Vancouver (tech) rocks: what about Kaslo?…

Clariase with Drum laptop
Clarise, holding a netbook designed by a Kaslo-based company.

What if we decided that Kaslo can — and should — become a global leader in figuring out how technology can be used to improve the economies and quality of life for folks who choose to live in small, remote (beautiful) places? Technology that created decently paid, interesting jobs. Jobs not completely dependent on wildly volatile world commodity prices over which we have no control; jobs that make it possible for an appropriate number of mainly young and youngish people to work, live, and raise families here (“appropriate” as in not so many as to overheat everything, especially the housing market). And what if the work they did resulted in products and services that in turn made life better for the rest of us?

More on that in future articles. For now, let’s take a look at what’s happening in Vancouver. I’m not suggesting that what happens in Vancouver should — or even could — happen in tiny Kaslo. But I do wonder if there isn’t a way to plug in to what it starting to take place there, carving out our own, small, right-sized niche — a small village tech centre, laying claim to being the world epicentre for… small town tech.

If this interests you, read on.

If you follow the money, the Northwest’s hottest startup is now 140 miles north of Seattle. It’s called HootSuite, a 370-employee company at the heart of a resurgent startup community in Vancouver. In August, HootSuite raised an eye-popping $165 million from many of the same venture capitalists who backed Facebook and Twitter. That’s 20 times more than the average Northwest startup raised last year, and more that most Silicon Valley companies ever see.

HootSuite is in a thriving category. It makes tools that companies around the world are using to manage their presence on social networks. But there may be another reason investors showed up at its Canada-chic offices this past summer, bearing truckloads of cash.

In tech circles, Canada is a hot new destination. Generous tax benefits and flexible immigration rules have long been a draw, but a bigger attraction now is our relatively abundant supply of engineers, available for a fraction of the salaries that their peers demand in Silicon Valley.

Here in B.C., tech is growing faster than our traditional forestry, mining and energy industries, and now employs more people — more than 80,000 at 8,900 companies, including at least 350 active startups.

Kristina Bergman, a principal at Ignition venture capital in Bellevue, Washington,  who grew up in Victoria, B.C. recently noted, “You look at HootSuite doing well and you can forecast 10 years down the road, there are going to be impressive startups in related spaces. It’s almost an inevitability in high-tech. There will be smart, talented people who will spin out from successful companies in a particular area and start related types of businesses.”

What if we attracted a few of them — you know, a handful of entrepreneurial, talented engineers and software types who place a high value on plentiful outdoor recreation activities, lots of cool shops, a funky cultural scene, a great K-12 school, no traffic jams, and a large dollop of peace & quiet — to Kaslo?

Crowded boat traffic on Kootenay Lake's Kaslo Bay
Crowded boat traffic on Kootenay Lake’s Kaslo Bay

Money, while important, isn’t always everything. In general, the types of talents coveted by tech firms and investors are considerably cheaper in Canada than in Silicon Valley. Engineers can be hired in the Vancouver area for a third or half of what they’d be paid in Silicon Valley, where the talent crunch also leads to frequent job-hopping between companies. Salaries in Kaslo would likely be even lower — but still in the upper echelon of what folks who work and live in our area currently make. 10-20 new young families with annual incomes over $100,000 wouldn’t hurt the scene on Front Street.

Kaslo's Front Street
Kaslo’s Front Street

The federal and provincial governments dangle all sorts of tax benefits for tech, including a federal tax credit that can work out to about 40 cents per dollar of salaries in research and development fields. Hello, a new Kaslo Institute-inspired “rural-tech” R&D centre. The Kemball building, with its soon-to-arrive 100 MBS bandwidth, is starting to look mighty attractive…

But government incentives ebb and flow, depending on the political mood. Vancouver provides evidence that they may not be the best way to build a lasting industry. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with taking advantage of support when it’s there for the taking, shaping a sustainable business — or business cluster — usually requires a heady mixture of creativity, hard work, a willingness to take risks, and some plain old-fashioned luck.

HootSuite founder, Ryan Holmes
HootSuite founder, Ryan Holmes

Vancouver’s HootSuite is a good example. Fostering a new generation of startups is a big responsibility for HootSuite’s 38-year-old founder, Ryan Holmes, but it’s not crimping his style too much.

In a recent article in the Seattle Times, “…the friendly, bearded entrepreneur brushed dog hair off a leather couch and invited a visitor to get comfortable in his log-cabin-style corner office.

“In unlaced boots and a vintage shirt, Holmes doesn’t look like most business gurus. But this is Canada, and his company uses stumps for coffee tables and green canvas tents for conference rooms inside its expansive, open office space.

“Embracing his role as the face of Vancouver’s latest wave of startups, Holmes talks of the potential for a “Maple Syrup Mafia” of startup veterans to spawn a series of hit companies, similar to the “PayPal Mafia” of PayPal veterans who went on to start LinkedIn, Tesla, Yelp, YouTube and others.

“‘I’d love to see in Vancouver a software culture really start to spark, and I’d love to see the alumni of this company angel invest in other projects, start up their own projects and really begin to see a generator and a positive black hole of innovation,’ he said.

“Noting the effect Microsoft has had on Seattle and tech startups have had on San Francisco, Holmes said, ‘There’s a huge opportunity to create a really great tech-innovative center here.'”

The biggest challenge facing any tech enterprise in B.C. at the moment is the relative lack of grads getting pumped out of our schools with the skills to service new tech companies. Which opens up a further opportunity for us here in Kaslo. There’s no reason why a Kaslo-based strategic partnership between the Village, the RDCK, Selkirk College, JVH (and SD8), and Columbia Basin Trust, orchestrated by the Kaslo Institute, couldn’t become a world leader in providing rural-based young people with the expertise they require to snag exciting tech-centric jobs — and how great would it be if some of those jobs were available right here?

Holmes, the HootSuite CEO,  grew up off the grid outside Vernon. He ran a paintball business and a pizza parlor before moving to the big city to work at a short-lived dot-com. He stuck around and kept at it, avoiding the pull of California. He started a Web and digital marketing agency that created HootSuite, then spun it out in 2009.

We could offer folks like this Vancouver tech worker a far less hectic -- and more scenic -- commute!
We could offer folks like this Vancouver tech worker a far less hectic — and more scenic — commute!

That sort of breakout success is priceless when building a tech community. In tech, success quite literally breeds success. We may need to bring Holmes onto the Kaslo Institute advisory board. He looks like a Kaslovian!

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