By Francis Moran
When we last spoke with CommentAir co-founders Katie and Luke Hrycak, the siblings were busy scraping up the cash for Katie to attend the 2011 Sports Management Conference and Trade Show in Toronto. Unfortunately, she never made it.
In our last post, we talked about how important it was for the bootstrapped startup to garner some face time at the conference with the sports industry decision makers who were in attendance. Katie was determined to make the most of the opportunity by having a working prototype in hand.
But even the best laid plans sometimes go astray. Design adjustments and component testing delays put the prototype behind schedule. Katie and Luke decided it wasn’t worth the expense to attend the conference simply to network.
“It isn’t anyone’s fault,” Katie said. “It’s just that sometimes things don’t finish as you expect them to and you have to deal with that. You just have to draft a new timeline and get back to work.”
Understanding and managing the details necessary to research, develop and prototype a piece of wireless technology has been a fundamental part of the learning curve for these young entrepreneurs. Neither of them has a technical or engineering background.
In this instalment, we’ll explore how they have overcome this learning curve and whether or not it has proven to be a handicap.
Katie graduated from Carleton University last year with a bachelor of international business. She didn’t have any previous work experience in project management or getting technology to market, though a stint with a software startup did provide her with some insight into working in small teams, meeting product development deadlines and funding challenges.
Luke graduated from Nipissing University in 2003 with a bachelor of business administration and a stream in technology management. He has worked in call centers and corporate sales, and did have a brief experience trying to launch a logistics startup. He works in trucking and logistics and is also doing his CMA certification.
Katie credits the life experience she gained from two years travelling in South America for developing the necessary people and networking skills to hustle the business along, while Luke is versed at the financial and operational details. Still, neither of them had a sound grounding in technology development.
It always comes back to hustling
That began to change when Katie met Larry Poirier, CEO of Nitro IT Business Solutions, at a Carleton U. leadership development seminar called Mindtrust. He provided her with the advice she needed to begin a process of self-taught learning.
“I did a lot of research online about wireless and telecommunications, but found that text books available in the library were most useful,” Katie said. “It wasn’t my intention to become an expert, but to get to the point where I knew what I needed, who I needed to talk to, and could have an intelligent conversation about it all.”
Early in the process, Katie met Zhu Li, a PhD candidate in wireless communication at Carleton.
“He helped enormously to fill in my knowledge gap, and introduced me to his professor Richard Yu,” Katie said. “Between them, we figured out what we needed to create the technology. Other friends of Zhu Li also contributed.”
Katie used this growing base of knowledge to research competing technologies and understand what CommentAir needed to do with its product design and market strategy to set itself apart. As we explored in previous posts, hustling has been a key means for Katie and Luke to build their base of knowledge and to secure support for their venture.
“We pretty much talked to everyone we possibly could within our resources,” Katie said. “At the time, my largest resource was Carleton University so I made full use of that and it all stemmed from there. A lot of my time was spent just talking and learning from individuals who didn’t mind giving up half an hour to brainstorm the idea with me.”
Persistence pays off
That included Zhu Li. At the beginning, he and Katie spoke several times a week on the premise that she was helping him to develop his conversational English, but she kept asking him about his areas of interest and talking about the CommentAir concept until he began to see her as a credible entrepreneur with a viable idea. Today, he still serves as an advisor despite having returned home to Hong Kong.
“In my country, students are eager to have a regular job,” he said. “The high house prices and living expenses have killed young people’s dreams. We don’t have any ambitions such as starting up a company, or inventing something remarkable. When I heard Katie gave up the chance to be a teacher (to pursue CommentAir), I thought I should support her (and) help her in terms of engineering.”
Katie relied on the same dogged persistence and passion that made an ally of Zhu Li to build her network of supporters through Carleton U.’s Lead to Win program.
“Once I got involved with Lead to Win, I suddenly had a bunch of people who were engineers to talk to,” she said. “I still talk to several people who I went through the course with about the technology, how it is developing, and things that can be done to help speed up the process. That kind of knowledge I could never learn out of a book; it comes from experience in the field.”
Luke and Katie’s involvement with Lead to Win and Carleton professor Tony Bailetti led to an introduction to Ed Strange, coordinator of applied research and investigator of special projects at Algonquin College, who put together a student team with funding through Ontario’s FedDev program to work on the prototype.
“Ed saw the benefit of my project for his students, that it directly related to their studies, and that it was a viable business idea as well,” Katie said. “The fact that I had little engineering or technical capability didn’t even factor in when deciding if they were going to pick up the project or not.”
Nonetheless, she acknowledges that CommentAir’s engineering and technical capabilities must be expanded to move the startup forward.
“I feel confident in my ability to explain the technology and what we have built to the average person, but there are still technical questions and concepts that I don’t fully understand,” she said. “For now my Algonquin team fills that gap, but in the future we will need to pick up either a technical cofounder or a paid engineer to help us continue on with newer versions and actually setting up in stadiums.”
Future plans also call for Zhu Li to join the company as its Hong Kong connection for mass production.
What lessons have Luke and Katie learned along the way?
“You will never learn enough, in a short amount of time, to do it all yourself,” Luke said. “You have to find a technical co-founder or at least be able to pay people to help you with the technical aspects.”
“Communication is your best and worst friend,” Katie added. “You have to constantly talk to everyone and anybody about how you are going to build what it is you want to build. The problem is when you are talking, someone technical may be picturing something in their head that is entirely different from what is in your head.”
“It takes a lot longer than you plan,” Luke said. “Despite your best efforts, problems in technology will come up. You may have your business side completely planned and ready to go, but hiccups will happen in the technology and you have to go back to the drawing board. Expect delays and work through them.”
This is the third article in a continuing 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.