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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 ...

Nulman sits down with William Plut, a seasoned monetizer of (his own and others’) inventions and general Valley insider, who, like Singh Cassidy, comes from St. Catharines. Plut shoots questions at Nulman mercilessly, cutting him off whenever Nulman is havering—or when he gives an answer that raises flags from a Valley perspective. How does the idea differ from Uber, a Valley-pioneered cab app? What are the partners paying themselves? They’ll start paying out $30,000 to $40,000 in the new year. “That’s good. The lower that is, the happier the investors are—the longer you can survive on fumes, the more impressed they’ll be.” Who’s their tech guy? These are the funding tiers. These are the books Nulman should read. “No problem,” Nulman says, “I’ll be at a family place in December, and I can spend six hours a day on the books, and six hours snowboarding.” Plut, who’s just turned 40, smiles—oh, to be so young. What’s his marketing plan? No good. “Can I try again?” He does, and does better the second time around. Who’s got the float, Nulman or the cab companies? “We do.” That’s good. That’s very good. What’s his exit? Nulman lists four big Silicon Valley companies and why they might eventually be interested. He’s done his homework.

An action plan is developed, and Nulman says he’ll try to do what Plut recommends. “If you get this right and do your work,” Plut promises Nulman, “I’ll introduce you to some VCs on Sand Hill Road.”

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Some of the entrepreneurs’ ideas will fly—some won’t. But the Valley offers an intoxicating sense that anything is possible. All of them, if they want to make it here, will have to be quick studies of the Valley’s particular culture. It isn’t really out-of-country; it is a privileged corner of the U.S. with specific traditions.

I am a dual citizen, and working on this story made me re-examine my sense of each nation—of how, as Chris Albinson says, their brands are shifting. The Canadian national narrative around brain drain does feel tired—less relevant in a world where tech reduces distances, and with a rising generation of individuals who expect to move frequently, often across porous borders, in the course of their careers. Sometimes they will work in Canada, sometimes not: What’s the big deal?

This story also made me realize that, in many ways, the Valley does distill America’s best qualities—the ones my American mother taught us to value. There’s a boldness of vision here, a comfort with risk, intellectual curiosity, an emphasis on lifelong learning. As Gary Kovacs says, here you can almost feel the American Dream in action.

But, as Google’s Neil Fraser notes, the opportunities aren’t available to everyone—only certain demographics are benefiting from the boom. Silicon Valley’s pristine lawns mainly get their leaves blown by Latino crews; across the highway from beautiful, topiary-filled Palo Alto is less favoured, more African-American East Palo Alto. It has a much higher violent crime rate, and the children attend underperforming, underfunded schools.

When Fraser was paddling in the Bay with his homemade sonar dragging behind him, there was an air show going on overhead for Fleet Week. Both the Canadian Snowbirds and the U.S. Blue Angels were flying. “The Canadian planes were graceful, but the U.S. ones were noisy and powerful. Brutes.” The old idea of the two nations: Canada gentle; America Darwinian.

At his Canada Day speech, Kovacs ended with two pieces of advice, one for Canadians, one for Americans. To Americans he said, “Think of other people, other places. You’re not the only country on the planet.” To Canadians, he said, simply, “Be bolder.” Move beyond bricks and mortar. Again, an oldie but maybe a goodie: America, overly self-involved; Canada, too cautious.

I sense Albinson’s influence on the message in a short animated film the C100 commissioned to describe its organizational aims. “This is beyond owning some podium,” it begins. “It’s about claiming the podium as ours, painting it red and white, crushing it, and sprinkling the dust into the eyes of our competitors. And not apologizing ever.” This, at any rate, is new. Moving beyond a passion for bronze to an unapologetic lust for gold.

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