When it comes to the tech conference circuit outside of Silicon Valley, Canada is probably not top of mind for most people, but I’ve got a feeling that’s slowly changing. Last week, Vancouver hosted the fourth edition of the GROW conference, a two-day event (plus one for outdoor activities around the city) that brings together startups from all over Canada and the West Coast. Four years ago, the inaugural event attracted 400 people. This year, over 1,200 made the trip to Vancouver’s Convention Center, which will also play host to TED next year.
To me, GROW has become one of the premier networking conferences, as it’s a great way to take the pulse of the Canadian startup scene. As with many things Canada, it’s easy to underestimate the role of the tech industry there. In British Columbia, more people now work in tech jobs than in fields like mining, forestry and oil gas. Local successes like Hootsuite, Shopify and even smaller companies like Top Hat, seem to have provided a bit of a boost to those who previously only thought about starting their own companies. The slow decline of Blackberry, virtually everybody told me, has had very little effect on the Canadian startup scene in general.
Getting angel funding and raising a seed round seems to be getting a bit easier, though virtually all of the companies I talked to – whether they were in Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal – noted that raising a significant Series A round still meant heading to Silicon Valley and knocking on doors there.
Sometimes, the Canadian government still has to learn a bit, of course, as in the case of the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities shutting down coding school Bitmaker Labs earlier this year (it’s back up and running now). Overall, however.
Besides the networking, one thing that always makes GROW stand out for me is that the conference program tends to have a strong focus on providing very practical advise for startups. Maybe this is a Canadian thing, but the event keeps the hype low and usefulness high – something that’s even true for most of the startups that attend. From Google Ventures’ Daniel Burka and Jake Knapp talking about how to build prototypes quickly and effectively, TechCrunch contributor Nir Eyal talking about how to get users hooked to your app and 500px CEO Oleg Gutsol talking about how to build a better user experience, GROW’s focus is on helping startups to get started. Sometimes that means going very technical and looking at how to build the right APIs for a service or how to analyze user metrics, while at other times it’s about raising money and building the right team. This focus on practicality is something we don’t see that often outside of vendor conferences and it’s a nice break from the more VC-centric events around Silicon Valley.
If you are considering to go to GROW next year, by the way, I highly recommend taking the train from Portland or Seattle the day before. With well over 100 entrepreneurs and VCs on it – and three dedicated rail cars for attendees – it’s a networking bonanza that’s hard to beat (and alcohol flows pretty freely, too). This year, a number of Canadian startups like Mover, which had just raised a $1 million seed round) and BeauCoo, which would go on to win GROW’s startup competition, as well as a few Silicon Valley VCs and virtually every well-known startup from Seattle and Portland made the eight-hour trip.