Rat race refugees set up IT firms in rural Canada

Dennis Ambrose lives a lifestyle some IT professionals would kill for.

His commute to work lasts five minutes in sparse traffic, and he has more job security than some of his colleagues because he works in a fairly small local market with few competitors.

Ambrose is the vice-president

of systems integration for AppDepot Web Services Inc., a 10-employee tech firm based in Regina, Sask. He is an example of a sort of ‘back to the land’ IT worker setting up shop outside the competitive Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal hub.

Amrbose has lived in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto, and found there are many benefits to working on the fringe of Canada’s IT sector. He says his company operates quietly without too much fear that its product will be poached by firms locally or in other cities, something it might face in busy Ottawa or Toronto.

“”We saw a need for Internet development in the Regina area, as well as the national and international market,”” he says. “”The three of us (the original partners) were working as consultants for various organizations in town, and we felt that one company was better than three. The market was really closing in on consultants (in 1998), so we decided to do something different to offer more value to our clients.””

While it’s hard to say exactly how many businesses are setting up in rural, remote or unexpected places — Statistics Canada doesn’t keep firm data — there are signs that some businesses are now trading in the rat race for a pioneer lifestyle.

Stephen Rose, executive director of the Yukon Information Technology Industry Society (YITIS), says that there’s been some recent growth in his neck of the woods — though the territory’s IT sector is still small and made up of one-person companies working part-time for the local government. Much of that growth seems to be coming on the heels of broadband access, which came to the territory two years ago.

“”There are a growing group (of companies) doing things like Web development, and that’s just getting started,”” he says, nothing that Yukon tech firms are now working for external organizations in Alaska, British Columbia and elsewhere.

He adds that IT professionals who tend to work up north might not be raking in the dough like they would be in metropolitan centres, but gladly trade that in for the riches of a higher quality of life. He has found that companies up north are more willing to farm out their tech employees to other local competitors in order to complete projects that might be beyond their reach without that extra bit of help.

Rural IT is also gaining a bit of buzz at the conference and trade show level this fall. There’ll be two rural conferences this October (one in the Yukon, the other in New Brunswick) that’ll examine topics like e-tourism and Internet use among small-town businesses. This year’s Government Technology exhibition (GTEC) in Ottawa, meanwhile, will have a special workshop on e-learning and distance education.

Rural planner Roland Beshiri of Statistics Canada notes that there has been a recent influx of people to small cities or towns located a few hours north of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. He says some of these are IT professionals moving away from the hustle and bustle of corporate Canada.

“”Rural areas are promoted as having clean water and clean air, which means you’re going to get some of these industries out there,”” he adds. “”Certain businesses know there’s a labour base out there, too, because there’s usually high unemployment. Of course, the problem is, are they educated enough that companies can use them?””

Though there might be liabilities to rural IT, Rose points out that firms have one big advantage to setting up shop in a place like Whitehorse.

“”If you wanted to set up in Vancouver or Toronto, you will be a very small fish in a big pond,”” he says. “”You won’t get very much in the way of attention from organizations, like the government, that can assist you or act as anchor tenants on a particular project. In the Yukon, you can come in and establish your business, and meet the premier on the street. You’re much more of a big fish in a smaller pond, so you’ve got a better shot at getting at the resources that you need in order to be successful.””

That’s something Lou Derrer found while setting up Lucidia Studios Ltd. with business partner Jeff Elgie in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., in March 2001. The Web development firm initially started out a network administration and hardware support company called New Generation Consulting.

However, Elgie and Derrer expanded their company into Web site building once they realized they could become a one-stop IT shop and almost monopolize the entire Northern Ontario market in that sector — not to mention pick up a few national and U.S. clients while they were at it.

In fact, Lucidia is ballooning again this fall into an IT agency with expanded services, like developing print-based materials and corporate-branding help for clients.

“”The (tech industry) fallout is still bad down in Toronto, but the wonderful thing about being in the north is you can make it,”” says Derrer. “”We’re getting to that point where people (anywhere) can take what we do really seriously.””

Ambrose, who certainly doesn’t see his company’s location on the Prairies as any kind of liability, echoes Derrer’s sentiment.

“”Our marketplace is not Toronto or Montreal or just one city,”” he says. “”Our marketplace is the world, so it doesn’t matter where you are. What matters is experience and the pure capability of people wanting to succeed . . . and that recipe for success is the same if you’re in Manitoba, Saskatchewan or Ontario.””

Zachary Houle is a frequent contributor to ITBusiness.ca. He normally covers IT trends in the Ottawa area.

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