Kitchener-Waterloo ≈ Silicon Valley of the North
Canadians have an inferiority complex. We have a nice house and car, but our close neighbors have everything we have, except bigger, with a pool and nicer weather.
Take the Venture Capital (VC) market. American VCs invested almost 13 times more than Canadian VCs for Q1 2013 (pwc and Thomson Reuters). The VC market is critical to startup growth because what do startups need just as much as time and people? Money. How else can you break down incumbent barriers or leapfrog competition faster?
I didn’t realize how much of a complex we had until I started openly referring to our SAP Waterloo Labs location as “The Silicon Valley of the North”, borrowed from the great coverage recently received in USA Today. “But we’re different” or “We’re better” or “That’s what they called Ottawa because of Nortel…” some would argue. I would argue, who cares? Here are my arguments as to why–
It was Interaction Designer Dan Saffer who said never let your user start from zero (i.e. your design should rely upon the existing experiences of your users to enable intuition). So metaphors are commonly used as a tool because it allows someone to understand an unknown “something” based on an understanding of “something else”. Describing our 500,000+ people inhabited area to outsiders without a metaphor will force people to try to remember it as something completely new, competing with all of the other places they try to remember already (with much larger populations).
Now let’s look at branding in the hi-tech world. Every marketer tries to forge the differentiated branding path to come up with something truly unique, but how many companies are actually successful at it? How many companies in hi-tech have a clear brand image other than Apple (and of course SAP 🙂 )? However, copycats are really easy to pick out. They’re close, but not the same, often cheaper, but sometimes they do just as good of a job. I would argue that Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones were copycats to the iPhone and now look at their adoption numbers. Is there anything wrong with being a copycat, especially when your neighbor does something way better than you do?
Finally, I want to get back to this inferiority complex idea. Canada relies on America for the majority of its exports, and therefore does have a real dependency. This dependency causes Canadians to overcompensate and try to claim differences in areas it really should look to its neighbor to become more similar in, with of course respect for subtle cultural differences like Tim Hortons. I spent the last month in Silicon Valley and I would love if we copied their adoption of technology and risk taking tolerance (in addition to their VCs)–even better if people start to associate Kitchener-Waterloo with this imagery. That’s a first step! Like Samsung we should borrow from known, successful experiences and build from there. We should stop starting from zero. Just because we choose touchscreens doesn’t mean we have to use the same OS.