The company was founded by Niall Brown (now VP Product Development), Dr. Michael Mannion (who now heads Research and Algorithms), and Duleepa “Dups” Wijayawardhana. They started over drinks three years ago, and it took them a year or so to realize that they wanted to do the startup thing with Empire Avenue full time. I spoke with Dups about the company, fundraising and more.
NextMontreal What is Empire Avenue? Walk me through how you started and when you started to see the vision realized?
Dups: Empire Avenue is the Social Stock Market! At Empire Avenue we look at you – the individual – as “the company” and your “product” is what you do online and your “share price” is the valuation of your online activity and network, combined with how others invest our virtual currency, eaves, in you. Ultimately, Empire Avenue is both a social game and a social network and maybe even better described as a virtual currency platform where the currency is really backed by your online social value and social networks everywhere on the web.
So we started in Montreal with the three founders having this basic idea. Seeing it realized was another matter. We collected a group of people around us from the games sphere, from business, McGill math and more, to help us get the site and the company off the ground. At the core we are doing algorithmic analysis of your networks and activity while providing an economic layer using a stock market game. It didn’t take us long to get the site up in its initial form, but we had no idea that it would take as many iterations as it has over this past year.
Empire Avenue: What triggered the “sudden” success of Empire Avenue? It seemed to all of a sudden generate a lot of attention from top social media folks (even though I know it was a lot of effort!) But how did that come about?
Dups: I’ve been told that “overnight success” is two years in the making. So I guess we’re not quite there yet We’ve been using the iterative development philosophy of always trying to iterate towards how the product is being used. Now, I note “how it’s being used” as opposed to what people “want” it to be. There’s a subtle difference; one is design by committee, and the other is more how Apple behaves, which is to produce products that we didn’t think we needed (or didn’t realize we needed). In some ways, Empire Avenue is the latter and we have a long way to go, but the recent success has shown us, the team, our early adopters, and our investors that the future is incredibly bright.
NextMontreal: Any tips for roping in early adopters and those leaders (in your case social media leaders) to get the ball rolling?
Dups: Networking locally helps, working carefully with press and media but also with Internet adopters. Oddly Empire Avenue is a great place to start you can use the interest searches to discover your users and use share p[rice and network scores to discover some neat individuals!
NextMontreal: The company is still based in Montreal and Edmonton right? Do you have plans to consolidate that? What about a move to the Valley now that you’ve raised capital?
Dups: Our plans are to consolidate in Montreal and Edmonton. We love both cities. We have people in both cities, we believe that each city provides us with an incredible pool of startup talent and energy. In Edmonton, we have the core of people who once worked for BioWare Corp. (now a label of Electronic Arts) and a burgeoning startup scene. Two of the co-founders live in Montreal and we believe building out some of the core development here will be fantastic.
We aren’t going to be moving to the Valley as such, but we are going to establish a strong presence. We need to be there, we need to be very active in the Valley and we intend to blow the doors wide open on this thing!
NextMontreal: What was the fundraising process like? How much did you raise and from who?
Dups: This most recent round raised $1.2 million as a Series A/Seed round. The round was led by Crosslink Capital. Joining Crosslink is Montreal’s own iNovia Capital, Drs. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk the founders of BioWare Corp. (and early angels in Empire Avenue), Jeff Lapin and Ben Narasin and TriplePoint Capital who incubated us in the Valley earlier this year. They join Boris Wertz of W Media Ventures from Vancouver, and Kevin Swan, both of whom were part of our original angel group.
I can honestly say this: the stories of fundraising taking you away from your core business are very true. It has been long and I am very glad to be over with it and moving onto an incredible relationship with some great investors and building out the product. That being said, the process itself was enlightening and fun, it actually helped us focus the product more, and with the guidance of our angels like Boris and Kevin, we really learned a great deal about the process.
NextMontreal: How important was it to secure a lead investor, in order for the others to come on board?
Dups: It is crucial if not the most important thing you can do. We had great leads in both rounds, Boris Wertz in the angel round and Crosslink Capital in the seed round. They enable the process to be led in the right direction. Identifying a lead is very very important and crucial to getting a good round together.
NextMontreal: What advice would you have for other startups looking to raise funding?
Dups: It will take longer than you think. Period. It will be filled with more twists and turns that you think. It will make you weep, laugh with joy, get depressed and elated! Prepare your team for the process, prepare the product, you will be distracted beyond belief during the process.
Take advantage of incubators that are in your area and seek out other entrepreneurs. I have been incredibly fortunate to meet and spend time with lots of great entrepreneurs. Don’t judge based on “success”, many of us “fail” and you should be prepared for that, so seek anyone with an interesting story to tell. In that same vein you will be rejected hundreds of times, certainly we were, your task is to build relationships with VCs. VCs aren’t evil but they have a job to do and need to answer to other forces. You should introduce yourself to VCs and investors early and keep talking. Always keep talking.
Dups: We don’t reveal many of our numbers publicly. Let’s just say we are doing extremely well and showing really strong revenue growth!
NextMontreal: And how important was revenue for you guys to prove the business, raise capital, etc.?
Dups: The only important thing is creating a great product. Ultimately a great product brings users and brings revenue. Focus on the product. Revenue has been a happy by-product for us and our goal is to continue refining the product and its value proposition!
NextMontreal: What do you see as competition?
In terms of the analysis space, I guess Klout and PeerIndex would be what people think of, but our offering is much more mass-market driven in many senses. We aren’t seeking to find influence, but show your network value and then allow you to grow that value as well as have fun with what you do online.
In many ways, we are “LinkedIn on steroids” and “StumbleUpon for People” as our users have described us.
NextMontreal: What do you have planned over the next 6 or so months for Empire Avenue? Where are you focusing?
Dups: Again, we don’t reveal many of our plans this far in advance. Certainly we want to make Empire Avenue even more global. Our key users come from the USA, UK and Canada, with another 150+ countries represented. We will also focus on making the platform even more robust, analysing even more networks and having a lot of fun.
NextMontreal: What are your top lessons learned as the founder of a startup?
Dups: Don’t be afraid to fail. Bottom line is that you will fail. I can say that each of our iterations on Empire Avenue were born out of failure.
Surround yourself with amazing co-founders. My co-founders keep me sane, keep me focused and often have kept me fed.
Surround yourself with a great team. Empire Avenue is a team of the best people I have ever known and we’re expanding that team and doing it the way we built our initial team: with fun.