The story so far: the tech community in Vernon

Deciding to move to a new town, even a place as beautiful as Vernon, BC, isn’t easy!

Before I moved, my biggest concern was that there wouldn’t be a local tech community.

I’d been working as a Product Manager in Edmonton’s burgeoning startup scene. Right before I’d left, Startup Edmonton a “community hub for hackers, artists + entrepreneurs” established itself. Edmonton, especially 104th Street, was an exciting place to be as a tech worker.

I was worried that a move to Vernon meant giving up that sense of community.

vernon sky

I was wrong!

Early in 2012, I emailed Kevin Poole. Kevin works for Vernon Economic Development. He did a great job of welcoming me to the city and introduced me to Kazia Mullin.

Kazia and I were interested in trying to build the local tech community. We wondered if there were other people like us.

We started emailing anyone we could find that seemed connected to tech. What we found surprised us: world-class software developers, designers, creatives, and business people living right in Vernon (most of whom were working remotely, from their homes).

Since then, I’ve met folks who have worked with Tumblr, WordPress (Automattic), Apple, SAP, Yahoo, and Oracle.

Forming the community

In the beginning, the biggest need wasn’t a building, programs, or funding. We just needed a regular place to meet. Everyone was working from home but didn’t know each other.

Startup Vernon was really a response to that: we started putting on local events (Geek Beers, a Remote Work panel, and a series of programming workshops), blogging and even did a TV appearance.

Geek Beers, in particular, became a central meeting place for local tech people. Our first meetings attracted 5-10 people. Now, in 2019, we regularly see groups as big as 30!

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Effects on the community

Over the years, this momentum has begun to bear fruit. Now, I regularly receive emails like this, from tech people in the UK, USA, and Canada. They want to move to Vernon!

Email from people moving to Vernon BC

People in tech started hearing that Vernon was a good place to be!

We’ve also started to see projects, companies, and partnerships birthed out of the Startup Vernon community. For example, Cowork Vernon is a private coworking space for tech consultants, located on 3000-30th Street. They started as a group of four and now have over 12 members.

This increase in economic activity is encouraging. We’re proving that our focus on building community in Vernon is having an effect. People are hearing that Vernon is a good place to live and that it also has a core tech community. Plus, folks are starting businesses that will benefit the local economy.

Vernon is unique

Kelowna’s focus has been to encourage traditional venture-backed startups. Accelerate Okanagan is guiding local startups, and helping them to be investment ready. Steve Wandler created an excellent conference called Metabridge that brings investors from Silicon Valley to Kelowna every year. Traditionally, they also had a big anchor (Club Penguin) which is helped draw talent to the city.

But Vernon is different than Kelowna.

If you look at Vernon’s history, culture, and the demographics of the people who move here, it’s clear we need to forge a different path.

Historic Kal Tire Vernon location

Vernon is a city of do-it-yourselfers, bootstrappers, and makers.

We’re home to global companies (Kal-Tire, Tekmar, and Tolko). They all started as small businesses and were built from the ground up.

Big acquisitions

While Club Penguin gets a lot of attention, we’ve seen some big tech acquisitions come out of Vernon:

Local startups

Vernon is also home to lifelong tech entrepreneurs, and new startups:

How Vernon, BC can attract more tech

Based on this history, there are two ways the community can encourage a tech culture and economy:

  1. Invest in community: should we build an innovation center? What about a makers space? Another coworking location? These are all good ideas, but they should never distract us from the core: people building relationships with people.
  2. Support the makers: There are individuals in Vernon creating really cool technology, products, and projects in their spare time. These folks need to be encouraged, supported and celebrated.
  3. Attract remote workers: I’ve been here since 2012, and almost all of the new tech talent that’s moving here is working remotely for companies elsewhere: San Francisco, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, Portland, Boulder, etc… The community needs to target this group, and then do a great job of welcoming them when they arrive.

There is a tech community in Vernon, BC, and it’s awesome.

Cheers,
Justin Jackson
@mijustin

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