A Call To Arms

Come On Canada!A couple of years ago I worked as a research intern for the BC Premier’s Technology Council, an organization created by Premier Gordon Campbell to advise him on technology-related issues facing British Columbia and its citizens. The task I’d been given at the time: research the technology sectors in British Columbia and predict which ten technologies British Columbia could dominate in ten years’ time. This was a fantastic opportunity for me, not only because I would get to meet and interview BC’s many CEO and CTOs, but also because it would give me an opportunity to amortize the cost of some very expensive words I had learned in the UBC MBA program.

Like the word ‘amortize’, for example.

Not two days into the research, I realized that I had been duped. No one, especially governments, has been particularly effective in making technology predictions, and it was doubtful that an MBA student with a predisposition to using the word ‘synergy’ an alarmingly large percentage of the time was likely to change that. I realized that the real problem that we needed to solve wasn’t picking the right technologies, but fostering the right attitude. The fundamental change that was, and still is, required is a cultural shift to embrace entrepreneurship.

Peter Drucker once said “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” For us to be successful, we need to change our thinking about our shortcomings. If you look at the ten Premier’s Technology Council reports, the research has identified two major problem areas for BC’s technology sector: not enough money, and not enough talent. To which I say:

  1. There is money to bootstrap if you’re scrappy: There’s a lot of free or extremely cheap money available to entrepreneurs in Canada. In many cases, these are government programs that don’t even require you to give up any equity. That’s right – it’s free money. Here’s just a small sample:
    • SR&ED: Gives a tax credit of 35% to 60% of qualified expenditures (depending on your province), when taxable income is below $300,000. If your company doesn’t owe any tax in a given year, the SR&ED Tax Credit is refunded in cash. If you spend money on R&D, you can get a significant chunk of it back with this program.
    • NRC-IRAP: Provides funding contributions to Canadian small and medium-sized businesses interested in using technology to commercialize services, products and processes for Canadian and international markets. NRC-IRAP also invests on a cost-shared basis in research and in pre-competitive development technical projects. I actually got one of these grants for an internship back in 1996, and as I recall, it was a relatively small amount of paperwork. Again, free money.
    • Telefilm Canada’s New Media Fund: The Department of Canadian Heritage has allocated $14.5 million dollars per year to the New Media Fund for a period of two years. This fund provides funding conditionally repayable advances for the development, production and marketing of Canadian interactive digital cultural content products. And if the product is developed in both English and French, 10% of the advance will not have to be repaid. More free money.
    • Business plan competitions: New Ventures BC offers a first prize of $60K in cash and services and $100K in the form of the BCIC Proof-of-Concept Award; if you’re an undergraduate or graduate student at an accredited Canadian University, the UBC Commerce Undergraduate Society’s Enterprize business plan competition offers a first prize of $20K, the Queen’s Entrepreneur’s Competition offers a first prize of $15K, and the Ivey Business Plan competition
      offers a first prize of $25K.
  2. There is plenty of talent available:
    • We’ve got smart people: In software we’ve had a fair number of wins, including Flickr, StumbleUpon, iStockPhoto, Club Penguin, XCert (now RSA Security), not to mention Electronic Arts (the largest development studio for the largest game developer on the planet). And then in hardware, there’s little companies like Research In Motion, PMC-Sierra, Sierra Wireless. That list goes on and one. And there’s more smart people in the hopper – hell, UBC’s Computer Science department continues to hand Stanford and Berkeley a heaping plate of pain each year in the annual ACM programming competition (and has done so five years running).
    • It’s a global market – go hire someone smarter than you: There’s this thing called the Internet. There’s talent markets like eLance, oDesk, Rent-A-Coder, and many more. If you can’t find it here, you can it from some other place while you get started.

Of course, there are some caveats to my enthusiasm. My background is software, an industry where you can actually get something done for the kinds of dollars available from these programs. If you’re working with web-based technologies, the cost of developing a startup from zero to launch has declined dramatically, and you could launch something decent for less than $50K. I must concede that these dollars won’t build you a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical. And of course, you can’t run most companies on students and outsourced labour.

But that’s not really my point.

My point is that our success will be determined by our ability to focus on the positive: attitude is the paintbrush of life – it colors every situation. Instead of waiting for someone to fund your great idea and pay you a salary, why not focus on what you could do with the options you have available? What could you do with a bit of money? What’s the next goal that $10K or $20K could help you achieve? Who could you tap locally or globally to take the next step and prove the idea has legs? Even better, could it help you prove that your idea doesn’t have legs? There’s nothing wrong with failing early, especially if it frees your time to pursue something more likely to succeed.

We have the opportunities – so by now I hope you’re asking yourself: what’s stopping me?