Author Archive

How Vubble Got Its Groove

Monday, June 20th, 2016

Entrepreneurs Tessa Sproule and Katie MacGuire have different backgrounds: Sproule the daughter of a professor and a Canadian country music DJ and MacGuire from Alabama, inspired by the social justice of minister Martin Luther King. The two met while working at the CBC in Toronto, sharing a passion for storytelling and alternative ways to engage audiences. Today, the duo run Vubble, a video content marketing company that helps brands build audiences on digital platforms. Below is an interview with the Vubble cofounders on the scary world of building a startup, and advice for others:

What sequence of events brought you to this stage of co-founding a start-up?

Tessa Sproule: I got my first job at CBC, and was there for almost 20 years. I saw the Internet come in; this new medium that I felt was going to help some of the stuff I felt uncomfortable with around media — that it was just washing over people. I wanted to balance what storytellers do best with the needs of a highly engaged citizenry and a public that understands the world around them in a deep and meaningful way. In August 2014, I left CBC to pursue this objective of getting the smartest, highest quality content in front of the audience that needs to see it.

Katie MacGuire: I left Alabama and did a degree in political philosophy and religious studies at McGill in Montreal. After McGill, I ended up in Toronto at the CBC, with the new media department. It was a great fit because I like experiential learning. I met Tessa at the CBC, and she spoke highly of the Canadian Film Centre, so I went there for a while to learn what I could from them. I bumped around and ended up at CBC TV, made some great documentaries there, and then ended up moving to CBC Radio, with the program As it Happens, which I loved. I then started to transition out to a company called Baby Center, that I was using as a resource at the time because I was pregnant and having my babies. Their whole mission is to make moms feel empowered to make intelligent decisions on their own. I outgrew it, both professionally and personally, and started to look outwards and really feel like we as a society were flooded with media that was unvetted and unsound and just noise. I wanted to continue to battle that out in the broader world.

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How did you two connect around the idea for Vubble?

KM: I wanted to start a business. I lived in Waterloo and wanted to plug into the innovative part of the economy. I went in to talk to Tessa (who was still at the CBC) about this idea for a self-awareness app. I described the app, and Tessa, who is more self-aware than I am, said “Why would somebody need that?” Tessa said she was also thinking about an idea. I told her she had to leave the CBC and just start.

TS: At that time, it was like a breath of fresh air to hear from Katie. It felt like a huge heavy knock at my door. While I was at the CBC, I was pushing hard for us to reimagine our digital presence away from a marketing machine pushing to a different medium. A lot of the impetus was around we just need to suck the most we could about what we were already creating rather than dedicating resources to creating content for digital specifically.

One weekend, I was sitting in my office, working on a presentation to help navigate through the great pressure on a legacy media organization, when I saw on twitter that actor Philip Seymour Hoffman had died. There was nothing on Newsworld, for almost 20 minutes. Meanwhile, not even 20 seconds later, George Stroumboulopoulos tweeted about his interview about Hoffman. That is powerful, the role of a public institution like the CBC is to really direct attention at the moment in time to the best content that is available. I started to think about why does it have to be about something we made? This is about the public discourse, can’t we come up with a different way of pushing out content, more like a feed? I just realized that given the pressures on the organization, it couldn’t happen at the CBC at that time. I felt like it was the time for me to make a move.

What were your first steps into the startup world?

TS: We did all the pre-reading, all the boring stuff that had to be done, getting incorporate, researching shareholder agreements and that kind of stuff. I’m always so flighty and up in the air, and Katie is so grounded and she made us get all our ducks in a row right from the start. That’s why we’re such a great ying and yang, because she’s able to force that to happen and then we just picked little pieces to knock off first.

KM: We had to spend some time figuring ourselves out, learning what each other’s strengths were. We created an advisory group of people who had expertise in areas that we didn’t understand, so, for example, a guy who runs an algorithm company in Waterloo, because we knew we would need knowledge of that.

TS: It’s kind of ideal that we’re mid-career because we both have very strong networks to count on and pull from.

KM: We had one really core meeting about five months into our partnership, where we had been building all this stuff privately, and there was an app developer that we wanted to work with. He called us and said “Make everything public, right now.”

TS: “Just put it out there!”

KM: I think that was really the launch. That was a huge moment for us.

TS: There’s been a lot of those moments of intense clarity over the last two years.

KM: And just following that advice, of developing and adapting in public, and doing it live, we had 450,000 people on our site in a month.

TS: And crashed our site!

KM: But it was proof that people were interested, and it brought us to where we have been since, which is rapidly experimenting with what else could work besides just selling ads on something and how to build up an audience. We don’t just want to be a news service, and we came to that understanding by launching and learning from that process.

How has being a founder of a startup changed your life?

KM: It has been a deeply engaging, energizing and fantastic place for me to have my own thing. It’s not about me as a mother and a partner, it’s been about me as a business person. It’s been incredibly invigorating. I love it, I feel like I have a lot to say, I’m proud of where I am in my life, and I wouldn’t change a thing.


TS: It feels like the most natural thing I’ve ever done in the world (other than having babies!) I do have young kids, and there is some flexibility, we work out of our homes, so I love that. I would say, and I’m sure my husband would agree, it must be hard on our partners for us to be working all the time. He and I both see the light at the end of the tunnel for this, we know it will get better. I think being married to an entrepreneur is not the easiest life. There’s flexibility but also unpredictability.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs?

KM: Don’t jump off the cliff!

TS: Build a staircase!

KM: Find a safe way that is not going to kill you, cover your finances, learn new skills, network with people. I don’t buy the myth of “I’m leaving everything, so here I go!” A lot of people in the startup world work part-time and I think that is a great approach. It allows you to be calm financially, but have the flexibility to be creative. Don’t jump! Plan and rappel down the cliff.

TS: Rock climb with some guides! You wouldn’t leave if you knew it would be this hard and take this long. Katie is practical, and she tempers expectations, and that is important as well. What’s amazing is that so many people will reach out to help you. People you don’t even know, strangers you meet in a session, everyone offers to help.

KM: Two other pieces of advice from me – the research shows that it takes at least three years to be in the black. That’s a long time. It’s not three months, and anyone that tells you that it just takes three months spent six years before those three months building to this point. The other thing is that you really need to identify the things that you don’t know and bring in those people. It could be advisory, consulting, a day camp.

Where will you be in 10 years?

KM: I see running Vubble, it’s been a fantastic success and we’re continuing to make fantastic new products and that the learning curve that never stops.

TS: All of that, yes! We will both have teenagers, so we’ll be in a different place, and Vubble will be totally different. I don’t know what that will look like but I know I want to feel that we are building out a company further to help serve people and make the world better. If you’re not waking up in the morning to do that, if you’re not guided by that motivation, then what are we doing?

KM: And I want to have made a lot of money!

TS: She’s practical like that!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Nudge VP on How Small Companies Offer Big Opportunities in Tech

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

Andrea Corey credits a good program at Queen’s University, the small engineering company where she first worked, and some supportive peers for her success to date in the tech industry.

“The engineering department at Queen’s was a good supportive environment for me,” says Corey, who was among a minority of women in engineering class.

Andrea CoreyWhen it came time to leave school, Corey says there were a lot of big engineering companies recruiting, but she chose to join a small one, Toronto-based Ehvert Engineering. “When you’re in a small company, everyone does everything, projects get passed around and you get to try things that might be outside your job description … and that is a fertile learning space for someone just starting out.”

A couple years later, after a stint at MobileQ, she joined a new company called Eloqua, which was started by some of her former colleagues at Ehvert. Corey quickly moved up the ranks at Eloqua, always keeping one finger in the production side of the company because that was what kept her motivated: that ever-evolving world of technology.

“I like to be challenged, and I never want to stop learning,” Corey says.

Today, she is the vice president of product development at Toronto-based Nudge Software, a social selling cloud platform. Based on her years in the STEM industries, and climbing the ranks in tech firms, Corey has advice for others looking to advance their careers in the sector:

1. Think small.  Strongly consider joining a small company or a start-up. While this is not suitable for everyone, if it is a fit for you, you’ll be exposed to a lot more learning opportunities than you would be at a larger company where roles are more discrete and defined.

2. Don’t be intimidated.  Being the only woman in the room, or on a team, can be daunting. There will be small slights, whether intended or not. Try to understand a person’s true intent before assuming the worst. Try to build resilience by letting go of the small stuff, or finding humor in it. Of course, do act on any potentially serious offences by seeking out a person in a position of authority who can help.

3. Keep learning. Whether it’s a new piece of tech, a new language, or a new system, never stop learning. Even if the opportunity to take training is not formally available through your company, there are many great online courses you can take on your own time through platforms such as Coursera and Lynda, to name just two. Of course, you’ll get out of it what you put into it.

4. Strategic networking. When you meet someone you find impressive or inspirational, ask them how they learn, what blogs or books they read, what meet-ups they attend and who to follow on Twitter. Learn what they know to become better at what you do.

5. Go the extra mile. Stretch yourself by trying new things, even if you’re sure you can’t figure them out on your own. Volunteer to take on new projects or responsibilities that are important for your company. Work hard, and give it your best shot.

How Code Breaking Inspired Shopify Lead to a Dev Career

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

Julie Haché, who leads Shopify’s on-boarding team, had a tougher time than most getting into a senior position with a billion-dollar tech company. That’s because “most” of the tech sector’s leaders are men.

“The biggest struggle was that I didn’t have female role models,” Haché explains, “I tried really hard to fit in, and almost to hide things about myself, be less girly. Starting out, it really affected my confidence, especially in smaller companies.”

Haché says she was always engaged at school, academically and socially, and started her university career in pre-med at the Université de Moncton, which she found to be a welcoming environment for a young woman. “I always liked computers, but didn’t think of it as a career. Then a friend of mine, who was a programmer, recommended a book to me called Cryptonomicon.”

Julie HacheShe read the book – about WWII code breakers – over the summer, and “decided to play around with her laptop and I managed to recompile my first kernel. That was the moment that I got hooked. I knew I needed to learn more about this whole world.” She transferred into the computer science program where she was the only woman in her year.

“It’s really only when I switched to computer science that I started questioning my gender as a thing. I’ve always been very confident in everything I did, with extremely good grades at school, but it was only when I got into programming that I really started doubting myself. When people are by default assuming you can’t do things, it’s not fair and it’s really hard.

Haché worked as a web developer at a few start-ups early on: 76Design, RealDecoy and UnSpace Interactive before joining the Bitmaker Labs in 2013. Bitmaker is where she saw the most change, and where she caught the bug for helping to develop others.

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She says the tech industry culture is changing, though slower than she would like.

“In the past year especially, I’m seeing a shift. There’s a lot more positive action in the programming communities trying to reach out to women, increasing awareness and communicating that they want women to be there.”

Haché says she’s at a point in her career where she thinks a lot about helping others achieve their goals, and that might mean going back to school to learn more about leadership in engineering.

“I’m glad I persisted and powered through this, and many years later, there are so many amazing women out there doing the same thing. These days, there’s a much larger sense of community, and I’m so glad to be a part of it.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of integration,” Julie says, smiling broadly as she talks about how she can contribute, “shifting the existing culture to not treat these people as outsiders is so important. As an industry, we’re missing out financially because of a lack of diversity.”

Progress for Women in Canada Doesn’t Show up in Tech

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

“Most of the people making decisions about venture capital are still men,” Julie Steiner, CEO and founder of Percy3D explains. “As a result, I know many women in the startup tech industry here in Canada who have struggled to get venture capital.”

Steiner is one of the lucky ones. She has an angel investor for her personalized video start-up, and has not had to go the VC route.

Venture capital investments for Canadian companies hit a record high in the first quarter of 2016 according to the latest report by the Canadian Venture Capital & Private Equity Association, nearly doubling 2015’s Q1 numbers. Of 40 confirmed speakers at the industry association and advocacy group’s recent annual conference, less than 30 percent are women.

That is actually a high number compared to the number of venture capitalists who are women in Canada. According to a recent article in Canadian Business, less than 15 percent of venture capitalists in Canada are women. Meanwhile, women hold one-third of senior management positions overall in Canada.

In a country where the prime minister has made a concerted effort to equalize the genders in his cabinet and restructure government ministries to link innovation, science and economic development, the continued gender imbalance in tech stands out.

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The connection between the gender of the VC and the gender of the person looking for financial support is important, according to Dr. Diana Parry, an associate professor and campus lead for the University of Waterloo’s ‘HeForShe’ campaign. “Part of the problem is connected to unconscious biases, the biases that people bring to the table that they are unaware of.”

The ‘HeForShe’ campaign is a global initiative launched by UN women and seeks to engage males in the fight for gender equality on many fronts. In early 2015, University of Waterloo’s President Feridun Hamdullahpur accepted an invitation from the campaign to participate in their Impact 10x10x10 framework, a pilot project involving universities, governments and corporations.

“It’s sometimes just a matter of like investing in like,” says Cathy Connett, one of five women managing the Sofia Fund – an angel investment fund in the U.S. that aims to get more women investing in startups.

“One of our potential investors actually asked us how many of the companies we invested in before establishing the Sofia Fund were women-led. Out of curiosity, we went back and looked at the data and found that out of our 37 personal investments, 52 per cent were women-led. As private investors, the five of us had not purposely set out to invest in women-led companies, but we had, which supports that whole like-invests-in-like idea.”

It’s not just women who recognize the value of female leadership in tech.

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“I’ve worked with both female and male entrepreneurs, and in terms of skills and experience, there’s no differences between them. This level of entrepreneurs are driven, focused, visionaries,” says Mark Evans, a start-up marketing consultant with 20 years of experience in the industry.

“One of the realities of dealing with venture capitalists is that it’s all about the money. A lot of them want to nurture and support entrepreneurs, sure, but at the end of the day, they are investing to make a return for their investors. Whether you’re a man or a woman, that’s the way the game is played.”

“A lot of the time, it comes down to the fact that women aren’t asked ‘to play,’ in both the venture capital and angel investment worlds” says Connett, “you have to make an effort to reach out to women, and when you do, you see results.”

Evans says that change can’t come too soon. “Canada really needs to double-down on becoming an innovation-driven economy, we need more people at the table to drive growth, and that means we need to be pulling from the whole population rather than just half of it.”

Numbers Still Don’t Add Up for Women in Tech

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

We’re leaning in as far as we can and the numbers still don’t add up.

More women are graduating from North American Universities with business and technology degrees than ever before, and yet when you look around at the industry, men continue to dominate from cubicle to boardroom to podium.

The male skew persists despite findings from multiple studies showing better financial performance among firms with more gender-equal C-suites. If any industry should respond to studies like these, it’s the data-driven tech sector.

But the shift is still not happening enough.

“Often times as a woman developer in the startup world, it can be lonely,” says Julie Haché, a long-time developer who currently leads Shopify’s onboarding team. “Starting out, it affected my confidence, especially in those smaller companies as a junior developer.”

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It’s been a few years since the hard data started coming out from companies like Facebook, Google and Dell that put actual numbers to the stereotype that the tech industry is still very much a boy’s club.

The number of women in the tech workforce still hovers around 30 per cent mark despite internal and external initiatives. That number gets even smaller when you look inside the boardroom, as the Korn/Ferry Institute did in 2013. They found that in the top 100 tech firms, only three women were CEOs, and only three chair the boards they are on.

Julie Steiner is one of those few female CEOs. She founded Percy3D, a video personalization platform that allows people to insert messages and photos directly into video.

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“I’m used to being the only girl in the room,” says Steiner, “I’m used to bringing my VP of Operations, who is a wonderful guy who is about 10 years older than me, to meetings and people immediately talking to him, assuming he is the boss.”

When Vubble’s co-founders made their first inquiries into the venture capital world, they found that same attitude and purposefully pushed away from it. Vubble is an Ontario start-up that curates video playlists for people, brands and organizations. “It’s a lot of middle-aged people with a lot of bravado, just based on my limited experience,” says co-founder Tessa Sproule,

“We didn’t spend much time in that space because it didn’t feel right for us. It felt like it was more of ‘How can you make the most money you can and then what’s your exit plan?’ Meanwhile, we wanted to build a sustainable company that provides value to customers. We didn’t match up.”

Step outside the office and that disparity is reflected at conferences and in schools and universities.

“Attracting more women to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) disciplines is key, and then keeping them there, keeping them engaged and excited is so important.” says Dr. Diana Parry, associate professor and campus lead for the University of Waterloo’s HeForShe campaign. “We need to put measures in place to ensure that diversity because it’s not happening naturally.”

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Dr. Parry cites a few reasons for the dearth of women in STEM, some that start as early as childhood with the parents’ influence, and some that don’t happen until a woman is in the workforce and finds herself alone, unsupported and without mentors.

A 2012 randomized, double-blind study cited in a Harvard Business Review report helps to reveal the challenge women in STEM face in the workplace. Researchers gave science faculty the application materials of a fictitious student randomly assigned a male or female name, “and found that both male and female faculty rated the male applicant as more competent and hirable than the woman with identical application materials.”

“It’s not just about bringing women into the space, it’s about working collectively,” Dr. Parry says. “Gender issues aren’t women’s issues, they are everybody’s issues. We need to engage men in the conversation as much as women. We need to open up the dialogue, review good gender equity, and highlight inclusive workplaces.”

Mohammed Asaduallah created the twitter account ‪@womenandcolor‪ to track that disparity, both for women and people of color in the tech industry at large. Every tweet from the account quantifies the reality of representation on panels and at conferences in Toronto.

“I started the account because I wasn’t seeing myself or the people I work with up on those stages at conferences,” says Asaduallah, a Product Manager & Digital Producer at “Diversity of voices makes a stronger company,” he says, an opinion repeated by many others in the tech industry.

“There is a lot of research to support the fact that the more diverse your company is, the more effective it is, the more productive it is, the more money it makes,” agrees Dr. Parry.

Studies on Gender Equality

A now famous study released by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, found that firms that started out with no female leaders had a 15 percent increase in revenue when they increased female representation by just 30 percent. The study surveyed 21,980 firms from 91 countries to conclude that hiring women into leadership positions improved both the performance of the company and the revenue taken in.

They aren’t the first to make such a claim. In 2015, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that “a ‘best in region’ scenario in which all countries match the rate of improvement of the fastest-improving country in their region could add as much as $12 trillion, or 11 percent, in annual GDP in 2025.” 

Achieving that kind of parity in the industry has to start all the way back with parents, says Dr. Parry. “There’s a lot of research that demonstrates that around STEM that we don’t just need to change girls and young women’s perceptions, but also the parents perceptions because they have a huge influence in terms of what their daughters pursue in their academic careers.”

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Once that pipeline is delivering more women into the industry, it’s the responsibility of everyone, of every gender to make sure they feel welcome and that starts with role models and mentors, something Julie Haché has been thinking about more and more.

“I’ve been thinking about is going back into engineering more in a leadership role because I think we need more role models, there’s not enough women in leadership at all in technology.”

“The only conference I’ve been asked to speak at was BlogHer,” says Julie Stein, reflecting Mohammed Asaduallah’s real-time tracking of women asked to speak on panels and at conferences, something he encourages others to take notice of and change.

“Companies ignore us at their peril,” says Steiner of the lack of women in the tech industry, “It is a colossal waste of talent.”