Have Lean Startups Helped Us Scale Larger Technology Companies?

Building larger technology companies is critical for our future economic well being, yet somehow we seem to pay more attention to the seed and startup phase. This post and a subsequent missive, Wisdom from Recent Waterloo Technology Acquisitions, aim to analyze some recipes for building technology businesses to scale first from the perspective of recent companies and then specifically through the lens of local acquisitions. This pair of posts will be based on extensive data, but the findings are intended to start discussion rather than be the last word.

The importance of building new, innovative, and large, companies can’t be underestimated regionally, provincially and nationally. Here in Waterloo, with perhaps 10 000 jobs at a single behemoth, Research in Motion, the notion of job creation is particularly topical simply to lessen our dependency on such a large company.

My sense is that, of late, most of the focus centres around making startups: small, energetic and entrepreneurial software, web and mobile companies, some simply building a mobile application. And, even with the current notion of Lean Startups or our Venture 2.0 approach, there is no question that building such early stage companies is probably an order of magnitude cheaper than it was back in the 1990’s While undoubtedly a good thing for all concerned – founders, investors and consumers all have so much more choice – has this led to a corresponding increase in new major businesses in the technology sector?

I see this as more of a discussion than a simple answer, and thus to start, I include the following table of my sense of how the numbers have changed over time. The following table provides some idea of how company formation has trended over the last 25 years, through the lens of scale rather than acquisitions:

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  1. Sources: public records, internet, personal recollections and interviews with 20 key ecosystem participants.
  2. The definition of “big” is purposely somewhat arbitrary (and perhaps vague). I am using a threshold of 50 employees or $10 million in revenues, which is probably more indicative of these startups becoming mid-sized businesses.


This data, while helpful, can never provide a complete answer. However, it can guide the conversation around what I see to be an important economic mission for our region and country – that is, building more significant technology businesses. I’m sure there are no easy answers, but in shaping policy, it is important to base decisions on informed debate and research.

To that end, I would offer the following thoughts:

  1. The current plethora of “lean startups” does not (necessarily) represent a clear path to growing those startups into larger businesses.
  2. I suspect that, in some ways, multiplying small startups can retard the growth of larger companies. That said, the data are insufficient to prove cause and effect.
  3. At the ecosystem level, we need to focus resource allocation beyond simple startup creation to include building more long term, and larger, technology businesses. Instead of spreading talent and other resources thinly, key gaps in senior management talent (especially marketing) and access to capital (B rounds and beyond) need to be resolved.
  4. Even in day to day discussion, the narrative must shift so that entrepreneurism isn’t just about startups, to make company building cool again.

Canada holds many smart, creative and hardworking entrepreneurs who will undoubtedly rise to the challenge of building our next generation economy. Meanwhile, I’d welcome comments, suggestions and feedback on how we can build dozens or more, instead of a handful, of larger technology companies in our region.