ROB Magazine

Lessons from Canada's Silicon Valley diaspora

The Globe and Mail

Chris Albinson is a managing partner in Panorama Capital, a Sand Hill Road VC firm. (Melissa Barnes)

Your senses switch to overdrive on Silicon Valley’s boulevard of dreams. Blossoming oleanders the size of camper vans line the median. Towering eucalyptus trees exude a mentholated scent as Sand Hill Road gently slopes down toward the San Francisco Bay from the Santa Cruz Mountains and edges Stanford’s idyllic campus. All along Sand Hill, basking in the sun, are the offices of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capital firms, the ones that place bets from the high hundred-thousands to the many, many millions, each one in the hope that a young, ambitious company might, with help, become the next LinkedIn, Salesforce.com or even Google.

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A consortium of Canadian universities and the local consulate have organized a Canada Day event at a conference centre on this storied road. Bottles of Molson are available at the bar, as are Niagara and Okanagan wines—coals to Newcastle. A pianist plays CanCon hits like Constant Craving while some of the Bay Area’s estimated 350,000 Canadians—yes, 350,000—mingle.

These are the faces of brain drain: This one hails from Vancouver and came down to work at Pixar; that one is a Québécois executive at Yahoo, who is taking some ribbing about his company’s slide to second-tier status: “Oh, is that still around?”

The talk is of immigration status—“Are you on an H1B visa or a TN?”—and impossibly high housing costs. “There was nothing—nothing—in Palo Alto for less than $1.5 million.” There’s some trading of coming-to-California stories—flying in from frigid, slush-coloured Toronto in February to find a warm, fragrant, technicolour spring well under way, and then dressing too formally on the first day at the office.

One of the expat community’s many tech stars, Mozilla’s CEO Gary Kovacs, takes to the podium to speak about his feelings for his home and native. His father was a Hungarian refugee who fled to Canada in 1956, and got a second chance at life there. “I’ll always be grateful to Canada,” Kovacs says, “the opportunities it provided, the education.”

Firefox, the browser produced by the company he now heads, was the volunteer effort of a bunch of idealistic programmers who wanted to challenge the hegemony of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. When he applied for the job, Kovacs sensed the interviewers believed (rightly or wrongly) that a Canadian was more likely to respect that founding collectivist ethos. Indeed, Mozilla and Wikipedia—both run by Canadians—between them hold the tattered shreds of Web 1.0’s up-with-people, information-wants-to-be-free idealism, as everyone in Web 2.0 tries frantically to—a word of the times—“monetize” everything and then find the ideal exit.

There are Canadians engaged in every aspect and every level of the tech sphere here, at all the major players: hardware, software, computer games, networks, Internet, e-commerce and mobile; Google, Zynga, Apple, Electronic Arts, Oracle, eBay, Facebook, Twitter, Groupon, Cisco. “The hidden minority,” one person called them.

Some of them are a little smug, particularly during what passes for winter here, about their escape from Canada. But for most, thoughts often turn homeward. They hope the tech scene in Canada reaches full maturity, that the flagship tech company RIM doesn’t implode, that a symbiotic relationship develops between the high-level Canadians down here and those back at home, “in-country”—the term used to refer to all indigenous tech scenes, whether they be in India, Israel or north of the 49th. As in, “People ask me, ‘Can I remain in-country or do I need to be here, in the Valley?’” In-country. As if this place, Silicon Valley, were somehow not itself in a country, but beyond earthly jurisdiction, a silicon Shangri-La.

And, indeed, sometimes it does feel that way—exceptional, extra-national. On the streets of Mountain View or Palo Alto, everyone wears the same tired geek-chic look but their skins are in variant shades and, wandering about, you hear Hebrew, Serbian, Urdu, Chinese, Russian, Korean, French, German—Babel. The rest of California and the nation as a whole may be hurting, but the downturn didn’t really touch Silicon Valley. About the only time the machinations in Washington register is when Obama flies in to top up his campaign coffers.



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THE GEEK

On a sunny fall day, I visit the deluxe and quirky Googleplex in Mountain View. This is the mothership, the chief of Google’s 60 offices worldwide. Its 24,000 employees last year brought in revenues of $38 billion (all currency in U.S. dollars). HQ is a set of glass buildings on a vast flat campus near the Bay, and you have to be careful not to park in the spots reserved for Expectant Mothers. Near reception, a screen shows a globe with dots of light wherever people are presently inputting Google searches, realizing in a digital way the racist cliché of Africa as the dark continent. Nearby, there’s a machine that prints and binds out-of-copyright books on request—Frankenstein lies in the output tray.

Googlers tool about on banana-seat bikes painted those primary Google colours; by a door, bags of local produce wait for staffers. In a courtyard, a mock-up of a T. Rex skeleton is being attacked by lawn flamingos. In another display of Google’s particular species of wit, a wall of photos shows distinguished visitors—Al Gore, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama, Gwyneth Paltrow—all next to the same informally dressed, mid-level engineer, Chade-Meng Tan.

It’s an acknowledgment that it is engineering brainpower that makes Google go. “I thought I was a master in JavaScript before I came to Google,” Ottawa-bred programmer Neil Fraser says. “I’d always been the geek at whatever company I worked at. Here there’s always someone smarter in the room. Always.”

The goateed 37-year-old’s resumé lists his facility with various codes—from Ruby to C/C++, from Pascal to Python—and documents his roles at Industry Canada (setting up an ask-and-answer computer program for its youth employment strategy), the Department of National Defence (whose website he helped launch), AXA Sun Life (“the success of the CD resulted in the closure of AXA’s internal support department”), and Carleton University, where he logged five summers instructing computer camp. He may not be the smartest guy in any given room here, but he’s plenty smart, and, impressed with some of his online work, Google came looking for him. This from a company that receives more than a million resumés a year.

He arrived here during the Christmas season in 2006, and spent much of the holidays on his own poring over documentation to get up to speed. It doesn’t sound like he was at all lonely. Early on, he was walking with a fellow staffer when a bird suddenly flew out of a trash can. “Imagine that,” his colleague deadpanned. “Someone throwing out a perfectly good bird.” The joke made him happy, really happy.

Here, Fraser says, programmers are encouraged to move about frequently, at least every two years, switching their projects—he recently worked on the site for the free word-processing program Google Docs. “That way, there’s not one greybeard who knows everything, whom you can’t afford to lose.” The techies also all get to use 20% of their work time on a project of their own devising. “We custom-make everything program-wise—we’ve reinvented the wheel many, many, many times.”

It’s nearly November, and Fraser is worried that the hundreds of Canadians at Google won’t be able to get their supply of faux poppies for Remembrance Day. (The company recruits directly from Waterloo, and five of its top executives are Canadian, including CFO Patrick Pichette and David Lawee, vice-president of corporate development, who travels the world acquiring companies.) I comment on the United Nations of people eating at the various organic, ethnic and theme lunch restaurants on site. “Yes, everyone’s here,” Fraser says quietly. “With one exception.” And it’s true throughout Silicon Valley that there are few African-Americans participating in this boom.

Fraser spent last weekend trolling the Bay in his kayak, towing behind him a homemade sonar pod. After he returns from a conference at MIT, he plans to process the sonar data to see if he can discern the outline of the Trans-Bay tunnel. That morning, his office-mates were enthusiastic about the project, but then someone wondered aloud if the lava lamp in reception would work on Jupiter. Everyone dashed to a keyboard.

This is the real revenge of the nerds, not a blonde by the pool. Your smarts and hard work mastering various codes get you to California. At this office, at last, you are not ridiculed for your abstruse concerns, your intense and odd and effortlessly intelligent take on life. “I arrived here, and I felt at last I’d found my species,” Fraser says.

But others here increasingly question the company’s bona fides—I hear an experienced Valley hand tell a young Canadian entrepreneur to be careful how much he discloses in the presence of Googlers. “They’ll steal your idea,” he says. “All that ‘don’t-be-evil’ stuff—that’s a thing of the past.”

Fraser earnestly defends the company. “Before I came to Google, I thought ‘don’t be evil’ was a marketing mantra. But the more I see of this company, the ethics behind so much of it—it’s fundamentally, basically, a force for good. Mind you, I’m not a Google spokesperson. I don’t speak for anyone else, not even my goldfish.” The company could do worse.



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THE CEO

On another fall day, in the same town but a world away, I visit Mozilla’s basic, open-concept offices in a mid-rise building in downtown Mountain View. At this non-profit, the most recently reported annual revenues were $123 million—most of which came from Google, which pays handsomely for the search traffic that Mozilla’s Firefox browser sends its way. I want to find out from Gary Kovacs why, if he loves Canada so much, he left it.

“I was always into tech,” he says. “The stream in my hometown Calgary is the oil and gas industry—that’s the talk you hear on the street. I wanted to be where the stream was tech.” (He’s in the right place, then. Says the wry Sue Gardner, a former CBC producer who heads Wikipedia: “Here even your dry cleaner talks to you about Google stock—like enough.”)

After finishing his MBA at the University of Calgary, Kovacs landed a job at IBM. After paying a decade’s worth of dues at Big Blue, he got the idea that he and an engineer buddy might start their own tech company, preferably in Calgary. “We went to see many possible backers in Canada, but they kept asking us what our assets were—did we have a building? Bricks and mortar. Some of them wanted us to put personal assets on the line. I only had a small RRSP and a Ford Explorer with bald tires.”

So they decided to try their luck with the venture capitalists down here. “I’d read everything about Silicon Valley—I was fascinated with the place. It wasn’t easy to raise the money—they weren’t giving it away by any means. But after many, many meetings, refining our pitch, we did it. It was my first eye-opening experience with the American Dream. If people couldn’t finance you, they’d connect you. The questions down here were different—there was a willingness to risk. No one asked us if we owned a building.”

With initial funding, Kovacs then participated in the dance party that was the tech boom of the late 1990s. His company, Zi Corp., came up with some of the key innovations in first-generation texting, including adding an alphabet to the formerly all-numeric phone keyboard and being among the pioneers of predictive texting. To raise more money in the late ’90s, Zi went public on the Toronto Stock Exchange and then the Nasdaq, and Kovacs saw the stock price rise to “crazy levels.”

“I was on holiday, somewhere relatively inaccessible—remember that?—and I’d see in the only paper we got, USA Today: Wow, the stock went up 40% yesterday, next day another 40%.”

But then, after the millennium’s turn, the music stopped. As Zi’s stock price slumped, Kovacs had to take meetings with angry institutional shareholders in New York, and try to keep up the morale of employees whose stock and stock options were dwindling in value daily. “Our sales were increasing, but our stock just kept falling. Honestly, the pleasure of the ride up was not enjoyable enough to compensate for the pain of the ride down.”

People sometimes tell him that he should take Mozilla public to raise money. Kovacs doesn’t buy it. “You have to have in mind what you want when you go public. It’s not just an end in and of itself. Suddenly, you have investors to satisfy. Investors who want, who demand, a return.”

Anyway, Kovacs, now 48, says he has his hands full trying to keep the Firefox browser competitive with Microsoft’s Explorer and Google’s Chrome. “Where once you would turn around new releases in years, now it has to be months.” Mozilla has relationships with both Microsoft and Google that he calls “co-opetition,” where they collaborate in some areas, and compete—hard—in others. Kovacs concludes: “People say we’re the cream in the Oreo, and they could squeeze us out if they decided to. But no one wants that—everyone knows the world’s a better place with Mozilla in it.”

After we meet, Kovacs announced a coup for Mozilla—he was able to renew the deal with Google for another three years, this time reportedly at three times the previous rate, or nearly $300 million annually.



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THE ENTREPRENEUR

She opens with the quintessential Valley question. “How can I be of assistance?” Even when they’re planning to smile and do nothing to help (“grin-fucking,” they call that), that’s how they lead off the meetings. Sukhinder Singh Cassidy knows the drill; she has been around. In her 20s, she co-founded a tech company. She’s been a VC (at Accel Partners), she’s been a CEO (of the fashion website Polyvore). She knows Jeff Bezos, gives advice to the guys at Twitter. For a while, she was one of Google’s bright, particular stars, starting up its Asian and Latin American offices, building up staffs that now number in the thousands.

But today here she is, now 41, in a basic rented office in San Francisco, pouring and doctoring my coffee. A conference table is plopped down right next to the desks occupied by the staff of her start-up, Joyus, which she hopes will become the Shopping Channel of the Internet. It raised nearly $8 million in its first fundraising round. Not for her the slovenly fashion of the Valley—tall, slender and classically beautiful, her outfit is a symphony of greys.

I’m curious to find out why she left the seemingly sure thing of Google behind. “Growing up in St. Catharines, my father and mother ran their own medical practice. He always said to me: ‘Work for yourself.’ It goes deep for me. So when I felt I’d done what I came to do at Google, I knew the next inflection point was going to require me taking another risk.”

Singh Cassidy was among the women featured in a recent San Francisco magazine article about tech’s supposed “Femme Boom,” but the piece turned out to be more wishful thinking than reality, and its central question—where is the female Mark Zuckerberg?—was left unanswered. At every tech event I’m at, men vastly outnumber women.

A high-level female Canadian exec who’s worked with many of the top companies insists we go off-the-record before she begins a rant against the pervasive sexism in this industry. “People ask me, would you encourage your daughter to follow you into tech. My answer is no frickin’ way. I would tell a woman going in, you’re going to be 40 years old pitching a VC in the Valley, and he’s going to pinch your bum. I had that happen to me! ...I got demoted [at a tech company]when I got pregnant. We’re not making progress in tech. If anything, it’s going the other way.” Another woman, a conference organizer, comments: “I feel sorry for the wives. The guys are always working, always out all hours at some networking event. Don’t believe them when they say it’s hard work. They love it.”

But Singh Cassidy is not one for the woman-in-tech question. She shrugs. “Yes, there are more guys—you don’t let that stop you.” Joyus is unapologetically occupying what is sometimes dismissively called the Internet’s pink ghetto, since it’s planning to bring online video into the shopping experience, mainly focusing on commodities of interest to women. “Online shopping could be more of a pleasurable experience, like it is off-line. The video will help take it to the next level.” On her site, a top makeup artist demonstrates how to choose and apply the perfect red lipstick. I’m not the target market, but the demos are stylishly shot—Singh Cassidy’s own personal good taste infusing the site. Joyus might just take.

“You know, you never know,” she says—her accent curiously New York, something explained by her work at an impressionable age for Merrill Lynch in Manhattan, just after graduating from Western’s Ivey business school. “The reality is, starting a company in Silicon Valley is like nothing else in the world. This is a place where capital is abundant. You basically get to live a dream on somebody else’s ticket. At Google, I had lots and lots of people to help execute a vision. Here, well,” she looks around, “so far there are just a few of us.”



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THE VC

Another Ivey alum, Chris Albinson, a managing partner in Panorama Capital, a Sand Hill Road VC firm, joins Singh Cassidy to speak at an alumni event hosted by the networking company Cisco in its San Francisco office. The 44-year-old from Kingston is blunt but thoughtful and often wears a black Arc’teryx shell, indoors and out. He was one of Terry Matthews’s protégés at Newbridge Networks, eventually going out on his own, founding Digital Island, a company that provided secure Internet services to the likes of Schwab, eTrade, Microsoft and Disney. It was sold in 2001 for $340 million to the U.K.-based giant Cable & Wireless.

The investment strategy at Albinson’s firm is “burning the mahogany walls.” He explains that there are many businesses—wood-panelled places like insurance, law firms and publishing—that stand to be disrupted. His firm bets on companies that will use tech solutions to supplant and destroy the old-line ones. He jokes, though, that his investing strategy clearly isn’t foolproof. After all, he could have invested in Facebook. “What can I say? It was run by one guy who was a known drug user and another who was a college dropout. I passed.”

An audience member asks about RIM’s future, and, with some prodding, Albinson answers. “RIM’s just screwed it up so badly.” He attended a meeting two years ago between VCs in the Valley and RIM founder Mike Lazaridis. “Ostensibly, the idea was for RIM to come in and listen as to why we were telling all of our companies to go work on the iPhone [platform]first and Android second—maybe get to RIM third. Mike came in and first of all berated the room about how venture capital was really stupid and how they built their company without any of it. He went on to say their [RIM’s]technology was so amazing and the world just didn’t realize.”

At today’s event, Albinson, a frequent investor in Canadian tech start-ups, voices the worry commonly heard in the expat community here that Canada is about to witness another scene-destroying crash like that of Nortel’s. “When Nortel went bankrupt,” Albinson says, “it was 50 years of industrial policy that was flushed in 24 months.”

Concerned about the state of tech in their homeland, Albinson and a friend who’s also done well in the Valley, Anthony Lee, a general partner at Altos Ventures, decided to mobilize the Valley’s resources to help would-be Canadian entrepreneurs. On another day, at a woo-woo tea house with a view of downtown San Francisco, Albinson describes his decision to found a network of high-level Canadians down here. “The Indian expats have an organization in the Valley that links entrepreneurs based in India to here, as do the Israelis,” he says. “We thought, ‘Why not the Canadians?’”

Some thought it wouldn’t work. “They said we didn’t have a strong enough sense of nationality. That we aren’t wired that way.” He thought the naysayers were wrong, and gathered a group of the top Canadians he knew in the Valley. “We invited 50 people and 75 showed up. We asked everybody in the room if they’d write a personal cheque for $850 to start us going—everyone except one did.” Since then, the organization, the C100—named for its roughly 100 influential charter members—has brought down many Canadian entrepreneurs, mentoring them in the ways of the Valley, sometimes investing in their efforts, sometimes finding them investors. To date, $400 million in VC and angel backing for Canadian tech start-ups has come about through the program.

Albinson is the son of a sports consultant who worked with many Canadian Olympians. He remembers how he and other Canadians in the Valley responded to the Canadian Olympic Committee’s controversial Own the Podium campaign at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010. “We all thought, ‘Finally—going for the gold.’ It’s that attitude we wanted to inspire in tech. Canada was known for producing great engineers, but investors didn’t think of us as entrepreneurs—despite our successes. The problem was we were not celebrating them and as a result the brand of Canadian entrepreneurship in the Valley was damaged. No one knew that Flickr was a Canadian company, about Radian6 in New Brunswick, Club Penguin in B.C.”

Albinson rejects the conventional narrative around brain drain—a term he hates. “It’s infuriating, because no other nation on the planet is thinking that way in the 21st century. They’re treating their people in the Valley as a national treasure to be supported and cultivated.”



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THE ANGEL

Unlike Albinson, Chamath Palihapitiya, one of the C100’s charter members, did not turn Facebook away when it came knocking. After graduating from the University of Waterloo in 1999, he spent a year trading derivatives at the Toronto brokerage BMO Nesbitt Burns. (“I was...uninspired.”) Then he followed a girlfriend—now his wife—down here. He began his tech career running digital music start-ups. They were acquired by AOL, which kept him on board. He went on to become, at 26, the youngest vice-president in AOL’s history. He’s now 35.

He’s one of those people who’ll walk a listener through the basics. “In 2005, this guy I knew from the digital music space, a guy named Sean Parker, came to see me—he ran this product called Napster.” Um, yes. “He said, ‘I have this really cool company and I want you to meet the CEO.’ He came to my office with Mark Zuckerberg. I got to know them and we ended up doing a deal together between AOL and Facebook in 2005.” Then, after a stint at a VC firm, in 2006, Palihapitiya joined the fledgling social network.

In his nearly five years there, Palihapitiya helped to build the initial Facebook platform, working on its approach to advertising, and then on its global expansion. Last summer, he exited with some very valuable equity, and purchased a major share of an NBA team, the Golden State Warriors. He also began to look around for start-ups to back. He’s going at it with his customary energy: His private venture fund, the Social + Capital Partnership, has already disbursed nearly $60 million.

I meet him in another basic office on a second storey off University Avenue in Palo Alto (modest digs are a point of pride out here, like dressing as if you’re nobody special). The space is mainly occupied by the staff of a company he’s funded called Glooko, which connects diabetics and their blood-sugar monitors via smartphones.

Palihapitiya is one-part savvy investor, one-part mystic. “If you believe that tech is deterministic, then you believe that whatever the technology makes possible will eventually happen.” He also beats the creative destruction drum. “There will be chaos, but a ton of opportunity there.” What does he do well? “I understand the nuances of building really compelling software,” he says. “That’s probably the only thing I’m good at, to be honest with you.”

When he decides what bets to place, is it—in a common Valley metaphor—the horse (the idea) or the rider (the team) he backs? “The rider,” he says, then experiences a rare moment of indecision. “And the horse. But mainly the rider.”

Palihapitiya is more critical of his home country than the others I interview. “The culture of entrepreneurship in Canada is very limited—it’s way too rigid. It doesn’t promote risk and doesn’t embrace failure. It’s optimized more for the middle and the mean—and doesn’t like outliers. I tell anyone who has ambition to make a go in the tech sphere to come down here.”

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THE EXECUTIVE

Siva Ananmalay, on the other hand, is the most rah-rah of the Canadians I interview. He’s a 47-year-old vice-president of engineering at Cisco’s competition, the smaller Juniper Networks —with head offices in Sunnyvale, it has more than 9,000 employees in 46 countries and annual revenues in the $4-billion range. He’s one of the main forces behind Digital Moose Lounge, a Canadian networking group that’s open to all, less exclusive than the C100. He gets CBC on satellite. He recently took up hockey again, playing in a weekend warriors’ league that is alleged to be the biggest one west of the Mississippi—and packed with expats.

I come to watch him and his team, the Red Bulls (“no sponsorship deal is in place—yet”), at the rink complex where the San Jose Sharks practise. His team gets down three early goals, but fights back to a tie, before going down two more in the third. Ananmalay, a solid, never-ruffled defenceman, has one length-of-the-rink run, but doesn’t convert. Afterwards, we have a pint in Stanley’s upstairs—the Lord and his coveted Cup are depicted over the bar; there’s Molson on tap.

Ananmalay is part of a Nortel diaspora that helps explain the strong reputation Canadian engineering enjoys in the Valley. Nortel transferred him here in 1999, when it acquired Bay Networks. In the many post-mortems on Nortel, some observers saw the beginning of the end in its expansion to the Valley—that it spent too much on acquisitions and too little on innovation. But given the accounting scandals and miscues by ever-changing leaders who came later, no one (yet) can say for sure what caused the biggest corporate downfall in Canadian history—a fall that Ananmalay witnessed from the inside. When the company began to falter, he remembers being asked back to Ottawa to fulfill the unpleasant duty of dismissing his entire team. “I could see the business case for it, even though it was terrible.”

But then, when he got off the plane, his boss asked him, instead, only to let go half of the team. “We stayed up all night deciding people’s fates, who would go, who would stay. I thought: ‘This is not how you treat people. This is not how you make these decisions.’ As Bell Northern Research, it had been a great company, a truly great company, but it wasn’t any more. Of course, the ones we’d saved were let go six months later.”

The three team leaders also had to decide what to do with themselves. Sickened, Ananmalay put himself in the outbox. He’d been smart enough to get a green card when he was transferred down to the Valley, and quickly secured another job. “It was one of those things when I finished work on Friday and started the next job on Monday.”

He’s wistful about not living in Canada. Mostly. “Not when I think of shovelling snow midwinter. But yes, for a long time, it was a good place for me and my family.” He asks me who else I’ve interviewed. I mention Albinson and Palihapitiya. “I wish I could say I didn’t have to work, but I do. A lot of us do down here—not everyone makes it happen to that extent.” Even Sand Hill Road isn’t paved with gold.



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THE WANNABE

In early December, the C100 and the consulate invite the founders of 19 start-ups down to the Valley for two days and three nights of concentrated mentoring by Valley insiders, networking (at a party thrown by Mozilla) and pitching (to a room full of VCs).

The first day is held at a tech incubator in downtown San Francisco, the second at a big reception room in Google. The fledgling companies range from one that aims to offer the ultimate online teaching marketplace (eProf out of Kanata) to another that has developed a zombie gaming app (Massive Damage out of Toronto); from a means of helping families stay connected through their mobile devices (Moby out of Vancouver) to a mechanism for managing data contained in old e-mails (Context.IO out of Montreal) to two electronic modes of reducing the pain of human resources (TribeHR out of Waterloo and Kudos out of Calgary).

Most of the founders are young, almost all are men. Their presentations are generally impressive, and most of them come away with a few follow-up meetings, some nibbles. The talk is the hard-nosed stuff of the ask, of the right pitch-deck for the VCs, of seed and Round A funding. “You’re going to love my slides,” one founder says to another.

In a Q&A, a garrulous American VC encourages a Canadian entrepreneur to ask for much more money from potential funders in Canada.

“You don’t understand,” another entrepreneur pipes up. “If we ask for that kind of money in Canada, they’ll think we’re on crack.”

The VC chuckles: the small-mindedness of in-country funders.

Bred in Montreal, Aidan Nulman turned 24 on the first day of the conference. The psychology and cinema studies graduate from U of T has taught himself how to code, using Ruby to build his first app. His pitch is simple: “Our product is a mobile app that aims to disrupt the car service industry. Instead of speaking with a curt dispatcher, waiting for a car without knowing if it’s on its way, riding in gross cars and fumbling with their wallets, our customers simply tap one button to receive a managed, end-to-end car-service experience.” His company, Winston Inc., has just started in Toronto, landing several big corporate accounts. The idea was to use an app to match underutilized limousines with passengers wanting a less grotty, less snotty cab experience. The car’s GPS would report on its location, telling passengers where and how far away their ride was—it would also help corporate HR managers keep tabs on employee cab and car rides. Bye-bye, cab chits.

Nulman sits down with William Plut, a seasoned monetizer of (his own and others’) inventions and general Valley insider, who, like Singh Cassidy, comes from St. Catharines. Plut shoots questions at Nulman mercilessly, cutting him off whenever Nulman is havering—or when he gives an answer that raises flags from a Valley perspective. How does the idea differ from Uber, a Valley-pioneered cab app? What are the partners paying themselves? They’ll start paying out $30,000 to $40,000 in the new year. “That’s good. The lower that is, the happier the investors are—the longer you can survive on fumes, the more impressed they’ll be.” Who’s their tech guy? These are the funding tiers. These are the books Nulman should read. “No problem,” Nulman says, “I’ll be at a family place in December, and I can spend six hours a day on the books, and six hours snowboarding.” Plut, who’s just turned 40, smiles—oh, to be so young. What’s his marketing plan? No good. “Can I try again?” He does, and does better the second time around. Who’s got the float, Nulman or the cab companies? “We do.” That’s good. That’s very good. What’s his exit? Nulman lists four big Silicon Valley companies and why they might eventually be interested. He’s done his homework.

An action plan is developed, and Nulman says he’ll try to do what Plut recommends. “If you get this right and do your work,” Plut promises Nulman, “I’ll introduce you to some VCs on Sand Hill Road.”

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Some of the entrepreneurs’ ideas will fly—some won’t. But the Valley offers an intoxicating sense that anything is possible. All of them, if they want to make it here, will have to be quick studies of the Valley’s particular culture. It isn’t really out-of-country; it is a privileged corner of the U.S. with specific traditions.

I am a dual citizen, and working on this story made me re-examine my sense of each nation—of how, as Chris Albinson says, their brands are shifting. The Canadian national narrative around brain drain does feel tired—less relevant in a world where tech reduces distances, and with a rising generation of individuals who expect to move frequently, often across porous borders, in the course of their careers. Sometimes they will work in Canada, sometimes not: What’s the big deal?

This story also made me realize that, in many ways, the Valley does distill America’s best qualities—the ones my American mother taught us to value. There’s a boldness of vision here, a comfort with risk, intellectual curiosity, an emphasis on lifelong learning. As Gary Kovacs says, here you can almost feel the American Dream in action.

But, as Google’s Neil Fraser notes, the opportunities aren’t available to everyone—only certain demographics are benefiting from the boom. Silicon Valley’s pristine lawns mainly get their leaves blown by Latino crews; across the highway from beautiful, topiary-filled Palo Alto is less favoured, more African-American East Palo Alto. It has a much higher violent crime rate, and the children attend underperforming, underfunded schools.

When Fraser was paddling in the Bay with his homemade sonar dragging behind him, there was an air show going on overhead for Fleet Week. Both the Canadian Snowbirds and the U.S. Blue Angels were flying. “The Canadian planes were graceful, but the U.S. ones were noisy and powerful. Brutes.” The old idea of the two nations: Canada gentle; America Darwinian.

At his Canada Day speech, Kovacs ended with two pieces of advice, one for Canadians, one for Americans. To Americans he said, “Think of other people, other places. You’re not the only country on the planet.” To Canadians, he said, simply, “Be bolder.” Move beyond bricks and mortar. Again, an oldie but maybe a goodie: America, overly self-involved; Canada, too cautious.

I sense Albinson’s influence on the message in a short animated film the C100 commissioned to describe its organizational aims. “This is beyond owning some podium,” it begins. “It’s about claiming the podium as ours, painting it red and white, crushing it, and sprinkling the dust into the eyes of our competitors. And not apologizing ever.” This, at any rate, is new. Moving beyond a passion for bronze to an unapologetic lust for gold.

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Companies & investments Mentioned In This Article (2)

Company Price Change Volume
Juniper Networks
JNPR-N
20.18 1.919 % 6,055,956
Google
GOOG-Q
526.54 1.094 % 2,332,531

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