Technology is all about challenging the status quo. For great tech companies, disrupting convention is part of their DNA and really, what makes them great in the first place.
TechTO is certainly one to challenge the status quo — tell your friends you’re going to a tech event and they wouldn’t expect a packed house with booze flowing, music blasting and a nightclub-like atmosphere before the session begins (at least mine wouldn’t!). But that’s part of what makes TechTO the event that it is.
This August 2018 edition of TechTO featured tech leaders and founders who started businesses or followed career paths that brazenly challenged a “we’ve always done it this way” mindset, and are consequently revolutionizing their corner of the tech world.
Following the opening remarks, Community Spotlight and always-entertaining Community Open Mic (where we heard from everyone from city councillor candidates to a girls mechanic team to K Swiss who is designing sneakers for tech leaders), five tech innovators each had five minutes to talk about building their company, blazing a trail and making things happen in the tech industry today.
Challenging the Way We Learn, Live, Work and Eat
First to speak was Mike Silagadze from Top Hat. TechTO co-founder Alex Norman introduced him by saying that they “don’t like to get founders up more than once, but they do make some exceptions. And Mike is exceptional”.
In 2009, Mike co-founded Top Hat, an educational tech company used for student engagement. Their mission? To help professors make teaching fun and effective by providing a suite of products that replace textbooks with more engaging, accessible content.
Mike’s motivation was his experience in university — which is common with most students. He found the lecturing environment boring and textbooks expensive and out of date, so stopped going to class very quickly.
When smartphones became available, he and his co-founder discovered a way to transform the learning environment. They tested a prototype with professors and had a plan to take it to university administrators to get them to adopt it. The people they met with — deans and provosts — said it sounded great, but sorry, they didn’t want to buy it.
Over the years, Mike learned that for most universities, teaching is not a top priority — research is. As a consequence, they’re not willing to lay down funding to buy teaching tools.
So at this point, Top Hat had a choice — they could go to a different industry, or change their go-to-market plan. While they had originally thought the only way to sell their product was to sell it the same way textbooks were sold (via administration), they realized they could sell to students and professors directly. Most investors thought they were crazy, but it worked. The pivot in go-to-market allowed Top Hat to scale and get to where they are today — in 750 schools supporting 2.8 million students, with 350 employees and $50 million in venture capital raised.
Mike’s lesson on pivoting highlighted that your ideas can challenge not only the products and services used today (i.e., textbooks, traditional lectures) but the way in which you sell your product (directly to students/professors, versus to administrators). Take that, status quo!
Next to speak was Jaime Leverton, GM of Cogeco Peer 1, Canada and Asia-Pacific. Jaime was quick to share that they are a Toronto headquartered global technology company and was proud of the past 18 years she spent in the technology industry in this city. “This is the place to be”, she said, as “Toronto has officially bypassed Silicon Valley in job creation and we are fortunate to have a government who supports technology growth”.
However, her excitement faded just a bit, as she shared that, according to a recent McKinsey study, women make up only 27% of the ICT workforce — which is down from 30% in 20111. What’s more, just 5% of Canadian tech CEOs are women, and more than half don’t have a single female executive.
When Jaime’s passion for technology began (in Belleville, Ontario on her Commodore 64), she didn’t know there was gender barriers. She just kept working, and realized that as she got more senior, there were fewer women around her. Needless to say, Jaime has forged a solid and distinct path as an executive in an industry where the female share of voice is low. And she was at TechTO to remind everybody that when developing your company, nurturing diversity early is critically important to fuel success and innovation, and to balance the economy. After all, companies with higher gender equality outperform their competition by 11%.2
She also shared with the room a number of ways these statistics can be improved:
- Begin by recognizing the importance of diversity and of representing the consumers we are serving. Otherwise, we’re doing a disservice to our economy.
- In Canada, there is a wealth of balanced talent coming out of universities – the onus is on tech leaders and companies to do the right things to attract them
- Change how we think about hiring. Keeping in mind that tech tasks are increasingly automated, relationship-based responsibilities in any organization are unique to human beings
- Look at who you want to bring into your organization and what they can bring with them, beyond just tech skills. Because tech skills have to be updated regularly, these skills alone don’t necessarily correlate to long-term value to your company
- Start diversifying early. People are looking for role models, and want to see a future version of themselves at the company they choose. Remember, nobody wants to be the token, or feel they are the first one there because they’re a woman. It’s important to give a reason to believe you’re actually interested in driving diversity
Bryan Gold, CEO and co-founder of #paid was next to speak, as part of a new segment loosely titled ‘how to raise money for your startup.’ (Over the coming months, TechTO will be bringing a few startup founders to share how they raised funding. You won’t want to miss this!)
Following a $9 million Series A round in May, Bryan was there to share what he learned from asking five key questions.
1) How do you evaluate your investors? Throughout his efforts of fund raising, Bryan had a mindset shift – from wondering which investors will choose him, to exploring what investors he will choose. He emphasized the importance of having criteria to evaluate the ones that are the best fit:
- Vision alignment – do they understand your vision?
- Relationship – is this investor someone you want to work with? Do you want to sit on a board with them and solve tech problems?
- Helpfulness – are they going to be helpful? How can they help to get you to next stage of financing? Do they have access to a network of people you can hire? Can they introduce you to future VCs? Are there gaps they can fill?
2) Do you send your deck beforehand? Bryan admitted that there are so many articles out there, leaning both ways: always or never. For Bryan, he determined he liked the ability to control the narrative during that first meeting, thereby reducing the ability for VC’s to say no. So he did things a little differently… He figured out the two reasons VC’s were passing on them and put that in the market overview and sent it ahead of time, even when it wasn’t asked for.
3) Do you have a misconception of a board? Bryan was always wary about losing control through the introduction of a board, but realized he had been thinking about it the wrong way. A board is there for corporate governance, to introduce key hires and help think strategically about the road ahead.
4) Is the fundraise a win or a means to an end? Bryan and his co-founder didn’t celebrate the fundraise with their staff. Rather, they figured that raising the money was to be looked at as a means to an end. When they announced it, they acknowledged that they have the ingredients. Now they have to make the meal.
5) How big is your vision? It’s perfectly OK to want to build a lifestyle company that makes you $200K a year, but if you’re looking to raise VC, you need to share something truly aspirational. Think big and share a big vision. That’s what VC’s want to get behind.
Omer Kraus from Phenomic AI was next up (introduced by Alex as someone so much smarter than him that he was overwhelmed). Phonemic AI is developing deep learning solutions to accelerate drug discovery, using AI to build a lab of the future and take on devastating diseases. So yeah… no one was disputing this man’s intelligence.
Omer talked about the decisions that made him start his company. After all, he had a great job with another company, so why do it? He revealed his when, how and why.
First, Omer said, you need to convince yourself and validate your product with real customers. While he knew that he had come up with a really great solution, he also knew that ideas that took off academically didn’t always take off with customers. So he did a very rough demo at a conference with real customers, got the validation he needed and decided to found the company.
First and foremost, Omer implored, is you need to surround yourself with the right people — personally and professionally. He credits his wife and co-founder with the success he’s seen so far. Next, it’s a matter of persisting through challenges and adapting to change.
Well, that’s up to you. You need deep, internal motivation and your own reasons that will propel you forward.
Ian Brooks from Hello Fresh Canada closed off the evening. Ian is a disruptor in the food industry — an area that hasn’t seen innovation since the pre-sliced bagel.
He started out by asking the room: What is the $100 billion problem in Canada right now? Answer: Food waste.
Approximately 40% of food grown in Canada isn’t consumed and each household wastes $1500 per year in food. Not because we’re horrible people, but because buy things like a bunch of cilantro for a recipe that calls for a pinch, and there’s no use for the rest of it.
With Hello Fresh, Ian’s meal kits generate almost zero waste, as 2-3 pounds of food waste are avoided with every box. What’s more, with recipe ratings, Hello Fresh has developed likely the largest food-driven data set in the world, with 500,000+ customer data inputs per week, globally, which funnels into a metrics-driven approach to what Canadians want to eat. He recognizes that selling Hello Fresh meal kits is selling a behaviour change — essentially you’re outsourcing picking a tomato and planning your meals. But it’s a change, he says, worth exploring.
During the Q&A following Ian’s talk, two very enlightening points came to light.
1. The most interesting thing that Ian has learned from all food preference data: Tacos
2. His main competitor: The status quo
And there you go. Tech leaders who are challenging the status quo through products, sales strategies, career success and customer behaviour. There’s more than one way to make a difference in the tech industry — how will you make yours?
Want to meet someone new, learn something new and listen to great tech leaders share knowledge? Check out the next TechTO, happening Monday, September 17, 2018.
1. 2016 Canadian Labour Force Survey – McKinsey Global Institute
This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.