A number of Greater Victoria tech companies are reporting rapid growth this past year, citing proximity to the University of Victoria and the Island’s mild climate as reasons for the expansion, but agree a lack of physical space could be a determent to the industry as a whole.
For Tobyn Sowden, founder of Redbrick — a portfolio of operating businesses that includes ReBase, Shift and Assembly — UVic’s co-op program has become essential for the company’s growth.
This past September, Redbrick reported a record number of co-op students working within the company on either four- or eight-month terms. According to Sowden, about 50 per cent of Redbrick’s staff joined the team after completing co-op programs with the company. “It’s our strongest recruiting channel,” he adds.
The co-founder of Kano, a Victoria-based independent gaming studio that builds social and mobile games available on smartphones and browsers, agrees. Tim Teh says finding entry-level talent isn’t hard thanks to the abundance of students here, but that it’s been difficult to find senior or executive-level talent due to the lack of established companies within the region.
In 2019, Greater Victoria ranked seventh out of 20 Canadian tech talent markets, according to a comprehensive analysis of labour market conditions, cost and quality for highly skilled tech workers conducted by the CBRE Group. This a jump from ranking 10th last year.
Peter McGuire, chief technology officer for EcoFit, says the relaxed feel of Victoria fits well with that of the tech sector but adds there’s some work to do if we want to become the next Silicon Valley. McGuire says the talent pools for those who can develop hardware is shallower than that of software developers within the area.
“You might see Vancouver expanding more in that area, but Victoria is coming out with more unique, more interesting and maybe more innovative products than you would in a larger city,” McGuire says.
Another area he sees room for improvement is the longevity of jobs in a landscape full of startups.
“In short, the availability of jobs — interesting and really fun jobs — Victoria’s pretty good for that,” he says. “But I think the concern is how long you’ll have that job for.”
McGuir believes having more established companies within the market could help rid the city of some of the adversities. According to the Victoria Foundation’s Vital Signs report, the tech sector’s economic impact on the region is expected to exceed $10 billion by 2030. It was only a few years ago that the tech industry surpassed government and tourism as the region’s top employer.
With cloud computing becoming more accessible, the barriers to entry are a lot lower, making it easier to access technology such as computer power, storage or databases on an as-needed basis.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of new companies coming out of Victoria,” says Teh, whose own business started in a condo 11 years ago after he met the other co-founders on the first day of school at UVic. “As we start to see those companies grow in scale — which we’re definitely seeing now — one of the side effects … is landlords are starting to better understand how to cater to that clientele.”
While tourists may be drawn to the shops and window fronts filled with Canadian nicknacks, the second floors in many of the buildings in the downtown core are home to Victoria’s tech talent. Teh says when Kano first started trying to find a lease to fit their needs — one that could either grow rapidly or shrink at the same pace — was difficult.
Now, Kano is based out of a building that is filled with almost 90 per cent tech companies and allows companies to move within the building based on their current needs. Kano has moved twice and is preparing for their third move into another area of the building.
“What’s exciting is we’re seeing some of the larger companies move out to new, much larger space, and bigger footprints in the city — that’s a strong indication that there’s going to be a lot of growth,” Teh says.