Thank God for modern technology, which has kept us all connected during the pandemic by allowing us to work and communicate remotely. Still, it was great to ditch the virtual world for some face-to-face time at L-SPARK’s Saas Showcase on Wednesday.
More than 250 entrepreneurs, founders, investors and corporate partners came together to celebrate and support Canada’s start-up scene at the event, held at the Horticulture Building at Lansdowne and emceed by local entrepreneur Karla Briones.
The evening left plenty of time for networking, both before the presentations and at the after-party sponsored by law firm Dentons at nearby Jack Astor’s Bar & Grill. The event was a chance for BDO Canada’s Scott Bradley, for example, to finally meet colleague Melissa Fournier in person. He joined the national accounting firm during the pandemic, when remote working environments became the new norm.
The showcase was like an unofficial graduation ceremony for the most recent cohort of founders to participate in L-SPARK’s startup acceleration program. Over the past six months, the entrepreneurs have each been working with a mentor to take their respective business to the next level and secure venture investments.
The founders presented their pitches to the audience, in seven minutes or less. In the front row was one of Canada’s most successful technology entrepreneurs, Terry Matthews, founder and chairman of global investment management firm Wesley Clover. He was seated next to Leo Lax, executive managing director of L-SPARK.
The founders who pitched their presentations at the Saas Showcase were: Norm Daigle (Oomple), Richard Cromie (Paidiem), Asad Jalib (DirtMarket), Kelly Cherniwchan (Chata.ai), David Abrams (HILO) and Shawn Watts (Corfix).
Among the founders from Ottawa was Daigle. He's the CEO and co-founder of hiring platform Oomple, which matches companies with the growing number of freelance and contract workers choosing to give up a steady salary to be their own boss.
Also from Ottawa is Watts, founder and CEO of jobsite management software Corfix.
“This takes a lot of getting used to considering, four years ago, I was a construction worker, working on job sites,” Watts told the crowd at the start of his pitch.
During his 10 years as an ironworker, he said, “I got to learn the ins and out of the industry; the good, the bad and the ugly. Today, I’m here to talk to you about the ugly.”
Construction is “super dangerous,” said Watts, who had the stats to back it up. Yet, it was own workplace accident, involving a metal-cutting saw that kicked back on him during a tricky job, that drove the message home.
“Right away I knew I was in trouble. I lifted my pant leg and I saw a whole bunch of stuff I didn’t want to see.”
His partner quickly gave him the shirt off his back to make a tourniquet to control the bleeding. Watts was taken by ambulance to hospital, where he underwent six hours of surgery to repair a fractured bone, caused by the saw. “What the hell does this have to do with Corfix? Well, let me tell you,” said Watts as he explained how Corfix allows workers in the field to share critical compliance documents with managers back in the office.
“Because of the inherent dangers on construction sites and the amount of accidents that happen, paperwork is everywhere. Construction workers are filling out dozens of forms a week, at the lunch table, in their cars and in the field. These documents are poorly managed and rarely get back to a filing cabinet.
“Poorly managed documents can lead to financial penalties, criminal charges and significant reputational risk to the employer,” he said. “We’ve created a mobile app that lets these workers fill out these forms in real time in the field. No more paperwork, lost or incomplete documents. Managers get a birds eye view of that activity in real time, creating accountability throughout the organization.”
Another highlight of the night was listening to Matthews — an extraordinary businessman and colourful character — dish out advice to the entrepreneurs. He’s been the driving force behind 150 tech companies, including Mitel and Newbridge.
One of the first things he told his audience is to take risks.
“I don’t mind taking risks,” the self-made business magnate said on stage. “I don’t take silly risks. For instance, I’d never overtake on a blind corner in a car. That’s just plain stupid. But do I drive fast? Yes, I do. Do I take risks? Yes, I do. In my career, I took risks.”
Matthews told the entrepreneurs to listen carefully to their clients’ needs, to never point fingers or humiliate members of their team, to communicate, to show trust, to make sure everyone works hard toward common goals. The best way to do that, he added, is to offer company shares when you’re just starting out and don’t have much money.
“If you have people with ownership, they work much, much harder.”
Matthews urged the entrepreneurs to go global. He’s done business in almost every country in the world — with the exception of corrupt nations. “Corruption is not my thing,” said the Welsh-Canadian knighted businessman.
How easily the word “imperturbable” rolled off his tongue as Matthews spoke of how important it is for leaders to never get too upset. He advised against using overhype words, such as “awesome” or "very big".
“Be solid,” said Matthews. “You’re Canadian. Be solid.”
Matthews recommended recruiting retired audit firm partners to chair company auditing committees. Many of these professionals leave their firms at the mandatory age of 60 and get “fed up twiddling their thumbs” or “having to cut the grass or plant another tomato plant”, said Matthews. They’re the perfect people for the job, with their vast network of contacts and experience, he said. “What you do is, you get them to join you and you give them stock options. You don’t even have to give them cash.”
He frequently stressed the importance of riding the current technology wave of 5G and wireless connectivity. “I’m lucky because I’ve caught technology waves,” he acknowledged.
A portion of the evening’s proceeds were donated to Technovation, a global tech education non-profit that empowers girls to become leaders, creators and problem-solvers by equipping them to become tech entrepreneurs and leaders.