Op-ed: Ottawa is the SaaS capital of Canada

Tobi
Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke onstage during SaaS North 2016. (Photo provided by L-Spark.)
Editor's Note

With SaaS North getting underway today, Erin Blaskie of Kanata startup accelerator L-SPARK argues that Ottawa has all the necessary ingredients to be a dominant software city.

At last year’s SaaS North conference, Sean Silcoff, reporter for the Globe & Mail, sat across from Tobi Lütke, co-founder and CEO of local SaaS giant Shopify, for an intimate fireside chat. Lütke wore his infamous flat cap.

About 15 minutes into the interview, Silcoff turned to Lütke and asked, “What do you do if you get to the end of a term sheet and it says, ‘financing conditional upon relocating to Silicon Valley’?” and Lütke answered, “Ottawa has been a phenomenally good place for Shopify.”

Lütke went on to say, “We have access to tons and tons of high-potential people who are straight out of university. They may not have experience, but when you bring them together and match them up with a seasoned person and invest in their career, you can almost guarantee that they’ll spend half a decade working together.

“What happens quickly, especially if you get involved and help people get invested faster (Shopify, for example, has a team of 20-30 executive coaches), then they learn faster and they become experts in their position. This sort of longevity can’t be replicated in other cities that have high turnover. I think tenure is an undervalued aspect of experience.”

Lütke explained that in places such as Silicon Valley, turnover is high and people spend an average of about 12-18 months in a job. A company wasn’t necessarily a long-term career path for them, but rather a stepping stone. While this works fine for companies in the Valley, SaaS requires a much longer runway as the cycle is generally slower. You need employees who are willing to stick around for the seven-to-10 year plan.

A city brimming with experience

Another cornerstone to Ottawa’s strength in this industry has to do with the experience and expertise of the executives who stayed here long after they celebrated the IPOs of the companies they helped build.

Leo Lax, executive managing director of the SaaS accelerator L-SPARK, says, “We believe that we can shortcut the pain and tribulations in the execution side through the wealth of experience through the people who live in Ottawa.”

Leo Lax
Leo Lax is the executive managing director of SaaS accelerator L-SPARK

For instance, Peter Becke, one of L-SPARK’s mentors, has more than 30 years of experience as an executive in the tech sector, as a vice-president at Nortel, and from holding the CEO position at several other local companies. Jennifer Francis, another of L-SPARK’s mentors, was the vice-president of the financial analytics business for IBM and spent time as the vice-president of business development at Cognos.

Becke and Francis are just two examples of incredibly experienced Ottawa-based executives who are now guiding and mentoring the next generation of startups. This level of mentorship can be more difficult to find in other cities across Canada and is part of what makes Ottawa successful at growing companies.

The next generation of talent

As Lütke mentioned during his SaaS North interview, true success comes from marrying our seasoned executives with new grads. Through this pairing, employees are more likely to work together for the long term rather than focusing on “job hopping,” a relatively new phenomenon that is pervasive in places such as the Valley.

Amy MacLeod, the vice-president of corporate communications for Mitel, says, “Ottawa is a perfect place for a tech startup or a well-established business because of its pool of qualified candidates from Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, as well as Algonquin College.”

We’re also seeing individual clubs being created inside universities to support the growing startup scene in Ottawa. One example is The Entrepreneur’s Club run by students at the Telfer School of Management.

Whether it’s encouraging the next generation of engineers, cultivating entrepreneurship or fostering our future executives, schools are putting a heavy emphasis on creating talent that is ready to contribute to the companies that call Ottawa home.

Birthplace of global companies

In a report released in March of 2017 by business service provider Expert Market, Ottawa was ranked the top tech hub in Canada.

Mitel, Nortel, Newbridge Networks and Cognos paved the way in the ’80s and ’90s and set the precedent for what it meant to grow a technology-focused company in Canada.

Lax agrees: “Ottawa has been the birthplace and long-term home of global companies (that) dominate their respective categories.”

In recent years, we’ve seen U.S. giants such as Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, SurveyMonkey and IBM put roots down here while homegrown companies such as Shopify, Klipfolio, You.i TV and PageCloud are making headlines.

A truly supported city

Ottawa has more than 580 software companies that employ upwards of 22,000 people. The city also has the highest concentration of talented scientists and engineers in the country. Most importantly, it has the infrastructure and resources to support startups and growing companies.

Wesley Clover, Invest Ottawa, Startup Garage, Founder Institute, CENGN, Fresh Founders, and of course, L-SPARK, are just some of the key resources that allow companies to succeed here.

When an entire city comes together to foster the growth of startups, specifically in the tech and software space, the sky is clearly the limit on what can be achieved. For all of these reasons, Ottawa truly is the SaaS capital of Canada.

Erin Blaskie is a community manager with L-SPARK for Voice of the North. This op-ed originally appeared in the most recent quarterly edition of Techopia. Read the full digital publication below: