From Montréal Startups Avec Amour

Posted by Roger Huang

When I founded my first startup in Montréal, language was the last thing on my mind.

I was focused on creation, and spurring a new idea into existence. I didn’t much care which language it could be best expressed in.

As it turns out to be the case, language in Québec does have a habit of making its way into the conversation. I had to present my startup in French, bounded by the fact that my jury of government appraisers could not understand English very well sometimes. One of the first concerns of our technical team revolved around how to properly implement a translation module so we could allow our users to interact in both French and English. When the municipal government looked over a grant application I sent them detailing my business, the first question did not revolve around the feasibility of the business: it revolved around the quality of our French.

I am not a Québec native. I was born in China, and was brought here at an early age by my parents. French has always been my third language, and though I have picked up a handy little accent, it is very easy to discern that I am not a native. I have never been fully comfortable expressing myself in French.

I was one of the children upon which Bill 101, Québec’s notorious language law bill, was enforced. I was forced to switch schools several times based on the language of instruction—not the easiest experience for a young child. Because of this, I have always felt somewhat restricted by Québec’s language laws.

Here’s why it really doesn’t matter.

Montréal is not solely defined by the language habits of its people and the attached regulations. The city is not polarized perfectly into persecuted Anglophones and overbearing Francophones. Montréal is a cacophony of different perspectives, and different identities molding together in beautiful and unpredictable ways.

It is not for nothing that Montréal has become known as a global hub for creativity, host to some of the best agencies in the world. The city is made richer by the blending of different cultures, and languages. It is not uncommon to see two Montréalais switch through two or three languages in rapid succession during a brief conversation, a mind-bending testament to the openness of spirit and vividness of mind that makes Montréal an ideal place to foster new ideas.

The city is defined by its joie de vivre, says Andrew Wyllie, an Anglophone IT specialist. Here, one gets the distinct feeling that people work to live, rather than live to work. The warmth that covers the city despite the cold outside is an inspiration to constantly connect, and create with others.

Montréal is defined by great community initiatives that aim to create sustainable urban agriculture, greener neighbourhoods, and urban art painted across the city, says Christine Renaud, the Francophone founder of E-180, a platform that connects people aspiring to learn from each other over coffee. It gives Montréal’s startups a unique social legacy to draw upon, and inspires entrepreneurs to truly create for others rather than just for themselves. It allows for ideas that once were confined to private utility to bloom into something that can solve the problems of many.

The city is defined by its youth. With more students within its borders then the entire population of Boulder, Colorado, and multiple university campuses, Montréal represents a cluster point where young dreamers come together to talk, code, love, and create. Montréal is filled with young business, artistic, and engineering talent, and they are available for a discount as the quality of life that comes from reduced tuition, and free health-care allows for individuals to truly work at what they are most passionate about, without having to grab every last dollar to maintain their lifestyle.

Montreal is defined by its events. From Montreal Newtech, a gathering of hundreds drawn by new startups, to Montreal’s Startup Festival filled with thousands of the leading movers and shakers in the field, there is a je ne sais pas quoi, as Philippe Telio, Startup Festival’s founder puts it; a mysteriously beautiful ambiance that draws people together around new innovations. 

The city is defined by a community that helps and supports each other unerringly. The grant I applied for was referred to me by a contact in the Montréal community who put himself out there, and helped connect me with members of the startup community. Ultimately, the grant was given to me by the government so as to allow me to fully explore the potential of my idea.

Members of the Montréal startup community have published a letter to this effect. You will see the words of Montréal startup figures who pitched in on a Google document, to support each other on building a letter that defends everything they love about the city they have chosen. You will see the diversity of startups and individuals who have signed onto the letter, each pursuing their own passion-filled idea. This is what defines Montréal.

Like all of them, I have stayed in Montréal, and built an enterprise here because I believe that the cost is much less than the benefit. I believe that the benefit of learning a second, third, or even fourth language, and being open to the culture and perspectives of others is invaluable.

I have worked diligently to be able to express myself in French because not doing so would be missing half of a very enriching story, almost like cutting myself off entirely from different worlds just because they made me feel uncomfortable. This is the opposite of what a startup entrepreneur should strive to do.  

In the startup world where I feel most at ease, there are two general maxims: “design for the pain of others," and “get shit done." Your solutions don’t work unless you are actually solving problems for other people, and how can you do this if you do not understand how others understand their problems? Montréal fosters the inclusive and diverse community that allows for you to truly think naturally not only for yourself, but for a multitude of different perspectives and cultures.

As for getting shit done: a startup is an obstacle path filled with death traps at every turn. A law that is never going to be enforced unless you hire way more people than the Lean Startup recommends is not a death trap of the highest order, and would never be construed as a significant obstacle to getting anything done in my mind.

Take it from a first-generation immigrant from China who is more comfortable in English, and who has had to abide by the actual enforcement of Bill 101—if you overwhelmingly fear laws that will maybe apply sometime in the distant future, then maybe that’s a cost for you that will make you reconsider Montréal. If you’re looking to build an idea and watch it grow in a creative, warm, socially-oriented, youthful, eventful and supportive atmosphere, Montréal vous souhaite la bienvenue.

That is to say, Montréal welcomes you with open arms.

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Roger Huang

Roger Huang

Roger is an entrepreneur who has co-founded a social network entitled ThoughtBasin that looks to connect students looking to make a difference with organizations looking for difference makers. This experience has given him some setbacks, but also insights. He is deferring admission from the law school of University of Toronto to pursue his dream of creating impact through entrepreneurship, and... more



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