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A venture capitalist’s message to Canadians: Go big or go home

Kevin Talbot, co-founder and managing partner at Toronto-based Relay Ventures.

Relay Ventures

If you're a Canadian entrepreneur trying to fight your way to the top of the high-tech food chain – and not just in Canada – you will likely find yourself, at some point, in Silicon Valley. "For tech companies, Silicon Valley is the world capital," says Kevin Talbot, co-founder and managing partner at Toronto-based Relay Ventures, which invests in early-stage mobile technology companies.

But in the more than 12 years that Mr. Talbot, a native of Toronto, has been investing in the Valley, he has met far too many Canadians who are unprepared for the go-big-or-go-home ethos that prevails in this tiny slice of California.

"The pace is unrelenting," says Mr. Talbot, who works out of Relay's Menlo Park, Calif., office. "Entrepreneurs have to understand that their competitors here view the entire world as their market. They're not building a lifestyle business or a domestic business. They're in this to build a big business."

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Mr. Talbot is a charter member of C100, a non-profit organization that helps Canadian entrepreneurs find partners, mentors and financing in Silicon Valley – all with an eye to building the next billion-dollar business back home. Since its launch in 2010, C100 has mentored 80-plus entrepreneurs and helped them raise more than $330-million in financing. (This past September, it also launched a British branch.)

"I think that what C100 and firms like mine do by bringing Canadian entrepreneurs to the Valley and connecting them to the people who will be channel partners ... and potential acquirers, is to hold them to a bar that is higher than they've ever been held to before. I've always said that being the best Canadian 'X' isn't good enough. You have to be the best in the world."

As for nurturing our own ecosystem here at home, Mr. Talbot agrees that Canada needs a more robust venture capital industry, with more money flowing to entrepreneurs. But we also need more entrepreneurs to invest in.

"If you think about our education system, the way people are programmed, smart people will go to university, take engineering or computer science, and go get a job," Mr. Talbot says. "We need skilled people who make the choice that, rather than going to work for a company, they go and start a company."

Tens of thousands of start-ups launch every year, and just a few of them break out. That means Canadian entrepreneurs have to be willing to fail – and not give up. "Not every company should be financed – that isn't really the way the world works," Mr. Talbot says. "It's okay to have failure. It's okay to aim really, really big."

For those who have even modest success, the key is to get back into the start-up game. "Hopefully they'll be hungry to have a bigger success, and they won't have as much pressure because they've paid off the mortgage," Mr. Talbot says. That's the way things work in Silicon Valley, which is why it has such a critical mass of mentors and financiers.

Mr. Talbot has some words of encouragement, too: "I've always believed the money will find the best opportunities," he says. "We're all here to help."

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Join the conversation on Canada's competitiveness by following Canada Competes on Twitter:@CanadaCompetes

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