They never saw Steve Nash coming.
He grew up in Canada, not the United States. He played basketball at Santa Clara University, not at an Ivy League athletics powerhouse. He was – still is, of course – just six-foot-three, not tall by pro basketball standards.
Yet Nash essentially hacked his way into the National Basketball Association (NBA). He became an eight-time NBA all-star. He won the league’s most valuable player trophy twice.
By shattering expectations, Nash disrupted the sport of basketball. On Wednesday, he joined three other Canadian disruptors – tech startups Diply, Wave and Soundpays – at the annual conference of the Canadian Venture Capital Association (CVCA) in Toronto.
There, they shared their secrets for shattering expectations and shaking up their respective industries.
Follow your passion
Nash told the Toronto audience that since retiring from the NBA last year, he’s mainly focusing on being a dad to his three kids as well as “passion projects” aligned with his lifelong interest in sports. The most recent of those projects is an ownership stake he’s taken in the Spanish soccer team Real Mallorca.
His company, Steve Nash Enterprises, has a long history of investing in sports ventures, however. Those include stakes in the Vancouver Whitecaps soccer team, the Steve Nash Fitness World and Sports Club chain of gyms, and Apoko, a startup that does social media branding for pro athletes and other celebrities.
Nash is so passionate about learning the marketing ropes that he worked as a summer intern at New York ad agency Deutsch Inc. before leaving the NBA.
In a CVCA panel discussion, Diply CEO Taylor Ablitt explained how his own passion for news and technology led him to launch the London, Ont.-based content aggregator site – and ditch his day job.
“I was an accountant. I have nothing against accountants, but I hated it. I woke up hating work every day. And now I love it,” said Ablitt.
Two-and-a-half years after Ablitt founded Diply, the site averages 20 million hits per day. It’s disrupting traditional news media, topping both the CNN and New York Times websites in Alexa’s online traffic rankings.
Leverage your data
Wave CEO Kirk Simpson told the same panel audience that although his firm’s SaaS-based accounting and invoicing services are free, the company gets something invaluable from all those freemium customers: their data.
It uses that data to sell customers (via targeted marketing) additional services like payroll and payment processing, he said.
While many observers wonder how giants like Facebook rack up huge revenue and profit figures with their freemium models, Simpson said it’s simple: they leverage their customer data for greater value.
As Diply’s Ablitt added: “It’s about seeing (value) through data and using it to make good decisions.”
Innovate to fill a void
Any business can try to fill a void in their market by adding a new product or service to the existing mix. But disruptors fill that void by creating something no one’s ever seen before, said panelist Steve Doswell, CEO of Soundpays.
A major void in mobile payments, he noted, is the lack of a standardized hardware system for such transactions on smartphones, tablets and point-of-sale retail terminals.
According to him, Soundpays fills that void by offering the first mobile payment system based on sound waves. It solves the problem of requiring additional hardware because every mobile device, “from a phone to a tablet, already has a microphone or a speaker that you need to make that (mobile payment) connection,” he said. “This is a new commerce channel we feel we’re facilitating.”
Doswell said potential customers are now testing Soundpays’ technology, which could one day process mobile payments using existing speakers in mall, stadium and transit PA systems.
Nash must have spotted a void (or loose coil?) in the mattress market, too. The VC firm he co-founded, Consigliere Brand Capital LLC, invested $14 million in online mattress retailer Casper in 2014.
Think IP, not just IT
Protecting your disruptive innovation as intellectual property can be a lucrative (and competitive) move for your business.
“Our technology is unique and it’s patented. So in the first stage of (competitive pressure) we just try to protect it,” said Soundpays’ Doswell. “We’re a B2B business and we work with a SaaS model. So businesses have to license our technology to use it.”
Disruption means changing the way business is done throughout your entire industry, far beyond the borders of your own backyard.
“People kind of refer to us as the BuzzFeed of Canada. But within 12 months we’re hoping to surpass them,” Ablitt said.
Doswell expressed similar hopes for Soundpays: “Our aspirations are to dominate the U.S. market and we feel we can do it from Canada so that’s the path we’re going to go down. I see no reason why we can’t do that.”
And why not aim that high? As Simpson pointed out, “Shopify is proving you can attract talent from around the world to a city like Ottawa.” (Shopify took its ecommerce startup public last year in an IPO worth $131 million.)
If there’s another Canadian disruptor that needs to pull out all the stops, it’s the Toronto Raptors franchise. Hours before the team’s NBA playoff game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Nash was asked whether he’d bet on the underdog Raptors to win the series.
“I didn’t expect them to take two of the last games so you definitely can’t count them out,” he replied.