Recently I had to sit back and ask myself ‘what makes a founder?’ By this question I don’t mean what are the qualities that a founder should possess but what grants someone the title of founder or co-founder. The answer seems obvious. The dictionary says a person who founds or establishes, seems straight forward. Let me illustrate my question with the story of Startup Toronto.
On November 28 2013 a stand alone meetup called Startup Toronto was created on meetup.com by Barry Witkin. With the first event being hosted February 2014. Barry, ran this Startup Toronto meetup and somewhere around Nov 2014 invited Gabriella Chan to work with him on Startup Toronto. In January 2015 Barry’s Startup Toronto meetup joined Startup Canada as one of Startup Canada communities. As far as I can tell Barry ran 7 events under the meetup called Startup Toronto and stepped away on or around the end of Feb 2015 and Gabriella became the leader of the meetup. I have never met Barry.
I met Gabriella Chan at a townhall of local startups where she was working with them and Startup Canada to define the mandate & mission of Startup Toronto to make an action plan to move forward. At this time Startup Toronto had 154 active members. Gabriella and I immediately started working as the leaders of Startup Toronto to define its mandate and vision. Startup Toronto moved in a different direction that that on which it was on when Barry founded the meetup group. I created the website Startuptoronto.org, created the google email accounts etc. Gabriella and I planned and hosted every meetup. With the help of Startup Canada, we found our first corporate sponsor and went on to find more to host our events and help pay the membership dues into Startup Canada for 2015 and 2016. We had no shirts, no banners, no volunteers, and no bank account (all things Gabriella and I put in place). During 2015 I slowly became the main lead and the face of Startup Toronto with Gabriella getting busier with her law practice and eventually transitioning to an advisory in early 2016. I will be forever grateful to Gabriella for helping me build Startup Toronto into the incredibly diverse community it is today of over 3300 members and 114 events hosted since I started leading Startup Toronto. Startup Toronto is now a vibrant entity, with a fantastic set of volunteers, mentors and speakers. It’s a recognizable brand that stands for quality and openness where we deliver value first to connect, support and accelerate startups and small business in the City of Toronto. I have created a podcast called Startup Talk and we just started a business incubator Startup Launch in partnership with the City of Toronto.
So when I met Gabriella and started running Startup Toronto with her it was meetup existing only on meetup.com with 154 active member that owed money to Startup Canada and nothing more. Barry Witkin left the meetup he created after 7 events shortly after committing to join Startup Canada in Jan 2015.
At some point between March 2015 and now I started describing Gabriella as my co-founder of Startup Toronto because I felt we really have built something ore than just a meetup and more recently calling myself founder at the prompting of our volunteers. Whenever someone asked me the story of Startup Toronto I tell them a it existed before me but I met my cofounder Gabriella in March 2015 and in 2016 she has taken on more of advisor role with her other life roles pressing.
As mentioned, I have never met Barry Witkin, the person who originally started the Startup Toronto meetup group. I heard from him for the first time via email on the morning of Oct 17., 2016. Here is the content of that email:
“Hello Craig; I noticed that you have identified yourself as founder or co-founder of Startup Toronto which in fact is incorrect as it was founded by me all the way back to Nov 2013 and became a Community of Startup Canada in Jan 1 2015. Since I take credit for this and included it in my bio and previously advised such organizations as The Toronto Region Board of Trade I would not want others to dispute my claim. I am sure that Gabriella Chan would have advised you of this when she preceded you. Therefore as much as I noticed that your bio has reflected you as a founder, you were not the founder of StartUp Toronto. Accordingly I would ask that you delete this reference in all places that you have referred to it and instead just substitute “Organizer ” which is what you are and apparently doing a good job. However if you wish to be accurate you may mention on the StartUp Toronto site that I was the founder. Thank you”
I was taken aback by this message as it seemed like a strange first contact.
Barry did start a meetup group called Startup Toronto held 7 events over a year grew it to an active membership of 154, joined Startup Canada and promptly disappeared. I do not want to diminish what he has done.
We have grown from a meetup in March 2015 with debt and nothing else to a well-respected well-known organization with dozens of partnerships over 3600 members and having personally hosted more than 115 events.
So my question is: what is a founder? What do you have to build to say you actually founded something? Am I wrong to indicate I am a founder of Startup Toronto? Is Barry wrong for trying to take credit for what Gabriella and I built?
I want to thank Barry for sending me that email. It gave me the opportunity to give him credit for his role in the evolution of Startup Toronto and allow me to have somewhere to point people when they ask about the history of Startup Toronto.
For now I will probably continue to use the word founder to describe my role in Startup Toronto until I find a better one.