“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens’ timeless wisdom certainly resonates with millennials today. On the one hand, we are blessed with an unprecedented amount of possibilities to launch new projects. On the other hand, the chance to start anew often feels imposed. Inspired by successful entrepreneurs, we detest the prospect of a career of clerical drudgeries and punching clocks, but we also fret about the insecurity of our gig economy, because the more the traditional market economy prospers, the more fleeting entrepreneurship’s promise seems.
Additionally, society’s romanticization of self-made entrepreneurs can conceal the challenges involved in launching and maintaining a startup. The road to successful entrepreneurship is a lot bumpier than one might expect. Students need to be mentally and financially prepared if they are serious about having their own business ventures.
On behalf of ExploreTO, a startup led mainly by U of T alumni, here are some insights into our entrepreneurial adventure and some survival tips we’ve picked up along the way.
ExploreTO is a phone app that helps users find what to do and where to go in Toronto. Our four founders came up with this idea when they ended up going to the same places every time they hung out. As they saw the same faces at the same spots, they knew that they weren’t the only ones feeling tired of the same routines and frustrated by the surfeit of new options that popped up on search engines. People’s continued desire to have new and exciting hangout spots easily sorted for them is a testament to the necessity of this app.
Once they were set on what they wanted to do with their app, they began their research into the events listing industry, which consists of two types of companies: technology-oriented companies like Yelp and Facebook and content-oriented ones like blogTO and Narcity.
In the first category, companies work like aggregators that glean data from nearly every event and venue — there is nothing happening in the city that you can’t find on their apps. Despite their omnipotence, they lack original content and curation. Wading through the thousands of options they proffer, users may or may not eventually find something that interests them, contributing to the conundrum that ExploreTO seeks to resolve.
In the second category, media companies usually provide great original content. They have staff writers and editors who understand audiences’ expectations and deliver relevant content. Their apps, by contrast, are lacking severely. Most people we know either have no clue that these popular content providers have apps, or they have tried these apps only to delete them minutes after. Few system updates have been made on their apps, and with a focus on web content, their apps are generally poorly managed — restaurants in some of the reviews don’t even exist anymore.
ExploreTO targets what both of these game players miss: an easy-to-use app with carefully curated, updated, and original content. Not only does our team manually select venues and events for our collections, but we build in features that take into account users’ preferences, weather, the day of the week, time of the year, and other relevant factors. When launching a startup, the first thing to do is conduct research that helps you understand the industry. At the same time, it’s important to consider how to address some of the shortcomings of your competitors.
As the company has continued to grow, our founders have leveraged their education and spoken to a few professors who have offered valuable advice. So for any aspiring entrepreneurs, don’t let this resource go to waste. U of T also has such a large talent pool where you can meet your future business partners who share your values. Socialize as much as you can and meet people from different schools and departments — you’ll need different talents to build a successful business.
Building a team
The four founding partners are Val Neiman from engineering, Philipp Soummer from Rotman Commerce, and Liam Kelly from computer science, all graduates from U of T, as well as Ivan Gudov, a math graduate from the University of Waterloo. Between the four of them, ExploreTO had the perfect team. With Ivan as the developer building the backend database and Liam working on the frontend user interface, Philipp and Val took charge of business operations and project management.
The lesson for aspiring U of T entrepreneurs is to never overlook the importance of choosing the right partners. You will need them to be as competent as they are trustworthy, be able to meet deadlines, and share responsibility as team players, so you know that you can count on each other at the end of the day.
Building ExploreTO from scratch, our team has learned to work on everything independently and to keep costs low because we didn’t want to get funded too early and give away an outsized portion of equity. It may sound like an exciting learning experience, but in reality, it has been very daunting given how we are self-funded, and all four founders have highly demanding jobs in hedge funds, IT consulting, and project management. We all need to be resourceful and diligent, and we need everyone to play ball when working countless extra hours. Juggling ExploreTO with demanding day jobs certainly hasn’t been easy for them, and it can sometimes feel hard to stay motivated and keep a team motivated as well. Although our founders have never seriously considered quitting, the thought did cross everyone’s mind in the first two years as they didn’t know how it would turn out. But as our team keeps hitting milestones, gaining more traffic and user recognition, we believe that there is no better way to invest our time and efforts than in this venture.
Of course we do want to seek new sources of funding. The team is looking to expand and still wants to pay future interns in more than just charismatic experiences. In fact, Neiman and Soummer just auditioned for Dragons’ Den and received very positive feedback, so you may see ExploreTO with a deal on the next season!
That said, it’s not all about the money. The motivation is creating a product that people love and, if that ends up being financially rewarding, then it’s the cherry on top. But it’s also worth mentioning that while money problems can certainly be daunting — especially when they involve potential lawsuits — they are not always difficult to resolve.
ExploreTO’s issues with larger companies in the industry surprisingly only took a few emails and short explanations to resolve. People make threats and get threatened in the business world all the time, particularly related to money, but confidence and communication dissolve more conflicts than you might think.
It is difficult to know when to quit. It takes some intuition, which will probably come with experience. It’s important to define some goals, metrics, or milestones to judge your progress. If the project doesn’t seem to be progressing based on that outline, perhaps it’s a good time to re-evaluate. Maybe the goals are too lofty, or maybe it’s the strategic direction that needs work.
The best way to reconfigure your ideas is to ask the people who will be using your product. ExploreTO had small focus groups in its Alpha stages that involved our founders asking friends to test the app, while telling them that they were testing an app that someone they vaguely knew had developed. That way, the team could get honest feedback without testers feeling as if they were criticizing them directly. The app is currently on its 15th iteration because we takes the feedback of our users very seriously. Had ExploreTO never asked its users what they thought, the app would still look like it did a year ago. We would have liked it personally, but our users wouldn’t have.
For aspiring entrepreneurs in the initial stage of development, it’s imperative to testify the necessity of your product, coin down your specialty, and find the right partners who specialize in these areas. As the team develops, it’s also necessary to think about building a culture.
A successful startup needs to be people-oriented. Take into account the opinions, criticism, and concerns of your users, interns, and employees — those are the contributions that every startup needs.
— With files from Philipp Soummer
April Jin is a Content Writer at ExploreTO.