Everest is a program offered by MaRS’ Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Venture Services to help early-stage founders scale their startups. The program focuses on filling the gaps in a startup’s business plan through intensive discovery, business model testing and validation, beachhead segmentation, rapid product iteration, team building and innovation accounting (that is, identifying metrics that matter).

The program is called Everest because being part of a startup is comparable to climbing a mountain—you need to know how to best use your limited resources in order to succeed. After the initial enthusiasm, reality sets in and experimenting and pivoting continue until product-market fit is achieved. Everest exists to help founders get through the tough times—or, as Paul Graham puts it, through “the trough of sorrow.”

From time to time, I’ll be interviewing some of the Everest program’s exceptional founders who are striving valiantly and daring greatly to make their startups work.

I sat down with Toronto-based startup WIRL for this month’s Everest showcase to find out: [inlinetweet]How is this Toronto startup making performance reviews less painful?[/inlinetweet]

wirl-logoEverest Showcase: WIRL

  • Startup name: WIRL (which stands for “What It’s Really Like”)
  • Founders: Greg Pantelic and Wesley Nelson
  • Year founded: 2013
  • Sector: Software as a service (SaaS): enterprise work and learning
  • Team size: 4

Elevator pitch: WIRL solves the pains of performance reviews and strengthens company culture through simple continuous feedback software. Research shows that 98% of employees find annual performance reviews unnecessary and that employees are dissatisfied with the frequency and quality of the feedback they receive, resulting in high levels of disengagement and turnover. Disengagement costs organizations an average of $2,200 per employee in lost productivity and morale.

WIRL solves these problems by making employee feedback simple and safe to request, provide and analyze in real time. WIRL stands for “What It’s Really Like” and is headquartered in Toronto.

Q&A with Greg Pantelic, co-founder of WIRL

Wesley Nelson and Greg Pantelic
Wesley Nelson and Greg Pantelic, co-founders of Wirl
Nathan: Why did you start WIRL?

Greg: WIRL was born from personal experiences, as I saw the impact that employee empowerment had at a young age and throughout my career. Early on, I saw my mom work every job possible to provide for my sister and me. I saw the impact that working in an empowering environment had on her overall mood and, conversely, the impact that working in a toxic environment had on her well-being.

Fast-forward to my experiences in the workplace, where I saw how broken the performance review process was. For managers who didn’t care it was simple: just cut and paste from previous reviews and call it a day. As for managers who did care, I saw them pulling all-nighters the day before performance reviews were due, spending two to three hours per review and trying to remember what had happened throughout the year. Both managers and employees dreaded the process because it was time consuming, ineffective and contrived.

I saw that employees have a genuine desire to want to improve on a continuous basis and I understood that continuous feedback was the single most important way to achieve this. We created WIRL to help empower employees and, ultimately, to help them achieve fulfillment in their jobs.

Nathan: How important has customer discovery been to you as part of the “lean” process?

Greg: It was incredibly important. Early on, before our founding team was formed, I met with hundreds of companies, leaders and employees to attempt to understand the pains, processes and intricacies of employee feedback. This was all in an attempt to garner insights, to understand the customer better than anyone else and to plot this information into a framework that could help us drive the minimum viable product (MVP).

I had to quickly get a strong understanding of customers, using an MVP as part of a “solution interview.” In business to business, you not only need an MVP, but you also have to move quickly to create a minimal sellable product. We built a really lean MVP and then looked at the feedback data in aggregate, prioritizing the features that folks would derive the most value from and always seeking to understand the “why?” behind their comments and what problems they actually wanted solved. Using rapid iteration on the feedback, we were able to launch the commercially viable version of our product in four months.

Nathan: How is WIRL funded?

Greg: We were awarded Ontario Centres of Excellence SmartStart funding and have proudly bootstrapped. We never got lost in the “sexiness” of raising money—however, now is the time to attack untapped market segments and to raise funds to grow the company. We’re working mostly with companies that have a large millennial employee base, and also with companies that are powered by Holacracy. We solve real pains around employee feedback and really believe in the empowering structure of Holacracy-powered organizations, making them an attractive beachhead segment.

Nathan: How did you build your team?

Greg: When we started off we had your typical hacker, hustler and designer. Finding the right startup chief technology officer was a challenge because it was a matter of supply and demand. There are a lot of people who have ideas, but there are a lot less people who have the ability to bring them to life. We’re also competing with Tier 1 and Tier 2 companies, along with their ideas. To attract other partners, you have to have a very big idea and be able to communicate it with genuinely contagious passion. They have to share the same vision as you because, before the cheques come in, that is the only thing keeping the lights on.

Nathan: How did you build the brand?

Greg: WIRL stands for “What It’s Really Like.” We envisioned feedback on WIRL as the anti-LinkedIn endorsement. With WIRL, you’re getting real feedback from people who you actually work with and who actually know your skills. The feedback is both positive and constructive—it doesn’t get more real than that.

We also understand that feedback is a gift, but that it can be difficult to give and receive. To solve this, we’ve always emphasized simplicity in our product, process and brand identity. We had an awesome designer as part of our founding team who made this a reality.

WIRL dashboard
The WIRL dashboard lets users provide performance review feedback to others in their organization.
Nathan: How has your experience at MaRS been?

Greg: While I can’t speak for other companies, our experience has been great. We were able to access a network of advisors and connections who have been very helpful. That doesn’t mean we use every piece of advice we receive, but because of discussions with the ICT Venture Services group we’ve had better clarity on the direction of our company.

Prior to moving into our workspace, we loved the public space of MaRS. It actually motivated us to move faster and break things. We look at MaRS like an innovation hub—and I’m not bullshitting. It’s becoming more and more entrepreneur-friendly. We could sit down in a well-lit place with other thriving companies or companies that we were meeting with in a really collaborative setting. It’s not a coffee shop (although those were kind to us early on as well). There’s far more focus on tackling big problems—and you want to be a part of the solution.

Nathan: Where do you see WIRL in two years? 

Greg: We understand ultimately why feedback is so important to employees: because it leads to fulfillment. We’ve developed a feedback value chain and in two years we want to move up the chain. Abraham Maslow said that only 2% of people ever achieve fulfillment. Looking beyond the two years, our end goal is to grow the 2%.

Nathan: What three words define WIRL and its team?

Greg: Humble. Hungry. Real.

One of our mantras is that “survival is insufficient.” That means a lot of different things to our partners. First, it means that even though right now we are surviving, we can’t be content. We need to move to a state of thriving. It also means that we need to help people to not only survive and get by in their lives, but also to ultimately achieve fulfillment.

If you want to learn more about WIRL, follow WIRL on Twitter.

Nathan Monk

Nathan is the Director, Growth Programming at MaRS. He helps our high-growth ventures grow by connecting them to the latest technology tools, resources and methodologies to scale in today’s competitive environment. Follow him @cowboytweets. See more…