A year ago, most anyone in tech would have said that startups needed to be located in a hub like Toronto, if they wanted to succeed. The foundations for a successful launch included support, accelerators, mentors, investors, employees and even customers. Those could all only be found in large centres and cities.
Fast forward to this year, where COVID-19 has drastically altered the way most people see and engage in work, the game has most definitely changed and for communities like Innisfil, it’s changed for the better.
According to episode 4 of Tech Talk, Takara Small’s entrepreneur and tech podcast, there are plenty of new players on the startup scene and a lot more of them are warming to the idea that a startup’s location is more or less a thing of the past.
“Working remotely is normalized now. There’s no need to have an expensive downtown office in the city when investors and customers are just a click of a button away, and it’s got a lot of us asking what’s really important in life and work. Increasingly it’s a culture that entrepreneurs are chasing, a culture of optimism and possibilities… When I spoke with Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey last year, he told me then that geography was becoming irrelevant.”
So while the rat race in the big city was a fact of life for tech companies—and their employees—in the past, the new realities are taking startups in new and interesting directions.
A local startup: Marcia Woods and FreshSpoke
Ms. Woods is the CEO of Freshspoke, a startup that connects those who want to buy and sell locally sourced, fresh food. Given that her business is local food, it might seem obvious to choose to build it in a more rural location. “…we’re much closer to our supply source because it’s a highly rural community, as much as it’s growing in terms of its urbanization, so it gives us that great ability to be able to first mile fabulous products from farmers, growers, and food and beverage artisans, and then of course last mile it out to our customers.”
But that wasn’t her only motivation for landing in Innisfil:
“…we are desperately in need of really triple A players as far as our employees go, so we need to be able to access a really solid talent pool, and that is always challenging when you’re a little fish in a big sea…”– Marcia Woods, CEO, Freshspoke
Places like Toronto or even Kitchener-Waterloo are hubs but also very competitive when it comes to staffing. Innisfil is gaining a lot of those skilled people in their staffing pool, as more and more people are drawn to the area for the lifestyle it offers, as well as the affordable homes.
Having a home and being able to work in a cottage atmosphere, but with all the necessary amenities nearby, makes Innisfil tempting and will go a long way to growing that pool of available employees. People who don’t want to spend hours a day commuting. People who want to live their best lives.
“I always get the question, “Innisfil? Why Innisfil?” And most people see it as the little community off the 400 that they pass on their way to Algonquin Park, right? That’s what they say, but when you start to explain and talk about what’s happening there and the fact that they are embracing Bitcoin to pay taxes and their public transit system is Uber I should say, and the fact that you’ve got an amazing urban plan that is so forward thinking that it warrants being on TV and getting national coverage, then they just kind of think, “Huh, maybe I need to give that a second look.”
The startup ecosystem that exists in the area, and the the DMZ Innisfil accelerator in particular, provide so many resources that entrepreneurs can tap into, things that they would otherwise have to pay for themselves if they didn’t have access to the incubator and its programming. Instead, the town is providing what startups need in order to grow, with a long term view to building a sustainable and successful community.
“… it (DMZ Innisfil) enables us to reallocate those funds to marketing, to another person that could potentially come in and help our team to pick and pack orders, and that kind of stuff.”
With unparalleled support from the town itself, both financial and in terms of resources, building a business in a location like Innisfil is just good math:
“My cost of living is far less so I can operate my business very efficiently and at a very low cost. The folks that work for me also have that benefit of being able to work in an environment where they are not struggling to make rent or make a mortgage payment. They can afford to buy a home here in our area, and that in and of itself for a lot of young families, that is the deciding factor.”
Perspective: Andrew Rains and Realiant
Fed up with commutes and congestion ruling his life, Andrew Rains moved his family to Innisfil a couple of years ago, all the while working on his business, a property tech company that helps with building permits. His original motivation was to enjoy more green space and a more relaxed lifestyle but Mr. Rains and his family found more than that.
With the advantage of having arrived in the area before some of the more recent changes and innovations took place, he’s seen first hand the evolution of the community:
“…what really changed was when we started to be involved with the town a bit more, we realized just how ambitious it is as a town and all the exciting plans they have for the next two to five years we want to be a part of now.”
So while the low cost of living is an advantage, it’s one that is offered by many smaller communities throughout the province. The difference with Innisfil is that it doesn’t want to be a bedroom community for GTA tech workers. It wants to be a hub in and of itself. For people to live and work in the same place, creating, innovating and building the local economy for its own benefit and for all those who live in Innisfil.
“Innisfil has a new development plan for my neighborhood that would bring us a go station with an express line to Toronto, and a lot of new amenities that we had no idea were coming when we moved here. That type of stuff is really exciting, and the town is just always wowing me personally with their ambition.”
The growth of a whole community
More people create a larger tax base, and more jobs bring more people, but that’s not the only advantage of innovative and out of the box thinking like what exists in Innisfil. The whole community benefits when local problems are solved with local business innovation and dedicated partnerships that make sense for the community at large, and not just the tech startup entrepreneurs.
According to Ms. Woods, the ability for all the locals to be open to tech as a way to solve problems is a key in the success of the town:
“Let’s get a number of different really innovative thinkers together, and let’s see if we can put this out to the community to solve this problem for us, and then we’ve got something that we can invest in, so there’s a lot of things that they are thinking about that are really, really innovative but also have real implications for taxpayers in terms of real solutions and they’re willing to turn to the tech community, open up the hood, and really do that.”
Like what? Working with Uber to create public transit. Offering bitcoin payment solutions for taxes. And then there’s Rover Parking.
Touted as the AirBnB for parking spots, Rover Parking is an app that allows local residents to rent out their driveways to people who need a place to park when they’re in the area. Particularly over the busier summer period, but even as businesses grow, this is a solution that was presented to an issue, a solution that benefited a lot of people in the community.
According to Rover Parking’s founder and executive director Grant Brigden, the unique ability of a community like Innisfil to respond to issues quickly and decisively, without mountains of red tape, layers of sign offs and endless processes, is what sets it apart.
“Innisfil especially has a very forward looking thought leadership team that is very, very open to using new technologies and very open to even test or pilot new technologies that may not have been implemented in larger areas where big cities often look to companies that have been in place for longer periods of time.”
So is Innisfil designing the model that other communities could replicate? Possibly. It remains to be seen if others have the open-mindedness to look beyond how things have always been done and invite a new style of operating into their future.