Tell us about yourself?
I’m a technologist and serial startup founder. I co-founded my first tech startup shortly after graduating from the Ivey Business School at Western University.
We eventually sold that startup to BlackBerry. Today, I’m the CEO of Blackspark (www.blackspark.ca), where we are reinventing the consumer financial services experience, starting with assisted tax preparation.
I have always been fascinated by technology. Growing up in Kanata, Ontario, I saw how tech companies were born and how they created new products that could have a significant impact in the world. I wanted to do that, myself.
What do you think is the single biggest misconception people have when it comes to startups?
That you think of a great product and end up building it exactly how you imagined it. Being a startup is a journey, full of micro-pivots and some larger, more strategic pivots. The most important thing is to start the customer feedback loop as soon as possible.
Customers will tell you what features and products to build next. You have to avoid the trap of developing your product in a vacuum for months, or even years and then expect the customers to come running as soon as you launch.
That is rarely how it works. Most of the time, you are starting with an original idea and making slight course adjustments as you gather ongoing feedback from customers. If you do that well, you will find product-market fit and customers will be willing to do business with you.
If you could go back in time to any moment from your journey, and give yourself one tip, what would it be?
Pace yourself. As a founder, and especially as a CEO, you want everything to happen yesterday.
Your plan is perfectly laid out in your head, but you are always waiting for your developers to code features, for your marketing plans to bear fruit, or for key industry contacts and partners to finally take your meetings.
During my first startup, I hated weekends because the whole world would stop, but I was still in overdrive. I couldn’t wait for Monday and the world to wake up again, so I could keep pushing my company forward.
Now, as a more experienced founder, I’ve learned how to use the weekends to step back and reconnect with the bigger picture.
Rather than being knee-deep in scheduling meetings and follow-ups, I’ll contemplate strategy and pay more attention to broader economic issues and how they might impact the business or present new opportunities.
I’ll still sneak into the office for a few hours to write some code or website copy, though!
What makes you stand out as an entrepreneur?
Grit. I never give up. Building a tech startup is fraught with seemingly impossible challenges. After all, you are creating a product or service from scratch, literally out of thin air.
When you run into problems that don’t have any apparent solution (believe me, there are many of them), you have to keep attacking until you find an answer.
There is nowhere to hide because the success of your company depends on you finding a way forward. Once you’ve done that many times over, you will find that you’ve created something valuable; you’ve innovated where others hit the same roadblocks and backed down.
My current company, Blackspark, is a perfect example of that – we reinvented the decades-old process of preparing personal tax returns. It was hard as heck and we had to overcome countless hurdles. But we never gave up.
What are some of the best working habits you’ve gained over the past couple of years?
I started paying attention to the things that make me look forward to sitting down and getting work done. Many of us are very fortunate to have broadband internet and WiFi throughout our homes.
Not everybody is so lucky – the digital divide is real and, in fact, almost half of the world’s population doesn’t have any Internet access whatsoever.
I’ve started to really appreciate that and I’m still amazed that we can create so much value by using computers.
So I’ve made it a habit to remind myself that having all of this tech at my fingertips is a privilege.
Give us a bit of an insight into the influences behind the company?
We’re influenced by the rapidly evolving financial services landscape and all of the opportunities there.
It’s full of high-friction customer experiences where digital solutions can have a large impact.
Where do you see your business in five years?
We will have continued to grow by adding real value to the industry.
A lot of the tech startups that were founded on vague ideas without any real innovation will disappear within the next few years.
We’re in a different economic climate now, compared to the past several years. Startups need a real product and paying customers to grow.
We’ll thrive in this environment because we’ve always focused on building real value to differentiate ourselves from tech companies that are simply a surface-level rebranding of existing solutions.
What do you think the biggest challenge will be for you in getting there?
Probably cutting through the noise. There aren’t really any sanctioning bodies for marketing and many companies take advantage of that.
Customers today (especially consumers) are pulled in many directions at once, with the level of misinformation and advertising copy that is increasingly algorithmic and designed to manipulate.
I think it is more difficult for people to find legitimate products and services than it was ten years ago. So that will be an ongoing challenge.
Talk to us about your biggest success story so far?
Definitely achieving CRA EFILE certification of our platform in 2022. We succeeded on our first attempt, which is very rare.
I’m extremely proud of the Blackspark team for that accomplishment. It took a lot of late nights and everybody dug deep to pull it off.
How do clients and customers find you? Are you much of a salesperson for yourself?
Please visit us at www.blackspark.ca. We’ll be happy to discuss how we can assist you. We also have a lot of useful information on the site.
What one tip would you give to fellow startup founders?
Focus on adding value by building something that truly doesn’t already exist.
If your game-plan is to simply re-brand a product, forget it; you’ll be stuck trying to shave off a small slice of hugely divided pie.
Instead, focus on innovating to create a new pie, and owning all of it.
And finally, what do you hope the future brings both you personally, and your business?
I hope that my team members achieve success, as well as the same level of gratification that I experience from building the company.
We’ve been through a lot together and sometimes we forget to take a pause and be proud of our accomplishments.
So, I hope the future brings some enjoyable occasions to relax and reflect on our days as intrepid entrepreneurs!