Last year, the first-ever Fireside Conference brought together 80 members of Toronto’s tech community, put them in a campground with no cell reception for three days of speeches and networking, and waited to see what happened. While many attendees had anxiety about being cut off from the outside world going in, what resulted were frank discussions on being a better person and entrepreneur, informal keynotes that invited participation and jokes from the audience, and an overall atmosphere that you could talk to anyone without feeling self-conscious.
This year, Fireside exploded with over 250 attendees — including former Waterloo mayor Brenda Halloran — taking over the 750-acre campground. But the influx of people didn’t take away from the intimate atmosphere that Daniel Levine and Steven Pulver sought to create when they launched last year.
“The group came together like a family and everything still felt like a small group up at the cottage, or summer camp,” said Pulver. “We also started earlier in the afternoon Friday to make room for more sunshine and more awesome talks including Michael Katchen, CEO of Wealthsimple, and Sanjay Singhal from 500 Startups. This year we added panels, including a diversity in tech panel and a media panel as well as more informal and discussion focussed talks.”
The camaraderie felt during the event also inspired attendees to give back — The Upside Foundation, which asks startups to pledge one percent equity to charity once they go through a liquidity event, managed to raise $10,250 towards its mission during an auction for Fireside 2017 tickets, and six startups pledged one percent towards the organization. Fireside has decided to put the money towards Ladies Learning Code.
“People tell us from time to time, ‘I can’t make it this year — work and life is too busy’. The truth is, there is never a ‘good’ time.”
The talks this year ranged from practical to personal — while attendees could listen in on talks like Global Acceleration Partners’ Nicholas Parker’s Smart and Sustainable – How Entrepreneurs Are Saving the Planet, Profitably and Influitive Customer Strategy VP Julie Perofsky’s Firestarting Product-Market Fit, they could also hear from panels inviting speakers affected by a lack of diverse representation in tech to discuss their experiences.
“People don’t want to look at their own organizations and biases because it’s uncomfortable, but if we don’t challenge it, nothing will change,” said Karen Schulman Dupuis, president of Hive Waterloo Region with over 20 years of experience working with and building businesses, who spoke on the diversity panel. “The power structure, especially in Canada, is managed and maintained by men. If you say something unpopular, everyone will dismiss you because they’re all currying favour with that collective. They need to have access to VCs and that network.”
Levine notes that learning from leaders about their failures, creating company culture, and raising their millions doesn’t require a Powerpoint and a stage to be meaningful. “In fact, it’s the very absence of those things and the campfire, lake, and stars in their place that really spark connections and conversation like no other setting,” he said.
During dinner one night, Impression Ventures founder and managing partner Christian Lassonde talked about how founders can better stand out to investors, and reasons why investors might reject a pitch. He suggested talking to as many people as possible for the chance to get connected to someone with money, creating a draft pitch including what you think will sell your company, and socialize with people. “A lot of people show me their decks, and what they think is interesting never actually is. What’s interesting is typically buried like seventeen slides in.”
The nights also included keynotes from 500 Startups’ Singhal talking about how his ego and inexperience led to the first bankruptcy, and Vonage founder Jeff Pulver talking about how his struggles with loneliness led to him dedicating his passion to building tech solutions for people to communicate easily.
Overall, both Levine and Pulver say that their “disconnect to connect” method allows both speakers and attendees to form authentic relationships with the colleagues they often see in passing at tech networking events, and actually learn the basics of what it takes to build a great company from each other.
“People tell us from time to time, ‘I can’t make it this year — work and life is too busy’. The truth is, there is never a ‘good’ time. It’s these people that probably need to disconnect the most,” said Pulver.
Photo credit Billy Lee @makingsenses