It’s not all doom and gloom for business in Canada despite a loss of competitiveness and waning confidence. It is a great time to be a tech entrepreneur in Canada, says Erin Bury, startup aficionado and managing director of creative communications agency Eighty-Eight in Toronto.
Although the Canadian tech scene struggles to commercialize its ideas and transform startups into large companies, it has nevertheless grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade. Canada now has several robust tech ecosystems, venture capital support, and accelerator programs. It’s firmly on the government’s radar given the programs and grants aimed at boosting hiring and alleviating the cost of training and skills development.
But it still has a long way to go, as Canada does not rank high in innovation performance globally.
“We have always been and we will always be in the shadow of Silicon Valley,” Bury said in a phone interview. “I feel like we’ve always tried to play catch-up.”
Bury says Canada is trying to own its own place in the tech world, and with prominence in specific sectors like artificial intelligence and blockchain, it has been able to achieve that.
Good Times for Tech
One major component symbolic of dipping business confidence is significantly weaker spending intentions for merchandise and equipment, according to the Conference Board of Canada. But the tech industry does not rely heavily on capital spending.
Tax structure and regulatory issues are broad challenges impacting business competitiveness in Canada, and while firms in the oil and gas sector move operations south of the border, Bury says that Toronto, as a tech hub, is getting plenty of interest from the United States.
One example she notes is Collision, the largest-growing tech conference in North America, with over 25,000 attendees, moving to Toronto from New Orleans.
“I think you’ll see more and more U.S. investment firms putting money into Canadian startups, more U.S. startups and entrepreneurs moving here to launch their companies and build them,” she said, attributing the trend to relatively stricter immigration in the United States.
But what is a challenge for tech is finding qualified staff in a tight labour market—an economy-wide problem with the 5.8 percent unemployment rate in Canada at its lowest since the mid-1970s.
However, there are some bright spots, according to Bury, who says the wide range of government programs like the Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&D) tax incentives, Start-up Visa program, Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP), and Canada-Ontario Job Grant are helping tech firms attract a lot of talent from the United States and abroad.
“At Eighty-Eight, we’ve been the beneficiary of the Canada-Ontario Job Grant which has helped offset our hiring costs for employees, training dollars which we’ve used for management training or speaking training, soft skills that people need to know to succeed in a workplace,” Bury said.
At an early age, tech became part of Bury’s vernacular sitting at the dinner table and listening to her mother who used to work at former Canadian tech juggernaut Nortel.
“It’s so much about punching above your weight,” Bury said about working for a startup, as opposed to a mature company. “You work for a big company, it’s a lot of stay in your lane, do what’s in your job description.”
She says entrepreneurs have a blank slate mentality and bring a fresh, innovative way of thinking. They are willing to pitch in to do whatever is needed at a startup—and they often have to in a company with only a handful of employees.
Solving a new problem or an existing problem in a new way defines innovation. Better innovation leads to better productivity, which leads to improvements in living standards. It is therefore critical for Canada to have a hospitable environment for innovators in startups.
Businesses are falling over themselves trying to woo millennials, and Bury, as a millennial, thinks about this hot topic a lot. She says it comes down to businesses being tech-centric and understanding that millennials want flexibility.
“Total ease and simplicity. I think that’s the experience that every brand has to replicate. Otherwise you’re not going to be able to capture that [millennial] audience,” she said.
One example of a company that is doing just that is the online investment manager Wealthsimple, Bury says.
“Wealthsimple really wins because they have a beautiful online experience,” Bury said. The completely online, seamless, and intuitive process is the type of experience that consumers are demanding more and more. The companies that win understand this, Bury says.
Bury will be a keynote speaker at the MARCOM Annual Conference, produced by the Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing, in Ottawa on June 7. She’ll provide insights about key tech trends that shape the way businesses and consumers interact.
She said she hopes her presentation “plants the seed of starting to be a more future-ready business” for audience members.
Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETBiz