Welcome to Due South, a new series that profiles Canadian entrepreneurs who have founded companies outside of the motherland.
Some 130 kilometres north of Toronto lays Creemore, Ontario. It’s a town with a population of about 1,300 people, and its claim to fame is the Creemore Springs microbrewery located within its borders.
It is, in other words, the last place one expects to give birth to a tech startup. Yet somehow Creemore did exactly that.
In 2006, Andrew Angus, a Toronto native, found himself on a farm several kilometres north of Creemore. He was working on a home heating startup called Switch Fuel. The company’s goal was to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by creating a biofuel from switchgrass, a perennial prairie grain.
“I thought that Switch Fuel was going to be a great business,” says Angus. “But people’s eyes glazed over whenever I tried to talk them about it, so I ended up looking for new ways to explain the idea.”
Angus eventually decided that a short explainer video was his best bet. By his estimation, the video he made to explain Switch Fuel was “awful,” but it turned out to be an important turning point. “That video is what started me on the path of eventually going into video production and then further moving to San Francisco,” he says.
Going from a home heating startup to a video production company is, without a doubt, one of the more extreme pivots an early stage company can commit to, but it’s a move that Angus says made sense at the time.
“I’m not a graphic artist or animator. I don’t watch movies or cartoons and I don’t read comic books,” he says. “I had a problem, I looked for a solution and I saw video as a way of solving it. I then saw a market need for my solution, and I pivoted away from the initial problem I was solving.”
In the 18 months following its change of course, the newly renamed Switch Video not started only started producing animated explainer videos, it also secured clients like Microsoft and Pearson Education, and grew to employ more than 30 people. Angus and company did all that while receiving little outside investment. To date, Switch Video has raised $300,000, most of it coming from friends and family of the company.
The growing size of the company’s team eventually necessitated a move to Creemore proper to get a hold of some office space, and lack of access to a fiber Internet connection in Creemore forced Angus to subsequently move the company to Collingwood, Ontario, which is where most of Switch Video’s production staff is still located.
“We put zero focus on the Canadian market.”
“When people ask why I’m in Collingwood, the smart ass answer I give is that the internet was too slow in Creemore,” jokes Angus.
However, Collingwood had its own set of problems, the most important of which was that there were no local businesses that a had need for Switch’s services. “The clients that wanted to do awesome things and that had big enough budgets were all in the U.S.,” says Angus. “That’s why our revenue has always come from the U.S. market.”
He adds, bluntly, “we put zero focus on the Canadian market. I don’t run any ads in Canada.”
Despite that fact, one Canadian company was vitally important in Switch Video’s evolution. Toronto-based Rypple, which was acquired by Salesforce in 2011, was one of the company’s early clients, and several of its co-founders and early employees—including David Priemer, Daniel Debow, George Babu and David Stein—were immensely supportive of Angus’s efforts. In late 2011, Rypple paid for Angus to attend the HR Technology Conference, which is held annually in Las Vegas, Nevada. They also paid for him to fly to San Francisco after the conference to attend meeting with several prominent Bay Area companies and founders.
After Angus returned to Canada, he and his wife, Heather McKibbon, decided to move to San Francisco. In January of 2012, they packed their belongings into their car and started driving across to the west coast.
More than three years later, they’re still in San Francisco.
“When I started Switch I had aspirations that the company would be the seed that grows into a larger community,” says Angus. “Part of the reason I moved here is because Collingwood isn’t ready to become a hub for tech.”
“Part of the reason I moved here is because Collingwood isn’t ready to become a hub for tech.”
He adds, “Collingwood is great for our video production team, but it would be hard for me to hire a world class marketing team there. I have one employee there, Robyn, who is amazing and helps manage a lot of our Salesforce automation, but I got lucky. Sometimes you do get lucky, but to grow a scalable team you need to do it in a different market.”
Another reason Angus has stayed in the Bay Area for as long as he has is because he feels that he’s in the perfect place to learn how to better operate his business. “I’m motivated to keep running a company every day because I get to learn exciting new things and practice them each day,” he says. “I can learn and practice more in San Francisco than anywhere else, especially when it comes to the things I’m interested in, like building a world-class sales and marketing organization based on data and efficiency.”
As for the question of whether he will ever return to Canada, Angus says he’s unsure what of the future will bring. “Call my wife and ask for a follow-up,” he jokes before becoming more contemplative. “There’s a lot of excitement that comes with moving to a new country and building a new life, but there are also a lot of challenges. I don’t know how long we will be here. I can see myself being here forever, but what makes the most sense for my family is a different and ongoing discussion.”
In the meantime, Angus finds himself helping other Canadian entrepreneurs adjust to life in the Valley and reflecting on the decision he and his wife made. Nine years ago, Switch Video was a one man operation on the fringe of small town Ontario. Now it’s a scalable business with offices in Collingwood, San Francisco, and Toronto, and has clients like Direct TV and Oracle. “I’m really proud of the commitment my wife and I made to make this happen,” says Angus.
“None of this would have happened had we not made the move.”