T echTO is works to grow and diversify the tech ecosystem in Canada through events, research and advocacy. Their monthly TechTO speaker and networking meet up is highly recommended, and it’s a fabulous way to experience Toronto’s tech culture firsthand. I recently spoke with Jason Goldlist, co-founder of TechTO, about the organization’s beginnings, growth, and future direction.
You started this 3 years ago. How did you meet Alex?
Alex and I didn’t meet at TechTO. Alex was actually one of my managers at my first job. And, for the record, he was my least favorite manager. He made me do all the work, he did very little mentor-ship, gave very little guidance, but we got along famously and we kept in touch. We both left that job at the McKinsey company where he was my manager and I was an analyst, and we both got involved in tech scenes and both moved abroad.
When we came back to Toronto we were both looking for the same thing, which was a central community that we could connect to, to help grow our own businesses, but also learn about all the other businesses that were growing really quickly in the area. We couldn’t find it, so we started to make TechTO together.
How big was TechTO when it started, how big was that first meetup?
Originally, we started TechToronto under the guise of Toronto Homecoming, which was an organization that helped repatriate Canadians from all over the world whether it was in the The Valley, Seattle, New York or London, to come back to Toronto to join industry as executives here. Toronto Homecoming had been operating for several years in finance and retail and healthcare, but they didn’t have a tech stream. So we actually started this tech stream and brought some Canadians who had left really early to Google or Facebook to come back here and join our tech scene.
And while we were promoting that, we actually made such a stir that all of our friends said: ‘well we’d love to join!’. But you actually can’t join because it’s only for people from outside of Toronto. We built that stream and ended up bringing 120 people from around the world to Toronto. About a dozen of them stayed right after with great jobs.
The very next month we started an event series just for locals, which was the first ever TechTO like we know it today. At our first event it was Alex, me, and a bunch of people we roped into joining us on a Monday night. It was our friends that were presenting, it was our friends in the audience, it was Alex’s credit card for the beer, which we ran out of before we even started I think. It was a really small intimate affair at Ryerson DMZ. We were both mentors there at the time and they were open to hosting us and taking a risk on this. I am pretty sure it was the DMZ students who drank all the beer.
It was really small. What was great was from that first event and still today, we are very open and transparent about what we are trying to do. We are not trying to push our own businesses. We’re not recruiters trying to fill positions. We are really trying to grow the tech community in Toronto. I think that is why lot of the other events miss the mark; because they are all sometimes thinly veiled marketing initiatives.
From the very beginning our intention was to do the two things we talked about every single month which is to share knowledge, get people who are really doing this right, and have them teach everybody how to do it so they are not making the same mistakes, so they are taking advantage of best practices, and two, to make those connections because we think those connections will really grow the ecosystem. Whether its for partnerships, or hiring, or getting inspired those are all the things that make it a real community. And that’s what we care about.
What is really cool is that we’ve grown through word of mouth. Those few dozen people who joined us at the first one? They came back, and they told their friends, and their friends told their friends, and we have people who have been to 10, 20, 30 of our events.
I bet you’ve seen the community itself change over the last 3 years. I came to my first TechTO in July. I thought it would be a small meeting with about a dozen people sitting around a table.
You missed that. That was like 1993 TRIBE MAGAZINE, right?
Pretty much (laughing). You’ve been instrumental in the growth of this community, this ecosystem, this scene, this culture. How have you noticed it change over the last 3 years?
Well it’s very nice of you to say that we are instrumental. I’d say we have grown with the community. I don’t think there is one organization that can take credit for what has happened in Toronto. There are a lot of amazing people and programs and organizations that have made this happen. What we have tried to do is tried to make it visible to people who are already in it, and to allow anybody to join and connect with the community and become an insider really quickly and easily.
You know I think we’ve seen, in the last 3 years, not just a community happen around tech, but tech really infiltrating into lots of the traditional industries and functions that we have seen around the city. When we started, TechTO was sufficient – one place for the tech community to get together. Now people are saying: “Hey, how does technology impact my part of the world?” I work in marketing or I work in sales or I work in healthcare…
Thus your brand extensions going into these other areas.
It’s happened because the community has come to us. This TechTO is great, but you know what I really need, I need people to tell me how this is going to impact my part of the world. I think that has really happened. Tech isn’t something that just happens over there, now it happens in all the places that I work. That’s for sure been one of the big ones.
So how is that going for you guys? Growing it out to these different verticals. Are they getting bigger too? Or is one bigger than the other?
Have you been to any of them? You have to come join us! Some of them are growing extraordinarily quickly. We have about 600 people come out each month to TechTO. We have about 500 people come out every other month to FinTechTO. We just did our first ever Marketing TO – we had 400 people come to our MarketingTO. So it’s really growing like crazy. Which is very exciting I think. I think it is showing the biggest mind shift change – that tech is happening everywhere. I think the city is ready to embrace it. They are embracing it. It’s happening.
I saw that Alex recently went to Vancouver to do something out there. Is there a TechVAN?
Yeah, we’ve been doing it for two years.
So you started a satellite thing out there?
We do TechToronto, and we also do the verticals that you know in Toronto; HealthTO, SalesTO, FintechTO, MarketingTO, TraveltechTO, there’s a lot of them now. We also have TechVancouver, which is just like this one, but every month in Vancouver and it is a general one – a gateway drug. And we also do TechWaterloo every other month. TechWaterloo region, we host that at Shopify’s new spot down there, it’s unbelievable. We’ve been doing that for two years as well.
The way that we like to view this organization is as a community organization where the bigger it gets, the more impact we are able to have. It just lets us do more and more for the community. So that is something we have been really passionate about. We think it is really important to charge admission to our events, to make sure have got great people coming to our events to help with the network and the community. And if we make a little bit of money from it, we are able to open TravelTechTO and start that one. They take a while to get going and to grow and we’d love to do more and more.
One thing that we did last year that was really cool was this research report, that we did in conjunction with PWC and the University of Toronto which was about understanding the numbers of employment that are created through technology. That’s information that helps create policy at the municipal, provincial, and federal level that helps encourage the technology sector in Toronto. We know that it’s been cited at City Hall several times, they presented it at an international economic development symposium.
When Toronto Global was putting together the bid for Amazon HQ2, this was one of the documents that they could rely on to get research to share in their proposal.
“I can’t imagine that we are going to be in some ivory tower somewhere thinking about what the future of the community is. I think we’ll be with the community helping shape it together.”Jason Goldlist TechTO
Where do you see your organization going from here?
We’ve always been running this organization a bit like our own startups in that we try to understand our customers and we try to create products they are going to love. To date our community has asked us for the TechTO events an the offshoot events and we create things that we think people are going to love. Where that’s going to take us, I’m not sure. There’s no master plan. I think the community lets us know where we want to go. I think there is a lot of opportunity still – things that have to do with knowledge sharing, expertise sharing, and network connections that are going to help make this an amazing community. Those are the kinds of things we like to play in. We are more of a grassroots organization. We like to be down here on the ground, whether it’s with the community, or the front line workers of organizations and companies and whatever it is making the magic happen. So my guess is where the community asks us that’s where we’ll be.
I can’t imagine that we are going to be in some ivory tower somewhere thinking about what the future of the community is. I think we’ll be with the community helping shape it together.
So on the ground here what do you pick up about the ecosystem itself – where is it going? What direction is Toronto going to be really huge in? Compared to Silicon Valley , are we going to be bigger? Better? Different?
All of those things. Bigger, different and better. One of the things we’ve done really well is create more enterprise level software versus consumer software that might come from the Valley. I think that has to do a lot with the existing big banks that we have here. The big retailers that we have here have really allowed us to create amazing B2B FinTech companies, amazing B2B retail companies, e-commerce companies that are the best in the world at what they do. I think that will continue; this idea of the collision between our traditional sectors and technology will just continue to grow.
I think the major thing here is in other markets there is a lot of rhetoric around disruption. Destroy the incumbents, destroy the traditional organizations. I think we don’t have that. I think we see a lot more of the partnerships. How can we take the knowledge that we already have, like where we are today, how can business get some of this magic and how can the tech community get some of the amazing access that RBC has for example and make something great together.
That defines us today and will continue to define us. Collaborations, partnerships, collisions, it’s bringing technology into the sectors we already have. Playing on the established strengths that we have, rather than coming at it like some other places who want to do it alone. I don’t want to be influenced by what the incumbents have done here – I think I can win.