Entrepreneur-turned-Google engineering director Steve Woods has plenty of experience in Silicon Valley - but Canada offers a better startup environment, he says.
Entrepreneur-turned-Google engineering director Steve Woods has plenty of experience in Silicon Valley - but Canada offers a better startup environment, he says.

Published: October 29th, 2016

When it comes to tech startups, Steve Woods knows what he’s talking about.

Before he became Google Canada’s senior engineering director, Woods founded and ran three Silicon Valley startups, including early voice portal Quack.com, which was sold to AOL in 2000, and online game advertising platform NeoEdge Networks.

All three were funded with venture capital from Toronto and Boston, he says. Not one penny came from the Bay Area.

“I pitched more than 200 times, and I have a lot of friends who are venture capitalists, but none of them gave me any money,” Woods says. “And while I was building these companies with money I’d raised elsewhere, I realized I was hiring people from Waterloo, from Toronto, and spending my funds to move them to one of the most expensive places in the country to live, supposedly to grow my companies.”

“Eventually I realized, ‘This is crazy – not everybody wants to move to the United States,'” he continues. “So I started growing companies with engineering teams in Toronto and Waterloo.”

Tapping into the Toronto-Waterloo corridor’s talent pool gave Woods an appreciation for Canada’s startup ecosystem that he did his best to articulate and share as the driving force behind Google Canada’s recent Go North conference, which invited more than 500 startups to Toronto on Oct. 28.

“If you’re starting a company I think it’s possible to realize that the density of startups and talent in the Toronto-Waterloo corridor means you don’t need to go to Silicon Valley,” he says. “In fact, maybe you shouldn’t.”

The difference between Canada and Silicon Valley’s startup ecosystems is difficult to define, he admits, and hard to understand until you’ve lived in the U.S. for a significant enough period of time (Woods spent 11 years there). But in addition to their world-famous kindness, Canadians are vibrant, educated, intelligent – and loyal, he says.

“If you’re creating a startup you need loyalty,” Woods says, “because things aren’t always great. There are a lot of hard days, and your people can walk away, because they’re easily employable, so you want people who are committed, who don’t feel like they’re just doing it for themselves – and in Canada you get that.”

Like Silicon Valley, Canada’s tech culture values entrepreneurialism, but more importantly it has the educational infrastructure and hands-on training – not to mention a reputation that attracts the world’s best and brightest – to back it up.

“With [Google’s] entrepreneur programs, we’ll quite often go into a place where there’s a lot of interesting things happening, but there’s no hub or centre for it, and we’ll put our money into trying to build that environment,” he says. “We didn’t need to build that in Waterloo because it already has one – Communitech operates almost exactly like an entrepreneur hub – and so we want to be part of that environment in another way.”

Woods became involved with Google 10 years into his startup career, in 2008, when the company approached him with an opportunity to build engineering and product teams in Canada for them.

He doesn’t recall his first reaction being enthusiastic: “I go, ‘I dunno, you seem like a big company,'” he says. “And they go, ‘We’re big, but we’re not a big company. Come with us, invent things in Canada with our money, and it will be fun.'”

Since then, Woods says that he’s come to think of Google not as a singular entity, but a series of teams developing and executing projects under a single umbrella vaguely supervised by Alphabet Inc. CEO and Google co-founder Larry Page, Alphabet president and Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and Google Inc. CEO Sundar Pichai.

Because of the wide variety of projects under development beneath that umbrella, Google values diversity, Woods says – and in addition to their work ethic, the Toronto team’s embrace of cultural diversity has served as a model for others to emulate as well.

“We want to have different cultures contributing,” he says. “The teams in Canada don’t build products which are Canadian-based, they’re worldwide based.”

Which brings us back to Go North. In addition to hosting the event in Toronto, Google broadcast what Woods hopes will be an inaugural conference on YouTube and even pushed it on its home page.

“We’re trying to put a spotlight on Canadian startups, making it clear for the whole world that we’re not just nice, we’re great,” Woods says. “Look at Thalmic. Look at Vidyard. These are amazing companies. We have a world-class environment here, and we want more people to know about it – to come to our country when they create their company and build the next great BlackBerry or Google here.”

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