Michael Mahon is the Director of Strategic Investments & Partnerships (SIP) at BDC Capital, and a long-time supporter of the HIGHLINE family (before the merger, he was a board member, director, and lead investor of both GrowLab and Extreme Startups). As part of his role, he manages relationships with accelerators and startup ecosystems partners, including HIGHLINE, Version One Ventures, Communitech Hyperdrive, C100, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, and the National Angel Capital Organization.
Following his graduation from military college where he received a BEng, Computer Engineering (Hardware), Michael served six years as an Army Signals officer with the Canadian Forces; at time of departure, his rank was Captain.
In 2001, he made the switch to investment banking at BMO Capital Markets after completing an MBA at Queen’s University. Michael joined BDC in 2005, first as Area Manager of the Toronto Entrepreneurship Centre, then as Director of Corporate Development, before becoming Director of Strategic Investments & Partnerships at BDC Capital in 2011.
We had a chance to sit down recently to talk about how BDC Capital began, what excites him about HIGHLINE, how impact trumps activity in the accelerator space, trends he has his eye on, and how he balances work and family life.
Q&A With Michael Mahon
What’s your favourite part about what you do at BDC Capital?
What I like best is that everything we do is new and different from BDC. We started off with a white piece of paper about three years ago, and they told us, “We want you to do four things” and we said, “No thanks. We’d like to do our own thing.”
It’s almost like we’re our own startup within the BDC. Each day brings new challenges and opportunities to do new things and have a real impact in the startup ecosystem. We operate as a team, we work together, we iterate, we’re responsible for it, we own it.”
What excites you most about HIGHLINE?
HIGHLINE is truly a national opportunity. It’s also not a brand new entity—it’s two different organizations coming together with two- to three-years’ experience each. Now it’s a matter of learning from those experiences and having that impact at the national level.
There’s a lot of fragmentation in Canada, and HIGHLINE is the one true entity that’s looking across the country. Canada is a big country geographically, but we’re a small market. The best accelerators are the ones that attract the best talent: why restrict yourself to a certain area when you can attract the best talent nationally, if not globally?
You’ve been involved with a lot of Canadian accelerators. What are your thoughts on activity vs. impact?
There are a lot of accelerator-type organizations out there that will generate activity, which is important to some degree, but activity for activity’s sake is not what’s going to carry the ball across the finish line. We need impact: accelerators and other entities creating venture-fundable companies that will encourage others to start businesses.
To have impact means to focus on quality and that you are accelerating companies, either to success or to failure. Either is an acceptable outcome, as long as there is momentum.
There are a lot of organizations that say “We’ve helped x number of startups with y number of jobs.” But it’s not until you look at these companies six months or a year down the road that you can actually measure any impact: were they connected to mentors? Funders? Did they achieve success? Only time will tell.
What advantages do you see HIGHLINE offering over other accelerators?
It’s both an opportunity and a challenge. It’s difficult to manage two locations at once, but at the same time, having that connectivity exposes founders to opportunities outside of their normal world, as well as connections to Silicon Valley and New York… and the world. From day one, HIGHLINE encourages founders to look to outside their own offices and at the bigger picture.
Another big difference is that HIGHLINE as a pure play, private sector accelerator, as an investor, is motivated by the financial success of these companies, so there’s a real alignment of interest: it’s a partner, it’s an investor.
Do you have your eye on any particular tech trends right now?
The whole wearables space. I don’t just mean the hardware component; it’s hardware enabled by software. Whether with the quantified self or personalized health wearables, our world is changing and companies that can get integrated into everyday aspects of our lives become indispensable.
That said, it’s also going to be challenging. They actually have to manufacture and ship tangible products. That’s a whole different skill set that’s required. It’s not just about, “Hey, how many users do you have?” It’s a different challenge than a typical company going through an accelerator would face.
There’s certainly a lot of noise out there, but the big question is if companies are trying to solve real problems: are they trying to address a real need, or are they a technology in search of a problem? Not to say you can’t build a business that way, but the big opportunities will be the ones that solve bigger problems already out there. They may not be the flavour of the moment when it comes to VC—like Tinder or anonymous messaging apps—but at the end of the day, they’re likely to be a more sustainable investment.
You have an MBA from Queen’s, undergrad degree in Computer Engineering (Hardware), CFA level II, certificate in entrepreneurship from MIT, and have completed several professional development programs. Education has been important in your own career, but is that something you look at before funding founders? Have you seen a correlation between someone’s alma mater and/or level of education and success as a founder?
The key factor to success is the ability to attract the best talent, which is innate in a founder: passion, drive, ambition, and I think an understanding of what they want to achieve.
Personally, I don’t think education is important. Just because you went to an Ivy League school doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful.
I graduated with an engineering degree, then went into an MBA. For me, those were stepping stones along a path—they weren’t the end goal. I don’t care who you are, or where you’re from—I care about your drive, ambition, and your dedication to solving a problem and executing on that.
Often to get into elite universities and programs, you need drive and ambition, but your academic performance is not necessarily a product of what happens in the startup space.
If you work with enough companies, the predictors of success and qualities you look for to accept a founder into the program is based on the team. So if the education is part of a whole package that makes sense, then yes, but I wouldn’t go back and ask for your GPA or your pedigree.
At the end of the day, you just have to have a strong comfort with the founding team.
In addition to a demanding job and professional commitments, you also have a family. Do you have any productivity or life hacks that help you excel at your professional and/or personal life?
I try to keep a clean inbox, if you can believe that. Delete, or archive, or do whatever. So that’s one thing.
I actually split my time between Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto, and I try to keep disciplined with my schedule, and not overload myself with meetings.
We have an infant at home—she’s 10.5 months old—and I try to make time for my family. Family has to be my number one, and I fit everything else in around that. It’s not always easy. When I travel, I try to book a lot of meetings and get as much done while away from home as I can.
Do you have an rituals to keep you grounded or focused?
I’m ex-military, and one of the things they’ll tell you is that you always need to have a mission, your one constant. When you have a mission, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. You have your left of arc and your right of arc, and the minute you step forward, you have to be prepared and adapt as the moment comes.
As a team, we know what we want to achieve, what our strategies are, what our goals are, and we’re moving toward that. There are a lot of things that are going to distract you, and if it’s not going to get you there, you have to put it aside.
You won’t be able to control everything, but you should keep your focus on what is directly in your control, and move along that path to meet your goals. That’s important for a startup too: the path may change but you always have to know where you’re going.
How else has your military experience affected your career?
A lot of my role at BDC Capital is focused around our strategy. When you’re in the military, you get a lot of leadership responsibility early on, and a lot of it is about understanding where you’re going and adapting along the way. It’s really, really shaped me in terms of that.
I think a lot of corporate strategy tends to be about “what’s the big plan?” and spending time developing a full-fledged plan, and then a budget, and then launching it. We focus more on finding likeminded partners, and then developing the plan.
We’re not just an investor in HIGHLINE. HIGHLINE is an enabler of our strategic goal of connecting startups with the capital and mentorship they need. And as we’ve worked together with HIGHLINE, we’ve iterated, and things will continue to change from day to day, but our mission remains the same, and we’ll work together to achieve that.
Follow Michael Mahon on Twitter: @mikejmahon