Upstart Vancouver eyes Toronto’s fintech crown

Financial technology firms find talent, interest on the wane in capital-rich T.O.  

Left to right: Stanley Li, Michael Jover, Marla Dranfield and Osama Khan discuss a project at Progressa’s Vancouver offices | Chung Chow 

After combing through his corporate inbox on a single morning in January, Mike Gardner cleared more than a dozen job applications for his Vancouver-based financial technology company.

Agreement Express Inc. is in the midst of a hiring spree after opening a Toronto office last year. It plans to expand its total head count from 60 to as many as 100 workers by the spring.

Despite the new Toronto office just off Bay Street, all the applications that CEO Gardner cleared from his inbox came from Vancouver job seekers.

“We’re advertising just as heavily in Toronto,” he said. “We get five to probably close to 10 times the response in Vancouver, which is supposed to be a tight job market.”

The heavy tilt favouring Vancouver appears to be a sector-wide fintech phenomenon.

The Digital Finance Institute, a Canadian think-tank specializing in fintechs, examined its 2016 web traffic and found its Vancouver FinTech Conference website had twice as many hits (21,000) compared with its Toronto FinTech Conference website.

“There’s more of everything [in Toronto], but there’s also more disengagement because it’s bigger,” said Vancouver-based lawyer Christine Duhaime, the Digital Finance Institute’s executive director.

“Unlike Toronto, we’re close-knit,” Duhaime said. “There’s something about Vancouver that works in terms of being on the West Coast: access to West Coast financiers down in Silicon Valley.”

The think-tank’s web analytics also found more international interest in Vancouver than in Toronto. Visitors from 143 countries took a look at the Vancouver website compared with visitors from 88 countries who looked at the Toronto website.

Duhaime said the tilt favouring the West Coast is likely due to Vancouver’s closer proximity to both Silicon Valley and the Asia-Pacific region.

But it’s not as if Bay Street has suddenly lost its lustre this past year as Canada’s financial capital.

In mid-2016, Vancouver-based fintech Progressa opened an office in Toronto, where it moved its financial services operations. The technology services division remained based in Vancouver.

While CEO Ali Pourdad acknowledged the human-resources game is a little different on the other side of the country, he said the talent pool is much deeper in Toronto.

“We could get a significantly higher number of people applying to the roles we’ve been putting out, and they’re mainly financial services roles,” Pourdad said. “There’s not only a higher number of applications but also more highly qualified applicants. That being said, Vancouver still remains a very hot technology city.”

Gardner and Duhaime both said part of the cultural differences between the cities’ fintech communities could be chalked up to easier access to venture capital in Toronto. With fewer investors, Vancouver companies have to run tighter operations.

Pourdad, meanwhile, said there are still a lot of local early-stage investors willing to take a risk on a Vancouver startup – but landing institutional investments is the real white whale for many Vancouver fintechs.

“And that’s where I think Toronto comes in and Vancouver can’t really compete,” he said.

Gardner said the differences between the two fintech hubs mean Agreement Express is changing its recruitment strategies.

He said there are fewer questions about corporate culture and company goals and more questions about compensation and benefits from Toronto applicants, who are used to working in a region where startup funding is more abundant.

So the fintech is being particularly upfront in its recruitment efforts in Toronto about what compensation packages look like.

“If we’re going to be competing against big corporate, we’re going to have to look like big corporate.”