Why are Canadians so hostile to business success?

Founders and CEOs talk about the frustrations of being ambitious in a country that doesn’t always celebrate its champions

Tall red flower standing out in a sea of white ones


There’s a section in Losing the Signal: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of BlackBerry by Globe and Mail reporters Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff that’s particularly interesting for Canadian tech industry watchers.

The section deals with the middle period of Research In Motion, after it had listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange but before the big success that would come in the 2000s. By the late 1990s, the Waterloo, Ont.-based company’s stock wasn’t doing much and investors weren’t terribly interested in it.

To co-chief executive officer Jim Balsillie, “the setbacks were wearying evidence of Canadian hostility to hometown success. Fellow Peterborough resident and celebrated author Robertson Davies called it Canada’s ‘tall poppy syndrome’: the inclination to cut down those standing above the crowd.”

Are Canadians too quick to bring each other back down to size? I asked Silcoff about it when I spoke to him recently about his book, and I also posed the question to a number of Waterloo, Ont. startup entrepreneurs. Here’s what they said.

Sean Silcoff, Globe and Mail reporter and author: 

“I think what does exist in Canada is a fatalism about our ability to compete in technology. You’ll often hear people say, “Nortel couldn’t make it, RIM couldn’t make it,” and they’ll throw up their hands in despair. We have to stop having that conversation and that attitude.

RIM and Nortel didn’t fail because they were located in Canada and Canada is a country full of losers. If that’s anyone’s view, they should just abandon it right away.

We now have one of the most exciting crops of companies anyone’s ever seen and they’re not weighed down at all by the fact that they’re Canadian. There are certainly constraints they face, obviously being in a smaller market and not being in Silicon Valley.

It might take a while for some of these companies to have $20 billion in revenue, but I see a much more robust crop of serious companies that are well financed that are run by intelligent people and are tapped into the trends of where technology is going.”

Bryan Fedorak, co-founder of cocktail machine maker Bartesian:

“People like Porter Airlines, but they hate Air Canada because it’s giant, but the service level is the same.

All the companies I know well are small and the media is very supportive of companies at that level. At what point does that change? Probably far, far down the road.

With BlackBerry, I do sort of agree with that because there was this shift toward them and “they’re going under.” It was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. In 2008, when they were at their peak, they had a bit of a [dip] in performance and all of a sudden there’s this [negativity] all over them.”

Ryan van Stralen and Shadab Rashid, principals at computer interface maker Palette:

Shadab: “I was at BlackBerry for quite a few years so I definitely saw it firsthand. That syndrome applies to all companies. Once a company is really successful, if it can’t measure up to expectations you will get more eyes [on you].

It’s much easier when you’re up and coming because everything you do is great and you haven’t done it before. BlackBerry did suffer from that. Because its competitors were the biggest companies in the world—Apple, Google, Microsoft—they had their hands full.”

Van Stralen: “There was some hubris in involved. They were doing really well because they had an innovative product that made a difference. But when the iPhone came out, the handling of that and their internal struggles had a snowball effect of negative media.”

Mallorie Brodie, co-founder of construction software provider BridgIt:

“We haven’t had the opportunity to know if we have that problem or not because a lot of companies will get acquired before they can get to that stage. There is proof that that’s not the case with companies like Hootsuite or Shopify. They’re huge and incredibly successful and everyone is proud that they’re Canadian.

I wasn’t around in the tech scene in the early 2000s, but from what I’ve seen we just don’t have enough evidence to make that call. I think we’ll have a much better idea in the next five years or so.

We have more startups in Canada that are growing aggressively and it’s getting into the minds of a lot of people: wait, and don’t sell so early.

Peter Mankowski, co-founder of equine wearables maker SeeHorse:

“Absolutely yes. This is a socialist country. Distribution of wealth has to be balanced and society will cut you down. If you’re a little more successful than your neighbours, they will hunt you down. There’s a general push to bringing you in line.

In the U.S. they promote it—they want you to be super-rich and super-successful. It’s the wild west. But we’re ex-British Empire compliant classes, and the U.S. is the wild west.”

Jim Price, chief operating officer of analytics developer HockeyTech

“We haven’t got to that point where we’re now a huge part of [our clients’ business]. I don’t know, it might come. We hope not. Competitors in our space have had problems when they’ve tried to go into other sports, but hockey is all we do.

We’re not trying to be all things to all people, which is what I think you’re talking about. BlackBerry was great in business, but it tried to get into all this other stuff.”