In rowing, a race is 2,000 metres and has three parts: the first 500, the last 500 and the middle 1,000.

The first 500 is easy. Over the pounding of your own pulse you hear someone say “row!” and you explode. Everything is anaerobic. You don’t think about breathing, your muscles feel nothing; you hang off your oar, blade planted in the water, kicking so hard you pick the shell up out of the water and feel it glide along the surface. You feel like you could do it forever.

The last 500 is easy, too. You hold nothing back. The thinking, strategizing and bargaining with your body is over. You’re an open furnace now; anything near you burns. You can’t hear a sound but the voice of the coxswain. Fifteen strokes to the finish, then 10. Nothing can stop you.

It’s the middle 1,000. Every rower knows that the whole race is the middle 1,000. All the work that earns rowing its nickname – “the pain contest” – happens in the middle 1,000.

The first and last 500 reward your physical toughness; you lean on your training and trust your body to take care of the rest. The middle 1,000 rewards your mental toughness, and makes rowing the sport it is.

In its current iteration, the Waterloo Region tech ecosystem is rowing the middle 1,000.

The first part was easy. We exploded on to the scene with a bang. The city that changed the world by inventing the smartphone had huge ambitions for a prosperous future. We’ve spawned a slew of extremely promising companies: exotic, futuristic hardware like the Myo armband, Palette’s elegant sliders and knobs, and Voltera’s V-One circuit-board printer, but killer software companies too, like Vidyard, Kik and Magnet Forensics. We had all the right ingredients: amazing talent spilling annually from three large educational institutions, a track record for making world-altering technology, and political will. The first 500 were easy, fun even.

I’m certain the last 500 will be easy too. By then, Waterloo Region companies only beginning to show their true promise will be fully formed, bringing in capital and outside talent to nourish the ecosystem. They’ll stand as examples of homegrown success, valuable not just practically but psychologically. The sprint will feel easy when success is in reach. Fifty strokes is doable; 15 is nothing.

But for now, we grind. This part – the middle 1,000 – is where we’re tested. Our companies are reaching for global success but have ground to cover before they get there. Our region is beginning to retain talent but has yet to start seriously attracting it. And we’re getting tired.

The grumbling is getting louder. “I thought we were supposed to be Silicon Valley by now. Where are the unicorns? Where are the venture capitalists? Why isn’t talent lined up around the block?”

My reply is always the same: “They’re coming.”

World-building takes time. So much, in fact, that if a decade strikes you as a long time this probably isn’t for you.

Does the region have a problem attracting and retaining talent? It depends on who you want to attract. If you’re trying to attract someone who wants the best possible working conditions for themselves at the highest possible salary, Waterloo Region will continue to face stiff competition from centres with more money and sex appeal. If you want to attract someone looking to improve the world in an entirely new way, build a reputation for themselves rather than borrow someone else’s good name, and risk everything for a shot at history – there’s nowhere better than Waterloo Region in 2015.

The visionaries who will build the future here do not need their arms twisted to join us. They’ll join us because they’ve seen the lay of the land, tested the fertility of the soil, and decided themselves this is a land of opportunity. That’s who we want. Innovators. Entrepreneurs. The sort of people who don’t wait to be invited.

The fact that the region is a diamond in the rough isn’t a disadvantage; it’s an important checkpoint for keeping out the unremarkable. If you aren’t a world-builder, you don’t have a place here – at least not right now.

The people who can make it in Waterloo Region today – and who will enjoy massive rewards in the future – are people with vision and endurance. The beginning and end are always easy; winners and losers are decided by the middle 1,000.

Photo: Day 4 Rowing (18 Aug 2010) by Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Phil Froklage is a Digital Journalist/Multimedia Producer at Communitech. View from the ‘Loo looks at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.

About The Author

Phil Froklage
Digital Journalist/Multimedia Producer

Phil Froklage is a writer, filmmaker and journalist in Waterloo Region obsessed with the future. Passionate about science and technology — and how it shapes our world — Phil likes nothing more than being surprised by the amazing things human beings can do.