Mashable’s Piece on Quebec’s Startup Climate Twisted Reality

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Mashable’s January 30th article entitled “Quebec’s Preoccupation With French Is Limiting It’s Startup Scene” didn’t earn it too many new friends in La Belle Province.

I’m a little late on the subject, but I finally read the article. This stands as a response to the publication, and not the writer. When an article makes such bold assertions about a community, the media organization as a whole claims responsibility.

I thought the article’s argument, that Quebec’s language laws like Bill 101 harm Montreal and Quebec’s startup community, and that Montreal’s tech hub “suffers the most,” was a load of bologna. You can read the piece here.

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In all my time in Montreal, I’ve never been told by a startup that Bill 101 or any other proactive policy on the part of Pauline Marois’ government to protect the French language, has affected their success. Julien Brault’s retort in La Presse seemed to say the same thing, when he wrote that he regularly attends events in Montreal, and has never heard complaints about language laws.

It read to me as a cute attempt by a US-based blog to pen a knowledgeable piece about a foreign tech community. Certainly some will have agreed with the article, but it perpetuated a make-believe problem that exists far less than it was portrayed as.

Quotes and commenters

The quotes published by Cai Rintoul, Greg Isenberg and Jason Della Rocca did not support the arguments made. It read to me as if they were interviewed about what was great about Montreal, while the article was actually focused on the opposite.

I’m not convinced Rintoul and Isenberg, both clever CEOs when it comes to PR, actually shared the opinions asserted in the article. On a call Isenberg told me he’s “no longer commenting on political issues” and “just wants to focus on products that add value to people’s lives everyday”. Good ol’ Isenberg.

The closest supporting quote was probably Della Rocca’s, who politely offered that language issues “potentially have a chilling effect” on Montreal’s startup scene. I don’t buy it.

I think Della Rocca was merely giving an open, liberal answer to a question about a problem that might, but probably doesn’t exist.

Commenters pelted the article, saying it made a hypothetical issue way bigger than it actually is in reality. The writer responded, first defending herself by saying that “language politics make outside investors hesitant to commit their resources to Quebec-based startups,” and even going as far as saying Montreal is “isolated to outside investors.” When commenters rejected this she switched her defense to that of a “branding issue” where perhaps there exists untapped potential. One commenter went as far as saying that the article itself is part of the problem.

Money is green (I mean, lots of colours!)

In the article, cocksure statements asserted that the province’s legal squabbles over bilingualism “continue to hold Quebec back from becoming truly competitive in the tech world.” The claim that Bill 101 makes “international investors hesitant to enter the Quebec market” is equally as far stretching. Great fundable companies, whether they’re working in Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia or anywhere else in Canada, will be funded.

But, “many entrepreneurs continue to view the province’s controversial language laws as a source of frustration.” I don’t doubt that some Quebecers are dissatisfied with the political circus that is Quebec, but even for those who believe it actually affects their startup company, I’d argue there’s more who pay no attention to it. Money is green. Or in our country, it’s blue, purple, green, red and brown.

FounderFuel’s general manager Ian Jeffrey said the companies in his accelerator are focused on a global market, and thus English is the language that’s used. Any issues revolving around language “really doesn’t change anything at all,” he said.

He explained that Montreal’s multiculturalism, its several universities constantly churning out talent and the province’s shred credits create an amazing environment. “I don’t think that language is hindering that growth at all. There’s no doubt that there’s no problem at all. It’s just a question of perception, which is somewhat unfortunate.”

Perception, or “branding issues” is what the article tried to fall back on. Jeffrey agreed when I offered that any “branding issues” are probably made worse through pieces like this.

The article told us that the province “needs a distinct rebranding.” But that’s not as a result of Montreal’s startup leaders crying in unison about language politics or timid American investors. It’s a multitude of things, like corruption, crumbing bridges, people telling others they can’t wear their hijabs and many other fun topics that Montrealers discuss everyday.

At times it reminded me of Rick Mercer’s old tv segment called “Talking to Americans”. Mercer went around engaging our neighbours to the south on topics like Canada’s supposed ban of the microwave. He actually managed to get George W. Bush, then a presidential candidate, to comment on a supposed endorsement from “Prime Minister Jean Poutine”.

(What makes the Mashable piece all the more bizarre is the writer was born and raised in Montreal).

Oddly the article actually seemed to shut down its own premise at one point, when it discussed Bill 101’s language laws as they pertain to startups. “Businesses of 50 employees or more are bound by these requirements, which means that most early-stage startups fall outside of the law’s purview.”

But it also asserted that indie gaming startups are at a disadvantage, particularly when they must devote resources to French translation. Sure, but this is one headache among plenty of positives that make Montreal a great place to be a game developer. Once companies hit a certain size the province tends to handsomely reward them even more. I would guess that this is probably what Della Rocca was trying to hint at in his interview, but it didn’t come across that way in the article.

Fearful investors?

Mashable’s main assertion was the notion that perceived “political turmoil” scares away investors. Responding to a commenter a Mashable editor wrote “language laws, while not directly prohibitive, are discouraging investors, especially those from outside the region.”

I spoke with a few people who agreed with Mashable here, but nonetheless felt that the article’s glossing over of a complex issue didn’t win it any favours. Some did agree that Quebec language politics can scare away foreign investors. However the vast majority disagreed, particularly as it relates to seed-stage startups.

Austin Hill built Montreal’s second largest Internet service provider, TotalNet, in 1994 and went on to sell it for just under $10 million. Not only is Montreal leading Canada in seed stage startup investments, said Hill, but also it currently has the largest capital pool of limited partner money in Canada.

Since TotalNet Hill has invested in several Canadian and American startups, both as an angel and as a partner at a venture capital firm.

“Foreign-based investors are investing in Canada based on traction and it has very little to do with language laws,” said Hill. “All things being equal, when you add up everything Montreal has its strengths and its weaknesses like any city, but it’s an incredibly fertile startup ecosystem.”

He mentioned several Montreal startups that all received outside help, including Lagoa, Cinemegram and Hopper, just to name a few. StumbleUpon acquired Isenberg’s 5by and Bunch took money from 500 Startups, among other investors. There’s plenty more examples.

J.S Cournoyer is a partner with Montreal’s Real Ventures, and has invested in Quebec startups alongside US investors many times. He thinks the majority of US investors don’t actually know what the labour laws are in Canada, let alone the language rules.

“I’ve never heard a US investor say ‘I’m not going to invest in your company because you’re in Quebec and there’s different language laws.’ Just looking at our Quebec-based companies getting interest by US investors, I just don’t think it’s an issue that anyone’s talking about,” he said. “A few of our companies have raised money from US investors in the past year and none of them expressed any concerns over any laws.”

From Facebook commenter Chad Loeven (20+ years in tech, four exits): “Contrary to what you posted, I think the Mashable article was pretty much spot on. A lot of people are putting time and energy into shooting the messenger instead of acknowledging the very real economic problems in Montreal caused by “political turmoil” (quotation marks yours, not mine).”

Joseph Czikk

Joseph Czikk

Joseph Czikk is Managing Editor at Betakit. Prior to Betakit Joseph wrote for the National Post, Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Sun, Regina Leader Post, Techvibes and BC Business Online. Joseph often goes crazy on twitter during NHL and NFL games.

  • BM

    I’m a Canadian founder who has never lived in Quebec. I have to say that the perception I hear from Quebec founders is the opposite of your position in the article, and closer to Mashable’s POV.

    It’s such a complicated issue that I am guessing nobody wants to go on the record for your counter-article, and the few who went on the record for Mashable regret it.

    I have no vested interest in this debate at all, but I think Quebec is really hurting business. I know of at least 4 startups who have left Montreal in the last year because of issues ranging from Bill 101 to some of the labour issues.

    Your article is on the record and will be used to represent the voice of the Montreal startup community to outright defend Bill 101. It would probably be best if you tried to get a balanced set of views to inform the audience, rather than to editorialize something that has a profound impact on a founder/company’s ability to stay in Montreal/Quebec (which without question they all prefer to do!)

    • Michael Boyle

      Name one business who left Montreal because of either language or labour issues? You say you know four? Everyone always says, “Oh I heard this” or “I heard that” but when you push for specifics it’s not true, that was just a vague method of making a point that’s unsupported by the evidence.

      This article is very clear – if the founders do regret going on the record for Mashable, it’s not because their views are unpopular, it’s because their views were misrepresented in the piece.

      Having worked in several startups including as a founder, & including my first job in a startup that grew from my employee #24 to over 150 (& thus was covered by certain language laws), none of that was ever an issue at any time. We thought that “Francisation” was going to be an issue at that company, but when we drilled down (which was easy and painless, the rules were very clear) there was nothing we had to actually *change* from existing practice to comply.