Shifting the Alberta Advantage

The main thing we talked about yesterday at the ONEdmonton forum was economic development. In addition to breakouts and other discussion, we had two informative presentations that I hope to blog about over the next while. In her presentation on Diversifying Edmonton’s Economy, Tammy Fallowfield, EEDC’s Executive Director of Economic Development, touched on shifting the “Alberta Advantage”. Here’s what her slide said:

  • Remain relatively low tax
  • Not a low cost environment
  • Not a surplus of labour
  • Not a currency ‘bargain’

I think the phrase “Alberta Advantage” means different things to different people, but traditionally our low taxes, low cost of doing business, surplus of labour, and being attractive to investment, have all been considered important aspects. Here are a few notes on each.

Alberta’s low taxes remain a strength. From the Alberta Competitiveness Council’s 2010 report (PDF, 14 MB):

[Taxes and fiscal policy] represents the area of best performance for Alberta, with moderately low tax burdens for both corporations and individuals and a strong government financial position.

Of all the measures that report looks at, Alberta performs the best (unsurprisingly) in taxes and fiscal policy.

What about being a low-cost environment? From the same report:

Within Canada, business costs in Alberta (Edmonton) are lower than Ontario (Toronto), but higher than in each of the other provinces compared. This result is due to Alberta’s strong economy of recent years, which led to a much higher increase in business costs – especially labour, electricity, and facility costs – than seen in other provinces.

I haven’t yet found a good comparison of business costs with regions elsewhere in the world, so let me know if you come across something. I suspect the picture is not as rosy as it once was.

How about our labour force? All across Canada the population is aging, and that (along with our very low fertility rate) is going to lead to labour shortages. Here’s a graph from Alberta’s Occupational Demand & Supply Outlook, 2009-2019 (PDF), that shows this trend for our province:

There are many consequences as a result of this trend, not the least of which is Alberta’s challenge to attract and retain labour. Our taxes will likely also be impacted – an older population means higher costs for health care, and a slow growing labour force means a slow growing tax base.

Let’s look at the Canadian dollar (compared to the US dollar).

The strength of the Canadian dollar has an impact on foreign investment, among other things. As you can see, the dollar has been quite strong in recent years (aside from the dip in late 2008/early 2009), which may not be a good thing for Alberta.

So if being low-cost, having a surplus of labour, and being a relative currency ‘bargain’ are no longer part of the Alberta Advantage, what does that mean?

This diagram comes from the Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity, based on a presentation that Professor Daniel Trefler of the University of Toronto gave here in Alberta on October 15, 2009. The diagram was originally used to illustrate the shift that China and India have yet to make.

On the same slide that listed the four points above, Tammy included this diagram. That’s the shift we need to make here in Alberta – from being a strong low-cost competitor, to being a strong innovation-based competitor.

How are we going to do that? By making strategic choices. Here’s (more or less) what Tammy showed next:

Tammy went on to talk about the industries that are important for us to focus on here in Edmonton, and a similar exercise would apply for Alberta. I’m not sure if what I have written above is exactly what she was trying to get across, but that’s how I interpreted it.

What do you think about shifting the Alberta Advantage?

An impressive collection of local stories: 30 Days of Edmonton

For the last month, I’ve been following along as Amanda Dunlop has profiled one local business each day on her blog. She called it 30 Days of Edmonton, and it is an impressive collection of local stories. Each entry contains a brief interview with the business owner and some wonderful photos, which is no surprise given that Amanda is the primary photographer behind Lightside Photography. I liked the series so much that I asked Amanda for an interview (over coffee at Credo, which she profiled on day 15).

Amanda Dunlop

Born and raised in Edmonton, Amanda’s story is similar to many others – it took leaving to see other parts of the world to truly appreciate what we have here in Edmonton. And as she learned more about the city, her appreciation grew. Amanda worked in the Edmonton Journal’s ad department for a time, but it wasn’t her passion. She has been a photographer for more than five years, and just last fall took the plunge and made it her full-time gig.

I asked Amanda where the idea for the blog series came from, and she said it all started with a conversation. Her friend and fellow photographer Matt Ramage was setting up his business in Saskatoon, and the two discussed ways for a new business to get noticed. The idea of photographing local businesses grew from there, and Amanda ran with it (Matt may do a Saskatoon version still). She realized that the series could be a “fun and casual” way to spread the word about local establishments, and to share why she chooses to shop local.

Though she started with a “cheat sheet” of canned questions, Amanda told me they quickly evolved as she realized that some worked and some didn’t, depending on the business. She had been to most of the places she profiled at least once before, but there were some new ones, and she always made a point of asking the business owners she talked to for their favorite places. Good thing too – Amanda started with just three businesses lined up!

Amanda had three questions that I was always eager to see the responses to. Here are a few examples.

Did you grow up in Edmonton, or are you a transplant? If so, what brought you here? What keeps you here?

I never had any intentions of staying…I don’t think most people who grow up here do. I was thinking of moving to Toronto and then this opportunity came up where I was working here and was able to purchase the business from the current owner. So I went for it and I’ve really grown to appreciate Edmonton a lot more. Traveling to other cities has also made me appreciate what Edmonton has.
– Jessica, Nokomis Clothing, Day 2

I consider Edmonton my home and we just wanted to come home. It’s got some pros and cons. It’s quiet and less pretentious than a lot of cities, yet the people are good and they tend to be a little more adventuresome and quite trendy. On the other hand it’s a little hard to get some nicer things here like fresh seafood and fresh produce, etc.
– Dennis, Chocolate Exquisite, Day 11

This street is Edmonton’s idea of what downtown revitalization should look like. The people are just so supportive as well and when people start talking you really see it in the amount of business that comes in.

– Geoff, Credo Coffee, Day 15

Why is it that people are so hesitant about shopping local? Why do you think Edmonton is so “Big Box” in general?

I think Canadians are sometimes unsure of who they are and they’re not as proud of local product as much as say someone from Italy. A lot of people just don’t know what amazing quality we have right here.
– Karen, C’est Sera, Day 12

I think it’s harder and it’s an unknown. When you walk into a mall all of the stores look pretty much the same. When you walk into a local independent you never know what it’s going to be like. I think it can be a little scary. So that can be a negative thing if you want the same thing all the time, but if you want variety small independents are what you want.
– Jessie, The Blue Pear, Day 14

The city has become a mall and big box dependent culture, partly due to the near collapse of downtown. It seems that once you’ve lost your downtown, you may have lost your city. Edmonton is also a car oriented city. Because of this people tend to not shop in their local communities. Independent shops are often an overlooked part of what makes a unique community.
– James, Stylus, Day 24

If you could see one thing change here what would it be?

What my husband and I have been trying to do is to go to a butcher and get our meat, and then go to a baker and get our bread, and so on. I’d just like to see a section of the city created where you can do that with a little more ease. I guess I would like to see it become a little more European and walkable.
– Rychelle, Red Ribbon, Day 9

I guess I am seeing the change with what has been happening downtown. We’re becoming more community oriented and less big box and you don’t have to drive as much. I guess I’d just like to see us move a little further towards what we see in Europe. I think people want to feel involved in their community and that’s what we need.
– Chad, deVine Wine and Spirits, Day 13

I’d like to see people complain less…it’s one thing that drives me crazy here. I would consider Edmonton in general to have one of the best standards of living in the country. It’s just unfortunate that many of the people who live here seem to be so unhappy with it. There’s just a disproportionate amount of people that just seem to be looking for something to complain about even when this is a really great city.
– Jay, Happy Harbor Comics, Day 20

Not every business answered every question, but I still think it’s fascinating that so many different small business owners in Edmonton had such similar answers to those three important questions. Most felt that Edmonton doesn’t get the credit it deserves, that shopping local is often overlooked even though it really makes communities unique, and quite a few cited transportation and becoming “more European” as key things they’d like to see change. I also really loved Jake’s answer on Day 6 about what he’d like to see change:

The drab colours…imagine if no one here was allowed to paint their house white or brown. Things would be so much more colourful here in the winter.

That’s an idea I could get behind! The “smartie pack” houses (as we called them) in Inuvik were unique and anything but boring.

I asked Amanda if there were any businesses she would have liked to have profiled but didn’t, and she said “definitely”. She quickly realized there were far more businesses than one could cover in just 30 days! Amanda said she wished she had been able to do a few more “boy stores” like pubs or a maybe even a paintball place.

Amanda Dunlop

Amanda told me she has “a newfound respect for reporters and writers” – she discovered the series was much more time consuming to produce than she had originally anticipated! She estimates she spent two to three hours on every post, and that was on top of her regular obligations, of course. It was rewarding however, and she’d like to continue it – but less intensively, perhaps one or two profiles per month.

I had a great conversation with Amanda, and was happy that the passion for local she shared on the blog came through in person too. She was wearing a top designed by Edmonton’s own Fridget Apparel, and admitted she was “devastated” by the news that Nokomis was closing. “If I was having a bad week I’d go to Nokomis and buy a dress,” she told me. Amanda’s other local favorites include Blue Plate Diner (which she profiled on day 27), and Red Ribbon (which she profiled on day 9). “We need the dynamic that local business brings to the community.”

The final entry in the series will be posted tomorrow. I encourage you to read through all of the profiles.

Well done Amanda, and thanks for the chat!

Edmonton’s FIRE Industry: $135 billion and counting

Did you know that more than $135 billion is managed right here in Edmonton? I didn’t either until I heard someone an EEDC event I was at mention it in passing. I’m sure we’ve all heard another Edmontonian gripe about our city’s lack of head offices, about how blue-collar we are, but how many people have mentioned that billion dollar stat? Not many is my guess. I decided to learn more.

The acronym FIRE stands for Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate. It’s a big industry, with more than 36,000 employees in Edmonton (roughly 5.5% of our labour force). In 2009, the FIRE industry accounted for $8.7 billion or 18% of Edmonton’s GDP. Employment in the industry has grown 23% from 2007, and GDP created from the FIRE industry has grown 40% over the last ten years (compared to 30% overall).

Those numbers come from Greg Bainbridge and Tammy Fallowfield at Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC). They were nice enough to help me gain a better understanding of the industry.

I wanted to get a sense of just how big the industry is, compared to other places. As you might expect, it’s difficult to compare Edmonton with a population of around 1 million people to Toronto, which is four or five times our size. Comparing Alberta as a whole makes more sense. That means looking at Calgary and Edmonton together, an idea that both EEDC and the Alberta Economic Development Authority (AEDA) are promoting. Greg told me that “Calgary and Edmonton are complementary financial service centres”, something that is common in other places as well (Dallas/Houston, Geneva/Zurich, Amsterdam/Rotterdam, etc). He pointed me to AEDA’s recent report entitled Building Alberta’s Financial Services Industry (PDF). Sure enough, one of the “strengths we can build upon” listed in the report is the complementary nature of Calgary and Edmonton’s financial services sectors.

The local financial services industry in Calgary has established a reputation as among the world’s best for energy financing. Edmonton’s financial services industry, meanwhile, has established strengths in banking and risk management.

The report makes the point that as a whole, Alberta’s FIRE industry is, well, on fire. From 2004 through 2009, total capital investment in Alberta totaled almost $433 billion. Here’s what the per capita investment looked like across the country in 2009 (the national average was $9,174):

Employment growth in the financial services industry in Alberta has outpaced the national average over the last ten years as well.

We’re not without challenges, of course. The AEDA report cites economic diversification as a key challenge:

Another key challenge is a shortage of skilled labour: “compared to those of other provinces with financial centres, Alberta’s labour force includes the lowest proportion of individuals with post-secondary education.”

That’s a challenge that the industry is tackling here in Edmonton. Greg described the industry as “an industry of human capital, the foundation of which is smart people”. The University of Alberta has a number of programs of course, such as the MBA program, and NAIT offers a risk management program for insurance, but beyond that there isn’t much in the way of FIRE-specific education. Many of the industry’s senior positions have been filled by drawing expertise from elsewhere, and attracting talent has been a major focus of the industry.

That’s one of the reasons that EEDC recently formed the Financial Services Working Group here in Edmonton. Greg told me that the industry has grown quite organically and independently thus far, due at least in part to the government being located here (thinking of AIMCo and ATB, for instance), but that has meant very little coordination or working together (a mission to Toronto in June 2009 focused on recruitment was one of the first tangible examples of working together). The working group, which met for the first time in October, is brainstorming ways to further the industry, and working more closely with educational partners such as NAIT to develop relevant curriculum is a key outcome of that effort.

Continuing education of the industry’s labour force is another goal. Conferences, luncheons, and other events are all being considered. Though the University of Alberta has the only Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) partnership in Western Canada, there isn’t a strong understanding of the designation in the industry (think of it as the CA equivalent for investment professionals). There are also opportunities to share research being done at the University of Alberta more directly with the industry.

So who are some of the key players in the FIRE industry in Edmonton?

  • Canadian Western Bank – Formed as the result of a series of mergers & acquisitions, but started in 1984 as the Bank of Alberta. CWB has nearly $12 billion in assets, more than 1200 employees, and has achieved 89 90 consecutive profitable quarters.
  • ATB Financial – Founded in 1938 under William Aberhart. ATB has more than $25 billion in assets and more than 5000 employees.
  • Servus Credit Union – Formed as the result of a series of mergers, the largest of which was Capital City Savings, formed in 1987. Servus has nearly $10 billion in assets and more than 2000 employees.
  • AIMCo (Alberta Investment Management Corporation) – Created by legislation in March 2007. AIMCo manages approximately $71 billion and ranks as one of the five largest institutional investment managers in Canada.
  • Peace Hills Trust – Established in 1980. Peace Hills has nearly $500 million in assets and over 120 employees.
  • Peace Hills Insurance – Established in 1982. Peace Hills has more than $270 million in assets and more than 175 employees.
  • ATRF (Alberta Teachers’ Retirement Fund) – Has been administering a pension plan for Alberta teachers since 1939. ATRF has assets of roughly $5 billion.

These organizations and others in the FIRE industry will play an important role in the future economic growth of our city and province. As the AEDA report states:

The financial services industry is a critical enabler of economic growth, competitiveness, scalability, and productivity. It provides businesses and other industries across the economy with the necessary capital, financial support and advice to pursue opportunities and compete internationally. A robust financial services industry facilitates connections and access to international markets, and helps develop local entrepreneurship, equity, and wealth.

They might be large, but these organizations are also part of the community. ATB Financial, for instance, is a very active community member with thousands of volunteers hours and millions of dollars invested.

The future for the industry looks bright, and initiatives such as the working group should help to take the industry to the next level. Greater engagement with educational partners is important, but the industry will need to make even broader connections to truly succeed. Organizations such as the Edmonton Financial Literacy Society (of which Greg is the chair) can help in that regard. It’s also encouraging to see people like Larry Pollock, CEO of Canadian Western Bank, connect with young professionals like he did at the Emerging Business Leaders’ September meeting.

Edmonton’s FIRE industry is successful and growing, with over $135 billion under management. Remember that the next time someone tells you Edmonton is blue-collar!

Why Edmonton’s Teatro La Quindicina and actor Jeff Haslam will never get my business again

With one exception, Sharon and I had a great time at the 29th Edmonton International Fringe Festival this past weekend. Unfortunately, all that sticks out in our minds is that exception. Before I explain, a little background.

Sharon is the person who introduced me to live theatre in Edmonton. Though the first show she took me to wasn’t a Teatro la Quindicina production, it wasn’t long before we were regularly attending their shows. I don’t write about theatre as much as Sharon does, but I do mention it from time to time, such as when we went to see The Talking Turk back in March 2005. Over the years I have come to really enjoy local theatre, and Teatro in particular. I wrote my Edmonton Story about local theatre, and specifically mentioned the company. In fact, Sharon and I found that we were going to so many of Teatro’s shows that we subscribed to the 2009 season, and did so again this year. We thought it was a great way to support the company.

Though she probably started watching Teatro productions in high school, Sharon only started blogging in 2006, so her first related entry was about Eros and the Itchy Ant in November 2006. Since then, she has written about nearly every local production we’ve ever been to, including at least twelve Teatro shows. She says it better than I can:

The best thing about a personal blog, of course, is that I don’t have to limit my content. I do still enjoy commenting about the arts scene, and in particular, the wonderful plays staged by the theatre community. And so, despite the proliferation of food-centric posts, I will continue to think of myself as a blogger who simply happens to write often about food.

Without a doubt, one of our favorite local actors has been Jeff Haslam. A Teatro regular, Jeff took over as the company’s Artistic Director in 2009. Neither Sharon nor I have been shy about calling him our favorite, and one of the reasons we decided to see Edmonton Opera’s H.M.S. Pinafore was because Jeff was in it. Sharon actually reached out to him in November last year to help with her post on Shop Local Month (he did).

All of this made what happened on the weekend even more disappointing, inappropriate, and hurtful.

It started on Saturday while we were in between shows at the Fringe. Sharon was checking her email on her phone, and discovered a comment from Jeff Haslam on her recent post about Teatro’s The Ambassador’s Wives. We were both shocked after we read it:

You come across as snotty and arrogant. I absolutely despise your pretension that you are “a reviewer” in any professional way. In fact every time I read one of your posts I think “I am not smitten with this weird women like her icky friends seem to be. I wish she’d stop subscribing to my theatre company, because she seems like such a pretentious doof. I wonder if she knows that her endlessly stuck-up self-important little reviews are deeply offensive to those of us who bust our buts for next to nothing to bring a little entertainment to this distant northern city? I wonder if she knows that her crappy 19 bucks goes to less than 40% of what it costs to pay all the artists she isn’t always smitten by? Do us all a favour lady. Write about food and take your entertainment dollar elsewhere.
Jeff Haslam

Had our favorite local actor really written that? Needless to say, Sharon was pretty disturbed by the comment. I refused to believe it was actually from Jeff Haslam (though the email and IP address didn’t suggest anything to the contrary). So because we were friends on Facebook, I sent him a message to make sure the comment was actually from him:

Did you actually leave a comment on the Only Here for the Food blog’s review of The Ambassador’s Wives?

Instead of the “no way” I was hoping for, so that we could take the comment down, I received this reply:

Yes. Yes I did. Sorry if I insulted you and Sharon, but you cannot BEGIN to imagine how offended I am, and we all are are, by Sharon’s "reviews". You people are not, I’m sorry to say, invisible. The Internet stretches far and wide. I do not need or want your money, especially if you have the GALL to review us so sarcastically and with such bile. Your review of our work on Dial M was particularly sickening. Actually there isn’t a single thing that Sharon has written that hasn’t made me wonder why you people even go to my shows at all. I’d prefer you never darken our door again. Sincerely, Jeff Haslam

I received that reply just as we were getting ready to line-up for Die-Nasty. Knowing that Jeff was in it, we decided to go home instead, still confused and upset by his comments. When we got home, I went on Facebook to reply, only to find that I could no longer see Jeff’s account. Evidently he had blocked me. So I emailed him instead, asking for clarification and offering to meet for coffee to chat about his issues. Today he replied, calling us “Internet bullies.”

Jeff’s comments are inexcusable, to say the least. Sharon and I have talked it over so many times this weekend, and we still can’t make sense of it. She has never written anything that could be described as “sickening”. What could possibly have compelled Jeff to write what he did?

Our first question was why he chose to share his thoughts publicly? Why leave a comment on Sharon’s blog instead of emailing her directly? Even though I think Jeff’s comments on Sharon’s reviews are completely unfounded, they’d have been better shared privately first.

While there are many differences between a theatre company and, for example, a clothing store, both are businesses when you get right down to it. Both rely on delivering a product to customers. And if you want those customers to return, you need to treat them well. There’s a reason everyone has heard the phrase “the customer is always right.” From a business perspective, what Jeff said is unfathomable: “take your entertainment dollar elsewhere” and “never darken our door again.” In what world does that make any business sense? And why did he decide to say this now, after happily accepting our money as subscribers for the last two years? It certainly sounds like Jeff has been reading our posts for quite some time.

For some reason, Jeff is really offended by what we’ve written in the past. Here are some of the specific posts he mentioned in his email reply: On the Banks of the Nut, East of My Usual Brain, The Big Kahuna: Day 2H.M.S. Pinafore. As I said, I don’t think anything we’ve written has been unfair or overly negative (quite the opposite actually). Read the posts for yourself and tell me if you’re disgusted. You’d think that someone like Jeff, who has been in theatre for so long, would have thicker skin. You can’t please everyone, after all. On the other hand, it seems as though Edmonton’s most visible theatre writer, Liz Nicholls of the Edmonton Journal, has never written anything negative about Jeff or Teatro (seriously, look it up – you can search The Journal’s archives here if you have a library card). Maybe he’s gotten used to that. Here’s what Liz wrote in a 1998 profile of Jeff:

“Audiences at every theatre in town know the Lethbridge-born 34- year-old for his smart, stylish, inspired performances in Lemoine’s comedies, in Citadel musicals like Hello Dolly! and Lady Be Good, in new Canadian plays, in classics. There’s a certain panache la Cary Grant or Warren Beatty about Haslam onstage in a romantic comedy.”

In her review of Dial ‘M’ for Murder, Liz said of Jeff: “Haslam positively cavorts through the intricate footwork of the role…it’s a juicy performance.” She called the production “a marvellous night of theatre.” Sharon (and I) felt somewhat differently. It seems only natural that some people will enjoy a show while others will not.

Theatre, like food, is subjective. You can come up with checklists and guidelines and look for techniques and planning and passion, but none of it really matters. The result will be interpreted differently by different people. Here’s a recent food example. There’s a well-known restaurant in Paris called L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. It has two Michelin stars. In one recent review, a blogger described it as “a totally stunning meal.” In a different review, it was described as “very disappointing.” It’s all about personal opinion.

If Jeff wrote what he did because he feels that Sharon’s reviews as a blogger are somehow less important or relevant than Liz’s reviews as a writer for the paper, he’s in for a rude awakening. It’s 2010, and everyone has the ability to easily publish online. Everyone can share their opinion, and increasingly people turn to the thoughts of other people like them, who paid full price and got the typical experience, rather than the “professional” reviewer who got it for free and likely has an existing relationship with the restaurant or theatre company or whatever it is that they’re reviewing. That’s why sites like RottenTomatoes, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Epinions, blogs, and heck even Twitter, have become such popular destinations for people looking for reviews.

If Sharon’s reviews have done anything, I think they’ve increased awareness about Teatro and its cast members. If you search for Teatro la Quindicina for example, Sharon comes up third. Searches for “Mark Meer” and other Teatro stars regularly appear in her incoming search keywords. People increasingly turn to the web when they want more information about something, and for Edmontonians looking for more on Teatro, Sharon’s blog has been an important destination.

That’ll change after this, no doubt. You can bet that we’ll never give our money to Jeff Haslam or any production he’s involved in ever again, even if that means we miss out some otherwise great theatre. Given that this is how he treats his customers (fans even) I would encourage you to also think twice before you part with your money. When he says he wants you there, he clearly doesn’t mean it, especially not if you’re planning to write about it. We’re saddened and hurt by this turn of events.

So Jeff, while you can take comfort in the fact that we won’t be writing about your shows anymore, sooner or later you’re going to have to wake up to the reality that others will.

You can read Sharon’s post about this here.

UPDATE: Apparently SEE Magazine was banned from attending Stewart Lemoine plays about two years ago. Thanks to Sally for the link.

UPDATE2: Brittney over at iNews880 interviewed Jeff for his side of the story today.

UPDATE3: I’m rather surprised at how many people have written about this. Here’s an article in the Globe and Mail, and here’s Todd’s piece in the Edmonton Journal.

UPDATE (August 26, 2010): Sharon and I received a handwritten apology from Jeff Haslam in the mail today, along with a signed copy of Stewart Lemoine’s At the Zenith of the Empire and a refund for the unused portion of our season subscriptions.

Edmonton’s Omni Technology Solutions brings CRM integration to the world

Last year, local software company Omni Technology Solutions celebrated its 10th birthday. They’ve had some incredible success during that time, and are well-positioned for future growth. With a focus on customer relationship management integration solutions, they’re probably not a company that you’ve heard of, unless you happen to be a customer. While almost all the leading CRMs are headquartered in Silicon Valley, it’s interesting to know that the number one CRM integration platform is developed here in Edmonton! That’s why I reached out to Trevor Poapst, Omni’s Director of Global Marketing, to learn more.

Their core offering, Riva, overcomes the limitations of Outlook CRM plug-ins that need to be installed, configured and managed on each user’s desktop, laptop and mobile device. Instead, Riva gets installed once on a server and transparently syncs CRM address book, calendar, sales and support data to all Microsoft Exchange and Novell GroupWise email clients. Riva is compatible with the very popular Salesforce, SugarCRM, Microsoft Dynamics CRM, Oracle CRM, SageCRM, Saleslogix and several other leading CRM systems. What’s unique about Riva is that the synchronization all happens server-side, so there are no Outlook plug-ins required.

The company’s second product is called eControl, and it satisfies the need for a simpler, web-based alternative to the native management tools for Microsoft Active Directory, Exchange, Novell GroupWise, eDirectory, SAP and other systems. Though eControl has been designed to be simple enough for non-technical users to use, it is still very powerful, and features full auditing, enhancing compliance with SOX and other regulations. Omni’s customers have used eControl to manage anywhere from 500 to 50,000 user accounts, and a typical deployment takes less than 3 hours.

You’ll notice that both solutions work with Novell’s products, which is really where Omni got started. They’re one of the top three GroupWise developers in the world, and have benefited greatly from participating in the Novell ecosystem. Being focused on Novell hasn’t been without challenges, however. The first was the size of the market. There are far fewer Novell customers than Microsoft customers. In the last year or two however, Omni has successfully expanded into the Microsoft marketplace, and is working hard to continue to grow in that area.

The second challenge is one that Omni continues to deal with. Though the company has always been based here in Edmonton, very few of its customers have been in Canada because GroupWise has traditionally had a stronger following elsewhere. Winning global sales hasn’t been easy. In addition to working with partners, Omni has started to open offices abroad. Offices in Chile and Munich opened late last year, and the company recently closed its first major eControl deal in Chile as a result.

Though reaching the global market is challenging as an Alberta-based company, Trevor wouldn’t have it any other way. The company has received lots of support from the provincial government, and has benefited from having access to a highly trained workforce and relatively low business costs. Trevor also mentioned that Alberta is a great place to raise a family, in part because you don’t have to commute several hours every day. In fact, Omni’s CEO and CTO both bike to work year-round, even in the snow!

Omni just launched version 3.5 of eControl (education customers can save 70% until August 31), as well as its new Riva website. The company is planning its second annual eControl conference in Santiago, Chile. Omni is poised for growth and is looking to expand its partner network, especially now that it can tap into the large Microsoft and CRM partner communities.

It was great talking to Trevor (who is actually working from Mexico this year), and learning more about a successful Edmonton-based software company making significant inroads into the global CRM and identity management markets. I think it’s a fantastic example of the success that companies based here can have, and I wish Omni all the best as they continue to grow. You can follow Omni on Facebook and on Twitter.

Recap: Startup Weekend Edmonton

This past weekend was the first Startup Weekend in Canada, held right here in Edmonton! About 30 local developers, designers, and idea people got together at Enterprise Square for the event, organized by Startup Edmonton. As I mentioned last week, Startup Weekend’s mission is to teach entrepreneurship in a fun, interactive way. It’s also a great way to see first-hand the talent that exists in the local tech community.

The weekend got started on Friday evening with the pitches. Anyone with an idea for an application or product was invited to write it down on a flip chart. After all the ideas were collected, each one was given 60 seconds to make an elevator pitch, trying to attract people to the team. When that was done, everyone spread out and slowly but surely teams formed. In the end, six teams came together for the weekend.

The teams starting to form on Friday evening

For all of Saturday and most of Sunday the teams were hard at work on their ideas. There is no required deliverable at the end of Startup Weekend, but each team was working as quickly as possible to get as much done as they could in time for a demo. Startup Weekend forces teams to focus on bringing an idea to life quickly, which is an important skill to have. Ideas are a dime a dozen, but being able to execute on them is much more difficult. Starting with just the seed of an idea and less than two days later having something workable to show to others is incredibly valuable. Another great thing about Startup Weekend is that it provides an opportunity for individuals to work together, even if they had never met before. It’s amazing what can happen when two or more creative people get talking.

As the teams put the final touches on their prototypes on Sunday evening, members of the local tech community started to arrive. The final part of Startup Weekend was the demo, giving teams a chance to show off what they had worked on for the last two days.

Here’s what was built at Startup Weekend Edmonton:

  • HomeCricket, an iPhone application that utilizes Open Data from the City of Edmonton to help you find a house. It shows you assessment information, as well as the nearest police stations, schools, parks, and more.
  • Life Radar, a to-do application for the iPad that uses a points system to motivate you to get things done. Neat app, especially when you consider that no one on the team had ever built an iPad app before!
  • RightPath, a web-based Q & A style app that connects high school students with mentors from the business world. Students ask questions about careers, mentors answer.
  • PaxImperium, a social real-time strategy game for Facebook. With no developers on the team, they focused on a detailed product pitch instead, complete with financial projections.
  • GameGigs, a web-based app that connects game developers, designers, and players. It uses the Twitter API for authentication, which made for an interesting (and challenging) demo!
  • Green Planet, a Facebook-based app (with an iPhone app too) that builds awareness around environmental sustainability. As you complete real-life missions (like replacing light bulbs in your house with energy efficient ones) your virtual planet benefits.

I’m really amazed at what was created in such a short amount of time! The apps were all polished and well-thought out, and while there were some bugs in the demos as expected, every team completed enough to clearly convey their idea. Many of the ideas changed quite a bit from the original pitch on Friday, and it would be interesting to see how they’d change even more if the teams continued working on them. With the Apps4Edmonton competition now underway, I suspect some of the teams may do just that.

There are loose plans for another Startup Weekend in Edmonton, tentatively scheduled for the fall. Stay tuned to Startup Edmonton (and on Twitter) for updates. You can see the rest of my photos from Startup Weekend here.

Congratulations to the Startup Edmonton team and to all the participants for a very fun and successful weekend!

Recap: ONEdmonton Leaders Forum #2

Yesterday morning was the second ONEdmonton Leaders Forum, hosted by EEDC at the Shaw Conference Centre. After a good experience at the first one, I was excited for another opportunity to chat with everyone and eager to see if the organizers would indeed make more time for that. EEDC Board Chair Henry Yip and EEDC President Ron Gilbertson gave very brief introductory remarks, and we got down to business.

Our moderator for the day was Anne McLellan. She started by presenting the following question (I’m paraphrasing a bit):

What are your top five opportunities, challenges, and priorities for Edmonton as we work toward becoming one of the world’s leading mid-size cities?

She then numbered everyone off into 8 groups, and we started discussing. For about half an hour, groups talked amongst themselves, with each member having the chance to share their top 5 issues (or less). This exercise was something I was prepared for, given my Pecha Kucha 7 talk, so I started in my group. Here are the three I shared:

  1. Density
  2. Storytelling
  3. Creative Economy

I added “Living Local” after everyone had shared their issues, and I agreed with most of the table who mentioned EXPO 2017. There were some other duplicates, but I wrote down over 20 things from our group alone. It was a great discussion and it was really interesting to hear where everyone was at. Some of the more memorable things mentioned at my table were “winter city”, “homelessness”, and “waterfront development”.

During a short break the organizers tallied up all the lists to identify the overall group’s top 10 opportunities, challenges, and priorities. Here’s the result (issue with percentage of the group that identified it):

  1. Downtown revitalization (46%)
  2. Crime (29%)
  3. Education / R&D (29%)
  4. Transportation / Infrastructure (25%)
  5. Homelessness (19%)
  6. Brand / Identity (19%)
  7. River Valley Development (17%)
  8. Regional Partnerships (15%)
  9. Promoting the city (15%)
  10. Aboriginal Integration (14%)

A moderated discussion followed, which of course felt like it wasn’t long enough. A few really good comments were made. One I’ll share was from Homeward Trust Executive Director Susan McGee, who said that language is important, and that the word “integration” in #10 on the list probably was not the best choice of words. I thought it was a great point.

Crime & Safety

We finished off the morning with a presentation from EPS Deputy Chief of Police Norm Lipinski. He shared some really great information about the EPS approach, as well as some positive stories about crime in Edmonton. Here are the EPS objectives:

  1. Reduce Crime
  2. Reduce Disorder
  3. Enhance Traffic Safety
  4. Maintain Public Trust

Some of the ways they accomplish those objectives are through community policing, hot spot management, offender management, and business practices. He mentioned the broken window theory, and said he was a big fan of having a visible presence. Norm’s takeaways were that overall crime is down in Edmonton over the last three years, that the rate of solving crime is up, and that we have a top tier police service (also a very young police service). He finished with a funny slide comparing his appearance to that of Kevin Bacon (the resemblance is uncanny). A discussion followed his presentation but I had to leave so I missed it.

I thought the second ONEdmonton forum was great – kudos to EEDC for acting on the feedback for the first event to make this one a success. I look forward to the next forum, where we’ll hopefully start trying to address the execution side of becoming one of the world’s top five mid-size cities.

Recap: 2010 EEDC Annual Luncheon

Today I joined hundreds of other Edmontonians at the 2010 EEDC Annual Luncheon, held at the Shaw Conference Centre. The event was an opportunity for EEDC to share its accomplishments over the past year, and to provide thoughts and guidance on the economic outlook for our city. Outgoing EEDC board chair Randy Ferguson got things underway with some thoughts on two of his favorite subjects: downtown, and EXPO 2017. Randy reiterated how important a downtown is to a city, and said that we must have the courage and commitment to make EXPO happen.

Next up was EEDC President & CEO Ron Gilbertson. Something that Ron has been showing a lot lately is the Edmonton Economic Dashboard, which grades our city on eight different aspects. Here’s where we are today:

  • Income/GDP – A
  • Retail Sales – A
  • Unemployment – B
  • Insolvency – C
  • Office Vacancy – A
  • Housing – B
  • Air Service – B
  • Inflation – A

Overall, that gives us a B+. Looking long-term, Ron gave Edmonton an A, saying:

Though Edmonton was not immune from the 2009 global decline, our economic fundamentals remain strong. Few economies have as bright prospects over the coming decades as Edmonton and northern Alberta.

EEDC Annual LuncheonEEDC Annual Luncheon

The 2010 EEDC Awards of Excellence were also handed out:

EPCOR President & CEO Don Lowry, Innovotech President Ken Boutilier, and AGA Chair Allan Scott were all on-hand to accept the awards on behalf of their respective organizations.

University of Alberta President Dr. Indira Samarasekera closed out the event with a phenomenal speech about the importance of working together (which you can read online here in PDF, or here). She focused on innovation, smarts, and creativity, and shared some really interesting and scary statistics (such as the low percentage of Albertans that go to post secondary). My favorite part though, was the beginning:

“I would like each of you to take your trusty digital device – Blackberry, iPhone, Palm, whatever you use – from your belt or pocket, or out of your bag and purse, and hold it in your hand,” she instructed. “Now, take a second moment to take a good look at it. In your hand, you hold the symbol of innovation. We call them smart phones. These smart phones have transformed our lives – our social lives, our business lives, our family lives, even our emotional and physical well being.”

It was a great way to start. She said one of our biggest challenges is speed – we have shorter incubation times than ever before, and we need to keep up (Innovotech’s Ken Boutilier talked about that too in his remarks). She also said that we need some BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals. And she stressed that both the City and the University desperately need to diversity their talent and economic bases. Dr. Samarasekera is a great speaker, and was definitely the highlight of the luncheon.

You can read the 2009 EEDC Annual Report here in PDF. Stay tuned to @EEDC on Twitter for updates.

Recap: TEC VenturePrize 2010

Today was the awards luncheon for the 2010 edition of TEC VenturePrize, an Alberta-wide business plan competition. The competition is a great way for entrepreneurs to access professional mentorship, networking, and also provides an opportunity to get some exposure. And speaking as a participant (back in 2006) I can honestly say that you learn so much in such a short period of time!

Today’s host was Ryan Jespersen of Citytv, and our special guests included Annette Trimbee, Deputy Minister, Alberta Advanced Education and Technology, and Mayor Stephen Mandel. Chris Lumb, CEO of TEC Edmonton, also brought greetings. In a statement he said:

“Innovators come first at TEC Edmonton. The cailbre of talent that was showcased today is a reflection of the creativity taking place in our province. The determination to build strong business plans through training, mentoring and finally pitching is what makes Alberta’s entrepreneurs stand above the rest.”

We also heard from Duncan Stewart from Deloitte, and last year’s fast growth winner, Ken Bautista of Seek Your Own Proof. Duncan shared some technology predictions and trends with us, while Ken provided an update on the success that his company has had since winning the competition.

TEC VenturePrize 2010TEC VenturePrize 2010

Dozens of entrepreneurs and students from around the province participated, and it was up to the judges to narrow the field down to three finalists in each category (Fast Growth and Student). The finalists in the fast growth category were:

And in the student category:

  • Alberta Carbon
  • E² Technologies
  • Molecular Tetris Inc.

The winner of the Screeners’ Award of Merit, for a business plan that shows excellent promise, was Innovequity Inc. The winner of the Student Business Plan Award was Alberta Carbon. And the grand prize winner of the Fast Growth Award was Biolithic Corporation. You can read the official announcement of the winners here.

TEC VenturePrize 2010

I had the opportunity to work with Firenest a little on their presentation and elevator pitch, so I was definitely cheering for them. I still think they did a fantastic job. Congratulations to the winners and to all the participants!

You can see the rest of my photos from the event here.

Recap: ONEdmonton Leaders Forum

Yesterday morning was EEDC’s first ONEdmonton Leaders Forum. The series of events aims to “bring together the region’s most influential leaders to discuss key topics affecting our community.” I am honored to have been invited to participate, likely to represent “youth” along with Cary Williams and a few others. Just over 90 of the 150 or so invited leaders attended the event, and while I’m not going to name any names (aside from the speakers) rest assured it was a very impressive collection of individuals.

The morning started with a welcome and overview from EEDC Board Chair and COO of ProCura, Randy Ferguson. He invited EEDC President & CEO Ron Gilbertson to set the stage for the event. Ron talked about where Edmonton is today (one of 307 mid-size cities in the world) and where we’d like to be. He focused on two key areas: economic success, and quality of life, referencing the Conference Board of Canada’s prosperity ratings as he went. After providing some context, Randy and Ron shared EEDC’s Vision (PDF):

To ensure Edmonton is recognized as one of the world’s top 5 mid-size cities by 2030.

I like it, and I think others in the room did too. That’s the vision the group will be aligning on and working toward achieving. The idea is to try to speak with one voice, hence the title of the forum.

After a quick break, we heard from four speakers:

  1. Reg Milley, President & CEO, Edmonton Airports. Reg talked about the new Stop The Calgary Habit campaign, and about the importance of a healthy local airport. The slogan for the campaign, “when you go south, so does your air service” says it all. Reg implored everyone to “shop local” for air travel.
  2. Jim Taylor, Executive Director, Downtown Business Association. Jim talked about the incredible transformations that have happened downtown in the last decade, and a little about what’s coming. He mentioned that the “cumulative story” is what’s important – all of the changes in aggregate are pretty impressive.
  3. Sol Rolingher, C.St. J., Q.C., Duncan & Craig LLP, River Valley Alliance Chair. Sol talked about the importance of preserving, protecting, and enhancing the river valley, and about local heritage. He has been working with others to preserve some Edmonton artifacts throughout the river valley. I thought he was an incredible speaker, very passionate. He also gave everyone a copy of this awesome map.
  4. Dave Mowat, President & CEO, ATB Financial, EXPO Bid Committee. Dave, with a little help from Randy, talked about the EXPO 2017 bid. I got the feeling that many in the room are excited for the bid, because it’s an opportunity to achieve big things all at once. There was nothing new for me in the presentation, but it was still a good overview.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of time for questions or further discussion, but it sounds like they’ll be working on improving that for future forums. I would have made the following comment, had there been time:

We know we have successes here, but we often don’t do a very good job of telling our story. Like Jim’s “cumulative story” on downtown, or the thriving local tech startup scene (reference by someone else in the group). We need to become better storytellers in order to achieve the vision.

Looking forward to the next forum!