Growing up in the ’80s, Jason Flick taught himself computer programming on an entry-level Timex Sinclair 1000 while dreaming of one day leaving behind his sleepy southwestern Ontario hometown for a life full of technology and innovation.
“I was a super geek,” admits the chief executive and co-founder of You.i TV, and self-professed president of his high school chess club. “That’s the epitome. I don’t think I had the broken glasses, but I was definitely a geek.”
We all know how this story ends: with the high school geek getting the last laugh.
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Today, You.i TV is an Ottawa-based Canadian success story.
The company works with some of the largest media and TV brands in the world to redefine how people experience television, producing software that makes it easier for viewers to interact with devices from TVs to tablets. Just to drop a few names it’s associated with: Turner, Fox, Sony, Rogers Communications, Corus Entertainment and the Canadian Football League.
“I love tech,” says Mr. Flick, 47, while speaking in his office on Solandt Road in the city’s tech hub of Kanata North. “I’m just passionate about it. I need change. I thrive on new things, and technology is definitely where that is.”
Mr. Flick has become an industry leader, shaping the future of television, but it was the Ottawa high-tech meltdown of 2001 that kickstarted his entrepreneurial career.
He grew up with three older sisters in Aylmer, Ont.; his mom was a hairdresser and his dad a dyed-in-the-wool businessman. He moved to the nation’s capital in 1990 to study computer science at Carleton University, working part-time at NAV Canada to put himself through school.
After graduating from Carleton, Mr. Flick continued to work in the city’s booming high-tech sector until 2001, when the industry began to tank. Many of his high-tech friends fled to the federal government for jobs. Not Mr. Flick, though.
“I said, ‘I’m going to stick with this,’ and I started my own business, which I always planned to do, but it happened a little sooner.”
He launched Flick Software, a mobile technology and services company, and ran it out of the top floor of his apartment. He recruited his unemployed tech friends to help him with his first big contract, building a top-secret security tracking system (it all sounds very Big Bang Theory-ish, Season 10).
From there, things started to pick up, although Mr. Flick did suffer a setback with his mobile interactive guide.
The product failed, he says, because it was too much technology and not enough art.
‘Our apps are beautiful’
“You’ve got to bring art into technology,” Mr. Flick explains, referring to a TED Talk he delivered in 2015 on artistry and innovation. “Technology is great. If you look back at the last 20, 30 years, it was ruled by technologists, but, really, I believe the next 20, 30 years will be ruled by artists bringing creativity to technology.”
Having a product that “just works” isn’t good enough anymore, he continues.
“That’s part of what You.i TV does; we bring the designer into the process. Our apps are beautiful.”
A major turning point in Mr. Flick’s career came when he met Stuart Russell, whom he describes as “crazy, crazy brilliant, and a nice guy, too.” The pair hit it off and co-founded You.i TV in 2008.
They created their startup at a time when smartphones – led by Apple’s iPhone – were set to rule the “post-PC era,” when sales of personal computers began falling in favour of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.
You.i TV remains one of Kanata’s fastest-growing firms, doubling its headcount year after year while reaching roughly 200 employees. The award-winning company, which was named one of Canada’s top 25 mid-sized workplaces by the global Great Place to Work Institute, is preparing to move to its new 40,000-square-foot digs at nearby 307 Legget Dr.
“You kind of have to pinch yourself when you know where you started,” says Mr. Flick, recalling how the company began in cubicles in the hallway of 349 Terry Fox Dr. (now the Ericsson building). “It was just a cheap space, and we kept getting booted around.”
Mr. Flick says he now likes to look for opportunities to mentor others and help newer startups. He currently sits on the advisory board at Turner Ad Labs, is a board member at Invest Ottawa and was formerly on the board of The Ottawa Network.
“Ottawa has such potential and, if we all help each other, the rising tide lifts all boats,” he says. “Whether we’re hiring or mentoring each other or doing business deals together, it’s critical to help each other.”
Mr. Flick says he’d like to see local tech companies take bigger risks.
“Everybody would agree Ottawa has incredible technology, but a lot of companies don’t think audaciously enough,” he argues.
As for that computer from his youth – the TS 10000 – it was shadow-box framed and gifted to him by his dad. It currently rests on a windowsill in his office as a reminder of his little-boy dreams that came true.
Five things to know about Jason Flick
1 He’s passionate about astrophysics. “I love dark matter, dark energy, the big bang.” He has a subscription to CuriosityStream, an online streaming service. “You’d think after working all day, you’d want to want to shut your brain down, but I just love it.”
2 As a teen, Mr. Flick had the character-building summer job of priming tobacco and detasseling corn. “Your hands would get so calloused that you could pick up a log that was still burning,” he quips. This was before he landed his first real job during high school at Canadian Tire.
3 Mr. Flick is married with two kids, Reid, nine, and Danicka, 10. His wife Deb also works with You.i TV, but their relationship isn’t all business; they go on regular “date nights” together. He also takes at least two holidays a year with his family and makes a point of spending one-on-one time with his kids.
4 He’s a fan of German-made cars (he drives an Audi) and German-style board games, such as Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne and Dominion. His playful enthusiasm has obviously caught on; his office holds a weekly game night.
5 Being Dutch (both parents were born and raised in the Netherlands), he loves salted black licorice and spicy Gouda. And, of course, hagelslag (look it up – breakfast will never be the same).