Recently I announced that we’ve launched a Startup Travel Program in Nova Scotia, with the immense help of Volta Labs and ERDT. This will give early stage entrepreneurs the chance to spend 2+ weeks in Silicon Valley/San Francisco (or elsewhere), soaking up the startup culture and bringing it back. I’m excited to see the results of the program, because I think it can have a material impact on how smaller startup ecosystems develop and win.
I’ve been preaching the idea of a Startup Travel Program for awhile. But back in May 2013 I actually ran a little experiment–a Minimal Viable Product of sorts–with entrepreneur Blair Ryan, to see if the idea made sense.
Blair is the founder of The Rounds, which is a social network for health professionals. (Note: I’m not an investor or a compensated advisor. I have advised Blair occasionally though.) When we met in May, Blair wanted to give me an update on the product and fundraising.
During the conversation, Blair mentioned that there was a conference (HealthBeat 2013) taking place in San Francisco and he felt it would be a big opportunity for him. He also had a few investor contacts that he wanted to meet personally. Blair’s money was tight, and although he felt like the whole trip wouldn’t cost more than “a few thousand dollars”, it was either spend the money on the trip or make payroll. These are the kinds of tough decisions that entrepreneurs face constantly–where to spend the money, how, what risks to take, etc. My answer, while we were having coffee, was pretty simple, “Being a founder is fucking hard. If you think it’s that important to go, you need to find a way, whatever it takes.” It’s a pretty standard platitude of entrepreneurial advice, but it’s the truth. Being an entrepreneur is incredibly hard. A lot of the time it plain sucks. The decisions you make, each and every single day, can kill your business a few short weeks later.
I left Blair at the coffee shop musing to myself about the challenges of being an entrepreneur. I don’t know if I left him any better off with my input, but a couple hours later it hit me–he might not have relatively easy access to a few thousand dollars, but I do. And hadn’t I been preaching about a startup travel program to others?
So I emailed Blair and told him to buy a conference ticket and get on a plane.
Amazingly enough, by the time Blair tried to register for the conference, it was sold out. But like any real entrepreneur, he called the organizers and hustled his way in at a cheaper rate, and then found a cheaper-than-usual flight as well. He already had friends he was staying with, and he was set.
The entire thing cost less than $2,000. For Blair that was a considerable amount of money that he had to juggle delicately for his startup. For me, it wasn’t a big deal. I’m insanely lucky that way. So I paid for Blair’s trip and he was off.
He only stayed a week (whereas for the real Startup Travel Program, it’s 2+ weeks) but he sent regular updates that were amazing. He emailed me about the meetings he had, the insights he was gaining; the overall startup ecosystem soaking right into him. I know the trip was a success, not because Blair landed a huge customer (although he told me just yesterday that he did in fact close a deal as a result of the trip!), or closed a round of financing right then and there in San Francisco, but because he came back more energized than ever. Not surprising, Blair hooked up with a few Canadians while he was down in San Francisco too. That’s a powerful network, once you’re tapped in, and they’re always willing to lend a hand.
I asked Blair for his feedback on this blog post before publishing it, and he wrote back:
“I’ve heard it [traveling to SF] called a right of passage. In my case, I’d go with a re-birth. That first trip fundamentally changed how I run my business, how I look at startup culture, and redefined the meaning of the word hustle in my mind. Nothing will ever be the same again.”
So Blair was my Startup Travel Program Minimum Viable Product. I proved to myself that with a (relatively) small amount of money and the right entrepreneur, you can make a real difference.