Is the grass always greener elsewhere for Alberta startups?
If you think so, maybe you're not looking in the right places
by Robbie Jeffrey
Very few of us don’t feel the impulse to move somewhere else at some point, to self-exile ourselves from the humdrum of our quotidian lives. Whether it’s for a culture change, better work opportunities or to chase a love interest, sometimes we admit that maybe, after all, Alberta isn’t the centre of the world. Or, sometimes we arrive from somewhere else only to second-guess ourselves once we’re here. That’s the case for Jo-Anne Reynolds, the CEO of SpikeBee. Her company is a dyed-in-the-wool tech startup – an online resource that aims to connect summer camp providers with parents itching to keep their kids occupied. The natural home for startups like hers is, of course, Silicon Valley. And it’s not like she didn’t consider it when she was leaving England for a new chapter in her life.
But, years later, she’s happy in Calgary. She has a family and a home, and SpikeBee is growing. Yet there’s a nagging concern that she’s missing out on greener pastures. She regularly travels to the U.S. and feels like there’s a marked cultural difference. “In Silicon Valley, on every corner and in every coffee shop, there’s a constant buzz of excitement you can easily fall into,” she says. She wants to stay in Alberta, she really does. But she’s one of those entrepreneurs who can’t sleep at night thinking she’s passing up better opportunities. Her main goals with SpikeBee are to scale quickly and keep up momentum, and in Calgary, where the energy-sector downturn has brought the city to a crawl, she feels stuck in neutral. “Sell me the Alberta dream!” she pleads, begging someone to talk her out of her indecision.
Is her frustration common? Pieter Boekhoff, a Calgary-based entrepreneur who’s also the co-founder of AcceleratorYYC and a board member of Startup Calgary, says he runs into this “pretty much once a week.” And he gets it – to an extent. There are cities known for particular industries – New York for fashion designers, Hollywood for entertainment, our beloved Calgary for oil and gas – and if you’re in one of those industries, you’ll naturally be drawn to those cities. But sometimes you just need to look harder.
“It’s better to be a big fish in a small pond,” Boekhoff says, “and that’s never been truer than in this period, when Alberta is redefining its diversification and economic strategy.” These days, there are all kinds of financial incentives for companies like SpikeBee, from the Scientific Research and Experimental Development tax incentive, which helps small businesses with funding for research and development, to the new $90-million Alberta Investor Tax Credit (AITC), meant to facilitate investments in small- and medium-sized tech firms.
All well and good, Reynolds thinks. But is it enough to compensate for the startup culture she’s missing? Boekhoff lets her in on a secret: It’s right here in Calgary, too. Reynolds says when she talks tech, people’s eyes glaze over; when she riffs on oil and gas, they light back up. But Boekhoff says that’s why the startup culture isn’t as immediately visible – Calgary business has been dominated by oil for so long that all other sectors have ended up in their own little bubbles, hosting their own private meetups and speaker series. And even other entrepreneurs who moved away are returning.
“They’re coming back, and there are a lot more success stories coming out of here,” Boekhoff says. “We just need them all to be in the same room.” Now the only question is, Will Reynolds show up to the party?