(Kelowna B.C., photo credit: mysticenergy/iStock)
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Why these Canadian cities are perfect for entrepreneurs and startups

Startup-friendly cities: they don’t have to be big, but they’ve got to have some fun things for employees to do in their time off. They don’t have to be perfectly central or have great weather, but they’ve got to have decent flight connections for meeting face-to-face with potential customers and investors. Having schools that turn out talented graduates doesn’t hurt, and neither does a local government that keeps red tape to a minimum.

But the cities that have proven themselves to be Canada’s best places for starting and growing a business have their own special ingredient: entrepreneurs and community leaders who are eager to collaborate and take risks.

Kelowna, B.C., with a population just shy of 130,000, is the Canadian city with the highest percentage of self-employed people. According to Statistics Canada, 15.7 per cent of Kelownans were self-employed in 2016. In 2017 the city opened its $35-million, 100,000-square-foot innovation centre — a publicly supported office-and-meeting space that puts multiple high-tech businesses under one roof. Lane Merrifield, one of the newest Dragons’ Den dragons, says that Kelowna’s civic culture is very start-up friendly.

“A lot of people here come from somewhere else, so people here don’t get too steeped in one way of doing things. You end up with a welcoming and inclusive environment,” he says

Merrifield co-founded his first company, Club Penguin, in Kelowna when he was just 28. After selling the business to Disney and running it for them for five years, he came back to Kelowna to start his education-technology company, FreshGrade, along with Wheelhouse, which invests in early-stage tech companies and entrepreneurs. Merrifield says Kelowna’s appeal as a tourist destination is also part of its appeal for startups — the outdoor adventures that are available, along with good weather, can be seen as part of the compensation package. Kelowna’s also a retirement community, which means that there are senior business leaders around with time on their hands for mentoring and networking.

The other top-10 cities with the highest percentage of self-employed people vary greatly in both size and location: Victoria, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Whitehorse, Calgary, Hamilton and, in tenth place, London, Ont., where 10.6 per cent of the working population is self-employed. What they all have in common is a high quality of life — whether it’s access to the great outdoors or cultural activities — and a nurturing ecosystem for businesses.

Samarth Mod, CEO and founder of app developer FreshWorks Studio, came to Victoria from Pune, India, to do his MBA at the University of Victoria. While a student looking for a job, potential employers kept suggesting projects he could develop if he started his own company, so he did. The university allowed Mod to customize his assignments to create his own business. He was able to get free office space at a local business incubator, and obtain free mentorship to help him develop a business plan. Though access to capital might have been easier in Vancouver, where Mod considered setting up shop, he found the cost of living there too high.

“When you don’t have any money, you want to keep your living costs to a bare minimum,” says Mod.

Ben Sanders co-founded his company, Proof, which makes software for governments to track approvals, in Whitehorse, Yukon. Born in Thompson, Man., Sanders had worked in tech in Silicon Valley and Ontario’s Kitchener-Waterloo region before a trip to Yukon for a music festival sold him on the North.

“Whitehouse is a capital, which allows us to have world-class amenities and be closer to them than in [other] major centres. There’s a great work-life balance and lots of smart people living here,” says Sanders.

He’s also a member of NorthLight Innovation, a $900,000 business hub that opened last fall to provide equipment, networking opportunities and educational workshops to local entrepreneurs.

“There is really a palpable entrepreneurial spirit in life up north, just in surviving up here. People need to make things work with what they have.”

Sometimes it pays to specialize. “Cities really need to play to existing strengths,” says Merrifield.

Calgary’s position as a global hub for the oil and gas industry makes it an especially attractive city for companies that can serve the energy sector. John van Pol and his wife and business partner, Anouk van Pol, moved to Calgary from the Netherlands to found Ingu Solutions, which provides miniature mobile sensors for detecting leaks and defects in pipelines. He started his Canadian venture in Kitchener-Waterloo because of its reputation as a tech hub, but moved to Calgary in 2016 to get closer to his customers.

“If we ignore the temperature of the city, I enjoy it,” says von Pol. “It’s a very open and welcoming city for newcomers and for business.”


About the author: Paul Gallant is a Toronto-based journalist and editor who writes about Canadian small- and medium-sized enterprises, international business, urban development, travel, technology and social change. His work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Canadian Business, The Walrus and many other publications. He is executive editor at BOLD, an international travel magazine for Canadians.