Welcome to Startup East
By Jonny Stevens
Edited by Trevor Murphy
Over the last several years, Atlantic Canada has become a hub for startups. Embracing innovation and supporting companies in the web, mobile, and gaming sectors, the region has seen an explosion of success to the point where its biggest city, Halifax, has been dubbed “Startup East.” There is something special happening here right now.
Twenty years ago, a similar “something special” was happening to the music scene. The early 90s saw an explosion of local music prompting Melody Maker Magazine to call Halifax “the new Seattle,” likening local bands such as Thrush Hermit, Eric’s Trip and Sloan to the early careers of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. This honorary title firmly planted the Halifax music scene on the international map and inspired a new music festival in 1993 to maintain that status and the Halifax Pop Explosion was born. The festival continues to keep the spotlight shining on the music scene by showcasing a new generation of musical trailblazers each year helping to keep the Halifax scene in the international spotlight.
Having the international media focused on the Halifax music scene early in its evolution created serious spin-offs. Much Music opened an Eastern Canada shop, international clothing brands came to Halifax to try and capture the style of the “New Seattle,” bands were signed to lucrative (or so we all thought) record deals, new music venues opened, and more and more local bands garnered unprecedented recognition on the heels of their friends’ success – a major benefit of a strong scene.
Drawing the parallel between “the New Seattle” and “Startup East” isn’t much of a stretch.
The Salesforce acquisition of social monitoring tool Radian6 in 2011 was not only an exciting international mega deal, it also served as a major milestone for the startup scene in this region. Soon after the news broke, Radian6 went on a hiring spree, employing young creatives at above-average wages to do something that many people didn’t quite understand at the time.
The media attention surrounding the acquisition and the recognition of Atlantic Canada as a hotbed for tech startups provoked further deals. Most recently, the success of GoInstant and their 20-something founders has shown that this is a region ripe for generating wealth and future investments. Beyond the money though, the burgeoning tech sector is proving that Startup East is a welcome home for new businesses and a place for young creatives to plant roots.
Like the Sloans and Thrush Hermits of the early 90s, the spinoffs of all the attention and success of companies such as GoInsant and Radian6 are already beginning to trickle down in the tech sector. Whether it’s gaming companies that have cemented roots here at home, web and mobile developers who are building globally, or interactive media companies that are making strides working with augmented reality and winning Emmy awards, Startup East is effectively crafting the next generation of young developers inspired by these trailblazers.
What makes Halifax so perfect for this tech revolution? Here is a list of a few reasons why the city is attractive to startups and digital creators:
The Music Scene
Music inspires people to be better at what they do and provides not only the soundtrack to your workday but the release people crave by the time Friday rolls around. You can find live music in Halifax seven nights of the week in a variety of venues all over town. The local Halifax scene is rife with indie rock, electronic, soul, punk, metal, folk, pop and has a constant stream of new bands popping up and collaborating on projects. Like the startup/tech scene, musicians often support one another’s projects, playing on each other’s records, going to shows together and fueling each other’s art which pushes the creative boundaries and provides idea validation and constructive criticism.
Long before the HUB Halifax opened up their shared downtown workspace, people were sharing office space by necessity and by choice. It’s not unusual to find two or three companies sharing office space to this day or to find one of many startups hosting meetings and building things but because its sometimes better to create in a group than to create in the basement. Collaboration is the key word as sharing builds a sense of community and helps drive innovation. Looking over your shoulder to the company sitting at the desk beside you to ask for input or idea validation speeds up the process and because the scene is so friendly most are happy to oblige with feedback. Whether to help keep expenses low while you wait for your next round of investment, or by choice so you can have other creators surrounding you for inspiration and healthy competition, shared workspace is part of our culture and has helped to contribute to a stronger scene overall.
Third Wednesday is the tech, media and marketing scene monthly meet up (in an award-winning music venue of all places) where a brief presentation or discussion piece is introduced, followed by cocktails and catch-ups. This type of informal networking event is another reason that things are happening here and now as it provides an opportunity for creators to get together and share interaction IRL, talk about each other’s projects and recharge the batteries in a way feels like you’re in a friend’s living room without feeling like you’re attending a stuffy forced networking event.
Access to talent
Halifax is full of talented people. It’s like a little Galapagos Island where creators have been left to evolve their own style and talents without the heavy influence of a big City lending to unique ideas and collaborations. Haligonians are resourceful, used to bootstrapping, collaborating on projects and used to competing globally.
With six highly regarded universities and over 30,000 students descending on Halifax each year, the city is injected with a huge influx of youthful exuberance every September. Many of those students, eager to start their own companies, launch in Halifax and stay here after their university experience is over. UK gaming company Frontier Developments listed the influx of students as one of the primary reasons they decided to open a shop here in Halifax employing over 25 people.
Without sounding too much like a government brochure Halifax is located in an ideal time zone when doing business in North America and Europe. You get an extra hour of work done before New York shows up for work and you can do business with the UK in the morning and the West Coast in the afternoon.
Events focused on Digital Technology
HPX Digital and Halifax Pop Explosion are the biggest events for digital creators and music fans in Eastern Canada and attract global thought leaders for 5 days of workshops, networking and of course, concerts. HPX Digital is a new and exciting interactive event for digital creators focused on web, mobile, gaming, startups, design and marketing and took place for the first time in 2012. With a strong crowd attending the first HPX Digital it has solidified itself as the event for the Atlantic Canadian tech scene. As an added bonus HPX Digital takes place during the regions biggest new music festival, the Halifax Pop Explosion, a five-day all you can eat buffet of new and innovative music featuring over 180 bands in 20 venues around the City. Rest up and take your vitamins as October 22-26, 2013 promises to be the busiest week of your calendar year.
The aforementioned events aren’t the only things that shine the spotlight on the tech sector. Events like Podcamp, Democamp and Mentorcamp take place throughout the year and generate buzz, business and new opportunities for businesses big and small to set up shop in Startup East.