Build tech sector from home, says FreshBooks founder

The CEO and co-founder of FreshBooks says that Toronto and Ottawa can “eat Silicon Valley’s lunch” when it comes to starting and scaling technology companies.

Speaking at TiEConCanada conference at Brookstreet Hotel in Kanata, Mike McDerment shared his personal passion for building a “100% Toronto-based company.”

Mr. McDerment said he started FreshBooks in 2003, spending more than three years in his parent’s basement, when Toronto really didn’t have a vibrant technology community.

Shortly after starting the company, Mr. McDerment attended an event with 50 people determined to fuel a nascent technology network in Toronto. Afterward, five of those people had dinner and decided to launch a conference called Mesh, which ran for nine years.

They invited some of the tech sector’s biggest name to the conference as keynotes, which created invaluable links for local entrepreneurs.

“That network has paid tremendous dividends for me,” he said.

A network is one of four factors that cities such as Toronto and Ottawa need to mimic in order to create vibrant technology ecosystems. The other factors include senior leadership, expertise and capital.

On the topic of leadership, Mr. McDerment said he initially thought his in-house talent could keep pace as FreshBooks’ growth rate started to spike. “I kept thinking my team was going to scale, but I just didn’t know where the bar was set.”

He eventually embraced a model to foster internal employees, but also “buy talent” when needed.

On expertise, he conceded there is a brain drain toward Silicon Valley, but said talent can be attracted through simple initiatives, such as employees writing blogs that share knowledge. The blogs are often read by young graduates looking for employment.

And on the issue of capital, he said basing a company in Toronto or Ottawa shouldn’t create a geographic disadvantage.

“Capital just wants to make money,” he said. “It doesn’t care where you live.”

He left the audience with a final message: build from home.