Canada is home to some of the world’s leading technology companies, including the gaming startup I founded: A Thinking Ape. This is a story about how we ended up back in Canada, after getting our start at Silicon Valley’s prestigious Y Combinator program.
A Thinking Ape is a mobile game development shop based in Vancouver, B.C.. You may have even played one of our games. One of our first releases, Kingdoms of War, has held a steady top spot in the App Store since its release in 2010.
We’ve been growing steadily since we set up in Vancouver in 2010. We started working out of a downtown coffee shop, and now have a great office space in vibrant Gastown with over 60 employees.
How did I get here? I was born and raised in Calgary, and earned my degree in computer science from the U of C. I landed my first job at Amazon directly out of school as a retail engineer; it was an amazing opportunity for a new grad. But I quickly got the itch to do something on my own. The iPhone had just launched and Facebook was gaining momentum. I saw opportunity to jump in and, along with my co-founders, Eric Diep and Wilkins Chung, came up with a concept for a chat app.
Knowing we needed help to get started, we took a chance on the highly competitive and revered Y Combinator, an accelerator which has fostered some of the most successful startups in the world: Airbnb, Dropbox and Reddit to name a few. With only an idea, we were selected to be part of the 2008 winter cohort. This was a huge honour; we are one of only a handful of Canadian companies to be part of the over 600 alumni network since it began in 2005.
My three months at Y Combinator were the most challenging of my life.
In that time we did an insane amount of work. On our first Demo Day, we were ranked second last in the group by the other startups. Instead of bumming us out, it motivated us to do better. At the next round of demos, after weeks of non-stop work, we placed second from the top in our next peer review, and secured a round of angel investment by the end of our time in the accelerator.
Our experience provided us with an unmatched opportunity to put our startup in a pressure cooker and turn a lump of coal idea into something of value.
The messaging app morphed into a mobile gaming company, and we left Y Combinator with the singular goal of building something long-term; that is, a great gem of an organization.
But where were we going to do it? There are so many entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley doing incredible things in technology, but if we were going to build something sustainable, we knew we had to look outside the echo chamber.
The critical mass can be a curse when there is always a shiny new company to entice developers to a fresh challenge. At that time, developers were boomeranging around Silicon Valley gaming companies; we needed people who were going to stick around.
We asked ourselves where we could grow a company to 10,000 employees. Our criteria was simple: we needed a deep talent pool and a city people would want to live. We looked all over including Austin and Seattle. And to get a sense of the talent, we did test runs with contractors in each area.
A great mobile developer requires both data-driven and creative talent, and we found an abundance of both in Vancouver. The city’s history of companies specializing in web app development, including locals Vision Critical, Blast Radius and Mobify, and internationals Facebook and Amazon, combined with experts in gaming thanks to companies, like EA, Relic Entertainment and East Side Games, made the local talent pool perfectly primed for our needs. It’s also not too hard on the eyes, making it an easy choice.
Being in Canada made hiring much easier. In addition to the high quality of life and wealth of smart people, Canada also offers excellent visa options for recruiting internationally that far outmatch what you can do in the US. Globally, we look anywhere we can for talent, and including the US.
The DNA of Silicon Valley – thinking outside the box and believing you can do big things – and the mentorship we received at Y Combinator was critical for our young team to see its full potential and continues to fuel our growth today. Silicon Valley is a great place to build a network, but you don’t have to be there to build a great tech company.
At A Thinking Ape we encourage risk-taking with the same sense of urgency as any international startup, but we have all the benefits of working in a city outside of the echo chamber. Our position in Vancouver provides us with a global perspective, while keeping us close enough to the epicenter driving our business. Canada is evolving to have our own thriving ecosystem of technology companies, and we’re proud to be a part of it.
Kenshi Arasaki is co-founder of A Thinking Ape, a Vancouver-based mobile gaming company committed to engineering social gaming experiences and vibrant online communities. Follow @athinkingape.