Photo: Techstars co-founder and CEO David Cohen visited the Communitech Hub for a Q&A with Waterloo Region’s entrepreneurs.

“Take a look around. These people are your community entrepreneur leaders,” David Cohen said as hands were raised in the air and members of a packed room looked around at each other.

The Techstars founder and CEO used the audience as a visual demonstration of how committed Waterloo Region entrepreneurs really are. After asking the audience to keep their hands raised for three questions – if they were entrepreneurs, if they loved Waterloo Region, if they knew they’d be here 20 years from now – about 45 per cent of hands remained raised.

“If you want to work for them, ask them how you can support them,” he said.

And that’s exactly why entrepreneurs came to the sold-out event Wednesday at the Tannery Event Centre. The audience had the chance to ask their startup questions, moderated by William Mougayar, founder and chief curator of Toronto-based Startup Management.

After a day in Toronto, Cohen spent Wednesday touring Waterloo Region with stops at the University of Waterloo, the Communitech Hub and companies including Thalmic Labs.

“There’s a sense of community here. I love that,” said Cohen. “This is an asset that you have right here. You have Christie [Digital] and Google. You have this luxury here where the network is provided.”

He explained that when he founded Techstars he was faced with the question of “how do we take an entire community and get them behind 10 companies?”

After being told that Boulder would never be a successful location for a tech startup hub, he knew he needed the support of mentors and the community, not just investors. He needed to find mentors who wanted to give first and didn’t expect anything.

“We built stronger connections in the community. They [the mentors] just want the community to be better,” he said.

“I think the learning is the key thing to understand,” said Cohen, emphasizing that in a community, people have an opportunity to learn from one another. “You told me to do A, and I did B. Come watch me be a train wreck and learn something. If you have a mentor that’s offended that you didn’t take their advice, you have the wrong mentor.”

And that’s exactly the kind of straight-shooting attitude Cohen has instilled in Techstars.

“We teach our companies on Day 1 that this is just life,” he said. “Your idea isn’t the value here. The value is in the team and the execution.”

Cohen also explained that it doesn’t matter how passionate you are about an idea, entrepreneurs and employees need to be in it for the right reasons.

“I look for what the source is. Where does the passion come from? If it’s from a spreadsheet it’s probably not going to work.”

Cohen also spoke about using opportunities as they present themselves. He told a true story about Tweeting the need for a lift to the airport and a follower offered to pick him up.

Cohen admitted that he took a chance in accepting the ride, but the same risk applies to doing business. The driver happened to be an entrepreneur, Danny Moon, whose company, UpNext, makes mobile maps. Cohen ended up investing in Moon’s company.

“Do or do not. There is no try,” said Cohen, citing the famous Yoda quote from Star Wars.

It’s also the best piece of advice he can give to entrepreneurs.

He told the audience that attitude affects outcome, especially when pitching to investors.

“The energy you give off and the confidence you show rubs off on the people around you. When they really believe it, that’s when it matters.”

As for the question on everyone’s mind, whether Techstars would be coming to Waterloo Region:

“We haven’t confirmed anything, but I feel very comfortable and at home here. It’s on a short-list of places outside the U.S. Top 5.”

About The Author

Samantha Clark
Media Relations Associate

As a Media Relations Associate at the Communitech Hub in Kitchener, Ontario, Sam is passionate about the Waterloo Region community, entrepreneurship and technology. She is a graduate of Conestoga College with a bachelor’s degree in public relations.