Philippe Telio is the founder of Startupfest.
In 2018, I learned that the Collision conference was coming to Canada the way most Canadians did – in a much-shared video from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. As first reported by the industry publication BetaKit, we now know that Collision initially asked for $3.8-million, a free venue, free internet, and paid travel for press, speakers and its team. It currently receives roughly $6.5-million a year. That money pays for a flashy event, with a celebrity lineup, a massive mailing list, a murky history and even search ads against homegrown Canadian conferences such as Startupfest.
Now Collision wants $40-million to stay in Toronto. Our governments must say no to this request.
If Collision were a spouse, it wouldn’t be a very good partner. Toronto is its third city, after leaving Las Vegas and abandoning New Orleans. The company’s self-declared business model is to love ‘em and leave ‘em, extorting host cities and enriching itself with a global bidding war every three years. Collision’s sister event, Websummit, ditched Dublin for Lisbon after the city pushed back against its demands. Lisbon signed a prenup: a 10-year contract with penalties for early termination. Despite this, Websummit Rio launches in 2024.
It sure is a great way to make money.
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But we don’t need Collision. It is far from the only such event in Canada: Mesh, Traction, SaaSNorth, Elevate and plenty of others offer homegrown, world-class resources vital to our country’s startup ecosystem and economic development.
And then there is the International Startup Festival that I founded – known worldwide simply as Startupfest. Since 2011, it has been a watershed event for entrepreneurs from Canada and beyond, growing 40 per cent year over year and welcoming nearly 60 countries to Canada. Unlike Collision, Startupfest runs on a shoestring budget, with only minimal support from government sources. In fact, the first year that growth slowed for us was in 2019, when our government effectively paid the foreign-owned Collision to come here and compete against us.
Imagine what Startupfest could do with $40-million. Or, for that matter, a level playing field.
There’s no arguing that Collision delivers great entertainment. It’s fun to watch household names and movie stars talk about their success, but unless you have millions of dollars and millions of followers, there’s not a lot a fledgling startup can learn from these stories. Talk to any Startupfest attendee, however, and they’ll tell you about hands-on learning, unmatched access to world-class experts and a real sense of belonging.
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Despite this, our government has decided to put its thumb on the scale in favour of foreign conferences, leaving Canadian events at the altar.
As more comes to light about the backroom dealings around Collision, there probably will be plenty to apologize for everyone involved. Good thing that, as Canadians, we’re famously good at apologies.
But this underscores a deeper truth: We secretly believe we can’t do it ourselves. The lesson we’re teaching Canadian entrepreneurs is simple: You can’t be world class, and your governments will literally pay foreign companies to compete against you.
This is the wrong message to send to a country that desperately needs more head offices (Shopify, for example) and fewer branch offices from American tech giants.
Collision is a fairweather friend and abusive partner that has overstayed its welcome. And the $40-million that it is asking for can be better spent in many other areas. Let’s show Canadians – and the world – that we can build amazing things right here at home.
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