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Whitehorse: the startup city

I have to admit that, whenever I'm in San Francisco and walk past one of those shared workspace places, I always stop and look in the window.

I have to admit that, whenever I’m in San Francisco and walk past one of those shared workspace places, I always stop and look in the window. They are full of people working alone with headphones or in small groups clustered around a screen, usually with backpacks, bikes or those weird electric one-wheel skateboard things scattered around in the background.

Is she inventing The Next Big Thing on the Internet? Is he writing the next mind-blowing post about blockchain on Ars Technica? Or just taking a break while posting photos of man-buns and plaid shirts on Instagram?

There is a dynamism, intensity and collaborative feel that you seldom sense in corporate or government offices.

Baked Cafe on Main Street has long been the closest thing we have to these spaces. I find Baked’s cafe atmosphere conducive to conversation and writing. I often overhear people working on interesting things, although we are in the Yukon so there is a significant risk you might end up sitting beside some sad looking people discussing consultation strategy for Phase 17b of some YESAB process.

But a cafe has its drawbacks. The art gets in the way of projecting your new atomic-powered snow-shovelling robot design onto the wall. The only private office if you have to make a sensitive phone call is the bathroom. And the Wi-Fi bandwidth isn’t large enough to use Alteryx or Tableau to make big data dance. And the staff like to go home, so you can’t stage 24-hour hackathons there.

We now have a place where you can do all of these things. I am actually writing this column from Whitehorse’s new shared collaboration space, called (co)space, located upstairs at Second and Strickland. Organized by the people behind Yukonstruct, it is a place where entrepreneurs of all kinds can meet to split workspace costs, share ideas and broaden their networks.

In the old days most work had to happen at “work.” If you were a factory worker, you needed to be where the big machines lived. If you were a white-collar worker, that usually meant an office where your colleagues, files and typewriters were. Most workplace interactions were with fellow employees of the same company at the same location.

This has now changed radically. Technology has enabled teams to work together virtually. Colleagues can carve up a project into chunks and work on it in different locations, sharing output electronically and meeting by video or not at all. Knowledge workers don’t need giant machines to create valuable output.

And this isn’t only the classic garage tech startup. Technology is redefining the company and how business is done in every industry. No longer is the only way of doing business to hire employees to do everything. You can sell via the Internet instead of hiring sales people. A web marketing firm can do your advertising instead of a marketing department. Your accounting system can be located somewhere in the cloud.

The result of all this has been an explosion in the number of people working alone or in small startups and in every kind of location imaginable.

I sat with a table of young Yukon entrepreneurs at the recent Startup Canada conference in Whitehorse. Asked for one big idea to help entrepreneurs succeed in the Yukon, they focused on the need for mentorship and advice.

It is a theme, by the way, also identified by Stefan Voswinkel in his ground-breaking report on Yukon knowledge workers in 2012. He interviewed 62 Yukon knowledge workers and estimated over 300 were active in the Yukon economy. Over half were “loan eagles” and around a fifth had less the six employees. (co)space is perfectly suited to support these knowledge workers and attract more to the Yukon.

In the old days, the model was that young people would work at a company and learn the ropes. Nowadays, they have the ideas, initiative and technical skills to move more quickly to start their own businesses. But in the early stages they still need low-cost workspace and a network to help find advice, capital and business partnership opportunities.

(co)space hopes to be the hub where this will happen. It has open office space, meeting rooms, projectors, Wi-Fi and all the Silicon Valley necessities. It will also offer events including technical training, guest speakers and networking events. Perhaps most importantly, it aspires to be the hub around which a growing Yukon entrepreneurial community coalesces.

Organizers stress that this is not just for the tech community. Entrepreneurs of all sorts and sizes are welcome, including non-profit or “social entrepreneurs.” Indeed, technology is becoming so embedded in our lives that very few businesses launch today without some kind of technology angle.

Do you have an idea of your own? Or maybe you think you can beat me to market with the robot driveway shoveler?

If yes, then stop surfing the Internet and get involved.

As a community venture, (co)space organizers are offering cut-rate introductory memberships at $99 per month for the first two months (less for students). Founding members will get a chance to influence how (co)space develops in terms of amenities and programs.

According to Dan Gunn, the CEO of the Victoria Innovation, Advanced Technology and Entrepreneurship Council who spoke at Startup Canada’s event in Whitehorse, Victoria now has around 900 technology companies. He pointed out that Whitehorse’s population is about a tenth of Victoria’s, and that we might someday shoot to have 90 tech companies here.

(co)space will be an important part of realizing that ambition. I’m looking forward to watching the new businesses that get launched from (co)space’s new Strickland Street pad.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won this year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s “Yukonomist” show.