I left Silicon Valley for Canada’s booming startup ecosystem
We’re happy to share that Real Ventures is expanding our team in Toronto and looking for an amazing partner to join us! Our newest partner, Sam Haffar, writes about his journey from Silicon Valley to Montreal and joining Real was one of the best decisions he ever made.
April 5, 2018
I was recently promoted to partner at Real Ventures, a leading early stage venture firm and ecosystem builder in Canada that I joined four years ago when I moved to Montreal from Silicon Valley. Last fall, our firm announced $180M in fresh capital to invest in passionate and mission-driven entrepreneurs building the future with technology. We are now searching for an exceptional individual to join our team in Toronto as a partner to continue to serve these world-changing entrepreneurs and nurture the communities in which they thrive. My move to Canada was the best decision I ever made and I believe it could be the same for you.
I migrated to Silicon Valley, the Mecca of technology, immediately after graduating from university in hopes of building a transformational company. I was so eager to live the dream that I boarded a budget red-eye flight to San Francisco less than three hours after finishing my final university exam. I had obsessed over this moment for the prior two years. Silicon Valley had everything Minneapolis, Minnesota, didn’t: VCs, tech luminaries, game-changing companies, good weather, In-N-Out, and most importantly it was an environment where dreaming big was the universal language.
Fast forward seven years: it was late December and I was standing at the baggage terminal of Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport in Montreal. Exiting the airport, I was hit with a blast of -23 degree air. The occasion for my visit was special. I was accompanying my then-fiancé to her visa interview at the US Consulate so she could join me permanently in the Valley. Her visa was accepted and within a few weeks, she would have her entry documents to move permanently to the U.S.
I couldn’t have known it then, but those few weeks waiting for my now-wife’s documents changed my perspective on Montreal and Canada at large. Canada had never struck me as the ideal place to hang my tech hat and call home. I knew Canada birthed Research in Motion (RIM), a faltering giant that was fading out of the spotlight, but honestly, that was about it. After all, California was home to all of the startup news hype, where the unicorns were born and bountiful VC cash was flowing. Why even bother exploring and researching the Canadian tech landscape and ecosystem?
On one of the long days of waiting, out of boredom, I googled “Montreal startups.” The search revealed Notman House: “a technology hub that provides office, event, and communal space for startups, investors, technology partners, and community groups.” My interest piqued, I grabbed my coat and off I went. At the time, Notman House could be best described as an Alpha version: an assortment of Ikea desks, second-hand furniture and random people curiously wandering around. A random wanderer myself, I made my way up a beautiful turn-of-the-century spiral staircase to find a small office with a Real Ventures placard on the door.
I can’t imagine being able to walk up and down Sandhill Road, randomly introduce myself, and five minutes later grab lunch with a friendly VC. But that day at Notman, I did. During that serendipitous lunch, I got a 101 education about the Montreal and Canadian tech ecosystems. It immediately struck me that Real was a community builder. They actually rolled up their sleeves and filled the gaps in the ecosystem programmatically to increase the chance of a startup’s success.
I was told that five years earlier, seed funding for startups in Montreal and most of Canada was rare — there was no community hub to share and exchange ideas and come together, nor was there much support to help bring those ideas to fruition. Nevertheless, the spirit, passion and unwavering support of these entrepreneurs was unstoppable. They would self-assemble group events anywhere they could find a free space and a projector, help each other out with coding, and even go as far as lending talent to each other.
The number of people interested in startups in Canada grew exponentially, as did the creation of new startups. Believing that all the ingredients for a world-class startup hub were present in Montreal, the founding partners of Real launched a modest $5M fund in 2007 to test their thesis, and created the OSMO Foundation, a not-for-profit organization which opened the Notman House — a community hub and the nucleus for the startup ecosystem in the city.
After that lunch, I was encouraged to meet with founders from Real’s community. I was introduced to entrepreneurs like Julien Smith of Breather, Ethan Song and Hicham Ratnani of Frank and Oak, LP Maurice of Busbud. My goal was to kill time by being helpful and sharing some perspectives from the Valley, yet in meeting after meeting, I was blown away by the vision, ambition and unique insights these entrepreneurs held. The only way to differentiate between these founders and the best in the Valley was geography.
I realized that a rare opportunity had presented itself. I could become part of a magical transformation-in-the-making that could eventually become the epicentre of industry-defining companies and bleeding-edge technologies. As I got to know these entrepreneurs better, it struck me that Canada as a birthplace for disruption was obvious. Montreal is home to Yoshua Bengio, the founder of the now globally-renowned Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA), and ranked one of the top cities in the world for university students. Toronto was on the verge of bursting its seams with newly-minted innovation initiatives like Creative Destruction Labs, MaRs, and Ryerson DMZ, and is home to the man many call “The Godfather of Deep Learning,” Geoff Hinton, who both teaches computer science at the University of Toronto and heads various research initiatives for Google. Waterloo needs no introduction in the Valley. In fact, for decades the Valley giants have been poaching top talent from the University of Waterloo, and many of Waterloo’s grads and dropouts have gone on to change the world (Instacart, Wish, Kik, Jasper). Ever hear of Vitalik Buterin? He founded Etherium while attending the University of Waterloo (and is still a huge supporter of the Canadian and Waterloo tech ecosystem). And then there is, of course, Vancouver, which is already a second home to many of the world’s top technology firms.
I was fortunate to have walked into Notman that day. Real had just closed their third fund of $88.8M and was looking to expand their investment team. I jumped at the opportunity and never looked back. While my wife was always an advocate for staying in Canada and raising our family here, it wasn’t until my encounter with the team at Real that I was convinced that there is no better place on earth to be an entrepreneur and VC right now. It’s been nearly four years since I moved here, and the winters are getting easier and the startups are getting better.
Today we’re on our fourth fund of $180M and are in search of an exceptional partner to join our rapidly-expanding team in Toronto. Looking back, I cherish the time I spent in the Valley, but if you’re like me and take great pleasure in building brands from the ground up, you’ll find a warm and exceptionally ambitious group of people at Real — and in Canada — to welcome you to the ecosystem. Whether you’re a Canadian living in the Valley or an American (like myself) looking for the next big game-changing opportunity, whether you’ve had an incredible run as an entrepreneur, were a core member of a technology startup or come from a tech investing background, I encourage you to reach out to us and discover the amazing opportunities that await you in here in the North.