December 20, 2012 6:11 am
Updated: March 20, 2013 10:36 am

Edmonton’s startup culture gaining maturity


EDMONTON – Edmonton isn’t mentioned in the same breath as startup hubs like San Francisco or Chicago and that’s perfectly fine with an entrepreneurial community that is flourishing nonetheless.

In fact, they prefer it.

“I really feel Edmonton is the sleeper startup community of the country,” said Ken Bautista, CEO and co-founder of incubator/accelerator Startup Edmonton. “I feel that we have the resources, the talent and the connections. We’re not trying to be another Silicon Valley. We want to embrace what we do here.”

What makes Edmonton a top-notch environment for startups is open to interpretation. But it’s not just wishful thinking or a branded initiative from local business leaders. A study by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business ranked Edmonton eighth in the nation for its startup viability. Their metrics took into account levels of business ownership and how local policy helps those entrepreneurs thrive.

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From the city’s perspective, having the capacity to sustain entrepreneurs is important to Edmonton’s economic health and image. It’s the reason the city has invested in projects like Startup Edmonton and TEC Edmonton, an accelerator housed at the University of Alberta. According to Edmonton Economic Development Corporation CEO Brad Ferguson, the city sees its role as a bridge between individual entrepreneurial nodes.

“Anytime you can enter new life or new blood into a business community, it has the ability to transform,” Ferguson said. “A new idea, a new technology, a new process, those are all things that have the ability to transform industries and keep them competitive.”

This is similar to a theory proposed by Richard Florida, a professor of regional economic development at the University of Toronto, that suggests the economic fortunes of present-day cities will be predicated on the strength of their “creative class.” The currency of this workforce is information, ideas and technology.

This could be the reason talented commerce graduates at the U of A are eschewing jobs in the energy sector for startup opportunities. Cam Linke was one of those students. The former Golden Bears quarterback started his first company (DemoCamp Edmonton) not long after graduation. At age 29, Linke already has a CEO title on his resume as the head of a digital survey collection company called Touch Metric. He’s also the co-founder of Startup Edmonton.

Wearing a colourful hooded sweatshirt and two metal studs in his ears, Linke is the archetype for the enterprising creative.

“We have entrepreneurial roots here in the province,” Linke said. “There’s an acceptance of going out and striking it on your own and not get that oil-and-gas job. There’s also a generation of people who don’t want to design a flow valve for the next 60 years of their lives.”

Ten years ago, someone with Linke’s skills might have left for a more hospitable startup climate. Now Bautista, 35, believes Edmonton can retain its talent by offering a proven model to success. What the city needed was a few more generations of entrepreneurs to act as mentors and reinvest in local businesses.

Jared Smith is one Edmonton entrepreneur who embraces that responsibility. As the partner and co-founder of Incite, a local marketing company, Smith engages with students and young entrepreneurs as a mentor. He previously served as chair on the board of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization and was one of Startup Edmonton’s founding partners. The U of A grad is also a regular keynote speaker at the Rocky Mountain Business Seminar, a conference for students in Jasper.

“We needed to create a culture for startups in Edmonton,” Smith said. “There is a magnetism to that now. And it’s not just a young maverick culture here. There are patriarchs and matriarchs who have set the stage by doing some really great things.”

Having sustainable growth is what drives Bautista’s vision of Edmonton’s startup scene. While food trucks and mobile apps are cool, he wants startups building businesses with growth potential.

“We need to focus on raising the game in terms of startups,” Bautista said. “It’s not just starting a business; we’re talking about a scalable business that can mean something for Edmonton.”

The next step is to cultivate a high-performance culture. Bautista feels entrepreneurs need three principles to be successful: speed, traction and hustle.

Since quitting her job with the city over the summer, Justine Barber has hustled to expand her online startup. The 29-year-old came up with the idea to sell made-to-measure boots after a trip to Bali and quickly recognized Edmonton lacked the market for custom-made women’s footwear. When she returned home, Poppy & Barley was born.

Barber, along with her sister and co-founder Kendall, is a member of Startup Edmonton’s “Flightpath” program, which helps accelerate a business’s development. In exchange for six per cent equity, Barber received a $15,000 cash investment and office space at Startup Edmonton. The added appeal of the program is the exposure to industry experts. Barber regularly meets with mentors and receives valuable advice on how to grow her startup.

“We’re far more sophisticated now than we might have been,” Barber said. “My sister and I didn’t have a tech background, so it was helpful to have access to people who could help with website design or marketing.”

Although Barber had a degree in commerce from the U of A, she hardly considered herself an entrepreneur. But the St. Albert native had an idea and identified a need in the market. Six months later she was a full-fledged business owner.

Barber’s desire to grow the idea into a viable startup is what Bautista wants to see from more Edmontonians. When startups turn into success stories, those founders grow roots here. Retaining talented entrepreneurs has always been the endgame for Bautista. That’s why the CEO meets with students at the U of A and MacEwan University, letting them know the path to entrepreneurship should not be an intimidating one.

“It’s not about picking winners for me,” Bautista said. “It’s about changing the conditions so that more people are able to step onto the field and be successful.”

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