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CTV news reported in May 2017 that analysts at Expert Market had ranked Ottawa the top tech hub in Canada. The report listed quality of living, salary averages, available tech jobs and tech diversity as the main considerations in their assessment.

However, one thing the report did not mention in the assessment is branding. Once known as the Silicon Valley of the North, Ottawa falls short on branding itself as a region that drives innovation since the bust of the technology bubble 20 years ago.  These days many consider Waterloo as the leader as the region for technology expertise and advancement in the north.

Contrary to Ottawa, Silicon Valley has been exemplary on branding the region as the leading technology hub in the world with the crowning as the birthplace of organizations such as Apple, Google, Tesla and HP.  Everything from Silicon Valley is marketed as innovative and technology centric.  The focus is on getting to market quickly and to grow into key markets globally to fully capture mindshare is key to the culture of Silicon Valley.

Their unique culture is one key factor that sets them apart and it cannot easily be replicated. Salt Lake City, Tampa and Seattle are just a handful of cities within the USA that have tried. On the international level Ottawa, Oxford in the United Kingdom and Berlin in Germany have also tried with limited success.

Failure is a good thing

The number one differentiator within the culture is the acceptable notion of “failing fast” in Silicon Valley. It is an acceptable practice that encourages entrepreneurs to exercise their ideas without the fear of failing and the stigma associated with it. Failure is actually considered one of the important criteria to have on one’s resume in Silicon Valley.  Venture capital is invested in disruptive technologies - the extravagant ideas that will transform an industry. These disruptive ideas that are most always early stage of startups would be left untethered in Ottawa.

Ottawa’s government city attitude brings a more conservative approach to advancement especially for technology companies. The culture has less tolerance to failure.  In fact, the failed idea is often transferred to the reputation of idea holder making it that much more difficult for the entrepreneurs subsequent ideas to gain traction.   This ‘culture’ is a barrier to entrepreneurship within our region and compromises the resiliency required in every successful entrepreneur.  Start-ups needs to be given the environment to fail fast, to reflect and to learn from their experience to educate their second attempt – or their third or fourth. Their potential could be the next ‘Uber’ idea but the lack of a conducive environment in Ottawa could kill the disruptive startups too fast. 

Collaboration

There is a strong collaborative culture that is clearly visible in Silicon Valley. With all of the big technology companies and intellectual property, some would expect the opposite. Another unique characteristic of their culture is the transfer of knowledge between different start-ups and it is considered as one of the catalysts for their great success in innovation.

Ottawa could adopt the aspect of this culture to combat some of its conservative tendencies that are still holding us back. The fear associated with disclosed knowledge creates less collaborative ecosystem that hinders the willingness to learn from each other and to accelerate our collective learning as a region.

Network

As the saying goes, “your network is your net worth”. It is very important to have a strong network to help startups to scale and to succeed.  This supports the collaborative culture Silicon Valley has as they try and help each other in comparison to Ottawa’s culture. Ottawa has all the ingredients necessary for creating strong networks, especially with the unique intersection of private and federal public sectors within the city along with foreign embassies.  This could only be nurtured in a collaborative environment with a desire and the ability to mentor, to support and to leverage each other’s knowledge to achieve the desired outcomes.

Disruption…in the traditional workplace

Another trend which makes Silicon Valley very successful is its’ appeal to millennials who like the city living feel while surrounded by innovative environment.  . This is something Ottawa is trying to do by diversifying its downtown appeal by attracting more start-ups to downtown and by nurturing a business culture that is attuned to the desires and needs of the new workforce.  Work policies in Silicon Valley try to blur the lines between work and life with practises such as allowing pets in the workplace, to provide meals free of charge, and to have schedule flexibility to enable work/interests outside of the office.  Ottawa has a good example in Shopify that has adopted a few of the policies and practises successfully in their new building in the downtown Ottawa.

Ottawa is viewed as a primarily government city that is risk adverse. It is more challenging for innovators to test their ideas and to capture the necessary support to scale their startups.  The ‘brain-drain’ continues to benefit environment and/or ecosystems that are more supportive of the entrepreneurs that are ultimately active contributors to value and wealth creations. 

Shopify’s recent successes in the IPO filing has put Ottawa back on the map.  The report by Expert Market indicates a need for Ottawa to shift from looking at its negatives to branding its positive attributes since Ottawa is strong in attracting technology companies and the support of a strong network is available.  It boils down to branding and nurturing an innovative and ‘fail fast’ culture.  Ottawa was not successful in making the shortlist for Amazon’s second headquarters, but it doesn’t mean it failed.  The focus is to reflect, learn, embrace and to brand Ottawa as a conducive environment for disruptive and innovative ideas/opportunities.  


© 2018 Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa
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