Recently I read a great post from Mashable on why Canada’s tech landscape is thriving. They point to great funding programs from the Canadian government as one of the 5 factors for success, but it left me thinking there is a flaw in where that support stops. To make talking about the government entertaining, I’ll relate this to a box office favourite to walk you through my thoughts.
We all remember Ray Kinsella, the character played by Kevin Costner in the classic Field of Dreams. Ray is influenced by a ‘voice’ to build a baseball diamond from his cornfield. The echo of “If you build it, he will come” becomes the theme of the film, with suggestions from his peers that creating this baseball field will attract paying fans who will make Ray’s venture a success.
The ‘if you build it’ mindset keeps many tech entrepreneurs up at night dreaming up ideas that could become the next Instagram or Salesforce. The hope is that once built, customers will flock, and payments will roll in. The Canadian government has done a pretty good job trying to encourage and support entrepreneurs to act on these ‘voices’ in their heads and build ‘baseball diamonds’ throughout our country to create more successes like OpenText, Rypple, HootSuite, Freshbooks, and well kind of like RIM.
The government has a lot of very good programs in place such as FedDev and a variety of great programs through the NRC to help companies put dollars towards hiring technical resources and invest in R&D. But the funding stops short: there is a lack of attention to helping companies commercialize these ideas once developed, or more simply marketing for the product or service.
Unfortunately for the entrepreneur who followed the little voice and idea that brewed in their heads and built a masterpiece, customers rarely flock in just because they have a great offering. I’ve gotten to know many of the startups in our community, and I can tell you there’s a lot of great solutions sitting out there, fully developed, waiting to be discovered. Believe me I wish it was as simple as James Earl Jones explains to Ray as he’s pushing him to continue with his project:
“They’ll come… for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it…Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it:”
Sounds a lot like the hopes we have for free trial signups doesn’t it? Well, 99.99% of the time it just doesn’t happen that easily. Don’t get me wrong the web has some great viral opportunities to spread awareness, but the very base of such opportunity starts with basic marketing tactics including SEO, SEM, social media, and referral programs.
Rather than count on a movie script ending, the government needs to look at the reality of what it takes to not just ‘develop’ but also ‘market’ technology today to achieve success. We need to help startups beyond the development of technology and put money into getting our solutions on the map.
Please don’t think I’m upset with the government – they do a great job at aiding development, but the way I see it marketing has very much become part of the development process, yet it can not be claimed accordingly. Take iSTEM projects as an example, which help companies pay for the cost of hiring recent graduates from programs including science, technology, engineering and math, hence STEM. But someone from a marketing or business background can not be included in a STEM related project. Many of the projects where you would hire a STEM student are designed to bring a technology product to market to further a company’s ability to generate revenues and hire more employees. Isn’t that also the point of marketing: generate growth! As such why is this not more of a priority for funding?
Unfortunately marketing resources don’t fall under typical R&D criteria although they have become very technical today. Today’s marketer (especially in a tech startup) has involvement in analysis of metrics, designing customer acquisition strategies (while often learning basic coding) for the web and beyond.
The perfect ‘marketing mix’ has become just as exploratory as technology development. There’s no magic answer to success, it’s about trying new strategies and tools available through the web. Take Dropbox as an example who managed to grow its customer base through a brilliant referral marketing program – yes some development, but a lot of smart grassroot marketing tactics. Government assistance could make a big difference in helping our startups break out in a similar manner.
Our nimble marketing team of three at Uberflip gets a lot done, but could much more with additional resources. Our Director of Marketing would love to round a team that had titles like: Big Data Analyst, Social Media Rockstar, Email Marketing Guru, SEO Manager, and CRM Analyst. This is where I think government funding could help propel companies who have developed a great platform. I recently found one government program that seemed an ideal fit called Career Focus with a focus around build the ‘Digital Economy Strategy’ – unfortunately the wait for an application to be reviewed is around 6-9 months. With the speed in which the market moves this is simply not quick enough.
So ultimately this is not designed to slam government funding – our government is doing more than a lot of other countries to get us out of the gate. This is about looking at what’s needed to adapt and better leverage what they’re initiating. We need to market our product to get it outside of Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and other cities. Unless you’ve got a technology to bring back the 1919 Chicago White Sox or for that matter the the ‘92/’93 Blue Jays, don’t expect your fans to flock without a well executed marketing strategy. My dream is that the government helps us pull this off. Help us build marketing programs and they will come.