Will Victoria grow its start-up muscle?

November 23, 2008 at 12:08 am | In business, local_not_global, victoria | 3 Comments

Via an older blog entry from Richard Florida, a pointer to an article by Ben Casnocha, Start-Up Town, which describes (among other things) how Boulder, CO went from being “a little hippie college town to a little hippie college town also boasting an impressive and growing congregation of Internet entrepreneurs, early-stage venture capitalists, and bloggers.”

Defying the easy “wisdom” of copying all things Silicon Valley, Boulder got lucky insofar as it attracted several key individuals who came for the lifestyle, but stayed to make sure that Boulder’s corral reef (ok, I’m making a loose analogy) could grow. I was struck by some of the similarities (as well as deficiencies) that Victoria, BC has compared to Boulder’s history and trajectory.

Casnocha begins his examination of Boulder’s success by focusing on people: first, Brad Feld arrived (“somewhat on a whim”) in 1995.  He eventually connected with several other key individuals, some of whom were, like Feld, able to inject investment capital into the community. Click through to Casnocha’s article to read the whole (very interesting) story.

The striking similarity is the “somewhat on a whim” bit, which actually speaks to lifestyle choice.  Feld and some of the others came to Boulder not because they wanted to “have” Silicon Valley in Boulder, but because they wanted to live the Boulder lifestyle.  What was lucky for Boulder, however, was that these serial entrepreneurs and venture capitalists just kept doing what they would do elsewhere, which is support start-ups and technology growth. As a result, Boulder now has its own homegrown and unique (not Silicon Valley copycat) start-up culture.

At the risk of provoking the local cynics to snigger, there are some interesting parallels to think about between Boulder and Victoria.  Victoria is also the kind of place people come to “somewhat on a whim.”  They come here for the natural beauty, for the lifestyle, and for the climate (mildest in Canada, most sunshine on the We[s]t Coast in winter, due to the fact that, unlike Vancouver, we’re in a mini-rain shadow).

And we have a number of small start-ups here, even if they fly seemingly invisible, below the radar.  Some have managed to grow bigger — we need more of that. We also have a huge (in proportion to our population) arts community, in theatre, opera, visual arts, literature, film, music, and more: it too belongs, together with technology, into the creative start-up category.

In the week after Labor Day I chatted with a couple visiting from Baltimore.  They were in Victoria for just one night, having planned their trip according to the boilerplate stuff peddled by our tourism industry (that Victoria is a “quaint” and “British” town).  Now that they had arrived, however, they realized there was a lot more to see (but their vacation plans were already set: Whistler next, and then a wedding in Vancouver, with no way to book additional time in Victoria).

I asked them what they thought the city’s number one industry was.

“Fishing?” the man volunteered.

Inwardly I wanted to scream, “Are you nuts?,” but I just said, “Nope, try again.”

“Tourism?” she ventured.

Wrong again.

High tech, I said.

That kind of staggered them (fortunately they were sitting down).  But it’s true — tourism was eclipsed by high tech in 2006/07 (tourism revenue: $1.2b; high tech $1.8b).

I mentioned Abebooks.

“But they’re based in Portland, aren’t they?” he asked.

Hardly!  I told them the story of how the company was founded (and how we’re all hoping that they don’t up and leave for Seattle, now that Amazon bought them).  When the gentleman said that a huge chunk of his disposable income goes to Abebooks each month and that he couldn’t believe he was in the city where it’s based, I gave them directions for finding Abebooks’ office (they were going to be in the neighborhood anyway, as their hotel was across the Blue Bridge).

For as long as I can remember (and well before then), interesting people have come to Victoria — often “on a whim” — while at the same time many have found it difficult to make the connections that would allow the corral reef to take off and develop into a self-sustaining ecosystem.  So they left, or worse they settled for settling.  My hope is that with the help of technology to connect the dots, the people, the ideas, we can lay down the capillaries that will pump a conversational life-blood through the community and perk up the city’s circulation.  Unlike Boulder, we are on an island, and that’s a specific constraint (or is it an affordance?) that can’t be designed away. But every other aspect should be open to change.

3 Comments

  1. […] link: » Will Victoria grow its start-up muscle? Yule Heibel’s Post Studio © 2003-2008 […]

    Pingback by Is Victoria too humble to rocket to the top of tech? | Internet Life | A View from the Isle — November 23, 2008 #

  2. Tris and I also continued the conversation on his blog – be sure to click through here to read more.

    Comment by Yule — November 24, 2008 #

  3. […] Will Victoria flex its start-up muscle?</strong> […]

    Pingback by Heibel: “Will Victoria Flex its Start-up Muscle?” « Robertrandall’s Weblog — November 24, 2008 #

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