B.C. tech expats feel the lure of Silicon Valley

Tech hub is irresistible to Canadian tech talent in California – but B.C. companies could gain from rising business costs in San Francisco Bay Area

Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. The company is one of the major magnets for B.C. technology talent in the area | Shutterstock

Aside from expats swapping stories, few founders, funders or tech professionals south of the border are uttering Vancouver and Silicon Valley in the same breath – and they certainly don’t call B.C.’s biggest city Silicon Valley North.

From California’s point of view, there is no other Valley – nor can there be. Not one with the same energy, network, money or jobs.

For talented tech workers and entrepreneurs, the promise of doubling their Vancouver salary within one or two years of work in the San Francisco Bay Area is often too lucrative an opportunity to pass on – and a lack of such capital prospects back home is what spurs them to leave in the first place.

For founders, moving to a region where, according to expat tech manager Sonja Kristiansen, “the most random ideas are getting US$6 million seed rounds,” is like buying a ticket for a very generous lottery.

In 2015, based on its gross domestic product, the state of California ranked between the United Kingdom and France as the sixth-largest economy in the world. That’s in large part due to Silicon Valley, which will likely house the world’s first trillion-dollar company over the next several years.

“There’s an energy here that’s nowhere else,” said Rebecca Reeve over an Arnold Palmer at the St. Regis Hotel in downtown San Francisco. “It’s not in New York, it’s not in Seattle. So it’s no knock on Vancouver. It’s just that there’s something really, really special here.”

The founder and principal of Rsquared Communication has now spent a decade living and working in Silicon Valley, and no longer sees a permanent place for herself north of the 49th parallel – not in her hometown of Williams Lake, and not in Vancouver where she’s opened an office.

The energy, she said, is too big a draw, as are the opportunities. Both were cited time and again by British Columbians who spoke to Business in Vancouver about why they moved to California’s high-tech Bay Area.

“The number of choices and possibilities is so much larger here, so it’s kind of like being in a candy store,” said Kristiansen, who is the director of partnerships at TripleLift, an advertising-technology company that is in the financial sweet spot between startup and enterprise player, with 160 employees and revenue approaching US$100 million this year.

Kristiansen left her “dream job” working for the Vancouver Canucks to explore a long-held interest in living in California.

“It felt a little bit like New York in the ’80s in finance, or real estate in the late ’90s,” she said. “This is a boom and it may totally bust but I kind of want to ride the wave and see what happens.”

There is an alphabet soup of visa options for getting into the United States. Kristiansen migrated south on an investor’s E-2 visa by purchasing a San Francisco Blo Blow Dry Bar franchise with her sister. She flipped it two years later and leapt into technology.

“Everything that you see on Silicon Valley, they had it. And that’s what companies have to do here to attract top talent. That’s just kind of table stakes at this point,” said Kristiansen of her time at ad-tech startup Virule, which was flush with recently raised cash and other Silicon Valley staples: catered lunches, pressed juice fridges and nap pods among them. She later moved on to a smaller startup that hadn’t raised its seed round and was, needless to say, without juice.

The Bay Area’s promise of experience, energy and excitement is a draw for British Columbians from a wide variety of backgrounds. It’s a region with a great diversity in job choice, as long as the choice is technology.

“I would definitely move back to Vancouver at some point in my life,” said Dan Jover, formerly with KPMG and now an accountant at Google (Nasdaq:GOOGL), narrowing down “at some point” by adding that the city would be a great place to retire.

“I think what it’s missing is real big-market opportunities. And so at this point in my career, given that I’m still young and in my maximum earning potential years, I don’t think it’s time for me to move back to Vancouver.”

Not yet knocking on Vancouver’s door

While economies of scale and other major factors make it unlikely that Vancouver will ever seriously rival Silicon Valley, B.C. does have an opportunity to lose.

It’s a “gun-for-hire” world that makes it increasingly prohibitively expensive to employ in Silicon Valley, especially when it comes to sales and marketing talent that could be based in other cities. Even Reeve says her 11-person communications company is directly competing with Facebook (Nasdaq:FB) and Google for high-quality employees.

“Access to talent and the cost of access to talent is massive down there,” said Steve Wandler, co-founder of the Kelowna-based startup FreshGrade. Wandler himself sold another startup, YourTechOnline, to a California-based software company years ago; his co-founder co-founded Club Penguin, which was sold to Disney (NYSE:DIS) in 2007.

“The whole Bay Area phenomenon of the Disneyland world, some of that stuff I feel is wearing off a little bit,” said Wandler, adding that everything is overpriced, including valuations, and that “for all that the Bay Area has to offer from a cultural perspective, the challenges that they have there are also pretty large.”

That’s an opportunity for a city like Vancouver, where companies such as Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT) can access Canadian talent, and likely at a better deal. The challenge on B.C.’s hands is encouraging B.C. talent to stay.

“The adage is that you don’t have to be in Silicon Valley; Silicon Valley has to be in you,” said Laura Buhler, executive director of C100, a Bay Area-based organization focused on supporting innovation back in Canada.

“You don’t have to physically be here, but you have to be just as ambitious, you have to work just as hard, maybe even harder.”

Part of that comes back to the Bay Area network that won’t likely be replicated outside of the Valley, though Wandler and other expat founders acknowledge that Vancouver does have draws for companies seriously looking to scale, innovate and build. FreshGrade, for example, a portfolio and assessment platform for educators, is based in Kelowna, with offices in Vancouver and Silicon Valley – the latter to ensure the company has a presence in the world’s leading technology hub.

“None of this stuff happens overnight,” he said. “This is a fantastic place to live.”

Southern exposure

While members of B.C.’s tech diaspora will sometimes cite Canadian weather as a factor in their decision to head south, others cite lifestyle differences. 

“The biggest thing for me is that Vancouver doesn’t have Uber,” said Jover, who called it embarrassing. On a short trip to Vancouver, the founder of the Founder Institute – a startup launch program aimed at globalizing Silicon Valley and building tech ecosystems worldwide – was stunned to learn the city remains disconnected when he tried to hail an Uber from BIV offices.

And while B.C.’s mountains and lakes still hold sway with Jover, and Kristiansen receives a monthly expat care package through Expack filled with exclusive-to-Canada goods – Hawkins Cheezies, Fudgee-Os, ketchup chips – the hard-to-ignore bottom line is that Canadian companies cannot compete with their U.S. counterparts on salary, from the employee perspective.

“I, in two years of working here, made double what I made in Vancouver. So it’s a significant gain,” said Nicole Bansal, who works at the marketing technology company Liftoff Inc. Her experience isn’t unique.

After factoring in the higher wages, regular promotions, added benefits and the exchange rate, many B.C. expats who leave for work begin to earn enough to buy into Vancouver real estate.

“I think of it as my down-payment money,” said Bansal, who previously spent three and a half years at Telus (TSX:T) and participated in its marketing leadership program. “This would go so far in Vancouver now.”

Romina Mahboub, a Simon Fraser University mechatronic systems engineering graduate who spent time at Burnaby-based Ballard Power Systems (TSX:BLDP) during her degree, described Vancouver’s job prospects as 30- or 40-year job offers – a marked shift from the Silicon Valley’s one-year definition of loyalty.