A Blueprint for Technology Industry Success
Jevon MacDonald and friends started a successful blog a few years ago in Toronto called StartupNorth. They have a great perspective on the travails of starting a technology business and growing a technology industry in Canada. They don’t mince words, so the view is often passionate and usually entertaining. This week, Jevon posted an optimistic article about Canada’s Next Five Years. In it, he lambastes the past 15 years of Canadian technology industry creation, citing the disappearance of effective venture capital in Canada and the apparent “stepping up” of the start-ups to attract the good VCs back to the market. It appears to have worked, in his mind. In fact, he likens the VCs to Sea Monkeys, those freeze dried creatures ordered from the back of comic books that magically come back to life when you add them to water.
Here in BC, we need to wake up. Recently, Toronto passed us as the technology hotbed with notable successes exiting in the past year such as Varicent (sold to IBM), Rypple (sold to Salesforce.com), Algorithmics (sold to IBM) and Kobo (sold to Rakuten). Looking forward, Jevon cites five initiatives that will help Canada’s technology industry achieve an incredible run for the next five years. I am paraphrasing him below and adding my own BC spin to these initiatives:
- Education – Starting the path towards entrepreneurship and innovation at a younger and younger age. Kids learn about computers, but they don’t learn about applications. They don’t learn about solving problems with technology. They don’t know what a customer value proposition is. Further, they don’t know about the financial side of the business… i.e. how to make a profit. One program that is incredible in Canada is Shad Valley. Every year, 500 high-performing Grade 11 math/science students go to ten university campuses and immerse themselves in innovation and commercialization for a month. We need more programs like this to prepare the next generation of entrepreneurs in technology.
- Community as the framework – The web entrepreneurs have taken the lead in Canada in grassroots networking, sharing and communication with hack-a-thons, start-up weekends and inexpensive or free networking events. Organizations that are ad hoc and not driven by big organizations or the governments seem to flourish. Local technology organizations are driving community but membership fees and high costs of bigger events keep the entrepreneurs away and fill these venues with service providers. I have seen clean tech start to self-organize at the grass roots, which is encouraging. Other technology groups need to build the community the way that the web entrepreneurs have and “share, share, share”.
- Tighter Silicon Valley links – Thirteen years ago I started a technology-based web site for ex-pats in the Silicon Valley to connect better with Canadian tech entrepreneurs. Called TechnicallyHip.ca, it worked for about a year and then sponsors disappeared in the tech wreck of 2001. Now, accelerators (like Growlab), events (like Grow and Banff Venture Forum) and ex-pats (Debbie Landa, Paul Kedrosky, Dan Martell) are doing a much better job fashioning connections for Canadian companies and entrepreneurs to the Valley. The C100 is another group dedicated to forging the ties to the center of the technology universe.
- Policy – Immigration, R&D encouragement and Procurement are the three policy directions for federal and provincial governments in the next five years. StartUpVisa.ca is a great initiative to bring entrepreneurs like the Summify founders to BC. Make Vancouver the landing spot for the world’s young bright tech entrepreneurs. R&D spending needs continuous policy evolution to get Canada to the leading edge. Why is BC Hydro installing smart meters from US companies when a leading edge BC company has the technology? Help us help ourselves with a higher score given in the RFP process to BC born technology!
- Grow like hell and don’t stop – I love what Jevon said, so I will quote him: “The final thing we need to do is to make even bolder moves. We have our feet under us and now it is time to double down again and again and again. Rather than being the companies who are getting picked off for $20m here and $50m there, we need to find opportunities that let Canadian startups become the acquirer and growth engine, rather than the other way around.” In other words, be ambitious and build a company that can dominate and last. Three local entrepreneurs that have this mantra are Jeff Booth (BuildDirect), Ryan Holmes (Hootsuite) and Alexander Fernandes (Avigilon). These three will either go to a billion or zero. That’s the attitude we need.
You may agree or not with the initiatives and you may have more. Whatever you believe to be the right path for BC to accelerate its technology industry, do something about it. Shout about it or be proactively involved through the various organizations that are available. Right now.
By Brent Holliday, Technology Practice, Capital West Partners.
Brent can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org