The City as a Workspace

Hootsuite’s early days were spent in Vancouver’s Railtown neighbourhood, near the port. In many ways, it was perfect. Rent was cheap. The location was central. The neighbourhood had character; at the time cafes were just starting to move in. The place had a spirited, scrappy vibe that matched our culture.

Then, we entered what’s known in the startup world as a state of “hypergrowth.” We went from 20 to 100 employees, almost overnight. Within a year or so, we grew to 500 employees. Suddenly our home was bursting at the seams. We annexed an adjoining office, and another, took over a garage, and added an office across the street — and quickly filled that up.

Months of searching ensued as we looked for new digs. We needed space that was centrally located but big enough to accommodate our growing family. In the end, we were lucky to secure a hub of offices across town in Mount Pleasant — but it wasn’t easy.

The experience of growing a startup from a few dozen to nearly 1,000 employees has taught me a lot about what an ideal workspace in Vancouver might look like for like-minded companies. Here are some key qualities:

It’s flexible, with room to grow. Tech is about growth — always unpredictable, occasionally blinding-fast. The optimal workspace needs to be one that can grow with the company. When you’re a startup, having to dedicate energy to finding a new home takes away critical time that could be spent acquiring customers and building better technology. For that reason, a perfect headquarters is one that can be scaled as needs evolve — from a few thousand square feet to a few floors.

It has amenities nearby. The optimal workspace is not on an island, marooned in some suburban office park. Instead, it sits at the heart of an already thriving ecosystem — and adds back to that ecosystem. Having great restaurants, cafes and shops in walking distance is key to supporting work-life balance and attracting great talent. Better still if you’re able to incorporate some of these amenities right into your work- space. At Hootsuite, we set aside space for a yoga studio and gym. It’s these kinds of touches that can elevate an ordinary office into exceptional workspace.

It’s engineered for collaboration. Contemporary workspace is a place for sharing. Ideas are sparked collectively. Projects are a group effort. Cross-pollination is the only way to keep pace with change. An ideal workspace reflects this. Think: open seating instead of private offices and cubicles; all kinds and sizes of meeting spaces for quick huddles; lounges and kitchens that bring people together and facilitate serendipitous exchanges, and outdoor spaces like a rooftop patio to kick back and enjoy the view, can do wonders for team chemistry.

It has a distinct sense of place. Place shouldn’t be an afterthought. It’s a powerful differentiator for companies, when it comes both to attracting talent and building culture. A big part of place is location. To me, ideal Vancouver workspace needs to be central in the city — near enough to feel the energy of downtown and to soak up the vistas of mountains and oceans. Deeper still, this workspace should speak to a company’s identity and deepest values. At Hootsuite, there are yurts in the middle of the workspace and meeting rooms panelled to look like log cabins. It feels like nowhere else — and that’s the point.

The city as a workspace

Of course, ideal workspace, doesn’t exist in isolation. Ultimately, it’s the larger community — the people a city attracts, its infrastructure, its ethos — that really makes for a world-class work environment. In this respect, Vancouver has evolved by leaps and bounds, even since Hootsuite’s early days. From a relatively young urban centre, it’s maturing into a young, self-assured global city. This has brought opportunities and an influx of people and investment. It’s also brought serious challenges in terms of housing and affordability, which can’t be overlooked. There’s no such thing as perfect workspace, if a company is unable to attract talented employees to work there — great candidates are being deterred by sky-high costs of living and long commutes. I’ve faced these challenges firsthand in growing Hootsuite, and they’re very real.

Even so, the outlines of a bright future are growing clearer. Looking to the decades ahead, I see a Vancouver where smart density means people can live and work centrally. The Main and Cambie Corridors, as well as Great Northern Way, already offer a vivid illustration of what’s possible. Meanwhile, it’s not hard to see how sustained investments in transit will ease congestion and spur growth. By addressing its growing pains head on, Vancouver can become, a more viable place for young families to put down roots, work and thrive. All of these elements are prerequisites for a robust innovation economy the kind that attracts entrepreneurs to open offices here in the first place.

Towards a Maple Syrup Maple Mafia

It’s important to note that this is a two-way street. Just as tech entrepreneurs benefit from the talent, energy and beauty of Vancouver, it’s also important to have a vision for giving back to the city. For me, this starts with a commitment to building in Vancouver. Among startups, the temptation to exit early or relocate south of the border can be overwhelming. But Vancouver needs homegrown tech success stories — successful enterprises, headquartered here, to become the engines of a vital, thriving ecosystem.

These kinds of success stories have helped transform places like Silicon Valley from a one-time outpost into the tech industry’s promised land. In 2002, the founders of PayPal, the online payments giant, sold their company to eBay for $1.5 billion. Rather than calling it a day, PayPal’s core employees, the so-called PayPal mafia, went on to found and invest in a wave of new start-ups. You may have heard of some: Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Yelp, Zynga and Kiva... to name just a few.

From one company, an entire ecosystem of wildly successful tech companies were born in Silicon Valley. In Vancouver, there’s no reason we can’t do the same and build our own Maple Syrup Mafia. As more startups “make it” in our own backyard, our critical mass of talent will grow, gaining entrepreneurs who have successfully scaled global companies, right here. From this critical mass we’ll attract more funding, from serial entrepreneurs looking to invest to venture capitalists wanting in on the next big thing. Expertise, money and commitment together form a positive feedback loop, making it easier and easier to build right on our home turf.

To be clear, my vision is not that Vancouver become a Silicon Valley North. Far from just a satellite of San Francisco, we have real potential to become a global tech hub in our own right. What role does the right workspace ultimately play in this journey? Well, growth-minded startups will always find ways to thrive, regardless of obstacles. That said, from experience, I can say that having great workspace — flexible, collaborative and deeply rooted in the heart of Vancouver definitely helps.

Ryan Holmes, 2018