Walking into the 100-year-old Mercer Warehouse building in downtown Edmonton, you can barely tell there’s an incubator and coworking space helping dozens of Edmonton-based digital media companies.
Since 2009, Startup Edmonton has led companies from their raw ideas to a path that helps define a product or service. It’s a space that allows entrepreneurs from all sectors learn business growth techniques through a series of early-stage business development workshops while accessing mentors with a range of expertise.
As their name suggests, Startup Edmonton started as a resource for those looking for some help to launch their business. Numerous digital media companies have grown through the organization’s workshops, and mentorship programs, aimed at cultivating growth in the early stages.
Many of the companies that walk through Startup Edmonton’s doors are ones that are “looking at different ways to make digital media”, says Tiffany Linke-Boyko, CEO of Startup Edmonton. With a growing video game industry in the city, it’s no surprise that app creators and gaming companies tend to be the largest sectors of digital media attending workshops at Startup Edmonton. However, business owners from all areas are welcomed.
“We focus on that really early-stage founder, explains Linke-Boyko. A lot of those tech founders, whether it’s digital media or those working on something else that’s tech-related, they all have the same challenges. A lot of our workshops are focused on those challenges.” Crafting a business plan and pinpointing a client base are recurring themes for new businesses, adds Linke-Boyko.
The organization helps businesses tackle those issues through their flagship program, called Preflight. It helps companies like those in digital media navigate the early days of business and product creation by refining a company’s potential customer base, while justifying the need for the service or product.
Linke-Boyko says all workshops hone in on one of the most common challenges all young companies face: defining their clients. “We find that people are really excited about their solution or idea, but they haven’t even started thinking about who it is for,” says Linke-Boyko. Customer validation can be one of the hardest parts of Preflight, she adds. “Digital companies tend to think, ‘Well, everyone is going to be my customer,’ and they use Facebook as an example. But then they forget that Facebook, when it started, didn’t have everybody [as a client]. They started with universities and expanded from there. They really have to understand who the first customer is and then build from there.”
The second and third phases of Preflight are determining the final product and finding out what their story is for investors and future clients, Linke-Boyko explains. “With all of these workshops, our goal is to help them have good foundational skills, because most of the time, they don’t have money so they have to do it themselves,” she adds.
The next stage
Mentorship is a huge part of the work done within Startup Edmonton’s walls. The workshops bring in speakers and mentors who can help companies like those in digital media grow, while answering any pressing questions, organization officials say.
Startup Edmonton boasts more than 175 alumni companies, with many providing their time to help growing and emerging organizations in the city. “Often times, we hear founders say, ‘My family and friends don’t know what I’m doing and think I’m nuts,’ says Linke-Boyko. We’re able to connect them with people who are doing something similar further down the road, which makes them feel a little more normal, while being able to access some of the information or suggestions.”
For entrepreneurs who are more established in their business model, valuable activities like DemoCamp can help launch a business to the next level. DemoCamp “brings together developers, creators, entrepreneurs and investors to share what they’ve been working on and to find others in the community interested in similar topics”, according to the company’s website.
Business owners and entrepreneurs have seven minutes to pitch their product, and then they receive instant feedback from their peers. It’s been a critical tool for many. Launched in 2008, DemoCamp Edmonton has steadily grown into one of the largest activity of its kind in the country, with over 200 people attending each event.
Gaining feedback on a local level can be important, but the organization also works on achieving national exposure for many ‘green’ entrepreneurs. That’s why Startup Edmonton introduced Edmonton companies to the BETA program.
Through this program, companies apply for a chance to highlight their product on a national level at the Collision in Toronto tech conference. If selected, Edmonton companies have the possibility to showcase their work at the conference alongside Startup Edmonton. This provides entrepreneurs with mentorship opportunities, while allowing for much-needed national exposure.
Before Startup Edmonton existed, industries and companies were “siloed in a lot of places”, Linke-Boyko says. “But now, companies can come to Startup Edmonton to grow their new business and meet those who have gone through ‘the pain points’ and challenges in the digital media industry and in other sectors”, she says.
The business incubator’s physical space is “a creativity lab” that has also allowed growth to flourish. More than 100 people from more than 35 different companies work out of the coworking space in downtown Edmonton. “The 14,000-square-foot open space allows people to share resources, suggestions and feedback”, says Linke-Boyko.
It’s where some of the best mentorship work happens, she adds. “We thought, ‘How do we bring people together?’ The space provides an opportunity for them to get out of their basement and connect with people around coffee or at lunchtime,” Linke-Boyko says. Sharing best practices and cooperation between peers in different stages of their company’s evolution have been valuable assets for many who are just starting out – which has led to many success stories.
Visio Media, an online and elevator screen advertising company, as well as SAM (which stands for Social Asset Management), are just two examples of companies that have grown since taking advantage of Startup Edmonton’s resources.
Startup Edmonton has evolved since it first opened its doors to cater to business owners in the city, says Linke-Boyko. But one part remains the same: collaboration is key. “I think the value is the information we’re providing, she observes. We’ve seen this lack of information over and over again as challenges people face . It’s also great to be alongside other people and share what they’re working on.”