This is the second installment in a series on innovation and emerging cities.
For the founders of Left, setting up shop in Maple Ridge was the right move.
And doing things right, one of their core values, is beginning to pay off.
Chris Jensen and John Lyotier started Left in 2010. It was a tech start-up then. Chris was working out of his basement, with a large monitor and a printer, while John was working in his kitchen. They were working in the domain name space.
The two first met in 1998. Chris was manager of Laurentian Bank in Vancouver, a position he held at a financial institution just outside Canterbury, England before moving to Canada with his first wife and daughter.
Chris was tired of living in what he said was a small, overpopulated country that wasn’t sure it wanted to be part of the European Union.
“I always had a soft spot for Canada.”
He landed a job a week after arriving in B.C.
“I had heard the jobs were back east, but people move west. So we just headed west.”
John was then heading up a foreign language school, catering to mature students with post-secondary degrees from around the world who wanted to improve their English skills. They would come for two to three months. During that time, Chris would employ some of them at the bank to do RRSP processing, and met John.
Chris didn’t like his job.
“Being a bank manager is terrible,” he said.
He had to wear a suit and tell people what to do.
“I rebel against that,” he said, sitting in the Left office in the industrial park in west Maple Ridge, wearing jeans and a T-shirt.
Chris wanted to start his own company. He had done start-ups before, with moderate success. One employed 19 people, but he sold the company assets.
John had started a company called Stepcast, an online gift registry, before Amazon.
John was the most brilliant on-line marketer Chris had ever met.
They bumped into each other at start-up events in Vancouver. They would meet for beers and talk business. They played in an ultimate Frisbee league together in Maple Ridge. They played squash together at the Leisure Centre. They both took the West Coast Express into Vancouver for work.
After about seven years, they decided to work together.
They met up again one night to discuss their business. They wanted to operate in the domain name space, but not just to make money.
Making money is easy, Chris said.
They drafted a vision and outlined 10 core values that they have drawn in chalk on the walls of their office today.
They wanted to do something they enjoyed. They wanted to do it well. And they wanted to change the world.
A Dragon’s Den pitching event was coming to Vancouver, but tickets were $2,000 to $3,00 each. Chris and John wanted to attend, but found the tickets too expensive.
They decided to pitch their company idea to try and get into the event for free. They agreed to ask for $100,000 for a 20 per cent share to start their company.
At the event, three or four investors expressed an interest. Then another investor approached them, a person of high net worth who knew them. They went out for dinner and returned with a blank cheque for $100,000.
That is when they came up with the company name, Left of the Dot, because they needed something to write on the cheque.
“We are Left, we do things right,” was their slogan.
That same investor gave them another $350,000 six months later.
He was investing in them.
Neither Chris nor John are computer programmers or coders.
“A good company with good values attracts good people,” Chris said.
And good people can get good things done, he added.
And they can do it in Maple Ridge.
Chris and John didn’t want to commute to Vancouver anymore. They wanted to create a life balance for their company, where employees could leave work to pick up their children from school, take them to soccer practice or dance class, and catch up on work later.
Chris and John wanted to create a place were people enjoyed coming to work.
“We are no longer just butts in seats,” John said.
They also knew, from riding the train, that there were talented tech people leaving Maple Ridge every day, commuting back and forth, time that could be spent other ways.
But their first job posting on Craigslist drew zero applications.
A newspaper article about the company followed and attracted upwards of 50 applications. Most of them were overqualified for a junior platform developer position.
But some still wanted the job.
People were sick and tired of commuting downtown every day, John said.
They wanted to work closer to home, to spend more time with their families and give back to the community.
Chris and John went from working at home and having meetings at Starbucks to setting up in the former E-One Moli Energy building, with large windows framing a view of the Golden Ears mountains.
Today, a German shepherd walks around the office, sleeping under a desk. Employees sit or stand at desks. A graphic timeline of the company’s history is painted along the far wall, leading to an open kitchen and a column with idea cards pinned to strings.
On another wall are chalk drawings of the Left’s core values.
Chris and John admit the company’s first couple of years were lean. They drew only several pay cheques a year, making sure their employees were taken care of first.
Then in 2013, Left sold villa.com for several million dollars.
They had some breathing room.
“We finally got paid,” Chris said.
“We’d won at something. We’d actually made something work.”
They were still building platforms for property rental sites and were up to 20 employees from seven.
One was a computer scientist named Rakib Islam in Bangladesh. They had hired him for four previous projects through a competitive style contract, in which two people were given the same assignment, but only one was chosen. They chose Rakib’s every time, so they decided to hire him full-time.
Left now has a division of 80 employees in Bangladesh. Left has 120 employees total, with 40 at the Maple Ridge office.
They are working on something new.
Left built an app that turns mobile phones into hot spots, but John said it never took off.
Then Rakib came to them with another idea he and his team created. It was a web-based sharing application.
Rakib wanted to share it will all the schools in Bangladesh to so students could be connected.
Chris and John thought, why just the schools in Bangladesh?
In Bangladesh, digital infrastructure is old, overloaded and expensive to build, John said. So coverage is spotty, at best.
“The biggest change we want to make in the world is connectivity,” said Chris.
He added, three billion people in the world don’t have reliable Internet access.
“They may have smartphones, but they don’t have decent data, or they don’t have a good Internet connection,” he adds.
“So the digital divide is leaving those people behind.”
So Left developed RightMesh, a wireless ad-hoc network. Android phones form the infrastructure. Connectivity is achieved person to person with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi Direct, which are inherent in the phones, allowing them and similar devices to speak to others without Internet or wireless data, to have access to information – data, games, pictures, videos, files.
Now Chris and John had something they could change the world with.
Chris and John asked Rakib if he could built the mesh application.
He and his team already had.
“I don’t think they realized what they created,” John said.
RightMesh is now baking a cryptocurrency into the platform, to incentivize sharing.
“The world’s first software-based, ad hoc mobile mesh networking platform and protocol using blockchain technology and mesh tokens to power growth,” is how they brand it.
Chris and John have raised $22 million of the $30 million they need to launch the cryptocurrency. The final round of crowd contributions opens March 27.
RightMesh is used in limited pockets at the moment, such as pilot projects in Newfoundland and Labrador, and Rigolet, a remote Inuit community in northern Canada.
In Rigolet, where Internet bandwidth is too slow and unreliable to support basic online services like search, email and chat, RightMesh is supporting the Inuit community-led initiative to improve digital inclusion.
Using the eNuk mobile app, according to an article on entrepreneur.com, researchers are enabling residents in Rigolet to identify, inform and geo-pin dangerous areas, so others in the community could avoid harm, such as thin ice.
As their business grows, Chris and John have searched abroad for high-tech talent.
They hired post-secondary graduates from Guelph and Waterloo area of Ontario, where students were trained to meet industry demands through grant programs.
Those graduates live here now.
Chris and John live within minutes of work. So do many of their employees.
But they will need more.
Chris and John see Left doubling its workforce every year for the foreseeable future. If so, they will need more space. They have some in the current building, but figure not for long.
They are talking to realtors and looking for another local spot to construct a campus-like facility in Maple Ridge or Pitt Meadows, to attract and train more high-skilled talent – engineers and marketers.
Chris wants to stay in Maple Ridge. So does John.
They love it here and want to see the city grow, with room to breathe.
“We’re not a concrete jungle out here,” John said.
There are other local tech businesses, Chris said.
Some are in basements, just like he started out.
“There are a lot of these,” John added. “We need more.”
To foster that, Chris and John will attend Maple Ridge’s Innovation and Emerging Cities forum on April 4 at The ACT, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The forum is meant to be a catalyst to foster an innovative and creative culture for industry, government and education. It will feature keynote presentations from Steve Dotto on “How technology is changing everything” and Dr. Salvador Ferreras on what businesses need to do to prepare for “Industry 4.0.”
Panel discussions featuring leaders from industry, post-secondary education, First Nations and government will follow up keynote presentations.
The forum will also include a trade show, as well as a code-athon, involving students tasked with development apps for the city’s new open government portal (https://www.mapleridge.ca/1813/Open-Government-Portal).
A new website, innovate.mapleridge.ca, has been set up by the city to promote the free event, and on which participants can register.
As the Canadian economy continues its transformation from resource-based to knowledge-based, cities have become increasingly important centres for job and wealth creation, said Lino Siracusa, City of Maple Ridge manager of economic development.
Josef Hans Lara is chair of the city’s economic development committee, which has a task force that has been working on the innovation and emerging cities event for about a year.
“People don’t know that there’s a lot of tech people who live in Maple Ridge,” he said.
Left is an example of the types of growing business the economic development committee wants to foster.
Hans Lara, who operates Big Bang Innovation Services, said the event is going to help the city raise its profile and showcase innovation.
“One of the main objectives for the EDC is to elevate the profile of our city – create the good vibe that we are open for businesses, and actually to start forging a more close relationship with the technology industry as well,” he added.
“Because this is the fastest growing industry in the province, and Maple Ridge actually has the potential to take advantage of that.”