Where does Vernon fit in the BC startup scene?

“It’s time to rebrand the Chicago startup scene, focusing on passionate bootstrappers rather than small firms looking to get huge.”
– Adrian Holovaty via the Chicago Tribune

This Chicago Tribune article, and the comments from Adrian Holovaty are worth reading. I think there are a lot of parallels to BC’s burgeoning tech startup scene. Here’s the way I see it:


Vancouver is trying to become a second-tier startup city (like Seattle, Austin, or Toronto). They have the right climate, the right vibe, the right size and the right location. With companies like HootSuite leading the way (and big companies like Electronic Arts who have set up shop there), they have a good chance of becoming a reasonable venture-backed startup hub.


Kelowna is trying to become the next Boulder, Colorado, taking a page out of Brad Feld’s Startup Communities book. They have one big win under their belt with Club Penguin. They’ve also made it clear that they’re trying to build traditional venture-backed startups: Steve Wandler runs an excellent conference called Metabridge that brings investors to Kelowna, and Accelerate Okanagan is helping to prepare companies to be “investment ready”.


So where does that leave Vernon? As I look at Vernon’s entrepreneurial history, the culture of the city, and the attitude of the people who move here, I think we need to forge a different path. Like Chicago, we can’t be something that we’re not:

Playing “the Silicon Valley game” isn’t going to get Chicago any closer to the kind of massive venture-capital dollars that flow through California, [says] Holovaty. He even offered a rebranding slogan: “Chicago. Be Your Own Boss.”

“There’s no way we’re going to catch up with Silicon Valley,” said Holovaty, “Let’s be honest with ourselves.”

via the Chicago Tribune

Why are people moving here? Why do people stay here? What kinds of companies do we want to build? 

First: We live in Vernon for the lifestyle: for mountains, lakes, trees, beaches, hiking, biking and skiing. The companies we build need to align themselves with that purpose. Many of us are expats of bigger cities (Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary) that wanted out of the grind, and wanted the freedom to enjoy life, outside, with our families. Vernon is a family town; it’s somewhere you want to raise your kids.

Second: I think Vernon is a lot closer to the DNA of Chicago (working class town) than San Francisco (big, venture funded startups). We’re bootstrappers. Again, from the Tribune article:

Bootstrapping generally refers to companies that fund themselves rather than look to angel or venture capital investors. Holovaty offered a more specific definition:

“It’s an Internet company that’s made by one or two people, developers probably, working from home, working from coffee shops,” he said. “It’s revenue-positive. It makes them a great living. And they are doing what they love because they’re craftsmen and they love doing it. And they have no ambitions to take over the world, because, really, 95 percent of what is taking over the world is (B.S.).”

Bootstrapping is about building something valuable with your own sweat equity; and the payoff is freedom. You’re not beholden to investors, a boss, or anyone else. If you build a great (small) company, and work hard, you’ll eventually earn the flexibility to do what Vernonites love: take off a week to go fishing, head to the mountains to ski untouched powder as soon as it snows, or spend the afternoon at the beach.

In addition to people bootstrapping their own companies I think there’s a great deal of opportunity for folks who want to work remotely from Vernon. These are people who’ve been enabled by their employers to work anywhere in the world.

If I were to come up with a slogan for this movement, I think it’d be something like this:

Vernon, BC. Build your own freedom.

That’s where I see Vernon’s startup future. What about you?


Manufacturing is not coming back to Vernon, BC

When I’m out around town, I listen. I listen to what people are talking about at coffee shops, at the gym, and at the barbershop. One recurring complaint is:

“Why isn’t Vernon investing in an industrial zone? Why don’t we bring manufacturing back to the area? It’s all going to Salmon Arm, Armstrong, Kamloops and Kelowna.”

Folks, manufacturing isn’t going to come back to Vernon. The days of having a glass factory that employs 300 people in the area are gone. There are 2 main reasons for this:

1. Bad location

Vernon, logistically, is a terrible place to start most factories: we’re not on a main route to a main port. Shipping something from Kelowna to Vancouver is always going to be cheaper than Vernon to Vancouver.

2. China has the capacity, the technology and the supply chain

Across most industries, large-scale manufacturing is moving away from Canada and the USA in general. This was best highlighted by The New York Times’ piece on Apple:

For Mr. Cook, the focus on Asia “came down to two things,” said one former high-ranking Apple executive. Factories in Asia “can scale up and down faster” and “Asian supply chains have surpassed what’s in the U.S.” The result is that “we can’t compete at this point,” the executive said.

“The entire supply chain is in China now,” said another former high-ranking Apple executive. “You need a thousand rubber gaskets? That’s the factory next door. You need a million screws? That factory is a block away. You need that screw made a little bit different? It will take three hours.”

It would be foolish for Vernon to try to entice large-scale manufacturers back to the area: that’d be like trying to swim-upstream (a whole lot of effort, with very little results). You can’t fight the global trend: manufacturers are going to go wherever has the best supply chain, the lowest wages, and a logical location for shipping.

Vernon’s economic opportunity

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” – Wayne Gretzky

My friend Amy Hoy says it’s best to target “people already in motion”. The question for Vernon is: who’s already moving here? Who are the people in motion? What’s motivating them to come here?

In our role with Startup Vernon, Kazia and I talk to a lot of folks that have just moved here. Here are the patterns we’ve observed:

  • Many are “knowledge workers” from Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver. These are consultants, freelancers and remote workers who can choose where they want to live. They’ve chosen Vernon.
  • They’re moving here for the lifestyle. They’ve come here to ski, to hike, for the beaches, to boat, to bike, and for the natural beauty of the area.
  • They chose Vernon because of family. They either moved to here because they had family in the area, or they moved here because they thought it would be a good place to raise kids. In terms of the latter, Vernon seems to have a competitive advantage over Kelowna.

I think mayor Sawatzky actually has the right idea. Here’s a quote from this piece in the Vernon Morning Star:

Another priority for Vernon council will be trying to bolster the economy.

However, Sawatzky isn’t convinced Vernon is destined to become the centre of large manufacturers and it must consider why people come here.

“Our strengths are an attractive climate, our lifestyle and arts and culture,” he said.

The challenge

There’s two big questions:

  1. Are there enough knowledge workers out there looking to move to a place like Vernon?
  2. If so, how can we attract them here?

What do you think?


The future of Vernon careers is in technology

Kevin Poole, Vernon’s Director of Economic Development, had a great feature article in the pull-out section of the Vernon Morning Star. Here’s an excerpt:

While it’s long been thought that Vernon’s economy will only prosper if large manufacturers set up shop here, economic development manager Kevin Poole is counting on grassroot, technological start-ups

Kevin goes on to say that “technology is a better fit for [Vernon] in the long run”. Here’s a link to another Morning Star story on tech careers in the area.


Okanagan startup creates easy alternative to QR codes

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via B.C. startup makes it easier to brand (and browse for) digital content « IT Business Blogs Canada – Innovation.