Written by Andrew Seale
Like Silicon to the Valley, the Tannery District has become synonymous with Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo’s high tech scene.
“I've heard a stat, I don't know if this is validated, but there's something like twenty-to-thirty Y Combinator companies now within a two-kilometre radius of the Tannery,” says Michael Litt, co-founder and CEO of Vidyard, one of the Tri-cities' tech darlings and a graduate of the Mountain View, California seed accelerator. In fact, Litt says he’s certain Vidyard triggered a bit of a trend by returning to Kitchener after the accelerator.
“It kind of proved a point and paved the way,” he says.
Vidyard began on a road trip somewhere between California and Waterloo. Litt, a systems design and engineering undergrad from Waterloo, was doing a co-op in California and asked Devon Galloway, a classmate, to fly down and join him for the drive back to Ontario.
“On that trip (we) started to come up with the idea for Redwoods Media,” says Litt, describing the small production company the duo launched in 2010. They’d create animated explainer videos or short clips for companies. “We sold those services to businesses and they would constantly tell us they didn't fully understand how to then publish the videos to their website.”
Sure, YouTube and Vimeo existed but they were free options and had downsides in the sense that YouTube exposed their audience to competitors and their ads. “We capitalized on that pain and built the platform to sell alongside our video services business,” he says. “Shortly thereafter (we) realized there was an opportunity to build a big product company around this – that's exactly what we did with Vidyard.”
Then they got back in the car and drove down the Mountain View to join Y Combinator.
“The great thing about doing YC in California when you come from another place is that it gives you permission to be very selfish with your time,” says Litt. “You get to work on this thing and solve this problem with 100 per cent of your time and energy.”
The program surrounded Vidyard with experienced mentors and exposed them to talks by entrepreneurs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. “It was a really intimate experience with 50 companies and you get so much from that exposure.”
They raised a seed round but ultimately decided they needed to come back to the Waterloo region, seeing the opportunity in the developer talent market.
“We came out of the University of Waterloo and we knew how to recruit from the University of Waterloo,” says Litt. “We knew the capabilities of those grads, and the extent at which they were available, we knew there were would be more loyalty and we saw the challenges San Francisco was having with technical talent.”
And you can't build something like Vidyard without technical talent. Before they could put together the analytics, they needed to be able to build a video serving and hosting solution that had the same service-level agreement as YouTube, the status quo vendor in the space.
The move paid off.
Today, Vidyard has 200 employees, the majority of which are based out of a gorgeous brick-and-beam heritage building in Kitchener, a few blocks from the Tannery. The platform helps companies like Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Citibank showcase videos on their website and track real-time analytics, among other things.
Litt and Galloway have pointed their success outwards.
“Our success here (has) given me the opportunity to establish a small fund to invest in a lot of these companies – especially the ones leading this region,” says Litt. “I'm motivated to help them because they're great people.”
And great people with great ideas deserve support, the same sort of support Galloway and Litt were shown when they resettled in the Tannery district.
“As an investor-founder, I think we have different thresholds of risk you're ultimately willing to take on… you're empathetic and compassionate to what it is to be a founder,” he says. “You're not looking at the business as a spreadsheet, you're looking at it as a group of people making hard decisions.”
Photo credit: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)