By Francis Moran

For a pre-revenue startup that is bootstrapping its way to market, incurring the cost to travel to another city to attend an industry trade conference with an admission price of $1,000 may appear to be an expensive endeavour. For Katie and Luke Hrycak, sibling co-founders of CommentAir Technologies, it’s the kind of opportunity they can’t afford to let slip by.

The 2011 Sports Management Conference and Trade Show, taking place in Toronto on Nov. 14 and 15, features dozens of speakers from the senior ranks of professional sports from across North America, from team owners and league commissioners, to broadcasters and professional services which cater to the industry. It is the very sort of high-profile event they need to draw attention to CommentAir’s programmable earpiece technology.

“I‘m raising the money to attend at least one day and track down the people that I want to talk to,” said Katie. “This also requires a lot of research for knowing faces of those individuals so that I have a game plan walking in.”

When we introduced CommentAir last month, we mentioned how Katie and Luke have refined their hustling abilities by engaging with as many events and organizations as possible between Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal to absorb all the insight and perspective they can from other entrepreneurs and stakeholders in the commercialization ecosystem.

“I know the term ‘hustle’ gets thrown around a lot, but I have attempted to make it to every event in the city and talk to everyone possible about CommentAir,” Katie said. “Through this interaction we have developed and changed our business model, and ended up with a lot of fans along the way.”

But there is much more to effective hustling than simply putting yourself in someone’s path. You must be armed with a clear, concise and compelling story that hits on the key points that matter to your target, whether they are a potential customer, partner or investor.

And how you say it matters just as much as what you say.

“Hustling is about believing that your deal is the best,” Luke said. “Believing to the point where you will do anything to make it happen. You have to have a passion that will get people excited about your vision and buy into the positive emotion that using your product is supposed to create. You need to show them why they should care and help them relate to your vision to create a feeling that’s contagious.”

Hustling is about creating and levering a broad variety of relationships

And what has resulted from all of this contagious activity?

Early on, Katie set her sights on Bruce Firestone, real estate developer, university professor and, most importantly, a person of influence in professional sports who was instrumental in bringing an NHL franchise to Ottawa. Katie tracked him down at a local art event for the opportunity to pitch him on the CommentAir concept and win his support.

“When dealing with the sports world, he has been extremely helpful in his knowledge and expertise in the industry,” Katie said. “He has also been a big player in helping us nail down our business model.”

But hustling isn’t only about getting the ear of such a big name industry insider. Katie and Luke have also infected their friends and family network with their contagious enthusiasm to secure, for free, the accounting and legal help crucial to establishing a sound foundation for their venture.

Hustling also attracted the support of Algonquin College, which is providing student and faculty resources, as well as $50,000 in funding, to produce the second prototype.

“This is the result of going through Carleton University’s Lead to Win program, as well as showing up at every single monthly meeting and being actively involved in that community,” Katie said. “I would never have gotten the introduction to the Algonquin department head otherwise. We now have a very competent, hardworking tech team to advise us on technical aspects I didn’t understand or even think about.”

Their hustling efforts have also demonstrated that opportunity can be found in a variety of places. A friend of Katie’s who works in ticket sales at Scotiabank Place provided a critical, high-level introduction.

“We have been able to discuss our earpiece, what kind of game-day entertainment the stadium is looking for which our technology could support, and arrange to carry out initial tests on site during the hockey season,” Katie said.

Down to business

In addition to their hustling activities, Katie and Luke have been focusing on completing the prototype at Algonquin College.

“It’s been a big lesson in project management and keeping on top of student employees who you don’t see every day,” Katie said. “We’ve brought on an outside engineering consultant to help my students tackle a few problems they have been having.”

However, she emphasizes that the problems relate to that most precious of commodities, time, rather than the abilities of the individuals involved.

“My students are very competent and could find solutions to certain technical and software issues, but the real world doesn’t wait for your knowledge to catch up,” Katie said. “Bringing in the consultant is part of the budget we put together with Algonquin at the beginning of the season. Good thing the department head had the foresight to know we may run into problems outside of the students’ area of training and knowledge. The consultant is ultimately to help the students overcome these challenges in the shortest amount of time possible.”

They have also learned how it doesn’t take much to throw off a production schedule. Recently, they sent the only existing versions of several internal components via an expedited postal service to CommentAir’s industrial designer, who had recently moved to Toronto, to determine which design adjustments had to be made to fit the components within the external casing. The package disappeared and was thought lost before it reappeared again a week later.

“If the package never arrived, we could easily make another one as we have purchased multiple parts,” Katie said. “There was nothing proprietary in what was sent, but it’s the loss of time that was the big killer.”

Katie and Luke continue to manage all of these challenges around their day jobs and the demands of their personal lives.

“It’s all about going that extra mile and finding the inner strength to keep going when all you want to do is fall on your face and give up,” Luke said.

In next month’s instalment, we’ll see how that prototype is coming along, what came of the Sports Management Conference and also explore how Katie and Luke have turned themselves into technology entrepreneurs without having backgrounds in technology.

This is the second article in a continuing monthly series chronicling the growth path of CommentAir Technologies, a startup based in Ottawa, Canada. CommentAir is developing a wireless technology fans can use at sports venues to receive the same real-time commentary as fans watching from their televisions, a wireless technology that also creates a platform for targeted consumer interaction. We invite your feedback.

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