Vancouver: tech hub or just an outpost?

HootSuite | BCBusiness
Left to right: Jack Newton, co-founder of Clio; Igor Faletski, co-founder of Mobify; Kirstine Steuart, co-founder of Allocadia; Rick Perrault, founder of Unbounce; and Ryan Holmes.

Is Vancouver doomed to be a Silicon Valley outpost with lax immigration laws?

Announcements from Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft (along with the rumour that Amazon has a large office planned in Vancouver) have presented local startups and stalwarts like Hootsuite with a conundrum: in a city as expensive as Vancouver, how do we compete with the big guys for talent.

Moreover, can Vancouver become anything more than a Silicon Valley outpost with lax immigration laws?

That was the question at a panel discussion moderated by Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes on the future of Vancouver’s tech sector, held at his company’s new Mount Pleasant office Tuesday evening.

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Proximity to Seattle and San Francisco, the presence of universities with strong computer science programs, and comparably lax immigration laws have made Vancouver a lucrative option for U.S. tech companies looking to recruit developers from abroad who have difficulty securing American visas.

But Holmes is concerned that many Canadian university graduates might get sucked south in that process. “We should see Waterloo graduates here, not in San Francisco,” he said. Many Canadian students get to the point of graduation, and then right when they’re about to start making money—and thus contributing back—they leave, he adds. “We should do more to keep them here.”

But in a city the size of Vancouver, the tech sector talent crunch doesn’t stop with recent graduates: startups and larger companies also have problems recruiting middle managers, qualified salespeople and executives.

“It’s surprisingly difficult to recruit into Vancouver,” said Jack Newton, founder of legal services software-maker Clio. “Relocating is a big ask.”

It’s a problem in particular for companies looking to grow rapidly: “if you’re recruiting sales executives—someone who has been through the process of scaling revenue from $10 to $100 million, you have to look outside Vancouver,” adds Newton.

But operating a startup in a smaller city like Vancouver also has its advantages: Developers here tend to be more loyal to their employers than their Silicon Valley counterparts, argued Jack Newton, co-founder of Clio, which builds law firm management software. “Every one of our first five developers is still with the company,” said Newton.

The city also still benefits from the last wave of companies with large local shops, such as Electronic Arts.

“Vancouver has a large talent pool in enterprise software, in business intelligence customer-relations management and big data,” said Kirstine Steuart, founder of Allocadia, citing the legacy of Crystal Decisions, a software-maker eventually acquired by SAP.