Toronto Startups: Don’t Call Them The North’s Silicon Valley

Toronto may not be the new Silicon Valley just yet, but Vv Magazine’s Isabel Chalmers explains why Toronto startups are certainly headed in that direction.

“I don’t think we can call ourselves the Northern version of anything until they call themselves the Southern version of us,” insists Neil Martin, co-founder of Toronto’s Project: SPACES, when I ask how he feels about his city’s growing reputation as the ‘Silicon Valley of the North.’ First given the nickname by The Globe and Mail, the burgeoning scene of Toronto startups shares a striking resemblance to the original hub of 21st century innovation near the California Coast.

Martin and his business partner Jeff Howard admittedly got the idea for Project: SPACES, a network of co-working spaces that attract mobile members as opposed to renters, after multiple trips to Silicon Valley. Martin and Howard currently operate two Toronto locations for Project: SPACES, Project: OWL and Project: RHINO. With approximately 200 members in total at the moment, Martin has noticed startups are the quickest to come and go, and that’s part of what makes using the membership-based shared office space in lieu of signing a lease so appealing. “They either take off and get their own office space or close down. Either way they’re in and out pretty quick.”

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Martin and Howard know this all too well from personal experience. After meeting at Queen’s University, the friends-turned-business partners first collaborated on Konekt, an online work-sharing platform for artists that rebranded as Clayza before funding became an issue. “You just keep on pushing it off, because you’re so passionate about your idea but eventually you can’t push it off any longer. You have to make an income,” Neil explains as we hang out beside the in-use foosball table in the lounge area of Project: RHINO. It was with this in mind that the pair decided to shift their focus to the office space they’d been working out of — redesigning the interior and packing it with basic necessities –like their tapped beer keg, for instance. Leaving their original startup plans behind, Martin and Howard realized they’d stumbled upon a real business need as Project: SPACES took off, becoming a wonderland of sorts for Toronto startups in the process.

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When hearing about the roughly 120 companies currently under the roofs at Project: SPACES and of their plans of expansion, it’s safe to assume that startup culture is alive and well in Toronto. The Big Smoke might not be Silicon Valley’s identical twin, but it’s fair to say Toronto’s become its kid sister. Both bustling with innovation and creativity, the crucial difference is mainly how much more accessible capital for startups is within Silicon Valley, versus in Canada.

Sitting at a round table in the Project: RHINO office, I meet Charles Bern. “I was working at another startup but it didn’t go so well when Wal-Mart came into the picture,” he admits. Rather than becoming discouraged, Bern used this as a learning experience and, with a friend, started Patio Interactive, a technology design and marketing company. “The first startup company I worked with itself had a really innovative idea, but it had too much momentum in one direction. It was very difficult to shift in a different direction once the playing field had changed.” When it comes to Patio Interactive, Bern knows what not to do. “It’s the idea of being able to say, ‘This is who I am today, and I may be something different tomorrow.’ That’s one of the challenges of a startup community: trying to create your own identity. You have to evolve and pivot to succeed.” As far as being a startup located in Toronto, Berns thinks this is the place to be.

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There are undeniable benefits to being located in Silicon Valley as a startup business, which Cris Jucan of meagan, (an online app designed for restaurant-goers), acknowledges. “You hear people talk about Silicon Valley a lot in the business world, but Toronto is also a great place to be, especially because of its size, location, and demographic. It’s easy to network here,” he insists. “With a startup, you start with an idea, and then you have to convince people about your idea, but if you wait until your idea is approved, you’re too late.”This ‘jump’ that Jucan refers to, is arguably the true basis of any startup. It seems the only thing certain about starting a company or business, is the uncertainty that comes with it.

If one thing is clear upon visiting the office spaces of Project: SPACES, it’s that the startup culture within Toronto lacks no passion, even with the turbulence that exists within the startup world. Martin has seen it all, from extreme successes to extreme failures, but his passion for Toronto startups in particular is unwavering. When I ask him the advice he would give to anyone beginning a new business, he is quick to respond: “I heard this quote somewhere that I thought was really cool. It was something like, ‘you don’t need to see the whole staircase to take the first step.’ If you have an idea, jump right in. If you don’t have it all figured out, that’s okay. You can learn as you go. You might change your idea 100 times, but that means you’re making progress. That’s how you get somewhere.”

Related Link: 3 Ontario Startups Worth Watching in 2014

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Isabel Chalmers

A 'somewhat' average 22 year old girl trying to make her way across the universe and writing along the way.

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