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Canadian startups shed their cloak of inferiority

This column is part of Globe Careers' new Leadership Lab series, where executives and leadership experts share their views and advice about the leadership and management issues of today. There will be a new column every weekday. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

On Dec. 4 in the Leadership Lab series, Polar chief executive officer Kunal Gupta told us he doesn't mention Canada on his business card because he's not sure whether it is an asset or a liability to his Toronto-based software company.

Despite that hesitation, Mr. Gupta went on to say that Canadian entrepreneurs should be bold, travel often, tell their stories and scoop talent from abroad. He's absolutely right. But these things happen so frequently now that I couldn't reconcile his uncertainty about this country's place in the world.

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Not so many years ago, I might have understood.

Canadians' low-key, low-risk approach to business sent many of our brightest minds south, while at home, you weren't anyone until you'd made it big somewhere else. Capital from domestic sources was scarce, and Silicon Valley investors had little inclination to look north.

The cloak of Canadian inferiority wore heavily on our shoulders.

That cloak simply doesn't fit any more when you look at what entrepreneurs like Mr. Gupta are achieving, and at how the broader world is responding.

Recent news that Ottawa-based Shopify raised $100-million of venture capital is just the latest example. The investment pushed the e-commerce company to a billion-dollar valuation, a rarefied altitude for any tech firm – Canadian or otherwise.

As The Globe reported Dec. 11, Shopify's German-born founder, Tobias Lutke, resisted early pressure from would-be investors to move the company to Silicon Valley. He focused instead on building a great product where he wanted to live, and in time, investors from the valley, New York and Toronto found their way to him.

Just as determined to scale those heights is Ryan Holmes, founder of Vancouver-based HootSuite. The social media software company, with millions of users around the world, recently raised $165-million in financing from Canadian and U.S. investors.

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Mr. Holmes, who has turned aside offers to buy his company, has made it clear he intends to keep building toward $1-billion, and to do it from Canada.

Similar confidence can be found in the Waterloo region's most promising entrepreneurs, who have attracted similarly diverse investments while inspiring hundreds of young founders to take their own shot at starting up, right here at home.

Over the past 15 months, these have included Desire2Learn ($80-million), Kik Interactive ($19.5-million), Thalmic Labs ($14.5-million) and Vidyard ($6-million), which topped a recent American Express list of five companies likely to hit $1-billion.

Backers of these companies weren't put off by their Canadian addresses, nor was Google Inc. when it bought BufferBox a year ago, nor NetSuite inc. when it scooped up TribeHR this fall.

Significantly, several of these companies – Vidyard, Thalmic and BufferBox – had graduated from California's sought-after Y Combinator accelerator program, and could just as easily have stayed there, but opted to return to Canada to keep building.

If all the companies I've mentioned have something in common, it's their focus on building the best products they can for the biggest markets possible, regardless of their location.

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True to Mr. Gupta's advice, these entrepreneurs are being bold, and telling their stories. And they're telling the world about Canada.

Iain Klugman (@iainklugman) is president and CEO of Communitech Inc. (@communitech), an organization dedicated to supporting tech companies of all sizes in the Region of Waterloo, Ont.

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