To discover what's different about the startup community in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Startup Edmonton's CEO, Tiffany Linke-Boyko suggests we start on the ground floor of the Mercer Warehouse. In "Vacancy Hall" (as the ground floor pop-up retail space is known) entrepreneurs can rent space month-to-month as a way to test or introduce new products or meet customers. Online lifestyle company, The Skinny moved into Vacancy Hall primarily as a way for their existing customers to pick-up orders offline. During the Vacancy Hall tenancy, The Skinny's founder saw a larger need for her customers to come together and see her more often, so this spring, she left Vacancy Hall and scaled her offline presence into a larger, permanent retail storefront in a local mall.
Up a few steps up from Vacancy Hall, is The Weekly, a barber shop and hair salon, (frequented by members of the Edmonton Oilers hockey team). Restaurant hot-spots Mercer Tavern and Baiiju occupy the first floor. I glance into a bar packed with a cross-section of the downtown community as we walk up the stairs to the sounds of rap music and bespoke cocktails being shaken, not stirred.
On the second floor of the Mercer Warehouse you'll find a tattoo parlor as well as the startup, DrugBank (a unique bioinformatics and cheminformatics resource that combines detailed drug (i.e. chemical, pharmacological and pharmaceutical) data with comprehensive drug target (i.e. sequence, structure, and pathway) information). DrugBank initially started on the top floor of the Mercer Warehouse as a member of Startup Edmonton's Student Program, before growing and moving down into two dedicated office spaces.
Startup Edmonton occupies 14,000 square feet on the top floor of the building. It is combination of co-working, dedicated desk space for scaling companies as well as an active event space. The meetup community for the startup and technology community in the city is anchored at Startup Edmonton. During any given month, Startup Edmonton hosts 20 - 25 events ranging from data analytics to open hardware, Ladies Learning Code to Android app development. And in the last five years they have welcomed over 50,000 people up the four flights of stairs and across the old wide-plank warehouse floors with all of their community and Startup Edmonton programming.
"Community creates a safety net for people that are taking big risks. At Startup Edmonton and the Mercer Warehouse, people are trying their hand at really risky endeavours - tech startups, independent restaurants, small batch manufacturers and artists. We support one another's businesses, but more importantly we're friends, champions, word-of-mouth-spreaders, and peers." - Tiffany Linke-Boyko
Whether the entrepreneur is disrupting an industry or small business owner, Startup Edmonton helps them think about scale - how a business can grow beyond the founder's or business owner's expertise and available time. People are tackling lots of problems in so many industries, technology doesn't have to be the product - it can be the solution to scale, Tiffany tells me. Hence why Startup Edmonton unlike many "tech" hubs has such a diverse entrepreneur ecosystem under one roof.
"People are making an active choice to stay in Edmonton and build the community. It's easy to leave, lots of opportunities abound, but more and more our community members see the impact they can make by choosing to start, grow and scale here." - Tiffany Linke-Boyko
Startup Edmonton recently celebrated its fifth anniversary. Looking back from the top of the warehouse, Tiffany offers up these entrepreneurial community-building insights:
- Communities are Unique - Don't try to be someone else. The best approach is to recognize and embrace the uniqueness of your community.
- Return the Favor! Startup Edmonton received great support and information from communities such as Boulder and Austin when they launched. In the "give" ethos of successful startup ecosystems (like Silicon Valley) Startup Edmonton shares resources, learnings and best practices whenever possible.
- There is a role and place for everyone. Don't be a gate-keeper to the entrepreneur community. Get to know new faces and make meaningful recommendations for how everyone - from students to small business owners to startup founders - can get involved.
- Building a meaningful community takes time and commitment. Startup Edmonton's student programming really only took off after three years of investment. Campus activation and interaction increased once professors and student groups saw that Startup Edmonton was interested in helping them solve the challenges they were dealing with.
Before completing the tour of the Mercer Warehouse community, Tiffany mentions the new business opening up downstairs across from The Weekly: Mayday Dogs, a gourmet hot dog joint with bleacher seating instead of tables. Chef and founder, Justin Benson, is well known in the community not only for his culinary skills (he was previously at local cafes Elm Cafe and Farrow) but also for his support of the startup community. Justin has hosted coffee for the Startup Edmonton community, spent time to get to know the other business owners in the shared space, and had pop-up collaborations with the owners of the other two restaurants in the building. Learning this, I wonder if my tour of Startup Edmonton has perhaps ended a little too soon.