In a city known as much for its visitors as its visionaries, Victoria’s high-tech startups are stepping into the spotlight.
At two years old, BackyardBC is one of those companies, combining co-founder Brian Friesen’s experience in Victoria’s hospitality industry with the blossoming local tech industry.
Friesen’s tourism website targets what other online travel giants do not: promote tourism for British Columbians in British Columbia, and saving them money at the same time.
“We found that online travel agents like Expedia and Travelocity became huge, and in their growth got too aggressive with commission,” Friesen says.
“We looked at that and said, ‘let’s collect 10 per cent commission and that way there is more flexibility for pricing (for hotels).’”
He says his model, which targets B.C. residents who must prove their residency with valid identification, helps BackyardBC make money by taking less from hotels, who then offer discount rates to customers.
Formerly of the Hotel Grand Pacific, Friesen’s ready-built contacts and transferable skills formed the starting point, building a baseline of hotels and resorts signing on for the service. Merging those contacts with a tech-friendly silent partner who built the website from scratch, BackyardBC took the familiar be-a-tourist-in-your-hometown model and stretched it over the entire province.
“Over half of the rooms in B.C. are booked by British Columbians,” he says. “I am happy to do something so difficult. You learn so much. The fact it has been a huge challenge is the best part of it.”
The obstacles building the two-man startup from the ground up have been formidable, but with two years under their belt and aggressive plans to expand across parts of Canada and the U.S., the 31-year-old entrepreneur hopes to mimic the successful growth of other Victoria startups.
Wifarer, for one, has quietly grown from three employees in 2010 to 15 in a field Lise Murphy says could exceed $2 billion in revenues by 2017.
“Our technology is quite ground-breaking. We were among the first to figure out how to locate a smartphone inside (a building),” she says. “Our tech team figured out where you are by using the WiFi in the building. WiFi–based mapping is super accurate. More accurate than GPS.”
The smartphone app picks up where GPS leaves off, providing indoor navigation for participating airports, museums, galleries and other destinations. Marrying mapping with location-based content, Murphy, Wifarer’s vice-president of marketing, says the company is improving the visitor experience for facilities like airports – such as the Vancouver International Airport – where travellers can use the app to find their gate and information about their flights, or use it to guide them through an art gallery.
“It is like an audio guide on steroids,” she says. “The content delivery piece is huge. If they look at a painting they can get the curators view or the artist talking about the work – there is no end to the depth you can give. It is as much about the content as the navigation.”
Wifarer launched its indoor navigation app at the Royal B.C. Museum and followed up with The Bay Centre. Last year the company opened an office in San Jose, Calif., as part of its expansion into the U.S.
“It is terrific, our challenge right now is managing growth because we have so many people calling that would like to deploy our solution in their location,” Murphy says. “We are struggling to keep up with demand.”
Rob Bennet, program director for the Victoria Advanced Technology Council (VIATeC), an association of more than 370 local tech companies, says the growth of Wifarer and BackyardBC is good for VIctoria.
“What is really cool about Victoria is there are a number of (startups), we see five or six of those every month and it is really exciting,” Bennett says. “Victoria needs more. So much of our economic futures are tied to the success of these companies.”