An audience member asks about RIM’s future, and, with some prodding, Albinson answers. “RIM’s just screwed it up so badly.” He attended a meeting two years ago between VCs in the Valley and RIM founder Mike Lazaridis. “Ostensibly, the idea was for RIM to come in and listen as to why we were telling all of our companies to go work on the iPhone [platform]first and Android second—maybe get to RIM third. Mike came in and first of all berated the room about how venture capital was really stupid and how they built their company without any of it. He went on to say their [RIM’s]technology was so amazing and the world just didn’t realize.”
At today’s event, Albinson, a frequent investor in Canadian tech start-ups, voices the worry commonly heard in the expat community here that Canada is about to witness another scene-destroying crash like that of Nortel’s. “When Nortel went bankrupt,” Albinson says, “it was 50 years of industrial policy that was flushed in 24 months.”
Concerned about the state of tech in their homeland, Albinson and a friend who’s also done well in the Valley, Anthony Lee, a general partner at Altos Ventures, decided to mobilize the Valley’s resources to help would-be Canadian entrepreneurs. On another day, at a woo-woo tea house with a view of downtown San Francisco, Albinson describes his decision to found a network of high-level Canadians down here. “The Indian expats have an organization in the Valley that links entrepreneurs based in India to here, as do the Israelis,” he says. “We thought, ‘Why not the Canadians?’”
Some thought it wouldn’t work. “They said we didn’t have a strong enough sense of nationality. That we aren’t wired that way.” He thought the naysayers were wrong, and gathered a group of the top Canadians he knew in the Valley. “We invited 50 people and 75 showed up. We asked everybody in the room if they’d write a personal cheque for $850 to start us going—everyone except one did.” Since then, the organization, the C100—named for its roughly 100 influential charter members—has brought down many Canadian entrepreneurs, mentoring them in the ways of the Valley, sometimes investing in their efforts, sometimes finding them investors. To date, $400 million in VC and angel backing for Canadian tech start-ups has come about through the program.
Albinson is the son of a sports consultant who worked with many Canadian Olympians. He remembers how he and other Canadians in the Valley responded to the Canadian Olympic Committee’s controversial Own the Podium campaign at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010. “We all thought, ‘Finally—going for the gold.’ It’s that attitude we wanted to inspire in tech. Canada was known for producing great engineers, but investors didn’t think of us as entrepreneurs—despite our successes. The problem was we were not celebrating them and as a result the brand of Canadian entrepreneurship in the Valley was damaged. No one knew that Flickr was a Canadian company, about Radian6 in New Brunswick, Club Penguin in B.C.”
Albinson rejects the conventional narrative around brain drain—a term he hates. “It’s infuriating, because no other nation on the planet is thinking that way in the 21st century. They’re treating their people in the Valley as a national treasure to be supported and cultivated.”
Unlike Albinson, Chamath Palihapitiya, one of the C100’s charter members, did not turn Facebook away when it came knocking. After graduating from the University of Waterloo in 1999, he spent a year trading derivatives at the Toronto brokerage BMO Nesbitt Burns. (“I was...uninspired.”) Then he followed a girlfriend—now his wife—down here. He began his tech career running digital music start-ups. They were acquired by AOL, which kept him on board. He went on to become, at 26, the youngest vice-president in AOL’s history. He’s now 35.
He’s one of those people who’ll walk a listener through the basics. “In 2005, this guy I knew from the digital music space, a guy named Sean Parker, came to see me—he ran this product called Napster.” Um, yes. “He said, ‘I have this really cool company and I want you to meet the CEO.’ He came to my office with Mark Zuckerberg. I got to know them and we ended up doing a deal together between AOL and Facebook in 2005.” Then, after a stint at a VC firm, in 2006, Palihapitiya joined the fledgling social network.