Take a Canadian farmer-turned-tech entrepreneur and put her with some of the top names in Silicon Valley. That's the mission behind 48 Hours in the Valley, an event dedicated to fostering our country's tech talent by connecting them with founders and resources they need to build their companies on Canadian soil.
I grew up in Gronlid, Saskatchewan, where I was a farmer before I entered the technology startup scene. The company I co-founded in 2012, Farm At Hand, grew out of a vision for what could be done for farmers if we had the tech support so many other industries were adopting.
Farm at Hand was one of the 15 startups chosen to take part in last week's 48hrs in the Valley.The flagship mentorship program is run by the C100, a Silicon Valley-based organization dedicated to supporting Canadian technology entrepreneurship and investment.
The application process is very thorough. Previous cohorts had an open application system that resulted in as many as 300 submissions. This year, selection was very competitive, as companies had to be nominated by a C100 charter member or sponsor, or by a 48hrs alumnus. Out of 90 nominations and 60 submissions, it was a huge thrill to be included in this cohort's 15 companies.
After returning to Canada, I put together a list of our key takeaways from my whirlwind experience in the heart of Silicon Valley:
1. The Silicon Valley myth: It's often thought that in order to build a billion-dollar tech company, you need to base your company in Silicon Valley. The C100's mandate is to prove that notion wrong, and Jonathan Ehrlich's talk on 'debunking the Valley myth' drove that point home.
Ehrlich was director of marketing at Facebook from 2009 to 2011, and served at the executive vice-president at Indigo Books & Music, Canada's largest bookstore. While his business experience is fascinating on its own, Ehrlich spent his time talking to us about importance of building a tech company in Canada, and how Canadian companies have a ton of resources we can pull from in our own backyard.
The biggest takeaway from listening to Ehrlich's talk was that as Canadian founders – building outside of the Valley's bubble – we have a greater responsibility to demand quality levels from our companies that surpass those of the Valley. Building outside of the Valley means we have more to prove. Whether it's proving that we can lure and retain top talent, or maintain our focus and motivation, there's still the popular opinion that tech hubs outside of Silicon Valley are "lesser than," so we're always out to prove them wrong. Quality has always been key for us, but Ehrlich's session made its importance all the more clear.
2. Engineered serendipity: Apart from the sessions we attended, the most valuable part of the weekend was the ability to connect with other attendees. Founders from the other 14 companies, as well as other members of the C100 in attendance, understand our challenges as founders. Quality time with other attendees is helpful because they can act as a sympathetic ear, or are able to offer advice based on similar experiences.
The program made it easy for us to connect to in a meaningful way, even when there were scheduling conflicts. A double-booked shuttle bus meant that we spent an hour in an Uber ride from Palo Alto to San Francisco with other co-founders. Uninterrupted time in a car allowed for real, honest conversations, which in turn result in more valuable and respected relationships. Connections like that can't be forced, and the C100 makes organic and lasting bonds like these possible.
3. Mentorship and support. As founders, we're fuelled by passion for agriculture and our business, but we sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture and become too focused on the details. It's helpful to have an outsider point out an issue we may have overlooked or offer suggestions we hadn't considered.
The program connected us to an array of mentors – serial entrepreneurs, executives and investors – who have been through the trials of building a startup. Their experience working with and at some of the technology giants of our time offered invaluable lessons to scaling and growing our business. The value in 48hrs in the Valley, is that some of these newfound connections will evolve into stronger business relationships in the future.
4. And now, back to work. It's been quite a journey for Farm At Hand. What began in a field in Saskatchewan has moved us to Vancouver, where we continue to build the company we started in the Prairies. I never would have thought that within a year and a half after founding the company we would be flying down to San Francisco to learn from some of the world's brightest entrepreneurs.
It's clear we have a lot of work to do, but after witnessing the tenacity and velocity of Silicon Valley's entrepreneurs first-hand, we've never been more inspired to build our company in Canada.
Kim Keller is a farmer-turned-tech entrepreneur. Born and raised on a farm in Saskatchewan, she co-founded Farm At Hand Inc. in 2012 to modernize farm management. Find Kim @kimkkeller and @FarmAtHand