Written for Daily Hive by Sohrab Merat, Co-Founder & Chief Product Officer of owl.co,a customer-insight engine helping financial institutions aggregate external attributes for better decision making. Owl is headquartered in Vancouver with offices in Toronto and New York.
Vancouver’s startup community is thriving. From Slack’s original founding to the success of Hootsuite, the city is home to a diverse range of tech companies.
As a serial entrepreneur, I’ve been working in the Vancouver tech scene for 15 years. At present, I’m the CPO of fintech startup Owl.co. At Owl, we recently raised our first round of funding, securing $2.6 million from some of the most reputable VCs in North America. Our company offers three enterprise solutions for financial institutions: automated customer onboarding, instant Know Your Customer (KYC) & Anti-Money Laundering (AML), and a fraud detection tool. Basically, a customer-insight engine that aggregates external attributes of customers for better decision making.
Before Owl, I led a design firm that was acquired by an Inc100 company. I also ran an AdTech company, acquired within two years from inception. And I founded an online gaming company with an office in Vancouver and one in Toronto. We employed 280 people and went public on the TSX, with revenues of over $100 million.
As a founder, I’m always happy to share my experience and what I’ve learned with entrepreneurs looking to turn their idea into a business. Here are some of the questions I’m most frequently asked:
Why Vancouver and not Toronto?
Isn’t this such a Vancouver question?
It’s on the West Coast, and very close to Silicon Valley (just a two hour flight). Here in Vancouver we have some of the brightest minds in tech, but don’t have to worry as much about talent poaching. Owl has a beautiful office, there’s the nice weather, plus great talent from great universities. So it’s a sweet spot in Canada, plus there are a lot of great government incentives, like the Scientific Research and Experimental Development Tax Incentive Program.
Owl does have an office in Toronto that leads the Sales and Marketing efforts. For development, Vancouver has always been great. Look at Hootsuite, Slack, and Clio (who recently raised $250M). But Toronto and Montreal are also prime markets, which is why we’re expanding.
Any tips around creating a great product?
I love our team in Vancouver. It was an adventure to get everyone together, but the team output is on a different level. Great team is the number one ingredient for a great product.
One pitfall to avoid when working with a rock star team is to lose track of your product identity amongst the tsunami of amazing ideas. It is a challenge to filter out the ones that would improve the product in real life, and properly document the rest. Re-visiting these ideas in short/long terms is crucial.
It is also very important to keep a casual line of conversation open with the clients. No plan survives the execution. This is especially true with Enterprise clients. Infrastructures and regulations differ greatly from company to company. The idea is to use the daily friction and polish the product. That being said, knowing when to say “no” is extremely important. If a development is not in line with the core product, either try to develop a configurable solution or find a different way to address it without bloating the product.
What’s a typical day like? Is there a typical day?
Here’s what a typical day looks like for me.
- 5 – 7 am: Wake up / workout
- 7 – 7:30 am: Catch up with trends, technologies and network
- 7:30 – 8 am: Catch up with East Coast emails and messages
- 8 – 9 am: Planning team direction / deviation
- 9 – 10 am: Meeting face-to-face with team to understand risks and opportunities
- 10 am – 12 pm: Meetings with clients
- 12 – 3 pm: Doing My productive Chores (Coding)
- 3 – 6 pm: Doing My creative Chores (Exploring new ideas)
- 6 – 6:30 pm: Daily wind down (understanding progress / issues and outcomes )
- 7 – 10 pm: Family time
- 11 pm – 1 am: Learning time — There is something new every day 🙂
What are the biggest business lessons you’ve learned?
Running several companies, you learn a lot about what not to do. Initially when you’re starting out, there is always a lot of ego involved, and you think you have all the answers. It is really humbling along the way as you learn to hire people who know what they’re doing, and give them space to do their job.
What it comes down to is delegating the important tasks to a stellar team and winding down the ego which is abundant in founders. Yes, you’re bullish about your idea, and emotional as well, but that’s one thing that you want to control.
And, all those cliches you’ve heard are true for a reason: have a thick skin and work hard. Also, don’t forget to have fun!
The startup life here in Vancouver can be the stuff that dreams are made of.