communitech @20 box

When Steve Woods moved to Waterloo Region back in 2008, it didn’t take long for Google’s just hired engineering site director to be drawn into his new home’s tight-knit community. In fact, that started on day one, when Communitech CEO Iain Klugman interrupted his unpacking with an invitation to dinner the next night with a small group of local tech leaders.

Although Woods now admits he thought Klugman was “slightly crazy” to cold-call him like that – “I’m not sure how he found my number” – it’s a story he loves to retell because it epitomizes one of the key reasons why an increasing number of global companies are choosing to set up shop here in the first place.

“Waterloo has community with a capital C,” Woods says, explaining that co-operation among competitors is not so much a perk in town, but an expectation – even for a powerhouse like Google. “The very first words out of Iain’s mouth after ‘Hello, I’m Iain,’ were ‘What are you going to do for us here?’”

Before Google had tapped Woods to lead the Canadian outpost’s engineering team, the company’s executives had searched for almost two years for optimal places to expand. A University of Waterloo grad himself, Woods cites the school’s output of world-class talent as a main factor for Waterloo Region making the cut, but he also credits the fact that people who work in the region – larger companies and startups alike – support each other’s growth.

“For us, the more interesting things going on here in the tech world, the better.” – Steve Woods, Google

“For us, the more interesting things going on here in the tech world, the better,” he says. “It exposes us to other ideas and it’s an attractor for people to come from all over the world.” And as Google continues to scale in Canada – the Waterloo Region team has grown from four to 500 in a decade – Woods has done his part to give back.

Google has teamed up with Communitech on programs like Google for Entrepreneurs – a global network of funding and mentorship for startups – and the Fierce Founders Accelerator for female-founded tech companies. Also, this past May, after years of teaming up with other local leaders to advocate for a high-speed train between Toronto and Waterloo Region, the province has announced it’ll be running by 2025 – and that’s something that will benefit everyone.

joseph fung netsuite Joseph Fung in NetSuite's Waterloo Region office. (Photo: Clay Stang)[/caption]

While multinational behemoths have long been attracted to the region – Intel, Electronic Arts and SAP have operations here – there’s also the interesting case of TribeHR, a successful homegrown startup that stayed put after its 2013 acquisition by global giant NetSuite (itself since acquired by the even larger Oracle).

According to co-founder Joseph Fung, that was always part of the plan. When TribeHR raised the first round of funding for its cloud-based human resources platform in 2011, he’d recently seen local analytics startup PostRank acquired by Google and moved to Mountain View, California. “Are we simply going to be a farm team?” Fung asked himself at the time. “Are we just delaying the brain drain?”

He loved the community he’d found in Waterloo Region, as well as its thriving arts scene (he’s sat on the boards of the local symphony and art gallery), and years earlier he’d boldly promised his team that they would never move. Surprisingly, NetSuite responded to that requirement with enthusiasm.

“In the three and a half years since acquisition, we’ve grown the office almost tenfold, from 16 people to about 150.” – Joseph Fung, NetSuite

“They were totally on board and they also wanted to accelerate our hiring,” he says, explaining that they planned to redouble the investment into the local R&D team. “In the three and a half years since acquisition, we’ve grown the office almost tenfold, from 16 people to about 150.”

Like Woods, Fung cites the region’s culture of cross-pollination as a key draw, pointing to Communitech’s leadership training and mentorship programs as one of the reasons that his NetSuite team has particularly strong managers. “A lot of engineering organizations don’t have that,” he says. “You promote people to being team leads, but they don’t get a chance to develop as a leader outside of the job.”

And, as it happens, Fung credits the initial take-off of TribeHR to one of the Hub’s offerings. In 2011, when Fung was toying with his new project as a hobby, he was taking advantage of Communitech’s Venture Services Group (now called the Strategic Growth Team) with its roster of experienced executives offering coaching for startups. Fung says ex-Unitron CEO Cameron Hay, then an executive-in-residence with the program, kick-started his project with a call to arms: “He said, ‘You really got something here but you should take it seriously or don’t do it at all.’” Shortly after that, Hay joined TribeHR’s advisory board.

jack dorsey square Jack Dorsey, founder and CEO of Square (Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images)[/caption]

In September 2013, a month before NetSuite acquired TribeHR, an even bigger name in global tech visited the University of Waterloo to announce a move into the region – Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey was expanding his mobile payments business, Square, to an office in downtown Kitchener that would house 30 full-time employees.

Given that UW’s world renowned co-op program would be a key source of skilled, workplace-ready talent for the company’s first international outpost, that audience was apropos.

“The spirit of innovation and the skill level it takes to make that happen is still very much in place in this country.” – Jack Dorsey, Square

“The engineering experience and talent we find in Waterloo is the best of the best,” Dorsey told the CBC after addressing the students. “The spirit of innovation and the skill level it takes to make that happen is still very much in place in this country.”

As it happens, Square engineers had already been secretly working in the region since the spring on Square Cash, a peer-to-peer payment app, which launched in the U.S. shortly after Dorsey’s official announcement.

After his talk at UW, Dorsey had a chance to visit Communitech, where a lunch was hosted for a small group of lucky students. His take on the Hub is an apt description for why tech leaders around the world are increasingly putting a stake in Waterloo Region: “It feels like a very free, open, collaborative space…You could walk in and be your most creative self.”