When we think of our neighbors to the North in Canada, we think of bountiful natural resources, open land, and flannel shirts; we don’t necessarily think of tech. The major cities are dominated by industries such as oil, resource exporting, and politics. With the latest in RIMs downward spiral, Canada should be expected to leave this industry to the Valley. So, when I arrived back in my home country after six years of sunny and buzzing California, I thought that finding a tech scene would be a needle in a haystack. I couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
“Jenna! Welcome back!” Chimes my good friend Alyssa Richard’s voice on the other line a few days after my arrival to Calgary, Alberta (my hometown). I had met Richard at a MaiTai tech networking trip of kiteboarders in Maui and ended up traveling again with her later that year with a fragment of the group to explore the tech scene in Australia. Richard grew up just outside of Toronto, entering the tech scene a few years ago, co-founding Ratehub.ca, a mortgage comparison and lead platform, with her technical brother; who left Microsoft Canada for the project. “You have to come check out the startup scene here in Toronto (for I am a bad Canadian, and have not visited most of my country). There are some cool things happening here,” Richard exclaims in excitement. Next thing I know, my ticket is booked.
It turns out there are a lot of big tech companies with talent to offer. Facebook, Google, Zynga, (can we count Disney Interactive?), all hold big Canadian offices. Large technology firms who are training sums of talent, check; one box filled on the startup ecosystem checklist. Richard explains how her brother left his fat salary (by Canadian standards) at Mircosoft to come build a startup with her. At 25 years old, Richard saw an opening in the marketplace for a Canadian version of Bankrate (although, she would describe the development different at the time, but bankrate.com is the most comparable company) and went full throttle into building Ratehub.ca. She has not looked back.
Richard is not the only person pulling from big tech companies in the city and the ecosystem of startups is certainly gaining traction. I sat down with Andrew Peek of Rocketr, a social idea platform, regarding his move through the scene. Peek is a staple to the Toronto startup team, not just for his dreamy reputation with the ladies, but for his immense participation in the tech scene of Toronto.
He started his journey in tech with local startup success, Freshbooks, a digital invoicing tool, which has been a hit in the Toronto scene. They are used by almost all the entrepreneurs I met with and have gained some serious traction in the marketplace. In fact, every time I heard the name Freshbooks while mingling in the scene, it was said in a Wayne’s-World-esque tone (as if the hit Dreamweaver were playing in the background).
Peek left Freshbooks to work with boutique UX design firm, Jet Cooper, which is another major staple to the Toronto tech scene.With a team of about 20 designers, Jet Cooper is well known in their city for their work. Still with Jet Cooper, Peek decided to take his passion for product and do his own thing, starting Rocketr. Almost, two years since the inception, he has built up a team and product making a name for himself as one of the city’s most promising entrepreneurs.
Perhaps, what intrigued me most about Peek’s story was his beginnings in building Rocketr. He started the company with a grant from the Canadian government, something which began to come up a lot in my travels. Available seed funding, check; another one down for the startup ecosystem checklist.
Fellow entrepreneur, Carlo Perez, invited me down to the MarS building, a bit of an incubator built by the government for biotech startups and research, where he shares community space thanks to a government grant of his own. Although, unlike Rocketr, Perez is on the prowl to raise a non-government funded seed round.
Perez’s startup, UKnowA.com, is in a major pivot (or expansion, rather) and is building out a completely new platform. Same space, different spin. With a team of about 9, Perez’s UKnowA.com served as a lead generator for contractors and other trade services. He spoke of his competitors to the South and a recent visit to Las Vegas to a ‘lead gen conference,’ which made him wary of the ‘lead gen’ model solely. Perez returned from the conference with a fresh idea to solving problems in the contractor industry and is building a new platform to expand with. From a rushed pitch (he had back-to-back meetings), his knowledge of the area had depth and his new platform is revolutionary for that space. “We’ve found a lot of interest in our new model and I am actually hopeful that it won’t be difficult to raise a round. We haven’t actually sought funding prior to now,” says Perez. The Toronto angel and Venture Community tends to be quite a bit different out here, as I could tell from the conversations I had with many of the entrepreneurs.
The companies looking to build solely based on users and raise for it (without revenue models) like this is the Valley are all wrong (not in reference to UknowA.com), explains a passionate Alkarim Nasser, CEO and founder of BNOTIONS, a local development firm taking on some of the largest projects in the Toronto tech space. “The Valley has a lot of money willing to gamble on building companies based on users. We don’t have that here. To raise in Canada, you must have proper revenue generating business models,” explains Nasser while sipping a Guinness at a pub across the street from his office. I guess you could say, it is a bit more traditional that way.
In fairness, Nasser has been cash-flow positive from the start. He started building websites in his basement as a kid. A few friends thought it looked cool and joined up, and the rest is history.
I walk into Nasser’s BNOTIONS to be greeted by an unpredicted slow clap; a company policy. The room is filled with life, fanboy trinkets from every geek brand ever created, and developers working away in their ‘Dre Beats’ headphones. The office had an amazing energetic feel, reflective of the Valley, and when you meet Nasser you can see why.
“I work with everyone at BNOTIONS, they do not work for me,” says Nasser to my question regarding the office flair, “we have a lot of fun.” So much fun, that they are continuously building fun new products from team discussions at the pub the night before. Nasser explains their project, Eightshit.me, a goofy crowdsourced Twitter avatar tool that received some traction and a write up in Fast Company. “We had celebrities ordering hand drawn Twitter avatars made on shit tools like Mac Paintbrush. We had so much demand that we had to shut down the office for a week and draw shitty avatars. It was a blast, but we quickly realized we had to get back to our main focus,” laughs Nasser. In fact, this was only one of several fun side projects that the team has tackled after pub discussions around ideas.
BNOTIONS also does incubation, currently working with a startup called Atendy based around social crowdsourcing for event promotion. I met the team briefly while on the facility tour with Nasser. As I toured, he even went on to explain some of the seed funding he does along with incubation. This is one hectic place, I tell you. I don’t think Nasser sleeps. His excitement and energy was on par with Richard’s of Ratehub.ca, which made for a bright outlook on the future of the Toronto tech scene.
Between the two I was introduced to local startups by name and space: BetaKit, Stocial, Freshbooks, Saleschoice.com and many more. It is not so barren for a country known for Maple syrup, toques, and beaver tails. I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised by the vitality of the startup scene in Toronto, although strikingly different from that of the valley. Most of the startup checklist boxes were hit, including startup acquisitions and talented entrepreneurs and engineers. I regress, it will never be the Valley, but it is certainly a scene worth noting; and if you are a venture capitalist, a trip worth taking.