Andrew Sider has only been in Montreal for a few months, but he’s quickly establishing himself as one of the city’s entrepreneurs to watch. While new to the city, he’s definitely not new to the startup scene. Previously, he was a founding member of San Francisco-based RootMusic. His latest project is UrbanOrca, a platform for making new social connections.
We recently sat down with Andrew to learn more.
Jeff: What is UrbanOrca?
Andrew: It’s way too difficult to meet cool new people you want to be friends with. Our company provides digital tools that make it fun and easy for you to make these new social connections.
Jeff: Where did the idea come from?
Andrew: In 2010 my brother Mike moved to a new city and was complaining how tough it was to meet cool new people. He wanted to meet people just like him – similar age, interests, life stage.
Even as a very social person, I could still relate to this problem. For some reason, there was no digital product to help meet new friends. The world needs a product with a grand vision to help solve human loneliness and our innate need for belonging (think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs).
I started discussing the problem with one of the brightest guys I knew, Hesam Hosseini. As a VP at Match.com, he was an expert in the ‘meet new people’ business. We studied how the internet has enhanced our ability to form new connections. 10 years ago online dating was a sketchy idea, but now it’s a mainstream activity. In an even shorter timeframe, LinkedIn has become the standard for making new professional connections online. It became evident that social people discovery is the natural evolution of how people will use digital tools to make new connections.
Many of the new people we meet are in a social context. We connect around some common ground – a mutual friend, phase of life, or interests that make us think ‘this person is cool, we should hang out again’. From this point, we promote (e.g., drinking buddies, best friends, lovers) or demote (enemies?) the relationship over time. My favourite digital tools replicate real world behaviors, but there wasn’t a site that replicates this social-first people discovery experience. So Hesam and I set out to build it.
Jeff: Are you following the Lean Startup methodology?
Andrew: Our team is religious about rapid prototyping based on user data. My Co-Founder Hesam is an analytics genius, and has instilled this within our team culture. We start by dreaming of the Cadillac version of a feature, but then scope out a version that can be built in 2 days or less (we call it a pre-MVP feature). Once the feature is live, we use hourly and daily site analytics (reports are emailed to the whole team) complimented by user feedback (we use UserVoice, and regularly talk to our users) to guide rapid product iteration (our team ships code every day).
Our team is motivated by creating a product that delights users. Our agile development process allows us to stay focused on what will help us achieve this outcome, user feedback. To learn more about how to use metrics in your startup check out 3 Rules to Actionable Metrics in a Lean Startup by Ash Maurya and Cohort Metrics For Startups Revealed by Dan Martell, or buy Hesam a beer and maybe he’ll help you out (hesam at urbanorca dot com).
Jeff: I noticed College Pro Painters on your LinkedIn profile. Is this what gave you the taste for entrepreneurship?
Andrew: I grew up on a farm. My dad had (and still has) an incredible entrepreneurial hustle, which he was determined to pass on to me. At the age of 9, he bought me a ledger book and coached me to sell vegetables to my school teachers. I made $300 that year. In high school, with initial prodding from my father, I started a landscaping company. I grew it for 3 years to 40 customers and sold the business to my brothers. Unfortunately, my dad acted as mediator of the deal negotiations, and I was not satisfied with the family discount applied to the exit multiple.
As a kid, my dad taught me to be a scrappy entrepreneur and ‘do’, but I consider College Pro Painters my first real startup. I launched the business while studying my first year at the University of Western Ontario. College Pro came with great training – it taught me to wear every hat (from sales, HR, operations to finance), to build and motivate a team, to value systems, and how to manage my time (I was going to school full time). It was also the first business where I had sizeable money on the line, so naturally this became my introduction to the Transition Curve: the rollercoaster that is entrepreneurship.
The Transition Curve
Painting homes is not a sexy business, but College Pro gave me the tools to do it well. By the third year, I had 10 employees and $150,000 in sales while attending university full time. College Pro helped me realize my passion for starting a business, building a team, and making customers so happy that they would pay me for it. College Pro helped me realize that I am an entrepreneur.
My foray into tech entrepreneurship was as a founding team member of RootMusic, making social tools for musicians on Facebook. It’s a classic startup story which includes me sleeping on a couch in San Francisco. I was fortunate to work with and learn from the most talented and passionate team I had ever seen. We grew the business to over 12 million users in the first year, raised over $3 million, and became the largest music app on Facebook. It was this experience that gave me the training and confidence to eventually launch my own tech startup. My one piece of advice from this experience is that if you are a young, aspiring entrepreneur and given the opportunity to work with amazing people, grab it. Keep an eye on the RootMusic team – they are revolutionizing the music industry.
Jeff: What advice would you give yourself when you finished high school?
Andrew: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm” – Winston Churchill.
In school, I didn’t realize that failure is a normal part of the entrepreneurial process. As entrepreneurs, we should expect and embrace it. What matters is that we learn from these failures, get up and try again.
Jeff: Do you think having a business education is an advantage or a setback in the startup world?
Andrew: Tech startups require a mix of engineering and business talent to succeed. On the rare occasion, you find someone with both skill sets. I am not that person. I studied business, and while this helps me be better at scrubbing toilets, business development and fundraising, I never learned how to code.
Instead of stressing about what you didn’t study in school, I think the best strategy is to know your strengths, be amazing at them, and recruit team members who complement your weaknesses. A single man or woman will never possess all the skills a startup requires to succeed. This makes the team a startup’s greatest asset.
My philosophy on this topic echoes Peter Drucker in his HBR article Managing Oneself: “Do not try to change yourself—you are unlikely to succeed. Work to improve the way you perform.”
Jeff: What’s the biggest reward in running a startup?
Andrew: Our team is motivated to build a product that improves the lives of people. As a consumer web company, we are able to get immediate user feedback on our product by watching our metrics closely and speaking with users regularly (I spoke with 2 users today). There is no better feeling than hearing user stories about how we made a difference. We started a collage of these stories in the office to remind us why we do what we do.
Jeff: And what’s the biggest challenge?
Andrew: The most difficult and time consuming challenge for a startup is building an amazing team. Initially, you will probably focus on hiring developers. You have to be especially picky when your team is small, because a new teammate can drastically impact your culture (for good or bad). Chris Tholen (CTO at RootMusic) once told me “A players hire A players, B players hire C players, and C players hire D players.” For this reason, I only hire people that are smarter than me. But smarts isn’t everything. Here are three of the key traits we look for in a developer (among others):
- Technical chops: An amazing programmer and problem solver who is language agnostic.
- Startup readiness: A candidate who has startup experience or proves they are in the right frame of mind to join the rollercoaster ride.
- Social fit: A startup team spends a lot of time together. Determining social fit requires the ‘do I enjoy having a beer with this person’ test.
We are currently seeking a couple developers to join our team. We’ve spoken to over 120 candidates in the last couple months, and only hired one of them. Recruiting is time consuming, but well worth it. We’re blessed with an incredible team. Michael Mior has been with us since the idea phase, and inspires us every day with his technical abilities. We’re also pumped that Francis Wu recently joined the team – one of the keenest UI guys I’ve ever met.
But building a great team doesn’t stop at recruiting. A few other points to consider:
- Where’s the Love? Have you told your team you love them lately? It’s something you must say and show them every week. Don’t be afraid to use the L word. And remember, love comes in many forms, like free breakfast or a day off after a hard push.
- Team Culture: A startup office must be a place your team enjoys hanging out. Not an option for all startups, but we work from a house (photos). I don’t think enough Canadian startups consider the house office. There is nothing cozier! It sets the tone for fun times, open discussion, creativity, and commitment for a hard week’s work.
- Autonomy: Smart people, developers especially, love autonomy in how they go about their work. @vivrass recently told me that “If you want to build a happy dev team, let them choose what they work on every day”.
Jeff: What are the pros and cons of doing a startup in Montreal?
Andrew:Montreal is a fantastic place to build a startup. We have only been here 2 months, and are loving it. Here’s the run down…
- Supportive community: Someone described Montreal to me as a large village. Everyone treats you like a neighbor. The tech community has been very helpful to our team as the new guys in town. I love the ‘team supports the team’ attitude. Super connectors like Ben Yoskovitz, Sylvain Carle, Alain Gaeremynck and Vinh make it easy for new teams to settle in and ramp up.
- Government subsidies: Incredible SRED credits. Why aren’t more startups moving to Montreal for this point alone?
- Lower costs: Rent and salaries are lower in Montreal than in most major North American cities, which helps keep the burn low when there is little to no cash in the bank account.
- Growing resources: The local VC and angel community is extremely vibrant, and doing an amazing job at making resources available to early stage startups (e.g., Notman House, FounderFuel). The Toronto startup community needs a VC champion like Real Ventures (I used to live in Toronto, so I’m allowed to say it).
- Developer shortage: It is tough to hire developers everywhere right now. To make matters worse in Montreal, the startup community is growing fast (high demand) and there is a relatively short history of startups in the city. The result is a shortage of developers with startup experience.
- Brain drain: Some of Montreal’s best talent has been pulled away by opportunities in other cities. We recently lost Noah Bloom, Dan McGrady and Yannick Gingras, developers and entrepreneurs that any Montreal startup would love to have on their team. Come home, guys!
I think that if Montreal does a better job at promoting the pros, we would solve the cons. Maybe we should make a video pitching ‘why Montreal’ to entrepreneurs and developers across Canada, the US and beyond. If you think that’s a good idea, contact me and maybe we can do something about it (andrew at urbanorca dot com, @andrewsider).
Jeff: What are you up to when you’re not working?
AndreW: My favourite thing to do is meet new people. I try to meet a few each day. People energize me. Lately, I hang out with a lot of startup folks. I guess I relate with them best (it’s kind of like therapy). Nothing pumps me up more than talking about new ideas with determined people. If you are part of the startup community and we haven’t met, drop me a line and I’ll have you over to our house for your drink of choice. We have a mean espresso machine. Scotch is also a house favourite.
Two of my other hobbies are adventure travel (favourite places include North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sri Lanka) and scuba diving.
Jeff works in digital marketing for a multinational beauty company, has worked at several startups, and is an aspiring ski bum. Follow Jeff on Twitter.