5 lessons from building Startups and Beer

Sortable Sortable Updates

We're prepping for 2017 and decided to go down memory lane for Startups and Beer and maybe be really honest about what makes Startups and Beer a real community-driven initiative.

Startups and Beer has grown out of a need to maintain a connection between many startups calling this region home and the community we work in. Sortable is growing rapidly (4,653% to be exact) and like a lot of startups in our position, we want to put down roots in Waterloo Region. This region is the ecosystem that has taken us from five people in the Velocity garage, Communitech, and the Accelerator Centre, all the way to our own office space with 10x employee growth in two years.

We also want to build our network of friendly neighbourhood companies that share the core values that we at Sortable have. Working together on a community-driven initiative has turned out to be a great way to build those ties directly and present the opportunity to let each company shine.


Make it something you'd go to

We thought of the memorable events we enjoyed attending. Unique street festivals, and parties with a sense of purpose and identity. A sense of local connections and stories. No speeches, no panels, no moment of enforced quiet for an executive who had purchased podium time. Just beer, startups, and friends. It all felt super organic, because it was different and fun.


Strength in numbers (and like-minded partnerships)

Startups and Beer was born in June. With four other fast-growing tech companies in town - Axonify, Dejero Labs, Magnet Forensics, Vidyard - who were fearless about trying something new, we kicked off this new event. Our partners had compelling stories and gave good vibes. They brought out things that were more normal for an internal culture-building employee event - like games and snacks. We even had music bumping from a DJ booth.

For the second event in September, we worked with the City of Kitchener BIA to add outdoor games like giant jenga and cornhole (my editor says I have to link to the definition of this, lest there be misunderstandings). Sortable teamed up with four hardware organizations: Cognitive Systems, Miovision, TextNow, and Velocity. In this hardware edition, companies brought working prototypes that ranged from VR swordfighting to a weed-growing machine.


Tie future and past of local together

We held the first event at the first Eaton's department store on King Street, downtown Kitchener. What was once one of Canada's largest department stores, Eaton's started in 1869 and ran a successful business well into the 1990's. A mainstay of downtown Kitchener, the structure left behind is historically relevant and part of many Kitchenerites' memories as the upscale fancy department store.

The September event opened the doors of the old Schlichter's auto garage on Queen Street, just a block from the Charles Street bus terminal. Schlichter's had closed their doors earlier in 2016 after 80 years in business.


Don't just take, take, take

When we invited The Working Centre to join the event in June, the response was phenomenal. The Working Centre is the brainchild of Joe and Stephanie Mancini. You see the impact their work has had when you grab a bite at the Queen Street Cafe, or borrow a bike from the Community Access Bikeshare. Located on Queen Street, The Working Centre combats poverty and unemployment in the heart of downtown Kitchener. And gentrification, a term that is tied closely to the rise of tech.

In June, we raised fifteen hundred dollars to help support The Working Centre's operations. Three months later, at the September edition of Startups and Beer, we raised just shy of three thousand dollars for Women's Crisis Services of Waterloo Region to help build a second Haven House in Cambridge. The Women's Crisis Services is a shelter for abused women and children in Kitchener-Waterloo. Their first 10-unit house is peaceful and secured, and is in a residential part of Kitchener close to a grocery store, church, school. Learning about these community services are not something that you'd be easily exposed to as a tech worker venturing out into the core for lunch, but it is definitely something attendees learned, and were exposed to firsthand as part of these events.


(An aside: an ode to the social lubricant)

Not to put too fine a point on it, but it takes alcohol (or an amount of social ease that we're not all blessed with) to dive into a room with 600 other people and talk to strangers for up to four hours. It takes courage to network.

So to help move things along we invited beer and cider breweries who had (like us) built their business in Waterloo Region to offer free samples for anyone attending the events. People who came out were able to try new brews, savour the different types, and in some cases, chat with the brewmasters.

(We also offered alternatives to beer. Not everyone enjoys fizzing carb water.)

The feedback

Over five hundred have shown up at each event to meet the host companies, try local brews, and maybe even make a connection with a new person.

Attendees appreciated the community approach and the chance to walk through spaces that were normally inaccessible. New use for an old place.

Our community partners welcomed the opportunity to meet a new demographic and talk about the personal connection. They found something more meaningful and long lasting than just a cash donation - they were able to speak to their history and impact in the same areas that attendees lived, worked or walked past.


The future of Startups and Beer

It's good to have initiatives that mix various parts of the community together. No one wants to go somewhere to hear an organization talk about how great they are. You need to add some collaborative competition to build something awesome. Give back to the community - it could have been another networking event patting itself on the back if it weren't for The Working Centre and Women's Crisis Services providing a strong foundation of reality to an otherwise tech-centric event.

We're planning two more events in 2017. Look for the chance to get involved, help the community, and meet new startups next year - sign up for updates at startupsandbeer.com.