HootSuite founder returns to the nest for special appearance

Ryan Holmes stops into Kelowna to get Okanagan College's Distinguished Alumni Award.

Ryan Holmes is arguably the Okanagan’s biggest success story.

The founder and CEO of the social media management system HootSuite has raised the profile of Canada’s high tech scene, is able to casually speak about his brainchild’s projected market valuation of $500 million and can boast  Sir Richard Branson among his list of friends and acquaintances.

The latter, he admits, came dangerously close to making him a “gushing fan boy.”

With all that and more to his credit, however,  Holmes, 37, seemed more like the Vernon guy who started a paintball company right out of high school, wearing a calculator watch, a few woven bracelets and slipping in references to the Grateful Dead and Star Wars when he spoke to a crowd laced with family and old high school friends, gathered at Okanagan College.

Holmes, who was at the Kelowna campus Friday to discuss his industry and accept the school’s Distinguished Alumni Award explained in his inimitable fashion that while he’s stocked up plenty of life experiences during his meteoric rise, he has his eye on a bigger picture.

That vision starts with making HootSuite into an even more stable and powerful entity.

He’s publicly said he hopes to see it earn a $1 billion market valuation in the year to come, and with that financial might would come longevity.

“My goal is to build a company, and if I get hit by a bus, the company would keep going,” he said.

That’s where part two comes in. As HootSuite  chugs along,  B.C., with Vancouver at the epicentre, may get the foundation to become a high-tech investment hub, where more web startups can get a shot at the type of success he’s tasting.

It’s a strategy that marks a change in tack from his predecessors. It’s typical for B.C. startups  —online photo management system Flckr being one of the best known examples—to sell at a relatively small valuation and move to Silicon Valley.

That way proprietors dodge the pitfalls that come with a longterm, higher risk strategy.

Plus they get access to the big industry names on a day-to-day basis, and all the top minds that flock to the region with the knowledge there are career opportunities to be gained.

Holmes, however, has proven success is possible on native ground and sees that others can do what he has.

“San Francisco investors always said, ‘when are you coming to the valley?”‘ he said, noting he made the decision to go there when he needs to, while keeping his roots north of the border.

Other HootSuite offices have opened across the globe, but Vancouver remained home base.

If HootSuite can build as Holmes projects, it could even offer some solutions to the long lamented brain drain.

More than 300,000 well educated Canadians have already headed south to capitalize on job opportunities that don’t exist closer to home.

“I’d say they’d be lost causes,” said Holmes. “But let’s keep the next generation here.”

HootSuite success could also have reverberations closer to his old stomping grounds.

While Holmes admits the challenge of getting the type of engineers he’s used to working with would stop a company of his size from planting roots in this valley, he’s seen some positive steps forward.

“I’ve been meeting with people here today and it looks like exciting times for the Okanagan,” he said, noting everything from Accelerate Okanagan,  Club Penguins and things like like Metabridge will help build the industry’s strength.


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