World Weary Waterloo Waits and Wonders: When Will RIM's Worries Wane?

First, apologies for the lack of posts here. Since the last post, I've moved my entire life to Edinburgh and started a new job in the University of Edinburgh Business School. I've started an experiment in using Tumblr to make short comments on interesting articles about culture, entrepreneurship. I'll eventually find some way to integrate the two. Second, thing going well for Blackberry (ńee RIM). Losses of almost a billion dollars in the last quarter, reports of planned layoffs of 40% of the workforce, disappointment and delays on new products, this has not been a great week for the Beleaguered Smartphone Company©.

At this point, it seems likely that recovery is unlikely at best and that RIM (sorry, not calling it Blackberry) will cease to be an independent company at some point in the near future. This may take the form of a complete selloff to a private equity firm or someone in the smartphone industry or the spinoff and selling off of the remaining profitable areas (Blackberry OS, BBM and the cafeteria?).

The question for me, even on the other side of the Atlantic is: what does this mean for Waterloo's entrepreneurial ecosystem and culture? While the 4500 cut jobs will take place around the world, there's no debate that many, if not most, will be in Waterloo.  RIM, along with the University of Waterloo, are seen as the twin pillars of the region's entrepreneurial community.  The presence of a home grown startup that became a global force is a vital narrative in the community: it shows the possibilities of entrepreneurship and the potential rewards of leaving a stable job for the risks of starting your own company.

As I've said before, Ottawa after the collapse of Nortel is the easiest comparison, but I don't think Waterloo will suffer the same fate. After Notel began it's long decline, there was an initial exodus of skilled workers out of the region in search of other jobs. Other highly skilled engineers stayed in the region due to family ties or the fact that they actually liked living there (?!). These people looked for jobs where they could and turned to entrepreneurship, mostly as small time consultants, when they couldn't find a place in another big company or the government.

Waterloo can expect a different kind of exodus. It's proximity to Toronto (an hour on the 401) means that people can stay in Waterloo but become highway warriors and work in offices in Mississagua or Oakville. It's not a pleasant drive, but it's doable. Many major companies like Microsoft and Google already have large Toronto offices and will look to scoop up some of RIM's talented engineers. We're already seeing reports of smaller firms opening up Waterloo offices, I'm sure with the hope of picking up laid off cell phone engineers and programers as well. 

It's also likely that many of the region's economic development programs like Communitech, will try to help the recently laid off workers become entrepreneurs. The logic is seductive: take the experienced human capital of RIM workers, combine it with the social capital and experience of the region's talented entrepreneurial mentors, and help create new, high-tech businesses.

However, it's a mistake to see this as the Great Hope of economic recovery. RIM is an interesting beast: it's a major part of the discourse and legend of Entrepreneurial Waterloo (along with the Mennonites and the Germans), but the company itself seems to discourage entrepreneurship. I can only think of one spinoff from RIM, KIK Messenger, and RIM sued them! Similarly, very few people leave RIM and start their own firms. In my extensive interviews in the region, I only heard of one person who did so (the aforementioned KiK). This is to say that people who have been working at RIM may not want to be entrepreneurs. They want to be people who design high quality cell phones and messaging infrastructure that works a lot of the time, and leave the dirty work of actually running a company to someone else.

The same thing happened with Ottawa and the ex-Nortel workers. The dreams of seeing startups escape the bloated caucus of Nortel like so many baby spiders in a nature documentary never happened. But the region kept on promoting this kind of entrepreneurship without a second thought.

If Waterloo wants to make the best out of a bad situation, they need to figure out a way to help the soon-to-be laid off RIM workers. Entrepreneurship training is a big part of this, but it's not the only part. The community should be working to convince other high-tech companies to take advantage of this situation and open local offices to snatch them up. The local government needs to work with its provincial and federal counterparts to try to encourage Canadian firms in the region to expand their operations to take them on. Despite the region's celebration of entrepreneurship, it shouldn't see entrepreneurship as the only way forward.