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Chris Albinson is a managing partner in Panorama Capital, a Sand Hill Road VC firm. (Melissa Barnes)
Chris Albinson is a managing partner in Panorama Capital, a Sand Hill Road VC firm. (Melissa Barnes)

ROB Magazine

Lessons from Canada's Silicon Valley diaspora Add to ...

On another fall day, in the same town but a world away, I visit Mozilla’s basic, open-concept offices in a mid-rise building in downtown Mountain View. At this non-profit, the most recently reported annual revenues were $123 million—most of which came from Google, which pays handsomely for the search traffic that Mozilla’s Firefox browser sends its way. I want to find out from Gary Kovacs why, if he loves Canada so much, he left it.

“I was always into tech,” he says. “The stream in my hometown Calgary is the oil and gas industry—that’s the talk you hear on the street. I wanted to be where the stream was tech.” (He’s in the right place, then. Says the wry Sue Gardner, a former CBC producer who heads Wikipedia: “Here even your dry cleaner talks to you about Google stock—like enough.”)

After finishing his MBA at the University of Calgary, Kovacs landed a job at IBM. After paying a decade’s worth of dues at Big Blue, he got the idea that he and an engineer buddy might start their own tech company, preferably in Calgary. “We went to see many possible backers in Canada, but they kept asking us what our assets were—did we have a building? Bricks and mortar. Some of them wanted us to put personal assets on the line. I only had a small RRSP and a Ford Explorer with bald tires.”

So they decided to try their luck with the venture capitalists down here. “I’d read everything about Silicon Valley—I was fascinated with the place. It wasn’t easy to raise the money—they weren’t giving it away by any means. But after many, many meetings, refining our pitch, we did it. It was my first eye-opening experience with the American Dream. If people couldn’t finance you, they’d connect you. The questions down here were different—there was a willingness to risk. No one asked us if we owned a building.”

With initial funding, Kovacs then participated in the dance party that was the tech boom of the late 1990s. His company, Zi Corp., came up with some of the key innovations in first-generation texting, including adding an alphabet to the formerly all-numeric phone keyboard and being among the pioneers of predictive texting. To raise more money in the late ’90s, Zi went public on the Toronto Stock Exchange and then the Nasdaq, and Kovacs saw the stock price rise to “crazy levels.”

“I was on holiday, somewhere relatively inaccessible—remember that?—and I’d see in the only paper we got, USA Today: Wow, the stock went up 40% yesterday, next day another 40%.”

But then, after the millennium’s turn, the music stopped. As Zi’s stock price slumped, Kovacs had to take meetings with angry institutional shareholders in New York, and try to keep up the morale of employees whose stock and stock options were dwindling in value daily. “Our sales were increasing, but our stock just kept falling. Honestly, the pleasure of the ride up was not enjoyable enough to compensate for the pain of the ride down.”

People sometimes tell him that he should take Mozilla public to raise money. Kovacs doesn’t buy it. “You have to have in mind what you want when you go public. It’s not just an end in and of itself. Suddenly, you have investors to satisfy. Investors who want, who demand, a return.”

Anyway, Kovacs, now 48, says he has his hands full trying to keep the Firefox browser competitive with Microsoft’s Explorer and Google’s Chrome. “Where once you would turn around new releases in years, now it has to be months.” Mozilla has relationships with both Microsoft and Google that he calls “co-opetition,” where they collaborate in some areas, and compete—hard—in others. Kovacs concludes: “People say we’re the cream in the Oreo, and they could squeeze us out if they decided to. But no one wants that—everyone knows the world’s a better place with Mozilla in it.”

After we meet, Kovacs announced a coup for Mozilla—he was able to renew the deal with Google for another three years, this time reportedly at three times the previous rate, or nearly $300 million annually.



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THE ENTREPRENEUR

She opens with the quintessential Valley question. “How can I be of assistance?” Even when they’re planning to smile and do nothing to help (“grin-fucking,” they call that), that’s how they lead off the meetings. Sukhinder Singh Cassidy knows the drill; she has been around. In her 20s, she co-founded a tech company. She’s been a VC (at Accel Partners), she’s been a CEO (of the fashion website Polyvore). She knows Jeff Bezos, gives advice to the guys at Twitter. For a while, she was one of Google’s bright, particular stars, starting up its Asian and Latin American offices, building up staffs that now number in the thousands.

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