It’s early October in New York City and Roy Pereira is standing in the NHL Powered by Reebok store on 6th Avenue at 47th Street, just below a fairly low-tech sign scrolling updated preseason news about the Winnipeg Jets. On this night, the store is closed for a private party sponsored by the Maple Leaf Digital Lounge, an industry-led initiative founded last year and dedicated to helping Canadian entrepreneurs promote their businesses outside of Canada.
The event is part of New York’s sprawling Advertising Week conference, billed by its organizers as “the world’s premier annual gathering of marketing and communications leaders.” So it’s the perfect place, really, for digital start-ups and their founders to rub shoulders with potential clients, and perhaps even potential investors, here among pricey NHL jerseys, hats and other merchandise. Imagine a gathering of the world’s best salespeople, marketers and idea generators in a single place, each one aggressively pitching his or her best idea, and you can get a sense of the atmosphere. At one point, a very pleasant but slightly overenthusiastic pitchman nearly bodychecks me into a rack of Sidney Crosby jerseys. For a novice salesperson – a reporter, say – it can be intimidating.
Like nearly all the attendees at tonight’s party – the usual mix of digital publishers, online advertising executives and junior associates attracted by the promise of free beer and wine – Pereira is in full-on pitch mode, which for him manifests as an enthusiastic serenity. Casually dressed in a dark suit and blue- and yellow-striped open-necked shirt, he is friendly and engaging without being obsequious. He’s clearly done this before.
Pereira, an Ottawa native, is a veteran of five start-ups dating back to 1992, including TimeStep, which was acquired by Newbridge Networks for “close to $200-million,” and Snipe Networks. Tonight he is here to talk about his latest venture, Shiny Ads, a Toronto-based advertising technology company focused on helping large online publishers maximize their revenue on ad buys of less than $5,000 – the kinds of smaller orders that, though vital for companies with limited ad campaigns and budgets, can be time-consuming and not even worth a publisher’s effort. Shiny Ads wants to help both sides. “It’s a niche we discovered, a market that’s underserved,” says Pereira.
The reason Pereira is in New York is actually twofold. There is the Maple Leaf Digital event, of course, and the chance to pitch directly to people in Shiny Ads’ target market. But he’s also looking for expansion capital. Shiny Ads closed a seed round of capital in late 2010, raising $500,000. “We used those funds to accelerate growth and I always knew we’d get to a point where that money would run out; it’s what the life of a start-up is all about,” he says. Pereira has spoken to three New York-based venture capital firms and will continue to shuttle back and forth between Toronto and New York with the hope of securing more cash. He is one of many Canadian entrepreneurs now making trips to places like Silicon Valley, Boston and NYC for VC funding that’s increasingly hard to find at home.
Go south, young start-up
Traditionally, a start-up company goes through a distinct life cycle. First comes the idea. If the idea is good enough, then the next step is raising what is called “seed capital,” typically a relatively small amount of money ponied up by family and friends and so-called angel investors that simply helps an entrepreneur get the doors open and turn the lights on. Once the seed money gets things rolling, entrepreneurs who want to accelerate their growth and expand often need to raise a larger amount of capital called a “Series A round.” Then, after growth is achieved, the entrepreneurs and early-stage investors look for an “exit.” That exit could be a larger company coming in and buying the start-up outright or making a significant investment in it, allowing earlier funders to take out their initial investment plus a reasonable return. It could also be an initial public offering, where the public buys shares in the company.
The lack of returns for those early investors is frequently cited as a major roadblock for Canadian entrepreneurs trying to raise capital. According to Jevon MacDonald, co-founder of Halifax’s GoInstant and co-founder of StartupNorth, which tracks Canadian start-up activity, the declines in returns for early investors in all types of new enterprises is something that began long ago. “We’re now reaping what we’ve sown in terms of capital availability,” he says. “At the end of the day, very few funds in Canada have capital to deploy.” The remaining venture capitalists in Canada are “way better than the guys who were doing venture capital before,” the ones who “squandered the money” during the last tech boom, as MacDonald puts it.