I’ve always been a believer in unicorns, because … why not? They could exist! Wouldn’t that be something, to be the first person to actually see one of those magical, mystical animals?!
And what about angels? I believe in them, too. I have a few special angels who’ve been watching over me ever since their untimely release from their physical presence on Earth.
So if any unicorns or angels turn up at your door on Halloween night, please be generous with your treats, staying COVID-cautious of course.
But these aren’t the kinds of unicorns and angels I want to explore with you, at least not in this post. Instead I want to talk about the unicorn and angels that are the stars of a new book, Unicorn in the Woods, by Gordon Pitts.
The woods he refers to are the woods of my beloved little out-of-the-way province of New Brunswick.
The unicorn he refers to is a unicorn startup. A unicorn startup is a popular term for a privately held tech startup company valued at $1 BILLION or more.
Whose ideas and technical expertise created these unicorn startups in our little old province? My former students at the University of New Brunswick, that’s who! ❤ Yes, UNB and its amazing young people, and a tenacious, hard-working team of believers, created two companies that garnered Canada’s Venture Capital Association Deal of the Year Award two years running in 2011-12.
The angels involved are angel investors; private citizens (family members, friends, supporters, and sometimes even former professors) who take a chance on a new, untested startup by providing seed capital to help them get started. To help them stay afloat until they can capture the attention of the deeper pockets of venture capitalists.
Those of you have read my blog for some time now may know that I love travel, running, and quilting. You may know that I’m a proud grandmother and a proud Canadian and New Brunswicker. You may know that my husband and I used to have a farm, and have many fond memories of those experiences.
You might have figured out from past posts that I’m also a retired computer science professor, and very proud of my former students, who have made and continue to make a difference in so many avenues of technology, business, and contributions to their communities.
What I may not have conveyed in prior blog posts about farming is the depth of awe and respect we gained for farmers from what we learned when farming ourselves. Farmers take on the risk of weather over which they have no control, market supply and demand, over which they similarly have little or no control, and an enormous level of debt in order to acquire heavy equipment, fertilizer, seed, etc. As a salaried employee, with benefits, a pension plan, and none of the responsibility of the revenue stream, this was my first revelation of the real world. Our hobby farm taught us many valuable lessons.
Similarly, I don’t think I’ve ever conveyed in a previous post my profound respect and admiration for people who take on the many risks involved in going into business for themselves. Finding the money to pay your employees regularly, worrying about competition, problem solving every challenge as it arises – continually – is something most of us never even think about. We just go to work and get on with doing the job we’re paid to do.
I was one of those people who just went to work and tried to do her job, but history-in-the-making intervened. Computer science was seen increasingly as a platform for developing systems that would not just help people run their businesses, but also as a platform for developing innovative applications that could be used in almost every conceivable domain, from business to education to entertainment. Our economic development folks came to realize that our computer science students, graduates and researchers were a potential gold mine of new ideas for startups and a great source of future employees. They stepped up to offer considerable support, as did our provincial government at the time.
Because the nascent IT industry was taking off at the time I became involved in administration in my department, and because a university voice was seen as important to the economic development folks who were anxious to support growth in our budding IT industry, I found myself fairly intimately involved in our local economic development agency for several years. What an enriching experience. I learned many lessons, maybe the most important of which were:
- Strong public institutions and infrastructure – like universities and hospitals, roads and bridges – can only exist if you have a strong, thriving private sector. That’s how the taxes get paid that fund the public institutions! Entrepreneurs create companies, which create employment. They all pay taxes. End of story.
- In order to create new companies, you need a supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem (see how that word just rolls off my tongue now). That includes: mentors, venture capital and angel investors; depending on the industry, a source of well-trained employees from regional universities and colleges; access to easy air connections to reach larger centers of influence and markets; a well-balanced team that includes techies, experts at raising capital, marketers, and someone who’s really good at keeping it all together and moving forward; and lots and lots of energy, never-flagging commitment and never-ending optimism.
- The most important thing the person whose idea it is to start the company can do is realize that he or she cannot do it all, or at least cannot do it all well. You always need a strong team of people who bring different skills to the table and can work respectfully together.
- A strong community commitment makes a big difference, and that’s one advantage a smaller place has over a larger place. For the most part, we all really want to help each other. And we all know each other, or can find ways to do so easily. That matters.
Gordon Pitts’ book, Unicorn in the Woods, has a subtitle: How East Coast Geeks and Dreamers are Changing the Game. Those are my geeks! Amazing. We have other similarly amazing former students who have created IT companies that have done and continue to do very well, hiring many of our graduates to work in their companies and be able to stay in this wonderful place instead of “heading down the road”, contribute to their community in many ways, and raise the next generation of Maritimers. No need to leave the region to find work. That may be the best part about the story.
This book is very well researched and written, and a really good read. It relates the trials and tribulations – over many years – of bringing two startup companies started by the same people to maturity and sale, Q1 Labs and Radian6. Radian6 was sold to Salesforce in March 2011. Q1 Labs was sold to IBM in October 2011, with the plan to use Q1’s security software to complement their global cybersecurity operations. After coming to appreciate the talent of the IT people in Fredericton, New Brunswick – my hometown – IBM subsequently relocated their entire global cybersecurity operation to Fredericton. If that doesn’t speak volumes about the robustness of our “ecosystem” in this small place, I don’t know what does.
To learn how software ideas get transformed from a thought inside one techie’s head into a pair of companies that sell for $1 billion, Unicorn in the Woods is just the book for you. It is eminently readable, and has plenty of lessons to share. It is available locally at Westminster Books and online at amazon.ca, amazon.com, and chapters.indigo.ca. (And, no, I am not receiving a commission for this plug!)