Ottawa

On Saturday night, I caught a great performance by Mike Essoudry’s Mash Potato Mashers, an all brass-and-drums marching band who take klezmer, Brazilian, jazz and funk, mix it all up, and create some deliciously messy, beautiful, cacophonous musical biscuits. As an added bonus, it was a chance to catch up with some old friends from my Crazy Go Nuts University days, Brad and Peach, who along with me, were engineering students and contributors to Golden Words.

The Mash Potato Mashers played in that part of Gatineau which we used to know as Hull. It’s a good deal quieter than in my late high school/early university days: back then, with Quebec’s drinking age of 18, last call a good two hours later and the fact that their culture invented the concept of laissez-faire, it functioned as a sort of Tijuana for us Ontario kids. The venue was Le Petit Chicago, and as the cab sped me there, the cabbie felt obliged to inform me of the crowd.

“Are you sure that’s where you want to go?” he asked with only the slightest hint of a French accent. “It’s an older crowd there.”

“I am part of that older crowd,” I assured him. “I remember when we used to call the place just ‘Hull’.”

“Okay, then,” he said, “then you’ll remember some of the old places. See that club called Addiction? That used to be Ozone.”

“Oh my god!” I said “Ozone! I remember that place from high school and university. Ellen even took me there once.”

Of course, the cab driver had no idea who Ellen was. That was just me failing to keep my inner dialogue inner. For someone with whom I completely struck out, she ended up paying me an odd-but-appreciated compliment a while later, when complaining about boys: “There are three kinds of men in the world: scum, art fags, and Joey.”

“And that place over there,” said the cabbie, pointing to what looked like a bistro, “was Shalimar.”

“It cleaned up nicely,” I said.

He pointed out a couple of places that would’ve been packed solid on a Saturday night during the Wedding Singer era, but now looked about as placid as my own Sparks Street once the sun goes down, after which we arrived at Le Petit Chicago.

The Mash Potato Mashers put on a killer show, keeping the audience entertained as they bounced from melodies based on Jewish folk songs to samba to New Orleans jazz, often in the same song, and all without missing a beat. They got the crowd jumping and clapping along, and they all looked they were having a grand old time doing it. I’d gladly catch another one of their shows.

Here’s how they closed the evening:

After that performance, it was our turn to close the evening with our final number: a run to the Elgin Street Diner for club sandwiches and smoked meat poutine.

All in all, a nice night out.

I took a lot of photos at the show, and if you want to see them, they’re in the slideshow at the top of this article, as well as in this Flickr photoset.

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Scans of My “Hacks/Hackers” Notes

by Joey deVilla on May 15, 2011

As promised in an earlier article, here are the scans of my handwritten notes from Hacks/Hackers Ottawa:

Scan of my handwritten notes from Hacks/Hackers Ottawa, page 1

Scan of my handwritten notes from Hacks/Hackers Ottawa, page 2

Scan of my handwritten notes from Hacks/Hackers Ottawa, page 3

Scan of my handwritten notes from Hacks/Hackers Ottawa, page 4

Scan of my handwritten notes from Hacks/Hackers Ottawa, page 5

This article also appears in Global Nerdy.

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A Box o’ Bears

by Joey deVilla on May 13, 2011

Saw this in ByWard Market the other day – it’s just too adorable not to post:

box-o-bears

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Geek girl dinner ottawa

The Ottawa chapter of Geek Girl Dinners took place last night at Vittoria Trattoria in ByWard Market. Although I am not a geek girl, I was present as the representative of Shopify, who sponsored the event with some prizes (the winners of the raffle took home a much-coveted Shopify T-shirt and six months’ worth of free online store) and to get in touch with Ottawa’s women techies and designers. There were about 50 people present, filling the Vittoria Trattoria’s upstairs room.

The Geek Girl Dinners are get-togethers of women in business, tech and design over dinner, where they can get to meet their peers, share ideas and hear presentations delivered by women with some particular expertise on a given topic. They usually have a theme, and last night’s was entrepreneurship. Here’s their description of the theme:

Have you ever thought, “Why work for somebody else when I can work for myself?”

Easier said than done, but anything’s possible! From flowers to clothing, to writing and painting, entrepreneurship opens the doors to anyone with a dream and a passion.

On Wednesday May 11th, please join us for an interactive discussion about the entrepreneurial journey of three Ottawa women who have turned their business dreams into realities.

If you’re a woman in the Ottawa area with geeky tendencies and you’re looking to meet others like you, have a nice meal and see some interesting presentations, you should keep an eye on the Geek Girl Dinners Ottawa site, watch for their hashtag on Twitter (#ggdottawa) and come out to one of their events!

My thanks to the organizers, Kelly Rusk, Veronica Giggey, Melany Gallant and Samantha Hartley for putting on a great event!

My Notes

I took notes and photos during last night’s presentations and present them below. If there are any inaccuracies, they’re mine; I was furiously scribbling them into a Moleskine as they were delivered. Free free to copy them and use them however you wish!

Vivian Cheng, Blend Creations

Screenshot of the Blend Creations site

Vivian’s Bio

Vivian Cheng is an industrial designer and one-half of the creative force behind Blend Creations. She and her husband, Eric Jean-Louis (a graphic designer) combine their divergent design approaches to create a contemporary jewelry line that is clean and modern in aesthetic, yet also blends their respective cultures in East meeting West.

Vivian Cheng makes her presentation

Presentation Notes

  • Trained as an industrial designer
  • "Didn’t want a ‘real’ job" after graduation
  • Started company in September 2005 with her husband, Eric
  • It was a bare-bones site, especially by today’s standards, hand-coded with PayPal buttons and a very basic shopping cart
  • She sells her jewellery almost exclusively online
  • Online store tips:
    • Look at other online stores and learn from them
    • Find out who your competition is
    • Take a look at Etsy and find out whether it’s for you, and why (or why not)
    • Etsy started after Blend Creations, and they decided not to go with it because they didn’t want to be a "stall" in a sea of thousands of stores; they wanted to be their own store
  • Their jewellery is a blend of modern and traditional, industrial and organic — steel with mahjong tiles, bamboo or coral
  • The jewellery is handmade, by them
  • They bootstrapped the business with less that $5000
  • The mandate:
    • Eric, then a full-time graphic designer, would continue at his job and pitch in
    • If the business went well, they’d continue on this path
    • If it didn’t, she’s have to get that ‘real’ job
  • If 2006, they were contacted by Real Simple magazine to have their jewellery featured on a full page
  • Had they tried to take out a full page ad in Real Simple, it would’ve cost about $60K
  • Real Simple found out about them via a design blog
  • To be featured on the page, they had to offer a special deal on a necklace to Real Simple readers
  • Real Simple asked "Can you handle 1,000 orders?"; the only answer was "Yes!"
    • (She was 7 months pregnant at the time)
  • The money resulting from the Real Simple deal allowed them to buy better equipment: a CNC router [here’s a link one that routs wood] and a laser cutter
    • "We could cut circles now!"
  • They continued with magazine ads
    • Good, but during a recession, they’re not as effective
    • Magazine ads have a 4-month lead time
    • Problematic in 2008, during the econopocalypse
    • Generated only a handful of sales, what with the belt-tightening
  • During the economic crisis of ’08, the US was hit hard, and 98% of their customers were American
  • They had to refocus and hit more local markets
  • They couldn’t just do print ads
  • Their first foray into social media was Facebook
    • Their first activity on Facebook: a giveaway
    • She tries to say something on Facebook every day
  • They have a monthly give-away on their blog
    • Facebook’s rules make it difficult to do a monthly giveaway on their site
  • She initially didn’t "get" Twitter (they’re @blendcreations)
    • Discovered that Twitter is all about the interactions
    • She even designed jewellery specifically for their Twitter followers (such as one shaped like an @ sign; jewellery with your Twitter handle on it)
    • Her husband, Eric, doesn’t get the appeal of "The Twitters"
  • The thing about any design is that people either love it or hate it
    • The important thing is to get people talking about it, love or hate
    • If you offer a service, make it a service so good that people talk about it
    • If you offer a product, keep innovating with it
  • "With social media, you have to do something, even if it’s small"
    • "Blogs are the new magazines"
    • They’re the source of many customers
  • Their customer breakdown by region:
    • 60% US
    • 40% Canada and the rest of the world (mostly Canada)
  • Why did I go into jewellery?
    • "I’m an industrial designer, we’re trained to make things"
    • Went with jewellery because of higher perceived value
    • That can be a problem in hard times
  • She and her husband’s design backgrounds let them "do it all":
    • Product design
    • Product photos
    • Ads
    • Site design

Vivian Cheng makes her presentation

Hana Abaza, Wedding Republic

Screenshot of Wedding Republic site

Hana’s Bio

Hana Abaza is the co-founder and CEO of Wedding Republic, an Ottawa based start up allowing couples to set up an online, cash, wedding registry in a way that works for them and their guests. With an incredibly diverse background, Hana has pulled together her broad skill set in order to navigate the start up world. When she’s not in front of her laptop with armed with a large cup of coffee, she can usually be found teaching a kickboxing class. Self described as slightly ‘type a’ with a dose of ADD, although some say it’s just an unrelenting curiosity.

Hanna Abaza makes her presentation

Presentation Notes

  • Wedding Republic is a cash gift registry for people getting married
  • A couple getting married may want stuff, but sometimes, they’d much rather have the cash
  • The idea came to her and her business partner in 2008 while they were watching the Superbowl
    • James (her business partner) has a sister who was getting married
    • Always a stressful situation
    • Online registries for gifts were still few and far between
    • There was no way to register online to give a cash gift
    • The original idea was for a big general wedding registry; it got refined over time
  • Questions you need to ask when starting an entrepreneurial project:
    • Who is your target market? Who will use your product?
    • Does your product fulfill a need? Or a want?
    • What are the current alternatives to your product exist? What are the options?
      • What are the pain points for these alternatives and options
  • They talked to all sorts of people: couples, couples getting married, wedding guests to get more info
  • They hired a developer and were able to take advantage of government programs to help fund the project
  • Advice:
    • Surround yourself with the right people; people who are smarter than you are
    • You can’t do it on your own; make sure you have a support system
  • Wedding Republic went beta in February 2010
  • It was a stressful time
    • Once you’ve opened to the public, you get feedback, opinions, suggestions, complaints about issues
    • But opening to the public gives you a customer validation process
  • You have to listen to your customers, but:
    • You have to know what to ignore
    • You have to know what to take to heart
    • Focus on what you’re good at, and don’t get derailed by customer feedback
  • They were contacted by Saatchi and Saatchi
    • Someone at Saatchi and Saatchi saw their site
    • They were intrigued by the idea of Wedding Republic and invited them for a meeting in their Toronto office
    • They offered to do a rebrand
    • On big companies working with small companies:
      • They may be bigger than you, but once you’re working together, you’re on par
      • Meet as equals. Don’t bed over backwards just to please them
  • There’s a lot of back-and-forth between Saatchi and Saatchi and the developers; she "translates" between the two
  • Relaunched in January 2011
  • More advice:
    • Keep yourself in check (having a business partner will help)
    • Execute! Many people don’t think they can do something, so they don’t try.
  • One challenge with this business: few (if any) repeat customers
    • Considering expanding the concept to baby registries
  • How they make money:
    • The couple getting married doesn’t pay anything
    • The guests pay a transaction fee
    • That’s not bad, considering the 7% markup for registries at The Bay
    • People pay for services that save effort: "I’d gladly pay $5 to not leave my couch"
  • Possibility of expanding outside North America:
    • Looking at it, but wedding customs vary all over the world
    • For example, in China, cash gifts come in red envelopes. Can’t do that with a cash registry.

Hanna Abaza makes her presentation

Amy Yee, Eventbots

Screenshot of the Eventbots site

Amy’s Bio

Amy Yee is an entrepreneur and strategy consultant specializing in technology, engagement and collaboration at start-up and high growth companies. Among a wide variety of projects, Amy is currently the CEO at the second company she has co-founded: EventBots – an award-winning technology solution for public engagement. Amy has a Bachelor’s of Electrical Engineering from Carleton University.

Amy Yee makes her presentation

  • Eventbots are devices that can record video or photo messages at events
  • [Showed video of people who recorded messages at the Mesh conference]
  • Think of it as being similar to the "Speakers Corner" at CityTV in Toronto
  • How they got started:
    • They had friends who were getting married
    • Had heard of some Toronto-based service where they set up devices where people could record messages
    • Her husband was an industrial designer: "I could build that"
    • He built the machine, she turned it into a business
  • The current, sleeker version is version 2
  • The first version was bulkier and made of wood
  • The device has to fit into their car, a Mini Cooper
  • They’ve taken the eventbot to events in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal
    • They can only serve areas within a reasonable drive of Ottawa
  • The sales process is online
  • Even if an eventbot gets only 5 video recordings at an event, there’s still always one that stands out as head and shoulders abover the others
  • Their current eventbot was so slick that a Japanese ambassador insisted that the device was from Japan
  • People call them "iPodzillas"
  • Advice:
    • Don’t fear change; change is a competitive advantage
    • Don’t worry if you have to modify your idea
    • Bet on the team, not the idea
    • Community support is important!

Amy Yee making her presentation

This article also appears in Global Nerdy.

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New Wheels

by Joey deVilla on May 10, 2011

Devinci stockholm

I went down to The Glebe this afternoon to pick out a new bike at Kunstadt Sports, an Ottawa chain with a good reputation. After trying a number of “road” and “city” type bikes, I went with the one that felt the best: a deVinci Stockholm. Kunstadt has a deal where accessories are 30% off when bought with a new bike, so I also bought a bell, a rack and twin pannier bags for groceries or hauling stuff when I have the accordion on my back. Add to that a “Starship Troopers”-looking Fox helmet and matching shades, and the bill came to just under $900 (Canadian, of course — that’s $941 US as of this writing).

The staff at Kunstadt were friendly, helpful and really cool with me taking about 10 bikes out for a spin (“Carbon fork? I need to see what that’s like.” “Disc brakes with hydraulics? Let me ride!”). I’d recommend them to anyone in the area looking to get a new two-wheeler.

The deVinci is quite different from my bike back in Toronto, a Trek Calypso cruiser: a good deal lighter, 27 speeds as opposed to 7, and a rocket in comparison. I’m going to have fun exploring Ottawa on this baby.

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Busking

by Joey deVilla on May 10, 2011

I’m going to have to try my hand at busking here in Ottawa, especially in ByWard Market, which is a stone’s throw away from my apartment and where the office is located. This place looks like prime busking grounds, and now the weather’s finally warming up, the musicians have come out. These two were outside Shopify’s front door yesterday evening:

Market violinists 1

Market violinists 2

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The Swank Tank

by Joey deVilla on May 4, 2011

Facade of the 126 Sparks building

“Sure, I’d love to come up to Ottawa for a couple of months to immerse myself in Shopify,” I told Tobi and Harley when they were pitching the tech evangelist job to me, “but I can’t pay two rents.”

“No worries,” replied Harley. “We’ll get you a place.”

That place turned out to be 126 Sparks, the front entrance of which is pictured above. It’s a short walk away from Shopify’s office in ByWard Market — not even ten minutes — and it’s around the corner from this place:

Peace Tower and Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings

(For those of you not familiar with Canada, it’s the Canadian equivalent of living around the corner from the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C..)

Sparks Street was the first street in North America to be converted into a pedestrians-only route; all but two of its blocks are closed off to most vehicles. Here’s Sparks as seen looking westward, as it appeared last night:

02 west

Here’s Sparks as seen looking eastward (also last night):

Sparks Street, as seen looking eastward

Sparks is pretty quiet after working hours. Many of the fast food places on the street close their doors at 6 p.m. on weeknights, and the sushi place doesn’t even bother opening on weekends.

Once I checked in with building management and got my welcome package — a folder with some information, keys to the apartment and mailbox, magnetic passkey for access to the lobby, elevator and garage and even a Starbucks gift card (there’s a Starbucks next door) — it was time to move my stuff inside. I drove into the garage and starting hauling stuff to the elevator lobby, which looked like it belonged in an upscale mall:

Elevator lobby for 126 Sparks, featuring a couch

When I first saw the site for 126 Sparks, I was impressed, but I also had to keep in mind that it was real estate photography — the biggest apartments in the building, all best-foot-forward, perhaps a little Photoshoppery and some fish-eye lens treatment that covers a multitude of sins. However, when I entered the apartment, I found it to be a pretty nice place. Here’s the kitchen:

Kitchen in my apartment

Here are the living room and dining room, as seen from one of the barstools at the kitchen counter:

View into the living and dining room in my apartment

A view from behind the dining table:

View from the dining room

I haven’t given the stereo a proper cranking just yet.

In MTV Cribs, there’s always a point when taking a tour of a rapper’s house where the host says “An’ dis here be da baby-makin’ area.” (Hip-hoppers never call them rooms on MTV Cribs; they’re always areas.) This is that part of the tour of my apartment:

The bedroom in my apartment

It’s cosy, and should I get the urge, I can very easily moon the passers-by on Sparks Street from the comfort of my own bed.

The place also has a nice big bathroom and in-suite washer and dryer. All in all, it’s nicer than most Residence Inns and it should be a pretty nice place to spend the next four months.

I decided to give the place a name: The Swank Tank. Other possible names that I briefly considered were:

  1. Chateau Tabernac
  2. jPad
  3. La Maison de Fromage
  4. Da Baby-Makin’ Area
  5. Pants-Optional Palazzo

I think I’m going to like staying here.

Next: Professional Perquisites

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