Why shouldn’t it be made in Canada?

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By Leo Valiquette

Last week I had the honour of being involved with Canada 3.0, a digital technology conference put on by the Canadian Digital Media Network. Over two days, the conference explored the many ways that digital technology is transforming our lives and how we are progressing toward the CDMN’s “moonshot goal:” That anyone can do anything on line by 2017.

In addition to a variety of breakout sessions, there were some incredible keynotes about the profound transformations gripping the media and content-distribution industries and how the need for individual self-expression through social media is redefining traditional marketing and advertising.

In the midst of all that was a recurring theme that Canada is indeed a great place in which to found and grow not just a technology company but a global technology company, and I thought I would share some of that here.

One point that was often raised was the fact that, despite its relatively small population, Canada does indeed punch above its weight when it comes to digital innovation. We have more entrepreneurs per capita than any other country. We also take top spot with the size of the available labour pool in many digital industries. For example, Canada has the greatest number of game designers per capita. Considering there are now more than one billion gamers in the world, this creates huge opportunity, said game designer and author Jane McGonigal, and not just for leisure. She designs alternate reality games that are intended to generate workable solutions to real-world problems by harnessing the collective creativity of hundreds and even thousands of participants.

During the conference’s opening keynote, Tom Jenkins, executive chairman of OpenText, talked about how Canada is benefiting from a “reverse diaspora,” given that it is a destination of choice for skilled immigrants from around the world. Not only does this create a deep and diverse labour pool for growing tech firms, it also creates an ambassador corps of individuals with first-hand knowledge of overseas markets. For any company looking to go global, there is no greater asset than someone on the team who knows the language, the customs and the business etiquette of a target market overseas.

Michael Serbinis, founder and CEO of Kobo, talked about “the importance of thinking bigger” and how Kobo would have died a quick death if it had been content with “just being a good little Canadian company.”

“We were not in this to become the 18th ebook company in the world,” he said. “We were in it to win it.”

In a battle of “David versus many Goliaths,” Kobo has grown in a few years to within reach of a $1 billion in annual revenue as it works to become either the number one or number two ebook platform in every market in the world. Central to its playbook is building partnerships in overseas markets. To date, it has partnered with more than 18,000 booksellers large and small around the world to serve as their digital storefronts.

And all of this has been accomplished by a Canadian startup that remains proudly Canadian.

Lane Merrifield shared the story of how he and his co-founders within a few short years built Club Penguin, a Canadian-based virtual world for kids, into a global success that Disney purchased for $350 million. He worked at Disney for a time before leaving to launch another startup, FreshGrade, which is focused on student assessment software.

Despite his connections south of the border, Merrifield chose to base FreshGrade in Canada rather than in the U.S., a decision that has taken some people by surprise. But he challenged the assumption that the best place to build a startup is in the Bay area or the Valley. In fact, he believes Canada has a number of advantages, including lower tax rates and R&D costs versus other G7 nations, a stable banking system, a high standard of living and that diversity of talent from around the world.

And in a social age where the emphasis is on identity of the individual and making the individual feel unique, Merrifield believes Canadian innovators and entrepreneurs have one distinct advantage, a virtue that is difficult to teach – empathy. Serbinis shared a similar sentiment, when he said that one of Kobo’s cultural values is love for the consumer – in Kobo’s case, it’s book lovers trying to provide other book lovers with a digital experience that is as close as possible to reading real ink on a real page.

It is our inherent empathy, said Merrifield, that underlies common stereotypes of Canadians as easy going, apologetic and friendly to a fault.

“As I traveled the world I saw firsthand what an advantage this was,” he said. “I see every day the incredible opportunities that lie before us as entrepreneurs … and Canada is a fertile ground for these opportunities.”

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