Gregory Levey is CEO of Figure 1 and associate professor of professional communication at Ryerson University.
On May 9, The Globe and Mail published Canadians Can Innovate, But We're Not Equipped to Win, by former Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie. This is part of a series responding to and expanding on that essay.
Back in July, Allen Lau, CEO of Wattpad, argued as part of this series that Toronto's diversity gave his startup an "unfair advantage." As I read his piece, I nodded along. My own startup is a few years behind Wattpad, but it, too, has benefited from this diversity of talent, language and backgrounds.
That said, we've also had experiences that have made me wonder if the benefits of being based in Canada are outweighed by the limitations.
My company, Figure 1, has created 25 jobs since my co-founders and I started it a couple years ago, and we're looking to hire 10 more people soon. I am incredibly proud of the team we've assembled – they're some of the smartest, most capable people I have ever worked with, and they would excel anywhere. Canadian talent is world-class.
But that doesn't mean that we should have to limit ourselves to it.
When we tried to hire our first non-Canadian, we ran into a roadblock. We had posted a job opening on several job boards, and while we received more than 100 applicants, none of them met our needs. We did, however, find a young American who was perfect for the role – and, lucky for us, she was willing to relocate to Canada.
We applied for permission from the government to offer her a job and were disappointed when our application was rejected. According to the bureaucrats who made the determination, there was "no demonstrable labour shortage in this occupation."
I want to be clear: Canada has been good to us. In its earliest days, we incubated our startup at Ryerson University's Digital Media Zone. We've received guidance and investment from the MaRS Discovery District, financial support through the Scientific Research and Development Tax Credit and investment from some of Canada's most prominent venture capital firms. We've even received help from the Department of Foreign Affairs as we've begun to expand internationally.
But all this may be outweighed if we are limited in who we can hire. Building a technology business today depends almost solely on people. To build a meaningful and sustainable company in Canada, you need to be able to hire the best people you can – wherever they come from.
Our company decided not to keep looking for someone to fill this role in Canada. We'd found the person we wanted. So we hired her to work for us in the United States. Since she needs colleagues to support her, it now makes sense to hire those people there, too.
To be sure, it's reasonable not to throw the borders wide open when there are unemployed Canadians looking for work, but that shouldn't mean hamstringing tiny companies such as ours in the global war for talent. It seems unlikely that Canada is about to be swamped by young Americans with first-class educations and solid work experience crossing our borders to take Canadian jobs.
Silicon Valley venture capitalists often express interest in Figure 1. When I meet with them in California, I'm usually asked, "When is Figure 1 planning to relocate to the Valley?" They tell me Canada is no place to build a technology business, especially one aspiring to be a large company. In the past, I've responded by citing the diversity of the population, the large pool of engineering talent, the lower cost of running a business and the supportive governmental policies.
But startups live and die by their people: That's really all that matters. So when I'm inevitably asked this question again, I won't be able to answer as confidently.