TORONTO – One of the most recent and tangible success stories in Toronto’s tech community involves a food ordering app and several frustrated downtown businesses.
A perfect example of a technology developed in the city not only growing rapidly and accumulating thousands of global users, but directly impacting the community where it flourished, the tale of Ritual is the kind of story that Tech Toronto, which held its “Best of” event Tuesday evening in City Hall, was glad to celebrate.
Ritual is currently offering a limited-time “Food is King” promotion that gives users a one-time $15 discount at more than 40 participating restaurants on Toronto’s King Street, currently in the midst of a pilot project aimed at keeping cars away from one of downtown Toronto’s busiest east-west streets.
The offer is available to any new or existing Ritual user who hasn’t previously ordered from those restaurants, and was made possible by a partnership between The City of Toronto, the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas and Ritual. The promotion wraps up March 4.
It’s not something Ritual co-founder Ray Reddy would have expected to accomplish in Silicon Valley, he told a packed council chamber during his presentation. In addition to his experience in the Valley, Reddy has also worked with Google and Blackberry.
“The Valley is not representative of North America,” he said. “The average income there is through the roof… some neighbourhood’s average income is around $2 million. Ritual was for everyday, for regular neighbourhoods in regular cities.”
And while Toronto was the perfect place to build Ritual, Reddy quickly emphasized the importance of globalizing the product. Ritual is available in several major cities in the U.S., including Chicago and New York.
Mayor John Tory, a regular at Tech Toronto events, echoed those statements during his opening remarks.
“We need to sell ourselves more,” he said. “People need to know about the tech ecosystem here.”
Toronto is anxiously waiting for the results of the Amazon bid for HQ2 – Amazon is expected to make the final decision before the end of the year – and Tory said he was proud the city didn’t resort to financial incentives and, instead, simply offered Amazon the truth about what Toronto has to offer. The bid book for Amazon’s HQ2 has been downloaded more than 12,000, said Tory.
He also praised the city’s talent pool and diversity, and mentioned some of the city’s major tech players, such as Ratehub.ca co-founder Alyssa Furtado, and Kirk Simpson, co-founder and CEO of Wave, who joined him on a recent trip to New York to pitch Toronto’s tech scene.
“It is very important that you continue to innovate and invent things and startup new business because you represent the future of Toronto,” Tory said. “Every job, every single one, without an exception in Toronto, will be affected, not just a little bit, but probably significantly, by the work that you are doing and the people around the world are doing. And by getting together with those people … you are going to help preserve jobs here on top of all the ones that you’re going to create.”
Lessons learned by Canadian tech entrepreneurs
There’s a misconception among entrepreneurs that raising capital in Canada is next to impossible, and therefore, the only option is to turn beyond the border, said Katherine Regnier, CEO and founder of Coconut Calendar, an enterprise appointment scheduling platform.
Regnier, who started Coconut Calendar in Saskatchewan, was asked after her presentation how much capital she was able to raise in Canada. The answer was a lot. Of the $4.2 million raised, $4 million came from information, scale up and stand up venture partners in Toronto, she responded. The crowd burst into applause.
“There are no excuses anymore, anywhere in Canada,” said Regnier. This was her second appearance at the event.
She also stressed the importance of setting boundaries as an entrepreneur, and making sure you set time for friends and family.
Chris Bryson, founder and CEO of Unata, a Toronto-based company that offers a platform for both grocers and consumers to interact digitally, explained how a company with more than 70 employees ensures it remains tight knit, happy and focused.
“The truth is this is a competitive market so you want to create an environment where people feel safe,” he said. To accomplish this, Bryson and Unata’s COO’s sit down individually with each of their 75 employees, at least once every four months, to have coffee. It’s a major time commitment, said Bryson, but it’s worth it.
“As the leader of your company you’re not going to have all the answers but if you talk to your people they’ll give them to you,” he said.
They’ll also stick by you when things get tough. Four years ago, Bryson said Unata was running out of money and couldn’t meet payroll. The company’s execs sat everyone down during lunch and told them they would have to dock their pay by 25 per cent and give them options instead. Bryson said he expected half of their employees would quit.
“Instead, half the people asked for more options,” he said.
In January of this year, Unata was acquired by American company Instacart for an undisclosed amount.
Eva Wong, co-founder and COO of the credit education company Borrowell – which announced in January that it will provide Canadians with free access to their Equifax credit reports – talked about the importance of diversity in the workplace.
“A lot of people will hire the people they know and that leads to a culture that you don’t want to give up. I think the better thing to do is define what values are important to you and build your culture based on values. That way you can hire people from diverse backgrounds who then still fit your culture because your culture is values-based as opposed to backgrounds based,” said Wong. “Diversity isn’t just about checking off demographic boxes … it’s really about making people sure that people from different backgrounds can bring different ideas and different ways of thinking into your company and actually come up with the best solutions to really challenging problems.