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A jet comes in for landing at Los Angeles International Airport on April 15, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. (David McNew/2008 Getty Images)
A jet comes in for landing at Los Angeles International Airport on April 15, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. (David McNew/2008 Getty Images)

Down in the Valley

Canadian lured by Silicon Valley's 'risk mentality' Add to ...

Yen Lee doesn’t dread winter. As an ex-pat in Silicon Valley, he revels in the fact he can cycle to work every morning and wear shorts year-round.

But the temperate weather isn’t the only advantage to living and working in the world’s tech capital.

Mr. Lee says Silicon Valley’s risk-tolerant culture, its access to smart capital and a diverse talent pool have helped him grow his Internet startup, Uptake Networks Inc., into the one of the largest independent travel aggregators in just three short years.

The firm’s network of sites, including Uptake.com and Realtravel.com compiles and organizes some 20 million traveller reviews, ratings, and articles from 5,000 websites, and it enables travellers to filter them for specific recommendations based on why they’re travelling and who they’re travelling with.

Users can quickly find, for example, family activities or restaurants in Monterey, or pet friendly or romantic hotels in Palm Springs.

A Vancouver native, Mr. Lee, 42, landed in Silicon Valley in 1995 via a circuitous route that included a stint as a consultant for McKinsey and Co., running an entrepreneurial venture in China, and then completing his Masters at MIT. “It became obvious that Silicon Valley was going to be the place to pursue new, exciting opportunities,” Mr. Lee says.

Prior to launching Uptake, Mr. Lee co-founded a local travel search engine company and worked as general manager at Yahoo Travel.

He contends it is easier to start a business in Silicon Valley. “There’s nowhere like here anywhere in the world,” he says. “There’s a risk-tolerant culture that allows you to chase big dreams, and failure is not considered a negative. As long as you’ve done your best, if you haven’t cheated or lied, people understand it’s okay to fail.”

That culture, Mr. Lee says, lures a diverse talent pool of high-tech workers from around the world, drawn by the chance to interact with like-minded individuals and be part of cutting-edge innovation. That’s not to say there aren’t skilled workers in Canada, he adds, but the difference is the risk mentality of Silicon Valley workers.

“They’re willing to bet on startups, to take the risks, to forgo a steady pay cheque now, if necessary, if there’s a chance to collect big later on.”

Factor in the world’s largest investor community, and you have a winning formula, Mr. Lee says.

And, he adds, it’s not just venture capital. The number of angel investors has grown, too. “You have more and more serial entrepreneurs who have had three or four home runs and they love the tech game and are now backing other firms,” Mr. Lee says.

Since 2007, Uptake has raised some $14 million (U.S.) in two separate rounds, including a $10 million investment in 2008 from venture capitalists Trinity Ventures and Shasta Ventures, which was secured in about two weeks, Mr. Lee says.

Chris Albinson, a co-founder and the managing director of Panorama Capital, has called Silicon Valley home for close to a decade. Mr. Albinson agrees there’s a huge upside to launching a tech company in Silicon Valley. The sheer cumulative knowledge built up over time and the industry successes, dating back to WWII and Stanford, has turned the Valley into a formidable tech cluster. “The information flow is incredible,” he says.

Mr. Albinson is now leveraging some of that collective knowledge and expertise to help ex-pats already in the Valley and those wanting to get a foot in the door. In 2009, Mr. Albinson along with Anthony Lee of Altos Ventures launched the C100, a mentoring and networking organization for Canadians. “Everyone talks about the brain drain, we’re talking more about brain flow,” Mr. Albinson says.

The non-profit organization, whose membership includes top executives from companies such as Apple, Cisco, eBay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Oracle, has mentored 90 companies and helped 10 firms get venture funding.

Still, not everyone’s a fan of the world’s tech hub. Basil Peters, the principal of Strategic Exits Corp. in Vancouver, and an angel investor who has also been a CEO in Silicon Valley, believes entrepreneurs can be just as successful in Vancouver or anywhere else in the world as they can in the Valley. “I learned that the Valley is bigger, but not necessarily better,” he says.

Mr. Peters says today companies in the Valley are battling, among other things, higher taxes, a higher cost of living and exorbitant hiring costs than they’d find in Canada. Plus, he says, there’s no shortage of capital in Canada, just of quality investments.

Mr. Lee admits there are challenges. “There’s more competition to attract talent and it costs 100-per-cent more to fill positions here versus, say, in Vancouver.”

And the pace can be frantic at times. “I had a meeting at 10 p.m. last night, for example, and another at 7:30 this morning,” Mr. Lee says.

But the positives far outweigh any negatives. Mr. Lee says Uptake is growing 200-per-cent a year and the firm is on track to become profitable by the summer. The company has recently made a couple of key hires to help it expand internationally and move into mobile applications.

While Mr. Lee says he will likely return to Canada at some point, he’s not ready to face our winters again just yet.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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