BY FERNANDA DAMIANI
Three years ago, Phillip Curley was looking for a problem to fix, and when he found one he created a business to solve it.
The search for a problem was an assignment in an event called Startup Weekend, which people learn how to create a real company by meeting with investors, cofounders and sponsors.
Curley saw parking meter, and a problem. He realized that finding parking spots around the city can be difficult. The solution? An integrated pay-by-phone parking solution with an integrated beacon system that defines the system, with costumer engagement features for small businesses. Their technology allows the remote payment of parking meters, where drivers can put more money into their meters without interrupting what they are doing.
At that moment, a startup was born, Hotspot Merchant Solutions.
Tech Startups have become the latest trend in entrepreneurship for the last few years. It seems like that’s where people are aiming to invest for now on. We can see in new articles or in television successful stories about a startup. The question is, what happens before the success?
“Going through a startup you learn things so much quicker,” says Keelen Gagnon, the chief operating officer and co-founder of Simptek Technologies, a startup that helps utilities and their customers save energy. “In the space of one or two years, you can learn the equivalent to four or six years if you work for someone else. You’re doing financing, you’re doing the selling, you’re doing the hiring, the firing.”
“First,” says Erin Flood, Hotspot’s chief operating officer, “we started in a really small office and we were sitting on the floor working. Back then, we shared it with another guy who was starting a business at the time.”
Hotspot started a couple of years ago with three twenty-somethings. If you thought they had already graduated and were ready to go, you guessed wrong. One had graduated with a psychology degree, but the other two had dropped out of university. James Lockhart, one of the dropouts had moved from P.E.I. to Fredericton to be the company’s new chief technology officer.
A year after its launch, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant took office, he announced $90,000 for the company. It was his first job-creation announcement. The investment was made to help create new jobs and stimulate capital investment opportunities.
Three years later, Hotspot has 11 people working together and has become a successful business, being available in different cities now. Working from Fredericton, it works to make parking easier and to revitalize downtowns around the globe.
“It’s not for everybody,” Flood says. “I think all of us would agree that starting a business is the best education we’ve had for free. It’s taking risks and challenging yourself, and not being defined by stability.”
Simptek started as a project for an engineering class at the University of New Brunswick.
“We had to go through the course to build a project, build a business plan and then pitch the company,” Gagnon says.
SimpTek began four people in the classroom, and three of the four still work at the company. The company that started with its employees working out of coffee shops, their own apartments and UNB labs, now has its own offices downtown in Fredericton, with small offices in St. John, N.B. and Halifax.
The hardscrabble beginnings of SimpTek and Hotspot are typical of startups.
For people who don’t work at startups, it might seem like the entrepreneurs just work whenever they want and that they can do whatever they want, says Gagnon.
The founders and initial employees of a startup can routinely work more than 12 hours a day, and there’s a lot of stress that outsiders might not see.
“We’re still at a stage where we’re growing, and if I said I’m done if I work from 9 to 5 I would feel guilty, because I would feel like I still didn’t put enough time and effort in order to bring us to that level,” he says.
Gagnon compares startups with the anxiety before an exam.
“The feeling of anxiety, not feeling fully prepared and a large amount of stress is all part of the startup journey. The biggest difference between an exam and a startup is that in most cases, the stress is gone once the exam is finished. In the case of a startup, the stress continues.”
Gagnon and Flood say that now, after a few years or growth, the time demands are more well manageable, and they’ve learned that it’s necessary to find a balance. They’ve also learned that the heavy demands on employees have helped to build a strong team.
“I think the success of our business is how our team has been working together and our ability to motivate each other throughout the entire process,” Flood says.
Gagnon says his employees were always helping each other during the journey. “We’ve built something of value, something we wanted to invest in.”