Why Montreal was the perfect place for my start-up

To what degree does culture shape commerce? Does our national identity define us in the marketplace? Many people think so, to the degree that the typical Canadian entrepreneur is often typecast as being more timid and less prone to take risks than his or her counterpart in the United States. Although there are many elements of truth, this generalization begins to fall apart when we consider the depth, breadth and diversity of what it means to be Canadian. In other words, when it comes to business, a one-size-fits-all “Canadian approach” simply doesn’t exist.

This is no truer than when it comes to Quebec. I’ve worked in cities all around the world, each one providing me with a unique lesson about the kind of business climate I’d one day want to operate my own business in. In the end, SweetIQ, the company I co-founded, has its headquarters in Montreal – a city not known to be a start-up hotbed in a province with one of the lowest rates of entrepreneurialism in Canada.

Paradoxically, our company’s success so far – growth beyond Quebec, Canada and into the United States – is arguably in large part attributable to these factors, not despite them. And over the years, I have learned some unexpected lessons from the Montreal culture and Quebec identity applicable to ventures far and wide.

Small is better

Starting a company in Montreal meant operating in a much smaller context than competitors in larger, busier markets. And while some might say this could be a disadvantage for starting a business, it actually ended up being beneficial.

Montreal’s startup scene is smaller in comparison to Silicon Valley, New York and even Toronto. All three register on the Martin Prosperity Institute’slist of 20 global startup hubs. (Montreal is not on this list.) Because Montreal is a smaller market, businesses here are able to be more nimble and develop refined expertise in a highly specialized niche, instead of feeling the pressure to be all things to all people. And since there weren’t dozens of other startups vying for the same market, we were able to determine early on exactly who we wanted to be and what we wanted to achieve without the pressures of a noisy local industry.

Grow right

When your business is not operating in a climate fixated on valuations and meteoric growth, entrepreneurs have more breathing room to work out operational kinks. That’s not to say this isn’t our goal, but certainly growing too quickly without the right foundational structures in place risks a business’s ability to successfully fulfill customer demands. This can eat into the time and energy required to focus on important financial and operational aspects of the business, and we’re seeing many high profile cases of this emerging of late with the famed example of HR Benefits startup Zenefits.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Stanford management gurus Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao in their book, Scaling Up Excellence, where they argue that growing an organization is not just about more, but about more and better. In our case, starting in Montreal allowed us to take the time we needed to grow thoughtfully and get better, rather than get caught up in the grind of a competitive market and unrealistic expectations, leading to sloppy choices or mistakes.

Many startups and entrepreneurs here want to grow their businesses because they believe in their idea, not because they want to sell off as soon as possible. No matter where you are based, build your company to be competitive in the long term rather than priming it for a quick exit … If you do it right, the money will flow. Employees easily recognize when founders view their ventures as golden tickets and the results often include less passion, dedication and commitment to innovation.

Build your own identity

If you ask people to describe start-up culture in Silicon Valley, Toronto or Waterloo, Ont., you will often find that people have distinct impressions. Because the scene in Montreal is relatively newer and smaller, there is no mold or model to be pressured to fit into. Instead, the city boasts a patchwork of cultures and languages that allows people from different backgrounds and nationalities to thrive. At SweetIQ alone, 11 nationalities are represented across our 100+ employees, enabling us to better understand our clients and our competitors.

The connection between diversity and success in business is well-known, with a recent Forbes Global Diversity and Inclusion report finding a strong connection not only between diversity and innovation, but also that a diverse workforce will attract the best talent.

It is important to underscore that businesses can succeed – and fail – in any market. The best conditions do not always lead to success and the most challenging obstacles do not necessarily lead to failure. But good ideas and different perspectives can help most businesses be more competitive over the long run and sometimes come from unexpected places. Like Montreal.

Mohannad El-Barachi is co-founder and CEO of SweetIQ Analytics Corp., Montreal.



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