As a media brand that highlights the entrepreneurial landscape, we often ask startup founders what it takes to build a game-changing business. Resilience is often the first thing that comes up in every story. Ask any entrepreneur or founder about their experience growing a company and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone that doesn’t talk about the grit and determination that has been required to get to where they are today.
It’s no surprise that building a startup is hard. Most entrepreneurs are well aware of the risk that they sign up for—some even relish the opportunity to be put in front of an impossible task. But what our community (heck, the world) has experienced in the last few months as a result of COVID-19 has been unprecedented. As we collectively try to grapple with the shock waves of a global pandemic, we’ve seen businesses shut down, corporate titans topple, and waves of layoffs spread across the economic landscape. Despite all of this, there have been a few silver linings. Most notably, the good of people. We’ve seen frontline essential workers—the doctors, nurses, grocery clerks, postal workers, and more—become a symbol of courage and selflessness. We’ve seen entire communities rally around small businesses and the hospitality industry. We’ve seen kindness, and relationships with our loved ones blossom. Despite everything, we’ve seen hope.
Our spring issue is a celebration of just that. As we thaw from winter, our first issue of the year is about optimism and focuses on the next wave of bright, young talent in Canada. In its fourth year, our annual 30X30 guide showcases a group of incredible individuals who dare to push boundaries and refuse the status quo. From activists like Autumn Peltier to innovative entrepreneurs like Sheertex founder Katherine Homuth, each of the 30 individuals in this year’s guide is a celebration of a future that we can all be hopeful for.
Like every other business, we have not been immune to the impact of COVID-19. The week before our scheduled cover shoot (a group photo of our 30X30 inductees), we decided it would be irresponsible to continue and cancelled to respect social distancing guidelines. Our distribution and supplier channels have been impacted and, for the first time in our history, we decided to cancel the print edition of an issue. What that led to was an internal pressure that we placed on ourselves to ramp up our digital content output and brainstorm how we could present this issue in a new and different way. It forced us to innovate and pursue challenges that we wouldn’t have previously. It forced us to embrace change, like so many others, and come out for the better.
Change can be good. It can be transformative and lead you down paths that you never knew were in front of you. While we certainly hadn’t planned on debuting it in the middle of a pandemic, I like to think that our new branding (which you can read more about here) is symbolic of change. This year is going to be defined by change for us, and I’m excited to see where that takes us.
As you scroll through this issue, you’ll experience the hard work and vision of the people that I couldn’t be more proud of to call my team. Thank you for your time; I hope you walk away from this issue feeling energized, empowered, and hopeful.
Director of Strategic
Random fact: Did you know that Gimli, Manitoba has the largest Icelandic population outside of Iceland? It’s also the place where I visited earlier this year to race a stable of high-performance vehicles on a completely frozen lake with Mercedes-Benz.
A little context, I was invited to the small town of approximately 6,000 by the German automaker to get an immersive experience showcasing the brand and its offerings. Currently, Gimli is only one of two locations in the world that offers AMG Winter Sporting, an experience that allows drivers and auto enthusiasts the opportunity to get in the seat of Mercedes-AMG vehicles and test them against winter’s most extreme conditions. In order to proceed (this being the third year the program has been available outside of Sweden), certain requirements are necessary to ensure the safety and success of the program, most importantly the thickness of the ice. At a minimum, Mercedes requires a thickness of 40 centimeters in order to proceed. (In 2020, the estimated thickness was 100 centimeters.)
A truly one-of-a-kind experience, auto enthusiasts who take part in the program are able to drive on an off-roading course that highlights the capabilities of 4MATIC all-wheel drive, as well as drag on a frozen racetrack — the latter being the piece de resistance of the entire experience, in my opinion.
Rounding out my trip, we concluded with a night performance by The Arkells and Said the Whale for Mercedes’ Garage Gigs, a concert series that showcases Canadian artists through live performances in an intimate setting (ours being a “garage” carved out of 88,000 lbs of crystal clear ice).
Photos courtesy of TAG Heuer
NEW YORK CITY — In the weeks before COVID-19 forced us all to stay home, Swiss luxury watchmaker TAG Heuer celebrated the third generation launch of its Connected timepiece. Further establishing its dominance in the luxury smartwatch category, the debut featured a new Sports app (which provides users detailed tracking for golf, running, cycling and more), as well as a new mobile companion app that allows for greater customization and wearer insights.
“The TAG Heuer Connected watch was designed and engineered with the same passion and attention to details as our mechanical watches,” said Chief Strategy and Digital Officer, Frédéric Arnault. “The Connected watch is not only a beautiful timepiece, it’s a truly immersive experience, as it now sits within a complete TAG Heuer digital ecosystem geared towards performance and sports… It expresses the brand in a completely new way and offers limitless possibilities in terms of innovation for the future.”
Notable guests in attendance included Oliver Cheshire, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Young Paris, Ashlyn Harris, and Ali Krieger.
Oremme was born of a need to fill a space within the fine jewellery market, according to founder Emilie Nolan.
When Nolan’s mom got her first job, she bought herself a piece of jewellery, Nolan says. Accordingly, when Nolan decided to leave her last marketing job (“I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur”), she wanted to mark it with a piece of fine jewellery.
“What I wanted was a coloured rainbow band,” recalls Nolan. But her search for the right piece ran into a dead end. “I found either plated jewellery that wasn't using genuine stones, or stuff that was north of $2,000.” Ever the entrepreneur, Nolan decided to start her own “fiiiine” jewellery brand Oremme, one that didn’t take itself too seriously while simultaneously offering quality products at more accessible prices via a direct-to-consumer model.
In 2018, when Nolan was working to launch the brand, she found herself not just wanting to work with local manufacturers who could craft beautiful pieces at reasonable prices, she also found herself needing to confront the stuffy manner in which jewellery has traditionally been sold. “Why is jewelry so demure? Why isn't there colour?” she wondered. “Why is it so reserved? Why can't it be fun?”
“Men created the jewellery industry and De Beers created demand around diamonds. They created that narrative [of demureness and fragility],” says Nolan. “When it comes to branding, a lot of the imagery is very ethereal, which is beautiful and I love it in a lot of situations. But I also think that if you're spending money on yourself, it should be representative of you and what you want.”
Oremme’s website and Instagram greet the visitor with vibrant colour, diversity, and a sense of playfulness—it’s what they describe as “happy luxury.” Nolan and Oremme are on a path to exploding the stuffiness of the industry with a spectrum of colourful jewels, diverse models, and accessible price points. It’s not just the act of buying something special for yourself that Oremme celebrates, it’s an acknowledgement of the freedom that comes with it; the freedom to be yourself.
Oremme is here to make waves, have fun, and ultimately, represent wholly the multifacetedness and charm of the people wearing its pieces.
Self isolation during COVID-19 has forced us to reevaluate our routines and the way we navigate a typical day. With gyms temporarily closed, fitness brands have taken to the digital space to offer their expertise to an audience looking to maintain their exercise regimen. For those looking to invest a little more into their home gyms beyond a yoga mat, these machines offer a sweat-inducing fitness experience that marries luxurious design with tech-forward analytics and connected classes.
If you live in a dense urban centre, space efficiency is important to keep in mind. With Tonal, you can get a challenging strength workout within your abode without having to rearrange your furniture to accommodate clunky weights and whatnot. The wall-mounted machine features two arms that you can adjust for various push- or pull-focused exercises using the “digital” weights, which deliver 200 pounds of resistance. A 24-inch interactive display gives you access to an array of different coaches depending on the type of workout that you’re looking for.
Featuring a striking state-of-the-art design, the Hydrow is a rowing machine that brings workouts to your living room through both on-demand and live rows. You can train with a world-class athlete, work with teammates, or opt for an unguided row as you transport yourself to meditative rivers and waterways. The machine incorporates a 22” high-definition sweat- and dust-resistant touchscreen, an aluminum frame, and ergonomically-designed seat for the ultimate rowing workout.
The Bike Personal from Technogym is the brainchild of Italian architect, Antonio Citterio, and three decades of research in biomechanics, packing a mighty punch in a compact and elegant design. An on-demand trainer keeps you on track with your goals while the digital console lets you view your workout metrics at a glance. Or if you prefer, you can also browse the internet, social media, or even Netflix for an experience that merges entertainment and fitness all in one.
Where Tonal focuses its efforts on strength training, Mirror presents itself as a digital trainer that replicates a fitness class experience. Requiring only two feet of wall space, the sleek piece of equipment is, yes, a mirror when offline, but also a yoga studio, boxing ring, and cardio class that features more than 70 live classes uploaded weekly and a library of on-demand workouts.
When it comes to financial well-being (that is, the ability to meet current and future financial commitments), Canadians have some room for improvement. According to a 2019 survey conducted by the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, 73.2 percent of Canadians have some type of outstanding debt and about one in six state that their monthly spending exceeds their income.
It’s clear that collectively there are gaps in how we manage our finances. Part of how we can be better at that is becoming more familiar with how we organize ourselves around and talk about money. In fact, for those who budget (about 46 percent of Canadians), the most common method of doing so is by using digital tools like financial software or digital apps. Outsourcing common financial tasks like recording receipts or saving a portion of your paycheque can be easily automated and digitized to help keep track of your dollars (and also save yourself a lot of headaches.)
With a mission to help consumers make better decisions about credit, Toronto-based Borrowell has provided free credit scores and reports to over a million Canadians. They endeavour to not only provide easier access to this information, but also provide advice on how to understand and improve these very numbers so that people can feel informed when purchasing financial products.
With over 500,000 downloads, Mylo looks to take the stress out of financial planning by making it automatic through microsavings. By rounding up daily purchases on your debit or credit card to the nearest dollar, Mylo takes the spare change and invests it to help you reach your financial goals without even thinking about it.
We’ve all been there at some point. Whether for tax season or filing your corporate expenses, a wallet full of battered receipts is both cumbersome and unsightly. Using their SmartScan technology, all you have to do is take a picture of your receipt and the merchant, date, and price are all automatically recorded. Expensify’s Concierge also flags any expenses that may seem out of place or risky before you submit them for approval.
An award-winning app, YNAB aims to help its users save money by not only helping them budget, but also by fundamentally shifting their relationship with their finances by teaching them how to manage it. Through goal-setting, informative reports, and personal support, YNAB makes budgeting easy.
An online bookkeeper ideal for small business owners and entrepreneurs, Wave is a free financial app that helps you keep track of your company’s accounting needs. Manage your cash flow, analyze overall financial health, and gear up for tax season with their seamless and easy-to-use software.
Jim Moore has certainly had a storied career. His name is synonymous with men’s fashion—and for good reason. Serving as the Creative Director of menswear bible GQ, Moore has defined how men dress for the past 40 years and in many ways influenced how we perceive masculinity through the lens of pop culture.
Entering a new role that has given him the freedom to pursue new business opportunities (while still having a voice at the publication,) Moore is embarking on a string of new adventures that have him excited for the road ahead.
While in Toronto to promote his new book Hunks & Heroes: Four Decades of Fashion at GQ, Moore discussed entrepreneurship, Brad Pitt, and what it takes to be a great leader today. It turns out, the lessons you can learn from fashion and business aren’t so different from each other.
You’ve shaped and defined one of the most iconic brands in popular culture. Whether it’s a media company or a direct-to-consumer product, what does a great brand look like to you?
You have to have a strong point of view and be dedicated to it. I can only speak to the creative side of things because that's how I grew up but what I’ve found is that you have to be willing to be a little provocative. For example, I’m working with this company in Chicago that makes tailored clothing, shirts, and ties, and they’re seeing their business drop off. Well, if it’s the death of the tie (and you make ties), why don’t you get in front of it and say, “Have you heard it’s the death of the tie?” Then do something about it. Not only are you going to make categories of shirting that will look great without a tie, but you’re going to make new ties that are going to excite a new generation. You’re not going to just stop making them or buckle under the pressure and hide. You’re going to find a way to keep it vibrant and robust.
What do you find is the biggest difference between business and creative types?
Being a creative person is tough. I recently had a conversation with a VC who was trying to explain why people who are financially-minded always make it, and why creative people can also make it but never strike the goals that business people can. I was having this big argument with him but also tried to understand what he was saying. Creative people have too many ideas in their brains, they’re overstimulated and always in overdrive. I think the difference between a successful and unsuccessful creative person is that a successful one knows how to grab the first idea in their head and commit to it. When you meet someone who is highly creative but not successful, it’s because they just let those ideas swirl around in their head.
I grew up in a culture where every three-and-a-half weeks I'd get a magazine out the door. I would find out on a Tuesday that on Friday, I'd be shooting Brad Pitt. I'd have no clothes, no idea, and no location. But when I was given [the assignment], an idea would come to me and I would just go with it. It didn’t matter if the idea was good, bad, or if I was going to regret it later. It's an idea that I had and I was going to stick with it. Maybe along the way, we couldn’t afford to shoot it in India and have to do it in LA, or maybe we wouldn’t have as many props as I envisioned, but somehow that idea stayed there. I didn’t work for a commercial agency where I had six months to produce a TV commercial. I had three days to put it all together, and that was done by committing to an idea and then bringing in an army to help me.
How did you deal with the chaos of that?
I’m used to it, I grew up in that culture. My shuttle is New York to LA. Most people in America think of that as a transcontinental journey, but I do it about four times a month. A lot of people didn’t last in either my department or magazines because they thought we were animals—that it was a circus. You have to love the circus. A circus is a circus, and you have to embrace it, make it better, and more exciting.
How do you think your role as a creative director has evolved?
It’s interesting because I was having this conversation with Anna Wintour, who has been such a big supporter of mine and lovely. You hear these stories all the time, like how Emily [Weiss] was a fashion editor who turned into an entrepreneur that turned [Glossier] into a billion-dollar business. Vera Wang was a fashion editor at Vogue and she built a bridal business. We all have ideas but it’s about whether or not you actually make the jump.
When Condé Nast restructured and got rid of everybody at the top, I knew that I would be fine because I’m always up for a new chapter. Every month [of my career] was a new chapter for me. I got excited and did the opposite of what you're supposed to do and said yes to everything. I had breakfast, lunch, and coffee with 200 people in the fashion business because I wanted to challenge myself. I stepped outside of a business where I was always wearing 20 hats and entered a world where people are wearing one or two hats.
How did understanding your subjects help you create a better end result?
If you look at the images that I did over the years, I always wanted people to pick up the magazine at that particular point in time and say, “Tom Cruise has never looked better than in 1983, or in 1992, or in 2004.” It’s a style magazine and I had to make guys look great, but style goes beyond putting them in a great suit. I had to make them look their best while being sensitive when we were shooting.
Actors are really insecure about being in front of a camera. They don’t want to play themselves in front of a still camera and the only reason that they are good at what they do is because they're not having to play themselves. They're strongly directed and have a script. I had to create narratives for certain actors. The last time I shot Ryan Gosling for a cover, he was in a really funky mood. He tends to overthink things a little bit, but he's the greatest guy. I asked him if everything was okay and he was like, “Yeah, I'm just trying to stay in character. I'm doing night shoots for this movie called Drive,” which didn't mean anything to me at the time. Then I saw Drive and it made total sense. When you shoot athletes, you're dealing with a whole different group of people because they're all about themselves. They love style and are not afraid of a mirror. An actor is different. You have to be a little bit more clever with them.
What did you learn about teamwork from working with some of the greatest talent in the industry?
Luckily, I got to work for 15 years with [Editor-in-Chief] Jim Nelson, who is an incredibly instinctive person. The editor before Jim was an incredible guy, Art Cooper, who took the magazine from zero to 60. But then he became a little old fashioned because he was concerned about budgets and we were no longer able to dream as big as we could. Jim came in and wanted to talk to the reader more. It was about the reader, not the designer or advertiser. He wanted to build a magazine that he wanted to read. He knew nothing about fashion. The first thing he did was go into the fashion closet and ask us, “What the hell do you guys do back here? I don't know anything.” He was the worst dresser on staff, but he had a keen need to build a great team.
The best Editors-in-Chief are the people who hire the best people for all the things that they don't know. You need a team that really specializes in different things and be able to recognize the best versus trying to be the best. Ultimately that will be your win because the team will win, your magazine will win, and you will win.
Jim had the final word on things, but if I told him that a certain colour was in, or we should watch this designer, or we should do a 10-page story on this person, he would trust me. I think that was a really important part of our relationship. That's what kept the legacy going and what kept me excited, fresh, and on my toes.
What is your personal definition of success?
It’s about realizing your potential and going for it. A lot of young people today want to do everything but you can’t. You can only be one thing. You can have two careers in you but you have to pick one and go with it. It doesn't matter what everybody else says, if you feel an instinct that's pulling you in a certain direction, then that's the right instinct. I'm working on a TV show and I'm just trying to keep the same tunnel vision that I have when I put the magazine together, and that's to not listen to outside forces. You have the control to make decisions, so make sure it’s something that you will be proud of.
In the age of COVID-19, perspective has been key to navigating a landscape of unprecedented challenges. While the business community may be at an economic standstill, companies have shifted their efforts towards answering the call for assistance from both government leaders and healthcare professionals as they struggle to keep a pandemic under control.
Notorious for its fiercely competitive nature, the luxury sector has turned foes into unlikely friends with a shared purpose. In an inspiring show of camaraderie, unusual alliances have been forged to meet demands in the places that have been hit hardest. Fashion designers, luxury conglomerates, automobile manufacturers, and even a vacuum company have mobilized to offer assistance and challenged themselves to innovate in ways never before seen.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the strength of our determination and capacity to work together. From life-saving medical equipment to financial donations, here is a snapshot of a truly global effort from the luxury sector and their efforts to tackle COVID-19.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Earlier this month, French luxury fashion house, Louis Vuitton, announced that their workshops located in France and the US would be repurposed to produce high volumes of certified non-surgical face masks. In France, over 300 leather goods artisans have been mobilized to produce gowns for frontline hospital workers and masks for vulnerable segments of the population, including nursing and retirement homes. In the US, workshops located in Texas, New Jersey, and California have been mobilized to produce masks for local organizations who are leading in their COVID-19 efforts.
The announcement comes on the heels of parent group LVMH (which owns brands like Vuitton, Christian Dior, Celine, and Givenchy) and their commitment to relief efforts via their individual brands. At Dior, volunteer staff at their Redon workshop have been busy making protective gear for workers that come in contact with the public (like supermarket cashiers) while their couture division has delivered 300 gowns to a hospital located in Neuilly-sur-Seine. Womenswear brand Celine has also dedicated its resources to help Paris hospitals by donating over 50,000 hospital gowns.
Burberry, one of Britain’s most iconic heritage fashion brands, also announced a multi-pronged initiative to tackle COVID-19, which included a donation of 100,000 surgical masks and funding vaccine research at Oxford University.
In Italy, Prada announced a commitment of 80,000 medical overalls and over 100,000 masks for healthcare workers out of their Perugia workshop. This, on top of a personal donation from the company’s co-CEOs (Patrizio Bertelli and Miuccia Prada) and Chairman (Carlo Mazzi) of two complete intensive care and resuscitation units in Milan. Supercar brand, Lamborghini, has also dedicated part of its production plant in Sant’Agata Bolognese to produce PPE. Approximately 1,000 masks and 200 polycarbonate protective medical shields have been committed to production each day to meet demand.
In North America, Brooks Brothers announced that they would produce 150,000 surgical and non-surgical masks per day out of their factories across the country, while here in Canada, companies like Canada Goose and Harry Rosen are busy manufacturing PPE for healthcare workers across the country and repurposing dress shirts into non-medical face masks, respectively.
COVID-19 is a virus that attacks the respiratory system. In severe cases, patients are put on ventilators to assist with breathing if they cannot do so themselves. For some areas that have been hit especially hard by the disease, the shortage of this vital equipment has meant that healthcare workers have had to make agonizing choices to decide which patients will receive the life-saving ventilators, and which will not. Rising to the challenge, a handful of companies have provided relief by innovating and making their own.
In just ten days, British vacuum-maker Dyson created its own ventilator when its founder, Sir James Dyson, tasked the company to step up in the fight against COVID-19. Called the CoVent, the ventilator uses Dyson’s existing technology (more specifically, a digital motor already primed for safety and efficiency) to create a device that can perform within a variety of clinical settings and can operate on battery power, if needed. With 10,000 CoVent ventilators ordered from the UK’s National Health Service, Dyson has also committed to donating an additional 5,000 units.
In one of the nations hit hardest by COVID-19, Italian supercar maker, Ferrari, announced that they would be repurposing their Maranello prototype factory to produce respirator valves and fittings for protective masks. Elsewhere, their industry counterparts are joining in on the effort. Working with engineers at the University College London, Formula One team Mercedes developed a critical breathing aid that helps keep COVID-19 patients out of intensive care.
Beauty brands are uniquely qualified to assist in the production of hand sanitizer given their familiarity and proximity to the ingredients and equipment required to make it. To create hydroalcoholic gel, three key components are required — purified water, ethanol, and glycerine — all of which fragrance and beauty brands naturally come equipped with, making a pivot in production easier to roll out. L’Oreal and Coty Inc., two of the biggest beauty conglomerates in the industry, have joined relief efforts by producing hand sanitizer for healthcare workers, pharmacies, and care homes facing shortages. In a similar fashion, LVMH also announced that they would be converting their fragrance and makeup factories into facilities dedicated to the production of hydroalcoholic gel. The decision was a swift one, made only 72 hours after the French government issued a call to industry to help fill medical supply gaps.
As is the case in many instances, cash is king. Sometimes, the easiest and most effective way of helping is by providing direct financial support. And there’s certainly a number of different avenues where donations can be effectively utilized, from hospitals to vaccine research centres. Italian menswear brand, Armani, pledged 1.25 million euros to go towards Italian hospitals and institutions while a donation from jewellery brand Bulgari allowed a hospital in Rome to purchase a costly microscopic image acquisition system. Kering, one of the largest luxury fashion conglomerates behind brands like Gucci and Saint Laurent, donated 7.5 million yuan to the Red Cross Society of China, while Richemont (parent company to brands like Cartier and Panerai) pledged 10 million renminbi to combat COVID-19. In Canada, homegrown brands are also tossing their hats into the ring. Making a donation of $100,000 to various Canadian hospitals, outerwear brand Nobis also dedicated 100 percent of their April online sales to COVID-19 relief efforts, drawing praise from the community and even Deadpool himself, Ryan Reynolds.
These are challenging times we’re in right now. It’s easy to feel uncertain about the future when the present feels like it's barely guaranteed. But if it’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that Canada is full of leaders who have always been ready to rise up to challenges. We are a nation full of young champions on a quest to redefine the way we work, how we see the world, and the future we see for ourselves.
Our fourth annual 30X30 guide showcases a group of incredible individuals who are making an impact by daring to push boundaries, raising their voices, and rejecting the status quo. From industry-transforming entrepreneurs and social media savants to brilliant scientists and political activists, each of them is challenging Canadians to think and work differently in hopes of a brighter future.
Meet the class of 2020.
Explore below and use @BayStBull #BSB30X30 to share your thoughts.
What is Trufan?
In a nutshell, Trufan is a social intelligence platform that helps brands of any size, from small businesses all the way up to Fortune 500 companies, identify their grassroots community. These communities are made up of super fans, which are people that really love you and care about the product, service, or talent that you have, or micro-influencers—people that have a big following but not quite in the millions and have a local influence that you can tap into to activate.
It’s interesting because the definition of influence has certainly evolved, especially with the onset of social media. What does influence mean to you?
At the end of the day, we believe that influence comes down to whether you are able to affect buying decisions. If you have a million followers, it does not necessarily mean that you have a million people that are willing to buy something. We actually proved quite the opposite. We note that people that have between 30,000 to 150,000 followers tend to actually have higher engagement rates than people with millions of followers. In my opinion, I would rather take 30 micro-influencers that are already aligned with my brand, have higher engagement rates, and are cheaper to work with than pay one influencer with 10 million followers. That's the core construct of how influence is built up in our mind. Every single person has someone that they go to for fashion advice, or for opinions on when to buy a car, or what shoes to buy. These are the people that we're trying to help brands activate—the ones that have local influence and can actually affect buying decisions.
What do you think are the fundamentals of building an engaged and loyal community?
I think it’s twofold. Some of our customers tracked loyalty on only sales. They didn’t do so in the form of social media and how people were talking about them online. Brands must be able to track customer loyalty across various mediums. They take in sales data to see who their best customers are, but also monitor social media data to see who is talking about them in the most positive way, who is sharing content about them, and how they can appreciate those people more. Loyalty is a two-way street. Second, we work with brands that are very good at building campaigns around their own audience. They don’t have to simply rely on influencers to get their message out. They’re very good at empowering their own audience.
The world is going through an incredibly challenging time as we grapple with COVID-19. How have you optimized your team during this crisis?
We actually worked remotely during the first year of the company. My head of sales was in Ottawa and my co-founder was in Vancouver. When I started the company, I was in New York City. Around 2018, we all moved to Vancouver and started working out of the Hootsuite office but to date, our CFO is in Utah and our first investors are in Ottawa. So, we are very flexible in terms of how we work with our team, advisors, and investors. That has been great because we already had a culture of working remotely and it’s very easy to go back to that during a time like this and still be efficient.
We’ve had to motivate our employees and make them realize that this time is actually a blessing more than a curse. It’s obviously a very sad situation that we’re in, but when it comes to our industry, a lot of brands right now are focusing on digital more than ever. They’re looking past the experiential, the in-person activations, and trying to figure out what they can do online. It’s a great time for our company to capitalize on that and try as much as possible to be there for our customers.
You’ve raised money from a variety of investors that range from NBA players to venture capital firms. What advice do you have when it comes to building key relationships and getting people onboard with your mission?
I think the big thing for networking is making sure as much as possible that you’re not taking time away from people, but trying to give it back to them. You can do that right off the bat by interviewing them. That’s one thing that I did as a college student before I dropped out of the University of Toronto. For the first two years that I was there, I started an interview series on LinkedIn where I wrote articles, interviewed people that I looked up to, and put it out there in the world to see. I built a relationship on the foundation of hopefully giving some value back as opposed to only taking time to ask for coffee or a quick phone call. You also have to follow up with people. We have about 40 investors, nine advisors, and 15 team members. Communication has become the most important thing that I need to focus on. I need to follow up with every investor any time a big decision has been made, and I need to make sure that each person feels valued for their time and expertise in the connections that they’re building for us.
Do you think pursuing a path of entrepreneurship has conditioned you to think differently?
It makes you realize that a lot of problems around you can be fixed, but that there are also certain things that are out of your control. If you focus on them too much, you’re going to be lost. Especially as an entrepreneur, where you have to deal with a hundred different things every single day, you have to really stay focused on certain things that are truly within your control and are going to have the biggest impact on your company. That is a skill that can be applied across any job and can help you in your personal life, too.
You’ve achieved a lot of milestones at a young age. How can we empower young people to harness their potential as entrepreneurs and business owners?
We need to start teaching entrepreneurship at school. I understand it’s difficult to teach people how to [be an entrepreneur], but I think it’s worth giving them the option to do things like a capstone project instead of a science fair project. They would work on a business idea with three or four classmates and go from creating a business plan to actually executing on the idea. At the end, the team or company that makes the most revenue or is the most impressive wins a prize. I think stuff like that can really go a long way in fostering an entrepreneurial spirit with kids. I think young people need [access] to idols. The reason why I thought entrepreneurship could be cool wasn’t because I had a family member that was an entrepreneur. I used to go online and watch videos of Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, or Michele Romanow. I feel like Canadian entrepreneurs are really accessible and I love them for that. They’re humble, grounded, and accessible. Bringing [kids] in contact with idols early on would be great.
What are the values that inform the operation of your business?
There are two things, one being transparency. We have a very clear model where if we’re not providing a customer value, we’re going to tell them upfront and encourage them to either switch their plan or to get off of it. Something that’s very important to us is not just selling, but actually delivering on what we’re promising. The second value is affordability. When I look around and see small business owners, incubators, and more using our platform, it makes me happy and realize that we’ve tapped into a segment of the market that has been ignored because they don’t pay as much. Whatever we provide, we want to not only provide it to the upper echelon Fortune 500 companies, but also the millions of small business owners across the country that power our economy.
What’s the bigger picture for you?
Our thesis has been to try and reinvent customer engagement. What we’re trying to do is help you realize that your customers need to be taken care of, and that’s not just done by quantifying sales data or focusing on the people that pay the most. It’s by focusing on other forms of data and putting it all together to give you the best ability to reach out to those who are your best advocates. They’re the ones who are going to move the needle for you, not only through purchasing power, but from being able to actually tell people about your brand and your product.
At only 15 years old, Autumn Peltier has already made a profound impact. The powerful words were delivered by the young Canadian as she spoke to world leaders at a United Nations summit addressing global climate change issues.
In a movement that has inspired hearts and ignited protests around the world, the war for environmental justice has mobilized young people to take matters into their own hands and fight for an uncertain future. An Anishinaabe girl from Wiikwemkoong First Nation, Peltier is at the frontlines of the movement and has quickly become the face of the water crisis that has long affected Indigenous communities in Canada.
As of February 15, 2020, there exist 61 long-term drinking water advisories across First Nations reserves in Canada, meaning that drinking water in a community is unsafe for consumption. Beyond its properties to sustaining human life, water represents an even larger role in Indigenous culture, seen as possessing a sacred spirit of its own that must be respected and protected. As the Anishinabek Nation’s Chief Water Commissioner, Peltier advocates for water conservation and follows in the footsteps of her aunt, Josephine Mandamin, who famously walked the shores of the Great Lakes to raise awareness.
In 2016, Peltier famously made headlines when she publicly confronted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his commitment to Canada’s pipeline projects, laying aside the basic fundamental needs of Indigenous communities. Her unapologetic activism has earned accolades around the world, including a nomination for the 2019 International Children’s Peace Prize. Beyond that, Peltier remains a symbol of hope (and frustration) as discussions around climate change approach a boiling point. Unafraid to hold world leaders to task, hers is a voice that speaks not only for her community, but for an entire generation and the future of our world.
Such is the gospel and joy of Donté Colley, a 23-year-old internet personality that has skyrocketed into social media stardom by way of self-affirmation and some seriously impressive dance moves. Colley’s rise in popularity comes at an interesting time where public perception of influencer culture is at a crossroads. It’s easy to perceive Instagram and TikTok celebrities as tone-deaf and vapid during something like a global pandemic. But Colley’s thesis focuses on spreading joy through social media by encouraging the discussion around self-love, transparency, and mental health.
Growing up in Scarborough, Ontario, Colley became familiar with grief at an early age when he lost his father at only eight years old, followed by his stepbrother and grandfather. Five years ago, he tragically lost his older sister to suicide. Mental health has been at the crux of Colley’s message, reminding his audience to check in and be kinder to themselves. Disillusioned by the mirage of social media, Colley created his account in 2015 to showcase an unfiltered, genuine version of himself that didn’t adhere to the toxic culture that many of his contemporaries were bound to. And it’s worked. Amassing a following of over 835k followers on Instagram alone, Colley’s message has sent a ripple through his communities by harnessing happiness. Some big names have taken note, with celebrities like Will Smith, Ariana Grande, and Beyonce counting themselves as fans.
No, Colley hasn’t invented a new technology or produced a groundbreaking product. But it’s not always about that. Sometimes greatness is simply about reminding people of what already exists in front of us. Sometimes it’s about disrupting ourselves and reminding each other to be happy. That you’ll be ok. That you’re doing great.
According to Podcast Insights, there are currently over one million podcasts on the digital airwaves right now, and over 30 million episodes available for listeners to digest as of April 2020. With advertising revenue expected to surpass one billion by 2021, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of a podcast boom right now.
Seeing an opportunity to capture an emerging market, Fatima Zaidi created Quill, the world’s first one-stop marketplace where podcasters can find the resources and talent to build their podcasts and grow an audience. Headquartered in Toronto, Quill comes at a pivotal time where brands are looking to nurture deeper relationships with their consumer base while reaffirming their expertise on subject matter at the same time. With a new and rapidly-growing market ahead of her, Zaidi’s journey as a new entrepreneur is just getting started.
What is Quill, and why did you decide to start it?
Quill is the world's first marketplace for podcasters. If you are an indie podcaster or a company looking to start a new podcast, or outsource elements of your existing show, we’re your one-stop shop. People can go onto our platform and find a range of different freelancers that are vetted experts by us who have a lot of experience in the podcasting industry. They come at different price points so they're very affordable and you can hire them for audio editing, production, transcription, logos—whatever services that you might need associated with your podcast. I'm a big consumer of podcasts and I saw a gap in the market about a year and a half to two years ago, and eventually decided to move into this space.
There has definitely been a proliferation of podcasts. Where do you think that this uptick in podcasting came from?
Given everything that's happening with COVID-19, people want to stay connected and I think podcasting is just such a great medium for that. If we go back, 2014 is when podcasts started becoming mainstream and it could be for various reasons. The launch of Serial really helped with [host] Sarah Koenig. It was a really great podcast and kept people on the edge of their seats. People realized that narrative storytelling can be told through audio and still create the same impact as video. There's no other medium that will keep people engaged for 30 or more minutes across several episodes. There was a study done in 2017 that found that 30 minute videos only have a completion rate of 14 percent whereas Edison did a study [in 2019] and found that 93 percent of podcast consumers will listen to all of, or most, of the content. I think people started to realize that there is this whole other medium out there with very high conversion and engagement rates.
The other thing is, we're all really busy and looking to stay productive in our lives. Typically, podcast consumers can be reached during times that are not available traditionally to other advertisers. People are walking their dogs, commuting, doing household chores, and surprisingly they're still absorbing the content. Being actively engaged in another activity seems to increase engagement, rather than hurt it. I think all of those things are starting to really explode this industry because people are realizing that they can spend a tenth of their traditional media ad spend and get the same results that they can at a tenth of the cost through podcasting. From a brand opportunity perspective, it's huge.
Do you think that's partly to do with the intimacy of the environment and the content that's created?
Branded podcasts allow companies to connect and build a relationship with their customers without bombarding them with ads and being too salesy. It's an opportunity for brands and individuals who are building personal brands as an indie podcaster to really become a thought leader and subject matter expert in a way that's very tasteful. These days the barriers to entry are so low. Anybody can become a podcaster if they have a device to produce an internet connection.
Do you think that there are any misconceptions around podcasting?
I think a lot of the misconceptions have definitely improved, especially with Spotify acquiring Gimlet for $200 million. Still, it's a very new category and 22 percent of the US population now listens to weekly podcasts. That's definitely not 100 percent. Some brands are aggressively moving into this space like Warby Parker, but I think that a lot of traditional companies, especially Fortune 500, are very convservative in the ways that they approach marketing and ROI. There's a huge missed opportunity for not at least testing this medium. The biggest misconception is when people think the industry is saturated. Compared to the usual mediums of content that we use, like blogs and YouTube channels, 900,000 podcasts is not a lot and then only 18 percent of those podcasts are active. It’s a small blip in the content industry. The companies and people that are moving into this space now are first to market and have a huge advantage.
How do brands evaluate whether or not podcasting is right for them?
First and foremost, if your audience is millennial professionals, you should 100 percent consider launching a podcast because that is the exact demographic of people who listen to shows. Second, it all depends on what your marketing budgets are. Starting a podcast is not expensive and sometimes you don't even know the ROI until you launch. It could really take off or maybe it won’t work with your audience. I always recommend taking a little bit of money from your experimental marketing budget and using it to test the first season of your podcast. The ROI can be measured in so many different ways. It can be measured in acquisition and conversions. You could use affiliate codes to try to sell a product or service. You can measure it through becoming a thought leader and a subject matter expert. You can have calls to action where people leave a review or sign up for your newsletter. You can ask your audience to engage back with you in so many different ways. I would say the number one metric that I like to use is word-of-mouth. Are people compelled enough to talk about it with their friends? Are you sparking some kind of emotion? Not only do people have to like your show enough to talk about it, they have to feel compelled enough to recommend it to their friends. The ROI question is definitely not a straightforward one. I take a lot of time to understand what success means to our clients.
If you had to summarize it into a formula or a recipe, what would you say makes a successful podcast?
I would say analytics are extremely important. You really need to know who you're creating the content for and that it doesn't have to appeal to everyone. It should be tailored towards those you create for. It's always better to be something to someone rather than nothing to everyone. Secondly, if you're a company looking to put out content, you don't need to create completely novel content. If you're already creating video or audio, you can always convert that into a podcast to expand your reach. TedTalks does this with TedTalks Daily where they make some of their lectures available in audio consumption formats only. They've done a really great job with a very small price point and put out really great podcasting content. I don't watch TedTalk lectures, but I listen to their podcasts. You never know how people consume content, so why not try to broaden your reach to try and appeal to those who prefer audio versus video versus those who prefer reading? Also, invest a little bit of money into your audio editing and production. Everything else you could probably bootstrap if you really wanted to and do it in-house, but audio editing is a very technical skill so you should really leave that to the pros. Lastly, podcast listeners are very loyal to their respective apps. If you listen to your podcast, you only listen to it on Spotify or Apple podcasts, or Google Play. So try to maximize your distribution by getting on all of the podcast directories. A lot of our clients will come to us and they'll only be on one or two. They're leaving a lot of missed opportunities on the table by not reaching all audiences on different platforms.
What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
To be honest, I'm new to this entrepreneurial journey and it’s an emotional roller coaster. There are days where you feel on top of the world, and days where you hit rock bottom. To me, being an entrepreneur is not taking that feeling of rejection personally, and realizing that getting your ducks in a row takes way more work than simply commanding them to line up. It’s about being resilient. Whenever I'm hiring for my startup, I'm always looking for people who have hustle and grit because I find that those skills are way more important than the fancy resume with bells and whistles.
At what point did you come to understand your identity as an entrepreneur?
It's definitely been an evolving process. I think starting this company was very eye-opening because for the first time I didn’t have to worry about just myself as an individual. [I had to think] about my team, investors, advisors, and customers. There are so many different stakeholders that you have to be accountable to. Realizing that, you have to see things through other people's lense. For me, profit and cash flow is king for sure. You can't have a successful company without prioritizing financials. But more than that, relationships and people are everything. I would say the pillars of my identity are creating a culture. That would probably be my biggest achievement. If I can create a culture where everyone feels happy coming into work every day, safe, protected, and they don't feel like they're just a number, then I think that I've done something right.
What do you think is the key to building successful relationships?
Someone gave me some advice a very long time ago that has really stuck with me even today. They said the best way to be a salesperson is to not be a salesperson and just to provide as much value as you can to people. I've gone through the grimy sales training of trying to make a quick buck. I was in the energy industry working with a ton of men to try to sign these large contracts and I realized that when you provide honesty, trust, credibility, and you aren't looking to make a quick buck, you actually make way more money in the long run. By far the most lucrative form of sales is to build relationships and provide value by becoming a thought leader and a subject matter expert. Provide as much value-add and create a really good product that fills a gap. You'll find that the inbound sales pipeline will be pretty lucrative.
What is the milestone that you're most proud of?
I get asked quite frequently, When did you last feel like you had made it? And I always laugh at that question because I'm like, Who ever feels like they’ve really made it? I feel like my whole career I've been hustling to get to the next step and chasing the dream. What really motivates me, aside from cash flow, is my fear of failure. If I ever felt like I had made it, then I'm not sure what would motivate me. I hope that the dream keeps evolving and getting bigger. Truthfully I hope that I never feel that I've made it and that I'm always insecure about where I am because I think that's what pushes me at the end of the day.
What’s the bigger picture with your work?
Being a part of a larger movement. I want to be able to look back and say that I was first to market in a very new category. I don't know if this medium is just a fad or if it’s going to exponentially blow up. I just want to know that I was able to take a risk and build a company with a really great team and culture, even if it's for a short period of time. Not only is starting a business very risky, but starting a business in a very new category where you have to educate people on the benefits of using your platform or medium is a risk on its own. I'd like to look back and say that we eventually did it and we mainstreamed entry into podcasting. That's the goal.
Canada has always been a nation driven by sports. Hockey is as much a part of our national identity as our polite demeanour, and our Olympians remain some of the most decorated around the world. Basketball, a sport invented by Canadian James Naismith, has typically been associated most closely with our American counterparts, but that all changed last year.
An arduous and heart-pounding journey, sports fans across the nation held their collective breath in the lead-up to the 2019 NBA Championship, culminating in a deafening eruption of cheers as the Toronto Raptors secured their win over the Golden State Warriors. It was a surreal, unforgettable moment that marked the first time a Canadian team had ever won the coveted title, concluding with a victory parade that spanned over a million people.
While the players became the faces and heart of the history-making journey, those who were operating behind the scenes were just as accountable to the team’s success as their on-court counterparts. Brittni Donaldson was one of them.
Donaldson’s career ascendance is important and reflective of not only her talent and skill, but a shift in direction that has seen more women occupying leadership roles in the NBA. Her contributions to the Toronto Raptors have been significant, serving as a data analyst since joining the team in 2017 before being promoted to assistant coach two years later. The move, made by team president Masai Ujiri and head coach Nick Nurse, was a profound one. Quickly, Donaldson became the tenth active female assistant coach in the league, and the youngest in the NBA.
Through a combination of tireless work ethic, data expertise, and an undying passion for the game, Donaldson’s impact on the team has only just begun.
Growing up in Point Verte, a small fishing village located in New Brunswick, Robert Kirstiuk distinctly remembered the docks of his hometown. While the Maritimes may be globally synonymous with coastal beauty and the rich bounty of the ocean, Kirstiuk’s memory vividly recalled his experiences seeing the local fishermen trying to sell their catch, struggling to earn a fair income for their work.
It was when he revisited this memory during university with his friend, Joseph Lee, that they recognized an opportunity to radically change an industry characterized by tradition and run by a small group of powerful players. From there, Freshline was born.
A marketplace that eliminates the middleman, Freshline (formerly known as Coastline) gives fishers the ability to cast a wider net of potential customers while simultaneously providing them with wider transparency of where their food is coming from.
Speaking from their Vancouver headquarters, Lee discusses how he built Freshline with co-founder Kirstiuk, the importance of harnessing data, and global domination.
Can you describe what Freshline is?
Freshline is an online marketplace connecting harvesters, fishers, and producers directly to hundreds of restaurants and retailers across Canada and the United States. You can essentially think of us as an Amazon for seafood. The value for the chefs is firstly quality. We're able to automate a lot of operational work throughout the supply chain and essentially give them fresher seafood that's more traceable than the competition. Number two is price. We're able to cut out a significant number of middlemen from the supply chain and deliver pricing that is at least on par or less than what they see through wholesale channels. Number three is convenience, data, and technology. [Chefs] can now make all their seafood purchases online instead of having to fax, text, or call their reps. They have full visibility of the product, pricing, availability and can get data on what they're purchasing, the seasonality of the market, popular items and skews, and more.
Why was this an industry that you wanted to tackle?
The concept behind Freshline came about when Robert and I were chatting about his experience back in the Maritimes. He comes from four to five generations of people who worked in the fishing industry in one way or the other, whether through processing, packing, fishing, or seafood trading. We were talking about an experience that he had with a commercial fisherman, who was going dock to dock in every small village trying to sell bits and pieces of his catch before selling to the broker or the middlemen in the main city. We started asking ourselves why he was going through this arduous process trying to sell such small volumes of seafood. Through that process of investigation, we found out that the seafood supply chain is very complicated, extremely traditional, and was often dominated and monopolized by very few players. We asked ourselves how we could democratize access to smaller-scale fishermen and enable them to sell directly to consumers, restaurants, or retailers. That was the original thesis, and it’s a little different from what we have today, but it was the gateway and impetus that gave us the motivation to jump into the industry and just start learning and doing.
Did you have any established relationships in the industry, or did you have to start from scratch?
It was more of the latter. We had some inherent knowledge from Robert's side of the family, but what we were trying to build was very new, innovative, and disruptive. We had to learn everything from the ground up. Instead of knocking on doors, we were going to independent docks across Canada and the United States and just tried to get in touch with the people running the show. We wanted to learn as much as we could and, while making mistakes and pivoting along the way, ultimately landed on our current product.
On that note of pivoting, how have you been able to stay nimble and agile as a business?
For us, it's all about being data-driven. Rob and I try not to have egos about decision-making. We try to be pretty black and white on what's right and wrong. We have to go with our gut, but at the same time we try to be as quantitative and data-driven as humanly possible. If we see that something just doesn't have the clout or traction in the market, it makes more sense for us to cut it out.
What has been your biggest challenge in building Freshline?
One of the biggest challenges is information asymmetry. There’s incomplete information and data, and as much as we want to be quantitative, sometimes you have to take the risk and go with your gut. We solved the lack of information and uncertainty in the market by just surrounding ourselves with smart, talented people, whether it be our actual employees who are building the business with us on the ground level, or the advisors, mentors, and investors that have been in similar situations and industries, and were able to navigate past the status quo to build amazing businesses. It’s really been about leaning on those around us to help us fill in our missing gaps and power us through some rough seas.
From a mental health standpoint, entrepreneurs put a lot onto their plates. How do you find balance in your life?
I think one of the biggest challenges that I personally had was decoupling myself from the business. It’s about understanding that the success of the business doesn't dictate who we are as people and what we identify as. In the same way, if the business fails along the way, that has no indication on whether or not we're failing at life as a whole. [Understanding this] has been tough. You pour your heart and soul into something, and you become known as the person that founded company X or company Y. That is your brand, and it’s your identity amongst your peers and your network. It's tough to disassociate from that, but it's really important to take a bird's eye view approach. You have to understand that you’re learning and growing every day, and the experience is going to make you a better entrepreneur at the end of the day. I just take it step by step and invest in myself. What a lot of founders fail to understand at times, myself included, is to invest in yourself, whether it's through resources, giving yourself time off, exercising, eating right, paying yourself a decent salary. Those are all things that people take for granted and bypass, but it's actually the best ROI decision for the business because your health, efficiency, motivation, and happiness have a direct correlation on the success of the company, overall.
As a team of co-founders, how do you support each other and divide your responsibilities?
In terms of keeping each other in the loop, we have a standard touch basis every week where we talk strategy and about what's happening within the company. But it's also super important for us to feed control to each other and other members of the team. When you’re a small team, you’re a scrappy three- to five-person team and it's really easy to have your fingerprints on every single decision that's being made at the company. The tough thing has been about learning how to let go even if you think you can do something better or faster than someone else. It's the best decision for the company to step back and let someone else drive, and the same goes for co-founder relationships. You need to divvy things up and say, “Hey, I trust you and have enough conviction in your aptitude to deal with legal, finance, marketing, and sales while I deal with engineering, product, strategy, or whatever it may be.” It's about having enough trust to let go and work in your own vertical while still obviously staying coupled together and having context on what's happening.
You talk about learning how to let go. How do you know when it’s time to let go of something that you're pursuing and move on to something else so that it doesn't take up more of your time, resources, and energy?
The way I always think about it is, I want to make myself redundant to the day-to-day of the business. I want to put the business in a position where it can run and succeed without having to come to me, or me being the bottleneck to decision-making or moving quickly. I'm making myself redundant where I can help provide strategic vision and paint a picture, but get out of people's way so that they can go out and execute.
How do you define success for your company? Which KPIs do you track, and how do you measure success overall?
From an overlying vision, our goal is to democratize access and reinvent perishable seafood worldwide. That is really our goal. At the same time, success to our investors is growth in our monthly active users—how many unique restaurants are ordering every single month? It could also be GMV (Gross Merchandise Value), the flow of the value of goods through our platform, number of transactions, etc. There are a number of different things that we look at but really the vision and the mission is about reinventing perishable seafood worldwide.
There is also a big dialogue around conservation, sustainability, and the environment. Does your company speak to these themes?
100 percent. We're not the supplier or the ones who are processing or harvesting the products but what we do on our side is offer transparency, accountability, and traceability. We put everything out there so that the buyer can make informed decisions based on their own conviction. We don't want to say that we offer only products that are certified X or certified Y, but what we do say is, “Hey, we're going to have all sorts of sustainable products and we're going to tell you exactly where it's from, exactly how it was processed, who harvested it, along with what their certifications and mandate are.” Ultimately we’re leaving the decision-making up to you. You're competent and we know you care so we're going to give you all the information. We trust you to make the right decision for your business.
What is a milestone that you are most proud of?
I think it’s our team. Obviously hitting revenue targets and customer targets is great. But really, the team is what I'm most proud of. I think we have a really awesome, motivated, empowered, and honest team here at Freshline. Everyone respects one another. We have an amazing culture that we're building here. That’s what I’m most proud of.
How do you go about cultivating a team of leaders who are empowered to grow within your company?
We’re very evidence based, so we don't like to create hierarchy if we can avoid it. We started off by having, and still do, a very flat organization based on meritocracy where the best and brightest ideas win regardless of where they came. Through that process, what we try to avoid is bureaucracy and office politics. It’s about having everyone on a level playing field with radical candor, where you’re recognizing and congratulating people for their ideas and output.
What advice would you give to other founders who want to build an impactful business?
The biggest thing that I've taken away is that success takes time. It's really easy to romanticize San Francisco- or Silicon Valley-based businesses that are growing 20, 30, 40 times a year and achieving massive amounts of capital. What’s realistic is that businesses take time. Success takes time. In most instances, behind all that glamour is persistence, grit, determination, and survival. You either push through all the hills and valleys until you reach your goal or you get lucky and get hired by people. What you see in the newspapers and tech publications isn't actually what's happening.
What excites you about the future for your business?
For us, it’s scaling what we have across Canada into a global company. Our ambition isn't to be a regional startup. We want to be a global one, and a household name across the world. We’re going to start by expanding to Montreal. We are already in Toronto, but we're planning on growing that market quite significantly and then into the United States, potentially Europe, and to Asia and beyond. We’re pretty excited about our global ambitions.
There’s an age-old adage that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. In the case of BioCellection, a plastics innovation startup, those words ring true.
When founders Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao met in an eighth grade recycling club, they bonded over a common purpose — to help reduce society’s overall impact on the environment. Fast forward ten years and the two have grown the seed of their shared vision into a company that is changing the world.
According to their website, 350 million tonnes of plastic are produced, consumed, and disposed of per year, of which only nine percent can be recycled. Due to a lack of technological innovation or for economic reasons, more than 50 percent of plastic waste is deemed difficult or “unrecyclable”.
It’s undeniable that plastic is one of mankind’s greatest inventions. But it has also quickly become one of the greatest problems of our existence, extending its reach to everything from environmental destruction to social inequality. If things don’t change soon, humans are in big trouble.
At BioCellection, the mission is clear: hack Earth’s plastic problem.
The startup focuses on closing the loop on plastics pollution by breaking down polyethylene (a common type of plastic found in everything from grocery bags to shampoo bottles) waste into a usable resource. BioCellection specifically targets plastics that are traditionally unrecyclable by breaking them down into chemical building blocks that can be reassembled and repurposed into higher value materials. The goal is twofold: to convert packaging waste into a reusable material, and to keep it in the economy longer by transforming it into performance materials that can be used for a longer period of time than simple packaging. Think: materials that can be used to build homes, cars, and airplanes.Yao and Yang’s company comes at a pivotal time where corporate titans are looking for new ways to embed sustainable manufacturing practices. Values-driven consumer expectations have forced these companies to reassess their CSR mandates, and brands like Nike and Adidas are moving quickly. By reframing a problem into an opportunity, BioCellection is carving a future for mankind that does not have to be defined by plastic pollution, but rather innovation and sustainability.
When it comes to international studies, Canada is a top pick for students thanks to the quality of our education system and multicultural reputation. According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE), the years between 2010 and 2019 saw a 154 percent increase in international students visiting Canada, 60 percent of which planned on pursuing permanent residence. In 2018 alone, there were 572, 415 international students in Canada across all levels of study.
It’s true that Canada is a nation known for its diversity, and that extends to post-secondary campuses across the country. But for many who make their way over to pursue academic studies, the experience can be daunting. Such was the case for twin brothers, Meti and Massi Basiri.
After their eldest brother, Martin, experienced hurdles as an international student from Iran, they formed their recruitment platform, ApplyBoard, to make the application process easier and more accessible for students.
With their brother Martin as CEO, Meti and Massi respectively operate as CMO and COO, and together have grown their AI-based company quickly in the span of five short years. Today, ApplyBoard has solidified partnerships with over 1,200+ primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools in a bid to drive up diversity and international minds across campuses in Canada, the US, and UK. With over 500 team members around the globe and backed by $72 million in funding, the vision has always been singular: to provide easier access to education. And the results are showing: students that have gone through ApplyBoard’s vetting system boast an impressive 95 percent success rate in receiving acceptance letters from academic institutions.
For a nation defined so much by multiculturalism, Canada has an opportunity to harness and cultivate talent at a young age. Providing easy access to quality education should be a human right, and is within the best interests of our country. ApplyBoard is helping to make that happen.
What does it mean to be hospitable? Billed as a next generation hospitality business, Sonder aims to answer the question.
A hybrid of various players in the industry, the Montreal-born and San Francisco-based tech company provides an alternative experience for travelers looking to satisfy their wanderlust. A quick perusal of their website or app showcases a portfolio of beautiful spaces that look like they’ve jumped off a carefully curated Pinterest board, and the neighborhoods they’re located in are some of the most charming in the world. Such is the ethos and vision of Sonder.
Founded by Francis Davidson, the origin story around Sonder is reflective of many journeys taken in the canon of great entrepreneurial tales—individual faces annoying problem, tries to build a solution to said problem, starts a company, unwittingly becomes an entrepreneur, finds resonance in the marketplace. In Davidson’s case, his journey began when he was a McGill student trying to sublet his apartment. Unable to find anyone to commit to a three month rental, Davidson shifted his strategy towards visitors to the city and quickly discovered a lack of inventory outside of the traditional hotel experience. From there, an idea was born.
Teaming up with Lucas Pellan (a friend he met at a dinner party) the two began signing leases on apartments in Montreal and turned them into vacation rentals. Two years later in 2014, Davidson and Pellan had already crossed the $1 million revenue mark and started to lay down the bricks of what would eventually become the business they have today.
While companies like Airbnb were already in full swing, the two co-founders saw an opportunity to build on the model by offering an elevated experience that amalgamated the best of the industry. Their thesis was that travel could be democratized without sacrificing beautiful experiences and top-notch quality. By combining the access and personality of short-term rental companies with the service of hotels (like on-demand concierge services, gyms, and professional cleaning), they bring the best of both worlds together and prove that the two are not mutually exclusive.
So far, the strategy has worked. With over hundreds of thousands of guests in over 20 cities, Sonder has quickly achieved a rare and coveted status in startup circles, especially those born in Canada — unicorn.
With the help of $400 million in funding from various investors (one even with a pedigree in the Hyatt hotel chain), Sonder is now valued at over one billion and continues its mission to reinvent the travel experience.
For years, we’ve been warned of the impact that sugar has on our health. According to a 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, diets high in sugar were associated with elevated heart disease risk. Recognizing the potential health risk of her lifestyle (and after a frank talk with her grandmother), Bosch knew she needed to change.
Part of the joy that she derived from candy was the ritual that surrounded her relationship around sugar. So, armed with only a gummy bear mold that she ordered from Amazon, Bosch set out to see how she could make an alternative that replicated her experience with candy, minus the sugar. After months of testing out various recipes using plant-based fibers and sweeteners, she finally landed on one that she deemed as the perfect candy, and thus, SmartSweets was born.
Reinventing the candy aisle wasn’t something that Bosch had necessarily set out to do when she came up with her first batch of sugar-less gummy bears, but her company has quickly grown to service more than 20,000 stores across North America, including complete distribution in chains like Whole Foods and Target, turning a small kitchen operation into a $55 million revenue brand.
As of 2019, SmartSweets has already kicked over a whopping one billion grams of sugar since launching in 2016. With over six million in investment funding backing her up, Bosch has her sights set on becoming the “global leader in innovating confectionary products that kick sugar.” She’s certainly well on her way.
It has been said that our sense of smell is one of the strongest associated with memory recall. That would explain why your grandmother’s kitchen comes to mind when you smell a home-cooked dish, or why flashes of your first date come up after smelling a specific perfume. The human body’s capacity to make connections between the two is astounding, but also makes perfect sense when you consider the fact that we possess over 1,000 different types of receptors dedicated to smell. (In comparison, we only have four receptors dedicated to light and touch.) Why, then, do so many of us define our experiences by vision and touch?
Sara and Sean Panton are looking to change that by restructuring the way we harness our sense of smell to impact the way we go about our daily lives. Vitruvi, their essential oil-focused lifestyle brand, empowers consumers to use aromas as a powerful tool to set the stage. That is, scents can be used to influence your mood, relax you, or induce specific behaviour in the same way that music can be used to motivate or calm you.
Based in Vancouver, Vitruvi entered the five billion dollar scent market in 2014 with one mission in mind: to be a resource for women in their self care so they can focus on taking over the world. You could say that the beginning of their story as entrepreneurs started incidentally, as most do. While Sara was in her second year of medical school, the two siblings decided to start a side project that showcased their love of essential oils as a substitute for the harsh, synthetic fragrances that saturated the market. As business picked up, it required more attention; and so both siblings decided to focus their full efforts in turning their side hustle into their main one.
Focusing on high-quality ingredients, transparency, and a beautiful product experience, the two siblings have grown the brand to over 300 retail partnerships in 30 countries. Today, Vitruvi is profitable and has raised a total of seven million dollars from investors to further expand their growth.
What do pantyhose and bulletproof vests have in common? The same foundational material that makes up Sheertex’s groundbreaking product—the world’s toughest sheer panythose.
Founder Katherine Homuth knows how to spot an opportunity. With a history of business ventures that include ShopLocket (a pre-order platform) and Female Funders (an organization dedicated to supporting and educating female angel investors), the 29-year-old entrepreneur has a knack for solving tough challenges. Looking for a new problem to tackle, Homuth landed on pantyhose, a ubiquitous fashion item that had gone unchanged for decades, including the problems associated with it. She wondered, How has society been able to create self-driving cars and send a man to the moon, but been unable to create pantyhose that lasts through the day? From there, Sheertex was born.
Through years of rigorous research and a “peanuts to lemonade” approach to thinking, Homuth’s latest company is a gamechanger.
What is Sheertex?
Sheertex makes the world's only unbreakable pair of pantyhose. It started as a curiosity almost three years ago when I was coming off of my last startup. I was really enamoured by direct-to-consumer products but I wanted to start with a problem first and let the technology come second. I had met so many entrepreneurs who were working on the connected this or that, and as smart as they all were, it really felt like technology for the sake of technology.
Pantyhose was not what I thought I would get into, but it was one of those problems that just seemed so silly. Why has something so simple not been solved when we have self-driving cars and space travel? Why can't you put on a pair of pantyhose without it ripping? That sent me into this spiral of learning about knits and polymers, and here we are three years later—I'm operating Canada's largest hosiery factory and just going through a crazy ride.
Can you talk a little bit about the innovation behind the product? It’s a consumer category that has been around for ages, but hasn’t really changed.
I knew absolutely nothing about textiles or polymers. It honestly started with a simple Google search on how pantyhose is made. I was quickly able to narrow it down to the fact that when you make a fiber that small and that fine, it's just incredibly hard for it to still be strong. You really need a much stronger polymer material in order to get it down to the fineness required for pantyhose and still make sure it has structural integrity. It was very clear that pretty much every fiber, every polymer used in apparel today, is too weak when you get it to be as fine as it has to be for pantyhose.
So, I had to start looking outside of the realm of apparel and into performance materials and ballistics to see if we could find something that you could make very finely and still make sure it was strong. The way pantyhose is measured is in denier, which tells you the thickness or fineness of the material. If you're buying jeans or a pair of shoes, usually the fibers are about 300 denier but for pantyhose to be sheer, they have to be 30 denier or below. In order to even be called tights—relatively thick pantyhose—you have to have a hundred denier fiber. Even in ballistics, all of the fibers were 300, 400, 2000 denier. While they were really strong, they had never been made fine enough for this type of application so the first thing that we had to do was figure out how to make these materials finer to turn them into something like pantyhose. The very first material that I bought was 100 denier in a white material. I shipped it off to a sock factory in China and they sent me back an angry note saying we'd broken all of their machines, but they got this one piece of material off the line. What they sent me looked more like cheesecloth than pantyhose. It was white, it didn't stretch, it was too thick, but it was insanely strong. Based on that, I decided to find a way to colour it and make it three times finer so we could make pantyhose. We spent another two years doing that and we shipped our first pairs of pantyhose just over a year ago in February, 2019.
Why do you think it has taken so long for innovation to happen in this space?
There's a saying that startups are an alignment of an idea with timing. Had we tried to do this 10 to 20 years ago, the technology to do what we're trying to do just wouldn't have been there. We were trying to do something that I think was probably only possible a year or two prior to when I actually went out there. Maybe it was complacency that had the industry not even searching to solve this problem, but the solution that we found really wouldn't have been possible.
The raw material costs on the product are also orders of magnitude higher than typical pantyhose. For someone in the industry to look at those costs and be like, Yes, this is totally reasonable, let's go down the path of making unbreakable pantyhose—it just would've looked completely insane. But the entrepreneur side of me knew that costs go down over time, so we just made it and figured out how to drive costs down. I figured there'd be a way over time that we could figure this out, and now we’re the biggest purchaser of this type of material, the biggest innovator in it, and we've been able to really direct a lot of the global supply. As we've gone further down the chain and verticalized the business, we've been able to achieve price points that are much more palatable for a consumer. Hopefully we can do more of that over time. My goal with this isn't that we are a brand of pantyhose. It's that this technology replaces all pantyhose. It's a very different way of looking at it. We're really in this for the long game.
How has consumer feedback been?
When I got ready to ship the first pairs, I was terrified. I had no idea whether people would think it would be as unbreakable as they wanted it to be, whether they'd ever have to buy another pair, if it lasted as long as we said it would last, or if it would be too expensive. Once we started shipping the product, the response was more positive than we really ever could have imagined. It delivered on this insane promise. The product surpasses what I thought it could do. It has the texture and feel of a normal pair of pantyhose but with all of these other magical qualities. In addition to strength, it's antimicrobial, lightweight, repels water, and is stain-resistant.
This technology is just fundamentally better than every product that is out there right now. It's really on us to figure it out. If it fails, it’s not because of the product. It's our fault in the supply chain, manufacturing, pricing, or going to market. This technology deserves to win and it's about whether or not we succeed at that.
Do you consider Sheertex a technology-first company, or a fashion-first company? How do you define yourselves?
We are 700 percent a technology-first company. I am obsessed with the technology, almost to my detriment. I remember the first time I shipped a beta pair, the feedback came back saying the waistband was a little too tight or too tall. All I could think was, You're holding the world's first unbreakable pantyhose and you're complaining about the thickness of the waistband? It was in that moment that I realized that in order to succeed, it had to be more than a technology. It had to also check all of the other boxes: be fashionable, comfortable, come in the right colours and styles, and also solve a problem.
As a company, you state that you “turn peanuts into lemonade.” Beyond creating your product, how does this speak to the overall spirit of the business?
I’d say we stepped into a couple industries that move relatively slowly. Hosiery was an industry certainly stuck in the past. Material science is pretty slow moving; the iterations between version one of the material and version two can be six to 12 months and we had to develop probably 24 major variations in our technology within less than 12 months. I very quickly learned the difference between being in software and in physical goods. You have to care about how long it takes to ship something, make it, and then retool it. No matter how hard we push, there has always been two weeks between every single thing that we did. There’s no way that we could have done what we did without being relentless. [You’re] always asking for the impossible and finding a way. That is built into our DNA as a company. The saying “turning peanuts into lemonade” was actually something that one of our suppliers said to us one day. We were taking this high-performance ballistic-grade material and trying to make something like pantyhose. They said what you're doing is impossible. It's like trying to take peanuts and turning them into lemonade, and we were like, that's exactly what we're going to do. [It’s about] this idea of taking a seemingly impossible task and just making it happen.
You have a very entrepreneurial background. How did you bring those experiences to your company as you were building it?
I think if you're doing anything right in your career, the next thing you do should be so much ridiculously harder than the last thing that it pales in comparison. I've certainly gone through that. Every experience I had before this has made this possible, but the complexity and scale that this company is at is unlike anything I’ve done in the past. It seems trivial in comparison but the skills and tools that I got from all of my other experiences added up to making this possible. But this is just on an entirely different level.
You’ve also grown your company with a string of new hires last year. How do you harness the talent that you bring onto your team?
At the beginning of last year, we were a team of five people. By the end of 2019, we were nearly 200 people. It was chaos, absolute chaos. But without making those hires, we never would have made it through Q4, delivered on our orders, and hit the sales numbers we needed for our fundraise. It was a necessary forcing function into growing the team. We had an incredibly horizontal organization and that broke. You can't have people working cohesively, feeling like they're being heard, or progressing through their career when everyone's reporting to one or two people, and you have a team of 200. We very quickly needed to start getting serious about building out an executive team and departments with real structure, and division of responsibilities. I will not pretend for any moment that we have it figured out, but I'd say that talking to other founders that have been through this and asking how they built their teams and structured their days has been really valuable in trying to understand where we go.
What would you say are the values that you stand by as an organization?
Whether it's a value or not, challenging the status quo is really core to who we are as a company. We don't just do what everyone says you're supposed to do, we push the boundaries on how we think about problems. That is core to who we are. We're also very committed to diversity in everything from who we hire, to the products that we make, and our customers. Go to a website and you’ll find that the people who are photographed in pantyhose are generally very thin. As we rebuild our web experience, you'll be able to shop people just like you. You can pick your skin tone, your size, and look at photos of people like you. For us that's incredibly important in building the future of e-commerce, but also just in creating the type of e-commerce experience that we believe as a company should exist.
What excites you about the future?
Doing really hard things. I tell our team that I am really excited about the movie that gets made one day of this journey. I love all of these twists and turns, and going after things that seem like they're impossible, or trying to do things more quickly than the world thinks is reasonable, or creating products that shouldn't exist. That’s the story I want to tell my grandkids one day.
I realized after selling my last business that no matter how much money you make at the end, there's almost this disappointment in selling a company [because you wonder if] that’s the best thing that you’re ever going to do in life. Where do you go next? What is your purpose? I know I'm going to have that existential crisis whenever this journey comes to the end, whatever that end is, and all that's really going to have mattered is the ride. Did we enjoy the ride? What's the story when we look back at it? That is what I'm optimizing for. I just want to enjoy every step of the journey. And where do I want this to go? I want it to go to an IPO because I want to see the whole ride and go through every stage. That's really where I think the value is going to be when I look back at this years later.
Despite the progress that has been made with diversity and inclusion initiatives in the workforce, there is still much room for improvement, especially when we consider the needs of those with disabilities. Alwar Pillai and Abid Virani first met each other when they were pursuing their masters of inclusive design at Toronto’s OCAD University. From their perspective, people with disabilities have a unique skill set that can be used to build better companies—the thesis of their eventual tech startup, Fable Tech Labs.
Founded in 2018, Fable is an online platform that brings digital teams and people with disabilities together to help solve a company’s accessibility requirements. Through research and on-demand user testing, the startup has helped various companies make everything from banking to learning more accessible, building a more inclusive environment for the disabled community to engage in.
You are both the co-founders of Fable Tech Labs. Can you describe what the company is?
Alwar Pillai: What Fable [Tech Labs] does is we work with large companies; enterprises in education, finance and commerce; government; and anyone that has an online website or app, and we help them make it accessible for people with disabilities. We do that by testing all of the different websites and apps with real people who live with a disability so they know what kind of issues are on their products and they can fix it.
What has been your experience working with the disabled community? Are you both able-bodied?
Abid Virani: We are both able-bodied and the way we've been able to build this company is by not making assumptions and acknowledging our position. The first person we brought in to work with us, Sam Proulx, lives with a disability and has managed communities of people with disabilities for decades. He’s really guided the direction in which we engage with the community. One of the most important things to know about how we kicked this company off was understanding the problems around employment that people with disabilities face, the unpredictability of it, and the barriers within the workplace. There's no lack of skill to contribute, there's no lack of eagerness to work. There are just barriers that need to be overcome.
There's a spectrum between invisible disabilities and physical disabilities. How do you define it within the context of your company?
AV: The first thing is that disability is not binary. It's really hard to hold that as a truth while we live in a world that creates a very binary definition of disability—either you have one or you don't. The reality is that every single person, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, has a spectrum of ability and that really factors into our definition. When it comes to what we've built in regards to a company and a tool, we look for a unique skill set. Depending on a disability, a person might use a form of assistive technology, and that’s a skill that creates a unique qualification that rarely someone on a digital team who is building and designing products knows how to use. We call these professional jobs and pay technology wages because there's a unique skill set with a piece of technology that almost nobody else knows how to use. Even if they learn how to use it, you know they're not native users, whereas people with disabilities are experts in using the technologies they use to navigate the digital world because they do it every day.
If we look at disability as a broader thing, we look at it as a mismatch with the environment as opposed to this binary distinction.
AP: To add to that, what really helped me understand that it’s not binary is that you can have situations where you feel disabled because you know that the environment or the technology is not designed for you. You can have permanent disabilities, temporary disabilities, and situational disabilities. And let's face it, we are all going to grow old and our abilities are going to change. We should have products and environments around us that adapt to our needs, not make us feel like we don't fit. That's what technology is doing right now rather than adapting through our requirements and our needs.
AV: This is the bread and butter of everything we do. It’s about removing the idea that you have an average. There is no average person. It doesn't exist. You can't create anything in this world that's one-size-fits-all. The best products, solutions, and experiences are one-size-fits-one. It means that everyone's different and we can accommodate differences by embracing them. When we do that, we end up with products that are way more robust, customizable, adaptable, and ultimately innovative.
What would you say is currently the biggest issue when it comes to our dialogue around people with disabilities?
AV: It’s the lack of voices. It's the fact that we're having this conversation without someone with a disability in it.
AP: It's also the way society looks at this population. They look at the population as dependent, and one that cannot contribute, and that does not have skill sets. We have to start looking at people's abilities as skill sets. That's what we're trying to do with Fable. At the core of it, here is this population that is eager to work and we've built this work environment that does not integrate them. So let's make that easier. Once you start doing that, we will see this population integrate into society more. The biggest gap is the fact that [society] does not see people with disabilities as contributors, owners, and producers.
What does it mean to be an entrepreneur for you?
AP: This is my first experience around it. I never thought I would be an entrepreneur. I've worked for large corporations and had good, safe, exciting jobs but the pace of learning in the last two years has been exponential compared to anything before that. It’s very exciting.
AV: We're going through two very different experiences as co-founders. For me, I’m finally able to implement some of the lessons learned from past failures and [build a company] in a way that feels really focused. I have always dreamed of something that would be a good collaboration of profit and purpose. Fable is very much about growing revenues, hiring more people with disabilities, and having a direct relationship between purpose and profit.
We're obviously in a very challenging time with COVID-19, especially for people with disabilities. How do you think COVID-19 has uniquely affected people in that community?
AV: One of the things that has come up a lot was this notion of flattening the curve. It’s become totally mainstream, but for folks who are visually impaired, not knowing what that curve is is limiting. It's really hard to engage in the world right now if you don't understand what it means to flatten the curve. A lot of organizations could have taken on the responsibility of making that idea of the curve something that was accessible to folks who are visually impaired. That's one piece, but another one that comes up is our online culture.
AP: We're starting to see a lot of memes about COVID and want them to be accessible. You want this positive energy and a little bit of laughter to be accessible to people with disabilities. Unfortunately, a lot of the data, images, and means of sharing online are not. So the news becomes more focused on the grim aspects of COVID.
AV: It's just recognizing that we're having a separation of who gets access to what at the end of the day. When it comes to economic impacts, people with disabilities are very often the first to feel major impacts. I think what we're seeing is also a really sad reality that for a lot of people with disabilities, isolation is already something that is quite common. The feedback we're getting from the community is that people with disabilities have always been isolated in some way, and this is now making it worse. [COVID] is taking something that was already a problem and deepening it. The hope is at least that this experience will prove to everybody that remote work is totally viable. Attending classes for a university remotely has not been a mainstream accessibility accommodation. Why not? The same goes for many workplaces. We're proving that working remotely is possible. Hopefully there are lessons that come out of this that make the workforce and even our social gatherings a little bit more inclusive.
What’s the bigger picture for you?
AV: It’s definitely on the employment side. I think an economy that has so many folks who are skilled and not engaged is a huge problem. And it's not just people with disabilities. It's also the parents who are taking time off to be at home, but are only being given the option to work or not work. It's folks who are retiring who aren't ready to leave the workforce but don't have the desire to continue a full time gig at something they've been at for 20 years. There’s all this skill set, experience, and knowledge that we're not leveraging to build our economy, and our economy needs it. We need those voices, especially because they are the outliers. They are the margins. I have no desire to live in a world that's just built by 18- to 60-year-olds who are able-bodied. I'm a big believer in the fact that jobs have to be better. Our society needs to be more balanced in order to be healthier and this is one way in which we can literally contribute to that. It's by ensuring that people with disabilities have not only the opportunity to engage in the workforce, but can also grow from it in a really meaningful way. If the result of Fable is that in 10 years there's a bunch of startups in the ecosystem where the founders are people with disabilities because they got their first taste of startup from Fable, I think that would be an incredible impact.
AP: I think mine is more a result of inclusion leading to innovation. If we keep innovating, we're going to build a world that is future-proof. Anything that we use, whether a product or a service, should be available and accessible to all. The way we do that is by having diverse perspectives and skill sets. It’s time that we started building for the future, and that means being inclusive and accessible now.
A career in federal politics was not what Mumilaaq Qaqqaq had ever planned for, but the need for change was a strong beckoning call that eventually landed her in the running for public office. And winning.
With no political experience or even a campaign manager, Qaqqaq became one of the youngest MPs in Canada, and the first New Democratic Party member to be elected in the region since 1980 when the area was still a part of the Northwest Territories. Defeating both the Liberal’s Megan Pizzo Lyall and the Conservative’s Leona Aglukkaq (a former cabinet minister of Stephen Harper’s government) in a landslide victory, Qaqqaq’s win was symbolic of a need for change in northern communities, and that they were willing to take a bet with the then 26-year-old.
Qaqqaq previously worked as a wellness program specialist in Nunavut’s Department of Health where she focused on suicide prevention. Although oftentimes difficult, the work provided her with a training ground that would help establish the foundation of her work and have tough conversations with the community.
At 27, Qaqqaq joins a movement of young leaders in Canada (and around the world) who have decided to use their voice in order to affect change. Using her platform, she has promised to advocate for Nunavummiut to address issues that deeply affect her community, like suicide, the housing crisis, and access to clean water. Now residing in the territorial capital of Iqaluit, Qaqqaq is a voice from the north that Ottawa has its attention on.
La Mar Taylor is widely known as the creative force behind The Weeknd’s record label and creative agency, XO. Growing up in Scarborough together, Taylor has been a behind-the-curtain influence on the chart topper’s career on everything from album cover imagery to music videos, helping build one of Canada’s most successful cultural exports.
It was their experience as artists who cut their teeth in Toronto’s music scene that eventually planted the seed for their creative hub, HXOUSE. Located on Toronto’s Eastern Bayfront, HXOUSE operates as an incubator for local entrepreneurs and artists, providing them with the critical resources and mentorship that the city’s cultural community has lacked. Members (who include everyone from photographers and fashion designers to singers and business owners) have access to not only a place to work, but also equipment like recording studios, editing booths, and textile machinery. Their greatest offering, however, is direct access to mentors with real-world insight. Combining leaders from both the business and cultural worlds (previous guest mentors have been Away co-founder, Jen Rubio; supermodel, Bella Hadid; artist, Daniel Arsham), HXOUSE offers a rare opportunity to come face-to-face with some of the biggest leaders in the world, build a network, and learn invaluable lessons that arm students with the necessary knowledge and tools to become the next generation of global talent.
Alongside co-founder Ahmed Ismail, Taylor has planted his flag in Canada to prove that talented individuals can find success without having to leave first—that the necessary resources are here in their very own backyard to lay down the bricks of a business. In the same way that he grew his career without having to leave, Taylor hopes to lift others up to join him for the ride and solidify Canada as a major cultural hub.
As machine learning continues to spread its influence across virtually all sectors, the automotive industry has become a poster child for the potential benefits that can be gained once implemented. Technological advancements in the field have been glamourized with innovations like self-driving cars and Siri-esque digital assistants, but less so when it comes to how the technology is applied in diagnostics and detection.
Greta Cutulenco, CEO and co-founder of Acerta Analytics Solutions, started her company to help automotive manufacturers iron out anomalies in data that arise during production. Using artificial intelligence, Acerta provides real-time malfunction detection and can even predict failures to its customers within the industry, allowing them to make adjustments and save on heavy financial implications down the road.
As the automotive industry becomes increasingly more complex with machine learning integration, Cutulenco’s company is a critical resource that major brands can lean on as they innovate. With nearly two million dollars in seed funding secured, Acerta is harnessing the power of data to support the entire life cycle of an automotive product.
For people with disabilities, navigating what many of us perceive to be normal life activities can be a challenging experience. Accessibility remains a major challenge for the 22 percent of the Canadian population aged 15 or older that identify themselves as having a disability.
Using her own lived experiences, Maayan Ziv (who lives with muscular dystrophy) launched her startup AccessNow in 2015 to turn her frustrations around accessibility into an opportunity. As the name suggests, AccessNow harnesses the power of community to map out the accessibility status of locations around the world. While red pins indicate inaccessibility, Ziv’s mission is to eventually see a sea of green on the company’s maps and, in a bigger way, create a swell of inclusivity for the disabled community.
Now available in over 35 countries, her movement is a global one that has already attracted investors to the tune of $2.7 million from the Government of Canada and corporate brands like Microsoft to further cultivate and scale AccessNow.
We currently live in a technological paradox. On one hand, we have more access to information and the ability to connect with people than ever before. On the other, our increasing presence online can exacerbate feelings of isolation and loneliness.
According to a 2018 study in the Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, young adults between 18 and 22 years of age reported a decrease in feelings of loneliness when they spent less time on social media. Research conducted by the non-profit Angus Reid Institute sought out to understand the quality of human connection for Canadians by measuring social isolation (the frequency of interpersonal relationships that a person has) and loneliness (the relative satisfaction surrounding the quality of these relationships). What they found was that 62 percent of Canadians yearned to spend more time with their family and friends. On top of that, research found that women were a particularly vulnerable group, reporting that those under the age of 35 expressed heightened feelings of loneliness and were much more likely to feel alone when with other people.
Rebecca Gill can relate. After spending the last decade working in the fast-paced world of tech, she was left feeling without a community or meaningful bonds with others. For her, connection was not defined by the number of followers she had on social media or connections on LinkedIn, but rather genuine, interpersonal relationships with others that she shared common values and interests with. In an attempt to connect, she disconnected.
Gill’s company, her-people, threads common bonds between other women who are looking to meaningfully connect and explore the beauty of life. Their website drives that home: “Disconnect from work to workshops. From clicks to steps. From review to real people.”
Through a series of community meet-ups, her-people gathers 15 like-minded women at a time to engage once a week for four weeks to explore workshops and expand relationships. It’s a thesis that further reflects the research by the Angus Reid Institute, resonating with over 650 women who have participated in the monthly experiences. Recognized by the Government of Canada for their impact within the community, her-people has already developed a handful of strong partnerships since being founded in January 2019, working with Indigo, Wealthsimple, and Metro. The next step? Build her-people into a global brand in every major city in the world within the next five years, starting with 10 cities in Canada.
Autocorrect. Voice activation. Self-driving cars.
Much of the technology that we use today and will see in the near future is a result of the foundation that has been laid down thanks to Canada’s leadership in artificial intelligence.
While our country is widely recognized for its stunning natural beauty and progressive policies, artificial intelligence is rarely the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Canada. And yet, our nation is a petri dish that has cultivated some of the greatest advancements in machine learning thanks to research pioneers like Geoffrey Hinton, Yoshua Bengio, and many more.
An exciting player in Canada’s tech landscape, Cluep harnesses artificial intelligence to give marketers the ability to serve mobile advertising to people based on content publicly shared on social platforms. Founded by three intrepid innovators—Karan Walia, his younger brother Sobi, and Anton Mamonov—Cluep (which is a combination of “Clues within People”) was founded in 2012, the result of Karan’s obsession with artificial intelligence and quest to build the ultimate digital personal assistant. Their early days have all the trappings of a startup story made for the big screen. While Karan was studying at York University, the three broke into a campus lab to hack 24 computers that were needed to support their novel deep learning algorithm. Eventually, they built an AI-generated framework that used empathy to help brands spot opportunities with existing and new customers by evaluating social media content.
Unsurprisingly, advertisers were ecstatic.
Eight years later, Cluep has worked with over 1,000 brands (including Adidas, Microsoft, and Mercedes-Benz) and boasts an average click-through rate that is 300 times more than the industry average. In 2018, the three founders sold Cluep for $53 million to Idaho-based Impact Group, but remain active in the company’s operations and global growth.
You’re the co-founders of Cluep. Can you describe your company?
Karan Walia: Cluep is an AI mobile advertising platform that serves ads based on what you publicly share on social media. Let's say you take a picture with your friends and share it on social media. Cluep's image recognition engine will automatically detect that you're wearing Under Armour running shoes and start showing you ads from Nike. Or, let's say you post on Twitter saying, "I don't know what to eat for lunch today.” Our patented text analysis engine will detect that you're feeling hopeful towards the word lunch and serve you an ad from McDonald's.
How did your company come together? What’s your origin story?
KP: When the Apple iPhone came out, it felt like someone had handed you a little bit of Star Trek. It was nothing like using any other phone at the time—the entire way the device was designed and the way you interacted with it was a new paradigm. I got my hands on one around August 2009 when I was 19 and became obsessed with the idea of building a personal assistant for myself. Remember, this was before Siri had come out. I tried to raise funding but no one wanted to give me any money at the time to build it. I decided to start a company called Cluep so I could work on and fund my dream at some point in the future when I would have enough capital and resources.
My younger brother Sobi and I met Anton at a hackathon called Startup Weekend Toronto in November 2011. I think we were 21, 17, and 16 at the time. During that weekend, Sobi and Anton became obsessed with helping brands connect with people emotionally, the idea behind Cluep. They immediately dropped out of school and started helping me build an artificially intelligent mobile advertising company. The three of us started working out of a lab at York University where I was studying at the time. We even broke into the lab and hacked into 24 computers to continue to train our novel deep learning algorithm on large amounts of data sets because we couldn’t afford a server. This lab became our first unofficial office and co-working space to build Cluep. York University became our free WeWork.
What are the biggest misconceptions around artificial intelligence when you talk with your clients or about your company?
KW: Generally speaking, until recently machines were predictable and more or less easily understood. Now machines are starting to be built to think for themselves creatively and unpredictably. Recent advancements in computing, processing, algorithms, storage and hardware have allowed us to partially replicate and mimic our biological processes. For example, the convolutional neural network in your Tesla Autopilot mimics your biological visual system and is capable of identifying objects on the road as good as a human while driving you around and changing lanes. When you're composing an email in your Google Gmail app, you get auto word suggestions to help you complete your email. That's their natural language understanding engine at work.
The thing that people don't appreciate right now is that they are already a cyborg. If you leave your phone behind, it feels like you're missing a part of your body. We're already kind of merged with our phone, laptops, and apps, all of which are starting to leverage AI to help you get things done.
Your technology is built on the concept of empathy. What does empathy mean to you?
Anton Mamonov: You can’t build a successful technology stack that provides positive value to real people without considering empathy. This is because empathy is all about the ability to understand the feelings and emotions of people. We’ve found that connecting in a more respectful, compelling, and emotional way leads to higher engagements, actions, conversions, and more sustainable relationships. At Cluep, we’re leveraging deep learning to disrupt the traditional model of advertising and how we think about targeting and connecting with people. It’s actually making it more human and emotional.
What is it about this idea around empathy that brands were not able to leverage or harness previously?
Sobi Walia: Up until now, brands couldn’t leverage the personal information contained in images and videos that users voluntarily post to social media. Posts with images and videos contain more context and richer information than text-only posts. For marketers, being able to identify brands, products, logos, and scenarios within images is the start of a new era of advertising that allows brands to engage with people in relevant and compelling ways that tap into their interests, activities and lifestyles. In the same way that the inputs from a keyboard became the starting point for most marketers to target people on desktop computers, we believe the inputs from a camera screen are the starting point for targeting on smartphones. This is because images and videos created by smartphone cameras contain more context and richer information than other forms of input like text entered on a keyboard.
Are there any common denominators you’ve noticed amongst consumers in terms of what they want and expect out of the brands that they are loyal to, or at least give their dollars to?
SW: Yes, we’ve found that consumers engage and convert more when brands recognize their feelings around topics they care about and the types of products, brands, and scenarios in the images they post on social media. It’s a very clear signal of people’s interests, passion, and lifestyles.
How do you define entrepreneurship within the context of your experience?
KW: For me, I had no choice but to become an entrepreneur and start multiple companies like Cluep and another one before it called Washly, which let anyone request a car wash from a mobile app. Why? Because I had no money, needed lots of it, and no one wanted to give me any. So I had to figure out ways to make a lot of it just so I could go back, work on, and fund my dream.
What do you think all entrepreneurs should know before building a company?
AM: Are you willing to give it your all for the next couple of years and sacrifice anything else that limits you from reaching your goal? Are you comfortable with being the underdog? Are you willing to deal with the mental and physical toil of pitching to a 100 people and have them all tell you ‘no’ for whatever reason before you get your first ‘yes’? You need to have a hard work ethic, perseverance, and commitment to focus on the long-term vision.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?
AM: I would say [it’s] building something from scratch that generates enough value to the world that people or businesses are willing to pay you their hard-earned money for it. Once you have that baseline, it’s all about thinking how you can scale it to more users and markets. Do you have enough resources to manage the hockey stick growth that follows? How do you bring on more driven and like-minded people to help? We navigated all these big challenges constantly by listening and understanding our customers, setting a high bar for our technical stack, never settling for less, and having an open mind to try new promising product offerings, solutions, or pivots.
You initially had challenges raising capital but in 2018 the company was sold to Impact Group for $53 million. How did you prepare yourself when you approached investors? What was your elevator pitch?
KW: Our elevator pitch was a live and working product. I still remember showing our early angel investors the power of Cluep’s novel deep learning algorithm by letting them type any topic into our dashboard. Our algorithm would analyze millions of tweets that mentioned that topic in milliseconds and then accurately classify it as happy, excited, or angry—eight different feelings in total. That blew their minds away. It felt like magic to them.
What is the most valuable lesson you learned about raising capital for your company?
KW: We only raised how much we needed because we didn’t want to dilute ourselves too much and give up control. Having cash available when stuff hits the fan is an incredible position to be in; I feel like it's easier than ever to raise funding in Canada. But remember, you have to factor in not just the dilution, percentage ownership, and things like that, but the degree of control that you're giving up.
How did you determine if an investor was the right fit for you?
KW: We raised capital only from strategic angel investors who were from the marketing and advertising industry, genuinely cared and believed in what we were doing, weren’t looking to get operationally involved, and were willing to make warm intros to brands and agencies quickly. That was very important to us.
As you’ve grown, you’ve had opportunities to move your headquarters to major global technology hubs. Why was it important for you to stay in Canada?
KW: Canada's early lead in deep learning and contributions to the field of AI by two of my favourite people I’ve had the privilege of spending time with, Geoff Hinton and Yoshua Bengio, helped enable projects like self-driving cars, autocomplete when composing emails, and dozens of other features now touching the lives of billions of people. [It helped] me start a company called Cluep.
It's an exciting time for anyone that's interested in building a company here in Canada that leverages machine learning techniques in computer vision, natural language processing, or speech recognition that solves a very specific pain point or improves on existing processes and workflows.
You’re a Canadian success story. What do you think is Canada’s strongest selling feature in terms of its entrepreneurial landscape?
KW: I think it’s one of the best countries in the world to build and scale a startup. You don’t have to move to Silicon Valley anymore. We’ve got better and cheaper talent, diversity, great infrastructure, free healthcare, access to capital—the list goes on.
What milestone are you most proud of?
SW: Working with some of the most powerful and recognizable brands in the world. We’ve run over 3,000 campaigns for over 1,000 tier one brands like the NBA, Mercedes-Benz, Lyft, Starbucks, Nike, Red Bull, Amazon ,and McDonald’s. Just saying those big names and saying we successfully delivered lasting value to them is definitely mind-blowing. At the same time, it’s a big honour that all these brands trust us to deliver high quality results to them.
What have you learned about yourselves throughout this journey?
KW: From my experiences, I’ve learned that the humbling role of the founder is about putting others in a position to succeed beyond their wildest dreams. Your role as a founder isn’t to be in charge of everything all the time. In fact, it’s the opposite.
The more involved you are with the day-to-day work, the more difficult it will be for you to scale, and the less likely it is that your company will succeed.
Every founder believes they have no time, too many priorities, and 100 different roles they need to play. I disagree. As the founder and CEO, you have one job: Look at where you’re spending your time, hire someone better than you, and then fire yourself from that position.
What’s the end goal for you?
KW: Nothing will make you appreciate human intelligence like learning about how unbelievably challenging it is to try to create a computer as smart as we are. I've been at it for over 10 years, but now I finally have a little war chest to make artificial general intelligence available to everyone in ways that improve our quality of life. That’s been my dream all along and it’s still alive and well.
Failure is a word that most entrepreneurs are familiar with. In the startup world, especially, it’s a right of passage that allows you to grow scar tissue and learn hard lessons in order to be stronger.
While there is certainly no shortage of conversations around success, Fuckup Nights Toronto seeks to showcase the other side of the same coin by normalizing (and celebrating) our dialogue around failure. A global community that spans over 320 cities in 80 countries, the organization was originally created in Mexico as a way for individuals to learn from others and openly talk about professional failure without judgement. After attending her first Fuckup Night while abroad in Israel, Marsha Druker knew that the model would resonate with Toronto’s vibrant community of tech startups and businesses.
Fuckup Nights Toronto offers no apologies. Like its name, it is brash, in your face, and real. It doesn’t dance around problems, it embraces them; and it certainly doesn’t romanticize the entrepreneurial journey. It’s a real look at the hardships and realities of trying to grow a business. It is about the crash and burn stories, the failure-to-launch tales, and the partnerships that self-imploded. But it’s also about growth, reflection, and community.
Since founding, Druker has grown the Toronto chapter into one of the biggest in the organization through its series of speaker panels and networking events. By bringing together a community of brand builders, she’s at the forefront of destigmatizing failure.
Growing up, Caro Loutfi had no interest in politics. She saw it as uninteresting and disengaging. That was until the history major was accepted into the internship program at Apathy is Boring, a non-partisan charitable organization that focuses on supporting youth to be more active in Canada’s democracy. Drawn to their clever use of visual branding and commitment to social causes, Loutfi found an organization that resonated with her. A year and a half after starting her internship, Loutfi took on a leadership role and eventually became the nonprofit’s executive director.
Over the course of her ongoing tenure, Apathy is Boring has grown into a multimillion-dollar organization and increased their staff from three to 22 employees. Most recently, they ran their largest get-out-the-vote campaign during the 2019 federal election to give young people the confidence to engage in political dialogue and get them to the polls. Under Loutfi’s leadership, Apathy is Boring has become an invaluable resource for youth to empower themselves and be active players in Canada’s democratic system.
You’re the executive director of Apathy is Boring. Can you describe what the organization is and your role within it?
Apathy is Boring works to engage youth in our democracy. We're run by young people, we're non-partisan, and we're pan-Canadian. A lot of people think of us as being active during the elections, which we are, but that's not the only thing we do. We engage in a lot of civic and community programming as well. As for myself, I'm the executive director and responsible for [everything from] fundraising, to human resources, to just keeping this ship afloat.
You mention that people see a lot of your activity during election cycles. Why is it important to engage your audience about being politically literate when it’s not an election cycle?
I would argue it's probably more important to do when it's not an election cycle. For a lot of young people, an election cycle is a two- or five-week period where they actually start to tune in and pay attention. The things we're trying to tackle are about building trust between young people and our institutions. We're trying to help young people find ways to make changes on the issues that they care about, and to use the levers of change that we have access to in our government to make those kinds of changes. A lot of that work takes so much more time than the couple of weeks leading into an election. The project of democracy is a long-term project, and it's not one that only pops up every four years. It's a daily project. For us, it’s about ensuring that we're helping young people navigate the halls and systems of government, and how they can have their voices heard on issues that matter to them.
Why is it so important that you emphasize non-partisanship in your message?
It makes us quite unique because there are organizations out there that advocate for specific issues or parties and causes, but Apathy is Boring’s perspective is that we're not there to preach to anybody how they should be engaging. We're there just to encourage people to make use of the tools that they have access to. I'm not here to tell you that you should advocate in this way on this issue that you care about. I'm going to leave that to you to decide what best aligns with your values and what you want to see done in your community. But, I'm going to help you figure out that system. For us, it's a really important way of building trust among young people. I think a lot of youth are skeptical of hidden agendas behind organizations, political parties, and politicians. We're not about that at all. We're just here to give people tools and resources, and help them come up with their own decisions on what they want to do.
Do you think part of the reason why young people may not be as engaged with politics is because they feel like they’re being spoken down to? Is the problem a matter of tone?
It really depends on who and what we're talking about. A lot of people think that young people don't care about issues and are all apathetic. Young people find that the government, typically in the studies that we've done, is not a very effective way to address the issues that they care about for a couple of reasons. Part of it is lack of trust; people might feel like there's a hidden agenda or there's an issue around tone in terms of how they engage with those decision makers. But for a lot of it, there's a discomfort when it comes to engaging with our formal institutions. Young people do care about issues. They care about things that impact themselves, their families, and their communities but they've been choosing alternative ways to be heard on those issues. They've been choosing social media movements, protesting, and community organizing, but they haven't been consistently choosing our formal institutions or participating in consultations with elected representatives. It’s great to be protesting and advocating on social media, but it's also really important for you to be participating in those halls of power. And those halls of power are where our institutions live. There are people with a lot of money, resources, and the capacity to implement things like healthcare in Canada, which will impact generations and generations of people. So, it’s about the scope and impact that we're trying to encourage people to add a lens to in terms of how they go about creating change.
How have you seen young people change in the way they discuss and engage in politics overall?
I’ve been at this for seven years now and I've seen a lot of change in that time frame. [Back then,] voting was not cool. It was not relevant in terms of our pop culture and social dialogue. When Trump was elected, I think there was an increased awareness around the impact of voting and what type of people can be elected into these positions of power. There was a bit of a domino effect in terms of conversations happening globally around democracy—what does our democracy look like now? Who is it serving? Who is participating in it? Is it working well for us? What are the challenges?
I would also say that the Gen Z segment, which encompasses 18- to 25-year-olds in Canada right now, is showing a lot more engagement with regards to social issues, particularly those around the environment. These two factors are creating an increased culture of political engagement that I'm witnessing, but it's not a rapid change. It's a more of a gradual shift, but I am hopeful and we are seeing trends of more engagement now than we did five to seven years ago.
How much of an impact do young role models like Greta Thunberg and Autumn Peltier have on young people?
It’s great. Autumn is amazing. It's important for young people to see other people like them reflected in these spaces—to see their peers stepping up, being heard, and not being afraid because of their age or their background. In Autumn’s case, we don't see young Indigenous women often speaking up the way we're seeing her speak up at international conferences and really holding those decision-makers accountable. She’s not afraid to call them out where they're falling short. I think that's really inspiring. It opens doors. The more we see representation in these spaces, whether it's gender, identity, age, or what have you, [the more it will help] young people believe that they too can participate in those ways and have a voice.
What do you think are the biggest hurdles to mobilizing young people to be more politically active?
What we need is to create a space for young people to come together and build solutions to the problems that we're facing. It's not just that there are a couple logistical barriers for why young people aren't engaging. We're not actually changing the culture or systems around it. We need to be rebuilding the norms around democratic participation in our culture, and for people to buy into that, they need to believe that they can actually create change once they're inside the system. If you show up and participate, and then you realize that all the doors are closing in on you, then you're going to be disenchanted. That's not going to be a way forward for you to create change in your community.
We also need a lot more dialogue between our elected officials and our citizens. Typically, we really hear from our elected officials during election campaigns. That's when they’re knocking on our doors and want to hear how we feel about things. But they're not usually doing that in the middle of the year when there's not an election going on. Yes, they're busy trying to put forward new policies and dealing with a lot of other things but I think that lack of communication is eroding trust between citizens and our elected officials. Right now with COVID-19, it's a really interesting moment because for the average Canadian, they're really seeing the impacts of their government and hearing from decision-makers on a daily basis, not a weekly basis. In this very unique pandemic situation, we're actually seeing quite a strong link between people and the role of our government. I think we need more of that, and not just during a pandemic.
You recently had your voter mobilization campaign during the 2019 federal election. What are the quantitative and qualitative goals that you set for yourself? How did you measure success?
We always start with a research study. For the 2019 federal election, we partnered with Abacus Data. Before we built our campaign, we had to go out and listen to young people. We had to hear which issues they are preoccupied with and how they are consuming news and information so that we [understand] how to share information with them. This election there were concerns around misinformation and fake news, so how do you navigate that? What tools are they using to double check sources?
We have a creative team, programs team, and a research and impact team internally at Apathy is Boring. Those teams come together and decide how to address the challenges we're currently facing in this election and build [a campaign.] We do a lot of research and we share all of that with Elections Canada, which actually works quite closely with us in terms of understanding how youth behaviour changes around elections, what works and what doesn't.
What inspired you to pursue the current path that you're on? Is politics something that you’ve always been interested in?
I was not interested in politics. I did, however, always care about social issues and my community. My path is probably pretty unconventional. I was waitressing and finishing my undergraduate degree in history when I took on a summer internship at Apathy is Boring. I took on that internship because I was interested in this nonprofit that used creative methods to engage around social issues. Apathy is Boring was one of the only nonprofits that had good branding. I hadn't seen many examples of nonprofits or organizations working on social causes that were also really intentional in their communication efforts and being relevant to youth culture.
You work in a space that can be quite volatile and cynical at times. How do you motivate your team and bring them back to your overall mission?
We’re pretty lucky because the work that we do is so gratifying. Of course, internally, we need to support each other and have balance in our personal lives but ultimately our core service offering is so motivating. It's not like we're selling an appliance or something. What we're selling or what we're offering to our community is so gratifying that there's not much more I need to do to motivate my team. It's about ensuring that the work they're doing is meaningful.
What is your bigger picture?
At Apathy is Boring, our vision is that every young Canadian is an active citizen and feels like they can contribute to their community. One of the things that's been really powerful is helping people develop a sense of belonging in their community. [That] is everything. If you feel like you belong, then you're going to want to contribute, participate, and be there for your neighbours. For us, if we can keep contributing to building a country where people feel like they belong, then that's everything. That’s our North Star.
As the retail landscape evolves, brands are looking for ways to engage with consumers in new and different ways. Bonsai, an e-commerce platform, aims to bridge the gap between content and commerce by directly connecting publishers with retailers to make the digital shopping experience easier.
In a matter of four short years, Bonsai’s 23-year-old founder Saad Siddiqui has managed to grow the Toronto-based brand to 35 employees with over 35 publishers and 70 merchants in its client roster across North America and Europe. With nearly $11 million in investment funding behind them, Siddiqui is well on his way to reshaping the online shopping ecosystem and the future of retail.
You’re the co-founder of Bonsai. What is your company all about?
At Bonsai, what we do is power commerce for publishers. The problem we're trying to solve is one in e-commerce. Often, the place where you discover a product that you want to buy is not usually the same place where you end up buying the product. If you can imagine the experience of reading an article on Vogue or GQ, or any kind of online blog, oftentimes they’ll talk about which products are amazing but very rarely is that place where the purchase happens. It seems like a very innocuous, tiny improvement in user friction, but it's actually a huge market. If you look at the kind of challenges that digital media faces today around monetization, customer ownership and advertising, and what's happening with Facebook, suddenly one link starts to represent a really huge market and shift in distribution models. So, one link is very impactful. We are built all around making sure that one link doesn't happen and the purchase happens in the place where we discovered the product.
How did you come up with the idea to start a business like this?
I'd like to say there was one profound ‘a ha’ moment, but it was really a series of many small, insignificant tiny realizations. The way the company started was that there was always this core conviction around content and commerce. We knew that there was something compelling about content and began as a mobile app that was all about streetwear. That app taught us a lot about how to build an unsuccessful mobile app, and from it we learned a tremendous amount about the impact that content has on engagement around product. About a year and a half ago, we made the decision to change our business model so that instead of bringing people into our own shoppable content experience on a mobile app, we would instead give our technology to others so they could make their content shoppable. Many people have been searching for this elusive content and commerce intersection for years. We just haven't seen it be done successfully in the kind of digital media world yet, and that's what we think we're doing.
In your experience, how have you seen the retail landscape shift?
What's really interesting is that the role of the retailer to a consumer is changing a lot. Whereas retailers previously would develop a curated point of view, a lot of that value is coming from parties in the distribution and supply chain. If a publisher can tell you what's cool, you don't really need a retail store to add an additional value proposition. From a technical and business case standpoint, retailers are normally at the worst end of the distribution chain. They've taken on all this incredible inventory risk, and the cost to acquire customers to visit their site is increasing quite rapidly year over year. While it becomes more and more expensive to acquire customers on digital platforms, retailers are scrambling and wondering how to get rid of all of the product they own. If people aren't going into their stores and digital channels are being monopolized by a couple of large players, how do people buy their stuff? When we go in and power commerce for a major publisher, that customer belongs to the publisher, not the retailer. So, what does that mean for retailers when they don't own customers? It sounds pretty bleak, but maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe retailers don't need to own email addresses. Maybe they just need sales to come through.
I think an even more interesting thing is happening with brands where there really isn't a reason for there to be a retailer in the distribution chain. They can go direct-to-consumer through platforms like us and supply products to places of discovery where reasons to buy are created. Now, all of a sudden they’re enjoying this wonderful direct-to-consumer margin. Brands are quite often after control and want to [dictate] how their products are shown, which brands are shown next to them, and what price the products are sold at. The way brands had done this with retailers was they would create really lengthy contracts with limitations and wholesale agreements on what you can and can't do. Now, with platforms like us, a brand can simply integrate and manage things like global pricing and even instruct us on what brands they can't be next to. It gives them all the control they've wanted.
What do you think consumers yearn for in a shopping experience?
There isn’t one single thing that people yearn for. People have different windows for different types of retail experiences, I think. When you buy a product from a publisher, it's probably not going to be super utilitarian. We believe it's going to be something that you feel amazing about and want to buy right in that moment. I'm not an expert in brick-and-mortar retail, but I know that I like going into the stores to look at things, touch fabric, and have an experience. Savvy retailers are really digging into experience and making sure that going to a department store is a two- or three-hour thing where you can have dinner, hang out, enjoy live performances, and [explore] pop-up shops and collaborations. That's where brick-and-mortar retail needs to be in our view to exist alongside these other platforms.
It's essentially creating an experience that extends beyond selling a product on the shelf. It's enveloping a consumer in a world where they can really be involved in.
Absolutely. Retailers are not going out of business. They will adapt. The really smart ones have already adapted and are thinking about platforms like Bonsai. Oftentimes retailers simplify customer relationships into ownership of emails but that’s not what a relationship is. I have a lifelong relationship with certain department stores. I remember being in there as a child. I remember going to look at the Hudson Bay Christmas windows every year. That's the kind of relationship that retailers own that we don't stand a chance of owning.
How would you define entrepreneurship in your own terms?
I think that entrepreneurship culture, as it's expressed today, is really dangerous. People glamourize hustle; I think it's really inappropriate. To be totally honest, my routine involves no kale or meditation, I barely wake up at eight o'clock in the morning, barely drive myself to work, and have a bunch of coffees along the way. I come home and the last thing I want to do is think about work.
Entrepreneurship is too often defined by silly tropes. It's not that complicated. You just have to have a silly amount of conviction in something that may or may not make a lot of sense. You have to be a little bit naive (which I am) and be somewhat relentless. One thing I also hate about entrepreneurship culture is that everyone says that everyone can do it. Not everyone can, and most people shouldn't—and there's nothing wrong with that. A lot of this post dot-com stuff has resulted in people being advised to leave their amazing jobs and start new as entrepreneurs. It takes a specific set of skills and a mindset to be able to do something like this. It's very high stress so it's not advisable to most people unless you're ready to do all that stuff.
With that in mind, what do you think everyone should ask themselves before pursuing a path of entrepreneurship?
You have to be realistic with yourself about durability to operationalize the vision. A lot of people are like, I don't have an idea yet, so I'm not going to become an entrepreneur. Even at Bonsai, it took us a long time to come to a pithy definition of a problem statement, but we kept going. I think it's important that you have that. One of the questions you should ask yourself is, Can I realistically service my vision? And that becomes very tactical really quickly. Do you have the ability to raise money? Have you ever spoken to an investor before? Do you understand the dynamics of why someone would invest in a business to begin with? Can you communicate and articulate your vision clearly and concisely? These are the fundamental questions.
There are some really brilliant entrepreneurs, which I am not, who have an insatiable desire to build stuff and they have no other option. There are other less brilliant people, like me, who see clear gaps in markets and are really bullish about attacking them. So, figure out which one of those two personas you are and act accordingly. If you're a brilliant engineer that's got a phenomenal idea, you may actually be better off becoming a lead engineer at a phenomenal business as opposed to going through all the trials and tribulations of raising money, dealing with industries, reporting to a board, and managing a team. There's just so much extra nonsense that comes with being an entrepreneur that is not advertised at all.
Do you think it's important to know where you're going before you start walking?
I think it's important to be diligent and ask good questions. It's important to have other people check your idea. In my early days, I would say, Oh, I have an idea, but it's in stealth mode. What good is that? Unless you've got some incredibly sensitive IP that is easily replicable, why would you hide what you're working on? Get feedback, ask people if they think it’s a good idea, and have them check your BS. It's really important; I wish people did that for me more in the early stages. It would've saved us a lot of time and money. But to answer your question, people should relax because I can assure you that there is no business plan that will ever be useful beyond 72 hours from its development.
To date, Bonsai has raised about $11 million from a variety of different investors. What's the most valuable lesson that you've learned in terms of your experience raising capital for your company?
I used to be really bullish about telling the story in my own way but was totally naive. There are many best practices out there on how you should pitch someone and what you need to show on a deck to be successful. There's no reason to rewrite the playbook there. A recurring theme of mine is that a lot of things don't require innovation in this process. There is a way that investors can easily understand your business and make a decision around whether or not they're going to proceed. You should use that best practice and make it easy for people to get what you're saying.
How do you know if an investor is the right fit for your business?
It's really easy for people to get excited as soon as someone shows you even a signal of interest. There is a lot more money out there than there are deals. That’s a very important metric. It’s incredibly important that any founder ask the investor upfront to tell them more about their investment thesis. The really good investors can answer that in thirty seconds—it's very narrow and it's very tight. Depending on what type of investor you’re dealing with, their level of sophistication will show in that question. You want investors who are clear about their thesis. And if they're not, they should at least be able to articulate what they're looking to get out of their investment.
To be clear, investors are investing to make money and you have to know what their end game is. Are they looking for you to return capital at a multiple of fifteen in nine years, or do they want to make a quick buck in three and a half years? That has a huge difference on what they expect of you and what they push you to do. As soon as you take money from someone outside, your job as a founder is to return their shareholder’s capital. You have a fiduciary obligation to your shareholders to return their capital with a handsome multiple. So you cannot take that responsibility lightly, it is tremendously stressful.
What are the values that you stand by?
We have these stated corporate values, but I think the way I would better answer that question is by asking what I value in a colleague? An organization doesn't inherently have values, it's just the sum of its people. The values I care about or find important in my colleagues are accountability and trust. I've started to value decisiveness, which really means conviction. I have friends and colleagues who are incredibly effective simply because they make decisions quickly and make them based on good reason and with good evidence. When you sum those up, you get a company that moves quickly, values evidence, and is built on trust.
How do you define success?
Personally, success would be the summation of moments. We were able to integrate six new Canadians and their families and we've been able to create economic opportunity for dozens of people. For me, that is how you measure success. It's about creating opportunity and helping people. Then it's also about having fun along the way.
What does it mean to be a good neighbour? According to Nextdoor, kindness is key.
The San Francisco-based startup bills itself as a neighbourhood hub that offers a safe space for people to engage with others in their community by exchanging ideas, goods, and services. By cultivating a culture of kindness, Nextdoor believes that they can facilitate closer and more meaningful connections between the people in our immediate vicinity.
After launching in Canada in September 2019, Nextdoor’s Canadian arm has become the tech startup’s fastest growing international market. Perhaps that can be chalked up to Canadians and their affinity for politeness, stereotypical as it may be. In fact, among the 11 markets that Nextdoor is active in, Canada ranks highest in politeness, according to their own data.
In a time defined by social media’s authoritarianism on human relationships (and now COVID-19), Christopher Doyle, Canada Country Manager for Nextdoor, believes that the company can help Canadians foster deeper relationships offline and, ultimately, become better neighbours.
Can you tell us a little about Nextdoor?
Our purpose is to cultivate kindness and ensure everyone has a neighbourhood to rely on. Nextdoor was founded explicitly to connect neighbours to each other and to their local community. We are a neighbourhood hub.
We also believe that when local businesses thrive, local communities do as well. As a business owner, you can claim a business page within a neighbourhood. We try to make it easy to connect people who might have useful items for sale or for free so there’s a section in the app called For Sale or For Free, and that goes beyond Canada for the global product.
The last and most important pillar of the product is the public service platform. Within Nextdoor, neighbours are able to stay connected to things like local police and fire. We launched in partnership with the Canadian Red Cross and they've been a really vital partner for us, especially in the times that we're going through now. For example, they published an excellent post on tips to stay safe during COVID-19. It's those types of posts and information sharing that we have where official voices are available to neighbours so they can connect and get the correct information.
Essentially, people are tapping into their community, able to facilitate some sort of commerce or trade, and access content relevant to their neighbourhood?
That's exactly right. What's really interesting about Nextdoor and one of our great benefits is that we're organized by neighbourhoods, which are built on trust. Everything is private to its own neighbourhood meaning you couldn't Google my neighbourhood and see what we're all talking about. It increases the level of trust. Everyone who joins Nextdoor also has to be a real person. Your real name and address are verified before you can join. Our belief is that it raises the level of discourse ensuring civil and helpful conversations. It's about neighbours helping neighbours, and in that sense, requires it to be very trustworthy. And when it comes to public agencies like the Red Cross, we give them access to post content province wide so they can communicate vital information. Alternatively if it was a hyper-local, they could also post content only relevant to your community and neighbourhoods.
Trust is a recurring theme. How does Nextdoor navigate privacy issues?
We are a more trusted platform because we are built on this idea that you are who you say you are online. This is not a platform for anonymous accounts or bots and trolls. We have various ways that we verify information that’s going out to make sure it is safe. The majority of Canadians right now are joining Nextdoor through the mail with Canada Post. Interested members would get a secure invitation where they would verify their code in order to join. This slows down the process and embeds a sort of purposeful friction so not just anyone can make an account easily.
What do you think is unique about Nextdoor that no one else is doing right now, especially in the way that you do it?
The number one difference is that we have tools on the platform that are made specifically for neighbours to connect with each other. That would be the biggest difference from any other platform. We want members to connect and meet community members who are deeply involved in their community.
Our community leads go through a pretty robust outreach program. We work with thousands of leads across Canada and we communicate with them about tips on how to grow your neighbourhood. We also ensure that there’s civil discourse.
Our mission is to cultivate kindness and connect neighbours to each other and their community. For me, when you have a purpose that's rooted in kindness, everything you do after that falls in line.
Do you define yourselves as a social network? How does Nextdoor categorize itself as a business?
We call ourselves a neighbourhood hub. There are some differences between us and what others would call social media. One of those core differences I would argue is that we're not a platform that rewards online interaction regardless of content. There are algorithms on other platforms that everyone is aware of and it doesn't matter what the content is—if lots of people are engaging with it, it will be surfaced to you. We don't work that way.
We have what we call a ‘Kindness Reminder.’ What it does is detect if you are using words that have commonly been reported as violating our policies and will ask you to reconsider. A large percentage of the time people actually rewrite the post or delete what they were saying. We actually want people to slow down and be kind to each other.
The other big difference is we actually encourage people to get off of the app and meet in real life. We don’t want you to be addicted to this and never get off. We want you to actually go and meet your neighbour and plan a community event, a barbecue, or a garage sale.
What is your favorite feature on the platform?
I have two favourite features. One is the ‘Groups’ feature because that is where you can join smaller groups within your community. The second would be the main feed because that's where you see most of the community engagement. I love seeing neighbors connecting based on things that they love. Nextdoor brings people together, and then they can set up groups based on their interests. You might see a dog-walking group or an art group. There’s a soccer parent one in my neighbourhood.
What kind of research goes into addressing cultural differences in the various markets that you are in?
We take great care to recognize the different ways that people interact globally through a local lens. Within Canada that meant launching with our two official languages available so it was accessible from province to province. We're 100 percent Canadian and we want to be 100 percent locally relevant to your neighbourhood. Whether you're in Calgary or Quebec City, we want to make sure that you're having an amazing experience.
You work with community leads to build your neighbourhood teams. How do you find these people who are essentially brand evangelists?
I've been able to see it in Canada since we launched and also learn from markets around the world. What has been at the core for us is community leads. Many of the leads I've spoken to will describe themselves as ‘the founder of my neighbourhood’. These are people who are deeply involved and really care about their communities. They were waiting for Nextdoor to launch and essentially founded their neighbourhood. They've invited people; there's even a lead in Calgary who has created little business cards on his own with a QR code and has signed up more than 600 people.
‘Kindness’ is an interesting word to associate yourselves with because it’s a bit subjective. How do you define and measure it within the context of your company?
For us kindness really means a couple things. At its core, it means ‘neighbours helping neighbours.’ That is really what we're here to do. We're here to lend support to each other in good times and bad. If we're all here for each other, it's going to be much better. It also means meeting together in real life and making sure that the conversations that we have are always helpful. Our CEO, Sarah Friar, talks about this a lot; there is a great power in learning about different perspectives in your neighbourhood. It doesn't mean that everyone's always going to agree on Nextdoor, but that we are polite. We have data that shows that Canada is the most polite nation per capita. That's not to say that as we grow, people are always going to agree with each other. But we believe that you can have a dialogue that is constructive. It's not the place for toxic discussions.
How do you think Nextdoor plays into the dialogue around loneliness and mental health? Do you see Nextdoor being a part of that conversation?
It is absolutely key and something that we really believe in. While we're more connected globally than ever before, we're actually more disconnected than ever. We had a study show that loneliness is even more dangerous to your health than smoking cigarettes regularly every day. There is a real danger to people that is caused by isolation and loneliness. It is a massive problem and it's something that we feel Nextdoor is at its core trying to combat. In Canada, we’ve seen people reach out to their neighbours to just go for a coffee, meet up over breakfast, and get together for an event. Nextdoor has also been important for some of our most vulnerable communities who really need a lifeline. In my neighbourhood, there were people who would come by to clear snow and walkways for others. For us, we don’t measure success through vanity metrics. We measure success by how many people you helped in your neighbourhood. How many people went and helped clear snow for an elderly neighbour who really needed it. It’s the stuff that makes a real difference. We describe kindness as the best solution to loneliness.
Fender’s LA office along Sunset Boulevard has all the trappings of an audiophile’s dream workspace. Designed by Rapt Studio, the office places instruments close at hand for employees to enjoy as a tribute to its iconic pedigree in music. The HQ plays homage to Fender’s iconic guitars by incorporating design elements like sleek contours, finely tuned hardware and unique colours in a workspace that also encourages the company’s business objectives, ranging from product development to marketing.
American designer Jonathan Adler has certainly had a storied career. When the movie business didn’t work out for the New Jersey native, Adler pursued a simpler life and tried his hand as a potter, which eventually led to where he is today, one of the world’s most successful and recognizable luxury interior designers. His work is instantly recognizable, adhering to an ethos that defies conventional design laws, choosing instead to play by his own rules. Whether a decadent velvet armchair or a neon-hued obelisk, his designs are as charismatic and eccentric as he is.
While in Toronto to showcase his new wares at the Interior Design Show (IDS), Adler took a moment to discuss his approach to design, building a business empire, and of course — glamour.
What does a great design experience look like to you?
Design should be intuitive. I guess it's about context. If you're at a design show, you want to do something completely over the top, surreal, and fantastical. In your own life, I think design is good if it is personal and makes you happy.
How do you approach new projects?
Whether a product, interior, or installation, design is about context. For instance, here at IDS I need to create something that is a spectacle. Whereas if I'm designing an interior for a client, I have to think about the essence of each person and how I can reflect them at their most eccentric and glamorous. If it's a commercial project, like a hotel, I always try to create a sense of place. As an interior designer, I see myself as a slimming mirror for my clients. It's really about thinking about context and not merely imposing my vision.
In an era dominated by social media, what does it mean to create a spectacle?
To me, a spectacle should certainly be grammable. It should be something that ideally takes your breath away, and something very communicative. I'm not a terribly empathetic person in real life, but as a designer, I strive to create things that truly communicate with people. I think a lot of designers fail when they make things that are oblique. It’s about empathy and communicating a spirit or an idea. That's part of the spectacle.
There is a sense of playfulness and whimsicality in your design. Is optimism something that is important to you in your design process?
I think I might do myself a disservice as a designer because as a person I’m kind of glib. I feel like if I'm going to make something new, it has to have a true raison d'etre. It has to be a little bit over the top because otherwise why bother? If that seems like playfulness, so be it. I'm a strange mix of someone who seems playful but I'm actually quite brooding, which I think is kind of a requisite combo to be good at anything because you need to have the sense of possibility that comes with being glib and you need to be analytical to make something as good as it can and should be.
How do you like to approach challenges? Do you like being outside of your comfort zone?
I always look for new design challenges. The fun thing about being a designer versus an artist is that with design there's an element of practicality; you’re trying to solve a problem. Whereas when you're an artist, there is this sort of blue sky thinking that I don't particularly like. I really like having a specific problem to solve, whether I'm designing a booth at a design show or trying to think about what lamp I want to have on my coffee table.
Over the course of your career, have you always had a very clear sense of your identity as a designer?
I think a lot of artists or designers can get stuck and be very one note. I knew early on that I wanted to be prolific and protean, and actually speak in a myriad of voices, which I suppose is atypical. People tend to really zero in on a particular thing but if you look at my oeuvre, you’ll see a zillion different spirits at play, whether it's organic modernism, psychedelic pop, or futuristic fancy. I think my voice is really about not having a voice. It's about having a million voices and that has become my thing.
You mentioned glamour previously. How do you define glamour?
Glamour is really challenging to define. It's sort of an elusive sprite. It's something people always say, but they never think about what it means. To me, glamour is about being confident, memorable, and a little sexy.
You’ve built a massive business empire. What have been some of the challenges that you’ve come across along the way?
I am an accidental entrepreneur. I never even thought for one second I was building a business let alone a brand. As much as I've had success, it's because my stuff is all very authentically me. It's not the product of a business plan or a white space. Whenever I hear young people talking about disrupting something, I'm like, “barf.” I get that if you want to be an entrepreneur, you need to think like that. But for me it was about living in a world in which I just sort of bumbled along and was true to myself. Then, many years after I started, I realized what I had done. It never crossed my mind that I was doing anything other than making shit.
What would you say are the pillars of a great brand?
It comes back to this idea of authenticity, which is one of those many business phrases. But I think a good brand is one with a very clear and singular voice that can only be born of authenticity rather than a business plan or a white space. It's kismet. It’s like trying to define the undefinable. People can try and do anything they want via deduction, but it really is about a magic confluence of factors.
What do you think has been the lesson that has taken you the longest to learn about yourself as a designer and as a businessperson?
It's taken a lot of time for me to understand what I really care about, which is the actual product that I make versus the business. The business side of things is purely a means to an end. What I care about, and what I hope will ultimately be my legacy, is the actual shit that I've made. It's taken me a long time to realize that's my true and only priority.