It used to be that to make it big, you had to leave.
Startups could get a footing in Atlantic Canada but if they survived they’d scale up outside the region. Opening an office in Toronto or New York was synonymous with success.
Yet a growing number of companies are following the opposite trajectory: Businesses from outside the region are choosing to set up here.
The biggest example of the emerging trend is Wattpad, a Toronto-based storytelling platform and entertainment company that announced in December plans to open a second headquarters in Halifax.
More than a dozen companies have followed the same seemingly inverse path, expanding or relocating from bigger markets to the East Coast.
The SaltWire Network reached out to several of these so-called come from away businesses in an effort to understand what attracted them to the region, and what makes them stay.
Each company executive interviewed for this story said they came in search of talent — experienced workers and recent graduates in the technology and creative fields that are fueling the region’s startup economy.
Cost is a driver too — salaries, office rent and housing are all less than in bigger cities. And government support, both financial and in-kind, help tip the scales east.
Meanwhile, there’s also less poaching of employees, one of the biggest frustrations for fast-growth entrepreneurs in more competitive areas. The constant recruiting of staff is time consuming and pricey for startups, so the staying power and commitment of workers in Atlantic Canada is valuable.
Many companies also cite less tangible qualities like culture and quality of life — or just simply “the ocean” — as factors.
Still, most firms continue to have a home base outside the region to stay connected with customers and investors. That’s why Halifax’s location is a sweet spot.
“We looked at quite a few Canadian cities,” said Allen Lau, CEO and co-founder of Wattpad, which has a workforce of nearly 200 based chiefly in Toronto but also in Jakarta, Manila, Mumbai and Hong Kong.
“Proximity to Toronto was one of several reasons we chose Halifax. There are more than 10 direct flights a day, which means a day trip is feasible.”
Helping hand from a hub
The company plans to open its second headquarters in the 60,000-square-foot Volta innovation hub in the Maritime Centre.
The office space for entrepreneurs offers discounted rent and support services. It’s been a launching pad for many companies—including Curv Health.
“Simply put, we measure human motion with video,” said the company's CEO and co-founder Shea Balish, a native of Lockeport, a small fishing town in southwestern Nova Scotia.
The company has developed a suite of algorithms that extracts human movement metrics from video, providing insights for healthcare professionals and performance specialists like sport scientists, orthopedic surgeons and personal trainers.
Balish ramped up the company after completing a postdoctoral fellowship in kinesiology at the University of Toronto, but decided to return to Nova Scotia to build up the core engineering team.
“Toronto is hyper competitive,” he said. “Halifax not only has more affordable talent, but also a much better quality of life.”
Libbe Englander, the New York City-based founder and CEO of Pharm3r LLC, said it was “a bit of serendipity” that prompted her to look for staff in Atlantic Canada.
“I heard from people that there were talented technical people in the region,” she said. “We started out with one person six years ago and we now have a team of eight.”
The health care analytics firm plans grow in 2020, potentially adding several more employees in the region, Englander said.
“We were looking for people to really be foundational, technically talented individuals and we found that in Atlantic Canada,” she said. “We’re not really a startup any more. We’re growing and we’re quite profitable.”
Ocean some startups' playground
The region is also increasingly attracting ocean-related startups, drawn in part by the buzz surrounding Canada’s Ocean Supercluster and the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship.
James Ives, CEO of Xocean, said his Ireland-based company plans to expand into the region for two key reasons.
“The first one is it’s a maritime region ... so there’s a business opportunity there,” he said, noting that the ocean data firm maps the seabed, inspects underwater assets and collects ocean data using unmanned surface vessels.
“But the other side to it is that there’s a tremendously strong pool of human resources in the region and academic institutions focused on developing people with that sort of ocean science engineering background,” Ives said. “So we want to grow the business and leverage the skills in the market.”
The density of post-secondary institutions was also one of the factors that brought Influitive Corp. east.
Danny An is head of people and culture for Influitive, a digital marketing firm and maker of customer advocacy software.
He said the “world class talent” and growing tech ecosystem in Halifax helped put the city on the company’s radar.
“We were looking at talent, location, cost and innovation,” he said. “Halifax ticks all the boxes.”