In our Feature Series “A Conversation With…” we sit down with Saskatchewan entrepreneurs to talk about doing business in the province, its challenges and opportunities, and to get their thoughts on how to succeed in today’s business world. Writer Paul Burch moderated a roundtable discussion with ten entrepreneurs working in tech on April 2, 2019. Meet Heather Abbey (Indig Inc.), Neil Anderson (SkillShark Athlete Evaluations), Jordan Boesch (7shifts), Brendan King (Vendasta Technologies), Sheila Maithel (Brillist Better Projects), Jackie Martin (Your Dalmatian | Viking Innovations), Ian Meier (Agrimatics), Alicia Soulier (SalonScale), Greg Sutton (TinyEYE Therapy Services) and Mike Wesolowski (Luxsonic Technologies). For the full roundtable video, visit our YouTube channel, @iwmediagroup.
On a crisp spring day in the heart of Saskatoon’s downtown business district, eleven people sat at an antique boardroom table on the top floor of the restored Avenue Building. Greeted by the energy and atmosphere you would expect to see in a Silicon Valley office space, the group had gathered to discuss entrepreneurship and the challenges of starting, establishing and scaling a technology company on the Canadian prairies.
It was apparent that around the table was a collection of doers, makers, and visionaries looking to solve problems and finding success in providing those solutions.
We asked Brendan King, co-founder and CEO at Vendasta Technologies Inc. and our host for the day, what challenges tech entrepreneurs face in Saskatchewan.
“To start with, we don’t have the ecosystem that is present in other places like in the Valley or even in Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto or Ottawa,” says King. “But we do have some great people and some smart people. So, the challenges really are building that culture—we have to develop and build out that ecosystem.”
“Another problem would be fundraising … but I think that’s getting somewhat better,” King continues. He’s referring to the growing number of sizeable investments in the tech industry from outside the province, and the improvements in government programs that help entrepreneurs get more out of their money. In recent years, there have been tax credits created that help startups go further with their dollars and encourage outside investment. One thing that continues to be an issue though is the physical logistics.
“Travelling to see your customers can be a challenge when everything is three connections instead of one,” explains King. “I remember talking to a VC (venture capitalist) once from Boston that was going to come see us, tried to book a flight, phoned back and said ‘it’s not going to work out’.”
However, the challenges of being in Saskatchewan also come with unique benefits.
“It’s a small community, so all of us have met each other before—everyone’s met everyone around the table, we can all mentor each other, help each other,” says Greg Sutton, co-founder and CEO at TinyEYE Therapy Services. His company provides therapy to school aged children, with a team of speech language pathologists and mental health professionals delivering more than half a million sessions to over 20,000 kids around the world. “It’s much easier to get noticed here,” he says.
That tight community helps when companies are also trying to keep a lower profile. “It’s also easier to hide in the weeds if you’re trying to launch and test out your stuff … you can run some really good trial runs here. It’s a strong and diverse business community so you can test a lot of products … before taking them to the world,” says Sutton. That diversity has strength.
“That’s something that we’ve really believed strongly in over at Indig Inc.,” says Heather Abbey, co-founder and CEO. The company is an online business platform and marketplace for Indigenous artisans. “Showing youth, showing students, that it’s possible—that Indigenous tech founders exist, and that it’s a viable option to grow. A lot of the schools we go to in First Nations communities—they’ve never seen it—they’ve never seen a First Nations tech founder, much less a female one. And so just showing future generations that it’s possible and that it’s being done is something that’s really, really strong and that really makes a difference,” says Abbey.
The ability to stand out or keep a low profile based on your needs is a unique advantage in Saskatchewan, even if you sometimes end up taking a flight from Winnipeg to Regina with a short stopover in Calgary. And, when the time comes for expansion, Saskatchewan has some advantages as well.
Agrimatics’ customers are all over Canada, the US and Australia, and for Ian Meier, Agrimatics co-founder and CEO, it doesn’t matter where they are. “We focus in our business on post-harvest data collection and management so farmers can easily gather their grain production and inventory data,” says Meier.
Skillshark Athlete Evaluations founder Neil Anderson agrees. With customers around the globe—including Germany, the UK and the United States—his company allows coaches in any sport to get away from pen, paper and clipboards and use mobile devices to gather data on athlete performance. Where that happens doesn’t matter to them—so being in Saskatchewan wasn’t a defining metric.
“Being in Saskatchewan is a footnote,” says Brillist CEO, Sheila Maithel. “It was ‘what can you do for us’ and once they get that they’re really eager.” She does add though, that the size of the market place here can make it less forgiving. “You’re forced here to go find something valuable, find people to buy it and go and bootstrap it a bit more than other markets where there are other options,” she explains. The smaller ecosystem can kill a company early if it’s not solid, which is unfortunate—but it also means the companies have to focus on fundamentals early, setting a better foundation for long-term success.
Many Saskatchewan entrepreneurs reach a ceiling because of the population size, the geography and the experience pool. “I had to do the Cambridges, the Bostons, the Kitcheners, and so on,” says Abbey, “But I think that something really strong about our tech entrepreneurs here in Saskatchewan is that we come home. We bring that knowledge back. We bring those connections back. That’s a critical component—that coming back.”
Outside experience returning is good news for a growing tech sector, and Luxsonic’s CEO and co-founder, Mike Wesolowski, is predicting a continuing trend. “Growth. I think we’ve seen the creation of Co.Labs within the last two years, the Cultivator that just opened in Regina … the support structures that we have are also growing. We’ve got government involved more in supporting the ecosystem, and I think events like this (roundtable discussion) shows that there’s also support amongst entrepreneurs to grow this ecosystem.”
Each founder agrees that you’re never really done and you never stop moving. However, it’s important to pause and take note of those successes in your company. For Maithel, it was a customer revealing to her that Brillist was their secret weapon. For Skillshark, it can be traced down to the day—June 16, 2017 —when they got a call from the Arizona Diamondbacks. “Two weeks later, I’m in their boardroom, says Anderson.
Even for a person who’s been in the game a bit longer, the message doesn’t change much. “I think with all entrepreneurs, you have to have that feeling all the time,” says King. “Otherwise, it’s pretty hopeless. You know we’ve had four major pivots with what we’re doing and I think with all of the companies here you will find that it is a series of ‘aha moments.’ I hope that happens to all of you.”
When asked about the single most important piece of advice for a new startup in Saskatchewan, Jackie Martin, co-founder at Viking Innovations Ltd. expands on Brendan’s earlier thoughts on staying motivated. “It’s a roller coaster starting any new company—for us, we’re a safety company. I don’t think we really appreciated how difficult that was going to be—but certainly when we sell to a multi-family building and have repeat customers doing that and we know that there’s families that are a little bit safer now—that keeps us going.”
In addition to staying motivated, Wesolowski offers a critical piece of advice: “Before you write a line of code, validate your market. Go out. Find the people. Just go with the idea and find the people that are going to buy it. Don’t write a line of code without doing that, you’re going to save yourself a lot of misery,” he says. The chorus of agreement echoes this sentiment.
Meier adds, “A lot of people want to keep everything hush-hush, and they don’t want to tell anyone anything until they have the product fully done—but if you build the wrong product, there’s not a lot of point to that!”
It won’t just validate your product or service—it can help you qualify yourself. “Get out of Saskatchewan, go spend time in an ecosystem where you’re literally nothing,” says Jordan Boesch, CEO at 7shifts. “If it demoralizes you then great, you figured that out super early! But if it excites you, if you want to dive deeper and build a really big company—you now have a better idea of the scale in which you’re trying to operate at.”
“Fall in love with the customers problems, not the technology,” says King. “If you’re solving a problem for somebody, then you can keep going. It’s as simple as that.”
As simple as that—and as difficult. It’s a common fear that entrepreneurs have to overcome the exposure of their idea, losing some competitive edge by releasing their idea to the wild. Is keeping your idea to yourself protecting your company? “That’s like the worst thing to do. When people are like ‘man, I have this sweet idea, don’t tell anyone.’ I’m like ‘good luck’,” sighs Boesch.
Maithel relates her crash course in exposing the company to potential investors. “I remember a long time ago thinking ‘Oh well if I talk to a potential investor, I’m going to get them to sign an NDA.’ I got a flat ‘we never do, don’t even try’,” she laughs, and again, you can see this is not an uncommon reaction from the heads nodding around the table. She goes on, “This is not an academic exercise, you’re not going off to a corner to sell things by yourself. You’re trying to build a business—this thing is not a business if people are not buying from you—so you’d better talk to them to be sure it’s something they actually want.”
So where do the opportunities lie for tech startups in Saskatchewan? Abbey thinks it’s about marketplaces and data. “It’s all about things that take information from people and turn that into data—turn it into usable data, that contribute to (solving) problems,” says Abbey.
Alicia Soulier, founder at SalonScale, adds that “You’re not going to know all the answers. I’ve been listening to incredible people over the last year, having started a tech company being a non-tech founder—it’s quite daunting if you think about it. But that passion that we just talked about is really what made me stand up and do that.”
“It doesn’t get easier, but you get better,” says Sutton. “The more challenges you have, the stronger you get, the more able you are to deal with the unknown and the less it worries you, the less daunting it becomes.”
The group agrees you also have to take care of yourself to take care of your company. “Every night I have a hard stop,” says Abbey. “As founders, as entrepreneurs—your mind doesn’t turn off. The problems don’t go away. But there comes a point where I am like ‘okay, it’s 10:30, that’s it, I’ve done all I can do. Today might have been a good day, it might have been a bad day but when it all comes down to it you get another chance, another kick at the can tomorrow.”
It’s the sort of resilient sentiment the people of Saskatchewan easily understand. Part of what makes the founders here unique, and the ecosystem what it is.
Brendan King concludes the discussion with a friendly request to the founders around the table.
“Don’t leave. Help build the ecosystem. And don’t sell too soon … let’s try and build something a little bit bigger here in Saskatchewan, together.”