The Toronto Tech Meetup, a gathering drawing a couple hundred members of the startup community, convened on the 26th floor of the Price Waterhouse Cooper building for an evening that included drinks, food, interesting conversation, and five quick presentations.
You can check out the presentations which are now posted to YouTube. But here’s my quick summary of each.
Ken Ranger on the TTC Wifi Rollout
Ken Ranger is the force behind an initiative that is bringing connectivity to Toronto’s subway system. He’s head of BAI Canada, which he describes as a “tech startup within a pension fund” – a fund managed by the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board.
His parent company, BAI, has been bringing wifi into transit systems in New York and Hong Kong, and now Toronto. BAI Canada is paying the TTC $25 million over 20 years for the rights to install and operate a network in underground stations under the TConnect brand.
Right now, several stations on the Yonge-University-Spadina line can connect to the ad-supported Wifi service at no charge (beyond TTC fare of course), and is a revenue generator for the TTC.
How good is the connectivity at the stations? Apparently very good. While above-ground networks often get congested due to user volume, “Below ground,” he says, “it’s sweet.” Because there’s nothing else down in the subway, customers can expect high and consistent speeds.
Ranger and his team installed kilometers worth of cabling and cellular capable equipment, which makes a future rollout of cellular services possible.
While it won’t do anything to reduce wait times for commuters, being able to use a wireless device will certainly make waiting less onerous.
SocialHP is a Service that Lets Companies Post on their Employees’ Social Media Accounts
People simply don’t trust companies as much as people they know. George Kobakov, VP Operations at SocialHP, says 84 percent of people trust recommendations coming from friends and family over all other forms of advertising.
Those who take to social media to promote companies – known as “brand ambassadors” or “brand advocates” – are vital to any company because they contribute “a certain level of trust and credibility” and “that trust factor is key to sales,” Kobakov says.
SocialHP is a service that helps employers tap into the potential for tapping into their employees’ sway over their friends and family. “We give businesses the ability to onboard their employees…and very easily share content on their behalf through Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn,” he says. SocialHP offers “businesses the ability to leverage those personal connections of their employees in order to promote the brand or their products, or anything else pretty much.”
Kobakov continues, “When an employee opts into our application, they give us the ability to share content directly to their personal wall, Twitter feed, or LinkedIN on their behalf. So, if I post on your wall, it will look like you posted it. Thereby in the eyes of your friends and family, it will look like you’re the one that’s genuinely saying, ‘Hey guys, you should check this out.’”
Matt Himel on Getting Hired at a Startup
For someone that was once lured into a predictable career in law, Matt Himel has always had an entrepreneurial streak. While writing the Ontario Bar Exam, he noticed a lack of study materials and came up with the Ontario Law Exam, a wildly popular source for practice material for law students attempting the bar.
But he also successfully transitioned from being a lawyer at a top Toronto firm (Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP) to being hired as a Growth Manager at Tilt, a startup aimed at helping people group their money more easily.
It’s not easy to quickly switch gears, yet Himel was happy to offer some tips, including how to make your application stand out and show your character.
For instance, he says he included his fraternity membership on his resume. “Funnily enough, when I interviewed with different tech companies and startups, they actually loved the fact that I was in a fraternity,” he says. “They saw things like camaraderie or building friendships with new people as things that are really important when you have an open workspace, and a small team. So don’t always think that things on your resume get overlooked – it’s important to sell your story a little bit.”
He also mentioned that he was an accomplished golfer. “They saw it as something that you’re really committed to, that you’re willing to work hard at, and they thought that that’s a really good character trait.”
While interviewing at startups, Himel said that he was often asked what books he was reading, and that having a good answer (such as Peter Thiel’s Zero to One) can help show your commitment to personal growth and learning about an industry. In fact, jobs applicants should read books and blogs on the industry they want to work in, and use the product or service that you’re interviewing with. It can also help to meet with successful people (not wannabes) and people who have the job you want.
He says that asking about money could make the employer question the recruit’s true career priorities.
To do well in an interview with a startup, it might even be more important to show your commitment level as opposed to your skill level. “Sell them on the fact that you’re really committed to making sure their startup is going to be a success – it’s not, come in, punch the clock and get out of there – it’s come in and really think hard about making the startup a success.”
However, he mentions that it’s not all about commitment – it does help to be a “master of all trades.”
John Philip Green on Growing CareGuide
John Philip Green founded CareGuide, a series of websites that connect people with a local caregiver – whether it’s a babysitter, nanny, eldercare specialist, dogsitter, or housekeeper.
In fact, CareGuide has seen such amazing growth over the past two years that a seed financing round in the fall raised more than $1 million among no less than 50 investors on AngelList, and broke the platform in the process. The company inadvertently exposed a code error because it wasn’t expected that the platform would have to handle so many investors.
What is the million-dollar idea? “We match families with caregivers,” Green says. “So, if you were looking for a housekeeper, you’d go to housekeeper.com.”
It’s exactly what you’d expect when you get there.
There are now hundreds of thousands of listings across cities in Canada and the U.S. But it wasn’t always that way.
Instead of proving a concept in one market like Toronto or San Francisco then moving it laterally to different cities, Green opted to have local markets available for local people to find and populate.
He started with a database of all the cities in Canada and the U.S., so it was a matter of getting people in various locations to make the platform useful, even when there wasn’t anyone local on the platform yet. “What we did was show a backdrop of listings, and overtop of that we’d have a modal dialogue box that requires you to sign up before you were able to access the listings – of which, well, there weren’t really any of them. But then they created the first listing.”
People search for help in obscure cities where no one else has signed up yet will see that same modal.
It might, however, come as a disappointment that CareGuide doesn’t do more than Craigslist to ensure that its caregivers can be relied upon to be safe and qualified. Like many things online, CareGuide requires a certain level of blind trust.
“How do we control the quality? Right now, we haven’t been that ambitious. We are a matchmaking service; we allow people to express themselves through their listings; they can validate their phone numbers, and email address, they can get social proof on the site – but we don’t go beyond that. In the same way that Craigslist wouldn’t be responsible for the connections that it makes between supply and demand.”
One of the “hacks” that Green said helps is starting with great domains. For instance, thousands of people would come to a domain like “sitter.com” even if there isn’t a service there. He calls domains “prepaid marketing.”
He also recommends not excessively developing a concept or focusing too much on features.
“I feel stongly that startups over-develop their product when they first begin. I’m proud to say that careguide websites…have six functional pages… we don’t even have background checks. We don’t do anything yet. We’re going to get to all of that… The thing you need to be focusing now on is distribution and growth.”
Green also advises against going overboard with public relations – at least in the early stages.
“PR – I can’t stand it. I think that most startups spend entirely too much time doing PR,” he says. While he has told his story to a few tech blogs, he thinks this is time and effort better spent elsewhere. “Startups need to focus a lot more on growth hacking, creating viral loops on creating their core drivers of their business, and not be so focused on the linear growth aspects of their market.”
He says that one of his strategies for finding investors was to ask for introductions to investors from other investors. Showing that you’re shopping the business around can creates an incentive for investors to act quickly – or it might help you find the right investor through networking.
Either way, CareGuide was attractive since it was cash flow positive. And while investors might have biases – it’s really about for instance, wanting to see mobile or social .
With a background in Computer Science and mathematics, Green said he was able to build most of CareGuide by himself. And while the relatively small size of his operation might turn off some investors, this is ultimately something that shouldn’t affect its ability to get funding and generate revenue.
“People have these biases when they’re investing… They have these preconceived notions about what a founding team looks like, what a successful business looks like. But guess what? If they really knew what a successful business looked like, they would go and build it. I’m building it.”
Eva Wong Says to Borrow Well, but Within Reason
Eva Wong says, “If you want to pursue your dreams, live below your means.”
She should know. She’s one of the founders of Borrowell, a platform that matches borrowers with institutional capital providers.
“I feel like the reason we were able to even pursue this [project] is because we were able to take either no salary or a small salary for [a] few months,” says Wong, who is Borrowell’s Chief Operating Officer. “I don’t think it’s a sacrifice – there are many great things about simple living.”
More generally, a high-priced lifestyle might not only cost you money, but it could mean you can’t afford to take your dream job because of mortgage payments, private schools, and other costs. “Living below your means,” she said, “means not having to adjust your lifestyle to do whatever you want.”
However, the reality is that Canadians are living with huge amounts of debt. Either by choice or by necessity, many Canadians need to borrow money to live. And the current options for lending often involve high rates and are inconvenient.
When it launches this quarter, Borrowell will use an online engine to quickly perform credit and fraud checks that help determine a borrower’s risk level – which affects their interest rate (from 6 percent to the low 20s) and available credit (to a maximum of $35,000). So, just like with car insurance where better insurance rates are available to drivers with good records, Borrowell wants to give better rates to those with better credit.
Borrowell is different than online “payday” lenders (online equivalents of MoneyMart, which charge exorbitant fees even compared to credit cards) and the only similar company in Canada is Vancouver-based Grouplend.
Still, Wong’s advice is avoid having to borrow money – and if you do have to borrow money, make sure that you get the best rate possible.