Sometime in that first decade of the new millennium, Toronto became home to a vibrant and emerging digital gaming sector, one that Hamed Abbasi threw himself into with the launch of Vast Studios.
“Big gaming companies either came to Toronto or opened offices here and we saw other tech companies come here and investors,” says the co-founder of the casual games maker. “Then people from other parts of Canada started to move to Toronto because of the tax credits and then the angel community, so it started to take shape around that.”
He and his co-founders rode that wave from 2007 to 2014, growing to four million downloads of its PC, Mac, iOS and Android games before selling the company.
But Hamed wasn’t ready to hang up his entrepreneur hat. New ideas fermented and the city’s burgeoning startup community called to him, so he started again, this time a business called Plooto, built around sending and receiving business payments electronically.
“I either had the choice to start it in New York or start it in Canada and I decided Toronto because the city was starting to become a technology hub,” he says. “I wanted to add more to the culture and value and ecosystem as opposed to taking it somewhere else – we just saw an opportunity that we could grow the community more by staying in Toronto.”
The company launched a beta version of the service at the beginning of 2015 and closed a funding round with Real Ventures in April. It’s a hyper speed version of the growth Hamed experienced with Vast.
At the moment the eight-person team is based out of OneEleven, which is a 15,000 square foot startup development space in the downtown core, in the same building that hosts Google Canada’s operations.
Hamed says OneEleven’s startup community has a unique buzz about it, one far removed from what he’s seen during frequent trips to San Francisco.
“In terms of ingenuity, innovation and passion, Toronto is (on par) with Silicon Valley,” he says. “However, I feel like we are still in touch with reality whereas Silicon Valley is its own world.”
Part of that, he explains, is due to the size of the city. While it’s big, it’s just not big enough to overlook the global viewpoint.
“Our fingers are on the pulse of what’s going on not just in Toronto but in the world,” he says “We can create solutions that are solving real world problems versus solutions that might be a big deal to me in Toronto but not big to anyone else.”
The serial entrepreneur points out that as a new crop of startup founders exit their companies they’ve grown around the world and return to Toronto to start there new ones and inject some capital, the city is transitioning towards a startup ecosystem with a truly unique and outward view.
“We tried very hard to be a Hollywood North or the New York of Canada, to compare ourselves to other great cities,” he says. “But now we need to focus on building our own culture and being proud of Toronto's uniqueness so other cities will look up to us – we're right in the middle of it all.”