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Guest Column: Jeff Musson

Maple Leaf 'lounge' sells Canada Add to ...

Canadians lead the global marketplace in the social, mobile and digital media start-up space, but we rarely hear about these success stories.

The start-up community is falling behind by failing to promote itself south of the border and around the world. It's difficult for a small business to make inroads in the United States, and one of the most significant challenges is the lack of promotional channels for Canadian companies.

The No. 1 event in the United States for firms in this space to promote themselves is the South by Southwest (SxSW) conference in Austin, Tex., held annually in the second week of March. It's where Twitter gained notoriety and came onto the worldwide scene in 2007. If you are a start-up in the social, mobile or digital media space, SxSW is the place you need to be.

As an annual attendee, I came to the realization during last year's conference that there were many Canadian start-ups in attendance, but we did not have a collective focus or presence and we were getting tuned out. When I returned to Toronto, I reached out to my fellow entrepreneurs and as an industry-led initiative we formed the Maple Leaf Digital Lounge (MLDL), a place where Canadian companies would be able to collectively promote themselves to the attendees of the SxSW festival.

City Events in Toronto partnered with the MLDL on the planning side, starting with a callout for companies across the country that wanted to participate in the effort. The response was phenomenal: more than 40 applications for five spots. Our committee vetted all of the them and selected businesses with commercial-ready technology.

The chosen companies paid a small fee to participate, but much of the cost of the event was subsidized by sponsors. At the MLDL, companies were assigned space at a SxSW venue to promote their business. There was also a pitching contest where the five companies "sold" their technology in front of venture capitalists and other C-level executives from Silicon Valley.

One of the top priorities of the MLDL was to focus on outreach to U.S. organizations such as Digital LA and San Francisco New Tech to make sure their members who attended SxSW would stop by and interact with some of Canada's top start-ups.

The MLDL team rented a venue for the weekend of SxSW, just outside the doors of the convention centre, took a page out of the book of the Americans and rolled out a Canadian flag. One of the highlights was the coverage received by CNN thanks to our marketing efforts. We were finally able to get Canadian companies heard among the noise - mission accomplished.

The companies that participated made connections with venture capitalists and technology executives they normally would not have access to. In the end it's all about deal flow - bringing companies and investors together and promoting Canadian businesses to a worldwide audience.

But it is important for our start-up community to maintain the momentum. The MLDL will be used as a promotional platform at other conferences in North America where Canadian start-ups can promote their achievements because one successful event does not tell the story. What started out as a one-off has quickly turned into a community-building exercise.

We must continue to promote our Canadian start-ups, celebrate our success and not be shy about telling the world what we are doing.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Jeff Musson is the owner of Dynamitenetwork.com, a video spokesperson technology firm that helps companies use talking websites as a way to reach their target market and increase sales. Follow the Maple Leaf Digital Lounge on Twitter: @mldlca.

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