Jesse Korzan explains how to stay connected to industry, while living in a small town

Jesse’s backyard in Squamish, BC. A world away from the city, but only an hour’s drive. Jesse’s backyard in Squamish, BC. A world away from the city, but only an hour’s drive.

This is the fifth in a series of interviews with creative/knowledge workers who left Vancouver. Today’s guest is Jesse Korzan, a designer who moved from Kelowna to Vancouver to Whistler—before settling in Squamish. He now enjoys biking and fly-fishing and biking at casual pace—and drives into the city to work at a growing startup.

Tell me about your time in Vancouver:

I left Kelowna to study SFU in the early ’90s. I thought I was going to code video games, but it turns out you need to be good a math to do that. So, I chased a liberal arts degree for a few years. My summer jobs were with a little company that became 1-800-GOT-JUNK? This lasted for several years.

At the time, we didn’t refer to companies like that as “startups;” we just called them small businesses. Regardless, they got me hooked on this Internet thing and re-sparked my interest in making stuff with computers (and as a way to buy lift tickets).

In hindsight, I was lucky to get this hands-on experience, building a successful brand. It also gave me exposure to sales, marketing, and the “information superhighway.” 1-800-GOT-JUNK? was doing interesting stuff on the web, early on, and I was hooked. So, I quit a great (paying) job to go take an overpriced new media program at UBC and become a “web master” (circa ’99).

Jesse takes some time out for a ride on one of the local trails. Jesse takes some time out for a ride on one of the local trails.

I worked obsessively to learn everything I could about making websites, and fell into web design. Although I found code more interesting, the design side quickly became my strength. This resulted in a good run of freelancing, for a couple years. I’d work on a project for a few weeks and then take a week off to backpack, snowboard, or hang out.

I eventually realized (mostly because I had astute friends) that I needed a little career direction and more challenging work.

When did you decide Vancouver was no longer for you?

I got a real job at a real software company—and it sucked. The company wasn’t fun, the technology was outdated, the people weren’t (at all) cool, and I wasn’t learning anything. Plus, I was commuting, and chained to a desk, in a boring neighbourhood. I wasn’t snowboarding much, and my bikes started to collect dust. So, I quit.

I didn’t really want to go back to freelancing but I realized that I could do it anywhere. So, why not freelance in a place where I’d have a better time? (This was around 2003.) I started networking a bit harder, attended every Techvibes (or similar event that featured cheap beer), and met a headhunter.

A lot of Jesse’s work revolves around collaborating with others, in an effort to design products that function well. A lot of Jesse’s work revolves around collaborating with others, in an effort to design products that function well.

The 2010 Winter Games bid had been awarded, and this headhunter suggested I consider interviewing with Tourism Whistler as they ramped up for the Olympics. I was hired as an in-house Web Designer and thought I’d try it for a year. I ended up there for 4+ years—mostly because of love. I went for the winters but fell in love with the summers—and a local girl (with an Australian accent).

The job was fantastic. I was able to work on interesting projects and I got to stretch out both creatively and technically. The best part was in the people I worked with. I made a lot of strong, lifelong connections that have proven invaluable time and again.

Oh, and the girl... we got pregnant (eventually twice!) and are doing our ”happily ever after.” Happily.

Why did you chose to move to Squamish?

Easy. I was outgrowing the job in Whistler. With our first child on the way, I had to move the dial on my career. We couldn’t stomach moving into the city, but some of our Whistler friends had moved to Squamish and we could see some interesting stuff there. Companies like Anthill Films and VentureWeb Design were doing world-class creative work. It was easy to drum up contract work, and I could participate in the first year of my first son’s life.

The drive from Squamish to the city only takes about an hour, so commuting didn’t seem so bad. (In Whistler, we lived 5 minutes from the Creekside Gondola, so we didn’t make our decision hastily). Pragmatically, we both knew our careers would be reliant on Vancouver, anyways.

Bikes are central in Jesse’s life. Some for aggressive terrain; others for just cruising around. Bikes are central in Jesse’s life. Some for aggressive terrain; others for just cruising around.

What do you like, and dislike, about Squamish?

Likes: It’s a great community to start and raise a family. It’s affordable(ish), has a small town vibe, and is bike friendly.

I’m not the most hardcore mountain biker, but options for two-wheeled pursuits in Squamish are endless: Cruiser bike; Mountain bike; Run bike; Chariot in tow... We often leave the house on a Saturday, pedal to the farmers market, and don’t return for hours.

I also got into fly fishing. Although I’m very unskilled at it, I enjoy walking out of my garage in my waders, and down the street to the river.

Socially, it’s been really nice. Most of our friends all did the kid thing at the same time, and we met new folks in similar stations of life—with similar values. It’s uncommon for us to “go out” for meals. Instead, we group up at someone’s house for family dinners. Good food (and beer) is a common thread. Making it together, or around a backyard fire... that sort of thing.

Professionally, there are lots of talented creative people in town. That’s a plus, but networking or talking shop is difficult to do in a meaningful way. Most people commute and have kids, so, free time is a hot commodity. And those trails, rivers, kids, et cetera are compelling options.

Jesse mentors up-and-coming designers at VFS. Jesse mentors up-and-coming designers at VFS.

Dislikes: Culturally, it’s a bit isolating. We don’t even have a movie theatre. When we go to Vancouver, we can’t help but feel like we’re not missing out on stuff. Whistler has amazing night life, too, and we miss the live music.

Before doing full-time work in Squamish (at a digital agency and my own studio), I was Creative Director at Work at Play in Railtown (east of Gastown). Professionally, that’s my ideal environment. I love that part of town, and the web/agency thing. It’s easy to meet up with people, talk shop, and feel like you’re connected to your industry. It was an easy commute for a few years.

Finding like-minded people is hard enough (in any size of town) and keeping talented people around is even harder. I personally need to be around the smart/cool kids to keep up.

With my agency work in Squamish, there’s a palpable struggle to keep good projects/work rolling in. This puts negative stress on the making part of the job as time and money feel more constricted. And when you’re short of accessible talent (I prefer working with others in-person and in-town), you often find yourself doing more of the work. So, you have to be up for the grind. That means truly liking the work, not just being good at it.

What kind of work do you do, now?

I founded a small design studio in Squamish with some friends, called EUX. We focus on working with non-profits and social cause organizations.

The EUX website.The EUX website.

Not long ago, I stepped out of an active role in EUX to join a startup in downtown Vancouver. Klue is an enterprise application for competitive intelligence. As the design lead at Klue, I get more product design experience, deeper UI challenges, and a closer relationship with the engineering side of things. (Although I’m not an entrepreneur, I enjoy the business building part as much as designing components in React.)

This is a fantastic gig for me. A similar opportunity just wasn’t happening within Squamish, so, I commute 5 days a week. This means long days that run 10 – 12 hours, and sometimes more. It’s a worthwhile tradeoff, but not a trivial one.

Do you miss the city?

Never... until we order take-out. I’m kidding (sort of). We think about Vancouver often, and weigh the pros and cons. When we’re outside, though, this sentiment fades.

I miss Vancouver when I am at work. Klue is a heads down, “pinning it” situation. I rarely take advantage of being in downtown Vancouver. I want to see my family, so I don’t stick around for late night shenanigans in the big city.

If Squamish were an hour outside of Hamilton or Toronto, I probably wouldn’t think so much about what we’re missing out on. Vancouver is a great town.

Dogs on the beach.Dogs on the beach.

How do you stay inspired? How/where do you take in new culture?

We find it through our friends, and through our kids. It’s easy enough to stay inspired via the Web, but making that inspiration actionable, diverse, or tangible is a challenge, in a small town. We are lucky that Vancity is only a hour away.

Maybe it’s because of kids, but we find that we have to have plan our visits more. Losing spontaneity in our city time is a downside. When it happens randomly, you appreciate it and take notice, I suppose.

What words of advice do you have for creative people in Vancouver, looking to relocate to somewhere smaller?

Understand the compromises you’ll make. Know what you’re giving up, and what you’re getting into.

Squamish affords a nice pace for families.Squamish affords a nice pace for families.

If you’re planning on working remotely, or freelance, get a strong and diverse network in place. Do this before you move, because it takes time to build good local connections. Even if you don’t need money immediately, you’ll want something to do.

If you have a location in mind, talk to those who’re already there. Reach out to people or companies in your field, or who share your interests (perhaps using Twitter or LinkedIn). You’ll probably find that the smaller the town, the bigger the appetite for shop talk.

Don’t make mystery plans. Tell your friends what you’re doing. Your friends know what you’re like and what you’re into. They’ll call bullshit on your poorly romanticized notion of moving to Terrace and opening a maker space.

When you plan to make a quick visit, go to the local farmers market. (Good food is a good sign.)

Even for those who don’t fly-fish well, the opportunity to connect with nature can be therapeutic. Even for those who don’t fly-fish well, the opportunity to connect with nature can be therapeutic.

Working locally in a small town has a charm and vibe to it, but you have to put in effort, for it to work. So, make time to pedal your laptop to the coffee shop (not the Starbucks—the locally owned and operated cafe). Or go to the pub (not the hotel bar—the old neighbourhood pub way off the highway).

Housing is an issue in Squamish. So do your research. Office space is also tricky. (If you need office space in Squamish, I can rent you some for a short period.)

Did I miss something? Do you have more questions for Jesse? Request a session with him on Officehours. Sessions are free, one-on-one talks, in which you can ask your questions, and nice people like Jesse will answer them. :-)