ITAC chair: In search of IT entrepreneurs

“If you can’t find it, design it.” Those few words capture the essence of entrepreneurship says Roger Martin.

In finding something out of place, or a market unserved, it is entrepreneurship that determines how to provide that good or service in an innovative way.

Entrepreneurs represent the optimism and vitality that Canada needs. But does Canada have what it takes to create domestic multinationals, especially in the IT sector?

Absolutely, although I worry that being Canadians, we will limit our drive and skills in the interests of modesty or patience, avoiding the heavy lifting and perseverance needed to grow a company beyond the Canadian market.

Despite the success of homegrown companies like Research in Motion (founded by Mike Lazaridis), Biovail (founded by entrepreneur Eugene Melnyk) and Softchoice, I am deeply concerned about the strength and diversity of the Canadian entrepreneurial talent pool. Canada needs to build a stronger spirit of entrepreneurship and to competitively differentiate our approach to enterprise building from that of our global competitors.

Entrepreneurship is more than simply a job. It encompasses a passion and a drive to create a lasting company that reflects its values, serves its clients, and does both well for years to come. Success doesn’t happen overnight. Although recognized for their strength, versatility and innovation now, the examples I gave above were all founded in the 80s. The “next generation” of tech titan is not yet obvious.

True entrepreneurship in knowledge-based industries is not for the faint hearted. Finding venture capital can be a daunting challenge in Canada. In the 12 months ended Sept. 30, 2007, Canada’s VCs invested $2.1 billion but raised only $1.2 billion according to Canada’s Venture Capital and Private Equity Association. That sounds like a lot of money, but compare that to 2000, when $6.6 billion was invested, mostly in Canadian companies, and $4.2 billion was raised. In 2007, only $1.1 billion of these funds were aimed at the IT sector.

Being a technology entrepreneur in Canada has its challenges. Despite the fundamental strength of the Canadian economy, entrepreneurs seeking investors still must look beyond our shores for potential markets. To be truly successful, one must develop a business that will succeed internationally as well. We cannot be limited by borders. If a company only aims to succeed in Canada, then it stunts its own potential growth.

We can’t underestimate Canada. Self-employment is growing, and in 2005 was responsible for two thirds of private sector jobs in Canada. According to a 2005 report by CIBC World Markets, one in three entrepreneurs owned, or have owned, more than one business. Canada shares a border and language with the world’s largest fully developed market. Our tolerant, open society and world-class cities also make us an inviting destination for skilled immigrants seeking to make their mark.

Canada can build a stronger entrepreneurial culture. Those of us who see this as fundamental to our leadership in the 21st century must stand up and ensure that we are fostering our own successes by investing in local skills and capital pools and supporting appropriate education in Canada. This is as much about deepening our bench strength with respect to the numbers of IT and engineering professionals in our midst as it is attracting the individuals with the skills and leadership required to take a promising startup to a $1 billion and beyond. Successful companies, and individuals, need to broaden the pool of money and talent. In failing to foster growth at home, we invariably limit our ability to compete in the future.

By keeping our eyes on the road ahead, with perseverance and hard work, entrepreneurship can thrive in Canada. It’s up to those of us with a stake in the knowledge-based economy to step up and show the leadership to develop the next generation of successful Canadian entrepreneurs.

David MacDonald is the president of SoftChoice Corp. and the chairman of the Information Technology Assocation of Canada.

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