How Nathan Elliott revolutionized "window shopping" by starting FrontRunner Technologies

Oct 16 2019, 4:01 pm

Daily Hive’s “Something or Nothing” series features both up-and-coming and established entrepreneurs from around the country and asks them why they do what they do, their biggest failures, success strategies, and more. Know someone who should be featured? Let us know.


The term “window shopping” just took on a whole new meaning, thanks to FrontRunner Technologies.

The company, headquartered in Regina, transforms windows into an interactive experience, giving customers the opportunity to peruse catalogues, undertake payments, or give donations in windows — in other words, literally window shop.

This innovative tech company is the brainchild of Nathan Elliott, a Saskatoon-native who is dead-set on transforming the way communities engage with public spaces. But Elliott isn’t focused on just his own community — he has his sights on transforming cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

The sky is the limit.

Elliott is living proof that no matter where you live, you can dream big. He took the time to speak with us to share what it’s like to start and expand a business in Saskatoon, why he decided to get into the industry that he’s in, and the realities of being an entrepreneur.

Nathan elliott

Nathan Elliott / Instagram

  • Birthplace: Vancouver, BC
  • Place you consider home: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
  • Age: 39
  • What you wanted to be when you were a kid: Goaltender for the Toronto Maple Leafs
  • Favourite class in school: History
  • How do you commute: Uber
  • What you always have with you: Thoughts of my family and friends – those get me through the day, and I’m probably wearing some sort of Adidas track wear
  • Favourite vacation spot: Santa Monica, California
  • What time you normally wake up at: 4:45 am
  • What time you normally sleep at: 11 pm
  • Normal breakfast: A vegan-based smoothie with fruits and vegetables
  • Reading/listening to right now: Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History”, Joe Rogan’s podcast
  • Previous job: Owned a market research firm called Insight West
  • Favourite piece of furniture: My mid-century modern Eames chair
  • How many employees you have today: 5 full-time, 3 consultants, 7 dedicated owners

What’s your elevator pitch?

FrontRunner recognizes there are literal windows of opportunity everywhere.

We’ve designed our Firefly Illumination System, which allows us to turn any window into dynamic content. It comes at a time when there’s more real estate available than ever before, because of the rise of e-commerce. It also comes at a time when the media is looking for new opportunities to hyper-target content to where people are.

FrontRunner sits at that very intersection to integrate the opportunities that glass surfaces and real estate present with a new dawn of media that allows groups to deliver content in real-time to hyper-target audiences that they’re interested in.

Nathan Elliott frontrunner technologies

@frontrunner_tech / Instagram

How did all of this begin?

It involved a literal light bulb moment in 2016 sitting at a traffic light in Regina, recognizing that the purgatory of empty space hadn’t been addressed. We knew that our technology had the opportunity to enliven empty spaces. And that window, or that empty window, quickly became a literal window of opportunity.

From that we’ve grown into a full technology company. In addition to the projections that our Firefly System can do, we’ve now developed the technology to turn any window into an interactive experience.

We’re pushing the envelope of possibilities. We have a trademark on the term “window shopping.” It’s bringing new meaning to this term. Where once window shopping was what people went to go and see, and look and not buy. Now, through our ability to make windows immersive, there is that opportunity to peruse catalogues in windows, to undertake payments in windows, to give donations in windows.

We’re actually seeing it as companies that are starting window-based businesses, which serve as this unique middle ground between the virtual and real world that is really exciting. We’ve self-titled ourselves public space pioneers and are looking at conceptualization of space and public spaces, and how to drive new narratives in.

That can include ads, film, art, entertainment. What we’re seeing is the improvement of social capital. What that represents is just the interrelationship of people focused on culture. We’re a leader in that space of trying to weave new narratives to improve relationships in major cities across America.

Have you raised any money to date?

Yeah. We’re completing a $5 million capital raise and the investors are a mixture of private, strategic capital, as well as venture capital groups.

How has Saskatchewan played a role in the development of the company?

FrontRunner wouldn’t be what it is without Saskatchewan and the support systems that we have here — from innovative tax incentives to businesses that were eager to leverage and use our technology as a testing ground of possibility.

Saskatchewan benefits from the fact of very talented people who are committed and want to stay here, and in particular in Regina for better living and a sense of well-being.

Retention rates are 100%. A committed team of innovative technologists that are pushing those envelopes every day. I simply don’t think that would have been possible to put together such a talented team anywhere else in the country.

Thinking about digital screens in places like Times Square in New York and Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto, how is FrontRunner different from that?

We try to shy away from the idea of Times Square everywhere. We’re driving more than simply advertisements into public spaces.

Our focus is on sensual content, creating immersion, creating memorable experiences that people will see for the first time and never forget. I think one of the most exciting things that we focus on is embracing what we call the site of first sightedness. When someone sees something for the first time, that is so out of the norm, they’ll remember it. That’s what we really focused on.

That ability of focusing on uplifting content, trying to pull out the wonder junkie in all of us, that’s just looking for new ways to be inspired. That plays into our mission of illumination and inspiring awe and uplift the world over.

FrontRunner signage in New York / Instagram

Talking about the hardware, is it the actual window itself that is your technology or are you adding a layer on top of an existing piece of glass?

We elevate window front through the Firefly Illumination System, which has been developed in partnership with Panasonic. It uses high lumen projectors using short throw and ultra-short throw lenses to elevate that surface with digital content.

A film gets applied to the window, and it can come in an array of different forms from transparent all the way through to black. We also have films that can be translucent and transparent, even ones with an electrical charge through it. These films are applied to the window front.

We call it Firefly because, obviously, there’s the literal meaning of lighting up the night. But also because the most efficient organism on earth is the firefly – 100% of the chemical reaction within the firefly is converted into light energy. We think of ourselves as a very efficient business, and hence the name.

What’s one of the biggest challenges your team is facing right now?

When you have a team that’s working out of a garage in Regina, and put your sights on elevating New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco in one fell swoop, I would say your entire day is a challenge. But we’ve also learned where our greatest opportunities are because of it. It’s a testament to the fact that a great idea is a great idea anywhere, and that a committed, talented group of people can take a technology and really apply it to any city that’s suffering from what we call the plague of empty space.

It has also been a challenge to understand the various nuances of the cities that we go into. Whether it’s Vancouver, Toronto, New York City, which each has its own bylaws, regulation, and legislation that we need to work with them.

Most people in New York have never even heard of Saskatchewan, let alone done business with someone from Saskatchewan. So there’s a bit of a learning curve of getting people up to date on where we come from and who we are. But again, that’s turning into great opportunities where groups see the technology FrontRunner is doing.

Knowing what you know what today, what do you wish you knew before you started?

It’s the idea of not taking failure to heart, and recognizing that failure and success are all one and the same, and it’s all information, and it’s all learning.

I think the secret to a successful business is recognizing when something isn’t working, and not getting too stuck to that. If you’re putting in the effort, failure is just part of the process. I think that’s been my great learning, and underpinning that I hold closely, every day including this morning.

Then what’s been one of your biggest failures?

My biggest failure is that I’ve personally had to take steps back on my financial health for the better of the company. If it’s framed as a failure, it’s the fact that I’m not as wealthy as I was before starting FrontRunner, but I have taken my funds and put it into the company with the hope that it will create the spontaneity that I’m looking for henceforth.

To me, I think on a personal level, that one could define that as a failure, but at the same time, it can be defined as success is recognizing that there’s a bigger opportunity there.

Really, that’s what it is. I live a pretty simple life on a personal level, and try to remove any noise that exists around me. I would suggest that it takes multiple personal steps backwards in order to take steps forwards to create a passion, the spark, and people to drive a business and an idea forward.

What are you learning right now?

I’m learning patience. I’m learning tolerance. I’m learning that people connected to our company are doing the best with what they have. I’m learning that it’s my responsibility as a leader to foster a group of seekers — seekers of knowledge, understanding, and exploring different possibilities.

It’s my job to be a companion and a confidant to everybody within the company, and basically have this dynamic approach, recognizing that everybody’s different and that the best leaders know how to instill the motivation in people by having it come from within.

As an entrepreneur, what’s been the biggest pain that you yourself have had to overcome?

Having no money in your personal bank account. Going from German sports cars to Ubers, from a nice condo to a company rented house — it’s been a humbling experience.

I think it’s been the humility that comes with starting a business where you put anything and everything into that company. Where skin in the game doesn’t even scratch the surface of the involvement and commitment to the cause of which you’ve set forth upon.

There’s a perception sometimes that entrepreneurs have it all, when in reality, we’re struggling to make ends meet. What’s that been like for you?

That’s exactly it. There’s a perception of us that people see in the media because we’ve had some wonderful profiles about us.

But they don’t really speak to the grim reality of entrepreneurship. Oftentimes the focus is, how am I going to make the next payroll? Or focus on that tax bill you need to pay? Or putting people first?

There’s an ethos in the military where leaders eat last. I tried to imbibe that spirit of putting anyone and everyone involved in the company ahead of myself. I’ve found that to be, at once a challenging shift, but also, the greatest shift of my life that has humbled me and turned me into a better person through and through.

Elliott at the gym / Instagram

How do you prevent burnout?

I don’t think balance and the idea of entrepreneurship, particularly in the early stages, can be uttered in the same sentence.

The first three years of starting up are typically your make or break periods, so you might as well give it all you got.

To prevent burnout, I focus on daily workouts. I’ve also started to focus on meditation – a few of my colleagues suggested that. I also make time for friends and family. Those are the important things in life. Other things in life may change, but it always starts and ends with family and friends.

If you go into your day to day with that as your baseline, keeping in mind what’s important, I think that keeps burnout at bay.

Speaking about friends, have you lost any friends and relationships along the way?

I would say it’s been a focus of mine to be a good family member and a good son, so I’ve done a good job maintaining my family connection.

But you recognize that social circles that would have once perhaps called you to go out to a sporting event or whatnot don’t call as often as they used to. Recognizing that the default for me these days is going hard on the work front.

I can say that I’ve gone through long periods of time without going on a date — periods that last multiple years. But I recognize that the social side of life will return again. But I’ve seen through this that my circles have become tighter, more powerful, because those who are connected to me have mostly an intricate understanding that I’m working towards a bigger picture here.

What’s preventing you and the company from being where you want to be?

It’s all about access to capital.

It’s all about sort of understanding the various nuances of the cities that we go into. With the completion of our capital raise that will be a watershed moment in FrontRunner history. We’ve spent two-plus years validating a business model, creating a platform for scalability. Now, backed by money that will allow that scale. It’s really an exciting endeavour.

We’re unique in the fact that we have had to build out a real estate model, a media model, an analytics model, and a technology model, all in one fell swoop and hope to high heavens that these would all align at the exact same time and happy to report that they are.

Why do you think it’s you need to do what you do?

I think it’s a combination of being almost like a philosopher, historian through and through to focus on the big picture, and not letting limits of funding, and people’s perceptions limit our ability.

I think I’m different in the fact that I use philosophical underpinnings to ground our company, and to look to the future to pull that into the present. Embracing the Wayne Gretzky method that I don’t go where the puck is, I go where the puck is going to be. I think that I’ve made a history of making decisions with that ethos of looking ahead, to pull the present forward.

Is there a quote that’s changed the way you approach business?

There’s an amazing poet by the name William Butler Yeats. I read a quote of his over a decade ago, and I’ll never forget it – I speak about it, I give lectures on it. It goes, “the world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

What that means is that as we go about our day to day, there’s brilliance that surrounds us.  If you slow down and you think a little deeper, and you love a little harder, and you smell a little more thoroughly, the world opens up to an infinite set of possibilities that we simply don’t recognize as we go about the rat race of our day to day life.

Even though we’re called FrontRunner, I try to encourage people to slow it down and look around to see the brilliance that exists everywhere. When you do that, it opens up just worlds of possibilities.

Pictured Left to Right: Nathan Elliott, Elizabeth Crisante & Matt Stefan / Instagram

Other than sales, how do you measure success?

Success is measured on the people that you affect in a positive way.

I don’t think there’s anybody who on their deathbed says, I wish I would have made more money, or I wish I would have done more deals. I think it’s defined by the fact that you have affected in a positive way, as many people as possible. That’s through giving, that’s through expressing gratitude, that’s through just knowing that people feel you. That’s what drives me every day.

Getting someone who said that you changed their life for the better through philosophies and educating in interesting ways, that to me is what defines success.

What do you think is the most surprising element of your job that most people wouldn’t think is part of your day to day?

I’ve been on 20-foot ladders on Fifth Avenue in New York City with my business partner. Twenty feet up in the air with no helmets doing an installation to make sure it gets delivered on time.

As the CEO of the company, I’m doing anything from being on-site, to dealing with accounting, all the way up to the sexy parts of the businesses, like meeting with the venture capital groups to represent your company.

Really, it’s just about getting the job done.

Do you have any mentors?

I do. I’m lucky to have two parents who were great educators. They come from science and social science backgrounds, so they taught me the straight-to-the-point methodology of science.

Then there’s Professor David E. Smith, who is the Canadian leading public intellectual in political science, who taught me the value of good writing and thinking through arguments.

It was a really unique thing, that even a few years ago, here’s a professor that I had in university. We fast forwarded 10 years and we’re literally sitting in a room together, turning a report. It’s this idea where the mentor became the mentee and the mentee became the mentor. Really relied on, whether it’s my parents or David Smith, or people that are working in technology who have come before me to really provide perspective on the waters that we’re going into.

What do the next 12 months look like?

It’s mission illumination.

We’re using Toronto as our launch pads for the rest of Canada. You’ll see relative blanket coverage across Canada, and we’ll be using our experiences in New York City and our expansion there to take it across the United States and abroad.

The next 12 months is scale, scale, scale.

Have you thought about your exit strategy?

We have. FrontRunner has been built from day one for exit.

Whether it came from a strategic partner or someone that is in the digital out of home space, we have built it from day one to be investor-friendly and exit-friendly.

What that tends to be grounded in is just solid business practices that won’t hold up a deal should there be an interested party in buying us out or joining forces together.

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?

I’m an entrepreneur through and through. I have a number of canned ideas that are just waiting to hit the market. I would be working in my media space and pushing envelopes of possibilities in AR, VR, web, and application. At the same time, I would be using those skill sets and capacities of that company to build virtual companies that I think are cool.

How many windows do you want to be on?

By the end of 2021, we will have 5,000 locations as models. There’s a high growth trajectory. By the end of this year, we’ll be pushing 300 window fronts. As you can see, it’s an exponential technology that’s grounded in leveraging partnerships, programmatic platforms, and media agencies to grow.

Do you think this is what the future is going to be like – that you walk down the street and every building’s windows are going to have this?

I don’t think so.

I think it will need to be controlled. But I also think that there’s a lot of good that can comes from the technology and the scaled platform that we have put together. People are coming back into public spaces, they’re looking to seek happiness, they’re looking for information. That doesn’t necessarily need to come from the mobile device all the time.

While it’s not going to be everywhere or the Time Square everywhere type scenario, I do think that we’re going to create epicentres for people to come in to take in news or art or film that will truly improve the livelihoods and the social capital of communities in which we are a part of.

What about inside offices and buildings?

Frank Gary, the famous Canadian architect who went into the US has a great quote that says, the world is full of faceless glass, built for economies and not for humanity.

FrontRunner’s mission is to humanize this glass, but also economize glass and do it in exciting ways. Now, any glass surface, whether it is an office tower or a shopping mall, an underground, an airport, a street front, on a major thoroughfare, these all become content delivery platforms. We’re seeing companies coming to us that are interested in elevating their windows front with not only their own content, but other people’s content in a third party advertising scenario to drive new revenue after hours into those spaces.

How do you want people to remember you personally?

As someone who had an impact on their life in a positive way. That I affected them in the fact that they think better about themselves, that they understand that we are people of limitless possibility. I think people will remember me by the fact that I was kind, that I gave time, and that I focused on them most often over myself, to ensure that they recognize the power that they hold from within.


Interview edited for clarity

 

To get in touch with Nathan, email him or find him on Instagram. And to learn more about FrontRunner Technologies, visit their website or follow them on Instagram at @frontrunner_tech.