Yukon IT: A Victim of Geography?

Billy BraggAbout two decades ago folk singer Billy Bragg wrote a bittersweet love song that I suddenly find applies to my professional endeavours.

In “The Only One,” Bragg sings: “Here I am, a victim of geography/And, oh, you cannot hear me/Can anybody hear me out there?”

Never have I found more truth in these words than when I recently worked to promote a Yukon-based information technology product to the world.

Last week, thanks in part to the generosity of the Yukon Government’s Enterprise Trade Fund, I attended a conference that brought together some of Canada’s top innovators with investors and business leaders from around the world.

The Red Herring Canada 2007 conference in Montréal was all about introducing Canada’s most innovative entrepreneurs with the global technology business elite.

I went there with the clear intent of raising investment capital for a Yukon-based technology start-up I’m currently involved with.

So, while I was interested in the conference’s subject matter, I was even more interested in mingling with the dozens of other entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in attendance.

And I was bent on returning to the Yukon with some new cash that would drive our product ever closer towards commercial readiness.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t anticipated that geography would so negatively affect my pitch.

Our product was favourably and enthusiastically received by whomever I shared information about it with.

Most industry professionals at the conference intimated that it’s just far enough ahead of its time that it could potentially command a healthy portion of an international market that should mature in a year or two.

Entrepreneurial colleagues and investors alike were interested.

However, the fact that its development is based in the Yukon proved to be a significant hurdle when I tried to turn that interest into something more tangible.

Had our base of operations been Toronto, Waterloo, Montréal, Vancouver, or even Calgary, it’s very likely I would have come home with a cheque.

On at least one occasion, my pitch was enough to earn me a private meeting with an investor. I captivated about 2 dozen international venture capitalists with a brief presentation of our product.

However, the basic issue of geography always came up. I quickly learned to fear the moment someone would ask, “So, where are you based out of?”

My response was always enough to steal the gleam from even the most hardened VC’s eyes.

Some people openly wondered why we were developing our product in a truck.

Typically, the mere mention of the Yukon was always enough to dry up whatever interest may have been established.

On separate occasions, two investment managers made it clear to me that, “if you move to City X I could find you investment capital in a week.”

While they didn’t say it in so many words, they made it clear that moving IT investment dollars north would be out of the question.

Over the course of the three-day conference I found that I began to spend more time promoting the Yukon and substantiating its relatively modern infrastructure than I did pumping my own product.

The popular perception of the far North amongst even educated Canadians is of dog sleds, igloos, and can-can dancers.

This sort of image clearly bodes well for tourism operators, but for a technology firm such as mine, it’s a steep challenge that’s tough to overcome.

Many conference attendees refused to believe that we even had cellular phone access in the North.

Even more were surprised to hear we had a need for any more than one flight a week into Whitehorse.

And most Canadians still mix up Yellowknife and Whitehorse unapologetically.

One university-educated Calgary businessperson had to look up the Yukon on Google Maps when I insisted our capital city was not Yellowhorse.

Of course, what did I expect?

The Yukon is not recognized as a hub of exportable IT innovation.

The local industry is largely service-oriented and focuses on some very niche markets such as local government, tourism, and natural resources.

The innovative technology products that have been developed in the Yukon have largely been about the Yukon and have been designed to solve problems unique to northern cultures, climates, and economies.

The few technology products that have met with success in export markets are rarely linked back to their northern origins in any meaningful way.

And marketing northern IT is just plain impossible with so much effort and money being poured into our other, larger industries such as tourism and mineral extraction.

Such activities only serve to reinforce the stereotypes I battled.

The fact is, the Yukon is still very much about the older, more traditional physical and commodity-based economy.

The global trend towards an information-based economy has not settled into the northern sensibility yet.

And the world recognizes that.

Of course, none of this dissuades me from working towards my goal: to develop and market a major IT export product from the comfort and relative tranquility of my Yukon abode.

As Red Herring Canada’s Vice President, Alex Vieux, proclaimed at the opening of the conference: “Entrepreneurs are people who firmly believe that pigs can fly.”

Well, it’s just about time to rocket-launch some Yukon back bacon on the world, I’d say. After all, stereotypes are made to be broken.

4 thoughts on “Yukon IT: A Victim of Geography?

  1. A woeful tale for the rest of us northerners. I suspect the territory will need a few startup success stories before the notion of tech above 60 gels. But how you guys leading the edge get that success is a whole ‘nuther matter.Paul Graham is famously of the opinion that startups have to occur amidst swarms of young university nerds (http://www.paulgraham.com/siliconvalley.html). We ain’t got that. We also don’t have developing-country wages.I wonder if startups that focus on isolation itself (e.g., wide-area-wireless, telepresence) are more likely to find Outside capital. The assumption would be that we, more than most, would be best placed to solve geographical problems.I have a nagging feeling that, regardless of the project, investors want to see their money in action. The once-per-week aerosled to the Yellowhorse igloo won’t suffice.

  2. Way back in the dot-com days, I traveled to Kelowna for a job interview as a tech writer at a software company selling educational apps. Although my schooling and work experience were sparse, within the hour I was offered the position, starting immediately, all moving expenses paid. After a few days of thinking it through, I turned it down for another gig closer to home.But what is relevant to your story is that I clearly remember the HR person stating that “Kelowna is becoming the Silicon Valley of Canada”; that’s why this largely American company chose to locate themselves there. Other tech companies had established presences in Kelowna due to some hefty economic development incentives and over the course of a few years, many others followed in their footsteps.Now, to think that Kelowna still deserves this label – given that the investors above don’t mention its location makes me wonder – is another question. The point is, the local government went out of its way to spearhead the business movement and it paid off. The tech community in Kelowna was booming at the time. It also wasn’t service-oriented, it was product-centered. The big money.Perhaps the Yukon government will very soon recognize the potential and start investing serious time, money and resources into IT. To do so requires brave visionaries on staff who can look far beyond the traditional channels and drive their ideas forward in order to achieve some truly big results.

  3. I don’t know what type of product you’re developing, but I just don’t get it. If there’s one industry that shouldn’t care about geographic location, you’d think it would be IT. I did some research on VCs some years ago, and it showed that the single most important factor for investment is the quality of the management team behind a project. You’d think there’d be SOMEONE with a little more vision out there!

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