“I was living in Toronto at the time and had been working in Mississauga and we started the company in Guelph,” he says. Ali quickly realized there was a shortage of certain types of talent so he opened an office in Kitchener/Waterloo to tap into the software developer talent located around the Communitech cluster. Then he launched another in Toronto to build out his merchandise and marketing team.
“A lot of my job for the past eight years has been driving up and down the 401 trying to connect these three offices,” he says.
But when he left Well.ca two years ago to start Tulip Retail, a mobile platform for sales associates to access catalogue, customer and sales transaction information from a mobile device and assist customers, he noticed a change in where talent was living.
“Our software talent started migrating towards Toronto,” he says adding that for the first time in his career he’s finding it just as easy to hire software developers and engineers locally as it has been in Waterloo.
He chalks it up to a changing workforce parallel to what’s happening between San Francisco and Palo Alto.
“I think in the 1980s that generation of Silicon Valley companies was really driven by older people, people who had families and wanted to live in a family-friendly place like Palo Alto,” he says. “But there’s a downward trend in the ages of those founding teams and engineers that start technology companies and those people want to live in big cities where it’s easier to meet people and have fun – you’re seeing a parallel thing between Toronto and Guelph and Waterloo.”
For Tulip Retail that trend has made Toronto operations a critical part of the company.
“If you’re an oil company in Calgary you need to be near the natural resource that you’re tapping into and capitalizing on and I think here our natural resource is talent,” says Ali. “We have to be near that source of talent, to be able to hire the right people because that’s how you build a great company, you do it with people, especially in the beginning when the entire company is defined by the quality of its people.”
In Toronto, Tulip Retail calls startup development space OneEleven home. For Ali, the space, right next to the Eaton Centre, is key because it allows accessibility from the subway so talent from Scarborough, Mississauga and the downtown core can smoothly transit between home and work.
The company’s proximity to the island airport also has its perks, explains the serial entrepreneur, adding that the hour and a half flight means he can easily make a morning flight to New York, the cornerstone of the retail world, for an impromptu meeting.
Although it’s still a work in progress, Ali say there’s a certain energy to the city, an optimism hinting at the hidden potential.
“A lot has happened in such a short amount of time, it's a completely different world right now than when I started,” he says. “There are companies right now IPOing billion dollar companies that didn’t exist five years ago – it's incredible what’s happening here.”