Archive for April, 2015

Book Excerpt

Symon Whitehorn left Pentagram to go work at, of all places, Kodak. He hired Tom Hobbs as a contractor and together they created a unique digital camera that allowed picture — takers to impose on their photos the historical look of Kodachrome film. It presaged mobile-phone applications like Instagram , and, naturally, Kodak killed the project before it even hit the market.

Brad Stone — The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon


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Conversation with Saadia Muzaffar — Revvly and now AudienceView

This interview first published on Techvibes on April 2014. Since then Saadia has joined Audience View.

Saadia Muzaffar was one of those people I first met on Twitter. We connected over common interests which lead to chats over coffee and her startup, Revvly. Saadia was at Citibank and RIC Center before taking the plunge.

How would you explain Revvly to the world?

Revvly is a rapid-app development platform that helps software developers build better quality enterprise cloud apps quicker; literally in days and weeks versus years. Developers can build complex applications with strong e-commerce, social, and responsive capabilities — hitting 20,000 transactions per second spike-load right out of the gates.

To build enterprise-scale cloud apps, typically you would need to know about infrastructure and need to learn all the API’s for the services you want to integrate with. But with Revvly all you need to know is HTML and JavaScript.

Being a proudly Canadian company, Revvly also provides Canadian privacy law compliance in line with PIPEDA, a critical aspect for clients who have strict data-sovereignty requirements.

How did it all start?

I have known Jason Lavigne [cofounder] through my work with the Regional Innovation Centre in Mississauga for the past several years.

I learned through my discussions with Jason that he had taken all the pain-points he had experienced as CTO and lead developer of TicketBreak [acquired in 2010 by Maple Music, a subsidiary of Universal Music] and built a robust API-based platform for SaaS-based ticketing solutions for the live events industry.

Jason and I quickly realized that since ticketing has unrivaled spike-load requirements, a platform that can enable apps to efficiently and reliably process transactions and audit trails for ticketing, would essentially have a leading-edge foundation required for rapid-app development on an enterprise scale for pretty much all kinds of eCommerce applications. This is how Revvly was born.

What stage are you at right now?

In the first 12 months, we have built and shipped our product’s first version, closed $425,000 in booked sales with clients around the globe, and are really excited for the upcoming Toronto Comic Arts Festival. This is just the tip of a $6 million funnel that we are currently working through.

Specifically in Canada, we are working with a few strategic datacentres and Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) to deliver solutions to large-scale clients that operate multi-venue entertainment companies and helping take them to the cloud.

How does being post-revenue at such an early stage affect your growth strategy?

We are stoked about the validation this has give to our business model and Revvly’s value-proposition. The most exciting aspect of this is when we go ahead to do an angel funding round in the next few months, we won’t be looking for survival money.

What are some of the toughest things about building a startup?

To be a successful entrepreneur, you have be able to thrive in a certain level of constant chaos, and have the tenacity to stay the course and stick to your vision while being open to constructive criticism and market responses. In some ways building a startup is lonely business — it’s you against the world for years until you become that common misnomer: an overnight success. This is why having a solid, well-aligned founding team is critical.

What is the Ecosystem like in GTA as compared to Toronto and KW?

Our head-office is in Brampton in the Region of Peel. This ecosystem is still pretty nascent and as such, a bit fragmented, so we also have a virtual office in Toronto for business development, and we’re part of Communitech. Once this ecosystem is more mature, we will be able to retain the talent that currently flows towards tech hubs like Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo. That said though, in my mind, all these hubs support staying and building in Canada. At the end of the day, what ought to matter is that Canada wins.

You can follow Saadia on Twitter.

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Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/kyleszegedi

And how they pivoted from the grim market to families.

This interview was conducted last year and I am re-publishing here. Since then Family Tales has winded down. Ramli is currently a Growth Consultant, Ali Tariq is working at Manulife and Beatrice Law is working as a designer with Design Lab in SF.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

I caught up with Ramli Jon on a cold winter evening near the university plaza in Waterloo to catch up on Family Tales and the story of the startup. Family Tales was based in the Velocity Garage at Communitech and Mars in Toronto.

Tell me about yourself:

I studied Math and Comp Sci at UW and worked at a large beverages company for 4 years. At the end there was too much red tape so I left to start a company which eventually failed due to lack of team cohesion.

What was the startup?

It was called Lesson Sensei — we were trying to connect people in Toronto with Sensei; people who are experts in a subject. Imagine you want to learn how to bake cake. We created a marketplace to connect people looking to learn how to bake a cake with folks who are experts at it. But eventually it didn’t work out So I ended up doing my MBA.

I perused an MBA because I thought I didn’t have any business skills. I was very technical, coming from a math and computer science background.

How did you go from Lesson Sensi to Family Tales?

Ali Tariq and I met during our MBA class. Originally Family Tales was called Halon lane; a Facebook for the deceased. We were helping the family to capture the memories and stories of those who had passed away as photo’s and text.

So why a Facebook for the deceased?

When my grandmother passed away she left us with a lot of stories & memories but we started to forget them. Ali and I both felt that the current industry for the deceased focused on negativity of someone passing and not on the positive side. We wanted to change that.

So more like cherishing their lives?

Yeah exactly!

What was your biggest challenge with Halo Lane?

I think the toughest moment was trying to share it on our personal Facebook page. How could market this, or reach out to people with such a grim message? We also talked to funeral homes but they were very resistant to it because the revenue came from the caskets business. Partnerships on revenue sharing for the memorial pages would not generate enough revenue to justify it.

What was your “Aha moment” from Halo Lane to Family Tales?

While conducting user research, we handed our app to a person who had recently someone pass away. Our assumption was that she would write about the person who she had recently lost but to our surprise she put in her babies name!

So you changed to Family Tales?

Yeah we decided to pivot to a different market. We had technology that worked so we focused families. This was also when Beatrice came on board.

You could capture your family stories in particular for new mothers to capture their babies stories as pictures and words.

Like a digital scrapbook.

Our beta for the web app got released in April [2014].

How has the beta been going so far?

We got an okay traction. It didn’t meet our expectations of 6–7% growth week over week.

What was your biggest learning from the beta?

One of the biggest learning was that we kept working on the web version because we’re both web developers. While our market really is very mobile and tablet focused. So listening to what we’ve heard & observed we are building mobile and tablet apps. We also realized that our potential market can be families in general and not limited to new mothers only.

Where do you go from here?

Our goal right now is to put together a Kickstarter campaign in the next few months. Before we build or write a single line of code, we want to validate the market. Kickstarter is a great way to validate a demand for a product and our goal is to get enough people who will prepay for a printed scrapbook generated via the apps.

What are some of the tough moments at Family Tales?

We’re not parents ourselves so it is challenging to understand the market and build credibility.

This interview first appeared on KW Startups Blog

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A conversation with Mathew Milan

What is Normative all about?

Normative is a software design firm. We use design practices and principles to make software and help other companies improve their software. We have a full or holistic view of software which means everything from the code and algorithms to how information flows to and from the software to the interfaces, users, interfaces for other software systems. Design excels at identifying what the problem is by building something. It is not something you do in your head or the whiteboard. Design is the act of making something to understand it better.

We’re helping companies solve the right problem by making software.

Did you always know you wanted to go into design?

Both my parents were designer; graphics and interior. I grew up in a household where design was very prominent. When I went to school I was very interested in technology and environments. Initially I thought I’d be using technology to design the physical world, doing things like urban planning. Along the way I realized I wanted to work in the emerging digital world but soon realized there is fundamentally no difference between the two.

Was I always interested in design? Yes. Did I think I would end up here? Not specifically but I ended up here because that’s where the interesting problems were.

What is your take on design being a competitive advantage?

Design is really fantastic to really help reduce risk in a business context. Design really helps you solve the right problems. People’s perception of what good design is; is unfortunately based on fairly superficial perspectives. that comes from a superficial perspective on what good design aesthetic is. So to be quite critical and I have said this professionally in a number of contexts — The aesthetic of the design or beauty of design for the digital world is not the same as aesthetic that comes from graphic design. So making a beautiful button or making a beautiful UI is good, but it is not the whole problem. Design is about more than just making it look pretty in the visual aesthetic level or even the interaction level. This is something that good designers have known for decades. You look at the Eames and Herman Millers making furniture in the 50’s. They made beautiful chairs that were also cost effective, created new markets for the business. They solved problems that impacted the bottom line of the business in a positive way, it wasn’t just about is that chair comfortable or pretty. In contrast a lot of the digital design we talk about these days, people are still saying ‘I made the chair comfortable look at how good it is’

So I look at our design practice at Normative as wanting our digital design practice at the same level as Charles and Ray Eames had or Paul Rand had with IBM.

Here at Normative we say that when you design software you’re designing a system. You’re designing a part of a system, that with its interface and programing changes the way people and machines interact with each other. So fundamentally when you design software, the purpose of software is to give someone superpowers.. The Google Search bar gives you superpowers — it’s like a memory you never had but you have perfect access to. You see so many to-do apps out there but a few of them get any serious uptake or traction. What are they really solving for people? What’s the superpower? Is it the organization of stuff? What if the superpower was the need to do less stuff?? But as designers we don’t think about that. What we should really ask ourselves is; what is the capability we want to design for the person and what is the value exchange?

How can you justify the business case around design?

A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine talked about the ROI of User Experience. At that point the thinking was — if you can prove ROI, you would have a better chance of selling design to business. I personally believe that is not the right approach now. I believe that showing that you have a real business problem and what needs to be done to solve it and having that understanding with your partner or client or boss is much more valuable in terms of establishing design as a tool for business then saying ‘here’s how we’re going to measure my success”.

How do you create the culture that encourages this kind of work and thinking about problems?

It is really hard! It is one of the hardest and most humbling things for me to try and do really well. Especially when as you try to create culture your personal biases and perspectives come into play and actually go against the culture you want to create so it’s impossible to create culture in purely prescriptive way. Because everyone sees the world differently and respects and values different things, finding common ground is really hard especially when the way you talk and look at something is really different. I’ll be honest it is both a struggle and a point of success that we have be able to become so attuned to the needs of the businesses we’re working with.

What are some of the projects you’re working on currently?

We’re working in areas of wearable technology, future currency, augmented reality, personal finance, media consumption. We’re working on problems like How do you help an organization that acquires hundreds of new companies a year bring those into a standard interaction, code base — what does that framework look like. Because the real problem you’re solving is not making all the websites, you’re creating a system that reduces the cost and complexity of bringing consistency. So we’re working on a lot of system level problems that are solved by tactical design work and building software.

How would you compare Toronto to Silicon Valley?

We have clients in the valley and we are looking at whether it makes sense to have a more permanent presence there.But I also want to say that one of the reasons we’re in Toronto is that we really felt that as a technology environment there’s a lot of potential in Toronto. I have seen how the start-up ecosystem has evolved since the early days of the work of David Crow to the really rich ecosystem we have these days. There’s a lot of people out there who are doing great work which I really respect. If we as a community don’t become divisive and focus more on being integrative and understand that entrepreneurship and investing in the future doesn’t just have to happen with a bunch of laptops and a co-working space but can happen anywhere else. If we build those sort of bridges, a lot of interesting things can happen here.

Written with the help of Amrita Chandra.

You can follow Normative and Mathew on Twitter

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Attempts at a company.

The idea had stemmed from a personal distaste for carrying around business cards. I have never been a big believer in them. But I was a frequent at the networking events circuit. Conversation would end with ‘Can I have your business card’ which would result in an awkward smile ‘Umm, sorry I don’t have any’. Business card scanners for your phone existed. But no apps that just eliminated the need to carry a business card.

After decades of software, why had this piece of cardboard with text endured? What magic can it possibly hold? Instead of being digitized themselves there were websites now that let you upload, design and order cards. How can the humble card be replaced by something ‘contemporary?’.

No idea is original. In the past a company had attempted to solve the problem via Twitter, other’s had stuck to OCR. As far as we could tell, the NFC concept was still untested. Bump had a clever algorithm but NFC was our saviour.

After much brainstorming, research, pitching for money, applying for grants and building a couple of prototypes we realized:

Business cards just worked. You pulled them out of your pocket and handed them to another person. The design, text, paper, print and quality of them also carried a certain social status.

We tried to tackle a different problem with the same tech; collecting leads at conferences. Post conference, there’s a pile of business cards that need to be scanned. Our solution was to build NFC enabled badges encoded with the attendees contact info, paired with NFC readers at the booth. The contact info could be uploaded to any CRM minus the scanning.

Most conference organizers felt the benefit of NFC name tags didn’t justify the cost nor were they terribly excited about it.

We were not ready to give up yet. The three of us seemed to work well together so we brainstormed other ideas. Our general direction was something local to KW so I registered the domain http://www.kwstartups.com/. Dumbfounded that no one had registered it in Kitchener/Waterloo.

The domain in hand, the question became what to do or not to do with it. Squat on it until someone wants to buy it? Unlikely. The next light to shine upon us was a search engine. Not the Google sort but a directory of local startups. Perhaps even some analysis on their growth, revenues, stage, team — think Crunchbase or Mattermark but hyper-localized.

Communitech and Accelerator Center have their member/client directory but at the time we felt it was fragmented and incomplete.

For the two weeks that followed, we built a search engine powered by Google Spreadsheets.

We shopped around our prototype. Nothing happened.

KW didn’t need a search engine. Essentially being a small community every knew everyone else. Developing a data aggregator to score companies was complicated and getting actual revenue/funding numbers from the companies themselves proved to be a dead end. We shelved it.

The domain morphed into a blog. I had already been toying with the idea of a blog covering startups in KW from a different angle then what was already out there. I knew the community so I started emailing and chatting with people which eventually turned into formal interviews that I transcribed, edited and published. Hoping writing about local companies would generate some interest.

My impatience got in the way. I wanted to try something different.

I met Sandi — the founder of Quibb over coffee in Kitchener. We chatted about Quibb and other topics. She was helpful, interesting and humble. I was fascinated.

I was fascinated by communities. From bulletin boards to forums and IRC to Reddit/HackerNews and the niche permutations, internet communities have been around for a long time. Curious and armed with a domain name — I set out to create a Question & Answer site for … Startups in KW. The hope was to create open conversations to share learning, failings and be more inclusive.

There are Facebook groups, but these Facebook groups exist within Facebook. An open site would accessible and index(able) by search spiders.

That is where it stands today — a question pops up but otherwise it’s sterile like a hospital ER. Months after it first went live, I actually had the time to make a new logo.

The question remains on where to take it from here.

The blog is still live and if you are interested in being featured there, feel free to drop me a line on Twitter.

This post was written in Draft. I wish Medium would support Markdown.

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