By: Philippe Telio, Founder of Startupfest
The global pandemic we’re facing is far from over, which makes pulling off Startupfest 2020 two weeks ago that much more impressive.
That’s right, we ran an actual live event, with an actual stage and an actual, physical, in-person audience. And I’m proud to say we did it in a safe, healthy way, navigating dozens of unexpected challenges and managing tremendous uncertainty.
This is the story of how we planned and delivered the first hybrid event in Montréal—maybe the first in the world—since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
2020 was always going to be an important year for Startupfest. The event began a decade ago, and grew to become Canada’s best startup event, founded by founders for founders, both global and somehow, honestly Canadian. If there’s anything I’ve learned in 10 years of running events for startup founders, it’s that when you have a somewhat crazy idea with the right people in place to execute, magic happens.
Startupfest 2020 is yet another fine example of this. So like any bold endeavour, we first resolved to make it happen. Then put in place the pieces we needed.
Of course, that also meant convincing partners to get on board with something completely original; defining a whole new set of speakers and content formats; designing and getting approval to create a pop-up live TV studio on the end of a pier; bringing in robust internet (with 2 redundant backups); defining the tech stack to allow attendees to tap into the virtual event effortlessly; and of course, putting in place all the protocols and procedures to ensure that our team, the tech crews, and our studio audience stayed safe and healthy. And to think, we’d officially canceled our tenth anniversary only 4 months before.
Startupfest has a bit of a reputation for delivering the unexpected, from elevator pitches in the Eiffel Tower to our unbeaten panel of Grandmother judges. We’re a small team, and many of these unique experiences over the years can be attributed to the support and creativity of our sponsors. From a fleet of boats carrying attendees to an unparalleled island packed with innovation, to a private jet that lured Silicon Valley’s best and brightest to our city, it’s often our partners that help make Startupfest stand out from run-of-the-mill trade shows and dull grey conference halls.
This year was no different. If it weren’t for the continued support of our presenting partner Québecor, who supplied us with massive internet connectivity, as well as a complete TV camera crew and a mobile broadcasting studio, none of what we did would have been possible. Add to this the support of Banque National du Canada, BDO, Fasken, Espace CDPQ, Centech, BDC and the Government of Canada and we were up to the challenge of pioneering an entirely new type of gathering. Hybrid events are tricky for many reasons, some of which aren’t obvious until you’re deep in them. First there’s the economic challenge: Attendees don’t expect to pay much, if anything, for online content. Conversely, hybrid events incur the costs of both a physical event and one run online. And event organizers always need to care about their physical audience’s experience and safety—but in a pandemic the stakes are far higher, and so are the precautions. What’s more, you’re putting in place new technologies in the middle of a rapidly changing technology landscape to ensure a seamless experience for thousands of people online. No small feat for a small team that has been running physical events for the past decade.
From a content perspective we had to balance relevance, interest, engagement and the creeping dread of Zoom fatigue. The content team had to rethink standard formats and assumptions. How do you make panels work across vast distances? How do you blend in-person and online conversations, for an in-person and online audience? What can you do at lunch?
The result was a series of shorter format talks called Hindsight 2020 (fast, five-minute discussions instead of 20 minute monologues with slides). Chain Reaction formats comprised of rolling, two-person interactions took the place of panels. Pre-recorded and edited videos of startup pitches allowed us to scrub out the invariable “is my mic on” moments, and added the additional value of allowing the presenting entrepreneurs to be live on chat answering questions the judges did not ask. We had live DJ sets and Yoga in the mornings so attendees that showed up to the live stream early had something to watch. We ran a game show over lunch to keep virtual attendees engaged. We had partners host breakout sessions on areas they clearly had expertise in. All in all, a radically different content experience for Startupfest.
Based on feedback received, virtual attendees appreciated the format and visually striking environment that felt far more like a show than a set of monotonous talking heads. Content was kept rapid paced, and the dynamics of having the brother-sister duo of Alistair and Rebecca Croll as co-hosts made the content feel intimate and conversational to those tuning in.
From a tech perspective, we took many months to review the myriad of solutions available on the market. Alistair Croll, our content chair diligently reviewed dozens of tech tools—207 rows in a spreadsheet as of this writing. Despite months of diligence and testing, we have yet to find a single provider that offers an end-to-end solution for all our tech needs. So in the end, we had to piece together a range of tools to deliver the experience we wanted, while making participating frictionless. Here’s what we used:
- Registration using Tito, a ticketing platform.
- Event grid, profiles, chat, and conference tools on Swapcard.
- Small-group networking with e-180’s virtual platform.
- Intimate partner roundtables via videoconferencing service Whereby
- “Green room” recording of judges with cloud broadcasting platform Streamyard.
- Content capture, titling, and video production with our partners at TVA.
- Virtual speaker management and digital streaming by Digicast.
- Interactive game show using audience participation app Mentimeter.
- Embedded live streaming using YouTube Live.
None of these were perfect solutions, but stitched together cleverly they were the foundations of what we wanted to achieve: Broadcasting a visually dynamic event to a virtual audience, allowing them to connect and network amongst themselves, while allowing for some fun interaction and partner exchanges in smaller groups.
Health and safety protocols
Government regulations and health guidelines limited us to 50 people on site at any given time. We have had our fair share of challenges over the years with setting up physical infrastructure. I thought installing thousands of square feet of tents on an island and setting up a temporary dock to ferry attendees back and forth on the St.Lawrence seaway would have been our greatest challenge, but it turns out that setting up a temporary studio on the end of a pier while respecting social distancing guidelines would prove to be just as big of a challenge.
Read this post if you want to know how we planned and delivered the first hybrid event in Montréal—maybe the first in the world—since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What makes Startupfest special
Inspiring, connecting and supporting startup founders are table stakes for any Startup event. Startupfest has always differentiated itself from other events by creating spectacular festival environments, being openly inclusive, and taking risks to do new and interesting things (like the aforementioned boat fleets, elevators, and even picnics between founders and funders, or speakers and fans.)
Over the years Startupfest has always proposed non-standard themes for each event. These themes act as a constant current for us, our speakers and our attendees.
Past Startupfest themes have been:
2011- Startups & LOL: A focus on combining work and pleasure with a festival vibe.
2012- Startups that matter: The importance of having an impact.
2013- Startups and the city: The density of cities provide many opportunities.
2014- Startup Stories: Articulating a story is key to success.
2015- Masters and models: Reinventing industries by mastering, and reinventing, business models.
2016- Startup Firsts: Exploring the importance and risks of being first and doing things for the first time.
2017- Luck: Many things are out of your control, but by recognizing and seizing opportunities you can create your own luck.
2018- Infinite possibilities: Anything is possible when you set your mind to it and build the team to make it happen.
2019- 9 lives: The importance of resilience and second chances, which was in many ways a form of foreshadowing for this year.
2020- Imagining a 10X future: Looking at the past to help inform the future.
In keeping with this year’s theme of learning from the past to imagine a future, here are some things I can point to that will help define the future of Startupfest:
- Inspiration often comes when we pause and take stock—or are forced to do so.
- Crazy ideas can come true. Start small, but dream big.
- What you thought would happen is rarely what happens. But success comes when you at least try to predict the future.
- Know your numbers, manage your risks, and be ready to upend your model.
- Clear mission, vision and values will act as a guide no matter what curveballs your business may experience.
- You need a lot of luck, but simply putting your hook in the water increases your chance of catching a fish.
- You never get there alone. Startupfest has many partners, including a passionate team, committed sponsors, a thriving community and even intangible partners like a beautiful host city and the weather. As the old African proverb says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Imagining the future: Where do we go from here?
I don’t dare predict when we will all feel comfortable getting back to large-scale gatherings. The future of events and travel is uncertain. What is certain, however, is campfire gatherings have existed since early humans gave up trees for caves, and they will be back. Just as certainly, problems will always need solving, entrepreneurs will solve them and thrive, and the world will continue to evolve thanks to the entrepreneurial spark that can’t be extinguished.
If these unprecedented times are teaching us something, it’s that all organizations need to evolve, and technology will invariably continue to play a key role in this evolution. Startupfest may or may not be back with thousands of people in 2021. None of us can know what the future holds for our jobs, our families, and even our lives. But I remain certain that innovation and adaptation are the best way forward, for both startups and event organizers. If we can balance a thirst for technology’s gifts of the newly possible with a core set of guiding principles rooted in humanity’s need to learn and connect, we’ll get through this.
I would like to end by thanking the hundreds of people who have supported Startupfest for the past ten years and beyond. Much of what we have accomplished over the last decade would not have been possible. I could write a post for each person listed here and how they have helped build Startupfest, for now I’ll at least thank them from the bottom of our Startupfest heart.
Ambassadors, mentors and supporters:
Alan MacIntosh, Alyssa Atkins, Anna Goodson, Austin Hill, Brady Forrest, Bruno Morency, Brydon Gill, Cary Goldwax, Chris Rickett, Claude G. Théoret, Dan Martell, Daniel Robichaud, Daniele Henkel, Danielle Smith, Dave McClure, David Crow, David Nault, Dena Shlah, Doreen Croll, Elizabeth Yin, Eva Blue, Evelyn Matlin (Julie Matlin), Frank Denbow, Gabriel Sundrama, Gary Pudles, Graham Hill, Greg Isenberg, Harley Finkelstein, Harper Read, Heather Anne Ritchie, Helge Seetzen, Ian Jeffrey, Issac Souweine, Jamie O’Hara, Jana Eggers, Jeremy Edberg, John Milne, John Stokes, Jon French, Jonas Brandon, Jonathan Lowenhar, JS Cournoyer, Julien Smith, Larry Lisser, LP Maurice, Marc Alloul, Marc-Antoine Ross, Martin-Luc Archambault, Martine St-Victor, Merle Finkelstein, Mitch Joel, Nancy Rosenfeld, Naoufel Testaouni, Nirvana Champion, Noah Redler, Ondi Timoner, Orly Nahmias, Ram Hadar Goldschmidt, Randy Smerik, Sean Power, Sebastien Tanguay, Sévrine Labelle, Sonia Hazan, Stéphane Cocke, Stephane Martel, Tom Williams, Trent Johnsen, Viola Lewelyn, Yossi Vardi.
Partners, sponsors and judges:
Adrian Salamunovic, Alexandre Taillefer, Alexandre Vézina, André Maynard, Andrew Harrison, Arnold Beaudin, Beshoy Sidrak, Brian Kobus, Cédric Tawil, Christian Bégin, Christian Beauclair, Christian Perron, Daniel Arsenault, Daniel Gangé, Danny Knafo, David Chamandy, Debbie Hynes, Denis Coderre, DA, Erika Kurczyn, Eva Lau, France Jobin, Francis Baillet, Franck Laigle, Géraldine Martin, Gilbert Rozon, Harout Chitilian, Howard Stotland, Ilias Benjelloun, Jason Bailey, JD Begin, Jean-Nicolas Delage, Jean Péladeau, Jean-Francois Jean-François Bouchard, Jean-Francois Lauzon, Jérôme Nycz, Jesse Kaplan, Jonathan Kolber, Josh Felker, Katy Yam, Liette Lamonde, Louis Vachon, Lynda Cadieux, Magaly Charboneau, Marc Helwani, Marie Josee Lamothe, Mark Bruneau, Mark Maclean, Mario Limoges, Mathew Rosenblatt, Mat Gosselin, Matthew Harrison, Michael Hollinger, Michel Bourdon, Michèle Bertrand, Michele Scarborough, Mike Fuller, Mourtalah Salha, Nathalie Marcoux, Neil Follet, Nyla Ahmad, Patricia Saputo, Philip Hazan, Pierre Karl Péladeau, Remi Labarre, Richard Chénier, Rory Olson, Sanjay Singhal, Senia Rapisarda, Solon Angel, Sophie Forest, Stefan Albu, Stéphane Guertin, Steve Abrams, Veronique Doucet.
We’ve had well over 1000 speakers over the past 10 years, I won’t begin to list them here, but every speaker has given of their time generously to inspire and educate our Startupfest community. Thank you to all of you collectively.
Team over the years:
Be they seasonal, part-time or full-time, Startupfest has been fortunate to have some of the most genuine, hard working and fun loving people on it’s team. A particular shout out to Pamela, Rebecca, Katherine, Alix, Nat, Alistair and Maude.
Our dedicated and professional board members, past and present:
Andy Nulman, Chris Shipley, Heather Adelson, Sylvain Carle.
I was once given a shirt to wear on stage as a way of reminding me of some I forgot to thank the year before. The shirt read in big bold letters “I WANT TO THANK MY WIFE”. I have not forgotten her since, but I have no doubt that I have forgotten someone important that should be on one of these lists. There have been so many supporters over the decade, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I did not include you here. If not, my shirt size is a medium.