick off one doesn’t forget.

Here are the video and the lyrics if you want to sing it in your office

« Eye of the Tiger » playing :
Well is the art of the startup
It’s the path to get rich
it’s with the help of family of VCs
It’s the guts and the glory to be your own boss
It’s the team, the dream the Esteem of the startup


What is Success? Let me think… Design!

There were dozens of sessions at the conference and I found them all very interesting, very enlightening. But I noticed that none of them were led by a designer. WHY?

Nobody talked about design, or creating a brand. In my opinion, that misses a key ingredient of startup success. I saw so many startups with similar names, similar branding, and similar interfaces. Yes, you have to validate your ideas. But at some point, your design program has to signal your value proposition and your differentiators. The idea alone won’t make you stand out.

Design must be a part of the process of a startup. I truly believe that you can’t reach your true potential without thinking and creating a great brand with a great design. You can have the best idea in the world and the best team, but if your product look like crap, who will use it?

«Between two products at equal price, function and quality, the better looking will outsell the other » Raymond Loewy

Design is not just a cute interface, it’s so much more. Branding and design creates an emotional attachment to your brand and your product. Once the user is attached to your product (and believe me it’s not an easy task) it will be a long-lasting relationship. That’s what you want, right? Because : Users = Value.

So let me put this in perspective :

Great Design = More users = More Value

Design must be a part of the development of a startup. And I’m volunteering to spread the word!