Toronto (a.k.a. Accordion City)

On “How to Be Silicon Valley”, Part 1

There’s been some interest in yesterday’s posting on Paul Graham’s essay, How to Be Silicon Valley, so I thought I’d answer some of the comments.

Other papers on Toronto as a high-tech hub

The first comment comes from an “Ethan” who chides me for not pointing to the following reports:

I’ve seen the first paper but not the second, so thanks for the heads-up, Ethan!

It was Paul Graham’s essay that prompted me to think about the efforts of both ICT Toronto and the loose confederacy of the DemoCamp brain trust, so that’s what I chose to point to. Besides, as a plain old web page rather than a PDF file and an essay written with a more general audience in mind — both in terms of geography and technical expertise — I thought it would be a more interesting read. But yes, if you’re in this neck of the woods and are seriously interested in the area’s potential as a high-tech hub, definitely read those papers.

ICT Toronto and TRRA: Not the same

Ethan asks if ICT Toronto are the same people as the TRRA (Toronto Regional Research Alliance). They’re not, but in page 52 of the ICT Report, it says:

The Toronto Regional Research Alliance (TRRA) has been formed to attract new public and private sector research investment to the region. TRRA reports that “The region is leveraging about half the public research dollars per capita of provinces like Alberta, BC and Quebec”. TRRA will attempt to attract research driven companies to the region, focussing initially on the ICT and bio-pharma sectors. At the same time, the TRRA will work with leading companies in key sectors that have already chosen to locate here, in order to expand their regional presence. If it succeeds, over time it should be an effective organizing for kick-starting new research institutions in Toronto. TRRA will also implement “a strategic, high level recruitment campaign targeting 10-20 high-growth, international, R&D-based companies likely to be seeking a North American R&D location in the next 5 years”.

TRRA has developed support and momentum for its plans, and should be a valuable ally in the Toronto Region ICT Strategy [emphasis mine].

Only Silicon Valley can be Silicon Valley, and that’s okay

Ethan also states:

I mean, who doesn’t want to be the next Silicon valley? If it was easy or obvious, everyone would do it. You omit historical factors, like the presence of the first semiconductor companies, which seeded the explosion in tech companies and the large number of defense contractors laid off in the area at the end of the cold war. And let’s be blunt: the weather in the bay area doesn’t hurt. Toronto’s weather, well, it can hurt at times.

“If it was easy or obvious, everyone would do it?” That applies to anything worth doing, dude. Please tell me that you don’t spend your entire life sitting in front of the TV, eating corn chips and masturbating. Please.

But seriously…

I’m not saying that Toronto should play the metropolitan version of Single White Female and obsessively duplicate the Valley. Think of the apocryphal story of the clothing company that got their hands on a French designer jacket. They brought it to a sweat shop in Hong Kong and said “duplicate this!”. They did…right down to the cigarette burn on the sleeve.

There’s much to the Valley that we shouldn’t emulate, from the laughable public transit to the nothing-but-bedrooms-communities-and-strip-malls landscape to the comic book convention male-to-female ratio to the fact that if it weren’t for the yogurt in Odwalla smoothies, there might be no active culture. When Cory and I lived in San Francisco, we often went to meetings in the Valley, where’d we’d joke as we passed by the Six Flags on Highway 101: we referred to it “Six Flags Over Absolutely Nothing”. Jamie Zawinski, who worked for Netscape, summed it up perfectly in his polemic San Jose is Hell on Earth.

I think there’s room in the industry for more hubs. Consider film and TV production; although one thinks of Hollywood, there’s a lot going on in Vancouver and Toronto — collectively known as “Hollywood North”. While only Hollywood can be Hollywood, we do a helluva lot of film work here and we also play host to the Toronto Film Festival, which over the past couple of decades has risen from obscurity to big player on the film world stage.

Yes, Silicon Valley’s tech industry is the descendant of the semiconductor industry which in turn is the descendant of the aerospace and military industries. However, they aren’t absolute prerequisites; they were what attracted the right people to gather in the same place at that time. I believe that there are at least a handful of ways to attract the right crowd for the information and communications tech industry, and perhaps even the next big industry to follow it.

I’ve got to get back to work, so I’ll post more later. In the meantime, keep those cards and letters coming!

6 replies on “On “How to Be Silicon Valley”, Part 1”

Ok, so now I’ll have to start my own blog to be “the” Ethan instead of “an” Ethan.

Also, while I’ve never lived in the Valley, I’ve been there on business often enough to completely agree with your sentiments about its negatives. I like visiting Fry’s, but it’s pretty devoid of life otherwise. SF is great, but the valley ain’t SF. And San Jose is indeed hell on earth. Though I’m not sure which circle – San Jose residents seem pretty incapable of any sort of sin, excpt for the sin of bad urban planning.

Instead of comparing Toronto to the Valley, I’d ask how Toronto can attract people versus the other Canadian tech hubs, specifically Ottawa, Vancouver Waterloo and Montreal.

Ottawa has the people, mostly from the post-Nortel flame-out. This has translated into a fair number of startups, often in hardware/semiconductors. Plus I would assume that it’s easy to get federal research funding in the centre of the beauracratic universe.

Vancouver benefits from a plesant climate and a synergy between the arts community and the tech community – thus the huge raft of game companies. Game companies also have massive turnover, which ends up spawning new game companies.

Waterloo has, well, Waterloo, which is a big deal. UW’s liberal intellectual property policy has contributed directly to the creation of a lot of companies. It also has a fair amount of capital (TechCapital is a regional VC) and angels, as well as the vast amount of wealth that’s been created by RIM. Also, Waterloo has programs like MBET, which has an explicit mandate to create entrepreneurs. (and I’m an graduate of said program – a beer to anyone who finds my CV on the CBET site)

Finally, Montreal has a couple universities and, well, it’s cool. But there have been a number of successful tech companies in the area, like SoftImage, EA has an office and there are a few other small companies I’m aware of. Like Toronto, it’s close to the border, has a major airport and is within easy reach of most of the North American market (as well as Europe).

Then there’s those outliers in Alberta, Intuit and Bioware. But they’re just strange.

Anyway, I wouldn’t ask how we can convince some kid in Toledo to move to Toronto, because they won’t, but how to convince the smart kid in Regina to move to Toronto, instead of Montreal, Vancouver or Waterloo. We know what the important factors are, you listed them, but what are Toronto’s gaps (and strengths) relative to other major Candian centres?

Definitely an interesting topic Joey! Oh, and no, I don’t eat corn chips, watch TV all day and masturbate. It does sound like fun, but I have kids to feed. And I chafe easily.

Hey there! I know a bathtub of Ethans and I didn’t know which one you were, so you became “an” Ethan.

San Jose’s closest thing to a a seedy side is available in one very compact dose: a dive called “Cinnabar”. You can’t miss it — it’s the bar with all the shopping carts parked outside. My cousin Rafy loves that dump, which isn’t without its charms.

As far as comparing Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, I have an idea that I’m going to expand upon in another posting.

EH> Anyway, I wouldn’t ask how we can convince some kid in Toledo to move to Toronto, because

EH> they won’t, but how to convince the smart kid in Regina to move to Toronto, instead of Montreal,

EH> Vancouver or Waterloo.

Just some general comments on that point…

I think it’s perhaps even more important to think of how to convince the smart and career-savvy kid in Waterloo to stay in either Waterloo or Toronto or Ottawa instead of moving to Silicon Valley or Seattle. From what I’ve seen, that brain drain is bigger today than it was a decade ago. And if I can very broadly generalize for a moment, it really is from among the cream of the crop that we are losing to the “competition” south of the border (I have nothing against smart kids from Regina… I myself was a kid from the relative boonies in the Maritimes that chose to settle down in the GTA.).

I think it would be a mistake if ICT Toronto, being an initiative of the City of Toronto, focuses on Toronto only and sees other cities like Waterloo, Ottawa, Montreal, etc. just as competition. I’ve taken just a brief glance at the Final Report, so I don’t know exactly the scope of ICT’s work. But there’s no reason why it should not synergize with other locales to become stronger collectively. For example, a significant portion of the student population at UW calls Toronto “home” and those folks have personal incentive to return to Toronto after graduation. Some of them even happen to start companies in the GTA rather than in Waterloo — Redknee is a good example of that, and Nuvvo is a more recent micro example…I’m sure there are others as well. My point is that ICT Toronto should work together with others outside of the GTA because there can be benefits. I think nerds across the major Canadian cities are fairly tightly knit, as are the rich people; so that can work to our advantage.

But yeah, we don’t need to copy Silicon Valley exactly. And let’s build upon the studies that have already been done on the topic. Here‘s another one from the gov’t of Canada that looks at clusters in several cities.

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