Our Experience of Building a Tech Startup in Hamilton
“Brüha is a local entertainment discovery and online ticket provider…” This is the one-liner we drop in those social situations where the occasion calls. I couldn’t even begin to guess the amount of times now that I’ve run through the verse “… it is an iOS, Android and Web application that streamlines the process of finding local things to do and buy/sell event tickets”. I’ve had this conversation in 3 different continents, countless cities and across endless dinning room tables. At around this point in the conversation, I’d say you’ll recieve a few slight cues that will then determine whether to heed forward on the topic or shift gears into a more casual/relatable subject matter.
The whole “tech entrepreneur”-social-conversational-filler risks what is sometimes an inevitable ego gush. The truth is that there is a larger conversation to be had about the realities of what this umbrella term actually means. There is a long conversation that taps into the current state of Canada as an investing nation, the misdirected perception of what a model startup business should be, the inflated ambitions of innovation that are constantly challenged by what is actually practical/doable… and well, what it’s like being a tech startup in Hamilton, Ontario.
In the spirit of keeping this a consumable post, I’ll try to be short and sweet and talk about 3 points as to what it’s been like for Brüha to call Hamilton home:
To be completely honest and forward right off the hop (why not), the fact Brüha calls Hamilton home…I did not see that coming.
Christmas Eve 2014 I received an email in my inbox from an incubator in Hamilton going by the name The Forge notifying me that I had been accepted as a resident company and was welcome to move in the following February.I am sitting there, thinking about this other startup I’ve been working on for the past 2 and a half years and how it wasn’t going very well. Two months prior I lost my fellow partner, the company’s CTO, and the guy I was hoping would fill his shoes had just notified me it was “very unlikely” that he would be coming onboard. So I’m reading this email and you could imagine my mentality: “Fuck. Well, maybe this will be a good resume boost for when I go job hunting in 4 months” – Accept please and thank you.
Little did I know how woven Brüha and myself would eventually become with this lovely city, oh’ Hamilton.
Finding good team members, especially developers
Brüha was the evolution (or mutation depending on interpretation) of a previous event discovery startup ShowDom. The big difference is that Brüha was pivoting it’s business model to become an online ticket provider and was going to build-out proprietary event ticket management software similar to the likes of Ticketmaster, Eventbrite, Ticketfly and so forth. Sounds fun right?
Yes it does, and there was a lot of work to do. Well, coupled with the fact that we had zero funding beyond my own personal cash (and an incredible amount of support from my parents – much love mom and dad!). The goal was to build iOS and Android native, and a web application that would handle the majority of the event/ticket management functionality. February 2015, with a few rough sketches drawn out on computer paper, thus began the task of recruiting programming talent in Hamilton.
In keeping things short and sweet, let’s focus on software talent and how that came about. Hamilton has two major academic institutions: McMaster University and Mohawk College. Mac (as the local lingo goes) is predominately known for its health sciences, however it does boast a world-class engineering program – including software engineer and computer science streams. The schools are turning out hundreds of software engineers year after year and for the majority, they leave the city to go find work in bigger tech hubs such as Toronto, Waterloo, Vancouver or the United States. Very few will stick around Hamilton, and that is a problem for Hamilton.
For Brüha, in a warped kinda way, that was great news. Students are leaving the city because there are no jobs, so to be one of the few tech companies operating in Hamilton and offering a ‘cool’ software job, we suddenly had a large pool of talent available to us… and with very little local competition.
I put out an job posting for a volunteer summer position in order to get support to help build the website and apps. We ended up recieving 26 resumes from McMaster students and hired 6 of them. For the next 8-12 months we would hire their friends and acquaintances, other students who would help in all areas of the business. If we had started Brüha in any other city, there would be no way in hell we would have gotten that kind of programming support with a non-existent budget.
*Disclaimer: yes we got a lot of free labour to help us get things off the ground, and yes as a result it took extra time to train, develop and deploy… and yes we ended up re-structuring the whole back end / rebuilding everything a second time once our CTO Robert came on board.. But those guys really helped us when we had nothing more than an idea, and I see it more or less as part of the progression. We needed the development support to produce an early product iteration (no matter how good or bad), so we could then attract the interest of the more experienced like our sweet and awesome CTO who now leads the charge! Much love to all you: Thomas, Roland, Bill, Yafan, Bilal, Zhuoheng, Hejie, Riley, Matthew, Monik, Alexander, Zeyu, Yadong, Hamza, Arham, Lucas, Jay, Zheng and Forest.
A product is only as good as your customers say it is. Truly. That early validation is so so, sooo important. Let’s paint the picture: you are producing an online product that is to be (one day) globally competitive. This means you are not only competing against the heavy hitters whose brands dominate the industry – you are also competing against startups seen in cities all over the world who are too trying to also take down the heavy weights and disrupt the industry. It can be overwhelming to think about if you let it get to you. Every other day you’re scrolling the internet or talking to a friend who brings up “a new app they heard of” that “kinda sounds like what you are doing”.
So everyone in your industry is scanning across the plane trying to see which of these new startups will sink or swim. It’s easy to caught up in the pressure and give in to that feeling that’s poking you at the side saying “sell sell sell! Grow grow grow!”, wanting to go big and hit hard when going toe to toe with the competition. For an early stage company, still seeking early product validation, this can be dangerous. Unless you are 100% sure that your product blows the competition’s out of the water, it is likely there are still a lot of growing pains you will need to go through until the company reaches a maturity that understands its value for the customer and how to effectively “sell sell sell! Grow grow grow!”.
Hamilton for us was and is perfect (again, a bit to my surprise at first). It’s that perfect size, like “not a major city that you’d see with a Toronto or New York” but “a large enough city (North American standards) boasting a population of over 500,000 and growing”. We started an online ticket provider company right at this same time that the city’s arts and culture is experiencing growth and re-imagining the community’s identity. And the people… the people here who work in Hamilton love Hamilton, and they love supporting local business (not quite the same sentiment when you have a saturated market like Toronto).
We were able to onboard some decent-sized event promoters with a bare-bone, somewhat-shitty new product that no doubt needed A LOT of work before it was going to compete globally (coming soon!). This city has graced us with early sales, early product validation and incredible product feedback that has been part of our company’s evolution and growth. Hamilton has set us up with the focus we need so that when we prepare to target our next market, we know exactly what to expect and exactly how to sell!
Thank you Hamilton! Much love!
We’re an online entertainment and ticketing platform that keeps you connected to events, venues and organizations within your local community. Brüha’s listing and map-interface will tag events, venue, and organization content as they are geographically located. With the implementation of IBM Bluemix cloud based technology, Brüha’s user experience and unique filtering capabilities make it easy to find specific categories, dates, admission price range, moods and even recommended listings.
Whether you’re a tourist visiting a new city, a local resident, or a student living in the area, Brüha provides a one-stop-shop that allows you to stay connected to your city.
Looking to increase awareness for your Venue, Organization, or your next Event? Head over to our website and get started today by creating your first listing.