Top-flight speakers energize sold-out crowd at TLC 2013 Anthony Reinhart March 7, 2013 Communitech A supercharged speaker list made for a high-energy experience at Communitech’s annual Tech Leadership Conference on Thursday, where a sold-out crowd of close to 800 people gathered to celebrate another great year for the Waterloo Region ecosystem. Keynote speakers Thorsten Heins (BlackBerry CEO), marketing guru Seth Godin and Canadian-born Google chief financial officer Patrick Pichette made for an inspiring and entertaining lineup on the main stage at Bingemans in Kitchener. First up, fittingly, was Heins, whose tech leadership has been vigorously tested this past year, as the embattled Waterloo-based smartphone maker worked under phenomenal pressure to release its all-new BlackBerry 10 platform in January. In a free-wheeling, relaxed address, Heins touched on everything from the staunch local support BlackBerry has received during tough times, to the company’s commitment to differentiate its platform from those of Apple and Android, to sweeping changes he has led within the company, to his goal to work with other Canadian companies to make this country a global leader in mobile computing. “It was a wild time, the last 12 months,” Heins told a sympathetic hometown crowd. “We’re really, really proud as BlackBerry that we’ve made it to a stage where some people thought we would never get to…” Heins took pains to underscore the magnitude of the change within the company formerly known as Research In Motion, and referred repeatedly to BB10 as a mobile computing platform, rather than simply a smartphone. “We are in the midst of a huge transformation that is not just a transformation from mobile communications to mobile computing; it’s a huge transformation of the company, and it was a huge transformation for our community,” he said. “We have had 25 years of mobile communications, evolving and evolving, and now I truly believe we’re on the verge of something really great and big,” Heins said, “that will again change the way we work, it will change the way we communicate, but it will also change the way we compute.” BlackBerry, he said, will represent people’s “personal computing power” that connects them to key aspects of their lives, everything from their cars and homes to their health care; to “the internet of things.” “That is a huge paradigm shift that we’re all about to embark into,” he said. An early symbol of that shift is the company’s sponsorship of the Mercedes Grand Prix team, which Heins said is “not just a sponsorship/advertising type of thing; we have agreed with Mercedes on a very deep technology partnership, where they will use BlackBerry 10 in the automotive space to help us advance towards mobile computing in the cars.” Inside BlackBerry, the company, Heins undertook an overhaul of his leadership team, and made the painful decision to cut 5,000 jobs from a workforce he had seen balloon from 6,800 to 22,000 in the three years after he joined the company as an executive in 2007. “RIM’s response to all challenges,” he said, “was to bring more people in.” Since he took on the CEO’s role in January of 2012, “We have changed the structure of the company, but we are still not done yet,” he said, before offering a bit of advice to the aspiring tech titans in the audience. “Make sure when you build your company that you avoid what I call the mushrooming pitfall,” he said. “You’ve got to work on efficiency and structures, thinking forward to where your company is going. We stepped into this pitfall a bit, and that led to a very, very dire situation for many of our employees.” On the subject of why BlackBerry’s home base remains deeply rooted in Waterloo – a question raised often throughout the company’s history, particularly in the past two years – Heins was unequivocal. “I often get the question when I’m interviewed by journalists, ‘Hey Thorsten, why don’t you move to Silicon Valley? Why don’t you move to New York? Why don’t you move to any other big place on the planet?’,” he said. “And I’m always telling them, ‘It’s not about where you are; it is about what you find where you live, and where you have your company. “And that is about talent; that is about a huge affinity of your region to be ready to invest and foster innovation, to help young people to build their startups, to get into the business and help them achieve what they want to achieve.” Heins said BlackBerry has a presence in all those other places, “but our home is here in Waterloo. This is where RIM started as a startup; this is where RIM grew and where we’re now taking it to the next level with BlackBerry.” The local support shown the company through its tough transition to BB10 – and not merely through the good times – has only deepened those roots. “I want to say thank you here for the local support that we received from the local authorities, from Communitech, from local communities in helping us to get through this very, very, very difficult challenge,” Heins said. “Again, this is why we’re here and not anywhere else – because we got that support not just when we were growing; we got the same strong support when we hit the wall and we had to really change things rather dramatically.” Introduced by Communitech CEO Iain Klugman, who listed some dizzying statistics around startup activity in Waterloo Region – including more than 400 new companies that emerged last year alone – Heins said Communitech and others have succeeded “to make Waterloo the startup capital of Canada.” It’s a mission he said BlackBerry will continue to support, and he encouraged entrepreneurs in the audience to engage the company with their best ideas around mobile computing going forward. “This is what a company like BlackBerry needs,” Heins said. “We need you to innovate, we need you to partner, we need your intelligence, we need your creativity and to also partner and harvest what you guys are building.” Godin, the author of 17 books who was once dubbed “America’s Greatest Marketer,” made his second appearance at TLC in four years, and provoked thought as much as he entertained. “Professional wrestling is fake,” Godin declared as he took the stage, prompting an outcry of mock disbelief. Most people might know this, but “once you realize that it’s not legit, the whole thing looks different,” he said. “You start to look at the world differently.” Godin, who grew up in Buffalo and now lives near New York City, proceeded over the course of nearly an hour to talk about how the world is different than it used to be, and how “this is really an expensive mistake to make, to not see.” He used himself as an example. In the early 1990s, he decided to write a book about all the things you could find on this then-new computer network called the internet. He hired six people who worked full-time for seven months to produce the book, which sold less than 2,000 copies. “During that same period of time, two guys in California, David and Jerry, saw what I saw, had the resources that I had, but instead of making a book about things you could find on the internet, they made a website called Yahoo!” he said. The inability to see, and thus exploit, the way things really are often results from the notion that everything is already being done the way it should, he said. “In fact, there’s this enormous amount of churn, this enormous amount of turmoil, and there’s lots of opportunity,” Godin said. A fundamental shift is under way, from an industrial society to a connection society. As a result, traditional marketing – whereby companies advertised goods and people dutifully bought them – is becoming less effective, he said. The power of connection is disrupting industries once controlled by a few powerful players, such as the record industry, which has been all but dismantled by the free exchange of music online. As a result, simply advertising a product and expecting people to buy it is no longer enough, Godin said; a deeper connection must be made, built on trust between seller and buyer, permission of the buyer to be marketed to, and a genuine exchange of worthy ideas. “What do we have to do to make these things happen? One, we have to be generous, because no one wants to connect to the selfish person; no one wants to trust the person who’s taking; and two, believe it or not, we have to make art,” Godin said. “Art means the work of a human doing something for the first time; something that might not matter; something generous; something that might touch us.” Approached in this way, we can’t help but want to connect, he said. This type of marketing approach is all the more necessary in an era when “we have branded ourselves to death,” and when consumption of media and advertising are no longer virtually mandatory, as they were just a few decades ago, but voluntary. The fact that the industrial age, based on scarcity, has been supplanted by an age of connection based on abundance – witness the number of smartphone apps or grocery store products or blog posts – means “you cannot force me to hear your pitch, decide to come work for you, read your article or (endure) any other form of interruption unless I want to.” What will win in the long run “is how much impact we can make, not on everyone, but on the people we’re able to interact with.” This, Godin said, is where the idea of tribes comes in; of connecting with people who share a language, a culture, “a shorthand.” Pichette, a Montreal native and former Bell Canada executive who now bikes to work for Google in Mountain View, Calif., took the stage for a “fireside chat” with OMERS Ventures CEO and Communitech board member John Ruffolo. As CFO, he oversees the finances of a company with a market capitalization of $235 billion, $48 billion in cash, and the most visited site on the internet, fulfilling more than a billion search requests a day. An unabashedly proud Canadian, Pichette nonetheless feels Canadian entrepreneurs need to set bigger and broader aspirations for themselves, as Googlers do every day. “Go big, take moonshots; that’s what changes the world,” he said. “It’s absolutely part of us, and you see it in Kitchener-Waterloo today; you see it in Canada in the digital economy today, with so many startups.” Asked by Ruffolo why Google chose Waterloo Region as the location for its main Canadian engineering office, Pichette started by saying “Google could never have grown without expanding outside Mountain View,” because its dreams were larger than the talent pool it could draw on from just one location. It scouted locations around the world that had two attributes: top-notch computer science talent, and a good cultural fit with the company, because “Google is a really quirky place.” It looks for pools of talent with the critical mass to open an office and that shares the dream of building things that at least a billion people can use, Pichette said, and “Kitchener-Waterloo is a perfect fit for that; an absolutely perfect fit.” Local Googlers “work on crazy projects” that are among the best in the world, he said, citing their involvement in building the Gmail application for Apple’s iOS mobile platform, the touchscreen on the new Chromebook and the Google Fiber project in Kansas City. Pichette spoke at length about Google’s legendary working conditions, from massage therapy, free gourmet meals and “the best coffee; not kind-of-okay coffee”, to the customized buses it uses to transport workers from their homes in San Francisco to work in Mountain View. The buses aren’t merely equipped with wifi, but their aisle seats can be moved into the aisle to provide more room for everyone to work comfortably at their computers for the duration of the trip. Employees aren’t confined to their work roles, but are encouraged to pursue their other passions in life, which often leads to new Google initiatives. One of Waterloo Region’s biggest tech stories of 2012 was Google’s acquisition of BufferBox, an 18-month-old parcel-pickup kiosk company born out of the UW VeloCity incubator program. Pichette said 80 per cent of goods are bought locally, and that “there’s a lot of focus on the user, on how you live simply, beautifully, with the right models,” so Google is “doing a ton of experimentation in that space, and that’s why, in part, we decided to buy this small company from here.” Google is “optimistic” about retail, which is “going to be reinvented again and again and again.” After the fireside chat, attendees broke off into smaller rooms for breakout sessions. An informal reception followed, before everyone headed home.