OttawaCamps – where from here?

For the past 20 months I’ve been an organizer of Ottawa’s Bar and DemoCamp scene. It’s been an interesting experience from a community development and community self-definition perspective.

Alec Saunders kicked the whole thing off with his blog review of TorCamp and his interest in bringing the camp concept – and its ability to energise a community – to Ottawa.  I’ve been involved since.

At the time it was something Ottawa desperately needed. The start-up community was un-connected and could not see where individual interests formed the basis for common community. The excitement at that first Camp was incredible – the action and discussion frantic as a pent-up need had finally found release. It was the genesis of a series of events built around the Camps open participation model – and guided (at least in my mind) by the premise that Camps could be a key economic development tool.

In almost every jurisdiction supporting entrepreneurship and small companies is a difficult job – in part because there are so many – and in part because their needs are so diverse. That is true only when one thinks of them individually and don’t harness their capacity to help one another. 

The other part of the problem is that unorganized individuals cannot articulate how the policy and service framework needs to change to better serve them – and do not have the political strength to overcome the institutional inertia even if they can articulate viable policies.

As tech start-ups we in Ottawa face a unique set of problems. Our local customer base is dominated by large institutions with entrenched purchasing policies that favor more established companies. What’s more as a city we have a relatively small proportion mid-sized firms that have both the money and will to explore new technology as part of their competitive advantage. It’s not just the revenue that’s the issue – it’s the local lead customer who can both serve as both subject matter experts and local client while working through inevitable early deployment hiccups. We often have to look outside the city – increasing costs – and as a result enhancing a condition for failure.

It would seem to me that OCRI could be instrumental here – as a conduit to the mid-size companies that are predominately their members – and as an advocate for the practice of being early adopters of local technology. But without our community asking our elected city representatives – we will never get that benefit from the cities contribution to the OCRI budget.

Likewise the Co-working – which Ian Graham is spearheading through his CodeFactory project seems to be a low cost way to both connect tech workers (increasing the opportunities for team formation) while providing a mentorship and events hub. (Disclosure: I was a partner until I decided to concentrate on Social Media consulting)

Here again Ottawa start-ups have a unique disadvantage. Unlike other cities which typically have several competing economic development agencies Ottawa has farmed it municipal responsibility out to OCRI.  And other levels of government want to know OCRI’s involvement in a prospective project. In my mind this creates a funding bottleneck that chokes off ideas and trials unless they have been blessed.

Again as a community if we want to change this we need to act in concert towards our common goals.

It goes further than this. Funding for start-ups is a problem across the country. I’ve seem policy recommendations to Revenue Canada from BarCamp participants in Montreal and Toronto to address this. We need a national voice and the OttawaCamp community should be part of this.

All of this is to say that I wish the discussions about DemoCamp6 (here, here) were about how to address known  community issues instead of whether YouTube videos were appropriate (I ok’ed them because I’d wanted them to serve as forum to discuss new marketing channels) or who is entitled to present (Moda is a start-up – abet a successful one – that I hope will continue to be involved because we can all learn alot from them).

The Camps have helped foster a more connected community. Lets think about how they can be used both for grass roots connection and learning – but lets focus some of our energy on the structural issues that impede starting a tech company in Ottawa.

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7 thoughts on “OttawaCamps – where from here?

  1. I agree that startup funding in Ottawa is incredibly tough to come by. Especially the first $50k to $100k. What I find most interesting in the last 2 years is how much bigger an impact that first $50k can have on a fledgling business. Nowadays it’s possible to really make that $50k stretch and accomplish much more with it than you could, say, 5 years ago. With infrastructure and overhead costs for a ‘Net based business (in particular) being at an all time low, the real startup costs for many web-based software businesses is really just keeping food on the table long enough for the entrepreneur to have the time needed to develop the idea and get something out there that first time, to get the ball rolling. I’d love to see some kind of program in place that assists with that process.

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  5. I think Peter has a good point that as a community we should be try and get more organized. The one thing I will say though is that I don’t think DemoCamp is ever going to be a catalyst for this discussion. The DemoCamp community is great but its also quite focused in scope. What we need is for leaders to emerge who keep introducing and expressing these concerns into the community as a whole. This post is an excellent example of that. There is no reason why those of us who are care about these issues cant get together and try and solve some of these problems. Its not like we need to ask anyones permission.

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