If cars were people, the Nissan Leaf would be a Canadian: Clever, efficient and quiet to a fault.

Michael Worry, Leaf owner, knows these are fine qualities in a car. As an engineer and entrepreneur, he appreciates its innovative technology, and as a California commuter, he certainly knows the value of clean air, not to mention fuel.

But, when it comes to his actual fellow Canadians, Worry feels it’s time to add bold, brave and even brash to the repertoire.

His reasoning is simple: Canadian entrepreneurs are letting their trademark caution get in the way of opportunities.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the tech mecca of Silicon Valley, where Worry launched his electronic product design and manufacturing firm, Nuvation Engineering, in 1997.

He now helps others do the same through the C100, a volunteer group of influential Canadians in California determined to plant the Maple Leaf at the centre of the tech universe. Worry also helps direct the Digital Moose Lounge, a networking group for the estimated 300,000 Canadians in the San Francisco Bay area, and keeps its mascot – a life-size moose statue – at his company’s offices.

When Worry landed in San Jose as a young University of Waterloo grad, he quickly found not only that he could compete with the Valley’s best, but that being Canadian gave him an advantage.

“When you say to an American that you’re a Canadian, you’re actually put a notch up, because it means ‘I know I can trust you; I know you’ll work hard; I know you’re smart’,” said Worry, whose company employs about 100 people split evenly between San Jose and Waterloo.

“I’m not saying Canadians should start cutting people off in traffic and ruin the mystique,” he said, “but I’m saying they should be willing to ask for the money, be willing to ask for the order, be willing to politely suggest a completely different viewpoint.”

Worry learned these lessons soon after he graduated from UW’s electrical engineering program. His head was full of marketable ideas, but his face was too fresh for cautious Canadian customers.

“I originally tried to get Nuvation started in Ontario, and couldn’t get traction and sales calls for an entrepreneur of my age,” he said, wheeling his whisper-quiet Leaf – red like the Maple Leaf, at the insistence of his six-year-old daughter – through San Jose. “Then I did sales calls into Silicon Valley, and no one cared how old I was, so I moved down to California.”

When they landed, Worry and business partner Geoff White, a fellow UW grad, were long on enthusiasm but short on everything else: They had no money or connections, and little inclination to tangle with venture capitalists.

Their bootstrap solution arrived in the mailbox of their shared apartment, in the form of what most of us consider junk mail: credit card applications. They started filling them out and were soon on their way.

“I can tell this story now because it worked; I don’t know if I’d coach other entrepreneurs to do this.”

The late 1990s were a different time, of course; it’s doubtful today that a couple of Canadians without U.S. credit histories, income or social security numbers could amass more than a dozen cards, run up the balances and fund a startup, as Worry and White did.

“I can tell this story now because it worked; I don’t know if I’d coach other entrepreneurs to do this,” Worry said with a grin, “but we racked up a quarter-million dollars in credit-card debt.”

Wasn’t the high interest crippling?

“No, because we did it all on zero-per-cent introductory offers,” he explained, and they made sure, with help from a spreadsheet, to transfer the balances to new cards as the interest-free periods on the older ones wound down. “You know, we’re engineers, and we pay attention.”

In late 2000, they sold the company with what appears, in hindsight, to be brilliant timing, just before the tech bubble burst in early 2001.

White moved on, but Worry stayed with Nuvation as the new owners struggled to rebound from the crash. In 2002, he began to envision a way forward by expanding the company, but his boss, though “a great guy,” felt further cutbacks were his only option.

“I didn’t think that was the right plan,” Worry recalled, “and so he said, ‘If you believe in the company that strongly, you should buy it back’, and I said, ‘Okay, actually we’ll do that’.”

Worry reacquired Nuvation for “pennies on the dollar” of the original sale price, and didn’t look back.

He and his family live in California, but he returns often to his Waterloo office, opened in 2004 to take advantage of UW engineering talent. Worry also serves on Communitech’s board of directors.

His experience as a tech entrepreneur in both places affords him a unique perspective on the peculiarities of the two business environments.

In addition to their image as trustworthy, loyal and nice, Canadians – especially UW grads – are known throughout Silicon Valley for their talent and diligence, he said.

“We’ve consistently found that co-op students out of Waterloo are much more equipped to deal with the real world because they’ve had the co-op experience,” said Worry, half of whose San Jose employees are Canadians. “For some reason, America hasn’t done that. I’ve interviewed new grads from engineering schools here who have never had a job.”

On the other hand, Americans are more accepting of entrepreneurship and its attendant risks – which might explain why the U.S. is still reeling from a financial crisis and Canadian banks remain strong, but also why someone like Worry was able, at age 23, to conjure a successful company out of imagination, chutzpah and a wallet full of plastic.

“It’s the entrepreneur who pole-vaults over the 10-foot wall and says, ‘I get that you guys aren’t going to follow me and I’m okay with that’.”

Canadians who want to build great companies need to overcome their cultural inclination, reinforced by the doubters around them, to suppress that kind of audacity, Worry said.

At a conference in Toronto last year, an attendee asked Worry what he should do about friends and family who didn’t understand why he wanted to start a business.

“And my answer was, ‘You ignore them’,” he said. “That’s the entrepreneur’s job, to not pay attention to people who don’t understand what entrepreneurship is.”

He attributes these doubts to the “crab mentality,” in reference to the way crabs in a bucket behave. If one crab tries to get out, the others will pull it back in as if to say, ‘Stay here with us, it’s safer. Don’t go over the wall.’ (Canadian rapper k-os lamented this same phenomenon in his 2004 hit, Crabbuckit.)

“It’s the entrepreneur who pole-vaults over the 10-foot wall and says, ‘I get that you guys aren’t going to follow me and I’m okay with that’,” Worry said.

He acknowledged it’s “kind of un-Canadian” to ignore naysayers, but in Silicon Valley, an abundance of doubters “usually means you’re on to something pretty good,” and failed startup attempts are worn as badges of honour, not shame.

“They’re like, ‘Yeah, we started this; it turned out we were a year ahead of the market, burned $5 million in VC funding and then we shut it down’,” he said. “And that’s okay; that’s not a problem.”

Worry’s experience has instilled a strong belief that Canadians need to do a better job of promoting entrepreneurship to children as a legitimate career choice, alongside the safer occupations parents and teachers typically encourage.

In high-school guidance classes, he said, “They don’t have a column for entrepreneur, and it’s actually a profession that has its own style to it and skill set and required personality traits and so forth.”

He applauded Communitech for doing just that through its in-school programs, and UW’s VeloCity “dormcubator” approach to melding higher education with entrepreneurialism.

Worry encouraged established and aspiring entrepreneurs in Waterloo Region to take the step and spend some time in Silicon Valley, not just to make contacts and land customers, but to soak up the can-do culture and bring it back to Canada.

“Culture isn’t just something you can write on a wall and just shift; it comes out of observing behaviours and interactions,” said Worry, who notices “there’s not the same level of aggression and boldness in the room” when he attends meetings in Canada.

“I don’t know how to make a big shift on that without encouraging further collaboration and interaction between those cultures,” he said.

Canadians who take him up on his suggestion stand to reap considerable rewards, given the abundance of Valley-based Canadians ready to help them.

In addition to the C100 and Digital Moose Lounge, consular officials in San Francisco and Palo Alto are available to help connect Canadians to opportunities in California.

Worry also strongly encouraged Canadian tech companies to consider hiring American salespeople to tout their products and services in the Valley, where potential customers are everywhere.

“If many mid-size companies came down here and were willing to make the expense and have a person here, I think they would get a good sales and marketing return out of that,” he said.

“It’s only upside.”

About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy

Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.