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Behind the Pages of Unicorn in the Woods

Unicorn in the Woods, one of this month’s featured titles, tells an astounding story of East Coast geeks and dreamers, but we wanted to hear more from the man behind the pages. Gordon Pitts, former senior writer for the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, shared his experience writing the book, his knowledge of startups, and more in a Q&A with us. Check out his responses below. 

When did you first hear about Chris Newton and his story?

In 2011, I was a reporter for the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business when someone tipped me off that there had been these two spectacular deals in which U.S. technology giants had bought New Brunswick startups for a cumulative $1 billion U.S. — and a young man named Chris Newton hatched the big idea behind both companies, Q1 Labs and Radian6. So, I got a hold of Chris and other people involved, and I wrote a story for the Globe titled “High-tech deals spawn new generation of tycoons, new image for New Brunswick.”

Why isn’t his story more broadly known?

In those days, these kinds of stories were not expected to come out of Atlantic Canada. People who reported on technology simply did not expect a province like New Brunswick to give birth to these cutting-edge companies. A guy like Chris Newton was considered a kind of fluke. Only now, the region is winning recognition as an innovation hub. But this story has a human side too: After his two amazing deals, Chris stepped away from the tech world to deal with health issues and focus on family.  Only recently, he has been stepping back into the fray.

While trying to nail down the sale of Radian6 to Salesforce, New Brunswick’s location became a factor, enough so that they considered putting a private plane in the budget. Do you think the recent advancements in remote communication since the onset of COVID-19 could provide increased opportunity for Atlantic startups?

Yes, the emergence of Zoom and other remote communication aids does mean that physical location, at the moment, is less of a factor in business decision-making and that may include startup formation.  Where you are sitting at your screen becomes less important than it used to, which means a software startup in Bathurst or Shediac may have a better chance of standing out from the pack. It might be on a more equal footing to startups in historically busy technology hives, like Waterloo or Montreal. But I am not expecting that face-to-face communication will end, especially in making decisions about financing, high-level recruiting, and major sales efforts. As we get back to the “new normal,” whatever that is, we may face a hybrid world, where both face-to-face and electronic interaction are deployed by many companies. At some point, founders may still have to get on a plane to Toronto and Boston to nail that first big sale or get key funding — and plane connections are imperilled right now by COVID. I think the outcome of the pandemic is still uncertain.

And of course, universities and colleges, which are important for research and startup incubation — as described in my book — are feeling their way into this new world.

How would you grade the Atlantic provinces in terms of supporting startups and innovation? What are the benefits of being here?

High marks, especially for early-stage companies. The support has come a long way. There are great programs to get companies started, backed by meaningful government assistance and fine universities and colleges. Everyone could always do better, of course, but the infrastructure of support is solid, and there are  incubators, sources of affordable office space, and the base of an angel investor network.  It just has to keep advancing and not lose momentum. And Atlantic Canada still has to face the challenges of fostering sales skills and scaling up companies to where they can truly exploit their technologies and deliver economic growth.

The advantages lie in the disadvantages, to some extent. Yes, the region has a small population, and it is geographically distant from Silicon Valley, but that has created a tight and supportive network — an ecosystem — that runs quite well. People know each other, they might run into each other on the street (they will again, assuming COVID passes). The great startup exits produced some seasoned young — now middle-aged — entrepreneurs who have been through the wars and can provide a bit of early funding and advice.  The Q1 Labs and Radian6 graduates are like a small army building new opportunities throughout the Atlantic region. They are the region’s secret weapon! There is a resilience in the business culture, based on battling some of the natural obstacles of location and population, and a demographic crisis.

What is one piece of advice you could give to anyone thinking of launching a startup in New Brunswick?

You can do it now. The basic conditions and tools are there. Get to know the key connectors.

Did anything surprise you while writing this book?

I had first thought this was an economic big-picture story, full of statistics and trends. But the compelling human stories grabbed hold, of loss and triumph, pain and joy, and, as I burrowed into Q1 and Radian6 and the “children” of those startups, I tried to tell it that way.

What is a question you wish had been asked?

So many. But my major regret lies in the still untapped perspectives. Somewhere in northern New Brunswick, there is a former tech entrepreneur who spurned my requests for an interview — you know who you are! I wish I could have asked him: What was it like for you to live through that whirlwind? There is always the interview that got away.

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