It’s time for a Fresh Start

We don’t want a new normal. We want a fresh start. 

Throughout history, things change slowly, then all at once. The pandemic is no exception: After decades of gradual technological progress, a few short months changed the way we worked, lived, loved, and played. In the early days, people spoke of getting “back to normal.” Then, it was about the “new normal.” But few pundits recognize what COVID, and the breakneck tech adoption it brought with it, actually was: A gigantic reset.

Proof of this species-level recalibration is all around us. Consider just a few of the biggest trends today across work, media, business, and society.

In the workforce

  • The great resignation. Prudential Financial’s Pulse of the American Worker survey says 1 in 4 workers is preparing to look for a new job; more than 40% respondents to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, which surveys 30,000 people around the world, are considering leaving their employer this year. Ceridian found that 64% of Americans will consider moving jobs; for those under 30, it’s 76%. And the divide between frontline workers and knowledge workers is an almost unbridgeable gap.
  • The great re-learning: Enrollment in undergraduate and graduate programs has been trending downward since around 2012. Enrollment for online education dropped by 5.4% for undergrad programs and 13.6% for graduate programs. Community college attendance is down 5.6% this year after a 10% drop last year. And high school seniors who request financial aid fell 4.8% in 2021 and 3.7% in 2020. Meanwhile, cohort-based courses and free Massively Online Open Course platforms are booming.

In media

  • A shift from broadcast to anycast. 42% of Americans under 30 get their news from social media. 68% of those over 65 get their news from broadcast media. Traditional news channels have vanished, and with them, a “truth class” offering a single version of the facts. And with everything we say online searchable by anyone forever, we discovered we don’t actually like many of our fellow humans.
  • Alternative facts and a mistrust of authority: With pandemic news changing often, we all turned online to learn what to do, often with disastrous results. The medium is indeed the message, and modern information is an unprovable cacophony. In 2005, during the pilot episode of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert coined the term “Truthiness.” Twelve years later, in 2017, that proved prescient, with the White House arguing that falsehoods were “alternative facts.” Any wonder, then, that we don’t trust authorities? 

In entrepreneurship

  • Anyone, anywhere: Startups are now ephemeral businesses spread across cities and timezones. A study by Hiring said the average number of job markets in an interview by a tech company rose by 50% during the pandemic, while the number of timezones climbed by 20%. Affordable SaaS tools, collaborative platforms like Github, and freelance marketplaces for everything from marketing to finance to design have dramatically reduced the friction of everything.
  • The creator economy got real. Creators bypass gatekeepers, creating millions of tiny niches and like-minded communities. And the creator economy is eliminating traditional retailers and middlemen. Everyone launched a merch store, as we turned a blind eye to big-box retailers online and off in our search for luxury and individuality.
  • We rebuilt media. Top-paid Youtuber Mr. Beast earned $54M in 2021 with stunts like a restaurant that pays you to eat. Etsy is packed with niche products that replace mass production with bespoke skills. Crash Course has taught hundreds of millions of classes, with many high school students crediting it for helping them navigate an increasingly broken education system. NFTs spawned a breathless wave of Web3 startups and made the Twitterati change their avatars. Today’s media landscape is unlike anything that came before, blurring the lines between people and brands, and between audiences and entertainers.

In society

  • A retreat from globalism into the nation and the individual.  COVID has proven that existing systems of government can’t produce collective action, deliver equitable public health, or protect their citizens the way we thought they could. Most Western democracies make their leaders debate in public once every four years. For a generation that grew up subscribing to daily livestreams, those systems look increasingly disconnected from modern reality. From Brexit to January 6, democracies that were until only recently considered paragons of success find themselves divided and shunned.
  • A need for resiliency. Investor Paul Kedrosky points to a global hardening as the impact of climate change becomes unavoidable, and many of the complex systems on which we rely begin to fail. Suez Canal blockages, chip shortages, empty shelves and airline delays made the brittleness of modern supply chains real. Forest fires, flooding, sudden freezes, unseasonal thaws, and catastrophic tornadoes have become the norm. We’re responsible for our own health, security, and well-being.

Slowly, then all at once, everything changed.

Maybe it’s just what we needed

A reset is both an end and a beginning. And when it comes to startups, maybe turning it on and off again is exactly what we needed:

  • We’re becoming more mission-driven: With the best workers able to choose what they work on, mission and vision is as important as balance sheet and option plan. We’re having fewer kids, in Canada and abroad; focusing on wellness and mental health; and redesigning our lives. 
  • We know the world won’t fix itself: Widespread proof that human society has to change if it is to survive means huge investment in sustainability. Investors are willing to back cleantech and biotech ideas that would have seemed unthinkable only a few years ago.
  • We’re smarter about measuring business. The pandemic put incredible pressure on businesses. Frankly, it cleaned out a lot of dead wood—companies without demonstrable value or loyal customers shuttered within months. Others grew at breakneck speeds by slaking our thirst for tech and logistics. Either way, the survivors focused more on the fundamentals. Now there’s far less tolerance for sloppy bookkeeping and wishful thinking.
  • We’re smarter about funding business, too. One consequence of this is the rise of non-dilutive revenue-financed lenders like Clearbanc that offer a new kind of working capital for fast-growing companies, which, in turn, has forced accelerators to change their business models and invite startups from around the world.
  • We’re decentralizing our online lives: While much of Web3 and the Metaverse remains hyperbole—we quickly forget that a distributed, open web was the norm in the era of Twitter, Delicious, and Flickr—the rise of a single digital wallet that proves who you are, how much you have, and what you own is a game changer. The Blockchain gives digital things physical properties like permanence, portability, and scarcity, opening up new business models.

It’s a long list.

We’ve got work to do

There’s plenty to do, and lots to discuss. COVID and the rapid digitization of humanity are a species-level event, and we all have our part to play. If we want to survive in this transition, we need to take the part of ourselves that craves the past, bundle it up gently and set it carefully aside.

And yet COVID has undermined our ability to connect and inspire. We live our days in bland rectangles of sameness, desperate for some kind of novelty or serendipity. We dread the burden of having to answer yet another LinkedIn invite, of packing our calendars as tightly as the end of a well-played Tetris game. With everything digital planned and tracked, we lost our serendipity.

The future of Startupfest

In 2022, there’s a real chance that widespread vaccination, less time indoors, and a better understanding of COVID itself will make it possible for us to again gather as we once did, and to enjoy the kind of serendipity we all loved from past years. But we don’t just want to return to the past. We want to bring what we’ve learned from this crisis into something new, and find novel ways for startups to share knowledge, form meaningful relationships, and build better businesses faster.

Startupfest has always put the startup ecosystem first, from its early days as a grassroots meetup to the iconic annual festival that transformed Montreal’s greatest venues into packed celebrations of founders and entrepreneurship. For over a decade, we’ve found ways to deliver meaningful interactions in unexpected ways that challenge the status quo—something that’s more necessary now than ever.

Networking is a muscle, and we’ve all forgotten how to use it. In our isolation, we lost the skill of human interaction. We forgot how to talk to people we didn’t already know, and to explore unfamiliar ideas in real time. Don’t lie: While you might have been thrilled to have a friend reach out, you were secretly relieved when they canceled. We’ve all been there. 

The pandemic forced Startupfest to change, too, and we’ve been busy:

  • In 2020, we ran one of the world’s first hybrid events, and used what we’d learned to help dozens of deserving organizations around the world make the move to virtual.
  • A year later, we took advantage of virtual events to bring a week of startup wisdom from around the world to the screens of Canadian startups.
  • In 2022, we’re launching an entirely new facet of Startupfest.

While we’re sure to find ourselves once again gathering under Montreal’s skies this summer, we’ve also realized that meetings will never be the same again, online or off. So we’ve been busy. We’ve built a technology platform, making this manifesto something of a launch (though we aren’t giving too much away just yet!)

We’ve been testing matchmaking and gamification strategies we’ve been developing since before the pandemic hit, along with a mobile app that encourages healthy, productive meetings with genuine contacts. It’s more than just a new way to connect—it’s a fresh approach to developing relationships.

Fresh is a great word. It’s more than novel—it’s nourishing. It hasn’t been processed or diluted. It’s closer to the source. It’s ripe. It quenches. It’s better for you. That’s why our theme for 2022 is Fresh Starts.

Faced with huge challenges and massive opportunities, we need fresh starts for founders in Montreal and beyond; for the kinds of organizations we choose to create; and for society itself. We don’t want a new normal—we want a fresh start. That begins by sharing fresh ideas, making fresh contacts, taking fresh risks, and finding a fresh perspective. That’s what Startupfest is for.