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the challenge

Cameron Taylor is the founder and chief executive officer of OutdoorSmart Inc., which licenses recreational boaters and trains them using animated online videos.The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

When Peterborough, Ont., switched on 17 arc streetlights in 1884, it became "The Electric City" – the first in Canada to light its streets in a way that's now commonplace. The glow drew Thomas Edison, who opened a General Electric factory there.

Today, the town of about 80,000 is a hub for more than 50 manufacturers, from small operations to multinationals.

Now entrepreneur Cameron Taylor is trying to bring a new kind of energy to Peterborough, in the form of tech-savvy workers more likely to call Toronto home.

"Cities like Peterborough see the allure of developing creative-based economies," says the founder and chief executive officer of OutdoorSmart Inc., which licenses recreational boaters, trains them using animated online videos and created a smartphone app called BoatSmart Connect. "But the challenge for us is we're one of two or three pioneering companies."

A business initially built on boating exams and licensing may not sound like it needs employees with digital skills. But Mr. Taylor points to the animated online courses offered via the company's flagship Web portal, BoatSmart, as well as Connect, a social app.

"Digital is everything in our business," he says.

Cameron Taylor is the founder and chief executive officer of OutdoorSmart Inc., which licenses recreational boaters and trains them using animated online videos. (Ash Nayler for The Globe and Mail)

The federal government has since capped the number of licence providers, and now OutdoorSmart is one of the largest, employing more than 40 people during peak season and earning between $2-million and $4.9-million in 2013.

But competing with similar operations means OutdoorSmart must appeal to increasingly plugged-in customers. Its online videos, practice exams and app must evolve, and Mr. Taylor is having difficulty finding talent to fill the vacant positions of digital director, Web designer and animator.

Moving the company to Toronto, however, is out of the question.

“We’re working that much harder to attract the right kind of talent to Peterborough. We probably spend more time and energy doing that than we would if we were in Toronto.”
Cameron Taylor, founder and chief executive officer of OutdoorSmart Inc.

But OutdoorSmart needs to bolster its digital team. “We are about to launch a new brand initiative, and as a business owner you can have great ideas, but the rubber hits the road with talent,” says Mr. Taylor.

The Challenge: How does OutdoorSmart woo top digital talent to its hometown headquarters?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Sharon Irwin-Foulon, executive director of career management and corporate recruiting, Richard Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario, London, Ont.

My focus would be to figure out what your message is on the culture of the firm, why this is an employer of choice – which in my opinion would be its rapid growth – and explain why Peterborough is a great place to live. Then I would look at how I’m getting the message out. If they’re looking to recruit younger people, look to universities. For senior roles, use a search firm. Search firms create a more honest dialogue between candidates and employers.

OutdoorSmart has evolved far beyond the firm Mr. Taylor launched in 2003 to teach boat safety and allow operators to apply for a licence. The company has added insurance and its own line of safety equipment.

Next is the tone. If they’re going to invest in someone coming to Peterborough, every single person on the leadership team needs to be committed to that candidate. Sometimes a search firm will push really hard, and the business doesn’t own the ultimate decision. They need to own it and make sure everyone is courting not just the candidate but also the whole family. They need to be committed to making sure the first year on the ground in Peterborough is successful because this isn’t just about recruiting, it’s about retention.

Hugh Arnold, adjunct professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto

Look in different or non-traditional places for people – physical geographies that are a bit more rural or semi-rural elsewhere in the world. One that pops to mind would be the research triangle in North Carolina where Duke University and the University of North Carolina are located. That for 25 years has been an increasing hub of spinoff businesses from those universities. Both are smaller cities, and a lot of people who work around there live in – what we would refer to in Toronto – the country.

Once you find some people who have already chosen to live a less urban lifestyle it seems to me you’re well down the road to having the potential to get those people to come and work here.

A totally different approach would be to ask why does the person have to live in Peterborough? Why can’t they live in Toronto and go to Peterborough one day a week or every two weeks and meet people face-to-face but be connected electronically? This is the digital world – distance doesn’t matter.

Jon Pole, co-founder of My Broadcast Corporation, which owns and operates radio stations in small markets including Peterborough and Kincardine, based in Renfrew, Ont.

Our best success is strong recruitment efforts to hire locals and train them. They’re not interested in the big city or even leaving the town and sometimes you can take their passion of being local and turn that into an asset.

Another thing is the website. When we opened a couple years ago, ours was like theirs – very much a “come to our website and get the job information” approach. Now when you go to our website it’s really about why you’d want to work for us. There are reviews from our staff on there, and we don’t edit them, there are spelling mistakes in them, weird punctuation, and it’s exactly how they were submitted – it’s not perfect but the quality of our applicants shot through the roof.

Every year we do a new survey of our staff about why they like working here. Sure, we have the typical executive bios but we really want to show the diversity.

It’s where people are going to go first – your website is that invitation. And it’s easy to do. It can be a video shot on your iPhone; it doesn’t need to be super production value. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there, especially for a digital company. Have a good website where people can go and spend a few minutes and get a vibe for the company.

THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW

Own the decision

Once a list of candidates is developed, ensure the senior leadership team is involved in all communication and continues to be as the new hire transitions to Peterborough.

Look to other rural hubs

Research and build a list of candidates from other rural or semi-rural research clusters with cities of similar size to Peterborough.

Bolster the website

Survey current employees and shoot videos to allow prospective candidates to explore the workplace culture.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.