Drinking the startup Kool-Aid

We checked out the Startup Open House for a peek into some of Montreal’s emerging tech businesses and lifestyle brands.

photo 1 (6)
The moment I saw Peter Thiel’s Zero to One sitting on a start-up’s coffee-table, I realized that some of these Mile End start-ups mean serious business.

The setting was the Startup Open House on Oct. 30, a chance to visit dozens of local startups. And while many of the goers were young techies looking for an in, I was there for the free booze (and maybe the free snacks, too), and to learn about the Mile End tech scene, of course.

The coffee-table in question was located on the eighth floor of a drab concrete building at 5333 Casgrain, inside a spartan loft space that housed three separate start-ups, each seated at a long desk. There were a lot of apples.

photo 3 (1)I dug into one while a PR lady explained to me the premise of Provender: “We’re a platform.” Essentially, Provender want to be the medium through which local farmers with produce to ship and restaurateurs with plates to fill carry out their business. An Alibaba-for-localvores, or something. When I tried to ask a follow-up, I realized I was spitting bits of apple everywhere, so I excused myself and ran across the room.

Soon I was talking to TransitApp co-founder/CTO Guillaume Campagna, who pulled out his smartphone to show me a slick-looking, well, transit app. Using our current location (and location history), TransitApp pulled in data from the STM, Uber and Bixi to provide a plethora of transit options. On a practical level, it showed when the next south-bound bus would pass — his regular commute. Campagna talked about potential future partnerships to integrate data from car-share schemes.

photo 2Now I was ready for a drink, but some pretty data visualizations caught my eye. Clean in design but packed with information, they looked like exactly the kind of thing you see on web-native websites like Quartz or Vox. This was InfoActive, a $30/month data visualization subscription service for anyone who has a story to tell and the data trove to tell it with, such as marketers or journalists.

Just a little up the street, at 5425 Casgrain, was a different kind of startup: one that had grown up. Busbud, another “platform company,” is a one-stop-shop for booking coach tickets with any of the big carriers on many of the most popular city-to-city routes in the world, through their app or website. Their much bigger loft space featured glass-walled meeting rooms and hardwood flooring. There were lots of bite-sized Halloween candies, chips, beer and jello shooters. The three co-founders — one of them dressed as a pirate — were holding court in one corner to a small but rapt audience seated around them, some of whom were snapping pictures. It was time to go.

photo 4 (1)Behind the main Ubisoft building, at 160 St-Viateur W., on the sixth floor, was one of the most talked-about places: Frank & Oak, a “lifestyle brand” basically aimed at people who read VICE. Founded in Feb. 2012, but only recently relocated to Mile End from Pointe St-Charles, you could say they were pushing the whole rue St-Viateur thing a little too hard. But no one seemed to mind.

Visitors arrived in waves from the elevators and were formed into impromptu tour groups. The 80–90 employees in the office are seated by team at long desks that were starting to choke up with folders, papers and other corporate office detritus. Stark fluorescent lighting reflected off bare concrete floors. One pin-board outlined upcoming style trends for spring 2015. When the tour group became bottle-necked in one corner of the office, I found out that while there was no drink to be had here, CookIt just upstairs were amply stocked.

photo 5 (2)A few minutes later, I was feasting on the most delicious hors d’oeuvres of the evening while standing in what was a very faithful replica of a yuppie kitchen. CookIt operatives explained to me how they plan to ship to members, packed in a distinctive box, all the ingredients you would need to cook yourself a fancy pre-determined meal. Delicious though their spread was, their business plan did not sound as tasty.

Down the hall, at Landr, a small team ensconced within a glass-walled war-room watched screens showing real-time traffic numbers for their product: automated online mastering of audio tracks, and the promise of professional studio sound for a fraction of the cost.

Just then my phone buzzed. “What are u doing go to spotr! they r gonna leave at 7” read my lock-screen. My source was interviewing with Wajam, a social search startup (that had pizza) that had recently been spun out of SPOTR, my evening’s final destination. Ditching a half-full Alchimiste, I made my way into the dark and tried to remember where I had left my bike — and which bike? — but before long I was curb-riding down the Main to just south of Rachel.

Upstairs, on an exposed brick wall, SPOTR was written in lights. Against the other wall, a Hollywood-style red carpet was set up; the product manager, doubling as a paparazzo, snapped my picture on instant film. A remote-controlled quad-copter skittered around the office. Behind all this glitter though, I had a tougher time making out what SPOTR was supposed to be about. They say they’re building a catalogue of celebrity-endorsed products and brands by tagging pictures found in pop culture media, possibly through the use of crowd-sourcing and gamification. A Pinterest-for-people-who-take-their-cues-from-celebrities-and-brands, perhaps.

The open house party was slowly winding down. Startup people were meeting up later at Apt. 200, further down the Main, but I had had enough tech talk for one evening. I retreated to Mile End to geo-locate a tallboy of PBR. Now there’s an app idea. ■