Ottawa tech 2019 roundtable: Shopify and the new generation of entrepreneurship

shopify

* A last-minute change in plans prevented Jim Roche from attending the 2019 editorial roundtable. Techopia followed up with him a few days later to solicit his thoughts on the questions we discussed in person.

Techopia recently gathered a diverse swath of leaders in tech and related businesses, as well as representatives from our Techopia champions, to discuss a series of issues affecting Ottawa’s startups and established tech companies alike.

The roundtable gave honest feedback on the current state of the local tech ecosystem. We asked how the rise of Shopify has affected the tech sector, what comparisons can be made between the e-commerce darling and Nortel, and whether today’s deluge of public companies puts the city at a disadvantage.

What follows is part of an edited transcript of our two-hour discussion reflecting on the year – and decade – that was in Ottawa tech. Additional topics covering Ottawa’s talent pool and the availability of capital have already been posted here.

Twenty years ago, there were a litany of publicly traded tech companies in Ottawa. Today, there are not nearly as many. Does that matter?

Patrick Houston, CFO of Calian Group: I think it does. Because if you're here and you have the headquarters here, I think it develops a different kind of leader. If you're a CEO, CFO, VP, CTO of a public company, it's just a different game. It's not better or worse, it's just different.

When there were lots, people would grow (a company), then they’d leave, they’d create their own business – maybe another public company. I think it just helps everybody in the region.

I used to have bankers here every week. Now, it's like, “Oh, I have to come to Ottawa.” They’d come here and they’d see 30 companies that they could go to and try to generate different ideas, bringing different kinds of financing tools. Now, it’s like they'll stop by if their plane got misdirected. (Laughter from the room.)

For me personally, I'd rather have that situation where we have a healthy group of public companies and a healthy group of private companies that bring different things to the region.

Jim Roche*, president and CEO of Stratford Managers: I think we're in a different place. If you look at a large public company, the people that are attracted to that company are not the VCs. They're not the companies that will be investing in startups. They're typically large portfolio managers who invest in public stocks and analysts that serve those companies.

Having said that, though, the existence of an anchor tenant, like a company like Nortel, or any of the other large public companies, adds a tremendous amount of credibility to the region. Partly just because of the brand name, but also partly because those companies are developing a talent base that's available to the startup community. So you can hire people out of the large companies who come to you with a ton of knowledge and experience. Or if you don't hire them out of those companies, you have access to them, perhaps to act as advisors or board members to your organization, or potentially even investors as angels in your company. So I think that the reduction in the number of large public companies in the Ottawa area has had an impact.

But on the other hand, we've seen the emergence of a pretty vibrant SaaS business in the tech startup community. And that's sort of played a positive counter balancing role in comparison to the loss of the larger public companies. And we see the growth of some pretty amazing public companies like Shopify and Kinaxis and Calian and others.

Roche
Stratford Managers president and CEO Jim Roche. File photo

Shopify has been on the marquee of Ottawa tech over the past decade. What has been the company’s impact on the local ecosystem?

Patrick: If you think of a similar-sized company, like a Nortel, that turned into, just in Kanata North, like 15-20 other companies that started from it. I haven't really seen that yet from Shopify, and maybe it's going to take longer or there's just a different attitude now than there was 15 years ago about leaving and starting your own thing.

Elizabeth Audette-Bourdeau, CEO of Welbi: We’ve been having great impact from Shopify. I've met a few times with Harley (Finkelstein) and he's helped us introduce ourselves to some of their VCs. We also got financing from Ramen Ventures, which are all former employees from Shopify.

I think the Ottawa community is there to help, they want to see you succeed, and they will help and open the doors. It’s just something that I don't think you can find anywhere else.

Jim: Looking from the outside, there's no doubt that the success of Shopify has brought capital to the region. There's also no doubt that Shopify has created a sense of the possibilities among founders for what you can do with your company. It's exciting to see what Tobi (Lütke) and the team have been able to create at Shopify.

Keira Torkko, vice-president of employee experience at Assent Compliance: It's interesting, a number of service providers – whether it be caterers, whether it be painters – people will tell us, they started their business supporting Shopify. So now we have greater access to people who have done this before. It creates that ecosystem around it, not just from a legal and financial standpoint, but much broader in the community. So we've certainly benefited from that.

Allan Wille, co-founder of Klipfolio: I think the only downside is, the number of recruiters Shopify has. (Laughter from the room)

Vicki Iverson, CTO of Iversoft: I think it’s upping the profile of Ottawa to have companies like Shopify that we point to as “Ottawa.” But I think Shopify has kind of decamped to Toronto. I think if you asked a lot of people outside of Ottawa, “Where is Shopify from?,” they’d say Toronto.

Thusha Agampodi, engineering manager of Magnet Forensics: What I haven’t seen from Shopify is more community engagement. Like, I see Vicki at events and she speaks about supporting students and other things. Like Klipfolio, I've seen reps from some of these companies who go and participate in more Ottawa events. And recently I've seen it's hard to get Shopify to come to the table to talk about things that matter in Ottawa.

Martin Vandewouw, president of KRP Properties: I'm wondering if that's the scale thing, like the larger the company, the more introspective. I remember this because my first career was with Nortel. And I think they had a tendency to do a little bit of that, you didn't see them out and about as much as heads down.