Blogging from Silicon Valley: What can Ottawa learn from the Bay Area?

Silicon Valley
Silicon Valley
Editor's Note

This article is part of a series on the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management Executive MBA annual class trip to the Silicon Valley. The recent trip was part of the EMBA curriculum on “Innovation and Entrepreneurship.”


Silicon Valley is well-branded as the largest technology hub in the world. Other regions in the world tried to duplicate it to a lesser degree of success. Oxford Science Park in the U.K., Silicon Allee in Berlin and ‘Silicon Valley North’ in Ottawa have made strides but are still experiencing challenges in bringing the uniqueness of Silicon Valley’s culture to their region.

What factors make Silicon Valley, the giant innovation centre, hard to replicate? One key factor that stood out after our week in the Valley is the unique culture that sets it apart from the rest.

Silicon Valley has a “fail fast” culture, where entrepreneurs are not afraid of the risk associated with failure and actually view not taking the chance as a larger risk of missing out on opportunities.

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Entrepreneurs are then free to think outside the traditional box for ideas that could be disruptive to an industry or the beginning of a new industry in itself. This culture is key to the success of many firms in the area. Would Uber, a ride-sharing platform that doesn’t own a single vehicle, or Facebook, a content sharing company that doesn’t produce content, be well-known brands today without this culture? Would the idea have been considered and funded in Oxford Science Park, Silicon Allee or Silicon Valley North?

The label of “failure” holds little adverse reaction here since the Bay Area presents many opportunities for entrepreneurs if their business ideas fail. There are ample successful companies such as Google and Microsoft that look for those with entrepreneur’s drive to fuel their business growth.

In contrast, the label of failure holds more significance in Ottawa. Entrepreneurs that fail are not as resilient because of our risk-averse culture. There is a need for more encouragement and support in Ottawa’s innovation ecosystem to increase the resiliency.

Ottawa has a limited pool of successful entrepreneurs that could mentor local entrepreneurs. Ottawa needs to have a technology campus similar to RocketSpace to help entrepreneurs in Ottawa to commercialize or grow. Ottawa needs resources similar to those provided by TechShop where experienced mentors help entrepreneurs to bring their idea to viable companies.

Granted, Canada’s capital has entities such as Invest Ottawa and L-Spark that provide resources and mentors to help entrepreneurs transition ideas to business. However, Ottawa needs more such entities and more experienced entrepreneurs to step up to help nurture a culture that fuels the success of Silicon Valley.

In addition to being a place where “fail fast” is the norm, Silicon Valley has a culture that allows firms to collaborate on many different aspects of business.

Firms are competitive, yet collaborative, to the betterment of all stakeholders in the Valley. In Ottawa, entrepreneurs lack the collaboration aspect of the culture that would enable greater success for all. It’s not uncommon for one company to call another for advice in the Valley; this networking helps foster growth and innovation.

One similar aspect we experienced was the progressive migration of entrepreneurs to San Francisco from Palo Alto because of the congregation of young entrepreneurs that prefer a downtown lifestyle. We visited Salesforce that has office in the heart of the financial district, much like Shopify has its office located in the downtown core of Ottawa. Other firms are following suit, adding to the already vibrant downtown core.

Ottawa has a reputation of a government city that does not help in nurturing a risk adverse culture. Silicon Valley is known for the exact opposite. Ottawa will need to continue to take additional steps to break this risk adverse barrier and to break a culture of self-interest that is present in the city.

Tech startups in Ottawa are forced to look elsewhere for a more conducive culture to grow their companies robbing the city of great tech firms at an early stage of development. Companies such as Shopify will go a long way in breaking this cultural barrier. The mere fact that Shopify has remained in Ottawa would help create an enriched culture of passionate entrepreneurs that promotes a more collaborative culture to propel Ottawa’s tech culture for years to come.

It took more than 60 years of work to establish Silicon Valley and turn it into the successful region it is today. Ottawa has a good start with the pool of knowledgeable workforce and quite a few successful tech companies. There is hope yet for Silicon Valley North with Ottawa moving towards a more collaborative networking culture where all successes are celebrated.

– By Patrick Knowles

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