Alberta tech companies face challenges, opportunities during COVID-19 pandemic

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WATCH: Businesses across Alberta have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and more of us are using technology, whether it's for working from home or binge-watching shows – Apr 19, 2020

Like many businesses across Alberta, Showpass has seen better days. But it’s not “curtains” for the online ticket seller yet.

Since selling its first ticket to a show in Calgary in 2014, Showpass has had exponential growth as it secured national renown for selling tickets to events and shows online.

And 2020 was looking to be another banner year.

“March rolled around, and I’ll never forget the day where the announcement for 250 people maximum getting together started in Ontario, Alberta, B.C., all within a 48-hour period,” Showpass CEO Lucas McCarthy told Global News. “Those are our largest markets.

“It was within 48 hours that we had to really come up with a plan to effectively operate off of zero revenue for the foreseeable future.”

Coding education company Lighthouse Labs had also been investing in its Calgary operation for the past few years. When CEO Jeremy Shaki heard that the Alberta government recently chose to invest billions in the energy sector and not tech, he was disappointed.

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READ MORE: Coronavirus — A closer look at Alberta’s relaunch strategy

“We think for Alberta, oil and gas are a very important piece to the economy,” Shaki said. “And it is for Canada as a whole. I think it makes sense to invest there.

“I think at the cost of technology and really stopping the focus on diversifying the emerging economies in Alberta — I think that was disappointing to see.”

Alberta’s tech sector is one that, unlike the energy sector, continues to hire. According to Innovate Edmonton, tech companies created 254 jobs in that city in 2019. Calgary Economic Development says more than 2,000 jobs are open in tech in Calgary.

And in a 2018 count by the Alberta Enterprise Corporation, 94 per cent of tech companies operated in Alberta’s two largest cities — 767 in Calgary and 394 in Edmonton.

READ MORE: New technology focuses on mental wellness for Albertans during COVID-19 pandemic

For Shaki, Calgary and Alberta have an opportunity to build the tech sector to be able to support resource extraction, akin to Houston, Texas.

“Houston doesn’t just have an incredible oil and gas industry — it has incredible tech industry that’s supporting their oil and gas spaces,” Shaki said. “Calgary and Alberta have been kind of building the same.

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“The only difference is the tech community in Alberta, up until about two years ago, was flying under the radar and doing it themselves without much support.”

Shifting workplaces

Communo has seen its contingent work platform explode during the pandemic, going from 20 to more than 300 signups a day. Having fulfilled its latest round of seed funding earlier in the year, Communo saw the need to help connect creatives and clients in marketing and advertising at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The average deal there is about $40,000,” Communo CEO Ryan Gill told Global News. “So it’s exciting times for us.

“But I want to be cautious with my language because I also empathize with what’s going on around me.”

Gill said platform-enabled businesses have been able to weather the shock brought on by the pandemic and the corresponding transition away from traditional bricks-and-mortar office space.

“I think companies that are on platforms for their talent — which is what Communo is — didn’t feel it as badly because they transitioned quickly, and some had to furlough things like that. But they were better prepared to respond to this crisis as well,” Gill said.

Gill expects the lines between full-time, contract and contingent workers to blur even further after the current public health crisis, a market need he expects his company to be able to fill.

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Historic times

Like Shaki and McCarthy, Gill recognizes the auspicious nature of a recession for tech.

“You talk about innovation in 2008 — a lot of it happened there with Airbnb and Uber. There’s lots of unicorns that we don’t even know that are mainstream that came out of that. There’ll be even more now,” Gill said.

“There’s never been a time like this in the history of our lifetime that, although it’s really crappy out there right now, those that keep their heads up, work hard and build stuff will come out the victors.”

That’s the ethic McCarthy and his Showpass team are embracing during this time of “zero revenue” while working on a new project that aims to bring together audiences and artists in a virtual manner.

“We came from record [year], record [year], record [year] to brick wall,” McCarthy said. “And after a brick wall, we have to pick up the pieces and say, ‘Where are we going from here?’
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“This is a really, really good reset and a really good check of our skills, of our abilities to adapt and our abilities to compete — which is really like the lifeblood of our business. That’s what gets us excited. That’s what built this business from absolutely nothing to one of the largest ticketing companies in the country.

“And it’s likely what’s going to build us up again.”

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