Due South: opportunities are not bounded by geography

Due South Compass

Welcome to Due South, a new series that profiles Canadian entrepreneurs who have founded companies outside of the motherland. Today’s Due South features a guest editorial from Melissa Kwan, co-founder and CEO of Spacio.

“Americans like to make money. Canadians like to audit it. I know no country where accountants have a higher social and moral status.” – Northrop Frye

Melissa Kwan

A friend sent me that quote. Having found myself a newly transplanted Canadian in New York City, I laughed.

With a just mouse click of on Expedia, entrepreneurs are calling new countries home. The reasons behind those moves are rarely discussed. They should be.

Like many Canadians, I trace my roots elsewhere. In my case, it’s Hong Kong. I grew up in Canada, attended University of British Columbia (UBC), and after graduation started my career in real estate and ultimately technology sales. Vancouver is home. It’s where I plugged into and created a vast network.

I left a job at SAP four years ago and took the leap starting my first company, Flat World Apps. My co-founder Ting Sun and I created a product called VIDA, which was an interactive brochure and sales tool used to showcase real estate developments on mobile. I thought it would be a breeze selling to people I had worked with in the past. It didn’t take long before realizing that couldn’t be farther from the truth. So what happened?

Customer objections were starting to sound like a broken record.

Having been in sales for years, I’ve been minted the “master cold-caller.” It was easy for me to get into doors, but we weren’t closing any sales. It didn’t make sense because I had spent years in real estate marketing and I knew where the value of our product was for the companies I was selling to.

Customer objections were starting to sound like a broken record: “this is really innovative, but we just can’t fit it into our budget.” And of course, the classic, “who else is doing this?” It was hard to understand given that my audience consisted of marketing firms and advertising agencies. These were companies hired by their clients to be innovative and cutting edge telling me they didn’t want to be first.

As I started digging deeper, something became apparent: the real estate industry in Canada was too small for companies to take risks. The disclaimer here is that I can only speak for my industry. There was a formula that worked and taking a risk to invest in new products meant taking a risk in losing a client to a competitor if things didn’t work out. The size of market and business mentality didn’t allow for innovation, and didn’t allow us to have a viable business. As someone who called Vancouver home and wanted so badly to conquer my own backyard, this was heartbreaking.

New York City

Ting and I knew no matter what that if we wanted to grow our business we needed to look South. That’s when I started traveling to New York, the real estate capital of the world. I spent a month there every other month networking and followed that long Canadian tradition of knocking on doors in the USA. I quickly saw how massive the industry was, partly due to its accessibility to the rest of the world. People were always coming and going, doing business in New York and establishing a base.

After a few trips, there was no question that New York was where our startup could be taken to the next level. When we started our new venture Spacio, a Real Estate Organizer application, we didn’t even consider looking outside the Big Apple for opportunities.

My biggest challenge was not having friends in New York, let alone a ready business network to tap into. Finding a community in a city where people are transient is hard and it takes a lot of effort. To help with this, I joined the best co-working space in the city, Fueled Collective, so that I could be surrounded by like-minded entrepreneurs every day. Fueled has since become my second home. It made sense for our business for me to be in New York full time, but the thought of leaving my friends that I grew up with was daunting.

People come to New York to conquer something; they come here for a purpose, to accomplish a goal.

Business decisions aren’t always made on spreadsheets and I struggled with that for a while. This January, after almost 1.5 years of living a bi-coastal life I joined two other entrepreneurs to start a collaborative home. This was my trigger to commit to the city fully. It was the community that I was prepared to take the leap for. We call it Gramercy House.

People come to New York to conquer something; they come here for a purpose, to accomplish a goal. Otherwise, it’s a very hard city to live in; it’s a city of tough love. Real estate is expensive, the standard of living is low, the streets are dirty and for some reason, full of gigantic randomly located potholes. But it’s also a city where people are ready and willing to help, connect you to whoever you need to be successful. The city is generous if you know how to navigate it. The caliber of people is so high you feel elevated by simply existing, and as an entrepreneur, that is not only motivating but necessary.

Gramercy House Living Room
Gramercy House living room

My team still calls Vancouver home. As a startup, we constantly assess our opportunities and what we need to accomplish and optimize them accordingly. In our case, business development requires me to be in New York, yet development, design, and product remains in Vancouver. There is a lifestyle in Vancouver that you cannot find in New York.  Government programs like IRAP and SR&ED in Canada are unparalleled, and we’re fortunate for that.

The world is truly flat. With communication and transportation the way it is today, we’re not bound by geography and neither are opportunities. You have to go where the opportunities present themselves. In the past few years, I have taken business exploration trips to Calgary, Toronto, Seattle, San Francisco, London, Singapore, Hong Kong, and most recently, Amsterdam, where the biggest opportunity (knock on virtual wood) of my career to date is about to unfold.

As one of my favourite authors Paulo Coelho writes, “You can’t change the wind. But you can adjust the sails to reach your destination.”

Melissa Kwan

Images courtesy Melissa Kwan.



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