Jay Shah, Velocity’s Director since September, 2016, stopped the presses earlier this week with a blog post announcing that he was leaving and moving on to a new, as-yet-undetermined, opportunity.
Velocity, for those who aren’t aware, is the University of Waterloo’s wildly successful startup incubator, housed with Communitech at the Lang Tannery building.
Shah’s decision to leave – the end date is loosely pegged at the end of February – comes at a key juncture in Velocity’s evolution: Last August Velocity created a new entity called Concept, a student-focused pre-incubator housed on the university’s campus. Shah’s role was then split into three separate positions: A director of student entrepreneurship (who oversees Concept); a director of the existing Velocity incubator (Shah), and a soon-to-be-hired Executive Director, overseeing the operation of both Velocity and Concept.
Shah’s move to Velocity in 2016 was fitting. He was the co-founder of BufferBox, a startup that launched in Velocity in 2010 and was acquired by Google 18 months later. Shah then moved to Google, leaving to accept the Velocity position after Google, a year later, shut down the Buffer Box operation.
Communitech News sat down with Shah recently and invited him to reflect on the past 3 ½ years – and to muse about what’s in store for him down the road.
Q – So, let’s start with the why. Why leave Velocity? You used the term “burn out” in your blog post, but is there more behind the decision?
A – I did use the “burn out” word and obviously that’s explicit. But at the highest level this is a really good time for both me and more importantly the organization to pass the torch. We’re in a good place as a team, in terms of strategy, institutionally. We’re aligned with the University of Waterloo. And so to bring in new leadership, new energy, diversity of experience, for the next chapter just makes sense.
That then tied in with me personally. I think it’s time for something different.
We recently made a host of changes, with Concept, with a new structure, and those changes were part of setting the organization up for a future that is just as bright as the last few years, in terms of trajectory. So, with all of that in place, I feel very comfortable to say, yeah, it is time to pass the torch. It’ll only benefit the organization to do so. I’m still a huge believer and a supporter. I’ll still be very much here to help support the transition, the overlap. I think this was just a natural point, both for me and the organization.
Q – Talk about what led you to take on the role 3 ½ years ago.
A – I was looking for something really driven around impact. The state of mind I was in was: I founded something, we were on this really high-speed journey that took a turn that we hadn’t expected, with the acquisition into Google. We had an amazing experience there, but not what we expected, either. After a year our team was split up and we ended up doing a bunch of other things with the organization, and all that I look back on fondly; those are really valuable experiences to me. But at that moment in time, the itch to be within the startup ecosystem was still very strong. There was a feeling that something hadn’t quite finished, and so you think about lots of options. What do I do? Do I start a new company? Do I join something? But at the time those didn’t seem the right things to do.
I think fundamentally that starting something for the sake of starting something is a bad idea. I still believe that today – and so when you ask me in a few minutes what it is I’m going to do next, I’ll tell you, I’m not starting something for the sake of starting something!
Totally serendipitously, at the moment I left Google, [former director] Mike Kirkup was leaving Velocity, and a conversation started with me and a couple other folks: What’s going to happen to Velocity? Like, we really loved the organization and we cared about where it went next. Somebody then planted the seed of, Well, hey, maybe you should do this. It hadn’t crossed my mind originally. But the more that percolated, the more I was like, yeah, this could be really impactful, it could be really enjoyable. I think I think I could make a difference.
Q – You’ve certainly done just that. What achievement are you most proud of?
A – I’m most happy at the highest level with the output of what we’ve done. What I mean by that is the founders we support and what they’ve accomplished – being able to see that we have made a difference. I remember one company, they nearly imploded a dozen times. They navigated through it, and we were able to support them as they did. I feel really proud to be able to see those successes, to have helped them navigate through it.
I think the startups now are aiming higher, they’re raising more money, they’re hiring more people, they’re going for market domination. And so that makes me really proud.
The Velocity team gives me a lot of pride as well – our collective team capacity to execute, to focus on the things that have the highest impact and to make sure we’re driving towards launching highly scalable companies. I think that’s something that we’ve gotten a lot sharper at, through program design, through mentorship, through very specific screening.
The recent restructuring, too, with the creation of Concept, is something I’m proud of, because I think it’s going to drive a lot of focus going forward. If we can influence the student body to be more entrepreneurial, to join the high-growth, scalable companies and bring their expertise, that can only be good for them and the university and the ecosystem.
Q – Let’s talk about the restructuring in a bit more detail. What will the changes achieve?
A – The first thing is that it allows our organization to have more leadership capacity. There’s a lot of things we could have been doing over time that we didn’t do, because we simply didn’t have the capacity to execute, at least at the leadership level. You can only do so many things well and you can’t possibly do it all. I think now we’re going to be able to tackle more of those. Here’s a concrete example: Just last term, which was the first full term we’ve had the Concept program in place, we’ve engaged 60 per cent more students than the previous term. And that’s adjusted for term seasonality. That’s literally the first term we’ve had this program, and all of a sudden, it’s 1.6 times more than what we’ve done [previously]. So that’s 4,000 students that we’ve meaningfully engaged versus 2,500. That’s remarkable. Imagine what we can do when that becomes more permanently ingrained and we get the full leadership team firing on all cylinders.
Q – Talk about the way Velocity has evolved in the past few years. Did the things you wanted to accomplish change as circumstances required?
A – When I started, at a high level, I wanted to make sure we were doing right by our startups and founders. And that we were supporting the right founders, ones who were making a difference. I think that was true through the duration of my time here as a kind of north star, guidepost.
How we delivered that or how we executed definitely varied. And I think that’s part and parcel with being in the startup support business: you have to be super nimble. Markets change, the types of founders and entrepreneurs that we were going to support and that we were attracting changed. As an example, a whole bunch of medical and health technology companies started applying and coming through the doors and we said, ‘Well, we’ve got to figure that out.’ What are we going to do to mentor them? How are we going to make sure they understand compliance and doing clinical trials and running ethics procedures? How are we going to support them in the lab? Those weren’t things on my to-do list because I didn’t know that was coming. But the capacity for us to be able to react or be proactive, that I knew was going to be a prerequisite, and building the team’s ability to look for these signals and then when appropriate resourcing against it.
Q – What did a bad day look like? What was hard?
A – First of all let me say we do a lot of things right here, which is why there’s so much output. But like anything, there’s room for improvement. I don’t think that it will come as a surprise that being in the startup or entrepreneurial space or, more broadly, being co-curricular, when we’re talking about student experiences within the university institution, that is going to be interesting. Because you have this institution [University of Waterloo] whose primary mandate is academia and research. But at the end of the day, we’re not teaching courses. We’re not running research labs.
But I don’t think that will come as a surprise. Any large institution is going to have those navigational challenges. I see tons of potential for it. It’s just a matter of: how do you best get everyone swimming in the same direction? Commercialization is hard. Hard for lots of reasons. Our responsibility as the University of Waterloo is going to be to get that right. We have an IP policy that empowers inventors to become operating founders. We have a culture that supports all that.
How do we sharpen the pencils there? How do we make this clear? How do we reduce friction? How do we navigate the places and times when there is a grey zone, particularly given everything in the startup ecosystem is some flavour of grey?
Q – Give us your updated take on the state of the Waterloo Region tech ecosystem.
A – Over the entire course of my time here I’ve been continually surprised, positively surprised, about the tenacity of the founders, the startups, the ambition, the community supports. I’ve known about all of it for years, I’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid for years, but I’m still surprised by all of it.
I think it’s a testament to the strength of every part of the value-creating entities here, starting with the entrepreneur, because they’re the ones really doing the heavy lifting.
The up-levelling of ourselves as an ecosystem has really impressed me. An example would be, you know, North’s really big [US$120-million] raise. That raise changed the bar for what was possible. And there’s been others like that. Faire is another example.
It changes the bar of what’s possible, what’s possible here, and our collective ecosystem’s ability to synthesize that and then start acting [with] it.
We celebrate together when things don’t go well, we rally to the cause and help each other to fix things, to do whatever needs to be done. It’s remarkable to see.
Sometimes we trip over ourselves a bit, all of us attempting to do the best thing in that pursuit, meaning that the total collective output is reduced. So I think we can get a bit better there. We can get sharper about making sure that it’s not an inter-Waterloo competition. We’re a small place, competing on a global scale. Let’s do it together. And I think we are, mostly, but there are places we trip up.
I think it would be good to figure out what we want to be in a broader global context. Like, we don’t want to be a Toronto; we can’t be. We’re not a city of millions. If we figure that part out, it might actually be part of the process to stop or reduce the number of times we trip over ourselves. If we all know what we want to be, then maybe it makes it easier to move in the same direction.
So, are we good as a community at punching way above our weight? Yes. But how do we want to be punching?
Q – And now the $64-million question: What’s next?
A – The honest answer has been, and still is, this: My plan is not to make a plan. For multiple reasons. I think the biggest reason is that I still have a lot to do here, but limited time. And I don’t want to be distracted. I want to make sure the organization is supported. There are lots of loose ends to tie up and things to document that are in my brain that really should be in a document somewhere. The other thing is, any time you’re trying to plan, introspect, it’s going to be heavily influenced by your immediate mental state, which is informed by what you’ve been doing.
Not making plans allows that wringing of the sponge. That’s a good metaphor in my brain at least.
What I know is that I’m super bullish about this community and this region. I feel certain that whatever is next will still be a part of that. What? How? When? I don’t know. I’m explicitly not thinking about it.
Q – Would you rule out doing another startup?
A – No, I wouldn’t rule that out. But to my earlier point, I wouldn’t start a company just for the sake of doing so. If there’s something that gets me really excited, something about me wanting to change or influence or disrupt, great. Then that could be the vehicle, but it could be joining someone who is already doing that, or … who knows? I think I really am trying to make sure I’m casting a wide net.
But I’m not casting any nets yet.
Text and questions edited for brevity and style.
Communitech is a partner of Startup HERE Toronto. This article originally appeared on their site.