Photo: (Clockwise from bottom left) Dan Silivestru, P.J. Lowe and Gord Tanner feel strongly about giving back to the tech community by investing in downtown Kitchener.
 

In a field gone fallow, a new shoot has sprung up.

The field is a short stretch of College Street in downtown Kitchener, which sat forlorn and all but forgotten after the core went into decline in the 1970s.

The shoot is at No. 42, where the co-founders of bitHound have made an old house new again – and, in the process, added to the momentum of Kitchener’s downtown rebound.

BitHound’s co-founders – Dan Silivestru, P.J. Lowe and Gord Tanner – could have chosen anywhere to set up their company, whose products enable software developers to produce better code. With several startups behind them – including tinyHippos, the Waterloo-based mobile development firm they sold to BlackBerry in 2011 – they know what success looks like, along with the tough slogging it takes to achieve it.

They’ve also come to appreciate the importance of a supportive community to a fledgling company – and that appreciation goes a long way to explaining why they bought and renovated 42 College St., instead of moving into an existing office building.

“This area is prospering and it’s getting better,” Silivestru told me during a chat on bitHound’s airy front porch recently. “But it’s not going to get better by just staying in the Tannery. We need developers – and by developers, I mean property developers – and owners of downtown properties to redo them.”

Aside from loving the homey environment of working in a house instead of an office building, the bitHound team are among a small but growing group of entrepreneurs who feel strongly about giving back by helping to build the tech community that they relied on earlier in their careers.

Others include Vidyard’s founders, Michael Litt and Devon Galloway, who bought an old house on Oak Street, behind the Tannery, a couple of years ago. After their team outgrew the space in a matter of months, Litt and Galloway kept the house and have since leased it to a succession of startups, all of whom have benefited from the flexible terms and built-in mentorship inherent in renting from someone who has “been there,” so to speak.

Similarly, in buying and renovating the house on College Street, bitHound’s founders are not only securing the room necessary to grow their own team, but to help other startups once they outgrow it.

“Having been successful before and deciding we should do another company, we realized that the core, and this community, was really a big factor in our previous success,” Silivestru said. “We’ve been able to stay here, and in a small way, make this area better for the next company that comes along and wants to stay in the core.”

While the bitHound house might seem like a no-brainer, given its proximity to the Tannery, 305 King St. W., the soon-to-open Velocity Foundry and offices of companies like Vidyard and Thalmic Labs, it’s worth remembering that these startup hotspots barely existed even five years ago.

Just prior to that, Silivestru and Tanner had worked together at Covarity, which was a rare breed for the times: a software company in the heart of downtown Kitchener.

“That was back when the only two tech companies down here were Covarity and Desire2Learn,” Tanner recalled. “But it was nice; we had access to all the restaurants; the transit was good. There was just this interesting vibe, even back then, with not a lot of tech companies.”

When Silivestru and Lowe (they are married) were launching tinyHippos in 2009, they took advantage of a friend’s offer to house-sit for a year at her place in north Waterloo, and, with Tanner, started the company there.

They loved the feel of working in a house, but weren’t keen on the location.

“It was great to have our own space; we really kind of fell in love with that concept,” Silivestru said, “but we were away from everything, and that kind of sucked.”

With the Tannery opening up to startups during that period, they decided to move downtown to take advantage of the then-new Communitech Hub, where they received mentorship from an executive-in-residence.

“We decided to get an office right in the Tannery,” Silivestru said. “We were paying $7.25 a square foot; it’s like $25 now, but we were on the fourth floor, no air conditioning, the heating was suspect, and there was no elevator, so you walked up these rickety stairs. So basically, you got what you paid for.”

After BlackBerry (then Research In Motion) acquired the company in 2011, the team worked primarily out of BlackBerry’s space in the Hub. Around that time, Lowe founded Nom Nom Treats (making edible corporate swag in the form of sugar cookies) and opened a downtown location on Ontario Street.

Lowe and Silivestru, whose own home is not far from central Kitchener, also bought and renovated a home as a rental property near the newly redeveloped Breithaupt Block, which will soon be home to Google’s expanded Canadian engineering headquarters.

“A lot of people are moving back into the downtown core just to live, and redoing the houses, which is nice to see,” Lowe said, adding that her experience with Nom Nom (she has since sold the company) made her feel part of a downtown business “family” of supportive entrepreneurs.

As they considered making the College Street house as their third property in Kitchener, Lowe said, she and Silivestru felt “we might as well give back to the community and make it a little bit better.”

If the turnout at their recent open house is any indication, it’s clear their effort is appreciated: Among the guests were Kitchener Mayor Carl Zehr, Councillors Berry Vrbanovic and Bil Ioannidis and several members of the city’s downtown team.

Silivestru took the opportunity to pitch his visitors on extending the city’s current downtown business incentives to properties like bitHound’s, as a way to encourage other entrepreneurs to follow suit.

“That’s something we’re actively working on with the city now, to try and change it, using this house as a model to say, ‘If there were incentives, maybe more people would do the same’,” he said.

Silivestru’s reasoning for investing in a better downtown is simple: “I think there’s a lot of opportunity in the core, and it’s one of those things where you put your money where your mouth is,” he said.

“You get 10 individuals or groups of founders doing this to 10 different properties in the core, and all of a sudden, it becomes a movement, and it’s a change.”

Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo looks at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector. It will appear bi-weekly through the summer.

About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy
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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.