Welcome to MaRS’ second volume of Mod Media Makers – a showcase of innovators who dare to think differently, take risks, know how to adapt and aspire to solve big and unexpected problems for both niche markets and entire industries.

In this volume, the innovators tell you what they do and why they do it. Fearless and connected, these entrepreneurs also explain how they survive and thrive in an economy and culture that is changing with surprising velocity, relying on passion, intuition, ambition and real-time analysis to successfully adapt in this highly complex and uncertain environment. Driven to succeed, they’re eager to make a difference and put their creative skills to work to create simple, yet compelling solutions.


Check out the Mod Media Makers:


CardSwap

 

CardSwap is an online platform that provides Canadians with a fast, easy and totally secure way to swap their unwanted gift cards for cash and to buy gift cards for their favourite retailers with an incentive.

ELEVATOR PITCH

Gift cards represent a $6 billion industry in Canada. Yet, each year over $1 billion in gift cards remains unredeemed. CardSwap enables Canadians to unlock value trapped in gift cards (or even merchandise credits) by turning their gift cards into cash (up to 92% of the gift card’s value) and putting a few hundred million dollars back into the pockets of Canadian households.

FOUNDERS

Frances Ho,COO; Desmond Leung, CTO; and Zaheed Poptia, CEO

YEAR FOUNDED

2010

SECTOR

E-commerce

TEAM SIZE

9

INTERVIEW WITH CARDSWAP

What is the one thing you wish someone had told you about startup life?

It’s not as fun as it looks on TV. Sure, when you’re as well funded as Google then everyone can shoot hoops in the cafeteria and watch movies in the theatre to recharge their creativity, but for small startups “work-life balance” is a bit of a mirage.

What three words define your company and its people?

Extravagant, yet frugal.

How difficult and rewarding has it been to build, retain and lead a team?

Everyone has their individual talents and quirks, and we’ve realized that mixing and matching people to build a productive team is an art form. We have a solid core of smart people bringing thoughts and ideas to the table, and we value the insights of everyone from top to bottom.

How difficult and rewarding has it been to obtain funding and build a company?

Our appearance on CBC-TV’s “Dragons’ Den” helped us immensely, giving us nationwide exposure to both customers and potential investors.

Describe your passion behind the idea for your startup.

Like everyone, I get frustrated with the inefficiencies encountered in everyday life, from unnecessary lineups at coffee shops to waiting at traffic lights. My passion lies in defining solutions for these problems, then deciding if these inefficiencies have uncovered a real business opportunity. That’s how CardSwap came about.

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Creative D Inc.

 

Decksi is a direct-to-fan content distribution platform that turns video, music and pictures into digital collectable merchandise.

ELEVATOR PITCH

Decksi’s content-delivery technology platform empowers media and entertainment companies to engage fans and monetize their existing assets by transforming their content into a new form of social currency. We work with brands, record labels, television networks, movie studios, video game companies, advertisers and other distributors and creators of entertainment properties. Together we create a fan-focused game experience that not only builds buzz, but also contributes to the bottom line through collectible digital content.

FOUNDERS

Richard Kanee

YEAR FOUNDED

2011

SECTOR

Social Entertainment

TEAM SIZE

9

INTERVIEW WITH CREATIVE D INC

What is the one thing you wish someone had told you about startup life?

Similar to being a parent, I don’t think you can describe what it’s like until you are in it. The incredible uncertainty and highs and lows are a big factor. Also, managing expectations in terms of how long everything takes (at least twice as long as your most conservative estimate).

How many times have you pivoted/iterated on your business model?

We’ve done one major refactoring of our business model so far, but I suspect we are far from done. You learn so much from testing ideas in the real world and talking to prospective clients.

What three words define your company and its people?

Smart, creative, passionate.

What are the day-to-day challenges you face as a startup?

They are the usual things you face in any business: Not enough resources, not enough time. Staying focused on one task long enough to do it effectively and to meet your expectations.

How difficult and rewarding has it been to obtain funding and build a company?

Financing is not fun. I have great investors, but ultimately you’re trading a piece of control for money and no matter how pragmatic you are about that value exchange the concessions can be difficult to swallow. That said, seeing the cheque clear the bank is a huge boost of confidence.

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Hammerati

 

Hammerati is a modern-day guild for the smart contractor.

ELEVATOR PITCH

Hammerati is a LinkedIn-style network for the construction industry, where contractors can find work, get discounts and easily market their businesses online. Unlike simple lead generation websites, Hammerati is a social platform that unites the construction community, integrating lead generators, review sites and more, so contractors can access all of these services in one convenient location. Hammerati is a modern-day guild for the smart contractor.

FOUNDERS

Carlo Perez, Founder

YEAR FOUNDED

2009

SECTOR

Social commerce

TEAM SIZE

9

INTERVIEW WITH HAMMERATI

What is the one thing you wish someone had told you about startup life?

The best advice I ever got was from Mike McDerment. After uknowa had won at Startup Festival International we were seeing great traction and press, but I was concerned about how slow it was. Mike said plainly: “Well Carlo, how long did you think it was going to take?”

How many times have you pivoted/iterated on your business model?

We actually can’t agree on how many times we’ve pivoted, but it’s at least four. There have been a few macro-changes, but it is the multitude of micro-changes that have really made our business what it is today. It’s hard to see where one business model ended and another began.

What three words define your company and its people?

Experience. Execution. Humility. (And fun!)

What is the biggest thing you’ve achieved outside of building your startup?

I traveled alone from Beijing to Mount Everest (via Borneo) armed with only maps and my backpack, hitchhiking most of the way. Helping architect the world’s first context-switchable graphics processing unit is a close second.

What advice would you give to a new startup?

Consider all options and opinions. Be decisive. Don’t be too smart. Admit when you’re wrong. Above all, lead with integrity. And when you lose it (and you will), do whatever it takes to win it back. Your leadership depends on it.

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HitSend

 

We develop and market web applications that enable community groups to create, communicate and implement shared goals.

ELEVATOR PITCH

SoapBox is idea management gone digital. Think old-school suggestion boxes, surveys and discussion boards merged into one web application that sifts through the noise to arm decision-makers with their community’s best ideas for positive change. SoapBox gathers and ranks user feedback more efficiently, more organically and more transparently than its competitors.

FOUNDERS

Brennan McEachran

YEAR FOUNDED

2010

SECTOR

Social Innovation Management

TEAM SIZE

8

INTERVIEW WITH HITSEND

How many times have you pivoted/iterated on your business model?

Our business model has gone through several iterations. It was less a pivot and more a course correction. We realized fairly early on that we did not have the manpower to service both enterprise and small business clients. We now focus primarily on enterprise.

What three words define your company and its people?

Get shit done.

What is the biggest thing you’ve achieved outside of building your startup?

Warren Tanner wins this one: He took the gold in freestyle moguls at the 2008 World Cup in Lake Placid. It’s tough to top that—though Warren did by being featured on the Honey Nut Cheerios box in 2010.

How difficult and rewarding has it been to obtain funding and build a company?

You can spend a lot of time preparing financials and presentations, but it’s all make-believe until you land an investor. It’s far more rewarding to focus on the business, create the product and make sales—and let investors find you. Sort of a Field of Dreams if-you-build-it-they-will-come philosophy.

Describe your passion behind the idea for your startup.

As a student, I had many ideas about how to improve Ryerson, so I wrote to the school’s president, asking to share my ideas. He said yes—and he loved them. I pulled out a sketch of what would become SoapBox and said, “Imagine if we could give every student the opportunity to bring their best ideas into your office.”

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HomeSav

HomeSav is Canada’s fastest growing online shopping club, providing exclusive luxury home decor, furniture and lifestyle products at up to 70% percent off the retail price and delivered right to your door.

ELEVATOR PITCH

Homesav is revolutionizing the online shopping experience by providing the ultimate Canadian-based destination for luxury home decor, furniture and lifestyle accessories and exclusive product offerings at up to 70% percent off the retail price. Our goal is to give people a deeper and more personalized connection to the products they choose to bring into their lives.

FOUNDERS

Aliza Pulver, Alex Norman and Allan Fisch

YEAR FOUNDED

2010

SECTOR

E-commerce

TEAM SIZE

15

INTERVIEW WITH HOMESAV

What or who drove you toward launching a startup?

The concept for the company was simple: luxury furniture and home decor at a justifiable price. As homeowners, we had gone through the motions of buying and decorating our first homes and recognized the gap between quality and value. HomeSav was founded to bridge that with a novel platform.

How many hours are you putting in per day?

A coffee machine is fundamental. We always wish there were 48 hours in a day so we could execute everything we would like to. I would say that we work 12 to 16 hours a day on average. Coffee is the key for companies that execute their vision.

What is the biggest reward of owning your own company?

Seeing the results of your efforts (happy customers) and building something great with your team. Creating an organization that is flat: If you have managers reporting to managers in a startup, you’ll have internal politics. Having a politics-free company that executes well and has great service is the biggest reward.

What three words define your company and its people?

Creative. Innovative. Decorative.

Describe your passion behind the idea for your startup.

At HomeSav we are passionate about product discovery. Our goal is to delight and wow consumers by making it easy to discover and shop for anything they want to makes their homes beautiful. We will reach this goal by becoming the leading online product discovery engine for home decor products.

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Shopcastr

Shopcastr is a social marketplace for local retailers and shoppers. For retailers it’s a web and mobile platform designed to increase foot traffic and sales. For shoppers it’s a way of discovering new stores and window-shopping for unique products in their neighbourhood and city.

ELEVATOR PITCH

Shopcastr gives local retailers something they have not previously had: an online platform designed to increase foot traffic and sales into their shops. Shopcastr is an easy-to-use web and mobile platform that empowers retailers to manage their online presence, display their products beautifully, easily and instantly and promote them through Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.

FOUNDERS

Matt O’Leary, Founder and CEO

YEAR FOUNDED

2011

SECTOR

Social Commerce

TEAM SIZE

5

INTERVIEW WITH SHOPCASTR

What is the one thing you wish someone had told you about startup life?

That there are smarter ways to build a tech business. For example, The Lean Startup. My co-founder and I didn’t know much about Lean until months into building our first product. It changed our lives.

How many times have you pivoted/iterated on your business model?

Shopcastr is our second pivot. We started out as Connectsy, the simple way to get together with friends on short notice. We then pivoted into Hipsell, the easiest way to buy and sell from a phone and the web. Now we’re Shopcastr, a social marketplace for local retailers and consumers.

What three words define your company and its people?

Passion, perseverance, dedication.

How difficult and rewarding has it been to build, retain and lead a team?

Raising a seed round from Mantella Venture Partners changed our life. Working with Robin Axon and Duncan Hill has been very rewarding, and we closed our round with them faster than expected. A solid team with a good idea should always be able to find funding.

What advice would you give to a new startup?

Read “The Four Steps to the Epiphany” and “The Lean Startup”, and regularly attend all the great startup events and support your community. Toronto has many great events, organizations and people, and we wouldn’t be where we are now if it wasn’t for the amazing support we’ve received.

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SocialGift

SocialGift is a powerful solution that enables group-gifting on e-commerce sites, while enabling merchants to increase their average order value and leverage their customers’ social graph.

ELEVATOR PITCH

SocialGift is a highly disruptive social commerce platform that changes the way we give gifts with friends and family by allowing a group of people to contribute to a gift. SocialGift will partner with retailers by offering them a plug-in solution that adds value by removing the friction associated with group-gifting for consumers. The main benefits to the retailer are increased conversion, especially high-ticket items, and attracting new customers.

FOUNDERS

Mo Govindji, Founder & CEO

YEAR FOUNDED

2011

SECTOR

Social Commerce

TEAM SIZE

3

INTERVIEW WITH SOCIALGIFT

What or who drove you toward launching a startup?

I ran a busy photography and design studio where I worked with hundreds of brides and grooms who stressed frustration with the gift-buying process, specifically with wedding registries. I wanted to solve this problem by allowing a group of people to split the cost of any product, wherever they shopped.

What is the biggest reward of owning your own company?

Seeing a product come to life, from something that started out as just an idea to something that actually gets used. I remember walking into a Starbucks and seeing a random person browsing SocialGift.com—this was when we were a consumer-facing site. That’s pretty cool.

What three words define your company and its people?

Innovators, problem-solvers, gifters.

How difficult and rewarding has it been to build, retain and lead a team?

I’ve learned more in the past year then I’ve ever learned before. I think one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced is fundraising. I think the process is extremely valuable, having a third party dissect your company, your technology, your people and assess whether it’s worth rolling the dice on.

How did you meet your co-founders?

A really good friend who I went to university with focused on programming. He’s someone I trusted and knew was extremely talented. He and his partner became SocialGift’s initial technology investors. My brother happens to be an incredibly talented software engineer so he’s currently our CTO and technical co-founder. I met our CFO through mutual friends.

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Squag

Squag is a beautifully curated online social space where kids with autism can build ideas about themselves to share with their parents and peers.

ELEVATOR PITCH

Squag is a social, recreational and creative opportunity online for kids who have different abilities and who communicate in a different way. It’s an alternative to video games and the everyday noise of the Internet.

FOUNDERS

Sara Winter

YEAR FOUNDED

2012

SECTOR

Social Media

TEAM SIZE

1

INTERVIEW WITH SQUAG

What is the one thing you wish someone had told you about startup life?

That not all developers are created equal. It takes time to find the right technology team who understand not only how to build great functionality, but what you’re trying to achieve conceptually (and creatively!) for your users.

What three words define your company and its people?

Connectivity. Creativity. Community.

What is the biggest thing you’ve achieved outside of building your startup?

I was a professional dancer before I literally fell into working with kids with autism. I can’t believe I’ve been fortunate enough to have a second career that I’m equally as passionate about. I went from possibly the most self-absorbed vocation to witnessing another person’s strength and growth, and being humbled every day.

What advice would you give to a new startup?

Surround yourself with a few key people you respect. Keep them up to date with every step—even those that seem small—so you can benefit from their mentorship and gut instincts when you’re too close to see things clearly. Then listen to them. It saves a lot of time! Describe the market you are competing in.

Describe the market you are competing in. Who are the target users and how is the market growing?

New statistics were just released last week stating that one in every 88 children have autism. That’s up 23% since 2009. Parents are spending between $39,000 and $140,000 every year in both direct and indirect costs associated with their child’s autism spectrum disorder.

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Uniiverse

Experience real life.

ELEVATOR PITCH

Uniiverse is an online person-to-person marketplace for offline sharing. It enables anyone to safely share their skills, items, spaces, interests and time with others—for free or to make money. Uniiverse enables anyone to become an entrepreneur, save money, meet likeminded people, help the environment and live a smarter and happier lifestyle. Uniiverse is building the sharing economy.

FOUNDERS

Craig Follet, Co-founder

YEAR FOUNDED

2011

SECTOR

Social Commerce

TEAM SIZE

10

INTERVIEW WITH UNIIVERSE

How many times have you pivoted/iterated on your business model?

We’ve had a strong business plan from the beginning that has taken us incredibly far. It wasn’t a long business plan, just very focused and forward-thinking. Because of this, we haven’t had to make many changes, but we iterate on the business model every second of every day.

What three words define your company and its people?

Passionate, positive people.

What is the biggest thing you’ve achieved outside of building your startup?

Happiness, perhaps? If it’s career you’re asking about, our well-rounded team has done everything from making multi-billion dollar impacts on our clients at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to working on million-dollar IPOs for tech companies to launching startups from stealth mode.

How difficult and rewarding has it been to obtain funding and build a company?

We are proud to have a group of sophisticated angel investors on board as part of our seed round. Our connections from BCG and Credit Suisse, along with our strong business plan and successful track record proved advantageous when raising funds. We raised our goal amount within a six-week period.

How have you used the “lean startup” or “customer development” methodologies to build your company?

In our formative first couple of months, we wrote a blog post on 10 bootstrapping tips and startup-life hacks. We’re also big fans of a number of the principles within the book Rework by the founders of 37signals.

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Mod Media Makers Volume 2