I found Silicon Valley in Toronto... at the Farmers Market

Written by Barry Hillier (co-founder, Neighbourhood Coffee)

I know it sounds crazy, but let me explain. I've been working in advertising and technology since the mid-90's. I've seen Toronto grow into a creative and technical hub and witnessed its' strengths and weaknesses as a bootstrap entrepreneur who built a digital advertising agency and several SaaS based systems, most focussed in the automotive sector.

After I sold my companies in 2017, I began working on a concept called eQuo, based on my own entrepreneurial experiences where I witnessed the downside of an ecosystem that let too many entrepreneurs fail for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to build a better ecosystem for founders. It's been a long process to bring something disruptive to the Canadian market, but we are almost there.

Why has it taken so long?

If you speak with entrepreneurs, they'll tell you that Canadians don't support entrepreneurs. Generally speaking, everyone is wonderful to your face, but when it comes to real support, networking, funding, advice, time or assistance, it isn't there. We compare it unfavourably to the support that Silicon Valley provides, where entrepreneurs get all of the above, often selflessly, through the belief that a rising tide raises all boats.

In May 2020, my family with friends launched Neighbourhood Coffee as a passion business. Initially, it was only available online, but as the lock-down eased, we got into some Farmers Markets as well.

Here is what I learned very quickly.

Farmers Markets are very small communities of diverse entrepreneurs with exceptionally varied backgrounds who can also be very close knit. They don't view other vendors as competition. Instead, they see the other vendors as friends trying to build a company.

Neighbourhood Coffee at the Farmers Market

They act like friends too and it wasn't long before we became aware of a "market code".

When our generator broke down, we couldn't make coffee, but a vendor allowed us to plug into his. He wouldn't accept a dollar or a bag of coffee for the gas used. Two weeks later, his credit machine died and needed batteries, but he was operating his booth alone. We ran down to the store for him. This type of behaviour was repeated time and time again, throughout the market, whether other vendors turned to one another for change or help putting a tent up or taking it down. Everyone helped each other build their business.

The code included two prices at the market. One was the retail price and the second was the vendor price. Vendors know how hard it is to build their business and they give breaks to help each other out. This sometimes involves swapping products, with a benefit of allowing vendors to recommend other vendors to their customers. A bakery consistently told customers to come to us for a coffee to enjoy with their pastry, and we did the same for them. The customer base was meant to be shared, not controlled.

We discovered how many entrepreneurs started their bakery, cookie company, kombucha company or "whatever" company as a passion. For some it was part-time and there were vendors who quit their jobs to focus on their company full-time. It was a week by week endeavour to keep the company moving forward, but they loved it.

Everyone wanted everyone else to succeed and was there to offer guidance on what markets to avoid and which ones you should try to get into. They discussed what banks to use, where you could find packaging and how to create a better e-commerce site. If there was a question, someone would try to help with an answer.

The ecosystem was great.

It's an ecosystem that I would love to see transition in our innovation ecosystem. In the meantime, I'm so glad I had the chance to find it and experience it and become part of it.

To discover our coffee, go to www.neighbourhoodcoffee.ca

To learn more about eQuo, go to www.equoshift.com


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