Confessions of a small-town startup

Timely

Here’s a challenge for you: take one of the most enduring innovations in human history – an amazingly efficient tool for organizing and coordinating the activities of individual and communal lives – and ask yourself, “How can I make this better?”

That’s the challenge the team at Timely Network Inc set for themselves. They’ve taken the traditional calendar (with a formal lineage dating back to the Bronze age, about 5,000 years ago) and updated it for a networked world. A grand vision that first took root in the small community of Nelson, BC (pop. 10,000), six years ago.

We spoke with Timely co-founder, Bradley Roulston, about repurposing an ancient technology, and what it takes to nurture an innovative idea into a successful startup.

Workopolis: So, why the calendar?

BR: The core team at Timely – my two partners and I – thought of it like this: all over the internet there are these little silos of information announcing current events, called calendars. We decided to turn these individual silos into distribution and communication platforms, transforming the traditional calendar into a social network that everyone can use to post and find events, in either the broader community or in more particularized communities.

We envisioned it as a way for individual users to create their own calendar hubs – or connect with already existing hubs – in order to keep up-to-date with everything that’s going on among the people and places in the real world that matter to them the most.

Sounds great, but how did you go from an idea for enhancing community spirit to thinking you had a viable company on your hand?

The events industry in the US – and I’m talking about the promotion and distribution of public events – represents a 400-billion-dollar market, and no one’s got a handle on it yet. It’s a completely fractured market. And that’s what we’re going after. Our goal is to simplify and organize the promotion and distribution of events for people.

How did you get Timely up and running?

First we launched the beta project with our own funding. Then, once it was clear that we were on to something, we had what’s called an angel round. In other words, after we’d incorporated, evaluated the company, and figured out a share price, we did a funding round. Our first seed capital came from eight investors, all from the Nelson area, and we raised $325,000.

What were the challenges of trying to run a startup out of a small town?

Raising capital’s always an issue, no matter where you are. But even more challenging for us was the staffing problem…

While the tech scene around the Kootenay’s is improving, a town like Nelson has some built-in limitations. I mean, you’ve got a population of 10,000 people, and when you start asking, “So, who here can actually do the job?” – you’re getting down to an extremely small pool of qualified candidates. And then there’s the fact that, even if you miraculously manage to find those people, it’s highly likely that most of them moved to Nelson in the first place for the whole “quality of life” experience. Which I completely understand – that’s why I initially moved to Nelson myself…

But a startup has nothing to do with “quality of life.” A startup is the last thing you should get involved with if you’re looking for “quality of life.” Because a startup means long hours. It means working weekends. It means doing whatever it takes to get the business viable in order to break through. And, in Nelson – where they’ve got this thing called “Twenty centimetre days” (which means that, if it snows twenty centimetres, people expect to be allowed to take the mornings off to go skiing) –  well, that’s just wasn’t the right environment for us.

So that’s when we packed up and headed to Vancouver, rented an office, and started the next phase in our development.

How has the company evolved since then?

We’ve probably gone through three main iterations so far, especially when it comes to employees. When you’ve got a startup, that’s just the natural churn of staffing. Initially, you need a certain group of people who are essentially hackers – people able to get something out quick. Then, say, when you’re starting to get paying customers, you need a whole different set of employees. In another stage, we found it necessary to completely revamp our whole platform, and that required a different set of people. The necessary job skills change as the company grows.

At one time, for instance, we were a fully distributed office, which means that there were a few of us that worked in the head office in Vancouver, but most of our developers were based around the world in places like Eastern Europe and Russia.

And what was that experience like? Would you recommend a distributed workforce to other startups?

No. That’s something we’ve definitely learned, and it’s why we’re strictly hiring in-house employees for now. It’s better for communication, efficiency, and sharing ideas. Also: supervision and team cohesion are greatly enhanced. You can grow a lot faster when you’re all working in the same office.

Don’t get me wrong. Going to a distributed team can work, but I’d advise against it during the initial phase of a startup. It’s better to go that route when the company’s able to parcel out specific tasks and have the operational capacity to monitor production and development.

Timely Network Inc is currently headquartered in Guelph. What prompted the move?

When it came to funding, Vancouver was great for us, but we were still having staffing problems. Guelph positions us right in the heart of Canada’s tech industry, the Tri-Cities area. Basically, you’ve got the University of Waterloo, Communitech [“an industry-led innovation centre”], and a high concentration of tech companies. Staffing is better there than anywhere else.

What’s next for Timely?

Right now we’re looking at doing another round of financing around Q3/Q4 in 2018. Like I said, we’re hiring in-house for now, but as we continue to grow, we’ll probably need to outsource different components at different times.

I know it sounds a bit hokey, but I really do believe that what we’re doing at Timely matters. We see ourselves as the caretakers of an ancient innovation – the calendar. And we want to take that innovation and help it evolve as a communication platform for building and strengthening 21st century communities.

That’s not asking too much, is it?

See also:
How Shopify finds and fosters talent
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