A Tech Scene on the Rise

PayrollHero | BCBusiness
The PayrollHero posse: Michael Stephenson, Adam Baechler and Piotr Banasik.

In the Sea-to-Sky valley, a nascent tech scene lures talent with the promise of a play-first, work-later lifestyle

Fresh tracks in the morning then afternoons in the office? It’s a promise that Squamish and Whistler make to professionals eyeballing lower rents and home prices paired with competitive wages.

“We have people who want an active lifestyle, are digitally savvy, want to ski during the day and work at night, and they want to program. And our schedule is flexible—we’re project-based, not selling coffee,” says Duane Hepditch, founder of Whistler-based Guestfolio Communications Inc., which develops hotel property-management apps.

As much as people want to live in outdoor recreational centres, the opposite is also true. Following the 2008 recession, Whistler’s visitor numbers dipped; Squamish’s population declined between 1999 and 2003 after Nexen Energy Inc. shuttered its chlor-alkali plant and International Forest Products Ltd. wound down its pulp and paper operations. The towns shifted emphasis to outdoor recreation: mountain biking, rock climbing and river sports, and prepared to capitalize on the benefit of a $32-million fibre optic cable and a four-lane highway, both legacies of the 2010 Olympics.

Among Squamish’s software startups and digital agencies are Tristorm Product Design Inc. (its Tiipz.com mobile market-research platform was among only 20 participants in the C100’s 48 Hours in the Valley in 2012) and VentureWeb Design Ltd., a digital agency focused on outdoor recreation. Whistler’s Guestfolio and PayrollHero.com Pte. Ltd., an HR services software startup, are among the success stories of the municipality, which counts fewer than 9,000 full-time residents. Whistler is well connected with the U.S. tech scene, too: Amazon recruits with the promise that it’s just a five-hour drive away, while Microsoft has code-named products in development after Whistler slope-side bars and ski runs. Then there’s PayrollHero’s co-founder Michael Stephenson’s plans to establish a local tech-startup accelerator.

But don’t look for a “Silicon Valley North” title just yet. Fiona Famulak, president of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, says the trend is “toward being able to attract professionals in industries that don’t require the individual to be in a city environment some or all of the time. Technology falls into the definition, as does communications, PR, clean R&D and consultants. We call them independents and that’s a growing element in many North American economies.”

Famulak counts 13 companies employing about 125 people in what the Whistler Chamber of Commerce defines as “communications and electronics.” In Squamish, the 2006 census recorded 735 workers in the professional, scientific and technology services and information and cultural industries. But Dan McRae, economic development officer for the District of Squamish, says there are far more, pointing to a 14.9 per cent increase in population between 2006 and 2011, much of it driven by professionals relocating from the Lower Mainland.

“The influx of capable employees has been happening the past five to eight years,” says Jason Cyr, the founder of Tiipz and Ethical User Experience Design Inc., a web design agency. Inside Edge, an association of knowledge industry professionals, self-employed designers and developers and entrepreneurs in Squamish, counts 225 members.

While every B.C. city’s economic-development office swoons over the promise of high-paying tech jobs, the lure of outdoor recreation and its proximity to Vancouver gives the Sea-to-Sky valley a unique advantage.