The biggest Canadian startup stories of 2015

Startup Stories

If 2014 was a big year for Canadian startups, 2015 was uncharted territory. Not only has the startup community reached unprecedented levels in our fair country, but Canadian startups have consistently made waves internationally.

Beta Kit’s editorial team Get together over some festive egg nog to agree on the biggest Canadian startup stories of 2015. As usual it was more egg nog than deal.

Jessica Galang

Jessica Galang, news editor

Some of my favorite stories were about Canadian startups that show how our ecosystem is a global force to be reckoned with. These two stories set the stage for 2016’s great ambition.

1. The Shopify IPO

After 10 years in business, Canada’s startup community watched closely as Ottawa-based Shopify filed for its IPO and achieved a $1.9 billion market cap. Canada’s tech community can be pretty close; When one of us hits a big funding round or partnership, we’re quick to celebrate and discuss their accomplishments among ourselves.

But the Shopify IPO brought the Canadian startup scene into the national and international spotlight. While old-school marketers may have struggled to figure out where Showify was coming from, it was clear that people outside of Canada’s tech community probably recognized that this was a show worth watching.

Since then, Showify has become a tech darling in Canada, integrating its ecommerce game with Facebook and Twitter and being named CIX Innovator of the Year, fueling discussions about who will be the next big company to IPO. We now live in a post-Shopify era.

2. #WaterlooRegion keeps getting bigger and better (but not more accessible)

Waterloo has long been recognized as a globally competitive startup ecosystem; In the past, startup heavyweights like Y Combinator founder Sam Altman have called Waterloo the best up-and-coming city in the world, while Square and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey have pointed to the University of Waterloo and the city’s support for startups. It made it a prime destination for seeking top engineering talent.

Communitech Leather Factory

In the year In 2015, #WaterlooRegion was reported to have the second-highest density of startups behind Silicon Valley, as large companies continue to move to gain a foothold in the growing tech community. Together, TD and Shopify have helped create 420 jobs in the region, while Communitech has seen established institutions such as Thomson Reuters move to open data and innovation labs.

Speaking of Communitech, with Google expanding into bigger digs, the Waterloo Velocity program and Communitech took over Google’s former space in 2015. Google and Communitech’s relationship isn’t over, though, as the two institutions now have a three-year partnership. Google for Entrepreneurs Program and Communitech’s Women in Technology Initiative.

A small caveat to the Waterloo Region incentive though. As Waterloo warms, entrepreneurs are calling for infrastructure support, with Lake Stephens saying poor transportation is a major issue for the city’s ecosystem. Whether the problem is solved or not will be a big story in 2016.

Tom Emrich

Tom Emrich, Senior Editor

I’m in Vegas right now for CES, so my selection has a bit of an international flavor too. But this story was a leading indicator of what we’ll see in the Canadian wearables sector in 2016.

1. Google Glass: Gone But Not Forgotten (or Gone)

It just happened at the beginning of the year, but my main story of 2015 was that the most important wearable technology program in history, the Google Glass Explorer program, had to be shut down. While Glass has become such a cutting edge device in the emerging wearable space, Google’s “launch” of Glass from the Google X program has created quite a stir in the media, with many taking it as a sign that Google has failed to overload the Internet. “Glass is dead” headlines. I tried to explain what the program change means for Glass and the wearable space, suggesting that Glass will be re-emerging in the enterprise.

Google Glass Tom Emrich

Over the holiday break, news of Google Glass 2.0 surfaced during an FCC review, with reports confirming Glass’ next step as a business tool. One of my predictions for wearables this year is that we will hear more success stories from the enterprise using wearables, including HUD and AR devices like Glass, so expect to hear a lot more about enterprise wearables in 2016.

Elena Yunusov

Elena Yunusov, senior editor

Another rough year has come and gone, but have we had a good time here at BetaKit? You bet we did. With so many great stories to tell, it’s incredibly difficult to pick the biggest stories of the year, but here we go.

1. Design: What is it for? Your brand name.

2015 was an extraordinary time for the design community in Toronto. We spoke with John Lax about Teehan+Lax closing doors, covering the end of HEIST and what this means for the city. While other popular shops in town like Jam3, Normative and SayYeah picked up speed in 2016, many startups still tend to cut corners on design. So it was refreshing to see startups like Wealthsimple using good design and UX as a strong competitive advantage in rebranding and marketing.

“We believe that if you get your product and your team and your operations right, you can win with brand. Sometimes, in the startup community, we focus on paid acquisition and what channels you’re working on. But branding is a very important part of organic and paid acquisition—and every channel.” It’s all about getting a domain name, a 99 Designs logo, and a tag line that you can work on. Now, we’ve realized that branding can really be a power-multiplier,” Wealthsimple CEO Michael Katchen told BetaKit.

Simple wealth

Here, many companies are realizing that design is not only important to how their product works, but also to their brand in 2016. Hacking growth, customer success and retention by design? Sounds like a worthwhile quest for the new year.

2. “I am a Starter Party Cardholder.”

One of the biggest developments of 2015 has to be the new startup lobbying group, which aims to use government for profit, started by John Ruffolo at OMERS Ventures and companies such as Shopify, Hootsuite, Wattpad, D2L, InteraXon, Hatch, eSentire and joined Global Relay as confirmed in this first coalition. During the elections, interesting policy issues such as tax frameworks were raised and influenced the policy discussions by provoking the serious challengers of the society. While startups at different stages of development may find it difficult to agree on priorities, an ongoing dialogue between the startup community and various levels of government is a good thing.

In the year As Ruffolo himself wrote on BetaKit in 2015, “Industries are not built by accident. While the startup community needs to be built and led by entrepreneurs, they can’t do it alone… The real question in my mind is, “Did the startup community tell the government what we do and don’t want?” That’s what it says. That’s a big question for 2016.

Jonathon Narvey

Jonathon Narvey, West Coast Editor

I’m coming in from rainy Vancouver, so all my hot time is after three hours.

1. Slack’s success story shows us how technology works.

It’s not every day that a Vancouver-based company gets a $2.8 billion valuation — but the team collaboration and communication app known as Slack is proving that Canadian companies don’t need to sell to grow bigger. While Slack’s investment and rapid growth is a story in itself, it’s the story of how this company got there that’s moving forward. Founder and CEO Stuart Butterfield is brutally honest about the process and how he managed to turn around a failed gaming company that was on the last round of funding and realize the true value of what they built. Their pillars of success and strategies for driving growth are now turned into case studies other tech startups can use to work smarter toward their own goals.

2. BC bet big on tech

“They say our government shouldn’t pick winners — but almost everyone is doing that,” said one of Canada’s West Coast’s longest-running VC firms this year. A while back, we had BC Premier Christy Clark announce a $100 million VC fund to help West Coast waste startups become world-beaters.

The fund officially launches this month, but some of Vancouver’s most enthusiastic tech executives are already wondering what it means for them. According to Development CEO Kevin Sandhu, this new fund will help strengthen the region’s global technology leadership status (“Advisor pool… check! Desirable place to live? Government support? Accessible startup capital? Check, check, check!”). Despite opinions to the contrary, it’s a big change from our old paradigm of wooden boats and lumberjacks. Many of the tech visionaries on the Left Coast believe that BC’s tech industry not only typically outpaces jobs and growth in the wealth sector here, it’s also creating higher pay for those traditional industries — and a rising tide lifts all boats.

Douglas Soltys

Douglas Soltys, editor-in-chief

You all forced me to get your work done over the holidays so I’m finally going. That means all the big stories have been picked so I’ll try to fill in what I can.

1. (Canadian start) Force rises

Like Elena, I believe 2015 is the year Canadian startups stop worrying about gaining international recognition and start throwing their weight around. The Shopify IPO and Slack’s rocketship growth certainly helped, but I’d point to the exact moment that mojo crystallized into a solid gestalt on a crisp September night at Razor Suleman’s house.

Spotlight Awards

The Spotlight Awards bring together a generation of Canada’s most successful tech entrepreneurs in one room to talk about past battles and future opportunities. Is it surprising that days later our tech elite forced policy changes during the federal election (started with a Beta Kit article, no less) or formed a national lobby just two months later? no i don’t.

I don’t expect the maple syrup mafia to be any less pressing in 2016. More than that, actually.

2. Hardware founders, but not hardware CEOs

Beginnings are hard. Hardware startups are really tough. Tom He’s argued that 2015 was the year the wearable tech hysterical bubble burst (spoiler: 2016 won’t be much better), but I’m more interested in what’s going on behind the scenes. In the year 2015 saw no fewer than three founders of top hardware companies in Canada step down as CEOs: first Bubble, then Nimmy, and finally Interacson.

Now, the above switching reasons are different. In the wild For each company, but this normality in Canada is amazing. Building and running a company are two very different things, so it’s not unusual in a startup space to see CEO founders end up doing different jobs. But perhaps longer development times, higher costs and new markets make hardware startups a harder line to navigate.

In the year I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a few hardware founders step aside in 2016. We will definitely be paying attention.

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